Sunday, November 8, 2020

What Does Advent Require of Me?


Advent carries an inherent stillness, whispering hope, calm and breezy.   

Yet quiet anticipation is not void of action.  Advent brings energy, channeled and purposeful.  A focus on what lies ahead.  

Micah 6:8 reads, "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."  This passage seemingly offers the same gentleness of advent - a sort of waiting and walking.  Digging deeper, it suggests so much more - a call to boldness; a ferocity to  pursue mercy and humility, requiring both great risk and vulnerability.  Like advent, it's a call to action.    

Author Ann Voskamp writes, "God’s not asking me to produce — He’s asking me to pray. God’s not asking me to climb ladders — He’s asking me to kneel and let go."  Weaving faithful prayer with fervent hope requires letting go of our illusions of control and trusting the Creator to create new realities in the midst of despair.  It's deliberately focused. 

Advent isn't a Hallmark movie wrought with syrupy decadence; us self-indulgent of the sweet shimmery and shallow.  Rather, advent is a season of discipline to deepening our senses and desires into what matters most.  Advent is a call to action.  To believe when believing seems trite.  To lead when defeat snarls loud.  To drop to our knees, not out of desperation but out of expectant hope in preparation for what's been and what's becoming.  Advent is boldly seeking Jesus in a world crying out for Light. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

This is us.

My wife is a fan of the TV show This is us.  I sat through only a few episodes, with the same outcome.  My wife would cry, I'd feel terrible, and we'd both reconsider watching the next week.  I watch TV to escape or be inspired.  Peeling back layers of emotionally heavy insight isn't entertaining to me.  I prefer watching Rocky battle back to defeat Ivan Drago.  Or, Maverick and Iceman coming together to stave off an attack on our country.  I'll even welcome Happy defeating Shooter in the Tour Championship.  Good triumphant over evil.  The underdog who perseveres and achieves.  Who I long to be or who I am on my best day - those stories I'll watch.   

On 9/11, our family walked and talked about remembering.  We told stories of where we were when.  We remembered our country coming together, unified.  Most people looked beyond any differences they had with policy and supported our President.  Stories of compassion and sacrifice were rampant.  Empathy was tangible and did not need to be manufactured.  Unlike today, our current troubles dividing and dissecting us into fractions and factions of ourselves.  Perhaps it's the common enemy.  After 9/11/01, there was a clear, common enemy.  It was "them."  They attacked "us."  Today, the common enemy is, well, it's "us," defined differently by who you ask and witnessed only in yard signs and social media posts.  There is nothing more unifying than a common enemy.  It's what brings us together.  Is that what it takes?  

We talk about this often within my team at work.  We notice our tendency to seek a common enemy amongst ourselves.  We can fall into the ditch of coming together by identifying a "them" within us and aligning our frustrations in their direction.  We combat this by asking ourselves why this is necessary and reminding ourselves we don't need a common enemy to foster energy and motivation.  When tensions rise, we instead ask, "what's my part?"  We consider the following questions proposed in the book Crucial Conversations:  "What is my part of the problem that I am pretending not to notice?"  Because we always carry a part, always own a piece of the problem.    

Perhaps we are just scared to death of death.  Scared to feel?  Too scarred to feel?  It's why I don't really want to watch This is Us, I suppose - truths hitting too close, the revealing of my part, the peeling and the feeling.  Maybe it's our own fear that drives us to define a "them."  Instead of respectably disagreeing and thoughtfully discussing, we shape those differences into defining a "them" among "us," targeting an enemy. The kneelers.  That standers.  The maskers.  The anti-maskers.  The rich.  The poor.  The republicans.  The democrats.  Divide.  Dissect.  Target.  Aim.  We take our fear, insecurities, and our frustrations and mold them into weapons of anger and spew the vile.  All while being affirmed through the clicked Likes and Loves of those numbing their feelings in the same way.  This is us. 

There is another way.  But, we have to change.  Rocky did, right?  And Drago killed his best friend.  Through the film, you see Rocky begin to own his part.  "During this fight, I've seen a log of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you.  In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that's better than twenty million.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!"  

