Do you need the cross to follow Jesus?  

This is Holy Week. It is a time to reflect upon God’s action on the cross and to remember and rehearse everything about Jesus, who he was, what he said, and what he did. Holy Week is much more than a Palm Sunday sermon, Maundy Thursday Holy Communion, and special Easter music.  Holy Week is about the cross and the kind of life God calls you to live in Jesus.  

So, do you need the cross to follow Jesus? Maybe the question is, who needs the cross?  

Who Needs the Cross?

You do when your spirituality denies someone’s humanity. In fact, the cross speaks directly to hatred wrapped upon in religiosity.

You do when you want to make law greater than grace. “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion. Which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

We all do when we make our faith a mirror of morality, giving more value to one stage of human life than another. We all do when we deny the reality reflected back to us in Jesus regarding who is loved and who is not. God’s love is not based upon our moral values. In fact, it is the cross that gives us moral and ethical ground upon which to stand.   

We all do when we support systems that benefit us while at the same time take benefits away from others. Regardless of political, social, economic, or cultural structures, we all need God’s grace in and through the cross when one life is valued more than another.

It Matters Where You Start

It matters where you start when it comes to following Jesus. The question is, do you need the cross to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple, a Christian?

The apostle Paul would tell us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” It is in and through Jesus the Christ, that God’s grace abounds. So, why do we act so entitled in this world when all we have is grace?

It is Holy Week. It is time to reflect upon such questions. So, as you reflect, it is time to pick up your cross and follow. If God and God’s movement of grace and mission of love are the point and purpose of your living, then all other loves, perspectives, preferences, beliefs, and wisdom are far less by comparison. 

The only gospel that can change our world today is the “word of the cross.” Foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. But to those who are not allergic to obeying God’s call, it is the hope of our future. 

Do you need the cross to follow Jesus? Read what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. 

Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe. 

22 For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Reflect

When it comes to following Jesus, it matters where you start. As an example, the apostle Paul starts with the cross. For him, the cross is the core of the good news. The event of the cross is the hinge point that makes a difference not only in all of history, but in everyday living. That is why, in the middle of addressing divisions in the Corinthian church, he stops to talk about the cross.

The Cross and God’s Mission

He understood the cross as part of God’s mission. When he writes, “It is written,” he is drawing a connection between the God revealed in Jesus as the same God revealed to Israel and the prophets. (Read Isaiah 29:14)

From his perspective, the response to the event of the cross divided humanity into two categories. The first was nonbelievers. They were the people who relied on their own potential and achievement. The second was believers. They were the people who responded in faith to God’s grace. Both groups represented an action in process. Non Believers were not necessarily eternally doomed, and believers might have been on the way, but had not arrived.

Paul Addresses Divisions in the Church

So, he is addressing the divisions within the church. Their disagreements were centered on where they started. Each group viewed things in terms of their own human wisdom. Their thinking and living revealed they still missed the point.  And because they were missing the point, their divisions continued to grow.

So, Paul focused on the cross as the way to address the conflict. He said that the world did not know God through wisdom, but through the foolishness of what was preached. It was not the act of preaching but the content of the preaching that was considered foolishness. The word he used is related to the English word “moron.” Crucified savior was a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron.  It was foolish to think that a “crucified savior” would make the difference.

The God Revealed in the Cross

From his perspective, the Christian faith was not the confirmation of their best efforts, and insights. The Christian faith was the replacement of their efforts.  Following Jesus was not based on best practices. In fact, the gospel overturns not only our worst practices, but our best practices as well. The God revealed in the cross of Jesus does not and cannot fit into our ideas of how the world works. The cross is a reversal of all our expectations, not just those that are evil or stupid.

All Humanity is Included

Here is where it matters where you start. When Paul refers to the Jews and the Greeks, he is not using ethnic or national terms. He is referring to all humanity. Jews corresponded to the Jewish way of speaking of “Jews and Gentiles” and the Greeks corresponded to the Greek way of designating the whole of humanity as “Greeks and barbarians.” He refers to the Jews as those who represent the people who believe that God’s act is made obvious and clear by miraculous events. The “Greeks” represent those who assume that God’s way of working is a confirmation of their own intellectual system, or ordinary “common sense.”  Both types presume that God works according to their presuppositions. The truth is the cross turns both sets of beliefs upside down. To claim to believe the Christian faith because it has measured up to our expectation, whether of miracle or intellect, is still to operate with the wisdom of this world, which has been shattered by the unanticipated, unpredicted, incalculable event of the cross. In other words, grace that is not amazing is not grace. It matters where you start.

The Scandal of the Cross

The term “stumbling block” literally means “scandal.” There is a necessary scandal of the cross. When it is watered down or eliminated, the gospel has been domesticated to our expectations, and the Christian faith is only a projection of our “best” insights and ideologies.

Two thousand years of using the cross as a positive religious symbol, as decoration, and as jewelry, has dulled the impact of the scandal. The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of those who disturbed the good life of Roman peace. Crucifixion was a public display of how important they considered “law and order.” It is important to note that Roman citizens were not one crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for revolutionaries, terrorists, slaves, and unpatriotic lowlife.

God’s Movement of Grace & Mission of Love

So, the event of the cross of Jesus, though meant to maintain the law and order of the status quo, was in reality the reversal of our best into God’s movement of grace and mission of love. The very event itself, when understood and incorporated into human living, transforms our human wisdom into God’s love.

