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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I’m in a Hurry

I hate to be late.  It bothers me more than I can express in words.  In truth, I would rather not show up than be late for something. I guess it was bred into me from an early age because, as a Pastor’s kid, I was always the first one at church and the last one to leave. My kids have suffered the same fate. I also don’t like to be rushed but with our frenzied pace of life, I almost always find myself in a hurry.  We are told that we need to slow down from the busyness of life and live a slower pace and I agree in principle. However, today I’m going to poke the box a little on this idea and suggest there are times when hurrying is OK. When there is a sense of excitement or anticipation or urgency, being in a hurry can help the process and help you achieve your goals. 

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In March of 1985, Petra, the best Christian Band of all time, was in concert at Pride Pavilion which was an indoor soccer facility in west Phoenix. It was the “Beat the System” tour and tickets were General Admission. We had to get there early or be forced to sit in the back. We arrived early and my friends and I had a strategy mapped out.  We split up and covered all the entrances.  The plan was this:  As soon as the doors open, we hurry. We RUN (not walk) to the front center of the arena and whoever got there first saved the seats.  The doors opened and the operation went off as planned.  A sea of humanity with a sense of excitement and urgency swarmed the Pavilion.  My buddy John Forbis got there first and saved the seats, the concert rocked, we lost our voices and loved every minute of it.  Hurrying helped us achieve our goal.

One of the things that disturbs me in today’s church landscape is the lackadaisical approach people have when it comes to all things God-related.  I may sound old fashioned but the reality is, serving God and living for Him is the highest honor we have in this life. I don’t understand the lack of passion in some people when we have such an amazing honor. The corporate worship experience exemplifies this honor.

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1 NKJV) 

The idea in the original language is, “I was made glad.”  Just the invitation to the house of the Lord caused the Psalmist to rejoice and be cheerful.  One meaning of the word “glad” is “to brighten the countenance.”  How often does the invitation to corporate worship do that to us in 2016?  Sunday morning rolls around, the alarm goes off and our attitude is, “uhh, I have to go to church.”  You force yourself out of bed, stumble into the shower, put on a black sock and a blue sock, pile the kids in the minivan, get a mile down the road, one of the kids throws up in the car…. 

I was glad when they said unto me let us go back to bed! Forget church. 

Where’s the gladness for the house of God?  I know life can get in the way, but I believe within each follower of Christ there should be anticipation, something that causes us to rejoice and be cheerful when the call to the house is given. Picture this scene: The anticipation is so high, you’re hurrying to the house of God and you get pulled over. 

“Sorry officer I’m in a hurry to get to church.” 

Church?  Really?  Are you late?” 

“No, not late, just can’t wait to get there.  Somebody said let’s go and I couldn’t contain my excitement.” 

Silly? Perhaps, but it’s not just the lack of urgency and anticipation for going to the house of God that affects us. The opportunity we have to influence our culture also requires a sense of urgency that seems to be lacking, especially when Christianity is being pushed to the margins of our culture. Now is the time for us to recapture our anticipation, not only for the house of God, but also for the fulfillment of our mission.

In Joshua 4, Israel had come to the banks of the Jordan River and it was time to cross over.  God had promised them a generation earlier that this was going to happen and now the promise was staring them right in the face.  Everything they had faced for 40 years: scarcity of natural resources, disease, frustration, wandering with no apparent sense of purpose, had all come down to this.  Now was the time.  It was time to take the land that God had sworn to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.  

Now the priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything the Lord had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua. The people hurried over…  (Joshua 4:10 NIV)

Can you imagine what would have happened had the priests gone into the water with the Ark, the water splits, dry ground is before them and they just remained standing on the riverbank – apathetic, fearful, uncaring?  Thank God they didn’t.  They hurried across.  I’m not sure they had a full grasp on the fact that there were still battles to be fought, commitments to make, things to establish, but they recognized this was their time and they hurried. 

I see this moment in history for the people of God as this kind of opportunity.  Maybe it’s an opportunity for you on a personal level. You’ve circled mountains time after time and God has brought you to this point. Now you have to decide if you are going to stand and watch or hurry with a sense of anticipation across, knowing there are battles to fight, commitments to make and things to establish. 

I must be in a reminiscent mode today but back in 1982 Steve Camp released a song that became a huge hit in Christian music called “Run to the Battle” that captures this sense of urgency that I believe we lack in this generation. 

“Some people want to live within the sound of chapel bells

But I want to run a mission  a yard from the gates of Hell

And with everyone you meet, I’ll take them the gospel and share it well

And look around you as you hesitate for another soul just fell

Let’s run to the battle. Run to the battle”

I can hear the voices. Jon, we need to hold on and wait for God to speak and make sure that we have his wisdom.  I understand that, but here’s the thing.  God had already spoken about this to Moses and then again to Joshua.  God has already spoken to us about our mission and it is not optional  It’s not open for debate and we don’t have to question whether or not it’s God’s will.  It has been spoken and established by Jesus.  So pardon me if I don’t stay with you on the river bank, I’m in a hurry.  Let’s run to the house. Let’s run to the battle. 

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