Spiritual White Space

I recently attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Conference.  It was an excellent gathering, providing a great deal of mental fodder for me to mull over.  At times, I walked away feeling as if I drank from a fire hose.  The challenge at such conferences is to boil the messages down to some manageable takeaways.  For me, it typically becomes clear what those are – those God nudges (or strong pokes in some cases) in an area of weakness or deficiency.  This year the gnawing message was the need to cultivate white space in my life.

Not to oversimplify but the speaker, Juliet Funt, defined white space as “a strategic pause taken between activities.”  Length of time does not matter as much as the purpose of those moments – to intentionally recover or frame your perspective in a particular direction.  Oftentimes, it involves reflection and introspection as you strive to strategize or simply breathe.

For me, my life is currently void of much white space.  Rather it is more often than not filled with the tasks related to my family transition to a new community, new schools, new jobs, and new friends.  While invigorating, it nonetheless squeezes out breathable moments.  Thus, I felt God strongly nudging me to incorporate “spiritual white space.”  I’ll be honest it has been a month since the conference.  How am I doing on this?   Some days I am OK; others not so much.

The notion of spiritual white space is not new.  Jesus frequently encouraged and modeled the necessity of peeling away from the busyness of life in order to reflect and prayer.  It is necessary.  It provides moments of reminders in the midst of my day as to what is important – God’s purposes and will in my life.  It serves as a corrective to my humanistic tendency to believe productivity is defined by the quantity of the work rather than the quality of the work.  It stimulates Christ-centered thinking as it creates openness for God to speak into my thought-processes, decision-making, and emotional reactions.  In other words, they are critical means of spiritual transformation.

Spiritual white space is necessary for leaders because it creates room for God’s voice to speak into our leadership.  Many voices whisper at a leader.  It can be external in the form of those around us, e.g. colleagues, supervisors, or clients.  But, the real voices that oftentimes sway us are internal cloaked in ambition, people-pleasing, and insecurity.  Without the constant presence of God’s voice, our minds become overtaken by far inferior messages.

Strategic pauses are also necessary as a means of buffer.  Life is busy.   When decisions pile on top of decisions or tasks slide into other tasks, our thought-processes and decision-making become sloppy.  Expediency drives our work day; reaction defines our emotions.  Healthy leaders recognize the need for times of buffer where our souls can breathe and our minds can rest.  Sadly, these moments are viewed as non-productive.  On the contrary, they are means to full, spiritual productivity.

Lastly, these pauses remind us that God uses us but ultimately does not need us.  A pause is simply that a pause.  Yet, in those moments, God continues to preserve His creation.  Life is still sustained by His providence.  Grace and forgiveness are freely offered and given.  None of this is dependent upon us.  God works when we stop.  Pauses reminds us of this truth.

Relational capital is a widely-used concept these days.  It involves the need to invest in relationships for the purposes of team-building and vision-casting.  It is important.  But, so is spiritual capital – the investment in the health of our soul so that God can most fully use us for His kingdom.  Yes, most certainly, I need spiritual white space.

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Leadership in the Midst of Tragedy

National catastrophes are unexpected and difficult.  The images and stories from Texas are heart-wrenching and depressing.  The devastation and the ensuing human toil pull at your heart as you desire to do something, anything to alleviate a small bit of suffering.  Certainly the country is praying for those experiencing shock and loss.  In the midst of this tragedy, it is equally beautiful to read stories of deep compassion and love for one another.  The strength of the human spirit is fully on display as neighbors help neighbors, strangers are welcomed into homes, and companies give generously to those in need.  Tragedy brings out the worst and best in people.

This beauty is oftentimes unleased through courageous leadership – ordinary men and women responding to tragedy with hope and sacrifice.  Rather than complain, they corral others to come together and rise above the catastrophe.  In Texas, individuals are embodying this leadership in extraordinary ways through mobilization, comfort, and commitment.  Persons who never would have been seen as leaders because they did not have an “official title” are now exhibiting profound leadership through their actions and attitudes in the midst of tragedy.  Difficulties not only develop leadership; they unleash it.

