Why Our Efforts to Understand Often Fall Short

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Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away from them and you have their shoes.  Jack Handey

That quote cracks me up, but I didn’t hear the Jack Handey version from SNL. Rather, it came from a friend who recounted hearing it on an episode of Car Talk. Either way, I love the humorous turn it takes.

The punchline lands well not just because it’s clever, but because there’s a dark place inside each of us that would rather get even than do the hard work of empathy. Instead of pressing towards understanding, many times we settle for pretend empathy or passive aggressive revenge disguised as empathy.

This approach is ingenious to us because it looks noble, and it has a hint of humor, yet the bad guy gets it in the end.

But the book of Proverbs calls it foolish.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.

Proverbs 18: 2

When we think of foolishness, most of us imagine the blithering idiot painted in the second half of this verse. If we haven’t been that guy, we’ve surely been left speechless by the idiotic drivel of the neighborhood conspiracy theorist, the clueless co-worker, or the talk show blowhard. We’ve had to “unfollow” a friend whose Facebook rants regressed from annoying to psychotic. We’ve read with disbelief some of the deranged comments posted to online news articles. We know this fool well.

But what about the first half of this verse?

Just because you may not be driving everyone crazy with your wacky opinions, don’t think you’re immune from foolishness. While the second half of this Proverb deals with what a fool says, the first half exposes his inward posture. Solomon lays bare the indifferent mindset of a fool. How are you doing with that? Do you take pleasure in understanding? Is seeking first to understand (thanks Stephen Covey) part of your DNA? Are there times when you are more concerned with being right than getting it right, with being heard rather than listening?

Solomon says failing or refusing to understand is another indicator of a fool.

Ok, so with that, I’m busted.

If a fool finds no pleasure in understanding, I’ve been a foolish computer user, lawn mower operator, and kitchen appliance owner. I have zero desire to understand most things mechanical.

Most of my foolishness, however, has been revealed through relationships. I’ve been a foolish friend, a foolish husband, and a foolish parent. Some of that folly has been expressed vocally, but more often than not, it’s been demonstrated in my unwillingness to understand a person, their predicament, or their point of view.

While I’m sure I’ve used the passive aggressive revenge mentioned above, that’s not normally my MO. I usually settle for some of these inferior (foolish) substitutes. See if any of these sound familiar to you:

Sometimes I confuse knowing about with understanding. You may know what’s going on in someone’s life, you may see aspects of their dilemma they’ve missed, you may have even traveled down a similar road, but that doesn’t mean you understand. Knowing facts, having an outside perspective, or sharing a similar experience does not equal understanding. If you keep inserting yourself or your perspective into their circumstance, you’re not understanding.

Sometimes I mistake labeling for understanding. Personality inventories, socioeconomic categories, generational generalizations (see millennial) have been great tools to aid with understanding, but if we’re not careful we’ll use these to label rather than understand. When we stereotype or assign motive to an individual based on his or her affinity group, we’ve failed to do the work of understanding. If you find yourself defaulting to labels or stereotypes, i.e. women driver, typical liberal, yankee, etc., you’re not understanding.

Sometimes I think figuring someone out is understanding. When we view someone as a problem to be solved rather than a person to be loved, learned from, or valued, we’ve crossed the line. “I’ve I’ve figured you out.” is self-protective and keeps us from engaging. If you’re first reaction is to problem solve, you may not be understanding.

Sometimes I equate tolerating with and understanding. Many of us politely disengage when faced with a person whose outlook or disposition differs from ours. We give a weak, corners up, no teeth, non eye squinting smile, but inwardly, we’re disengaged or even dismissive. We get riled up at the word “tolerance”, but are unaware of or unmoved by the foolishness and arrogance of tolerating. If you feel morally superior because of the energy you’ve expended “putting up with” someone, you’re not understanding.

Sometimes I work to understand — somewhat reluctantly. I think this is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. We know that understanding is important. We know that it is God honoring, so we do all we can to be obedient. But this, too, could be an indicator of foolishness. Solomon’s words highlight the difference between dutiful obedience and actually finding pleasure in understanding.

What would it look like for you to find pleasure in understanding? I love the internal charge I get when someone laughs at a comment I make. Sometimes I feel good when I make a drop the mic, end of discussion point. We’re wired to derive pleasure from saying something funny, getting our point across, overcoming objectives, ending discussions, but part of the re-wiring of sanctification is God working in us to delight in doing his will. Doing the right thing is good. Delighting in doing the right thing is godly.

Understand?

The One Time It’s OK to be Off Base

Watching some kids play the other day made me yearn a bit for the uncluttered and carefree life of a 10 year-old. Not for long, mind you, but I did reminisce a bit. While their playground was a far cry from the rickety swing set with unanchored poles and a slide so hot you could fry an egg on it equipment I grew up with, not much had changed on the playground. They were still playing some of the same games we played as a kids and assumed the same roles (captain, first picked, last picked, guy who refused to play because he wasn’t a captain, guy who tried to talk guy who wasn’t ask to be captain into playing anyway).

