Randy Wollf PictureMinistryLift Blog with Randy Wollf

Randy is the Director of MinistryLift and Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Practical Theology at ACTS Seminaries. He was a pastor, church planter and missionary for 20 years before going to ACTS. Randy loves to build capacity in people, teams and organizations so that they can love God more deeply and serve Him more effectively.

Seven Ideas for Keeping Christ Central at Christmas

Keep Christ in ChristmasI love the food that we eat at Christmas. I love hanging out with family, playing games and just having good conversation. I enjoy exchanging gifts. Christmas lights bring a smile to my face.

Yet, I find that these Christmas trappings can sometimes distract me from the most important part of Christmas. Jesus, God’s Son and the One who would become the Savior of the world, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ is the reason for celebrating Christmas.

Here are seven ideas for keeping Christ central during the Christmas season:

Read one of the Gospels or a Christmas devotional

I am currently reading Luke as I go through the Christmas season. Some years, I have read a Christmas devotional. Focusing on Christ during my devotional times in December helps me to prepare my heart and mind for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Celebrate advent in your home

Early on in our marriage, one of our family members made us an advent wreath. Each year, we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth by lighting the advent candles on the four Sunday nights before Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Our kids love this time of singing Christmas carols and putting our focus back on Christ.

Join the advent conspiracy

A couple years ago, our church encouraged people to join the advent conspiracy. The four tenets of the conspiracy are to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all. As a family, we decided to be more generous with those in need and to give less to those who already have so much (like us). We send out Christmas shoeboxes through Samaritan’s Purse and purchase animals, water filters, mosquito nets and other items that help people who are struggling. We also look for people and causes closer to home that we can support a bit more at Christmas.

Recognize the spiritual significance of some Christmas trappings

Our lead pastor at South Langley Church recently preached a sermon entitled, “Christmas Lights.” The message – Jesus is the Light of the World and we have the opportunity to reflect him to the world around us. Many Christmas symbols have a powerful spiritual meaning that can point us to Christ. Check out the Christmas Testimony website for a description of some of these symbols.

Take in a Christmas Eve service

Attending a Christmas Eve church service can go a long way in helping us focus on Christ just before we move into what can be an overly indulgent time of eating and receiving gifts.

Read the Christmas story

We have always tried to read the Christmas story on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. If you have smaller kids present, you may even want to act it out. This helps frame the gift-giving in light of the most incredible Gift-giver and the gift of His Son.

Serve Others

I know of people who will feed the homeless at Christmas. We will sometimes have people over for our Christmas meal who don’t have family in the area. Other times, we have blessed our neighbors by giving them a plate of Christmas baking. Serving others takes our eyes off ourselves.

These are just a few of the ways that we have found helpful for keeping our eyes on Jesus while still enjoying many of the good trappings of the Christmas season.

I would love to hear what you do to keep Christ central at Christmas (please leave a comment below).

Creating a Personal Timeline – Gaining Perspective on the Past to Help Guide You Today

Person holding an old photo that overlaps with a present day sceneWhen I first created my personal timeline, I experienced affirmation, healing, and a greater sense of God’s movement in my life. At times, I felt sad over missed opportunities or painful situations. Yet, I also rejoiced, as I saw God mixing the defining moments and seasons into something good.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites would often erect stones of remembrance as a reminder of God’s provision and faithfulness. In a similar way, your personal timeline is a way of identifying markers in your life that point to significant events that God used (or can use) to shape you. I am so thankful that God can bring good out of even the most painful event in our lives. This does not mean that we minimize what happened, but we recognize that God is able to redeem even our most painful experiences.

Here are four steps for creating your personal timeline:

Step One – Identify the pleasant and painful moments/seasons in your life

Using one color of post-it note for pleasant experiences and another color for painful events (or color-coding entries in a spreadsheet/table or using Chazown’s personal timeline tool), brainstorm some of your defining moments or seasons of life. Some of my defining moments are times when people spoke into my life by simply asking a question or making a statement (e.g. “Randy. Would you like to teach this lesson to the rest of the class?” and “I would like you to be a leader in this group”). Others occurred over a longer period (e.g. growing up in a Christian family). Put one defining moment/season on each post-it note. At this point, don’t worry about putting them in chronological order. Come up with approximately 20-30 events to start.

Randy's personal timeline using post-it notes

Step Two – Arrange your experiences in chronological order and give your timeline chapter titles

Arrange your post-it notes chronologically in columns in a legal-sized folder or on a 14x17” piece of poster board. On different colored post-it notes, come up with three to five chapter titles for the different seasons of your life. For example, as a young adult I went through several liberating experiences. I have called that chapter in my life, “My Renaissance.”

Step Three – Identify lessons

As you look at your pleasant and painful defining moments/seasons, what are some of the lessons you learned or perhaps need to learn in a deeper way today? Write these lessons on a different colored post-it note and put these along the bottom of your timeline. Some of the lessons I identified when I did my timeline the first time were “I can be a leader” and “God’s ways are always the best.”

