Lead The Way

A little over a year ago, I transitioned out of my role as a Senior Pastor and into a new role as the Lead Pastor of “GROW” at Pure Heat Church in Glendale, AZ. In essence, I now oversee all things related to discipleship and spiritual formation – Life Groups (both on campus and off campus), Pastoral Care, Health & Wellness, and digital discipleship processes such as the weekly podcast and (now) ZOOM groups which are defnitiely a work in progress. {Side Note: we all should have bought ZOOM stock a couple of months ago} I have a phenomenal team of high capacity leaders to work with which makes all of the parts work together AND, as an added bonus, we have fun doing it.

As a leader, I am continually evaluating what we do in light of what I see as our central focus: Equipping people to live the way of Jesus. In essence, I along with my team have to “Lead the Way”

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The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated a great need for the body of Christ to live differently, not in the sense of attitudes and actions that taint our witness in the world but rather, those attitudes and actions that align with the way of Jesus. It is no accident that the first followers of Jesus were actually called “The Way” (See Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14). They understood that living the way of Jesus (John 14:6) was counter-cultural, but it was truly a better way to live. Our discipleship efforts have to focus on equipping people to live the way of Jesus, and as leaders, we must move forward and lead the way.

I recently read Paul’s letter to Titus. Paul had left Titus in Crete to set the churches in order and appoint Elders in all of the cities on the island (1:5). Cretans were self-described as liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons (1:12), so those coming to faith had to learn the way of Jesus. They had to be discipled on how to live in the new family of God. So much plays into this. People who come to faith in Jesus today have a past that has shaped them. Families of origin have deeply influenced their world spiritually, emotionally and relationally. These are the old things. We know that in Christ, old things have passed away and all things are being made new (2 Corinthians 5:17) but it takes time. Discipleship is slow and messy, but the way of Jesus is truly the better way and as leaders we are tasked with demonstrating this to those we are discipling. Again, we have to lead the way.

Paul told Titus to teach in accordance with sound doctrine and to model the way of good works, living in such away that no one on the outside could speak evil of him as a leader. I see Titus 2:11-15 as a mandate for this idea of leading others in the way of Jesus. Further, as a discipleship Pastor, I see this as what we need to order our teaching and programming around.

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. 15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:11-15 ESV)

Equipping people in the way of Jesus involves training them to renounce ungodliness & worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. It is truly a better way to live, counter-cultural, yet life-giving and totally zealous to do that which is good. As a Pastor, I am challenged by this for my own life to always be leading the way.

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Leading With Limits

Many years ago, while Pastoring my first church, I preached a message called “Life Without Limits.” Truth be known, I “borrowed” the message from another preacher and reworked it, but that’s another story for another blog. (Maybe I will title it “Pulpit Plagiarism.”)

Anyway, I digress…

The gist of the message was simple: God is unlimited, and we are created in his image, therefore, we have unlimited potential and can soar to unlimited heights in our life with Him. After all, one can never receive enough of God’s love, joy, peace, etc…. It was a message that aligned perfectly with my Pentecostal upbringing where I was constantly challenged to pursue more, stretch out my tent stakes and enlarge my territory. (Anyone remember the Prayer of Jabez?)

Along with this “no limits” mindset, I was raised with an eschatology that focused on the end of days and gave little to no room for wasting time. After all, the rapture of the church could take place at any moment, and we had to make sure we were busy about the Master’s business when the trumpet sounded. Phrases such as these thundered from the pulpits of my youth:

  • “Time is short…redeem the time, for the days are evil.”
  • “No man who putteth his hand to the plow and looketh back is fit for the Kingdom of God,” (Somehow, 400-year-old English sounds more intimidating and ominous)
  • “Work while it is yet day, for the night is coming when no man can work.”

While the intentions of such phrases were good and called for balance in light of the entirety of scripture, I carried them to the extreme in my life and over time, they developed into unhealthy practices that nearly cost me everything. I never learned this valuable principle:

Great Leaders Lead With Limits

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While it is true that there are no limits to what God can do in and through us, scripture shows us that limits are good. We see this in the creation story. Adam and Eve, walked in the perfection of God with the freedom to eat from every tree in the garden, yet they were given limits to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (See Genesis 2). Their failure to embrace God’s limitation cost them, and the entire human race, dearly.

