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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I got swindled...

A couple days ago something happened that scared me.

We were on our way back from vacation, a vacation that was the stuff of dreams, quixotic and quaint, just the way I like them. The last several weeks we've been looking for a primary vehicle--something that seats 7 or 8--and happened upon a steal of a deal on Craig's List. It was a '06 Honda Odyssey with 52,000 miles for 11,995. For those of you unschooled in the world of "caravan" pricing, we're talking about a vehicle that typically goes for around 19 to 20 grand. It caught our eye, and though we were hearing the "if it's too good to be true it probably is" refrain playing in our heads, we also though that is might be "manna from heaven" sent down by God to bless a poor pastor and his hungry family. hehe. There isn't much of a difference between the miraculous and ridiculous, it all depends on the angle of your belief system.

We were crossing our fingers for the miraculous.

We travelled across Canada and drove right past our house in Lowell as we made our way to Wyoming, MI to some used car dealership on the South side of Grand Rapids. As we pulled our travel weary carcasses into the car lot and put it into park, the girls exploded out the side doors like pent up wild animals locked for way too long in the zoo. The salesman, Sam, who Heidi had been talking to on the phone that day, came out of the dealership and we joined up in front of the much anticipated beautiful blue Odyssey (the newer model). At first glance, it was "the joy of man's desiring", and somehow, no one had purchased it while we were en route. He said "no fewer than 30 people" had stopped in to check out "this steal of a deal" and that many were pending, waiting only for financing to pull the trigger. As you well know, this only makes you feel all the more rabid about buying it a.s.a.p so that no one else gets this "one of a kind" "opportunity of a lifetime". All these marketing/sales slogans are being kicked around like a hacky sack at recess, and you're starting to believe that if you don't get the car you're never going to be able to live with yourself, always thinking about what might of been "if only".

We took it for a test drive and it was akin to mounting a cherubim and riding it through the cottony clouds. Noiseless, smooth, tight. It had the new car smell. The stereo was premium sound with the upgraded package. I started and stopped abruptly to see if everything felt "newish". The brakes pulsated a bit, and the steering wheel shook when you got up to about 80 mph on the highway, but other than that, it felt sound mechanically. (keep in mind that this is only the clumsy observation of a mechanical clod)

We re-parked it in the lot and started investigating the exterior. He told us that it had gotten in an accident at 2,000 miles and that the insurance company bought out the car because of a 5,000 mile warranty in the state of Indiana and that according to the Car Fax report the car had minor damage in the accident resulting in little to no structural damage to the frame, a simple replacement of the right front fender, and a couple new plastic parts under the hood which seemed "neato" to me who was mainly concerned about the safety of the vehicle and the pleasure it gave me to see that the little legal log of the car's history noted that the air bags weren't deployed and the car was as sound and secure as your mother's uterus. (notice the flurry of selling points coming at you without a pause confusing you with precept upon precept of information-overload neutralizing your ability to think critically)

I started seeing some things that concerned me though. The door was jarred a bit on the passenger side. The panels weren't aligned on the side that the car allegedly got into a "fender bender". The hood was heaved a bit in the front and the bumper seemed "flimsy" for lack of a better word. A couple other things caused a siren to go off in my head as well. The glove compartment felt held together by tacks and paper clips when you opened it and the air bag cover seemed tampered with, almost like someone trying to reseal an envelope after illegally opening it with steam and stealth. Let's just put it this way, there was some "sleight of hand" in this magic show, and though I couldn't detect the tricks with my philistine eyes, my heart felt the pangs of panic.

We met inside and negotiated a bit. Heidi and I looked back and forth at each other trying to get a sense of each other's comfort level. I was getting mixed signals, feeling mixed signals, speaking mixed signals. The "mixed emotions" in this situation were almost paralyzing as I felt pressured to make a decision in the forthcoming moments that would drastically impact the next several years of our life as a family. Mounting pressure and stress was pulsating in my temples and finally I caved in and decided to "take the risk" and "chuck caution to the wind". We decided to put down a large amount of money via check with the plan of getting a low interest loan the next day at our bank to finance the rest. We signed some papers, got a copy of the title (Indiana title ??? scam alert!) to show to our bank and shook hands as we headed home.