Step Four – Share your timeline with another person

One of the most important steps in creating a personal timeline is sharing it (or parts of it you feel comfortable sharing) with someone you trust. The other person will likely learn something new about you, which can deepen your relationship. However, it also gives you a chance to verbalize your timeline, which may help you experience more of the affirmation, healing and understanding about God’s leading that can come out of this kind of reflective exercise.

I would love to hear what you discovered as you went through the personal timeline exercise. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Three Steps to Understanding Your Life Purpose in a Deeper Way

Boardwalk through jungleOne of my heroes, Mother Theresa, had a driving sense of purpose. In her own words, her life’s ambition was “to love the least of these; to touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted.”

Terry Fox, a Canadian hero who lost a leg to cancer, ran over 3,000 miles in his attempt to run across Canada. His purpose – to raise awareness about cancer and to ultimately find a cure.

Life purpose is the reason that we exist. It clarifies what is non-negotiable. It gives our lives focus.

Life purpose helps us to discern what is best among many good options. It gives us passion, courage and determination. When we understand our life purpose, we are much more likely to make sacrifices to achieve it. The result- increased productivity that is both meaningful and fulfilling.

In a previous blog, Why Understanding Your Personal Calling is Important, I talked about the first time I articulated my life purpose. Dave Jackson, who was with Church Resource Ministries at the time, led our church leadership through a process of clarifying our personal life purpose. The following three steps are an adaptation of the process he used and one that I have now used with hundreds of leaders to help them understand their life purpose in a deeper way:

Step One – What are at least eight Scriptures, sayings, or quotes that give you focus and direction in life?

For me, my blood pressure increases whenever I read about making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and the fields being ripe for harvest (John 4:35). Quotes like this one by C.T. Studd also inspire me: “Only one life and it will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” We all have “sacred texts” that guide us. What are yours?

Step Two – As you reflect on what you wrote in step one, what are the themes that emerge?

The Scriptures and quotes that resonate deep within your spirit likely contain themes that are not only important to you, but to God, as well. As we draw close to God, our desires increasingly reflect His desires. Identifying these passions as expressed in key verses and quotes will make the final step of creating your purpose statement much easier.

Step Three – Using the themes from step two, craft a one-sentence purpose statement.

My life purpose is to build capacity in myself and others so that we can love God more deeply and serve Him more effectively. I want who I am and everything that I do to contribute to this overarching purpose. Whenever I think about this purpose, I get excited. It inspires me to press on with courage and determination even in the face of great challenge.

I would love to see your life purpose statement! Please leave it as a comment below.

May the Lord give you strength and wisdom to live out His purpose for His glory!

Why Understanding Your Personal Calling is Important

Cell phone with missed call from GodI vividly remember the leadership retreat several years ago where Dave Jackson with Church Resource Ministries led our church leadership through a personal refocusing process. The lights came on for me, as I understood in a much deeper way God’s call on my life. That process of understanding my personal calling fanned into flame a strong sense of purpose that continues to guide me to this day.

God’s Plan

God has created and shaped us for a purpose. Our calling is God’s game plan for our lives. It’s also part of His larger plan for the Church and the world.

There are numerous examples in Scripture of people who knew their God-given calling.

Abraham made great sacrifices to move his family to the place of God’s choosing.

Nehemiah risked losing his career in the royal courts and faced great opposition to obey God’s call to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

After an attempted detour to Tarsus, Jonah realized that following God’s calling was better than going his own way.

God called Queen Esther to save her people and she did.

The apostle Paul had a strong calling to proclaim the gospel where people had not yet heard it. He lived out his calling and God used him to make disciples and plant churches all over the Mediterranean world.

Understanding Our Calling Gives us Direction and Passion

What happens when we understand our calling and decide to live it out in God’s strength and for His glory? We have a strong sense of direction – we know our game plan (or at least parts of it). Because we believe that our game plan is from our loving Lord, we will want to carry it out with passion, courage and determination. We will engage in extraordinary efforts in the struggle to realize God’s calling.

Staying on Track

Of course, there are circumstances and forces that may distract us from the game plan or diminish our passion to execute the plan. That is why it is imperative that we keep coming back to the Lord for guidance and strength. We also need to keep the plan in front of us at all times and prayerfully discern when God would have us to adjust it. Having a strong network of prayer supporters and encouragers will help us to stay the course, as well.

Some people may get discouraged when they don’t see much progress in accomplishing God’s calling. I am learning that living out God’s calling often has many detours; yet, I believe that even the detours have a purpose in God’s economy. Our role is to do our best, in God’s strength, to struggle forward in realizing God’s calling. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man [and woman I would add] who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause.”

There is no cause more worthy than living out God’s calling on our lives.

I would love to hear your thoughts on calling. Why do you think understanding your calling is important (or not important)?

