Making Space for God?

It was a fairly simple comment embedded in the middle of my Pastor’s sermon last weekend, but it keeps nagging at me.

Speaking of lessons learned from a week of prayer and fasting at church, Todd said, “we are learning that if we create space for God, he will fill it. Our task is making space for him.” Most of us live crowded lives that travel at breakneck speed. Into those lives, we need to create space for our souls, space for God.

I have long taught that God is more eager to speak to us than we are to listen. But something about Todd’s comment takes me to a new level. Meeting with God is more about showing up and less about all the things I do when I get there. It is not about what I do to manage my “quiet time” rituals, but what I do to quiet the noise inside of me in order to listen.

Intellectually, this is an easy discussion. However, integrity means admitting that this is not an intellectual challenge. I recognize that this is a call to trust God’s pursuit of me more deeply than ever. It means releasing any internal pressure to “fill the space” and pay more attention to simply making the space.

You see, for most of my Christian training I have been taught methods for having a “Quiet Time,” for meeting with God, for studying Scripture, for prayer, etc. I have found a number of those methods to be radically significant. In fact, I have endeavored to teach others many of the tools and approaches that have been meaningful to me. However, I am not the manager of an appointment with the King of the Universe. By definition, he is the initiator and I am the responder. It is his agenda that matters. It is his voice that I need to hear.

OK, so are all the things I have done over the years wrong? No. Should they be scrapped? No. But just maybe, the greatest work I need to do is to make space. Maybe my energy needs to be focused less on the things I am going to do in my “quiet time” and more on the radical task of being quiet in his presence.

If I make space for him, HE will know how to fill it.

The Relationship Between Focus and Impact

the clutter of busyness

Here’s the problem, my brain is always thinking about possibilities. What else could be done? What new projects could we tackle? What new goals? What improvements?

However, impact is directly related to focus and focus is about doing fewer things not more. Impact is not the result of doing a lot more. Focus is a process of saying no – so that you have the time and energy to say yes to the right stuff.

In a culture where habitual drivenness is the water we swim in, there is an invisible pull to say yes to more. And if your wiring is at all like mine, some of those possibilities and projects dangling before you are so alluring that it is easy to be deeply invested in far too many commitments to make a focused impact.

Wise leaders are constantly clarifying and focusing their personal “DO and DON’T DO LIST.” That is, they continually focus their activities and commitments so that maximum energy can be directed for greatest focus. They are clear about when they should say yes and when they must say no.

I think there are at least three major areas of vulnerability that lure us into an over-committed out-of-focused life. These are the areas where saying no does not come naturally.

Leaders are generally people of passion. They long to make a difference, to leave the world a better place. Charlatans masquerade as leaders, but are actually concerned about recognition, self-advancement, and the like. True leaders seek to give themselves away. And this is where the trouble lies. When you are passionate about making a difference, it is easy to yes to that one more responsibility.

Over time every one of us develops some legitimate competencies. Some of them were developed at a great price–with great pain and effort. When opportunities arise to leverage some of your core competencies it is easy to feel needed and valued. It is seductive to say yes when you get to use what you have learned to do well.

You know how this one works. A friend asks you to take on a new responsibility because your abilities would meet a need they have. You know you are already overly committed, but it is just one more thing and this relationship is important to you.

My point: Less really is more. There is a direct correlation between the narrowness of a leader’s focus and the depth of their impact. The key to focus is to say no to more so that you might say yes to the right stuff.

Two suggestions:

1.) Define your DO and DON’T DO list. In light of the focus of your life – the one thing that is most important for you to give yourself to – make a list of the responsibilities and behaviors you must do and a second list of those things you must (even painfully) say no to.

2.) Schedule a monthly review where you pull up a few thousand feet to review what has climbed onto your plate that you shouldn’t be doing and the things that have slipped off your plate which you must be doing. Then plan your schedule forward accordingly.

Leadership Coups and Other Power Plays

It is time for a conversation about the darkside of leadership.

For some reason, even when heinous leadership behavior occurs in Christian circles it is common to gloss over these behaviors with polite and spiritually baptized verbal gymnastics.

I want to lobby for a new day. I want to suggest that it is time we name inappropriate behavior for what it really is. I think it is time we recognize that there are “sins of leadership” which do long term damage to the very people leaders are called to serve. By becoming more honest in the way we describe our actions, we have the chance of becoming more aware and more accountable for them as well.

Just two categories of such behavior.

You know what a coup looks like during a hostile military takeover. In the church or other organization, it is a coup when one person or party which is not in power, manipulatively or clandestinely consolidates power and then forcibly ousts currently appointed leadership.

