Category: His Words

Blogposts by Len

20 reminders every parent needs

Cindi and I still marvel that the good folks at Lincoln General let us walk—not once but twice—right out their front door with eight plus pounds of squirming human being.

No OB nurse administered a parenting exam. We didn’t have to put our hands on a Bible and swear anything. We were never required to appear before a review board of pediatricians, social workers, and clergy. I’m telling you…renting a steam cleaner at True Value is harder.

We brought those babies home and what followed was a blur of poopy diapers and amoxycillin prescriptions, birthday parties and homework. Ten thousand trips to Super 1 later, before anyone could say “adolescence,” we were filling out the FAFSA for the final time and moving sofa sleepers to Nashville.

Our sons are grown. Our nest is empty. I suppose we got to this place the same two ways people go bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. Now days our house stays extremely tidy. Usually it’s so still I could hear a pin drop (except there’s no one around to drop a pin). I read once, “Children make so much noise you can hardly stand it—then depart, leaving the house so quiet you think you’ll go mad.” I get it. God knows I get it.

Because of things I did during the peak parenting years—and lots of things I didn’t—I know this: I was not an All-Star Dad. Among other regrets, I was a workaholic. So, for example, the year my boys were 8 and 4, I was too busy helping write a parenting book to actually be an engaged parent. (You can’t make such stuff up.)

I learned some painful parenting lessons through personal failure. And to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I also “observed a lot just by watching” others. Ironically, if I were beginning the parenting adventure today, I like to think I’d be a much better dad. (I want to ask God about that one day—why is it that right about the time we start to figure out some things, it turns out our time is nearly up?) Anyway, here are some parenting truths I’ve become convinced of….

  • “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone (And all the parents said, “Amen!”)
  • When your kids are small, be oh-so-careful…you can’t get those years back.
  • That famous Bible verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” is a proverb (an observation about how life usually works). It is not a promise. Taking your child to church, sending him/her to Christian camp, etc. are good things. But they don’t guarantee anything. Every parent wants to find the sure-fire “secret” for raising perfect kids. There’s not one. If God had given us a formula, why would we need faith?
  • Our natural tendency is to try to mold our kids into what we think they should be. Our supernatural calling is to help our kids become what God wants them to be.
  • We often fall into the trap of thinking our child’s external behavior is the point. It’s not. The real issue is what’s going on in their hearts. Put your focus there.
  • Woe to the parent who says, “My child would NEVER…”
  • Childlike faith is a very real thing. So is the childlike desire to say and do things that will please mommy and daddy. Take care that your spiritual concern doesn’t morph into a subtle form of spiritual coercion or manipulation.
  • We are powerless to change our kids or save our kids or see to it they embrace the right values and beliefs. Only God can do such things. Our job description is to love, pray, serve, model, listen, be attentive and available, and slowly let go.
  • There are “AWOL parents” who are self-absorbed and checked out. There are “helicopter parents” who hover, smother, and control. Trust me, the offspring of both varieties have a rough go later in life.
  • Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. And it’s more art than science. Pray for creativity and adaptability and humility in rearing your children.
  • And speaking of rears and children…disciplining kids for the wrong reasons or in the wrong spirit is as bad as not disciplining them at all.
  • You will screw up. You will also, to some degree, screw up your kids. Do not despair. God is bigger than your mess-ups. Do what a friend told me years ago: Throw a few dollars in a jar each week. When your kids are grown, tell them you tried your best, and that you’re sorry for all your failures. Give them the cash and encourage them to go work through their baggage with a good counselor. My friend—a great parent by the way—was mostly joking. I’m being totally serious.
  • When you mess up, fess up. Admit your failures. Ask forgiveness. Grace flows where humility lives.
  • You need others in your corner. There is some wisdom in the old saying that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Form alliances and support groups with others in the parenting trenches. Lean on grandparents, teachers, and youth leaders. Pick the brains of more knowledgeable and experienced parents.
  • Realize that each child born is unique in the history of the world. No other kid has (or has ever had) your baby’s DNA, temperament, and mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Meaning, even if you already have four children, you’re a rookie when it comes to parenting the fifth. Give yourself lots of grace.
  • The“experts” who write all those wise parenting books have some good things to say. Your know-it-all-friend (with the easy kid) might have some wisdom too. But they also never had to raise your particular child.
  • Don’t forget that God uses our kids to help us parents finish growing up. When your child does something that triggers something in you, that’s a prompt: Be humble enough to search your own heart.
  • Beware of the temptation to turn your children into your personal trophies. Your kids exist for God’s glory, not yours.
  • Your children—ultimately—are not “your” children. They’re on loan from God. (This is so easy to spout and so hard to live out.)
  • God made your children. He understands them far better and loves them far more deeply than you ever will.

