Being A Team Player: You Know What You Bring – Now What?

photo by shubijam

photo by shubijam

Over the summer, my kids are in and out of camps, trips and clubs.  There’s one club, though, that never ends.  Any guesses?  (Hint: we have a teenager).

Yup, drama club, courtesy of our teenage daughter and (mainly) her circle of friends.  It’s not official, but it’s very, very real. Friendships start, friendships end.  Teachers are ‘awesome’ one minute and ‘the absolute worst’ moments later.

I’m not sure, though, that adults are, after close inspection, much different.  We hide the drama better, but it’s still there, barely beneath the surface.  And, it really affects us and the groups we’re part of.  Instead of concentrating on the work at hand, these hidden dynamics are a distraction from what God is calling us to accomplish together.

I can think of several student leadership teams where a few people weren’t pulling their weight.  Those who were more involved became burnt out and resentful toward those other leaders, creating a quiet, but clear, tension that made those teams more than a little awkward.

But, what can be done?

Last time, we took a look at the first part of one answer to that question – you’ve got to ‘know what you bring’.  When you know who you are and what you’re good at, you understand your role on the team.  You don’t try to take on others’ jobs and you’re free to contribute your own strengths.

Well, at least in theory.  Knowing may be ‘half the battle’, but, it’s only half the battle, right? We can all think of times where we knew what was right but didn’t do it.

That leads us to those deeper, annoying ‘why’ questions.  If I know what I’m good at, why do I sometimes hold back?  In our context, if I know what I bring to the team, why don’t I always share it?

We can’t get into all the possible answers here, but in my experience, team members often hold back because they’re afraid of what others will think.  Rather than risk looking stupid, we keep our thoughts to ourselves.

The bible has a ton to say about fear.  This is slightly oversimplified, but at the end of the day, we either choose to fear God or others.  The overall pattern of our choice will go a long way in determining how we live, and, whether we can make the kind of impact we want to as we serve on teams.

So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6)

I love this verse because it’s so clear.  If we understand that God is our ‘helper’ in each moment, we won’t be afraid because we’ll be reminded that others can’t really do much to us.  And in a culture with a fair degree of (outward) civility like ours, the negatives generally boil down to people talking behind our backs or cold indifference.

Getting back to our context of working with others, what happens if we fear God and not people?  When we start to worry about what others might think, God’s presence helps us step back.  We can evaluate our contributions apart from what others might think.  We can share them, and, if others find them foolish, it’s fine.  It hurts, but it doesn’t destroy me. God – and not someone else – determines my value.  He’s accepted us, so we don’t need to fear someone else’s rejection.

A student friend told me about a resident who was trying to make him do a procedure he wasn’t really competent to do.  He understandably felt a lot of pressure to comply, but he stepped back, remembered that he ultimately served God (and the patient) and told his resident that he couldn’t do it.  Sure, there was some tension, but ‘fearing’ God made all the difference and everyone moved on.

As we close, here’s your ‘assignment’, some possible steps to move forward:

  • In group settings, where do you find yourself fearing others?  What does that look like specifically, and, how does that lead you to hold back what you could otherwise offer?
  • How would ‘fearing God’ change how you think about your situation and shape your response?

We need to know what we bring (what we’re good at), but the key to actually contributing it starts with putting God – not others – at the center of our lives.  This is a lifetime journey, but each step adds up and allows us to make the impact we’ve always wanted to.

 

Being A Team Player (Part 3): Know What You Bring

This summer, we’re talking about what it means to be a team player.  You can read the first and second posts, but what else matters?

Principle #2: To be an effective team player, you’ve got to know what you bring

Imagine your favorite football team drives down the field to the opponent’s fifteen yard line. It’s a tie score with 2 seconds left.  Only time for a field goal.  After a quick timeout, the team runs back out on the field.  You’re so excited you can barely stand it, until… you look up and realize that the quarterback is standing where the kicker should be.  

Ridiculous, right? 

Well-run teams are teams where each person knows their role.  In real life, the kicker does his job, everyone exchanges high-fives and goes home happy.  

In other team settings, though, I’m surprised by how often people don’t know their role. They don’t know what they bring, what they’re good at.  They have a vague sense that the group is important, so they keep coming, but lack a sense of purpose.  