Watching them interact caused me to think about some of the other kids on my elementary school playground. You probably remember some a version of these guys as well: The guy who built the best fort. The fastest guy. The natural leader. The guy who could make the best machine gun noise and knew all about WWII weaponry. The guy who thought he was cool because simply because his older brother was. The guy who thought he did a good impression of Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter, but not really. Not even close.

And the guy who was always the first to scream, “Not it!”

What was up with that guy? Was he afraid? Was he risk averse? Maybe he equated being “it” with being a failure. Maybe he valued comfort over adventure. Maybe he was just a weenie and couldn’t help it. For whatever reason, he never wanted to be it.

As a result, he would never venture too far off base — no more than arm’s length. Sometimes he’d step off base just a little and taunt whoever happened to be it. Sometimes he would just stay on the base.

And he never got tagged.

In the previous post, I wrote about Joe Maddon’s assertion that rest might be the next panacea in Major League Baseball — and how it just might be the next panacea in your life. I’m guessing that idea didn’t land well with some of you sleep-deprived, caffeine-driven, perfectionistic over achievers.  Frenetic activity and busyness are badges of honor for many of you and in some level tied to your worth, so the idea of disengaging to reboot or replenish was met with a great deal of internal resistance.

On the other hand, some of you welcomed the idea. You realized that the pace you are on is not sustainable or is heading for a crash. You decided that recharging the battery is an important element for those who want long term success. If so, I hope you’ll make the effort to include more of it in your life.

But it’s the last subset that I want to challenge today. Some of you welcomed the idea of rest because you are looking for a reason (excuse) to be lazy. An acceptable reason to stay close to the base. Newsflash: a key component of the work – rest rhythm is actually work. It’s not just the rest and then more rest rhythm. Work involves effort, engagement, sweat. Skin in the game.

Are you the “not it guy” when it comes to work? What’s keeping you from engaging?
Why are you phoning it in? What are you afraid of? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and get in the game?

Or are there other areas in your life where you’re the first to scream “Not it!”? Where else are you staying close to the base? Getting tagged is simply part of the game — and part of life.

Bottom line, if you’ve never been tagged, you’ve never really been in the game.

Not being tagged means you’ve never taken a risk or taken a stand or taken one for the team. It means you’ve never allowed the sting of defeat to motivate you to get better, try harder, or push yourself.

It means you’re playing it safe, staying close to home, unwilling to try something new. It means you’re letting fear and insecurity drive the bus.

It means you’ve resolved to be mediocre.

If you live by conviction, you’re going to get tagged. If you step out in faith, take a risk, try something new, you’re going to get tagged. If you’re married, if you’re a parent, if you decide to have that tough conversation, you’re going to get tagged. Trusting, being vulnerable, confessing, being transparent, taking risks, standing up, setting boundaries, volunteering all take you further off base.

Do them anyway. Take the plunge.

If you’ve never been tagged by a coworker or supervisor or coach or family member. If you’ve never been tagged by life, you’re playing it too safe. And you’re probably not in the game.

Have you become a middle age version of the weenie who used to always scream, “Not it!”? Don’t be that guy.

Maybe you’re stymied by a fear of failure, afraid to make a mistake. You may associate getting tagged with losing, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. Losing is what happens to those who never play. Getting tagged is simply part of the game.

Tag. You’re it.

Now get after it.

You Don’t Need to Be a Chicago Cub to Learn from Joe Maddon — and, PS: Try Not to Suck

If you’re burning the candle at both ends, you’re not as bright as you think you are.
Rick Warren

I was one of those guys who jumped on the Cubs bandwagon back in October. As a life-long Braves fan, I was already following former Braves David Ross and Jason Hayward, but as the playoffs progressed, I became more interested in the Chicago’s run at history. I also began to admire their manager, Joe Maddon. Known for his unconventional style and clever quips (called Maddonisms), Maddon has captured the hearts of Cubs fans, the allegiance of his players, and the respect of his peers. His unconventional style made him interesting to the masses, but it was the success of his philosophy with Tampa Bay and Anaheim that caused other managers to take notice. Theo Epstein did, as well, and hired him to lead the Cubs.

Maddon is a colorful character, but don’t let his unorthodox style lull you into believing he’s a slacker. He is masterful leader.

During spring training last year, Maddon reportedly wrote the following seven challenges for the 2016 season during a whiteboard talk. He reasoned that for the Cubs to be successful — not in the moment, not for a season, but to develop a culture of success — they would need to understand and embody these seven keys:

1)  Embrace the Target
2)  We All Have to Set Aside our Personal Agendas
3)  All do Our Jobs
4)  Know We are Not Perfect
5)  We are our Own Little Planet and Rotate Around the Same Goal.
6)  Do Simple Better
7)  The Process is Fearless

The one quote that stuck with fans did not come from the whiteboard, however. The most famous Maddonism was uttered to a player who reportedly asked the manager what he needed to do to be a major leaguer. Maddon replied, “Try not to suck.”

“Try not to suck.” became the rallying cry for the season. Maddon skillfully used his seven challenges to illustrate what not sucking looked like. Teams that suck fail to embrace the target. Teams that suck are plagued with egos and personal agendas. Teams that suck have players who refuse to accept their role, and on it goes. This one phrase became the catchall for 2016 and helped the Cubs stay focused on the seven challenges and ultimately break a 108 year title drought.

