Tag Archive for: Jesus

How was your Easter celebration? Although you have been back to “in person” worship for several months, celebrating Easter in person for the first time in two years must have felt extraordinary. I know it sounds silly, but you must have felt good getting back to some form of normal. 

The desire to get back to normal has been part of our thinking for months. The pandemic not only interrupted worship and church activities, but it also interrupted all of life as we were living it. So, I’m sure it felt good to celebrate Easter for several reasons, not the least of all the feeling of normalcy. 

Unexpected Interruptions

Unexpected interruptions have been part of human life from the very beginning. You can think of all the natural disasters, wars, deaths, births, and accidents that created a new normal for you. And when you look at the scripture, whether it was talking to a serpent in the garden, discovering a ram in the thicket, noticing a baby in a basket floating in the river, finding manna in the morning, getting water from a rock, human life has been interrupted with events that changed what was considered normal. 

Follow Me

Consider the lives of the first followers of Jesus. Fishing all night without catching anything was normal. Not fun or productive, but normal. Jesus comes along and tells them to do something that was not normal, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.” 

They were fishermen. They knew it was too late in the morning to catch any fish. Yet, they dropped their nets in the water and they caught more fish than they could handle. They had to call for help. Jesus came along and interrupted their lives. He said, “Follow me and I will teach you to catch people.” For the next three years, interacting with people became their new normal. 

Interrupted by the Resurrection

They gave themselves to the teaching and ministry of their new leader. Their new normal was living with Jesus. Although he was a little unorthodox in his dealing with people, life was good because it had become normal again. Then their lives were interrupted, not by a pandemic but by the resurrection. 

Although Jesus was arrested, convicted, and put to death by crucifixion, it was the resurrection that interrupted their lives. John tells us that Simon Peter and six other disciples wanted to get back to normal. After their experience of the resurrection, they went fishing. As far as their experience, life with Jesus was over. It was good while it lasted, but it was over. So, they were longing for life to get back to normal. Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” 

Do You Love Me?

It was while he and the others were going back to what they considered to be normal that Jesus appeared to them. Jesus serves them breakfast. It was in the normal experience of eating that Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, do you love me?” In the normal experience of eating a meal, like a stranger on the road to Emmaus, or the dinner parties Jesus attended, Jesus shows up and asks, “Simon, do you love me?” 

Even though Simon Peter responds with, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus asks repeatedly because the desire to go back to what we consider normal blinds us to the new normal. So, with Peter’s confession, Jesus then gives him the words of the new normal, “Feed my lambs.” “Care for my sheep.” 

Resurrection Gives You a New Normal

Simon Peter wants to get back to normal. But Jesus shows up as his new normal. This is a wonderful, frightening thing. Jesus, the risen Christ, is on the loose and is at work, where you live, with the people whom you lead. Notice that Sunday is the first day of the Jewish work week. It is interesting that Jesus wasn’t raised on a Saturday, a holy day, but was raised on the day when everything was going back to normal. Everyone was going back to work. 

The resurrection interrupts our normal and says that you demonstrate your faith in the places you live, work, and play. That is because the resurrection puts today and every day into a new perspective. Every day is sanctified and all of creation, even your community, is the Holy Land. Every person is sanctified and every person you meet is one of God’s children in whom you can see Jesus. You might long to go back to normal, but as a follower of Jesus, the resurrection gives you a new normal. 

Resurrection Interruptions

We are the people whose lives have been interrupted by the resurrection. We have had something happen to us that the world is yet to experience. The risen Christ has come back to us. In one way or another, you are here because Jesus, the risen Christ, has sought you, met you, caught you, and commissioned you for God’s purposes at this point and time in history. 

When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, look up. You are not walking alone. When you come to some dead end in life and you look over the edge into the dark abyss, look up. He is there waiting for you as a light in the darkness. When you listen to the news, skim social media, read reports on the internet, and you feel overwhelmed, remember that Jesus confronts the powers and principalities of the day. He comes in the midst of the normal, no matter how bleak the normal might seem, and when you want to give up in despair, don’t be surprised to find him nearby. 

As you lead, you will find yourself stepping into unexpected interruptions. As a Jesus follower, living in a new normal, you might consider summarizing your leadership in light of the gospel. In an overall sense, in the Bible, it gets dark. Then it gets very, very dark. Then Jesus shows up. But Jesus doesn’t just show up; he shows up for you and for the people entrusted to your care. 

Experiencing the Resurrection

Several years ago, I visited a man in the hospital. He was a leader in the church and well known in the community. He was near death. We talked for a few minutes then I asked what I could do for him.

He responded, “I’m glad you came to see me. I want you to know something that you can tell the people at the church. I have had several people ask me if I was afraid. I want you to tell them at the church that I am not afraid. My faith is in Jesus.” 

I responded, “I can do that. We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands.” 

I’m sure I sounded too pious because he said, “Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future. I’m hopeful because of what I have experienced in the past.” 

He captured my interest. I said, “Tell me more about what you mean. I want to represent you well.” 

He said, “I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, and got lost. And time after time, he found a way to get to me. He would show up and get me. He was looking for me when I wasn’t looking for him. I don’t think he will let something like my dying defeat his love for me. So, tell them I’m not afraid. Whether I live or die, Jesus is with me. 

I experienced the resurrection again that day. 

A New Normal

Simon Peter and his friends decide to go fishing. They want to get back to normal. Jesus shows up and gives them a new normal. He says, “What I have been doing, I want you to keep doing. As the Father sent me so I send you.” Or in other words, “Feed my lambs. Care for my sheep.” 

So here is a question for this week and throughout the Easter season. What if you are called to be the resurrection, to live a new normal? What if the presence of Jesus could be witnessed in who you are and what you say and do? 

Think about it and then decide what one thing you might say or do to reveal the new normal. It’s a tough assignment. To “care for my lambs” is to face the fact that some are going to stay lambs for forty years and never become sheep. “Feed my sheep” is not simple at all. Some of them refuse to eat. How will you lead into that unexpected interruption? 

You Are Never Alone

There will be moments of exasperation when you might be more of a nursery school teacher than you are their leader. But just as God sent Jesus, you are now being sent. Once your life has been interrupted by the resurrection, in whatever leadership situation you find yourself, look closely. The One who has called and equipped you for this ministry is nearby. You are never alone. 

That is the new normal. Leading into unexpected interruptions changes what is normal, especially when the interruption is the resurrection of Jesus. 

Who you are is how you lead.

