Tag Archives: purpose

Thermopylae


Thermopylae is a narrow pass (about 50 feet wide) in ancient Greece, between Mount Oeta and the Malian Gulf.  It leads from Thessaly (Thessalia) into Locris.  In ancient times, it was the main route by which an invading army could penetrate from the north into southern Greece.

It is best known for being the site where King Leonidas I died with his 1400 men (of whom 300 were Spartans) during the Persian Wars as they attempted to stop Xerxes and the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. When Xerxes arrived with his enormous contingent of soldiers (Herodotus estimated it at 2.6 million, but it probably wasn’t nearly that high), he expected the small group of Greeks to retreat in light of his superior numbers, but Leonidas and his men refused to move.  In fact, they appeared confident, even calm, in the face of certain death.  Xerxes tried to wait them out for four days, but they wouldn’t leave.

When fighting finally began, it took three days for Xerxes to defeat the Spartans.  The Greeks easily repelled the initial attacks on their position, for what they lacked in numbers, they made up in determination and strategy.  The Spartans believed in a code of courage and discipline.  Retreat and surrender were not options.  They made their stand at Thermopylae, because the narrow pass nullified the threat of Xerxes’ overwhelming numbers.  Further, Leonidas knew that the Persians’ shorter spears made them unable to engage the Greeks at close quarters.

Had it not been for betrayal by a fellow Greek, Leonidas and his men might have held off the Persians indefinitely, but Ephialtes, a Thessalonian, showed the Persians how to use a path over the mountain to attack the Greeks from behind.  Once betrayed, it was all but over for the Greeks.  Leonidas was killed as he helped defend the pass.  Xerxes then dispatched his 10,000 Immortals, an elite fighting group.  The remaining Greeks retreated to a small hillock, where they formed a circle around the body of Leonidas.

Xerxes asked for the body of Leonidas in return for sparing the lives of the remaining Spartans, but the brave warriors refused.  Xerxes didn’t want to command his men to close in on the Spartans, because it was clear that the Persian armies were afraid of the Spartans.  They had never seen such determination and reckless abandon.  The Spartans didn’t care about preserving their lives.  They only wished to die honorably and protect the body of their leader.  Faced with his soldiers’ reluctance to fight, Xerxes ordered his archers to shoot arrows into the dense circle of Spartans until the sky was blackened and every Spartan dead.

Why did Leonidas and the Spartans fight so hard even after the battle was clearly lost?  Leonidas took counsel of an oracle before the battle, who foretold that either Sparta would perish or one of her kings would perish. By his death, Leonidas hoped to sacrifice himself to save his city.  And as it turns out, he did.  While the Persians went on to take Athens, they had been delayed long enough at Thermopylae to allow the Greeks to regroup and reinforce.  Later in 480 BC, the Greek navy defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, halting Xerxes’ advance on Greece and putting an end to his imperial ambitions.  Had the Greeks not be able to repel the Persians, the later contributions of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other Greeks would never have been possible.

The Spartans had cohesion.  They stuck together no matter what the threat.  They didn’t do it because it was their job as soldiers.  They didn’t do it because of the paycheck.  They didn’t even do it just for their love and respect they had for their leader.  They did it, because they had a common purpose that was larger than all of them.  They had a unifying vision and a common enemy to that vision.

If you want the commitment of your team members, you’ve got to give them something worthy to fight for….a common purpose, a common enemy, something larger than the fading motivation of a paycheck.

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Filed under Challenges, commitment, conflict, determination, discipline, Engagement, failure, focus, leadership, management, motivation, overcoming obstacles, ownership, passion, performance, Persistence, pressure, priorities, purpose, sacrifice, team, teambuilding

Soft Hands


During a Monday night football game a few years ago, the Dallas Cowboy’s were defending at their own three-yard line.  The quarterback for the opposing team dropped back and fired a bullet…right to one of the Cowboy’s defensive linemen.  To my disgust, the lineman dropped the ball even though it was right between the numbers and even though he got both hands on the ball.

