Monday, March 22, 2010

How would you fill in the blank?

Fill in the following blank: "Race for the ____."

Most people would probably fill the blank with the word "cure." "Race for the cure" is just one name of many popular walks, runs, rides and other such "races" held throughout the country to raise money for a host of charities that support research to find cures for a variety of diseases.

In fact, as I write this I'm sitting by a wall on which is a bulletin board with the following notices posted on it: A 7 day, 545-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles bike ride to raise money for a cure for AIDS; the "Seize the day ... and take a stroll" walk for the Epilepsy Foundation; and a pink poster promoting the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

All of these charitable events are worthy causes, as each strive to raise awareness and funds for research to help bring an end to debilitating and deadly diseases.

In many churches you will find Christians who spend a great deal of time annually training to walk, run, cycle, swim, or do whatever to be part of these charitable activities. They spend a lot of time training, a lot of time actually competing or participating, and a lot of money supporting these efforts every year.

However, there is another race that gets far less attention, far less effort, far less support, and far less funding.

The race against sin.

Sin is the single killer which every human being on earth faces, and for which there is a "cure." Yet how much time, attention, training, participation, promotion, recruitment, and money do we spend on this race? This is the one race which all of us must finish well!

The writer of Hebrews talks about the race for life this way, "1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith ..." (Hebrews12:1-2b).

Paul writes quite vigorously about this subject in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, "24 Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified."

What a powerful description from Paul! This great apostle, a man many of us would be happy to emulate regarding our faith, says that he takes this race so seriously he disciplines himself like an athlete does in order to win the race, thinking that if he doesn't he may be disqualified. Sobering words to reflect on!

How seriously are you taking this race against sin? What are you doing to help others defeat it? How are you disciplining yourself to cross the finish line as the winner?

Which race are you running?


Friday, March 19, 2010

Road trip ...

For me the best road trip is taken in a convertible.

The top goes down, the tunes go up, and you head down the road on a new adventure.

I usually have the radio on instead of CDs, so the further along I venture on the trip, I eventually run into areas where I begin to lose radio signal and start getting more static than traveling tunes. Then it becomes a matter of hitting the search button to find a clear channel again.

Life is that way. We may be heading down the right path with God, with His voice, His will, His ways coming in loud and clear. But sometimes, the further along we go, we get a little static coming in, and we need to clear up the signal. Paul described this in Colossians 3:1-3 this way:

"1 Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God."

Life is full of noise and clutter. It's vital that we keep our minds clearly focused on what's important, "... think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth ..." Since we have "... died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God" it makes no sense stressing about the fact this earthly existence is imperfect. Instead, Paul identifies a specific goal for us to pursue: "... set your sights on the realities of heaven ..."

How's your adventure going? Are you getting some static, or do you have a clear channel for the journey?


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just how important are you?

This morning I passed a business with a large sign stating: "VIP SMOG CENTER."

In the State of California, citizens are required to have their cars smog inspected as part of their auto registration renewal. Like people across the country, Californians occasionally have to go down to a smog inspection station to have their auto smog system checked.

It's simple. It's routine. It doesn't take long, it's just a boring little process --- and additional fee --- required of us.

So how silly is it to market a business as "VIP SMOG CENTER"?!

Who needs a "VIP" place to get their car smog checked? What makes this little shop more special than an "ordinary smog center"? And what would make a PERSON so important, so special, that they need an alternative to the gas station approved to do smog checks?

This "VIP SMOG CENTER" had less to offer than a gas station that does smog inspections. This "center" really was just a three-sided place with a roof to pull in a car and conduct an inspection. There was no waiting area with used magazines, vending machines, free coffee, a television or wi-fi. In fact, I couldn't see any place made available for customers to wait other than stand in front of the shop!

BUT, the owner has tapped into what so often motivates us: VIP. You could feel more important by driving your car down to the VIP SMOG CENTER rather than pulling into an Exxon, Mobil, Shell or other such gas station approved and certified to conduct smog inspections.

Those are for ordinary people.

You're special.

You deserve the best!

That's similar to the attitude that was coursing through Eve's mind when Satan, disguised as a serpent, suggested she needed something more than the regular offerings of the garden, she need something special. She was VIP, after all, so why not partake of the finest and be like God?

Eve took the bait, and so have we all. We bought the appeal of indulgence.

Even when it comes to smog inspections!