Like our scenario above, the results are usually not good.  One or more of the following tends to happen:

  •  People who don’t know what they bring keep quiet, wondering if what they have to offer is valuable.  Or, even if they know it’s valuable, they worry about whether others will agree.  As a result, others who do have a sense for what they bring dominate the group and have more influence than they should.  The group becomes unbalanced.
  • On the other extreme, people who aren’t sure of their role can say too much.  They aren’t sure where to contribute, so they contribute everywhere, talking too much and/or burning out.  People start to tune them out and may even stay away from the group.  Again, the group misses out on the sum total of what it should be.

Some years ago, I remember falling into the first category at a weekly staff meeting.  I believed my contributions were important but not valued, so I didn’t say much.  Looking back, I think my thoughts were undervalued but I wrongly excused myself and placed the blame on others.  In reality, I was robbing the group of what God wanted to add through me.

Understanding our tendency to either clam up, or, dominate, in group settings, what can we do about it?

Let me make two suggestions (see next week for the second):

1. You’ve got to figure out what you bring – what your role is – on the different teams you’re on.  There isn’t a formula, but there are principles.  If you’re not sure what you bring:

  • see what needs and opportunities exist on your team and the people you’re serving. (See 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul deeply considered who he was ministering to).
  • (b) examine yourself: what gifts, desires and abilities do you have?  (If you’re a Christian, you have at least 1 ‘spiritual gift’ expressly meant for building others up (see 1 Peter 4:10-11), and, many other desires and abilities).
  • (c) ask others you respect for their opinion (As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, ‘in an abundance of counselors there is safety’);
  • (d) try different things and see how it goes (obvious, right?!);
  • (e) pray for clarity (See James 1:5: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God… and it will be given him’).  

No doubt other things could be said, but, this is a good start.  Here’s your homework:

  • In group situations, do you tend to clam up or dominate?
  • What one step could you take to gain more clarity in what you have to bring?

 

Being A Team Player: It Starts With You

 

athletics-868626-sLast week, I began a new summer series on ‘Being A Team Player’.  In case you missed it, here’s the bottom line:

If we want to make a significant, lasting impact, we need to work with the people around us – to be part of teams.  But, because we all bring our baggage with us, this is much harder than it seems.  In this series, I’ll share some of what God is teaching me about bridging this gap in the hope that it will be helpful for you, too. Let’s dive in.

Principle #1: To be an effective team member, you’ve got to start with yourself

This is fairly intuitive, right? At the end of the day, a team is made of individual players and it’s good or bad depending on the skill and commitment each person brings.

If we look in the mirror, though, we often don’t operate like this. Here are some lies and excuses I see in my own life. Maybe you can identify.

  • I can do my part, but no one else is really trying, so why bother?
  • I’m not sure I bring all that much to the table. Other people seem to have it covered, anyway.
  • I’ve got to focus on school/rotations/exams (or my job, my kids’ activities, making sure we have enough to retire, or…). After all, Jesus has called me to this – he doesn’t want me to be unfaithful to that, right?
  • I’m already being faithful; do I really need to improve?
  • In all honesty, being part of this isn’t all that important. I’d rather spend my time elsewhere.

Just to be clear, I never verbalize these things – I’m much too spiritual for that! Instead, these are the things that surface when I’m really, really honest.

We don’t have space to address all these excuses here, but Ephesians 4:15-16 is a good start:

we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

 

First, Paul says that each of us is part of ‘the whole body’ – that is, the church. Ultimately, that was God’s choice, so we need to be committed to other Christians around us. (And others who are not of faith; but, that’s not the point of this post). That will mean, at the minimum, being part of a local church, but I believe it often has other expressions, too. Like your campus fellowship or leadership team. Or, a local ministry you’re excited about. If God has called me to a particular ‘team’, it’s a privilege to participate.

 

Second, Paul says that everyone is critical. ‘When each part is working properly…’ No one is unimportant or overly important to the team. If people rely on you too much, or, don’t value your role enough, there are ways to begin addressing that, but the reality is that you are an essential part of God’s work where he has placed you.  

 

Third, everyone is called to ‘grow’. We can’t stay where we are – we have to move forward, specifically, by becoming more like Christ (that’s Paul’s point at the end of v.15; see 4:17-6:20 for the details). No amount of skill can make up for a stagnant walk with God.  Conversely, you don’t need to be a ‘superstar’ or off-the-charts at something to make a huge impact.  If you simply pursue Christ day after day, you will have a ridiculous amount to offer.  This is incredibly hard in the midst of busy lives, but it’s our privilege and calling.  

