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Monday, June 26, 2017

Pause. Reflect. Act.

In any given week my clients range across a wonderful spectrum: small business owners, college administrators (presidents, provosts, deans), denominational leaders, executive directors of non-profits, pastors, and sometimes just someone in their mid-thirties trying to navigate a career change. While their contexts vary widely (from the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, all over Southern California), and their responsibilities span from a struggling church of 75 to managing a multi-million dollar budget, invariably I find one thing in common: each person is nearly overwhelmed by the variety of tasks and voices clamoring for their attention. Stress levels are high, imaginary scenarios of quitting everything, buying a van and living off the land are toyed with (#vanlife), and meanwhile email inboxes pile higher every day.

When I come on the scene, I start by spending a great deal of time listening, trying to take in all their concerns and crises, roadblocks and risks, and details and dilemmas. Once that happens, we slowly work together to map a plan forward. Rather than "solve" everything for them, my greater goal is to equip them with some tools for managing the many demands differently. Sure, we do assessments, mind-maps, SWOT analyses, strategic plans and all that, but my job is not finished if I have not had the more important conversation of all: do you have margin in your life? In other words, do you regularly (read, "consistently," "weekly") take time to reflect on your life's purpose, relationships, career and questions?

If this is a whole new concept or things are seriously sideways, I often recommend that a person reads the book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson. It really helps someone sort through the seemingly hopeless tangle of responsibilities and fears surrounding a stressed-out life. 

If reading a book seems like too much to take on, I read an article today that is a great start: Why You Should Make the Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It) from Harvard Business Review. Here is a thoughtful paragraph that comes early on:

At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more nuanced than that. The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.

I am hoping this has won you over into reading the article because it's good (and did I mention it's brief?!). But if you're still coming up with evasive excuses like, "I don't run my own business," or "I'm not really a leader..." I want to stop you up short by slightly modifying the author's list of ways to inch into habits of reflection. Use these questions to start:

What are you avoiding?
How are you helping your friends/family achieve their goals?
How are you not helping or even hindering their progress?
How might you be contributing to your least enjoyable relationship?
How could you have been more clear in a recent conversation/argument?

We live in a noisy world where we can be over-stimulated, distracted, and bored all at the same time. One of the great tragedies of this is that a person is left not even knowing what they think or feel. So before I try to "fix" whatever problem my clients are having, I know it is far better to ask them how they are doing and how we might work together to help them build some self-awareness, self-discipline and self-care. 

Yeah, I'll admit it: that's a lot of "self's." But for me it's analogous to the safety drill on the airplane. (You know where this is going...) Please put the mask on yourself before you try to be everyone else's hero. As the HBR article concludes:

Ask for help. For most leaders, a lack of desire, time, experience, or skill can get in the way of reflection.  Consider working with a colleague, therapist, or coach to help you make the time, listen carefully, be a thought partner, and hold you accountable.

I agree. Turn off your device right now and go do it....

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Treasure Hidden in the Field

For this summer, one of my main tasks has been to do some reading, research and long-term planning related to strategic initiatives in youth ministry and education with the Free Methodist Church in Southern California. Last week I read a book titled Bonhoeffer as Youthworker and it fed me in a multitude of ways. The first section (the majority of the book, really) is a fascinating, very readable biography of Bonhoeffer that especially focuses on the fact that he worked with young people for the majority of his career, and how that shaped his writing and calling.

What I was reminded of so powerfully throughout was Bonhoeffer's classic teaching from Cost of Discipleship, a book I first read in my impressionable 20's. So I am slowly going back and reviewing some of his writing (Life Together as well), which are having new meaning for me as I pray about reformation in the church (especially in the US) as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on Oct 31, 2017.

Rather than wax pathetically on all this, I will simply invite you to cook on Bonhoeffer's words yourself. Allow yourself some time to let them sink in, stir the pot, perhaps trouble you. They certainly have had that effect on me.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?... 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. 

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. 

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. 

