Category Archives: Spirit-Led Leadership

Are Our Priorities Right?

What are your top priorities for your growth and development as a Christian? If you are a parent, what are you emphasizing to your children to guide them into adulthood? If you are a youth group leader or mentor, what spiritual guidance are you offering to ground and direct those under your care. If you were on the Board of Trustees for a Christian college or seminary, apart from emphasizing education and developing skills, what would you most want the students to learn and to gain from their education at your school? In other words, how should we be preparing ourselves and the next generation of Christian leaders to make significant contributions in our troubled and needy world? Are our priorities right?

Recently, I was given the opportunity to answer these questions for the sake of the school where I teach, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The school theme that I proposed for the academic year, “Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service,” was chosen by the MIT faculty members as particularly fitting for our 1200+ students. What follows below is the Bible study that I prepared to present this theme to the student body and all of our constituents. While the context is clearly a particular Christian college and seminary in Southeast Asia, this teaching applies to Christians everywhere. The writers of the New Testament insist over and over again that we need to keep our spiritual priorities straight—in our personal lives, families, churches, youth groups, and Christian schools. So much is at stake.

“Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service”


MIT students in Christian Spirituality class

This year’s theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, is intended to concisely articulate the core theological and spiritual foundation of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and to remind us all of why MIT primarily exists. In other words, the primary purpose of this theme is to encourage MIT Liberal Arts Program (LAP) and Theology students, faculty, and staff to focus on developing their relationship with Christ as their first priority, and to humbly dedicate themselves to serving Christ, church, and country with greater knowledge, skills, and spiritual vitality.

Drawing largely on Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commands and on Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, we can say that the primary purpose for every human being is to know, love, and serve God, who is revealed preeminently in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.[1] For Christians, this life purpose is not simply a matter of doctrine; it cannot be fulfilled just by believing or by being baptized. Rather, it requires growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ all our lives. Our vocation—that is, our unique work in the world—flows from this relationship into a lifetime of service, no matter what our particular position, assignment, or activity may be. We may be called to serve primarily in the Church, the broader society, or simply at home with our families, but every Christian has the same general vocation to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life…for many” (Mark 10:45). In short, then, our theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, draws our attention to our top spiritual priority of knowing and loving God in Christ more and more, and to MIT’s chief responsibility from a biblical point of view to prepare men and women to serve Christ and the Church in a wide variety of ways upon graduation.

Our Bible study will take Paul’s teaching on the purpose of the Church and the significance of growing in Christ as our point of departure. We will then look how Peter contextualized Paul’s ecclesiology, teaching marginalized and persecuted Christians how they should live and serve Christ in a religiously pluralistic world, and what kind of preparation is needed to do so. Finally, a few comments will be offered on the relevance of this biblical teaching and theme to MIT.

The priority of growing in Christ according to Paul


New Testament Theology students discussing the Bible

The Church was established by the preaching of the Gospel, the working of the Holy Spirit through its proclamation, and the common faith of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation.[2] According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, believers in the Christian Gospel become members of the body of Christ, and together form the universal Church (1 Cor. 12). Further, God gave spiritual gifts to every member of the body of Christ (12:7). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul focuses on a subset of the body to emphasize particular gifts given to those who are in positions of leadership—namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, in order both to identify these leadership gifts and to discuss the purpose for which they were given.[3]

In general, Paul taught that God gives spiritual gifts among the members of the body of Christ in order that they may minister to, serve, and build up one another. In 1 Corinthians, Paul simply says that the gifts are given for “the common good” (12:7), meaning the good of the body of Christ (the Church). All believers in Christ have the responsibility to serve in ways that strengthen the body. Leaders have the additional duty “to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12). To be built up means that all the members of the body of Christ would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). When the body of Christ is mature, they “will no longer be infants,” liable to being misled and confused by false teaching (4:14). Instead of being crippled by instability and division, they would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15, emphasis added), as the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, emphasis added).

In Paul’s vision for the Church, everyone is expected to keep growing in Christ and to be actively serving one another for the common good and the upbuilding of the whole Church. If we have accurately summed up the priorities for the body of Christ as a whole, how much more important is growing in Christ, preparing for service for the Church’s future leaders.  

