The Gift of Neediness

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Apostle Paul

“Lord, I need you, oh, I need you…” Matt Mahar

Last night Darlene and I watched Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways. It’s always fun to see people get gifts, that’s part of why we love Christmas so much. In the middle of the program something dawned on me…the greatest giving stories are always stories in which there is great need. It’s people with the greatest needs who enjoy their gifts the most. I’ve never seen a program in which they find someone who is living comfortably in a $300,000 home and surprise them with $200,000 to buy a $500,000 home. Last night, they found a homeless mom living with her two daughters in her car and gave her a new house. That’s what we want to see! In her case, it was good to be needy!

Actually, it’s always good to be needy, it’s how God created us. Contrary to how we often think, the reality that we have needs is not a product of the fall. Adam and Eve were created needy. They needed to be given life, they needed a garden with fruit trees for food, they needed to be told the difference between good and evil. Their neediness made them dependent on their good Father/Creator and it helped them see and celebrate His gifts to them.

The problem that actually came to us with the fall is our pride that keeps us from seeing ourselves as needy. We see neediness as weakness and so we tend to deny or ignore our weakness and try to appear to be self-sufficient and in control. The problem is, when we don’t see ourselves as needy, we don’t turn to God, and we miss his gifts and the joy of receiving them. That is clearly seen in John’s gospel presentation of the Incarnation. John says, “The true light, which gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) Why was light needed? Because the world was dark! “The light shines in darkness.” (John 1:5) Light is a great gift where there is darkness. But sadly, John goes on to say that most people missed the gift. Why? Because they thought they didn’t need it, they thought they could create their own light with their religious acts. I’m grateful there is a “but” in these verses, “But, to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. He gave the great gift of light to those who realized they were needy.

Here is an application to those in ministry leadership. Neediness is a gift! Success in ministry is not built on my strength, but on His. Ministry is not first a gift I give to God, it is one he gives to me. Paul says, “I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by his power.” (Ephesians 3:7) Ministry happens by God’s choice, by God’s power, by the gifts God gives and by the fruit he produces. God does not start with those who are strong, who have great gifts to offer him. Just look at Moses, Gideon, David and on and on. God looks for those who see their neediness at a level that causes them to throw themselves on him. Paul put it this way, “But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” ( II Corinthians 12:9,10)

Bottom line: In order to receive and enjoy the gift of his strength in my life and ministry, I first need the gift of neediness.

The Main Thing

“one thing is necessary” Jesus

“Keep the main thing the main thing” Steven Covey

So yesterday I took a wrong turn. It wasn’t that the road was unfamiliar or that I didn’t know where I was going, I just got distracted by what was happening out of the side window. Ask any Police officer about the dangers of distracted driving. Fortunately nothing worse happened than spending a few extra minutes driving down a wrong road. Distraction is a real danger not only in driving but in living, ministry and leading. When I become preoccupied with side things, the side things can quickly become main thing, or at least something that distracts me from the main thing.

In our last blog, we heard the Apostle Paul say that one way to guard against the push of side things, of my shadow mission, is to open my heart and my motives to God and to other trusted people in my life. A second important guard rail to keep me out of the ditch of shadow mission is to “keep the main thing the main thing”. Jesus made that clear to Martha one evening. Martha was distracted by all the work that needed to be done, even possibly by the need to be seen as a good hostess (shadow mission alert!). It wasn’t that what she was doing was unimportant, hospitality is a God given gift, it is a powerful way to show our love for Jesus and for others. But it, like any other gift, can become a shadow mission. It can become about what we’re doing rather than who we are doing it for. So Jesus simply tells Martha, “keep the main thing the main thing”, or in Jesus words: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary(Luke 10:38). Jesus was not saying to her that hospitality is unnecessary or unimportant, he was saying that it was not the main thing. I believe he was saying that her relationship with him was the main thing. And there’s a shadow mission guard rail: ” being with” always comes before “doing for”! In order to keep from getting distracted and becoming vulnerable to my shadow mission, always keep my relationship with Jesus the first thing at the top of every list, the first thought at the beginning of every day, and the primary focus in every task. Then my hospitality, my teaching, my any other gift or ministry will be for him and about him, not for and about me.

