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Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Does Worship Cost?

“But the king replied to Araunah, ‘No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.’ So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.” [2 Samuel 24:24]

The story of David’s sacrifice to appease the hand of the angel of death in 2 Samuel 24 is captivating on several accounts. David is not a young man here, but an older king, maybe even going through a crisis of evaluating his life and trying to add up his accomplishments. His request was one to fuel his pride and ego: “How big is my kingdom?” Even Joab tried to mediate and deter this foolish action, but to no avail. Scripture simply says that the word of the king prevailed. When the act was all but done, David’s conscience was struck with the guilt and he confessed and asked for forgiveness for what he had done. The prophet Gad delivered to him the three choices God offered: 7 years of famine, flee 3 months from enemies, or 3 days of a plague. David threw himself upon the mercy of God, and the plague started. Some 70,000 people died because of the foolishness of David’s ego trip.

In 2 Samuel 24, David had sinned, had confessed it as sin, had asked for forgiveness, but the consequences of his sin remained. Much like disobedient little boy whose mother had run out of things to try to help her son learn obedience, told him that from then on, every time he disobeyed she would put a nail in a door. The child paid no attention and continued in his disobedience. One day, however, he was overcome when he passed by the door and saw it covered with nails. Realizing the gravity of his actions, he told his mother he was sorry, that he would not disobey anymore, and to please take out the nails. The mother agreed, and some time later the little boy came crying up to his mother saying, “but, mother, the holes are still there...” When we sin the consequences remain. For David, he died with the blood of thousands of his fellow Israelites on his hands. He confessed, and in obedience went to offer a sacrifice for this sin, following the commands of the prophet.

The place of the sacrifice was the threshing floor of Araunah. When David encountered him and explained the situation, Araunah offered to give him the oxen and wood for the sacrifice, but David responded, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” He paid him and made his offering and the plague stopped. However, that really isn’t the point on which I want to focus.

David’s sin was more than just pride, he failed to realize that his legacy was not to be found in his great actions, but in his character. Yes, he killed Goliath, and defeated his enemies and made the preparations for the Temple, but what God considered as the greatest heritage was that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” [Acts 13:22] It is easy to try to evaluate a ministry, a life in terms of the “great things done,” but miss the most important: that of integrity and godly character. When Luke was summarizing David’s life in the book of Acts, he did not pull from all his mighty acts, but from the very thing that made David favored in the eyes of God.

But the question remains, “What does worship cost?” For David, it was much more than the 30 pieces of silver to buy the threshing floor and oxen. David had to come to the point of surrendering his legacy to God. True worship costs giving up one’s reputation to God. We cannot rightly worship if we try to hold on to our attempts to create our own kingdoms, and define who we are in terms of what we do and not whose we are. In worship we must trust God to bring about a legacy and a heritage that is lasting and glorifying to Him alone. All of David’s victories could be misinterpreted as great acts of a great man or warrior, but a heart that seeks after God, a heart that longs to be obedient to God brings glory to God and is unmistakable. Worship costs the right to define our own reputation by our accomplishments. Worship also costs personal sacrifice. There are no short cuts to sacrifice. It is always painful, or would not be considered a “sacrifice.” Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice for us so that we might not face eternal death, but have eternal life and a relationship with Him. Out of gratitude and awe of His grace and love, we worship Him. In that sense, there is no “sacrifice” that we could offer as great at the one offered already for us. But there will always be a cost.

The temptation of measuring the ministry by the numbers is constantly present. Growth can be an indicator of how healthy an organism is, but not always. Cancer cells have an enormous capacity for multiplication, but by no means can be called “healthy.” Churches whose growth is principally from other churches do not always represent a healthy church, if there is not at the same time regular conversions from non-churched people. Healthy ministries provide both for continued outreach and discipleship or mentoring ministries that help bring new Christians to spiritual maturity. The danger of basing self worth on the externals of numerical growth should be obvious from David’s example, not to mention that God is the one who “brings the increase,” not us. As we focus on a loving obedient response, God may or may not choose to extend the numbers, but regardless the fruit will be an obvious result of God’s increase, not human manipulation.