No sooner did I leave the lot that my heart started to feel sick with knots of doubt and discernment-denial. Discernment-denial describes the all-to-common activity of telling your conscience over and over and over again to shut-up and go sit on the naughty mat in the corner. I was so fatigued from this fight that I felt like I'd played a hearty game of rugby. I sat in the driver's seat feeling like I was fleeing the scene of a "horrible accident" that I allowed, caused, or a some sick mix of both. As sweat was beading up on my forehead and I was going into a state of shock, Heidi turned to me and added "scorn to scars": "Well, then why didn't you just walk away if you felt all this stuff?" I couldn't even respond. I was pulling an Adam in the Garden..."Silent, Passive, & Paralyzed, Fig leaf secured into place."

The only thing I knew to do was call a mechanic friend to get some level-headed advice. I really wanted someone to just tell me what to do. I was---seriously--disabled. Steve answered the phone and I just shared the details of what I knew. Over and over again I would hear him say, "Oh, man...oh, man" as I unfolded the details of this "deal". To make a long story less long he said, "Dude, call the bank and discontinue that check. He's probably gonna cash it tomorrow morning at daybreak and you'll be out the money you put down for deposit. You've been sold a lemon put together by a chop shop. You've been duped by a "Division Street" snake oil salesman." My stomach cinched up into my throat making it difficult to breath for the next half an hour. I knew the first night home from vacation would be a long one.

Heidi woke the next morning and called the bank before it opened. They said, in so many words, "Sorry, we can't stop payment on the check, m'am. I suggest you call the guy and go and get your check this morning." I thought, "We're up the creek without a paddle. We've been scammed and I'm a moron!" My stomach felt like a ball of rubber bands, the kind that used to be in old golf balls when you would rip them open. It was an unyielding sense of shame and loathing that I couldn't shake, it was all my fault and there was no one to blame but myself.

Heidi looked at me and said, "Well, do you want to go alone or do you want me to come with you?" Secretly, I was hoping she would let me go to work and that she would go over and fight to get our check back. I didn't want the confrontation; I wanted to run from the conflict. But I knew that I was the man, and even if I couldn't be the man, I had to "play the man", gird up my loins and take one for the team. I sighed and said, "Yeah, I'll go." Under my breath I said something like "We're dead meat" as I went up the stairs to take a shower and prepare to fight in the arena as a gladiator for our deposit check. I was preparing to die as I let the warm droplets from the shower cascade down my crestfallen face.

As we made our way to the place of "snake oil", "snake charmers" and "snake handlers"...my stomach churned with imminent doom. I "just knew" we were going to get there and he was going to give us the "song and dance": "Oh, I cashed that this morning, there's no going back, I held it for you and I can't refund your money." I was walking to the gallows preparing my nose as I went.

We pulled into the driveway, I brought myself to walk into the showroom, and I asked for Sam. He was in the back room (with the rest of his Italian Mafia friends smoking cigars and counting money). I waited for him. The seconds seemed like minutes as my heart beat in the side of my neck. All at once, he came around the corner, his slicked back hair and clean shaven face saying, "I've got the upper hand, you little incompetent punk...make my day!"

I decided upon a simple argument and it was this: "Sir, I have 3 beautiful daughters and a wife of 14 years. I wouldn't be able to live with myself should we get in an accident only to find that the airbags didn't work." That was it. Every other argument felt juvenile. And so, with all the strength I could muster after a night of almost no sleep, I breathed in and stated almost verbatim what I just wrote. He looked at me, smiled with his head tilted, pulled out the check and placed it in my hand. He said that he understood and that I had to do what I had to do. I stood there like a statue--marbled and marveled--like "the thinker".

I walked back to the van, opened the door, gave the check to Heidi, sat in the driver's seat and drove away pinching myself to see if this was all a horrible nightmare. Heidi tore up the check with an almost "manly" aggression...compensating for my lack of manliness the last 14 hours of our existence.

Things like this make me feel so stupid. But I'll leave that for my next blog titled "Selective Intelligence." This whole situation led me to some interesting musings. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Objects in the rearview mirrow are smaller than they appeared...

Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

Thought that's true with vehicles and mirrors, I'm not so sure it describes life to a "t". As I've returned home once again for summer vacation almost 18 years since my departure for college, it seems further away than ever. Almost like a different life in many ways. If I were to come up with my little warning, it would go something like this...

Objects in the rearview mirror are smaller than they appeared.