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Side note: in more than one conversation, friends and clients have commented on the struggle to make time to read. I am with you on this. Here's a practical article on how to make it happen.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

At Home in This Life ~ Some Thoughts

Occasionally I receive books to review, and to be honest, some go directly into the gift-giving pile. Perhaps their title doesn't grab me, I am already neck-deep in three other books, or the blurb on the back makes no sense to me...

A candidate for the gift-giving pile arrived earlier this week. The title didn't connect for me: At Home in This Life. It looked vaguely like something for stay-at-home moms, which I am not. The subtitle, "Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises" sounded like a line from Lifetime television. Bleah.

But something stopped me: the book felt really good in my hands. I can't quite describe it, but the paper and the heft of it sort of reminded me of the old Sears-Roebuck catalog we got when we were kids. And those invited me to look inside, so last Saturday night I opted to give a test-drive to this book rather than zone out on a movie from Apple TV.

I'm not gonna lie, I nearly put it down a couple of times at the start. I was encouraged by an opening quote by St. Teresa of Avila, but then she starts whining about wanting a house in the country and I rolled my eyes and thought, Not another mommy blogger with first-world problems... I find these books predictable: lots of sentences that pair high contrast words like "beauty" and "mess," "disaster" and "delight," and so on. Then they go on and on about the wonder of life and yet all their struggles, which seem like not-struggles to me but instead are just part and parcel of being an actual grown-up.

Nevertheless, the book kept feeling good in my hands. And when she quoted Phyllis Tickle, the Book of Jeremiah, and St. Benedict, I rallied. By page 49, I was in. In fact, Chapter Seven kicked my butt and challenged me hard. Overall, the book is an interesting balance of simple examples from her life that many women might find easy to connect with, coupled with a rich library of references and quotes from outstanding contemplative and mystical authors, spanning centuries. (The Notes in the back, pages 183-187, list all of those resources and it is an abundant reading list for anyone wanting to learn more about spiritual disciplines and contemplation.

My conclusion overall? I grew somewhat tired of her many examples from her own life (some of which seemed a little contrived and corny), but this was offset by some really good stuff to chew on. One sentence in particular, from a chapter regarding the slow and steady work required for God to heal and transform us, is staying with me:

"Take the vow of Conversion is a fancy monastic way of saying: I now agree to cooperate with God in my own transformation, doing the work set in front of me."

Immediately I thought, "Guilty as charged." All too often I insist on God doing 95% of the work and me stepping in with that reluctant, final 5%. How much better things would be if I would move from arm-wrestling with God to a deeper, reciprocal, interdependent relationship, where I am looking for him everywhere and in everything, choosing to join in what he is up to rather than sticking with my safe and unimaginative agenda. Yeah.

If you are looking for a book that is easy to read and yet pushes you to pause and think about how you are walking through your day-to-day life, this one just might do the trick.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Have Mercy on Me!

Luke 18: 35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

In this gospel account, we see a blind man who actually sees the truth better than those around him. The crowds surrounding Jesus are drawn in by curiosity and the excitement of celebrity. But the blind man (named as Bartimaeus in the parallel account given in Mark 10) is vulnerable and desperate, boldly willing to cry out for mercy.

We live in a country now where the federal government wants to silence the suffering, telling them to "go back to your country where you belong" rather than welcome and comfort them in their pain and loss. But here we see Jesus stopping and listening. He does not order the blind man to be quiet, as those do around him. He stops and asks what he can do.

In Philippians 2:5 we are told "You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had." May we not slam the door on those who need and want mercy, regardless of where they come from. May we do that not out of political affiliation or human pity; rather, may we simply do what our Lord would do. This is not complicated!

And let us not forget that once our friend Bartimaeus received his sight, he saw Jesus in his fullness and "followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God." The American church wonders why her numbers are in decline... we would do well to go back to the gospels and be reminded what we are called to do. If we call ourselves Christ-followers, we must live as Jesus did, with loving, welcoming, merciful arms wide open.

On October 31, 2017 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses, which rocked the church, and soon, the world. Join me in praying for a new reformation, where the church gets back on the path toward the kingdom of God rather than empire. I believe God will grant this prayer if our eyes our open and looking for it.