David’s example for us is to not try to define our lives in terms of our own accomplishments, but in terms of our loving obedience to God, and loving obedience always has a price. The reality is that failing in the area of worship has an even greater cost, one of lost opportunity, lost relationship, lost purpose, lost joy, and lost fulfillment. We can willingly surrender our “sacrifice” and receive the joy of identifying with Christ, or choose to hold on to those things that can never give the lasting peace or pleasure we thought they would bring. The question is “Are we willing to pay the price for what worship costs?

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to Handle Criticism Constructively

Feedback comes from everywhere. We know what to do when it comes from a sound system, but we’re not always so successful when it comes from people. What can help us? Here are five considerations to remember when it comes:

1. Don’t shoot the messenger. Whether it comes unexpectedly, almost out of the blue, or you see it in the eyes of that person as they are walking down the aisle, remember: Don’t shoot the messenger. There is an unfortunate tendency in ministry to “shoot the messenger,” that is, to eliminate or discredit those that bring complaints against you as a leader or what you are doing. A sure sign of a weak leader is one that takes out the frustration on the bearer of issues being brought to surface.

It will probably be one of the hardest things you may do that week, but don’t give in to the temptation to “get even.” There is a possibility that what they are saying really reflects only their misinformed opinion, or that this person has done this with every staff member, every leader for the past ten years. In that case, there are some issues that are much bigger than you are equipped to deal with and that a trained counselor may be needed. However, most of the comments we receive are not those kind, but from an honest desire to address a need that someone sees and brings it to your attention.

Look at the negative news as a little red light on the dashboard of your car: something has happened that needs your attention. Even if the comments are not totally valid, remember the prayer of Dawson Trotman: “Lord, please show me the kernel of truth hidden in this criticism.” For both the person sharing the comment and those receiving it, it is good to also remember the following: “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” Don’t be surprised that you make mistakes, until we get to heaven, it will continue to happen. [See] Later, I’ll include some positive steps to take.

2. Don’t take negative comments as personal attacks.
Sometimes it is helpful to distinguish between complaints [negative comments about a specific action] and criticism [attacks against character]. Personal attacks often come from some kind of offense, while complaints often come from unfulfilled expectations.

3. Don’t sink your lifeboat. When someone brings up a negative comment about your work or the work of someone for whom you are responsible, not to consider what is being said and pay attention means you may be ignoring the very thing that could save you from bigger problems later on.

4. Don’t keep doing the same thing. When the negative comments keep coming because no attempt to has been made to correct the situation, the situation can turn from comments to crisis or even divisions in the fellowship. A creative leader must find ways to address the problem, and remember that the Holy Spirit of God is the Spirit of Creativity.

5. Don’t be defensive and start labeling those making the comments as the enemy. Satan is our real enemy and we can easily allow our minds to begin to interpret every word said or written as an attack on what we are doing. Division is one of the Devil’s most effective tools. We need to be cautious in using words like “always” and “never” when talking with these people.

Those are five “don’ts,” but what are some things we can do?

First, remember what Proverbs 27:6 says:
“wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy.” A diamond can only show its brilliance when its rough edges are chipped away. Learning to deal with issues in our lives can truly be helpful and make us most useful and effective. C. S. Lewis states, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

Second, learn to really listen.
Repeat back to the person bringing the comment in your own words without trying to evaluate whether or not what is being said is truly valid or not. Begin with, “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. I hear you saying that...... [repeat comment in your own words].” This will help clarify what is being said, but also indicate to the person you are really listening. Sometimes, that goes a long way in getting to a solution. Once someone feels like they have truly been heard, it is easier to be able to explain your reasons for what has been done. Jumping to the defense and trying to judge motives [You’re just saying that because you don’t like....”] can only cause more hurt and regret.

Thirdly, evaluate the comments with a godly mentor.
Only surrounding yourself with those that agree to every suggestion you give and who never provide helpful critiques or share with you blind spots or mistakes is dangerous and unhealthy. Plan to incorporate any changes that might be necessary. Ask for God’s grace to respond in a way that pleases Him and wisdom in knowing how to do it.

So much more needs to be said, but I trust that this will help get you off on the right foot.

Monday, September 12, 2011

When you don’t have time....

There are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 720 hours in a 30-day month and 8760 hours in a year. One of the most common complaints is the “lack of time” to do some activities that we desire and need to do. Learning the discipline of managing time is never easy and there are always just enough “curve balls” thrown our way to get us off track to want us to throw up our hands and give up.

