Leadership: A Simple Perspective

One of Aesop’s Fables tells of a community of frogs who wanted a leader. They bothered Jupiter so much that he finally dropped a log into a pond and told them this was their leader. They loved the log- they could jump on it and bounce up and down and it never complained. Pretty soon, however, they got tired of their leader because it didn’t do anything except float back and forth on the pond. So they once again complained to Jupiter that they wanted stronger leadership. So Jupiter replaced the log with a stork. It was stately and tall, and strutted back and forth making all kinds of noise. The frogs loved it, but were horrified when the stork began eating them.

Leadership is often viewed in terms of one of these two extremes—wishy-washy or tyrant, with the ideal being somewhere in the middle. However, my understanding of leadership is much simpler. A leader is someone who has followers and has an influence over them (for good or ill). By that definition, just about everyone is a leader. This might sound crazy, but while I was changing my little granddaughter’s diapers one day, the  thought came to me, “I’m a leader and my granddaughter is a follower, and I am having a significant influence over her for good.” Believe it or not, the thought dignified an undignified task.

However, I have had  a few other leadership positions over the years (other than diaper-changing) and thought I would distill a few simple things that I have learned about developing as a person of influence:

  • Continue to develop a healthy and godly interior life. Just as most of an iceberg is submerged, so most of what makes a person of influence lies beneath the surface. Daily times in prayer and in God’s Word, keeping short accounts by confession and repentance, and being a person of character. Persona is what you look like on Facebook and in your resume, but character is what you are in private as well as in public. To put it in the words of Will Rogers, “Live your life in such a way that when you die they can give your pet parrot to the town gossip.”
  • Surround yourself with strong and gifted associates. As Captain Dick Winters of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Band of Brothers) said, “Delegate real responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their jobs.” Some of them will do so well that you might feel intimidated and even struggle a bit with jealously, but your leadership will be demonstrated by forming these gifted individuals into a great team and making them into better leaders than you. Andrew Carnegie wanted his epitaph to read: “Here lies a man who attracted better people into his service than he was himself.”  I have had some incredible associates on my staff teams over the years and have had pangs of jealousy. However, there was also a deeper commitment in my heart to making these younger folks better pastors than me.
  • See yourself as a servant- not a log or a stork, but someone who wants to help others grow and accomplish certain goals. When Jesus heard his disciples arguing which of them was the greatest and in Luke 22 he said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over the people…but you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.” Haven’t you been influenced most by people who have taken an interest in you, cared for you, and imparted vision to you? These are people who have humbled themselves to listen to you, affirm you, and encourage you. These are also the kind of people who lead and motivate others.  Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who led 3 expeditions to the Antarctic. While he was never successful at being the first to reach the South Pole, his reputation as a leader of teams which overcame unimaginable odds became the major contribution of his life. His leadership focused on relationship and not power, and he was able to take the greatest malcontent and make him a valuable team member by spending time with him and encouraging him.
  • Practice MBWA- a term coined way back in 1982, in a book by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. It means “Manage By Wandering Around.” It was one of the key leadership principles of Abe Lincoln. It was said he spent 75% of his time meeting with people; he has visibility and availability. Lincoln once relieved Gen. John Fremont from his command because, “his cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him, and does not know what is going on around him.” This is essential to being a person of influence- you must be around your people and know them.

One final thought: care for yourself spiritually (as we have already stated), but also physically. Since my cancer diagnosis in April 2017 and resultant surgery to remove the tumor in October 2017, I have been dramatically reminded how important it is to exercise regularly and to be careful what I eat. It is also important to take time away, to read widely, to build a Sabbath rest into your schedule, and to establish spiritual disciplines in your life that nurture your own spirit. As they always say on the airplane—”put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then on your loved one.” It sounds selfish, but it is a necessity if you want to be around long enough to serve others.

Robert Murray McCheyne, a very famous and powerful Scottish preacher lay dying at the age of 29. He confided to a friend, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse (referring to his physical health) and now I cannot deliver the message.” No one is irreplaceable, but God has made us instruments of his influence. The more in tune the instrument, the more profound and lasting the influence. But that is just my opinion.

May God bless you as you lead today!