Everywhere I go and everything I see from my past is much smaller and much less signifigant that I assumed it was as a child. My childhood home is a little dive down on 45 W. Van Buren St crammed together with other low income houses on a rinky dink city block down by the Coast Gaurd. We drove past it today with the girls and the porch was caving in on one side. It looked as if it were about to tip over from years of exhaustion. The neighborhood, that felt like a universe to me when I was a child, couldn't have been more puny and paltry. Everything was so underwhelming and ghetto. And yet, when I was small boy, I walked out my frontdoor every morning amazed at the magnitude of my surroundings.

We then drove past the little league "field of dreams" where I had my baptism by fire in competetive sports. I used to think it was just shy of the "big leagues", grass cut and infield dirt graded to perfection. I would run out onto the pitching mound feeling like a golden glover, a bonified All-Star. But today it looked like a run down pasture, unkept and shabby as all get out. Everything about it screamed budget-cuts and bush-league. It was sad, really.

Brietbeck Park that seemed like Central Park to me back in the day is really a little open field with some paved trails and the bell tower that I imagined to be the Liberty Bell is really a little steel encasement with a smaller bell, more for look than function. The harbor that it overlooks, Wright's Landing, used to feel like a Marina that sprawled out for miles on end. In reality it's nothing more than a boat landing with some docks and a building for restrooms. I remember thinking it felt like the New York Harbor, what with the Lighthouse and breakwalls and Fort Ontario across the river. When I was little, everything was epic, bigger than life itself.

As we made our way back home, we drove past my old church, Southwest Oswego Baptist Church. It was also home to the Christian School I attended for 13 years under the leadership of my parents, Chuck and Philena Holdridge. "The Lighthouse on the Hill" as it was titled on the church sign. Some lighthouse it is today. After two church splits, it sits sterile and benign, like a historical building for tourists to frequent. The parking lot is always empty. The attendence, rumor has it, is about 18-20 and that's only because half the church is blood relatives with the pastor. KJV only, Seperationist, Independant Baptist, Militant Fundamental hard core zealots. Man, it's sad. As I slowed down to take in the old stomping grounds, the place where I was shaped and misshaped both, the place that provided employment for my parents and consequently put food on our table, the place where we played kickball in the parking lot and foursquare in the break room, the place where we had chapel every Wednesday, the place where I graduated with honors in a whoping class of 3, the place that served as my second home and my parent's first love stood there barren and banal as an abandoned school house, rich in history but poor in present.

What felt so huge as I was growing up, now feels so ridiculously marginal. Every object in the rearview mirror looks smaller than it appeared, save one.

My parents.

The further I go and the older I get they are the only piece of my history that seems to loom all the larger as I move forward. Every year sheds new light on how big they lived in those early years of my life and all that they sacrificed to provide for my every need. They are the unique part of my past that never seems to grow old or get smaller. Their contribution to my history is only multiplying exponentially as I pick up speed. And for that I'm eternally grateful.

The cool thing is that even if everything I used to enshrine is really nothing more than rubbish, it still holds a value to me that can't be measured. I've heard it said that nostalgia is nothing more than a combination of a good imagination and a bad memory. That may be true, but regardless, nostalgia is thick when I revisit the places and people of my past. I revel in the opportunity to come home even if certain parts surface a sadness. God has been very good to me.

Tomorrow I am preaching at my father's church, Calvary Baptist Church, in Fulton, N.Y., the first church that let me come and preach for a month when I graduated Baptist Bible College. I filled in while the pastor had a gastric bypass (he had to weight in at about 450). And now, 14 years later I'm coming back to the place where I got my start, where I cut my teeth so to speak. And though much has changed, really, underneath it all, I'm very much the same. A young man with alot of hangups and habits that needs God's grace to cover him every second of the day. And as I stand before the people tomorrow, I will hide under the cloak of Jesus' sufficiency as I did way back when.

Yeah, way back when.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Heidi and I fight sometimes...

This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Heidi and I fight. It never comes to blows physically, but we can throw some pretty good psychological sucker punches.

Sometimes she starts it, sometimes I do. Often times, it takes more boldness to start a fight because you know that someone has to stir up the stink that is as obvious as a 2 year old playing hide and seek. Both of us know something smells, but it's crazy how long you can hold your breath either hoping it will go away or that the other person will break the silence. Like getting into cold water, sometimes it's easier if a person just pushes you in rather than trying to methodically wade in. But it doesn't matter who cracks open the door of conversation, usually defensiveness is the first host to greet you.