Paul’s term “those who are called” refers to followers of Jesus, Christians. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. What we could not attain or verify by miracles or intellectual systems or common sense, God has freely provided in the surprising event of the crucified Christ.  

Paul uses the people in the Corinthian Church as testimony to his point. The church included both rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile. This was part of the message of the cross, the overturning of all human priorities and expectations.

The Cross is Experienced in Your Living

Let me say it one more time in a different way. For Paul, the church was not a matter of developing human potential but the work of God. The Corinthians wanted to be proud of their church, their preachers, and their apostles. They were so proud that they could not live the love of God. So, Paul reminds them that Jesus is the true wisdom of God. True wisdom is not intellectual systems or common sense retrofitted into the gospel.  Jesus, as the wisdom of God, is God’s act of love on the cross.

So, the cross does make a difference in your life not by how much you know or how great your faith but is experienced in your living. The difference is seen in your righteousness or your right relationship with God and with the people around you. The difference is seen in the way you act on behalf of people who are either down and out or up and out. The difference is seen in your everyday living at work, at home, and the places you play. This is what true wisdom is all about.

There are places in the world today where the Christians all come from the edges of society, intellectually, socially, politically, and culturally. They read Paul’s words and dismiss them as true but foolish. They read Paul’s words but pay little attention. There is a movement today, in our country, to be seen, recognized and accepted by the world. The church lives with this temptation. Do we follow the way of God’s love, or do we seek acceptance in the world?

You might use the social status of members to penetrate the upper levels of society, but you must be careful not to abandon the “people of the land.” You might seek out the healthy, wealthy, and wise, but your call is fulfilled when in loving service to those faceless ones who are powerless. When you start with the cross, God calls you to love all people just as God has loved you.

Let me crass for a moment. Paul never wore a t-shirt or a cap that said, “Make Rome Great Again.” Now let me be truthful, the cross speaks directly against making the best practices of religion an established form of government in its relationship with the world.  I know it sounds foolish and it gets in the way, but the cross of Jesus is our way, truth, and life.

During this Holy Week, consider this: Jesus rises from his knees and says to his followers, “Get up, let us be going.” He then goes before them to the Cross. As a follower of Jesus, it is not your wisdom or your faith that makes the difference. Picking up your cross and following Jesus is what makes the difference. Picking up your cross and following Jesus is who you are as a Christ centered leader.   

So, do you need the cross to follow Jesus? As foolish as it seems, I have put my life on it. 

Respond

Warner Sallman is known for his paintings of Jesus. In one of his paintings Jesus is knocking at a door. There is no handle or knob on the outside of the door. The implication is that the door must be opened from the inside. 

Over my years of ministry, I have heard preachers say, and rightly so, “Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart, or at the door of your life. Because there is no handle on the outside, you must open the door to let him in.”  

I like that, but this Holy Week, I challenge you to think of it in slightly a different way. Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart, or at the door of your life. Because there is no handle on the outside, you must open the door to hear him say, ‘Come out and follow me. I have some friends I want you to meet.’” 

I once used that as an illustration in a sermon. A woman, when greeting me after the sermon, said, “You misunderstood the meaning of the painting. Jesus is knocking on the door to come in.” 

And I replied, “I agree with you. Jesus is knocking on the door to come in. I just know that when he was knocking at the door of my heart, I opened the door and he said, ‘I have some friends I want you to meet. When I come into your life, I am bringing them with me.” 

For Consideration During Holy Week

Holy Week This Holy Week, as you journey toward the cross and reflect upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, consider the following:   

You have work to do to follow Jesus and to be grounded in love. Has the cross made any difference in your living? What would it take for you to pick up your cross and get in line behind Jesus? It might seem foolish, but who will you love unconditionally with the love of Jesus? How will you be a person of healing hope in your family, in your church, in your community, and in the world? How will you work for justice? How will you shine with the light of love until God’s movement of grace and God’s mission of love is a reality in everyday situations and circumstances? How will the people around you experience God’s love in and through you? 

It might seem foolish, but how has the cross made a difference? Why not show your community and the world the difference the cross has made by the way you live your life and in the relationships you are developing? Following Jesus is who you are, and who you are is how you lead. 

Pray

O God, make me aware of the people around me today and throughout this Holy Week. By your grace, help me be an extension of your love in the lives of the people you send my way. Help me yield a little more of myself so that I may love others as you have loved me in Jesus. Help me be faithful to your call upon my life so that I may be a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. Amen 

Return

As you reflect back upon your day, give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. What difference did the cross make in how you responded to people? How you loved them? Cared for them? Advocated for them? How did you invite people into God’s movement of grace and mission of love? How did you offer Christ to the people around you?

Think about the people you encountered today. With whom do you need to practice your faith so you will become more who God has created you to be. What will you do differently tomorrow?

Effective leadership requires compassion. When you are seeking to build healthy relationships, move toward your mission, and hold people accountable for their contributions to the mission, you are often forced to look at the people in a critical light. 

When making your judgments and decisions, it is important to remember that the people entrusted to your care are human beings, beloved children of God. They are going to make mistakes. They are going to disappoint you, let you down, and say things out of line.  They will even at times act like they are sabotaging the mission.

On your best days, it is difficult not to take such actions personally. But, at the end of the day, if you remember that the people with whom you work are human beings with their own pasts, their own personal issues, frailties, and struggles, you will remember that each of them are in need of grace.

Forgiveness is Key

That is why forgiveness is one of the key components of effective and courageous leadership. When you are able to forgive mistakes and be generous with the people you are leading, you will encourage and empower people to be more who they are created and gifted to be.

