What if our TROUBLE times are really our best times for growing stronger?

Is it possible to grow stronger in the troubling times? Enjoy this excerpt from my book, JOY & THRIVING.

Our eyes flooded with tears as we drove away from the doctor’s office. We felt overwhelmed. It was a chilly, gray, and windy November morning. Nanc’ and I had just learned that we were having a miscarriage. As we returned home, a storm was hovering over our region. We were devastated. How could life possibly feel any worse?

Pulling into our drive, the wind grew more severe. As we approached the house, we discovered that chunks of our roof were lifting and blowing off. I remember sitting in our bedroom, bawling together, and listening to the shingles fly from the top of our townhouse. It was one of those days when you wonder if someone secretly taped a “KICK ME” sign on your back. The winds of trouble had rolled into our lives with gale-force strength. It was ugly and crushing to our souls.

James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds . . .” (1:2). Notice, it’s not if. From James’ perspective, troubles are not a college elective you opt to take because you might have some casual interest. Here’s the harsh reality. They happen whenever. Troubles and trials are a very normal part of life.

Some translations say “various” trials. The word can also be translated “many-colored.” Troubles come your way in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. And “come your way” has an even more picturesque idea. Literally, the ancient language says, “when you fall into troubles.” Think of your car sliding off the road into snow or your tractor getting stuck in a muddy hole. Most of us know all too well what it feels like to fall into troubles.

We’ve got Trouble, with a capital T!

Pandemics, market meltdowns, and black holes of anxiety carry angst way beyond Professor Hill’s fabricated crises in The Music Man. Our own genuine capital T troubles should not really surprise us. Unfortunately, in our quest for carefree, always-happy, healthy-wealthy, and rose-colored lives, we get shocked every time trouble hits. It might help our overall world-and-life view to realize that troubles are part of the normal fabric of life. It’s as if James is saying: get used to it!

That’s not ultra-pessimism, just a dose of reality. Some systems of theology and versions of church popularize the notion that God only ever wants to bless your life with smooth sailing, tranquil waters, and endless happiness. “You just have to be spiritual enough, faith-filled enough, positive enough. Then all your dreams can come true.” Hearing what James teaches us is essential to a better understanding of genuine life and true faith in King Jesus.

Sadly, COVID-19 devastated lives in our local nursing homes. A dear and godly man from our church—immensely loved by his wife, children, and grandchildren—was among those stricken with the dreadful illness. In those weeks before he stepped into Jesus’ presence, none of his family were able to visit him. Goodbyes had to be said over the phone. It was tragic. I stood at the graveside with his precious family, overwhelmed with them in the realization. He was gone. Treacherous illness descended on this man and his family. It felt so unfair. He had lived an upstanding, generous, devoted life.

Such a twisted, cursed outcome never seems to add up, no matter how much we tap the calculator keys. James knew it too, and so did those early Christ-followers, “the twelve tribes scattered abroad.” They were facing the distance, persecution, famine, and opposition. How could a good and loving Father let such things happen?  

James realized a vital truth we need to realize. Trials and troubles do come; there’s no escaping them. We cannot stop them. We can’t catch lucky breaks by doing a bunch of righteous deeds. You might think that would be ideal, but life has never really worked that way. Ours is still a sin-cursed world. We are still awaiting Christ’s glorious return and the ultimate renewal someday in his wondrous new kingdom. James challenges us, whenever trials come—and it’s inevitable, they will blow your way—we are to “count it all joy.”

Count it all joy? Really?!

Really? I know what you’re thinking. “You’ve got to be kidding! Count it all joy? That’s outrageous. Who in their right mind can rejoice over COVID-19 or a miscarriage?” And to make matters worse, the attitude James is calling for is not some flighty joy, like “good feels” born of happy days and fun circumstances. Phillip Keller explains that

the joy which is a hallmark of God’s Kingdom is not a state of happiness dependent on changing circumstances or on what is happening around us. It is, rather, a serene, stable spirit known only to those who enjoy the presence of God’s person within their lives. They sense and know that the King is in residence. In this awareness, there lies enormous assurance and quiet joy . . . free from fear and joyous with the strength of God, no matter how tempestuous life may be.[i]

James is calling us to develop such deep-in-our-souls satisfaction and contentedness, no matter what blows our way. Do you sense the King is in residence? Are you enjoying his presence?

Jesus’ brother says, “Calculate troubles as fresh opportunities.” He was calling those early Jesus-followers—and us today—to take a very intentional outlook. A deliberate, chosen frame of mind.  This is crucial, because we too often react instead of respond.  We freak out in ugly anger or loopy worry or dismal depression. We think, “Woe is me! No one else has ever had it this bad.” Or “I’m a victim.” Or “It’s all over; this is the end; I will never recover.” It’s our knee-jerk reaction to say, “That’s it; I quit. I’m not going to even try anymore.” So, we give up in whatever arena we are experiencing troubling times.

It’s “giveupitus.” We give up on our family. We give up in school. We give up in the business. When you find it’s not easy being a committed follower of Jesus. When your choices are not wildly popular with your family. When people at work are bringing pressure on you to compromise your values. When you’ve been rejected by someone because you follow Jesus. When the winds of the COVID-crisis season are blowing even more shingles off your roof. It’s tempting to say, “I give up on passionately pursuing and following Jesus!”

Notice James’ aim with such intentional outlook: all joy! Here’s an opportunity for truly abundant, exuberant, overflowing joy. Again, real joy goes beyond our normal ideal feelings of situational happiness. Instead, this joy is deep in your soul satisfaction, no matter what your circumstances. It’s born out of resilient faith, a serious trust in God’s loving, good, and all-wise plans.

A million-dollar question

In verse three, James describes troubles as “the testing of your faith.” Such a test aims to prove something is genuine. Will the renowned expert on The Antiques Roadshow verify the dusty, ugly vase some dude bought at a yard sale is the real McCoy, worth thousands more than he paid for it? James claims that trials prove our faith is the real deal.

