photo: Brian Glanz, Creative Commons

photo: Brian Glanz, Creative Commons

Someone asked me a few weeks ago how I’ve gained the influence I have in my life and the question caught me off guard a little. I don’t necessarily see myself as being a person of huge influence, although I do feel really thankful for the way God has allowed me to use my gifts for the growth of his Kingdom.

But the first thing that came to mind was something I wrote about earlier this week—the passage from John 15 about how the only way to be a part of what God is doing is to stay connected to Jesus and connected to the Father.

It’s not really about theology or strategy, in other words. It’s about love. 

But the second thing I thought about was how nearly every door of opportunity I’ve walked through in my life has been opened for me by someone else.

Knowing this has inspired me to open doors of opportunity for other people, which I believe has created a culture of reciprocity and generosity in my life. As I reflected on this idea I realized how vital this has been for me in terms of finding my calling, using my gifts, and gaining influence among those God has entrusted to me.

Here are three really important things I did without even realizing why they mattered:

First, I found people I admired and lived near them.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “we become like the people we hang around,” and for me, this couldn’t be any truer.

From a young age, I found people (men, mostly—but often times married couples or families) who embodied the values I wanted to see in my life, and I simply lived my life around them. I spent holidays with them. I asked them to go to lunch. I went to church with them. I just found reasons and excuses to be near them so I would become like them.

I didn’t think through this decision. I just did it. But when I reflect back I realize it was one of the most important decisions I ever made.

These people didn’t only open doors for me. They taught me, guided me, helped me understand right from wrong, and through relationship with them I was able to find myself.

Second, I was receptive to advice. 

Once I found the people I wanted to be like and be around, I would ask them questions all the time and put their advice into practice. Sometimes the things they suggested didn’t work for me, but most of the time I found their direction really helpful.

As I’ve gotten older and started to mentor some younger men, I’ve realized why this thing I did without thinking about it mattered so much.

There is a certain trust you gain with someone when you take their advice.

We naturally promote people who listen to us.

I don’t think this means we have to listen to everyone who ever gives us advice (that could be a disaster). But choose a few people you trust and be willing to listen to them, even when their advice doesn’t make sense to you yet. Use the power of reasoning God has given you but also be willing to step out in faith toward something you can’t quite see yet.

Third, I gave back what I was given.

Like I mentioned above, there was a spirit of reciprocity that happened in my life because I instinctively gave back what was given to me. I believe this was God’s protection over me but I was never so focused on “getting ahead” in my own life that I missed those coming behind me who needed the same help, direction, and advice I’d needed years earlier.

The thing I have experienced, but didn’t expect, was the tremendous blessing I’ve received from giving back. Mentoring young pastors and the young people God has placed in my life has truly been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

I learn from them as much as they learn from me.

We need people ahead of us in life to show us the way, of course. But we also need people who are behind us.

The more we can be conduits of Jesus’ love, teaching, healing, and grace, the more we experience these things ourselves.

photo: wilB, Creative Commons

photo: wilB, Creative Commons

It’s hard to be a Christian and not ask yourself this question every now and then.

Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time on social media, or maybe this issue is just really close to my heart so I notice it more than most, but this question eats at me (especially after I spend a few minutes scrolling through Facebook):

Why can Christians be such jerks?

It’s obviously not only Christians who are jerks online (or anywhere else). There are plenty of jerks to go around. But the question I’m wrestling with is: if we’re supposed to be known by our love (John 13) but we’re fighting over theology or politics, there has to be a disconnect somewhere. Don’t you think?

Here’s the other thing: I don’t think anyone is trying to be a jerk. I think most people, most of the time, are doing what they believe is right in their spirits. Chances are, they simply don’t know how their words or actions come across.

But can we be honest with ourselves for a minute?

Let’s collectively take a look at our motives and our actions and ask ourselves: are we contributing to the jerkiness?

Here are a few questions I think we can ask ourselves before speaking, acting, or typing to avoid being jerks online or elsewhere.

Am I trying to get attention? 

Have you ever noticed how the meanest Facebook posts can get the most likes? It’s sad that this is the case, but it’s true.

We’re drawn to drama.

If you’re feeling lonely or ignored or invisible, it makes sense you might try to say something dramatic. It’s going to turn heads. It’s going to get you attention. But do you also notice that as soon as the “hype” dies down, you feel even more lonely and isolated than before? That’s because the attention you’re getting can’t satisfy. It won’t last.

There are better, more fulfilling ways to get attention—the right kind of attention, the kind of attention you want.

The next time you’re in a meeting, or poised at your computer to post on Facebook, ask yourself honestly before you speak or type: What are my motives? Am I trying to get attention?

Am I trying to convince someone else to change? 

Have you ever been in a meeting that seems to go on forever because everyone is arguing over an “important” topic (like chair placement on Sunday morning, for example) and no one is willing to change?

If you’re answer is no, count yourself lucky. If you’re answer is yes, welcome to the club.