Leadership junkies love this stuff. I love this stuff. The default reaction for many of us is to go Michael Scott on our team, hold a meeting or retreat, and repackage Maddon’s seven challenges, or worse yet, roll out a stolen, lamely tweaked version of the most trendy, like: “Try not to stink.” Cherry picking from someone else’s creativity is a common temptation, but it often lacks context, legwork, and understanding.

For instance, Maddon usually declares American Legion Week sometime in late August. During this week, players are required to show up at the ballpark just before game time — much like Maddon did when he played American Legion ball during the summer as a teenager. No batting practice, no grounders, no fungos. Thieving this idea for your team might be a nice gimmick, but it won’t be as effective if you don’t really believe that down time can actually be productive in the long run.

Maddon explains: “Guys work way too long physically, and I think it reaches a point of diminishing returns.” He said. “I think that the next big panacea regarding success in Major League Baseball is going to be the word, “rest”. Everybody’s looking for data, information, studying (the) swing, (they) practice ground balls. (I say,) no, come (to the park) later. Take a break. Don’t be out there as long. Be fresher physically. Your mind is going to be fresher. Lombardi nailed it when he said, ‘Fatigue makes cowards out of all of us.’”

The big panacea for your world might be the word “rest”, as well. But before you take this idea and develop your version of American Legion Week, it would be wise to determine if rest is something you really value. Otherwise, it will be seen as a gimmick or an insignificant add on.

Yesterday was Easter. For many followers of Jesus, the reality of the resurrection has revolutionized how they live their lives, affecting every area. For others, Easter is the one Sunday a year they attend church. The resurrection of Jesus has no impact on their daily life, no influence in their decisions, no claim on their character.

When you advocate rest only one week out of the year — because you think it’s a cool idea — but never push its importance any other time, you send a mixed message to your people. You’re like the Easter only church goer. The banner says you value rest, but your team members know differently.

Sometimes I like to mess with people in my office by asking them if they are on a break. More times than not, they get defensive, as if breaks are for smokers or people who can’t run a mile without stopping. No one has yet to admit to taking a break.

But they will gladly disclose how busy or overworked they are.

Like Maddon, I think non-stop activity reaches a point of diminishing returns. You can push Snickers bars and Five Hour Energy all you want, but at some point, you’ve got to let the ground lie fallow. A sustainable work / rest rhythm must become part of your culture, not just a trick or trendy idea.

Do you encourage your team to rest?

Do you encourage that in yourself?

What are you sacrificing in the long-term by overloading your team in the short-term?

Do you believe that rest might be the next big panacea in your world?

When Was the Last Time You Tossed Your Cookies?

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Accordingly, the greatest need you and I have—the greatest need of collective humanity—is renovation of our heart. That spiritual place within us from which outlook, choices, and actions come has been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed. Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart

I just deleted the cookies from my laptop. Over 4,000 of those cyber informants had been baking in my internet browser since the last time I cleared them. For a while I wondered why ads would pop up for stores or products I have no interest in. Then I realized they were coming from sites I visited during our online Christmas shopping spree. It kind of freaked me out, honestly, and I started to wonder if Amazon is reading my file.

Then I realized, yes they are in fact reading my file.

We all have a browsing history — sites we visit, searches we make, ads we click on. Retailers track where we go online, what we purchase, how often we visit, and how long we stay. Companies use this critical information to determine which products we are more likely to buy and place ads for them in pop ups or banners to lure us into purchasing.

Our habits shape the market, then the market shapes our habits.

Realizing that your shopping tendencies and internet activity are being monitored should seem a bit creepy and invasive and maybe cause for alarm. But if you limit your concern to legal rights of privacy, you may be missing a bigger issue:

What is being planted in you?

What if you worried less about the cookies those sites plant on your computer and more about the ones they plant in your psyche? You may be able to erase your browsing history, but there are some things you can’t unsee. Some places you can’t unvisit. Some ways of seeing others that you can’t get over quickly.

Pornography is the greatest culprit here, but if that’s not your issue, don’t think you are immune to being influenced. What kind of cookies do you think a fascination with celebrity gossip, pop culture, and “Eight Hidden Dangers of Jello – Number Three Will Blow Your Mind,” plant in your soul? Add to that a regular perusal of social media, the Schadenfreude of epic fails, and an unending quest to confirm political biases, and it doesn’t take long to have one’s perspective changed by the cluttered cache of his or her mind.

Consider these questions:

What cookies are currently baking in your soul?

What jokes are you allowing to land and linger?

What are your eyes seeing that clouds your vision?

What are your ears hearing that drowns out the voice of Truth?

And maybe the best question of all: Are you willing to come clean?
Just because you’ve erased the internet history on your computer doesn’t mean it’s gone from your mind. Covering your tracks will not clean your soul. Jesus wants to clean our history, not clear it. You may need to come clean with Him and ask for His forgiveness and healing.

Last question: Are you willing to change your habits? Not just toss your cookies, but change your habits. Our habits shape these cookies, then these cookies shape us. About 3,000 years before Al Gore even thought of inventing the internet, King Solomon admonished his young apprentices: Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) We would do well to heed his warning, as well. What images, ideas, or mindsets you are giving access to your heart? As Willard noted above, if we are not careful, our outlook, choices, and actions will be formed by a world that is far from God.