Turn on the light!

”as you know”

“God is witness”

(I Thessalonians 2:5)

My basement office not only has a desk, it has a floor full of toys…Lego!  My three grandsons also love the basement.   I’ve learned a valuable lesson about having my office in a basement full of Lego: “Before you take another step, turn on the light!!”.  The same can be said about shadow missions.  In the last blog we faced the reality of shadow mission, the truth that hidden in the shadows of our hearts, even hearts that deeply desire to follow God, are those still existent desires to “use others or even ministry to build ourselves up”.  So, we asked the question: what can we do about our shadow mission(s)?

The first piece of advice is, before you take another step, turn the light on…and keep it on!  Actually, this comes right from the Apostle Paul.  He says in I Thessalonians 2:5: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is witness.”.  Paul opened up his heart, his motives, his hidden places to God and to other people. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is to be totally honest with God, to tell Him not only what is going on in my life but ask him to have a look at what is going on in my heart. If I’m not sure what is going on in my heart, tell Him that too!  Anger, jealousy, low self-esteem, and all the other stuff in the shadows, need His light!  As I indicated in the last blog article, even as I start writing this blog, the often-reoccurring question that comes from a father wound in my heart (a blog for another day), is: “will people like it, will they approve”.  The approval I seldom got as a child is frequently the fuel for my shadow mission.  I can, and should, (and did), tell my heavenly Father that the side-winds of my “needing approval” shadow mission were blowing again.  I can’t fight them on my own, but it’s amazing what happens when I bring the exposing and healing light of His presence into the struggle.   

I can do the same with other people, I can let someone I trust know what is going on in my heart.  Just last evening I did that with my most trusted friend, my wife and life’s journey partner, Darlene.  It was amazing how quickly letting her into the shadow, into the struggle, brought light, both the exposing light and then the healing light as we prayed about it together.   

There is more to dealing with my shadow mission, (future blog material) but certainly not less than this. Let God “be your witness”, let other people “know”.  Before you step on a Lego, turn on the light!

Watch the Sidewinds

“…we were not looking for praise from people”

(I Thessalonians 2:6)

“To give into our shadow mission should be our greatest fear.”

(John Ortberg)

A few months ago, my wife and I flew into Skopje, Macedonia to visit with some Christian workers there.  It was late evening and the 737 was descending to the runway in darkness.  We heard the flaps and the landing gear come down and we held hands preparing for the immanent jolt of landing.  Suddenly the engines roared back into life and the nose sharply pitched back upward and we saw the lights of the runway disappear below us.  The problem?  Sidewinds!  Sidewind gusts can blow a plane off course and are one of the greatest fears of pilots, especially during landing. 

The same is true in ministry leadership.  John Ortburg calls the sidewinds of leadership, “Shadow mission”.  In his book “Overcoming Your Shadow Mission” John says; “Everybody has a shadow mission.  Our lives, and the lives of groups we are a part of, can drift into the pursuit of something unworthy and dark.  To give into our shadow mission is – or should be – our greatest fear.”  Anyone in leadership has -or better have – a picture of where they are going, what they want to accomplish.  Those in Christian ministry have a sense of direction, a compelling wind in their back that pushes them towards God’s call.  But is that the only wind that is blowing? 

