Lessons I Wish I Had Learned Years Ago

While God is always teaching me new lessons, there are some things I wish someone had taught me years ago. Honestly, someone probably did teach me these and I was just not listening.

I wish someone had made me learn …

1. I Am Responsible for the State of My Soul. I am saved by grace through Jesus Christ. God wipes me clean and makes me new. After that I have had to learn that it is not my parents, my spouse or even my Church who are responsible for my spiritual growth. I must take the initiative to read, to learn, to serve and to grow. The Lord can put situations together and the Church can make everything available but the work is up to me.

2. Take Time to Develop Healthy Relationships. Great relationships do not just happen on their own. They take time together. That time together involves speaking and listening. Our marriage is like it is because of what we have or have not done. It is important to schedule time to develop relationships with our parents, our spouse and our friends. If you do not your relationships will suffer.

3. People Will Leave the Church All the Time. Early in my ministry I thought that if I preached a good sermon and was a nice guy people would come to Church and never leave. That is simply not true. People, even people I care about deeply, will leave for dozens of reasons. Some leave because of their family, others for the programming, and others from the lack of commitment. I once heard Lyle Schaller tell a Church congregation, “You are all going to quit, leave or die. I can’t count on any of you to be here in the future.” It’s true.

4. The Best Ministry is Seldom Programmed. The Church is usually at its best when people live out their faith in simple and beautiful ways. It happens when someone invites a person over for lunch. It happens when we make a quick stop by the nursing home. It happens when we write a note to that person God has laid on our heart. Church programming often comes off as half-hearted and forced. My biggest prayer is not that the Church will develop a program for everything, but that individuals will see a need and fill it.

5. Leadership will make or break a Church. This one cannot be overstated. The Church is always in desperate need of good and Godly leaders. This can mean your traditional elders and deacons, but it also means ministry leadership. When someone has a burden to do a ministry and they step and lead out of the depths of their faith something amazing happens. There is energy and joy and people’s lives are touched. Most Churches try to lead ministry by committee. It is seldom an enjoyable experience for anyone.

Each and every one of these lesson I have found to be true over and over again. Each year of my ministry God has underlined these truths in my heart. While I often forget them, I am trying to let these basic lessons guide my life and ministry. I hope you find them helpful.

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Lessons I Am Learning Right Now

I believe it is good to stop every once in a while and do an evaluation of life. How are things really going? I also know that part of that evaluation is thinking about all of the lessons I am currently learning. I believe God is teaching us all kinds of lessons. The question is, “Are we learning what God is teaching us?”

So here are some of the lessons God has been placing in my life. They might touch on something you have learned in the past or are presenting learning.

1. Act With Purpose. God has really been pressing on me that if I want to achieve a certain set of results then I need to do the actions that will achieve that goal. If I want to know my Bible better, then I need to have a plan to accomplish that and then act on it. If I want my children to grow up and follow the Lord then I need to talk to people who have achieved that goal, develop a plan and then take the necessary steps to make that happen. If the Church wants to reach unbelievers then we need to find out the best way to do that, develop a plan and then do what is necessary. Having a clear purpose is helpful in every area of life.

2. The Value of Writing Daily. I am amazed at the number of people who have told me that this blog is helpful. (Thanks for that by the way.) The deeper truth is that it is helpful to me. It helps me to think clearing and forces me to communicate my faith in a clear way. It has been a real double blessing.

3. The Need for Strong Men in Church. I appreciate all that women bring to ministry but the Church is always at its best when men are leading their families in a Godly manner. When men assume their God-given role as leader in their marriage, their family and their Church something happens that is powerful and inspiring. Unfortunately there is a real void of male leadership everywhere. I am learning that reaching men (especially young men) is different from reaching women. The Church needs to be ever trying to reach men – our world will be better for it.

4. The Truth of 3 John 1:4. This verse says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” There are a lot of things that bring me joy. I love to fish, hunt and metal detect. There is nothing that I do in life that brings me as much joy as watching my children makes good and Godly decisions. I do not care if my children ever hold a trophy that says they are the best at any activity. I do care that they develop into Godly men who follow Jesus at all costs.