Your effectiveness as a leader requires your acts of compassion. People are going to speak back to you and have their own ideas. Their personal lives are going to impact their work, their past experiences will affect their relationships. More often than not, they are not even aware of their words or actions. 

As a Christ-centered leader, a fundamental element of your effectiveness is forgiveness. 

Remember that in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays at particularly important points in his ministry. His pattern has been to go to a desert place or a lonely place to pray. He prays to keep his focus on what God has called and commissioned him to do. 

He prays seeking direction when he is tempted to follow the crowd, “Do I go with the crowd or do I go to the cross?” He prays when Simon Peter and the other disciples misunderstood his suffering and dying as a contradiction of who and what they understood the Messiah to be and do. And, he prays when his identity and purpose as suffering Messiah did not match the images of the people who loved him and who followed him. 

Let’s use the pattern of Read, Reflect, Respond, Return to explore what Luke says about Jesus and forgiveness. 

Read Luke 24:23 

Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. 

Reflect

This prayer is in keeping with the character and life of Jesus. He is praying for forgiveness for those who are violating him because they did not know what they are doing. In Luke, the primary problem is ignorance. They killed the Lord of glory in ignorance. 

For the Romans, Caesar was Lord. The government was central. To speak or act against Rome was considered heresy. Crucifixion was used to warn citizens what would happen to them if they were disloyal to Rome. People were sacrificed on crosses to warn others what would happen to them when they committed heresy. 

Now Jesus is on the cross and he prays, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” 

Forgiven for Ignorance

I know it seems strange that anyone would have to be forgiven for ignorance. We usually don’t put forgiveness and ignorance together. But when you think of the different kinds of ignorance that move and motivate people, the ignorance that closes their eyes when they have every opportunity to see the truth, our only hope is “Father, forgive them…” 

When I think about it, evil could be called intentional ignorance. When we refuse to listen or to understand. When we remain silent and do nothing. When we turn our backs and say, “Well, it is terrible, but it is not my problem.” That is intentional ignorance. 

The crowds walked by Jesus on the cross, and their only words were insults, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It sounds like Jesus forgave them for their ignorance. 

It took courage, as well as love, for Jesus to forgive the people hurling insults, who at one time confessed their allegiance and are now calling for his life. 

It Takes Courage

As a Christ-centered leader, it will take love as well as courage to lead with forgiveness. Think about it:   

When your lead team decides that making grace-filled Jesus followers is your mission and someone in the congregation disagrees and works against the direction you are leading, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When people say with their lips that “everyone is welcome” but their actions show otherwise, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When people say “we want to be followers of Jesus” but they don’t want to connect with their neighborhood and to be involved in their community, it will take courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When you offer bible studies and classes on becoming Christian disciples that will help church members grow in their faith and the assumption is that bible study and classes are for the people who are not present or actively supporting the church, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When you stand to preach and name issues of injustice and you get emails and texts that you should not be political in the pulpit, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When you respond to gun violence and the killing of children in classrooms and the killing of adults in night clubs and someone says, “It is my right to own a gun”, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When you name the evils of racism and say that it is Christian to love persons of different ethnic backgrounds, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

When someone says that because you are a woman you should not be preaching or teaching, it will take love and courage to lead with forgiveness. 

You can add your own situations to my list. You know where you are challenged to lead with forgiveness. But as a follower of Jesus, with people entrusted to your care, you lead with forgiveness. 

The Love of God

The words, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” were spoken by a person whose only weapon was the love of God. Whose only crime was being different. Who raised suspicion because he challenged the systems of hatred, prejudice, and bigotry. Yet, in the midst of being put to death for extending love, even to his enemies, he called upon God to forgive the ignorance of his abusers and accusers.

Think of it this way. What defines any of us looking for growth and personal development is not a spotless life of constant kindness and an even temperament, but a willingness to learn from mistakes, and to make the choice to come to terms with whatever has happened to us. As a leader, when you act with compassion and offer forgiveness, you are more able to shape the lives of people and assist them in becoming who God has created them to be.

Forgiveness is the Attribute of the Strong

Mahatma Gandhi warned that “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” And according to Indira Gandhi, “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” Forgiveness is a powerful concept for leaders and for a Christ-centered leader, it is a necessity.

Leading with forgiveness can change how the people entrusted to you live and interact with one another, connect with their community, and view the world. Leading with forgiveness creates internal harmony and a sense of care and compassion. Leading with compassion turns failures and unwanted situations into a culture of understanding and generosity. It creates places where people feel safe to express themselves and function at their best.

Forgiveness may be the most important gift you can give to the people entrusted to you. As you model forgiveness you are offering others the chance to take risks, learn and grow in their own leadership.  Without forgiveness, there cannot be true leadership.

Respond

As a leader, you have an important influence on the lives of people. Where there is a lack of forgiveness there is a climate of anger, bitterness, and animosity. To lead with forgiveness changes the atmosphere and culture in which people live, work, and play. But as you know, forgiveness is not easy.

So, here are several ways to lead with forgiveness:

Be generous in your assumptions.

Intentionally work to understand the true intentions of others. Have a sincere conversation and ask questions for your clarity and understanding.

Be compassionate in your actions.

Relationships are important. Treat and care for others the way you want to be treated and cared for. You are a person in need of love and encouragement just as the people entrusted to your care.

Be generous with yourself.

