Who’s Changing Here?

I’ve been learning an awful lot lately, mostly about myself. Sometimes the hardest things to learn are about yourself. Self-discovery is painful and hard, but usually results in the most glorious and rewarding transformations if we follow it through to the end. Kind of like emerging from a cocoon, open it too early and you’ve just got a really ugly and deformed caterpillar, but if you let it emerge on its own, the result will be a beautiful butterfly.

Well, I’m no butterfly, but I’d like to think that I’m still in the cocoon.

I am the youngest of two children, so it should be no surprise that the world of raising three children is foreign to me (the world of raising one child would be foreign to me too, if I’m honest). But I struggle most with raising the child who is most like me. Oil and water, that’s how my wife describes the two of us (me and my child, not me and her).

In the midst of this child-rearing that I’m trying to do, my self-discoveries are rarely comfortable. More often than not, they reveal more of my imperfections and inadequacies than I care to admit. I’ve always said that criticism is autobiographical, the things that drive us nuts about others are usually present in us if we take an honest look in the mirror. There is probably nowhere that is evident more so than in raising children.

As I struggled through a difficult evening and subsequent morning of trying to understand what the heck I’m doing as a father, I spent a significant amount of time soul-searching. What was wrong with me? Was I as big of a failure as I felt like? As my child made me feel?

As I was deep in these existential thoughts, I came to a stunning realization that brought me further down to earth, humbling me once again, and helping me realize just how important other people are to me in my own formation and growth.

You see, as one who has focused a lot on strengths over the past few years, I am very aware of what I am good at doing and what I am not good at doing. I see my gifts and strengths and look for ways that I can use them generatively, to help others grow. But the irony of it all is that the lightbulb that went off in my head made me realize that the reason why God brought me to most of the people in my life isn’t really because I’m supposed to help them grow, but because they are supposed to help me grow.

Yes, I know, I’m so vain, I probably think this post is about me (….if you don’t get it, Google Carly Simon and You’re So Vain). In my journey to understand my strengths and look for ways to help others, which I think it still fairly noble, I failed to remember the mutuality that is (or should be) involved in relationships.

As I processed through things in my own head, with my wife, with a friend, I came to the conclusion that the people who have been brought into my life and who can cause headaches and difficulty aren’t necessarily there so that I can help them grow, but to help me grow in all those uncomfortable and difficult ways that I would never grow into on my own.

Not rocket science, you’re probably thinking. I know, but it’s a significant lesson for me to grasp. I am a work in progress. Growth may be fast at times, but mostly it’s slow and iterative. I may not see the results as quickly as I would like to. I can’t plug into the Matrix and have instant gratification by plugging in the “Patience Module” or “Self-discipline Module.”

So, when I stop and look at all the changes that I think I can help to make in others, I really need to first consider all the changes that are probably going to happen in me, if I really and wholly enter into relationship with others. Not always fun, certainly not comfortable, but way more rewarding than I could imagine.

 

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Painful Growth

This month marks fifteen years in full-time ministry as a pastor. Having successfully navigated a career in engineering before becoming a pastor, I can say that engineering was much easier for me. I believe that pastoring is a calling, which isn’t to say that engineering is any less of a career, but rather that if someone thinks that they could do anything else other than being a pastor, they should try that first.

In those fifteen years of being a pastor, I have experienced lots of difficult times. I lost my parents. I experienced a church split. I sat through ordination exams….twice. Throughout those difficult times, I have seen myself grow. Of course, I would much rather have grown through simpler means than the ones that grew me, but that wasn’t the plan.

In my work as a pastor, I have experienced seasons or experiences of pain. Unfortunately, these seasons or experiences aren’t unique. I would guess that if you were to talk with other pastors, most of them would agree that they have had these seasons or experiences as well.

These experiences are mostly unavoidable. Sure, some of them could be avoided for a period of time, but if you live for any length of time, you will most likely face them all at some point.

Based on my own experience, these have been among the most painful things that I have experienced in ministry:

The pain of tragic loss

When my best friend from college lost his six month old to cancer, it was among the most difficult things that I ever had to face, and it wasn’t my child. I tried my best to be a friend who loved and cared without trying to offer cliche advice.

When my friend called to ask me to do the funeral, I knew that it would be one of the most difficult things that I would ever have to do.

