Practicing What I Preach

The trouble with giving advice is that eventually you have to follow your own advice.  Lately I have been reminded of my advice to others on creating space in their lives for themselves, and of how poorly I have been doing that myself.

Here is what I have often told others:

  • Meet with God often. God is your strength, not your own abilities. Just this morning our pastor was speaking from Galatians 3:1-5 and reminding us that everything – salvation, personal growth, and God’s miraculous work in and through us – is completely based on our faith in God. That faith cannot grow without time spent in the Word and in the presence of God. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 (ESV)
  • Make yourself a high priority. If you do not take care of yourself you will not be of any use to others. In fact, you will drag others down. After your relationship with God you need to come next.

Our tendency as humans is to “white knuckle” our way through life. We see something that needs to change and we grit our teeth and try to make it happen. That is a recipe for failure. I tried that approach to saving my first marriage and failed. True change comes through Christ from the inside out, not by bootstrap determination. While there are things we can and should do to take care of ourselves, we cannot really take care of ourselves properly without a constant reliance on God.

Practically speaking and aside from time with God, here are a few things I am trying to do in order to keep myself a priority.

  1. Rest. Honestly, I don’t sleep enough. I get to bed late and then am not quite fully “there” first thing in the morning. Granted, I am not a morning person, but going to bed really late doesn’t help. This past week I went to bed twice after midnight, which is a serious no-no for me. I know some of you night owls can pull off pranks like that, but not me.
  2. Retreat. A week or so ago I took a partial-day retreat. Well, let’s say I tried. The goal was to get away from the distractions, spend some extra time with God, and then do some big picture thinking about work. I was able to do some of each, but family things distracted me. I was not able to fully unplug. I used to take these retreats every month but have gotten away from the practice. Next time I will be truly unplugging.
  3. Recoup. God established the Sabbath for a reason. He rested on the 7th day, but we motor right on through in our work and activities without a break because it all “has to get done.” Stop. Just today I had to remind myself not to do church work because I had the afternoon off. All sorts of details and plans were running through my mind, but I had to set them down so I could catch a nap and spend time with my boys.

These are just three areas where I need to improve.

How about you? How do you keep yourself as a priority in your life?

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What Will Your Legacy Be?

On Wednesday about this time I imagine many of us will be glad the election is over.

Not necessarily because we will know who the next president will be (depending on the closeness of the race it could take some time to sort it out), but because we will finally be on the other side of the campaign media blitz.  Even my 7-year-old son mentioned he would be glad when the campaign ads ended.

During the campaign, however, much of the rhetoric from each side has been about what legacy a candidate has left or will leave if elected.

Which got me to thinking . . .

What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind?

I am currently planning a memorial service, and I expect to hear stories about a loved one who impacted their family in various ways before moving on.  Personally, I always enjoy that part of funerals and memorial services because the stories are usually beautiful and inspiring to me.

This morning, however, I was looking through the paper and came across the obituaries.  These statements were matter-of-fact recordings of birth date, date of death, survived by, moved here and there, and was a member of this or that social group.  In contrast to the services these statements were sparse and un-inspiring.

Granted, newspaper statements can be shortened and perfunctory at times, but I do not want my legacy to read like a newspaper obit.  I want to hear several things:

  1. God is pleased with how I lived and used what he gave to me.  Ultimately, his opinion is the only one that matters.
  2. My family is inspired to live more like Christ and to love each other and others well.
  3. Others are impacted in a positive way by the way I lived and used what God gave to me.  And by impacted positively, I mean they grew spiritually and personally, not that they had a good feeling or benefitted monetarily from me.  (Let’s be honest.  I am a professional musician; I doubt anyone is going to benefit monetarily from me!)

I find that defining my desired legacy often helps me put the present into focus.  If you know where you want to go you will be able to figure out how to get there and whether or not you are making progress in the right direction.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?

The Holy Trinity of Relationships

We have all heard about the theology of the Trinity in evangelical Christianity.  Whether or not you support this foundational belief is not the focus of this blog.

Did you know, though, that there is another trinity in life?  I call it the holy trinity of relationships.