Note: In my next blog, I will share a process for coming up with a one-sentence life purpose statement, which I have used to help hundreds of others discover or reinforce their sense of purpose in life.

Seven Dimensions of Christian Leadership

I love building capacity in seasoned and emerging Christian leaders so that they can serve God more effectively. As I do so, I have found it helpful to focus my energies on seven key dimensions of leadership: biblical truth, a growing relationship with God, character, calling, community, team, and skill (see the Christian Leadership Pyramid below). Questions I ask are how am I personally growing in these seven areas and how can I help others to grow in these dimensions, as well. 

 

The Christian Leadership Pyramid

Christian Leadership Pyramid

 

Biblical Truth            

Biblical truth must guide every aspect of our leadership. It is imperative that we increasingly live and lead in keeping with a thoroughly biblical worldview. This comes as we grow in our ability to meditate on God’s Word continuously,[1] to handle it accurately[2] and to be a courageous practitioner of the Word.[3]

A Growing Relationship with God

The desired foundation of Christian leadership is a growing relationship with God. The Christian leader must continue to live in Christ, rooted and built up in him.[4] As we abide in Christ, he will bear fruit through us.[5] I find that the practice of spiritual disciplines, when done in a meaningful way, rallies me to God and His plans for my life. One of the most useful tools I have found for establishing and growing these disciplines is the Rule of Life. A Rule of Life is an intentional plan to deepen one’s relationship with God and to position oneself to love and serve others more effectively. Similar to what Peter Scazzero says in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,[6] I am learning that one’s Rule of Life should encompass all of life. This would include practicing traditional spiritual disciplines such as prayer and listening to God through His Word, but also cultivating healthy relationships, fostering emotional health, and taking care of my body (among others).

Character

Character is the second layer of the leadership pyramid. As we increasingly submit ourselves to Christ’s Lordship and experience an ongoing filling of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to imitate God and follow Jesus’ example of love.[7] Scripture describes many admirable character qualities such as the fruit of the Spirit,[8] being wise,[9] holy,[10] just,[11] humble,[12] and courageous.[13] Growth in these kinds of qualities greatly enhances our ability to reflect Christ and lead in God-honouring ways. I believe we will acquire these traits in increasing measure as we surrender ourselves to God, deal with sin in our lives, associate with godly people, leverage Scripture to bring about necessary change, allow trials to shape our character, and expose ourselves to opportunities that foster growth in desired areas.

Calling

Understanding and living out one’s God-given calling is another key ingredient for effective Christian leadership. Scripture says that we have been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand.[14] This suggests that God has a unique plan for each of our lives. What is this plan or calling? I use a process with my students at ACTS Seminaries that helps them understand their God-given calling, which includes life purpose, core values, and vision.[15] The process invites participants to prayerfully explore Scripture, their defining moments (which often contain God-ordained themes that point people in certain directions), their interests, desirable character traits, areas where they and others have seen God’s blessing on their endeavours, and their areas of gifting and strength. As people discover or re-envision God’s call on their lives, they are in a good position to determine where and how they should serve. In addition, they are often filled with purpose, passion and a willingness to make sacrifices to live out that calling. This kind of understanding and passion is essential for effective Christian leadership. 

Community 

Building strong community is critical for leading effective groups and organizations. We must grow in our ability to love one another deeply from pure hearts.[16] It is in the context of healthy relationships that people can build trust with each other (of course, there are other elements to building trust such as the perceived competence and credibility of others, but relational “chemistry” is certainly an important piece). A loving Christian community is also a powerful witness to the world. Jesus said that our love for each other will broadcast the fact that we are Christians.[17] Leaders can foster relational development by setting a strong example of loving others and by providing opportunities for people to build relational bridges with each other. 

Team 

The leadership development literature gives considerable attention to team-building. Jesus taught the masses and ministered to individuals, but his primary training was with his team of disciples. He poured his life into them. Effective Christian leaders know that a team can often accomplish more than what team members could achieve individually. Even though people who do not particularly like each other can learn to work together, fostering relational closeness within a team is the best strategy for going beyond team-building a loving and caring community. As a part of the team-building process, it is often helpful to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses (e.g. through a Myers Briggs assessment or by doing the StrengthsFinder inventory), and to practice functioning as a team (e.g. doing activities and challenges that encourage team members to leverage their strengths on behalf of the team). 

Knowledge and Skills 

Effective leaders are lifelong learners. We need to continually hone our skills related to important leadership practices like managing conflict, making wise decisions, developing leaders, building and communicating vision, and fostering a learning orientation within our organizations. In addition, the rapid pace of societal change means that leaders must acquire new competencies to increase their effectiveness. Knowledge and skills represent another important dimension of Christian leadership.