Trying to wrap your head around the pain and hurt in this world without throwing out trite answers is tough. Yes, sin has tainted the world, but that’s not the most helpful answer that a grieving family wants to or needs to hear at the height of their pain. Helping families cope with loss is one thing, tragic loss always seems to make it harder, at least in my opinion.

The pain of people leaving your church

This seems so small in comparison to the point above, but as I’ve talked with other pastors, I haven’t met one of them who has said that they enjoy it when people leave their church. The more personally connected you are with the people whom you shepherd, the harder and more painful it is when they choose to leave. While I have never been divorced, I can say that having friends walk away from my church is the closest thing that I’ve felt to a divorce.

No matter how long I’ve been a pastor, it always feels like a shot in the gut. People tell me not to take it personally, but it’s really hard. When you pour your life into something and someone walks away from it, it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.

The pain of seeing someone waste their potential

Leaders should have a knack for seeing potential in people. I’ve seen this in good coaches, teachers, supervisors, whoever. When that potential is identified, a person is made aware of that, and that person just shrugs it off, that’s painful to me. I see that as a person embracing mediocrity, not being willing to do the hard work of growing but instead being content to remain as they are.

I wish that I could say that this was limited to those who are young and foolish, but sadly, my experience has been that I’ve seen it mostly in people who should know better, people who have even grown up in the church. There’s not much worse than seeing someone who believes that they are a mature and growing disciple of Christ with thirty years of experience when in reality they are just an infant who has repeated the same year thirty times over.

The pain of having people say things about you that aren’t true

I can fully admit that I am stubborn. I can also admit that I have a hard time letting go of things. But one of the most difficult things that I have struggled to let go of is when someone says things about me that aren’t true. It’s not just the saying of untrue things, it’s also the unwillingness of people to actually hear or learn the truth.

This has mostly happened when someone had a preconceived notion about me or when someone has generated an opinion about me based on a very limited experience. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there is no convincing them that they should take a second look and get to know me. I become a justice monster then I feel that injustice is being done to me.

There may be a lot more painful things in ministry, but a decade and a half into this, these are the top four experiences that have been most painful to me.

Like I said, I’ve seen growth come out of all of these experiences, but it’s been painful growth, growth that I would rather have come any one of a hundred other ways.

How about you? What have been some of your most difficult growing experiences?

Love People, Solve Problems

As I’ve been on this church planting journey that I’ve been on, I’ve tried to surround myself with some quality mentors and leaders from whom I can learn. I’ve done enough life and ministry at this point that some of the arrogance that I once had in my twenties has been rubbed away and I’ve come to a place of acknowledgement of my own limitations and inadequacies. I have been incredibly blessed to have a few mentors around me who have spoken truth, life, and encouragement to me.

Last week, I met with one of those friends and mentors for lunch. I was updating him on where I am in the process and telling him some cool God stories that had taken place. God stories are the ones that you know could only happen by God’s power and hand, not by my own talents or abilities.

As we shared stories and caught up, he felt led to share some insights with me. He told me that he wanted to share something with me that had been helpful to him which he thought would also be helpful to me.

He said, “Remember, love people and solve problems.”

As the words escaped his mouth, he let them hang there for a minute. I’m sure that the look on my face hinted at the activity in my brain at that moment. I was trying to wrap my head around just what that meant.

When he had seen that I had struggled long enough to decipher his saying, he launched into his own experience of embodying those words. He said that he had at one time tried to solve people and love problems. But he realized that was fruitless and just led to frustration.

You see, ministry in general can be frustrating. Heck, any occupation that deals with people can be frustrating, so who am I kidding. If you deal with people, you will find yourself at times angry, frustrated, and wanting to give up. You will see them as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved. The achievers among us will want to fix them, to solve them, to help them reach their full potential and forget all about one of Jesus’ greatest commands: to love them.

I can be very task oriented. I can easily see a problem and move to fix it rather than trying to understand why it’s there. In my effort to move to solution, I forget that there is flesh and blood before me, someone to be loved and not fixed.

This friend and mentor knows me well enough by now to know that this same lesson that had proved some monumental and crucial to him was also something I needed to hear and embrace.

