Eyes In Front

I’ve written on here before about my running. I’m not a big fan of running, but I’ve been trying to make it a discipline that I follow in order to keep some cardio activity in my life. I usually tell people that I don’t like running but I like how I feel when I am running. That doesn’t mean I actually feel good when I run (I usually feel terrible) but that in my life, when I consistently run, I feel pretty good.

Since the Spring, I’ve been struggling with running. I’ve felt tired and lethargic, but I’ve kept it up. Then we went on our cross country trip and while I started out strong, I fell off the wagon and went a month (pretty much the length of our trip) without running. My last run took place at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

As I start to get back into it again, I’ve realized that it may be the worst time of the year to start it up again. The humidity is high and hangs on you like a soaking wet sweatshirt. Every step feels as if my legs weigh tons. Since my pace has slowed considerably, I’m trying to find the right balance and have yet to get there.

After running consistently for a few months, I began to realize just what a mental game running can be. At first, I was running with music, but I decided to take advantage of the stillness and quiet of the pre-dawn hours and simply breathe in the moments. My allergies aren’t too happy about those breaths, but I persist.

But the mental game of telling myself what I can or can’t do is a much bigger battle than I ever thought or imagined. “You can’t do this.” “You’re too slow.” “Look how much further you have to go.” “Can you really get there?” All these statements and questions plus so many more run through my head.

As I was running this morning, I was in the home stretch and a thought occurred to me. I was looking too far ahead. I was missing the ground right in front of me because I wanted to see how much further I had to go, how much longer that I had to endure. But looking too far ahead was making me miss what was right before me and it was distracting me.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels in life. I have a tendency to want to see the road much further ahead. I play out in my mind all of the next steps to make sure I’m prepared, but in my preparation (or so-called preparation), I am distracted and unfocused on what’s right before me.

So, I’m learning to focus on what’s right before me. It’s easier said than done, at least for me. I want desperately to see and know what’s coming, but I need to focus on just a few steps. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Or in the words of that great philosopher Dory, “Just keep swimming!”

Sabbatical-ing

The last five years have been rough for me. It started out with the death of my mom. Then came the death of my dad a little less than two years later. I was finishing up seminary, was involved in a difficult situation in my church, and was trying to transfer my credentials into a different denomination. I was diagnosed with a weak heart and I could feel my anxiety and stress ever building within me. Thankfully, the church that I serve saw fit to extend me a sabbatical, three months away from work with the goal and intention that I rest, recharge, and study.

If you had asked me ten years ago about a sabbatical, I may have been able to tell you what it was, but it never occurred to me that I actually might have one someday. My father was a pastor for more than forty years and never took a sabbatical. While he worked towards and received his doctorate degree during that time, he never had that much consecutive time off. As he reached the end of his career as a pastor and as he reached the end of his life, I think the lack of some kind of sabbatical may have been detrimental to his health.

I was and am so incredibly grateful to my church for this opportunity. To whom much is given, much is required, and so I wanted to make sure that I was making the most of this time. I put together a plan, found an area of study that I could dive into during the time, planned some travel, and planned time with my family. Although it felt like a tall order to accomplish a lot in this period of time, I felt like I could do it.

Since I am used to sitting in front of a computer and typing a mile a minute, I knew that one of the things that I needed to do during my sabbatical was slow down. I wanted to be intentional about slowing down and that kind of intentionality can be somewhat painful. So, I went to the store and found a journal, you know, one of the ones that has paper and that you actually have to use a pencil, pen, or other writing utensil. I thought to myself, “Here goes nothing!”

The first few weeks were a little awkward. My hand hurt…..a lot. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had sat down and written so much. It was awkward because the words just didn’t flow the way that they did when I sat in front of a computer. They felt forced, contrived, empty, but I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to press on. So press on I did.

The more that I forced myself to pick up a pen and write, the easier it became. I realized that the intentional slowing down was forcing me to think things through in a different way than I did when I sat at a computer. I realized that although I couldn’t get the words out as fast as I had hoped, the slowing down was helping me to process things, helping me wrap my head around things that I had been speeding past as I typed my words so quickly on a screen and keyboard.