The necessity of growing in Christ as preparation for service according to Peter

When we turn to the Apostle Peter’s teaching, we see how he contextualizes Paul’s teaching on growing in Christ for Christians who were marginalized by the broader, religiously pluralistic society and sometimes even persecuted for their faith.[4] In the face of such hardship and danger, he urged Christian believers to go deeper into their own relationship with God in Christ, to strengthen their self-understanding as the people of God, and to prepare themselves intellectually as well as spiritually, morally, and behaviorally, so that their witness to their largely nonChristian neighbors would be more clear, vibrant and persuasive.[5] They were not to shy away from suffering for Christ. Yet, at the same time, they should avoid unnecessary persecution (that which comes from outright rebellion or immoral behavior) and live exemplary lives for all to see. He urged them to “live such good lives among the pagans though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).


MIT undergraduates discussing the relevance of Christianity for today

To live up to our calling and to the demands of serving Christ requires ongoing spiritual growth and development. So, Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3, NIV, emphasis added). Peter writes elsewhere, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added). He knows well that his readers already have experienced the grace of God and know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, he also knows that the Christian faith calls us to keep growing in our knowledge and experience of God in ever-new and more meaningful ways.

Throughout his letters, Peter gives many practical teachings on what it means to grow spiritually and prepare better for Christian service. In one place, Peter urged his readers, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15a, NIV). Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord, or leader, is not something a believer does just once at baptism. Rather, surrendering to the lordship of Christ is ongoing struggle and process that continues throughout our lifetimes. This, too, is an important part of growing in Christ. According to New Testament writers, accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord is an essential turning point in our spiritual journey, but it is only that—a significant turning point (not, endpoint). Bending our knee to Christ as Lord repositions us to eagerly pursue a fuller and more significant relationship with Christ on an ever-deepening basis. Then, as we grow, Peter tells his readers, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b, NIV). Here Peter calls Christians to keep growing intellectually and to develop communication skills to talk about their faith (and not hide or minimize it) with those who don’t know Jesus Christ. And so forth.

In sum, Peter teaches Christians how they should think of themselves and respond to nonChristians in the face of marginalization, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even persecution in a religiously pluralistic context. They are to neither hide from nor belligerently fight against those who oppose or mistreat them. He didn’t advise them to change their theology or view themselves as inferior to the majority and the powerful. Instead, they should sharpen their self-understanding as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of him who called [them] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are the people of God; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Then they should learn how to better reflect their faith, hope, and love to the nonChristians surrounding them in intelligent and positive ways. In short, the best response for Christians in a hostile, religiously pluralistic setting is to keep growing in Christ and to prepare themselves to serve both within the Church and within the broader society.

Conclusion: Implications for MIT


Lecture on the Christian faith to entering MIT undergraduates

So, how does this Bible study apply to MIT? Just this. For MIT to fulfill its duty to Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) and the churches it serves, we must be diligent to teach our students how to grow in Christ. We must adequately prepare them for a lifetime of service. And, since many MIT graduates will be given significant opportunities to lead in the Church and society, we must also teach them how to lead and how to help others to grow in Christ and to be humble, faithful servants of Christ.

You may be wondering, does this Bible study suggest that growing in Christ should come at the expense of academic excellence, sharing the Gospel, participating in inter-faith dialogue, or working to address societal ills and needs? No, not at all. All these endeavors and missions remain important objectives for Christians, and especially for MIT students and graduates. Yet, growing in Christ is the most important priority, and is the pre-requisite for all our intellectual, academic, mission, and societal activities. Why? Because Jesus taught that the only way we can hope to bear fruit in our lives is by maintaining a close (“abiding”) relationship with him (John 15). Paul and Peter taught the same thing, as we have briefly seen in this Bible study. They only added that our personal relationship with God in Christ needs to keep growing and deepening as well. They taught that we must become more and more like Christ and learn how to relate better to nonChristians in a religiously pluralistic world.