Typically it takes about a half an hour to an hour to banter back and forth wading through the quagmire of defensive dodges and offensive opinions. This is an hour that feels like you wished you hadn't "gone there". There doesn't appear to be any light in this tunnel and both sides feel completely justified in their beliefs and behaviors. It doesn't matter who is right or wrong in this section of the swamp, because you can't listen for truth when you're so busy trying to tell your version of it. The best that you can hope for is that when the murky water settles a bit that there will be a faint remembrance of something that was said "way back when" in the beginning of the conversation. This is the part of the fight where you're thinking some pretty dark thoughts like: "She doesn't know me at all." "He doesn't love me and he never will." "I can't stand the sight of her right now." "I wish I never married this insensitive loser." "I think my life would be better off without him/her." "I want a divorce."

With every minute gone by, you are screening things you're saying even though what is actually coming out of your mouth is offensive enough to evoke thoughts of divorce. But the real dirty stuff, the real dark and destructive stuff is still latent under your tongue. You wonder if this might be the time to "go there", to really "get real". You have a couple things that you've fantasized about saying given the right opportunity, but you fear that if you say them out loud they will be misinterpreted and used against you to validate the other person's argument.

Remember, in this stage of the fight, everything you say or do will be used "against" you in the court of law, because grace has been locked in the basement storage closet. The letter of the law is ruling the court room now. You are being cross-examined and cross-examining to substantiate your case. It's amazing how vicious things get when you're both defending your case in the court of law. The legalism is palpable.

Things are being said that you can't take back, and what becomes known cannot become unknown. There's no going back to old places of innocence. But here's the thing...that is exactly why you're getting into the fight.

To expose poisonous musings of naiveté that are keeping you from deeper intimacy. It's better to know what the other person is thinking and to deal with the weight of reality than to be shielded from reality/truth. If they are blind, it does no good to keep telling them that they have 20/20 vision. If they are broken, it doesn't no good telling them that they are doing just fine. If you are a mess, it doesn't no good for the other person to buffer you from reality because they are intimidated by your reactions of anger or shut down, passivity or aggression. At some point, you have to call a spade a spade and deal with the consequences.

This might put you in divorce court or it might put you in a counselor's office. You might want a separation for a while, you might want to talk to your pastor. You may even feel like you've passed the point of no return. It might make things worse before it makes things better is what I'm trying to say. What I've found is that the "point of no return" and the "turning point" are very close to the same place in a relational conversation. You can't brush up against one without brushing up against the other. But it is just this kind of desperation that leads to transformation.

Well, after the first portion of the fight begins to die down (you'll notice because there are longer stretches of silence in between outbursts), you come to a part of the conversation that is less charged and more civil. It is here that truth has a chance to land in the human heart. It's still tender, but it's accessible. You might here things like, "I know that I struggle with that..." or "I already know what you've told me..." or "I'm sorry that I'm such a burden to be around, but..." or "I feel like no matter how much I change, it's never enough..." It is important to note that nobody is taking blame per say, they are simply beginning to crack open to the idea that their life isn't an impregnable fortress of perfection. They are lobbing out signals to see if you will tread lighter in the forthcoming moments of conversation. If they sense you are still a bull in a China shop, they will recoil and redouble their efforts to defend themselves to the death. What you have to say or not say at this point really won't matter no matter how profound and insightful it may be. It will not only fall upon "deaf ears", worse yet, they will be "dead ears".

This is the point in the conversation where each party is feeling out whether the other person senses their own contribution to the tension. Without apologizing they are admitting a twinge of weakness, without saying sorry they are realizing that they aren't perfect and never have been. When you get to this point in the conversation, you must follow suit by admitting your own issues along the way. It is always hardest to be the first one to go to this place of vulnerability, because the second one who responds has the luxury of knowing that you are desiring peace. They are beginning the "peace treaty".

The second party, the responder to the initiator of "peace", typically responds with things like: "I know that I haven't always..." or "I have my faults as well and I know they..." or "I realize that I don't see everything clearly all the time either..." or "Sometimes I get selfish as well..." These responses start to set up Stage #3 in the fight.