It was someone who didn't look very VIP, and who didn't claim to be VIP, that set before us a better attitude. John the Baptist came onto the Bible scene dressed in coarse clothing, eating foods reserved for "Survivor" contests, and generally drawing attention because of his simpleness along with the simplicity of his message, which included this:

"27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. 28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less" (John 3:27-30).

John the Baptist understood that while our importance to God cannot be understated (as we see it reflected from the Cross), self-importance can be dramatically over-stated. Like John's, our role in this life is to prepare the way for the Savior, this time for His return. Our job is to exalt Christ to a lost world, to lift Him up rather than ourselves.

Who's greatness are you pursuing: yours, or God's? Do you work harder to exalt yourself, or Christ? How are you "increasing" Christ and "decreasing" yourself?

Who's the real VIP?


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Leadership disconnect ...

"Undercover Boss" is a new hit reality show on CBS that leaders can learn some valuable lessons from.

The concept of the show is for CEO's of major companies such as Waste Management, 7-11, and other nationally-known companies to go "undercover" within their own organizations to see how their businesses really are doing.

While the executives usually discover both positive and negative aspects about their operations, thus far there seems to be a consistency among the few episodes that have aired: the lack of understanding and level of disconnect the leaders have with their own organizations.

Over and over again, we see leaders who are leading more from operational theory than from really knowing what's going on in the field. Thus, their operations are not optimized from an informed position, but instead limp along at a maintained mediocrity. After a week of being undercover in the field, the CEO's head back to their corporate headquarters vowing changes from lessons learned.

One of the reasons I was successful in business was the opportunity to work at the Regional Director level, that level assigned to the field just outside the corporate level (having authority to set policy while working from the field). What that allowed me was the chance to be in the field consistently, thus providing me with a constant understanding of direct operations and service delivery. I was able to consistently build and work with teams that maximized service excellence, productivity and efficiency. I was then able to leverage my field success to influence better "corporate" support to the field.

Overall, working from that position was a constant reminder of the essential need to understand what is happening in the field to maximize both success and excellence.

It's not just CEO's who make the mistake of routinely staying too distant from the real business of their organizations. I see the same happening routinely in the church as well.

There are two key ways this same leadership disconnect is seen in the church today. The first is among big churches with large staffs. It's not uncommon for leaders of these churches to so cocoon themselves among other staff members that "church" to them becomes their interactions with other church leaders and key volunteers who are more like unpaid staff. They often remain far removed from the "everyday guy" who shows up for a Sunday service. What results is often a warped view of what it's really like to live out the Christian life for the average person who is a part of a "mega" church. A "staff pastor" who spends their week working with other "paid servants" and then spend their free time hanging out with the same people, doesn't help them understand Joe Christian who works construction with very "worldly" buddies who have no understanding of the church or Christianity. There's a major disconnect with Joe and "church personnel." These church leaders, like the CEO's on "Undercover Boss," are leading more from theory than a full knowledge. They may know scripture, but not the people they're supposed to be leading. As we see more and more churches becoming so large they are led by "executive" pastoral teams who oversee other pastors, we see a growing disconnect between the leaders and the led.

The other situation is that of a small church where most ministry is stacked on the shoulders of a single minister, of whom everything is expected. Because he tries to live up to expectations, these leaders burn out quickly, and in big numbers. They attempt to over-deliver rather than to equip and lead.

Leadership that generates and maximizes excellence, productivity, and efficiency, and consistently creates success for both the organization and team members, is leadership that comes from an ongoing, intimate knowledge of what is happening in the field to meet the needs of customers (or, in the case of the church, to best serve and equip the "average" Christian and those not yet part of the church).

A lack of a full understanding of an organization, and the people who make up the organization, is the worst kind of leadership failure. Theory occasionally will get some great results, but at best will usually only attain mediocrity. If you want to build an outstanding organization, know it (the people and actual operations and their real results) from the ground up so you can make informed decisions.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dress whites ...

I don't understand how people successfully wear white.

It's a great look. If you've ever seen sailors standing at attention on an aircraft carrier while in their white uniforms, it's an impressive sight to see.

Many people wear white as part of their work uniforms. And some years ago, an all white look tried to take hold for a while.

