Monday, December 29, 2008

Being a Better Friend

A few months ago, I attended a luncheon held by a prominent local church with a strong reputation for caring for church starting missionaries. As the program began, the moderator of the event, a seasoned church planting veteran with a deep passion for reaching people for Christ and a concern for the loneliness that church starters face in ministry, opened the event by encouraging those of us who attended the conference to learn all that we could and to take advantage of the time we had together by skipping the surface banter and "going deep" with the people at our table! I almost laughed out loud! Though I knew he meant well, and I knew that there is a serious need for deeper relationships among those who serve in ministry, I also knew that it was very unlikely, at least for me, that I would feel comfortable "going deep" with a table full of people I had barely known for 5 minutes!

I further contemplated the importance of going deep when a dear friend and colleague in ministry informed me of a critical situation a fellow partner in ministry was facing. We met for lunch and he had suggested that we might make a road trip together to visit our ministry compatriot who was then facing an incredibly difficult trial. When our colleague was approached about the idea, he graciously and lovingly communicated that perhaps it was best that I not be a part of the reunion as he really needed to do some deep sharing about his situation and my friendship with him just wasn't quite deep enough for him to feel comfortable sharing in the way he really needed to. His request wasn't at all difficult for me to understand, and I really appreciated his directness which prevented what might have been an awkward situation from occurring. His decision caused me to honestly evaluate my relationship with him and brought me to the understanding that any critical life test readily provides - that though our relationship was a friendship, it was not at a sufficient depth to warrant the kind of sharing one reserves for those closest to you as one deals with the Really Big Issues.

As I reflected on this honest interaction with my ministry colleagues and friends, I realized that it is very easy to paint all friendships with a broad stroke and to fail to understand the different characteristics and depths that friendships can assume. With that in mind, I invite you to consider my reflections on how friendships can be better understood, appreciated, cultivated and deepened.

As I examined my own friendships, I noticed that my friendships have formed from a variety of life experiences and seasons. I have friendships that formed during my childhood, friendships that developed during my educational career, friendships that formed in my professional life, and friendships that formed through a variety of specific events where a shared experience produced a valuable relationship. It is also evident in my own life that there are different levels of friendship. I have friendships that are comfortably casual, but not very deep. In these friendships, I know I'll have a good time and pleasant conversation on any given occasion, but I don't rely on these relationships as my "go to" friendships should I face a significant personal problem. On the other hand, I have friendships that are so deep, they have developed beyond friendships and have virtually become family relationships. One such friendship came up in a family discussion last week as we recounted funny family episodes over dinner during the Christmas Holiday. My daughters began telling stories about their Uncle Joe - whom I often refer to as "Bubba" - sharing how much they loved this brother of mine and how much he and others like him meant to them. My son-in-law was a bit confused and interjected, "I thought your dad was an only child?" "He is!" My oldest daughter responded, but these people are such a part of our lives that they have become family - not pretend family, REAL family!" Friendships like those are very special and are the hallmark of what friendship is all about.

Quality friendships like my friendship with Bubba stand the tests of time and distance, and are maintained without diminishing the intensity of affection or level of commitment. In fact, commitment is the cornerstones of such a friendship. It is the wilful bonding with another person that vows to remain connected regardless of circumstances, trials or the changing seasons of life. Commitment means effort - taking the time and energy to cultivate and nurture a meaningful relationship because the risk of losing such a valued friend is just too high of a price to pay for relational laziness.

We are fortunate to live in a time where technology has given us many tools that make cultivating relationships just a little bit easier. One of the reasons I love e-mail and I love to blog is that it gives me a convenient, almost instant and efficient way to share my thoughts with many friends, even friends who are geographically impossibly far away, on an on-going basis. A particularly favorite tool I added to my relational arsenal this year is facebook. When I first heard of facebook, I didn't think much of it and dismissed it as a youthful fad. It wasn't until my older daughters asked me to check it out so that my younger daughter could join in that I recognized it's value. More than that, when out of curiosity I did a search for a few old friends with whom I had lost contact - for almost 20 years - and I found them, I realized what a great way facebook was to keep in touch a reestablish connections with friends. With facebook it's possible to keep current on the goings on in a friend's life through pictures, video clips, music, short messages, e-mail accounts, instant messages, fun messages an more. Other similar sites like Linked-in, Plaxo, and Friendster provide similar opportunities for friendship maintenance and business connections as well. Of course, there's still connecting in through good old fashioned letter writing via "snail mail", and telephone calls. For the ultimate connection, nothing can replace face to face visits when "sending the very best" just doesn't quite cut it, and the ever-trusty "meeting over coffee" or a meal for friends who are geographically near.