When we recognize that we have a part in what's gone wrong, healthy guilt can help us change.  Author Brene Brown writes, "While shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying, guilt is negatively correlated with these outcomes. Empathy and values live in the contours of guilt, which is why it’s a powerful and socially adaptive emotion. When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behaviour that doesn’t align with our values, guilt – not shame – is most often the driving force.”  We can change.  This, also, is us.  

Further, in her book Dare to Lead, Brown positions the power of empathy as integral to effective leadership.  "A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions."  It's in seeing "them," hearing "them," listening to "them," and learning from "them" that we find true empathy.  And empathy brings connection which brings understanding foundational to change.  We must become better.  Author and blogger Ann Voskamp illustrates this desire to see "them" in a prayer for her daughter when she writes, "May she be dead to all ladders & never go higher, only lower, to the lonely, the least & the longing Her led of the Spirit to lead many to the Cross that leads to the tomb wildly empty."  

The secret we know is the common enemy is ourselves.  Our failures, shame, and regrets churning anger that percolates undetected until we don't even realize why we're so unhappy.  We just know we're pissed off.  And we assume it's because of "them."

I believe only Jesus changes that.  Because it's only Jesus that truly changes me.  I can tweak and tailor myself to become better through self-help lessons and life hacks, but only Jesus uproots the deep pride, selfishness, and lack of empathy that makes me so disappointed in others.  He intercepts the negativity and criticism I so easily sling at others by shaving back the shame that lies deep within me. 

There is so. much. hope.  For me, for us.  It's soul-deep joy and perfect peace found in relentlessly pursuing the "other" with ridiculous grace, unmerited.  Us imperfectly mirroring what He does.  Christ within, this. is. us.  


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Returning to Normal?

I once served on a leadership team where each person had to share our personal story.  Not our milestones in terms of graduation and relationship dates, but our layered and complex story.  As someone newly introduced to any kind of real vulnerability, this was difficult for me.  I gave it my best, but, immediately, had buyer's remorse and wanted to recount all I shared.  At least nuance it to make the rough edges more palatable.  I was certain the group was thinking how to rescind my role on the team due to my messiness.  They barely blinked, just accepted me as I was, and went on to share their own broken stories.  "It's interesting how many of your memories are framed around sports."  Their only comment.

We're somewhere around 40 days in a world without organized sports.  When the dominoes of suspended seasons fell, I was deeply disturbed.  Sports has always served as my escape.  A fantastic world of failure and triumph.  Rejection and redemption.  Stories continually being rewritten.  A place where there is always, always hope.  Because there is always next season.  Until there wasn't.  

There Bible tells of the Apostle Paul, who struggled with some kind of affliction, the details of which are not offered in the text.  Paul continued to ask God take away this difficulty.  He says that God responded with simply, "my grace is sufficient."  Keep going, I'm here.  You have everything you need to do the next right thing; God assured Paul.

My wife and I watched a documentary on minimalism.  It's mostly a story of contentment in a manner that's counterculture - consuming less to find more.  With a life mostly void of extremes, I've rarely felt like I fall into any category of irresponsible consumption.   Yet, I know that I do.  I over-indulge in busyness, pressure, Rhino-fries, Amazon, media, affirmation from others, and even sports I suppose.  I consume to distract or numb, chasing contentment.  It's like contentment is somewhere - just. out. there.  If I can only turn enough dials o get it right, I'll find the recipe for peace.  It's knowing that God is enough, but not willing to risk it all on that promise.  Because what if His grace isn't enough?

I've been enduring this difficult season of sheltering and waiting for what has to be just around the corner.  Another week or two or four and we'll be past this and onto normal.  We know that won't be the case.  It won't be back to normal.  This pandemic has reshaped us in ways that we'll continue to discover for years to come.

I pray everyday for healing, for more life and less death, and simply that "our hopeful lungs can breathe again, oh, we can breathe again" (Artist: For King and Country.  Song: Burn the Ships).  At the same time there is a normalcy to which I don't want to return.  I don't want to snap back to a normal that distracts me from what matters most.  Or slip carelessly down the spiral of consume, work, consume, earn, consume, achieve, consume, distract... 

