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.

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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.

 

I am responsible for my own soul.

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“The health of your soul is a choice.  It is not determined by someone else.”

This statement recently challenged me when posed by my department chair.  It is tempting to blame circumstances, vocation, or other people for the state of my soul.  However, these explanations are simply excuses to take responsibility away from the primary caretaker of my soul – myself.

Spiritual health is a choice.  I choose whether a crisis causes restlessness and anxiety.  I choose if a person’s comment leads to frustration or relational tension.  I choose if unexpected health problems or vocational discontent cause depression.  I choose if financial stress results in panic and hopelessness.  Circumstances are largely out of my control; spiritual health is not.

This truth is liberating because if spiritual health is dictated by external factors, the health of my soul is uncertain and unstable.  Yet, God has provided the necessary resources within me to anchor the contentment – redemption, justification, adoption.  Position in Christ transcends any person or situation that attempts to erode my spiritual health.  I can choose spiritual health because I am a child of God.  In those moments where other factors attempt to determine the health of my soul, I have the power to choose joy and peace through my identity in Christ.  Circumstances change; my identity does not.

As leaders, we are confronted with countless pressures that chip away at our identity.  The expectations of those around us whisper for us to live for other people.  Vocational pressures attempt to trap us under the false notion that we are not realizing our potential, or worse yet, that our job is at stake because we are not performing up to par as the next person.  In other cases, our own ambition boxes us into the myth that somehow we might attain perfect – I fail today but tomorrow I will not.  Each of these false narratives are fully under our control.  We determine if they guide our daily lives, or if we will rest in the surpassing truth that the abundant life is available to us regardless of the circumstances that swirl around us.

To accomplish this, certain disciplines are necessary…

  • It is necessary to myopically embrace the truth that our new identity is already fully defined. Whether through reminders or self-talk, even post-it notes, we must constantly push through the lies that state otherwise.
  • It requires guarding that perspective amid those situations or circumstances that attempt to reframe our outlook. Spiritual health is not a volitional task, it requires God’s grace.  Thus, Paul’s appeal to “pray continually” becomes a necessity – robust, reflective prayer, if we are to rely on the Holy Spirit to “remind” us of the things of Christ.
  • In dramatic moments, where our spiritual health is assaulted, it necessitates purposeful breaks where we pull back from the irritants of life and unravel the identity attacks that want to propel us towards an emotional tailspin. In other words, we should stop the spiraling before it happens by pausing life, confronting the issue, and resetting our perspective.
  • Lastly, it is critical that we speak it out to someone, namely a person who is wise and trusting. Issues that are not communicated oftentimes trick us into believing something that we know is not true.  It rattles in our mind to the point where we begin to cave to its pressure.  Audibly affirming it allows for falsehood to be identified and truth to be spoken.

Ok, this is not a recipe.  But, it does serve to provide some tangible reminders of disciplines we can implement to safeguard our spiritual health – to place our souls within the domain of our choice rather than at the mercy of other persons or situations.

Yes, the health of our soul is a choice – it is our choice.

 

The cross – intimate, safe, and hopeful.

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Certain experiences in your life change your perspective.  Life is normal until you receive some unexpected news.  It causes you to reorient your outlook and priorities.  I had one of these days recently.  These moments cause you to reevaluate life, reconsider priorities, and embrace life more closely.  It is interesting that this moment occurred just prior to Easter week.  The confluence has caused me to see the cross through fresh eyes.

The cross is deeply intimate.  I oftentimes see the cross as an event.  It is the moment salvation became available to mankind.  God’s incarnate son crucified for us, ushering in redemption and hope.  It is historical.  It is cosmic.  It is agonizing – the weight of sin placed on Christ.  Yet, it is also intimate.  It is the moment my sin became absorbed in his righteousness.  The experience on the cross is my experience through faith.  Yet, more so, it is intimate because it opens the door for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which enables me to rest in those unexpected moments because my God can fully comfort me, hold me, with the peace of Christ.  Intimacy is defined as “close familiarity or friendship.”  I don’t believe this definition captures the beauty made available through Calvary.  In dark moments, Christ isn’t simply familiar with me; He is residing in my emotions, my thoughts, my soul – providing rest and affirmation, even when my thoughts are scattered and confused.  True intimacy cuts through the façade and externals to connect at my very core.

The cross is deeply safe.  Everyone wants to be safe.  Yet, sadly, it is more natural to be guarded.  Children are naturally trusting.  Yet, as we experience pain and hardship, our hearts become guarded.  Fences are erected protecting our vulnerabilities.  Guarding our true selves safeguards us against an unwelcome comment or unmet expectations.  Internally, we long for the relationship where our souls can be naked, accepted and loved as is.  God knows us intimately and still loves us.  But, it is a love not simply of relationship but one where we are invited to rest at his feet with all our brokenness laid bare and find acceptance.  Christ is safe because we do not have to pretend in his presence.  Christ is safe because space is provided for us to be and to be honest without rebuke or shame.

