Shine

You shine: we shine: Your radiant Son shines.

May we reflect Your glorious light.
May You always be our delight.
May Your wondrous face shine upon us.
May Your merciful grace dwell daily within us.
May we remember your story when darkness surrounds.
May You be our strength where our weakness abounds.
Remind us that your Son always rises,
When night seems endless and fear surprises.
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A Prayer for Protection

May I cut through the darkness with your word, and block flaming arrows with hope and resolve.

May passion for obedience guard my chest; that my heart might beat for you; that my lungs might breathe for you.

May your gospel bring clarity and soundness of mind, defending my thoughts from attacks from inside; that my thoughts may be grounded in your goodness.

May your peace guard and guide my steps; that I might stand fast and my footing be sure.

Be my Defender and Hope. Be my courage as I stand and fight.

Amen.

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace

My favorite song of all time is Come Thou Fount. This ranking is affirmed and reaffirmed every time I sing it or take it in; it ministers to my soul. The depth that is interwoven into its lyrics always astounds me and I find deeper spiritual truths each time I encounter it. For me, it is the song of my faith and my walk with God. It speaks to who God is, what he has done, and who I am in light of it all. The song contains some really honest lyrics concerning the Christian life such as, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love” or “Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God.” The song has been my prayer to stay rooted and connected to God’s goodness no matter what. It is a request to remember the necessity of abiding in God’s grace daily in order that I might live a life of worship. If I was a better writer, I could write a book on what God has revealed to me about himself, my faith, and the nature of my own heart. Perhaps I will write a series of posts on the song line by line. For now, I will settle to try and convey what I most recently discovered.

As I was leading through this treasure trove of a song this weekend, a few lines of it struck me in a profound way.

Come Thou fount’ of every blessing

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace

Streams of mercy never ceasing

Call for songs of loudest praise

Really, it was the “tune my heart to sing thy grace” that caught my attention last weekend. What an interesting request. This is an important request and prayer, but a difficult one if you know what it might require. It sounds nice and flowery, but tuning can hurt; a lot. The tuning of our hearts requires constant adjustment and change. As a musician, I know the importance of constantly making sure I am in tune. If my instrument is out of tune, it does not make a beautiful sound. It causes dissonance, confusion, and possibly pain to those listening. It also doesn’t take much to make something out of tune. The temperature/environment can change the pitch. Just merely using your instrument affects the tuning as well (too much bending the strings for a guitar player). And if those things don’t affect the tuning, time will. Just the passing of time makes the strings go flat. So tuning is not a one-time event; it requires intentionality and constant adjustment.

In order for God to tune my stubborn heart to sing of his grace, he must orchestrate moments in my life that remind me of my dependence upon him. God’s grace, his unrequited gift of love and forgiveness that is necessary for life, cannot be properly understood from any other position than a lowly one. My heart cannot sing of his grace from a spirit of self-reliance and independence. Sometimes he must let circumstance or the consequence of my own sin bring me to ruin so that I see the reality of my desperate state and my need for him. Our hearts need tuning. This is not a one-time event; it is regular maintenance that must be attended to. Our hearts get out of tune by the temperature and environments of what is going on around us, or by use and doing as much as we can, or perhaps with just the mere passing of time. Our hearts need tuning, and only God’s hands and ears are capable. Only he knows the exact frequency that we must be tuned to in order to sing his song.

This tuning can often be a painful process. It can feel unloving. It can lead us to dark, scary, and often lonely places. This is a hard thing to ask God to do: tune my heart to sing Thy grace. But, if we truly believe and trust the first line, then the second makes sense. If God really is the fountain and source of blessing, then we can trust as scripture tells us that his way is best and he has all things working together for good (Romans 8:28). God’s “good” is not always what we want, but it is always good and it is always what we need. It is for our good that God brings us low. I have to believe that. I have found in this difficult year (for me personally) that my faith and theology makes the difficult even more difficult sometimes. To believe that God is in control is to believe that this chaos and pain has been permitted, or dare I say, planned. (Please forgive me if this offends you as you are reading a man’s thoughts still in process). Sometimes I feel as C.S. Lewis once said, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.’ (A Grief Observed pg. 28)” Sometimes I wish I could wrestle with God physically as Jacob did. I know I won’t land a single blow, but I’d like to throw them anyways. I must also remember that Jacob got a name change and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. This was for his good and there is no denying that in the over-arching plot. But I am still in the thick of the plot, so I must trust that this is for the good in the overall story as well. From my current vantage point, I can already see that I too will have a limp for the rest of my life after this bout with God. It is true what I said about my theology makes the difficult more difficult, but it also makes the difficult palatable, and dare I say, hopeful. Without trust in God, his goodness, and the resurrection, all is meaningless and quite grim. Apart from God and the resurrection, our only hope is some empty distraction from the inevitable.