Stage #1 - Fight or Flight
Stage #2 - Flight or Face
Stage #3 - Face or Fuse

When you begin to face the issues at hand, transformation begins. The temptation to fight or flight without the third open of facing has killed many a couple along the way. Facing each other takes courage. It takes the ability to look pain in the eye without running. It takes trust in truth. If you don't trust the truth, you will always run, making up you own version of truth as you go. This will allow you to survive another day, but you will never live, you will never be free. When you face your fight and dig deep to look beyond the puss to the poison, the source instead of the symptoms, you will find a new intimacy.

But there is still another huge divide that must be crossed. It is one of the hardest chasms to bridge. It is the stalemate before the apology. It has always been intriguing to me that the word used to describe "neutralization" in the game of chess is called "stalemate". This is the only kind of mate you will be until you learn to apologize. And someone has to take it from "generic" and "general" weakness-recognition in stage #2 to "specific" and "personal" apology-recognition in stage #3. Someone has to have the humility to say "I'm sorry, will you forgive me." If the conversation doesn't go to that place. You do not have fusion, you have fake-fusion which is confusion. It makes the next conversation even more vitriolic and viral, because you think you've repented only to find out you haven't, you just put lipstick on a pig.

Last night, Heidi and I worked through something akin to this process for probably the thousandth time. And like every other time, I wanted to end love to her in the first hour, suspend love to her in the second hour, and make love to her in the third. This is where we get the famous "make-up sex" that everyone talks about. But it's not gotten without a fight. And your relationship won't last without good fights along the way. Avoidance won't cut it. Evasive language in conversation won't do. Fight or Flight mechanisms are impotent to take care of the issues. You must face the issues and face each other, with honesty and humility.

I'm not talking about dirty fighting, I'm talking about clean fighting.

Only then will you fuse. And man is fusion fun.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Our parents...

So it's time to leave New Jersey and head to my parents up in New York for the second half of our two week vacation. I'm not looking forward to the 6 hour trip tomorrow morning toward the north country, but I am stoked about spending 7 days in my childhood neck of the woods.

Heidi and I have great parents who are both in ministry. They have similar values and we were raised with almost identical sets of rules, other than Heidi was allowed to kiss while still in High School. I could, but at the risk of being dismembered.

Other than that, we both couldn't go to the movies or listen to music with syncopated beats or dance with excessive hip gyrations. It was "worldly" and of "the flesh". We both attended conservative Christian schools. We both kept our virginity until marriage. We both loved our parents and didn't want to hurt them, so we walked a pretty straight line. If we did disobey, we both had a conscience that was sensitive, so it wouldn't be uncommon for us to admit the sin before we even got caught. We were eerily similar.

But even though our parents share so many traits, they are quite different as well.

My parents are country folk, Heidi's are city slickers.
My parents have a vegetable garden, Heidi's have a flower garden.
My parents have track phones, Heidi's have smart phones.
My parents are just learning to use the internet, Heidi's invented it (with Al Gore).
My parents live in an old ranch house, Heidi's live in a refurbished parsonage.
My parents live by a lake, Heidi's live by the ocean.
My parents are slow paced, Heidi's are a bit more fast paced.
My parents are simpletons, Heidi's are little more cultured.
My parents lead a smaller church, Heidi's lead a larger congregation.
My parents own a tractor, Heidi's own a coffee machine.

I could go on and on. There are so many similarities. There are so many differences.

But I love them both and enjoy taking in life with each when we have the opportunity to break away from Michigan to visit them.

I'm so glad that I am me. I have a good, good life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reading people...Leading People.

“If you can’t read people, you can’t lead people.”

I awoke this morning (a lazy, late awakening) with this thought on my mind. As I’ve given it more consideration, some things have surfaced that strike at the heart of why I think it would be bouncing around in my subconscious.

A good many of my thoughts emerge from a state of dreaming, both day-dreaming and night-dreaming. When I’m suspended in between worlds, my brain waves tend to be less taut and twisted, free to move about with full range of motion. The thoughts aren’t profound, more than not they are simple straightforward no-nonsense observations of the obvious. Things that are right in front of my face and yet inaccessible to the hurried heart. I find myself oblivious to the obvious on most days. I’m dragging around so many preconceptions and predispositions that I’m largely unaware of truth in its most undiluted form. I’m looking for life to say what I already believe, or truer still, I’m looking at life to find validation for my chosen stances and standards. This makes it easy to miss what life is actually saying. That’s why dreams often stir things to the surface that are most true. That’s not to say that my dreams aren’t often zany and abstract, they are, but I can tell the difference between fact and fiction in the first 15 seconds when I wake up. Nonsense tends to evaporate like the morning dew, but truth lingers like a spring fed puddle. And it is truth I’m most interested in.