 

Finally, your contribution makes a tangible difference. Notice the result: ‘when each part is working properly… the body grow[s] so that it builds itself up in love’. You can only do your part, but when everyone takes that approach, great things happen.

 

The best teams I’ve been part embody these principles. It’s never perfect, but their members believe they’re there by God’s design, so they understand they’re important to the health of the team. They try to keep taking small steps forward. When those (simple) things are in place, amazing things happen over time.

 

Last time, I promised each post will contain an action step, something to think and pray over to help you grow. Here we go:

  • Think about one team you believe God has placed you on. Which (if any) of the above excuses do you find yourself struggling with?
  • Which of the four principles from Ephesians 4:15-16 applies most to your situation?
  • What one specific step of change could you take this week in response?

 

Personally, I’m convicted that I need to be more practically invested in my local community (small) group. God is showing me that I don’t always believe my efforts make a difference, but this week I’m going to pray for each of our members, trusting that God hears my prayers and is going to respond. That’s it – it’s not rocket science or earth-shattering – but I trust God will help me keep moving forward.

 

I trust that, as you take your own small steps forward, God will do the same for you.

 

 

Being A Team Player: A New Summer Series

Photo by Eastop (stepheneastop.com).

Photo by Eastop (stepheneastop.com)

The signs of summer are all around us.  The first ninety degree day.  Exams completed. Some of our students heading home. Others starting rotations or residencies.  The Phillies are floundering.  (I wish that was a joke.)

Summer is also a great time for re-evaluation, an opportunity to get out of the ruts we find ourselves in.  I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel like I have two people living inside of me.  One person likes being complacent and wearing blinders so that I don’t have to face things I don’t want to.  The other person wants to face himself and move forward, even if it’s hard.  

This new series of summer blog posts is my attempt to move forward with you.

The theme – being a team player – I admit, is not entirely intuitive.  

About 15 years ago, when I was still in seminary, I was sitting with my wife in the home of one of our mentors.  I forget what we were talking about, but the husband said, ‘Who knows what God will do through you… maybe you’ll impact millions of people like [the famous preacher] Charles Spurgeon!’  I wasn’t dumb enough to say it, but I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, maybe… I can see that happening’.  (My wife, who was more humble, later gently pointed out that he was being tongue-in-cheek).

The point is that, like my younger self, we all tend to put ourselves at the center of the universe.  And think that we can ‘change the world’ by working hard, being intelligent and talented.  Or, after we sour on the idea of making a real impact, we become jaded and largely give up, opting for whatever small pleasures and comforts we can find.

Over the years, I’ve started to learn that I really can’t do it alone.  I’ve always ‘known’ that, but every day it becomes more obvious and less theoretical.  As that is sinking in, I find myself working more on teams – official or not – and making a far greater impact.  

Which is what I’ve always wanted – to make a real difference.  I’m assuming the same is true for you.

I’ve also observed, though, that working with others is way harder than I ever dreamed.  If you’ve ever lived with anyone for more than a week, you already know this.

So, the premise behind this series is simple.  To make a real impact, we’ve got to work with others – be part of a team.  But, it’s crazy hard because we – and everyone else – bring our own baggage with us.  In this series, I’ll try to bridge that gap so we can move forward together. 

Here’s what you can expect.  Each post will:

  • be relatively short 
  • be biblically-informed 
  • speak largely, but not only, to people in healthcare
  • challenge you (and myself) to take a small action step
  • be published on Wednesday (this being an exception)

If you’re alive, God has exciting plans for your life.  He wants to make a difference through you, right where you are, even with all of the distractions and problems going on in and around you.

One of the major ways he does that is by putting other people in your life.  Nearly 2,000 years ago, the writer to the Hebrews had this advice for people who were facing their own (much more serious) problems and distractions:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Over these next few weeks, then, I hope to encourage you to ‘consider’ what it means to live a life of ‘love and good works’ with the people around you.  Welcome aboard!

Easter: Hope For Everyday Life

cross-at-sunset-1441544-sAlthough just a few days ago I was celebrating Easter, somehow it already feels like years ago.  On one level, I guess that’s to be expected… after we leave church, family dinners and get togethers, life returns to normal.