I have already written far more than I planned, so let me get to it. Here is the good news: God is good, and he is faithful and just to forgive. The next line is, “Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” God has an unending supply of mercy for those in pain and in need. Once he has brought us low, once we are humbled by the truth of our dependency, we encounter his insatiable supply of mercy.  His mercy and grace are so overwhelming that they call for the loudest praise you can muster! The only appropriate response to his mercy is a tuned heart singing as loud as it can the song of his grace upon grace. This is how we can move from gloom to joy. If you truly understand the grace of God, and you are rooted in it, your life will be a song of loudest praise. Let me qualify the level of praise a bit more. The line is, “songs of loudest praise” not merely loud praise; therefore, it is the highest decibel you are able to scream at. When was the last time you sang that loud? When was the last time you sang your heart out praising and thanking God for mercy he has shown you? If it’s been a while, maybe you need to pray for a re-tuning of the heart. Maybe life-circumstance has knocked you out of tune, maybe you feel used up and your pitch is off, or maybe the routine of life and passing of time has let the wonder of God go flat in your heart. Request a tuning of the heart from the only outside force that can do so. No instrument has ever been tuned magically or by itself. But be warned: the tuning of your heart may not bring about what you want, but it will bring about what you need.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Romans 12:1

The Wolves of Grief

I couldn’t outrun the wolves for long. How long can I stave them off?

They are howling at the base of the tree. my grip; slipping. Their noses snarled. Their teeth gnashing. The question may be: which will devour me first?

Anger looks viscous, and if consumed by it who know how I may devastate those whom I care about. What will set me off? It circles the tree jumping and snapping at my heels.

Sadness prowls slowly with fangs flashing and a low growl. If it bites down, I fear that nothing will get it to release.

Perhaps the most dangerous is the one I can hardly see. Apathy stalks from the thickets waiting for me to fall into its strike so that it can pick my life apart bit by bit.

Keep it together. Keep my head in the game. Too much is at stake.

…What will I feed the wolves?

Conversations with Grief

I was up late last night having a conversation with Grief, Reality, Empathy and Hope in the dark. Grief tended to dominate the conversation and Hope fought to get a word in. Grief sat like a giant in the room. His words fell out of his mouth like lead weights crushing the floor beneath him. Grief told me over and over again that life will never be the same, and all present agreed. Grief became desperate to be heard and exclaimed that I am lost, and most agreed. Grief got louder still and said that the pain is too much, that I will surely drown in it. Reality pointed out all the spinning plates that had fallen and crashed to the ground; my heart sank. Grief said that this weight is too much and I cannot carry it; all agreed.

After we sat in the dark for some time, Empathy spoke up. She said that she is with me and that others are too. Reality reminded me of names and faces. Hope started in with a soft and sweet voice. Her words floated in the air, some like bubbles that popped or dissipated, and some like balloons that lingered and clung to the ceiling. She said that these names and faces will remain with me and that there will be others. She said that even though the weight is too much for me, that others will carry it with me. Grief asked Hope if Certainty could confirm her suspicions. The room grew silent; the silence became deafeningly loud.

Hope admitted that she had never met Certainty. They had never been in the same room. But then Hope began to fire questions at Reality, not out of desperation, for she was not shaken. Her voice grew more confident and louder with each question as if she knew the answers before Reality could utter them. She asked Reality about what we have seen and about when Empathy has been there for me before. She said that she and Certainty had never been in the same room, but asked Reality if Certainty had been in rooms after she had left them. Reality thought, and then agreed that this seemed to always be the case. She then stated that where Empathy has been she has pointed to a greater empathy. She said that Love has called us all here. Love has known our pain and can see us through… Hope said that I am not lost.

We sat in the dark for some time. Reality sat calculating and recounting. He broke the silence and said that both Grief and Hope have evidence… And then he said that Hope has been right in the past… Why cling to anything else?

And as we sat in the dark, I smiled.

The Cure for Apathy Part I

We have sex, but no love
There’s a pulse, but no heart
We are searching in the dark

We have songs, but no soul
We long to be whole
But the end seems so far

We have the cure for apathy, but nobody cares

Wandering in the dark
Afraid of the smallest spark
We complain about this endless night

Preferring our dismal bliss
Our aperture closed to this:
His revealing Holy Light

We have the cure for apathy, but nobody cares

Once the light has shone;
The perpetrator exposed
We cannot deny the blood on our hands

Doing away with what is wrong
We sing the sickness song
Denying the claims of the witness stand

We have the cure for apathy, but nobody cares

One of the most important characteristics of any team, is unity. Without unity there is no team,  just a group of individuals that happen to be going in the same vague direction. Unity is something that is grown over time. Unity has to be nurtured and developed between a group as they depend on each other and meet their needs. It is developed through trust over time and through experience. And trust can only exist where vulnerability, honesty, humility and acceptance exists (but I will save diving into this topic for another time). One aspect of unity that is often overlooked is that part of nurturing process is protecting it and defending it. Anything that is developing must be defended.

