How Keystone Habits Help Me Grow as a Spiritual Leader

Photo by Goldi Tewari, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both the spiritual life and leadership are like riding a bike. You’re either moving forward or falling down. Growing in faith and growing in effectiveness are ongoing tasks for the spiritual leader.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement was a paragon of habits. The term “Methodist” was a pejorative coined by those who mocked John, his brother Charles, and others in the Holy Club at Oxford as “methodical” in their spiritual practices. Wesley would say, “The soul and the body make a person, the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.”

Wesley combined Spirit and discipline through regular habits of prayer, fasting, journaling, meditation, bible reading and good works, both individually and with others in community. These habits became known as the “Methodist Way” and were the foundation of a spiritual revival in both England and America.

Establishing habits is the key to a productive life. Willpower is an exhaustible resource. The more energy you spend deciding what to do, getting yourself going and actually doing what needs to be done, the less willpower and self-discipline you will have for other tasks. You can check out the blog I wrote on habits to find out more.

Habits enable us to do things without thinking so we don’t use up our willpower. So we have more energy for self-discipline. One thing that I learned is that self-disciplined people don’t have more discipline. They have turned their most important tasks into habits, enabling them to save their willpower for other important things.

But not all habits are the same. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg emphasizes the importance of Keystone Habits. These are habits that create momentum to establish other positive habits in your life. As you might guess, exercise is a keystone habit that results in better health, eating habits and personal productivity. A surprising keystone habit, according to Duhigg, is making your bed. This keystone habit is correlated with increased well-being, higher productivity and better budgeting skills.

It’s important to note the difference between correlation and causation. A keystone habit doesn’t cause a cascade of other positive habits. But it does create conditions that make them more likely.

The keystone habit that changed my life was prayer.

I had always prayed, but life often got so busy that it was difficult to keep a consistent practice. It wasn’t a habit. About 10 years ago, I made a commitment to make prayer the first thing I do every day. It took a few months of doing this regularly before it became a habit. But once it did, the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the last decade, a series of habits have “cascaded” from the keystone habit of prayer. These include exercise, meditation, journaling and fasting. They didn’t happen all at once. Each time, I would feel led to apply my focus and effort to a particular practice. Over the course of time, that practice would become a habit. My own experience is that each time it gets a little bit easier to develop a new habit.

This process of habit formation has transformed me as a leader.

I am more energetic, have a greater awareness of the need to serve others and have more patience and perseverance. I am more grateful and less judgmental. I am more focused on what matters and am better able to stick to my priorities. It started with a keystone habit.

Every person is different, so what might be a keystone habit for one, might not work as well for others. Some things that tend to work well as keystone habits are prayer, meditation, exercise, tracking what you eat and journaling. The best thing you can do is try something and see how it works.

I am far from perfect. I am still growing. God is not finished with me. But, by the grace of God, I have found a way to help me do that. You might say it’s the Methodist Way.

Questions for Reflection:

What spiritual promptings have you had recently to improve your life?

What might you try to develop as a keystone habit?

What’s stopping you?

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How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Disagrees

Face Off by Aaron from Seattle, CCA 2.0

Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.

I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.

I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.

The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.

If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?

The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”

If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.

I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.

When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.

When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”

But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.

The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.

If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.

It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”

Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”

And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.

Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.

Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.

Questions for Reflection:

Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?

How can you have a conversation with them?

What is stopping you?

 

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Four Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health

Photo by Ragesoss-Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple[ of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Taking care of your body not only honors God, it is good leadership. It gives you more energy and enables you to think more clearly, so you can be at your best for God. Your body, which includes your brain, will either make you better or hold you back.

I’m a productivity geek. I’m always looking for ways I can make the most of my efforts. If I’m going to put time and energy into improving my life, I want to make sure the potential payoff is the highest possible.

Here are four things I have found that do that. They are working for me. They are the things that have taken the least amount of time and effort, but have made the biggest improvement in my health.

All that said, I’m not a doctor, so consult your physician first.

One: Get a good night’s sleep

This seems obvious. But, it wasn’t to me. For most of my life, I thought I could survive on five or six hours sleep. It wasn’t enough. A year ago I started getting seven to eight hours a night and I noticed a huge improvement in my personal effectiveness. I also noticed that I stopped nodding off while driving home from work.

As this WebMD article shows, getting enough sleep will improve your mood, memory, ability to think clearly, weight control and immune system. So why wouldn’t you?

Two: Cut out or cut back refined sugar consumption

I’m going to meddle. Sugar consumption is the American way. Most processed foods contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Then there’s candy, cookies, ice cream and other yummy desserts. But, other than the taste, there isn’t a lot of good to say about sugar. It’s a major contributing factor in belly fat and weight gain.