As the New Year approaches, and you consider making some critical investments to enrich your life, don't leave out the precious investment of building and developing your friendships. The tools are all around. It's up to you to take the time and effort to make the friendships happen. It took a refused invitation to make me renew my efforts to invest in my friends in the coming year. Don't you let a "wake up call" be required to move you to "reach out and touch someone" you care about in your life. Write, call, e-mail or visit someone you care about today. There's no time like now to rekindle a friendship and to do all you can do to be a better friend. Until next time...


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Should We Celebrate Christmas?

Christmastime brings out the best and worst in the people who seek to celebrate it. Some look forward to the beauty and pageantry that have become symbolic expressions of the joy of Christmas. Decorated streets, elaborately lighted homes, and 24/7 Christmas music marathons create an atmosphere that sets Christmas apart as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Others dread Christmas as a time that highlights their being left out, alone and in deepest despair without anyone to truly turn to for help. There are still others who embrace Christmas as a time to enter into a fantasy world, where they can escape reality and embrace a magical world where there is an abundance of all that one could desire and an opportunity to indulge oneself in excesses that would never be considered rational at any other time of the year. With these and countless other approaches to observing Christmas, what is an appropriate response to this Season which at its core is meant to be a celebration of God's Greatest Gift to humanity?

Those of us who follow Christ need to embrace the joy of Christmas and welcome others who feel that joy, but don't exactly understand why. At the first Christmas, when the angel appeared to the shepherds, though his presence initially terrified them, his words were comforting and encouraging to them.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord' Luke 2:8-11.

The angel came with good news meant to be a source of joy for all people! If one believes that God truly sent His Son to save humanity from the penalty of sin that first Christmas and that His intention was to leave an indelible mark on history that would forever change the way people think, live and act, it is no wonder that the time that has been set apart to celebrate Jesus' birth has impact that extends well beyond the Christian Community of faith. God's message of peace and goodwill so resonates with the deepest desires of the human heart that even those who are blind to the essential message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ are hungry for the fruit of the message and seek out ways to claim the fruit for themselves at every opportunity. Christmas opens the door of opportunity for everyone, both believing and unbelieving, to partake of the fruit of God's love with gusto and unrestrained enthusiasm. This general openness creates a wonderful avenue for Christian believers to explain the Reason for the Season and to close the gap for those who are seeking purposefully or fumbling in spiritual darkness.

This gap closing can be best accomplished when Christians carry their joy beyond an emotive response and allow the light of faith to shine through them in powerful acts of loving service. A dear friend of mine who pastors a church in the Cleveland area launched a ministry outreach designed a number of years ago by another ministry which is called the Advent Conspiracy. The basic elements of this outreach ministry are this: Worship fully. Spend less. Give More. Love all! The Advent Conspiracy website has this to say about giving more:
God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving.

The great thing about the elements that make up this conspiracy is that they are truths that should characterize Christian action all of the time. Christmas becomes not an excuse for selfish indulgence, but an opportunity to put the foundational elements of Christian action to work in a more direct and focused way. All of the great Christmas stories from "A Christmas Carol" to "The Grinch who Stole Christmas" actually reflect the truths of the Advent Conspiracy. A Changed Heart refocused on God's glory and His truth that leads to less spent on self, more given to others and an abundant flow of love dispensed generously to all. This Christmas, don't allow yourself to sink in selfish despair or to become indulgent in self-gratifying excess. Let yourself get caught up in the great conspiracy that doesn't tear down or destroy, but instead restores and renews others who see the good work you do and as a result, begin to glorify the Heavenly Father. Have a Very merry Christmas and enjoy being part of the Conspiracy! Until Next time...


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

All Grown Up!

This past Sunday, our youngest daughter, Victoria, celebrated her 4th birthday! Any child's birthday is a big deal and a wonderful time of celebration, but each birthday is especially so for our Victoria! As most of you remember, Victoria was born very prematurely at 28 weeks gestation and struggled for her life for the first two months after her birth. The Lord graciously touched her body and she grew stronger and stronger until she was able to graduate from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and venture out into the great big world that awaited her. Now that she is four, she is walking, talking, running and jumping and eager to do things on her own and to help any of us in our various tasks too whether we need it or not! It's so much fun to hear her exclaim, "I'm all grown up now! I can help!" It just brings smiles to all of our faces!

Even though Victoria is the most vocal daughter we have in declaring her womanhood, we have three other daughters who have the right to brag about womanhood, but refrain from doing so - Coco and Maris who are fully grown and out on their own, and Joana who is incredibly mature for her age and nearing the threshold of adult independence. I can remember when each of my three older girls were tiny too, and I often find myself feeling as if I'm caught in a time warp, remembering them in early childhood striving towards independence and seeing them actually having achieved mature womanhood right before my eyes.

