Hard Skin, Soft Heart

hard skin soft heartSometimes it sucks being a Christian leader.

Many days there is more wading through garbage than triumphal procession.

A visionary dreamer saved his entire family and the the nation of Egypt from the brink of starvation through wise decision making. A passionate and dedicated young man defeats an army when he slays a giant, and then plays his heart out to soothe his stressed out king. An upright Jew exiled in a foreign country refuses to slide into moral decay. Instead he uses his leadership acumen to help his captive nation flourish. A man of common pedigree bursts into the spotlight when he teaches with an uncommon authority that stumps the educated and draws the masses, performing miracles that had not been seen since the days of Elisha.

You would think that they would be paid handsomely for their actions. Accolades, awards…ticker tape parades.

Think again.

Joseph was beaten by his own brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused and forgotten to rot in a jail cell. David spent a decade dodging spears and running for his life. Daniel is framed by his enemies and thrown to the lions. Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest “friends” and is nailed to a Roman cross.

So why are we surprised when our best intentions are skewed and those we think should have our back end up stabbing us in it?

In his final days on earth, Jesus gathered his disciples and gave them a pep talk to encourage them before he left the earth. I don’t think it was very comforting. In fact, it was almost comical how bleak it was. Jesus promised the disciples that they would be hated by the world because he was also hated. They would be persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, killed, scattered and experience many trials and sorrows (John ch. 15, 16). As an encore he exclaimed, “Take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Basically Jesus says, “This is going to happen, but I have already won, and I am with you…so live with courage.”

So Christian leader, when you experience people trash-talking you, trying to undermine you, or flat out doing whatever they can to destroy you, keep these things in mind:

Don’t be Surprised
Jesus promised this would happen (remember the bit where he said “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first” John 15:18). Even Christians can be very worldly, and ‘friendly fire’ always hurts the most. The next time you encounter troubles, don’t let it surprise you. Instead, be ready for it so that you can deal with it in a healthy manner.

Don’t Fight Fire with Fire
What impresses me most about the strong leaders of the Bible and today is that they refuse to fight back in the same manner they are being attacked. Joseph never treated his brothers to a beat down in Egypt, David never threw a spear back at Saul’s crowned head, and Jesus prayed “father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” to those who brutally nailed him to the cross. Anger and vengeance can only lead to a hardening of the heart. You end up becoming what you hate. And when your main role is to lead people to a growing relationship with Jesus, there is no room for it.

Don’t Stop Doing What is Good
When we have been attacked it is easy to start to shut down and protect ourselves from any vulnerability. When you do this you may very well face much less attack, but you will also be rendered ineffective. Let God sort out the details of who is in the right and wrong. In the meantime, keep moving forward. Put yourself out there, and you will make a much bigger impact than if you live your leadership life on an island of insecurity. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9). These are good words to live by written by the Apostle Paul, a man who knew what it was like to be trash-talked, beaten and misunderstood.

Yes, being a Christian leader sometimes sucks. But there is nothing else I would rather do. When I feel like I have been put through a spin cycle, I am reminded that I need thick skin to fend off the attacks of others, and a soft heart to continue to pour out the love of Jesus to those who need it most.

Broken to Better

bitter-or-better“You are going to be such a better preacher because of this.”

These were not comforting words. I still had scars on my arm and was not sleeping well in an empty bed.

Of course my goal for the last ten years had been to develop the technical skills of preaching, coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire, encourage, and motivate people to grow in their faith. To think that people could see that I would become better at this should have been encouraging to me early in my pastoral ministry life. People actually thought I had potential!

But it wasn’t encouraging. Not even close.

You see, this was said to me not long after my wife Sheri had just died in a car accident. A good-hearted person was trying to cheer me up, and in the course of conversation had reasoned that God took Sheri because I needed to be a better preacher and have a more powerful ministry. I put on my best “thank you for your kind words” face, and managed to get out of the room before lashing out with an angry tirade and perhaps even an uppercut to the chops. Some people just don’t get it.

I believe that every hurt we go through can and will be redeemed for good-if we let it.