There is a choice in all of this.  We don't have to jump back on the merry-go-round that someone else is spinning.  We can turn from chaotic consumption and re-engage our lives with vigor and purpose, thoughtfully and strategically choosing where our time and attention is spent.  It will take intentionality.  It will require us to believe in the depths of our soul that God's promise is true.  His grace is sufficient.  We are loved.  And that is enough.  
As I consider this new way, these lyrics resound,
"Burn the ships, cut the ties
Send a flare into the night
Say a prayer, turn the tide
Dry your tears and wave goodbye

Step into a new day
We can rise up from the dust and walk away
We can dance upon our heartache, yeah
So light a match, leave the past, burn the ships
And don't you look back

(Artist: For King and Country.  Song: Burn the Ships)

May we rise up out of the heartache of this pandemic and step into a new day, rich with hope, deep with contentment, and overflowing with God's grace.   May we find each day gifted to us to be enough.    

And, yes, sports cannot return quickly enough.  A place where there is still always next season. 

Monday, January 27, 2020


On Saturday, I sat with my Sixth Grader and reviewed his PowerPoint presentation he was preparing for school.  He could do it on any topic and he chose Kobe Bryant.  Undoubtedly influenced by his Dad's many years of touting Kobe's accolades, the choice of topic was natural for him with limited research required.  We tweaked the PowerPoint.  We watched a half hour of YouTube videos highlighting Kobe's top performances. And we watched them again, legendary.

That evening, we rushed home from the school basketball games to watch the Lakers game.  Lebron James was about to surpass Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time scoring list.  Our entire family surrounded the TV and watched the game.  My Ninth Grader spewed stats building the case for Kobe vs Lebron.  I traded texts with friends, sharply debating the greatest-of-all-time.  The same conversations echoing throughout sports bars worldwide.

On Sunday afternoon, I was cleaning out the garage.  The Sixth and Ninth Grader played basketball in the driveway, breaking to check their phones for whatever it is they check their phones for incessantly.  My oldest read the tragic news on the screen, "Dad, Kobe died."

And so it was, the rest of the day following TV news tickers and breaking reports.  The overflow of social media overwhelming the senses with emotion.  Kobe, his daughter, beloved others - all lost.  It felt surreal.

I had the opportunity to see Kobe perform on many occasions, including two NBA Finals appearances one in L.A. and one in Philadelphia.  Stories I'll tell forever.  My boys grew up watching the tail end of his career live while resurrecting his former best moments on YouTube.  The boys and I watch his final game a few times a year, the night he dropped 60 points on the Utah Jazz when the cheering at the Staples Center seemed like it would never end even as his basketball career was doing just that.   It felt like we knew him.

We only really knew what he brought to the court or what the media shared about his personal life.  We didn't know the husband, the friend, the father.  We do know the tragedy of loss, the Sixth and Ninth grader navigating through it earlier this season.  

The importance of Kobe to our family isn't about the man, it's about the moments we shaped around him.  The loss runs deep, something evocative about those moments - watching so many games with my family, practicing Kobe's fadeaway jumper in the driveway, the way that my boys say "Kobe" after every nice basketball move they make, and the #24 jersey that is now-too-small for the Sixth Grader - hanging historic in his room.

A loss magnified to the world reverberates home.  We can all relate, past moments achingly remembered and future moments that were expected now without.  It shakes us, the spotlight of this moment awakening our emotions numbed from the blue light of busyness.  We're always too busy, until we're not.  The world pauses - a timeout.

One of the greatest joys of my life is coaching basketball.  I've coached pre-K to seniors and in every season there is a lesson.  When I join the CCA Middle School boys on the court this afternoon, I wonder what lesson we will mine from this tragedy.  I suspect there are a few:  Work hard, as there is no substitute.  Make your teammates better, raise the bar, and inspire others.  Appreciate the moments, they are fleeting.   

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Serve the Team First

I have had the opportunity to lead in a variety of roles serving both the for-profit and non-profit communities.  I've also had the opportunity to do what I love the most, coach basketball, for over twelve years.  In each context, I continue to see the organizational paradigm of serving the team first as paramount to success.   