But what is faith? There’s a million-dollar question. Faith gets tossed around in mainstream media along with buzzwords like love, sex, and cheeseburgers. All sorts of feel-good-ism and self-help is often associated with today’s popular talk on faith. But what is it, really? Erwin Raphael McManus astutely explains: “To the best of my understanding, faith is trusting God enough to obey what He has said, and hope is having the confidence that God will do everything He has promised. One pushes you; the other pulls you.”[ii] I love such an explanation. Faith is grounded in serious substance. With substantive faith, we dare to take God at his word and trust his promises are really true. Then we choose to live all of life like he will do exactly what he said he will do.[iii]

What if our tough times are really the best times for growing stronger? James explains what such testing of your faith produces. Greater endurance!  It’s stick-to-it perseverance. You remain patient in the midst of the suffering. Perseverance means you stand your ground in the trouble. Like Rocky being bludgeoned blow after blow by Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Though he’s exhausted from being pounded, Rocky stays on his feet. He keeps bobbing and taking more of the beating, just waiting for the right opportunity.

Though James originally struggled to believe, his encounter after Jesus’ resurrection awakened his own faith (1 Cor 15:7). Those early days for Jesus’ family and friends were fear-filled with the threat of persecution. It was here that James joined the fellowship (Acts 1:14). In such a crucible of controversy, as the early church was getting started, James’ own endurance began to grow. Eventually, he became a key leader and was recognized as a “pillar” in the growing movement (Acts 12:17, 15:1-29).[iv] Perseverance means you hold on and hold up under the pressure. It’s staying power! We all need such endurance, the grit to persevere, especially in times like these.

What’s typically required for us to thrive under pressure? You only build more muscle by adding weight and repeating more reps. You will likely add distance and improve your running time as you doggedly push up the same painful stretch of hills day after day. You resist your every urge to give up. Stronger character only grows in our lives through experiencing troubles, and continuing to climb.

Choose joy when you encounter suffering, and you will build the kind of memory muscle necessary for thriving. You’ll develop greater tenacity in your own soul as well as greater capacity to share joy and thriving with family, neighbors, coworkers, and other friends. Notice what James says next. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (vs. 4).

One of God’s greater aims as we persevere in troubles is to hand-craft our genuine completion, a more thriving maturity in Christlike character. Here’s motivation to fully embrace the work God wants to do in your life through troubles and suffering. Why? The pay-off will be huge! You will become a different kind of person—complete, mature and developed—more like James’ big brother Jesus. You’ll have a deeper inner framework, primed and ready to graciously bless neighbors, coworkers, family, and others.

Serious question. Do you really believe your life can look more like Jesus? Ponder that. Too often, we stay stuck in the hole we fell into. We just wallow in the mud. When I take personal stock, I am afraid I’ve spent too many days making excuses, hiding behind my sorry circumstances, or collapsing again under the weight of my troubles. James urges us to buy into something richer and wiser. Living with more thriving, Christ-like tenacity can be a reality. But you have to choose joy in your various trials. And keep choosing joy. As you do, you’ll grow that stronger perseverance and be ready to live on mission for King Jesus in greater ways!

Reflections to help you grow stronger and thrive

What’s are the current troubles you’re facing? What’s your current trial feel like, and how are you handling it?

How might your situation and attitude look different if you choose real joy?

What will it take for you to see your troubles as opportunities for growth? Who could help you frame your situation with such perspective during this season?

Describe two or three tangible ways you can persevere right now. Paint a picture for yourself of what thriving endurance would look like.

Pray with an eager, teachable spirit. “Lord, show me more. Please grow me more.” Tap into deep determination based on Christ’s strength.

JOY & THRIVING is available on Amazon, in paperback or Kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Joy-Thriving-stronger-tough-times-ebook/dp/B08B8V944M/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=JOY+%26+THRIVING+John+Elton+Pletcher&qid=1616446189&sr=8-1

[i]W. Phillip Keller, A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1976, p. 71.

[ii]Erwin Raphael McManus, Seizing Your Divine Moment, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, p. 146.

[iii]I am forever indebted to Dr. James Lytle, long-time friend and professor. I first heard him share this understanding of grounded and active faith when I was an eighteen-year-old, sitting in his “Building a Biblical Lifestyle” class.

[iv]Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 68-9.

Featured

Will we see people with greater wonder?

Streaming tears. Yes, I will own them. Each time I’ve watched Wonder—the movie based on R.J. Palacio’s award-winning novel—I’ve been ambushed by this oh-so-moving story.

Born with a genetic disorder, Auggie’s little body required multiple surgeries. He wears his astronaut helmet because his face is distorted, even after plastic surgery. Auggie and his loving family live in Brooklyn. Originally taught at home, he’s finally sent to school in fifth grade. With helmet off, Auggie faces the full range of staring, pity, mockery, and bullying by kids. This amazing story traces Auggie’s school year, along with his parents, his sister Via, and his struggling friend Jack Will. We encounter stunning twists and turns revealing how people see Auggie and how Auggie sees everyone else.

The bulk of my daily work involves seeing and serving suffering people, deeply in need of help. If you ponder your own projects and tasks, you’ll likely conclude that’s true for most of us. From financial planners to nurses and doctors, school teachers to store clerks, automotive technicians, physical therapists and pastors, we major in helping all sorts of people. Precious people with very special needs, capabilities, disabilities, heartaches, hang-ups, hopes, and dreams.

Many days, our most pressing question becomes:

How will I see the person or group of people in my path? Will I see people more deeply, beyond my face-value, knee-jerk reaction?

The local church where I serve as lead pastor aims to love others with Christ-style love. Our aim is based on Jesus’ holistic call to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). That means our planning and behind-the-scenes efforts often involve strategizing endeavors for people who are experiencing physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and mental suffering. Then our very public, weekly events, gatherings, and services include active interface with those precious people.

Every Sunday, a host of people greet me, including multiple individuals with special needs, pressing health crises, and emotional distress. They long for encouragement, a listening ear, affirmation, prayer, a dose of genuine good news, directional wisdom, and practical help. I am regularly challenged with this foundational attitude choice: Will I see them as too different, unique, other and awkward? Will I glance their way, feel uncomfortable, and say to myself, “Yikes! Let’s move along now. Look away. Let’s shift focus to the ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ people!” OR will I truly and deeply see the precious people in my path?

During Auggie’s wonder story, especially poignant are the moments in Mr. Browne’s homeroom. This oh-so-wise teacher places a monthly precept on the board. September’s is:

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

In Palacio’s book, Mr. Browne’s May precept is from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Masterfully and subtly, Wonder’s screenplay writers wove the issue of how characters truly see one another all throughout the film. Auggie’s potential new friend, Jack Will, struggles with peer pressure from other boys who don’t want to hang out with Auggie. Jack vacillates between befriending him and bullying him like the other kids do. Eventually, Jack reveals his own true feelings about Auggie: “You get used to his face . . . He’s really good at science, and I really do want to be his friend.”