You see, focusing on loving someone and solving the problem pits me against the problem rather than the person. When we see the problem, even if that means there is conflict between us, we join together to do our best to find out how we solve the problem together. If we look at each other rather than the problem, all we will see is each other as the problem and then try to fix each other to accommodate our own preference or mindset.

It’s too easy to get caught up in looking past people to solutions and completely forgetting how valuable and important those people are. Loving people takes time and compassion. It takes empathy and care. Loving them and solving problems means investment. If we fail to love people and solve problems, then when we fail to solve a person, we simply discard them or walk away, excusing this abandonment as necessary because of the lack of growth and movement we saw.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that somewhere along the way, someone loved us rather than trying to solve us. They took the time and invested in us, seeking a solution to a very real problem but seeking that solution through us rather than in us.

There is only one person who can solve and fix people, and that is God. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. The more that we try to do it, the more frustrated we will find ourselves becoming.

What will happen if you go into your day seeking to love people and solve problems. I know that in just the few short days since this truth was hammered home to me it has made a significant impact in me. It’s hard to rush towards solutions when you are simply trying to love someone.

 

Books Read in 2018

open-booksIn 2018, I read 66 books. That’s two less than 2017. Of the 66 books that I read, 29 were books that were reviewed for publishers (that’s about 44% of my total). 11 of the books were from my reading plan (about 17% of my total). My reading plan for 2018 contained 30 books total. Considering that I read the same number of books from my reading list in 2017 and 2018, I think lowering the number makes more sense for 2019 (I will post the Reading Plan for 2019 next week).

Out of all the books that I read in 2018, these were among the top. Four of five of them have reviews written on them by me, click on the titles to get to those reviews.

George Barna “The Power of Vision

Michael Frost “Incarnate”

Bryan Loritts “Insider Outsider

Grant Skeldon with Ryan Casey Waller “The Passion Generation

Lance Witt “High Impact Teams

 

Here are the other books read this year.

Michael Anthony “A Call For Courage”

Sarah Arthur “A Light So Lovely”

Jay Asher “Thirteen Reasons Why”

David and Jason Benham “Miracle In Shreveport”

Chad Bird “Your God Is Too Glorious”

Rosaria Butterfield “Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert”

Rosaria Butterfield “The Gospel Comes With a House Key”

Benjamin Campbell “Richmond’s Unhealed History”

D.A. Carson “The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus”

D.A. Carson “The Cross and Christian Ministry”

Steven Curtis Chapman “Between Heaven & the Real World”

Bruce Cockburn “Rumours of Glory”

Mike Cosper “Faith Among the Faithless”

Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile “The Road Back To You”

Kevin DeYoung “The Hole in Our Holiness”

Nicole Doyley “One – Racial Unity in the Body of Christ”

Rachel Held Evans “Inspired”

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch “The Shaping of Things to Come”

Maria Furlough “Breaking the Fear Cycle”

Keith and Kristyn Getty “Sing!”

Patrice Gopo “All the Colors We Will See”

David Gushee “Still Christian”

Hugh Halter and Matt Smay “And”

Hugh Halter and Matt Smay “The Tangible Kingdom”

Hugh Halter and Matt Smay “The Tangible Kingdom Primer”

Colin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, eds. “12 Faithful Men”

Mo Isom “Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot”

Kathy Izard “The Hundred Story Home”

Caleb Kaltenbach “Messy Grace”

John Kotter “Our Iceberg Is Melting”

Patrick Lencioni “Getting Naked”

Joseph Loconte “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War”

Aubrey Malphurs “Developing Emotionally Mature Leaders”

Steve Martin “Born Standing Up”

Knox McCoy “The Wondering Years”

Rick McKinley “Faith For This Moment”

Robert Murray M’Cheyne “Songs of Zion”

Matt Mikalatos “Good News For A Change”

Bart Millard “I Can Only Imagine”

Albert Mohler, Jr. “The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down”

Henri J.M. Nouwen “A Spirituality of Fundraising”

Nancy R. Pearcey “Love Thy Body”

John M. Perkins “One Blood”

Eugene Peterson “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Francis Schaeffer “The Church Before the Watching World”

Francis Schaeffer “Escape From Reason”

Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas “Activate”

Jack Shitama “Anxious Church Anxious People”

Ed Stetzer “Planting Missional Churches”

Bryan Stevenson “Just Mercy”

Charles R. Swindoll “Elijah”

Joni Eareckson Tada “When Is It Right To Die?”