According to myfitnesspal.com, cutting out (or cutting back on) sugar can lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, decrease heart attack risk, improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression and lower the risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Talk about a high payoff for a simple thing.

Three: Practice Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF)

This one was a revelation to me. Also known as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, TRF is based on the idea that our bodies weren’t designed to eat continuously. Early hunter-gatherers didn’t get three meals a day. They ate when they had food and their bodies did without food for long stretches.

In TRF, it’s not about what you eat, it’s about when you eat. You consume all of your calories during a limited period of time, say eight to ten hours. A typical TRF or intermittent fast would be to eat during an eight-hour period and fast for 16 hours. So, for example, you might eat between 9am and 5pm, then fast from 5pm until 9am. You may get benefits from a fasting period as little as 10 hours, but the longer the fast, the better the results.

Studies show that even if you eat the same foods, with TRF you are likely to gain less weight or even lose it. This has been true in animal studies and early human studies. According to this article from the National Institutes of Health, TRF protects against weight gain and can even reduce weight for the same number of calories consumed. It can also reduce fat accumulation, the risk of Type II diabetes, as well as improve metabolism and cholesterol levels.

The good thing about TRF is you don’t have to change what you eat. It’s not a diet. And you don’t necessarily need to do it every day. Even occasional practice and have benefits. There are a variety of TRF approaches, so check out this article to see six different approaches.

TRF is working for me. But your results may be different. You should definitely consult your doctor on this one.

Four: Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

This is not new. When you think of HIIT you probably think of those insane Crossfit people. But, research by Martin Gibala at McMaster University has shown that interval training is incredibly effective, even in sedentary people. In one study, Gibala found that one 60-second period of intense exercise (think running for your life) was as effective in improving health as 45 minutes of steady, moderate exercise.  This one-minute period was embedded in a total exercise session of 10-minutes that included warm-up, recovery and cool-down.

The great thing about HIIT is that it can be done with just about any exercise including walking, running, biking (real or stationary), elliptical and isometric exercises, just to name a few.

Walking, you say? Yes…if you normally take a 30-minute walk, then try walking as fast as you can for one minute at some point during your walk. Better yet, do several intervals of intense walking interspersed by one-minute cooldowns. Start with one and work your way up. Consult your doctor first, but give it a try.

For me, HIIT means I get to do more for my health in less time. On non-running days, I’ll often do a very short workout on a stationary bike. I do 11 minutes and I get five one-minute intervals of intense pedaling interspersed with one-minute warm-up and cool down periods. Afterwards, I feel like I’ve been exercising for a half-hour or more. Again, your results may vary.

A word of caution.

Don’t try to do all of these things at once. They are working for me and they have allowed me to get healthier for the same amount of time and energy (or less) than I was spending previously. However, I added each of these to my daily routines at separate times. If you saw my blog on developing habits, you know that we only have so much cognitive energy and developing a new habit uses a lot of it. So pick one thing and try it. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t have to think about it anymore and you can try something else. By adding one thing at a time, you can continually improve your health and feel great about it, too.

Questions for Reflection:

Which of these four changes gets you most excited?

How can you get started?

What will it feel like to succeed?

 

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Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

Photo by Olu Eletu

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

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How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?

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Does Your Family Make You Anxious? (And Why It Matters for Leadership)

Photo (Public Domain) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons-

I was once at a meeting of mostly clergy colleagues. There were eight of us sitting around a table. It was August and the leader asked everyone to share about what they had done that summer. As we went around the table, the answers were pretty consistent.

“I just got back from a week of vacation with my family, Ugh!”

“I vacationed with my family and I survived.”

“Our family got together and it was pretty good for a few days, but then it got ugly.”

Actually, only about half of the responses were along these lines, but it was startling to me. I never realized vacationing with family was such a problem. Since we’ve been married, that’s pretty much all we do. We vacation every year in Cape Hatteras with my wife’s family and we get together at least every other year with my family, including my mom’s sisters and my cousins.

In fact, when one of my kids was young I was asked, “Dad, when I grow up and get married, will my (spouse) be a part of the family?”

“Of course,” I said.

“No. I mean, will they be able to come to Hatteras with us?”

For my children, being family meant vacationing together, in a good way. I’m not saying we’re perfect. Like any family, we have our issues. Vacationing together is not one of them. So, I was surprised by the responses at the meeting.

So here’s the question: Does your family make you anxious?