My concern about retailers subversively influencing my purchasing habits caused me to think deeper about what I’m allowng to affect my soul.

How about you?

Fix Your Slice, Reduce Belly Fat, and Stop Gingivitis

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Even though they’re painfully predictable, I’m a sucker for golf magazines. They’re kind of like the sports journalism version of Lifetime movies. Every issue is just a repackaging of the same core stories: Fix Your Slice. Hit it Farther. Tips from the Pros. New Equipment Review. But, like their chick flick / guy cry counterpart, fans keep subscribing.

I think the same can be said for most of the magazines guys read. Whether the subject is hunting, boating, productivity, or computing, editors know the core subjects that keep readers engaged.

But does this engagement actually lead to improvement?

For instance, I can’t remember a press conference where the winner of a PGA Tour event credited his victory to an article he read in last month’s Golf Digest?

Brushing up on the latest helps us talk a good game, but it doesn’t help us play any better if we don’t take it to the course. Reading is a poor substitute for practice. Gadgets don’t replace grit. New can’t make up for lack of skill.

I guess the hardest part for me is that these simple fixes reinforce the notion that I just need a new tip or technique to become a better golfer. But the reality is that golf is a lot harder than that.

And so is life.

Where are you relying on “golf magazine magic” in your life? Changing our perspective from quick fix to lasting change takes effort — and time.

One of the reasons these articles are appealing is that we don’t have time. When I’m reminded of my inadequacy, experiencing difficulty, or wrestling with the fruit of neglect my soul screams for a quick fix or some supernatural intervention to get me out of the pit. Rather than serving as a catalyst for lasting change, the magnitude of the moment screams for urgent and immediate relief. I feel like Daniel LaRusso in that movie The Karate Kid. The intensity of the bullying by the Cobra Kai created an urgency inside that screamed for instant relief. In his mind, if he could just learn to punch, he could deal effectively with those who were bullying him.

When quick fixes are appealing to me, well, I guess they always have an appeal, but when they are super appealing to me, I find that I am believing one or more of these lies:

Symptom reduction equals health. I must remind myself of the importance of aiming higher than immediate relief. What is at the root of this issue? Am I willing to do the tough work of real change. Do I want to reduce my slice, or do I want to be a better golfer? Do I want to please my boss, or improve at my profession? If these core issues are never addressed, I’ll be dealing with these symptoms indefinitely.

The answer is found in an equipment upgrade. While I admit technology does change, it’s probably not the clubs, or the skis, or the rifle, or the chainsaw. It’s probably me. Yes, it’s better to have quality equipment, but it is BEST to be able to use it. Usually the weekend golfer with the best gear is probably the worst player. Big hat. No cattle. Technology upgrades often mask severe deficiencies. But you can’t hide behind them forever. At some point, you’ll need to develop that core competency.

I can make significant improvement without changing my behavior or adjusting existing priorities. This mindset is the same one that says I can lose weight without reducing calories or improve my swing without going to the course. Reading allows for interest without engagement. It demands little of us, yet makes us feel as if we are improving and keeps us happily on the sidelines. At some point, though, I’ll need to work this stuff into my life. There’s no shortcut to character development or skill mastery. Sometimes reading about making a change gives us a false impression of progress. We think this “hidden until now” knowledge will make us better without the hard work of implementation. Giving mental energy to a problem makes us think we’re dedicated to it, but if we’re not careful, immersing ourselves in how-to articles can further entrench our place on the inactive side of the intention-behavior gap. Get off the couch and into the game.

I can do this on my own. You’ll probably need another set of eyes and ears. You’ll need a teacher or mentor or coach. You’ll need a community or a band of brothers who will help you stay the course, encourage you along the way, hold you accountable, and celebrate your progress.
The reason the Cobra Kai of anger, temptation, incompetence, inadequacy, self-righteousness or whatever keeps kicking your tail is not because you haven’t read enough or bought the latest gadget or read the greatest article. It’s probably because you’ve neglected the “wax on, wax off” of everyday obedience.  Jesus is calling us to a way of life, not five steps to betterment. His way is better, and He will indeed makes us better, but “better” is the benefit, not the goal. The goal is Christ-likeness. There are no quick fixes for things that last, things that matter.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord. Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all the day long. Psalm 25: 4 – 5 (ESV)

Handling Disappointment

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One of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride, is Westley’s classic jab at Inigo Montoya, “Get used to disappointment.” It’s one of those lines that feels good to say, but not to hear. Most of us would rather be the suave, ok snarky, character who delivers that gem than the one to whom it’s addressed.

But at some point, all of us will suffer the heartburn of frustration. A sure promotion will go to a lesser deserving and / or younger coworker. The presentation software on your thumb drive will be a different version than the one on the computer at the regional office. Your favorite team will blow a 25 point lead and lose the Super Bowl.