How are you dealing with stress these days? Stress can take a toll on the best of us. No matter how strategically or effectively you lead there is always a level of stress. As you juggle multiple demands to meet the needs that keep your church or business running smoothly, the stress gradually builds. Before you recognize it, your body and mind give way to sleepless nights and high doses of caffeine. Without your attention, the stress finally takes its toll, and you are left in a mess. 

Busy or Stressed?

Many of us are reluctant to admit it when we are stressed. We usually choose to answer that we are “busy” rather than admit that we are overwhelmed or do not want to deal with the workload. Our reluctance to talk about how pressure is impacting us has reached the point that some of us are ineffective in our ministry, and we don’t admit it or recognize it…at least publicly. 

High levels of stress can have a negative influence and ruin your effectiveness as a leader. It is easy to slip into the stress trap as you work to resolve day-to-day issues while dealing with difficult and disgruntled church members and not to mention doing your best to reach new people. Add to the list family dynamics and lack of personal care, too much stress causes unnecessary and often unnoticed anxiety and worry. 

I don’t need to continue down that negative path. You already know that stress keeps you up at night and irritable during the day. You already know the symptoms of being tired, sad, and disinterested, as well as poor eating habits and the general dislike of certain people. 

Not all Stress is Bad

But with all of that, not all stress is bad. 

There is healthy stress. When you are healthy as a leader, you search for answers to problems, connect with others, effectively use resources, and creatively use your strengths, talents, and skills. Keep that in mind, because when stress is not healthy, it overwhelms, isolates, and paralyzes. 

As a leader, you will feel pressure from all sides. Whether it is to meet certain expectations from supervisors or to address the needs and wants of the people entrusted to your care, there is pressure. The question is, how do you transform the pressure or stress into effective and courageous leadership? 

There are respected physicians and consultants who can and do provide effective plans for dealing with stress. I’m not attempting to take anyone’s place. I simply want you to consider how you can name your stress, face it, and transform it as a healthy leader. Below are four things to consider:   

Be True To Yourself

The greatest internal cause of stress is trying to be someone you aren’t. Knowing yourself frees you from living inconsistently and enables you to live within your values. It strengthens your ability to withstand pressure from others. 

It is not unusual to give up personal time and to work as many hours as needed to get the job done. But to be an effective leader, you must know your limits, set your boundaries, and care for your emotional, mental, and physical health. 

Take time to exercise, to pursue a hobby, to be with the people you love. You know what energizes you and what brings you joy. You can and will transform the stress you experience into effective and courageous leadership when you are healthy and in sync with yourself. 

Focus On Your Purpose

Another cause of stress is saying yes when you should say no. One of the causes of stress is that you do not keep your purpose clearly in focus. You are out of focus when you fear saying “no” will cause people not to like you. As an effective and courageous leader, you learn to prioritize both people and work. You don’t have to say “yes” to have people like you. 

A common mistake leaders make is trying to do it all. When you lose focus, you invite more stress, and when you are more stressed, you are counterproductive. Learn the strengths and abilities of the people with whom you work. Delegate tasks. Set people free to be who God has created them to be. Trust that they can do their jobs well and avoid being a micromanager. 

Keeping your focus allows you to get more done in less time. It transforms your stress into effective and courageous leadership. 

Adapt To Changing Contexts

Another cause of stress is trying to control things you can’t control. You can control what you do. You can influence what others do. But you can’t control the situations or the circumstances in which you and others interact.

Being true to yourself and focusing on your purpose is essential in keeping what you cannot control in check. So, keep yourself focused on what you can control. When you need help, ask for it. Effective and courageous leaders know what they need to get the job done. Working collaboratively is what makes a good leader a great leader. It is shortsighted to think that you can do it all without support. Knowing what you can and can’t control takes the pressure off you and helps develop the strengths and skills of the people with whom you work.

This might come across as stating the obvious, but you cannot control what is happening in Ukraine. You might not be able to influence the Ohio State legislature regarding concealed weapons or voter redistricting. You might feel helpless in what is happening in the United Methodist Church. But you do have control over how you will lead in the midst of what you cannot control, and you have influence over how the church responds.

Adapting to what you can control leads to effective and courageous leadership. You can transform stress into effective leadership by being true to yourself, keeping your purpose in focus, and leading through the chaos and confusion of what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled.

Surround Yourself With Trusted Leaders 

Another cause of stress is a lack of trust in the people with whom you work. You can and will relieve yourself of stress when you develop and trust the strengths, talents, and skills of the people entrusted to your care.

Effective leadership is not a matter of authority or position, it is a matter of emulation. The people with whom you work want a leader they can trust. When you cultivate an atmosphere of trust, you find yourself in the midst of highly productive and hope-filled leaders.

Effective and courageous leaders are content to see the honors and rewards of hard work go to their followers. When people know that you trust and respect them, they trust and respect you.

Effective and courageous leaders are loyal to those entrusted to them. When people know that you have their backs, they are free to live into their full potential as leaders.

Effective and courageous leaders live by the words of Jesus, “The greatest among you shall be the servant of all.” This is a truth that followers respect the most. 

There is so much more that can be said, but you get the point. Stress is a real and important issue in relation to effective and courageous leadership. As the leader, it is your responsibility to ensure that your stress levels do not impact the people with whom you work, as well ensure that their stress levels are kept in check. 

Stress and Christ-Centered Leadership

Allow me to conclude by reminding you of a familiar passage from Scripture and the pattern of read, reflect, respond and return. 

Read Matthew 11:28 

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 

Reflect 

Jesus is speaking to all who are stressed. The words are spoken to people who are burdened with obligations that keep them from being in communion with God. In the case of stress, people who are burdened with situations that keep them from being who God created them to be. 

The invitation to rest is not an invitation to a selfish life of ease, but of deliverance from the artificial burdens that cause stress. 

Jesus is offering true Sabbath rest or the invitation to be true to yourself and to God’s love and care. 

Respond 

Where will I experience stress today? How will I address it? With whom will I share my stress? 

Return 

Where was I weary today? How did I respond to my weariness? What would I do differently? For whom am I grateful? 

O God, I give you thanks for what I have learned today and for the people who have helped me through my stress. Thank you for the rest you have provided.  Amen 

So, how are you dealing with your stress these days? Remember, who you are is how you lead.

How are you doing? I have been thinking of you and praying for you over these past six weeks. We entered the new year with the hope things were going to be different. Yet, we are still living in the confusion of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are still learning new ways of interacting with one another, making decisions, and worshiping together. 


We are living in a time of great social, economic, and political polarization. I cannot recall a time when people divided into contrasting groups as much as they do now. It seems people, whether in politics or the church, are moving in opposite directions. They are becoming as separate as the North and South poles. 