5. The Power of God. It ceases to amaze me the number of times that God shows up at just the right time. He provided my family with safety in travel, in the provision of a house, in the finances that continue to pay bills, in a thousand ways everyday and He still shows up every week to touch people’s lives with my words. It is said that God is never late, but He is seldom early. When that moment comes that I need God to show up or my venture will fail, He shows up and all of my worry was in vain. There is often this gap in my life between saying I trust God and actually trusting Him. Those moments when I do step out He demonstrates his power in my life.

Those are some of the big lessons that I am learning. What is God teaching you? Don’t let another lesson go by that you are not attentive to His teaching.

The Glory of God

Every week I have the exact same prayer about our Sunday morning meetings times. My prayer is simply that God’s name will be glorified. I usually end my prayers about our gathering by saying that whatever happens, “God, we will give you all the glory.”

I will be honest, sometimes I wonder if it happens. There are weeks that our program seems disjointed and I find it hard to worship. Some sermons feel like no one is listening and the stale air of boredom fills the auditorium during my teaching more than the breath of life. I go home and ask God for forgiveness for failing to bring Him the glory He deserves.

But some weeks. The Lord shows up in a way that is unmistakable to me. People’s lives are touched and moved by the Spirit of God. The songs sound glorious as they reach the deepest recesses of my soul. I am so glad I woke up and went to worship as I walk with a smile all day.

Yesterday morning as one of those times. The songs went well, even though there was a couple of new ones. They all lead up to Mike sharing a deeply personal communion thought about forgiveness, which was the closing thought of my sermon. The special song sung during the passing of the communion trays was “Here’s My Heart” and it was the perfect echo to Mike’s thought. The sermon flowed well and I had three people tell me that in my sermon I was “speaking directly to them.” Then during Sunday school we were talking about the day and I found out that the lesson in Children’s Church was not only from the same story but had the same point.

Here is what I find amazing about all of this. I planned my sermons out for the first six months here at Adrian the week I accepted the job. I have had this sermon planned for 2 months and long before I knew any of the people or their story. The music was picked out a week ago with limited knowledge of what I was preaching and no knowledge of what Mike would say at communion. The children’s material was purchased three weeks ago and the teachers had no idea what I was preaching, they were just following the material. Four random things came together in complete harmony and affected people deeply without extended planning.

I know that every week God is glorified but some weeks He weaves together a perfect tapestry of songs, thoughts and lessons beyond what any of us could have planned. To God be the glory.

Henri J.M. Nouwen on Togetherness

After twenty years as a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) left academia to serve as a resident priest at a home for the mentally disabled called Daybreak, a part of the L’Arche community. He wrote this tiny book (you could read it in one sitting) during that transition and explores the lessons he felt God was teaching him at that time. The book is one of his most simple and yet powerful. The story in the Epilogue is one of the best parts and I share it with you today.

Writing these reflections was one thing, presenting them in Washington D.C., was quite another. When Bill (Bill Van Buren a resident of Daybreak) and I arrived at the Washington airport we were taken to the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City, a collection of modern, seemingly all-glass high-rise buildings on the same side of the Potomac River as the airport. Both Bill and I were quite impressed by the glittering atmosphere of the hotel. We were both given spacious rooms with double beds, bathrooms with many towels, and cable TV. On the table in Bill’s room there was a basket with fruit and a bottle of wine. Bill loved it. Being a veteran TV watcher, he settled comfortably on his queen-sized bed and checked out all the channels with his remote control box.

But the time for us to bring our good news together came quickly. After a delicious buffet dinner in one of the ballrooms decorated with golden statues and little fountains, Vincent Dwyer introduced me to the audience. At that moment I still did not know what “doing it together” with Bill would mean. I opened by saying that I had not come alone, but was very happy that Bill had come with me. Then I took my handwritten text and began my address. At that moment, I saw that Bill had left his seat, walked up to the podium, and planted himself right behind me. It was clear that he had a much more concrete idea about the meaning of “doing it together” than I. Each time I finished reading a page, he took it away and put it upside down on a small table close by. I felt very much at ease with this and started to feel Bill’s presence as a support. But Bill had more in mind. When I began to speak about the temptation to turn stones into bread as a temptation to be relevant, he interrupted me and said loudly for everyone to hear, “I have heard that before!” He had indeed, and he just wanted the priests and ministers who were listening to know that he knew me quite well and was familiar with my ideas. For me, however, it felt like a gentle loving reminder that my thoughts were not as new as I wanted my audience to believe. Bill’s intervention created a new atmosphere in the ballroom: lighter, easier, and more playful. Somehow Bill had taken away the seriousness of the occasion and had brought to it some homespun normality. As I continued my presentation, I felt more and more that we were indeed doing it together. And it felt good.