Conclusion

Using a pyramid to represent the dimensions of Christian leadership has its shortcomings; however, one of the strengths of the pyramid analogy is that it clearly portrays the importance of the foundational layers. We can have extensive knowledge and exceptional leadership skills. We may be able to build strong teams and foster meaningful communities. Yet, without a growing relationship with God, will we be able to reflect Him in a vibrant and sustainable way? Will we truly hear God’s call and have what it takes to live it out on a daily basis? I believe that Christian leaders who desire to serve in God-honouring and effective ways strengthen each of the seven dimensions of leadership in themselves and others while prioritizing the foundational elements. Why? So that we might be more effective in loving God, loving others and making growing disciples of Jesus both in Canada and around the world. In my view, that is Christian leadership at its best.




[1] Psalm 1:2

[2] 2 Timothy 2:15

[3] James 1:22

[4] Colossians 2:6-7

[5] John 15

[6] Peter Scazzero. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Franklin, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2006), 195-210.

[7] Ephesians 5:1-2

[8] Galatians 5:22-23

[9] Proverbs 2:1-5

[10] 1 Peter 1:15-16

[11] Micah 6:8

[12] Philippians 2:5-8

[13] Joshua 1:6-9

[14] Ephesians 2:10

[15] I originally learned this process from Dave Jackson who directs the ReFocusing initiative within the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

[16] 1 Peter 1:22

[17] John 13:35

Underwhelmed by God's Provision

Quote - Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.It was a momentous occasion. The Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon had laid the foundation of the new temple (Ezra 3:10-13). Many rejoiced. Yet, some who had seen the former temple wept. Presumably, the new temple already paled in comparison to the previous one built by King Solomon.

Sometimes, I’m underwhelmed by God’s provision, especially when it does not meet my expectations or seems inferior to His past provision. Yet, God’s provision is always right. Even though the new temple would be smaller and less majestic, it was still the right temple. As I receive God’s provision today, I am thankful that what He provides is just right.

Is God Good All of the Time?

Being Thankful in the Tough TimesIt was Christmas and we were expecting our second child. The pregnancy was not going well and we ended up losing the baby. We were devastated. Was God still good in the midst of this painful loss?

Flip back a few thousand years to the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites had lost their homeland. The Babylonians had destroyed their temple and their beloved city. Many Jews were forcibly taken to Babylon as captives. Yet, after many years in captivity, King Cyrus granted the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

After laying the temple foundation, the priests and Levites sang to the Lord: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever” (Ezra 3:11). Despite the hardships they had experienced, the Israelites rejoiced that God was good through it all.

Tragedies happen. Life is sometimes unfair. Yet, God’s goodness and love remain. Yes, God is good – all of the time.

Living Out Our Calling in the Face of Fear

Walt Disney Quote - "It's Kind of Fun to do the Impossible."When we follow God’s leading in our lives, we will often encounter challenges and face opposition. The Jews whose hearts God had moved to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple were afraid of the people around them (Ezra 3:3). Yet, despite their fear, they built an altar to God and offered sacrifices on it. They had responded in obedience to God’s call and were prepared to follow His leading in the face of fear. We, too, can experience this kind of courage as we follow God and His plans for us. There is something powerful about knowing that we are doing what God wants that emboldens us to attempt the difficult and even what looks impossible. Besides, as Walt Disney was known to say, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

As One

Unity in DiversityThe Jews had been back in their homeland for seven months when they all came together in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God (see “First Things First” blog). The Bible says they came together “as one” (Ezra 3:1). They were so unified in purpose that they could operate as if they were one person. It’s a great expression that gets at the kind of unity we can experience as we seek to serve God with those of like heart.

Yet, sometimes our understanding of unity can hinder us from actually experiencing true unity. A problem arises when we assume that unity is the same as unanimity.

Unanimity suggests complete agreement. However, unity is the formation of a whole or one by combining separate, distinct parts. Diversity is an essential component of unity.

In an orchestra, unanimity is everyone playing the same musical line as the clarinets and trying to sound like them. Unity is the trumpets, saxophones, flutes, trombones, clarinets, percussion, and other instruments playing the same song with one conductor, but adding their unique sounds and musical lines to create a complex harmony, a rich oneness.

Diverse people unified by One Person and His purposes can come together as one and accomplish amazing things for Him.

Note: Part of this blog was first published by the author in an article in the MB Herald (November, 2013 issue).

First Things First

Woman kneeling before God saying, "I'm Yours God."Thanks to King Cyrus, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. After the Jews had settled in their towns, they met in Jerusalem en masse (Ezra 3:1-6). Instead of starting the temple rebuilding project right away, they built an altar and offered sacrifices to God. This is significant! The act of sacrificing symbolized their commitment to God. They had their priorities right.

Brian Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola highlights the importance of priorities in this way:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

As Christians, our top priorities must be God, the people He has entrusted to our care, and the calling He has given us to live. As we go through our day, may we keep first things first by continually offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God, sacrifices who are not conformed to the pattern of this world but who are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Then, we will be in a better place to see His priorities – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Recognized for Our Obedience

Father pointing son to lion in the skyI don’t usually get very excited about those chapters in the Bible that contain lists of names. In Ezra 2, we find a list of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. What is significant about this list is that they are the ones who responded in obedience when God moved in their hearts (Ezra 1:5). May we, too, be on God’s list today of those who obey His promptings.