Conflicting Values


It is confusing to hear people say, “you don’t have the right to mandate masks” and at the same time want to ban books in public schools. It is disheartening to hear the insinuations of distrust and blame from people who we look to model lives of trust and understanding. It is disappointing when we separate over theology, issues, and politics, especially when we are leaders of love and reconciliation. 


So, my question “How are you doing?” is genuine. You are navigating conflicting values as well as deep feelings, both your own and the people entrusted to your care. I pray you will always be clear in your thinking and courageous in your actions. 


Being a Hope-Filled Leader

With that said, how can you be a leader with hope in times like these? The things I have listed above are as much about the church as they are about our culture. The truth is we are part of the culture. We are not on the outside looking in. We are not above it looking down. We are the culture. We not only have the financial and political means to shape it but we have been created to be the leaders to transform it. 


So, consider this: as a follower of Jesus, you have been called and gifted to offer hope and direction during these difficult and troubling times. So, instead of starting with your stance on social issues or your personal political point of view, start with Jesus. I am convinced he can and will lead you through these challenging times. When Jesus pointed out that we “love one another” he was putting love in the context of relationships. We don’t love in isolation. We love in relationship. In fact, we have no identity in isolation. We are only truly ourselves when we operate within a network of relationships. Without faithful relationships, “loving one another” relationships, there cannot be Christian discipleship. 

Your Relationships


Your relationships help make you who you are. I believe that God puts people in my life so I can become more who God created me to be. Now, I know that sounds like I am using people, but consider this: your relationships are not simply for encouragement or for help in times of need. They reveal God to you, and they offer something you need to know or incorporate into your thinking and living.

Start looking for God in the people you encounter each day. You will become more who God created you to be. Jesus models for us a life that gives priority to others, whether they be on the fringes or whether they be in center. Your relationship with Jesus demands that you love all people, even those who oppose you, misuse you, or disagree with you. Too often we limit relationships to those in the church, the people who are most like us. Thomas Morton, in his book Knowing Jesus wrote, “It is not in the church that we know Jesus, but in the world. We know him in the life of love, suffering, and hope that he shared with all people. But without the church few of us would be in the position to recognize him in the world.” 


Loving People

To be a follower of Jesus means building relationships with people who have different points of view and different values. You love them because of who they are, not because of what they believe. You accept them and their differences and you are willing to be enriched by those differences. It involves discovering Jesus in places and people you don’t expect Jesus to be. 

Even at his last supper, Jesus was open to people who betrayed him and who were using him to get what they thought they wanted. The disciples were less concerned about Jesus than they were about who was going to get the best seats in the kingdom. But never forget that Jesus loved Judas. This is the relational understanding that you, as a leader, need to navigate the times in which we live. You must love a culture and people who are more like Judas than faithful followers of Jesus. 


Being a Leader of Hope

It is not easy being a leader of hope, but because it is not easy does not mean you don’t move courageously forward. Being a Jesus follower, in our culture, is often more the problem than the solution. But following Jesus helps you recognize him in the people you meet along the way. And you will begin to lead people into the light of hope needed so desperately today. There is an old story about three African Elders visiting the West. The visitors were asked: “How can you tell when the night ends and the day begins?” 


The first Elder responded: “When I can distinguish the olive trees from the fig trees, then I know that night is over, and the day has begun.” 
The second Elder answered, “When I can see the forms of the animals across the Serengeti, I know that the darkness is leaving, and the light of day is arriving.” 


The third Elder took an entirely different view, “When we can see a black woman and a white woman and call them both “sister.” When we see a poor man and a rich man and call them both “brother.” Then the darkness of night has lifted, and the light of day has come.” The darkness lifts according to the practice of relationships. The problem you face is not the breaking of commands; it is the breaking of relationships. It is not the laws in stone that are broken, it is God’s heart of love that is broken.

That is why the answer is not better education or better willpower. It is not better social policies or inclusive programs. The answer is a better means of reconciliation and restoration of relationships. The answer is loving one another as God in Jesus as loved you. You are a leader at an incredible time in the life of your community, your city, and the world. You were created for this time. So, don’t give up.

Keep Steady in Following Jesus

Keep steady in following Jesus. In fact, when you lead on the path of hope, and you must make tough decisions, take the path in the shadow of the cross. It will be the least traveled, but it will bring the greatest blessings. Be intentional to look for Jesus in the people you encounter this week. As you recognize Jesus, what is he telling you about who you are? Where are you experiencing hope?  Remember, who you are is how you lead.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

I hope your celebration with family and friends has been a good one. I’ve been thinking of you and giving God thanks for your ministry. I pray that the joy of Jesus will be with you throughout this next year. This brings me to something I have been thinking about. 

One of the songs I like at Christmas is titled, “The Best Gift of All.” The words are as follows:

The Best Gift of All

Candles glow from frosted windows

    Rooms are filled with twinkling lights,

There’s a manger scene, boughs of evergreen,

     Someone is singing ‘Silent Night’.

And every gift my heart remembers, 

     of easy laugher, dear old friends,

Precious faces and smiles, 

     the dancing eyes of a child,

All remind me once again: The best gift of all is Jesus,

     His love knows no season or place.

You can see Him in the firelight

     Reflected on each face.

And though we cherish the blessings of Christmas, 

     When his love seems especially near.

The Best Gift of All is Jesus – 

     All through the year. 

In a world of hidden motives and questionable agendas, there is still hope in what God offers. In the midst of our brokenness and the world’s chaos, Jesus is the message of God’s goodness. In Jesus there is something pure, something right, something true, someone good. The best gift of all is Jesus. He is with us all through the year.

Read  Luke 2:1-7

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. – Luke 2:1-7

Reflect

This Christmas I was reminded of a family that celebrates Christmas all through the year. Through a small white envelope stuck among the branches of a Christmas tree, there is no name, no identification, no inscription. The envelope just peeks through the branches of the tree. 

The tradition began years ago when Nancy’s husband Mike stated, “I hate Christmas. Not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it. I can’t stand the overspending, the frantic running, the gifts given in desperation because you can’t think of anything else.” 

Knowing how her husband felt, Nancy decided one year to bypass the usual gifts of “shirts and ties.” She decided to do something special for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.

Christmas Inspiration

Their son Kevin, who was 12 years old at the time, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, he participated in a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. The team was made up of kids who did not have the same advantages of Kevin. 

