Catalyst

Learning from Life and Leadership

Thanksgiving Before Christmas: Making Giving Better

On the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas Cookies album is a song called Ordinary Days. It’s not a traditional Christmas song.
 
In it, the writers Steve Bogard and Rick Giles captured more than holly,
snow, and nativity scenes. They put a tear in the eyes of Christmas.

 

The song speaks to what you should give for Christmas. None are from big box stores or online shopping sites. None need coupons or credit card numbers.

 
That’s because they are too expensive. The song describes the ordinary days of our culture:
 
  • The stuffed feeling after the Thanksgiving feast.
  • The people who feel the hope they have for the Lord they serve.
  • The McMansion with a fire in the fireplace.
  • The summer barbecue and softball games.
 
What if you could wrap up an ordinary day and give it away?
 
  • If you could take half of the food you eat on Thanksgiving and give it to someone hungry, would you?
  • If you could put a bow on your faith and give it to the person who is at the end of his rope, would you?
  • Suppose you could package the warmth of your home and give it to someone living under a bridge. Would you?
 
The trouble with affluence is not what we have. God is the source of blessing, and we should be thankful…everyday. Yet, our plenty lulls us into the stupor of average. We live our lives until they become drab and overlooked.
 
Joy comes when you put your head on a pillow every night and thank God for your extraordinary, ordinary days.
 
I love the song (and own the CD). More importantly, I aspire to what it whispers in my soul.
 
Do you appreciate your ordinary days enough to cherish them?

Open Hearts or Locked Doors: The Church Security Dilemma

Church shootings seem to fill headlines on the crawls at the bottom of cable news networks. America saw death at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Then it visited Antioch, TN at the Burnette Road Church of Christ. Last Sunday it rained its terror on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. The latest killing spree took the lives of 26 people whose simple goal was to worship God that day.

Each round poured out of the barrel of a butcher’s weapon raises the blood pressure of church members and church leaders alike.

We have hard questions without simple answers. (If it were easy, we would have already done it.)

How open are churches to be? Are we to welcome but look at them with suspicious eyes. Some lock doors but what message does that send. Churches that want to engage the world with the love of Jesus, but they now must struggle to be welcoming but cautious. That last statement seems both two-faced and paranoid.

We are not unique to the tension between faith and fear. The first-century church worshipped and believed under threat. The threat did not deter them.

  • Look at Acts 4. Fire-breathing persecutors were jailing and executing apostles. In the midst of that terror, the group gathered to pray for strength.
  • Peter warns in his first letter of the sweeping tide of official oppression which tried to stamp out Christianity.
  • Revelation shows the accomplished feat with John’s flesh seared from hot oil banished to the rock of Patmos.

In all the New Testament, talk of church security is missing. Christian living and teaching that changes lives and destinies occupied their minds, not their protection. People died for their faith.

So why are we concerned? It is because of a swing in American society. In our experience churches were “sacred.” A person could shoot up a bank or blow up a courthouse, but no one touched a church. It was God’s house.

The secular and scientific society of modern times yanked away the sacred from the church. It has become an institution of superstitious people and backward thinkers. Instead of sacred, the world paints a bulls-eye on religion as something to removed.

So we balance two ideas.

Do we become a fortress to keep the world out? When my father was in Navy boot camp, he told the story of the drill instructor on the first day pointing at the big fence. “That,” he said, “is to keep ‘them’ out, not keep you in.” Is that the mentality of the church? We can wall up the glass, build high fences, conduct pat-downs of visitors, and install metal detectors. Is that the church you want?

The second idea is to be a beacon to a darkened world. We are open to sharing God’s word, and help hurts. That comes with risks. Are we prepared to take risks?

Many possible answers can float to the surface but don’t answer that question.

Church leaders regularly survey this situation. (The church I serve had a discussion last Wednesday night.) My congregation has taken steps and will continue to take more. Thoughtful leaders are trying to be both safe and evangelistic. It’s a tough balancing act.

What do we do?

We must recognize a central fact. Evil is real.