How will you handle it? I guess that’s a loaded question. Your ability to manage disappointment probably depends on the situation and the level of the letdown. But regardless of its severity, a sure sign of unhealthiness is to respond to disappointment with one of these two extremes:

Some Guys Really Do Get Used to Disappointment (see Charlie Brown or a Vanderbilt fan)
Don’t be this guy, the everyman embodiment of learned helplessness. Living with a resigned, here we go again, defeated disposition is unhealthy. He shows up to work every day, clocks in, opens his toolbox or logs in to his computer, but he’s given up. His consistent inability to address disappointment has made made him feel powerless to affect change in himself or the system at large so he just disengages and never fights to overcome it. He hasn’t just accepted disappointment as part of life, he’s accepted it as his lot in life.

Some Guys Become Hypersensitive to Disappointment (see John McEnroe or Tony Stuart)
Don’t be this guy, either, a tortured soul who’s never accepted the fact that things actually go wrong. Umpires miss calls. Engines fail. The prize in the cereal box is never as cool as it looks on the picture. Instead of developing a resigned disposition like his lovable loser counterpart, this guy becomes a neurotic and abrasive curmudgeon no one wants to be around. Reactionary with little self awareness, he allows any slight — rain, a power outage, a change in meeting time, eleven nuggets in the twelve pack — to ruin his day (and in turn, everyone around him). It’s hard to know when something really disappoints him because everything disappoints him.

But there’s another option:

Some Guys See Disappointment as an Unwelcomed, but not Unexpected Part of the Process (see Randy Pausch, Louis Zamperini, Jim Abbott, or anyone you know who farms)
Strive to be this guy. He’s not immobilized by disappointment, or obsessed with it. He realizes that we live in a fallen world and things don’t always turn out the way he hoped. He knows that even though he can reduce its likelihood, at some point, disappointment is going to happen. But it doesn’t make him adversarial. It does’t keep him from engaging. He refuses to let setbacks deter him from doing the right thing or working to affect change. He sees sabotage for what it is and recognizes the reality of resistance. He exhibits self control, deep confidence in the process, and remarkable resilience.

The next time you experience disappointment, consider this:
Maybe disappointment is teaching you – What can you learn from this situation? Is your disappointment a catalyst for redirection or change? Maybe you’ve become a bit entitled or ungrateful. What is this season saying about your heart? Is it revealing misplaced priorities or affections? Sometimes disappointments are indicators of the fears or idols lodged deep in our hearts that color the lenses through which we see the world.

Maybe disappointment is testing you – Resistance is real. How bad do you want this? Are you willing to do what it takes to complete the task? Maybe the opposition or sabotage your experiencing is confirmation that you’re on the right track. Every worthwhile endeavor has an Organic Chemistry component — a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that weeds out the wannabes. Don’t be surprised. Double down your efforts and keep working.

Maybe disappointment is training you – There’s a great deal of truth the the old cliched idiom: no pain, no gain. It’s okay to ache. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to feel as if the world is against you. What’s not okay is to give up. You’ll be much more appreciative of the end result and better equipped for the future if you work through the difficulty. I love the story of man who visited a monastery for a personal retreat. A monk meets him at the gate, shows him around the grounds, and informs him of the daily schedule The brief orientation ends with the monk’s final recommendation: “If you need anything, let us know and we’ll teach you how to live without it.”

Early in his book on the life of the prophet, Jeremiah, Eugene Peterson fleshes out what God might have been saying to His discouraged follower. May we heed these words of challenge, as well:

Life is difficult Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to live a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with the crowd, or run with the horses? from Run with the Horses, by Eugene Peterson (pp. 21 – 22)

One Stat I’d Like George Barna to Investigate

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I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 3 John 1:9

The number of Americans who answer affirmatively to the poll question: “Do you attend church regularly?” has declined over the years. This reality is troubling to me, but there’s another trend that no one seems to be addressing. Non attenders get all the press, but I think an equally disturbing group are those who regularly sample the fare of several churches, but never settle on one.

On the surface, this “food court followership” looks helpful. Parents carefully investigate the ministries offered by local churches and make “healthy choices” for their family. Not one choice, one place to land, but choices. Instead of investing in the life of one body of believers, they hand-pick programs and attend ministries from multiple churches. They become religious consumers, instead of members of one body. Church a la carte may seem beneficial for the individual, but it keeps us from fulfilling the call of Christ.

One derivation of this idea of engaging only in activities that provide tangible (or custom) benefits is what I call “travel-ball church”.

While many travel-ball teams compete to win prestigious tournaments, the underlying goal of many of those involved — the reason parents spend loads of money and every weekend at Motel 6 — is not so the Austin All-Stars can bring home a trophy. It’s so that Taylor can get a scholarship. Winning is a wonderful byproduct, but it’s not the goal. The ultimate purpose of their investment is the development of their future Division 1 athlete, not the team. Travel-ball teams wear uniforms, have practice, and compete in tournaments, but many are more of a collection of good players than a team. Team goals take second place to individual achievement.

With travel-ball church, followers appear to join with other like-minded believers to be part of something greater than themselves. But in reality, it is less about the team and more about the development of the player. The motivation for involvement is what a church offers rather than how to help the church accomplish its mission. With travel-ball church, a “player’s” skill may improve, but intangible attributes like loyalty, self-sacrifice, service, and an understanding of a greater purpose are only given lip service. The church is viewed primarily as a place for self-improvement rather than the agent of Christ to advance His kingdom.