They dressed in faded tattered uniforms and shoes so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together. It was a sharp contrast to Kevin’s team in their new blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes. As the match began, Nancy was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without protective headgear. It was a luxury the inner-city team obviously could not afford. Kevin’s team won easily. After the match, Mike shook his head sadly and said, “I wish just one of them could have won.” 

An Idea

It was at that moment that Nancy had the idea for Mike’s Christmas present. That afternoon, Nancy went to a local sporting goods store, bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes, and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. 

On Christmas Eve, Nancy placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what she had done. It was his gift from her. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year as well as the Christmases that followed. 

A Simple Envelope

Each Christmas, Nancy followed the tradition. One year she sent a group of Special Olympics youngsters to a hockey game. Another year she sent a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground a week before Christmas. Each year it was an act of kindness that offered hope to the recipients.

The envelope became the highlight of Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning. The children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As they grew older, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure.

A Tradition Continues

Several years ago, Nancy lost Mike to cancer. When the next Christmas came around, Nancy was still wrapped in grief. She barely had enough desire to put up a tree. But Christmas Eve found Nancy placing an envelope on the tree. An amazing thing happened. The next morning it was joined by three more envelopes. Each of Mike’s children had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown for that family. Mike’s grandchildren now stand wide-eyed around the tree as their fathers take down the envelope. 

Hope-Filled Love

Now, what happened in that family? They experienced God’s incredible love. That love is our hope, and it is rooted in God’s gift in and through Jesus. 

So, as you put away your decorations, or think that Christmas is over, be sure to look in the tree one last time. There is one more gift. It is the best gift of all.

May the joy of Jesus be yours all through the year.

Respond

Be mindful of the people around you today. How is God inviting you to give the gift of Jesus? What might you do to give the gift of God’s love throughout the coming year? 

Pray

O God, I know the best gift I have ever received is your love. Because of Jesus, I have experienced your love and hope in and through the people around me. This next year, help me become an instrument of your love so that the people I encounter will experience the hope you have given me this Christmas. Just as I have received the best gift of all in Jesus, use me as a gift of love and hope this coming year. Amen   

Return

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. With whom did you interact? What new life were you offered? Give God thanks for the people you met today. With whom did you share the gift of God’s love? How did you share it? What do you celebrate about your sharing? What would you do differently? 

Remember

The best gift of all is Jesus. Let’s celebrate Hope Throughout The Year! 

Advent is a time of preparation. We are invited to prepare the way for something new and unknown. When Kim and I were expecting our first child, we did not know exactly who or what we were expecting. We did not know what the child would look like, be like, or how it would change our lives. All we knew for sure was that nothing would ever be the same. Even with all we did not know, we still cleared space, a nursery, a place for this unknown child to become a part of our lives. 

Advent is a time to prepare the way by becoming vulnerable and letting go of the things that take up too much room in our lives. We may not understand all we are preparing to receive, but we know the One who is coming brings us hope. 

Yearning for What We Cannot Name

That is what makes the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist so interesting. They both yearn for something they cannot name. For Isaiah, it is the revealed glory of the Lord. For John, it is the one who will come after him, who is mightier than he. Neither of them knows any details.

John cannot even give his hearers a name to listen for. All that either one of them can proclaim is that the old ways of life are passing away and that new life is on its way. Without the luxury of details and with no concession to our need to know who or what is coming, they call us to prepare the way for that new life, to clear away anything that might get in its way, and to wait without knowing when it will come, or what it will look like, or how it will change our lives. 

With that said, there is hope in making room for Jesus. 

Read: Isaiah 40:3-8 and Mark 1:1-7

A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever. – Isaiah 40:3-8

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.” – Mark 1:1-7

Reflect

A couple was expecting their second child. They looked in vain for a place in the house to create a nursery. After several lengthy discussions, they decided that the husband’s study would have to go. His library was divided up and moved into smaller bookshelves throughout the house. Even though he loved his library dearly, there was new life on the way, and the way had to be prepared. 

Making Room

Here is where we are in Advent. Whether we are expecting our own baby, the baby Jesus, or a grown-up Lord coming in great power and glory, we are called to prepare the way for new life. We are called to make room by letting go of our old ways, even our old loves, as painful as that might be. It is either we prepare the way for this new life or prepare ourselves for the news that we have been passed over because there is no room in us. 

At the heart of the messages of Isaiah and John is the challenge to wait without clinging to our preferences and to receive what new life God has for us. Both tell us that what we are hanging onto fades, withers, and passes away. It is only when we stop clinging to what has become gods for us and stop looking to those things to save us, that we can receive who the living God brings to us. It is only when we are able to empty our hearts and wait without our preferences that there is room for God to bring himself to us.

Deceptive Preferences

What is surprising is how deceptive some of our preferences are. My guess is that any one of us can turn and walk away from a golden calf. We could toss our savings out the window if we believed our souls depended on it. 

Those preferences are obvious, but what about our desire for independence? The belief that everything will be alright if we can just take care of ourselves and not have to ask anyone to help us. Or the romantic idea of friendship? The belief is that we can face anything in life if we just have one other person to love us the way we are, and to love in return. Or a variation on that one, the obsession with family. The idea of family is good, but the belief that our happiness and success is based upon surrounding ourselves with close and committed people who are just like us is not real. 

The most deceptive preference of all is the belief we can worship the way we want, when we want, and who we want if we live good lives. Being good and doing good is what is needed to get into heaven.

What preferences can you name?

The list is long, health, friendship, patriotism, power, money. I know you want to say to me that these are good things. And I will say, of course, they are. How else would they get in the way of what God has for us? 

The first criterion of an idol is that it makes us feel good in our hearts. That is why we grab ahold and hang on. We cling so tightly that eventually what we like and want becomes the only source of life for us. The only problem is that if our hearts and souls are full of what we want and prefer, we have lost our ability to receive what God has for us. We are full up; there is no room at the inn. While God is looking for a nursery, we are in our offices with the door closed.

Advent Hope

During Advent, we are invited to come out, to let go, and become vulnerable, not to forsake the things we love and want, but to put them in proper perspective and priority. We are invited to learn to hold our likes and dislikes lightly and to give them up when it becomes clear that they are taking up too much room. 

Our hope is in making room for Jesus. But to have room for Jesus, we must prepare for something new. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t even have to understand how it all is to happen. But we do have to wait with nothing but faith in the promise that the advent of God himself comes to those who saved him room. 

Respond

Be mindful of the people around you today. How is God inviting you to receive them into your life? What new life is being offered? How will you make room for who and what God is sending to you? 