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Thoughts on Getting Older…

When I was a young minister, a funeral director asked me to hold a grave side service for a homeless man with no family or friends. The funeral was to be at a cemetery way out in the country. This was a new cemetery and this man was the first to be laid to rest there. I was not familiar with the area and became lost. Being a typical man, of course, I did not ask for directions. I finally found the cemetery about an hour late. The backhoe was there and the crew was eating their lunch. The hearse was nowhere to be seen. I apologized to the workers for being late. As I looked into the open grave, I saw the vault lid already in place. I told the workers I would not keep them long, but that this was the proper thing to do. The workers, still eating their lunch, gathered around the opening.

I was young and enthusiastic and poured out my heart and soul as I preached. The workers joined in with, “Praise the Lord,” “Amen,” and “Glory!” I got so into the service that I preached one of my best sermons actually. When the service was over, I said a prayer and walked to my car. As I opened the door, I heard one of the workers say, “I never saw anything like that before and I’ve been putting in septic systems for twenty years.” (Fooled you didn’t I? I’ve presided at graveside services where no one was present except the funeral director, but never for a septic tank.)

Some Thoughts on the Perks of Aging:

  • There is nothing left anymore to learn the hard way.
  • Things that you buy now won’t wear out.
  • Your supply of brain cells is finally down to a manageable size.
  • Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them anyway.
  • Your joints are more accurate meteorologists than the guy on the television.
  • Your eyes won’t get too much worse.
  • You can eat dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon.
  • In a hostage situation you are the most likely to be released first.

An elderly couple went to dinner at the home of some friends, also elderly. After dinner, the wives went into the kitchen and the two men were talking. One said, “We went out to dinner last night at a really good restaurant. I’d highly recommend it.”

The second man said, “What’s the name of it?”

The first man thought and thought, then said, “What’s the name of that flower you give to someone you love, the one that is usually red that has thorns?”

“Oh, you mean a rose?” said the second man.

“Yes, that’s it,” said the first man. Then he called to the kitchen, “Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”

Some more thoughts (more serious) on aging: Recognize that aging is normal and that your response to it is part of God’s sanctifying work in your life. Aging is a part of the “all things” of Roman 8:28.

Either you manage it or it manages you. We must learn to become a steward of our aging (like a steward of our other resources) or aging will control us.

Keep the core of your life healthy and move the deterioration to the periphery. If our outer man is decaying and our inner man is being renewed daily, guess where I want my main investment to be? {2 Cor. 4:16 says “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”}

Develop new interests and get rid of old habits. It really is never too late to learn and you can certainly teach the old dog new tricks.

Accept you current realities and limitations. Don’t join the “used to” club and think more about what you used to do as to what you can do now. I can’t throw the shot put as far as I used to, but my focus is one throwing it as far as I can now within my current realities.

Develop long term friendships that are not based on your job or the fitness center.  You want friendships that are portable- that you can take with you or keep no matter where you go.

Be useful. Now is not the time to become selfish thinking you already gave and now it’s your time to get. You are still parents to your kids and grandkids, and you can have a great influence on the younger folks  around you.

Make long range plans. When you die, you want found at your post, not sitting around thinking of all you intended to begin.

Enjoy this time of life and set an example for those who will soon follow of how a Christian properly grows old and deals with things beyond their control. Show them that you believe that nothing comes into your life without first passing through the Hand of your Heavenly Father. Don’t let them down.

Remember that old age is a privilege often denied to many.

How Can I Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?

The title of my blog is from Psalm 137 where the Hebrew exiles, while sitting and weeping by the waters of Babylon, were scornfully asked by their Babylonian captors to sing some of their Jewish songs. They responded by hanging up their harps and lyres in the willow trees and asking this question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Last Tuesday I had my third set of CT scans (I get them every three months) since my cancer surgery back in October, 2017. While my previous scans in June cancer revealed no cancer, they did reveal a couple small nodules in my lungs. Thus this set of scans would show if these little suckers were growing. As I sat in the waiting room drinking that horrible barium masked as a fruit drink, I continued to wrestle with my fear and uncertainty. By the way, it hasn’t gotten any easier to deal with these apart from a fresh exercise of trust and surrender. My prayer was this:

Once again, I surrender myself into your loving care, Heavenly Father, trusting in your plan for my life and your thoughts for me. Please encourage the faith of others, especially my children, by a good report and I pray for more years of service in helping to build a future generation of your disciples…nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.