An example:
A church planter seeking to build a culture of shared leadership in his church, was caught by surprise when one of his elders had been working his relationships in order to develop a larger personal platform. Ultimately, this elder had gathered enough support to call for the “philosophically-driven” decision to eliminate paid ministry staff and in the process oust the founding pastor. What happened in phase two of his effort was that he maneuvered himself into the role of senior pastor. It was a coup.

Blackmail is the act of holding someone or a group of people hostage through either the threat of painful action or an expensive demand of some sort. The key threads to recognize are: 1.) there is always a threat; and 2.) that threat carries very painful consequences to it.


A ministry leader, unhappy with the direction of his church, networked a group of wealthy church members and presented an ultimatum complete with specific demands and details about what should be done to please them. The bottom line of this ultimatum? If the change we seek is not made, all of us will withold our financial support.

We need to look each other in the eye and call that kind of public threat what it is, blackmail. To threaten a group like that, to give an ultimatum, puts the entire congregation into a no-win situation. It forces people to choose sides and creates only painful options. It is an intimidation tactic. It is blackmail.

Power plays might be one way to get what we want, but this kind of political maneuvering leaves radioactive fallout that takes forever to dissipate. There are always other options for how people, decisions, processes, and leaders can be treated. But when people act this way, it’s time we call power plays like these what they really are. Furthermore, it is time that all of us pay careful attention to the way we wield influence of leadership.

Legacy of My Life

Hi my name is Gary and I am an achievement-aholic. I was weaned by a success-crazed culture and have refined the trend with my goals and projects. We all joke about it, but there is part of us that still believes, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” We are seduced by the illusion that the legacy of our lives will be measured by the cumulative value of the stuff we create-acquire-build-plan-say-do.

What if the true legacy of our lives is something completely different?

A few weeks ago I was in the Chicago area-my old stomping grounds.  While there I spent a nearly perfect afternoon at a reunion of old friends for whom I had once been their Youth Pastor. We told stories, we laughed, we gagged over how old our children are, and we caught up on different ways God has been at work in our lives. The fact that these “former kids” are now in their 40’s is more than a little frightening. Their age says more than I’d like to admit about my own.

At one point in the afternoon, I was standing off to the side watching these old friends interact with each other. I couldn’t stop thinking about what quality people they had become. Lost in my thoughts, I failed to notice when another friend came up beside me. He put his arm around me and said, “these ‘kids’ are the legacy of your life-it must make you feel proud.” It does.

I think about all the things that we did together back in the day. The camps, retreats, mission projects, outreach efforts, etc. it was all terrific stuff, but none of it was the stuff that lasts. My legacy is not in all the stuff I have done, it is the people God allows me to do stuff with.

In the 21 years since I moved from that town I have been a privileged man. I have had the chance to lead and serve people in a huge variety of contexts in a number of states and a host of foreign countries. I have created programs, designed curriculums, written books, and spoken at a host of gatherings. It has always felt meaningful. It has usually been challenging. And, while there have been some very forgettable efforts, most of what I have done has had some level of influence.

But the legacy of my life is not in all that activity. It is the people of my life who go on to touch and shape the world beyond my reach.

As a leader I have to remember this lesson. It creates breathing room when I am under pressure. It gives perspective when I feel driven by a big project. It reminds me that the things I do actually create the context in which I get to share my life with someone else. It helps me pull up when I am preoccupied with details and demands, because it reminds me that what really matters in all of this is people.

The imprint of my life lives in the people of my life. The same is true for you. And that is our real legacy.

Sometimes, it is a Squirrel

the squirrel
“What is grey, has a furry tail, and collects nuts for the winter?”

“I know it sounds like a squirrel, but since this is Sunday School, the answer must be Jesus,” answers the eager student.

Yeah, I know you know the joke. The story is so familiar, most of us can jump over the punch line and joke about Jesus vs. the squirrel answers that dominate our religious-speak. But the thing is, sometimes the answer is a squirrel-plain and simple.

There is this habit of talking in spiritually coated words when we are in church or around other Christians. Whether in leadership meetings or in the pulpit, we struggle to talk plainly about the issues staring us in the face. We gloss over ugliness with candy-coated optimism. We speak of tragic dilemmas with platitudes. We attempt to be cheerleaders for God’s reputation. We rarely call a squirrel a squirrel. Sometimes our spiritual lens coatings are so thick, we don’t even see the obvious in front of us.

Behind it all is a deep-seated dualism, a man-made divide carved between the secular and the spiritual. We operate as if church-related activities, (Bible studies, church services, small groups, mission teams, etc.,) are spiritual and therefore good. Then we treat everything else in life, (doing laundry, going to work on Monday morning, paying bills, family vacation,) as secular and therefore second-class, only a necessary evil, not necessarily bad, but not truly good.

