This week, I wrote an article for Bible Study Tools that shares “Lessons on leadership from the Book of Joshua.” My editor thought that was a simple title, but really this article is for followers. Many church members have been through the wringer lately with leadership transitions that are both public and messy.
As my family has experienced, even leadership transitions that are relatively healthy and scandal-free can be very difficult. Maybe they always are?
This May, we moved from Indiana to the Chicago area, leaving our “baby”—the campus ministry we helped to establish—in the care of new leaders, who are very capable and very dear to us. The real lessons are probably being learned now in our absence, but we discovered how closely one clings to the mast of Christ at these times.
Though Joshua lived long before the time of Christ, he found his moorings in the same spirit of wisdom that stabilizes us today. I hope this article is helpful whether you’re a leader, church member, or onlooker of the messy church world.
God gets the worst presents. I give him my worries, my fears, my anger. The other day, I was headed into a doctor appointment where I feared bad news. I told God, “Lord, I’m just giving this to you.” Wow, happy birthday, God. Have some unfounded, overly dramatic fear because I love you so much. And then in return, he gave me peace and hopeful expectation, and an “all clear” from the doctor.
God also gets my songs that are too embarrassing to share with humans. And a daily rundown of the things I hope will happen and things I need his help with. He gets a shopping list of things I’m not sure how we’ll pay for. (And I wonder if he’s got a separate list of all the stuff he’s planning to give us that I don’t think to ask for.)
So I really wouldn’t want to be God, because he gets the worst gifts. But then again, maybe it would be nice to God, because he seems perfectly happy to receive them.
I have a new article up at Bible Study Tools! At first I was hesitant to write on this topic, since my kids haven’t become teenagers yet. But then I realized I worked with teenagers for 15 years! Also I was teenager once…a pretty difficult one, I think 😉
“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroice willpower and self-control.”
James Clear, Atomic Habits
The highest light, so to speak, from this book is the way it pulls down the fruit of self-control to an accessible level.
Why it’s hard to get past that one thing
Most of us have at least one “thing” that we can’t seem to get past. Lots of people try a thousand diets to lose weight, but keep returning to their old ways. Lots of other people try to start saving more money, but find their account more or less at the same spot year to year.
Us normies can take heart. The issue may have more to do with the giant leaps for mankind that we’ve been trying to make. James Clear suggests that teeny tiny atomic-level steps are the way to move forward.
Clear teaches that the brain has certain mechanisms that cannot be overridden long term, even by the most powerful motivations. So, rather than pumping out vague motivational maxims, he explains how to work with those natural mechanisms to successfully create or deconstruct habits.
The brain works in cycles, as does almost everything in nature. Clear builds on this concept developed by Charles Duhigg:
For most people, no amount of herculean willpower will be able to sustain a reversal of this process.
For example, while there is some benefit in remembering the good things we’re aiming for (ex: being a healthy weight or having a healthy bank account), telling ourselves those important messages will not, in the long run, turn the clock backto erase the response, craving, and cue.
Working at the atomic level
In order to build positive habits, we have to work at the atomic level, figuratively. I loved this story (I paraphrase):
A man wants to start working out every day, but he invariably ends up skipping the gym. So he decides to make the habit he’s forming something smaller and more manageable. For a while, his only goal was to get himself to the gym. As soon as he was there, he turned around and went home. What a crazy waste of time!
But maybe he needed to tackle one obstacle at a time. One difficulty was the hassle of getting ready and driving to the gym. Another obstacle still loomed ahead, which was more influential in keeping him at home. Maybe he was intimidated about working out near others who were already fit and strong.
He needed to break down the obstacles into smaller battles. After he’d made it a habit to get himself to the gym every day, he then told himself he might as well workout since he was there. He’d workout for five minutes and then leave. All he was asking for was five minutes.
It feels a lot easier to say to oneself, “I am going to endure humiliation for five minutes” than it does to say, “I am going to endure humiliation for 45 minutes.” After working out for five minutes, this guy realizes it’s not that humiliating, and he starts to add on time, and so forth.
The Two-Minute Rule
Clear explains the Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.” [PS, this seems to contradict the previous example. Maybe the guy lived two minutes from the gym.]
To put this very briefly, when you want to move toward a goal, break it down till you can do it regularly in two minutes’ time with very little willpower.
A way I personally have implemented this is in serving dinner from the kitchen counter instead of the dining room table. I wanted to eat smaller portions at dinner, and it took too much willpower to avoid heaping up my plate with second helpings when the food was right in front of me.
So I started serving the food from the kitchen, and I have to leave the conversation at the table in order to get more food. I made the bad habit a little harder to carry out.