Hudson Taylor “The Autobiography of Hudson Taylor: Missionary to China”

J.R.R. Tolkien “The Two Towers”

Chris Tomlin and Darren Whitehead “Holy Roar”

Tish Harrison Warren “Liturgy of the Ordinary”

Timothy Z. Witmer “The Shepherd Leader”

J.R. Woodward and Dan White, Jr. “The Church As Movement”

N.T. Wright “Paul – A Biography”

Justin Zoradi “Made For These Times”

Darlene Zschech “The Golden Thread”

The 2018 Book Plan

20180103_090939This is Year #5 for me doing an annual book plan. I’ve been trying to streamline the process year by year to see if I can get better. Last year, I read 69 books. My book plan had twenty-two books total of which I read eleven. So, 50% isn’t a horrible number, but I certainly want to do my best to move closer to achieving 100% read on my list.

I never used to be the guy who would read halfway through a book and then just leave it, but it’s been happening more and more. A number of the books on my list for this year are books that were started in 2017 or before which I never finished. Call it a Year of Jubilee, trying to play catch up a little bit.

I’ve tried to pepper my list with books that are strictly for enjoyment. Finally going to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy of books for the first time in my life.

I’ve also got a number of books that are related to my position as a pastor. They run the gamut on topics as my role is fairly diverse. Just like baseball teams have utility players, I feel like I’m a utility pastor in many ways, playing roles across the board and filling in gaps as they need to be filled.

There are 30 books total on this list, a bolder number than the 22 books that were on last year’s list. But I have been intentionally setting aside books over the last few months, piling them up on my desk and keeping them in front of me as I’ve looked towards compiling this list.

As always, I am open to book suggestions. As I’ve posted my Books Read In 2017 post on social media, I have had people make recommendations which I hope to follow through on in 2018.

Here’s hoping for a more successful completion of my list in 2018!

Bill Bryson “A Walk in the Woods”

Steven Curtis Chapman “Between Heaven & the Real World”

G.K. Chesterton “Orthodoxy”

Bruce Cockburn “Rumours of Glory”

Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D. “Younger Next Year”

David Daniell “William Tyndale – A Biography”

Kevin DeYoung “The Hole in Our Holiness”

Shusaku Endo “Silence”

Zack Eswine “Preaching to a Post-Everything World”

Michael Frost “Incarnate”

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch “The Shaping of Things to Come”

Nicky Gumble “Alpha – Questions of Life”

Caleb Kaltenbach “Messy Grace”

Tim Keller “Center Church”

Erik Larson “The Devil in the White City”

Joseph Loconte “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War”

Barack Obama “The Audacity of Hope”

Stacy Perman “In-N-Out Burger”

Eugene Peterson “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

John Piper “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals”

Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin “Growing Young”

Soong-Chan Rah “The Next Evangelicalism”

Francis Schaeffer “The Church Before the Watching World”

Francis Schaeffer “The Church at the End of the 20th Century”

James K.A. Smith “You Are What You Love”

Paul Tillich “Dynamics of Faith”

J.R.R. Tolkien “The Two Towers”

J.R.R. Tokien “Return of the King”

J.R.R. Tolkien “The Tolkien Reader”

Tish Harrison Warren “Liturgy of the Ordinary”

Making Memories, Slowing Down, Being Flexible

IMG_2566I’m coming up to the halfway point of my cross country trip with my family. We’re about 3100 miles into the trip and it’s been an adventure. I’ve never had to change the oil on a trip before. It wasn’t because of bad timing on my part, it was because we’ve just drive THAT many miles.

We got all the way to Carlsbad, New Mexico and finally had to use our camping gear that had been stored in a roof cargo bag. Turns out, with the high temperatures and high speeds that we had been driving (all within the speed limit), the cargo bag didn’t fare very well. So, we were forced to move everything that had been on the roof into the car. 5 people, luggage, a plug-in cooler, camping gear, and everything else that we had, all packed into a mini-van.

Sound like fun yet?

We’ve seen the Biltmore House, Graceland, the French Quarter, the Civil Rights Museum, the Alamo. Carlsbad Caverns, and we’ve not even gotten to Hollywood yet.