I’m not talking about just your immediate family. I’m also talking extended family. This is what family systems theory calls your family of origin. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

I would say that if there isn’t something about your family of origin that makes you anxious, then you are unconscious or in denial.

The primary factor in this kind of family induced anxiety is surrounding togetherness pressure. This is the pressure to conform to existing, mostly unspoken, family norms. These surrounding togetherness pressures show up in things as basic as how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and how you do vacations. They extend to how children are raised, how money is handled and how you deal with conflict (or not). Anytime you feel the pressure to conform in your family of origin, you are feeling a surrounding togetherness pressure.

Here’s the thing. The problem is with you.

If you are feeling anxious about pressure to conform, that’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s how your family rolls. If you don’t like it, then it’s up to you to do something about it. In family systems, we call this taking an emotional stand. There are two components to this.

First, own your own position without blaming others. Say, “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. This is what I would like to see.” If you are blaming others for the way you feel, that’s not taking an emotional stand, that’s being childish. The key here is to be able to state your position while giving others the freedom to have their own position, as well.

Second, stay connected emotionally in a non-anxious way. This is called being a non-anxious presence. Taking an emotional stand is meaningless, even harmful, if you withdraw from those in your family. It’s not really taking responsibility for your own condition, it’s running away. Conversely, staying connected while you spew your anxiety over everyone around you is not helpful either.

So how do you do this?

Do your own work. Reflect on your family of origin and start to unpack the unwritten rules that make you tick. Anytime you feel anxious, ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is especially true if you are anxious and you don’t handle it well. If you spew anxiety at others and blame them (reactivity), if you get passive aggressive or if you just stuff it and get resentful (adaptivity), then you are not taking an emotional stand.

It’s likely that if you are anxious, there is an unresolved issue with someone in your family of origin. There is someone with whom you have never been able to take an emotional stand. Or someone has hurt you and you haven’t been able to forgive them. Or a host of other possibilities. This is not easy work. It may even require a therapist.

Why does this matter for leadership?

Because any time you feel anxious in a given situation, whether in your family, church or organization, the anxiety is your issue, not anybody else’s. More importantly, the source of the anxiety is not the situation you are in, but your inability to deal with it. And that goes back to your own family of origin. If you want to be better able to handle your anxiety in ANY situation, you need to do your own work in your family of origin. Deal with the unresolved issues. This is especially important if you know your anxiety creates problems because you get reactive, passive aggressive or adaptive.

Effective leaders are able to take emotional stands in non-anxious ways. This does not mean that they don’t listen to others. It means they are able to say what they believe and own it, while giving others the freedom to do the same. Effective leaders deal with surrounding togetherness pressures in their family, church and organization in helpful, healthy ways.

You will get anxious. We all do. I get anxious all the time. But I work on how to deal with it. I’m conscious of it. I work to be a more healthy member of my own family of origin, as well as my church and the ministry I serve. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try to be aware of my anxiety and deal with it appropriately. That’s all we can do.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you deal with it?

What would help you to take non-anxious, emotional stands with others?

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Three Leadership Lessons I Learned from Mary and Mary

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8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:8-10 NRSV

The two Mary’s have something to teach us about fear. In Matthew’s resurrection account, not only are they the first to see the risen Jesus, but they are commissioned by an angel and Jesus to go to Galilee and tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Here are three leadership lessons that I learned from them.

Just show up.

Woody Allen was famously quoted by his Annie Hall co-writer, Marshall Brickman, in this 1977 New York Times article, “As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80% of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed, I’ve done both.”

Mary and Mary just showed up. They had no real reason to go to the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea had prepared the body when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Besides, there were Roman guards standing watch. But something compelled them to “go see the tomb.”

When God nudges you, when the Holy Spirit draws you, what do you do? Do you go? Or do you ignore God’s prompting and stay home in bed.

Being a Christian leader is about believing that God will direct your path. Will lead you and guide you. But there is an element of faith. You have to be willing to go without knowing exactly what’s in store. Mary and Mary just showed up and they saw an angel and the risen Jesus.

Do not be afraid.

The Mary’s are told by the angel to not be afraid. Then we’re told that they “…they left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples (MT 28:8).” The word that is used for fear in the text is often translated “awe or reverence,” as in the fear of the Lord. But the classical meaning is to withdraw, flee or separate because of dread or feeling inadequate. It is often used in the scripture to describe withdrawing from God’s will.

Which raises the question: How often do you know God is calling you to do something, but you feel inadequate?

Mary and Mary are described as having felt this way. But they went anyway.

I would say that more often than not, when I believe God is calling me to do something, I don’t feel adequate. Yet, there is this weird combination of fear, excitement and joy, just like the Mary’s experienced, because I know God is up to something. And when God does it, I know God deserves the credit.

