Honing My Craft

I recently asked, Are You Honing Your Craft? The question forces you to narrow your focus and to name your craft.

While there are several things I’d like to be good at, I realize I only have enough time and energy to focus on a very few number of things to develop at any given time. Andy Stanley, in Next Generation Leader (one of the 15 books that have shaped me as a leader, as of a year ago, anyway), says we shouldn’t seek to be well-rounded people but that we should maximize our strengths and focus on our primary gifts.

My current short list of things to hone are prayer, preaching, and leadership. My two primary spiritual gifts are leadership and preaching/teaching (I’ve never said they’re strong gifts, but they’re all I’ve got to work with!). But I remember praying a few years ago while reading Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders. As I wrote about earlier, I put prayer at the top of list of areas I’d like to master.

In the area of leadership, I am a lifelong learner. I’ve been a student of leadership almost as long as I’ve been a follower of Jesus. I continue to read and reflect and interact with other leaders to develop the leadership gift.

In the area of preaching, I’ve developed a renewed sense of passion to develop this gift in the last six years, after reading and implementing Communicating for a Change (see one-point preaching and 5 years of one-point preaching). More recently, I’ve been reading, engaging, and implementing what I’ve been learning from Nancy Duarte’s Resonate (see latest post with links to a number of other posts on the book). Last May, I wrote about developing the preaching gift. The next step in honing my craft as a preacher is next months’ free online conference Preach Better Sermons, which I posted here.

In the area of prayer, I am currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker, which I began blogging about last week.

Honing your craft requires lots of time, consistency, and persistence. Unfortunately, growth is usually a very slow process. As I’ve heard John Maxwell say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent!” Experience is good, but we’ll only grow if we’re reflecting on our experience, and if we’re committed to shaking things up from time to time.

What areas are you honing?

“The Circle Maker” 1.0

As soon as I heard about The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson, just before it was published recently, I knew it was a book that I wanted to read as soon as possible. I’m only about halfway through it, but I wanted to start blogging about it, because I know it’s going to take more than one post.

The book begins by telling the legend of Honi, the circle maker, who lived a generation or so before Jesus. You can read it in a sample excerpt here.

It’s a great book on prayer. Here are some thoughts from the first half of the book …

Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. He is offended by anything less. (9)

Drawing prayer circles starts with identifying your Jericho. You’ve got to define the promises God wants you to stake claim to, the miracles God wants you to believe for, and the dreams God wants you to pursue. Then you need to keep circling until God gives you what he wants and he wills. (17)

There’s a good chapter on “praying through.” It’s chapter four, and it’s included in the sample excerpt.

Circle makers are history makers. In the grand scheme of God’s story, there is a footnote behind every headline. The footnote is prayer. And if you focus on the footnotes, God will write the headlines. It’s your prayers that change the eternal plotline. (26)

Our generation desperately needs to rediscover the difference between praying for and praying through. … Circle makers know that it’s always too soon to quit praying because you never know when the wall is about to fall. You are always only one prayer away from a miracle. (26)

I like this description of faith …

Faith is the willingness to look foolish. (35)

If we were absolutely honest, we would have to admit that most of our prayers have as their main objective personal comfort rather than God’s glory. … If you seek answers you won’t find them, but if you seek God, the answers will find you. (50)

Never underestimate the power of a single prayer. God can do anything through anyone who circles their big dreams with bold prayers. With God, there is no precedent, because all things are possible. (55)

The size of prayers depends on the size of our God. And if God knows no limits, then neither should our prayers. (58)

I’ll wrap up this list of quotes from the first half of the book with a couple more encouraging reminders …

The reason many of us give up too soon is that we feel like we have failed if God doesn’t answer our prayer. That isn’t failure. The only way you can fail is if you stop praying. Prayer is a no-lose proposition. (71)

God is always stage right. He’s ready to make his grand entrance. All he is waiting for is your prayer cue. (90)

What do you need to circle in prayer?

Remembering God’s Faithfulness in the Midst of Misery

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Yesterday, I finished reading the book of Lamentations and thought chapter three was a fitting way to begin the Lenten journey.

The name Lamentations gives you an idea of the nature of the book. Lamentations is a funeral song. It’s written about, and in the midst of, misery.

In chapter 3, the prophet Jeremiah attributes the misery to God. For example, Jeremiah says …

10 He is a bear lurking for me,
a lion in hiding.
11 He took me from my path
and tore me apart;
he made me desolate.
12 He drew back his bow, made me
a shooting target for arrows.