However, there is one Lord of ALL heaven and earth. He is not only the sovereign of so-called spiritual life, He is the beginning and end of all life. As a result, all of life is deeply spiritual. There is no secular-sacred divide. All work is spiritual. All creatures are holy. ALL of life is a sacred created thing. Every vocation is a holy calling-a chance to live on mission in a broken world.

Following Christ is a journey into reality not away from it. Jesus was never interested in disconnecting from the tangible issues of life that surrounded him nor did he urge his followers to do anything less. He talked about and engaged the real stuff. It is part of what made him so attractive. He was truly one of us.

It’s no wonder that people who live outside the bubble of Christianized vocabulary don’t see our faith as a relevant answer to a complex world. We would connect with that broken world and the people trying to navigate through it far better if we learned to speak directly about the things right in front of us. Let’s call conflict conflict. Let’s be honest and straightforward about our emotions. Let’s voice our confusion or hurt or fear without conditions attached. And, let’s celebrate without apology when life calls for it.

I think it’s time for leaders who’ll champion the squirrel.

Honor Your Father and Mother…

Sunday was Father’s Day and I had a really good day. My daughter took me out to breakfast. My son called from out of state. We laughed, we kicked back, we ate the best baby-back ribs I’ve ever tasted. And I got to watch Tiger Woods perform magic. It was a great day for me as a father.

But I wonder how well I am doing honoring my parents. When I was a kid, honoring my father and mother was a pretty simple concept. It meant obeying them, not talking back, doing my chores without attitude, etc. In this stage of life it is a mandate with far more subtlety.

A few years ago my father passed away, but his only brother, my Uncle, lives 20 minutes away. My Uncle has been widowed twice, has never had children of his own, and these days faces growing health concerns. Once a week I go to his home to help manage his finances, sort medicines, and generally check in on him. His hearing aids work only about half the time making communication comically difficult. But he is a good man with a generous heart. Being there for him feels like the right thing to do and to be honest, I wonder if serving him is a way I can honor my father. I wonder how my kids are affected by my efforts at serving my Uncle.

I am also wondering a lot these days about how I might do a better job honoring my mother. She is a trouper, but without my father around, taking care of the house and managing the chores of life are becoming more and more complicated for her. However, she lives two hours away, unless traffic is bad. (It took five hours once.) It is just plain hard to get out to her place as often as I would like. My wife, Margaret and I have made a commitment to go out to my Mom’s at least once a month, but something inside me knows that there is more at stake than “just doing the right thing.”

What’s at stake for me in all this is the challenge of learning how I might truly honor my mother and father in a new way at this complicated stage in life. My growing conviction is that honoring them now is more important than it has ever been.

I was a clueless child during all those years when caring for me or wiping my butt were inconvenient for my Mom. Perhaps, inconvenience is an irrelevant factor in my considerations about how and when to serve them.

A Simpler View of the Church

We live in a world of moving parts. What used to be or at least appeared to be stable and predictable is changing. What was changing is now entirely unfamiliar. Shoot, even gas prices are in such flux that even though we are a car culture we can’t even take driving for granted anymore.

CommunityNow, drop the church into this vortex of change and you start running into destabilizing questions of identity, effectiveness, methodology, etc.

I am committed to the church and in fact have given my life to see her achieve the potential I believe God intended. But to be honest, in this world of complexity we need to re-discover the simple essence of what it means to be the church. I have given it a lot of thought and I’d like to offer a suggestion-a new attempt at definition, if you will.

My best understanding these days of the church as God intended is this: a community on mission.

When we start thinking about all the moving parts associated with the church, we get lost in traditions, methods, organizational structures, buildings, worship styles, denominational distinctives, etc. But when we cut things down to their basic essence, I find that the notion of a “community on mission” nails it.

The church as a community on mission confronts the notion that we can follow Christ or know God fully in isolation, that happens best in the safety, encouragement, wisdom, and diversity of a community. It also confronts the tendency of a well-trained consumerist culture to approach community as a place designed to serve us. A community finds its fullness in the very process of giving itself away. And since, God is a missional God, we find him when we join him in the work he is about.

There is great work being done on what it means to live in community as the people of God and there is equally significant work being done on what it means to live on mission as a normative expression of life. I am convinced these days that the church is an integration of both. As a community we are a place where people share life and discover more of the author of life. On mission we align our lives with His work in this world. We can never be a community apart from mission, nor can we be a missional enterprise apart from community.

