In Philippians chapter three, Paul’s listing his credentials from “circumcised the eighth day” to his meticulous adherence to Jewish Law. He then says: the things that “were gain to me, I now consider loss for Christ… I consider them garbage…” Paul illustrates the meaning we make up.
Just like ours, Paul’s culture attached meaning to his accomplishments. Yet, transformed by his encounter with Christ, his fellowship with the saints, and the Spirit’s work on his heart, Paul gave it a counter-cultural meaning.
When Jesus Christ takes over a life, he often wrecks it.
Jesus works to wreck our insolent immaturity.
The veneers we’ve labored to erect.
Our commitments to self-sufficiency.
So, if you’re life’s being thrashed from sources unknown, look to see if it is the Lord’s loving work: working to undo your independence from him… independence God knows will destroy you in the end.
In the spiritual mushiness of today’s Christian culture, such opposition is held to suggest that God has failed you. Just the opposite is true.
God chastens those he loves. [Heb 12:6] Political correctness would have us view such texts with derision. As archaic. Practically prehistoric. Anchored in a middle-eastern culture too far from the sophisticated sensibilities of our day.
There is a place to assign meaning to life experiences, when, like Paul, we anchor that meaning in scripture, fully informed by Jesus’ life and teaching. As you and I grow in Christ-likeness, we’ll interpret more and more of life the way he did. Counter-culturally.
That’s how Paul was able to reinterpret his history. Paul was God’s provision for a deeply religious culture that was so proud of itself. His life, up to Damascus Road [Acts 9] was everything they admired. And, Paul’s life thereafter was just what they’d need to counter the meanings of their cultural predilections.
Consider the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a litany of counter-cultural meanings that Jesus assigns, beginning with poverty of spirit [Mt 5:3] and ending with what an authentic disciple is. [Mt 7:23]
Take a month and only read the red type in your Bible. Let Jesus’ own words soak into you. Allow them to challenge the meanings you’ve been assigning all over your life.
Coaching Distinctions #27
A few weeks ago, while pondering what you’ve been reading, Annie and I were in church. As we sang: “I’m coming back to the heart of worship; and it’s all about you, all about you, Jesus. I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about you…”
The phrase “…the thing I made it…” speaks to the meaning we make up.
At the church Matt Redman attends, it became clear that worship had taken on a meaning that was troubling the pastor. So, he scrapped the band, the instruments, and the sophisticated production and called the congregation to return to the simplicity and focus at the heart of worship: adoration of the Savior.
Mike Pilavachi, Matt’s pastor, challenged his church to examine the meaning they’d made up about worship and, instead, apply a scriptural meaning. The beautiful anthem I sang a week ago was birthed in Mike’s challenge.
So, let me ask you: What meaning have you given to worship?
Pastor, when you conduct your services this weekend will you be entertaining people, providing religious education, and collecting money? Or, will you be provoking your people to maturity in Christ, equipping them to live as ministers, and enrolling them to serve in the community?
What do your services mean?
What does all the activity mean?
When they meet, what do they think it’s for?
What meaning have they attached to their “elder-ing”?
Christian, what meaning have you made up for yourself?
Why is it that you’re breathing?
Have you considered God’s meaning for your being at that specific job, with those specific people, as this unique moment in history?
See, the meaning you make up has everything to do with how you carry yourself in each of life’s settings.
I remember a unique season in my life, immediately following an unusually powerful seminar Annie and I attended. The speaker somehow convinced me to live with the expectation that God was afoot; that God would use me everywhere I went. All I had to do was to be prayerful, expectant, and watchful.
Know what? For the next eighteen months every day was an exciting surprise. I found myself doing all kinds of ministry. Almost every day I had the opportunity to pray for someone, speak with a co-worker about Christ, or encourage a stranger about God’s care and love.
The meaning? Life’s an opportunity to enter the continual flow of ministry that God is already doing.