Over time a team’s unity should be growing stronger. From my experience, teams are always growing. Time never stops; therefore, nothing remains static. Your team is either growing closer and developing more unity, or it is growing apart as unity is being systematically dismantled. If you want your team to grow closer together over time, you have to cultivate the actions and words that develop unity, and defend against actions and words that threaten it. We often think of unity as strong in and of itself. Indeed a unified team is strong, but unity itself is very fragile and must be intentionally and aggressively defended. It doesn’t take much to errode away our unity because in our hearts we long to be important and significant, in our eyes we can only see what we see, and in our minds we tend to tell stories to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know about others.

Three Ways to Defend Unity

#1. Cling to The Vision

Every team has a goal, purpose and vision. It is a leader’s job to clarify, to proclaim, to remind, and to keep the team accountable to the vision. Remember that it was the goal and vision that brought the team together in the first place; without a unifying vision the team never would have existed. When each member of team has a strong resolve and commitment to the vision, unity grows and flourishes. In seasons where measurable outcomes are not favorable, or growth feels static, it is the team’s commitment to the vision despite their feelings that will keep them unified. If you are on a team, and the vision is still where you desire to go, cling to the vision and encourage others to do the same. If the team doesn’t cling to the vision when (not if) things look bleak, the team will start resenting each other and eating each other alive.

If you are the leader (or are part of the leadership) of a team, know the vision and drive it into your team always. Sit down and make sure you know how to express it, and do so at every turn. When you head into action, remind them of how what you are about to do is inline with the vision. After you’ve finished a task, or have taken a hill, evaluate and point out how what you did was inline with the vision. The vision should be a specific destination. You should be able to describe what it looks like and what it feels like. If this is unclear, it will be hard for your team to stay unified. The vision should always be clear to the whole team at all times: this is your job.

If you are on a team as a member, know the vision and make sure you believe in the vision. If you don’t know the vision, ask for it. Your leader will help clarify it. They should be able to articulate where the team is going and what it will look like. If you know the vision and don’t believe in it, get off the team. You can only do damage to the unity of the team, what they are trying to accomplish, and where they are trying to go. Remember that strategies are a means and can change, but the vision is a destination. Strategies do change, but the vision most likely (especially if it’s well thought out) should not. If you like the vision but aren’t sure of the strategy, you may still serve some value on the team. Always remember though, that it is your leader’s job to lead. Help with the evaluation of strategies, but don’t think that you necessarily know best. In virtually every team situation I have ever been in, the leader has always put more time into his choices then the rest of team. This is naturally the case because they are more accountable. This doesn’t mean they are always right, but it does mean that even their wrongness is rooted in more experience and thought. Tread with much respect and loyalty. Never speak about them in a critical way, but rather speak to them in order help bring perspective and clarity. It is more than alright to ask honest questions.

Remember the vision and cling to it. It’s why you are there. As you do, and encourage others to do so, your team will be able to stand up to that which seeks to break you apart.

#2. Avoid the “Us and Them”

One deceptive agent of “unity” is the common enemy. It is easy to unify out of dislike, or dare I say, hatred of something/someone. We have seen this method of unity historically and personally. If you want to see an example of this type of unity in action, just go to any place where there is a long line (I.E. the post office, or MVD). As you observe for a while, eventually someone, after moments of stewing in silence, will reach a point where they must vocalize their frustration with the lack of competence the establishment has and how inefficient their procedures are. Soon others will join in with words of affirmation (in the negative sense), by talking about the long duration they too have been waiting. They will add to the intial vocalization with an observation of how they could be more efficient: “They should open another window…” Eventually, they will start lighting their torches and sharpening their pitch forks. They will be unified, even if no real action takes place. But what happens once they have gone through the line? The common enemy is gone; therefore, unity is no longer required. They will all go their separate ways, and most likely never see each other again. Why does this happen? This type of “unity” doesn’t require any real vision or mutual purpose beyond the common enemy. This type of “unity” has a short life-span and doesn’t align people strategically because its only goal is to eliminate or endure the negative. Yes, it is easy to unify this way, but it is shallow, near-sighted, and always temporary. Your team must stay laser focused on vision rather than peripheral common enemies. A good vision will bring lasting unity, whereas a common enemy will only afford unity for a time.

