6 Tips to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Every January millions make new year’s resolutions. The top ones include lose weight, quit smoking, use money more wisely, and spend more time with friends. Unfortunately, 50% never keep their resolution for more than 6 months and only 10% make it through the year. So, should we avoid setting resolutions (goals) for the new year because we might fail? I don’t think so. As the new year begins, it is a great time to evaluate your life and look ahead. Here’s what I suggest.

6 tips to help you keep your resolutions.

  1. Specifically state what you want to do (ie, read through the bible in a year).
  2. Really want it. Is it in your gut? Have you decided that you just can’t continue down the same path any longer? Are you really serious?
  3. Believe God wants it for you. He wants you to move forward in your faith and in your life. He is on your side. He is on your team. 2 Peter 1.3 tells us, By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. (NLT)
  4. Put real effort into keeping your resolution/goal. God wants you to partner with him and put your heart into God prompted resolutions. New birth does not rule out human activity. 2 Peter 1.5 says, … make every effort to respond to God’s promises. (NLT)
  5. Break down your goal into small, bite-sized pieces.
  6. Enlist help. Ask a  trusted friend to periodically check on your progress.

If you apply these simple steps, keeping a new year’s resolution won’t seem so daunting.

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A Fresh Perspective of the Christmas Story: through the Lens of Adoption

This is an older post that you might find helpful as you prepare for this Christmas. It is an abbreviated text of my 2009 Christmas message I gave during our annual Christmas program.

Note: our entire Christmas program was written by our church’s worship leader. It follows the story of a girl named Emma who was given up for adoption at birth and her search for her birth dad. It takes place on the set of a community acting troupe performing a version of the play ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Also, this text has not been proofed for perfect grammar.

Pastors always feel a bit anxious when Christmas comes around for this reason. We wonder how can we bring a fresh take on the Christmas story. The program you are experiencing tonight gives us fresh lens through which we can see the Christmas story—through the lens of adoption.

Adoption is big in our culture. Sandra Bullock starred in the movie, The Blind Side that has as its theme adoption. A new ABC reality show called Find my Family, reunites families separated by adoption.

The bible often speaks about adoption. Of the three examples in the OT, the most tender one that pictures the love and grace of God when He adopts someone into His family is seen when King David adopted a crippled boy as his son. The NT mentions adoptions several times as well.

In the ancient Roman world where the Christian faith began, adoption was common and primarily for the parents sake unlike today when the purpose is for the benefit of the child. Then adoption occurred primarily to carry on the family’s names, pass on the inheritance, and have someone to take care of parents in old age. The common person understood the concept. The Apostle Paul writes about it here.

Rom. 8.15 So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”

A Roman slave owner could adopt a slave. The result was that the slave was freed from the bondage of slavery and the fear of his master. Now, no longer a fearful slave, but a son. The Scripture I just read says that this new relationship was so intimate the term Abba was used, an endearing term for father, papa. You don’t call someone you are afraid of, papa.

This practice in Romans days parallels what happens when God adopts us. Because of sin we are alienated/separated from God (slavery to sin). When God adopts us he makes us his son or daughter, frees us from this bondage to sin and fear and addictions and we now have this new warm relationship with him so close we can approach Him as PaPa without fear. We then experience his love just like adopted children experience the love of their new parents.

Also, if I lived in that day and had no son I could adopt the son of in another family if they had two sons (and they gave permission). In doing so, I would release from that son any future debt he would be responsible for from that family. The adoption would wipe away any debt.

This practice illustrates spiritual adoption, God’s adoption of us. The bible says that sin puts us in debt to God and this debt carries with it eternal consequences—eternity apart from Him. Yet, when God adopts someone, the debt of sin and penalty of that sin is wiped clean, done away with. When God adopts us, he removes this debt of sin.

So just as a Roman through could free someone from the bondage of slavery and remove their debt through adoption, from a spiritual perspective, when God adopts us, he frees us from this slavery to our sin, fears, and addictions, removes the debt of sin that eternally separates us from Him, and gives us a new intimate relationship with Him, our PaPa.

So, how does God adopt someone? That’s where Christmas comes in.

I did some research on adoption and learned this. Those of you who have adopted already know this: it is expensive and time consuming—background checks, home visits by adoption agency, applications that must filled out and on and on.

Adoption is also one way. 100% the work, effort, and cost is born by the parents who want to adopt that child. The orphan does not earn adoption nor perform to get it or pay for the privilege of it. The power and the reason for adoption is all bound up in the heart of the parents to be.

Parents will go to literally the ends of the earth to adopt a child, pay tens of thousands of dollars, invest thousands of hours of effort so that they can adopt a child… for one reason: love. A parent wants to give away the love in their heart to a child.

That same reason has motivated God to make a way for us to be His child, only God’s love is so deep that it’s difficult to fathom what He did to make our adoption possible. The bible puts in this way.