While you are leading others and often seeing them in a critical light, you are placing yourself under a critical eye as well. You know the areas where you need forgiveness and compassion. When you can approach your own difficulties with gentleness, it’ll be easier for you to forgive others as well.

Let go of resentments.

As you allow yourself to be forgiven, you create a space for others to forgive. I am sure you can think of other ways to lead with forgiveness. As you put each one into practice you become more of the leader needed for this time.

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. How did you lead with forgiveness? With whom and in what areas did you need help in practicing forgiveness? Name those persons and situations before God. Ask God to give you the power to love others as God has loved you. What will you do differently tomorrow as a leader of forgiveness? Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved. Ask God to give you the power to forgive others even if they do not understand.

Prayer

O God, forgive me when I do not understand, and do not get it right. By your grace, forgive me when I don’t want to understand and I don’t want to live and lead the way you created me to live and lead. Put within me the desire to learn and grow, so that as I lead with forgiveness others will see you in me and my actions and be drawn to you. Use me as an instrument of your love and peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen

This past week I read a quote by Pope John Paul II, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” The quote comes from a sermon he preached in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1995. In the sermon, he shared his passion for human rights. He referenced Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s dedication to freedom and equality for all people. He referred to himself growing up in Poland during the rise of the Nazi party. He said that “a true expression of freedom is not acting on selfish impulse but committing our lives to serving the greater good and standing up for what is right.”   

As I have reflected upon his words, I have been thinking of you and your leadership. You have been given the opportunity and the task to lead during a time focused upon personal freedom, often referred to as “rights.” Whether it has been the right to bear arms or the right to not wear a mask, the right to worship or the right to say what I want to say, you have navigated stormy waters of entitlement. 

I have also given thought to what it means to be a leader who is a follower of Jesus. What I have learned is freedom, particularly Christian freedom, is necessary for leading. When freedom is applied to leadership, it emphasizes the truth that everyone has the ability to make his or her own decisions, as well as the responsibility for those decisions. 

What I have experienced is most people think leadership works better when the leader has control instead of applying responsibility to freedom. It is as simple as emphasizing rules over relationships. Please understand that I am not downplaying rules, but I am emphasizing the development of relationships in regard to working for the greater good. Too often we take the path of least resistance and instead of standing up for what is right we give into the selfishness of personal rights. 

Freedom

In a time of entitlement, how do you model freedom and the responsibility of freedom? 

The reality is the way you live, the things you say, the attitudes you develop, the lifestyle you adopt, the people in whom you invest continuously produce either positive or negative results in your church and in your community. You are not detached or uninvolved in the trauma, turmoil, or tension of the day. In fact, you might be contributing to them. 

How you exercise your freedom, as a follower of Jesus, makes a difference. In an atmosphere of antagonism and an environment of hostility, you have the opportunity to lead with love and peace. The question is, will you live for yourself, or will you live for what is good and right for the people entrusted to your care? As a follower of Jesus, you have the right to live as the person God has created you to live. 

The apostle Paul faced a similar dilemma in Galatia. For Paul, Christian freedom was freedom to walk in the life of the Spirit. He understood that the unbridled passions and desires of our fallen nature were opposed to the passion and desires of our true and created nature. To put it another way, the passion of our hearts is opposed to the passion of God’s heart. To be led by the Spirit was to follow the direction of God’s purposes of love and peace. 

Paul knew the distinction between his desires, his rights gone astray, and the fruit of the Spirit through his own experience. His life had been in chaos. He had lived in rebellion against God. He was at war with himself. Then came the reconciling love of God. In Jesus, love for God and love for others came together in his heart and in his living. It all centered in the unifying love of Christ. 

The evidence of your integrity, as a leader, is witnessed in your obedience to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. This is especially true as you lead through these challenging times. Paul said it this way, “I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. Galatians 5:16-17, 22-26 

The impact of your leadership grows and is expressed when you willingly place your “rights” and your entitlements second to the new life you have received through Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit is the outward expression of Christ living within you. Regardless of your position and power, giving yourself over to the direction and power of God’s presence in your life helps you become the leader needed for these difficult and challenging times. Whether with a world at war, a denomination in turmoil, a church in distress, or your own personal dilemma, the Spirit of God works to transform your life and leadership. 

Pray for Restraint

Fred Craddock tells the story of being asked to speak at a president’s prayer breakfast. At the time, the prayer breakfasts were held not only in this country but around the world. He said, “I got a letter from Washington asking me if I would hold one of these. The place was Seoul, South Korea.” 

“The general in charge, and my host, was four-star General Stilwell. He gathered officers and enlisted people in this large room. We had a nice breakfast and then we had prayers. It was not just prayers in name only. The general’s assistant, a colonel, had the soldiers there enter a period of sentence prayers. They had prayers for mothers and fathers and sisters and babies and for my wife back home and for peace in the world. They were emotionally moving prayers. 

“There was a young private from Formosa who played ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipe before I spoke. The general sat there with tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I love that song.’” 

Craddock said he gave his talk. Then, there was a benediction, and the room began to empty as the soldiers filed out. He shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality. The general said, “I want you to remember us in prayer.” 

And Craddock said, “I will. You know I will.” 

Then the general said, “Pray not for more power. We have the power. We could destroy this whole place in one afternoon. Pray that we have the appropriate restraint.” 