God is God. We are not. He is infinite. We are finite. There is a finiteness to what I can do with my aging physical body. There are limits to the number of meaningful relationships I can engage in and the amount of time that I actually have to accomplish what God wants me to accomplish. My failure to live within God-given limitations depleted me severly to the point where I could no longer function at a healthy level as a husband, father, and leader. It affected my judgement and decision making on multiple levels at home and at church. In many ways, I became like Moses.

Moses was a leader who was called by God to carry a huge assignment, yet tried to do it all and it almost took him out. His life became totally unmanageable and it affected not only the health of his soul, but also the health of his family, even threatening the spiritual health of the fledgling nation he was trying to lead. At one point, his leadership lifestyle was so out of control, he had to send his wife and two sons to live with his father-in-law. Ironically, it was his father-in-law, Jethro, who came back, intervened and taught Moses how to lead with limits.

“Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18 NIV)

After confronting Moses on the problem at hand, Jethro helped his son-in-law develop a strategy to lead with limits. If I had learned this principle earlier in life, I would have avoided a world of heartache. When I bottomed out, I was the Senior Pastor of a mid-sized church teaching 45 weekends a year, plus doing a majority of caregiving and leadership development. I was chairman of 2 boards (gotta love the mid-sized church with so many layers); corporate secretary for my denomination and working on ministry development strategies for that same movement. I was an instructional assistant for on-ground classes at a local university plus teaching classes online for two other schools. Oh, by the way, I was trying to be a husband, and father of 5. “I can handle it” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” became my war cries. I ignored every warning sign and actually believed I was going to be the exception to the rule of limits, be able to do it all and live to tell about it. Along the way, I was very quick to make my own plans and ask God to bless them rather than lean into him and ask this vital question:

God, what are you asking me NOT to do?

If you have never asked God that question, you need to. Trust me, it’s not worth going down a road with no limits. I learned the hard way that limitations are actually a gift. God can do more with our limitations than we can possibly imagine. I still fight the urge to do more, and chart my own course, but I continually remind myself of Paul’s take on this subject.

We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us… (2 Corinthians 10:13 NIV)

Learn to live with limits. It’s actually liberating.

 

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Mid-Life Ministry and The Last Jedi

The Star Wars saga has transcended my life, literally. In 1977, my fourth grade class put on an unscripted stage production of the original movie, and because I had shaggy blonde hair and looked the part, I was cast by my peers as Luke Skywalker. The irony was, when I donned the white smock and strapped on the light saber, I had not even seen the movie. Though short of sinful, movies were frowned upon in our Pentecostal home and by the time by parents acquiesced several months later and allowed me to see Star Wars, I was already well acquainted with the story line.

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I was immediately hooked and over the years I have seen each installment of the saga numerous times, anticipating each new episode with expectations that were probably unrealistic for any filmmaker to achieve. Every Star Wars fan has an idea of where they would like to see the storyline proceed, and when “The Last Jedi” (the most recent installment) was released, much of the talk centered around Luke Skywalker and his role in the trajectory of the story. As the curtain dropped on “The Force Awakens” (the movie in the series prior to The Last Jedi), the aged hero of the galaxy far, far away was seen living in exile on the planet Ahch-to and being handed his lost light saber by the emerging heroine, Rey.

The early scenes of “The Last Jedi” picked up this moment right where it left off. Many, myself included, believed Luke would happily and willingly take young Rey under his wing, train her to become a Jedi and once again rid the galaxy of evil as the ambitious visionary we remember from our childhood.

Wrong……

Very Wrong.

In a poignant and unforeseen moment, Luke tossed the light saber over his shoulder and walked away, wanting nothing to do with Rey or the Jedi. Luke the legend had become Luke the curmudgeonly old man. He was bitter….angry….wallowing in his failures and now skeptical that his life’s work had even mattered in the big picture of things. Beyond his personal misery, he had come to believe that the Jedi religion to which he had devoted his life was nothing but an empty and vain pursuit that was long on hope and short on victory. Even the sacred Jedi texts were called into question as to their value. After all, as Luke points out to Rey, the Jedi were the ones entrusted with discerning the dark side, yet they had failed to stop Darth Sidious from manipulating the political system, dissolving the Republic, taking over the galaxy and creating Darth Vader. By the time Rey arrived on Ahch-to seeking a mentor to help her find her place in life, Luke had basically given up on everything he once believed in: his faith, his hope and his vision.