Gal. 4.4 But when the right time came, (Roman world was like U.S., advanced civilization, but in moral crisis) God sent his Son, (Christmas-Jesus birth, God becoming a man) born of a woman (fully human, He knows what it’s like living with  pain and hurt and sorrow, he’s not aloof from it) subject to the law.  5 God sent him to buy freedom for us (remember that parents pay the full price, not the orphan) who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.

One of the privileges of adoption is that the adopted child will eventually share in the inheritance as if he were related by blood. But for an inheritance to be put into effect, usually death has to occur.

A death, a payment had to happen in order for God to make spiritual adoption possible.

God took the initiative to graciously and lovingly seek out unworthy humanity (you and me) to offer to us the greatest gift possible—to become God’s child, to be adopted into His family, to be freed from the slavery, penalty, and debt of sin, to be free from our fears and our addictions, not on the basis our merit (remember an orphan doesn’t earn adoption but must simply receive it), but on the basis of what God has done out of his love for us. We must receive God’s offer to become His child.

Just as a parent goes to great lengths to adopt a child, God went to the unfathomable length of sending his son Jesus to earth (Christmas) to go die on a cross to pay for our sins (good Friday) and then to be raised from the dead to give us life eternal (Easter).

God did that so that we might be his child, have our sins forgiven, and share in this wonder spiritual inheritance-a bounty of blessings in this life and the next.

God made us to want this relationship with Him. Pascal, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived and a follower of Jesus said that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of all of us.

Emma’s search for her father reflects the desire in all of us to belong, have a family that accepts us, a father who loves us, a place of safety, security … a place our hearts can call home.

Jesus makes this possible.

At Christmas, at least for a moment, the word tunes to the spiritual. For many people at Christmas hearts and souls warm up to God a bit.

I hope that your heart will open up tonight and that you will consider becoming a child of God, being adopted into His family because of what Jesus did.

What Should Pastors Do with Personal Pain?

Every leader carries personal pain and baggage not only from his or her family of origin, but also from previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. What we do with it affects our personal well being and the well being of our ministries. In this post I suggest ways pastors and ministry leaders can deal with personal pain.

Several factors influence how heavy baggage from your pain feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If in your current ministry you are stressed, you won’t have much internal reserve before you redline. You’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influenced by your genetic makeup. Some people are genetically pre-disposed toward pain which is reflected more in anxiety and depression than in others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. It’s called resilience.
  • Your previous ministry setting. If past ministries were difficult, you’ll need to pay more attention to your ministry pain.

If dealing with personal pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So, Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research tells us that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness suddenly swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted fourteen years earlier.

In a later ministry setting in Chicago I faced significant conflict with two leaders that left deep wounds. During the year and a half between that church and my new church in Canada, I had to process this this pain that I had carried from that church.

So how can we deal with our ministry pain?

First, admit that you probably still carry some leftover baggage from prior ministries. These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially hinder your current ministry.

  1. With whom have you experienced the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  1. How have you dealt with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  1. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise into your awareness? Or are the emotions more akin to mild disappointment and sadness?
  1. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  1. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  1. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve these past issues?

Second, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage. When my pain was most acute prior to my coming to Canada, I sought professional help. I consulted a counselor for several sessions and I hired a coach who helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. I recommend that every ministry leader find a good friend. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe, healthy friend.

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in any prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

During my consulting/writing days prior to my move to Canada, our family joined a local church near the small lake house we had moved into. I immediately bonded with the pastor and I volunteered to serve. Each Sunday I learned something new from his solid preaching. One day his sermon dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to both leaders who had hurt me the most at my prior church. I included a kind note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although I can still feel an occasional tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God used my pain to teach me. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage every pastor to inventory his our her prior ministry experiences and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possibly derail you.

How have you dealt with ministry pain?

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[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

Energy Drinks for the Busy Pastor: Good or Bad?

Long before Red Bull was introduced to America in 1987 (and the plethora of energy drinks that followed,) caffeine had become the most widely used stimulant in the world. Over 90% of Americans drink coffee and slightly over half average three cups each day. Caffeine is now added to soft drinks, bottled water, gum, and even potato chips. And a busy pastor often uses energy drinks to keep up. But should we? Are they good or bad?

I don’t like coffee or tea and don’t drink them. And Red Bull and similar energy drinks give me the jitters. I’ve found, however, that 5-Hour Energy works well to boost my concentration. For the record, I don’t work for the makers of 5-Hour Energy. Also, when I study McDonalds, I get a caffeinated diet drink that I refill often when I get tired.

Since we pastors are busy people, to what degree should we rely on legal stimulants to give us a mental edge?

As I researched this blog[1], I found these statistics about caffeine quite interesting.

  • Brewed coffee has three times more caffeine than instant.
  • Caffeine in a hot drink is absorbed more quickly than from a cold drink.
  • 15-20 minutes after your drink a caffeinated drink, the caffeine reaches it’s highest peak in your blood stream.
  • Caffeine increases the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, in our brain. About five minutes after I drink a 5-Hour Energy, I feel a nice motivation and optimism boost. Perhaps this comes from the high levels of B-vitamins more than from the caffeine.
  • Neurologically, caffeine makes us more alert and focused because it blocks a neurotransmitter called adenosine that causes sleepiness.