Secular society cleanses it with words like mental illness or social isolation. Those are simple disguises. At the root is the evil which is what Jesus’s church seeks to attack. Letting evil control the agenda is never the answer.

While it is important to explore what to do when it happens, it becomes vital to plan for how to prevent it. No one…no one wants someone shot or killed in any church anywhere in the world.

Of all the security audits given to me at my congregation, most have a single thread. Be situationally aware. Know who comes into the building and know why. Put eyes on entrances and know how to look for possible problems. A friendly conversation can uncover tension and trouble brewing.

In short, pay attention to people. That’s a foundation of effective evangelism and good security.

The reality is while we talk about security, we will always feel the tension of safety and salvation. We make choices to do both.

At the end of the day, we trust God and make preparations. May God protect churches and help church leaders find the best solution.

The Tree

I spend my mornings reading, reflecting, and planning at a local coffee shop. As a creature of habit, I tend to sit in the same booth to think, brood, create, and calm. It has been a morning routine spanning many years.
 
Outside of the window is a tree. When I started going to the coffee shop, the tree was newly-planted. It was a spindly 6 feet tall requiring stabilizing stakes to hold it upright.
 
Through the seasons I have watched God paint it a fall umbra. The wind would whip it to and fro in the spring. An overcoat of snow covered its branches in winter. The summer doldrums brought a stillness to its limbs as emerald leaves hung limp.
 
Every season it would grow. Over time, it edged upward in solitude and outward until it has more than doubled its sapling height. It spring leaves would burst from bud, and the fall winds would let the leaves settle to earth.
 
As I watch the tree, I measure my own life, not life of the cottonwood. In it I see seasons pass. Each change of seasons reminds me of the passage of time. Children born, married, grandchildren are part of the seasons. With the good comes the passing of time. The hair becomes snowy. The joints stiffen. The hearing dims. It’s all part of the changing of the human leaves.
 
The tree reflects our lives. We all pass through the seasons of life, and we all change in those seasons. Some create warmth while others portray starkness. The seasons come and go, without our wishes. All alter through the seasons.
 
The tree grew through the seasons. Inside of its bark is the-the archeology of its life in the hidden rings. We have one advantage over the tree. Our growth is not determined by DNA but by action and choice. We choose the path of growth or allow the entropy of inaction to settle into our souls.
 
The seasons change. We change. Are you growing through your seasons as the tree does?

Do You Believe in Magic? Three Beliefs To Give Up for Progress

It took centuries to collect the stories that would become A Thousand and One Nights. One character, the best known, was not in the original.

It is the tale of a magic lamp stumbled upon by a peasant named Aladdin. A Frenchman named Antoine Galland added the story of Aladdin in the 18th Century.

Aladdin’s story of finding a lamp and rubbing it to get a genie who grants three wishes resonates with us all. We long for what Aladdin had.–a magic lamp to give us whatever we want, including me.

In short, most of us believe in magic. In a technological age of wonders, we expect drugs to take away disease, devices that answer our questions, and gadgets to dispel our boredom.

Do you believe in magic? Let’s find out.

Believing in Magic

We want easy answers to difficult problems that that took months or years to create.

Organizations retreat into magic. Starting a new program, building a new building, hosting a unique seminar, or listening to a special speaker will solve our dilemmas.

And most do something along those lines, yet the problems remain.

We do it with our personal challenges as well.

In 2012, people spent over 69 billion dollars on lottery tickets. If I hit the right combination of numbers, I can be rich. I don’t have to save, work, earn, or invest. The money drops in my lap.

It doesn’t take much of an internet search to find a pill, supplement, or workout that’s a miracle. It can, in 5 days, transform you into someone who is 20 pounds lighter and ten years younger. When I was a kid, the going thing was fitness belt. A person would put it around their waist, hook the ends to two rotating arms, turn it on and it would “shake the fat away.”

Writers sit in front of blank screens waiting for inspiration to hit. (I know because I have done it many times.)

We do these things, and so much more. It’s because there has to be a lamp with a genie inside. Rub it and, “poof.” It is ours.

The Marks of Magic

How can you tell if you believe in magic? See if any of these resound in your mind.