I knew that the next day I would preach to our graduate school chapel community this message from Psalm 137 on how to sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land. In other words, how does one continue in the faith and grow in his or her salvation in the face of difficult situations which make us feel like we are exiles in a strange land?  My target audience in chapel is especially the new students, many of whom are internationals, who have been here only a week. They have come to live in this very strange land of academia for the next 2-5 years depending on their program – far away from home and the familiar. It must be so difficult for them. But as I sat waiting for my scans, I knew that no matter what the outcome, I would also be preaching to myself living in the strange land of cancer.

I realize how easy it is to “sing my song” in the familiar and while the sun is shining, as Matt Redman suggest by the lyrics to his song: “Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me, when the world’s all as it should be, blessed be your name. ” It’s far more difficult to sing, “Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.” In fact, how can you sing at all?

And so the next day (Wednesday), I was sitting in chapel alone as students, staff, and faculty were arriving. I was  praying and preparing my heart to preach when I got a text message saying that I was still clear of cancer and the nodules in my lungs had not grown and remain unremarkable (this was just confirmed today 9/10/18 by my oncologist PA). Just then, chapel began and soon I was preaching my message with a conviction mixed with relief.

What were the bedrock beliefs that enabled exiles like Joseph, Daniel and his 3 friends, and Ezekiel to sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land when no doubt they were also tempted to hang up their harps? I’ll give you my main points, but my entire message can be found on https://youtu.be/H04VxqozIT4

  • They believed that God was Sovereign and that nothing came to them except through his hand.
  • They believed that God would always keep his covenant promises and would never leave them.
  • They believed in prayer and maintained their spiritual practices. (By the way, thanks to those of you who have been faithfully praying for me!)
  • They believed in the community of fellow sufferers and did not pull away to suffer alone.

I cling to these. These are weighty matters. Take them to heart no matter in what strange land you find yourself… and keep singing!

Thoughts from a doctor’s waiting room…

I am waiting for a scan to be taken to see if I am cancer free. I have been here in the waiting room for an hour and have consumed 2 large glasses of barium- yuck. This room is where it all started last April- a scan to show I had a mass. Now I will find out whether all the chemo and radiation and surgery have accomplished their work.

I feel very lonely even though I have a great support system, and my thoughts are restless with concern. I’m not afraid, but I am worried. On the one hand, I trust the Lord and know he has this in his control. On the other hand, I’m plagued by the thought “but what do I do if I’m not clear? Is it the beginning of the end? How do I break the news to the kids?”

Once again, I am not accomplishing anything by sitting here shoveling smoke like this except to make myself nervous and anxious. The Lord already knows the outcome and he will not leave me. “Father I consciously surrender myself into your living care. I trust in your plan for me and will not pull myself away from that plan. As a father has compassion upon his children so you have compassion upon those who fear you. And I do!”

Ok, they just called me to come and get scanned. Here goes…

Later in the evening:

I just received word from my oncologist that my scans were clear and my C19-9 antigen (a marker for cancer) was normal. The scans and blood test will be repeated in 3 months.

I feel a burden lifted, as if one of my teachers had just cancelled the final exam in a class where I didn’t understand the subject. I praise the God of Grace who has given me relief, undeserving as I am. It was God’s will to call one of my friends home to himself this past weekend, while it was his will to give me an extension. “Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?”

I just WhatsApp ‘d all my kids with the news and am going to bed now to receive another gift from God- sleep. “He gives to his beloved sleep.” Thank you Lord!

Thoughts on Job

In my reading through the Bible,  I am once again in the Book if Job. The following is a re-post of a blog written the last time I read through Job:

Quite honestly, the Book of Job is a disappointment! When we suffer, we go to Job to find answers for why and how to cope. However, all we get are a bunch of grumpy old men arguing, some young guy giving his two-cents, and God showing up and blasting everyone. Then we’re back to where we started, as if nothing happened in the first place.

Reading through the book again, as well as reading a recent book by John Walton and Tremper Longman III, “How to Read Job” (IVP, 2015), I have seen some themes often hidden by our expectations. The book is really about the Wisdom of God, which is why it is included as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The Wisdom of God is compared with the wisdom of the world based upon experience and observation (revealed by Job and his “friends”). The challenge of the book is whether we will trust God’s Wisdom even though we do not understand what is happening to us or going on around us.

