In-Between

Classroom

Apologies for my long silence.

It’s been a summer of upheaval and dislocation – none of it bad, all of it stressful. Since I last posted anything here, June 14, I have changed both location and vocation: from Duncan, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta; from pastoral ministry to academic work. I traded the Pacific Ocean for the Rockies, the pulpit for the lectern.

I spent the summer in-between: not a pastor anymore, not a professor yet; not from Duncan for long, not in Calgary for a while.

 

Then last week we moved, and I started work. I write this the morning after my first class – a three-hour marathon that I have to repeat 14 more times. I drove home last night both exhausted and grateful. Three hours is a long time to try to hold anyone’s attention. The students were engaging, curious, insightful, and stayed admirably awake. But me? I was reeling.

 

I kept having to remind myself not to preach. Me instinct for that roots deep. I speak a text, and my mind crowds with illustration, application, exhortation – all my pastoral impulses run amok. This isn’t entirely a bad thing in a classroom – after all, students need to be doers of the word, just like the rest of us – but I could see the look of bewilderment on several faces. Should I be writing this down? Will this be on the final exam? Is this related to your last point?

 

It’s going to take me a while to get the rhythm for this. Right now, I’m in-between.

 

Around us, a household slowly emerges from a maze of boxes, thanks mostly to Cheryl’s tireless efforts. The space, inch by inch, gets colonized with our furniture, our pictures, our presence. (My office at work, on the other hand, looks like one of those rooms from a bombed out library in WWII. Alas, my efforts at conquering it are less heroic).

 

Part way through last night’s class, I asked each person to introduce themself, to tell where they were born, and to say what place they now called home. I was last to go.

 

“My name is Mark,” I said. “And I was born in Calgary.” Then I flinched answering the last question. “And what place do I call home?

 

I wanted to say Duncan.

 

With a shock of sadness, I knew it’s not so. Then with a shock of joy, I realized what is so: I’m already here. I’m no longer in-between.

 

I’m home.

Getting a Grip

 

 

 “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”

   Proverbs 25:28

 

I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.

It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.

Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.

The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.

This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.

But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”

That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.

So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.

The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.

Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.

I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.

When I do get it right, I gain all around.

Lord, help me get a grip on myself.

 

Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?

Are You Stoning Your Prophets?

 

It’s folly to stone your prophets.

Yet I see it all the time: people (I include myself here) who deal with unwelcome truth by rejecting the truth-teller. The child who denounces his mother for telling him his behavior is unacceptable. The employee who grouses about her boss for giving her a less than sterling review. The wife who harangues her husband for asking her to cease her gossip, or the husband who berates his wife for asking him to be kinder.

You know the beat.

There is some device in us that resists truth and resents those who bring it. The device is very active in my own brain. I can feel my hackles rising, my breath shortening, my jaw clenching, and my mind racing as soon as I see the slightest criticism coming my way. I start thinking up excuses before I even know what I’m excusing.

One of the best disciplines I’m learning is to turn off the device. Or at least ignore it. I’m teaching myself, not just to not resist honest criticism: I’m teaching myself to actively seek it and wholeheartedly welcome it. A question I’m asking people more and more: “Is there anything about me you wish I’d change?”

And then I take a breath.

And then I get an earful.

It’s rarely as bad as I dreaded. It’s always better than I hoped. It’s usually fair and accurate. In the end, it’s always life-giving – which the Bible says is a sign of true rebuke.

So far, I’ve been talking about criticism from people who love you. From those who want your best.

But let me push this even further. What do you do with harsh criticism? With the snipes of the cranky, self-appointed prophet – the accuser in the guise of a prophet? With the attacks of your enemy? With the barbs of the one who wants the worst for you?

Here’s a hard truth: they may be right. The day King David fled Jerusalem at the advance of his son Absolom’s revolt, an old embittered enemy – Shimei – followed him and taunted him all the way. He hurled rocks and dirt at David. He unleashed a brutal litany of curses and accusations.

David’s response? I think God is telling me something here.

God sometimes uses the mouth of an enemy to tell us what we refused to hear from the mouth of a friend. When we stone our prophets, it’s actually grace when God sends a foe to take his place.

Next week. I’ll to write about responding to criticism. But I wonder if you have a story of when God has used a friend, or maybe an enemy, to tell you a hard truth?

Better

 

The curse of giftedness is laziness. It's complacency. It's settling for mediocrity, because mediocrity for a highly gifted person might be brilliance for a less gifted one. A one-talent person has to work hard to gain every inch. But a ten-talent person – a highly-gifted musician or chef or hairdresser or speaker – can coast for miles, and still get applause.

Recently I took a hard look in the mirror and realized I've been coasting in a few things. I'm not highly gifted in anything. But there are a few areas I've been living short of my ability.

I'm putting a plan together to change that.

Here's what my plan includes:

• Engaging in honest self-assement. I have to muster the courage to look full at myself and admit where I've become lazy, ineffective, unproductive, or deficient.
• Seeking honest feedback. I need others who love me enough to tell me the truth, no matter how unflattering, and then give them permission to tell it.
• Carving out time. No one drifts toward excellence. For me, two things are crucial to my getting better: reading, and practice. Both require dedicated time.
• Finding someone ahead of me willing to help me. I seek people who are brilliant at what I want to get better at, and I ask them to teach me or coach me.
• Deciding what success looks like. I try to envision what getting better looks like and then I set measurable goals toward it.