To make it even easier, I focused on changing the habit of where I put the plates before filling them up with food. Previously, I’d put them on the table in the dining room, naturally. Once I remembered to put the plates on the kitchen counter instead, I was already on my way toward shifting the tide away from second helpings. This is a small, necessary, and very easy step toward my harder goal of eating only one plate of food at dinner, which is another step toward maintaining a healthy weight.
There is so much more that could be shared, about habit stacking, habit tracking, and the Habits Scorecard, etc., etc. I recommend getting a copy for yourself and highlighting it all over the place.
Some of my students call it Football Hands: both hands lifted high in the air like a ref calling a touchdown. They try to predict what part of the worship song “everybody will go Football Hands,” when the music becomes the most moving and people want to express themselves more fully to God. This bothers me as a deeply serious person, but they’re joking in the way kids sometimes can, without real cynicism.
Raising hands, dancing, clapping, and shouting are hallmarks of Pentecostal worship. Having grown up in a well-behaved Baptist culture, I was drawn to this aspect of the college group I joined, which I later learned was Pentecostal. I could see their sincerity on the outside as well as the inside. Worship was about more than singing—it was an experience.
There’s a weak side to this expressive culture. Sometimes you’re expected to wear your worship on the outside for all to see. And if you don’t, you’re thought to be a bit less than spiritual. I’ve been guilty of raising my hands because I didn’t want to be the only one not doing so.
Now I’m attending a somewhat formal liturgical church and I’m back to square one on figuring out when to raise my hands. A few people do in our church, but honestly, one of the biggest obstacles is the printed bulletins we all hold with the words to the songs and prayers written out (no powerpoint slides.) Lifting one’s hands also means waving around a bulletin and not being able to see the words.
Should I overcome this obstacle when I can, or does it not matter much? Why is it wrong to raise my hands for others to see? Why is it weird to be able to predict when everyone will spontaneously go Football Hands?
Scripture is full of descriptions of people worshipping with their bodies, emotions, and minds. Just to keep things brief, I’ll only bring up a few that talk about raising our hands.
Psalm 63:4 says, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.”
Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”
And Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”
Maybe there are some scriptures that describe raising hands as an involuntary action, but most of the time it’s either an exhortation or a commitment. (“Lift your hands” or “I will lift my hands.”) It comes across as a choice we can make.
As usual, there are really good reasons for this instruction and practice for God’s people.
When I raise my hands in worship, my mind tends to be more engaged. It takes some attention to keep my hands in the air, and sometimes I have chosen to stay in that position even when my arms were tired. It’s a way of saying to God, “I am fully here. Body, mind, emotions. I mean what I am singing, and I’m not letting my mind wander. I’m not saving my energy for something else.”
Is it right to raise my hands if I don’t really feel overcome by worshipful emotions? Isn’t that insincere? I would suggest that it’s no more insincere than singing words that we’re not really “feeling” in the moment.
Our devotion to God—singing worship songs, spending time with Him, obeying His commands—has to do with his deserving our devotion, not necessarily with our feeling devoted. He deserves our feelings too, but we don’t have a lot of control over that. We do have control over our minds and our bodies and our actions.
One of our choices is to involve our bodies in worship, and people have been doing that for eons. Anyone with an arm or two can participate. This simple act transcends cultures, centuries, languages and social classes.
Raising our hands helps us focus our minds, give God our energy, and make sure that worshipping is the only thing we’re doing at the moment. It’s hard to multitask when your hands are in the air, not to mention awkward.
I’m not suggesting that “real” worship must be punctuated with raised hands. There are plenty of other ways to fully involve ourselves in worship. This includes holding my preschooler on my hip and holding the bulletin in the other hand to sing unfamiliar songs to the best of my ability. My utmost for His highest looks different in different moments.
To those who feel strange doing something unfamiliar, afraid that others may notice and judge: try to shift your attention to God’s view of your actions. Try picturing Him watching you worship, listening to your words, and seeing your face. Try turning on a worship song at home and lifting your hands as you sing. Imagine yourself in a crowd with the holy people of old, King David even, hands raised; and there is God, so pleased with His people.
One could argue that babies are the most human of us all. They act on instinct and impulse. They are the most animal, let’s say. They’re the most in touch with their humanity in its earthly, primal form
And babies cry. The average healthy baby under 6 weeks cries around 3 hours per day (according to BabyCenter.com, which lines up with my experience in this case!) This mostly happens in short bursts, gratefully, but its true whether the baby is cared for well or not. Probably neglected babies cry more, at least for a while.
Crying is the chief method of communication for infants. They can’t say please and thank you, they can’t give intelligent signs to make a polite request. Even if they are in a comfy spot with a dry diaper and a loving family, when they get hungry, they will cry.