I want it now.

We take a lifetime gaining weight but want it off next week. If I pop a pill, it will make me svelte and ripped. It’s always overnight.

On Friday afternoons, an organization puts in a new software program. On Monday morning, they expect growth in sales.

The longer you need to wait for results, the more you believe in magic.

I want it easy.

Be honest. None of us likes to sweat. We abhor risk. Sacrifice is not even in our vocabulary. We have been promised “quick and easy” for so long we believe it.

When we believe we can have something without effort and heartache, we believe in magic.

I want it my way.

We tend to come up with solutions and answers that allow us to stay the same as we are. We want it convenient. We need to “like it.” We want changes that don’t change us but change everyone and everything else so we can feel comfortable.

We rationalize this infantile sense by saying, “it will be best for everyone” when it means “I like it that way.”

The sense is “I get what I want in the way I want it.” (That’s what my preschool grandchildren believe.)

Magic has three mantras:

  • I want it now.
  • I want it easy.
  • I want what I want.

 

The Terrible Truth About Magic

Albert Einstein observed, “we cannot solve our problems with the same problems we used when we created them.” It takes a change from believing in magic.

If the solution were easy, we would have already done it. We would have saved the money, stayed on a diet, made the calls, and written the novel.

The only way forward is to stop believing in magic. Magic is a story, a legend, but not an effective strategy to solve problems in our lives or our organizations.

Give up your ideas for a greater good. What I or any group wants is unimportant as what is best for all. One of the marks of realism is to accept the fact you cannot have everything you want.

Put in the hard work every day. Single events, such as a motivational speaker or session, do not produce results. It is better to put together a process that, when worked over time, pays dividends.

Lengthen your timeline. Things worth doing take a lifetime, not a day. How patient can you be to do the hard work? Michelangelo took over four years (but we don’t know how much over) to paint the Sistine Chapel.

If you find the magic lamp, let me know. But I am not holding my breath.

Turning Success on Its Head

Seldom do you find Genghis Kahn held up as a role model!

Book Cover

Book cover of Barking Up the Wrong Tree

That is what Eric Barker does in his new book, Barking up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong. In it, you find other interesting characters who illustrate principles of success. Included is a diverse cast of characters such as Einstein, hostage negotiators, Emperor Norton (who called himself the Emperor of the United States), and the Navy Seals.

Barker writes a practical and widely-read blog called Barking Up the Wrong Tree. (Note: I have read his blog for some time.) Barker brings insights revealed by extensive research into the time-worn subject of success.

You will not find the typical “think it, live it” banality that flows so from the hundred of internet sites devoted to the subject. Barker takes a different approach. He asks, “what works?” and then opens a window to fresh thinking about a stale subject.

In the book, he stands up the usual cast of characters (long hours, networking, etc.) and gives them the third degree. It makes for a compelling book. He simplifies complex and scary terms to make them understandable. In many of them, the scary mask comes off. It is a much more useful work than the usual diet of self-help books and websites.

My gleanings include:

  • Networking is vital for success but scares us. The word leaves us with sweaty palms and the aroma of greasy manipulators. Instead, he simplifies it to, “be a friend.” Barker details the simple formula for being a friend: give more than you get. (The getting always comes later).
  • Friendship grows from authentic listening, a lost art in modern society. To listen you have to hear the words and the emotions. Until you listen well, you can never connect with another human being.
  • The standard benchmarks for happiness (money, possessions, and position) are wrong. Connection with others brings happiness, not having things.
  • Make a plan and have a goal. Most people wait for life to happen to them rather than doing something about their lives.
  • Success is not what you do or an amount of money or a position or title. It is aligning what you do with who you want to be.

 

Barker writes in the same easy-to-read and humorous vein as his website. It is one of those books I plan to go back and read again to gain new insights.

Getting More By Going Slower: The Power of Disfluency

We like things that are easy. Our minds like to conserve energy for more important things.

The problem comes when we encounter information. The more information we have, the less we can think . (Having choices is fun. Choosing is agonizing.) We feel like the mythical Tantalus who was punished by being submerged up to his neck in water with food hanging above his head just out of reach. He could not drink or eat, even though both were plentiful.