When I came to the second part of and was reading the words, “The question most asked by the handicapped people with whom I live was ‘Are you home tonight?'” Bill interrupted me again and said, “That’s right, that is what John Smeltzer always asks.” Again there was something disarming about his remark. Bill knew John Smeltzer very well after living with him in the same house for quite some years. He simply wanted people to know about his friend. It was as if he drew the audience toward us, inviting them into the intimacy of our common life.

After I had finished reading my text and people had shown their appreciation, Bill said to me, “Henri, can I say something now?” My first reaction was “Oh, how am I going to handle this? He might start rambling and create an embarrassing situation,” but then I caught myself in my presumption that he had nothing of importance to say and said to the audience, “Will you please sit down. Bill would like to say a few words to you.” Bill took the microphone and said, with all the difficulties he has in speaking, “Last time, when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smeltzer with him. This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.” That was it, and everyone stood up and gave him a warm applause.

As we walked away from the podium, Bill said to me, “Henri, how did you like my speech?” “Very much,” I answered, “everyone was really happy with what you said.” Bill was delighted. As people gathered for drinks, he felt freer than ever. He went from person to person, introduced himself and asked how they liked the evening and told them all sorts of stories about his life in Daybreak. I did not see him for more than an hour. He was too busy getting to know everybody.

The next morning at breakfast before we left, Bill walked from table to table with his cup of coffee in his hands and said good-bye to all those he knew from the evening before. It was clear to me that he had made many friends and felt very much at home in these, for him, unusual surroundings.

As we flew back together to Toronto, Bill looked up from the word puzzle book that he takes with him wherever he goes and said, “Henri, did you like our trip?” “Oh Yes.” I answered, “it was a wonderful trip, and I am so glad you came with me.” Bill looked at me attentively and then said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?” Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them” (Matthew 18:19). In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed the Jesus who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon hotel in the Crystal City.

As we landed, I said to Bill, “Bill, thanks so much for coming with me. It was a wonderful trip and what we did, we did it together in Jesus’ name.” And I really meant it.

Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus; Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989),

Serving Together

One week ago I was having a conversation with a lady in the Church about a ministry in which she had been involved. The conversation was basically about whether it was worth continuing to do this ministry or not. We both were going through all the pros and cons of this particular ministry when she said something that caught my attention. She said something like, “What I enjoy most about this ministry is the relationship I develop with the other people serving.”

Serving in ministry is about bringing the grace of God to other people for the glory of God. But the truth is this, there are benefits for us also. Those benefits include the joy of accomplishing something for God or the feeling we get when we see other people blessed. We all know there is more blessing in giving than receiving. But one of the biggest overlooked benefits is the connection we make to other people.

We have a couple of men in the Church who served oversees during the Vietnam war. What is interesting is how connected they are to people who served over there with them. The talk and write and meet together regularly. Many of them have very little in common except their similar experience in the service. The same is true for people who do ministry for Jesus. Having a common goal and a common enemy joins our hearts together as we serve side by side.

Plus there is the time factor. Spending 10 minutes talking at a fellowship lunch will help you to know a little about someone. Cooking a meal or cleaning up after children or building a new wing on a building for several hours will help you to really know someone.

Most often the people who are not connected to other people in the Church are those not serving. The solution is simple.

Against the Grain

My wood shop teacher, Mr. Shirk, told our class to always sand wood “with the grain.” If you go with the grain the wood it will turn out nice and smooth but if you go “against the grain” it will come out rough and make ugly grooves. I have found that this truth applies to much of life. If I go with the direction that is natural things go smooth, but going against my natural instincts can be difficult and ugly. I say all of this because I believe God has SHAPED us for ministry (see yesterday’s post) but I firmly believe that sometimes we have to go against the grain. This conviction comes not because of a large amount of research or evidence, but because of personal experience.