These events cause me to reflect on leadership, specifically as it relates to difficulties.  What truly makes a leader?  How do we see a leader in the midst of difficulties?

Leaders provide hope.   It is easy to see the obstacles.  But, leaders see beyond the obstacles to the possibilities either through the difficulty or on the other side of it.  Furthermore, they instill this hope in others who are paralyzed by the pain.  Hope is oftentimes an elusive reality, especially when there is loss.  Yet, genuine leaders grab ahold of hope and will it to reality.  Titles don’t accomplish this; human spirit does.  In this sense, leadership is available to anyone regardless of background or opportunity.

Leaders produce action.  Rather than point fingers at the inactions of others, leaders pull up their sleeves, step into life, and get dirty.  They formulate a plan to achieve that hope.  They do not sit on the sidelines hoping for change to action; they implement it.  It is not dependent on education or money but rather the willingness to sacrificially commit to rebuilding and restoring.  It is easy in the midst of difficulty to look around waiting for someone to step up.  Leaders, on the other hand, look in the mirror then do something.  It is humbling and praiseworthy to see ordinary individuals displaying extraordinary acts of leadership.

Leaders are empathetic.  The human temptation in the face of catastrophe is to go inward.  We tend to think about ourselves.  We become protective, self-interested, and narcissistic.  “I don’t have time for others because I have so much to do and process myself.”  On the contrary, leaders naturally consider others.  They rise above their emotions and empathize with the pain of others.  There becomes a collective purpose in the mist of the difficulty rather than a “take care of myself” retreat.

In this sense, leadership is available to anyone.  It is not educated, bought, or promoted.  It is made in the midst of tragedy.

Reconciliation: Received and Extended

Reconciliation is not external; it is internal.

The political and social events surrounding our country this past week have certainly been agonizing.  My heart has been broken in realizing that the racial discord in our country is more heightened and raw than it has been in years.  The debate has moved passed policy to deep-seated emotions.  Social media is aflame with opinions, some brash while others more measured.  Above all, it is simply sad.

This is not a political blog nor is it a social issue one.  My intent is to spotlight a few nuances of reconciliation that have been kicking around in my mind.  In its essence, this is a spiritual blog as there are internal factors that drive reconciliation or the lack thereof.  I also write on leadership.  Therefore, leadership, particularly Christ-centered ones, have an obligation not simply to discuss reconciliation but to incarnate it and model it.  Thus, I present some musings…

Reconciliation necessitates humility.  Quite simply, a proud person is not able to reconcile.  Rather they stand in judgment over another person.  Or, they enjoy the conflict so much they have no desire to reconcile.  A proud person is not able to extend forgiveness or receive it.  Humility lies at the core of reconciliation.  It drives an embrace for our shared brokenness.  It is willing to be the first to move towards peace.  It sees the relationship as something that transcends slights and pain.  For someone who has experienced deep pain, humility is not a cavalier exercise but requires deep reflection and gradual movement towards another person with the hope that reconciliation might one day be possible.

Reconciliation is potently released through redemption.  I believe it is possible for a non-Christian to be reconciled; it is a gift available through common grace.  However, there is something unique about the redemption experience.  It is grounded in the affirmation that we are completely at-fault.  Yet, God extends forgiveness.  In the divine-human relationship, it is completely one-sided.  There is no shared fault.  It does not involve dissecting motives.  Reconciliation with Christ is merely a matter of extension and receiving.  God extends it; we receive it.  Ok, this is powerful.  It reinforces humility in that we do not deserve it.  But practically, it is a template for our human relationships.  We extend forgiveness; it is up to the person to receive it.  It is not an option.  Our receiving from Christ mandates our extending grace to others.  Does this mean that reconciliation will occur?  No.  But, it does lay the seed for it to happen.  It becomes possible.  In contrast, withholding forgiveness will most certainly eliminate the possibility of reconciliation.  It becomes impossible.