Technology is our power and our crutch. Phones, tablets, and laptops are ubiquitous. The grease the path so that we don’t have to use our minds. Elementary school children ask school offices to use the phones but then ask, “do you know my phone number?” The number is stored in “favorites” but not accessible to memory.

I have presented lectures and materials to college students. As I talk, they typed. They capture the information but don’t learn the lesson. (I know because I asked their opinion of something I said. They had to go back and read it off the screen but did not give an insight.)

It is too easy. We need to make it harder. That’s where the concept of disfluency comes in.

Fluency is about ease and speed. A person “fluent” in a language does not labor to speak and understand it. When a person is “disfluent” their natural way of mental processing gets interrupted.

My introduction to disfluency came in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He details a Cincinnati school that was the worst in the state. So in true modern fashion, the answer was simple. Throw technology at it. Data by the reams sizzled on memory chips and accumulated on hard drives. Parents received reports and teachers could pour over scores, means, and averages. Armed with this array of technology, it would seem it should solve the problem. It didn’t. Only when teachers wrote out data (by hand) on an index card for each child did things change. They slowed down long enough to see patterns.

Disfluency changes speed to absorb information rather than going fast enough to gather it. We have outpaced our brains.

Princeton University studies show that students who took notes on laptops collected twice as much information as their slower handwriting peers. At test time, it was different. Those who took notes by hand scored twice as well as the technological gatherers.

What does disfluency mean to you?

You have to decide whether having the information is more important. If you want to learn, slow down. Take a different approach. I discovered this by accident. I eat at a restaurant with a sign I have always seen but never read. One day, I saw it on the other side of the glass. The letters were backward. It intrigued me, and I started to make it out. Only by looking at the backward sign did I pay attention to the message on the front.

I am far from a Luddite who despises technology, but I have learned to use disfluency to learn and do more. I have gone back to paper for some things.

Use Paper to Take Notes

I have a Bible study program that lets me cut and paste lines of notes. I tried it for a while and did not get anything out of it. I had information without understanding. When I took out a legal pad and pen and took notes on the same material, I captured less and understood more.

Use Paper to Make Lists

Powerful computer programs track of my tasks and projects. I am glad to be able to capture the information. I need it. When it comes to my daily plan, I write down my top three things to do today in a paper notebook and keep a sidebar of all the things I need to pay attention in the week. My college-ruined scrawl fills the handwritten page. It takes longer to make the lists, but I do more than when I look at a list of 100 projects and my 97 next actions. Paring it down and just writing down with a ball point pen on paper focuses my mind.

Use Paper to Think Through Projects and Problems

I use an outliner program to create outlines. When I get stuck, I resort to the yellow pad and a pen. I can outline, scratch out, mark up, etc. without much effort. As my brain pours it out, thoughts come together that don’t occur to me while I am tapping away.

When you feel confused, turn away from the screen and get the paper and start writing. The process of slowing down will focus your mind and sharpen thinking.

How could disfluency help you?

 

What Are You Doing Here?

Western society is transient. We ask kids question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” A man once asked me, “what is your ambition for the future?”
 
Life tugs at our heart to “be” somewhere else rather than where we “are.”
 
In John 11, Jesus finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Lazarus, his good friend, is sick. Everyone assumes he will rush southward to Bethany to heal his friend. Jesus remains there. (Many have decided that’s because he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead.) There’s a simpler answer. When he was at a place, Jesus did what he could while he was there. He was not looking forward but looking now.
 
Paul, the apostle to the world, had global plans. He was the consummate itinerate preacher moving from place to place. He never “plowed another man’s field.” Sometimes he had “wasted time” such as a prison stint at Philippi. He was busy, and now some trumped-up charge landed him in a dark jail hands and feet in stocks with back cramping. There was work do to…somewhere. The somewhere was in that jail at that time. An earthquake shook open wooden doors and clicked open locks. No one moved with all the doors open. It was Paul’s chance to escape, but standing there in front of him was a jailer panicked with terror for the life he would lose for his failures. It was this man that was Paul’s focus.
 