The reason I bring this up is because so often our approach to arguments is this: get the other person to come to our side, convince them to change their minds or behavior.

And yet, this is a losing battle. There is nothing you can do to convince someone to change. You have absolutely no control over their change. People don’t change people. Only the Holy Spirit does that.

So rather than focusing on how you want other people to change, ask the Holy Spirit how he wants you to change. Pray he’ll change others to become more like him as well, and in the process you’ll find unity and harmony among yourselves.

Am I trying to stir up controversy? 

Sometimes I think we just get bored and need some entertainment. I truly believe this is a reflection of our culture—where everything is carefully planned and served to us comfortably and quickly. We were made for more adventure than this, more intrigue.

We’re bored. So we feel the need to stir up controversy.

Or the other option is we’re so unhappy with the drama of our lives we instinctively want to make others feel the same chaos or discomfort we’re experiencing. Misery loves company. Maybe you’re stirring up drama so you don’t have to feel so alone.

If this is you, there is no judgment. Only love. No one can tell you this is you. You’ll have to discover it for yourself. But if this is you, I urge you: ask God to meet you in the drama or chaos of your life and to share his peace with you. Ask him to lead you to a place of service where you’ll never be bored, where you’ll have to learn a complete dependence on him.

Ask him to make you the kind of person who can and will reflect his grace, mercy, and love.

Maybe then we’ll be able to point others toward him.

photo: Russell Martin, Creative Commons

photo: Russell Martin, Creative Commons

I don’t know a pastor—or even a believer—who isn’t concerned with getting the theology of faith right. We want to do the research and settle on answers about the rapture, marriage, creation, communion, and heaven and hell. We want to find our “tribe.”

I can understand the urgency we seem to feel. Theology is important. It’s important to know what we believe and why we believe it. It’s important to be connected to people who will support us in those beliefs and who will constantly be pointing us toward truth. Yet in Scripture, Jesus makes it clear:

There is one thing more important than good theology: Love. 

Consider John 15. This is the passage where Jesus reminds us he is the vine and we are the branches. He explains how the Father is like a gardener who is constantly pruning the garden, cutting back and clearing away the things that are getting in the way of his ultimate mission and purpose.

If we want to be a part of the larger garden, so to speak, if we want to have influence, Jesus shows us, we must remain in him and he in us. As long as we remain connected to Jesus and the Father, and he remains connected to us, we will bear much fruit.

On the other hand, apart from him, we can do nothing.

In fact, if we want to have influence but we don’t remain connected to the Father—if we aren’t about his mission and purpose—we will eventually be cut away and thrown into the fire and burned (v. 7).

So what is Jesus’ mission and purpose? This is the part where Jesus really drives his point home. He says:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” 

Just a few verses earlier, in John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (emphasis mine).

Notice he doesn’t say, “by your perfect theology” or “by your hard stance on all the issues” people will know you are my disciples. He says: people will know you are my disciples—that you are followers of Jesus—because you will love like I love.

Love is the most important commandment we are given.

I don’t know about you, but this feels a little surprising to me. 

In fact, I know there have to be a few of you reading who feel surprised by this declaration because every time I talk about this idea in public, I get a little bit of pushback. Not in a bad way. People are genuinely trying to find the right answer, but often people will say something like, “Okay, but Jesus also said we would be hated for being his followers… so it can’t just be all rainbows and fairy dust… can it?”

No, it can’t and it won’t be perfect all of the time, and of course there will be disagreements. In any healthy family there are disagreements between the members. But I find it interesting that the passage they’re talking about—where Jesus warns us the world might hate us for following him—is directly preceded by the passage I shared above.

In other words, just before Jesus says, “people might hate you for being connected to me,” he says, “the most important thing about being connected to me is this: you must always love.”

How many Christians do you know who are living up to this commandment?

If you’re like me, you know a few, but you also encounter dozens on a daily basis who aren’t acting in way that would help others “know us by our love.” Just log onto Facebook for a minute. Social media seems to provide a great platform for people who want to argue about theology and forget about love.

And at the same time, if we’re really honest with ourselves, my guess is we each have a long way to go in the love department.

I know I see areas in my life where bystanders might not know me by my love.

Yet if we want to be leaders, if we want to be a part of what God is doing, if we want to be connected to the garden of his goodness, this has to be our number one priority. We can’t delay any longer.

We must become people who love.

photo: mer chau, Creative Commons

photo: mer chau, Creative Commons

This week, the thought occurred to me that we can be forgiven of a lot of mistakes as leaders if we’re willing to continue doing one simple thing: learn.

One of the most important things you can do as a leader (and just as a person) is continue to learn. You learn from your own mistakes; you learn from the mistakes of others around you. You learn preemptively (before mistakes) from books, blogs, sermons, and whatever resources are available to you.

You never assume you’ve “arrived” and in fact, arriving is never your goal.

Your goal is always to see what else you can learn that is going to equip you to lead and to love even better than you already do.

If this is our mentality as leaders, I truly believe the people who follow us will be willing to overlook our many flaws.