But on another level, the fact that Easter seems so distant – so removed from everyday life – has been quietly gnawing at me all week.  We say things like ‘He is Risen’, ‘Happy Easter’ and mention that Easter is the ‘high point’ of the church year, but I’m not sure how much the truths those statements point to affected me all that much.  On Easter, let alone the days before or after.

I was at a bible study on one of our campuses this week when the Resurrection – what Easter is all about – came up.  More specifically, we were wrestling with what difference it should make in our lives.  The answers were slow in coming, partly, I think, because we haven’t really thought it through at street level to any real depth.

Even though I’m a pastor and ‘should know’ these things, it certainly got me thinking.

After reflecting for some time, I shared that one of the practical implications for us is that the Easter and the Resurrection should make us people who are filled with hope.  Not the kind of hope that it won’t rain tomorrow or that the next exam will go well or that we’ll get married, but biblical hope.

What is biblical hope?  I like John Piper’s definition:

A confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.

He gets this, among other places, from Romans 4:18: ‘In hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” ‘

It’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack this passage fully, but by ‘against hope’ Paul means that, from a normal human viewpoint, it was crazy for Abraham to think that he (at 100 years old) could, through his wife Sarah (at 90), become a father, let alone one to ‘many nations’.  But because God has promised it, Abraham ‘in hope’ believe that it would happen.  He had what Piper calls ‘a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future’.

So, if that is what biblical hope really is, what does that have to do with Easter? Why should Easter make us like this?

After Jesus’s Resurrection, he had literally returned from death to life.  And not just to any life, but one that is indestructible.  He will never die again (Romans 6:9). That cannot be said of anyone else.  Ever.

Not yet, anyway.

Romans 6:5 says that, ‘if we have been united with [Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’.  Jesus’s resurrection means that everyone who trusts in him will also, one day, be resurrected too.  The Resurrection is a sneak preview – a trailer – of the perfect world that is coming. A world without crime.  Without loved ones who die.  Without poverty.  Without loneliness.  Without divorce.  Without stress.

This, the bible says, is absolutely certain, not just wishful thinking.  That, in part, is what the Resurrection proves and is all about.

The problem, of course, is that we can say we believe this and live our lives like it’s irrelevant.  It’s not wrong to be honest or sad about things that are broken or out of place, of course.  We can’t relate to people like that because they’re denying the reality of the fallen world we find ourselves in.

But it’s equally wrong to act like there’s no hope for whatever situation we find ourselves in.  If Jesus has overcome death itself and promised that we will overcome it, too, then there’s hope – biblical hope – for anything I will face today. Easter is not meant to be an irrelevant cliche, but a living reality that shapes every moment of my life.

I wish I could tell you that I walked out of church on Easter and have been different ever since, but I haven’t.  I’ve acted like my kids will never change, that I’ll never have enough time to do everything I’m supposed to do, and… you get the idea. The Resurrection is real, but I’ve often forgotten it.

I’m encouraged, though, at my discouragement.  The very fact that this bothers me is a sign that God is work.  My doubts and momentary failures can’t negate God’s promises to work in my life and ultimately resurrect me!

Let’s make this more personal as we close.  If you’re a Christian, you undoubtedly believe that God brought Jesus back from death and will do the same for you.  But, where has discouragement gotten a foothold in your life?  Let me encourage you to take a moment, get honest about that with God, and ask him to make the hope of Easter an increasingly real part of your life.

 

 

Vital Signs: 5 Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 4)

paper-heartAh, winter.  Here in Philadelphia, we’re feeling a little frosty as we’re enduring our ninth snow storm of the season and an unusually cold winter.  (With apologies to real Northerners).  I’m not sure if there’s any correlation to the weather, but a number of us have also felt spiritually sluggish at times.

In that spirit, here’s Part 4 of my ‘Vital Signs’ series where we’re taking a look at 5 ways to see whether you’re spiritually healthy from Malachi chapter 1.  (Here are the links for Parts 12, and 3).

4. You miss God’s love in your life.

Before we look at our lives, let’s back track and take a look at how things are going in Israel during Malachi’s day.  (After all, we can’t apply it faithfully without understanding it).  You can get a quick recap in Part 3, but in a nutshell, Israel is ruled by a foreign power, and, disillusioned at the huge gap between their expectations of God and their everyday lives.  Their disillusionment has led to a spiritual apathy where they aren’t committing heinous sins, but, they aren’t excited about God, either.