Too many times we make plans for the future. What would you do if you had more time, more money, more talent? Instead, what can do you do today, in the place you are, with the people around you? The greatest opportunities are not “there and then” but “here and now.”

Must, Should, Could and Do: 4 Words to Sort Your Life

Life’s phone keeps ringing, like the telemarketer at dinner time. Many opportunities, requests, and demands come to your life. PTA meeting notices come home in backpacks. Dinner invitations arrive in the mail. Friends say, “can you help me out with this small thing?” Most of what arrives on our plate is a matter of volume, not importance. A few “little things” snowball into an avalanche that sweeps you away.

Some believe they are Superman, able to vault any challenge and give unlimited time. It does not take long before you realize there is more to do than there is “you” to do it. Others let things fall through the cracks. People get disappointed or angry when you don’t respond after saying yes.

Before you say “yes” or “no,” ask three questions.

What do I need to do? Some demands in life are uniquely yours. No one can take them off your shoulders. You are responsible for your child. You are the one married to your spouse. You may find yourself in the position of needing to care for an aging parent, and no one else is around. Some responsibilities in life belong to you. What individual responsibilities do you have that you will answer to God for one day?

Could I do it? Many things we could do, but it would not propel us toward our goals. A group asks you to serve (or chair) a committee. Your child’s teacher calls and needs someone to coordinate school parties this year? Can you do it? You get an invitation to a gathering your “need” to attend. Do you go? Because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Does it take you away from something more important? Remember that every yes is in someway a no to something else. Will it take more time than you have? Does it help you become what you want to be in life? The lists of “could’s” is lengthy.

Should I do it? This question is the sticking point with many. Are you the right person to do this? Can someone else do this as well? If I did it, what would the tradeoff be? I have learned I am not a mechanic. (Every time I fix something I cut a part of my body.) I am not an accountant. I don’t know much about investments. I could learn, or I can let those who are better help me. While there are many things you could do, there are many fewer things you should do.

Will I do it? I have my share of orphaned projects. I look at them every week on my projects list. I look and do nothing. I tell myself “one day” but one day never comes. For many things, I came to a simple conclusion. It was either not worth doing, or someone else could do it better. In fact, sometimes letting someone help me gave them an opportunity to grow.

Your list of things to do never goes away. In fact, it tends to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. Decide if you will. If it fits your skill set and will make a difference to you, then what are you waiting for?

The Best Answer Is…

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.
-Rudyard Kipling-
 

Someone commented, “When I was in my 20’s, I knew all the answers. When I got to my 60’s, I had nothing but questions.” That statement rings true for many people

Answers are vapors, specters which evaporate under the heat of daily living. Instead of answers, we need something else—a quiver of great questions.
 
Questions open windows to new opportunities, new thoughts, unexplored ideas. Some, when asked, make me squirm in my skin. Others rupture with wisdom and counsel not attained without letting out of its cage.
 
Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher had students discover truth through asking questions. Today, the Socratic method employs questions to unpack truths buried under notions.
 
Most questions are not of intuitive thinking. We learn from others great questions. Over time, I have found sources of great questions. Let me share a few (and the sources, when known).
 
When something bad happens, Michael Hyatt counseled:
 
“What does this experience make possible?”
 
When confused or uncertain, ask:
 
What one thing, if I did it right now, would change the situation?
 
Sometimes it is issues with other people. Bill McCartney, a long-time coach of the University of Colorado football team asked the question:
 
Can you help me understand what it is like to be you?
 
When you are ready to act, stop and ask:
 
What’s missing? (Especially if everyone is sure)
When you are looking to change jobs, ask:
 
Am I running toward something, or running away from something?
 
When you tighten from worry or anxiety, stop and ask yourself:
 
Is this useful?
 
When you are making a decision, ask four questions.
 
What is the worst that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we don’t do this?
What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do this?
 
It is only by asking mediocre questions do you get mediocre answers. If you ask penetrating questions, you get profound insights. If you ask no questions, you get no answers.
 
What’s your best question?