But for me, it seems as though Murphy's Law is drawn to me like a magnet when I wear white. That's the "law" that says "whatever can go wrong, will." For me, when I'm wearing white, that law seems to be magnified. It seems as though I suddenly develop a unique capacity to find every particle of dust within a 100 yard radius, and suddenly I become clumsy with food. It just seems like something happens to spot my clothes when I'm wearing white.

Yet, I've watched people who wear white for work go all day without getting the slightest spot of dirt on their all-white outfits. I've seen many people wear a white t-shirt all day without getting the slightest speck or smudge on it.

Me? It seems as though I get dirty putting on white!

Some people are better at spots and stains than others. Not just with regard to their clothing, but with their lives as well.

When we come to Christ, He cleans us up. He removes our sin and makes us as white as snow or wool (Isaiah 1:18). Then, we're instructed to live our lives in such a way as to remain "unspotted" or "unstained" from the world ... to stay clean! We find this teaching in James 1:27. The New American Standard Bible states it this way, "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" but my favorite version, the New Living Translation (NLT), words the verse this way, "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you."

I like the way the NLT phrases the verse because it captures the fuller meaning of the teaching. We're to go beyond looking clean in our "Christian whites," but actually being clean, " ... refusing to let the world corrupt you."

One of the constant problems with the religious leaders of Jesus' day was their love of appearing to not only be holy, but holier than everyone else. They paid great attention to their outward appearance, while inwardly they were seething with sin. Jesus described their sad reality this way, in Matthew 23:27-28. "27 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness."

Before that statement, Jesus had cut to the heart of the matter as He said, in Matthew 23:25-26, "
25 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too."

Jesus uses the example of giving attention to cleaning the outside of a cup or dish before using it. By cleaning just the outside, the cup appears to be clean, but the dirt inside the cup that isn't cleaned away is what corrupts the drinker. If you want to drink from a clean cup, or eat from a clean dish, you have to clean the inside first, then you can clean the outside.

The same with our lives. Christ has removed all the stains of sin by His sacrifice for us. Now, we're not simply to look clean, but to be clean by living clean! By seeking, and yielding to, God's guidance and empowerment on a daily basis, we can avoid the things of this world that would "stain" or "spot" us.

We live in a dirty world that can make a mess of life. But notice what James wrote about staying clean. He said "... refusing to let the world corrupt you." That phrase "refusing to LET" helps us understand it's our choices we make that determine if we live in the cleansing love and power of Christ, or if we simply look good on the outside, while deathly black on the inside.

Are your "Christian whites" an accurate outward representation of your inward spiritual life, or internally are you looking more like a Dalmatian?


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Surf's up ...

Millions of people live near the coastline that runs along Los Angeles --- America's second largest city --- and San Diego, another major metropolitan area. That means during the summer, tens or hundreds of thousands of people flock to the beach to swim, surf, boogie board, and generally roast to a fine California bronze.

Keeping these people safe is a small army of lifeguards ... far too small an army for the volume of people they actually have oversight of.

Today I was near Torrey Pines State Park in the San Diego area. The winds were sharp, which were whipping up the waves. There by the road, on a narrow strip of beach, stood a lifeguard tower with a sign prominently displaying the words: "NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY."

It's too early in the year for lonely lifeguard stations to be manned, but with the waves up, that meant surfers were in the water. Rough waters. The kind of water you want a lifeguard watching over.

But no one was there.

As I looked at the lifeguard station, I thought about the many millions of lost people who live up and down the California coastline. There is a small army of professional "spiritual lifeguards" who care about the spiritual lives of all those people. Far too few to meet the need. So what if hundreds of thousands, even millions, where equipped to help with the spiritual needs of the people living here?

That's the idea of the church!

While the church has spiritual leaders who "shepherd" local flocks, the primary responsibility of these leaders is to equip those they watch over to do the work of the church! Look closely at these words from Ephesians 4:11-13, "11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ."

Instead of depending on "hired ministers" to share the Gospel, serve the needs of the saints, and the go into the community to make disciples, that responsibility falls to every Christian.

All around you are people drowning in sin. Your home is a lifeguard station. Are you on duty?


Thursday, March 4, 2010

In a panic ...

My sister's dog needs a good canine therapist.

Really, her Basset Hound will, at times, literally "freak out."

I observed this behavior the last time we had some rain roll into the valley. Apparently, long ago she experienced a thunderstorm where rain meant scary, loud thunder and lightning. So now, she equates rain with something to be afraid of.