It’s been a whirlwind and my brain hasn’t been able to process things nearly as quickly as I am seeing them. My camera shutter is going off a mile a minute and I’m wondering when my wife is going to ask the inevitable question of how many pictures I’ve taken on the trip and whether I’m going to actually include anyone in those pictures.

We’ve changed our plans here and there, abandoned destinations, added destinations, been forced to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances, and tried to keep three kids nine years old and younger occupied and under control for the thousands of miles that we have driven. Throughout all of it, there are three big lessons that have emerged. Make memories. Slow Down. Be flexible.

I have been constantly amazed at the fact that the things that I think are going to capture my kids seem to be met with ho-hum responses while the things that I wouldn’t have expected would garner excitement and response are the ones to which they react to the most strongly. It’s the moments which you least expect which are the ones that will probably last the longest.

I’ve witnessed the sun rise over the desert mountains in New Mexico with my son on multiple mornings. As we watched the sun climb up the horizon, I couldn’t help but put my arm around him, hold him a little closer, and realize that we were sharing a moment together, no one else. We’ve been to gift shops galore, bought the T-shirts and the snow globes, but it’s moments like these that will make the largest mark on my kids.

Although we’ve been to some amazing places, seen some amazing things, my daughter seems to want to judge the places we stay on their swimming pools. So, taking time to swim in these pools has had to be part of our routine, as much as possible. They’re all pools to me, but they hold some kind of magic for her. Not sure why, but there’s really no point in arguing. Swimming pools on rooftops in New Orleans to swimming pools in the desert in New Mexico, they all seem to capture the eye of my four year old, and I bet she’ll remember them when everything else seems to fade away.

Memories can’t be forcefully made. I’ve had to remind myself of that over and over again. As much as I would love to create moments along the way, the ones that stick are the ones for which I never planned, the ones that sneak up on me, the ones that just happen, without any pre-planning or contriving. Those are the moments that make for the best memories, and you just have to go with them.

There have been moments when we’ve had to put movies on the DVD player for the kids. As much as I would love for them to be as enamored with the landscape as much as my wife and I have been, I know that they just aren’t and I can’t force it. One of the films we brought along for them to watch is “Cars,” the Pixar movie. The more I watch that movie, the more I fall in love with it, and although I didn’t actually watch it (I just listened to the audio as I drove along), I couldn’t help but have my heart strings tugged when James Taylor sings about “Our Town” and I began to realize yet again how quickly things can change around you.

At one point in the movie, Lightning McQueen (the main character) and his love interest, Sally, go for a drive. It’s something McQueen isn’t familiar with, after all, he’s a race car. The idea of just going for a drive on a country road doesn’t really make any sense to him…..until he does it. Sure, his motives weren’t pure at first, but then he realizes what can happen when you just slow down.

I’ve found the same thing. When I stop rushing around and slow down, I see things that I didn’t see before, I hear things that I hadn’t heard before, the world just looks different to me. Slowing down means that I can’t pack my schedule so tight that there’s no breathing room. When my schedule is so jam-packed, the inevitable response from me will be frustration because there is no margin of error built into my schedule. Plans are good, but planning too tightly will simply result in frustration and, eventually, anger. That’s never a good place to be.

Finally, I’m learning to be flexible. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if we take a detour. I’m learning that you can’t see everything and that the things that you want to see might not be what everyone else wants to see. Flexibility is not a family trait that I have inherited (I’ve blogged about it before), so I’ve got to work a little harder at it. But as I work to be more flexible, it leaves the space that I talked about above and it also leaves space for the memories to be made.

I won’t lie and say that there hasn’t been any frustration on the trip. There has been shouting. There have been tears. There has been anger, but I think that should be expected considering the circumstances. But we’re doing our best to make this trip of a lifetime really live up to what we’ve been calling it all along. The. Trip. Of. A. Lifetime.

We’re so incredibly grateful for this time as a family and I don’t even think that we will fully appreciate just what it’s meant to all of us for months and years to come. We’re reaching the halfway point and I can’t wait to see how this adventure goes!

Strengths and Learning

Last week, I celebrated my fifteenth wedding anniversary. Just one week before my wife and I got married, we took part in a leadership seminar at our church. During the course of that seminar, we took a number of personality assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and an assessment called StrengthsFinders. It was something new to me then but over the course of these last fifteen years, not only has it been helpful to me but it has informed much of what I do, how I interact with others, and how I lead others.