A postscript…Cindi and I have plans to meet our sons in the mountains this summer. Everyone is pumped about being together. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about anybody’s parenting, but it says an awful lot about God’s grace and goodness.

In my book, those two theological facts are the greatest parenting reminders of all.

 

Working the night shift at the Bethlehem Motel

Jeremy Brooks, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2imaaNe
Jeremy Brooks, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2imaaNe

The night manager of the Bethlehem Motel tossed the cup of old, cold coffee into the trash can and gave a quick, end-of-shift report.

By dusk, every last room had been snatched up. But when he flicked the switch so the sign out by the highway could announce to travelers, “NO Vacancy,” nothing happened. The repairman had obviously not come as promised. The night manager said he marched straight over to the computer and fired off a strongly-worded email to the City of David Sign Company.

He spent the rest of the night, he said, glaring at that “lying sign” and turning away an endless parade of people. All night long, they kept tromping into his lobby, tracking up the place, asking for non-existent rooms, then asking could they at least use the restroom. He rubbed his eyes. “Government-mandated travel might be great for motel owners…it sucks for motel workers.”

By 9 he was out of clean towels. By 9:30 he was getting a steady stream of complaints about there being no hot water. At 10, he had to call Room 106—twice—to tell them to hold it down. Then, around midnight, once everyone was finally settling in, he could have sworn he heard a baby crying. “From somewhere out back,” he motioned over his shoulder with his thumb.

Around 1, the squalling kicked up again. Maybe it’s a cat? he thought. The night manager walked over to the housekeeping closet and grabbed a mop handle. He locked the office and slipped out the rear entrance to do a walk-around, have a smoke.

That’s when he saw them. They were running toward the motel, from over by the old self-storage place. Four or five high school boys, maybe frat guys from the college—it was hard to tell in the darkness. They stopped when they got to the vending machines by the pool.

He yelled an empty threat—about calling the cops. They busted out laughing and hollered back—all at once, the heavyset one saying something about angels, it sounded like, the others jabbering on about other things that made even less sense. They were drunk, or high—anyone could see that. One of them suddenly looked up at the moon, howled like a wolf and took off. The others whooped and jostled each other as they followed him around the side of the building.

“So…just another night at the office, I guess — a full house, a cat that wouldn’t shut up, and some crazy college kids doing God only knows what….I don’t know when I’ve been this tired.”

As he moved toward the door, he looked over his shoulder at the day manager. “See if you can get ahold of those sign people. Tell ’em we want that thing fixed today.”

What to do when you can’t fix what’s broken

 

elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr
elycefeliz, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/28PeRYr

Everywhere I look I see things in need of fixing.

I don’t mean the ceiling fan in my bedroom or those potholes in the parking lot at my health club.

I mean friends who are sick and may not recover. I mean parents who are heart sick over wayward children. (God knows if a father’s sighing and a mother’s weeping could “fix” rebelliousness, every long-lost prodigal would be back home by now. Alas, such things can’t; consequently those kids aren’t.)

I see moms and dads who are wallowing in so much personal dysfunction, they don’t notice the kid in the bedroom down the hall who is in major trouble. I see job seekers who have diligently beaten the bushes and the streets and their heads against the wall. And what do they have to show for all that hustle? Unemployed hearts that are beaten down and beat up all at once.

When I was little and bumped up against a broken edge of life, my mom would sometimes say, “If I had a magic wand, I’d fix it.”

Later I became jealous of Jeannie the genie. Remember that sitcom? Remember the cute blonde in the bottle who could blink her eyes while giving a quick nod…and instantly rectify any problem?

This week while watching cable news I had this thought: I’d like to be a Presidential candidate if for no other reason than I would be able to fix ANYTHING.

Gun violence, discrimination, terrorism, joblessness, Wall Street’s woes, the national debt, illegal immigration, melting glaciers—apparently there’s no problem on earth these aspirants for the Oval Office can’t fix.

I’ve noticed that though they aren’t long on specifics, they are strong in tone of voice. To hear them tell it (i.e., yell it), help is just ahead. Sounds like no matter who wins, we’re only months away from having an omni-competent commander-in-chief who is equal parts MacGyver, Einstein, Mary Poppins, and Dear Abby.

Political exasperation aside, I see behind our fixation with fixing things, underneath our attraction to self-proclaimed “fixers,” an uncomfortable reality: Our fix-it powers are minimal.

Ceiling fans and potholes are one thing. But healing a culture, curing an addiction, rescuing a marriage?