The cross is deeply hopeful.  The problem with authenticity is that it desires complacency.  I want to be real without any expectation of change.  Christ is intimate and safe while pushing us towards hope.  Calvary was a horrific day.  The ugliness of sin – its brutality and condemnation, was poured on Christ.  He died.  He bore the wrath of God.  He experienced the rejection of friends.  He cried out at the abandonment of the Father.  It was a horrific day.  However, it was not the last day.  Easter morning gave rise to hope.  Salvation was birthed through death but ended in life.  Comfort is found in being open with someone about our pain; hope is experienced as we move past the pain.  Christ invites us to radical openness about our dark moments while graciously, tenderly walking us to a new reality of abundant life, not absent from pain but present in sufficient grace.  Grace to live not bound by our facades, insecurities or brokenness but rather in companionship with a loving Savior who points us to the summit of eternal promise.

The cross reminds me that life can be lived intimately, safely, and hopefully with Christ.  As a leader, I am challenged.  Am I moving towards hope or simply comfortability in my brokenness?  In the shadow of Calvary, do I truly thank Christ for the gift of intimacy and safety or has it become convenient and expected?  I am called to reflect Christ.  Am I fostering distance and insecurity with those around me or am I cultivating the qualities that I adore in Christ?

Certain experiences in your life change your perspective.  The cross is most certainly one of those experiences.

Courage: a necessity of leadership!

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Courage is revealed in spontaneous, momentary decisions.

I taught my first PhD course last week, Character and Ethics.  As part of the course, we traveled to Washington D.C.  We visited the Holocaust Museum.  My hope was that this tactile experience would emotionally form the students regarding the topic we were studying.  I was deeply moved.  It was a powerful experience to chronicle the results of misguided character and distorted ethics.  In addition to the political regime, we walked through an exhibit on complicity which detailed the intentional accommodation and proactive involvement by the German people to the atrocities of World War II.  This side of history was somewhat known to me; however, not to the extent that unfolded during that hour walking past photo after photo.  In such moments, I deeply wish we did not have to learn from history – humankind would have been better without the Holocaust.

In the midst of these horrific pictures, there were profound flares of goodness and courage.  A large photo highlighted a Catholic priest who advocated in behalf of a sizable group of Jews gathered against a wall facing a firing squad.  Risking his own life, he spoke up to the SS Officers asking that they spare their lives as they did nothing wrong.  Dozens of individuals were rescued.  Protestant pastors, facing certain imprisonment, spoke out against the atrocities unfolding in Germany.  They took a stand against evil regardless of the potential consequences.  Ordinary citizens hid Jews while others smuggled them to safety.

Courage shined in those spontaneous, momentary decisions in the face of real and fatal consequences.

As leaders, courage is essential.  In some respects, it can be prepared for.  Character is formed throughout one’s life.  Deep convictions regarding truth and justice are cultivated through reflection, prayer, and Scripture.  Embracing the imago deo allows us to see others as fellow human beings in need of advocacy.  Sacrifice involves standing on eternal principals, knowing that speaking up or challenging sin is the right thing to do.  However, courage is also not something one can fully prepare for.  In those moments when emotions are swirling, convictions are tested, self-preservation or complacency dominate, a person needs to take stock of what is required in that moment.  I observed stories of such courage at the Holocaust Museum.

Granted, most of us have not faced the type of courage required by those facing the Holocaust.  Yet, we do face situations on a regular basis where it is required.  A disenfranchised person is mistreated thus requiring an advocate – a voice for the voiceless.  Sin needs to be confronted.  Whereas it is easier to stay on the sidelines, courage necessitates leaders stand up for holiness.  An employee or employer becomes reckless eroding the institutional climate.  In these moments, it is essential that someone speaks up.

Courage is a defining quality of leaders.  More so, it is a defining quality of believers as we know the eternal standards which frame acts of courage.  Truth, justice, and holiness are determined by God.  Thus, believers being the incarnational embodiment of Christ should reflect and promote these qualities, and even more for leaders.

Don’t miss out on the adventure

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Lesson learned:  the trailblazer misses out on a great deal of adventure.

The hike was rigorous, taxing us beyond what we had anticipated.  It was supposed to be one of the easier hikes while on vacation.  Yet, we found the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to be conquering us rather than vice versa.  Yet, as the dad, it was “my responsibility” to be the trail blazer.  I encouraged us to keep pressing on.  I scanned ahead for obstacles on the trail.  At times, I motivated our kids by turning the hike into a game.  All the while, I simply looked at the dusty trail rather than glancing around at the breathtaking views.  In contrast, my family oftentimes marveled at Yosemite Valley below or the granite cliffs rising above us.  Sadly, as the trailblazer, I became preoccupied by the task thus missing out on the adventure.