So this morning when I pondered this idea of “reading people” being so integral in “leading people”, I felt my heart attach to it like a tick.

When I think of reading people, I think of being able to see beneath their skin and beyond the sounds their mouth is making as they talk to me. I think of the ability to pick up on non-verbal queues that are soundlessly speaking volumes about their present state of being, state of mind. I think of looking into their eyes and seeing what makes their pupils dilate with delight or contract with caution. I think of someone who is able to read between the lines of what someone is saying in order to get to the heart of what they are really trying to say. I think of watching others interact with people around them to see their triggers and defaults, their evasive avoidances and their knee-jerk propensities. I think of someone who is able to ask questions that don’t seem obvious to anyone else, but are, to him or her, glaringly obvious. A person that is good at reading people hears often, “That’s a really good question” or “I thought you’d never ask”.

“The thoughts of a man’s heart are like deep waters, and a man of understanding draws them out.” This is found in the Bible in the book of Proverbs. It is a piece of wisdom that speaks of something deeper than reading people based on face value alone. A man of understanding is able to read people and work toward drawing out the feelings under the face, the desires behind the declarations. They aren’t distracted by diversions. Like hounds, they pick up a scent and they follow it to its source. This idea of reading people is more of a scent than a sight. More of a sense than a sensibility. And I’m not sure it can be taught, that’s the problem. It’s caught by being around other people who have this horse-sense, horse-whispering gift to move beyond the surface into the substance.

Leading people is directly connected to the art of reading people. You can’t effectively lead someone when you have no idea how to pick up on non-verbals. And just because they’re called non-verbals doesn’t mean it’s not a language, cause it is. Leaders must be fluent in what is called “body language”. From movements to vocal tones to strategic pauses to stuttered hesitations…these elements of body language demand a certain level of mastery or you will hit a leadership lid at some point.

I think I’ve hit “leadership lids” along the way and it typically happens when I’m getting lazy in the “people” department. I’m defaulting towards lists, ideas, programs, responsibilities and one-way-streeted communication (I’m dishing out the directives and expecting others to carry out the duties). One-way streets are easier to navigate, but they don’t empower others to give feedback and pushback. It is lazy leadership that doesn’t want to be bothered by people. When I get lazy, I bypass reading people and move abruptly to leading them. They sense this in time, and it isn’t long before they pick of on my emotional illiteracy as a leader rendering my leadership unfit. This disqualification happens frequently and the leader wonders what happened. They evaluate themselves based on the job description and they’re fulfilling their duties with flying colors, so what gives? Why the team-tension? Why the mass-mutiny? Whatever could be the reason from this treason?

I believe it is the unwritten leadership qualification of “Reading People”.

When this unspoken law of leadership is broken, people disband. They gravitate to another place or another person. They move about looking for someone who can “take their ideas into consideration”. They are looking for someone who listens carefully and responds with clarity. They want someone who assesses the lay of the land on the factory floor. They are pining for someone who swaps shoes with them and then speaks on their behalf. They don’t know how to articulate this desire, but I think if they could put it into words it would sound something like this, “I just want to be led by someone who I can read and who can read me.”

That’s the flip side of “reading people”. You’ll probably notice that the same person who struggles to read others has a fear of letting others read them. When you’re trying to follow a leader that doesn’t advance with transparent candor and confident vulnerability, you never know where you stand. You’re always second-guessing them and yourself. Systems fail and infrastructures collapse when the leader is leery to open himself up like a book to be read by his followers. When a leader holds his cards close to his chest, his team will do the same. It’s almost a law of nature. People will always follow suit before they follow assignments.

Reading people is essential to leading people.

People will always be led by the leader who can be read.

Just a couple thoughts on my vacation. I love to chase after ideas that come to me by night.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Small is Big...

I need to take a moment to apologize.

For years I've carried on with a clean bill of health. I've been able to play sports at a college level. I've been so healthy that I've even been able to give away one of my kidneys to my younger sister. When the doctors give the green light to give away vital organs, you know you've got health to spare. My body has been good to me over the years.

And today, an apology is in order.