13 He shot the arrows of his quiver
into my inside parts.
14 I have become a joke to all my people, the
object of their song of ridicule
all day long.
15 He saturated me with grief,
made me choke on bitterness.

16 He crushed my teeth into the gravel;
he pressed me down into the ashes.
17 I’ve rejected peace;
I’ve forgotten what is good.
18 I thought: My future is gone,
as well as my hope from the LORD.

Later, the funeral song continues to lament the misery. However, right here, near of the middle of the chapter and middle of the book, Jeremiah remembers something very important …

19 The memory of my suffering and
homelessness is bitterness and poison.
20 I can’t help but remember
and am depressed.
21 I call all this to mind—
therefore, I will wait.

22 Certainly the faithful love
of the LORD hasn’t ended;
certainly God’s compassion
isn’t through!
23 They are renewed every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
24 I think: The LORD is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

In difficult times, it’s critical to remember and reflect on God’s faithfulness. Even in the midst of all that the prophet Jeremiah was feeling and expressing, he remembered God’s compassion and faithfulness, and that they are renewed every morning.

The next few lines offer good advice at the beginning of Lent …

25 The LORD is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
26 It’s good to wait in silence
for the LORD’s deliverance.
27 It’s good for a man to carry a yoke
in his youth.
28 He should sit alone and be silent
when God lays it on him.
29 He should put his mouth in the dirt—perhaps there is hope.

Wait in silence. Sit alone and be silent. Look beyond your circumstances. And remember God is faithful.

(This post is part of the Common English Bible Tour.)

Are You Honing Your Craft?

A few weeks ago, hours after preaching on persistence, interestingly enough, I read a great story about the diligence of Steve Martin. In it, the author begins with a quote of a 2007 interview of Martin …

I remember getting my first banjo, and reading the book saying ‘this is how you play the C chord,’ and I put my fingers down to play the C chord and I couldn’t tell the difference. But I told myself just stick with this, just keep playing, and one day you’ll have been playing for 40 years, and at this point, you’ll know how to play.

As the article points out, Martin released his first album in 2009 (“The Crow”), 50 years after picking up the banjo. It won a Grammy (he was nominated for his second one last month). The author concludes, “getting good at something is not to be taken lightly; it’s a pursuit measured in years, not weeks.”

The article says …

If you collapse Martin’s skills into a flat list, he sounds like a Renaissance man, but if you take a snapshot of any particular point of his life, you’ll encounter relentless, longterm focus on a very small number of things.

I also like this challenge …

We’ve created this fantasy world where everyone is just 30 days of courage boosting exercises and life hacks away from living an amazing life. But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.

That reminds me of what I recently read in The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson (which I will be blogging about soon). In talking about a “persistence quotient,” Batterson contends, “There are no shortcuts. There are no substitutes. Success is a derivative of persistence” (70).

For example, Batterson reports …

More than a decade ago, Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music did a study with musicians. With the help of professors, they divided violinists into three groups: world-class soloists, good violinists, and those who were unlikely to play professionally. All of them started playing around roughly the same age and they practiced about the same amount of time until the age of eight. That is when their practice habits diverged. The researchers found that by the age of twenty, the average players had logged about four thousand hours of practice time; the good violinists totaled about eight thousand hours; and the elite performers set the standard with ten thousand hours. While there is no denying that innate ability dictates some of your upside potential, your potential is only tapped via persistent effort. Persistence is the magic bullet and the magic number seems to be ten thousand. (70)

Batterson quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin …

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve a level of mastery associated with being a world class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain that long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. (70)

So, what are you doing to hone your craft? Are you logging enough hours to reach a level that truly honors God?

It Takes Time to Recover

Last month, Joleen and I celebrated 18 years of marriage (Really?!). It’s been quite an adventure. Everyone has challenges, and we’ve certainly had ours!

The first 9 years of our marriage were intense enough—married in 1994, graduated from seminary and moved to PA to co-pastor a small, dying church in 1995, moved to Williamsburg to live with Joleen’s mom in 1997, transitioned into the United Methodist Church in 1998 and began the long ordination process.

In 2003, halfway through our marriage, our journey took a detour and became much more intense. Five years into the ordination process, we hit an unexpected snag when we learned that the seminary we graduated from, which was accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, was not on the University Senate’s list of approved schools. As a result, our M.Div. degrees did not meet the educational requirements of the Discipline.

This snag delayed our ordination five years (it was to be six years, at the time, but a change to the Discipline in 2008 shortened the commissioning process by one year). We hit that snag during interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry on March 3, 2003. By the next day, we decided to continue to work toward ordination by completing D.Min. degrees, and by the end of the year, we had begun at Asbury Theological Seminary.