It’s hard for me to think of a time when StrengthsFinders didn’t come up over the past fifteen years. In conversations that my wife and I would have, we would talk about each other’s strengths and the strengths of others. It helped us in our understanding of ourselves, each others, and those around us.

It’s fitting that I take off today for the first of two training sessions to be a Strengths Communicator. When it’s all over, I will have the opportunity to lead others through StrengthsFinders so that it can hopefully be as helpful to them as it has been to me. I will be able to guide other people in their understanding of this valuable assessment so that they too might reap the benefits of knowing where their strengths lie.

A brief overview of StrengthsFinders for those who are not familiar with it is probably in order. There are 34 signature themes that everyone possesses, the most common talents exhibited by people, identified through the Clifton StrengthsFinders assessment. The assessment gives a person their top five strengths so that people can focus on those strengths, improving them and using them to the best of their abilities. These strengths range from Communication, Empathy, Developer. Relator, Context, and Woo. They give fairly accurate descriptions of how those who possess them exhibit them in their natural behavior.

At some point in my professional career, I started feeling a discomfort whenever it came time for year-end reviews. I appreciated the opportunity to be encouraged for the good things that I had done, but I felt that the encouragement was just a flicker of a moment compared to what I would hear when it came to all of the areas of improvement that I had.

To be honest, when I was working in the engineering field, I’m not sure that I felt this as strong as I did when I went into full-time vocational ministry. I remember a time when I sat in a review and was so pleased to hear the positive feedback that I was getting…..in the first five minutes. After that, it was all downhill, and I just scratched my head. It didn’t make sense to me. I had worked hard all year long, had good interaction with my supervisor, and yet I felt as if I was failing…..BIG TIME!

A few years later, that supervisor began to get trained in StrengthsFinders. I vividly remember walking out of our building together at the end of the day having spent a few days together with all of our staff talking through the make-up of our staff and their strengths. He looked at me and said, “Do you know what the biggest “a ha” moment has been in this whole thing? It’s you!” I looked at him and thoughts, “Well, it’s about time.” I was grateful that I was finally going to be understood.

Just a few weeks later, he resigned.

I was discouraged. I had finally felt as if I was going to experience a breakthrough. I thought that I would finally be fully understood and would finally be able to focus on my strengths. It felt like a major letdown for me, but I would continue to push forward, doing my best to broaden my own understanding and the understanding of everyone around me. After all, how else can change happen other than spreading the word and educating people?

Along the way, I began to realize that focusing on all of my weaknesses was going to drive me crazy. As a follower of Christ, I am constantly seeking to be transformed. Constantly. Growth and change should be part of who we are…..always….with no exception. We should be able to say that we are not who we once were. At the same time, understanding my strengths and using them to my advantage seemed to be a good focal point for me.

The more that I studied strengths, the more I realized how valuable it could be if organizations used them to their advantage. What would it look like if teams of people who worked together were to look at their strengths to help them better understand themselves and each other? What would it look like if people began to see how they complemented one another as they worked together towards a common goal?

I’ve got lots of theories how this can help me and the teams with whom I work, but only time will tell whether or not these theories are correct and if they can translate to others. Knowing how helpful that they have been to me over the last fifteen years and how helpful it’s been in my understanding of those around me.

I am sure that these next few days will feel like drinking from the firehose. Beyond these days and my additional days in August, I can’t wait to start putting into practice what I learn to see whether focusing on people’s strengths in an organization will be as helpful as I think it will be.

I’m Seeing More Clearly Now

When I was in high school, I worked two jobs on Saturdays to make some money. I worked from 7AM until 2PM at a local gas station and 3PM until 7PM at the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. Not only did it benefit me financially, but it also gave me two very distinct windows into my culture and context. Working for people and with people has a way of doing that.

The job at Baskin-Robbins wasn’t quite as formative for me as the job at the gas station. My co-workers at the ice cream shop were much more like me while I felt like a foreigner while working at the gas station, which was a really good thing. As good of a thing as it was, I had some big lessons to learn while I was there.

