Extraordinary Characters

“Stop talking and sit,” I spoke firmly. My unruly student chronically arrived late then engaged in a hello tour with his buddies for the past two days, before sitting down. Today, I interrupted the tour.  He stared at me, still standing, and snarled, “Make me.”  Unused to such blatant defiance, I stood wordlessly.  The kid outweighed me by a good thirty pounds and beat my 5’7” height hands down. I briefly imagined a resolution scenario that couldn’t possibly happen logistically nor legally for that matter.

I took three steps towards him and repeated my command, glaring at him ferociously.  The class sat silent, wondering which of us would survive.  Inches from his desk, he continued glaring.  Finally, he flinched and said, “Alright already. Sheesh. Havta make sucha big deal about it.”

Shaking inwardly, I resumed teaching as if I didn’t care.  But I did.  At lunchtime, I told my sorry tale to a seasoned teacher.  “Well, you’re as much to blame as he is, you know.”  Whaaaaaaat?!?  “First, you let him get away with that for two days.  Secondly, you issued a command you couldn’t enforce.  You showed your students that you weren’t in charge.” He then proceeded to share the book, “Love and Logic,” with me.

I highly recommend this book now to parents and teachers.  It trains you how to create enforceable rules for any situation. For example, my first classroom rule became, “I only teach when students are silent and listening.”  My classes learned very quickly that when I couldn’t teach, it didn’t change the content of tests and homework. It simply made for unprepared students when they didn’t allow me adequate instruction time.

Getting back to this instance, though, I shuffled into the teacher’s lounge that day looking for sympathy.  I perceived myself as an innocent victim of a belligerent student and longed for encouragement.  Instead I heard some hard truth and recognized that I was not blameless.   I created an environment that allowed disrespectful behavior.  What was my plan if that student hadn’t backed down?     

I’ve heard teachers, parents, leaders, etc., complain just like me.  Sometimes as I listen, it’s easy to see they share some fault.  When allowed, I talk honestly, just as that wise teacher did.  Honest conversation transformed my classroom management style.  I recognized my failures. I changed.

This summer, I’d like to engage in honest conversations based around the leadership qualities in Titus 1:6-7.  “That’s for church leaders,” I hear some of you saying. Not exclusively.  Yes, Paul is speaking to Titus specifically about putting elders with specific character qualities in place.  I submit to you that if anyone is following you, you are a leader.  Second, as a leader, you are “pastoring,” your followers, be they children or corporate vice presidents.  Do you want people to imitate your flaws or your strengths?  Your dominant qualities will determine your destiny and influence your followers.

Each week this summer, I’d like to ponder one or two of the qualities.  I encourage you to read Titus 1: 6-9 several times in different translations.  For now, let’s continue to look at that first quality Paul calls, “blameless.”

Over the years I’ve observed countless broken relationships.  More times than I wish, one side of a conflict refuses to acknowledge fault or weakness, just like I did in my classroom.  At times, we are all oblivious to the effect of our words and actions or inactions on people.  Eventually though, a steady drip of flawed behavior from my life fills another person’s cup to overflowing.  This can demonstrate itself as an explosion, passive aggressive behavior, discouragement and disengagement.

We all love sympathy and being blameless.  The attention given to “victims” is intoxicating.  The truth is, we are rarely as innocent as we think. I think Paul strategically placed it first in the list.  The dictionary defines blameless as “guiltless, above reproach, impeccable, virtuous.”  The Greek here means “free from defect or fault.”   Gracious!  How in the world are we to live up to that?

For me, maintaining a blameless character is a never-ending process of increased self-knowledge.  As I am honest with myself and others in recognizing my failings, I can keep things right in my relationships.  The more I understand the trickle down effects of my character flaws, the more I am motivated to allow the Holy Spirit to change me, refine me.

Living a blameless life is doable only for transparent, authentic people.  It’s impossible if you insist on wearing masks and behaving as if all others except you, are flawed. Oh, we’d never say that, but lots of times we act as if it’s true.  I’ve worked under leaders who take no ownership of character defects. In a conflict between them and another, they take no blame.  If you disagree with them, be prepared to leave the encounter bloodied.