I could have easily turned away from God and others in this time of grief, deciding to forgo a life of ministry for something else. If God couldn’t hear the anguished prayers of a pastor, what hope did anyone have? Why go on with the Christian charade? But I made a decision not to get stuck and wallow in my pain forever. Instead, this is what I did:

I got Better instead of Bitter.

There were so many unanswered questions, and many of the answers I got weren’t very satisfactory, like the one I just described. But I knew that there would never be any good reason that I could come up with for losing Sheri. Instead I decided to focus on what I knew to be true. I took the words of Jesus and the hope of resurrection seriously. Instead of wallowing in pity, I shared my story. It was therapeutic. And it helped a lot of people, including me

I Comforted Others.

The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others” (1:3-4). Through my process of grieving there were many who genuinely comforted me with words and actions unlike Job’s friends. And because of all of the love and compassion I received in the dark times I decided that I would not waste my hurt. I would pass on the comfort I received to others. I have spent time at conferences, retreats, and counseling sessions sharing my story with people who needed hope when they feel helpless. And I always leave a better person for doing it.

I decided to offer more Love and less Advice.

One of the greatest gifts I was given in my time of grief was a congregation who had been coached by the pastoral staff to “Give Mike and hug, tell him you love him, and don’t give him advice.” Most people took those words to heart and it was a beautiful gift. Most days I just needed to know that there were people in my life who cared about me.

Advice can ring hollow. Hugs rarely do.

I think I am a better preacher for what I have gone through. Not because of the tragedy, but in spite of it. God has taken my brokenness and made something beautiful.

What brokenness might God want to redeem to make your life beautiful?



Concealing or Revealing?

12562511033_cef1da644b_m“Can someone please remove the tubes from this photo?”

Photo editing software has morphed to such a point that it is hard to tell if what you are seeing is the real thing or simply someone’s wild imagination being played out in digital media. It used to be that if you wanted to pass off a muscular body as your own you would need to cut your face out of an existing printed photo and tape it on to a magazine clipping of Mr. Olympia. This rudimentary technique could also be used to change the location of the photo, the friends you are with or the activity being done. This may be funny, but hardly convincing.

Now airbrushed photos are the norm, not only for movie stars, but also even for family photos. Want to take off ten pounds? Done. Want to get rid of that zit. Zapped. You get the picture. Now almost any amateur digital artist can cook up or alter images in an effort to go viral with their creation. A convincing or shocking photo may get millions of hits, some people immediately being sucked in and forwarding the photo as a shocking truth while others see through the electronic veneer of paint brushes and erasers.

Rarely does an enhanced photo reveal more than it conceals or elicit such an outpouring of emotion as an Ohio father’s plea to have members of the Reddit online community help remove the tubes from his daughter Sophia’s picture.

She had never been without tubes.

And her parents would never have a memory of her without them. Sophia lost her battle to cancer on July 10. She was still an infant. Every memory, every photo they had of her included tubes in her mouth and hands, with a special brace that wrapped from cheek to cheek, like a football helmet mask, to keep the tube from being pushed out of her tiny mouth.

Those tubes kept Sophia alive, but they weren’t a natural part of her. Instead, they partially concealed her.

Thanks to the Reddit social community, technology, much like the tubes that allowed Sophia to breathe during her brief moments on earth, brought the real her to life in an astonishing way. Like a photo that stops you in your tracks, the photo of Sophia lying contented without tubes took my breath away. And moistened my eyes.

Now her parents are able to create a memory of their precious daughter and her true beauty fully revealed.

People who never knew Sophia or her family gave a gift to them. Some sketching pictures, others editing, and still others just pouring out their soul to the grieving family. They helped a dad and family re-write a page in an otherwise painful chapter of life.

Want to give a gift today? Reveal yourself. Open yourself up to another. Fight the urge to conceal. You may pave the way for them to do the same to you. In that moment something tremendously powerful happens. You begin to use brush strokes that reveal the true beauty hidden on a human canvas.


Guaranteed Ways to Avoid Eating your Words

Alphabet SoupMy mind screamed out “Why did you just say that?”