Here’s the brutal truth: You and I can’t fix our own messed-up hearts, much less mend the brokenness all around us. We can’t make the world problem-free and pain-proof, not even for those we love most fiercely. But we try, don’t we? Our quixotic forays into a cancer-filled world, armed with our little boxes of band-aids.

In all my years of life, I still haven’t met anyone with a magic wand. (I suspect because God never meant for us to be in charge of outcomes.)

However, I am discovering this:  Even if we don’t have it within us to fix big things, we can at least facilitate the fixing of those things. We can do the little things God assigns us to do—then step aside and wait for Him to do the big stuff only He can do.

We can pray, for example. So I do. My rambling conversations with the Almighty…daily making a case for those I love…trying to remember that God’s heart is good and His ways are higher than mine…struggling to trust that He is working even when I don’t see how.

With the broken, I can do other small things. I can check in with them, sit with them in their pain, listen, nod a lot, be a friend, encourage (hopefully without offering up warmed-over platitudes).

Those are pitiful little band-aids, I know. But ask any kid. Band-aids have a strange power. Even though they don’t actually “fix” anything, they can make a bad thing a tad more tolerable.

The other day, a guy fixed my badly cracked Camry windshield in 40 minutes flat. “You’re fast!” I marveled. “Piece of cake,” he mumbled.

Now if I could just find out which candidate has a plan to fix the problem of flying gravel on our nation’s highways.

Watching Trump and Hillary play kickball at recess

I don’t know how it was at your grade school, but in Slidell, Louisiana, in the late 1960s, we had certain playground customs.

Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K
Photo by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/24Ibb0K

So, for example, if you decided to choose up teams for kick ball (or play a game that required someone to be “it”), nobody—at least at Florida Ave Elementary—began with, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” That was, well, so fifties.

We had far cooler “selection rhymes.” My friend Craig usually went with:

“Engine, Engine #9, going down Chicago Line…if the train should jump the track, do you want your money back?”

“Yes.”

“Y-E-S spells yes, and…(pause for Craig to do word math in his head, trying to figure out how to manipulate the outcome and subtly stop on the kid he either wanted on his team or wanted to be “it”) you are definitely…going to…be…the one…who is IT!”

I preferred a rhyme I learned from my friend, Cheese:

“My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother smacked your mother right smack in the nose. What color was the blood?”

“Green.”

“G-R-E-E-N spells green and you are…not on my team…this game…but YOU are!”

After the game got underway, that kid nobody liked would run up and ask which side he could join. If we didn’t resort to lying — “Sorry, but the principal said we can’t have more players than this” — someone (or several someones) would yell emphatically, “Tick tock, the game is locked!”

Inclusiveness was not our strong suit. The girls, jumping rope on the far side of the schoolyard usually went with the far more literary, but equally exclusionary: “Criss cross, applesauce, no one else can play with us.”

In races, if you got to be the “starter,” you would abuse your power by saying things like: “On your MARK…get SET (dramatic pause for tension while kids leaned forward until they were almost parallel to the ground)…SMOKE A CIGARETTE!” This resulted in making everyone look foolish—false starts, bodies collapsing in a heap. Such tricks were almost always met with a punch or two in the arm, and it was still totally worth it.

If, during dodgeball, let’s say, you declared a kid “hit” and told him to get out of the ring, he might threaten, “Why don’t you make me!?” To which you were expected to say in a snarky voice, “I don’t make trash, I burn it!” or sometimes, “You’re already made and too dumb to know it.” (Bam! Ten-year-old tough talk at its finest!)

If he resisted—bowing up or resorting to name-calling—one of your cohorts would step forward and speak of the cheater in third-person, “He thinks he’s hot snot on a golden platter. But he’s really cold boogers on a paper plate.” (A disgusting image, I know, but you have to admit: As put-downs go, that’s Hall of Fame-type material.)

Most times, the chastened kid would then turn to the “Old Faithful” of childhood comebacks, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!”

Then, if he still refused to leave the circle, someone might threaten, “C’mon, get out of the circle… or I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll kill your whole family!” Possible replies included “You and what army?” or “Better bring your lunch, ‘cuz it’s gonna take you all day.”

When everyone got bored with all this dumb bickering, we would call a temporary peace, lock arms and begin steamrolling across the playground like a row of German Panzer tanks, disrupting other games, tromping over any innocents in our way. Our chant? “We won’t stop! We won’t stop! We won’t stop for a lollipop!”

Then, smelling like a flock of goats and snickering proudly at all the carnage we’d inflicted, the bell would ring. Our teacher would appear, we’d line up by the door, and some kid, the class knucklehead usually, would blurt out some crass, off-color joke.