Coaching Distinctions #26
We’re considering the overwhelming power of the meanings we give to the experiences of life.
I assert that it’s not the events of your life, but the meaning you attach to those events that influences you so greatly – and creates such mischief in life.
Here’s an example. A client who is a highly competent executive confided that, as a child, a parent had nicknamed her “grace” because, in her assessment, she was “anything but”. She carried this hypothesis into adulthood as if it were true.
Unsurprisingly, her attention was drawn to any time she was less than graceful. Just as naturally, she’s spent decades overlooking her every demonstration of poise and elegance.
Predisposed to the assumption of clumsiness, when under the spotlight she’d naturally be less natural and more self-conscious than at other times. Such hyper-vigilance would undermine her confidence, just as it would yours or mine.
A few years ago I received a lucrative consulting contract with a wonderful church in a denominational tradition that was new to me and to my CRM team. The prospect of breaking into this stream and serving them well was thrilling. And it was exciting to contextualize our cultural change process for them—until a weekend retreat when everything went wrong.
At the outset, I managed to offend the most influential in the group.
By Saturday, the room had “locked down” opposing me and our process. The charge: I didn’t understand them, their culture, and their unique traditions.
The intensity and steadfastness of the resistance was striking. My efforts to reframe, renegotiate, and debrief the fallout were resolutely thwarted. I worked hard to assess what contributed to the breakdown. And I worked just as hard not to make up a meaning as to why it happened. If I had, it’ve sounded like: “Something’s very wrong with me, it, or them!”
Two years ago, I had another opportunity to work with a church from the same tradition. I was aware that I was aware of the debacle from before. I committed myself to be with this church and with this board in this moment. Where it served us, I described what happened years before—careful not to inject meanings that could doom our budding relationship.
Had I concocted a meaning—beyond the events that occurred—to explain the “miss” with the other church, it would’ve undermined what’s been a deeply satisfying and fruitful process that’s still going strong.
Coaching Distinctions #25
Last time I raised the question: “What are people to you?” We’re talking about the meanings we give to ourselves, to the experiences in our lives, and to others. So, please stop and consider: what meaning have you attached to people?
I don’t mean your ex, or your mother-in-law, or your favorite Olympic athlete.
I mean human beings. The whole bunch of us.
Christianity, I suggest, invites the following:
- People are an opportunity to bring glory to God.
- People are openings for intimacy.
- People are possibilities for experiencing and expanding the Kingdom of God.
What would be created in your relationships, if you chose one of these meanings for the people God puts in your path… co-workers, neighbors, the clerk at the DMV?
What if your congregation embraced these meanings for those in your community who are not members of any church?
If our meaning shifts, what other shifts automatically follow?
For this next week, try one of these meanings on—like you would a sweater. Just put it on, every day, for a week… and see what happens.
Live in it as if it’s true.
As if people are an opportunity for you to bring glory to God. Then, do what comes naturally when “an opportunity to bring glory to God” calls you up, or asks for directions, or slinks into work hung over.
Just do what comes naturally when “an opening for intimacy” comes home late for dinner, forgets her textbook at school, or asks to borrow your golf clubs.
It’s surprising. Once your meaning shifts, a whole lot of other shifts happen all by themselves.
Emotionally, you’ll be different. Instead of frustration you may feel intrigued. Rather than disdain or judgment, anger or indifference, you might experience mercy or kindness, curiosity or compassion.
Since you’ll be feeling differently, your behavior will shift, as well. Not like gritting your teeth and tolerating someone you can’t stand. When the meaning shifts, and your emotions change, you actually behave differently, pretty automatically.
Here’s an example: A relative and I’d had an icy relationship for the several years after I became a fire-breathing Christian. Convicted by God, I began to see how oppositional my stance was.
It broke me.
Repenting, I chose to embrace him as a gift, rather than a threat. Love and kindness replaced fear and judgment. Automatically, I started to see the virtue in him and, just as automatically, I began to affirm it.