So how does God respond?

It’s interesting. He doesn’t crack the whip, but instead starts off by simply saying, ‘I love you’ (Malachi 1:2).

But Israel isn’t buying it and lets God know by essentially asking him to prove it: ‘How have you loved us?’

Again, God’s response is intriguing.  He doesn’t rattle off a bunch of the obvious answers I’d probably come up with.  ‘Hey, you’ve turned your back on me, but you’ve still got food, clothing and houses to live in.  And, I’ve given you all these amazing promises.  Calm down and repent, OK?!’

Instead, God brings up a lesson from Israel’s distant history:

“Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert’.”

Without getting into all of the details, yes, Esau and Jacob were brothers – twins, in fact.  Esau was born moments before Jacob, and under Israel’s tradition at the time, should have received the lion’s share of the family benefits.  More importantly, God had promised to do great things through their family and their father Isaac had expectations that Esau (as the oldest) would be central to that.

None of this happened.  Part of this centers around poor choices Esau made (see Gen. 25:29-34, for example), but also more deeply around God’s choice to bless Jacob – and not Esau – apart from anything they would do or not do (see Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:10-13).

So, what’s the point?  Why does God bring that up as proof of his love?

The point is that ‘Jacob’ (symbolic of the nation of Israel) is no better than ‘Esau’ (symbolic of nations that did not worship the God of the bible), yet he had been treated much better.  Although the Israelites had turned their back on God almost constantly, God had not turned his love away as he had with other nations.  That fact alone is massive proof of God’s love, despite the reality that not everything is peachy keen.

With that background, we’re ready to think about God’s love in our own lives.  The truth is that we, too, tend to evaluate God’s love for us depending on how closely our real lives mesh with our expectations.  In a fallen world, there’s always a pretty big gap between what we have and what we want, which usually means we’re not all that convinced of God’s love.

That’s where Malachi gives us a reality check, the proverbial cooler of Gatorade over our unsuspecting heads.

Malachi reminds us that we can’t judge God’s love for us by looking at our circumstances.  By what kind of grades we’re receiving.  Or whether we’re dating someone.  Or whether there’s significant conflict in our lives.  Or… fill in the blank.

We have to look beyond what we see to what God tells us is always, always true for anyone who names Jesus as Savior and Lord.  The truth is that, even though we consistently wander away from God, he loves us anyway.  Not more on a ‘good day’, not less on a ‘bad day’.  The apostle Paul put it like this:

‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  (Romans 8:38-39)

That’s pretty comprehensive… ‘nor anything else in all creation.’  Anything we can come up with is categorically excluded.  If you’re a Christian, God loves you.  And because his love is based on what Jesus did, your performance can never add to, or take away, from it.

Let’s make this more personal as we close.  Are there things in your life right now that are tempting you to doubt God’s goodness and love?  Do you find yourself, in effect, demanding that he prove it to you?  What would make his love feel more real to you?

If that’s where you are, it may be a good time to remind yourself that God has proven it through Christ.  After all, ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’  (Romans 8:32)

But while God can’t do anything else, sometimes we need him to help us experience his love again.  Reacquainting ourselves with what he says in the bible, admitting we don’t trust him fully, and, praying for him to renew us are good places to begin again.

Vital Signs: 5 Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 3)

lazy-kangarooWell, it’s been awhile since my last post on this topic, but the beginning of the semester happened.  I want to finish what I’ve started, though, so here’s Part 3 of my ‘Vital Signs’ series where we’re taking a look at 5 ways to see whether you’re spiritually healthy from Malachi chapter 1.  (Here are the links for Part 1 and Part 2).

3. You find doing things God’s way burdensome or boring.

As a quick re-orientation, in Malachi’s time Israel was not doing well. Geographically, they were a fraction of their former size.  Politically, they were ruled by the Persians.  Spiritually, they were even worse – not seeing God’s promises fulfilled in the way they were anticipating, they had grown discouraged and cynical. Although they (mainly) weren’t committing the big, obvious sins, they were just going through the motions, the prime example being bringing God leftover, do-it-yourself sacrifices that didn’t follow the guidelines he established (see especially verses 7-8, 13).