While I think the intention behind this mindset is not evil — the desire for growth is admirable — I think it reinforces a dangerous idea: Ultimately the church (team) is here for me as opposed to me being here for the church (team). Travel-ball church produces a large group of really gifted, yet disconnected people who wear the same jersey, but play their own game.

You get A-Rod, not Jeter; Carmelo, not LeBron; Diotrephes, not Demetrius.

Robert Mulholland writes about the result of allowing our felt needs to drive the bus of our religious devotion: What we (get) is some kind of pathological formation that is very privatized and individualized, a spiritualized form of self-actualization. Although such forms of spirituality may be very appealing to look at on the outside, quite comfortable in their easy conformity to the values and dynamics of our culture, they are like a whitewashed tomb that has deadness on the inside if they are not life-giving, healing and redemptive for others.
M. Robert Mulholland Jr.. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation

“Life-giving, healing and redemptive for others.” In travel-ball church, I look for life-giving, healing, and redemptive, but I reject the “for others” part. Others are not the ones I walk with or the ones I serve, they are either my competition or they are there to help me improve.

If my own spiritual development is my primary motivation, I’ll never experience living in community or learning to extend grace. I’ll fail to see the value in weathering storms, working through difficulty, and learning to listen. I’ll want “others” to celebrate my wins, but I’ll be less invested in and somewhat jealous of theirs. I’ll become impatient with the process and unable to appreciate gradual, sustained change over time. I won’t learn how to love or serve or trust. Or forgive. I’ll be envious and thin-skinned. My time on “the bench” will be spent stewing or pouting, not encouraging or cheering others on. I’ll be the miserable embodiment of Jesus’ admonition: For whoever would save his life will lose it…

As Christians, we are to be followers of Jesus. Our primary commitment is to Christ and His mission. When our primary commitment gravitates away from Jesus and towards self-improvement, we’ll miss both.

…but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8: 35)

Teach Us to Pray

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

I just found out the composer of Chopsticks was only 16 when he wrote it.

Shocker. I would have guessed much younger.

In all fairness, the original is probably more difficult than the two-fingered ditty everyone knows. Chopsticks is to the piano what Smoke on the Water is to the guitar — a song someone plays when they don’t really know how to play. For some, these simple tunes become onramps leading to a life of enjoying and making music, but not everyone.

Some folks are content just to know one song.

But there’s a difference between learning to play a song and learning to make music.

We do that sort of thing all the time. I can’t dance, but when my daughter gets married, I’ll probably join the list of uncoordinated dads who spend a few bucks on lessons to dance with their daughter on her wedding day. I have no desire to learn to dance. I just want to learn a dance. I’m not interested in enrolling in a knot-tying extensive. I just want to make sure our Christmas tree makes the three hour trip from the tree farm to our house.

But for the important things in life, we need to learn more than one song.

In John 11, Jesus’ disciples come to him with a request. “Teach us to pray.”

Here’s what they didn’t say: “Teach us a prayer. Lord, can you give us something we can use in multiple applications. Fancy words would be nice, as well. When we’re called on to pray — especially in front of people — we want to be prepared. We don’t really want to be pray-ers, so would you teach us a prayer?”

No. Their experience with Jesus stoked a hunger for something deeper, more meaningful, more important. Would you teach us what it means to have a prayerful disposition? Would you help us come to the place in our life where prayer is the default posture of our heart? Would you challenge us to establish a pattern of deep communion with the Creator of the universe and Lover of our souls? We want to experience the unshakable faith and confidence that comes from a deep prayer life.

They asked Jesus to teach them to pray, not to give them a prayer. Yet, often times His modern disciples treat The Lord’s Prayer more as prescriptive than descriptive. Some prefer to call it the model prayer rather than The Lord’s Prayer. I love that. Jesus is providing an example. He’s offering his disciples a few things to consider or areas to address when they pray, not giving them the exact words to say.

The idea is not to learn this prayer, but to pray.

Jesus had harsh criticism for those whose words expressed a devotion deeper than their hearts. If He had given them a prayer, I wonder if that’s what would have happened. I wonder if they would have repeated it so often that after a while they could recite it without even considering what they were saying…

I think that happened to me.

Our church just finished using The Lord’s Prayer as a guide for our January prayer emphasis. As we were going through each section, I began to realize how often I’ve prayed it without thought, mindlessly repeating those familiar words when prompted rather than earnestly offering them from the heart. It seemed like the only time my attention was heightened to what I was saying was during a corporate recitation. When I pray The Lord’s Prayer with others, there’s always a brief, awkward little pause as we approach the “forgive us” section.  I’m never really sure whether to use “trespasses” or “debts” so I tend to hang back a little until I’m sure where the crowd is going. But other than that, I can be guilty of repeating what I’ve memorized.

Kind of like Chopsticks.

I don’t want to be a one song pray-er, but it’s easy to get into a rut. This prayer emphasis challenged me and I, in turn, would like to challenge you. Does your prayer time look more like you’re reciting the pledge of allegiance than addressing the Almighty? Does it sound like you’re filling out a benevolent form letter rather than attending to the Father? Thank You for this day and for________. Help _________, bless _________, heal _______. Forgive me for ___________. Amen.