Additionally, blameless means we don’t live one way when people are watching and then another when we are alone.  We also can’t behave all nicey nice at church and then treat family, co-workers or underlings in crummy ways.   A gemstone without fault is pure no matter how you examine it.  Blameless lives are true and genuine no matter who is looking at them or where.

I don’t want to be that leader who leaves behind a steady wake of frustrated, discouraged people, do you? I’m asking God to show me, frequently, places where I need to take some blame.  How about you?

Are You a Generous or Grumpy Giver?

“We can’t afford to give that much,” my new husband emphatically stated.

“We have to!!” I argued back.

“Why?” Ken simply said.

“Because it’s the right thing to do!”  I counteracted forcefully.

“Says who?” my husband, a younger believer, said sincerely.

“Well, I’m pretty sure, it says so in the Bible……” my voice trailed off as I realized that I had no idea where the Bible said anything about tithing at all.

So, the church girl didn’t know the Bible well enough to give a clear answer to a new believer of only a few years, as to why Christians should tithe.  I’d like to tell you that I searched the Scriptures and continued our discussion with scriptures like Malachi 3. Mark 12 and Luke 11 but I didn’t.  We simply didn’t tithe for about a year.

This argument occurred while Ken was attending seminary to become a pastor. We were both preparing to lead in ministry and disciple people.  Troubling piece of irony, that.

During the year of our disobedience, we made big bucks working as wait staff in a high-end restaurant.  No matter how great our tips were though, we struggled to pay bills.  We couldn’t understand how our money disappeared.

One day, in Ken’s chapel service, a professor shared a devotional on tithing.  Ken declared we would begin to tithe ten percent immediately. He’s that kind of guy.  When he understands truth, he walks in it wholeheartedly.  Within a month our budget balanced.  Even when I quit waitressing for a music therapist job, which paid less, we met our budget.

With this month’s theme of sowing and reaping, I cannot leave this topic without asking you to consider your tithing practices. The Bible is clear that misers or grumpy givers should not expect generous harvests.  Many folks in ministry and leadership are underpaid.  It’s tempting to back off from giving and justify that by pointing out that you’re already investing your time and energy.  Hey, I get it!  We were in SEMINARY and justified our disobedience with “we’re just struggling grad school students.”

Many, many Christians, even leaders, do not faithfully tithe.  How do I know this?  How many churches do you know with a financial surplus?  How many churches do you know who are forced to underpay their staff and struggle to meet budget?

Some Christians who do tithe, do it grudgingly.  There’s no joy in writing the check, filling out the online form or placing money in the plate. Others give God a tip each Sunday instead of a planned tithe.  They flip out a bill or two that has little to no relationship to their income and toss ‘er in the plate. Check that off the spiritual to do list.  Not.

So, here’s a little checklist I made up based on specific Scriptures. If Christ isn’t Lord over your money, then He isn’t Lord over your heart either.   Your permanent citizenship is still in heaven but you are not living in the fullness of “your kingdom come, your will be done here on earth as in heaven,” if your relationship with God and money is akimbo.

  1. I give ten percent of my income to my local church. Genesis 28:20, Leviticus 27:30-34, Numbers 18, Matthew 23:23 My opinion, based on these and other Scriptures, is that the tithe belongs to the local church and offerings may be given elsewhere at your discretion.
  2. I set my tithe apart before I pay other bills. This is the principle of the first fruits, giving God the first and best of what we have, not the leftovers.   Exodus 13:11-13 Your monthly tithe amount should be number one before you sort out the rest of your expenses for that pay period.  Listen, we’ve lived for many years on commission checks that go up and down, whereas our bills remain fixed.  The tithing principles we acquired years ago are now so firmly fixed in place we don’t consider that ten percent as negotiable in any way but we understand the temptation very well.
  3. I look forward to giving my tithe and do it with joy.   2 Corinthians 9:6-7 When we first started understanding they whys behind tithing and acknowledged our disobedience (ignorance of the the Scriptures is no excuse) we gave somewhat out of fear.  We didn’t want to be out from under God’s favor and blessings.  We still don’t but nowadays our giving comes from love and joy. We recognize that every breath we take comes from Him and everything around us belongs to Him.  We are merely His stewards, managing His resources generously given to us.

