A Tale of Two Candy Tossers

A few years ago I went to the Northwest Ministry Conference, an event held just outside Seattle in Redmond, Washington.

(An aside – I’ve attended a lot of conferences in my time, and heard a lot of words spoken by various speakers, instructors and facilitators. Truth be told, its hard to store all that information in my head. Usually, my biggest takeaway from a conference isn’t all the things I’ve been told, but the encouragement and inspiration needed to forge ahead in ministry.)

One teaching I do distinctly remember at the conference came from pastor and evangelist Kevin Harney. His message was on being generous with the grace and love that God has so freely bestowed upon us.

In his talk he told a story about being in Michigan at a small-town parade for 4th of July.

The parade featured several homemade floats on which people would sit and toss candy to the crowd. Harney observed that there were, essentially, two kinds of candy tossers.

One group took their bags of candy and very slowly tossed the contents to those who lined up to watch the parade. Harney said it was almost like these individuals were looking over the crowd to see who deserved a piece of candy. If someone jumped and yelled and cheered, they would get the candy-tossers attention, and likely earn some candy.

Harney said that some of these cautious candy-tossers were so selective in throwing out their candy, he was sure they would end up at the conclusion of the parade with plenty of candy still in their bag.

On the other hand, there was a group of candy-tossers who were much more open-handed when it came to giving out their candy. They dug their hands into their bags and filled their fists to the brim. They barely took time to look out into the crowd before hurling their candy into the crowd. There was no sizing people up to see if they deserved a piece of candy or not.

Kevin Harney’s point was pretty clear. When it comes to loving others and dispensing grace, a lot of us can be like that first group of candy-tossers. We become very economical! But there really is no limit to how much love we can share.

We have a great example in God of how far the extent of love and grace can reach. Consider a trio of scriptures:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

When it comes to God’s love toward us, stingy is not a word that could be used to describe Him. He is rich in mercy and generous with His grace!

And in response to God’s love, we are challenged to spread such love to others.

The instruction from 1 John 4:19-21 is crystal clear:

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

How often do I feel like one of those miserly candy-tossers who ended the parade with plenty of candy in their bag? Way too much.

But to really understand and embrace the grace, love and mercy God offers me should change my heart to be more open to those around me.

R.C. Sproul once said:

In the New Testament, love is more of a verb than a noun. It has more to do with acting than with feeling. The call to love is not so much a call to a certain state of feeling as it is to a quality of action.

To become like those generous candy-tossers, one must realize that love must be rooted in gratitude and grounded in obedience.

Otherwise. we’ll end up with a half-empty bag at the end of our life.

 

 

Competency without Character

More than once I’ve interfaced with of a person in ministry who seemed to be lacking in character.

Some were prone to outbursts of anger. Some handled money in a shifty fashion. In some cases it was a struggle with authoritarianism or nepotism or favoritism.

I’ve known a few leaders who reminded me of Gollum, the duplicitous creature from the book The Lord of the Rings. These individuals could be over-the-top congenial toward one group of people, yet mean as a badger to others. In a strange sort of way, such two-faced behavior was a sight to behold. Just not in a good way.

In too many cases, I’ve heard people justify a person’s character flaws by trumpeting their competencies. It usually sounds like this: “Yes, I know. But, he’s such a good teacher.”

The thinking seems to be the higher the competency, the more slack should be given regarding character.

I, for one, cannot subscribe to such a perspective.

No level of ability can cancel out sinful behavior. No measure of giftedness can give unbecoming, hurtful conduct a pass.

When it comes to leadership in God’s church, whether it be pastors, deacons or elders, character is king.

In two separate Bible passages, Paul left instructions on what to look for in potential leaders. And those lists of qualifications are dominated by character qualities. First, the list of elder qualifications written to Titus:

If any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled,  holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. (Titus 1:6-9 ESV)

And then this similar list presented to Timothy, which started with elders, but also includes deacons:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.  Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Now, these lists do not exclude some prescribed competencies. In the Titus passage, elders need to be able to employ the Word for exhortation of the saints and refuting false teaching. And in the Timothy verses, Paul writes that elders should be able to teach,

But far and away, what’s on Paul’s mind is character. He brings up such potential problem areas such as a person who likes to fight (both verbally and physically) and struggles with impatience, He talks about the traps of loving money too much and substance abuse.

On the positive side, Paul encourages both Titus and Timothy to be on the lookout for the following character traits: hospitality, sensibility, a lover of good, fairness and overall respectability.

I’ve seen it way too many times: a person of extremely high competence will one day see their character flaws derail them. They may get a lot of things done for a season, but eventually, their unaddressed behaviors sabotage any hope of ministry longevity or productivity.

In a blog post called Why It’s Not All About Competence, Jeff Boss wrote:

Don’t get me wrong, you need skills and you need know-how to be good at anything. Competence will help you cross the finish line, sure, but it won’t help you keep crossing that finish line again and again. Competence alone isn’t enough to sustain success. Why? Because skills can be learned. And if a skill can be learned then the only distinguishing factor between two people of the same skill set isn’t what they know but rather how they learn and how they apply what they learn amidst adversity.

So often – too often, I believe – we have a tendency to focus on a person’s abilities at the exclusion of considering their character.

But for the church, character is huge. In cannot be ignored. Or else we will consistently reap chaos, disunity and discord.

