Saturday, May 6, 2017

Throwing Too Hard

We were up early on a Saturday morning to run a family 5K.  My wife had to work in the afternoon, but we had four unscheduled midday hours.  We put off chores and were just home.  It felt calm but unproductive.  Rest.  Is this what our life has become?  A sliver of peace found in inadvertently unplanned hours in between literal and figurative races and work.  We wanted more.

Author Shauna Niequist tells about a time when she was with friends discussing the future.  "One friend said that a way to get at your desire or dream is to answer this question:  if someone gave you a completely blank calendar and a bank account as full as you wanted, what would you do?  The first thing that leapt into my mind:  stop.  I would stop.  I would rest.  I would do nothing at all." (Present Over Perfect, 2017).  Is this what our culture has become?  A longing for quiet, simple rest - a desperate search for peace.

Noah Syndergaard is a starting pitcher for the Mets.  He's young, strong, and strikes people out.  He's an energy booster to the already rushed hours of the Big Apple.  During the off season he added 17 pounds of muscle and stated that he wanted to top the coveted 100 MPH mark on more pitches this season.  Baseball loves flamethrowers, speed, velocity.  Even at the risk of shortened major league careers because human arms aren't made to throw 120 pitches every few nights at speeds approaching triple digits.  Still we want more.  And youth baseball rewards it.  And most young pitchers that throw that hard for that long in their early years are working in sales before they ever see a baseball scout.  In a recent outing Syndergaard felt a pull, a tightening.  The team recommended an MRI.  He refused.  Instead he went out to pitch again.  He's a hero - playing through the pain, ignoring the warning signs of fatigue.  Synergaard's next start was shortened as the pain pulled him from the game and further testing revealed a lateral muscle tear, his season over.

Niequist vulnerably defines her addictions to performance even when it was detrimental to her well being.  "I thought I needed to be fast and efficient, sparkly and shiny, battle-ready and inexhaustible.  There was, I will be honest with you, a lot of pressure from all sorts of places.  I could be those things and so I was, and then lots of people told me I had a responsibility to do more and more and more.  For a long time, I listened to them."  She continues,   "But what I've learned the hard way is you don't answer to a wide swath of people and their opinions, even if they're good people, with good opinions.  You were made by hand with great love by the God of the universe, and he planted deep inside of you a set of loves and dreams and idiosyncrasies, and you can ignore them as long as you want, but they will at some point start yelling.  Worse that than, if you ignore them long enough, they will go silent, and that's the real tragedy." 

Great stress relievers for me include running and writing.  Sadly, I often turn both into performance metrics, never content with the process, always frown-faced over more miles that could have been logged, more pieces that could have been published.  Never enough.  There is more to do at work and at home and when you're running crazy and keeping busy there isn't enough time to run and write and breathe.  I know it's too much, not healthy and whole.  Yet, things need done.  The fields need harvested and the workers are few.  And the busyness numbs.  Like the food and the drink can, it soothes.   The busyness feels a bit stressful, but eventually it makes you feel less of anything at all.  It masks real relationship for plastic productivity.  And there are seasons in my life when I've grown accustomed to not feeling anything.  Pitching through the pain.  Refusing the MRI.  Losing a season on the bench because I was bull-headed and prideful.  The crowds always applauding me for pitching a few extra innings beyond the allotted pitch count (capacity), until I couldn't.

This isn't about the number of events on the calendar, committee meetings attended, chores marked off the list, or hours logged at the you-name-it.  It's about presence and the peace that's found in just being.  The best times cannot be manufactured, they're organic.  The memorable moments kindle, flame, and bright embers fade into the starry night like a campfire.  Unique, mysterious, magical, beautiful, peaceful, and fleeting.  They're not reproducible. They're God-given and plentiful, yet easy to miss.  I've missed many moments, enjoyed many others.  This season I plan to pitch to my capacity and to ask for help from the bullpen when I need it. I'm going to try and not miss the perfectly green grass of a freshly cut infield, the smell of popcorn and peanuts at the ballpark, and the sweet crack of a wooden bat on a baseball.  I won't miss these things trying to throw 100 MPH.  I will be just where I am, imperfect and present.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Belief

"Not everyone’s gonna believe, but that’s OK. They’ll get there when they get there."  10-year-old Anna Beam, when facing skepticism about her miraculous cure (Miracles from Heaven, 2016).






