Devotional Thoughts for Leaders: Running and Coaching Well

Feet-Running2In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, the Apostle Paul compares the Christian life to a foot race.  He encourages us to “run in such a way that you may win” (v. 24b).

The writer of Hebrews also makes the same comparison urging believers to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrew 12:1-2).  Christians who are also leaders must read this passage from two perspectives.  First, they must read it as a “runner” striving to live their own life well.   But Christian leaders should also read these verses as a “coach” who is responsible to help others run their race well.

Recently, I set down with the staff that I am privileged to work with and looked at Hebrews 12:1-2 from the perspective of coach.  Here are the “coaching tips” that we gleaned from the passage.

  1. Remember, you are not alone.  One of the best parts about running in a road race is the camaraderie and the people who cheer you on.  The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone.  We all need to belong to a local congregation to encouragement and support.
  2. Even if you are slow, just keep going.  The Christian life is a more like a marathon than a sprint; it requires endurance.  Distractions and stumbling blocks are unavoidable, but just keep moving.
  3. Stay focused on Jesus.  Focus in key because it determines your motivation and direction.  For the Christian, the focus should always be in Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of faith.”

What other coaching tip would you add to our list to help others “run” well?

How to Teach the Bible Through Discussion Without Missing the Point, Part 2

sm-grp-bible-study-LOWResThis is the second part of a two-part series on how to teach the Bible through discussion without missing the point of the lesson.

Interactive small group Bible studies can be a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship, especially when they are combined with a dynamic church worship service and opportunities to serve and do ministry.  Several weeks ago, I introduced this topic by pointing out 4 major challenges to leading an effective and interactive small group Bible study.  Today, I will share 5 suggestions for teaching the Bible through discussion without missing the point and here they are:

1.Have a clear goal(s) in mind

Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar is credited with the axiom, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit is every time.”  If you don’t know what you are trying to teach, there is no way anyone else will either.

Discussion based teaching should not be used as an excuse for lack of preparation.  Be flexible, but write down 1 to 3 goals, truths, or principles that you want to communicate.

2.     Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are designed to solicit participation and information from the group.  They are questions that require more than a one word answer.  When used strategically, they can create momentum and buy-in.

Open-ended question help you connect with your students, but they also help your students connect with each other.  As group members hear others respond to questions they are urged to share their perspective and insights as well.

3.     Deal with distractions

In part one of this two-part series, I listed distractions as one of the challenges that small group leaders have to overcome – they are inevitable.  Instead of the ignoring a distraction, identify the “elephant in the room” and move on.  And don’t forget to laugh, when appropriate.  If something happens that is funny, enjoy the moment use it to bring your group closer together.

4.     Clarify responses

Group discussions can become unproductive or confusing without some leadership.  When needed, restate participants responses and ask if that what they meant, if they are unclear.

This kind of clarification can also be a good way to transition to another stage in the meeting or point in the lesson.  It gives the leader an opening in the discussion while affirming the rest of the group.
 
5.     Sensitively seek full participation

Part of a  group leader’s job is to keep “the ball going.”  If some of the members of your group are shy or introverted, you may have to find ways to engage them without embarrassing them.  You may also have to gently restrain over-talkative group members by thanking them for the participation and asking others to chime in.

Do you have any suggestions you would add to the list?  What have you found helpful in teaching the Bible through discussion without missing the point?

Two Aspects of Forgiveness

quotes“Forgiveness is both an event and a process.  Making the four promises of forgiveness (found earlier in the book) is an event that knocks down a wall that stands between you and the person who has wronged you.  Then a process begins.  After you demolish an obstruction, you usually have to clear away debris and do repair work.  The Bible calls this ‘reconciliation,’ a process involving a change of attitude that leads to a change in the relationship.”

-Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict           (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 219

Hope in the Face of Death

Scattered Cumulus Clouds in a Blue SkyRecently, I walked into a dimly lit nursing home room to say goodbye to an elderly friend for the last time.  He wasn’t able to vocalize any words with his lips, but his eyes spoke volumes.  As we sat together in the faint glow of the television, I held his hand and noticed the fragile rhythm of the pulse in his wrist.

Before I left I prayed with him and realized that things were not as dark as they might have been.  A few years earlier, he had opened up to me about one of his greatest fears: he was afraid to die.  He had been in church and around church for a long time.  He had made a profession of faith and was baptized years earlier, but he still wondered if he was really saved.  This lack of assurance haunted him as he thought about the end of his life.