Maybe something like, “What’s brown and lies by the fence? (pause for maximum comedic effect, then the punchline) Gomer’s Pyle!” All the girls would scream,“Gross!” All the boys would hoot with laughter. The teacher would glare at us and shush us into the building.

DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac
DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WmMaac

I don’t remember what made me think of all this. But I think it may have been the result of watching the evening news about the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Feel free to draw your own parallels and conclusions.

Why it’s okay to be an indecipherable mess

If I have the stuff inside me to make cocoons—maybe the stuff of butterflies is there too.

Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

Photo by Alyson Hinkie
Photo by Alyson Hinkie

Some people enjoy a butterfly life.

Colorful and carefree, they flit unpredictably about the world eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs.”

What a sweet life! Flying from one beautiful place to the next, sampling exotic foods, always looking good and turning heads.

When butterfly people land in your life (or on your Facebook or Instagram or blog feed), they are something to behold. But you have to look quickly. Blink and these winged flowers are gone, off to the next thing.

Other people are like caterpillars. Grounded rather than gorgeous, you won’t find them trending on Twitter or winning gold medals. No, while the butterfly people are enjoying the view way up where the flowers brush against the sky, the caterpillar folks are down below, engaged in a lot of tenacious clinging and relentless climbing.

At first glance caterpillars never “wow” you. Only when you pay close attention do you realize how fascinating they are. How do they do it? How do they keep all the wiggly parts of their lives together, inching toward the goal?

Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a
Aleksandar Cocek, Flicker Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1WQCu6a

There’s a third group of people that neither soar on the wind nor scuffle about the earth.

They’re hard to spot. This is because Life has decreed they enter a kind of “time-out with the lights off” in order to undergo big change. During this strange season, their sole job description is not to be pretty or to be busy. It is to be come.

Every fourth-grader knows about metamorphosis. A caterpillar hangs from a branch and spins a cocoon around itself. What happens next, inside that temporary place, is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s the marriage of chemistry and mystery. Bidding farewell to its former existence, the cooped-up caterpillar releases enzymes that actually cause it to dissolve into a kind of chunky “worm soup.”

The chunks are called “imaginal discs.” These clusters of cells are the embryonic parts of the creature’s glorious future. (They’ve been there all along, we just couldn’t see them.) It’s these elements that will come together to produce a butterfly.

What powers this remarkable transformation? The protein-rich “goo” that, quite literally, was the creature’s life as a caterpillar. In other words, the past is the fuel for the future.

As metaphors go, an ugly caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly is hard to beat. (Which explains why writers and motivational speakers use it more often than Geico airs insurance commercials.) But few focus on that mysterious in-between time. And what a shame that is, because it’s in the transition that all the magic happens.

Think about some of the big transitions we have to undergo in life:

  • From toddler to little kid — “You want me to use a toilet? What’s wrong with these handy things called diapers?! …Go to school? But I love my life the way it is!”
  • Adolescence — You’re no longer a little kid, but you’re also a long way from being an adult—even if you’re through puberty and shaving by age 12. (Personal testimony: No group—as a whole—feels more like a “chunky soup of goo” than acne-plagued, hormone-filled junior high & high school students.)
  • From college to the workplace — Who knew… that monster.com would replace YouTube as your new favorite website? … that a 15 hour class load is like a beach vacation compared to a full-time work schedule? … that so much “life” happens before noon?
  • From one career to another — More and more people are switching careers late in life, and often not by their own choice. They’re watching old jobs dissolve. They’re having to reinvent themselves and acquire new skills that can help them compete in the new economy.
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK
James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK

Scientists can’t tell us what the experience of metamorphosis “feels” like for an ex-caterpillar/butterfly-in-the-making.

They don’t need to. We know how our own life transitions feel. It’s unsettling to find yourself in the dark. And most transitions seem like a colossal waste of time: How long is this going to take…because I have a LOT to do! Experiencing the dissolution of your old life is unnerving—and painful. You don’t know who or what you are anymore. If you feel like a mess, it’s because you are one. But that’s okay. Becoming is always messy business.

The message here to beautiful butterfly people and to dutiful caterpillar people is, “Carry on. You’re doing great.”

The message today to all the amorphous “cocoon people” is, “Hang in there (heh, heh)…you’re doing great too.” Life’s in-between times aren’t fun, but they are the necessary crucibles that make us into the people we were created to be.

Today, if you feel like you’re disintegrating and that the life you once knew is disappearing forever, resist the urge to resist the process. Submit. In fact, embrace it.

How else will you get your wings?

7 passages I wish were in the Bible

Smiling Jesus

Why doesn’t the Bible mention Jesus laughing?