The implications of this Bible study for MIT, as well as for the broader Church in Myanmar, seem obvious. The Church’s current leaders (including MIT faculty and staff) would teach, preach, and model the importance of growing in Christ as the top priority for Christians and the essential pre-requisite for everything we want to do in the name of Christ. Throughout the school year, MIT would actively promote the spiritual life of students, faculty, and staff (helping each one to grow in Christ) while organizing the school’s curriculum and student activities with the ultimate purpose of a MIT education in mind, namely, to prepare future leaders to serve Christ faithfully and fruitfully in their various leadership roles. Future leaders (including MIT students) would embrace these priorities for themselves and take personal responsibility to pursue them in every way they can.

May God bless MIT and all the churches that support and are served by MIT as, together, we keep growing in Christ, preparing for service.

[1] Matt. 22:37-39; Col. 1:9-28.

[2] See, e.g., Acts 2; Rom. 1:15-16; 10:6-17; 1 Cor. 15:1-11; Gal 1:1-9; 3:1-5; 4:4-7.

[3] Eph. 4:8-11; Cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-10; Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Pet. 4:10-11.

[4] 1 Pet. 1:5; 2:4, 11; 3:14; 4:12-16.

[5] 1 Pet. 1:13-16; 2:5, 9-17, 19-21; 3:8-16.

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Post-Election Possibilities. What Now? (A Christian perspective)

The test of democracy is not simply about how well we follow the rules in selecting our leaders and participate in the process as citizens. The real test is in how we handle the results—and in how we treat the other side going forward.

No matter if our candidate won or lost, we need to find ways to work together with those who think differently than we do. It’s not going to be easy, but we have to get past thinking about politics as a win-lose endeavor. Especially as Christians, win or lose, we are called to think about the common good and the interests of others, not just our own. (Philippians 2:4)

If our candidate won, we don’t gloat but we keep trying to engage in respectful dialogue with those who think and vote differently. We think broadly, and seek to create policies that serve as many people as possible, not just “our own.” If our candidate lost, we don’t pour contempt on the winner, sulk, or withdraw. We roll up our sleeves and do whatever is still in our power to work for a better nation, doing whatever we can to represent our views to decision-makers.

What does this mean practically? It means the same thing it has meant for the past eight years under Barak Obama, for the two terms Bush served in the same office, and for the past two hundred forty years since the beginning of our republic. Each of us has a voice, and each of us has the privilege and responsibility to participate and contribute wherever we can.

We work for good on the local level. We advocate for our views on the state and national levels. We try to build bridges to those who see things differently. We work even harder to present and express our views to those who don’t understand or accept them. We contribute to charitable organizations and political activist groups we believe in. We even protest loudly and visibly, when need be, but without violence or malicious actions that only cause further damage or alienation.

In other words, there are right ways to participate in a democracy, and there are wrong ways. There are constructive options, and there are destructive ones. Especially at this time in the USA, after such an ugly and offensive campaign season, our country needs to find ways to pull together.

The Apostle Paul taught us to use the freedoms that we cherish so much to build up and not destroy (Ephesians 4:29-5:1). When teaching Christians how to conduct themselves both in the church and in society, the Apostle Peter said, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). And then later on in the same letter, he commanded his readers, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17). In other words, we are expected to live what we preach. We are charged to model what we say we believe about human rights, dignity, tolerance, and decency.

Going forward, some of us will be in position to be political or social game-changers. If you can do something big, by all means, do it. Most of us, though, will find our greatest opportunities to contribute simply by trying to be our best selves in our families, at work, at church, and in our local communities. We will make a difference by relentlessly seeking to be Christ-centered and Spirit-led in every possible dimension of our lives, no matter how others behave or react toward us.

The day after the election Hillary Clinton quoted the Apostle Paul to encourage her supporters to stay engaged in society, even though they lost the election. It’s a good verse for all of us, no matter who you voted for. Paul said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Each of us can choose our attitude going forward, and each of us always has options for taking action. Nothing can stop us from contributing if we are determined to do so. The question is never, “if” we can do something, but “what,” “how,” and “when”?

This fall, I’ve been far away from the United States, teaching seminary students and other Christian leaders in Myanmar. I voted by absentee-ballot, but otherwise could only observe the American political and social scene from a distance. I continue to be distressed and embarrassed by the name calling and hostility back and forth between opposing sides. I am anxious about how the new leadership will conduct itself. I worry about the fallout from the ongoing culture wars in America . But I’m choosing to not to focus on what is outside of my power to control. Instead I’m focusing on what kind of person God is calling me to be and the opportunities he’s giving me to make a difference.