Craddock continued, “It was such an unusual request. ‘Pray that we have restraint.’ He knew his history. He knew he was American, and restraint is built into our history. Why do we have executive, judicial, legislative branches except to build in restraint? Why is it said that we shall allow a person only two terms as president? Restraint. Why do we say that the commander in chief of all armed forces of this country will always be a civilian? Restraint. 

“The general knew that the mark of a civilized society is the restraint of power. The mark of a civilized human being is restraint of power.” 

Every time I read or hear someone say, “It is my right” or more specially “My God given right,” I stop and say to myself, “Of course it is. But is it right and good for you to exercise your right in relationship with the people around you? 

When Craddock left the room, everybody was gone except the general and his aide. His aide asked, “General, shall I bring the car around?” 

The general replied, “Not now, I want to sit here awhile.” In the silence of the moment, he asked the private from Formosa to stay and play on the bagpipe. 

Craddock looked back as he left the room. There was the general seated alone with the private in front of him playing “Amazing Grace. Craddock said, “Now isn’t that a picture? Four stars shining, listening to a voice of restraint.” 

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” The true expression of freedom is not acting on selfish impulse but committing our lives to serving the greater good and standing up for what is right. 

In a time of entitlement, how do you model freedom and the responsibility of freedom? Try living with the restraint of doing what you have the power and position to do. Then, live in a relationship with the people around you in expressions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Your leadership will reflect the love and peace of the One who gave you the power in the first place. 

Reflect on Your Rights

Today, take a moment to reflect upon your “rights” as a leader.

Would you say your inner life and outer life are integrated?

What are the barriers in your personal life that keep you demanding your own way?

Who do you need in your life to assist you in producing the fruit of love and peace?

Are you willing to be held accountable to loving others as God in Christ has loved you? 

The true expression of freedom is not acting on selfish impulse but committing your life to serving the greater good. Restraint is love’s submission to integrity.

Remember, who you are is how you lead.

We begin another Lenten journey this week. Recently, I have had the opportunity to listen to several of you talk of your preparation for this journey, about Ash Wednesday Worship, the imposition of ashes, and Lenten studies as well as sermon series. In each conversation, whether directly discussed or implied, you have talked about a spiritual preparation to reflect upon God’s redemptive work in the world.

Your Relationship with Jesus

As I have thought about those conversations, I have been reminded of a fundamental aspect of the Lenten experience, the focus upon who we are in relationship to Jesus, the church, and the community. It is a focus upon the inner reality and depth of God’s love in our lives and upon how God’s love is lived out in and through us in real everyday and ordinary relationships. As I have reflected upon this, I have begun to ask myself the question, “For whom am I living my life?” 

Matthew 6

Our fundamental focus, our journey, begins with these words of Jesus, “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure, ‘play actors’ I call them, treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. 

When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. 

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace” Matthew 6:1-6 (The Message). 

Holiness and Righteousness

I like Jesus’ direction in Matthew’s story. In the bigger picture, Matthew is concerned about holiness and righteousness. Our Lenten journey begins with being holy or righteous before God. Now, if I understand Matthew’s point of view, holiness means “set aside” or “different.” You live your life as “set aside” and as “different” from others. In fact, if you look at his writings closely, being set aside or different means being recognized as daughters and sons of God. You will find that in the beatitudes. 

Right Relationship

Being righteous means being in right relationship with God and with your neighbor, the people around you. Again, if you look closely at Matthew’s writings, he focuses upon relationships more than anything else. For example, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember your sister or brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, relationships are as important if not more important than your piety.

Loving Neighbors and Enemies

And it not just your primary relationships, Matthew records Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven…” Being righteous means living as daughters and sons of God, reflecting God’s image of love, even for your enemies. In fact, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Said another way, “You are God’s children, so live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” 

This Lenten experience can be interesting when taken seriously, especially when it comes to loving one another as God in Christ has loved you. If you take Jesus seriously from Matthew’s perspective, the total substance of your faith, your relationship to God, is lived out in loving your neighbor. 

For Whom am I Living my Life?

I like Kierkegaard’s understanding of neighbor. He wrote that neighbor was a category that included everyone, from one’s enemy to one’s spouse. It was the whole spectrum of human relationships from the least love-worthy to the most love-worthy. So, as you begin your Lenten reflections, focusing upon God’s love for you and your love for others, ask yourself the question, “For whom am I living my life?” 

Your Lenten Reflection

May I ask you to include this in your Lenten reflections this year? As you reflect upon for whom you are living your life, include the thought and actions of loving the persons who might not ever return your love as well as the persons who love you. It is easy to love those who return your love, but to love those who do not love you or are not worthy of your love takes God’s grace deep within your being. Practice the means of grace so that you can and will reflect more on the God who loves you and sends people to you to love.

Conflicting Values

Why do I ask you to include this? We are living in a time of conflicting values. There is a conflict between individual responsibility of loving friends and family and social responsibility of loving the neighborhood, the stranger, and even our enemy. 

It seems that most of us believe that we have done our part, as Jesus followers, when we smile, are nice, and are kind to one another. We love our neighbors, especially those who are friends, who agree with who we are, what we believe, and how we respond to the needs of the world. It also seems that most of us reduce our social responsibility to the level of humanitarian care. It is good that you care, but too often our efforts are reduced to caring for those who are worthy of our care. What happens if your neighbor ceases to be worthy of your love? 

When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor,” there are no conditions. There is nothing that terminates it. We are bound to our neighbor, whether friend or foe, through the love of God. We love because that is who we are as children of God.