So, what kind of giver are you?  Seldom does a group rise above its leaders.  Whatever you demonstrate in the generosity of your giving will be reproduced in some way in all who are underneath you.  Sobering thought, right?

 

 

 

Crummy Seed, Crummy Harvest

“I’m so sick of these people criticizing me all the time,” I spouted off to my friend.  My reaction to some harsh words from church members popped the lid off my tea kettle.  “They are such destructive, nasty people…….” and on and on I went, criticizing the people who talked trash about me.  Hmmmmmm…….yes, it’s easy for anyone to see when I put it there in black and white, right?  Sadly, in my younger days, I possessed only a limited knowledge of God’s principles for sowing and reaping.  I did not connect the dots between my judgmental attitudes and what I regularly reaped in my life.

I wonder how much less criticism may have come my way had I not been sowing that bad seed myself.  God’s laws are fixed, unchanging. To the degree we understand them and obey them is the measure of how well our years on earth turn out for us. A list of the inferior seed I’ve planted over the years and the kind of harvest it brought to my life, formed in my mind.  Here’s part of it:

 

  1. Gossip and criticism- This used to be a norm for me throughout childhood and early adulthood. I’m a natural busybody so this one was easy for the enemy.  I’ve reaped more piles of gossip and criticism in every single area of my life, than I can express to you.  As a pastor’s wife, minister of music, high school teacher, and in other arenas of my life, I’ve received some pretty consistent, serious poundings. I used to share my woes with other people in my career areas. I’ve not met but a couple who have received the level of judgement I experienced.  At the time, I thought my personality just triggered this kind of behavior in people.  Then, I’d meet other creative, innovative folks who didn’t seem to be in nearly as much hot water as I was much of the time.   I wondered why they were so much more lovable than me.  I’m not so sure they were, I think they just sowed better seed.
  2. Perfectionism– I used to be unable to rest or play until I achieved whatever unattainable and unrealistic goals I set within a situation.  Everything from housework and hairdos to lesson plans and worship sets, I expected to be flawless. I reaped losses in relationships and crushed spirits in those around me.  People figured out that most of the time their best fell short of my standards.
  3. Poor listening skills- I consistently interrupted, talked over people and didn’t carefully listen when others talked.  I simply planned what I would say next.  I still struggle with these poor behaviors.  Too many years of this bad seed means more years of weeding out the unacceptable behavior patterns and habits I formed.  These days, I must consciously think about NOT talking too much and dominating a conversation.  The harvest of being this way is that people feel de-valued and I miss important feelings and thoughts from others because I’m not being a champion listener like James encourages us to be in his book.

There’s a lot more on my list, but you get the idea.  May I encourage you to be authentic and look honestly at ALL the seed you are sowing.  Examine your thoughts, behaviors and attitudes.  You want to know where to look?  Start with anyplace in your life where you are experiencing some trouble, reaping a bad harvest.  Is there a possibility you are simply seeing the product of seed you planted?  You may have planted this seed many years ago and forgotten about it.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying to mean that any trouble in your life is a result of what you’ve sown.  We know that God allows trouble in the life of the righteous.   My question is, how much of our trouble is of our own making?  God can redeem our self-created messes and certainly teach us through them but I’m not convinced this is His very best for us.  So, what did you sow today?

Be Careful What You Plant

My cheeks flamed as yet another customer received a discount on a flat of flowers. To their credit, my father and grandmother said not a word. The pale, yellow petunia floating alone in a sea of deep blue pansies said it all.  My “faster is better,” motto simply didn’t pay off with some of the work at my family’s greenhouse business.