I've taken my "lower back" for granted the better part of my life. It has been as faithful as a dog thanklessly carrying on carrying me without complaint. Until something goes wrong, you don't realize that the small of your back actually exists. But when it fails, you realize how reliant you are on things that you don't think matter much.

I have been hobbling around like an elderly war vet for nearly three days. Popping pain pills and muscle relaxants. Visiting massage therapists and laying on the couch trying not to move a muscle. I feel like an invalid.

So I feel the need to give a shout out to the "small of my back". It may be small, but it's a big deal. Never underestimate how big something small is. Cause when it gives out, everything else hinges on its health. And I mean everything.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A massage done terribly wrong...

The last two days I've been having severe lower back pain. The kind that at any moment you could collapse right where you stand. I almost did last night when turning slightly to go upstairs to bed. Even when I cough it puts such intense pressure on my lower back that I yelp a yelp of pain. Every move is labor. Every sideways motion almost impossible. Any bending is unbearable.

So my in-laws had an idea. "Why don't you get a massage at this place we go to?" I didn't argue. I don't get many massages, but when I do, I always enjoy them immensely. I wasn't expecting this massage to cure me, just to loosen me up a bit and relax the muscles that were tighter than a snare drum in the small of my back.

I walked into this establishment that was in a strip mall right next to a place called "Whole Foods" or something like that. It was called "Hands and Stones". You could get stone therapy or a traditional deep muscle massage. I chose the stone massage only 'cause I was curious as to how they pulled it off. I'm glad I did, sort of.

I was led back into a parlor of dimly lit rooms. The music was some sort of wind instrument from the middle east....perfect for this sort of setting. The masseuse directed me to a table and told me to strip down to the level of my comfort. I'm not bashful about getting naked or anything, but I just can't bring myself to shedding down to my birthday suit with strangers, so I opted for the "leave the tighty-wighties on" comfort level. This is still quasi-awkward, but I can work through it given about 10 minutes.

She went through the orientation of what I could expect with the 108 degree stones and the pressure level I chose on my application paper I filled out in the lobby. She asked me about my lower back pain and I proceeded to explain to her that I would love for her to work on that area specifically. She nodded her head gleefully. She told me to lie facedown with my head sticking through a padded opening covered with sanitary towels. My nose starts to clog a bit when I'm facedown, and the blood rushes to my lips making them feel inordinately bulbous. But that's beside the point.

She squirted some oily stuff in her hand and rubbed my back in long firm strokes. It felt like I was being ushered into heaven by St. Peter. After getting my back lubed up, she placed some heated stones on my back and then pressed them into my muscles while moving them along the contures of my body. It was then that I met the angel Gabrial and his buddy Micheal. I'm just saying heaven became a place on earth as the old 80's song attests.

Eveything was going quite smoothly. I was forgetting my back pain and was being transported to a happy place, indeed. After about a half and hour, she told me to flip over on my back for the second half of this exquisite experience. As I moved my body to reverse my position, I could feel my back tighten up with rebellion. This reminded me of my mortality once again and I was whisked back into New Jersey abruptly. This didn't bother me, because I knew I had at least 25 more minutes of sheer ecstacy awaiting me. She started fiddling with the blankets to get them just so and I closed my eyes pining for more. I knew that my facial massage was next, and for anyone who's had a massage, you know that the face is one of the best parts of the escapade. The forehead, the ears, the earlobes, the cheeks, the jaw muscles, the eyelids, the temples...I'm just sayin'.

With lightly clinched eyes I waited. I waited for those little stones to hit my longing face. I waited and waited and waited. I didn't want to open my eyes to see what was going on, but I could tell there was a break in the action that wasn't a part of the pre-game ritual. Things were getting more queer my the second until I heard a shy voice wimper out the words, "I'm sorry, sir, I seem to have some stomach issues and I need to go to the bathroom." I nodded my head agreeably as anyone would do lying there in his underware in a dimly lit room with a masseuse nursing her IBS (irratible bowel syndrome). She turned the lights up a bit, grabbed somethin' or another, and swiftly exited the room. I could tell she was bending over in pain.

I laid there for about 10 minutes stairing at the ceiling wondering why I, of all people, have to have such ridiculous things like this happen to me. I rarely get a massage, but here I am looking for one uninterupted hour of serenity and it's sabatoged by stomach cramps and diarrea.