Respond as a Follower of Jesus

There is a story of St. Francis of Assisi being attacked by a thief who had leprosy. Francis was beaten, stripped of his clothes, and robbed of his money. Before the thief could get away, St. Francis embraced his feet and kissed them. Now, I am not recommending that exact response, but I am trying to explain the behavior of St. Francis. Here it is. He responded out of who he was as a follower of Christ. St. Francis loved his neighbor because he had been told to love his neighbor. He loved for no other reason than being who God had created him to be. This kind of love is not easy. It is not based upon what you think or how it feels. It is based on who you are in relationship to God. Who you are is how you love your neighbor. 

Love is Who You Are

Fred Rogers, in his book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, wrote “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” 

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, described it this way, “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” 

In other words, love is not something you do but is who you are as followers of Jesus, as daughters and sons of God. 

Your Next Step

So, this brings us back to our Lenten journey. It seems to me there are three actions you can take regarding your experience this Lenten season.

  1.  You can ignore the development of your inner life of love and do what “playactors” do. That is another word for hypocrites. You can treat personal piety as a private matter and use prayer and study like a stage, saying the right things and acting compassionately as long as someone is watching. Does loving your neighbor mean loving only when it benefits you?
  2.  You can go overboard with your spirituality and try to prove that you are worthy of God’s love by becoming a martyr. There is a need for people to go down in defense of high ideals. There is a need for advocacy, for someone to stand up for those you cannot stand up for themselves. Is being a martyr for your cause what God created you to do? Take time this Lenten season to reflect upon who you are and why God has gifted you. You can only be a martyr once.
  3.  You can love your neighbor and your neighborhood. This could include advocacy with a different focus. You can focus upon God’s love for you as a beloved child of God and upon God’s love for the people around as beloved children of God, and upon God’s love for the people who are not worthy of your love as beloved children who God loves as much as God loves you. 

Works of Love

What could happen if you began to express your faith in works of love in your neighborhood? That you not only loved the people entrusted to your care, but you loved the strangers around you as well. That you would love all people with the same love that God in Jesus has loved you? Here is what Jesus says, “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”

Alone with God

It will be in those moments, alone with God, that you will begin again to experience why you are a follower of Jesus and why God has gifted you to be a hope-filled leader.  With God and God alone as your audience, begin your Lenten journey focused upon the life and love God has given you. It is my prayer that you will become the love you have experienced in and through Jesus. The hope you offer will grow out of the love you have received and offered in Jesus’ name. 

Seeing Me Play

Lou Little was the head football coach at Columbia University for 26 years. One of those years he had a boy who loved to play football but was not a very good player. The coach liked him not only because he played hard but because he had a strong character. He would see the boy occasionally walking arm in arm with his father across campus.

One day the boy’s mother called the coach and said that the boy’s father had died. She asked, “Would you tell him? You are close to him, and he respects you.” So, the coach found the boy, told him of his father’s death, and stayed with him until his mother arrived to pick him up and take him home.

After the funeral, there was a big game. The boy came to the locker room, suited up, sought out the coach, and asked, “Coach, may I start today?” 

The coach, feeling especially caring for the boy under the circumstances, said, “Yes, you may start, but remember, this is a big and important game. You might only play a few minutes. I’ll have to take you out. But you can start today.” 

The boy started and played the entire game. After the game, the coach came into the locker room, sought out the boy and asked, “Great game, son. Tell me, why did you have to play today?”

The boy answered, “Well coach, it is like this. Today was the first chance my father ever had to see me play. He was blind you know.”

Love One Another

You and I will only begin to love each other, our neighbors, and our neighborhoods, when we develop a more acute sense of the unseen eyes upon us, the eyes of God.

So, for whom are you living your life? May your Lenten experience bring you into the presence of God so real that you live only and wholly for God.

Remember, who you are is how you lead…and how you love.

Every day you face situations, circumstances, and people you cannot control. As a leader, because you cannot control these things, it is important that you understand and learn to control yourself. Your leadership depends upon it. Even though a lot of your effectiveness is determined by factors you cannot control, you can still control how you respond to them. 

This is why self-awareness is so important to leadership. You can not only improve your life but become the leader you are created to be by practicing self-awareness in your everyday life and situations. 

Here are three practices that will help you become a more self-aware leader. 

1.Focus upon the positive when in a negative situation. 

This might seem simplistic, but it is more than positive thinking. When you are fully aware of the negative situation or circumstance in which you find yourself, you then have the opportunity to decide how you will respond or how you can change the way you want to react. 

Let’s think of it this way. Suppose you need help with an anger problem. You recognize that you do not like reacting before thinking and you don’t like the feelings you have after an expression of anger. You say to your trusted friend, “I have a quick temper, and it’s damaging my relationships.” 

Your friend says to you, “Show me your quick temper. Demonstrate it to me?”

What would you say? “Well, I can’t right now. It happens suddenly.” Or “I can’t right now, I don’t have the people around me who make me angry.” 

The question is “What is the problem?” If anger, uncontrollable anger was part of your true nature, it would be present all the time. Something that comes and goes is not a part of who you were created to be. Your emotions are not you, but they can gain control over you if you do not stop and reflect upon them and if you don’t begin to understand why you react the way you do.

Instead of focusing upon the negative, your anger, focus upon the people around you. Remember they are God’s children, just as you are God’s child. Each person has their own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. Just as God, through Christ, loves you with your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, God loves the people who irritate you or pull your chain, or you get the point. Reflect upon how God loves you and responds to you.

