Our Need for Grace

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)

Grace has been on my mind all month. This year March Madness has been much more than basketball. Infidelity and abuse scandals have been snowballing ever since Harvey Weinstein was exposed last October. This month the lives of even more politicians, media celebrities, and ministry leaders have imploded as new accusations are unleashed. Sadly, many of the dark revelations have turned out to be true. Lives are being shattered like glass bowling pins.

Perhaps more devastating is that some accusations may not even be true. It has never been easier to falsely accuse a public figure than it is right now. A falsely accused person has to decide whether to fight back. A long time ago my seminary professors taught that noble ministry leaders should ignore lies told about them. We were counseled to take the high road, remain silent and leave our reputation to God. But with the advent of social media, it’s getting much more complicated than it used to be.  It’s pure madness. In some cases we may never be able to sort out the facts.

Not all the mud slinging is about sexual indiscretion. Some of it is about theological tolerance and hiring decisions which critics can label sinful or evil. Anyone with a blog can smear a leader with whom they disagree. If you’re articulate and savvy, you can gain a following and manipulate a church or a school in the name of a godly rebuke. Followers will applaud you for revealing “the truth” without ever hearing a rebuttal from the accused, who typically won’t respond at all. The dirt flies, but it’s all one-sided. You can even twist a person’s name to ridicule people. (Ever heard of “Obamanation”used for “abomination”?)

Is a church or an organization not headed in the direction you want? Are leaders ignoring your attempts to correct their course? In the old days you had few options except to part ways. But now you can call them out. You can blow a whistle. You can drag private leadership and personnel matters into public. Social media has changed everything. It’s a form of March Madness, but it’s not limited to March.

Leadership disagreements are inevitable. Most high level decisions are complex and debatable. In the early church, Paul and Barnabas experienced a falling out. It involved a young disciple named John Mark who had deserted them on a missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance. Paul didn’t. Paul was focused on the task at hand. John Mark wasn’t the best person for the job. Barnabas was focused on the person. John Mark still had untapped potential for the Kingdom. In the end Paul and Barnabas separated. But they parted as friends. God was in the process. They each picked a new partner. Suddenly there were two missionary teams instead of just one. It was a win-win. Paul formed a new missionary partnership with Silas. Barnabas chose to continue his work with John Mark. It worked. Later John Mark wrote the second book in the New Testament. And Paul and Silas became the greatest missionary team in history.

A win-win requires maturity. It requires tolerance. It requires grace. Earlier this month, Jim Denison wrote a blog post about grace. It’s a good four-minute read. The link below is for anyone who, like me, needs grace in a graceless, social-media-frenzy kind of world.



Swatting mosquitoes

One of the highlights of my week is a Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. In the previous post, I wrote about how we sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. Sometimes that process exposes hidden weaknesses to which we’ve been blind. There was such a moment about three weeks ago. Some people might call it an epiphany. For me it was an “aha” moment. It was unexpected.

Early in our conversation, one of the men raised a question about God’s covenant to Israel and how it relates to the church. I opened my Bible and waited to respond. Without pausing, the guy raised another question about end time events. I stuck a finger in my Bible to hold the place and turned to another passage. Then we were off on another question. I put a another finger in the Bible. I was looking for a unifying thread to tie the discussion together.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. These questions weren’t going anywhere. There was no direction. We were just swatting mosquitoes.

Do you have mosquitoes where you live? We have tons of the little buggers in Clarkfield. (Whoops! Sorry about that if you’re thinking of moving here.) When mosquitoes bite, we itch like crazy. We’ll all felt those ugly red welts on our skin. They’re almost always inconsequential. Bu they grab our full attention. When mosquitoes bite, we stop whatever we’re doing a scratch ourselves.

Because we know what’s coming, we often start swatting mosquitoes before they bite. Do you remember when bug lights were popular? I recall the “crack” and “zap” as bugs strayed too close to the purple light. Bugs were everywhere. But no matter how many mosquitoes we zap or swat, one thing is certain: we’ll never get them all. One dead bug is immediately replaced by ten lives ones. Sometimes the mosquitoes we swat have blood in them. Our blood. We can feel the itch. So we swat harder. But it’s no use. They keep coming back. I think hell will be full of mosquitoes.

One of my friends in Clarkfield has told me about his ancestors pioneering into this territory in the late 1800s. The wagon train arrived in Yellow Medicine County on their way west to the Dakotas. According to the story, mosquitoes were so thick here that the travelers couldn’t continue. So they stayed. And built homes. And planted crops. And dug fence posts. And raised cattle. Somewhere along the way, they figured out how to drain the local swamps to create more farmland and reduce the mosquito population.