As we talked, I shared what I hoped would be helpful words from 1 John 5:1-4.  One of the reasons The Apostle John wrote this letter was to encourage believers who were tentative and insecure about where they stood with God.  In order to find assurance, John asked them look at the effects of their  faith.  According to these verses, saving faith produces three loves: a love for God and His Son, Jesus Christ, a love for others, and a love for keeping God’s commandments.  Love is one of those things you can’t fake.  Sooner or later, your true feelings will surface.  One of the ways God’s children can be identified is by the way they love.

As my friend looked at this life from this perspective he gained a newfound confidence in his relationship with God and changed his perspective on death.  Not just because he had rediscovered his feelings, but because he was able to see God’s transforming work in his life, in spite of his sin.  His faith had produced love.

Maybe you or someone you know is struggling with your salvation.  You’ve come to the end of yourself and ask God to forgive you based on Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.  You’ve made a declaration of faith and maybe even shared it your family, friends, or church.  But somehow, you just don’t feel confident in your decision, especially when you think about death.  If that is you, or someone you know ask yourself the following questions: what is your faith producing?  Are you growing in your love for Jesus?  Do you treat other people with love?  Do you love God’s Word?  These are just three indications that you have been adopted into God’s family and sealed your fate for eternity.

Why Do I Have to Wait?

waitng by the roadWaiting seems like a waste of time.   It makes us feel unproductive, ineffective, and sometimes worthless.  It wears us down. Like treading water, waiting dulls our senses and saps our strength.

No one looks forward to waiting.  We pay large amounts of money and go to great lengths to avoid it.  We judge our satisfaction of products, places, and even people by how long they make us wait.  Patience may be virtue, but only in a bygone era.

Recently, I realized that waiting is a major theme in the Bible.  Many of the major characters in the Bible had to wait for days years, and even decades for their situations to be resolved and God’s promises to be fulfilled.

Noah waited for over a year on a boat filled with wild animals for the flood waters to recede (Genesis 7:6, 8:13-14).

Abraham and Sarah waited for 25 years for the birth of their special son, Isaac (Genesis 12:4, 21:5).

Joseph waited for two full years for the chief cupbearer to remember him and get him out of jail (Genesis 41:1).

Moses watched his father-in-law’s sheep on the back side of the desert for 40 years waiting for God’s plan to unfold (Exodus 2:23, Acts 7:30).

Job waited for seven days and seven nights for a comforting word from his so called “friends” and even longer for a comforting word from God (Job 2:12, 38:1).

<strong>David waited about 15 years to ascend to the throne of Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Samuel 5:1-5).  Mary and Martha watched their brother, Lazarus, die and then waited four agonizing days for Jesus to come to them (John 11:1-46).

The Apostles waited for three dark days before Jesus appeared to the them and commissioned them as witnesses (John 20:19-23).

The Apostle Paul waited for three years in the desert before starting his ministry to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:17-18).

In addition, the prophets waited for God’s judgment to fall (Jonah 4:5).  The Wisdom literature contains repeated references to patience and waiting (Psalms 27:14, Proverbs 15: 18, Ecclesiastics  7:8).  Patience is even listed as one of the nine fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

So what lessons can we learn from this survey of waiting in the Bible?

1.  Waiting is normal.

Following God does not mean you will have a wait-free life.  In fact, it guarantees that you will have to wait as He works out His perfect plan for you.

2.  Waiting is beneficial.

Waiting builds character as you learn to depend on God and His promises.  Waiting brings perspective to your life as you view things from the lens of eternity.

3.  Waiting is difficult

There are no short-cuts to patience.  Waiting is hard work, even if it feels like no work is getting done. 

Can you name another lesson we can learn from tracing the theme of waiting through the Bible?

 

Trouble Shooting Your Prayer Life

prayer11The lights on the front of my garage are a mystery to me.  They come on when they want and go off when they want, no matter what I do with the switch.  I’ve checked to see if they are on timer and I’ve replaced both bulbs.  The best explanation that I have is that there is a disconnect somewhere in the electrical circuit that feeds the lights.

This reminds me a little of my prayer life.  Sometimes the lights are on and everything is great.  Other times things are dark and I don’t know why.  The Bible teaches that God hears and answers prayer, but I don’t always feel like my prayers are getting through.  Sometimes there seems to be a mysterious disconnect in my prayer life.  As I began to search for answers I found four prayer short circuits in the book of James.

1. LACK OF FAITH (James 1:5-8)

What sort of things inspire you to pray and what discourages you?  In these verses we see that expectation (or faith) is an essential part of prayer.  Our expectations can be bigger than our circumstances, because our God is bigger than our circumstances.  Those who lack faith are like the waves of the ocean that tossed back and forth by their circumstances.  They don’t pray with expectation because they are overwhelmed by what is happening around them.