You see, I was getting a good education and was most likely headed to college to pursue a professional career. My white privilege mindset had been formed in me by my surrounding culture and I thought that I was so important and special and that I knew an awful lot. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

I remember one day when it became abundantly clear to me that I didn’t know as much as I thought that I did. I watched one of my coworkers make his way around a car engine in a way that was completely foreign to me. He might not have been able to pull up all of the useless knowledge that I had stocked within my brain, but when it came to the practical and useful information of a car engine, he danced circles around me.

In that moment, I came to the realization that just because someone didn’t know what I knew didn’t mean that they didn’t know anything. While it may seem like a simple lesson, it was an important one for me to learn as a fifteen year old growing up in an incredibly affluent town surrounded by privilege and plenty. It’s stuck with me since that day, nearly thirty years ago.

The lesson that I learned that day was not something that I simply walked away from and put behind me, it was a lesson that I am brought back to over and over again in my life. If I don’t intentionally find ways to put myself into someone else’s shoes and get a different perspective and appreciation of something, I find that life has a way of forcing me into that place where I can see things more clearly.

Last week, my wife was pretty sick for days in a row. While she’s been sick before, I don’t think she’s ever been hit this hard by something (besides pregnancy) since we’ve had all three kids.

I realized early on that she wasn’t going to be able to do everything that she would normally do. The cooking. The laundry. The cleaning. The keeping track of everyone all at once. I knew that I would need to step up my game. So, that’s what I tried to do.

Now, let me say, I do my best to tell my wife how much I appreciate her. I’ve never been a fan of Mother’s Day for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that mothers need to be appreciated every day, not just on a Hallmark holiday in May. Just because I do my best doesn’t mean that there isn’t lots of room for improvement. As I surveyed the landscape of the house, the list of groceries waiting to be bought, the calendar items waiting to be attended, and the general condition of the house and our family, I realized just how much I had taken my wife for granted. I realized how I just always expected that she would be there, walking behind everyone, waiting to pick up the pieces that were dropped along the way, quietly serving and putting them back into their respective places.

While I had struggled with reentry after some much needed, restful time away, reentry is a luxury that my wife is rarely afforded because in order to experience reentry, you actually need to leave for a time. Moms are always on, whether they are working outside of the home or if they are stay at home moms, their jobs are rarely done and their “me” time is few and far between.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for a role that is not my usual role. My prayer in it all is that I show that appreciation every day. I know that my own capacity to accomplish the things that my wife accomplishes (and accomplishes well) on a daily basis is limited. I can play “Mr. Mom” for so long before I finally crash, my wife has a knack for making it look easy. No, she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I think there’s something I need to be tending to around this house.

At Just the Right Time

IMG_4276I love to read. It’s not uncommon for me to be in the middle of 3 or 4 books at a time. I have stacks of books that I am waiting to get into. I have a reading plan that I do my best to follow throughout the year (check it out here). I review books here on my blog. People give me books that they recommend.

With all of the books that I have waiting in the wings to be read, I don’t always follow an order or a linear path. I’ll often put aside some books and pick up others that weren’t even on my radar before I pick them up.

I say all this because I am constantly amazed at the countless times in life when I have pulled a book off of my shelf that has sat their idle for months or even years only to have it drip with relevance as soon as I start reading it. It seems that the moment I crack the book open and begin reading was ordained so much that it hits me square between the eyes, speaking to me in the intimacy of my own thoughts and exposing me at the very moment in which I find myself. It’s almost as if I had purposely waited for just that moment to begin reading.

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to a book that had been on my radar for at least a year, Brennan Manning’s “The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.” My lead pastor and friend had recommended it sometime last year. I ordered it, put it on my shelf, and then promptly forgot about it.

As I journey through the sabbatical that I am on, it seemed incredibly relevant for me to read these words, “Am I getting too serious about life? Have I let my sense of childlike wonder fade? Am I so caught up in preaching, teaching, writing and traveling that I no longer hear the sound of rain on the roof?” As those words jumped off the page at me, I silently snickered as I thought of how apropos these words were for such a time as I am in.

In the middle of a section of the book where he talks about Christmas, I read the above phrase. It struck me as even more relevant because for the past few years, I have worked hard to slow myself down in the midst of one of the busiest times of the year: Christmas. I’ve realized that the four weeks of Advent can too easily be lost to me if I don’t intentionally journey through them.