Pray

O God, shape my life with divine humility. By your grace, help me make room for you by giving up my place and by letting go of my preferences. Help me become a dwelling place for your love and peace. I offer my life to be your residence in my everyday and ordinary life. Amen

Return 

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. With whom did you interact? What new life were you offered? Give God thanks for the people you met today. What room do you need to prepare for whom God is sending you? 

This Advent Season, we are again asking ourselves, “How do we as the people of God live out God’s mission for the world? We are in the midst of profound shifts in our church, in our country, and in the world. Whether the shifts are religious, cultural, racial, generational, or political, we are ready to hear the prophecies of the Advent message. And we are not only ready to hear the message, but we are anointed to live out the message as God comes to be with us in Jesus. 

New Life is Born

Even though we have been through a number of Advents, we know that when we, as Jesus followers, take seriously our mission in this world and when we truly believe and live out God’s love, there is hope for our broken and hurting world. New life is born, and hope emerges. 

“O Holy Night”

This hope has been offered in many ways over the years. When we gather to worship this Christmas, many of us will hear the song, “O Holy Night.” It was written as a Christmas poem in France in the mid-1800s. When the words were put to music, their message began to change the world. In fact, “O Holy Night” was banned in several churches in France. Later, the third verse of the song was left out because of its message. The reasons were always based on theology, but the message of hope and justice was clearly proclaimed. The third verse is as follows:

“Truly He taught us to love one another.

His law is Love and His gospel is Peace. 

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

and in his name all oppression shall cease.”

Advent is a time of preparing for God’s justice to bring hope to those who are broken and lost in this changing world. May the hope of the coming of Jesus fill you with world-changing justice. 

READ: Isaiah 61:1-2, 8 and Matthew 5:3-6

The LORD God’s Spirit is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and a day of vindication for our God…I, the LORD, love justice… – Isaiah 61:1-2, 8

Happy are people who are hopeless because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.  – Matthew 5:3-6

Reflect

A Raging River

Imagine a raging river full of rapids that surge over a waterfall. You see people struggling in the current of the river. As they are trying their best to swim to shore or grab a hold of rocks, they are being swept downstream toward the falls.

You also see people along the shore trying to help those struggling in the rushing currents. Some are reaching out at the edge of the falls to snatch victims at the last moment. Others are upstream, stepping out on the rocks to grab whomever they can reach. A bit further upstream there are some throwing out lifelines and pulling the struggling people to shore. Even further upstream there are some people teaching people how to swim. You even notice that there are some trying to install fences along the river to prevent people from falling in. At the same time, you see others, gathered at the bottom of the falls, trying to recover and save the few who survived going over the edge.

Not one of the helpers along the riverbank can catch everyone in need, but together they each do their part along the way. The one thing they all have in common is a love for helping others. 

An Example of Love

One example of that love can be found in a man named Trevor Ferrell. When Trevor was eleven years old, he saw a television news report on Philadelphia’s inner-city homeless. He couldn’t believe people were homeless and lived on the streets. He began questioning his parents why people didn’t have a place to live. It took a while, but his parents, Frank and Janet, reluctantly agreed to broaden their sheltered horizons. 

One evening, they left their home in an exclusive suburb and drove downtown. One block past city hall, they spotted an emaciated figure crumpled on a side-walk grate. Frank stopped the car and eleven-year-old Trevor got out and approached the man. 

With a blanket in hand, he said, “Sir, here’s a blanket for you.” The man stared up at Trevor at first. Then, he said softly, “Thank you. God bless you.”

Jesus Inside Me

That encounter altered the Ferrell’s life forever. Night after night they would drive downtown, trying in small ways to help the street people. They emptied their home of extra blankets, clothing, and dozens of peanut-butter sandwiches. When people learned what they were doing, someone donated a van and others charted nightly food distribution routes. To the Ferrell’s surprise, “Trevor’s Campaign” had begun.

At a young age, Trevor found himself explaining what he and his family were doing to local media. Eventually, he was explaining his campaign to major news outlets, late-night television, daily talk shows, the President of the United States, and Mother Teresa. They all wanted to meet the small boy with the big mission. When asked why he was caring for the homeless, he simply replied, “It is Jesus inside of me that makes me want to do this.”

Trevor’s Campaign

In an interview regarding “Trevor’s Campaign,” his father stated, “Our social life has changed a lot since the campaign began. Our church is behind us one hundred percent, but some of our old friends don’t understand why we’re messing with the homeless. They just tolerate our ‘idiosyncrasies.’”

For twenty years, a van traveled each night to the downtown streets of Philadelphia. It stopped first to deliver food to the residents of Trevor’s Place, a ramshackle rooming house where some of the former homeless lived. Then it proceeded to feed the hungry people gathered on sidewalk grates and street corners. 

Short Term Need & Long Term Changes 

When asked how the handouts have made a difference in the complex business of helping the homeless, Frank Ferrell sighed deeply and said, “We’re trying to meet short-term needs and figure out ways to bring long-term changes to people’s lives. Sometimes it seems like just a band-aid. But this is how we build relationships. These people become our friends, and they trust us to help them in bigger ways.”  Then Frank paused for a moment, looked at the landscape of broken bottles and bodies, and said, “There are plenty of struggles, But I know one thing: giving has made all the difference in my life. I used to just read the Scriptures. Now I feel like I am living them.”

Meeting a Need

Trevor’s Campaign has evolved over the past 32 years. His objective is to meet human needs, alleviate suffering, and restore hope by developing comprehensive programs for vulnerable children and adults in the Greater Philadelphia area. 

Trevor is one of those people along the riverbank seeking to save those who are drowning in the changing world in which we live.

Respond

Where will you see a human need today? How might God’s love become human in you? Begin to imagine how you might respond to the needs around you. 

Pray

O God, you have taught me to love you and the people around me. You have put within me a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Use me as an instrument of your peace, so that the people I meet each day will experience your love in and through my words and actions. Help me be a person who offers hope in the name and love of Jesus. Amen.

Return

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. Where did you see human need? How did you respond? What do you need to become more the person God needs you to be for this time of change?

Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. As we wait, we reflect upon the events of the past year. With expectation, we anticipate receiving the hope needed to navigate the year ahead. 

It is obvious, as we enter this Advent Season, we are coming to the end of another difficult year. In both big and small ways, our lives have been filled with constant, and often painful, reminders that something is not right. Things are just not the way they are supposed to be. 

The Hope of Jesus

At the same time, Advent provides us, in the midst of brokenness and pain, the opportunity to look beyond the worst situations and circumstances and to see the hope offered to us in Jesus. 