At the time, it seemed unthinkable that he would drop a sure interception, but I stopped yelling at the TV long enough to hear one of the commentators (a former lineman himself) explain why we should give the guy a break.  As he explained it, linemen spend their entire careers pushing against three-hundred-pound gorillas on the other side of the line of scrimmage.  Every muscle in their body is invested in the struggle to push past the opposing lineman to get at the quarterback.  When a ball is thrown their way, they don’t have the “soft hands” required to catch the ball.

By that last comment, he meant that because the linemen were totally focused on the goal of overpowering their opponent, it was supremely difficult for them to switch goals in the middle of battle.  I can relate.  I remember countless times when I was insensitive to my wife when she called me at the office.  Her calls always seemed to come right in the middle of my battles with three-hundred-pound gorilla projects and three-hundred-pound gorilla deadlines.  Bruised from her own battles with the kids, all she wanted was a sympathetic ear.  What she typically got were short, curt responses indicating I had better things to do than to talk with her.

Because I was so focused on the battle, I didn’t have the soft hands necessary to respond to my wife appropriately, and I forgot we were playing for the same team.  Each time I dropped the ball, I regretted it the second I hung up the phone.  Realization of how important and unrecoverable the moment was always made me wish I had not been so single-focused.

If we are going to be effective leaders, we have to learn to develop the soft hands required when our team members come to us for help.  We have to be skilled at transitioning from driving the line, chasing down the goal, sacking the competition… to taking time out, being receptive and possibly moving in a whole new direction.

While success requires us to be totally invested in our work, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that teams are made of people, and we can’t play this game alone.

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Filed under Attitude, Challenges, Change, communication, conflict, determination, emotions, family, Fathering, Goals, habits, Interpersonal, leadership, management, marriage, mentoring, paradigm shift, pressure, priorities, Prioritize, Priority, Relationships, Serving Others

Rolling the Boulder


In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, saw Zeus steal away with a woman named Aegina and confessed what he saw to her father.  When Zeus realized what Sisyphus had done, he condemned him to Tartarus, where Sisyphus would spend eternity rolling a boulder to the top of a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again.  Zeus knew that the worst punishment he could render was a time without end of meaningless work.

When those you lead are given assignments without any explanation of why the task needs to be done, they sometimes feel like the miserable Sisyphus.    Each repetitive task that seems to accomplish nothing appears to be an eternal punishment.  Each goal that comes without a reason for its completion seems like one of Sisyphus’ boulders.  They may struggle to get it up the hill, but they do it without enthusiasm.  Their efforts lack commitment and creativity.  Meaningless work breaks the spirit.  (Remember how the guards finally got to Cool Hand Luke in the movie by the same name?)  It destroys your team member’s confidence in their leaders’ competence.

People are motivated by making a difference.  They need to know how what they do impacts the final result.  They want to know not only what buy why.  As you assign tasks, be sure to tell them why they roll the boulder.

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Filed under Challenges, Change, commitment, leadership, management, motivation, purpose, Service, Serving Others, Suffering

Made to Love


It’s Mayfly season, and we’re being chased out of our house. Never having lived this close to a body of water, I have to confess, I’ve never seen anything like it. Swarms and swarms of long-winged beasties around every light source. Somehow they are getting past our screen windows and driving our short, little dog nuts.

Last night, I was burdened by the need to get some photographic evidence of the biblical proportions of this infestation. My son and I were emerging from the pizzeria with three hot pies when we first noticed the flies, so we drove home as quickly as possible to get the camera. Once there, I was distracted by a curiously red frog/toad sitting in the middle of the road enjoying the good fortune of the Mayfly social.

He had my attention for about fifteen minutes as I tried to get him to perform for the camera, but then I realized that he and every other amphibian and reptile were depleting the numbers of the swarm. Since this would reduce the impact of my photo op, we jumped back into the car and made for the local gas station. It’s one of those mega-models with dozens of drive-in bays and it’s own nuclear power plant to help run the lighting. We knew it would be Mayfly Mecca.