The “ice” began to melt almost immediately … and … twenty years later, he gave his heart to Christ.
Coaching Distinctions #24
This series, we’re exploring coaching distinctions I rely on when coaching ministers for deep, life-changing transformation. Last time, I introduced the very common habit of making up a meaning and attaching it to the experiences of our lives. Seldom do we examine the veracity of these meanings, and so we live as if they are true… as if there’s no other explanation for why we encounter what we do.
Ever watch the first couple weeks of American Idol? People audition who can no more carry a tune than a rusted hinge. Yet, they’re absolutely convinced they sing well, sound great, and the judges – all music industry pros – are crazy. We watch in stunned amazement.
How could anyone be that out-of-touch?
Then, we discover why. Departing from the audition they’re embraced by an adoring, doting, cooing parent who continues to lavish empty affirmations on her child. See, the parent has attached meaning to her child and reinforces the delusion over the years—so even industry execs can’t break through.
A Midwesterner by birth, I now live in Southern California where I often say selfishness is the national pastime. This culture breeds narcissism (delusional self-love) the way concentration camps breed hopelessness. Children receive awards for finishing kindergarten!
In a few years they’ll be perfecting celebratory antics for scoring a touchdown in the NFL— which is what they’re paid to do! Try as I might, I can’t picture Jeff, my tax guy, doing the Dirty Bird every time he finishes a return.
Jesus said: “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [Jn 8:32]
The word translated “truth” here means “reality”.
Freedom is possible when we encounter reality and interpret it as it is—without overpowering it with a meaning we devise. As coach, I support my clients to separate reality from meanings we rarely see we’ve assigned to it.
So, whether the meaning you’ve chosen is self-limiting (“I must be a fraud as a pastor”) or self-aggrandizing (“That J. Lo. don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout music”), it’s impossible to accurately assess the events of your life when they’re tangled up with meaning you’ve invented.
“What are people to you?”
In other words, what do people mean to you?
Many see people as a means to an end. Ministers can view their members as “possessions”… and some as “problems”. We can interpret other churches as “competitors”, other ministries as “opponents”.
Uninterrupted, these meanings undermine our effectiveness and make mischief of our message.
Coaching Distinctions #23
We’re examining leadership coaching distinctions that I employ when coaching pastors and Christian leaders. Last time, I suggested that the client’s perspective determines what they see as possible and impossible as they search for solutions to pernicious problems.
Pastors commonly cycle between “playing to win” and “playing not to lose” several times across a career. Armed with clarity about God’s call and great hope that God will use you in significant ways, early on, you’re all-in. Playing to win, you’re taking risks, learning, experimenting, making adjustments, and going again.
And, as the decades pass, you encounter opposition and criticism from intransigent resisters, who — somehow – got themselves into positions of power. You’ve taken many punches along the way, maybe survived (or not) a congregational vote-of-confidence, and been disillusioned by the heartlessness of Christians more than once. As a result you’ve set your sights lower, become more passive, and less aggressive in pursuing what you once knew God wants the Church to become.
You’re less disturbed by the status quo, less willing to endure the rigor to provoke maturity in your people, and far less likely to face down those who are both influential and immature. You’re no longer gripped, as you once were, to bring deep, God-glorifying, fundamental change to the church you serve.
Called to a new pastorate, you find your footing, being careful not to lose the opportunity to serve here. Then, you begin to stretch yourself, your elders, and your congregation to take new ground, declare and achieve goals, and pursue a future worth having. And yet, over time, your enthusiasm to take on that obstinate trustee wanes. You capitulate, opting for peace — even if it means your people stagnate spiritually.
So, as a coach to pastors, my privilege is to invite you back in. Back in to win.
You stand in your pulpit, amid the congregation, and with admirers and detractors alike, clearly self-differentiated. You’re vigilant to seize opportunities to provoke your members toward maturity in Christ… maturity of character.