God Moving Hearts

If God brings you to it, he will bring you through itThe Israelites languished in captivity until the day when God moved the heart of their captor king, the mighty King Cyrus of Persia (Ezra 1). At the Lord’s prompting, Cyrus proclaimed that the Israelites could return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Not only did God move the king’s heart, he also stirred the hearts of some of the Jews to seize this amazing opportunity.

As a part of God moving his heart, Cyrus instructed the neighbours of those returning to Jerusalem to provide them with silver, gold, goods and livestock. Pretty sweet! However, Cyrus wasn’t finished yet. He also brought out items that a previous king had taken from the temple and gave them to the temple-building entourage.

Through His movement in peoples’ hearts, God opened up a way for the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

I am so glad that God stirs us and others to action. I am excited about how God might move in my heart and the hearts of those around me today.

Lord, help me to hear your voice. Grant me the courage to act on your nudges. Thank you that when you bring us to something, you will also bring us through it. My life is yours. Amen.

Pruning the Good and Not So Good

Pruning a rose bushHenry Cloud in his book, Necessary Endings, uses the analogy of pruning a rose bush as a way to show the importance of giving up activities and relationships in order to move forward. He describes three types of pruning.

The first type of pruning is to remove healthy buds. Because a rose bush produces more buds than it can sustain, it is important to prune some so that the bush will thrive. The excess of good buds could ultimately rob the bush of maximum health and production. As I have reflected on this type of pruning in recent weeks, I have identified two areas of involvement that I need to prune so that I can devote more energy to the other commitments in my life. I can become so immersed in doing many good things that I miss out on some of the best things that God has for me (or cannot give them the time and energy they deserve).

The second type of pruning is to remove branches that are sick or diseased. These branches will not recover and will continue to draw energy away from healthy branches until they are removed. What are the dysfunctional, unproductive areas in our lives that are siphoning off resources and keeping us from blooming in a maximum way?

The third type of pruning involves taking away dead branches. Their presence takes up space that hinders the growth of other branches.

Pruning is a necessary process for promoting health and vitality in the plant world and in our lives, as well. Cloud goes on to say (p. 13):

“Endings are a part of every aspect of life. When done well, the seasons of life are negotiated, and the proper endings lead to the end of pain, greater growth, personal and business goals reached, and better lives. Endings bring hope.

When done poorly, bad outcomes happen, good opportunities are lost, and misery either remains or is repeated. So let’s get empowered to choose the necessary endings, execute them well, and get to the better results we all desire.”

Amen!

Cloud, H. (2010). Necessary Endings. New York: Harper Business.

Listening to the Wise Voices of Reason

Speaking Up at a MeetingHave you ever been in a group conversation that completely changed direction after someone spoke up with a contrary viewpoint?

In Acts 5:17-42, we see that the Sanhedrin was furious with Peter and the apostles after they had defied their order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. To make matters worse, the apostles had even accused the Jewish religious leaders of killing Jesus. The Sanhedrin was ready to stone the apostles when Gamaliel, a teacher of the law honoured by all the people, stood up in the assembly. He said, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). Gamaliel injected a wise voice of reason into the heated discussion, which convinced the Sanhedrin not to do anything rash. His contrary viewpoint challenged the groupthink that was occurring and completely changed the direction and outcome of the discussion.

It’s so important that we listen to the “Gamaliels” on our teams who speak wisely and help to focus our discussions. Sometimes, it is the quiet team member who brings this kind of wisdom to the table. As leaders and group members, it’s important that we create and support an open and safe atmosphere where everyone can contribute their insights. When a “Gamaliel” speaks, let’s be quick to listen and heed the wise voice of reason even when it means changing our direction.

Blood Clot in Bali

Randy and Doctor in Bali HospitalWhile serving at an English Camp in Thailand, I noticed a persistent pain in my calf muscle. Just before flying to Indonesia for the second stage of the missions trip, I emailed a couple medical doctor friends back in Canada about the problem. When I arrived in Bali where I was do some leadership training with Christian radio station managers, I checked my emails and saw one from one of my doctor friends. He said in no uncertain terms, “Get to a hospital now and get it checked out.”

Within a few hours, I had a diagnosis. I had a blood clot just behind my knee probably caused by a lack of movement and liquids on the 15-hour flight from Vancouver to Bangkok (for those of you who are wondering why the calf muscle was sore, it was because the muscle was not getting enough oxygen). The hospital staff immediately started me on a daily regime of warfarin stomach injections to thin my blood and hopefully break up the clot safely. I was still able to do my leadership training, but had to stay a few extra days until my blood was thin enough to safely fly. I was pretty discouraged by it all and felt very lonely (okay, I admit, having this happen in Bali did make it slightly more bearable). I eventually did make it home and made a full recovery.