There is that critical moment in a conversation when words hang heavy in mid-air like rain clouds about to unleash a torrential downpour of destruction, and you can do nothing except wait for the damage report. Maybe you’ve been in that situation with a friend or co-worker. You get passionate about a certain subject, and before you know it you have spoken words that can’t take back. Even if apologies are begged for and forgiveness is granted, the words will forever be etched in granite, never to be erased completely from memory.

As a fairly young leader I was in a boardroom when I felt my temperature rising with each passing minute. The discussion centered around where money was going to be spent on a Youth Centre that was being built. There was casual discussion about sending old chairs to the Youth Centre while buying new ones for the church. I must have been in a bad mood that day. I was likely hungry, or tired, or maybe I just didn’t want to be given the hand me downs. In an instant my temper flared and I blurted out my feelings about getting the “seconds” instead of buying the best for the Centre. I was fired up.

And as soon as I made my point I knew I had made a big mistake.

I was promptly put in my place by a gentleman who reminded me (in a passionate tone that eclipsed my own) how several people had sacrificially given hundreds of thousands of dollars for this project. They cared about the youth, and I better not forget that.

I instantly flushed hot with embarrassment and shame. He was right. I was wrong. I couldn’t apologize fast enough, but I also couldn’t undo what I had said. Thankfully this man was wise and graceful, and let it slide. But I still remember to this day.

“Be quick to listen slow to speak” are the words of wisdom from James 1:19. This can sound like an impossible task for an extrovert like me who needs to say things out loud in order to process them. However, wisdom calls out that there are things that must be done to “rein in” our tongues.

Here are a few practical tools to avoid foot-in-mouth disease:

*Remember that not all discussions need your engagement. Mom said it best; “When you can’t say nuthin’ good, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” Often attempts to reason with boardroom bullies amounts to “casting our pearls before swine.” Know when you have a receptive audience and when you are simply engaged in an exercise in futility.

*Have a few sounding boards that you can bounce ideas off of in safety…other than your boss, spouse, parent, or anyone you may have conflict with.

*Take a time out. I have avoided saying many dumb things by simply biting my tongue till it bleeds and counting to ten.

*When you do speak, make sure it is flavored with truth AND love! Truth without love is mean spirited. And love without truth is often deceptive. Both need to be in balance. You can say hard things in a soft way. Before you take a swing, put on some gloves.

Don’t get caught trying to stuff words back in your mouth. Listen. Wait. Then if you must, speak with truth and love.


I’d love to hear any ways that you avoid the distasteful delicacy of eating your words, or any personal reflection you have on this topic.

Leverage for Life

leverage-resized-600It’s interesting to me how often I focus on what I don’t have at my disposal rather than what I do have in spades, or even in pretty humbling amounts.

In an amazing real-life object lesson in 2 Kings 4, the prophet Elisha has an encounter with a poor, widowed woman and her two sons. They are in debt up to their eyeballs and creditors are about to take her sons as payment. This would be a death sentence not only emotionally for this woman, but also physically. Without sons to support her it is unlikely that she would have lived long. She was broken (grieving the loss of a husband), broke (without any money), and about to break (Could she live without the comfort and love of her sons?).

Perhaps you’ve been there. You are out of options, your back’s against the wall and it seems like there is little way out. At those times we tend to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do. Elisha zeros in on her situation and asks her what she has in her house. This was Mother Hubbard’s cupboard in real life. All she had was a small jar of olive oil. What good could that be? And yet, with what she has a miracle occurs. It is multiplied over and over. So much so that she is able to sell the oil she has poured into empty containers from her house and those borrowed from her neighbors, covering her debts and leaving enough to live on for the next little while.

I’m sure you would like a miracle like that to happen in your life. But I think the cool part of the miracle is that what little she had is what was used to bring the miracle. Elisha used something of hers, as well as the resources of friends to provide the miracle (it was, in fact, many of their pots that she poured the excess oil into).

In your life, what might you be able to leverage, be it ever so small, to produce a miracle?