This is good for parents, because that’s how we know they’re in need. If they mitigated their crying out of a reasonable sense of gratitude for their pleasant lot in life, they might not get fed much.
All of this is relevant to me personally, because ever since we moved, I’ve been crying like a baby about once per week. So the newborns have got me beat with their 3 hours per day.
I keep feeling like I should be more grateful, and shouldn’t need to cry or feel the intense emotions that lead to these waterworks. I have so much of what I wanted—a rest from ministry, loads of family time, a pleasant and comfortable house. I even have a place to hang laundry that’s not my bedroom, which was a little add-on prayer request I made when we were searching for homes. I hadn’t thought to ask for the glorious sunroom in which I now sit writing.
Other things that warrant my surprised gratitude: We live so close to Lake Michigan that I spend time with it every day. My husband and I are going on a date tonight. Three people introduced themselves to me at church today.
That’s just some of the new stuff in my life that I’m grateful for. There are treasures so often enjoyed that their names have worn off. But I remember them: Healthy Children. Loving Husband. Unending Life in Christ. Wisdom from God. Parents who Taught me Truth. Friendship with my Siblings.
What right do I have to cry about anything, when my life is so replete with blessings? I have the same right as a well-cared-for newborn. I am happy about all the good things, and I cry about the following: want of certainty, fear of failing, loss of normalcy, distant friends. Being well-cared-for doesn’t cancel out my need to express these wants.
I imagine it would be better if I didn’t cry or feel the low feelings that crowd around my tears. But if I didn’t cry, would I know I had those wants, hidden under the surface as they are? Would I bring those requests to God? Would I recognize when God brought the answer?
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
It’s bad press to say that you want to be like God. It’s absurd and sounds delusional. But God invites us to be like him. “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Holy means “set apart.” But how can we be different as God is different? Maybe part of the answer is tht we can be set apart from the world of plants and animals, by joining in his creative work.
In his image
We are made in God’s image. Humility and logic would lead us to believe that we are a shadow of his image or a cheap knock-off that makes you wish you had the real thing. But when God first declared that we’re made in his image, the very next thing he said was that we were to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and rule the earth.
We are to be creative, to reproduce, to fill, to lead and to rule. Those are things God does. This call to be like him was not a parody or an off-brand version of being like God. He told us to do the things he does. He gave us that ability.
Of course there are limits to that. Thank God there are limits. He holds the blueprints and supplies all the materials, and he trains us to do the work. The wonder of it is that we were invited to the jobsite in the first place.
Something out of nothing
Writers are being like God—fulfilling their call to be like God—when they open a blank document in Microsoft Word and begin to write, multiplying and filling the page with that which was not there before. Writers create something out of what was once nothing.
Granted, we have some material to work with: our experience, the language we’ve been given, the sights and sounds around us. We’re responding to something. But creating a short work of fiction, for example, is creating something new.
In the business of doing new things
God busies himself with new things. Behold, he says, I am doing a new thing. I will bring springs of water in a dry land. I will pour out my Spirit like new wine into empty vessels. I will stretch and expose, I will turn traditions on their head, I will grow a new sprout out of a sawed-off stump.
Before I would call myself a writer, I had to wrestle with some cynicism about writing, especially in the Christian sphere. There are SO MANY books. Name a topic and surely there are at least 12 books in print that can say what I would say, only better. But still I have this desire to write a book someday.
I think that desire may be partly the call of God to be like him. Each person has different ways that they can be like God, and a drive under the surface of our consciousness leads us to take a crack at it, even though we know it may fall short of our hopes.
My daughter has recently been asking why I wanted to become a mom. She’s asked 3 or 4 times, and I’ve given her a different answer each time. The one that felt the most right was that I wanted to be like my mom. I have a wonderful mom, and it feels like I was made to be like her in a lot of ways. But I think underneath that is a desire to be like God. God makes people and takes care of them. Being a mom is being like God.
The other thing about writing is the power of the words themselves. Somehow, stringing together a combination of syllables in a written code can change lives. This power comes from being like God! God’s words have power: power to create, power to heal, power to change history. Being made in God’s image means the words people say or write or hear also have power.
This can go wrong. While God’s words always bring life, people’s words someimtes bring death. Proverbs says “the tongue holds the power of life and death.” (Prov. 18:21) Being a writer means using the power of words and if it’s done for the purpose of bringing life, in that way we’re being like God.
This case can be overstated. Being like God doesn’t mean we replace God. Doing the things God does is meant to bring us into closer relationship with him. Working on the job site with him means we get to spend the day with him. It doesn’t mean we tell him not to show up tomorrow, because we’ve got this figured out.
What a wonder he is, the Maker of our universe! He not only creates something out of nothing, he creates someones who, in some smaller way, can also make something out of nothing.