Archive for March 2009

Essential Practices of the Small Group Leader #7: Be an Encourager

March 16, 2009

“A pat on the back, though only a few vertebrae removed form a kick in the pants, is miles ahead in results.” – Howard Hendricks.

Have you ever been discouraged? I have. Most likely, you have too. Maybe you were doused by the “cold-water committee,” or received harsh criticism for something you did or did not do. Maybe life just came along and gave you a swift kick in the shins. Now, consider your small group – chances are, that some or all of them have faced something discouraging recently:

– job stress or job loss
– financial worries
– health concerns
– spiritual doubts
– struggles with relationships
– fear of the future
– guilt over poor decisions
insert source of discouragement

As small-group leaders / Sunday School teachers, we need to be encouragers to the people in our groups. Unfortunately, some of those same people fear that they will receive more discouragement by attending church or a small group. Hopefully, that’s a false impression but, as the saying goes, perception is 99% of reality. Our job is cut out for us to overcome that perception and become effective encouragers.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11

The Apostle Paul called on the Thessalonian church to be encouragers (and encouraged them for doing so). The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines encouragement as:to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope :hearten <she was encouraged to continue by her early success> b: to attempt to persuade : urge  <they encouraged him to go back to school>2: to spur on : stimulate <warm weather encourages plant growth>3: to give help or patronage to :foster.”

Did you catch those key words? inspire . . . courage . . . spirit . . . hope . . . persuade . . . urge . . . spur on . . . stimulate . . . give help . . . foster . . . Encouragement involves action on the part of the encourager. Encouragement may come through our words but often it will come through our deeds. It’s not enough to simply say, “I’ll pray for you,” though that is always a good thing to do. Sometimes encouragement comes through the time we spend with a friend, the sweat we break in helping with a task, or the tears we shed grieving with a friend. There is a sense where encouragement involves a divine stubborness – a willingness to stick with a friend when no one else will. That’s part of our job. In fact, it is one of the most important responsibilities of a small-group leader.

There’s a side benefit for the encourager. If you have been feeling discouraged yourself, you will find that encouraging others will lift your own spirit and give you a greater sense of perspective. As you help and encourage others, it takes your focus off of your own concerns.

Our groups give us a great vehicle for encouragement. Hopefully your small group is a place where people feel free to share their burdens and bear one another’s burdens. If people cannot find hope, help and encouragement within the family of faith, then where? As the leader, it is your job to set the tone and example.

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25

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Fading into the Twilight

March 4, 2009

(Note: I first posted this on another blog (now defunct) a little over three years ago. My mother passed away last summer, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. She would have been 83 this month. I’m re-posting this in her memory and, perhaps, to give some help to others who are dealing with Alzheimer’s. We love you, Mom, and we’re glad you are now well and whole in the presence of God.)

Originally posted January 2006 –

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a puzzling and frustrating illness for her and for my Dad and for my family. It is unlike any other malady I know.

Three years ago we were all blisssfully unaware that Mom had a problem. Oh, sure, she was forgetful, but who isn’t when they are approaching their 80th year. Then, two and a half years ago, she disappeared after leaving her hairdresser on a sunny and warm October day. We found her 9 hours later, but a part of Mom was gone forever.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that strikes people for no apparent reason and with no real warning. It can debilitate a person quickly or over the course of several years. So far, there is no cure, no prevention, no theraphy to stop its onslaught. It is a killer with no clear face. You can’t cut it out with surgery, bombard it with radiation, or poison it with drugs. No special diets or vitamins will cure it. To be sure, there are some helpful drugs like Aricept that can slow it, but it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill – starting small, but gathering size and momentum. The speed of demise varies, but it comes all the same.

Mom is in what is considered the “middle stage” of Alzheimers. She can still eat, dress herself, and take care of most personal needs without assistance. About 70% of the time she has “good days” where she knows her family and has a strong connection with reality. About 30% of the time, she does not believe that Dad is her husband. On those days, he is the “other” Herman, a friend who has come to help around the house. She does not fear him on those days, nor does she treat him badly. Yet it hurts Dad to be forgotten after 55 years of marriage. He knows she can’t help it, but it hurts, nonetheless. And it will get worse. I’ve noticed that she on occassion forgets me. She hides it well, but it comes through in conversations with her. Oddly enough, she has never forgotten my wife or three children, who she has not known as long (obviously) as my father or me.

We cherish the good days and hope the not-so-good days will not increase. But they will. Maybe not this week or this month, but ultimately Alzheimer’s will rob Mom of her memory, her personality, her ability to communicate or care for herself, and ultimately, it will rob her of her life. She is like the fading light of twilight. She is still there, but you know her time is limited.