When God calls them out, though, they respond by saying, ‘It’s too hard to serve the Lord’ (13).  Which brings us to the point of this particular post: one sign of spiritual dysfunction is half-hearted obedience where we sort of do what God wants, but don’t want to put much effort into it.

It’s not too hard to think of examples from our (and my) own lives.  Since the passage starts in the context of worship, let’s start there.  Going to church, but not paying attention as we sing or listen to the sermon.  Or wishing we could be at home.  Or, on a private level, doing the minimum with bible reading or prayer.  We check the boxes we’re supposed to, but not much more.

Part of the idea here includes boredom, too.  The Message’s version of verse 13 says, ‘I’m bored – this doesn’t do anything for me.’  Ouch.  How many times have we gone to church, served others, or, just done life in general – with a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude?  When we find God boring, we’re vulnerable to seeking what only he can provide elsewhere, in things that are easier and seem more exciting, like TV, the internet, and even the people around us.  Over time, we’re less and less able to put any real effort into our relationship with God, especially when it’s costly.

And so, now is as good a time as any to do a little self-diagnosis here.  Are there areas in your life where you’ve given God half-hearted obedience?  Areas where you’re saying (in word or deed) that loving God is just too hard or boring?  Places or people you’re turning to as stand-ins for God?

The good news is that God only shows us things to help us.  The way forward always starts with one small step.  Admitting we’ve been selfish or lazy.  Asking for forgiveness.  Taking a tiny step of effort we haven’t in a while.  Asking a friend to check in with us, come alongside you.  In fact, I’ve been realizing I need to put more effort into prayer and that I’ve let that slip more than I should have.

But most of all, we need to see again that God loves us and will never give up on us.  After all, that’s where he starts in Malachi 1, before he even brings up their issues.  ‘I have always loved you’ (2).  His heart for us that never ends gives us the courage to face ourselves honestly and do the hard work of change.  And, over time, his love brings us to the place where, more and more, we ‘keep his commandments’ and find that they are ‘not burdensome’.  (1 John 5:3)

Vital Signs: Five Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 2)

In this series, we’re taking a look at five ways to see how you’re ‘really doing’ in your walk with God from Malachi 1.  You can see the first post here.

  • 2. Do you want to do Christianity your way?

“Then you ask, ‘How have we defiled the sacrifices?’  You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong?”  (verses 7-8)

If you’re unfamiliar with the Old Testament, this may need a little explaining.  As part of their worship, Israel was supposed to offer animal sacrifices.  Through these sacrifices, God was teaching them some important truths: that he was perfect, they were flawed, and, that the appropriate penalty for not responding to God’s love was death.  Kindly, though, in the sacrificial system God allowed the animal to die in the worshipper’s place. (This also provided a vivid picture of what Jesus, the ‘lamb of God’, would one day do on the cross).

With that background in place, let’s get back to our main point.  The Israelites were supposed to offer some of their best animals for their sacrifices – ones without defects – because God is ‘a great King’ (verse 14).  However, they were bringing him their leftovers – diseased, blind, and lame animals they couldn’t otherwise sell.

This is where the application gets interesting for us.  We don’t offer sacrifices anymore because Jesus did that, once and for all, on the cross.  However, we’re supposed to give him our very best in all that we do (see Rom. 12:1-2Col. 3:23).

If I look at my life, I’ve got to be honest: so many times I give God my leftovers.  Waiting to pray until the end of the day, when I barely have any energy.  Staying up late the night before worship and finding myself zombie-like in the pew.  Giving my money grudgingly, wishing I could spend it on other things.  Letting my work dominate my life to the exclusion of other things – and people – he’s called me to.  And just generally living as though he were an addition to my life rather than the center.

How about you?  Where do you find yourself giving God the leftovers?  The good news is that God is gracious.  If you’ve put your trust in Jesus, through his life and death, Jesus put you first and now God accepts you as if you had never sinned.  (Let that sink in).  Helping us get over ourselves and put him in his rightful is nothing compared to that!

Why not take a moment right now and ask him for the help he’s ready to give?  ‘But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from [= give us power to overcome] all wickedness.’  (1 John 1:9)

Vital Signs: Five Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 1)

Ah, summer.  Everything slows down just a little, if only on account of the heat (at least here in Philadelphia).  It’s also a good time to take spiritual inventory and see how we’re ‘really’ doing so that we can make adjustments that will help us love God and others well.