Humans, by nature, were made for connection.  The statement, “No man is an island,” is foundational in many ways, one being the fact that every person needs relationship in order to thrive.

Before we talk about the trinity, the three relationships you need to have in your life, let me say this.  Without a meaningful, grace-based relationship with God these other three will be insufficient.  While interpersonal relationships are critical, a relationship with God is absolutely essential.

I am talking about this subject not because I have a psychology degree (the LAST thing I want) or because I am a counselor or because I have my life figured out.  I have discovered these relationships are necessary for me to lead a fulfilled and overcoming life.  Throughout my divorce and difficult times in life one or more of these relationships sustained and encouraged me.

The Holy Trinity of Relationships

Close Friends

Everyone needs two or three close, intimate, know-everything-about-you friends.  I am talking about friends who support you through thick and thin, who listen more than they talk, who cry and mourn with you, and who celebrate as loudly as you do when something beautiful happens.  Close friends have to be truly selfless people.  The trick is that you have to be truly selfless in order to attract those kinds of people to yourself.

Throughout my separation and divorce one friend of mine (you know who you are) met with me for lunch every Thursday and just listened.  He had been a pastor for many years and had a lot of experience encouraging people, but he simply listened and spoke only when needed.  He even picked up the tab often because he knew I was short on money.  I am eternally grateful to this man who continues to be one of my closest friends even though we are a thousand miles apart.

Mentors

A mentor is someone familiar with your walk of life and who is about 10 years older than you.  They have been down the road you are walking and can speak wisdom into areas of life you are still discovering for yourself.

Around 10 years ago God brought a mentor into my life.  This man is about 10 years older than me and has been in worship ministry for many years.  He also has a doctorate in composition and understands personal struggle.  Throughout my ministry life and throughout my separation and divorce we have talked and collaborated and encouraged each other, and he has guided me in many decisions.  I am so grateful for him.

Mentors and close friends are hard to find, but most people agree that you need them.  The next relationship, however, can be much easier to find; this relationship requires a lot of humility, however.

Counselors

Many of us could benefit greatly from some time with a godly, encouraging, but strong counselor who can speak into areas of life we do not understand.  Seeing a counselor requires you to admit you need someone, however, and you have to invest financially.

Warning: Once you decide to see a counselor, you need to be willing to open every closet and corner of yourself for your time to be truly worthwhile.  Some see a counselor but hold back certain pieces of information.  In that case you might as well take your cash and light it on fire.  The counselor will only be able to provide moderately helpful information if you withhold a part of yourself from him.

I will admit that I have been reluctant to see a counselor at times.  I can say unequivocally, though, that my relationship with my counselor is possibly the most influential relationship I have had in my life aside from my family.  He has given me encouragement and challenge, grace and firmness, truth and compassion as I have needed it, and I am eternally grateful to him.

Every one of us needs to have close friends and mentors, and most of us would benefit from having a counselor as well.  I know I have.

What relationship are you missing in your life?  What are you going to do about it?

Relationships in Life and Ministry

Finding our way through relationships in life and ministry can be a sticky business.

We, as a culture, are obsessed with finding our way. Google, Mapquest, TomTom, Rand McNally, Magellan, and so many others have made their fortunes telling us which way to go.

We treat the Bible like a spiritual atlas, a training manual, and proclaim finding our way in life the highest purpose of sacred writings.  When we inevitably lose our direction the fault lies with God and religion rather than ourselves.  A religious center in it’s own right, Apple has been criticized for pushing out a less than perfect maps app because of the problems people have had finding their way.

Churches are no different.  Leaders spend thousands of dollars travelling across the world to hear other leaders speak about what God is doing in their churches and in their lives.  We benchmark and read and compare and do case studies all in hope of finding the next step up for our ministries.

Did Jesus die on the cross just so he could get permission to put up road signs in our lives?  Did the Father sacrifice his only son so that we could feel better knowing where we are going now or in the future?  Better yet, have countless numbers of Christian believers over the centuries been martyred for the sake of a driver’s safety course?