The book contains challenges to how God runs the world. If it is God’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to bring prosperity and blessing to people who are righteous, then isn’t he creating a world of “mercenaries” who worship and serve him just to get rewarded? What would happen if God took away those benefits (thus Job’s first trial)? Would people still love and serve him? One can see that this is not just a question about SOP, but an implication that God might not be worthy of worship just for who he is. Hmmm…good question. Is my love and service for God based upon a quid pro quo (this for that)? What about the times of drought and despair when I feel like there is nothing in it for me? Do I still trust in his Wisdom?

The second challenge to God’s SOP comes after Job has already begun to suffer. It questions why God is ganging up on a righteous man when, in fact, he is supposed to bless the righteous. This challenge is replicated over and over again in the Psalms as the writers struggle with why the righteous suffer while the wicked are the ones who seem to prosper.

“These two challenges set up the focus of the book (Job) as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not a good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not as good policy for righteous  people to suffer (they are good people, the one’s who are on God’s side). So what is God to do?” (Walton and Longman, p. 15).

Thus God is assailed both coming and going. To put it in a sanitized version of a colloquial expression: He is darned is he does (bless the righteous) and darned if he doesn’t (therefore, allowing the righteous to suffer). Will Job still maintain his righteousness (integrity) even though there is nothing in it for him and God’s ways seem so incomprehensible? Will we? That seems to be the biggest issue that needs to be resolved both in the book and in our lives.

“The entire debate between Job and his friends and then God’s showing up at the end and restoring Job’s fortunes, shows us that God does not run the world by justice (at least as we understand it), but by His Wisdom. ‘I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you do not understand.'” (Walton and Longman, p. 16)

As the world cries out for justice and mercy in the face of so much suffering, we are called to trust in a God of Wisdom who is working out his purposes behind the veil of our finite understanding. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will…Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.” (William Cowper) Someday…

A brief history of (my) cancer

From my journal entries… Today I had my last chemo-radiation treatment for cancer! After my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in April 2017, the chemo regimen began in early May through end of June; then there were the 28 radiation treatments plus chemo by pill from early July until today, August 11. The treatments have taken their toll, as they should, with the main effects being fatigue and loss of appetite. Scans and surgery await next month…

I’m thinking that I should have gained some deep theological insight in order to show the positive spiritual impact of this trial; something that would produce awe and wonder because of its depth and profundity.  Unfortunately, nothing… Nada…zilch. I just want to sleep and forget all of this. I just want to be back to normal and yet I know that I will never be normal again. This mortal life will have changed forever and I will be living on the edge of eternity…

I should be feeling stronger everyday as I prepare for surgery mid-September, but I’m feeling worse and worse. I have spiked a fever of 103F and we are heading to the ER. I will now spend 5 days in the hospital while the doctors figure out that I have a liver infection most likely caused by all of the poison I have taken into my system through my treatments. They lance the infection and determine the bacteria and send me home with drainage tubes and instructions for my wife to push the antibiotic through me every day using my port and draining my Liver drain. All of this will delay surgery until mid- October…

The infection has been dealt with and I am cleared for surgery. The doctor wants me to gain weight in order to prepare for surgery scheduled for October 18, my oldest daughter’s birthday. It’s ironic that I have spent most of my adult life trying to lose weight; now I have orders to gain it… I feel good for the first time in 5 months. Can’t I continue like this? No, you wuss- you have cancer inside of you and it needs to come out and the only way is through the knife…

The day of surgery arrives and I scrub myself down before we head to the hospital. Will I return to sleep in my bed again or will this be it?  My son and his wife are there to meet us before they go to work. Hugs all around. We are ushered into a small cubicle and the curtain is drawn while I scrub down again and put on my gown and my street clothes in plastic bags. My brother-in-law and another couple show up and pray with Gloria and me. The anesthesiologist comes in and explains things and starts an IV. I say good bye as they wheel me out and I don’t remember anymore. Some friends came and sat with Gloria in the waiting room and …wait.