As much as this is true in the macro sense of the team (finding enemies outside of  your team), it is also true in the micro sense within your team (finding enemies within your team). Your team must not band together in smaller cell groups “uniting” against itself.  The use of the word “they” should raise a flag in the your team’s ears. The moment fingers are pointed at the “them” you now have two factions and unity is threatened: us versus them.

One way to avoid this is to make sure that you are always uniting over vision and not a common enemy. It is easy to unite over a common enemy that’s why we fall into all the time. It is much harder to unite over mutual purpose and vision. The former needs only to take advantage of an emotional reaction to circumstances, while the latter requires dedication to a vision, despite feelings or circumstance. Uniting over enemies aims for destruction. Uniting for a cause and vision takes courage and creativity. Would you rather be a part of something life-taking or life-giving?

Another way to avoid the “us and them” is to take extreme ownership of all that happens. If all that’s wrong in the world is “them” or “they” or “that” than you can’t do anything, and let’s stop talking. But if you instead take ownership of everything, even if it wasn’t really you that was accountable, then maybe there is something you can change or do. Ask, what can we do, change, communicate or stop doing? This is a lens that puts you into position to do something of benefit. Let’s put it this way: if it is us or them, than it is us for them. How can you sacrifice? This is the leadership style that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified. Jesus said that to lead is to serve and that we are to love one another (John 13:3-16). Jesus described love as one willing to lay down their life for another (John 15:12-13). Instead of pointing at them, ask: how can I give myself and take ownship for the things that aren’t even my problem in order to bring the change that is needed?

#3. Avoid Telling Stories Where Possible

We can only see what we can see. This sounds very obvious, but we often forget it. We judge motives (which are unseen) instead of evaluating actions and trying to discover motives. When we don’t know why someone is doing what they are doing, we tell stories. Or worse, we vocally tell stories to others, and we can be very elaborate story tellers. Motives are complex. Even our own motives are more complex than we ourselves realize and we know what’s going on in our heads. Why do we think we know what’s going on in others’?

One way to avoid story telling is to always push things into the light. If you are unsure of something, ask. Rather than making up an elaborate story, go to the main character of your soon to be latest fictional work and ask about what you don’t know. This takes some humility, vulnerablity and tact (don’t forget the tact). Don’t let your thoughts hide in the dark and grow into elaborate dragons that need ot be slain, but rather shed light on them so that they can be seen for what they are. When you speak to them, remember your relentless cling to the vision and extreme ownership. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

“Turn away from evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it.” -Psalm 34:13-14

If you have to tell yourself a story, make it a good one. Sometimes you have to fill in the gaps because you just don’t have the information, and you cannot sit around until you do. If you can’t see the motives of another team member, assume they are good ones. Tell a story that puts them in the a kind and compassionate light. All the while, you need to be praying for this fellow team member. I have learned that when I pray for someone that I am unclear about, it changes my heart and helps me to see them as an individual rather than a “them” to be judged and blamed. When you pray for someone, I mean really pray for them, you have to think about their needs, and you have to try and see them how God sees them. God loves them and has given his life for them.

Conclusion

Unity is threatened by unclear vision, creating enemies, and assumptions concerning others. We hedge against these threats by clinging to a clear vision, avoiding a “us vs. them” mentality, and by refusing to make up bad stories about the motives of others. Unity is fragile and must be intentionally and aggressively defended. Like a watchman, you need to be alert to cues of danger. You must make your ears sensitive to language that shifts blame, creates uncertainty, or promotes gossip.  Out of mutual purpose and love, always look to be nurturer and defender of the unity in your teams.

Notes

  1. Cling to the Vision
    1. Have Desperate Unflinching Faith in the Vision (faith despite feelings)
    2. Leaders Clarify Vision
    3. Members Know and Believe the Vision
  2. Avoid Us and Them (If it is “us” or “them” it is us for them)
    1. Extreme Ownership (ask what you can do and take ownership of problems)
    2. Sacrifice and serve
    3. Don’t fall into the trap of the common enemy
  3. Avoid Telling Stories Where possible
    1. Push things into the light
    2. If you have to tell a story, tell a good one

For further study: Crucial Conversations  (Kerry Patterson), Next Generation Leader (Andy Stanley), Podcast #206 Extreme Ownership (artofmanliness.com), Read John 13-15. It is kind of funny that I am telling you to read a passage on unity where shortly after the disciples scatter in the biggest example of disunity with a vision. Be these are the words, commands and vision later unites them to the point of death. It is here where Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples (followers of his vision), if you have love for one another.” Wrapped up in their love for one another is their unity.

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