Even though the last "rain storm" was some gentle rain completely devoid of both thunder and lightning, there was no consoling this dog. She went from her normal lazing around to sitting up, panting loudly at a frantic rate for hours. The floor was soaked in spots from the drool generated from her out-of-control panting.

Like humans beings, when we become anxious we develop a "pant" to our breathing. This fast, short breathing provides insufficient oxygenation for our body. The result is often feelings of anxiety, even light-headedness or dizziness and can even result in a person fainting. We develop a physical response from our anxiety. My sister's dog will sit in panic for hours ... just because it's raining ... in anticipation of a loud clap of thunder.

The crazy thing is, even if the thunder would come, it's just a loud noise, nothing more!

Human beings often and easily behave in the same irrational way as my sister's dog. Because of irrational thinking, we can set off panicked emotions that lead to emotional and physical distress as well as reactionary behavior from bad judgment that leaves us with regrets. A simple fear of something can result in such anxiety that it becomes debilitating. But, like with the dog, the thoughts are often irrational and lead to an over-reaction to something that may never happen, or to the degree we fear.

How can we deal with these moments of anxiety? Here are just a few basic things to help you keep from panicking:

1. THINK RATIONALLY - Usually the first thing we need to do is change our thinking. It's easy to stray from facts based in reality to scary, irrational "possibilities." We often jump to the worst conclusion possible. For example, if we enter a room with five people in it and no one smiles, we can feel anxious because we immediately think no one likes us. Just because no one smiled doesn't mean no one likes us. It could mean the others are preoccupied, or maybe they are stressed, or they're uncomfortable around a stranger, or maybe they are insecure! But it doesn't necessarily mean no one likes us.

Keeping our thoughts rational will result in rational emotions and behavior. For that reason, even scripture routinely admonishes us of the need to change our thinking. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:23, "Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes."

The idea is not to "just think positive thoughts" at the exclusion of any negative realities. It's also not to dominate our thinking with the negative at the exclusion of positive possibilities. The key is to look at the truth of any situation, and remain rational about it. That means we rationally address the possible negatives that could result, but also look for the possible positive outcomes that could be sought. In other words, the glass is not half full, nor is it half empty. It is both, simultaneously. That applied to life means there are both positives and negatives in life. We must address the negatives while building on the positives. To do so requires keeping our thinking rational. If we pursue the "glass half full" view we will be surprised by (and, thus, unprepared for) the realities of the negatives that do exist. If we hold only to the "glass half empty" view, we will make decisions based on fear because we aren't looking at the potential for positive results.

One other point: faith is not exercised from irrational thinking, panic is. In our panic, we don't consider what the possibilities are with God in the equation. Rational thinking allows us to remember Paul's words recorded in Ephesians 3:20, "Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think."

2. BREATHE! - Rarely are we conscious of our breathing pattern. If we were, we would notice we often have a fairly shallow breathing pattern, but that pattern becomes shorter, faster and more shallow as we become stressed or anxious. That results in feelings of anxiety, which then results in a more strident emotional and physical response and, before you know it, you have a vicious cycle that can spin out of control.

That can be quickly and easily addressed by consciously correcting your breathing pattern. By inhaling deeply, and then exhaling very slowly, thereby purposely creating a deeper, slower breathing pattern, feelings of anxiety will subside as we control both our thoughts and our breathing.

3. RESPOND RATHER THAN REACT - The human body can do amazing things in lightning speed. We can react instantly to an object being hurled at us, resulting in protecting ourselves from injury. We can react to a car weaving dangerously into our lane. We physically react numerous times every day.

In basic physical function, reaction is routine, and usually incredibly accurate. But in our interactions with human beings, reaction often means a lack of consideration and, therefore, a healthy dose of irrationality, often creating negative results in our relationships with others.

When faced with any interpersonal situation, we will likely improve the outcome if we choose to respond to a situation rather than react to it. When we react to someone, we largely eliminate the possibility to consider them, others, ourselves, and God! Thus, decision-making from reactions may not be in anyone's best interest. Taking just a moment to think clearly and choosing your response allows for better decision-making for yourself and all others involved in the situation.

While we may live in a busy world, we tend to make it far more frantic than it is by letting our thoughts run irrationally. But like the dog anticipating the loud boom of thunder, most of the things we panic about --- at best --- would be nothing more than a loud noise. IF they ever happen!