Contrast this with how Jesus went about his work. First of all, it was in the “fullness of time” that God sent Jesus into the world. For hundreds of years the prophets had foretold the coming of Messiah, but God waited until the time was right. Jesus, though he understood God’s plan and stayed in the Temple when others had left to go home, returned with Joseph and Mary and was obedient to them. Most likely after Joseph died, Jesus stayed to take his responsibility as the eldest child and care for Mary, and though he knew God had called him to redeem the world. He patiently waited until he was 30 and it was time for him to act. When crowds gathered to be healed, Jesus did not always remain, but pressed on, following God’s time table and plan. Yet, Jesus was interruptible, when the woman with the hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, He stopped, and responded to her needs. When it seemed as if Jesus was too late [the death of Lazarus], His schedule would not be dictated by the cry of the urgent, but by the design of his Father. His own death and resurrection were all completed in the time and way planned before the world was formed. Jesus is Lord of time and eternity.

Though we are not Jesus, we can learn from how he lived and worked to help us with our use of time. We are called on many times to do more than we really can, and many times when we should decline such requests, we go ahead and accept, perhaps with some faint hope “that somehow it will all get done.” Work and ministry seem to always demand more time than allotted, seem to always expect more than what may be reasonable or even feasible. The needs are great and the cry to meet the needs become louder than our reasons for refusing. Learning to maintain healthy boundaries is generally made more difficult when those who design our the responsibilities fail to have healthy boundaries themselves. Unfortunately, accomplishing the task becomes more important than the person involved in doing the task and results in casualties and the needless sacrifice of personnel in the name of achieving a goal. There are matters of life and death, but not everything we do needs be classified in that manner. How do you distinguish between what is important (priority) and what is basically for the preference of the person requesting our help? There are no simple answers. Here are some considerations:

1. Determine what is important and what is most important. Just listing out what needs to be done can be revealing, and sometimes overwhelming. But, after we have listed the tasks, label them in some way that ranks them in order of importance: whether by numbers, letters, or some other way you devise, but label them. After they are labeled, reorganized, so that the most important is at the top of the list.

2. Start working on the most important first. There are many priority and time management helps available and this is not to substitute for them. Take some initiative and check some out and do them. You will always learn something. It sounds simple, but staying focused on a job is not. It is easy to be focused on a particular job and a phone call (or some other distraction), can push us to drop what we are doing and to start another task that is less important, but “should only take a short time.” [famous last words...] Even if it really does only take a short time, it has become more important than the critical issue at hand, because we allowed it to be so. To make your Priority check list more sustainable, try building into your schedule time for “short projects,” when it really is possible to do them in a short period.

3. Avoid the “little foxes that spoil the vines”. We all have things we like to do before we tie into a project: check email, or look at a favorite website, catch up on the headlines online, etc., but many times these little things become time wasters. We get involved in one link that leads to another and another, until the crucial time we had is gone. Set a timer if you have to, but force yourself to jump in and begin. As it has been said, even the longest journey begins with the first step.

— What about interruptions? Many of our interruptions are from colleagues or unplanned visits or calls that must be handled in some way, so how do you respond and not be unchristlike? These might help: When someone asks you if you have a minute and you are obviously working on something, welcome the person, listen to their concerns, jot down some notes, and explain that you are in the middle of a project and will address it as soon as you finish, or at a specific time. Most people will understand and appreciate the transparency and the fact that you took notes and will trust that you will do what you said you would. If you are not at a point that you can stop, be honest enough to let them know, but set a time to hear them later. Again, most people will accept that and if it really was important will want to get back with you, or realize that it wasn’t that critical and can check with someone else. Some people will barge right in and never ask if it is an ok, or if you have a minute for a question. These people have little understanding or sensitivity to others and you might have to be a little more candid and tell them that you really can’t talk right now, and if you can, try to be as polite as possible.

What about interruptions from someone in authority over you? When the person interrupting is in a position over you, it is generally not a wise thing to tell them to leave you alone and let you work. Their priorities are also yours, at least to a lesser extent. If they already have you on an important project, take notes on the new task and then ask them in a non-threatening tone of voice, “I am in the middle of _____ project that you requested, which of these do you want completed first? You are showing your willingness to do the work and allowing him or her to tell you which is more important, rather than you trying to figure it out on your own. If you have two or more people above you asking for some thing, go to your supervisor or someone and explain that you are willing to do these projects, but are just not sure which should come first. Obviously, dealing with these issues is very complex, but I trust these suggestions can help.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What to Do When You Really Mess Up

Try as we might, even with good intentions, we will all make mistakes in the ministry leadership. We all have “clay feet”, we’re a part of Adam’s race and on this side of heaven we will on occasions make wrong decisions, say something that offends, or do something that we should not have done. Obviously, some of these things are more serious than others, such as moral failure or unethical behavior, but right now I’m not thinking about those.