At the very least, I pray that Christ’s love and light will shine through me in all my dealings with others. I will keep asking the Spirit to empower me to live by my values, to be the best husband and father I can be, to serve well in all my responsibilities, to keep working to build a stronger global church, to do my part to be hospitable to foreigners and marginalized people in my own country, and to promote better international relationships when I am teaching and ministering abroad. Beyond that, I plan to stay alert to whoever may be negatively affected by governmental policy changes, especially those who cannot advocate for themselves, and to use whatever power I have to stand with those who have less power.

This is what it means to me to serve Christ and to be led by the Spirit in the real world, with so much conflict, distress, uncertainty, and suffering. No politician, governmental policy, or authority figure can take these possibilities for doing good away from me, from you, or from us as we keep working together. Some of our goals and efforts may be opposed or thwarted, but if our cause is right, God will work for good in some way through us.

Whether your candidates won or lost, may God enable you to stay rooted and grounded in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the leading the Holy Spirit. May God give you eyes to see all the open doors before you to work for the common good, and give you strength to not grow weary in doing all you can for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

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Use Your Head!

A friend of mine gathered his family of four around the television. It was a big day. Everyone was excited. The Holy Spirit had whispered in his ear that this would be a good week to buy lottery tickets. Millions of dollars would be such a huge blessing to this family encumbered with debt and college tuition looming. They would be sure to use some of it to advance the kingdom of God, too! Clutching their tickets, they could hardly wait for the show to begin. What a surprise (to them and no one else) when none of their numbers were selected. What went wrong?


What was I thinking?

We may raise our eyebrows at what seems like an obvious case of wishful thinking, but who hasn’t let their hopes make a monkey out of them at one time or another? We get so emotionally involved with what we’re doing that we spiritualize our own desires, biases, and preferences. We conclude that God is leading us forward when we are actually leading ourselves astray. Simon and Garfunkel sum up well this common human weakness in their hit song, The Boxer: “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Hmmm Hmmm. Hmmm.” What’s the remedy? Various Am I suggesting that you stop trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, contrary to what I argued in my previous essay, “Spirit-Led Living: A Simple Path”. No, not at all. Rather, I’m cautioning you against naiveté and false expectations. In any discernment process, instead of just going with your feelings and what you want to be true, you need to prayerfully use your head, too. Learning the hard way It started with an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief. None of the kids I met on the streets of Yangon had fathers. Begging for food was a daily occurrence. One orphan boy had been living on the street for much of the past three years. Their clothes were filthy, their bodies skin and bones. Was I being called to give them the helping hand they needed in order to transform their lives? Soon, everything seemed to be falling into place. We were successful at getting two of the kids off the streets and into homes, and three of them back into school. They looked so proud in their new school uniforms, and seemed so eager to ride their new bikes to school. It felt great to be doing something so concrete and meaningful for the poorest of the poor.


Trying to sort out the truth

Four months later, I found out that the kids had been lying to me about having to pay school fees. School is free for children in Myanmar, but no one told me; and when someone did, I chose to believe the kids and their ready explanations over the adults who knew better. Then I found out that they were lying about going to school at all. Some of them actually did go to school occasionally, but I eventually found out that the one who I thought was my star pupil had been lying from the beginning. They were using the “school money” for food, games, movies, gambling, and sometimes drugs (glue). If you’re thinking, “What did you expect? You should have known better,” you are simply making the point of this essay. Yes, I should have known better, but I was too driven by my own emotions, personal needs, and desires. I wanted to believe that we were making more progress than we actually were. I didn’t check up on them as I should have, and blinded myself to what I should have been able to see. VariousWe’ve now addressed the issues, and have made the necessary corrections in how we are going to work with the kids going forward. We hope to not make the same mistakes in the future, but the past six months have taught me again how easy it is to fool yourself. No matter how experienced you may be, how knowledgeable, how prayerful, or how full of love and compassion, there simply is no substitute for paying attention to what is truly going on, facing the truth, and thinking through what you’re doing. The balance Are you struggling with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or hurt from some actions you’ve taken that you thought were prompted by God, but now question? If so, maybe you need to make some adjustments to your discernment process. Don’t over-react, but don’t miss the learning opportunity either. If you feel yourself in the grips of emotion or driven by your desires to the point that you or others are starting to question your judgment, maybe you need to take a step back and take an honest look at what’s going on. For the sake of those you care about, for your sake, and for the sake of whatever work you are doing for Christ in the world, beware of just believing what you want to believe. Pray more, not less, but don’t expect answers to come in the form of sentimental feelings and implausible revelations. And don’t expect the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance to replace your responsibility to think through your course of action. Ask God to guide you through your rational thought process as well as through your feelings and desires. Listen to those who know you well and who can be a bit more objective. Face whatever truth the Spirit wants to reveal to you, and use your head. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And,  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).