I'm writing this from Chicago, where I'm attending the Willow Creek Summit. This morning Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, said we should all change our middle name to "Better," as a pledge to live up to our full potential.

I have no intent of changing any part of my name.

But I do intend to get better.

What about you? Is there any area you're living short of your ability? What's your plan to get better? I'd love to hear about it.

Shalom

Mark
 

While in Rome, Do as the Romans?

 

 
 
 
We're in southern Italy, in a breezy villa a short walk from the beach. The beach, embracing a wide expanse of blue-green sea, stretches the 3 km between the tiny seaside village of San Marco and the larger coastal town of Santa Marie. Perched directly above us is the historic village of Castellbate, clinging to the mountainside. It's quintessential Italy, at least the Italy I've imagined all my life. 
 
These next 2 weeks are the holiday part of my sabbatical. I've put aside my writing for 16 days to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, foods, and sun of Italy and France.
 
And I love it all – with one exception: the driving. Or, more to the point, the drivers. I have witnessed – up close and personal – some of the most insane, dangerous, and aggressive drivers I've ever seen (and I've been to Thailand, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Kenya – you get the idea: I'm no stranger to madcap  drivers). Yesterday, a crazed Italian tried several times to force me off the road for the offense of driving too slow – and I was doing 10km over the limit, just to try to get him off my tail. He was driving a new SUV Volvo – maybe a hundred grand vehicle – but was willing to smash it up, it seemed, just to make a point. What's more, after he got by me, he kept pulling over to the side so that I would pass him and he could repeat his reckless antics. I was feeling my inner Hulk awakening. 
 
Wales has slowed me down. I have come to savor taking my time. And now Italy's roads want to force me back into my pattern of rushing. I am resisting with everything in me, but it is unnerving to be in a place where it's actually dangerous to drive the speed limit: you risk, literally, being run down. 
 
And the guy in the Volvo was not even running late – his road warrior antics must have delayed him 10 minutes. That's  the thing about being in a hurry: it's usually, literally, pointless. It's a soul condition, not a condition of lateness.
 
Just before my encounter with the Highway madman, we were having dinner in the picturesque city of Sorrento after an unforgettable day on the Island of Capri. I was thinking about the 3 hour drive home, and was anxious to get going, so asked the waiter for the bill even before my daughters were finished their meal.
 
"My friend," he said. "Slow down. You're on holiday. Relax."
 
Great advice. I just wish it applied to the roads here. In that at least, while in Rome I plan not to do as the Romans.
 
Shalom
 
Mark
 

In the Eye of the Beholder

My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.

 

Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay

 

I wanted to push myself creatively during my sabbatical. In one sense, this plan was built into my time in Wales: I assigned myself the task while here of writing a novel (which hums along nicely, now nearing 300 pages – but more of that in a future blog). And, as I bragged about in an earlier post, I have been trying my hand in the kitchen. But my efforts there, though edible, are neither aesthetic nor culinary masterpieces. They fall yards short of being creative. I throw myself wholly on the mercy of a recipe, and even then reproduce something that bears little resemblance to how the original looks or, I suspect, tastes.  
 
So I needed something more. And I found it a mere skip and a jump away, in the tiny village of Henllan, next to our tiny village of Pentre-cwrt. There, in her little one-room studio beside her home, artist Diane Mathias plies her trade, with oils and pastels. She hangs a sign by the roadside inviting all passers-by to stop in for a peek at her art and a cup of tea. So we took her up on it. One thing led to the next, and last Friday Nicola and I signed up, with 3 others, for a 5-hour art class with Diane, using the medium of pastels. 
 
It was both hard work and pure fun. She got us down to the task right away, no preliminaries. We each chose a photo from a thick pile she had on hand, and within minutes we were wrist-deep in the chalky residue of pastel crayons. Our hands look like we'd smeared them in buckets of condiments – mustard and ketchup and guacamole and refried beans. Diane walked around, said encouraging if vague things ("Well, that's coming along, isn't it?"; "My, that's colorful!" "That's an interesting way of depicting that tree!"), and gave pointers. Slowly, our smudges and blobs emerged into something half-way recognizable, rough facsimiles of the photographs we were working from.
 
The results, as you can see, are clumsy and amateurish. 
 
But something woke up in me during it. As I struggled to capture the shapes, the shades, the hues, the textures of the picture I was trying to render, I realized how much the visual is its own language. It wants to tell a story. It wants to articulate, not just what things look like, but how they feel, what they mean, why they matter. I know that my pastel drawing captures none of this. But I sensed it. I felt its pulse. I glimpsed what skilled artists are able to convey: the deeper reality beneath the surface reality, the inner beauty that gives the outward form its mystery and its potency.
 
In some ways it's like worship. Art is taking the world as we find it, transforming it through sustained attention, and offering it back. It is rendering the everyday into the everlasting. It is an act both of surrender and of thanksgiving. 
 
My first attempts at this are childish. 
 
But I don't think the Father minds.