But these words could hardly be relegated to just the Advent season. Looking at my children, I can see that childlike wonder of which Manning speaks if I simply stop and pay attention. If I look hard enough and silence myself and all that is within me long enough, I can see a living example of wonder right there before my very eyes.

To read this during a sabbatical seemed like so much more than just coincidence. It was as if I was supposed to be reading it at this time and place in my life.

No sooner had I read these words about slowing down and taking things in then I read this, “The early Christians considered themselves supermen not because of superhuman willpower but because of reliance on the supernatural power of the Spirit.” I was pretty sure that I had said something similar in a sermon as one of my “go to” Greek words is the word dunamis which means, “power.”

These two points were incredibly relevant and poignant to read in this season of life. Reminders to not take myself too seriously and to try to keep a childlike wonder about myself, but also a reminder that I’m not nearly as important as I might convince myself and that the power that I have to do things doesn’t originate from me.

As John the Baptist said, “I must decrease and he must increase.” The Apostle Paul spoke of his boasting in his weakness and his boast being in Christ alone. My confidence and strength resides within me, but it does not originate within me, it comes from outside of me, and I can never forget that.

Brennan Manning continues to stretch me and challenge me every time that I engage one of his works. I am not nearly as gracious to myself as I need to be. I far too often find my flaws and flagellate myself with them rather than releasing them or, as Paul did, rejoicing in them. My flaws don’t show my weakness so much as they show Christ’s strength, and that’s an important distinction that I can’t forget.

I know that there will be other books that have been collecting dust on my shelves, waiting for me to pick them up, that will speak to me at the particular and specific moment in which I pick them up. It’s happened far too many times to be considered coincidence. For now, I’ll rest in the lessons that I’ve learned in this reading and do my best to savor them and soak them in.

Watching As Spiritual Discipline

amelieMovies have always been important to me. I’m not sure when they became so important to me or how it happened, but as I have gotten older, I realize that they can be used for so many different things. We’ve watched movies together as a family for a family movie night, I’ve watched movies to unwind and distract me, I’ve watched movies to help me to laugh, and I’ve watched movies to provoke my mind and help me to think deeper thoughts.

It’s the last way that I’ve watched movies that has actually been a larger focus of mine over the years. When my wife and I were living in Connecticut, we were newly married and had a number of single friends. We would host movie discussion nights at our small little house. We had some fun times and great discussions as we worked our way through some interesting films.

Film is story. I know that there are people who don’t see much redemptive qualities about films, but I firmly believe that any medium that can be used to tell honest and profound stories is worthwhile. The stories aren’t always nice and neat, they are sometimes raw and unrefined, maybe even offensive, but isn’t that the way that life really is to us if we’re honest about it?

While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a movie theology class. A lot of my friends scratched their heads at that one, but I explained it was about finding the God stories in movies. The class for me was a confirmation of things that I had thought all along, that people are searching for God, they don’t always find him or come to the right conclusion in their search, but there are lessons learned along the way.

To me, watching films can be a spiritual discipline. Yes, I read God’s Word as the primary source of knowledge and understanding of who he is, but movies are helpful, especially to understand perspectives that are not my own. I know the questions that I have, the things that dwell deep within me, but how about the questions and stirrings in others. In film, we feel those stirrings, we hear those questions, we see the struggles that are real in other people.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that this is the case with all films. It’s kind of hard to find the deeper meaning of life and the searching for God in “Dumb and Dumber” and other films whose sole purpose is to entertain. But many movies are so much more than just entertainment, they are stories of struggles that are not specific to the fictional characters within their frames, but allegorical depictions of real-life struggles that have been felt by writers, directors, producers, and others.

I still watch films for the entertainment value and to laugh, but I feel the need to watch films that stir my mind, that help me to contemplate who I am, who God is, and who I am as I am in relationship with him. When I look at films from that perspective, the act of watching becomes a spiritual discipline, something that helps me think deeper about myself, others, and God.

It might seem far off to some, and I get that, it’s not for everyone, but I think that it’s like so many things that we see in our culture, a tool. Tools are meant to be used and I’ve seen people use average and ordinary tools to do extraordinary things. Maybe average and ordinary films can be used to think extraordinary thoughts and to help us reflect deeper than we might without them.