After 4.5 years of fast-paced, intense work, we graduated in 2008—but not before adopting Ethan from Korea. We began the adoption process in January 2007, the same month we began work on our doctoral dissertations. The day after we both submitted our first complete (but unpolished) drafts to our faculty mentor, we got the call that Ethan was ready for us to pick up in Korea. We traveled to Korea in February 2008 while our mentor read drafts of our dissertations. Over the course of the next 4 months, we polished and successfully defended our dissertations, graduated, and then moved to new church appointments in Clearfield.

If that wasn’t enough of a whirlwind, several months later, we decided to pursue the adoption of a second child from Korea. We returned to Korea in October 2009 to pick up Sarah.

Since then, we’ve been adjusting to this new life with children, while also trying to be transformational leaders in our churches. We discovered that it’s taking a long time to fully recover from D.Min. programs, the 13-year ordination process, the adjustment to parenting while also serving as full-time pastors, and new appointments in the midst of it all!

Well, while we’re not ready to say we’ve fully recovered, we both said recently that we feel like we’re finally starting to recover. We’re regaining some energy for basic-but-important things like reading and the spiritual disciplines. In fact, in the last six weeks, I’ve even restarted weight training, which fell from the routine four years ago right before our first trip to Korea!

Life is an ascent, an uphill climb. At times, it’s downright tiring. When it is, understand that it will take time to recover!

Preach Better Sermons

I just signed up for an online event that will take place on Thursday, March 15 at 1:00 p.m. EST. It’s a FREE online preaching event With Andy Stanley, Perry Noble, Louie Giglio, Dr. Charles Stanley, Jeff Foxworthy, Jud Wilhite, and Vanable Moody. Learn more and sign up at preachbettersermons.com.

The event will focus on helping communicators prepare and deliver messages that matter. The speakers will unpack seven preaching principles, including …

  1. Start with the Scripture.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Make it portable.
  4. Show it, don’t just say it.
  5. Find common ground.
  6. Finish early in the week.
  7. Preach with the end in mind.

I’m looking forward to it!

Celebrating 4 Years With Ethan

Four years ago, Joleen and I were in Seoul, Korea to pick up Ethan. It’s one of the real highlights of our lives, a day for which we are very grateful to God!

These four photos put the hours surrounding the pick-up of Ethan in a nutshell, from the meeting on February 11 to the arrival in State College on Valentine’s Day …

On Friday, the four of us met up with Grammy and Pappy for an afternoon celebration at the Slinky Action Zone. It was an all-day celebration, beginning at Ethan’s preschool (they celebrated his gotcha day in place of his birthday, which is during the summer). After playing at the Slinky Action Zone, we stopped at The Meadows for ice cream before heading home. Here are a few photos from the day.

Psalms 115 and 135 on Idols

Last month, I mentioned some words from the prophet Isaiah, slamming idols. Since then, I’ve read a couple places in the Psalms that also take a low view of idols. Here are some excerpts from Psalms 115 and 135 (with similar words) …

Psalm 115.4-8 (CEB)

4 Their idols are just silver and gold—
things made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but they can’t speak.
They have eyes, but they can’t see.
6 They have ears, but they can’t hear.
They have noses, but they can’t smell.
7 They have hands, but they can’t feel.
They have feet, but they can’t walk.
They can’t even make a noise
in their throats!
8 Let the people who made these idols
and all who trust in them
become just like them!

Psalm 135.15-18 (CEB)

15 The nations’ idols
are just silver and gold—
things made by human hands.
16 They have mouths, but they can’t speak.
They have eyes, but they can’t see.
17 They have ears, but they can’t listen.
No, there’s no breath in their lungs!
18 Let the people who made these idols
and all who trust in them
become just like them!

The idols that distract us today may be different, but they’re just as dangerous. They’re dangerous because they distract us from God. And they shape us. We become like what we worship and devote ourselves to.

Commitments of a Missional Leader

Recently, I’ve written multiple posts on Mike Slaughter’s presentations at the Bishop’s Retreat (here and here) as well as a couple of his books (“Change the World” and “Momentum for Life”). Here’s one more post with some final reflections and a list of personal commitments.