Ten or more hours later I wake up in ICU and see my son’s face with a smile on it. I am clear-headed enough to ask if they had to replace the portal vein. They report the surgery went well and that I should rest. I am parched but not allowed to have water. However, my wife gives me ice chips. I crave more and more, even at night when I am alone I constantly suck on ice chips…

A week later I am home, sutures still in and eating very little. I develop a blood clot in the leg from which they took a vein for the resection of the portal vein. I am put on blood thinner which I have to self inject every morning and evening. Together with my daily insulin injection, my tummy looks like a war zone of black and blue marks. I am also wearing a compression stocking and keeping my leg elevated…

My sutures are now out but still a little sore at the incision site. My leg is still swollen. I am trying to exercise but I have little stamina. I cannot sleep at night for more than 2-3 hrs at a time. Awake usually between 3-5 am to have some tea and bowl of oatmeal and have my devotions after I take my blood sugar reading and take my insulin and blood thinner. Then I dose from 5-8 am…

I am still trying to figure out my diet since 18 inches of my small intestine has been removed as well as a portion of my stomach and my gall bladder. I have lots of gas (you probably did not need to know that) and have just been prescribed with enzyme pills to help me in my digestion…

I just went to the oncologist who wants me to have 6 more chemo treatments. I was initially disappointed… Although they believe they got the cancer and the lymph nodes are clean, this chemo is part of the protocol. The doc explained that unlike the six hour sessions that I had before, these will be once a week for 1/2 hr, with a week off  between session 3 and 4. We will start in Dec and finish the end of January so hopefully I can still work…

Here I am, it’s December 20 and I am sitting in an oncology unit at the hospital while chemo is being infused through my port. I feel it; my fingers are already tingling and I’m a bit chilled. It is over and I drive myself home.

And so the story continues and the questions remain. They think they got it all, but who knows. How long do I really have? God alone knows. What I do know with certainty, and this is my de profundis,  that there has not been one millisecond of time throughout all of this in which God has not been present- he is the great Emmanuel!  I have never felt nor have I once believed that I am being punished for past sins.  And this certainty has translated itself into a fearless dependency that can honestly proclaim “for me to live is Christ and to die gain.”

One more thought in reference to the well-meaning way people have responded to my situation. These responses have ranged all the way from thinking I’m some kind of hero to feeling sorry for me. I can honestly respond by saying: “Don’t think I am some kind of hero or saint for going through this. I am still very much a sinner relying on the grace of God and the work of Christ to save me. And don’t feel sorry for me. I would rather be going through this than facing the issues you are facing. The real issue for both of us is that we are trusting in our Heavenly Father and are convinced that nothing comes to us which has not first passed through our Father’s hand.”

Christmas is not very jolly for some…

How easily we are drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural. We love to read books on the amazing religious conversions of some people in history or how others overcame great disability or tragedy to live successful lives.  However, we often skip over the years of waiting, disillusionment, pain, and sorrow that formed the context of these unusual lives. We love to think about the Christmas story in all its beauty and splendor, quietness and majesty but we tend to edit out the pain, the ordinariness, the smells, the frustration and raw conflict which form the backdrop of the Christmas event. It was the people that waited in darkness who would see a great light… Isa 9:1,2.

Could it be that our search for God leads us to the ordinary and the difficult rather than away from it? What I am saying is that God may be more present in the middle of our disappointment, pain, and disillusionment than He is in the mystical or in the monastery. God came into the grinding poverty and harsh reality of a young couple in Palestine and told them that the Son in Mary’s womb would be the Redeemer of the world. God’s Son was not born in a desert hermitage or in the Roman White House but in the back streets of Bethlehem.

There is one more thing about pain and disappointment; not only do they often reveal God but they reveal our own “unsanded” natures. A seventeenth century French mystic, Franois Fenelon wrote, “Slowly you will learn that all the troubles in your life- your job, your health, your inward failings- are really cures to the poison of your old nature.” Thus the very difficulties of my life which I abhor are the very means of grace in which I can find God and are the raw materials of my spiritual development. Pain is often God’s megaphone (C.S. Lewis).

Many of you are facing difficulty this Christmas; financially, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. Don’t give up hope, God is present and He is doing a deeper work in you. May the light of Jesus Christ shine into your darkness this Christmas and may the grace of our Lord be with you as He uses your difficult circumstances to sand smooth the rough surfaces of your inner life.