The biblical story is that in the darkest of hours, whether by our own doing or at the doing of others, God comes to us as the light in our darkness. In Jesus, God enters the darkness of our brokenness and pain to bring us the light of healing and hope. 

So, we wait, expecting our hope to come. The good news is, God is with us. God has come as the Light of the World to be with us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. This is our hope. 

Read

Isaiah 2:2-6: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice. As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

Reflect

The Bible uses the image of darkness to describe chaos, fear, uncertainty, and death. The image of darkness is used in a variety of stories from the prophecy of Isaiah to the birth of Jesus. 

The prophet Isaiah was called to speak to the people of Israel. They were a people walking in the darkness of sin, danger from enemies, and judgment from God. The only hope for their darkness was light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

A New Day

The birth of Jesus was the dawning of a new day. According to John, Jesus is the Word that was from the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life and the life was the light of all people. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

So, Advent is preparing for the light to come in the darkness. It is the preparation for Jesus, the light of the world. It is Jesus, God’s light, who comes into our world and breaks the chains of darkness and brings hope for the future. 

So, we wait, expecting our hope to come. I get it. Darkness comes in a variety of ways. It shows up when you are looking for direction, fearful of the circumstances, feeling alone, and paralyzed by anxiety. It shows up when you have doubts and fears as you look to the future. I understand that darkness. 

Times of Darkness

Several years ago, I faced a time of darkness. I faced uncertainty so great that I could not see beyond myself or the moment of pain I was experiencing. Hurt, confused and feeling alone, I was uncertain about the future. It was at the moment of my greatest distress, a colleague and friend stepped in to help me face my future. I was not offered a lot of sympathy or unrealistic platitudes. I don’t ever remember hearing the words, “Call me if you need me.” What I do remember hearing was, “You know where to find me.” 

God sent me a person of faith, a Jesus follower, who allowed me to be me at the moment of my greatest need. She created a space for me to talk about my anxiety, disappointments, pain, and fear. Although there were times she did not agree with my assessments, she never passed judgment. She listened compassionately. At appropriate times would ask me the questions I needed to answer for clarity and healing. She offered Christ to me by becoming the embodiment of God’s grace. I began to trust that I was not alone in darkness of my uncertainty. 

The space created and the grace offered allowed me to move beyond the moments of my anxiety to see new possibilities. I began to look beyond what I had experienced and to create a new story for myself.

I began to heal. My friend provided several ways for me to put into practice the new possibilities that began to emerge. We created plans for reflection, prayer, and conversation. She challenged me to look beyond myself to see what new things God might be doing in my life. I was invited to put my faith into action by looking beyond myself. 

It was at that point that I rediscovered God’s work in my life. God began to use me to make a difference in the places I encountered the people God wanted me to love. It was through the engagement of this colleague and friend in my life, this Jesus follower, who helped me see the hope in the midst of my uncertainty. There were no easy answers. In fact, there were no answers at all. 

She came alongside me, in the darkness of great anxiety, embodied God’s love, and journeyed with me through difficult moments. Helping me see what God might have in store for the future, she was an instrument of God’s hope in the midst of my uncertainty. She was a light in my darkness.

God came in the person of a Jesus follower. While I was in darkness, I saw a light that brought hope. 

The Good News

There is good news in this Advent prophecy: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. He is called by many names, but we call him Jesus. He is the Light of the world, the One who comes from God to save us from our darkness. “Light and Life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”

Whatever your need, whatever your circumstances, whatever your darkness, there is hope. For unto us a child is born and unto us a Son is given. And his name is Jesus, the light of hope in your darkness. 

Respond

As you go about the activities of your day, be aware of the people who are broken and in pain. Be aware of the people who bring light into their lives. As you become aware of the people around you, be thinking of how you might be a person of light in the lives of the people you encounter along the way. Look for Jesus in the people you meet today and be aware of God’s loving embrace. 

Pray

O God, I am grateful that you are the light in the midst of my darkness. Help me be aware of your presence in every situation, circumstance, relationship, and acquaintance of this day. When it is so dark, I think I cannot see, give me eyes to see your light. When the noise is so great that I think I cannot hear, give me ears to hear your still small voice. Give me a heart to discern and a mind to recognize what you are doing. Help me be your light to the people you send my way. I offer all I am to you in the name of Jesus, the Light of the World. Amen.

Return

Take a few moments to name the places you experienced God’s light today? Through whom did you experience Jesus, God’s light? Who came alongside you to be a light in your darkness? To whom were you God’s light today? 

For the seasons of Advent and Christmas, I’ll be sharing a series of devotions focused on hope. Look for an invitation next week about this devotional series.

Read 

Matthew 1:18-21

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary, his mother, was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

2 Corinthians 5:17-19

“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!  All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ…”

Reflect

The incarnation provides a window into the hope offered to us in Jesus. In the midst of chaos and confusion, and in the mess of challenges and changes, God is with us.

When we read the biblical stories, we find that the birth of Jesus, in a stable to humble parents named Mary and Joseph, is God’s dramatic way of coming into the world in a way that we can understand. It is the story of God taking on the life of a human being and coming into this world to live with us.

The Incarnation

I like this illustration of incarnation. In the 1996 Olympics, an American runner, Derek Redmond, was entered in the 400-meter race. For years he had practiced just for this race. His father, who was also his trainer and coach, had helped him become one of the fastest people in the world.

As the race began, Redmond took an early lead. He was well out in front of the other sprinters when his Achilles tendon snapped. He fell to the track but did not drop out of the race. He struggled to his feet and began limping toward the finish line, dragging his wounded leg behind him. The crowd stood and cheered him on, but the pain was so great and the wound so serious that he struggled to finish the race. Suddenly, a middle-aged man jumped over the guardrail onto the track, caught up with Redmond, put his arms around his waist, and helped him finish the race. The man was Redmond’s father.

In an interview after the race, Redmond said, “He was the only one who could have helped me, because he was the only one who knew what I had been through.”

God With Us

God always comes to us in a way that satisfies our need for God at those times when we need God most. Matthew reminds us that the name Jesus means savior, and that the name Emmanuel means God is with us. Matthew is telling us that in Jesus, God’s saving love is with us.

Luke reminds us that Jesus came alongside the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts. Being born in a stable points to the fact there was no respectable place for him. His birth being announced to shepherds symbolizes the good news for those considered unclean and unacceptable in good religious circles. Luke is telling us that God’s saving love is for everyone.

John reminds us that Jesus was present in the beginning with God because Jesus is God. Then God becomes flesh and lives among us in Jesus. I understand the words lived among us to mean “pitched his tent next to ours.” Eugene Peterson in the Message says, “moved into our neighborhood.” John is telling us that God in Jesus has come to live with us.