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On spiritual retreat in Chartres, France, I am seeking God—looking at stained-glass windows, walking the labyrinth, taking long runs by the river, reading Scripture, worshiping in community, thinking, writing, and praying. This is the first in a series of postings on knowing and following Jesus more fully.

Tim in center of Chartres Cathedral labyrinth

Tim in center of Chartres Cathedral labyrinth

Yesterday, a pastor who attended my “Spirit-Led Leader” workshop in Myanmar wrote to me to ask me for suggestions for his Easter Sunday sermon. My answer was a question: “What brings you the most joy and power from your Christian faith?”

For me, the answer is pretty simple. Nothing has more dramatically impacted my life and perspective on the future than Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—and the hope he gives me of eternal life with God after death.

Recently, one of my sons and I went to see the movie, Knowing. Nicholas Cage stars as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who stumbles upon a sheet of numbers buried in the ground 50 years earlier. The more he investigates, the more he discovers that the numbers might be pointing to a series of disasters. Can he figure out the code? Can he stop the disaster from happening? Can he convince his scientist friends that he is not crazy?

I won’t give away the ending, but let me say this film goes where “no man (or woman) has gone before”. Well, actually, the apocalyptic genre is well represented in literature, but few films dare to grapple with the end of the world in such a sobering manner, without a super-hero implausibly saving the day. In doing so, the film taps into the worst fears gripping much of the human race today (annihilation), while grappling with powerful human experiences that lead so many to faith in a higher power and in life after death.

Knowing terrified and comforted both. There is hope for those who are “called” and who listen to the “whispering” of the benevolent voices, warning them and guiding them. The biblical writers do something quite similar in dealing with ultimate matters. Prophets and apostles terrify those who dare to spurn the will of God, while offering hope to those who are called to faith by the grace of God, and who listen and follow the leading of the Spirit.

The biggest difference between the movie and the Bible is that Scripture actually names the source of our hope—Jesus Christ—and puts the hope of salvation within reach of anyone who believes.

Last week, Jill and I led a prayer walk for the Chemin Neuf (New Way) Christian Community on the labyrinth on the stone floor of the magnificent Chartres Cathedral. As I approached the center, I found myself asking God to show me the way forward in my life. In a flash, the words of Jesus came to my mind: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I had my answer. I still have many questions and issues to resolve, but I know where my process needs to start. Knowing God and knowing how to best proceed need to be grounded in my relationship with Jesus. It seems I keep forgetting this most basic of spiritual truths.

Holy Week is a very good time to come to know Jesus better by taking extra time to focus on him, his life, his death, and his resurrection. What else—who else—can better help you know what your life is about and give you better hope for the future?

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11, NIV)

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No Shortcuts

Adapted from the charge to the graduates at a seminary in Myanmar.

1500 people attend Commencement

1500 people attend Commencement

“Don’t Confuse Seeking God with Serving God”

In my last posting, I praised the many dedicated faculty members and pastors I have met in Myanmar, who have inspired me with their sacrificial service. However, as time has gone on, I have grown uncomfortable with some of what I have been seeing.