How did the early pioneers do all that work with the swarms of mosquitoes? Maybe their work was most productive in January. Never mind that snow covered the ground and temperatures dipped to 30 degrees below zero! Productive people don’t waste much time swatting mosquitoes. If they did, the necessary work would never get done.

That morning in the men’s discipleship group, I realized we had been scratching our itches and weren’t really getting anything done. The tasks we had laid out for ourselves were forgotten while we chased pesky mosquitoes. For example, the board had appointed the Saturday morning group to audit the church’s financial records. We agreed to do it. Every Saturday for two months I brought in a stack of paperwork and set it on the table. Every Saturday for two months the papers sat neglected while we swatted mosquitoes.

Four months ago we decided to watch a video addressed to evangelizing young adults who have left the faith of their youth and no longer believe in God. A few minutes into the presentation, we ran out of time for that day and never got back to it. Six months ago we agreed to preview a discipleship curriculum on emotionally spiritual health. Not only is it unfinished, we haven’t even begun.

See the pattern? Get the picture? Instead of moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve basically gone around in circles. We have swatted mosquitoes and left the heavy tasks undone.Life change is hard work. Just talking about it won’t cut it. We have to do it, despite the mosquitoes.

I’m not saying the group has been a waste of time. Not at all! The men have done an incredible amount of work around the building. Many times the guys have stayed til noon cleaning, mowing, trimming, shoveling and repairing. On occasions we’ve moved off campus and carried out service projects in the community. Bravo! It’s been great service and great fun.

But if we’re going to knock off the status quo and impact the trajectory of the church, it’s going to take intentional, focused leadership. So we changed our format on Saturday morning. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, we agreed to begin working on the tasks we said we were going to do. As a result, the financial audit is now complete. This week we’re doing a church health study. Next week we’ll get back to the evangelism training video. Soon we will begin to preview the emotionally healthy spirituality curriculum. If you’re in the area, we’d love for you to join us. You don’t have to be part of our church or any church. We meet 7:00 a.m. Saturdays at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota.

Look out, mosquitoes! We’re draining the swamp.


Tomorrow at New Life Church, we’ll resume our study of spiritual gifts, beginning with the gift of leadership. As scientific knowledge has increased and moral wisdom has decreased, the cry for leadership in the church has grown louder and more desperate. A leadership movement has swelled in the last generation, spurred on by such giants as Howard Hendricks and John Maxwell. In our generation, Andy Stanley is breaking new ground as a leadership innovator preparing for the next generation.

All gifted leaders face the challenge of dissidents numbered among the people they lead. But they aren’t looking for any sympathy, please. Good leaders intuitively know their influence comes at a price—intense, unfair opposition.   The four greatest leaders in the Bible—Moses, David, Jesus and Paul—all faced constant, fierce antagonism to their authority. That’s merely par for great leaders.

Nay-sayers are everywhere (hey, Jesus predicted it!), so it’s no surprise that great leaders of the church are under attack today. Pastors whose names you know—and a host of others whose names you’ve never heard—are under constant verbal assault from divisive people with false and misleading accusations. This is not just in America. It’s all over the world. The rise of the social media has exponentially increased malice and misinformation. Usually the leaders don’t even know these self-appointed critics.

The need for leadership in the church is more evident than ever before. If God has given you the spiritual gift of leadership, be forewarned: your job won’t be easy. Don’t bother yearning for the good old days when leadership was easy. That’s a fantasy. Leadership has always been hard.

If you don’t have the gift of leadership, (and even if you do have it), pray for your leaders. Great leaders seek great prayer support. The Apostle Paul requested prayer (Eph. 6:19-20). Even Jesus wanted prayer support from his disciples (Matt. 26:40). Please pray for your leaders, including me! Here are three prayer requests: boldness in proclaiming the gospel, wisdom in leading the church, and strength to invest in the continual creation of new relationships.

A quarter century ago, David McKenna wrote a book with a strange title: Power to Follow, Grace to Lead. It struck me as backward. My natural inclination was that it takes power to lead and grace to follow. But McKenna was right. First, leadership is a gift of grace. Yes, it’s a skill which can be developed. But leadership is primarily a gift and a calling. Second, leadership requires followers. There is a little recognized, but empirically proven, dynamic which endows strong followers. The most empowered people I know are followers. Ironically, this flips followers into leaders. Good leaders produce followers. But great leaders produce other leaders. That’s the mark of a true leader.