The apostle Paul was concerned about side winds, about potential shadow missions.  In writing to the Thessalonian Christians about his brief visit in their city he says: “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. We are not trying please people but God… you know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed…we were not looking for praise from people…”  Can we relate to Paul’s concerns expressed in these verses?  Anyone out there a people pleaser? Anyone looking for approval? Anyone ever compared their results with someone else’s? Anyone say nice things about someone so they’ll say nice things about me? John Stott comments on what Paul says this way; “All three evils, the flattery, the mask, and the hunger for compliments are illicit ways of using ministry to build ourselves up”.  OUCH!  Using ministry to build myself up.  Many times in my 40+ years of ministry, as I walked toward the podium to teach, I was aware that alongside my deep desire for the truth of God to be heard was a lurking shadow mission, a side wind that wanted to push me towards using the pulpit for personal approval.  I can feel that side wind even now, will anyone read this blog and send me back a note of approval?  How can we handle side winds?  …to be continued

How not to fail in ministry leadership

“Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than the fear of failure. It is almost universal in leadership.”  Thom Rainer

                                                “Our visit to you was not a failure”

                                                          (I Thessalonians 2:1)

I admit is was stunned as I read this in Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica.  I have dealt with the issue of failure often in forty years of ministry. Reality is, most (all) leaders do. So, as I read through I Thessalonians multiple times in preparation to fulfill a bucket list dream, visiting Biblical sites in Greece, I kept stalling at this statement.  How could Paul say this? After all, according to Luke in Acts 17, he only stayed in Thessalonica three weeks before he got chased out of town by a group of “rabble rousers” organized by jealous religious leaders. That could look a lot like failure to me – in only three weeks of ministry, he made so many enemies that he had to hide and escape in the middle of the night. 

Of course, Luke makes the point in Acts that there was some numerical success in Thessalonica.   There were “some who were persuaded” including “many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”  Maybe Paul looked at the numbers and noting some success felt free to say his visit was not a failure.  Maybe his metrics were not all that different from most in today’s western culture – all that matters is the bottom line.  However, he doesn’t go there in the letter to the Thessalonians.  What follows Paul’s declaration that his visit was not a failure is not a reference to the number of people who were persuaded. 

So, what is the Apostle Paul’s primary measurement in gauging success or failure?  Here’s what I believe it is, he measures input before and over output.  This perspective is stated most clearly in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, “I planted the seed (input), Apollos watered it (input), but God has been making it grow (output).”  (I Corinthians 3:6).  Paul focused on input before output.  In fact, he says that output is not his primary responsibility, it is God’s!

As I read through the rest of I Thessalonians chapter 2, Paul makes it clear that his reason for boldly stating that his visit was not a failure is that his input was solid.  He looked at his words and his message was clear; “I dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.” (vs. 2). He looked at his heart and his motives were pure; “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives” (vs 3).  He looks at how he did things, and his methods were upright and servant like;We toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to you. You yourselves are our witness – and so is God- that we were devout and honest and faultless toward all you believers. (vs 9,10)”.

Maybe if we would spend more time and effort focusing on and measuring input goals for our ministries, we’d spend less time worrying about failure. 

4th Quarter: calling and reality

In 2017 the game changed for us. I moved from my comfortable church office to my new one in our basement. After 30 years as founding and lead pastor of a multi-site church on the north coast of Ohio, my wife and I moved into the fourth quarter, we retired. After some much needed rest, we began to let the nagging questions resurface. Now what? Who am I now? What am I here for now? It has been an almost two year journey of much prayer, conversations with others on the same journey and simply doing what God puts in front of us. We we are still learning much, and having more opportunities than we ever imagined. The biggest lesson? Realities may change, calling doesn’t. My strength, my health and my responsibilities may change, but my calling to follow Jesus and build his kingdom doesn’t, it never will.

Several months ago, after leading some sessions to other ministry leaders on “Soul Care”, several people asked if I would share some of what I’ve learned in this part of the journey, as well as some of what I continue to learn about ministry from the perspective of someone in this phase of life. Thus the idea of Bill’s Basement Blog came to life. One of the great things about this phase of life, no pressure! If I write it and no one reads it, at least I had something to do that made me reflect on the goodness of God which is always a good thing! But I pray what we’ve learned along the way, and continue to learn about following Jesus and building his kingdom will encourage and even help someone.

So here it goes!!