Do you want to play a song or do you want to make music? Let me encourage you to consider upping your prayer game for 2017. There are tons of great resources out there and I’ll list a few of my favorites. But these and $1.98 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks if you don’t put them into practice.

A Diary of Private Prayer, John Baillie
Face to Face: Praying the Scriptures for Intimate Worship, by Ken Boa
Moments with the Savior, by Ken Gire
Prayer, by Richard Foster
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, by Tim Keller
The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayer and Devotions, by Arthur Bennett
With Christ in the School of Prayer, by Andrew Murray

Let me know of others you find helpful.

Why Small Groups Should Matter to Men

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

I read another disappointingly predictable (and I believe inaccurate) article the other day explaining why men don’t like small groups. One of the reasons, according to the author, is that men are fixers.

Men indeed do a lot of fixing and are bent toward problem solving, but I think that’s a bit simplistic. Saying that a man doesn’t want to go to a small group because he’s a fixer is similar to saying that a woman doesn’t want to join one because she’s a worrier.

Fixing things is not who men are, it’s one of the ways we cope. And I believe that bent towards wanting to make things right should make small groups more attractive to men, not less.

Think about where this coping mechanism comes from. Men come wired from the factory to be builders, cultivators, developers. We’re designed to work. We love projects and progress and piddling. We are at our best spending energy and effort trying to make life better, easier, or more fun.

The nature of the post-Fall world, however, fights against this. Ever since Adam and Eve ate us out of house and home, we’ve wrestled with the untamable growth of thorns and thistles that wreak havoc on every field to which we set the plow.

Pipes burst. Relationships sour. Markets crash. Systems fail. Bodies age.

Even if he doesn’t do anything immoral, unethical, or criminal, if left unchecked, a man’s life erodes. Marriage becomes joyless and predictable. Mealtimes become more about table manners than connection. Vacations are undermined by financial pressures and unrealistic expectations. Work is more about pleasing suits and jumping through hoops than making a difference.

When a man fails to understand that these obstacles are part of life, he will begin to see them as his life. He moves from cultivator to obstacle fixer guy. A small group can help him recalibrate his focus, deal appropriately with weeds, and pursue a life that matters.

Small Groups Provide Tools (Let him see how this will help him)
Men love tools — especially those that help accomplish something that interests him. A faster computer, stronger truck, longer driver, sharper knife. You name it, he’s looking for anything that will give him an edge or increase productivity. A wise mans also looks for tools of the trade; non-physical, yet indispensable knowledge that benefits his work. He’ll spend hours learning best practices, proven methods, and innovative concepts to upgrade his toolbox and increase his competence. A wiser man will realize the importance of investing in his spiritual life, as well.  Involvement in a small group can help a man understand the importance of Scripture and incorporate its truth in his life in order to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17)

Small Groups Provide Teammates (Let him know he’s not alone)
While men are often too prideful to ask for help, they value teammates — other like-minded men who join together for a common cause. They love sports leagues, car clubs, BBQ teams, 7:45 am coffee at the corner store, the VFW lodge, and the Rotary Club. They resonate with phrases like: shoulder to shoulder, band of brothers, stand in the gap, pick me up, I’ve got your back. Small groups provide a place for men to join with others in like-minded pursuit who will encourage them to do their best. Men love the camaraderie and connection of a team. They love being challenged to reach deeper and try harder. They love a place to process life and bounce ideas off of men in similar situations who will not judge or reject them. Ironically, men love being ragged on by their team and giving it back. The transcript of locker room conversations might cause one to question whether or not these guys really care for each other, but they do. Humor helps them deliver and cope with truths that may be difficult to hear. (Ragging, by the way, is different from nagging, but that’s another post.)
Small Groups Provide Encouragement (Let him know he can keep going)
A while back, I hit the wall. A perfect storm of reactivity, arrogance, incompetence, and sabotage left me in a deep hole. The resulting funk from the fallout pervaded everything and I felt like a failure relationally, professionally, spiritually, emotionally, and any other “ly” you can think of. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t snap out of it. The cloud was so thick I couldn’t tell if the funk was discoloring everything in my world or if I was actually seeing clearly for the first time what a phony I really was. The light broke through during a Sunday morning worship service. Early in the service, a member of the congregation came to the podium. I don’t know if he was making an announcement or there to lead in prayer, but his first three words were like water to a man in the desert.

“Don’t give up.”