Reconciliation involves risk.  This is a primary reason reconciliation does not occur.  I have to put my emotions and identity on the table.  I leave it open for another person to either accept or reject it.  It is far easier to hold my emotions and identity to my chest, guarded by my control.  By doing so, I will not get hurt (so I think as lack of forgiveness usually begins to feed on self in the form of bitterness and resentment).  God took a risk on us; He expects us to do the same towards others.  But, be assured, when reconciliation does not occur, God’s grace will remain present, freeing us from the bondage of pain.

Encouragements (and challenges) for leaders:

  • Healthy leaders process hurt because it leads to (and models) reconciliation.
  • Healthy leaders create mechanisms and space for reconciliation because they are stewards of the relationships around them.
  • Leaders who intentionally stoke unhealthy conflict are abusing their authority. When this occurs, followers should cry foul.
  • Followers energized by unhealthy conflict are not only misguided, they themselves typically have unresolved hurt in their lives. Conflict becomes an outlet for their pain.
  • Christian leaders do not have a choice when it comes to reconciliation. Receiving redemption from Christ mandates it.

 

Providence is a gift.

Providence is a gift.  Providence involves responsibility.

I am deeply reminded of the uncontrollable blessings in life.  At times, it is easy to blur the line between God’s blessings and our achievements.  I work hard therefore I am successful.  Is it God’s blessings or my effort?  In good moments, of course, we affirm God’s good gifts.  In our bad moments, we grab hold of our efforts taking pride in what we have accomplished.

Yet, there are aspects of life where no blurring should occur, one being the providence of birth.  I did not have control over my birth.  God determined my family.  He providentially placed me in a particular culture and country.  I did not choose to be raised in America.  Therefore, I should not boast in the blessings that accompany such a gift.  Nor should I feel entitled by the privilege of having a U.S. passport.  Truly, the only appropriate response is one of thankfulness, that God in His goodness placed me in such a context.

I have been deeply reminded of God’s providence as of late.  My wife is currently teaching ESL to refugees in Lancaster.  Two of her students are new to the United States.  When asked how long they spent in a refugee camp, they respectively stated 18 and 19 years.  Ok, let that sink in for a moment.  Last night, she shared how their children were born and raised in a refugee camp.  They ended up creating jobs in the camps simply to survive.  For a bulk of their life thus far has been spent in the desperate, unstable, and poor conditions of a refugee camp.  Did they choose to be born in such conditions?  No.  Are the grateful to be in a home?  Absolutely.  In fact, my wife describes the most beautiful smile that appears on the woman.  I want to believe that her joy is stirred in part by the gift of being in a place more stable, free from the destitute conditions of a camp.

It easily could have been me in that camp.  It most certainly could have been my kids raised in such conditions.  As I wake to a beautiful home, writing in a comfortable office, and enjoy the opportunities afforded by higher education, my only appropriate response should be one of thankfulness.  These blessings, while in part enjoyed by hard work and perseverance, ultimately flow from the gift of providence.  Ok, it is human to feel accomplished.  In fact, it is good to take pride in oneself.  Yet, it should be fully tempered by the realization that blessings are undeserved.  Thus, I reflect today on how God has been so good to me, so good to my family.

Flowing from this gift should be a willingness to share those blessings.  One remedy to entitlement is the extension of generosity towards others.  The political climate is protectionist.  Honestly, I understand it as I want my family to be safe.  However, it also cultivates nationalistic entitlement, as if we own this country and deserve the blessings afforded by it.  If God providentially placed us in this context, then it is not ours to horde.  Rather, it should be shared.  One of my doctoral professors mused that our country is blessed due to its extension of hospitality to the refugee and immigrant throughout our history.  Certainly, this is a biblical principle.  God blesses those who care for the disenfranchised.  The two are connected and should remain so.  To receive mandates that we extend to others the blessings we enjoy to no effort of our own.