By the time I got to the end of the 13th week of my sabbatical, the entire journal, the one that I had wondered whether or not I would even keep up with, that same journal was nearly full. I couldn’t believe it. My diligence had paid off and I had learned an incredibly important and valuable lesson in the process: journaling could significantly improve my own processing of information and spare some of those closest to me the pain of having to listen to me verbally process my thoughts.

I’m different than I was at the beginning of the three months. I’m not quite sure how, but I can feel it, I can see it. I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask my wife and kids, they might say the same thing. I’m hoping that the difference becomes evident to those around me, I’m hoping that they see how much this time has benefited me. I’m hoping that my goal of delivering a better me at the end of thirteen weeks will be realized.

My heart is full of gratitude for my church and this gift that I received. Even in the midst of a difficult season, they were willing to cut me loose to be recharged. For this, I will be forever grateful and I’m pretty sure that my family shares that same amount of gratitude as well.

Carved In Stone

IMG_3444I had been told all kinds of things about Mount Rushmore before I had the chance to visit. I had been told that it was in the middle of nowhere and that there just wasn’t much around or much to do. Most of the people who had gone before me, people who I trusted, told me that they were slightly disappointed in what they had seen.

Sometimes it’s better to go into a situation with low expectations, it usually means that there’s no place else to go but up. If you don’t have high expectations, chances of those expectations being dashed are fairly low.

So, when my family and I went to Mount Rushmore last month, I figured that we would be there for a few hours and then we would leave. I believed everything that had been told to me, that there would just not be any reason to hang out for any length of time. But, boy, was I wrong….or maybe the people who had gone before me were wrong.

As we drove up the mountain road that leads to the parking area at Mount Rushmore, the mountain face was visible from the car. My first thought was that it just didn’t seem to be as big as I thought that it would be, that I anticipated, that I thought it should be. Somehow or another, the pictures had made it look……smaller, somehow.

Once we found a parking place and made our way closer to the mountain face, it was captivating to me. I couldn’t help but just stand there and stare. No, it wasn’t as big as I had thought that it would be, but somehow, it drew me in, it kept me staring. I could see that there was something much more to this mountain than just some faces on stone.

But, there’s always something lying beneath the surface. Just as Gutzon Borglum had to test the rocks and explore beneath the surface to find out just how his sculpture could be carved into that mountain in the Black Hills, so we had to look deeper, beyond just what we saw on the surface.

As we made our way into the museum there at Mount Rushmore, I discovered the context that I needed. Looking at pictures, reading through descriptions, coming to an understanding of this mountain, it was so much more than just four faces carved into granite, it was a picture of hope, a picture of adventure, a picture of courage, a picture of freedom, and so much more than that. Each face carved into that stone was representative of something so much more and the sum of the parts were greater than the individual parts, which is saying quite a lot considering just how important and valuable each of those parts was.

As I walked through the exhibits in the museum, I encountered this paragraph on the wall:

“The Meaning of Mount Rushmore: The four American Presidents carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore were chosen by the sculptor to commemorate the founding, growth, preservation, and development of the United States. They symbolize the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded. George Washing signifies the struggle for independence and the birth of the Republic; Thomas Jefferson the territorial expansion of the country; Abraham Lincoln the permanent union of the States, and equality for all citizens, and Theodore Roosevelt, the 20th century role of the United States in world affairs and the rights of the common man.”

And then I knew why the urge to stare was so strong, why I was drawn to those faces and that mountain. There was a sense of patriotism there, a sense of liberty and freedom that somehow drew the casual observer in, inviting them to see beyond the stone to what it represented. These faces seemed to mean so much more, especially during this time in our country’s history.

In the midst of a political landscape where it seems buffoons and liars have somehow made their way up to the top, these faces carved in stone represent character and integrity that seems lost today. Carved there in stone to remind us just where we have come from and what we have gained, these figures stand in stark contrast to the characters that we have seen paraded before us on the political stage. Their word was their bond, they believed in something, they had principles, they had integrity, they were not so easily bought and one even gave his life, albeit unwillingly, for fighting a fight that he knew had to be won.

These faces, and more importantly the men behind them, are right where they need to be, standing as a symbol to the rest of us that there is hope, there is liberty, there is integrity. But maybe, just maybe, like this rock, it needs to be blasted and chiseled and carved, maybe it needs to be sought out, digging much deeper than we’ve dug before, prospecting beneath the surface. In the words of the sculptor himself, “Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain along shall wear them away.”