I think what has most blessed me beyond any expectations I had when they were children, is their earnest concern for others, their eagerness to be of help whenever and however they can and especially their unwavering dedication to look after Luz and me. We all have problems and challenges, and I am no exception. My girls have been of amazing assistance to me, encouraging me, pushing me onward and even gently yet effectively giving me advice when I find myself "stuck" in search of solutions. I cannot adequately describe the joy and overwhelming gratitude of having a grown daughter hold your hand and offer to pray for you without your asking for it, or to have a teen aged daughter listen to a problem and offer a hug and a word of encouragement. There's just nothing so rich as having your own "little girl" listen to you ramble on about some problem and to have her offer sound advice on making things right and moving ahead past the challenge.

When Luz and I were busy raising our older girls in their early years, it never occurred to us that as they went on to live their own lives and deal with their own problems, they would actually present themselves again and again to help us whenever we needed it! Now, lest I be accused of false advertising, we do have our moments where the generation gap is evident in communication breakdowns and differences of opinion. Nevertheless, I have found that even in the midst of the times we don't see eye to eye, it is imperative on my part to acknowledge what the Lord is doing in the lives of my daughters and to be open to the possibility that the Lord just may have given them some pearl of wisdom or nugget of truth that could help to address whatever difficulty that faces me.

A dear friend saw a picture of my family taken during the summer and called me a rich man. He was right. I have so much to be thankful for - things that just can't be measured by a bank account, but things that really do give one wealth. I'm thankful for the blessings of daughters who are all grown up, not quite grown and who think their grown. My prayer is to treasure these wonderful women and the woman who gave them to me all my days and in everything I do to honor the love and blessings they have showered upon me ever since I became "Daddy!" Until next time...


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Avoid The Herd!

Black Friday. As someone who tries to be as sensitive as possible when I speak and write, I'm not exactly sure why this particular label has emerged to describe the day the shopping madness for Christmas officially begins, but it doesn't quite sit all that easily with me. Nevertheless, though I might opt for some other title to describe the phenomenon, I believe I understand the attempt to address the sense of dread that accompanies the start of the Christmas shopping season for retailers and shoppers. In one tragic example of what can go wrong, a major retail store worker was trampled to death as he opened the doors for the "Friday Madness". Apparently, as the doors were opened, shoppers entered the store with such force that doors were taken off the hinges and the store employee was killed by the onslaught that even seriously injured those who tried to save him! I understand that finding a good deal can be a real motivator, but stampeding to the point of killing someone? Outrageous!

This incident shows just how easily a "herd mentality" can take over an otherwise sensible group of people. Caught up in a moment and a "movement," people who would most likely not ever consider lifting a hand in anger against another human being to the point of murder, literally stomped a man to death! This is inexcusable. I have ministered in settings around the world and in this country where people faced situations in which their very lives were at stake because of some serious problems like a lack of food, shelter and adequate medical care. What amazes me when I consider what was at stake with these folks, is that they had to wait in line for hours, sometimes days, to receive help that literally prevented them from dying, and in very few cases did I witness anything close to a stampede or disorderly conduct! Most of the time, they merely waited their turn and received the help available with dignity and courteous regard for others. I believe this s the kind of example and perspective we must consider as we face the temptation to enter into the madness of the Friday free for all.

As a Christian, I am called to follow the Good Shepherd who leads a flock, not a herd. The Bible assures me that He knows what I need before I ask and, should I feel compelled to ask, I need not panic because The Good Shepherd is inclined to hear me and to help me as I need it. When I was in Seminary, I remember being admonished along with my classmates to consider why the Lord constantly used the example of sheep and a flock rather than cattle and a herd. Our instructor explained, "Cattle can be mindlessly driven. Sheep must be thoughtfully led."

My challenge to you and to myself as we enter the Christmas Season is to remember to go with the Shepherd and the flock, and to avoid the pitfalls of following a herd. With the Shepherd, we're challenged to put the needs of others above our own. Philippians 2 puts it this way:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross...

SO, let's slow down and take some time to consider how we might use this Christmas season to spread the love of the Lord through caring deeds of service and kindness directed towards others. I've heard some encouraging stories of individuals and churches who are taking some powerful steps to assist others during this season rather than focusing on themselves. Take time right now to help others and show that you're a member of the Flock, whether it's by donating money, food, time or ideas to an existing ministry or service organization or by serving others on your own who are not on any assistance or help radar. Just do it! Jesus said that His sheep know His voice. The Good Shepherd is calling all who claim to follow Him to not pursue treasures that will ultimately not last or satisfy. Follow Him and His example: be humble, courageous and kind, willing to go the extra mile that someone else might know the love of God through the light your kindness shows. That's life with the flock. Don't get sidetracked by the thunder of a herd. The Shepherd's still small voice and clearly written Word has shown us the best way.

Until next time...