Let me start this story in Bible college. I honestly had no desire to be a preacher. I went to Bible college because I thought it would be easy. I often joke, “One book, how hard could it be?” While exploring my faith I came to the total realization that Christ was real and true. Then I decided that if he were real and true then I must serve him with my whole life. This lead me to explore mission work for a summer. That summer I felt the Lord leading me away from overseas mission work, I did feel Him leading me into preaching and new Church work.

Following my mission trip in 1993 I returned to school and began the prospect of preaching every week. It began in Urich Missouri that Fall and has lasted ever since. While I might seem calm and composed behind the microphone, let me give you the back story. The first few years I spent every Sunday morning in the bathroom before Church. My stomach would convulse and my body would revolt at what I was about to do. Eventually Pepto Bismol and Immodium became part of my Saturday night diet in an effort to turn back the tide so to speak. Over the years I have been able to reduce the amount of pain in my gut but those butterflies in my stomach that other people talk about are more like fighting dogs inside me.

Then there is the other side of my preaching. When it is over I am drained beyond description. Every Sunday that I can, I go home to eat and then take a nap. I am totally exhausted after preaching. I compare it to running a marathon, although I have never really ran one. After preaching my body is tired, my brain is tired and I do not want to do anything for a period of time. This is usually compounded by the fact that I have never had a good night’s sleep on Saturday night and spending the morning in the bathroom.

Personally, I know why all of this happens to me – because I am going against the grain. I firmly believe that God created me as an introvert. I want to be alone and away from people. I enjoy metal detecting because I put on my headphones and can ignore everyone. The same is true with hunting. Also with most fishing. I am fairly anti-social and prefer the company of myself. In fact, the struggles in my ministry are always from how I relate to people outside of the pulpit.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because despite my natural inclinations I became a preacher. I have preached somewhere over 1,000 sermons and have taught another 700 times in religious classes. I have done this not by my own design but because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Every week God somehow takes my misery and transforms lives through what is said. For that reason, and that reason alone, I keep doing it. Preaching does not come natural to me no matter how it appears.

So when I set down and talk with people about getting involved somewhere in the Church and they tell me that they will not do it because it is not natural. I think in my head, “Do you not want to do it because you CAN not do it or because you WILL not let the Spirit use you in this area?”

You are SHAPED to Serve

I originally heard this from Rick Warren. I have no idea if it was original to him or if it was created by someone else, but I have used it in my ministry for about 15 years.

The concept is that God create each one of us to serve Him with our own unique SHAPE. SHAPE stand for –

S. – Spiritual Gifts. Each one of us is given unique abilities through the power of the Holy Spirit. I used to give a written test from Ephesians 4 ministries but now I see there are several versions online that can be taken for free. Simply do a Google search of “Free Spiritual Gift Test.”

H. – Heart. What do you do that gets your heart pumping faster? Do you love sports or singing or even talking? What do you have a heart for?

A. – Ability. Throughout each of our lives we pick up different abilities. Some people can cook and others can’t. Some people can fix things and others can’t. And on and on it goes.

P. – Personality. What type of personality to you have? Are you and introvert or an extrovert? Do you love to be with people or alone? There are also all types of personality tests out there but most of them reveal what we already know to be true about ourselves.

E. – Experience. What experiences have you been through in your life that you could use for God? These could be positive or negative. After all, who better to work with an alcoholic than a former alcoholic? Use your unique experiences for God’s glory.

I encourage people to look at more than one aspect of their life to decide what God might want them to do for his glory. And then, do not limit ministry to one hour on Sunday morning. I once walked through this with a Church member trying to help him get involved. He said, “How about fishing?” He explained further, “I love to fish and I give most of my spare time to doing that.” I looked at him and said something like this, “Well, our Church has a bunch of kids who have no father because of death and divorce. I know most of them would love to have someone take them fishing. I think you could have one of the Church’s greatest ministries if you would use it.” He grew silent and finally said, “Okay.”

Now, to the best of my knowledge he never did anything with that information. He never served anyone with his life. To me it is a sad story of “what could have been.” I pray that your life and my life will be a story of how God used my unique SHAPE to bless others for His glory.