The only way to fix this short circuit is to own up to it.  Like the man with the demon-possessed son in Mark 9:24, we must cry out, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” God is not offended by our lack of faith when we are willing to admit it and humble enough to ask for his help.

2. FAILTURE TO ASK (4:2b)

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt; sometimes it breeds indifference and neglect.  My wife and I have been married for 13 years now.  On more than one occasion, I have had to ask her, “Did we talk about X, or did I just think about it?” God knows us better than our spouses know us.  He knows what we are thinking before the words come out of our mouths, but he still loves to interact with us through prayer.

This short circuit can be resolved by simply speaking up.   Either audibly or internally, God wants to hear from His children.  King David is a good example of this.  In Psalm 5:1-3, he wrote “in the morning I lay my requests before you (God) and wait patiently.”  Go to God with your wants, concerns, and needs and He will do want is best.

3. SELFISH MOTIVES (4:3)

The Apostle Paul included two of his prayers for the Ephesian believers in his book to the (Ephesians 1:15-18, 3:14-19).  What strikes me about these prayers is how selfless and spiritual they are.  Human nature drives us to ask God for things that benefit us.  It also moves us to pray for temporal things above the eternal.  But Paul seemed to be aware of James’ words here.

God’s plans for this world are much bigger than you and your needs and wants.  The way to repair this short circuit is to keep following Paul’s example.  In Ephesians 6:18 he offers prayer “for all the saints” as way to challenge us to look beyond ourselves.

4. UNCONFESSED SIN (5:13-16)

The book of James is a challenging book that addresses a long catalogue of sin.  In just five short chapters, James deals with apathy and inaction (1:26-27), partially and prejudice (2:9), an untamed tongue (3:6), jealousy and selfish ambition (3:14), arguing and murder (4:1ff), pride and boasting (4:16), and stinginess and extravagance (5:3).  In chapter 5, however, James urges his readers to “confess your sins to one another” (5:16).  This crucial for restoring broken relationships on a human level, but it presupposes confessing your sins to God as well.

The clear fix for this short circuit is repentance.  When we confess our sin and turn to God for forgiveness, He rushes to embrace us.  1 John 1:9 states, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”

When we don’t feel like God is hearing or answering our prayer, it is easy assume that the problem is with God, but that is not true.  Our connection with God can be interrupted by a number of things.  Which one of these short circuits have you experienced?  How did you overcome it?  What would you add to the list?

Focus

focus1Like most kids growing in up in a small farming town, I would often complain that there was nothing to do.  While we didn’t have many cool spots to hangout, we did have lots of trails, hills, and fields.  That led my friends and I to mountain biking.  Most people think of a bicycle as an under-age form of transportation; once you reach the magic age of 16 you get your license and there is no need to ride one anymore.  For my friends and I, mountain biking became an escape from the pressures of growing up and a way to channel our sense of discovery.

As I learned more about mountain bikes and mountain biking, I discovered a principle that not only improved my riding skills, it changed the way I view life.   The principle is this: your focus determines your direction.   As you ride down a trail on a mountain bike you are bound to come across obstacles like roots, or rocks, or thick mud.  The temptation is to focus on these obstacles for fear of crashing into them.  The trick is to stay focused on the clear path because wherever your eyes are focused that is the direction you’ll go.

This principle is true for life was well: wherever you focus on, that is direction that you will go.   If you focus on money, you will make choices based on their financial benefits.  If you focus on your family, your choices will be heavily influenced by our family.  If your focus is on your own pleasure, our choices will reflect that too.

Jesus seems to have lived by this principle when we read what He had to say about his life and ministry.  When his fame grew and the people of Capernaum wanted to keep Jesus all to themselves, Jesus said, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).  When the Pharisees criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners he explained, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).    And when James and John wanted destroy a village of Samaritans for rejecting Jesus, he told them, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:56).  It is clear from these verses, and others, that Jesus had a focus and a purpose for his ministry.  He was able to avoid obstacles and hang-ups by saying, “no,” to distractions and misconceptions and by stating his mission clearly.

This leads me to ask some questions: Where is your focus?  Are you focused on maintaining an institution or fulfilling a mission?  Is your church focused inward on itself or outward on its community?  Are you focused on making disciples or just making converts?  I don’t know all of the obstacles you will face in the future, but I do know there will be obstacles.  The trick is to focus on the clear path ahead and keep pressing on.