We see Christ weeping. We see him getting furious with hypocritical do-gooders. What about him cracking a smile, or better yet, cracking up?

There’s no such passage. But surely Jesus laughed. Consider: He loved kids and vice versa (this isn’t true of grim people). He was a master storyteller (and raconteurs are always amusing). He was an A-lister at the dinner parties of the irreligious crowd (Sticks-in-the-mud don’t get such invitations).

Throw in all the incidents in the gospels with comical aspects—civic officials climbing trees to get a glimpse of Jesus; a small group vandalizing a stranger’s roof in order to get their sick friend directly in front of the Great Physician; Jesus feeding thousands with one boy’s Happy Meal….It’s impossible to see how anyone could face a daily stream of these kinds of situations and remain straight-faced.

I maintain that Jesus, Creator of all things—which would include humor—was both fun and funny. I submit to you that Jesus chuckled, chortled, guffawed, and even ROTFLed.

I just wish the gospel writers had mentioned a couple of these incidents.

For example, in the story of Peter walking on water, wouldn’t you love to read a couple more verses: “Back in the boat, Jesus grinned at the waterlogged Peter, high-fived him, and said, ‘Three and half steps! Not bad for a first-timer!’ Then he threw back his head and began to hoot uncontrollably. Later, when the boat scrunched up on the shore, the Lord was still doubled over.”

Understand, I don’t need the Bible to say something like that. I just wish it did.

This got me thinking about other issues I wish the Bible explicitly addressed. Not that I’m suggesting we need to add to God’s revelation, but don’t you agree the following passages would be helpful?

  1. “In the last days, social media will be a thing. But this doesn’t mean I’m okay with you being anti-social around living, breathing people. Also, know this: Even if you go by an anonymous username like CheekyMonkey, I know who you are, and I see everything you’re posting. One day, we will have a talk about all that.”
  1. “Blessed is the person who stops looking for non-existent ‘spiritual formulas.’ There are no formulas, only these facts: You should expect constant surprises. Jesus is your huckleberry. He will lead you home.”
  1. “Jesus continued, ‘So that’s the right way to pray. And here are some ways not to do it: First, unless you happen to live in Elizabethan England in the early 1600s, stop saying “thee” or “thy” when you talk to our heavenly Father. That’s weird. Really, “you” and “your” are fine. Second, you don’t have to keep asking me to be with you. I AM! For the record, there’s never been a single moment when I wasn’t right there.’”
  1. “If anyone desires to study theology, he desires a good thing. But woe to the one who argues angrily and arrogantly about such matters. I will crash that man’s hard drive and bring wrath upon his Logos Bible software.”
  1. “Truly, truly I say unto you, he who has ears to hear, listen up. Pay close attention. My plan is NOT for all my children to: (a) think and believe exactly the way you think and believe; (b) care about all the causes you care about; (c) come to your church (believe it or not, I actually have a few followers at other churches who know and love Me); (d) have identical spiritual experiences—so please stop comparing yourself to others and others to you; (e) always be healthy and wealthy and successful (at least in the ways the world defines those terms).”
  1. “And, now about this worship tension in the church…to you older saints I say… ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ means exactly that. Quit grumbling about all the fresh praise choruses the kids are coming up with. At least they’re wanting to praise God! Turn down your hearing aids and join in gladly! Remember God loves loud, enthusiastic spiritual songs! To you younger believers I say, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ doesn’t mean every song has to be new. Learn and sing some of the church’s rich, old hymns. Remember God enjoys more reflective music too.”

I should stop. Lord knows I’m messing—mostly—when I say these things.

(Hopefully, he’s smiling?)

 

How “more” and “faster” can kill your heart

UltraMarathon
Shannon Dizmang, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1UJiSl7

Last week I met an ultra-marathoner (i.e., one of those people who thinks running a mere 26.2 miles is for wusses).

This guy once ran 100 miles in 28 straight hours—and not because he was delivering a life-saving vaccine to a remote, disease-ravaged village. He ran all that way (on purpose!) because, apparently, while some running is good, more running is better.

When I asked about the toll this feat took on his body, he stifled a smile, hung his head and softly admitted it took him “a long time to recover.” (Note: Since that race he mostly competes in little 100k runs. Wimp.)

This week when I got an email promising to show me how I can “get more done” and “be more productive,” I thought about my new friend who can’t stop running.

Being productive is the new rage. In fact, the only phrase in the world more popular than “doing more in less time” is “at the end of the day.”

In the last month, I’ve received no less than 10 such emails. They tell me that if I would only—

  • Read a certain book
  • Follow four steps
  • Sign up for an on-line course
  • Subscribe to a certain efficiency guru’s newsletter (take your pick)—

I could basically transform myself into a real-life version of an ultra-marathoner. I suppose I could learn—metaphorically speaking—to run 200 miles in a mere 22 hours!