But something very Twilight-Zonish happened between the time that we left the house and the time that we reached the gas station. Every single fly vanished. Sure, there was evidence – millions and millions of wings littered the roadside – but there were no flies! The high-powered lights were unobscured, the motorcyclists unharrassed. Scratching our heads, we headed back home to do some research.  These wings were all that I found when I arrived.

What I learned is that some Mayflies only get to be adults for a short time. Entire populations all mature at the same time. Some live a few days; others only one half-hour. Having no mouths with which to take in nutrients, they literally starve to death. But there’s no time to eat, anyway. Mayflies have only one purpose as adults – they were made to love!

Yep. Adult Mayflies (a.k.a., “shag shad flies”) have just one thing on their mind, and thirty minutes is more than enough time to get it done. They are adept at mid-air mating (see etymology for “catching it on the fly”), and the males swarm to impress the females and convince them to join the swarm. Once they do, a love connection occurs, and the new couple fly off for some privacy. Once the eggs are fertilized, the female deposits them back in the water through various techniques known as “floating,” “splashing,” “dipping,” “landing” or “bombing” depending upon her mood. Mission accomplished, the Mayflies make like Hamlet, and they are gone as quickly as they emerged.

Philosophers from Aristotle onward have used the Mayfly as a metaphor for the ephemeral (“lasting but a day”) nature of life. I like it. Life is short. At least this side of eternity. And we spend so much time majoring in the minors of what it means to be alive, when really our purpose here on earth is not much different than the Mayfly’s. Get your mind out of the gutter – I mean, we were made to love. Love our God and love our neighbor as ourselves (though we should use different tactics than the ones described above).

Nothing else we do during this lifetime will last but the love we share. Not our accomplishments, not our money, not our names, not our buildings, not our writings….it will all pass away. But what will last are the relationships and the kindness that we show to one another. The love we share impacts lives here on earth and earns us rewards in heaven. It’s imperishable. Paul says it best:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:1-10)

We were made to love.

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Sand in the Hand


Ever made a fist around a handful of sand? The tighter you squeeze, the more sand pours out the sides. Many things in life are like that. The more we try to control our teenagers, the more they rebel. The more we try to control our employees, the more passive-aggressive they become. The more we try to control our lives, the more God allows them to run out of control.

Our plans are the sand in the hand. It’s not that God wants our lives to be in chaos. It’s that oftentimes, the only way we trust Him with our sand is when we see how little we can do in our own power to hold it. Scripture is full of tight-fisted sand grabbers:

  • Abraham thought Hagar might help him become the “father of many nations,” and she did, but those nations have been in a bloody family feud with the Israelites ever since.
  • Jacob scammed his way to blessings and birthright, but he met his match when Laban played matchmaker for his eldest daughter.
  • Moses wanted to be the leader of his people, but vigilante justice got him forty years of practice leading sheep in the desert.
  • Peter was ready to die for Jesus and brought his sword to prove it, but Jesus wanted him to live and die to self instead.
  • Saul of Tarsus wanted to serve God with all his heart on the road to Damascus, but God had a different road for him to follow.

So often, we try to accomplish God’s purposes in ways God never intended. We get tired of waiting for Him to do His will, so we take over. But instead of speeding things up, this often just slows them down.

About eleven years ago, I had an unusual experience. A woman I had never met told me she had a word from God for me. She said that God had heard my prayers and that He would put me into full-time ministry. I was absolutely amazed (and a little freaked out), because I had been praying this prayer since becoming a Christian a few months before, but I hadn’t shared it with anyone.

Unfortunately, God never told me when or how He would bring this Word to pass. As a result, I’ve spent years in the laboratory of my life trying my hand at alchemy. I’ve wasted a lot of money, worry and time struggling to turn my raw materials into gold, but most of my efforts have only led to dearly-purchased pyrite.

Today, I’m in full-time ministry. It took a lot longer than I expected, and it doesn’t look anything like what I had in mind. It came about despite my best efforts, not because of them. But it has taught me a lesson worth more than its weight in gold: Hold your plans loosely, and let God do with them what He will.

Until He can get our fingers pried off our sand, there’s not much He can do with it but watch as our tight grip forces it to spill out the sides. But if we will trust Him with our plans of sand, and if we can keep our palm open so that He can use what He wants…then, we’ll not only be able to hold much more, but God will turn that sand into gold.