Mr. Tushman, the seasoned school principal, says something so stunning during his office confrontation with the bully Julian and his haughty parents. He challenges them: “Auggie can’t change the way he looks. Maybe we can change the way we see.”

A wrap-up concept near the movie’s end nails it:

“If you really want to see who people are, all you have to do is look.”

How do you see people with whom you work? Your clients, coworkers, and employees, especially those who are suffering or just different in light of their disabilities and special needs? I am moved by the divine work of seeing people, really seeing them. At the biblical culmination of creation, right after God crafts humans, we read:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a).

Scene after scene during Jesus’ ministry here on earth, we read:

“When Jesus saw __________ . . .” (Matthew 5:1, 8:14, 9:22, 14:14 plus numerous others).

When Jesus saw all sorts of people with all sorts of needs, the result was always some deliberate action, instruction, or other form of loving service in response. All because of seeing people via deeper outlook.

Let’s slow our steps, fix our gaze, and savor conversation. Let’s ask better questions, hear people’s stories, and gush kind affirmation. Folks are full of hopes, hurts, special needs, and yes, setbacks, missteps, mistakes, struggles, and heartache. But they also possess such powerful potential to display wondrous love and real joy. As we really see people, we’ll recognize more of God’s image and what a wonder people truly are.

O how I need greater doses of divine sight for all my interaction with others. Let’s see each person we encounter with fresh wonder this week!

Ravish your way through this snowy day. Make something!

Wind and the wintry mix were pounding our roof as I awoke. (‘Must confess, the little kid deep inside me said, “Ah, the storm did indeed deliver.”) After a foray outside with Musti, our Bernese-shepherd mutt, I began the joyous task of shoveling the driveway. I am well aware in light of the forecast, that is just round one.

Of course, I am contemplating when I’ll build the fire. This will require carefully stripping newspaper, strategically clumping kindling, and then lighting the flame. Snowy days like today certainly call for a fire. There is other work to do today, but a snowy day like this requires making a fire.

I’m struck with the integral connection between holy interruptions in our regular schedules—these God-appointed disturbances, like snowstorms—and the opportunity to make something. We learn of the God who oh-so-creatively makes things in Genesis 1. Many years later, Jesus reminded his critics that his Father is always working (John 5:16-18). So I’m challenged today with the opportunity.

I can make the most of the space, the sweet grace of extra time. I sense the Lord’s promptings today. “John, whatever you do during this storm, you must make something.” Just perhaps, we might each hear his whisper carried on the winds and driving flakes of snow. Perhaps we’ll dare to embrace our Father’s sacred dance of playful creation and a change of pace.

Build the fire and keep it burning all day. If you have a woodworking shop, use the time to build that table or refinish an antique chair that’s been gathering dust. Make french toast—and bacon, and eggs, and waffles. Go all out. Throw on your warmest snow clothes and go make memories—even just thirty minutes worth—with your kids. If you’re married, home alone, just the two of you, make the most of your time together. Wink-wink. (Need I really encourage this? It’s likely there will be a significant spike in hospital maternity traffic approximately nine months from this wintry blast.)

So, why not make something extra-special? You get the idea.

It’s an extra-crucial concept right now during this pandemic season. So many of us have become accustomed to working our normal jobs from home. No doubt you will need to do some of that normal work during the snowstorm. Just don’t miss the sacred chance to blow the whistle at least a few times along the way today.

Perhaps such gracious time carved out by snowstorms might, after all, be more like what God intends for our normal Sabbath rhythms (Genesis 2:1-3). I too often forget that intentional holy disruptions are commanded and encouraged, integral to practicing God’s intentions for truly abundant, good life.

We are too typically too busy. Snowstorms and accompanying Sabbath are made by our all-wise Father, for our good. When Jesus and his disciples walked through the fields and plucked grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees’ critique and Christ’s teaching proved unique and mildly puzzling (check out Mark 2:23-28). At least one of Christ’s intentions was to help us embrace the empowering tension of Sabbath. Yes, it’s commanded. Yes, we’re to be spontaneous. Yes, it’s God-like. And yes, it’s VERY good for us.

Stephen Cottrell, describing more sensitive Sabbath principles, urges us: “So never speak of wasting time or spending time. Rather, say you are enjoying it or giving it away freely. Never say you have an hour to kill. Rather, say you have an hour to revive, to bring to life, to ravish.”[1]

Let’s ravish our way through the upcoming snowy hours. Now go make something!

Special note: this post has been adapted and refreshed from another post on a snow-stormy day back in 2017. It seems I needed reminded again.

[1]Stephen Cottrell. Do Nothing to Change Your Life: Discovering What Happens When You Stop. (New York: Seabury Books), 2008, p. 69.

Capitol violence, MLK, and the Gospel of Peace

In the wake of the rioting and insurrection on January 6, I’m still trying to sort through the melee. My own soul needs calmed related to the unrest and violent actions. On this day as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, we all hope, long, and pray for cooler heads, calmer hearts, and a peaceful inauguration week.

Plenty of people are denouncing what transpired at the U.S. Capitol and saying, “Enough is enough. The hate must stop!” Voices are gathering and calling for more voices of peace.

I’ve been wrestling with an antithetical concept: I think we need a stronger hatred. I’m serious. Please hear me out. Consider the Apostle Paul’s engaging words:

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection,and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.Rejoice in our confident hope . . . Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone . . . Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)(emphasis mine)

Here is a foundational concept on our way to peace. It’s essential to “hate well.”[1] Hating well means we despise and push back all that is evil in our own hearts and in our collective consciences. It means starting right here in my chair, I vehemently combat the attitudes and actions that promote rank racism, self-consumed vengeance, and violence toward those of a different political persuasion. If there’s any real war to be waged, it must start in my own heart, to push back my own self-consumption.

St. Paul insists that we all CAN work for peace. He calls for genuine love, enthusiastic service, blessings instead of cursing, real-time empathizing, intentional harmonizing, and an everyday willingness to hang out with ordinary people. In these ways and more, we actively “hate evil” and “work for peace.”

Do we grasp the deeper purpose of peace? Additional biblical passages relate the necessity of serious action for Christ-followers, even employing the language of work. Consider these:

Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it.