The ministry you’re doing becomes increasingly focused on equipping saints to minister on Christ’s behalf. As a result, church members are engaged with the un-churched all over town. Skeptics, once hurt by the Church, are reconsidering their dismissal of the Gospel. Marriages are being strengthened. Hopelessness is being banished. People far from the church are coming to Christ.
Over time, the culture in your community is changing.
Crime is down.
Caring is up.
Love is on display.
This is playing to win.
Coaching Distinctions #21
Imagine the impact on the United States if Christians here were known – first of all — for being people of action.
You could be reading these blogs and conclude: “Good! We’re doing all kinds of ministry in our city: we donate used clothes to the homeless shelter, canned goods to the food bank, we give a little bit of money to a women’s shelter, drug rehab, an afterschool program, a hospital, and to a convalescent center. Hey, we spent one Saturday working on a Habitat home.”
Many churches do give to causes that, it is thought, advance the cause of Christ in their communities. Trouble is, these efforts are often so small, so diverse, and so impersonal as to have no lasting Kingdom influence on the people they intend to serve.
These are mere “gestures”. And, churches make good-hearted gestures all the time.
Church members are on hand every day: assisting teachers, aids, and staff any way they can. They sponsor student awards, help with the booster club, and are on campus to support and encourage students’ progress in academics, citizenship, health, and teamwork. They donate materials and supplies for every homeroom before each semester and they give themselves along with the donations to help the teachers prepare for the students’ arrival.
They are on hand to help by providing dinner when standardized tests or parent-teacher meetings keep the faculty on campus day and night. Regularly, they honor the teachers who they observe investing so devotedly in their students. And, members of these churches are regularly in prayer for the health, safety, and well being of the students, faculty, and their families.
This is “committed action”.
These actions are so regular, so costly, so focused, and so personal that the recipients of their service cannot mistake the generosity, the selflessness, and the love they are experiencing.
Commonly, those we intend to serve will be cautious, even skeptical that somehow they’re being duped—that there’s going to be a “hook”, a “gotcha” where the church people reveal their true, self-serving motives.
When our motivation is only to serve and love and bless the recipients, for their benefit, over time the barriers dissolve.
And when they do, we will be prepared to give an answer for the hope we have [I Pt 3:15] and the love we so generously give.
Coaching Distinctions #16
Imagine the impact on the United States if Christians here were known – first of all — for being people of action.
When you read the New Testament, you see Jesus in action much of the time. So much so that when he drew away for prayer, reflection, and rest—it was noteworthy. But, most sermons today give the impression that solitude, reflection, and “waiting on God” are the central features of the lifestyle of a mature Christian.
The seventy-two are anything but stagnant. You don’t
find them sitting, waiting, and praying for God to do what God has called them to do.
In the diaspora [Acts 8], Christians went everywhere presencing and presenting the gospel, performing signs and wonders out in society [Rom 15:19]. Sick are healed, lepers cleansed, poor cared for, lame restored, oppressed freed, hypocrites exposed, adulteress rescued, greedy challenged…
The early Church was so effective that it was accused of “turning the world upside down”. [Act 17:6]
Don’t you see it exalting that which is ruining it?
Do you see it denigrating the values and practices that would strengthen it?
Do you notice it sprinting to its demise?
When the Church values security over adventure, ideation over action, and reflection over courage, society goes to hell in a fast hurry.
The Christian life is one of action, risk-taking, trusting God and leaping into the fray.
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are strengthening and encouraging the disciples, saying: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Paul’s invitation to Timothy: “Join me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Funny, I don’t remember hearing that when I was accepted to Seminary.
When we are content to pray and wait for God to do what God has called the Church to do in society… it doesn’t get done.
Consider how the passification and cerebralization of contemporary Christianity has contributed to the scarcity of young adults in our churches.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Eph 2:10]
“…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” [Mt 5:16]
“Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God…” [1 Peter 2:12]
For several installments, we’ve been considering the motivation that is common to human beings—to look good, feel good, be right, and be in control—yet largely goes unexamined. Then, contemplating what to do about it, we’ve been examining repentance.