Our late winter and early spring planting time called for all hands on deck.  This meant that each day, after school during my teen years, I came home and transplanted with my grandmother.  Her hands sped at a rate cultivated from years of practice. She could talk on the phone, take an order and keep planting, without error.  Trying to move at her speed caused me to lose track of which tray of seedlings I should pull from.  Thus, each Spring we’d wind up with at least a few flats featuring an odd plant out.  Those flats grew exactly what I planted in them.

As a young woman, I unintentionally did the same thing in the supernatural realm.  Much of the time, I spoke life and goodness to and about my church, co-workers and family.  On occasions when I felt criticized or ostracized however, my mouth spit out words way too fast.  I sowed wrong seed.  Like the yellow petunia, which was a fine plant, the words I spoke were truth but they came out at the wrong times, to the wrong people with a wrong attitude.  They didn’t belong where I planted them.

Here in the North Central states, May is a month for new planting and the re-emergence of things previously planted.  I can’t help but think about God’s law of sowing and reaping.  He established this law in the natural world, I think, to teach us kingdom truth.  Anyone on the planet can understand that a seed sown produces one specific plant.

So, what kind of seed do we sow when we spout off?  Here’s the dismal list I came up with:

  1. Tarnished reputations in the greater community– When you share internal conflicts with outsiders, they now have a dim view of people they don’t know.  They view your church, school, company, family or group of friends, through the filter of the negative comments you made in haste.  First, it’s none of their business and we should not share.  Second, if they ever do engage with this group or organization, they may view the people inside with suspicion and doubt.  This is what the Bible calls an evil report.  (Numbers 13:32) Third, they may also talk to other outsiders about how poorly you’ve been treated, and the bad seed just keeps spreading.
  2. Tarnished reputations inside the group- Are you gossiping in the break room about who’s cattin’ around or not doing their job?  Do you ever criticize Aunt Sue’s kids to Uncle Bob, or complain about your neighbor’s dog to another neighbor?   Hey, I’m not pointing and scolding, I’m just listing some of the rotten seed I’ve sown.  Maybe you too?  What happens so often is that people’s opinions of one another become twisted because of careless, angry words.
  3. Damaged relationships- Sometimes people find out about the crummy things you say about them to others.  This absolutely does not resolve the original fire of conflict, it pours gasoline on it, honey. Now, there’s even more drama to work through.
  4. Hindered prayers. “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11.25 NIV) When someone wrongs us, if we forgive them quickly, we don’t speak ugly about them.  Snarky words usually spring from an unforgiving heart.   There’s a clear implication here that when we don’t forgive, damage occurs between us and God.  The communication lines become clogged.
  5. Future judgement on ourselves- “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matt. 7:1) Simple language which explains again that if you plant thorny thistle, you won’t be picking sunflowers.

What kinds of plants are going to be springing up in the soil of your life and others around you? Angry words can become wrong plants but also destructive invaders that can spread more rapidly than you can control. I am currently engaged in an epic war with hairy bittercress in my gardens and lawn.  I think the seeds originated from some cheap mulch a few years ago and now this weed thinks it owns my yard.   Destructive words can spread through a group of people, and take root, in much the same way.

The hurt and anger you feel after someone roughs you up with their words or behavior should be taken to God first.   I poor out my heart freely to Him, knowing that his opinion of no one will change based on any of my words.  He won’t lose sleep over my rants.  Whatever I say to Him, stays with Him.   I have found it to be true, over and over, that if I start with God I often end with God.  It’s unusual for me nowadays to take my struggles with people to other people, but let me tell you, that did NOT used to be so.

In prayer, Bible study and meditation, God sorts me out.  I can either trust Him to give me what I need to respect and work with someone or in a situation where I have no authority or give me words to resolve a conflict between me and another.  I find that when I am tempted to bad mouth someone, its’ because there is junk in my heart that needs God’s grace and healing.

 

Surviving Criticism

This is a reprint of my first post.  Seemed like someone needed to hear this today.  

This is a reprint of my very first post.  Seemed like someone needed to hear this today.