I’m still very impressed and challenged by their “theology of the cross” (theologia cruxis) as they live out their calling. Yet, at the same time, I’m concerned for them. Some of these inspirational individuals are burning themselves out and putting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk by trying to please everyone who demands something from them. Many simply do not feel free to take time to nurture their own relationship with God—to experience the love of God and refreshment from the Holy Spirit—because they are so busy serving Christ.

In my address to the graduates, I encouraged them to let their passion for ministry  flow, but to not think that passion and dedication alone are enough for long-term service. No matter how great the needs of others, all of us need a vital relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit to truly experience the full life God intends for us and to have the needed power to serve Christ’s purposes most effectively.

Here’s what was said:
“Most of you will be entering or returning to a Christian culture that will demand everything from you as a pastor or Christian worker. Those of you who are the most dedicated are also the most at risk of being exploited by others, because you will feel guilty if you do not try to do everything everyone wants you to do.
Many of you will take jobs where others will expect you to be available 7 days a week, and if you are not, you will be criticized. There will be great pressure for you to try to meet everyone’s needs.
Well, guess what? You can’t. You cannot meet everyone’s needs. There will always be more requests, more needs, more demands on your time. And when you find yourself being pulled in too many directions, with too little sleep, with too much pressure, what are you going to do then? Keep trying harder until you collapse from exhaustion? Or worse, drop over dead from a heart attack, as has happened?
The problem is that too often we think that having a good relationship with God means that we will work ourselves to death trying to serving God. And what that often translates to is that we falsely equate pleasing others with pleasing God. And so we think we cannot say “no” to the demands of others, without saying “no” to Christ.
The truth however is quite different. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to others in order to say “yes” to Christ. Sometimes we have to say “no” to service, to say “yes” to seeking God.
I can’t give you a formula to help you know in every situation when you should say yes or when you should say no to the demands of your church or others. But I can tell you that Jesus is quite clear that the most important priority we have is to abide in him. He was also quite clear when he said that loving others was our second priority—not our first. Our first priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and then to love others out of our experience of the love of God.
When we put pleasing others above knowing and loving God, we risk losing touch with the real source of life, the real source of power, the real source of love, grace and joy.  Your culture may demand that you put serving others first, but who are you going to obey? If you don’t draw some boundaries and carve out time and space for your relationship with God, with your family, with yourself, you are going to lose your ability to serve as God intends.
Some day, you will be honored at the great Graduation Celebration in Heaven. I assure you, I will not be the commencement speaker that day. Jesus will be. The words you will long to hear will not be what we are saying to you today, “Well done good and faithful students.” You are going to want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servants.”
But do not think that Jesus is only going to be concerned about how much work you did or how many people you pleased. He will also care about how much you loved him and how you much you learned to live as one with God. “
Bottom line: Yes, we are called to sacrificial service for Christ. Yet, our ability to be the leaders, ministers, and servants God intends for us in very demanding circumstances requires a vital relationship with God. Spirit-led leadership means just that, it is “Spirit-led.” And the only way we are going to be Spirit-led is if we are continually nurturing our relationship to Christ through the Spirit, as the source of inspiration, wisdom, and power for effective Christian service.
There are no short cuts.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV)

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What I am seeing…

This is the second article written from Burma (Myanmar), where I am teaching and serving with Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries.

Dr. Cung Lian Hup teaching at M.I.T.

Dr. C.L.H. teaching at M.I.T.

I am seeing more and more signs of Spirit-led living and Spirit-led leadership in those around me—not because they’re increasing, but because I’m looking for them more.

What’s making the biggest impression on me so far here in Burma is how many students, pastors, and leaders seem to be simply swept along in a spirit of sacrificial service. Every day, they are unobtrusively making choices for the well-being of others, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves and their families.

Half the time, they don’t even acknowledge how much they are giving up. To many, being separated from their family for months and years at a time is normal. Working seven days a week is simply “necessary” because of the needs of the people under their care. Sharing their very meager amounts of food or other resources with someone who is visiting from out of town or has less than they do is simply the right thing to do. Burma has a culture of hospitality, to be sure, but even more, their relationship with God drives many of them to remarkable levels of generosity.