If, instead, we choose to take the path of least resistance and stop learning, stop growing, stop innovating and moving forward, I believe we face some serious risks. Some of those risks are as follows:

1. We will miss out on important ideas

Try this exercise for a minute. Find a blank piece of paper and draw a circle. Consider that the space inside that circle represents all the information available in the world, in every sector, everywhere. Biochemistry. Physics. Geography. Accounting. Poetry. Everything on the Internet.

Now, in the middle of that circle, make a circle that represents the amount of information you know.

My guess is, your circle is a pretty small circle. Even the most intelligent of us only know a fraction of the information that exists to be known in the world.

Keeping that in mind, take on the mindset of a discoverer. There is so much information out there in the world—so many ideas and inventions and strategies and techniques. Each of these were created by God (or created by men who were created by God). Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t at least explore our curiosity about them?

2. We can become arrogant or imbalanced

When we try a few different ideas and they don’t work, and then we try an idea and it does work, we can sometimes get the impression that the idea that worked is the “right” idea. The others were wrong.

In a way, we’re right, but this can also be a little unbalanced.

Consider, for example, if a group of people were standing in a circle around a statue or building. If you were to go around the circle and have each person describe what he or she sees, you would get a different response from everyone. This is in part because each person notices different things, but it’s also because they’re each looking at something different!

When we are willing to see things from many different perspectives—not just our own—chances are, we are getting a better idea of the whole picture.

Looking at life this way tends to keep us humble and balanced. I am just one person. My way is not the “right” way. There are many “right” ways.

I am willing to keep learning.

3. We stop innovating

Our world is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before in history, which means we have to stay even more open than ever to innovation and change. If we don’t keep our minds open to innovation, we run the risk of getting stuck doing things the “old” way, while everyone else moves on.

One red flag that this might be happening is if you ever catch yourself saying (or the people around you saying), “well, this is the way we’ve always done it!”

I’m not suggesting you constantly re-invent the wheel, but don’t allow “the way you’ve always done it” to prevent you from being open to change.

Don’t allow that to be your excuse to avoid innovation.

4. We alienate people and limit our potential

I put these two drawbacks together because I think they’re inherently linked. As leaders, we are reaching our full potential when the people around us are reaching their full potential. This all happens through authentic connection, and nothing cuts off authentic connection like an unwillingness to change.

If you’re married, you understand this well: if a marriage is going to last, both people have to be willing to change.

It’s no different when it comes to you ministry and your leadership position. Be willing and open to hear what others say are your weaknesses. Receive the criticism without defense. Be willing to own your mistakes when you make them. And never be too proud to decide to try things a new way, to change.

As you do this, I think you’ll find yourself growing into the leader God made you to be.

photo: peddhapati, Creative Commons

photo: peddhapati, Creative Commons

Summer is here, which means it’s time to slow down, take a few steps back, work fewer hours and take a break—right?

Well, sometimes it’s hard to know.

Our culture (and especially Christian culture) gives inconsistent messages when it comes to rest. We know rest is important. We celebrate the necessity of Sabbath. We discuss how a lack of rest will lead to burnout. But when it comes to actual implementation, it still feels really difficult to make space for rest in our lives.

In other words, even now that summer is here, it might not feel particularly easy for you to take a break.

If you want rest, you’ll have to be intentional about getting it.

As I’ve thought about my own difficulty with finding space for rest, fun, and just “down time” in my life, here’s a short list I made of things I do to make sure rest in my life isn’t left to chance.

1. Go home early.

Many of you have jobs where you can take off a few hours early during the summer. Especially if you work in a church, and you spend your weekend at work, make sure you take days and/or times off during the week.

Get out of the office a few hours early to go for a run, see a movie, or spend time with your kids while they are out of school.

2. Leave the cell phone at home.

Our relationships to our smart phones can get really unhealthy, really fast. And most of the time we don’t even realize its happening. If you have a hard time spending a few hours away from your phone, you’re going to have a hard time finding rest.

Make sure you schedule a regular rhythm of time away from your smart phone. This looks different for everyone, obviously, but I just talked to a friend who said his rhythm is: one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. During those times his phone is off and he is fully present, wherever he is.

If the idea of leaving your cell phone behind (or turning it off) makes your pulse quicken a little bit, take that as a sign, and take baby steps. Perhaps leave your phone at home for an outing with your family.

Or, if you’re feeling really brave, turn it off for a whole 24-hour period.

3. Take a vacation… a real vacation.

It’s amazing the power of a good vacation.

Sometimes we forget its healing power, so we put off vacations, thinking we’ll have more time or money next year. But when was the last time you took a real vacation? If it’s been more than a year (or heaven forbid… two years or five years) start planning a real vacation now.

A real vacation means leaving work completely behind. It means powering down. It means leaving behind the concerns and responsibilities of tending to your house and doing something fun and energizing for you instead.

Yes, it’s expensive. No, you don’t exactly have the time.

But you won’t have any more time or money later, and if you don’t take the chance to rest now, you will pay the price for it later.