Something in me is drawn to such offers. After all, at the end of the day, it is a competitive world. And the people who accomplish the most typically get the best rewards. Praise, press, promotions, better pay—who doesn’t want all that? What’s more, if robots really are taking over the world, our only hope as humans would seem to be to increase our output (lest we end up part of a ragtag resistance force fighting the A.I. overlords).

Another—larger—part of me cringes at all this “get more done in less time” hype. God knows I’m not against making plans and accomplishing goals. I believe in hustling. I know being proactive is preferable to being reactive.

But what if I don’t want to become a productivity machine? What if I want to enjoy my days instead of trying to wrestle them to the ground? What if I don’t want to come at my life with a whip and a chair, constantly trying to back it into the corner to show it who’s boss?

When was it decided that “more” and “faster” is automatically preferable to “less” and “slower”? I’ve experienced enough life to know that “efficient” doesn’t always equal “good.” In the effort to “do a ton and do it quick,” I’ve seen well-meaning people (including the guy whose face I shave most mornings) morph into busy, harried, task-oriented tyrants. “Getting busy and getting lots done” can make you feel important; that pursuit can also wreak havoc on your soul—and your neighbor’s.

“Hurry” isn’t all it’s advertised to be either. Did you know that if you don’t dilly dally, you can leave Denver at 4 a.m., drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park, take a selfie, then hightail it to the Grand Canyon for another sunset photo op, and be asleep in Las Vegas by midnight? That’s some serious tourism productivity. (Or the road trip to hell, depending on your point of view)

I’d like to see productivity marketers required—like pharmaceutical companies—to disclose the downside of striving to squeeze more accomplishment out of every second of each day.

“Possible side effects of Productivia include disappointment (not all users achieve these same results; in fact, many report feeling like schlubs when they don’t). Some experience stress of other kinds—relational detachment, less frequent moments of wonder, and high frustration levels at the end of the day when their productivity plans get torpedoed by unforeseen events. In certain cases, Productivia has resulted in headaches, bouts with diarrhea, calendar rage, and gross insensitivity to others.

Today while hundreds of doctors attend seminars to learn how to see more patients in a day…and countless students practice speed-reading techniques so they can churn through more pages at an ever quicker pace, I will ask this question: Should helping others or acquiring wisdom be a race? Call me lazy, but I’m skeptical to the claim that hurtling through life is the route to love and joy.

Photo by Meagan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1Xi4mP0
Photo by Meagan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1Xi4mP0

I heard a story once about a research team that went to Africa in the early 1900s. These scientists hired a group of natives to carry all their gear. On the first day of their expedition, they made such great time and went so deep into the bush, the men had hopes of arriving at their destination several days ahead of schedule. They were elated.

The next morning, however, the tribesmen sat on the ground, refusing to budge. Inquiring about their strange behavior, the researchers were told that the natives believed they had pushed much too far and too hard the previous day. Through a translator they said, “When our souls catch up with our bodies, we will resume.”

If you find an app, a book, or some time management technique that enhances your life and makes it more joyful, God bless you! Use it (and let me know about it). I’m just saying, don’t believe everything you hear.

As crazy as it seems, sometimes less is actually more. And sometimes slower is better. Three or four good things done today with love will always beat a list of 38 checked boxes, a weary heart and a trail of wounded souls in your wake.

When being “dissed” is a good thing

Horse Man
Courtesy of Gratisography

I went through a phase where I used the word disillusioned a lot. I said it because I thought it sounded sophisticated. And I acted like disillusionment was a negative thing.

Then one day I heard a faint voice (that sounded like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride) whispering, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

I did a little research and here’s what I discovered. The prefix dis— means “separated from” or “without.” For example, being dismembered means you lose one or more of your body’s appendages. Four out of five doctors surveyed do not recommend this. Being disbarred means you are told by all your legal colleagues, “From now on, we’ll be practicing law without you.” If you are an attorney, this is not a positive career development.

But to be disillusioned means literally to be “without illusions.” It means to be separated from what you previously—and wrongly—imagined was true. This is a very good thing!

Disillusionment is the process of leaving fantasy land and coming back to reality. When you are disillusioned, you see what’s true with great clarity, for example, that your job is a dead end or that your fiancée is a codependent, Grand Canyon of need. While being disillusioned isn’t always fun, it’s necessary and good.

What about spiritual disillusionment?

I meet Christians all the time who are reeling from the way their lives have turned out and are bummed (or even bitter) at God. I’m convinced this is because they’ve embraced some dangerous illusions about the spiritual life.