To build corporate culture, promoting "pillars of culture," where the team believes that if they consistently aim to display behaviors reflecting these "pillars," the kind of service-oriented culture they envision will evolve.  I believe one such "pillar" is to "serve the team first."  This embodies a desire to show up everyday with a mindset to out-serve one another.  In a similar vein, author Andy Stanley says an ideal marriage is a race to the back of the line.  It is putting aside our need to be first, to be right, and to win and instead focus on serving others well.  Its an intention to exceed the expectations of co-workers which ultimately leaks into the experience of those being served.  

This tenet has roots in an approach made famous by Southwest Airlines who places employee happiness above customer satisfaction.  Southwest, who has been named among the top performers by the US Department of Transportation, says, "We believe that if we treat our employees right, they will treat our customers right, and in turn that results in increased business and profits that make everyone happy."  

Additionally, serving the team first helps create a context to shift  to a more positive mindset.  In any team, there needs to be a rooting out of the negative approach where serving each other only when it's deserved to one where there is delight in helping others be successful.  

In 2015, Kari Leibowitz, a PhD student at Stanford University studied the seasonal effects on mental health in Norway.  In an environment of long winters, their rates of seasonal depression were relatively low.  As she began asking people, "Why don't you have seasonal depression," the answer was, "Why would we?"   In Norway, "people view winter as something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured," and that makes a difference.  This mindset of seeing the winter as something to celebrate not just tolerate is important.  "One of the things we do a lot in the States is we bond by complaining about winter," says Leibowitz.  "It's hard to have a positive wintertime mindset when we... [speak so] negative[ly] about winter." (Vanderkam, Fast Company, 2015).  In the same way, teams that see challenges as opportunities they engage together more traction toward success.  Teams that bond over serving each other and their communities well, in spite of the challenges that may arise have deeper roots to not be swayed by the storms.    

Finally, serving the team first is inspired the Christian faith. The apostle Peter wrote to the early church, "God has given each of you a gift... use them well to serve one another."  I believe that serving each other well is how God designed us to live in community with each other.  Service originating from what God did for us, not on how it's earned among our relationships.

Serving the team first is integral to creating the type of culture hoped for in many organizations.  In the teams on which I've had the opportunity to serve, we've found this to be true: on our best day, we exceed the expectations of our team members by going above and beyond to serve them well.  And that spills over to those we serve as they receive an experience that builds a relationship rather than simply processes a transaction.  It's a mindset.  A practice.  A deep-rooted way of viewing others that shapes how we see the world, including what it means to be successful.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Hope for a New Year

An email announces what’s known, a friend and mentor is gone too soon.  The subject line sits among the Christmas clutter of an inbox and it’s the only one I see.  Well wishers and joy givers call silent and the computer screen blinks dark.  Memorial service information forthcoming.  The cancer defeated his body, but never touched his soul.

Everyone’s uncle was lost this year too, unexpectedly tragic.  Veteran’s Day is made to remember and we will.  We cannot forget.  He talked football Sunday and walked into eternity Monday.  Why, God, can we never know our time? Or theirs?  So that we never let last moments become lost moments, unknowingly.  He wouldn’t have wanted a send-off or a goodbye.  We wish we could have at least said thank you, once or again.

This Christmas magic seems marred by the muck of it all.  Loss lingering behind the carols.  Our chosen tree glimmers hopeful white lights, signs of life. The less water it takes daily signifying an end. The tree, this season.  In the end, is all lost?

Our new friends, joined mostly in prayer, wait for a bed at Hopkins.  The same cancer that took the mentor, burrowing deep into this father.  A good man.  His family sorts stockings and holds onto hope, faith falls on hearts heavy.

God, help me to see deeply - Through= the fog of funerals into candles flickering hope.  Author Ann Voskamp writes, “Looking comes first if you’re ever to find the life you want... always, always - first the eyes.  Joy is a function of gratitude, and gratitude is a function of perspective.  You only being to change your life when you begin to change the way you see.”  (The Greatest Gift).

There is so much good.  I know it, I just need to feel it - I remember.   I’ll call it out until it reverberates in my bones.  See it and say it.  The God-joy unearthed among the barren ground.  Seeds of life deep within.  It’s the light of Christmas, new year renewal, the world hopefully expectant.

