Monday, December 19, 2011

Wishing you a Blessed Christmas

When I think of the first Christmas I have this image in my mind of shepherds tending to their flocks (probably because of all the Christmas shows I watched as a child seeing the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem).  We know from the Christmas story in the Gospels that as the Magi were passing through Jerusalem and spoke with Herod about this child who had been born “King of the Jews”, Herod asks the priests and teachers of the law, where the Christ was to be born.  They replied quoting the prophet Micah that he would come from Bethlehem – and out of there would come this ruler who was to be the shepherd of the people of Israel. 

In this short exchange we have Jesus described as King, Christ (or Messiah) and Shepherd.  As leaders who model ourselves off Jesus, do we pay enough attention to the shepherding responsibilities that we carry? 

In many ways we more easily accept the role of “king”, in that we know there needs to be someone in charge and calling the shots.  Even our role as “Messiah”, in the sense that we have the responsibility to lead people from their present situations into a better and more hope filled future is something that leaders are drawn to.  But it is as a shepherd that we have the greatest capacity to make a difference in the lives of those we lead. 

Jesus words that I learnt as a child in Sunday School ring in my ears, “My sheep hear my voice, and they know me and they follow me.”  Do those who you lead hear your voice, your voice of care and concern, your voice of guidance, your voice of protection?  Do they know you, and the desire that you have to look after their best interests?

An often quoted leadership saying is that you can assess how well you are leading when you turn around to see who is following you.  While this may be a little simplistic, the truth that we learn is that if we as leaders shepherd well, people will follow.  Shepherding well means that when we arrive at the destination God has given us, we will be there with a group of people who have shared the journey and been nurtured in ways of love and peace and compassion.

The team at Willow want to wish you and your families and your churches a blessed and hope filled Christmas as we celebrate the birth of our saviour.  We also hope that over the summer months you have the opportunity to rest, relax and refresh as we look forward to serving God in 2012. 

Andrew McCafferty
CEO, Willow Creek Australia

Monday, December 12, 2011

Change Your Mind Before Christmas

I confess: left to my own devices, I’m a crammer.

Maybe it started with a few exams in college; maybe it’s the natural tendency of my personality, maybe it is an occasional lack of maturity. Whatever the cause, pushing against those tendencies has become vital to my way of life, and especially to my way of leadership. I know what an out-of-control-busy schedule can do to my soul. Perhaps you can relate.

And at this time of year, the temptation to cram even more into an already full schedule escalates. The Christmas season adds not only ministry opportunities, but also the potential for financial stressors, volunteer and key partner recognition, family expectations, and more… It can fill our minds with distractions and worry.

Slowing down for “a long, ardent gaze at God” will not simply creep into my schedule. But this year, I’m making sure it finds a home there. I know from experience what frequent times of meditation—even small bits here and there—can do to improve the health of my soul. As it reads in the Psalms, “I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:12)

It’s been fascinating to learn that meditation not only helps our spiritual lives, it also actually changes our brains, which, in the end will change our minds. Here’s an excerpt from Huffington Post that discusses these findings:

“Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain’s ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input.

For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood.

But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity and display an ability — continuing after the meditation session has ended — to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they’re automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.” – Amanda Chan, Nov. 23, 2011.

Amazingly, this research shows how meditation changes your brain and can also change your mind.

Is it any wonder that scripture strongly commands us to meditate, and also points to the impact this will make on our minds and on our life? Consider the wisdom from Psalm 1:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

And in Isaiah 26:3 we see a connection between our minds and our peace;

You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.

Ultimately, the Spirit of God can govern our mind, which will yield life and peace. (Romans 8:6). So this Christmas, consider what difference opening your mind to God could achieve. What difference might that make in the kinds of decisions you make and relationships you build?

Through a focused effort in meditation on God as described in the definition above, you will open yourself up to exactly those kinds of changes in your brain that will allow God to move powerfully in your life.

If you’re looking for next steps:
- Practice ten to fifteen minutes of silent meditation each day.
- Ignore the tendency to be strategic or intentional—and please please don’t cram anything else in!!
- The only “end” is to still and quiet your soul (like Psalm 131:2), and to consider/meditate/focus on God.
- Learn about A Leader’s Soul, 7 week online learning course.

Mindy Caliguire (@mindycaliguire)
Transformation Ministry Team, Willow Creek Association
Founder, SoulCare (a Spiritual Formation Ministry)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Coping with December Pressure

I have a love/hate relationship with the month of December. My birthday falls near the middle of the month and Christmas falls near the end so those occasions should make the month of December a banner month, right? Senior Pastors know better. December is easily the most pressure packed month of the year. Teaching fresh material every December is a herculean challenge. Extra time is always needed for celebrating the staff, honoring the volunteers, raising year-end funds, and being even more available than usual for pastoring the church and community. And then there is your family- your spouse and kids and grandkids and extended family. Neglect them and well, you know… So, each year there are the 2 things that I make sure I do to recharge and stay grounded. The first is prayer. 

Out of desperation I started a new practice decades ago. On the first Monday in December I take my Bible and journal to a place that offers solitude. My prayer is the same each year: “God, please help me get this Christmas right…or at least a little better all around than I did last Christmas.” Then I start journaling about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes I start with making sure I’m learning from mistakes of previous holiday seasons. Other times I begin by reviewing what I got right the year before. But regardless of where I start, God always speaks to me.

I specifically remember the year that God whispered to me to stop pretending to my wife and children about what my schedule was going to be in December. Ever the optimist, I would joyfully announce that I was going to be around more this December than last year. Then reality would strike. Almost every year I spend December 26 apologizing to my family for not keeping my word about my schedule. 

This all changed with a whisper on a Monday. 

God said, “Why not tell your family the truth? Why not simply explain to them that December is the most intense month of the year for pastors and despite the flurry of activity in the first three weeks of the month you will all get sweet revenge the final week of the month.” Sweet revenge! 

The second strategy I have for staying grounded in December is replenishment (aka: Sweet revenge!). My children, who were young at the time, loved that term. Our family would scheme, plot and plan what we could do as a family that would make the chaos of the first 3 weeks fade. For over 25 years, the Hybels family packs up to go somewhere on Christmas Day and we aren’t seen around Barrington until the first of January. 

These “sweet revenge” travel days have been a lifesaver for our family. We cook meals together, jog together and watch sunsets together. On Old Years Night, we all list the top 10 blessings from the previous year. By the time the ball drops in Times Square we are all good with God, the church and each other. The deeper point in revealing all of this is that the idea came from a humble prayer for help from God on a Monday morning in early December decades ago.

Other years God has whispered other directions to me that gave me new ways to cope with the intensity of December pressures. Nothing has been more valuable to me than the first Monday of December, alone with God, armed with a Bible, a journal and an earnest prayer to get this Christmas Season a bit more right than last year.

By: Bill Hybels (@BillHybels)
Senior Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church
Chairman of the Board, Willow Creek Association