Such is the case for many leaders.  We are preoccupied with the task.  Deadlines dominate our agenda.  Leadership development becomes a constant concern.  Expectations by the institution or organization apply pressure to our daily schedule.  In general, leaders are responsible for charting a course, blazing a trail, encourage the troops.  To be fair, leadership involves responsibility.  It comes with the territory.  It is the reason many people do not want to be leaders; the expectations are too heavy.  Yet, it is also the reason leaders oftentimes miss out on the adventure.

It does not have to be the case.

Leaders need to create space to enjoy the adventure rather than simply drive it.  It might involve taking time to reflect on the big picture – to take joy in the opportunity to cast a vision.  For some, it is important to reflect on the influence of leadership, the God-given position to leverage good in our ministry or workplace.  For the relational type, it is reflective moments to celebrate the possibilities of mentoring – to nurture the next generation of leaders, possibly someone to take your position.  These perspectives are missed when the task consumes the adventure.

To maintain this space, it is necessary to push back the emotional triggers.  When something goes wrong, it almost always (and it should) lands in the lap of the principal leader of the institution or organization.  In these moments, margin gets squeezed out by the crisis.  For me, the stress of the hike (the heat, potential dehydration, realizing that there was still a return leg) nearly engulfed me.  I could have easily have said, “I am done.”  If that would have occurred, it would have deflated all of us.  It is the task of the leader to elevate morale.  Fortunately, there were moments that I had the awareness to say, “The view will be amazing at the summit.  It will be worth it.”  Emotional triggers need to be kept at bay so that we can see the big picture and then encourage others to see it as well – to remind others of the goal of the adventure.

Lastly, it is essential that the leader engage in self-care.  Truthfully, I have appeared healthy at numerous times over the years while internally dying from demands and pressures.  I rationalized that external competency would get me through the moments when my soul was dry.  In the end, it almost always failed.  We lead from our interior life not exterior.  It is only a matter of time before the condition of our soul surfaces whether good or bad.  When leaders do not care for themselves, their leadership becomes inept.  On the hike, it was essential that I continue to drink water, eat food, and take breaks.  Sacrificing self-care would have impacted my decision-making, perspective, and ultimately my leadership.

Christ modeled this self-care by pulling back from the crowds to pray.  He oftentimes slowed down to reflect on his mission, commune with God, and reside in the moment.  Christ never became so task-oriented that he forgot the mission.  Emergencies never consumed him.  He was the quintessential trailblazer primarily because he paved the way for redemption which serves to instill in us true leadership purpose.  But, he also modeled how to lead with mission while also taking time to enjoy the mission as it repeatedly states, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2)

Leader: Take Off Your Mask

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An impostor is someone who pretends to be someone they are not.  Impostor syndrome then is someone who intentionally and consistently presents an image to other people that does not reflect who they are or what they think.  It can take many forms.

  • In classrooms, it is a person who does not want to appear incompetent or incorrect. Therefore, that person presents an image of intelligence or competency by answering every question even though internally he/she feels like a failure, believing that at any moment this façade will be exposed.
  • In churches, it is a person who proclaims spiritual maturity even though his/her marriage is falling apart; or someone in leadership who is consumed with a habitual sin. In other cases, the person is overcommitted to ministry even though he/she is apathetic towards God.  The desire to appear spiritual and “have it together” drives his/her need to be an impostor.
  • In leadership, it is not uncommon for someone to “fake it until they make it.” Faced with leadership expectations and organizational pressures, a manager struts with confidence and power despite internally crumbling from the weight of responsibility.  To validate and preserve his/her position, the person conceals insecurities or rationalizes if not blames failures on others.

Being an impostor is hard work with very little reward.  You spend a ton of effort to keep up a front while inside your soul grows drier, darker, and more empty.  You exude happiness and joy while you stare in the mirror with self-hate and glare at a neighbor with jealousy and judgment.  You display vibrancy and charisma while your soul is surviving the day, longing for the evening when you can take off the mask.

It is no wonder that many people implode under the pressure of maintaining an image.  Leaders descend into moral failure as a means of escaping their own propped up expectations.  Christians walk away from the church because the “spiritual game” is simply too hard to keep playing.  And, when this happens, everyone is in shock as to how it happened.

I have found myself fostering an impostor syndrome on numerous occasions.  I don’t want someone to think less of me so I present an image.  I like the notion of having it all together so I craft my words and responses to encourage it.  I play the game because in some ways the game feels good, at least temporarily.

Yet, in the end the disconnect is not worth it.  Nor is it what God desires for us.

Christ came to give us the abundant life.  An abundant life made possible because we are redeemed through the cross.  In that moment, we became children of God – not perfect but forgiven.  God calls us to live out of our identity as sons and daughters of the King.  We are broken yet with grace.  We are stumbling yet with the offer of second and third chances.  We are “in process” of transformation yet not having arrived.  There is no shame in who we are in Christ.  Should we strive for holiness?  Absolutely.  But we should not pretend to be holy when we are not.  Therefore, we should put to death the desire to pretend otherwise.  God doesn’t demand it of us; why should we.