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”
(Proverbs 19:21)

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No Waiting


What are we waiting for?  Some Christians treat Earth like it’s a waiting room for Heaven.  Too many of us are sitting around waiting for our name to be called.  We take comfort in the knowledge that the Great Physician knows we are here.  We think we just need to mind our own business and keep our heads down in our magazines until it’s time for our appointment.  But Earth isn’t a waiting room; it’s a clinic.

We are supposed to be engaged in the care and healing of the soul sick.  When all we are doing is waiting to be called home, we are taking up useful space.  If God didn’t intend for us to help others, He could have just taken us straight to heaven as soon as we gave our hearts to Him.  But He didn’t.  So He must have work left for us to do.

Being unqualified is not an excuse.  Of course we don’t know what we are doing.  God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.  He gives us on-the-job training.  His strength is made perfect in our weakness, in our ignorance, in our inexperience…even in our mistakes.  Besides, we’re not responsible for the cure – only for the loving and unconditional care for the patient.  Some will respond, and some won’t.  The Doctor knows.

All we have to do is to show up ready to assist as the Great Physician prepares to do open heart surgery on a sick and hurting world.  We can’t help much from the waiting room, so let’s scrub up and join Him in His work.

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Shadow Mission


Beneath our mission for God lies our shadow mission. All Christians have one. Some give in to it, and some don’t, but it lurks beneath the surface nonetheless.

A shadow mission is something that is deeply important to us but that leads us away from God’s purposes for our lives. It’s typically just a few degrees off from His will, but those few degrees can lead us far from Him.

For example, if God’s purpose for you is to teach the Word, your shadow mission might be to impress people with your wisdom. If God’s purpose for you is to lead people to Christ, your shadow mission might be racking up the numbers of converts for your spiritual resume. If God’s purpose for you is to give charitably, your shadow mission might be to give more than anyone else you know.

Our shadow mission is Satan’s perversion of our true mission. Knowing how we respond to pleasure and pain, he pulls us away from our authentic mission using our pride and our hurts. The Enemy either:

  • takes our gifts and shows us how we can use them for our own selfish purposes instead of for God’s glory, or
  • uses emotional wounds we received in the past to keep us away from the center of God’s will

What makes the shadow mission so insidious is its connection to our true mission. If it comes from our pride, we risk feeding the beast each time we do the things God created us to do. If it comes from avoiding our wounds, we can be certain that those hurts surround God’s purpose for our lives.

Since the time I heard John Ortberg (Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, CA) teach on this, I’ve been thinking about what mine could be. He said that one way to know is that when our shadow mission is threatened, it provokes a deep and passionate reaction.

This morning, I received an email that made me so angry that it’s taken me several hours to cool off. When I think back on it, I had no reason to get upset. The message was a simple, tactfully delivered piece of feedback, but it threatened my shadow mission. The message poked a stick in an old wound, but in doing so, it helped me discover my shadow mission – I need approval.

I remember several vivid and painful experiences where someone in authority disapproved of me. Even the memory of these events hurts. They made a profound impression on me and taught me that I didn’t want to experience that type of pain again. As a result, I’ve developed a shadow mission to seek approval from those in authority around me.

I’m on to the Enemy now. I know what he’s done. He’s strategically placed those hurts directly around God’s authentic mission for me, and they serve as a threatening barrier. Because of my fear of the pain of disapproval, I retreat from many opportunities to participate with God in the work He is doing.

Each wound is based on a lie – the lie that my approval needs to come from anyone but God. My Creator knows my flaws and loves me anyway. He’s given me His seal of approval, and it’s not based on what I do but on who I am – His child. Nothing I do could ever change my relationship to Him, just like nothing my children do could ever make them someone else’s children.

Pray for me. These truths haven’t made it from my head to my heart yet. Though only eighteen inches separate the two, those inches comprise the longest distance in the universe.

What is your shadow mission? Is it born of pride or of pain? It’s time to examine it. Bring the shadow into the Light.

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