There is much time and money spent on positioning for our belief.  This is politics.  And some types of marketing. And almost all cable news.  At worst, it's propaganda.  At best, just groups of people drawing very tight circles around their perceptions.  We all believe something even beyond that of public policy or personal consumption, we believe something about life's biggest questions, about meaning.  As Tim Keller notes about faith, even non-belief is belief in something.  We commit our lives somewhere, to a certain set of beliefs.






"I want to believe." The poster hangs in Fox Mulder's office in the TV Show the X-Files, depicting his insatiable quest for truth.






I recently co-taught a Sunday school class with my wife.  We read an except from Heaven is for Real, the account of one child's sneak peek into the afterlife.  We asked the kids what they thought about account.  One young man raised his hand and said, "Here is a fun fact, that book is totally made up.  His Dad made him say it."  Not the start to class we were expecting.    We redirected the conversation from the authority of the book to what they thought heaven might be like.  They excitedly talked over each other for the next 15 minutes.  The kids painted a fantastic image of what heaven might be, a glimpse:




- angels
- gardens and grass
- raindbows and trees
- people from history
- throne for Jesus
- extinct animals
- waterfalls and wildlife
- big churches and the disciples
- colors
- music and flowers
- acceptance
- light all the time
- no fear or sickness
- large temple insidea  golden kingdom






One young man schrunched his forehead, widened his eyes, and responded as if he'd given deep thought to the question many times before.  "There would be a long table. There is food and drink.  The table just keeps getting bigger as more people come.  Anyone can come.  The food never runs out.  No one feels like they shouldn't be there."  And we're left speechless, kids teaching us extraordinary faith.






In this age of internet paranoia and fear-based revoluations, the innocent hope of children is refreshing, like waterfalls and wildlife.  In Matthew 18, it's recorded that Jesus said unless we embrace the humility and faith of children, we'd never see the kingdom of heaven.  I think pure belief  children bring was refreshing for him too, like rainbows and trees.






"Ya gotta believe."  The rallying cry of the '73 Mets prompting a late summer tear back into contention. 






When I'm approach the tee box, I'm hoping the ball doesn't careen off a tree or another player, imagining that it might.  I don't believe that I'll hit it 300 yards down the middle of the fairway.  And most times, I don't.  The worst part of my golf game and, at times my life, is my unbelief.






A child's imagination constantly reshapes what is into what could be, like having a table that only grows with provision in a world of hungry people.   Jesus often made a point to recognize the faith of others.  Notable faith almost always preceeded miracles.  I wonder if that's why Anna Beam was healed.  Or the Mets climbed back into contention. 




Author Donald Miller said "One of the things that gives me hope is that even with all the tragedy that happens in the world, the Bible says that when we get to heaven there will be a wedding and there will be [celebration] and there will be dancing."  This, I believe.


 



Sunday, December 25, 2016

I Believe That We Will Win

This Christmas morning is peacefully surreal alongside a strong sense that something's about to burst.  Like a sunrise, Light about to consume all the shadowy dim.  I'm Christmas-morning excited to watch my family wake with wonder.  I'm filled with life-worry.   I'm wide awake, teeming with anticipation about what's just-around-the-corner in the next season of this gift of a life.  I'm tired and can't sleep.  I'm deeply present in our home, comfortable.  I'm distracted, pushing back the could-haves and should-dos, shushing them quiet.

Everything accelerates just before it slows.  Like Christmas and the New Year.  It's frantic, giddy, full with lists and lights and then it's quickly quiet.  Like January mugs the magic of December.  And we box up the glittery happy, for another season.