 

The elderly church lady marched up to the grand piano, where I was playing, stuck her face by my ear and angrily hissed, “You always bang the piano so hard when you play.  It hurts my ears.” The harsh assessment came during a break in the service where members were supposed to greet one another and welcome newcomers. Dismayed, I smiled sweetly, apologized and reduced my volume, sorry I caused this dear sister any suffering.

Not!

The first part is absolutely correct.  The second part, about me, well…… that’s not quite the way it rolled out.  The truth is, I never looked up, kept pounding the keys, my gigantic 80’s mall bangs wobbling back and forth like a metronome, and gave my critic a terse nod. My insides took on a boxer’s stance. Snarky jabs jumped to mind, like, “I’d looooooove to play more softly but our antique sound board is so horrid, how else can I keep the congregation on the same beat!” The rest of the punches that piled up in my mind definitely qualify as below the belt.   Nice pastor’s wife, right? Sadly, I used to respond to criticism with less than a mature response.

This type of childish reaction is typical for many believers who lack the godly tools to process criticism. 

My inability to handle critics flowed from deep insecurities and a desire to be liked by everyone…..all the time, everywhere, without exception.  That’s normal, right? Probably not, but   I’ve known many other people who struggle with the same issue.

Insecure people don’t handle criticism well because they already feel lousy.

If the voices in your own head tear you down regularly, negative remarks from others become unbearable.   Some people wilt and shrink away trying not to poke the verbally abusive bears in their lives.  Feisty folk, like me, sometimes pop the bear right in the snoot. Neither of these responses are Christ-like, and can mess you up, in the long term.

The piano incident pales, pain-wise, in comparison to critiques of my character and motives I’ve received, over the years.  These types of comments used to slice deeply into my soul and make me question everything about myself in an unhealthy, obsessive way.

I know I’m a handful.  My artistic, melancholy and sanguine personality blend can be exasperating for those around me.  Folks never know if the party otter or the introverted worker bee will show up on any given day.  But these days, I am grounded in the knowledge of the unique person God created me to be, flaws and all.   My job is to walk uprightly before Him and let Him put his finger on the edges of my diamond that need polishing.  Criticism is simply one of the polishing tools He uses.

If you are a leader, scrutiny from others is a fact of life. People trash talked Jesus’ ministry and character frequently.  While Jesus responded, the disciples usually reacted.  How are you handling negative remarks?   Do you feel like the complaints outnumber the compliments?  How many bear snoots have you bopped?

You cannot control other people; you can only control your response to them.

Dishing out grace to our critics doesn’t happen with determination and grit. This type of maturity is the fruit of intimacy with God.  He enables you to be confident in your strengths and honest about your raggedy edges. He insists that your first priority is pleasing Him, not others.  Criticism may still wound you but you will respond to it instead of reacting to it.

 

How you navigate negative remarks will strengthen you, drawing you closer to Christ, or weaken and embitter you.  In the next few posts I’ll describe my personal process for handling criticism.  I’m still tempted to nurse grudges or retaliate, sometimes, but usually I don’t. That behavior grieves the Holy Spirit too much and derails my intimacy with Christ.

The first question I ask myself, when confronted with an unflattering assessment is, “Does this comment contain any truth?”   I choose to shift my mind away from instinctive reactions.  Instead, I choose to look objectively at the situation and my role in it.  Did I bang the piano too hard? Yup, and it probably did hurt some ears.  My critic’s tone and timing were poor, yet kernels of truth resided in what she said.  I could have kindly explained my challenges to her, after the service, and maybe gained support for purchasing a sound system upgrade sooner than we did.

Receiving criticism humbly and measuring our response is Christ-like and pleases our Father.  The bonus is that God can use the sharp edges of other’s words to chisel away our faults and make us more like His son.   Let Him do His work!

In my next post we’ll explore handling criticism further.  If you’ve got some tips and strategies for this common ministry challenge, please share them on my Facebook page.  Let’s encourage one another!

“Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery.” Proverbs 29:1 (NLT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fresh Starts

The man huddled by the campfire rubbing his hands together in the chilly night air.  His nerves felt raw, exposed.  Once, he dreamed of new opportunity for his family and peace for his beloved nation. He used to anticipate the bright days, just over the horizon.  Now, he wondered if he could survive the night.  Would he dare see his family again or quietly disappear into the hillsides to keep them safe?

A voice broke into his dark thoughts. “Hey, aren’t you one of them?”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” he gruffly replied moving away from the fire. As he hurried down the street, a girl pointed him out to her friends.

“Hey, that guy was one of them!”  The language of his past tumbled freely out of his tongue as he cursed at the girl and her group and frantically denied any knowledge of a recently arrested criminal and his gang.

Eventually the man found another campfire, further down the road.  After a few hours of silence, he began to speak to another man nearby. Immediately, others overheard and accusingly said, “Hey, you’re one of that gang!”

Peter completed his descent from champion to coward.  After a string of words, he hadn’t used in three years he shouted, “I don’t know the man!” and raced off into the hillsides before the coming dawn revealed his features completely.  A rooster crowed in a yard as he ran by.

If ever someone needed a new beginning, it was Peter, the fallen disciple.  In three, short conversations, he denied three years of intense, loving relationship with Jesus.  He burned his bridges and returned to his old life.  His dreams of a promising future lay shattered back on the brick roads of Jerusalem, still stained with Jesus’ blood.  Worse yet, if what Jesus spoke about his resurrection came true it changed nothing in Peter’s life now.  The new kingdom would not welcome a blasphemous, lying coward like himself.

What dreams of yours currently lay in ashes?  Whether by your own hand or another’s, broken dreams make for damaged hearts.  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” Solomon said in Proverbs 13:12 Nobody imagines and hopes for failed relationships, financial losses and setbacks, lost jobs, unproductive ministries, sickly bodies and minds and unexpected catastrophes.

We dream of loving families, satisfying careers, strong bodies and healthy checkbooks.  When hopes are shattered against the hard rocks of life, like Peter, we need restoration.  As popular Bible teacher, Joyce Meyer, says, “When we are disappointed we need God to reappoint us.”   This is exactly what Christ did for Peter along the same shoreline where they first met.  He will do it for you too.

Where do you need a fresh start? There are so many creative ways God can bring new life into the dead places of yours.   In my life, quite often the new beginning occurs inside of me.  When I am humble before Him, faithful in the word and prayer, He changes me so that I can face an unchanging circumstance with a new perspective.

Sometimes, he will open new doors for me with jobs I didn’t look for and provisions I didn’t expect.  A few times he’s changed many things at once.  Twenty-one years ago, he changed my house, my job and my ministry all at once.  The new beginnings I eventually experienced after that were like the little plants peeking up in my yard right now.  It will be at least another month of warm weather and sunshine before all my gardens are completely up and running.  That’s the way God’s new beginnings can be also.

We must be sensitive to the Spirit plus be champion listeners and lookers to see those tiny little buds of new, green growth are pushing up through all the dead debris of our life’s winter seasons.  If you’re looking for a maple tree to suddenly spring up in your life you will miss what God is doing with that little seed that is sending out its first shoot.

God is the only permanent healer of minds and hearts weary from disappointments, failures and setbacks.  Anytime we look to anything or anyone else to do what only He can do, we set ourselves up for more disappointment.  Like Peter, we often lack clear understanding of God’s kingdom and ways.  When God’s plans don’t match up with our expectations, it hurts.  Peter expected Jesus to rule and reign in an earthly kingdom.  Peter expected an entirely different life for his family and fellow Jews.  Peter expected to hold a place of honor in this new kingdom.  How the soul becomes so heartsick when so many dreams are crushed.

Spring comes but once a year but new beginnings happen every day with God. Bring to him today all the dreams yet unfulfilled in your open hands.  Let him remove those that simply aren’t right for you and trust Him to bring to pass those which are.  Look for ways to cooperate with Him. Look for the places for new life and new possibilities that He places in seed form in front of you.  As long as this life lasts you can put hope in the truth that God is always up to something new.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”  Isaiah 43:19 (NLT)