When [not if] we say or do something that brings offense there are some things we must do if we are to be obedient to God’s calling on our lives. These are true for all believers, but especially for those in leadership positions, as James 3:1 says about those who would teach are under a “stricter judgement.” Allow me to suggest some things that will help:

(1) Realize that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes, and even though they might not have been intentional, they can and do cause offense. There has only been one person who ever walked on this earth that did not sin and that was Jesus Christ. Outside of Christ, everyone has and will sin. This is not an excuse to ignore the feelings of others by hurting someone’s feelings and then brushing it off as if it did not matter saying, “well, no one’s perfect.” Such an attitude is contrary to the commandment of love we are to have for one another. At the same time we are not to pretend that as a leader in worship we are exempt from the commands of our Lord to forgive, and seek forgiveness just because of our position. Most of the time the wrong is not one-sided, that is, the other person or persons share in the responsibility of the error, but that does not negate the obligation we have to make right our part of it.

(2) Few things reveal poor leadership quicker than the inability to admit wrong and unwillingness to take the initiative to make things right. This inability sometimes stems from feelings of inadequacy, and pretending that we’re something that we are not. Pride is also an issue, for in admitting wrong we believe that our self image is threatened. However, biblically, our self image comes from what Christ has done for us, not what we can do for ourselves. If we build our self image based on what we can do or on our natural ability and talents [even though it was God that gave those as well], we will feel threatened every time someone questions what we do or say. Freedom comes from realizing and accepting that our worth comes from Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.

(3) There is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. [I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly where I heard this the first time, but I will share it since it has been helpful to me.] God offers forgiveness to all; what Jesus did was open to all. In forgiveness, God releases us from the punishment our sins deserve; Christ paid those on the cross. As we forgive others, we release to God the right to punish others for what they have done to us. For us to be reconciled to God, we must accept His forgiveness and repent of our sins, that is, admit to God that what we have done is wrong and ask His forgiveness. In our relationships, we can forgive, that is, we can release the deserved punishment to God, but reconciliation can only happen when the person who caused the offense admits wrong and asks forgiveness. Part of asking forgiveness must include a change of behavior, and even restitution if need be. Until then, there is no safety in the relationship and reconciliation is not possible.

When we offend, we must realize that though our brothers and sisters in Christ may forgive us, even without our asking, there will not be reconciliation until we do our part and admit wrong and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness may be granted, but it will take time to rebuild trust. Trust is earned. Trust can only come when the offended party feels safe.

(4) We can be right and still do things in the wrong way. You might have had the experience of trying to put the wrong key in a lock. But you can also have trouble when you even have the right key, but try to force it beyond its limits and it breaks. Sometimes from inexperience we attempt things and everything just seems to go wrong. At those moments we need to ask ourselves some questions like, “Is this the right thing to do, but the wrong time to try to implement?” “Am I saying the right things, but with an attitude that is arrogant, or prideful?” Lack of sensitivity to timing and tone of voice can cause even something that may be “right” to come across “wrong.”

(5) We must be willing to listen to those with different opinions.
Solomon was the wisest man of his day, if not of all time, yet, even he had advisors. We know that from the error his son, Rehoboam made by not listening to them when this descendent was to take over after Solomon’s death. Which begs the question, “If the wisest man in the world needed and used counselors and advisors, shouldn’t I seek counsel as well?” The temptation is to seek out only those who echo your own personal preferences. Another sign of weak leadership is the failure to hear from differing viewpoints that might reveal potential problems that “yes men” would avoid sharing. Only a foolish person would believe that they might foresee all possible issues of a given situation. Willingness to listen and accept opposing ideas not only shows true humility, but can also help you as a worship leader to avoid future failures from insisting on a given direction without full counsel.

We will all make mistakes, some bigger than others, but here are some considerations to help overcome them so you can continue to have an effective ministry.