Can we hold onto this just a bit longer?  The friends for dinner even when it's inconvenient, the small significant talks with the kids before bed even when it's past time, the waiting hopefully expectant?  We intend to keep it - the happy - the candles and the Silent Nights.  Yet the blistering ice rain still blows in, winter feels like forever, we can't believe summer is almost gone, and where has the time gone?  They'll be setting up for Christmas soon, we say.

My kids make fun of me for my ignorance of their music.  I didn't know about Ju-Ju or his Beat.  However, they do listen to some lyrics with deep truth.  This, from the artist, KB,

Hold the torch up high in the thick dark
The dream works no matter how bad the pics are
Cause I see how bad the globe is
But they don't know how bad our hope is
They don't know how bad we want this
It ain't where we at boy it's where we're going!

Tell the paraplegic that he gon' dance
Tell breast cancer that she won't win
Tell racism that he gon' end
What he doesn't heal now... he gon' then
Let's go!

I believe that we will win...

I do believe that we will win because I've found a Hope deeper than my troubles, like grace waves that wash away the trampled sandscape of life - a smooth canvas for another year, unwritten.

Author Ann Voskamp writes, "The world will be still tonight.  There will be lingering.  Longing.  We will long for this wonder to all go on.  One Christmas candle will flame in the quiet.  This cannot fade - none of this can ever fade.  'For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given (Isaiah 9:6).  God is with us.  God stays with us.  The Christmas candle burns hot, give its Light, gives its Light - and the world lights up, and Christmas goes on forever now." 

And this is how it's kept, how we're kept, all believing that we will win.  Our Hope greater than our fears. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hope in the Policitcal Storm

This piece will run immediately following the election.  I wonder what everyone will do with their revolt, their angst when there is no opposing candidate to target?  What hate will be left to tweet, what positions left to loudly defend?  A pastor friend says the disease of the American middle class is this anger churning just below the surface, eating our souls, and inviting us to numb it away.  This election peeled away the layers exposing that anger, letting the seething discontentment with our comfortable lives ooze. In turn, we blame the open wounds on our neighbor, placing fault anywhere but at our own feet.

Recently, there was a panel discussion on the epidemic of opiate abuse in our county.  Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick asked a question beyond the symptoms, getting to the heart of the matter.  "Why in the history of mankind, the freest and richest society in the world has a large part of its population trying to anesthetize itself to the point they can no longer breathe?"  Perhaps it's this rage against all that's wrong, once provoking us to stand for something that's right.  Now all but snuffed out, there is only a dull trance of disillusionment that remains.  And we try to buy or drink or busy our way from remembering.  We rally and hope a political superhero will lead us to enlightenment.  We conform to the comfortable.

Muhammed Ali rebuked conformity.  The boxing elite stripped him of his titles, the world spewed hate at his values, and he spoke unwaveringly, "I don't have to be what you want me to be.  I'm free to be what I want."  When our hope is built on foundations stronger than political platforms, we are indeed free to be what we want.  Or better, free to whom we've been created to become.

Vin Scully, iconic baseball broadcaster, gave a commencement address that was profoundly simple.  "The world will try very hard to clutter your lives and minds,' Scully told [the students], but the way forward was to simplify and clarify.  'Leave some pauses and some gaps so that you can do something spontaneously rather than just being led by the arm.  Don't let the winds blow your dreams away... or steal your faith in God."  (Sports Illustrated, May, 2016).  Our political season is indeed very noisy.  I pray the winds of rhetoric don't blow away our remnants of hope, faith, and trust. 

I'm disappointed when I have to filter the political ads my children watch on TV because of the content.  I'm saddened that my wife and I have to explain to them the complexities of having to cast a vote for something bigger than just a single candidate, because we find it difficult to support either person given their childish antics.  Yet, we don't want our kids to rage against the machine.