Repentance that sticks.
In my coaching practice, not uncommonly our focus turns to patterns in the pastor’s leadership or relational style that undermine his or her effectiveness. I call this: “getting in your own way”. All of us, from time to time, behave in ways we regret.
Some of these behaviors become habitual, keeping the leader in Groundhog Day—repeating the pattern in one church after another.
The antidote is sorrow unto repentance.
And, that’s easier said than done. When you examine the impact your selfishness, preferences for control, irresponsibility, perfectionism, or irritability has on those close to you, it can open you up. Once opened up, you can allow yourself to be impaled by the horrible effects of your sin.
You’d think it’d just about kill you.
Funny thing is, the opposite is true.
As Paul notes in 2 Cor 7:11 godly sorrow produces concern, longing, earnestness, and indignation. And, it also produces the eagerness to set things right and a readiness to see justice done. Your heart is changed. Because it is, you are changed, too.
The result is freedom for you and the possibility of new intimacy with those you’ve harmed.
Hard to believe, but true.
Now, some of you have no trouble ruminating on just how awful you are… like a well-worn path across the schoolyard, you relive your errors and with ferocity you abuse and debase yourself.
Never! You say you don’t deserve it! You say you’re just that awful.
I say no.
You’re not especially awful, you’re just arrogant.
You’re so certain you’re the special case. The one person beyond forgiveness, cleansing, restoration. The blood of Christ, you think, is insufficient to cover you, your sin. You discount the remarkable provision of Heaven rather than embrace the truth that you, special little you, are an ordinary sinner.
Of course you’re unworthy.
That’s exactly the point of the atonement: God paid it all.
So, my invitation is to allow yourself be run through with the sharp sword of the sadness, pain and loss you’ve caused others.
Freedom waits on the other side.
Coaching Distinctions #12
I thank God for the gift of repentance. For the provision in the atonement, of forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration of relationship when I do. What’s troubled me, though, is how often I seem to be “returning to the well”: asking forgiveness over and over again for the same things.
What about you?
Since “repentance” means to turn and walk the other way, why is it that we so often turn back?
Why do we repent of our repentance?
I get that I’m fallen. Human. Frail. All that. And I get that Christ lives in me [Col 1:27]. That God has given me everything I need for life and godliness [2 Pt 1:3].
So, what of all this repenting and turning back and repenting again?
What does it take for repentance to stick?
Long ago, when I was a devoted “King James Christian”, 2 Corinthians 7:10 caught my attention. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Godly sorrow produces repentance we don’t repent of. Repentance that sticks!
So, what kind of sorrow is “godly”? How does God sorrow that is so different than the “sorrow of the world”?
When the “world” sorrows, it sorrows for itself. It is sorry it got caught. It is sorry for its loss. It is sorry things didn’t turn out better. Sorry there are prices to be paid because of its poor choices. Sad that it behaved the way it did. Poor decisions produced outcomes it didn’t intend or choose.
That’s why worldly sorrow leads to death.
It is self-consumed.
Consider how differently God sorrows. As mentioned last time, when God sorrows, it is for us. Why did Jesus weep at the tomb? He was impaled by the grief of Mary and those who loved her and Lazarus [Jn 11:35].
As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he contemplates the difficulty that’s about to befall its residents, and he weeps for them [Lk19:41-44]. God’s concern is not himself but others.
And, I think, that’s the key.
Repentance that sticks emerges from truly and deeply and honestly and gut-wrenchingly sorrowing for others.
This kind of repentance requires that we drink deeply from the cup of their suffering. The suffering we have brought on, whether intended or not.
It is slow, awful work to honestly consider the impact of our selfishness on others. To climb into their skin and feel the pain we’ve caused them.
Yes, it’s horrible.