For example, one faculty member at at a seminary in Myanmar, Dr. Z.L, continues to teach Old Testament, even though he is supposed to be retired. Younger faculty members do not yet have their PhDs, and his retirement would leave a huge hole at the seminary (like the one I’m temporarily filling in the New Testament department). He is also the senior pastor of a small church that reaches out to many poor and illiterate Kachin Christians (one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar). His wife keeps asking him when he is going to rest. His reply? “Rest is for the next life, I guess. There is far too much that needs to be done to rest here.”

Another faculty member of another seminary in Yangon, “H. Thwaing” (pseudonym), decided to return from America to serve his people, even though he had the opportunity to stay, which would have been far more financially beneficial for him. After five years of studying for an advanced degree, he was offered a job as the senior pastor of church in New York for Burmese immigrants. Though the offer was attractive for many reasons, he chose to return to Myanmar to stand with those who are suffering and help in any way he could.

For different, but equally self-sacrificial, reasons, Dr. Cung Lian Hup returned from America to serve as academic dean of a seminary. He had been living with his whole family in the U.S. while earning a Ph.D. in missiology. Staying there, raising his children in American schools and enjoying an American way of life would have been a great opportunity for all of them. Nevertheless, he chose to return to Myanmar. He wanted his children to know their motherland and their own ethnic roots. Even more, he wanted to honor the commitments he had made—to the seminary who sent him to America, to those who financially supported him and his family, and to the American consular who had granted him a visa—that he would return home to teach. Then, when he had an opportunity to stay for four more years in America, he came back anyway, reasoning that his return would free up scholarship money for some other aspiring faculty member.

When “La Pen’s” pastor first began urging her to consider going to seminary, she refused. In the first place, she wasn’t sure what she believed about God, and secondly, she felt completely inadequate to get a Master of Divinity degree. Unless God gave her some kind of sign, she argued, she wasn’t going.

However, it wasn’t long before she got the sign she didn’t want!

One night, she was dreaming that she was in church and the pastor was preaching. Suddenly, he pointed his finger at her, and said, “Serve your people!” When she woke up, she knew that she had not had a nightmare. She had received a calling. She enrolled in seminary, and while there, she felt led to create a center for impoverished and needy children from her ethnic group. Now there are 50 kids, eight or ten of which are orphans, whom she alone cares for every day, when she’s not lecturing part time in feminist theology part time at the seminary.

Space doesn’t allow me to tell every story I have heard so far. Each is different, and each is the same. In one way or another, these Christian men and women love God, are committed to Christ, and are following the Spirit’s leading to serve their people. Often at great personal cost. The Holy Spirit calls them, prompts them, opens doors for them, provides resources in surprising ways, and leads them forward one step at a time to serve Christ in their context.

I know many pastors and lay leaders who are similarly being led by the Spirit in the United States, Europe, and Africa, too. Now that I’ve had the privilege of working with Christians on four continents I’m seeing a common denominator, regardless of the cultural, educational, and socio-economic differences. The Spirit seems to be leading the most inspired and inspiring among us to live out their faith by sacrificially serving others.

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“What can anyone do?”

This posting is the third in a series stemming from our recent trip to Rwanda and Congo.

Coaching session with Chaplain Bolingo

Coaching session with Chaplain Bolingo

To say the situation is bleak in Congo understates the horror and impending catastrophe there. Since leaving Goma (the capital of Northern Kivu, on the border of Congo and Rwanda) a few weeks ago, the situation has deteriorated rapidly, with a sharp spike in displacement, hunger, rape, and deaths. The rebels have routed the government troops and sent tens of thousands of people running for their lives without adequate food or medicine.

As many know, somewhere between 800,000 and 1.1 million people died in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. What much of the world does not seem to realize is that the death toll has continued to mount just over the border in Congo, in an extension of the hostilities stemming from the genocide.  Since 1997, a staggering 5.4 million people have died from fighting, starvation, dehydration, and disease. Currently, up to 1500 people are dying per day in the region of North Kivu.  

17,000 United Nations troops are in the country, but it’s not enough. The U.N. is once again undermanned and over their head in the face of the greatest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. Stretched to the limit, and unable to stop the Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, and his advancing rebel troops, the U.N. has dug in. They are hoping for reinforcements and waiting to see what will happen as a fragile ceasefire has given everyone a few days of respite, before the inevitable onslaught continues.