Psalm 34:14 (NLT)

And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 (NLT)

God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9 (NLT)

Do these Scriptures have non-violence and the peaceful resolution of conflict in view? Absolutely. Are these truths applicable for both personal relationships and international affairs? Most certainly!

But is some passive posture all they have in view? Absolutely not. The core biblical idea behind peace is the robust Hebrew ideal of shalom. Christ’s peace is vitally related to the idea of actively working for human flourishing.

Richard Foster correlates: “Shalom embodies the vision of a harmonious, all-inclusive community of loving persons. The great vision of shalom begins and ends our Bible . . . The messianic child to be born is the ‘Prince of Peace,’ and justice and righteousness and peace are to characterize his unending kingdom (Isa. 9:6-7). Central to the dream of shalom is the magnificent vision of all nations streaming to the mountain of the temple of God to be taught his ways and walk in his paths.”[2]

Such Christ-honoring, grace-fueled call to “work for peace” supplies the basis for SO MUCH grace-based work that is happening already. Christ’s church today is being moved toward—

Stronger collaboration

Rather than rushing to join the saber rattling on “the left” or “the right,” more churches are working harder to actually communicate for positive change. Stephen Graves affirms: “Collaboration can be a freeway system for the gospel to travel. Non-collaboration can be a disappointing dead end or stifling roadblock.”[3]

Such collaboration begins with a highly personalized, one-person-at a time, heart-by-heart approach. Let’s admit it. We all have an encrusted aversion toward those people who are “the others”—those souls and skins who seem so antithetical to our own likes, loves, dislikes, and preferences. In great contrast, collaboration means I cultivate a holy hatred for my personal arrogance, laziness, and disgust for “the others.” Then I more deliberately love those people with different perspectives, different skin color, and the plethora of different cultural preferences that so often fuel my prejudices. We can each choose to host a meal, join others for coffee, and intentionally respond to their active overtures for mutual togetherness.

Strategic innovation toward greater flourishing

More churches are working toward Gospel-proclaiming and innovative community development. Such development aims for redemptive relationships leading toward economic growth and an overall shalom that’s grounded in saving grace. Where this is happening, both globally and in communities near our churches, such innovative work supplies a beautiful picture of counter-intuitive kindness (Romans 12:20). Through creative discipleship groups, brighter business plans, and expanding social justice in communities, Christ’s gospel is helping more people experience greater flourishing—real peace with God and peace with one another![4]

Herein lies the vibrant, Christ-like ideal of working to evoke positive change, forward momentum in the lives of people who are in need spiritually, socially, emotionally, and financially. We dare not forget, such need includes you and me! We are each impoverished, in need of God’s grace.

The local church with which I serve has certainly not arrived on these issues. Like most churches, we still have miles to go. But we are actively teaching, promoting, and mobilizing for greater one-on-one peace-making as well as stronger regional impact and more thoughtful global impact. After all, such healthier hatred of what’s wrong in our world and more loving pursuit of peace is rooted deeply in Jesus’ kingdom agenda for Gospel work.

Let’s hate what is wrong in our world and continue overcoming that evil with grace-motivated good works—all for Christ’s glory. On this historic week and in the wake of the so-sad events at the Capitol, we can all take steps to work for peace.


[1]Life guru Henry Cloud expounds this concept in 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Life and Love. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 139.

[2]Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper One, 2001), 171.

[3]The Gospel Goes to Work: God’s Big Canvas of Calling and Renewal (Fayetteville, AR: KJK Inc, 2015), 122-123.

[4]For just one regional example, see http://www.celebratecolumbia.com and on the global front, see the amazing work of www.hopeinternational.org

The Extraordinary Strategist of Christmastime

I face plenty of confounding, confusing, utterly puzzling situations, especially right now. Don’t we all? Christmas season 2020, questions loom large. All is not automatically merry and bright, right? What do we do about family gatherings? How do we make already-stretched dollars stretch even further? And advance planning for 2021, is that even possible?

Amidst my own wondering, I’ve found lately that it’s really good to simply, boldly pray:

“Please King Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please Lord.”   

Headed into a board meeting and wondering, “What in the world? How will we address that?” Or a tangled situation for one of my still-maturing sons and asking, “Where’s the wisdom? What’s the right way to go?” Or trying to encourage a friend but honestly grasping at thin air: “Is there something, anything I can really say to help.”

Here’s where I find myself more and more these days just tossing out the gutsy, on-the-fly, hurry-up heart cry, “Please Lord Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please.”

We tend to think of Christmas as the magical miracle time. But I think this year, more than ever, we need the wisdom of Blumhardt: The work for God goes on quite simply in this way; one does not always have to wait for something out of the ordinary. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth. If you always try to be heavenly and spiritually minded, you won’t understand the everyday work God has for you to do. But if you embrace what is to come from God, if you live for Christ’s coming in practical life, you will learn that divine things can be experienced here and now . . .” (Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

If you’re like me, you might be saying, “Okay, okay, but what about those times when I just don’t see it, or no answer is landing, no insight cometh, and all still feels utterly confusing?” I think that’s where we must come back to the confidence that comes from the babe who already came. The prophet Isaiah foretold:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.  Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV)

One name really stands out for me this week: Wonderful Counselor. I love how The Passion Translation renders “Counselor.” TPT says his name is “The Extraordinary Strategist.” There’s a wonderfully fresh and encouraging way to think of your wonderful Christ. Even when I don’t yet have the answer for the puzzling family conundrum or know a solution to the board room dilemma. When I’m still not sensing how to work out a snarled situation or have a word of encouragement for my friend. It’s in those moments I can turn to my Extraordinary Strategist and say,

“Please King Jesus, come meet with us. Show us the way. Lend your wisdom, please Lord.”

So good to know, I can trust he will accomplish that, because he already came. Based on the ancient prophecy and Jesus’ arrival, I can know with confidence, he’s on it. He’s working. He’s got this! Why? He is the Extraordinary Strategist of Christmastime.   

No Zoom Today

What should we make of today? In my own past praxis, nothing much, really. It has been the immensely blah, pay-no-attention, make-no-mention day of Easter weekend. At best, it’s been a day to run-around, shop for last-minute must-haves, and finish getting ready for tomorrow, the truly monumental day, Easter Sunday.