This little added sense of self-awareness will not magically create a smile. It won’t keep you from getting angry, but it does provide you with the opportunity to respond in a more healthy and Christlike way. You can decide that being angry is not going to control your response. Once you become conscious of your emotion, it no longer has control over you.

2. Recognize who you are and the effect you have on the people around you.

You cannot control 100% of your life, but you can control how you react to the stuff you can’t control. To better react or respond to external circumstances, you must know and understand your preferences, resources, and feelings. 

Let’s think of it this way. Suppose you need some advice with several situations you are facing. Some of them are personal and some of them are professional, but all are situations in which you need and want some help. 

So, you approach your trusted friend asking for advice. Your friend listens patiently. But when your friend tries to ask questions or offer some direction, you interrupt to interject your own thoughts, beliefs, solutions, not allowing your friend to finish many sentences. 

After a while, your friend offers you a cup of tea. When pouring the tea, your friend continues pouring after the cup is full, causing it to overflow.

You say, “Stop pouring. The cup is full.”

Your friend stops pouring and says, “Today, you are too full of your own opinions. You want my help, but you have no room in your own cup to receive my advice or direction.”

Too often, we hold unconscious beliefs and opinions that make us rigid and closed-minded to learning and to expanding our awareness of the people around us. Self-awareness is knowing your preferences, resources, and feelings and being open to learn new ways of looking at the situations and circumstances in which you are living and working.

Understanding who you are and how you affect others allows you to react differently to the people around you. It is with such understanding that you can decide whether something angers or irritates you.  Please know this is not always easy, but it has a big benefit to self-awareness. 

3. Learn your emotional triggers.

When you know what triggers your reactions you are better equipped to deal with negative emotions. 

This might be the most important aspect of self-awareness.

Let’s think of it this way. What do you do when you are angry, disappointed, or not taken seriously? Do you bottle up your emotions, keep them to yourself, pushing them deep inside, until you can’t hold them any longer? It is like holding a beach ball underwater. You can push it down beneath the surface and you can hold it there. But, without a lot of effort and energy, it usually forcefully pops back up to the surface. It is the same with suppressed emotions. The emotions surface at the most unlikely times and in inappropriate ways.

Have you ever reflected upon a reaction that was not appropriate? At the time, you might not have been fully aware of what was going on with your emotions. But afterward, you thought you could have handled the situation differently. You could have known what triggered your reaction and refocused your response.

It might seem silly, but you have had your feelings hurt. You feel bad about it. You want to reach out and react. Instead, you hold on to your hurt feelings and turn the event into something bigger and nastier than it really was.

If you are not self-aware, you might lash out and explode.  Your reaction only amplifies the negativity.  Emotions, especially when expressed negatively, tend to increase in heated situations.

When you know what triggers your emotions, you can learn to control your emotions.  When you are self-aware, you are able to stop your reaction and begin to respond in more appropriate ways.

When you start to rationally question your own emotions, you are much better prepared to get rid of the negativity inside:

  • Are you truly angry at the other person?
  • Are you reacting to your own insecurities and fears?
  • Why do you need to say hurtful things? 
  • What’s in it for you? 

Self-awareness helps you to ask these questions in difficult times. This can be very challenging, but by simply being aware of your emotions and what triggers your reaction, you can improve the quality of your life and your ability to lead with courage.

Who You Are Is How You Lead

At this point, you might feel like you are in a therapy session.  One reason you might feel this way is because it is so important to you as a person and as a leader. 

This is what I want you to do this week. Take 5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect upon the situations and circumstances of the day. Reflect upon one or two of the following (no particular order): 

  • The meetings you attended,
  • The people with whom you had interaction,
  • What you have said and done throughout the day.
  • Celebrate what has gone well.
  • Give God thanks for what you have learned.
  • What could have been done differently?
  • If I had been aware of my feelings, would I have said anything differently?
  • Have I offended anyone?
  •  Who do I need to contact to express appreciation for helping me become more who I am created to be?
  •  Who do I need to contact to ask forgiveness for my lack of self-awareness?

This exercise is a powerful way to develop a healthy self-awareness. As you develop the practice, you will add your own questions to better assist you in the process. Becoming more aware of who you are and how you respond or react will help inform your path towards self-awareness and growth.

I already know it is not an easy process. Sometimes it can be painful. But you will develop the most important quality needed in leaders today. Your positive impact will live on far after you have completed your work at this time in history. 

Remember that Sara Thomas and I are with you in your leadership journey. When we can be of encouragement or help, contact us at connect@transformingmission.org. We are ready to assist you with insights and resources in becoming a courageous leader. 
Check out LeaderCast. On the podcast this month, Sara and I are talking with leaders about self-awareness. This week we have a conversation with Curnell Graham. He turns self-awareness inside out and invites you to focus on God-awareness. Check out Episode 168 – Self-Awareness as God-Awareness. This is one resource you will want to have as you navigate the challenges of 2021. Remember, who you are is how you lead. Let’s face what is coming together.

During the 1880’s, there was a bishop in the Brethren in Christ Church by the name of Milton Wright. Bishop Wright, a bishop in Indiana at the time, invited a guest speaker to the annual conference.  

His guest, a futurist, was invited to challenge the conference of church leaders. The Bishop wanted participants to grasp the possibilities of the 20th century.  His task was to capture their imagination in regard to what they could expect by the turn of the century.

Bishop Wright was so impressed with the presentation, he invited his guest to dinner. He wanted to hear more about the possibilities. It was during dinner that the Bishop asked his guest to tell him one thing they all could expect by the turn of the century.