We recently named a new pastor at our church.  His acceptance speech was modest.  He said he was humbled.  He said he was excited to serve alongside this church family.  He said we'd disagree at times, but that we'd learn to navigate through our differences in a loving way.  He said he'd try, imperfectly, to be as faithful to us and to God as God has been to him.   

Perhaps this is our way forward, post-election.  May we be humble.  May we be excited to serve alongside one another.  May we approach disagreements with grace.  And may we try, imperfectly, to be faithful to ourselves, to God, and to our country - as He has been to us.  



 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Waterpark Vocations

I recently went to a waterpark with my family.  It was a great time of laughs, "Dad-watch-this" moments, overpriced hot dogs, and lines that were long but allowed conversation with the kids, so I don't lament.  Throughout the day I notice the music played throughout the park consisted of a 90's playlist.  My kids never heard of many of the songs and told me to stop singing along; I was embarrassing them in front of these strangers they'd never see again.  The music sent me back to my twenties.  I felt relaxed.  I was selfishly free during that season of my life and didn't think much about vocation.  I also didn't carry around the anxiety produced from over-analyzing meaning and purpose that I can drag with me as an adult either.



Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said "What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know... The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do... to find the idea for which I can live and die."  The tension between what we are and what we could be has existed for centuries. Although today we seem to place the ultimate priority on calling.  Identifying and fulfilling one's purpose is a good thing.  Although I wonder if the more we elevate this, the more angst-producing pressure we put on ourselves and others.  I recently heard on the radio that a hyper-focus on calling creates an ideal for the next generation that's quickly disillusioned upon their entry into the real world.  The radio host said that while he believes he's doing what God's equipped him to do, he still only really loves his job some days, is neutral about it most days, and sometimes simply tolerates the work.  His point was that work is often less idealized calling and more mundane, the latter of where God often shows up and we miss Him while frantically looking for the former. 



I wanted to bottle up and keep the feeling at the waterpark.  Everyone had smiles.  I thought that must be a great place to work, everyone all happy and helpful.  I worked at places like this before.  It still seemed like work.



I am constantly looking for meaning in my days.  Am I doing what God's called me to do?  Have I overlooked a God-inspired vision for the sake of comfort?  Am I making the most of my minutes?  I know that I've always wanted to be a Dad and God's blessed me with this.  Andy Stanley said that sometimes our legacy isn't the careers or organizations we build, but in the children we raise.  This gives me hope.  (Semi-spoiler alert for When Breath Becomes Air)... Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi faced death and wrote this to his newly born daughter, "When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.  In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing." 



Paul's words resonate with me.  I love being a Dad and it feels like I'm fulfilling some kind of Divine purpose.  Perhaps the lesson is that our universal calling is to find God's purpose in all of the relationships He's placed before us.  Maybe we need to look at our interactions with our spouse, children, in-laws, colleagues, rivals, and friends with an eternal lens - to stop searching for grand meaning for our lives and invest in the now, to be deeply interested in the face across the table.  That may just be an enormous thing. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Leading Well

A young military leader was in training with his crew.  Each person in the crew was given a single ration of food for each day.  Each person was to take a turn on patrol.  The young leader approached a crew member who was eating his ration of food for the day and instructed him that it was now his turn for patrol. "I can't right now," he said.  "I'm eating."  The young leader smacked the food ration out of his hands, knocking the precious food to the ground, ruined.  The crew member was furious, but now clearly understood the expectations of his responsibility to patrol and the consequences if he did not. 

True leadership consists of providing clarity on what is expected from the team and then holding everyone accountable to that standard.  This directly relates to both building and developing a team.  Author and speaker John Maxwell writes, “If you keep and reward uncommitted or unproductive people, eventually your team will be comprised of uncommitted and unproductive people.  What gets rewarded is what gets done.” 
 