Here are five ways to see how you’re doing from Malachi 1:

  • 1. Do you find yourself getting defensive with God?

“I have always loved you,” says the Lord.  But you retort, “Really? How have you loved us?” (verse 2)

It’s easy to ‘know’ something – like God’s love for us – but to find ourselves not really believing that when life gets tough.  We can find ourselves getting defensive with God, adopting a ‘prove it!’ attitude when life doesn’t go our way.

In Malachi’s time, Israel had largely correct, ‘orthodox’ beliefs about God.  They would have done just fine in Sunday School class.

The problem, though, is that they didn’t really believe what they (said they) believed.

About 80 years before Malachi’s prophecy, the prophets Zechariah and Haggai wrote that times of rich blessings were coming.  In Malachi’s day, though, none of these blessings seemed to be true: the second temple was a shadow of the first, Israel was small (think Rhode Island) and still ruled by a foreign king, and miraculous signs were in short supply.

The people had grown cynical and jaded.  If God really loved them, why would He let all this happen?

This is where the application comes home for us.  All of us wrestle with the gap between what we expected and what life is actually like.  Maybe we…

… thought we’d be in a relationship by now;

… didn’t fully understand how costly (economically and otherwise) the path to becoming a healthcare professional would be;

… anticipated it would be easier to stay connected to God and others.

Where are you struggling with the difference between life as it is and as you wish it would be?  To put it differently, where do you find yourself doubting God’s love?  (Before reading ahead, take a moment and really think about this).

Now that you’ve answered this question, here’s a closing application:

Malachi shows us that it’s critical to our spiritual health to be aware of our disappointments and bring them to God. If we don’t, we’ll grow hardened and cynical like the Israelites did, finding less and less motivation to serve a God who doesn’t seem to love us.  If we do, we may still not understand fully what we’re going through, but at least be in relationship with the One who wants to help.

I want to encourage you to take just a few moments and bring your disappointments to God.  Be really honest!  But don’t stop there: ask him to help you see his love for you, to experience what you already know to be true.  Meditating on passages like Psalm 34:4-10 and Romans 8:18-39 and asking God to make them come alive to you again may be one helpful starting point.

Spring Leadership Series: The One Essential Thing

urgentIntuitively, we seem to understand that for anything of value to happen – or last – we need great leaders.  Most of us (myself included) don’t feel all that great at it, but want to keep working toward that in the different spheres of life that God has called us to.

That begs, though, the million-dollar question: what makes a great leader in the first place?

Most magazines, TV segments and books answer the question by essentially providing a series of tips, habits and character traits we should aspire to.  ‘Great leaders… use their time well, are decisive, get things done’ and so on.

While all of that may be helpful and true, it’s not the one essential thing for us as Christian leaders.  It’s not how efficient we are, it’s not how type-A we are, and it’s not even how smart or talented we are.

In fact, it’s not really about us at all.

The Apostle Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 11:1 — ‘Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.’

That’s it?  Really?

Yup, that’s it.  Sure, there’s lots more to say, but this is the essential starting point.  As Christian leaders, our job description is to make sure we’re following Christ closely.  If that one thing is in place, others can follow us with confidence.  Without it, even our successes are just smoke and mirrors, an illusion that will only last so long.

Since I work with campus leaders, I want to address you guys directly.  I know that you already ‘know’ what I just said, but it’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it?  We get caught up in exams, rotations, studying for boards, relational issues, struggles with roommates.  We focus on planning the next event, leading the next bible study, reserving a room, coordinating community service, and… you get the idea.

In other words, busyness + self-reliance = demoting God to a place that is lethal to us and those who are following us.  The quality of our leadership is directly tied into the quality of our real-time, right-now relationship with Christ.

So, as the leadership year begins, I want to challenge you take some time and prayerfully ask yourself two questions:

– How close are you really connected to Christ right now?

– What will you specifically do to move – and stay – closer to him as the year progresses?

The good news is that God knows how hard it is to be in your situation, wherever you are.  He expects that we’ll fall down and need his help.  He wants us to ‘with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:16).

Let’s start the year off by re-examining our relationship with God so that others can imitate us as we imitate Christ.