Snowed In for a Sabbath

For a kid who grew up in Southern California, the notion of a ‘snow day’ may seem like a foreign concept. But, the eleven years we lived in the Chicago area taught us something pretty amazing. On those unique days when snowstorms overwhelm the city and life comes to a halt, the unplanned respite from work and regular ritual does something powerful for your soul and your relationships.

A snow day is like a spontaneous vacation. Because you can’t go anywhere, most people hole up at home with their kids. They play cards. They build puzzles. They start reading a new book. The bake cookies. And they wonder, “how come we don’t do this more often?”

What if God intended for us to enjoy days like this on a regular basis? What if human beings weren’t designed to work 24/7? What if the well-being of our souls called for time to pull-back from the drivenness of our normal life for a chance to replenish and refresh in relationship with those we love on a frequent basis?

What if God’s design of a weekly Sabbath was just such a plan?

Pete Scazzero, suggested the correlation of Sabbath and snow day in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and I find it powerful. In the ministry world in which I live, there seems to be no real boundaries between when work starts and when it stops. Email is sent and waiting 24/7. People I work with live across multiple time zones. My cell phone is accessible in every state and almost every country at any time.

Yet, without a Sabbath break, my soul starts to run thin. So, I am trying to do a few things differently these days. Much as possible, I try to shut down from email and phone calls on Friday afternoon and let things sit until Monday. I try to get in some kind of extended exercise-usually a long bike ride. Church services are not something I squeeze in, but a relaxed place of worship and renewal. And, along the way, I try to enjoy extra time with Margaret and Tiffany.

I have to admit that at times, these Sabbath breaks create a backlog of work I have to dig out from the next week, but they leave me so much more refreshed.

It’s almost like a rhythm we were made for.

“God Demolished Me”

man made structuresAn intriguing comment by a Romanian pastor gave me the words to describe something I have been thinking a great deal about recently. With the weight of deep appreciation he said, “Thank you so much for this week. I want you to know, God demolished me.”

Granted, this was the first time anyone ever used the word ‘demolished’ in reference to my ministry, but it was a good thing. He was saying something profound. That very morning we had processed some of the deeper challenges God was confronting in him-some areas of needed change.

“Demolished” is the perfect word for something I have been thinking a lot about recently. You see, in his deep love for us, there are times when God “demolishes” us.

We habitually erect superstructures upon which we might hang the stuff of life. We frame the steel beams and girders of security and try to lock things down just as we prefer them. We construct a life that puts us in control and makes us feel safe.

However, this manmade life stands as an obstacle to the life of intimacy and dependency for which God created us. So, God demolishes these structures because of his deep love for us. His severe mercy leads him to tear down the very super-structures we have been so earnest to build. He does it so that we might discover all over again that He is enough.

This demolition happens through a variety of mechanisms. Children rock your world when they walk away from Christ. Illness reframes your capacity for engaging life. Finances dry up and send everything sideways. Your spouse walks out. A crisis at church shatters your spiritual community. Your boss nudges you out. And, on it goes.

In moments like these and in hundreds of others, God pries open the welds that hold the structures of our lives in place. He does it so that we might learn that “man does not live by bread alone.” He does it so that we might discover anew that he alone is sufficient. He does it so to release us from our addiction to acquisition. He does it so that we might discover the true source of security and meaning in life.

Redecorating a One Room House

Over lunch in central Romania, across the table from a Hungarian church planter named Josef, I heard someone describe ways the church of North America. It was a conversation whose context helped make it profoundly unforgettable.

shifting the furniture

The subject of our conversation was the speed and complexity of change facing the church in former Soviet-bloc countries. While people in the U.S. often feel perplexed by the undertow of tidal change within our culture, these eastern-bloc countries have experienced change in the past 15 years that took us 75 years. Yet, his comments have direct application for us.

Josef’s comments, “so much of the time, the church is like people inside a one-room building who are busy rearranging the furniture but ignoring the real question. The fact is, we are ignoring the fact that we are still in a one-room building and nothing has changed. We are so busy with church activities that everyone is worn out and we aren’t bringing about real change. The church of Hungary is typically irrelevant to thepeople and life of our country.”

I fell in love with this man. He is culturally and organizationally astute. For years he ran an international import-export business and resisted God’s prompting to become a pastor. In his words, “I never wanted to become a pastor. They are poor, they have large families, and they are generally irrelevant.”

What’s my point? Moving the furniture around creates a busyness that masquerades as change, but it isn’t. The man sitting at a bar with his friend are not talking about the longing of their souls for a local church that is using PowerPoint and video clips. We live in a world that perceives the church as irrelevant and self-absorbed-at best. The world around us is looking for a church that will move outside its walls and into relationship with messy people and hurting world.

I don’t know about you, but as for me and my house, we will be those who give themselves to a new day for the church.