2020 if of course, different. Very different. We are all locked down, very busy staying at home and doing a whole bunch of nothing. Well, sort of. If we’re honest, some of us feel busier than ever in our spirits. After all, there are new tasks to do. Schoolwork. Baking. Online shopping. Kids. House repairs. Care calls to make. Videos to upload. Economic trends to chart. New strategies to craft. And another Zoom meeting. Isn’t it ironic during this time of so much staying home and such a shift of our life gears, now so much of our existence is run by the word zoom?

My own Friday was full in its own strange way. I won’t bore you. Yours was too. We just did Good Friday in all its horrific glory. And as good Christians, we are quick to say: “But Sunday’s comin’!”

I am struck this morning with the reality that I have seldom pondered today, Saturday, the day in between. For thoughtful Christians across the ages and round the globe, this is holy or joyful Saturday. From the cross on Friday, Christ cried out his last words, his sixth and seventh sayings: “It is finished!” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Holy Saturday serves as a poignant reminder that his body was laid in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus (St. John’s Gospel, chapter 19), and there he rested.

We tend to want a busy Jesus, the sort of Savior who was still running off to do something, even in spirit. Over the centuries, scholars have debated: what was he doing in that in-between? Did he truly descend to hell, preach good news, and free the captives? Well, maybe, and maybe not. It’s a long-fought creedal debate, and since this is Holy Saturday, I am simply not feeling the compulsion today to actively engage the mental work or exert the energy necessary for full-on combat of the age-old controversy. (You can also have a pass today to not have to settle that one, if you’d like.)

What I am drawn toward is the sacred connection of Christ’s 2nd-day posture. He rested. In his incarnation, Jesus was fully inhabiting the fulfillment of the Hebrew sabbath. His body was at rest. His spirit was at home with his Father. And he rested. Full stop. Nothing more. No zoom for Jesus.

I have workaholic tendencies. I am not proud of that. Combine that with perfectionism. There’s a deadly-to-the-soul combo. So, I am extra-moved in this Holy Week 2020 when I realize that sisters and brothers across the ages have also referred to this day as Joyful Saturday. My soul is struck by the permission to do nothing today, nothing but rest in body and rejoice in soul.

That push-push, reach-for-something-more side of me as a leader, author, and speaker would typically grab two or three more books or articles and aim to craft another paragraph or two. I would consider my labor unfinished, my striving incomplete with what I am sharing right here.

And then I recall, my Lord said, “Tetelestai!” It is finished.

And so am I. Will you join me in making this a truly joyful, Holy Saturday?

Best we can, let’s do nothing, just a little bit better.

Let’s join Jesus. No zoom. Just rest.

 

Remembering Kobe, comforting kids, and the work of grieving

We were driving through West Virginia, headed back from visiting our middle son at college in Kentucky. Our youngest, Josiah, suddenly called. “Mom, Dad, did you hear? Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.” Similar to everyone, we were stunned. I must have said “Oh no, Jos’—that’s so sad” at least a dozen times in the next two minutes. In the hours to come, we learned further details, including the horrific loss of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Such moments are surreal for everyone. When we got home mid-evening, our family conversations continued, including prayers for the Bryant family. Such a tragedy is so much for a sports-loving fourteen-year-old and his friends to process. (Good grief, it’s a lot for parents to process as well.) So many feelings, so much sorrow and heartache.

I’m struck by the reality: there is a collective work about grieving that we do better together. Perhaps you remember 9-11, or the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion, or even JFK’s assassination. In our shock at such events, we abruptly pause. We inhale the sudden sting and exhale our angst with tears. I am moved in such moments that we always have the opportunity to either duck and hide, push away the conversations, run from the pain, or we can collectively work through it and let something new and good happen inside us. I am convinced that if we boldly, courageously embrace the work of such collective grieving, we can actually grow stronger.

When facing grief, both our own and others’, it’s important we resist every urge—both self-induced and pushed by others—to rush our responses. Quick fixes and pithy spiritual platitudes are rarely productive. Don’t hurry yourself to get over your grief, and be very careful what you say to friends and family when they are experiencing loss. H. Norman Wright cites a number of our well-intended but too-often unhelpful, potentially even pain-producing clichés.

Big boys don’t cry.

You’ve just got to get ahold of yourself.

Cheer up.

Time will heal.

Life goes on.

This is the work of the devil.

Count your blessings.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

I know just how you feel.

If there is anything I can do, just call me.[1]

We dare not hurry ourselves and loved ones to quickly process grief, to “just get over it,” and get on with life. But we can choose to get back up, step forward, and trust God with bigger hope. When you are ready, you can choose to walk a fresh path. You can focus on God’s provision for your brighter future. You can boldly embrace your fresh start toward a deeper faith—an overcoming, hope-filled trust to match your deepest grief.

Blocking and shoving

In their original, sidesplitting blockbuster, Shrek and Donkey are camping outside, guarding Princess Fiona as she sleeps in the cave. Staring at the stars and moon, Donkey decides to play therapist and confront Shrek about his threat to build a wall around his swamp to keep everyone out. In their terse, back-and-forth interchange, Donkey makes the now famous and oft-quipped statement (at least it’s quoted often in the Pletcher house), “You cut me deep, Shrek. You cut me real deep!” With a sullen face and folded arms, Shrek abruptly rolls to his other side. Donkey gets in his face. “You’re blocking.” “No, I’m not!” Shrek adamantly denies as he rolls to his other side. “Yes, you are!” Donkey retorts.

Remembering Kobe serves as a healthy reminder for us all. Grieving can and should be cathartic. How often do we self-protect, block others, or otherwise try to hide what we’re really feeling, unwilling to let others see us grieve? Especially with our kids or at the office, in the shop, or out on the production floor—how preposterous would that be, to let others know you are grieving?

Kristin Brown courageously ponders four principles for better grieving. She urges—

Don’t feel ashamed to show your grief. You may be worried about crying at odd times, like in the middle of a meeting. Give yourself permission to be a little less poised.

Avoid making major decisions while grieving. Some decisions may be unavoidable. But for those that seem optional, it’s best to wait until your thinking is less clouded.

Don’t interrupt or abbreviate your season of grief, but productive work is healthy. Both hope and joy can co-exist with sorrow and sadness. Putting your hand to the plow with tears coming down your face is not a bad thing.