Leadership is connected.  It is a gift of providence that I have a PhD.  It is expected.  No, it is required that I use that education and the position obtained from that education for the good of the kingdom.  I should leverage my position not for my own gain or reputation but the cultivation of kingdom values and the promotion of Christ.  With regards to providence, it means I advocate for those who do not enjoy the same opportunities, with the hope that I can help, in God’s providence, open doors for them. At the end of the day, providence should ultimately lead to service.  And in serving we express thankfulness for the blessings received from our good and gracious Father.

Transitions

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Life has been a whirlwind as of late.  We pulled out of our driveway in Chicago several weeks ago for a new adventure, one that was taking us to Pennsylvania.  Emotions were scattered – excitement on the one hand for the new restaurants, culture, and friends while also anxious for the insecurities a new place would most certainly bring.  As a family, we had prepared for this day with precision and foresight – schools contacted (check), home purchased (check), and moving company insured (check).  However, nothing fully prepares a person for a relocation of job, home, and friends.

Transitions can be difficult.  Life is uncertain and unknown.  Rather than conversing with friends we have known for years, every conversation consists of introducing oneself.  For our kids, they must learn new schools, make new friends, and find new hangout spots.  Decades have passed since we have walked into a church determining if this is the place we wish to settle.  Streets are unfamiliar.  Parks are new.  Culture is different.  Transitions are not easy.

Yet, transitions are equally exciting.  New experiences are created as we visit a farmer’s market consisting of delicious produce and Amish cheese (never again store bought for me).  History abounds as we see buildings consistently built in the 1700’s.  New foods are discovered; new friends are developed; and new memories created.  In fact, it has begun to change us for the good as our worldview gets broadened and our character nurtured.

Life involves transition.

Yet, as we look back over the past few months, we have seen God’s consistent grace and guidance every step of the way.  Confirmations have abounded.  Answered prayers clearly revealed.  The difficulties of the transition, while emotional at times, were softened by the certainty of God’s presence.  Conversely, the joy of this new adventure deepened as we affirmed the Author of this transition in thanks and praise.

For me, I am learning transitions involve two roads – one where I can dwell on the unknown and attempt to control it, or one that resides in the providential love of the Father.  I choose the latter.  It is far more secure.  It is far more joyous.  And, it most certainly reminds me of the transient nature of life and the permanency of eternity.  Oh, I am thankful I do not walk through life alone.  In Him is the measure, abundantly so, to confidently and thankfully embrace each transition as an opportunity to discover the depths of His assurance and completion of His purposes.

Milestones are important in life.

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Electricity was in the air.  Smiles radiated on every student as they proudly displayed their robes.  Faculty adorned their regalia with excitement and fulfillment.  Parents peered through the crowds with fingers firmly fixed ready to take a dozen pictures of their pride and joy.  A sense of accomplished filled the room.  Hopes.  Dreams.  New Beginnings.  May is the month for graduations.

I had the privilege to participate in two of Lancaster Bible College graduations recently, one in Lancaster, PA and one in Greenbelt, Maryland.  In both commencements, no student casually approached the event.  Parents were not asleep.  I did not see one person texting on their phone as they received their diploma.  Rather, there was focus and celebration.

Milestones are important in life.  They represent the culmination of hard work – a sense of satisfaction for pouring one’s life into something.  They symbolize a changing season as a person becomes a teenager, gets married, or gets a job.  Milestones embody hope as a person dreams of the next phase in life – the possibilities, the adventure.  It is important to celebrate milestones.

Sadly, we live in an age where milestones are oftentimes overlooked.  Life is too busy to find space to gush over a person.  Or, if we do recognize a milestone, it is casually done with a short applause or brief note.  There are simply too many tasks and obligations to stop and enjoy the moment.  In some cases, we take time to celebrate but our minds are distracted by the responsibilities we could be doing.  When this happens, a life marker is missed in the haste of life.  In other cases, milestones are overlooked because our culture has minimized their significance.  Becoming a teenager is simply the continuation of pre-adolescence.  Oftentimes, weddings, the establishments of a covenant, are lightly attended for the real event – the reception.  It is not uncommon for a person to have five different jobs in as many years.  Or, a person graduates early and begins their career opting to have one’s diploma mailed to them.  In doing so, life becomes one long ride without stops to enjoy the scenery.