So what do we do? We love her, we care for her, we help Dad as best as we can. She’s Mom and she’s still a person of worth, created in the image of God, though living in a fallen world. The Bible says we are to “honor our father and mother.” God is using this time to teach us something significant about honoring parents. The easy thing would be to give up. To institutionalize her. To euthanize her. At least that seems to be the trend in much of the world – and in the state of Oregon (another post, another time perhaps). God does not call us to easy things. He calls us to important things – things that are too big for us but not too big for Him. I get weary hearing the platitude that “God will never put anything on you that you can’t handle.” Rubbish! If we could handle it, we wouldn’t need God.

I don’t write this to sound noble or that God has made it easy. I’m not noble. There are days I feel sad, mad and frustrated – with Mom, with Dad, and yes, with God. But I know He knows what’s going on and that He truly cares. I know He loves Mom and has a wonderful provision for her, both in heaven and now. I and my family have an opportunity to be a blessing to her and to Dad a they have been to us for many years. I wish we could bless her some other way in other circumstances, but that is not to be. I am learning to appreciate how hard it is to be a caregiver. Yet I am also learning that it is a wonderful opportunity to serve, to love, to be family. God says he makes “all things work together for good to those that love Him, to those that are called according to His purpose.” Mom loves God. Even with Alzheimer’s she prays the most beautiful prayers you have ever heard. It’s humbling and awesome at the same time to hear her pray. God will work it all for good. I don’t understand how, nor do I have to understand exactly, but He will. It is a learning experience – a hard lesson – that God allows us to experience suffering (and most of it not physical) so that we may rely more fully on Him when our strength and emotions falter. And He is faithful. In the midst of the sadness, the grieving for the loss of one who is still here, there is peace. There is hope. There is love.

It is enough.

Essential Practices for the Small Group Leader #6: Be a Servant

March 4, 2009

Be a servant.

If you wish to make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God, you will have to serve others. Unfortunately, in our consumer-driven society, that is often a difficult thing to ask of small-group leaders. We tend to be busy people – busy with jobs, busy with family activities, and busy with church stuff. Often, we think we’re just too busy to serve.

Be a servant.

Ministry can be messy. Being a servant is often awkward, difficult and frustrating. Not everyone appreciates acts of service or kindness. Your motives may be questioned. The people you wish to help may disappoint you. You may wonder if you are really doing any good.

Be a servant.

And ministry is often inconvenient. The immediate needs of another person can disrupt your schedule. Pain, hunger, misery and despair have a nasty habit of interrupting at the most inopportune times. It’s easy to be caught off-guard when someone unloads on us out of their fear and helplessness. You will feel inadequate.

Be a servant anyway.

Lest I make servanthood out to be some loathsome, terrible burden to be avoided at all costs, let me share the upside of ministry.

1. God made us to serve. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Serving is in our spiritual genes. Our Creator has made each of us uniquely useful. We have gifts, talents and abilities that can benefit other people that God places in our path. We don’t have to worry about our own adequacy – He has already given us what we need to serve.

2. God prepares us for service. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. Paul reminds us that our ability to minister to others comes primarily from the overflow of God’s ministry to us. As we consider God’s kindness, mercy and comfort, it gives us something worthwhile and tangible to share to others in their time of need. What God gives to us, He expects us to give away to others also.

3. God honors those who serve. In the gospels, we see that Jesus values servanthood over worldly status. Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35. The Lord clearly equated servanthood with greatness. Servanthood may never get you noticed in the eyes of the world, but it will please God. The honor and glory for our service ultimately belong to Him. After all, he’s the one who equipped us to serve. Jesus also said, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.

4. Jesus showed us how to serve. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Jesus healing the sick, mingling with children, and sharing meals with social outcasts. He did not shun the poor. He did not turn his back on those who were in bondage to addictions or sinful, destructive lifestyles.  He didn’t allow criticism from the religious elite to deter him. He showed us that anyone can serve, as long as we don’t allow our pride to get in the way: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:12-17.

To sum it up, God expects for us to be proactive in our service to others. If you see a need, do your best to meet it. Don’t just sit around waiting for someone to show up with a need. If you do, you may find yourself ill-prepared to help. As you become intentional about serving others, you gain a greater sense of what to do and what to say in a variety of circumstances. But be careful to avoid the trap of seeing people as “projects.” Ministry is not about simply doing good –  it’s about showing the love of Christ to another soul who is likewise loved by the Creator. That’s what is meant by “giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.”

Get ready to get your hands dirty and make an impact for the Kingdom of God! Small group leaders and Sunday School teachers, here’s your chance to set a strong example for others in your group. You’ll be amazed at the joy that will be yours as you serve others.