Share in the sorrow of those who are grieving around you. People in grief want to know that others are, in a sense, carrying some of the sorrow that they are experiencing.[2]

Catharsis at work

A dusty Hebrew proverb says: “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Here is the salty, sincere mix, those raw reflections on the fragile nature of our human hearts. For the hours and days to come, there will be a bitter-sweet, ongoing work in remembering and grieving Kobe.

Already last night, Josiah and some of his baseball friends were reflecting. Over the years, they have commonly recognized Kobe’s GOAT (greatest-of-all-time) status with a fun ritual. During practices, they gather up dozens of stray baseballs and throw them into the coach’s bucket. As they throw them, they shout “Kobe!” It’s been their ongoing expression of adoration for the legend. Last evening, a number of the boys—including several of us big-boy coaches and dads—were lamenting how that toss of baseballs toward the bucket will never be the same again. Down deep we chuckle, and then more tears roll.

What if we allow remembering Kobe to do a good work in us? Perhaps we’ll talk more openly together—big kids and little kids—about what it means to grieve and also find fresh hope. Maybe we’ll talk more deeply together about what it means to truly live life to the full. Let’s squeeze our kids tighter. Let’s hold each other—family and friends—even closer. Let’s listen well and even more intentionally affirm our kids, friends, and coworkers. We all need listening ears and encouragement.

Go ahead and cry. Oh yes, cry tears. That’s healthy. But don’t stop with tears. Let’s encourage each other to choose a bigger and better hope. May we all be more tender and caring with one another. We live in such divisive, hate-mongering, quarrelsome times. Perhaps such care, tenderness, and hope in the face of grief might propel us into an ongoing love and stronger civility.

What if we deliberately work toward more genuine love, that depth of selflessness and others-orientation that our loving Creator intended from the start? Let’s remember Kobe, and let our collective grieving lead us to both receive and give God-like love more deeply and freely.

[1]Wright, Helping Those Who Hurt, 32–33.

[2]Brown, “Why We Can—and Should—Grieve at Work.” The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics blog. Tifwe.org

Will You Join the 2020 Challenge?

January is not yet over, so it’s not too late. Really! Several weeks ago, you were pondering them. How are you doing on your big aims? Are you still full of gusto? Maybe you are still trying, but you’re running out of energy. Or perhaps you’re still pretty cynical?

Down deep, underneath 2020’s road of resolutions, many of us traffic in tremendous cynicism. We secretly think: “Yeah, right! New Year, New You. What a joke!” Truth be told, who can really know what the New Year brings, whether we will soar high or miserably crash in our best endeavors? And many of us are already saying: “Just as I suspected, 2020 is proving to be more of the same!” Some of us were eager to drive a new road and be so done with last year. But deep down you wonder if something can possibly feel—and truly be—wonderfully new in a life-giving, glorious sense. Even if last year was pretty good overall, you likely set some aspirations for 2020 that still seem daunting. Three weeks into the year is a great point to revisit the pondering.

Know this: All your best aspirations for 2020, if they are growth-oriented and Christ-honoring, are amazing and motivating. Author and speaker Andy Andrews says: “Every good thing that has happened in your life happened because something changed.” Maybe 2020 is your year to

Start a new endeavor.

Read more.

Exercise more. Eat less.

Kick a bad habit. Start a good one.

Go back to school.

Drink more water. Drink less mood-altering, wisdom-killing elixirs.

Invest in new friendships.

Plan to ____________ (fill in your own noble aim!).

It’s all very good! But what about progress in new character, the kind of personal development that can propel your momentum in all your good aims for 2020? How about starting the year with a passionate focus on substantive virtues flowing from a renewed and growing faith? Such focus will inform and embolden all your other new efforts.

The aged sage, Saint Peter, winsomely encourages us in his second letter:

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires.  (2 Peter 1:3-4, NLT)

You already have everything you need. Now go for it!

Here is encouragement that’s grounded in Christ-focused motivation. Peter says we do indeed have everything we need to live up to our full potential of living a godly life. Our source is Christ Jesus himself. We receive such divine power, not of our human effort, but by his grace. And notice how we access such power and the resulting character virtues. We plug into his power and promises, so we can participate in the divine nature—his character and actions. Jesus’ power and promises can propel us into holy, unique ways to rise above the world’s corrupt and debilitating influences. Peter continues:

In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8, NLT)

With Christ’s power and promises, growing disciples build with Peter’s eight subsequent character-building blocks. We intentionally grow in knowing our Lord Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is much more than an intellectual road trip. Yes, it involves gathering right truth. Absolutely! But this robust knowledge is a deeply personal, experiential knowledge. Here is winsome know-how born of tangible, deliberate practice. It’s like learning to drive an automobile. You study your state’s driving manual, the laws of the land, as well as the technical details for maneuverability. But you also really need to get behind a steering wheel and try it out (preferably on a back-country road, a safe distance from the rest of us). God’s knowledge is holistic, a blend of knowing information and skillfully using it.

So you learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of love as you explore the Gospel accounts, and then you practice his love in selfless, sacrificial ways by serving others. You learn greater facts about Jesus’ manner of pure, holy, faithful living, and then you practice it by making good, wholesome choices in your everyday entertainment and social interactions. You learn more information about sharing Jesus and the life-changing Good News of his kingdom, and you practice proclaiming it with family, friends, and coworkers.

Will you take the 2020 challenge?

I am personally moved by the power of 20s for the big year ahead. I am making a list of 20 good, stretching, growth-oriented endeavors and aims. My 20 include character development, habits that involve discipline, relational cultivation, as well as skills and abilities to hone. Some of my 20 are already regular rhythms of my life that need continued practice, but 7 to 10 represent new—and yes, even difficult—vistas of life development. And I am realizing that in order to make progress in all 20, I am utterly in need of knowing Christ more and more.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge? What’s on your list? Go ahead and make your own list of 20.

Will you apply yourself 20 minutes at a time?

Here’s something you might find shocking. Life experience demonstrates that at least 7 to 10 of your good endeavors can be achieved through just 20 minutes a day. Yes, just 20 minutes a day. You can learn a new musical instrument by committing yourself to practice for 20 minutes a day. You can read a bunch of books this year by reading one at a time, just 20 minutes a day. You can pour into your middle schooler by more intentionally talking—all devices put down—with a starting point of 20 minutes a day over a meal or on a car ride. The list goes on and on. Certainly, one can argue that it takes longer in certain life areas in order to wonderfully excel. But the point is to aim for greater intentionality. In Live in Grace, Walk in Love, Bob Goff encourages us: “We never regret following through on the commitments we’re passionate about and the activities that last. Figure those out and let the rest fall away.” A lot can happen toward conquering and achieving your list of 20 when you commit to the discipline of applying yourself for 20 minutes.