Here’s what I mean…if we read the Bible and don’t spin it, if we refuse to gloss over those sobering verses that freeze our hearts and the scary promises that nobody puts on t-shirts, if we resist the urge to try to make the Bible say things it doesn’t actually say, we’re left with this:

Life is terribly hard, and God apparently feels no pressure to make things “easy.” In truth, belief in Christ only complicates matters. Pursue a life of faith and the enemy of your soul will assault you from without, even as a renegade part of you fiercely resists God’s transforming work within. In other words, you may as well go ahead and gear up for an epic lifelong struggle.

Should you expect to grow spiritually? Absolutely. But you should never expect heaven this side of heaven. You will face powerful temptations till the day you die. In your better, more lucid moments, you will resist them. In moments of temporary spiritual insanity, you will cave in. The good news? Not even your worst failures will alter God’s love for you.

While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and acknowledge our illusions about suffering too. You will experience lots of little, annoying trials in life, as well as others big and terrifying. Nobody gets a pass from heartache or tragedy. The Bible doesn’t guarantee Christians (or anyone else for that matter) a sickness-free, money-filled life.

On the contrary the Bible says (and experience shows) every life will have multiple bitter moments. A hopeful note: You will experience plenty of glorious moments too. When the pain doesn’t take your breath away, the beauty just might. You will cry often. And you will do your share of laughing too. Sometimes both in the same day.

We could go on and on shattering spiritual illusions….how we won’t get divine answers to most of our “why?” questions. How our prayers will often not be answered in ways we’d like. How loving and serving others will be exhausting, and—usually—thankless.

Dis-crimination, dis-organization, dis-aster—these are bad things (and maybe we could throw dis-co dancing in there too?). Dis-illusionment? No way.

When we forget what this wonderful word means, we will want to quit again and again—which is why we desperately need to live in community with a few fellow strugglers and bumblers who can yank us back when we start wandering in the direction of la-la land.

What’s the truth about the spiritual life? All these sobering realities.

Anything else is an illusion we need to “diss” right here and right now.

When you need some friends to drag you down

Gravity-movie-bannerIn the movie Gravity, George Clooney plays an astronaut who—spoiler alert!—happens to be extremely suave, witty, and good-looking.

When a routine spacewalk goes wrong, poor George ends up drifting away into the vast emptiness of the cosmos.

This leaves the other astronaut—i.e., the mom from The Blind Side—all by herself. Suddenly she faces a choice. She can either remain all alone in space, or she can fight like crazy to make it back to earth and the people she loves.

Even though Gravity is a harrowing movie to watch, it was a huge success at the box office. Why? Because everyone can relate to the plot. Even a 3rd grader knows you don’t have to be part of a Space Station disaster to feel untethered and alone in the universe.

I have felt disconnected for months, despite a remarkable community of friends and loved ones (not to mention my 1,000+ make-believe Facebook friends).

My isolation is due, in part, to my new career as a full-time writer. Writing isn’t something you can do in a room full of people. At least I can’t. It’s a solitary pursuit. You park your buns in front of your keyboard. You sit alone, trying to corral your thoughts, trying to herd them onto the screen, trying to avoid becoming Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Of course you don’t have to be a writer, or an extreme introvert, to feel alone. Cultural busyness and hurry have a way of secluding even the most gregarious people.

The job. The endless needs of the kids. The bills. The laundry. The game. The this. The that. Life tricks us into rushing around like a bunch of Roadrunners. Meaning, if we’re not intentional, we can go for great stretches without any sort of meaningful connection. Slowly we start to drift away from healthy community.

Before long we can be speaking to 50 people in a day without actually engaging any of them. I get it, believe me. Sometimes Cindi and I (who are together a LOT) find ourselves paused between “that event” and “the next thing.” If we happen to make meaningful eye contact (not always a given), one of us will say, “Who are you?”

How is that we can live with people, be surrounded by people, and still sometimes feel so far from people?

Last Sunday afternoon, I was restless and blah all at once—I’m sure dreading another week of sitting alone with my laptop. But then something unexpected happened. I got into a long and funny text exchange with my friend James Skinner, a recent colleague. (I know what you’re thinking: Text exchange? He lives three miles from you! Go drink coffee! Hey, all I can tell you is this is what happens when you let yourself become Boo Radley. Baby steps, okay?)

Skin is a force of nature. He energizes people. He reminds you of how fun friendship can be. A couple hours of intermittent back-and-forth with him and my social juices were starting to flow.