I’m not big on pain and suffering (I’ve been known to get woozy at the sight of blood or needles). Yet, I’m coming to realize that God can produce good results in and through me when I go through times of suffering. Even during my extended stay in Bali, I had the opportunity to share Christ with a taxi driver on my way to the hospital for one of my daily injections.

In Acts 4-5, we see that the apostles were facing increasing pressure from the Jewish religious leaders in the Sanhedrin. These leaders had already told the apostles to stop speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:18). However, the apostles chose to obey God, rather than people. The result - the Jewish leaders had them flogged. What amazes me is that the apostles left their flogging session, “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

In other Scriptures (e.g. James 1:2-5; 1 Peter 1:3-9), we see that God can use difficulties in our lives to purify and strengthen our faith. A key part of this process is our willingness to learn and grow through the process (Hebrews 12:7-11).

Having a blood clot in Bali was not a pleasant experience. Yet, it afforded God an opportunity to do something deeper in my life and to ultimately produce a greater harvest of righteousness and peace through me (Hebrews 12:11). I wouldn’t have chosen this kind of ordeal, but I’m glad that God worked and is working through it.

She Shared Her Bank Account with Us

Cheque bookA number of years ago, a dear widow in the church where we were pastoring came to our home and explained to us that she would like to share her bank account with us. At first, we didn’t grasp what she was offering. We finally realized that she wanted to share her money with us, similar to how the early Christians had everything in common (Acts 4:32-37). After picking ourselves up off the floor, we accepted her generous offer.

When I read about how the early church shared everything, I wonder why many of our North American churches don’t experience this kind of community. Sometimes, I see it in small churches and in small groups where people hear about personal needs and have the relational connection that motivates them to help their friends. I long for this kind of deep community where people are so close to each other that they are prepared to do whatever it takes to support, encourage, and challenge each other. Who knows, maybe in this kind of community, we might even choose to share our bank accounts with one another.

God Answers Prayer

Man holding stomach with quote, "It felt like someone was twisting a knife in my stomach."I was lying in a Filipino hospital with excruciating pain. It felt like someone was twisting a knife in my stomach. The doctor’s first priority was to rehydrate me, as I had gone through a serious bout of dysentery. They did a series of tests, but could not determine the cause of my pain. After a day, the pain went away. Not knowing what else to do, the doctors released me from the hospital. As I l walked out the hospital exit, the pain came back.

I decided to go back to the missions guesthouse where we as a short-term missions team had been staying. As the “knife” work continued, I asked my teammates to pray for me. They prayed for God’s healing. The pain gradually subsided and by the next morning, it was gone for good. I have no doubt that God answered prayer by healing me.

The early Christians certainly knew about the power of prayer. After the Jewish leaders had commanded Peter and John to stop speaking about Jesus  (Acts 4:18-31), they went to their own people and together, they prayed. How did God respond to their prayers? “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31).

God’s power not only shook the building , but also moved the people to speak the Word of God boldly. All of this came after the people prayed together.

I am convinced that prayer is our primary way of moving the hand of God. He doesn’t always say yes to our prayers, but how will He answer at all, unless we ask.

Rebels Needed who are Willing to Stand Firm for Truth

Stand firm for truth words beside big treeBeing a bit of a rebel at heart, I applaud Peter and John’s courage in standing up to the Jewish authorities in Acts 4:1-22. The Sanhedrin, a council of Jewish religious leaders, was the power centre of Jewish religious at the time. Because Peter and John were teaching about Jesus, the Sanhedrin called them in for questioning (see my previous post, “God’s Power in and through Imperfect Instruments”).

These powerful Jewish leaders commanded Peter and John to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. Disobeying the Sanhedrin was not a good idea as it could lead to expulsion from the synagogue, being shunned by their fellow Jews, or even worse.

Peter and John responded in this way: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19-20).

Peter and John chose the way of rebellion in this instance so that they might obey the Lord. The questions I have for us today are:

Who or what do we need to defy in order to obey God more fully?

Who is the person in our lives who may be hindering us from following Jesus more closely?

What are the forces (e.g. materialism, naturalism, individualism) that may be eroding our commitment to God and His Word?

Let’s be inspired by the rebellious courage of Peter and John and lovingly stand firm for truth, no matter what the cost.

God's Power in and through Imperfect Instruments

Clay jar with the verse from 2 Corinthians 4:7As a young camp counsellor, I had strong opinions about what constituted a good camp speaker. When Mr. B stood up to speak at the start of camp, I just knew we were in trouble. Yet, God used this imperfect instrument in an incredible way to reach into the hearts of many that week, including myself.

In Acts 4, the Jewish leaders were alarmed that the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They detained Peter and John for questioning. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, responded powerfully to their questions. He spoke with God’s power and even the Jewish leaders took notice. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (v. 13).