Perhaps not.

What if how you find direction in life is more important than what direction you take?  What if who you travel with is more important than your destination?  What if God cares more about you than he cares about your direction in life?

I am as guilty as anyone else of chasing after direction rather than chasing after God.  Instead of drawing me nearer to God, sometimes advance planning and vision casting turn into daydreaming and organizational lust.

The human condition defaults us towards fulfilling personal dreams rather than dreaming the dreams of God.  Selfishness is a tricky fellow who has learned to hide in the nooks and crannies of our visioneering and direction seeking.

Every now and then we need a vision root canal, a time where we dig the selfishness and direction addiction out of our souls and re-orient towards the primary direction and director, Jesus Christ.  This root canal requires only three tools:

  • Time.  Set aside blocks of time with no distraction (including electronic devices) and bring only your Bible and a notebook and pencil.  Go to a private and reflective place where you can rest and sit in God’s presence.
  • Repentance.  Acknowledge where you have let your agenda, your selfishness, cloud over your vision.  Ask God to forgive you and give you a fresh start, then commit to doing what he tells you to do.
  • Openness.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you an uncommonly open and sensitive heart to whatever God may want to reveal to you.

I remember taking a day away a number of years ago.  I walked into my room with a list of things I wanted God to answer, directional issues where I felt I needed a divine road sign.  As I spent time in silence, rest, reading and prayer, God somehow impressed upon me how insignificant my issues were in the grand scheme of his universe, and how much he just wanted me to be with him.

What he provided that day was so more worthwhile and effective than any answer I would have gotten to my list of questions.  Oddly enough, as I embraced the way he had spoken to me that day the easier my decisions became.  I got the direction I needed, but out of a relationship with the God of the universe and not through searching my Bible like a road atlas.

Where have you allowed direction seeking and vision casting to take priority over a deep, meaningful relationship with God?

5 Steps for When You Are Confused, Overwhelmed, or Frustrated

We have all been in situations where we have felt confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, or some combination of the three.  You may even be there now.

Few things are as depressing as being in such a dark place in your life that you cannot see your hand in front of your face, so to speak.

None of us truly wants to remain there, but finding your way out of that black hole can be very difficult.

I may have talked about this before, but I remember being in such a dark place when I was in college that I cried myself to sleep every night.  I understood what David meant in Psalm 63 when he said that he was in “a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (63:1, NIV)

Since then there have been many times when I have been confused and overwhelmed, not knowing what to do.

One truth – 7 words, however, have transformed my ability to face these times.

In 1 Corinthians 14:33 (ESV) Paul says these 7 amazing words:

God is not a God of confusion.

Think about that statement.  Paul goes further.  The whole verse goes like this:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

Consider also that God’s first recorded words in Genesis (and in the entire Bible, for that matter) are these:

Let there be light.

God is a God of clarity, light and peace.  Everything else comes from someone else: sometimes us, and sometimes the evil one.  But not God.

These words do not mean that I will never face confusion or uncertainty.  These words DO mean, however, that God is on my side and the darkness, those feelings of confusion or of being overwhelmed are not reality.  They are coming from somewhere else and God is working to help me get back to clarity, peace, and light.

Here are 5 steps for when you are confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated:

  1. Stop.  Do not make any major decisions or changes.  If you make a major decision when you are confused you will end up making the wrong one and regretting it for the rest of your life.  Making a decision when you are confused is like handing car keys to a blind man.  Dangerous and, well, stupid.
  2. Pray.  Ask God for help.  He is the only one with the right perspective on your situation and on how you are wired.  You cannot find lasting peace and clarity without him.
  3. Contemplate.  Ask good questions.  If you are not good at this, ask a trusted friend or counselor to help you.  How did you become confused in the first place?  Why are you feeling overwhelmed?  Do you have too much stress at work, unresolved tension with a spouse?  Have you forgotten to take a critical medication?  (I’m not joking!  Some of us have to admit we need medication to help us function normally.)  Are you dragging unconfessed sin or bitterness around with you?
  4. Resolve.  If any of your questions yield answers that need action, do those things right away.  Do not wait.  If you are too stressed at work, investigate your boundaries, work-load, and work environment.  If you are not taking the correct medications, fess up, quit pretending to be smarter than your doctor, and take your medicine like a good boy.  If you are harboring bitterness, forgive.  Nothing will make you sicker faster or cloud your vision more than bitterness.  That stuff is poison.
  5. Move.  After you have resolved all of the issues you discovered you can finally continue moving forward in whatever area where you were previously experiencing confusion.  Most likely you will have more clarity and peace at this point.  If you do not, seek a counselor so that you can get to the bottom of your issues.