I was deeply impacted by what I saw and experienced at Mount Rushmore. As I stood there looking at these stone faces, I tried to think about the last president who was worthy of having his face carved into stone, and I found myself at a loss.

Why Am I Talking?

don't talkI’ve always considered myself a fairly decent listener and have even been told that in the past, but as I get older and gaze at the list of responsibilities that lie before me, I find myself rushing through things and multi-tasking to get everything done. Sometimes I’ve made cursory reads of emails and missed key and important points in them. Sometimes I’ve read through things with action items and proceeded to forget all about those items. Sometimes I’ve had a conversation with someone and as soon as I hang up the phone or walk away from the table, I’ve left whatever meaningful pieces were to go with me right there on the table or hanging on the telephone line.

Now, this isn’t an every day, all the time thing. It’s happened enough for me to see it as unacceptable. I haven’t found myself in trouble because of my lack of attentiveness to things, but I don’t ever want that to be the case. As I’ve assessed the situation, I’ve realized my own need to be mentally present wherever I am. If I am reading an email, be present. If I am on the phone, be present. If I am talking over a meal, be present.

During my sabbatical, I went through some training to become a Strengths Communicator. If you aren’t familiar with StrengthsFinders, I would highly recommend checking it out. It has been a very helpful tool for me and for others to find out the areas in which strengths lie so as to focus energy on those areas. Like any assessment, it’s not foolproof or perfect, but I have seen its impact on many people, not the least of whom is myself.

One of the principles that we talked about during my training had to do with listening. The instructor said a good acronym to remember is “W.A.I.T.” which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” It’s hard to say just how many times that has popped into my head since the first time I heard it nearly two months ago. Over and over again, as I find myself in conversations, the urge within me is to start talking, to fix a problem, to fill the space, but sometimes, that space doesn’t need to be filled, sometimes that problem doesn’t need to be fixed, at least at that moment. Sometimes, all someone really wants you to do is listen.

It’s too easy for me to be in the midst of a conversation and be thinking about what’s next. I can too easily find myself planning out the rest of my day and slowly tuning out the person sitting across from me. But the act of listening is not just about physical presence, it’s about mental awareness and intuitiveness as well. Listening is an act of the ears and act of the brain, we need to process what we hear, which is virtually impossible when we’re moving on to other things in our minds.

I’m a talker too. One of my strengths is communication and part of the way that I process information is by communicating. But I am finding that there are other ways to communicate than simply speaking. I’ve kept a handwritten journal during my sabbatical and have filled nearly the entire thing in those three months that I was away. It’s proving a training ground for me, a mental gym, if you will, where I can practice my thinking and communicating without having to burden anyone else.

I’m not there, I haven’t arrived, this is still an area of growth for me, but I’m conscious of it and I’m working on it. I need to do a better job of listening, to my friends, to my wife, to my children, to the people in my church, to all of those with whom I connect. I’m a work in progress, but I’m grateful for this insight to set my eyes on and move forward.

The Value of Relationships

Today is the last day of my trip. The end of a journey. For the last three and a half weeks, my family and I have been traveling across the United States. Richmond to Los Angeles and back again. Today, we finally arrive back home.

We’ve squeezed an awful lot into those 24 days. National parks. Baseball games. Reunions with friends. While we’ve been able to do an awful lot, there have been plenty of things that we just haven’t been able to do. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day and as much as you can try to stretch it, you just can’t do everything.

As we’ve been making our way back east towards home, we’ve had the privilege of staying with three of my closest friends from my time in seminary. On the way out, we connected with some family members and some dear friends of my wife’s from her college days.

In the midst of this valuable time, two things have stood out to me.

First of all, the structure of our trip, seeing all the sights that we could see and ending at a much more manageable pace with relationships at the heart of the final days, has been perfect. I can’t think of a better way to spend these last days as we inch our way towards home than to engage in meaningful conversations with some of the people that I love and respect the most.

All of these friends of mine are spread out across the Midwest. South Dakota. Iowa. Ohio. One friend, who we were not able to see, lives in Singapore. Needless to say, we don’t get to see each other very often. While two of the three that I saw were at our seminary graduation a few years ago and one of the three was officially ordained into ministry two years ago, we all have not really spent time together in years.