It is important to celebrate milestones.  Leaders are in a unique position to create space for such moments.  At our disposal is the work schedule where we can pause the day-to-day responsibilities and recognize those having achieved something noteworthy.  People listen when we speak.  Therefore, it is important to command attention towards an event, a person’s retirement, birthday, or accomplishments, and in such a way that validates the significance of such an event.  Unfortunately, such opportunities are oftentimes missed for the pressing demands of the company or institution.  And, in doing so, we miss a moment where we can leverage our leadership platform to instill hope and fulfillment in another person.  The biblical narrative is full of milestones on a grand scale of the Israelites entering the Promised Land to individual recognitions of circumcision and baptism.  God understands the significance of milestones thus incorporating them into the covenant community.  They have meaning and purpose.  They are acts of obedience.  They are gatherings for celebration by the community.  And, they honor the One who delights in them.

Yes, milestones are important in life.

It is good to be uncomfortable.

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It is human to place people in categories.  There is comfort in defining other people as “similar to us” or “different from us.”  It then becomes easier to identify and associate with a particular group.  Security arises when we surround ourselves with individuals like us.  It breeds the familiar, the known.  Equally so, it then becomes natural, if not comforting, to critique those different from us.  It reinforces our beliefs and perspectives, as well as give rise to a sense of superiority.

Yet it also stunts our growth.  It narrows our perspectives by interacting with individuals who only agree with us, not challenge our ideas and worldviews.  Superficiality is created because we go through our daily lives inoculated from dissenting opinions or uncomfortable realities.  For example, I have lived for years in the suburbs of Chicago with its white-collar problems.  By limiting exposure to urban life, I avoid racial tension, gang violence, and declining school performance.

As believers, this tendency is visibly evident in our Christian fellowship.  It is comfortable to worship with men and women who share identical beliefs, worship in predictable patterns, and understand the sermon in a specific light.  Granted, it is important to settle into a local Christian community.  Growth is not found in jumping from place-to-place.  Furthermore, a spiritual nomadic life does not foster deep relationships.  Yet, at times, it would benefit our souls if we mixed it up.

Our family has been in church transition for the past few months.  In January, we stepped down from a church we served for close to two decades but we have yet to move to Lancaster, PA.  This time created a unique challenge for us with respect to church attendance.  Since we have been connected to one body for so many years, we decided to stretch our categories by intentionally visiting different traditions.  Over the past couple of months, we have attended an Anglican, Presbyterian, Independent, African-American, Christian Reformed, and Charismatic Catholic church.  Each worship style was uniquely different.  Some experiences encouraged liturgical routine whereas others were open to spontaneous clapping, even dancing.  While each church was evangelical, the sermons were diverse with some being theological-focused, others bent towards application.  We enjoyed each worship experience.  Most of all, we embraced the challenges to our preconceived frameworks for what worship is, what preaching is, what church is.  It was good to worship as a minority.  Quiet reflection in the service was at times refreshing; other times the ability to jump off our feet proved liberating.  Our categories were disrupted, I believe for the better.  It was good to be uncomfortable, even it was only for a season.  In a month, we will settle into a church for an extended period of time.  But, I will not forget these few months where we were stretched.

As leaders, we too become comfortable in our routines, perspectives, networks, and ideology.  It is easy to associate only with those that think like us or read books on themes or beliefs comfortable to us.  In doing so, we fossilize; we do not grow.  Growth occurs when we break out of our routines, reflect on our boxes and for a moment step outside of them.  Or we choose to lead in a different fashion, exercising creativity and stretching our leadership.  And, in doing so, we continue to learn.  And learning occurs best when we are uncomfortable.