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As a middle-aged Pastor with 25 years of ministry under my belt, I was moved beyond words by Luke’s story in “The Last Jedi.” I have battled feelings of failure for many years and at 49 (though still in my prime years), I spend a lot of time reflecting on my failures and what I could have done better along the way. To be fully transparent, there are moments when I have climbed into a self-made exile, withdrawing from friends and family, and wondering if everything I have given my life to is nothing more than an empty pursuit. Much like Luke in “The Last Jedi,” I wonder if I’ve made any difference at all in raising up the next generation of leaders who will carry on the work of God’s Kingdom. Holding on to faith, hope and vision is an ongoing struggle.

The beauty of Luke’s story in “The Last Jedi,” however, is that he is somehow able to dig deep into his soul, rediscover what was lost, face his greatest failure and strike another blow into the heart of the evil agenda of the enemy. Staring down his enemy near the end of the movie, he boldly declares, “I am not the Last Jedi.” Luke’s faith, hope and vision were restored, but first he had to dig deep and remember where his strength really came from.

That’s what I’ve had to do over the course of my life and if you find yourself in a similar position, regardless of your vocation, it’s what you need to do as well.

It’s what we all need to do when retreating into a self-made exile would be easier. It’s what we need to do when we begin questioning the foundational truths upon which our lives were built. It’s what we need to do when we find ourselves wondering if we really are making a difference and imparting what is necessary to the next generation.

2600 years ago when Jeremiah lamented over the destruction of Jerusalem, he showed the people of God how to dig deep and remember.

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:19-24 ESV)

As long as we understand that God is with us and that His love and mercy are unceasing and new every morning, we have hope. Our vision as ministers for Kingdom impact is not predicated on our surrounding circumstances, past failures or perceived inadequacies. God has never abandoned us or failed us. We have simply failed to dig deep and remember when the war rages in our soul.

The stakes for not doing this are high. Like the fictional Star Wars universe, the battle of good vs evil rages perpetually and each generation has to find a way to overcome darkness with the light of God’s truth. We are simply Jedi Knights of sorts who must never give up the fight in spite of difficulties and failures. Ultimately we can stare down our enemy and boldly declare that we are not the Last Jedi and that we will continue to impart to the next generation whether we see tangible results or not.

One generation will declare Your works to the next and will proclaim Your mighty acts. (Psalm 145:4) 

 

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Our Distinguishing Mark

If you invite me to your house and tell me to make myself at home, beware. I will take you up on the offer. I’ll turn down the heat (because I’m always hot), take off my shoes, raid the refrigerator, change into my gym shorts & t-shirt, and commandeer the remote control. I will make my presence known if invited. (Perhaps I just uninvited myself to your house!)

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From the time of the Exodus, that which seemed to define the people of God was the fact that God was with them. His Presence was with them in a tangible, abiding way. We see this unfolding reality shortly after the miracle at the Red Sea when they set up camp at Sinai. Moses had a conversation with God, and in the dialogue, the Almighty said this:

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.  (Exodus 25:8 NIV)

 “Dwell” in the Hebrew carries the idea of settling down and abiding, much like Christ would do centuries later when He became flesh and “dwelled” among us (John 1:14). God was saying, in essence, to Moses that His desire was to make Himself at home and make His presence known to His people. So they built the sanctuary and God came. When He showed up, He made His Presence known in a miraculous way. A cloud covered the tent of the meeting and was visible to all.

Israel, however, was on a journey much like we are on a journey through life and the journey had to be empowered if it was going to succeed. Sinai wasn’t their destiny, Canaan was and Moses knew that if the journey to the promised land was going to succeed, the abiding Presence had to go with them. Moses had a transparent conversation with God about this very thing.

Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”  (Exodus 33:12-16 NIV – emphasis mine)

The distinguishing mark of God’s people would be this: they would become people of the Presence.

Let me pause and ask you – what is your distinguishing mark? Are you known for your charisma, your intelligence, your talent, your sense of humor, your business savvy? Maybe on the negative side you’re known for your “Eeyore” complex, your brashness or your short fuse which causes all to walk on eggshells when they’re around you. How different would your life be if you decided to become a person of the Presence? Walking in the reality of God’s presence has the potential not only to change the way we approach life, but also to give us a distinguishing mark. Personally, I would rather be known as a person of the Presence than for all the positive or negative qualities I may possess.

Here’s what happened as Israel traveled onward toward Canaan.

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.  (Exodus 40:36-38 NIV)

The abiding Presence of God not only went with them, it became the driving force of their journey, and ultimately became their defining characteristic. In all of our travels, may we seek to become People of the Presence.

 

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