Skin unknowingly inspired me to call Jim, a talented and hilarious classmate from Dallas Seminary. After we caught up briefly, I returned a surprise phone call from Rod, one of best buds from Slidell High School. Other than assorted Facebook exchanges, Rod and I hadn’t talked in more than 30 years. No matter. We picked right up where we left off! I hung up thinking Why have we let many years pass?

A couple hours later my old roommate Barkef showed up. He was passing through town and wanted to spend the night. For 37 years Barkef has seen me at my best and, more often, at my worst. Through it all, he remains my faithful friend. If that’s not a miracle, there is no such thing. His visit was the perfect ending to a really good day.

Roommates 1987

Writing about friendship in his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis noted our tendency to believe that we go through life choosing our friends. But actually, he argues, friendship is tied mostly to factors beyond our control. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to agree. Rod was my same age and lived right across the street. Jim and I happened to choose the same graduate school. Barkef and I had mutual friends, and in our very first interaction discovered some common interests.

Lewis says that none of this is by chance. “A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of…friends, ‘Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’”

Skin, Jim, Rod, and Barkef are just a handful of the friends God chose to put in my life. On Sunday, whether they know it or not, they acted like tethers. They were gravity to my drifting soul.

Because of them, on Monday morning when I headed down into the mine of nouns and verbs where I now spend most of my days, I told Cindi, “I feel alive.”

Thanks, guys. It’s lonely out in space. I owe you big time.

When the great are not-so-great

Cam NewtonWatching great people struggle produces a curious sensation.

The pro golfer misses a tap-in putt to win the tournament, or the Olympian does a belly-buster on his final dive.

We gasp. We can hardly breathe. Later, though, after the shock subsides, something in us breathes relief.

It’s not gloating (unless—hypothetically—we’re talking about a hyper-brash NFL quarterback who gets humbled in a big game). No, it’s our souls speaking:

See there…even the elite have their off-days. I’m not the only one. And if the best in the world struggle and falter, maybe I shouldn’t feel so hopeless when I fail?

I had one of those moments this week reading about John the Baptist (the guy who served as the “advance man,” if you will, of Jesus).

Raised a Southern Baptist (or “Babtist,” as we liked to say), I always liked John. Partly because the guy dressed in animal skins like Tarzan, ate bugs, and lived in the wild. Partly because he spoke his mind and refused to take guff from anybody. Mostly, I suspect, because I liked to tweak my Catholic friends in religious arguments by saying things like, “How ‘bout that… Jesus’ best friend was a Babtist, not a Catholic.”

If you don’t know, John exploded onto the scene like thunder. He broke every rule of starting a ministry. He set up shop in an out-of-the-way place. He kept saying “in-your-face” things. He was something to behold.

When the religious bigwigs from Jerusalem showed up, John did more name-calling than Donald Trump. His message was a steady dose of urging people to re-think their lives and get ready for something “HUUGGEE.” Heck, he was trending, going viral, back in the day when tweeting was (solely) for the birds.

John never seemed comfortable with all the hype and hoopla. People flocked, but he clearly wasn’t interested in fame or a following. He wasn’t trying to “build a platform” or “establish his brand.” Bottom-line, John wasn’t even about John. His one desire was to point people to Jesus—whom, he was convinced, was the Savior of the world. And he was having success…

Until John learned what most preachers eventually learn: If you live by preaching the truth, you’ll end up dying by it. Railing against sexual immorality one day, he used King Herod as exhibit A. The crowd loved it; Herod’s mistress, not so much. John ended up in the big house.

Sometimes solitude is a good thing—away from all the craziness you’re able to regain a right perspective, and faith gets its second wind. Sometimes, however, solitude is a bad thing—your soul starts churning out questions and hypotheticals. Your mind becomes an echo chamber of a million voices, none of them any good or very helpful

John’s incarceration was the latter. We obviously can’t know his exact thoughts. But from the question he sent his messengers to ask Jesus—“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”—it’s clear this fearless prophet was having a full-on faith crisis.

Jesus answered John’s question wordlessly. He turned, healed the mob of sick people who were clustered about him, then turned back around and told John’s friends, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard.”

After the messengers got out of earshot, Jesus proceeded to tell the crowd that John, the poor guy stuck in Herod’s prison, the prophet who was obviously reeling from a major case of doubt, was the greatest man who’d ever been born.

As a world-class doubter, I find sweet relief in this story. Admittedly, it takes far less than a stint in jail to get me questioning God’s nearness or love or faithfulness. But doubt’s details are irrelevant. If even the great John the Babtist wavered in his faith, then I’m not alone in my struggles to trust God.

More important than John’s doubt, though, I find comfort and encouragement in Christ’s gentleness. His prescription to a doubting follower? “Keep your eyes on me. Watch what I do.”

Most days, I am learning, that is enough.