For me, I have my own list of questions regarding character qualities. This list comes from years of witnessing people of amazing character, as well as from observing people who seemed to be lacking in character:

  1. How does a person treat children, the elderly and people with physical or mental disabilities?
  2. How does a person treat another human being who can’t do anything for them (i.e. a homeless person)?
  3. How does a person treat those who are below them on the flow chart? (I have this maxim etched in my brain: “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.” 
  4. How does a person respond to disappointment or when plans go awry?
  5. For men, how are women treated?
  6. Does a person reveal a need to always be noticed, or can they celebrate when someone else is being appreciated?
  7. In our age of social media, how does a person conduct themselves online? (It’s amazing how online commenting can reveal a lot of angst and combativeness.)
  8. How does a person respond to authority?
  9. How does a person handle attempts to be influenced by money or power?
  10. Is a person genuinely appreciative of the people who help them accomplish their goals?

Here’s one final reflection from Christian counselor John Townsend:

The elements of competency and character rest on each other. You must have both. A person who has character and the wrong competence will not be effective. And an individual who has competence and a character problem can ruin the culture of an organization. However, always start with character. It is the core of your being. And if your character is working, you will naturally be inclined to find the best fit for your competencies. Character drives us to growth, and that growth includes finding where your talents lie.

 

War and Peace

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that a lot of the aspects of the Christian life come with a measure of tension.

Things hard to explain. Things hard to live out.

Recently I reflected on this particular area of tension that God calls each believer to embrace: the idea that we are called to both battle and to peace.

There is a war-like attitude we must take on if we are going to be successful at the Christian life.

The reality of struggle and conflict is revealed in Ephesians 6:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12 ESV)

These verses remind us that spiritual battle is a reality.

Thus, we must be vigilant. We must be ready to fight.

Sometimes we fight against satanic forces and influences. Other times we have to go toe-to-toe against our own sin nature.

If we don’t rise for battle, we will likely get steamrolled.

The language of maintaining a military mindset shows up in Paul’s words to his protege Timothy:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV)

Here’s the deal: there are a variety of forces at work to weaken and sabotage our spiritual growth and influence.

If we are not aware of their plans (let alone their existence) we are set up for huge losses.

We must know our enemies: Satan and his demonic forces, our own sinful flesh, and a world system that fails to honor, obey or acknowledge God.

God’s Word implores us to be ready for the war in front of us.

Yet, on the other hand, the follower of Jesus is called to pursue peace!

Check out what Paul wrote to the Ephesian church:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV)

I think we sometimes mix up our enemies and our allies.

We forget who we are to fight against and who we are to fight for.

When it comes to God’s people, as much as it is possible with us (Romans 12:18), we are to shoot for unity and peace.

Yet how often is their strife and struggle among the people who claim the name Christian?

How can we say we are obeying God’s Word to be pursuers of peace, yet be involved in conflicts, struggles and tangles?

I would say the key to developing a culture of unity and peace is to practice love. Biblical, sacrificial, servant-minded love.

To the church that struggles with maintaining peace among it’s people, Paul offers this sure-fire prescription:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4 ESV)

Good advice for God’s people!

Here’s my prayer for myself and others:

God,

May we know our enemies.

May we be clear on who wants to harm and destroy us.

Help us identify their strategies and subvert their plans. 

And may we know who you have called to be our friends.

Even when it seems difficult or painful.

Teach us the art of forgiveness and the skills of peacemaking among those in the body of Christ.

May we know who we are at war with, and who we are to make every effort to maintain unity through the bond of peace.

Are We Feeding Giraffes? or Sheep?

Many years back while in seminary, one of the professors reminded the class that, compared to majority of followers of Jesus, we were receiving information about theology and the Bible in extremely high concentrations.

We were reading a lot of books, listening to multiple lectures and writing lengthy, in-depth papers.

Week after week we were digging into a variety of “-ologys,” such as soteriology, ecclesiolgy, christology and eschatology.

We were being filled to the brim with learning, and it was great!

But the concern our prof had was this: that we might return to our churches, youth groups or Bible studies and try to present our discoveries with the force of a fire hose.

Several years ago a friend told me about a new youth pastor to his church who was fresh out of seminary. The brand new pastor had just shared a Bible lesson at his inaugural youth group evening. When I asked my friend what he taught, he responded, “He shared eleven weeks worth of teaching on election…in one lesson!”

At Bible college, one my favorite instructors often told us pastors-to-be: “Remember, you’re not feeding giraffes, your feeding sheep.”

That’s the charge Jesus gave to Peter: “Feed my sheep.”

To do so, we must be clear with our content, stick with one topic, be mindful of our audience and careful not to try to teach the entire Bible in one lesson.

As seminary students, our lives can be non-stop chewing on God’s Word. We go from class to class and absorb great teaching.

But the people of our churches usually don’t have that much time. They have jobs. They’re raising kids. They have obligations.

The idea isn’t that we lighten the impact of our teaching. We’re not called to water down God’s message. We just need to be aware of how much our audience can digest in a singular sitting.

One of the most powerful Bible teachers of the late 20th/early 21st century was the late R.C. Sproul. R.C. was an absolute genius. He obtained degrees from Westminster College, in Pennsylvania (BA, 1961), Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary (M. Div, 1964), the Free University of Amsterdam (Drs., 1969), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (PhD, 2001). He could run circles around people with all his intelligence.

But, for all his incredible smarts, R.C. always made his teaching clear, simple and accessible. Although he knew a slew of impressive words, he rarely used them, lest his audience get lost.

In fact, R.C.’s demeanor as a speaker was so down-to-earth and disarming, he was often compared to Lt. Columbo, the character played by Peter Falk on the old TV show, Columbo.

Why was this so? I believe it was because R.C. was much more concerned with communicating truth instead of trying to impress his listeners.

Bottom line, this is the teacher’s task: to transmit truth. If that is not accomplished through our teaching, than we have missed the mark.

As pastors and preachers, we are feeders of sheep. Not giraffes.