After deliberating amongst themselves, these same religious leaders exercised their human authority by commanding Peter and John to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. I love Peter and John’s response: “...Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19-20).

It is intriguing to me that when Peter spoke with God’s power, people paid attention. Yet, when the Jewish leaders exercised their authority, which in this case was contrary to God’s desires, it had little effect. It’s a good reminder that the most powerful authority that we wield as Christian leaders is the authority that God entrusts to us by His Spirit. God’s power can make a huge difference in and through imperfect instruments.

Loving, Christ-centred Community on a Mission

Alpha Course Small GroupWe were about halfway through the Alpha Course. As discussion leaders, we had gotten to know those in our small group quite well over the six weeks we had been meeting together. One of the people in our group was very skeptical about Christianity. I wasn’t sure why she kept coming, but I was glad that she persisted. As we were talking about the church that night, this woman looked around the group at each group member and said, “If church was like this, I might consider it.”

This one statement about the importance of community and open dialogue spurred me on to grow deeper in my understanding of the church. I studied and preached through the book of Acts. I was struck by the deep sense of community that the early Christians experienced (e.g. Acts 2:42-47). I read numerous books on the church. I came to realize that a healthy church is a loving, Christ-centred community on a mission to be and make growing disciples of Jesus. This vision of the church led me into a church planting ministry for several years and continues to burn in my heart as I serve as co-moderator at South Langley Church and teach students at MBBS-ACTS Seminaries at Trinity Western University. I want to do all that I can to make this vision a reality in my church and in the churches of those I have the privilege to train because I strongly believe that the church can be “like this” and so much more.

Prayer and the Holy Spirit

Alfred Lord Tennyson quote on prayerIn reading Acts 1-2, the spotlight is on the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that the disciples would have power to witness when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). Then, the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost and enabled the disciples to speak in other tongues, which foreign visitors to Jerusalem recognized as their own languages (Acts 2). Yet, what were the disciples doing between the giving of Jesus’ promise and its fulfillment? “They all joined together constantly in prayer…” (Acts 1:14). I don’t think it was any coincidence that these praying disciples were the first to receive the gift that Jesus had promised. In the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."

Power to Witness

Acts 1:8When I recommitted my life to the Lord as an 18-year-old, I almost immediately had two desires: to study the Bible and to share my faith. Growing up in Caronport, Saskatchewan where most of the people in the town were Christians connected to the local Bible College (Briercrest), I had to travel 15 miles to the city of sin (Moose Jaw) to find some people who didn’t yet have a relationship with Jesus. I was terribly afraid, but I felt God’s power as I hit the streets of Moose Jaw. That summer, I was a camp counselor at Ranger Lake and Luseland Bible Camps. Once again, I experienced God’s power as He helped me to share the Gospel with the kids in my cabin.

Over the years, I have gone through seasons where I am not as active in sharing my faith. Yet, whenever I read Acts 1:8, I am reminded that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to share Christ with others. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Leading Unethically

Man climbing ladder of successI’m sure we can all think of leaders who acted unethically. Many leaders justify their actions by believing that their position places them above ethical constraints. They consciously or unconsciously assume that the same rules do not apply to them. In 1 Sam. 22, Saul does the unthinkable. He orders the execution of God’s priests who unwittingly helped David by providing him with food and a sword (they assumed he was on a mission for Saul when in fact he was fleeing from the king). Saul’s actions should cause us to remember that we are never above God’s standards, no matter how high we climb the ladder of success.

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Every Leader Needs a Protector

Dog protecting a baby goat ("Show me where the bullies are")After David escaped from King Saul (see the “Making Your Exit” post), he went to Samuel at Ramah (1 Sam. 19:18-24). Saul heard about it and sent men to apprehend David. The Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they prophesied. In this state, they could not arrest David. This happened two more times before Saul, himself, went to Ramah. The Spirit of God came upon him, too, and he found himself prophesying alongside the prophets.

Samuel was a powerful ally and protector of David. We sometimes need a Samuel in our lives who can shield us from life’s dangers. One of my Samuels was my senior pastor when I started out in pastoral ministry. He shielded me from some of the flak that might have taken out a young leader. I still need these kinds of people in my life. However, I also realize that I must be a Samuel to others who might benefit from my influence.

Making Your Exit

Person holding open a doorWe all need allies in our lives who see or sense that the tide is turning and that it is time for us to make our exit. Sometimes, this involves an escape as we see in 1 Sam. 19:11-17. David’s wife, Michal, learned that her father, King Saul, planned to kill David. In response to this imminent threat, she warned David and helped him escape through a window in their house. When pressed by Saul’s men to let them in to see David, she concocted a story about David being sick (she even placed an idol with goat’s hair in David’s bed). When Saul eventually learned that David had escaped, he was not impressed.

Even though I wouldn’t condone Michal’s deception, I admire her courage in helping David escape the clutches of her father. Are we willing to take risks in our efforts to help others make necessary transitions? Perhaps, someone on your ministry or work team needs to transition to a different area. We all can benefit from allies who help us see the need for change and then support us as we make the transition.