Our friends leave for Haiti the day after Christmas.  Pausing the sparkle of Hallmark Christmas’ to see the least and the lonely and to tell them they’re loved.  Making room in their inn.  There is always room to invite others in.

Other friends wait for emergency placement of a foster child.  Ready to receive the rejected.  Prepared to set another place at the table, not when it’s convenient, likely when it’s clearly not.  Their heart breaks for the broken.  Them, all broken and healing, healing others.

Voskamp continues, “Maybe sometimes the miracle begins by growing not in bitterness but in faithfulness - because, for all its supposed sophistication cynicism is simplistic.  In a fallen world, how profound is it to see the cracks?  The radicals and the reflective,... they are the ones on the road, in the fields, on the wall, pointing to the dawn of the new Kingdom coming, pointing to the light that breaks through all things broken, pointing to redemption always rising and the Advent coming again. Brilliant people don’t deny the dark; they are the ones who never stop looking for His light in everything.”  

God, this year, may I see beyond the dark to the glorious light always coming with each new day dawning.  Miracles in the mundane.  Hope for a new year.  

Saturday, September 14, 2019

It's Not About Me.

I know a local businessman whose love for people cannot be hidden.  His faith, humility, and generosity fuel his leadership.  His altruism leaks, it's not manufactured.  He has cancer.  He is naturally, deeply positive.  I am anxious that if I see him, he'll see right through my forced optimism.  And I wonder how I make it all about me.

I did not know a pastor who made national news this week, tragically taking his own life.  He seemingly worked tirelessly advocating for mental health and suicide prevention.  I read and re-read the Instagram post from his wife, showing a video of him playing with his kids only hours before he was gone.  I'm heartbroken for his family.   I'm sad for his church.  I wonder why I'm not doing enough to help others.  And it becomes about me. 

Singer/songwriter Dave Matthews opines, "[we] wake up... making plans to change the world while the world is changing us."  I wrestle with whether I'm using my God-given gifts, if I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, living on purpose.  Or, if in the midst of all my planning, the world's simply churned me into it's machine.  Am I just a producer feeding the system, building my nest egg until I realize it's gone.  The movie's ended and I'm the only one left in the theater.  Christian rap artist KB provokes, "In the beginning...we would give anything... you could take everything you just give me the King - But the fire faded - I just wanna retire with savings - Are you the safest when the world [is] loving you or had enough of you?  Who's in more danger: the persecuted or the comfortable?"  Am I in danger?  Because it's about me. 

Yet when I begin to lament the what-should-have-beens, I sense something else.  A softer, louder voice.  It says you aren't in control.  The notion brings great angst.  And freedom.  They say you can't feel fear and joy simulatanously.  I can feel angst and freedom at the same time.  If I'm not in control, then it's not up to me.  But, if it's not up to me, it can't be about me.  And that's the point.   It's not about me. 

The local businessman has changed my life and he doesn't even know it, I should tell him with urgency.  The pastor sadly surrendered himself while savings others, I pray his families knows the ripples into eternity he has made in his efforts to help others.   As for my purpose, I need to continue to redirect my focus from inward to outward.  It's never about me.

I write a note at that the top of my running To Do List at work.  The yellow legal pad reads, "Build people, not companies."  If I start there, with the person in front of me, can I go wrong?  Refuse to make it about me.   Author Daniel Pink writes about creating your life sentence.  Mine continues to be, "Matt loved God, served others, deeply valued time with his family, and ultimately found life to be enough."  Is that enough?  

I enjoyed a great night tonight at a concert with my family.  Singer Jen Ledger talked between songs about her battle with anxiety and fear.  In the subsequent song, she sings, "I'm still awake - I won't go away - It's gonna take more than you can bring - Calling my name - Heaven is calling my name."  It's that still-small voice, whispering our name, calling us to one-more-round.  We're more than we believe we can become.  It's hope in the storm.  Faith in the midst of doubt.  "I may be broken - But I'm not done - I'll go on fighting, while there's breath in my lungs." (Not Dead Yet, Ledger).  There is always hope.  Because it's so much bigger than me.