In Matthew's account of Jesus' life, he tells of a time when Jesus entered the temple courts, furious that a place set aside to honor God was being turned into a place where greed had taken root.  Jesus flipped the tables of the money changers and drove out the "den of thieves."  Jesus was angry that boundaries had been crossed.  Everyone that witnessed this display was clear on what Jesus' expectations were, what was acceptable and what was not in this holy place.  Remarkably, He drove out the business owners building their kingdoms with profit shaded grey and made room for the least and lonely, welcoming those who could bring nothing of their own merit for God.

These principles are generally well received in the business world - be sure your team knows what to do and then make sure they do it.   This feels gritty and controllable.   Implemented appropriately, this is important, however it's void if offered without compassion and self-sacrifice.

When the crew member finished his patrol tired and hungry, he found a full ration of food waiting for him.  Later, he discovered it was provided by the young leader who had disciplined him earlier. The young leader ensured clear expectations and demanded accountability, while practicing compassion and self-sacrifice.  Trust sprouted roots binding this crew for the future.  

The Book of Matthew tells of another story where Jesus was predicting His death.  His dear friend, Peter, said that He would never let this happen.  Jesus responded, “Peter, get out of my way...You have no idea how God works.  ...Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self."  (The Message).  Jesus later told Peter that it was on him that the church would be built, giving him mission and identity.  Further, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice of His life to lay a foundation for the full redemption story to take place. 

Mission clarity, individual and team expectations, accountability, compassion, and self-sacrifice are not mutually exclusive in leadership.  It's often perceived that leaders are either firm or compassionate, authoritative or collaborative, unwavering or empathetic.  For the best leaders, these aren't either/or, but rather both/and propositions.   

Sunday, May 15, 2016

True Heroes

Like many kids, my bedroom walls were adorned with posters of my heroes.  Iron Mike Tyson, Dwight Gooden, and Magic Johnson were my American idols.  Sadly, each self-destructed in their prime.  Magic's unfaithfulness produced consequences forcing him out of basketball.  After winning the World Series, Dwight Gooden found himself in a crack house and missing the celebratory parade.  Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world only to find himself in prison a few years later.  Eventually, I came to realize that the attributes I idolized in these all-stars weren't those that make true heroes.  I wasn't looking deep enough, I was simply admiring performance. 

I've told these stories to my sons.  I've told real stories of true heroism, often not found on Sportscenter's Top Ten.  We've talked about courage, faith, hope, and what matters most in a person.

This political season has afforded much conversation about why people choose to vote for a particular candidate.  We've talked a lot about issues and positions.  However, a local State Representative summed it up best when he recently visited the school my children attend.  My son came home and explained that this representative was talking to his class and said that he couldn't support a particular candidate because he simply didn't see any evidence of the fruits of the Spirit in their life.  I realized that, yes, it can be that simple.

In his letter to the ancient church, the Apostle Paul wrote that "when we live God’s way.. He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely" (Galatians 5, The Message).  Most commonly, these "fruits" are referred to as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.  What if these were the platforms from which we voted?  What if these were the measures of success?  What if we chose to take the Bible seriously?

The tragic stories of my childhood heroes each later found redemption to some degree.  Today each tells a story where every forceful grab for happiness resulted in emptiness and ultimately they found the greatest joy in something bigger than themselves.  Attributes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control aren't typically associated with those that breed success in the boardroom or on the playing field.   It's perceived these traits just aren't enough to emerge from the pack and stand out  - to get ahead.  I wonder if we are really are ok with that?  Do we want our heroes, all-stars, and Presidents to downplay the fruits of the Spirits in their lives?  Or worse, to be void of them? 

 I pray that my wife and I will parent in ways that our sons will find heroes whose stories are rich with evidence of the fruits of the Spirit, of life that's truly life.  I know many people whose stories illustrate such a life.  And they aren't on the cover of a magazine or the nightly news.  They are loving and serving the lease of these.  They are showing up when the cameras aren't there, their heroism not recognized in headlines but significant in eternity's landscape.