Making a Desert into an Oasis

Valley of Bacca poem by Peter BlackburnPsalm 84 is a pilgrimage psalm where the psalmist expresses his longing to be in God’s presence in the temple in Jerusalem. We don’t know for sure, but his access to the temple may have been cut off due to a military incursion by a hostile neighbor. Regardless of the regional tensions, the psalmist speaks of a “Valley of Baca,” a place of dryness and desolation that stood between him and the temple. What is the dry place, the difficulty, that you are facing right now? The psalmist acknowledges that it is possible to turn the Valley of Baca into a place of springs. I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to turn my dry places into places of life and abundance. What was the psalmist’s secret? Those who find their strength in God and who have set their hearts on pilgrimage can transform the Valley of Baca into a place of springs. As we seek the Lord and rely on Him for strength, we will experience his life, hope, and peace, even as we walk through the valleys.

Sacrificial Loyalty

The word loyalty with a chain through some of the lettersDavid and Jonathan enjoyed a close relationship marked by loyalty. Saul, in one of his fits of jealous rage, instructed Jonathan and all the royal attendants to kill David (1 Sam. 19:1). Because Jonathan loved David, he spurned his father’s request and instead warned David of Saul’s murderous intentions (v. 2). Jonathan even tried to change his father’s view of David by speaking well of him (v. 4). He reminded Saul that David had done nothing to harm him personally and that what David had done had actually benefitted Saul greatly.

Jonathan was willing to risk losing his father’s favor or worse because of his commitment to David. Of course, it is possible to take loyalty too far. Yet, Jonathan’s example encourages us to demonstrate and facilitate in our ministries a type of sacrificial loyalty that serves the interests of others, the team, and the larger Kingdom of God.

Intimidated by God's Blessing of Others

Two people biking with quote, "Never compare your beginning to someone else's middle"Even though Saul had enjoyed God’s blessing himself in the past, he was not secure enough to rejoice when others received that same blessing. Saul became afraid of David (1 Sam. 18:6-16). In fact, David became his enemy simply because God had given him success.

Father. Help us to rejoice with those who rejoice – to celebrate with those who experience success. Help us not to become jealous of them, but to support them, pray for them and bless them so that they might experience continued success in the future. Amen.

Exceeding Others' Expectations

Pavement line goes around fallen branchEven though David felt unworthy to receive one of the king’s daughters as a gift (see “Staying Humble When We’re Successful” post), he was willing to pay the price of 100 Philistines. In fact, David and his men exceeded the king’s expectations by slaying 200 of Israel’s enemies (1 Sam. 18:27).

I tell my students at ACTS Seminaries at Trinity Western University to go beyond the stated expectations of an assignment (not in terms of length). I encourage them to surprise me with a novel combination and/or expression of ideas. I love it when students take up the challenge and submit something truly extraordinary.

Obviously, we need to live balanced lives, but David’s example in this situation calls us to work hard and to sometimes exceed others' expectations.

Lost in Albania

Lighthouse with a wave crashing around itIt was June, 1999. We had just arrived in the northern Albanian city of Shkodra in the aftermath of the Kosovo civil war. Our medical team was part of a huge humanitarian effort, seeking to help the many Kosovar refugees displaced by the war. Each day, our team met at a hotel in a central location to catch our ride to the refugee camps where we provided medical care, organized activities for the children, and just provided support and encouragement in any way that we could.

Several of us stayed at the same home about a 20-minute walk from the hotel. We would sometimes walk to the hotel in the morning to have breakfast and meet our other team members.

For some reason, at the end of one of the days, the van driver dropped me off at the hotel by myself. I guess my other housemates were involved in some other activities. Even though I had walked to the hotel several times before, I had never walked back to our place from the hotel. Everything looked different. I set off in what I thought was the right direction, but soon realized I had no idea where I was going.

As I wandered aimlessly down the streets of Shkodra, I remembered our team leader warning us not to be out on the streets at certain hours. As I looked at my watch, I realized that I was out and about during the most dangerous part of the day. Not only was I lost in a strange city, I was in a dangerous situation. It was then that I saw a most welcome sight – two very heavily armed NATO soldiers. I felt safe again.

Within minutes, I found the restaurant where our team often had dinner. I sat down to a nice meal, hoping that the rest of my team would show up for their evening meal, as well. They didn’t, but my server knew enough English to understand that I did not know how to find my way home. He happened to know where our van driver lived and drove me to his place. Thankfully, the driver was home and drove me back to my place.

As I think about getting lost in Albania, I see evidence of God watching over me: the NATO soldiers, finding the restaurant, and the waiter knowing our driver. As we face life’s perplexities, it is comforting to know that God is watching over us. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Note: The picture of the lighthouse was on my office wall for many years as an ongoing reminder of God's ever-present help.