What can anyone do? You and I simply do not have sufficient wisdom, political clout, material resources, human resources or anything else of substance to make a difference in eastern Congo in any significant way. (Though, for those willing to contribute money, organizations such as HEAL Africa [] are on the ground and able to put donations to work to help victims immediately.)

And what about in all the other troubled spots around the world, where human suffering abounds and obstacles truly seem insurmountable? What can any of us ever do in the face of such intractable problems—whether in developing countries or simply in our own personal lives and families?

We can do whatever we can do.

In the face of loss of life, destroyed homes, broken relationships, and other crippling disasters, it’s easy to want to give up. It’s easy to think that there’s no point in trying to help. It’s easy to despair. But, the truth is there is almost always something that we can do, even in the midst of the worst tragedies and most overwhelming circumstances.

Meeting with genocide survivors, encouraging African leaders, and coaching pastors in Congo have inspired me in new ways to not give up hope. In just 10 days this fall, I met numerous people who are finding meaningful ways to make a difference. For example:

As I have been writing about over the past couple of weeks, Théo has been caring for his three younger sisters ever since he was orphaned in the Rwandan genocide when he was twelve. He is a survivor, and has showed me the power of focusing on what he can do, rather than on what he can’t. 

Cristina and Chelsea have given a year of their lives as Christ Presbyterian Church and Upper Room interns at HEAL Africa in Goma. One is helping women to develop products for sale in an arts center. The other is making plans to do development work with those who most need help learning how to provide for their own needs. Both are invested fully in doing whatever they can to help wherever they are needed.

Paul and Lyndee came with a team of volunteers from Australia to offer their services to HEAL Africa for two weeks. Paul upgraded the computer network, and Lyndee tutored numerous individuals in English. They don’t know if the buildings will be standing or how many of their students will be living after the war, yet they are doing what they can do now. They are helping in ways that fit their skills, hearts and opportunities.

The Rev. Jacob Lipandasi, one of the Congolese pastors I have been coaching, has been working tirelessly on behalf of widows and orphans in his hometown of Bukavu. His heart could not be larger. His vision keeps growing. He simply will not be deterred by ongoing, seemingly insurmountable challenges. Just last week, he was interviewed on Congo radio and television, and is busy trying to expand his ministry to the most vulnerable.

The Rev. Kambere Bolingo, lead chaplain at HEAL Africa (pictured above during one of our coaching sessions), splits his time between ministering to patients, supervising the other chaplains, and doing leadership training in the country villages. He carries around great weight of responsibility and concern, but every day he seeks to minister to needs and promote hope. Now, he has already started to coach some of the young men in his church with the same methods he has been learning first hand.

The Rev. Désiré Mukanirwa, Anglican priest in Goma, has a vision for the physical, mental, and spiritual vitality of his congregation. Many individuals in his church are illiterate, many families are overwhelmed due to the influx of refugees (relatives seeking safety in the city), and many widows are unskilled with little hope of providing for themselves. To help address these seemingly impossible challenges, Désiré went back to school to earn a degree in development and signed up for coaching. His plans for creating new ministries must wait while he attends to traumatized parishioners, a refugee pastor who has cholera, and daily threats of violence, but no matter what each day brings, he is doing whatever he can do.

We may never know what difference any of us truly make long term in a given situation—whether we are talking about helping suffering people in Africa, creating a better America, reaching out to needy people in our own communities, or simply trying to love our own families and friends better. We will always be surrounded by intractable problems, and can never guarantee what might happen tomorrow to the work we do today.

But today is the only day we have for sure. And what is within our power to do is all that we are responsible for. Each of us can do something for some situation that we care about. By writing emails, making phone calls, contributing time and money, offering a smile or gentle touch, or simply showing up with willingness to help, we can stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. We can link arms with those who are trying to do something to make a better world.

As the Apostle Paul taught, God has equipped each believer with an ability to contribute meaningfully in this world. Paul encourages us to believe in this message of hope, and to fulfill our calling by acting on the opportunities we are given. He writes:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a [person’s] gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. (Romans 12:6-9)

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9-10)

What can anyone do?  

Whatever we can.  

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