And Paul reminds us that God is in Christ “reconciling the world to himself.” It might be helpful to think of the word reconciled as being embraced or hugged. God is in Christ “embracing” the world or “hugging” you with love.

A Window of Hope

So, the incarnation provides a window into the hope offered to you. Your hope is seen in the fact that no matter what your situation or circumstance, God has come to you in Jesus to hug you with a love that will never let you go. In the midst of sin and failure, God embraces you with forgiving love. While seeking meaning and purpose, God embraces you with encouraging love. When struggling with grief and despair, God embraces you with comforting love. No matter the chaos and confusion, or the challenges and changes, God is with you, embracing you with love and offering you hope. When you catch a glimpse of that kind of love, there is nothing left to do but to move forward in hope.

Respond

As you go about the activities of your day, be aware of the people in the places you live, work, and play. Whom will you meet Jesus today? Will you meet him at the grocery store, at the office, on the street, at the park? Will you meet him on the golf course, at the spa, at the club? Look for Jesus in the people and be aware of God’s loving embrace.

Pray

O God, I am grateful that you have come to be with me in Jesus. Help me be aware of your presence in every situation and circumstance and in every relationship and acquaintance of this day. Give me eyes to see and ears to hear you. Give me a heart to discern and a mind to recognize what you are doing. Make me a blessing to someone somewhere today as you embrace me and the people around me with your love that makes me more who you want me to be. I offer my life to be a home for you and for the people you send my way. Amen

Return

Take a few moments to name the places you experienced God’s love today? Through whom did you see Jesus? Through whom did you experience God’s love? Who came alongside you to help you reach the finish line?

Leadership is stressful even in the best of times. When you are leading through a time of crisis, sometimes the stress feels unmanageable. Learning to cope with stress is one of life’s most important lessons. Learning to lead in the midst of stress is a mark of a courageous leader. So, how are you coping with stress these days? How are you facing the difficulties of leading?

Acknowledgment or Denial?

My assumption is you are doing one of two things. You are either avoiding the stress by denying it or facing the stress by acknowledging it. You are either escaping it by numbing yourself or you are coping with it by finding a way through it. You are either blaming others for it or you are dealing with it responsibly, learning about yourself and learning how to lead in the midst of it.

Feeding the 5000

One of the most popular stories in the bible gives us insight into coping with stress. It is the story of the feeding of the 5000. When we read the story from Mark’s perspective, we gain insight into coping with the difficulties that come with leadership.

The disciples have just returned from a mission trip, and they are wanting to tell Jesus about their experiences. But there are so many people coming and going that the disciples don’t have time for themselves. Not even time to eat. So, Jesus says to them, “Let’s go off to a place by ourselves. You can rest while you report on your mission encounter.”

They get in their boats to cross the Sea of Galilee to a place less populated, a deserted place. When the people see the disciples leaving, they run ahead to meet them at their destination. When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they are met with the crowd they were trying to leave on the other side of the lake.

The Response

Jesus, out of deep compassion, rearranges his plans and works with the people all day. But his followers are not as flexible or as generous. By late afternoon they are tired and irritable. They realize that the people are hungry and could soon get hostile if something isn’t done to help them. Out of concern for the people, the disciples want to send them away to get their own food and provisions. They pull Jesus aside, point out the difficulty, and suggest that he disperse the people quickly before things get out of hand. It seems logical based upon what they perceive. A problem situation, full of stress and perceived danger.

So, how does Jesus cope with the situation?

Jesus Faces the Situation

First, Jesus decides to face the situation openly. He chooses not to escape or to avoid by rationalizing the situation. When the disciples want to send people away, Jesus responds out of integrity and compassion. He does not see people as a nuisance, so the situation becomes an opportunity to be who he was created to be.

Jesus Surveys his Resoures 

Second, Jesus surveys his resources. He chooses to find out what he has in hand to meet the need of the situation. Although it is not much, it is what he has. In their hurry to escape the problem, by sending the people away, the disciples do not consider what they have going for them. Even though it is not much, they are amazed to discover that there is some food available in the group.

Jesus Uses Available Resources to Address the Need 

Third, Jesus takes the resources and begins the task of meeting the need of the situation. He chooses to do the best he can with what he has. What seems impossible to the disciples, as they look at the problem, becomes a possibility through the courage and decisiveness of Jesus. He is not immobilized by the need or the lack of resources. He knows that nothing can begin until the first step is taken. So, he acts on the basis of what he has. His action gathers strength and turns an unsolvable problem into a success.

Untapped Potential

Now, it is obvious that there is a radical difference between the way Jesus coped with the difficulty and the way you and I usually go about dealing with reality. But the difference is not so much about lack of capacity as it is unused potential.

When you are tired and irritable, you become short-sighted and reduce your field of vision. Too often, in the face of problems or in the midst of difficulties, you don’t always see the possibilities. Instead of utilizing what God has already placed in your midst, you seek a way out either by denying the difficulty or by avoiding the situation.

The reality is, there are always “five loaves and two fish” in every problem. And when you don’t see the possibilities or recognize the resources at hand, you waver, hesitate, and become immobilized. There is nothing that intensifies stress more than inactivity. The longer you standstill in the face of a problem, the more stress you create. On the other hand, the decision to act, no matter how useless it may seem, often breaks the spell and turns the tide. The ability to start acting, even when it seems small and insignificant is key in facing difficulties and solving the problem.

Problem Solving

Life is, and always will be, a process of problem-solving. Jesus came to terms with that fact. He seems to have laid aside all the fantasies of a place where there is no conflict or difficulty. He accepted the fact that such a place does not exist for us humans. This realistic outlook enabled him to focus all his energies on the real issues of life rather than trying to escape them by seeking “the way things used to be” or by longing for things to get back to “normal.”

Posture of Gratitude

How was Jesus able to cope? The secret is found in a posture of gratitude. In facing a hungry crowd when his followers were wringing their hands, Jesus calmly looked up to heaven and gave thanks to God. I don’t think this act pertained only to five loaves and two fish. It included not only that event, but life as it was given to Jesus day by day.

God is Good

Jesus learned the deepest secret there is to learn. The secret? God is good. And God, who gives us life, also loves us, is for us, and is working for our good. Out of that realization came the ability to receive the events of life with gratitude, not resentment. He learned to regard the events and encounters in his life as expressions of love rather than acts of hostility. He was able to see the events as God’s way of dealing positively with humanity.