-Specific talent


I have found that God often wants to use the “little” I have to make a “lot” happen.

So what do you have in your house? Don’t squander it. Put it to good use!

Increase Your Writing Productivity in 4 Easy Steps

dscn1062We’ve all been there before. You have something you just have to get finished. Maybe it’s a proposal for work, a reference letter, term paper or even a blog. You know you have to just bear down and do it, but procrastination sets in, and before you know it you are surprisingly taken in by the profound products being displayed on the shopping network. It’s amazing how almost anything can provide an adequate excuse when avoiding the inevitable!

Here are a few tricks that I have found to be very helpful to get er’ done. If you follow these recommendations you just might finish that blog post that will go viral making you an instant celebrity. Or you’ll have the satisfaction of doing what you said you would do. I think that’s enough reason to put the following tips into practice.

1)   Kill the media

Watching hockey or a series on Netflix can be a great way to relax, but it can also steal several hours that you will never get back. Set up strict times when you refuse to turn on the tv or other media. Maybe even shut off your phone (I promise you and your friends will be ok).

2)   Get focused

There are a ton of great word processors out there. I happen to use Word because I have forever and because almost anyone anywhere can read docs I send them. When I really need to get down and focus, I go to View-Focus. Everything except the page you are working on goes black. No more notifications and other cool reminders going off. It’s writing time!

3)   Listen to brain music

I am one of those people who cannot listen to regular music when I write because I am too distracted by lyrics. You see I actually listen to the lyrics. Then I ponder them. Then before you know it I am critiquing Mumford and Sons rather than writing. Instead, I have a free account with Focus@Will (www.focusatwill.com). You will get 60 minutes of uninterrupted, lyric-free music that has been scientifically proven to increase focus. Or that’s what they claim. It seems to work for me. I am currently writing to the “Alpha Chill” channel.

4)   Find the right spot

I cannot write while I am being interrupted by kids and phone calls. I need a place that is either quiet, like the desk in our basement or in my favourite chair on the main floor, or even in the local Starbucks. I seem to be able to write there because if I were just staring off into space rather than working I would seem like a creeper.

Now just write whatever comes to your mind. Stop making excuses!

Feel free to share any tips you have for increasing writing productivity. I’d like to hear about them.

4 Reasons You Need To Keep A Journal

origin_4762384399-500x257I have been journaling since I was in my very early twenties. I may have periodically done it before that point, but it has been a regular part of my life for at least the last fifteen years. Here’s why I keep a journal, and why you might want to consider keeping one yourself, especially if you are a leader who wants to grow and develop.

1)   My memory is not as good as I think it is. When I look back at journals from the past I can see the highs and lows through the years. I am reminded of conversations, celebrations and insights I had years ago. I can see the growth in my thinking and attitudes. I am reminded of how God has guided me through the years. It is a measuring stick of my thought growth, much like a measuring stick on the wall for growing children.

2)   I can see where I am stuck. If I write the same thing over and over, or I see a pattern of negativity or thinking that is not helpful, it gets very real when I have to write and read those thoughts over and over. Journal keeping has been a way to get out the ugly on a page and then make the decision to move on to a healthier, faith-filled future.

3)   I can record leadership and discipleship insights. I always record thoughts about my daily Bible reading as well as quotes from a current book I am reading. This is one more way that I am able to better remember what I have read and also to interact with what I have read. What stood out to me? What do I agree or disagree with and why? What do I need to learn?

4)   It keeps me writing. If nothing else, journaling puts me in the habit of writing something each day. It may spur a thought for a sermon, a blog, a book or even a conversation I need to have with someone else.

In years past I have done all my journaling in black notebooks and a fountain pen or some other writing instrument. While I still love doing this, I have found that it doesn’t always work with my schedule. When I want to write I may not have my journal, but I always have my iPhone and usually have my MacBook Pro or iPad.

That’s why I have digitized my journaling using Day One. It synchs over the cloud, I can add pictures, and whenever I have some downtime I can add my thoughts and musings for the day. It even recommends questions that may spur your creative writing. I highly recommend it.

No more excuses. Get journaling and grow.