Don’t give up. I needed to hear that. Men need to hear that. Under the masks of competence, confidence, and good-ole-boy-ness, most men are struggling. They worry about job reviews, consumer debt, and who their daughter is dating.  They experience health scares and layoffs, distant spouses and an erosion of ability. Those who avoid numbing the struggle with pornography and substance abuse may turn to the behavioral narcotics of busyness, perfectionism, and people pleasing. But it’s avoidance all the same.  Small groups provide a man with encouragement to avoid these dead-end roads and stay the course “spurring one another on to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24)

Small Groups Provide Focus (Let him know he was made for more than this, but probably not the more he’s thinking of)
The Westminster Catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Sounds easy enough, but a man needs to be reminded of this over and over. Further, he must understand that God is to be glorified while he addresses his trouble, not after. Most guys believe they can give attention to the “spiritual stuff” in their lives once their marriage gets straightened out, or they find a better job, or get through a rough patch with their teenager. Men must be encouraged to wrestle with the question: How can I glorify God where I am right now? In this marriage, in this job, with these children. He must be challenged to remember that the life he has is the “garden” in which he has been placed to tend and cultivate. And whatever he does (and wherever he does it) he should “do it all to the glory of God.” (Colossians 3:17)

If you know some guys who’ve rejected the idea of a small group, I want to encourage them to reconsider. These groups can serve as workshops to help them assess and address the issues they face and provide a safe place to work on building a life that matters.

Was 2016 a Liberty Bowl Year for You?

shutterstock_529249063The word “liberty” should be appealing, right? I would guess that it stirs up good feelings for most Americans. When I read about liberty in a history book, I think of the incredible freedom we have as a nation. When I read of it in Galatians I think of what a game changer the Gospel is. And the more I ponder the liberty I’ve been afforded as an American and a Christian, I’m humbled by the tremendous sacrifice that made both possible.

I don’t feel the same, however, about the Liberty Bowl. Much to the chagrin of their fan base, that’s where Georgia ended their year. The Bulldog faithful had hoped the hiring of a new coach was all they needed to make a more prestigious bowl. Something actually played in January would’ve been nice.

Not so fast my friend.

My guess is that unless you live in Memphis or are a Vanderbilt fan, you’re not high the Liberty Bowl either. It’s the Check Cola of bowl games. In July, liberty means freedom. In December, it means second-tier bowl. It is synonymous with under achievement, a big “Needs Improvement” on the report card. Having your team play in the Liberty Bowl is like receiving a J.C. Penny’s gift card on Christmas morning while your siblings got one from Nordstrom, Amazon, or Cabela’s.

You may not be a college football fan, but hang with me because my guess is that you’ve had some Liberty Bowl appearances in your life, as well — maybe even this year. You’ve underachieved. You’ve gone through a stretch of regrettable decisions, a time where the difference between what you had hoped would happen and what you actually experienced was disappointing, a time where you had to settle, set aside your dreams, accept reality. Or, maybe like Georgia, you mistakenly believed that the path to the next level was as simple as one difficult decision.

If 2016 was a Liberty Bowl year for you, how are you looking to approach this new year? Here are a few suggestions:

Be Clear About Your Tier —  Before you spend time wallowing in self-pity or developing a game plan for 2017 in reaction mode, make sure your disappointment is more about reality than ego. College football makes second-tier bowls fairly obvious, but second-tier lives can be super subjective. Your assessment should be based on good living, not on subscribing to someone else’s definition of the good life. For instance, if a Liberty Bowl life for you is more about a home, a car, an income, or where you’re kids go to school than who you are in that home and car, how you spend that salary, or what you are teaching your children, you’re looking at the wrong measuring stick. Economic and cultural metrics are like Disney World. There’s always another level just a notch higher with more perks and greater access than the MagicBand you have on your already over-extended wrist. If you let that stick in your craw, you’ll have a tough stay. And, PS, you’ll never be satisfied.

Make Assessments Not Judgements — The game changer for you could be in realizing the difference between being disappointed and seeing yourself as a disappointment. Either one can be tough to swallow, but judgements tend to be paralysing or self-fulfilling prophesies. Going to a second-tier bowl doesn’t make you a second-tier person, but it should serve as a catalyst for evaluation and change. As you reflect on 2016, ask yourself these questions: What went well? What didn’t? What aspects of the disappointing stretch were directly related to my efforts? Which ones were beyond my control? Is there anything in my life am I pretending not to see? Are there any unhealthy patterns in my work ethic or in my relationships? How are things emotionally, physically, and spiritually? Most people are unwilling to ask themselves the tough questions. Fewer are honest with their answers. Don’t be that guy. Spend some significant time in evaluation. It will give you clarity as well as specific areas to address.

Devise a Plan for the Next Season  — Once you’re clear on areas to improve, develop a plan to address them. Leadership gurus advise clients to quantify their objectives in order to track progress. Realize, however, that’s not always possible. But the more you can quantify, the more likely you are to see improvement. For those non-quantifyable areas, develop specific actions or tasks that lead to change. For instance, “changing your office culture” may be difficult to quantify, but you can work on increasing the behaviors and activities that improve the attitude and atmosphere of your workplace and reducing those that add to the tension.

Work the Plan — Then wake up and work it again. For some reason, most of us get the fact that it takes more than one push up or sit up to become physically fit, but we believe other areas of life will somehow show significant improvement as soon as we begin to behave differently. Remember, you will encounter internal as well as external resistance to any change you try to implement. Prepare yourself emotionally. Instead of being derailed by the resistance, see it as confirmation that you are headed in the right direction.

Unless, of course, you’re not. Then we’ll probably see you again in Memphis. But that’s ok. It’s all part of the process. Keep working the plan. Change takes time. Don’t give up. Keep clarifying, assessing, planning, and working. You’ll get there sooner than you think and you will value it more.

Happy New Year!

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