So, when Jesus tells you to go do something. Just go.

Which leads to the third lesson.

Jesus IS with us.

The angel told Mary and Mary to go to Galilee and spread the word. He promised that Jesus would meet them there. So they went, even though they felt inadequate and afraid. As soon they did, Jesus showed up. And he reminded them once more, not to be afraid.

The faith journey is filled with uncertainty. When God is calling us to lead, we may have a glimpse of what the destination looks like. But nothing happens unless we make a move. Take a step. Move in the right direction. When we do, Jesus will remind us that he is with us. That we are not alone and we don’t need to fear.

Just show up. Do not be afraid. Jesus is with us.

How much could you accomplish for God if you remember these three things?

Questions for Reflection:

Where is God calling you to show up?

What are you afraid of?

What will it take to make a move in that direction?

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Two Addictions I Kicked (or Clarity Happens)

Photo By Frédéric DE GOMBERT (alias Carnby) Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

I have an addictive personality.

I always knew this. But, when I was in seminary I took a family systems course and did my genogram. A genogram is a family tree that focuses on emotional process and how things are passed from generation to generation. My own genogram showed me that addictive personalities were common, especially among the males, in my family of origin.

How this translated into my own life is that it is hard for me to do something half-heartedly. For the things I choose to do, I’m either all in or checked out.

One of my addictions was video games. This started right around the time that I finished seminary. We had gotten the original Nintendo game console for our kids, but I was the one who got hooked. I grew up loving pinball, then arcade video games, so this was no surprise.

My game was Super Mario Cart.

It’s a silly go-kart racing game that consumed me. I would play at night after everyone went to bed so that it didn’t interfere with my work life or family life. And I killed it. First I mastered the 50cc level. Then the 100cc level, which I thought meant I mastered the game. But as soon as I completed that, a whole new level, 150cc, magically appeared. I was sad when I mastered 150cc and nothing new appeared.

Then it was on to Mario Andretti racing. I always liked Indy cars, so this was cool. I got to race on tracks I had seen on TV, which made it even more realistic. It was around this time that my family got me a steering wheel, gas/brake pedal, gear-shift attachment. Big mistake. No more thumbs for me, I was really driving.

But something happens in an addiction. It’s no longer fun.

I got to the point that the only thing that mattered was winning every race. If I crashed or didn’t finish first it was a failure. And even winning didn’t feel good. I just checked it off and moved on. Worse yet, it started affecting my life. I would stay up later and later. Just one more race. Just one more race. If you’ve ever binge-watched a TV show, you know the feeling. I would stay up way too late and go to bed feeling unfulfilled. Not good.

My other addiction was the football team I grew up loving. I recently wrote about why I’m giving up my season tickets, but I have not been addicted for a long time. Oh, I love watching and rooting, but it wasn’t an addiction.

You see, when I was addicted, my life revolved around the team. The worst part was how I felt when they lost. It ruined my day. Made me grumpy. It often carried over into the next day. I would wake up and think about the game with regret. And they lost a lot. Not good.

So how did I kick these addictions? Clarity.

There were two separate but related incidents that occurred very close to each other in time. One when I was playing video games on a weekend day (my addiction had gotten out of hand). The other when I was watching my team lose.

In each of these incidents, one of my kids came up and asked me to do something with them. In each case, I snapped back that I was busy and they went away sad. It still makes me sad to think about it. I hope they forgive me.

Nobody had to tell me what was going on. I felt it deep down. You might say it was God getting through to me. But I stopped playing video games. And even though I kept rooting for my team it was different. If they lost, I reminded myself that it was just a game.

In fact, they lost so much for so long that my wife asked me, “Why do you still watch them?”

I would say, “It’s entertainment. You pay to go to sad movies don’t you (actually, she doesn’t)?”

Why do I share this?

Because every once in a while God gives us a moment of clarity where we understand what really matters.

These are life-changing, if we pay attention. And then do something about it. That’s what I learned.

I’m not suggesting that every addiction is so easy to kick. There are many that are devastating and seemingly impossible to be free from. But I am saying that doing my own family systems work helped me. It helped me to better understand who I am and what drives me. So when that moment of clarity came, I knew what I had to do.

I still have an addictive personality. But, I’m learning to focus it on positive things. I’ve been running regularly (some might say obsessively) since 2009. And for the last six months, I have been writing regularly. And in all of this, perhaps even because of this, I trust that there will be other moments of clarity. That’s how God works.

Questions for Reflection:

What consumes you? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

How does God get through to you?

What do you do about it?