How about 2020 related to God’s Word?

So many Christians say they want the New Year to be their year to really get to know Christ Jesus through truly being in the Word of God every day. This is a marvelous aim! How about dedicating yourself to reading 20 chapters in the Gospels every week? An average reader can read approximately 4 chapters each day across 5 days of each week. Start in Matthew. Read in Matthew all of January. Spend February in Mark’s Gospel, March in Luke, and April in John. By Holy Week and Easter, you will have journeyed many miles with Jesus in his story.

The aim is to truly, deeply, and practically know Christ more. As you read each day, ponder these two questions and jot down your responses:

Q1: What do I learn of Christ, his heart, his history, his real-life example, and his teachings?

Q2: How will I seek today to follow Jesus’ heart, to love others, to work with excellence, and to live out Christ’s powerful new life in my everyday endeavors?

Your responses to each of these questions can be turned into prayers of praise, gratitude, resolve, and commitment. And of course, the big key is making commitments and following through based on Christ’s power and motivation in you.

Okay, I confess. I am still a bit cynical about stereotypical resolutions and where 2020 will take us. But I am also hopeful about 2020 in light of this reality. In Christ, we already have everything we need!

January is not yet over. It’s not too late.

Will you join me in taking the 2020 challenge?

 

 

 

 

Catching Fresh Creativity Amidst Fall Colors

This is a re-post, originally shared in Fall 2015. ENJOY!

Call me ridiculous, but I must confess childlike delight. On my morning run, I caught brilliant glimpses of seasonal beauty breaking through on the landscape. It’s late October so I should not be surprised, but I’m still a kid in serious awe each autumn. Slowly descending a hill, there I spied it. Just atop a cluster of trees, an explosion of burnt-orange leaves. Within the next ten hours, I began seeing similar deep hues dusting other tree lines, including a fresh blast of golden mums and pumpkins, now gracing ground level in flowerbeds everywhere. Harvest orange has arrived for the season, in all its amazing glory.

Most of us love fall colors and find ourselves in awe at the creativity that emerges with the season. And it’s not just the leaves and overall fall decor. We experience it via multiple sights, sounds, and flavors. (Did I mention pumpkin spice coffee and salted caramel mochas?)

With such applause for fall creativity, there are moments I wonder . . .

  • How could I personally be more creative in my approach to projects?
  • Are there ways to gather more and better ideas?
  • How do I inspire our team in order to increase our skills in creative thinking?
  • ‘Any chance we can move out of “stuck in a rut” and “bored stiff?”

Here’s an arena where I’m constantly aiming to stretch and grow. Throughout my leadership experiences, I’ve found these ideas are extremely useful in exponentially increasing creativity.

Make time for story time!

I had heard of this practice, but rarely ever actually practiced it. So this past year, I have started to more regularly storyboard. It’s proving to be simple, profound, fun, and amazingly productive. I gather oversized whiteboard paper and various colors of Sharpie markers. At the top of several sheets, I label the various sections, breakdowns, chapters, or pivotal movements. Then, I just start splashing thoughts—somewhat color-coded—and brush stroking ideas under each heading. Along the way, we constantly push the envelope by asking “what if” questions and otherwise challenging assumptions.

I LOVE to use the “what if” question. It opens new doors, breaks through stereotypes, keeps people dreaming, and stretches the boarders in extra-good ways for leaders. When I’m done, I usually have six to ten sheets hanging on a wall, full of fresh ideas from which to choose. Such an exercise can be done either on my own or with our team. This past year, we’ve used storyboarding to deliberately design big initiatives, a fresh series of talks, and other exciting projects.

Go play!

Richard Allen Farmer urges: “The person who would be authentically creative must not despise the power of play. In our fun we see parts of ourselves we do not normally see; we get a different perspective on an old problem. We grab hold of images to which we would otherwise not have access.”[1]

In the 1990’s, Nissan was attempting a fresh breakthrough in design for their popular Pathfinder SUV. Jerry Hirshberg, head of Nissan’s U.S. design studio at the time, sensed one afternoon that his team was bogging down in frustration and blocked conceptual creativity. His solution was nothing short of genius. He led the company’s entire staff, including the shop, secretaries, and maintenance crew in playing hooky to go to the movies for the afternoon. Hirshberg delightfully reported: “Upon returning from the film, there was much chatter among the staff about how delicious it had been to leave . . . knowing we had been ‘baad’ together. As everyone returned to their work . . . tension in the building began to dissipate. Within days the ideas again started flowing, knotty problem areas unraveled, and the design began to lead the designers, a sure sign that a strong concept was emerging.”[2]

Here’s a must-do on a regular basis with your team, especially when you sense you might be stuck in a deep rut, paralyzed by group-think, or otherwise experiencing a serious case of no-new-idea-itus.

Take big cues from your Creator!

The opening pages of God’s story demonstrate the magnificent collages and cadence of creation (Genesis 1). We are wondrously treated to an encounter where God is the most creative design worker ever. With completion of his oh-so-deliberate, colorful accomplishments each day, he pauses to reflect and celebrate. “And it was good!”

At the culmination of Day Six, humans were created in God’s likeness, his very image. Consider this: the imago Dei included our commission to be “fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth”—to “rule and reign” over it all. ‘No doubt about it, we were called to be creative workers, just like our oh-so-creative God.

When our boys were young, we took them to the circus. One of my favorite features was watching the elephant tricks. The crowd roared in laughter and thunderous applause. You have to admit, an elephant is a sure sign that God possesses a sense of humor as well as one mighty creativity quotient. But then ponder how the humans tamed and trained, “ruled and reigned” over the massive creature, so as to wildly entertain a tent full of other humans!

We can draw abundant motivation by remembering God’s amazing original designs, and then get motivated by the realization: we each possess the imago Dei. His very image and his call have come to you and to me.

What might happen? What if we hear God urging us in fresh ways?

“Create with panache. Work with style. Rule your domain with generous imagination. Make things wonderful. Organize with flair. Be boldly intentional. Design beautiful things. Make life healthier, humorous, holistic, and holy. Above all, mimic me and be lavishly redemptive. And when in doubt, choose orange!”