On the other hand, scientists have discovered that over-use of caffeine causes some negative effects as well.

  • It can impair long-term memory.
  • It can increase anxiety, especially to anxious prone people. I call this the jitters.
  • We can become addicted, especially if we use it more frequently when we feel stressed.

When I was in college I would occasionally pull an all-nighter. Since I didn’t drink coffee, I’d use a caffeine tablet to keep me awake. Each time I did I got some serious jitters and stomach problems. And I usually got a cold as well, probably because I skipped a night’s sleep.

As a pastor, I’m careful not to become legalistic about what I put into my body, unless I know it will clearly harm it. But, with energy drinks becoming so popular, should we give some thought about how we use them?

As you consider your views on legal stimulants found in coffee and energy drinks, I’ve suggested a few thought provoking questions below.

  1. Are you addicted to caffeine? Can you go a day or two without drinking several cups of coffee, a Red Bull, or a 5-Hour Energy?
  2. Are you masking deep tiredness? By drinking an energy drink are you ignoring that your body may be telling you it’s exhausted and needs more rest and sleep?
  3. Do you practice Sabbath keeping by taking a day off each week to rest, relax, and recover?
  4. Have you considered taking a short nap each day to give you an energy boost? Michael Hyatt wrote a great blog on 5 Reasons You Should Take a Nap each Day as did Helen Sanders at Health Ambition here.
  5. Can you use caffeine/energy drinks to God’s glory? That is, without being legalistic, does your consumption give you those occasional needed bursts of energy/focus so that you can minister more effectively? Or are you relying more on them than His power and good body care habits?
  6. Are you using energy drinks as a replacement for sleep?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198027/

Hymns in a Contemporary Church: Bury them or Resurrect them?

Several years ago I attended an old fashioned Gospel sing at a church near our home. It was out of my comfort zone because the last 30 plus years I’ve served in churches that primarily used contemporary worship music in their services. Yet, from toddler age through college I attended churches that primarily used hymns. When the seeker movement became widespread, I and many other like-minded pastors classified traditional hymns as barriers to church growth. As a result, I seldom used them in the churches I served except for the occasional Amazing Grace. Here’s what I learned that night about hymns and their influence on my spiritual formation.

As I sat through the Gospel sing, something stirred deep within me. Had I neglected an important part of my Christian heritage by not incorporating them in the churh services? Should I reconsider them going into the future?

The Gospel sing worked like this. The song leader invited those who attended (a couple hundred) to pick a hymn from the hymn book. They then raised their hands and he’d pick someone. They’d call out the hymnal page number. We’d turn to that page. The pianist would start playing. We’d sing. After 30 minutes of suggestions and singing, probably 20 songs, we’d take a short break from singing. The pianist then played a medley of hymns and a duet sung a couple hymns. Then we sung another 30 minute, prayed, and dismissed for ice cream sundaes in the gym.

I thought I’d be bored and planned to surreptitiously follow NFL games on ESPN’s Gametracker on my iPhone. Was I surprised. Here are several lessons I learned that night.

  1. The majority who attended were clearly over 65, many in their 70’s and 80’s. As I watched these seniors sing, their faces glowed with a deep love for Jesus. God reminded me that preferred music styles don’t indicate a person’s love for Him. The builder generation, which is quickly declining, has shown incredible commitment and sacrifice to the cause of Christ the last several decades. Just because they prefer a different music style than my preference doesn’t mean I’m any closer to Jesus than they.
  2. I was surprised at how well I recalled these songs that I hadn’t sung in over 20 years. I seldom even needed to look at the hymnal for the words. I realized how grateful I was to my parents for the rich Christian heritage they gave me. Those many years they took me to Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services and to revivals and vacation bible schools. Those experiences had left an indelible imprint on my soul. Hymns had deeply imbedded the truth of God’s Word into my heart that I’d never forgotten.
  3. I marveled at the magnificence of how God created our brains. Music increases our ability to recall truth because it enhances long-term memory. Even after decades of not reading the words or singing the hymns, my mind easily recalled them. This thought reminded me how important music should play in our services to imbed theology into the hearts of believers.
  4. I felt sad as I watched my youngest daughter who sat next to me. As my wife and I sang, she followed along as best as she could, yet she hardly knew a single hymn. Either my naivety or my pride (or both) had caused me to neglect this powerful medium to teach the essence of the Faith. My kids had become the losers.
  5. Finally, I resolved to bring hymns back into the churches I serve. While updating their tempo and style a bit, I want those young and old in the faith to encounter the living Christ through the power of God’s word hitched to the medium of hymn music.

That experience was a profound one for me that I will never forget.

What are your thoughts on hymns? Do you believe we have neglected them? If so, how have you incorporated them into your services.

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