The second thing that stood out to me was the importance of these relationships. The nature of life is that it just doesn’t slow down. I’ve spent a lot of time during my three month sabbatical considering that truth and its implications. In the midst of schedules, families, crises, and all the things that life throws at us, we make time for the things that are important to us, but even the things that are important to us can have a tendency to fall by the wayside as the things that are directly present before us invade and overtake us like kudzu on trees in the southland.

As I ramp up to dive back into the fray of ministry after three months away, I can’t think of a more fitting preparation for my reentry than to spend time with these friends and their families. One of the things that I valued most about my time in seminary was time spent with these friends outside of the classroom. Sure, we learned a lot within the classroom, but the nature of the program that we went through was that all of us were in ministry and doing ministry while we were getting our degrees. The ability to share about what was happening and the things that we were learning along the way was invaluable.

I am grateful for all of the people that God has placed along my path. I’m especially grateful to these guys that I’ve had the privilege of spending time with over the last few days. I’m not sure when we will have the chance to connect again, but I sure hope it’s soon. Relationships are a much more precious commodity than we can often treat them, I’ve got to make sure that they become a priority. Spending quality time with trusted and respected friends is worth the effort and sacrifice that we make in order for it to happen. The benefits that we will reap from time spent are incalculable, especially when we consider the alternative and just what we might miss out on.

Winding Down

As my three month sabbatical winds down, it’s hard to put in words the impact that it has had on me. There have been some people who have, whether jokingly or not, assumed that it has just been a three month vacation for me. That’s hardly been the case as I have engaged in training and learning experiences along the way. Not to oversell the moment, but I feel as if the lessons learned during this time will have a ripple effect for months and years to come, both in my immediate family as well as my church family.

I’ve learned an awful lot about myself during this time, some that has made me happy and some that has made me reconsider my approaches towards things. I consider myself to be a person who is constantly assessing myself and the things that I do. I don’t like status quo for the sake of the status quo but would rather see if I can be stretched and challenged to find new and different ways to be who God made me as well as do the things that I need to do.

As I knew setting out, there were some things that just wouldn’t get done while on sabbatical. I feel like I set my sights high without going into “overachiever” mode. I have found in the past that I have often set my sights so high that my own inability to accomplish things ended up being a frustration or bone of contention to me. Instead of feeling like I was improving, I focused more on all the things that I didn’t accomplish, which wasn’t helpful for me or the process of growth.

I have found that we as a society too often move quickly from one thing to the next without fully embracing what’s before us or allowing the experience to wash over us, change us, and reform us. It’s happened far too often in my own life and I’ve seen the results afterwards. In some ways, it’s like taking the caterpillar out of the cocoon before it’s fully been formed into a butterfly. The results are not nearly as satisfying as they could be had the process taken full affect. In fact, the results can be disastrous if the process of growth is stunted or stopped.

One of the biggest takeaways for me, which I am sure will be unpacked more and more in the months to come, is about slowing down. I can’t begin to count the number of times that I have heard from parents of older children how quickly time goes. There is no stopping or slowing down the passing of time, it marches on regardless of whether or not we want it to or go along with it. Some will put the brakes on and will find themselves left behind in the wake of a changing world. Some may embrace the change so greatly that they forget that the change is not for change’s sake but for the sake of a changed self.

While I can’t slow time, I can slow myself. I don’t have to conform to the ways of harried schedules and overcommitments. I don’t have to allow myself to get washed into the stream of busyness that seems to haunt us all if we aren’t careful. I can’t slow time, but I can choose what to do with the time that I have.

I have no doubt that memories have been made in me and my family during my three months. I have no doubt that I am different than I was at the outset of this sabbatical. Like Frodo and the hobbits sitting in their local pub having come back from the journey of a lifetime, the world is different and there is no choice but to see it through new eyes, eyes that somehow look clearer and more vivid than they did before.

I don’t fully know all that has happened within me over this time, but I am going to do my best to probe and mine it, to find out what’s beneath the surface, to see the changes that have begun to take shape and form in me. My prayer is that those changes will ripple far beyond me into all those that I come into contact with on a regular basis.