The futurist replied, “In the 20th century, human beings will fly.” Read more

The season of Lent begins on Wednesday.

Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for baptism.  The early Christians utilized the time before Easter to prepare to be baptized on Easter morning.  The preparation could be an intense time of self-exploration, wonder, and questioning. 

No doubt, the preparation was also a holy time. People were learning what it meant to be disciples of Jesus.

I got to thinking about what it would mean to prepare people for baptism this Lent. There are two actions I’d take as we journey together this Lent.

  • First, we’d engage together in a discipline of reading, reflecting, and responding to God. You can find out more and download the Get Real Guide.
  • Second, we’d explore a pathway of discipleship together.

Disciple-Making Pathway Questions

Disciple-making is an ongoing journey of becoming who God would have us be. Here are the questions we’d reflect on with people preparing to be baptized and leaders of the congregation.

Welcome

  • How are you and your congregation reaching out and receiving new persons? For the people preparing for baptism, I’d ask them to share how they came to be a part of this congregation. Then ask the current members joining you in the conversation how they became a part of the congregation.
  • How is your congregation connecting with the people of your community, developing relationships, and engaging persons in service and care? Explore here their relationships with others throughout the congregation.
  • What would happen if you began to pray, “O God, send us the people no one else wants and help us receive the people you send to us?” How about we find out? Include this in your prayers for the weeks ahead.

Invitation

  • How are you and your congregation intentionally offering opportunities for people to make commitments to Christ? Something happened that led people preparing for baptism to this moment. Listen to their story and share your stories.
  • How are you leveraging the relationships of people in your congregation to develop relationships in your community?
  • What are you doing to equip people in your congregation to tell their God stories? Everyone has a story. What is yours?
  • What would happen if you began to pray, “O God, make us the church this community needs and give us the courage to be who you would have us be?” Here’s another prayer for your Lenten disciplines.

Nurture

  • How are you and your congregation growing in faith? Again, with the Get Real Guide close at hand, pause together and answer a few of the questions.
  • Are you participating in regular Bible study, prayer, learning, sharing, and accountability? That’s what the Get Real Guide is all about.
  • Are you reading the scripture, reflecting upon it, and responding to it? You’re correct, the Get Real Guide outlines this pattern for you to engage.
  • In your congregation, is every ministry an opportunity to reflect and respond to God’s presence in the community? Perhaps as you share together you’ll celebrate the ministries that point to God’s presence. Along the way, you might even identify places you’d like to serve in ministry.
  • What would happen if you focused more on participating on the mission of making disciples and less on meeting the preferences of the church members? No, that’s not a rhetorical question. Really, what would happen?

Engage

  • How are you and your congregation engaged in serving others in the community in which your church is located? Perhaps you’ll serve together this Lent.
  • How are you blessing others, meeting people in their place of need, and offering gifts of compassion, love, and justice?
  • What would happen if the people in your congregation, even those who live outside the community in which you are located, were engaged in the community (schools, city or community leaders, safety personnel, etc.)?

Imagine what might happen come Easter if we were welcoming, inviting, nurturing, and engaging people in the process of disciple-making while practicing together the disciplines of faith.

As we begin the journey of Lent, let’s be intentional about the journey ahead. We have forty days, plus Sundays, to get real about disciple-making.

I know where my focus will be. I’ll be focused on the questions above and Get Real. Where will you focus this Lent?

 

A Lenten Journey of Naming God’s Presence

The reality of God’s presence should give us reason to pause. We know our pastors have the theological training to understand God’s presence. We also know many of our laity can teach about God’s presence.

But we see evidence that the distance between our heads and hearts continues to widen.

So, it’s time to get real. “Get Real” is an opportunity for you and your local church to name in plain, every day, ordinary ways where God is showing up. If you’ve only been thinking about how God could show up and not named how God is showing up, it’s time to Get Real.

The Process:

  1. Read a Scripture.
  2. Reflect on a focus word.
  3. Respond to one question.

We told you, it’s simple. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. It’s also what leads to individual and community transformation.

What You’ll Do:

We’ll  post a Scripture, word, and question every morning at 6:30 a.m.  Look for it to be “pinned” to the top of the page before 8 a.m.  Each day stands on its own. While this series starts on 2/14/18, you can jump in at any time. Here’s what we’ll do together.

  1. READ the Scripture.
  2. REFLECT on a focus word throughout the day.
  3. RESPOND to a question after 7:30 p.m.

Again, the process is simple. The outcome is transformational.

Who is the For?

Get Real is for the one who is struggling to wonder if God is real. This process can create space to talk about Jesus. For the one looking to engage a Lenten discipline, this process can provide structure and guidance. For anyone seeking to be faithful today, tomorrow, and the next day, this is a practice of faithfulness.

Can you imagine what might happen in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods if we spent time this lent and simply got real about God’s presence in our life? What might happen if we then joined God in ministry where we live, work, worship, and play? I believe our lives and our communities will change.

So, where did you see God today? Let us know in the comments below. Better yet, sign-up below to Get Real. And remember, you can join at any time. The dates below simply serve as a guide.

Through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, we have focused on becoming aware of God’s presence in our everyday living. We are continuing that focus during the Season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 14.

Lent provides an excellent opportunity to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives. Through self-examination and reflection, Lent is a time of discipline, which leads to self-denial and acts of service. I am writing today to invite you to join me on a Lenten journey.

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