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How to Nurture a Disciple of Jesus

Jerusalem Cross by the North Carolina Annual Conference

This is a follow-up to the last post on what a Disciple of Jesus looks like. It came out of a discussion in a clergy study group where a colleague asked these two questions in tandem:

  • What does a disciple of Jesus look like?
  • How do you nurture this?

It was a great discussion and it got me to thinking. A lot. I think my friend is getting to the essence of the Christian journey. As a pastor of a church, he wants to be able to cast a vision so that people can see themselves growing as disciples, can know when they are on the correct path AND can have an idea of how to get there.

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks and here is my answer to the second question: The means of grace.

I’m not being flippant. I believe that growing as a disciple of Jesus is simple. Avail one’s self of the means of grace. I’m not saying it’s easy to do. But it’s not rocket science.

Before we go there, let’s define GRACE. This is my favorite word in all of theology. To me, it’s the key to everything. Grace is God’s unmerited favor for us. It is God’s unconditional love. It’s God loving us even though we don’t deserve it. It’s God loving us even though we can’t earn it.

To me, grace IS the power of God in our lives. When I experience God’s grace, I am more likely to be grateful, to be less selfish, to be more outwardly focused and to be more centered on God. To me, grace is a very real experience that brings us to God, reconciles us to God and molds us in the image of God. It is about nothing that we do and everything that God does. So we can’t take credit for it. We can only give thinks in awe and wonder.

When we pray for, love and forgive our enemies, that is God’s grace working in us. When we love others unconditionally, the way God loves us, that is grace working in us. When we are caring for the least, the last and the lost, that is grace working in us. So, going back to the last post, when we recognize a disciple of Jesus by her actions and her character, what we are recognizing is God’s grace working in her.

This is all nice, theological, theoretical stuff. But how does it work?

The means of grace.

This is why I’m such a United Methodist geek. Our Wesleyan tradition is built on this understanding and it continues to be relevant today. Let’s unpack it.

The means of grace are not grace. They are ways that grace is experienced. They are time-tested practices and rituals that Christians throughout the centuries have found to result in an experience of grace.

Here’s how the means of Grace break down in our Wesleyan tradition.

Works of Piety

These are inwardly focused practices intended to help us grow in our relationship with God. We can do these individually (private) or communally (public).

Acts of Devotion: Individual works of Piety include studying scripture, prayer and meditation, fasting, healthy living and sharing our faith with others.

Acts of Worship: Communal works of Piety include congregational worship, sharing in the sacraments (Baptism and Communion), Christian conferencing, which holds us accountable to others, and group Bible Study.

The individual works are self-explanatory. You might find a few thoughts on the communal works helpful.

In Communion, we experience the real presence of Jesus. Part of that experience is that we are doing this together with others and God is present in our midst. This is grace upon grace.

Why is Baptism a means of grace? My own experience has been that the longer I have journeyed with Jesus, the more my blessings have come from seeing how God is working in someone else’s life, not my own. When we do a Baptism in church, I am filled with joy and what God has done in the life of the person before us. That is grace.

Finally, Christian conferencing is a fancy way to say that we cannot journey alone. According to John Wesley, support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. Christian conferencing provides both support and accountability. In Wesley’s day, the primary way this was done was the class meeting. The modern day equivalent would be an effective small group.

Works of Mercy

These means of grace are outwardly focused and help us to grow in our relationship with others, as well as God.

Acts of Compassion: Individual works of Mercy include doing good works, visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and giving sacrificially.

Acts of Justice: Communal works of Mercy aim to end the systemic causes of injustice and oppression that cause the need for our individual works of Mercy in the first place. Working to end poverty, homelessness and discrimination of any kind are communal works of Mercy.

If you are a United Methodist geek, you may recognize that this format is used in Covenant Discipleship (CD) groups. CD groups are specifically focused on the means of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. I have participated in CD groups and can testify to their value. Although, I will say that any small group that is well-designed and well-led can help you to avail yourself of the means of grace.

Back to my friend’s question. How do you nurture mature disciples of Jesus?

The means of grace.

Here is the caveat. It’s difficult to nurture the means of grace in another. You can definitely have an impact on others when journeying together. But you can’t give them the desire for grace. That’s between each person and God.

You can lead a person to the well, but you can’t make them drink the living water.

As a church, we can share what a mature disciple of Jesus looks like. We can teach people about the means of grace. We can encourage people to grow in grace. Ultimately, the best thing each of us can do is grow in grace ourselves.

Questions for Reflection:

How are you growing in grace?

What individual practices would you like to start?

What communal practices would you like to start?

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