God is not a God of confusion.

You are not meant to wander through life looking for the light switch.  You can emerge from the darkness, and God is ready to help you.

How have you worked through feelings of confusion and of being overwhelmed?

Four Great Times NOT to Make a Decision

One of the most important skills we can learn is when and when not to make critical decisions in our lives.  By important, I do not mean what shoes to wear (ladies) or what sports game to watch (men). I am talking about decisions that have the potential to set or wreck the direction of your life.

In 2009 I went through a divorce, and the emotional rollercoaster since then has been enormous.  Soaring moments of success have been followed by abysmal depths of despair, both personally and professionally.

I went from being the leader of a large worship ministry to a part-time music director.  After having worked back up to a full time music pastor position, I needed to move out of state.

After moving I was not doing what I really loved; instead of leading worship and music I was laying stone.  Then I transitioned to a part time position playing organ and conducting choir, while continuing to do masonry part time.

In addition to masonry and my role as organist and choir conductor, now I also do copywriting, arranging, and mentoring.

In another post I will talk about how God has used every one of these life changes to radically transform and grow me emotionally and spiritually. 

That transformation, however, was accompanied by wild swings in my emotions and in my walk with God.

In the middle of this chaos I have often returned to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) guideline.

Using the acronym “HALT,” AA teaches men and women to make decisions at appropriate times and to avoid the temptation to return to alcohol.  I have found this tool enormously helpful when I have been trying to manage life in difficult times.

Here are four great times not to make a decision.

When I am Hungry.  When I am hungry I lose the ability to think creatively, problem solve, and focus.  I know that I need a lot of protein to give my mind staying power, so I keep a few relatively healthy snacks on hand like beef sticks (I said relatively), protein bars, and almonds.

Know what your body needs to function properly and keep things on hand to take care of yourself.

When I am Angry.  When I am emotionally overwhelmed, worried, angry, or experiencing anxiety, I lose my ability to clearly distinguish how I really feel about an issue.  I am learning in confrontational situations to keep my mouth shut and simply say, “I don’t know what to think right now.  Can I get back to you on that?”  That way the person knows that I heard them, but also that I need time to process what I have heard in order to give them a good and honest answer.

Learn what situations and issues set you off emotionally and decide ahead of time how you are going to respond.  When you are in the middle of an emotional situation is not the time to be thinking about how you should respond.

When I am Lonely.  Of these four situations loneliness is my biggest trigger.  God wired us to be in close loving relationship with him and with others, and when we do not have those relationships we look for something or someone else to fill the void.  That “filler” can be alcohol, drugs, porn, ice cream, self-pity, or any number of things.

Loneliness is particularly an issue for those who are single or single again, or who are in an emotionally estranged relationship.  Don’t be naïve.  Learn your preferred “filler” and decide ahead of time how you are going to deal with it. 

When I am Tired.  If I am tired mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically, I am not at my best.  Tired people do stupid things.  After 10 pm my mind can go to mush in the simplest discussions.

Know how much sleep you need at night and get it.  Take a 20 minute nap at lunch.  Take a walk to rest your mind.

By recognizing when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired and by responding wisely you can avoid making costly mistakes and decisions.

As a Christ follower I will also say that just following “HALT” is not enough.  I have found that I am much more peaceful and clear-headed when I begin the day by reading Scripture and speaking with God. 

When life is complex, God remains simple.  He loves me, and that is enough.

How have you avoided making mistakes and bad decisions when you have been Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?