It is amazing the difference such a posture of gratitude can make in the way we cope with difficulty. If we really begin to look at the things that happen to us as good gifts from God, even the problems take on a different form. Instead of seeing them as hopeless obstacles to our happiness, we come to see them as the challenges that give life its meaning and hope. Problems cease to be overwhelming when we see them as something to be received with gratitude.

Posture of Thanksgiving

The posture of thanksgiving opens our eyes to the resources that are present. Even though the resources might be hidden by the problem, our eyes are opened and we no longer say, “We don’t have enough” or “There is nothing here we can use.” No matter how deep the crisis, God has provided “five loaves and twelve fish” to meet the need. Gratitude opens our eyes to what we already have going for us.

Gratitude encourages us to begin with what we have and to expect more as we move forward. After all, what we have at the beginning has been given by a gracious God. Can’t we expect God to give even more to complete the task? This is what Jesus did. He began to act out in a profound sense of gratitude. His trust and action gathered up strength from earth and heaven until a multitude was fed.

Coping with Reality

So, how are you coping with stress these days? How are you facing the difficulties of leading? There are a thousand unhealthy ways of coping, like avoiding or escaping being two. 

But there is at least one healthy way of coping. It is the way Jesus modeled for us on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. There in the shadow of great difficulty, he faced the problem. He laid hold of the resources already present, and he began to act in terms of what he had.

The truth is you can do the same. It is possible for you to lead through the stress and difficulties you face today. It is as simple and profound as this: let Jesus show you God by letting him reconcile you to the fact that God, who gives life, is good. Let him teach you to receive all of life in gratitude. When this becomes not only your perspective but your way of living, the courage to cope will rise from the depths of your being. Your problems will become the shape of a challenge. Your difficulties will be seen as the bearers of hidden resources. And the crisis will become nothing more than the moment to begin.

Your Next Step

This week, try coping with your stress by giving God thanks for your anxiety. Ask God to open your eyes to the resources present in the situation. And then, by God’s grace, take your first step toward addressing the difficulty. Again, try coping with your stress by giving God thanks in the midst of what seems impossible to overcome. It was good enough for Jesus. Shouldn’t it be good enough for you?

Remember, who you are is how you lead! 

Wow. We have come to the end of September. Where has the year gone?  Over the past nine months, you have moved forward in your leadership by adapting to unexpected changes and developing new relationships. You have navigated a pandemic and established different patterns. From my perspective, you have learned to lead in surprisingly new ways. 

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn

In his book, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, John Maxwell, playing off the quote, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” points out that we learn from our losses.  He writes that if we apply what we learn in the midst of our losses to the situations and circumstances in which we lead, we will be much closer to reaching our goals. I’m guessing you have learned a lot over the past nine to eighteen months. 

Learning is one of the key values of leadership. Effective leaders are learning leaders. Learning is as much a part of your life as eating. Leaders who are learners improve the environment for everyone around them. Learning is key to improvement.

What have you been learning?

So, what have you been learning over the past nine months? As I have been listening, I have heard you say you have learned:

New Technology

You said, “I need to learn how to…” and you learned what you needed to move forward with worship, bible study, virtual gatherings, etc. You learned to approach routine encounters in fundamentally different ways.

Alternative strategies

You have experimented with different ways of living out the mission by engaging a coach and/or peers to provide feedback regarding what you have learned.  

To become a more effective leader

You have been determined to learn useful insights by reflecting on what worked well, what didn’t so well, and what might work better next time.

I know you have learned much more than what I have listed above. But from my perspective, you have learned some significant patterns for effective leadership.  I am grateful for you and for what you are learning. You were created to lead for this time.

What Have I Learned?

Over the past nine months, I have learned some things as well. I have learned:

Effective Christ-centered leaders become part of the fabric of the community

To be the leader needed for today, you must be intimately involved in the life of the community. You know the assets as well as he needs. You know the marginalized as well the influential people by name. You are recognized and known by people in the places you show up. (For help in becoming the fabric of the community, check out 7 Missional Questions).

It takes courage to follow Jesus

If you assume I should have learned this early in my ministry, you are correct. But I think it takes more courage today than in my earlier years. In the culture in which we live, “you can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” (Anne Lamott). It takes courage to show up in the places Jesus leads and to love the people Jesus loves.  I saw a sign recently that read, “I love you. You’re probably thinking, ‘You don’t even know me.’ But if people can hate for no reason. I can love.” When you invite Jesus into your life, he tends to bring all his friends with him.

It matters where you start

I have known this for a long time, but it seems more applicable today. 

You might think of it this way, the starting place is not whether someone or some issue is progressive or evangelical, liberal or conservative, socialist or capitalist. To start with a political stance is to argue your political stance. Starting with this, does my action love my neighbor, look out for his or her interests more than my own, and produce the fruit of the Spirit? It matters where you start.  I am learning that when we figure out that God is more concerned with loving creation than judging it, we will then be part of the transformation of our churches, communities, and the world. As Jesus followers, we start with Jesus.

Effective Leaders are Learning Leaders

Just like you, I have learned more than I have listed. The point is learning leaders are effective leaders. Learning leaders model for others what they are learning and invite others into learning as well.

An Invitation

I want you to join me in an experiment for the month of October. I have been reflecting on one way you and I, as leaders, can model God’s love for those entrusted to our care as well as our communities. This is an experiment in courageous leadership. Remember, who you are is how you lead.  

Here is what I want you to do. Whether you are in an urban church, suburban church, or a rural church, get in your mind one of the persons you encounter at an intersection holding a sign. 

The sign usually says something like, “Homeless. Need Help. Hungry. God Bless you!” or “Homeless and hungry vet. Anything will help.” Get the face of the person in your mind. Regardless of what you feel or think, God loves that person as much as God loves you. So, this month, as a child of God, try something other than passing by another child of God. 

Do one of the following: (Just try one for the month)

  • Pray asking God how you can best share God’s love with the person
  • Prepare a sandwich and/or some fruit and hand it them
  • Give them something to drink. Something warm on a cold day, something cold on a hot day
  • Better yet, park your car, get out and introduce yourself to the person, and listen as he/she introduces themselves to you.
  • When you get to know the person by name, take food to them on a daily basis.

When you have done one of the above, give God thanks for loving you in and through the person at the intersection. I promise your action of care and compassion will transform your life and make you a more courageous leader. Who you are is how you lead.

Sometimes You Learn

Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. Let me know how you are doing with the experiment. I’ll check back with you. May what you learn assist you in becoming the leader you are created to be.

And remember, who you are is how you lead.