5 specific commitments I’m making …

  1. Dream daily. I’ve always known that cultivating vision is important, but Mike talked about having a time and place where you nurture vision daily (Mike uses his home office).
  2. Improve the other daily disciplines, too. I also want to focus on and develop/improve some of the other disciplines that Mike lists in Momentum for Life (see this post). In other words, these first two commitments are about refocusing on, and improving, my daily routine!
  3. Recommit to leading the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of the real challenges of leadership is keeping the main thing the main thing. The main thing is making disciples of Jesus Christ!
  4. Mentor potential leaders. One of the things Mike has done from the beginning of his time at Ginghamsburg is to mentor future leaders (in a small group setting). It was a good reminder to be intentional about cultivating new/future leaders.
  5. Practice courageous leadership. Real leadership requires courage. Mike says there’s a constant battle between courage and compliance. Too often, compliance wins out because it’s easier. In Change the World, Mike writes, “Ultimately, you must be a confident and courageous leader who says and does the hard things to ensure the success of the mission” (122). It takes courage to be a missional leader!

Perhaps there’s nothing earth-shattering here. The problem usually isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing what we know!

“Momentum for Life”

At the recent Bishop’s Retreat, with guest Mike Slaughter, I picked up Mike’s book, Momentum for Life: Biblical Practices for Sustaining Physical Health, Personal Integrity, and Strategic Focus. I love that the book sprinkles references to the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) throughout the book. And, using the acronym D.R.I.V.E., the book focuses on five basic life disciplines that create momentum for life, including …

  • Devotion to God
  • Readiness for lifelong learning
  • Investing in key relationships
  • Visioning for the future
  • Eating and Exercise for life

At first, I thought the five phrases were hard to remember, but now that I’ve been working with them a while, I can easily remember them.

A common refrain in the book is, “All leadership begins with self-leadership” (3). Mike says, “You can’t lead anyone farther than you’re leading yourself” (31).

Devotion to God

Devotion brings me back to my true center. My work is not the center of my journey, nor is ministry the center of my life; God is. My identity is that of a servant. (40)

In the early days of my spiritual journey, in college, I read biographies and journals of great spiritual leaders to learn more about their devotional practices. I learned early on, and was inspired by the fact, that great spiritual leaders were disciplined in their prayer lives!

A daily life practice of being fully present to God’s presence is the foundation of all other disciplines. (42)

Readiness for Lifelong Learning

Growth and fruitfulness go hand in hand. (47)

God is looking for people with flexible minds that can receive new ideas and for people who will let those ideas be manifested into physical reality. … The obstacle to forward momentum is old thinking. (51)

Investing in Key Relationships

Mike discusses the priority of family. He also talks about mentoring relationships.

We miss out on life and meaning if we are not making relationships a priority on any given day. (70) … Life is not about stuff we own or accumulate. It is not about personal accomplishment. Life is about people. We can replace stuff, but we can’t replace people. (71)

We get into trouble when we allow our work to fill the margins that are meant for our relationships. (72) … Each of us is responsible for our own schedule, for how we will order today. If I don’t prioritize how and with whom I spend my time, circumstances and other people will decide for me. (74)

The ultimate test of success is not what we accomplish or achieve but whom we develop. … You make an impact in the world by making a difference in the lives of other people. … Whatever your type of work, the priority is building people. (80)

Visioning for the Future

Vision is the natural result of living in the fulness of the Holy Spirit. … Through the Holy Spirit we have access to the mind of Christ, which enables us to have connection to the limitless ideas of God. (87)

Mike writes, “I take time every day to visualize God’s preferred future” (93). He admits, “If I am not taking time every day to envision a better reality, I will reach my picture and retire” (90).

God entrusts vision to those who will faithfully execute it, and the size of vision God gives us is dependent on our faithfulness in implementing strategic action. … God wants to do incredible things, but he will not give you a vision that exceeds the size of the faith-steps you are willing to take. (100) … God gives big visions to people who are willing to take big actions! (101)

Eating and Exercise for Life

The chapter on eating and exercise is based on the premise that “Life is a gift to be embraced and celebrated to the max” (107).

It is tempting for us to dissociate what we eat and whether we exercise from our commitments to God, but our bodies are not our own. We have been purchased, body-mind-spirit, with the redemptive work of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Eating healthy foods and making a disciplined commitment to exercise is not optional for the committed follower of Jesus. It is one of the essential daily life disciplines of discipleship. (109)

Mike contends, “Your time of death is not predetermined. It is affected by your life practices and choices” (110). He lists several factors that influence longevity …

  • Attitude
  • Relationships
  • Genes
  • Mental activity
  • Exercise
  • Diet

I do better in some of these areas than in others. The book was a challenging reminder to me that grow in each of these areas. The book is pretty practical. I didn’t expect a lot of new, earth-shattering stuff in the book, but Mike did a good job of being practical and building it on a biblical foundation. It was an encouraging read.