 

[1]Richard Allen Farmer, It Won’t Fly If You Don’t Try OR How to Let Your Creative Genius Take Flight. (Portland, Multnomah) 1992, p. 68.

[2]Jerry Hirshberg, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World. (New York: Harper Business) 1998, p. 87-89.

What if we fail to make America great again?

I am deeply saddened for my three sons as they launch into adulthood. When I was their age, we still had numerous politicians—including presidential candidates—who engaged their tasks with a solid sense of genuine greatness. They were in no way perfect, but they sincerely viewed themselves as public servants. Theirs was greatness born of common grace goodness, including core character competencies essential to lead well. Alas today, I am increasingly vexed over the lack of such leaders. Too few possess those qualities necessary for a nation’s greater good and that nation’s ripple of good influence. I long for such leaders for my sons and future generations. Before you label me nostalgic or grumpy, please indulge my musing.

Disgrace of impeachment proceedings

Disturbing. Disgraceful. Discouraging. Amid blasts of mounting accusations and fuming vitriol from either side, I find myself using all three words to describe the current landscape of US politics and public sentiment. This past weekend, major rallies and policy-sharing events were held by both Republicans and Democrats. Those events revealed extremely troubling views, misguided agendas, and more all-out ugliness.

Gene Edward Veith urges us: “The Christian’s involvement with and responsibility to the culture in which God has placed him is part of his calling. Human societies also require governments, formal laws, and governing authorities. Filling these offices of earthly authority is indeed a worthy vocation for the Christian . . . ”[1] Now more than ever, we need people who genuinely show up, pray up, speak up, and step up. But how might we engage in a way that brings something different to the already disruptive equation?

Amidst today’s political turmoil, we all feel dissed. But there’s a much bigger brand of dis to blame. Pelosi and her peeps are guilty of it. Trump is egregiously guilty, including his evangelical leader cronies. In reality, we are all outrageously guilty of this particular ugly one.

It’s called dis-integration.

And it’s especially tricky. Here’s what happens when people say, “My faith is important, but I don’t need to mix that too much with political work. I can and should keep my church life and spirituality separate from my political views and actions.” Many people today bring this attitude: “It’s not spiritual; it’s just political.” Such outlook is a kissing cousin to “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”

Can integration really happen?

Overcoming dis-integration is not only a Red vs. Blue issue. It runs much deeper. At the core, it is about reclaiming the grace of serving fellow humans, both nearby and round the globe. Its roots are found in Genesis 2:15, where God purposed for humans to work in his Garden. In other places in Scripture, this ancient word for work is also translated as serve. God’s unfolding biblical story reveals a handful of characters who served in government in amazingly integrated, service-oriented ways. The likes of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel demonstrate how God’s people can be vibrantly involved in the work of politics and public service.[2]

One party trumpets the MAGA slogan, but both the Elephant and the Donkey want to see America great again. They just seriously disagree about what the nuanced outcomes entail. Sadly, for both parties, greatness means some version of sassy rhetoric, fat-cat wealth, savvy power bases, and the firepower to successfully obliterate whomever they deem the enemy. Precise applications of such supposed greatness are what’s up for debate. This prescriptive understanding of greatness—both greatness of individual leaders and what greatness should look like for a collective people—is painfully flawed. It’s true on either side of the aisle. I feel sickened and saddened by such a despicable description of greatness.

Jesus supplied a deeply different understanding. He taught his disciples that true greatness means learning to humbly serve others (Mark 9:33-35) based on holistic, integrated love (Matthew 22:34-40). I know, this probably sounds like a pie-in-the-sky platitude, a hearkening back to Mayberry or Walton’s Mountain. But Jesus said it. Greatness is born of humble service. Will we believe him and work like that’s true in our own everyday vocations—including political and governmental responsibilities? In his book The Integrated Life, Ken Eldred argues for people to live all of life—especially their everyday work—fully informed and integrated with their faith. That means great leaders humbly serve others.[3]

Greater guiding questions

Aiming to pull out of my sadness, I try to envision what true greatness might look like for my sons and so many others for future years. True greatness would look like a fuller integration of our faith in the public sphere, an integration that impacts not just our nation but the globe. Such integration must involve once again the twin concepts of character and service. Too many good people are allowing their own hunger for political power and economic comfort to control their allegiances, their choices, and their votes.

Why do we continue to defend leaders whose words are persistently malicious, whose moral choices are corrupt, and whose practices are ripe with deception? How long will we ridiculously look the other way when leaders are obviously corrupt through and through? Why do we continue coddling all sorts of vices just because a candidate supports our own favorite view related to abortion, or race, or healthcare, or immigration, or some other singular, deeply held issue? Too many of us pledge our allegiance based on myopic tunnel vision.

Character matters. Good character means being trustworthy, full of integrity. Good character matters because telling the truth matters. Leaders must be willing to tell the truth, first to themselves about themselves. Truth be told, we are not always good leaders, both at our core and in our actions. During a political campaign early in his career, Abraham Lincoln noted:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.[4]

Note Lincoln’s great ambition. He realized that in order to be truly esteemed by fellow men, he needed to render himself worthy of that esteem. There was no sense of entitlement. In Lincoln’s leadership framework, self-rendering was essential to a sincerely great ambition.

O that we had more leaders today willing to tell themselves the truth and “render” themselves. Lincoln was relentless in self-examination, working on personal change—even altering his viewpoints and platforms when necessary. Then he avidly pursued active, hands-on service to others. Being a deeply, truly kind leader truly matters. I long for such leaders in public service today.

I wonder what would happen if more of our politicians—and especially the ones aspiring to be President—would ask this two-part, formative question every day when they wake up:

What sort of person should I be—in light of King Jesus—and what actions should I take in order to actually bless the people I serve, to intentionally create greater flourishing?

I hope we fail. I hope we fail miserably at the current crazed attempts to make and keep America great again. And may that failure open the way for us to understand a truer, kinder, stronger greatness. O that such greatness would be born of good character and genuine service on behalf of others.

 

[1]Gene Edward Veith Jr. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, 101.

[2]For a winsome analysis of Joseph’s integration, see Albert M. Erisman’s book The Accidental Executive.

[3]Ken Eldred, The Integrated Life.

[4]Doris Kearns Goodwin. Leadership in Turbulent Times, 1-20.