I'm the one who is in pain looking for relief. I need someone who is healthy to administer a healing touch and here I lay in the horizonal position needing ministry and the minister is sicker than I am. I felt for her, I really did. But it's just my luck to have someone sick taking care of me in my time of need. I can't say as I don't understand. There are days as a pastor when I feel like I'm sicker than the ones I'm trying to help. Fighting back cramps while I'm feigning wisdom and strength. Fighting back tears as they shed them. Sometimes I want to stop in the middle of my own counsel and say, "Excuse me, I can't do this anymore. I don't mind wiping your butt right now, but I'm about to poop my own pants and that isn't good for either of us. Could you give me a second? I'm really sorry for this...you came on the wrong day." Anyone that is in the business of helping people knows what I'm talking about. It's inevitable.

So I'm thinking to myself, "what am I going to say when she returns?" Nothing seemed appropriate.

"Are you feeling better?"
"How's your stomach recovering?"
"What did you eat for lunch?"
"That happens to me sometimes, too."
"Did you wash your hands?"

I smirked at some of the other things I could say for the fun of it, but I'll not write those musings down for posterity.

She came back into the room with a furrowed brow and some bad news. "I'm sorry but I won't be able to finish today, sir. You can talk to the ladies at the front desk and either reschedule or get a refund." I wished her well, put by clothes back on, and made my way to the front desk to reconcile the confusion of the last 40 minutes. I ended up paying for a partial massage, they called it a "relaxation massage". As I left the premises I had to chuckle at the whole dramatic scene.

For once in my life I would love to be able to do something ordinary without it turning into a circus. Can't a guy just go get a massage without it turning into "comedy central"? Apparently not. It seems that God creates some people to go about their business with relative ease. I, on the other hand, have quite obviously been created to be his "court jester". I get the luxery of making God laugh his head off until he gets stomach cramps.

But not the kind of stomach cramps my masseuse got this afternoon.

This is what happens when the person helping needs more help than the one they are trying to help. This, my friends, is ministry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A scare at the beach...

We are on vacation at my in-laws.

They live in New Jersey right across the river from Philadelphia. Cherry Hill to be specific.

I love coming hear. Barnes & Noble 5 minutes away. Large oak trees in the backyard. Balmy east coast air. Starbucks about every 1 square mile in any direction you decide to drive. 3 movie theaters within 10 minutes. Parking lots on site for the girls to ride their bikes. 2 playgrounds within walking distance. Italian ice 8 minutes away. A McDonalds playland if you're in the mood to catch a communicable disease. It's all here begging for your love.

But, by far, my favorite facet of where my in-laws live is Ocean City beach which is about an hour away give or take 15 minutes based on traffic patterns. It's 10 degrees cooler at the shore. There is always a stiff breeze. The sand is white, the waves are foamy, the water is salty. It's beautiful.

We enjoyed a wonderful day with the girls today. They boogie boarded for hours, dug trenches in the sand for their castles, and played with each other like they were toddlers again. I love seeing the redemption of innocence in certain settings. The shore brings them to life, suspended in time, lost in an unconscious stream of consciousness, if that makes any sense. Their laughs are hearty and robust. Their play is pure and passionate. Their smiles are serendipitously unconjured. I love watching them.

As we were packing up to leave, a woman started yelling out for her daughter. "Lindsey. Lindsey! LINDSEY!" You could see panic starting to set in with every shout of horror. People began asking what she looked like and how long she had been missing. The mother said something about pigtails and a bathing suit that was a bluish color. 5 years old. She was going to get a bucket by the water and in a moment, she vanished into thin air.

People began to send out informal search parties. I walked the beach in both directions looking intently for anything that resembled her discription. I thought I found her at one point, but the little girl I was shouting toward didn't respond to the name Lindsey, and I didn't feel like abducting her from what looked like her parents carving a sand castle under an umbrella. She seemed way to settled in her environment to be a lost little girl.

After about 20 minutes, I got a phone call from Heidi that they had found her about 6 blocks north. I was relieved, though I secretly wanted to be the one who heroicly found her and returned her to her mother.

The whole time I was trying to imagine what it would feel like to be looking for your lost daughter on an overcrowded beach. My mind could conceive that thought about as well as it conceives the borders of the universe. I would be bouncing around the beach in shock screaming and convulsing in fear. Veins would be protruding from my neck. Sweat would be streaming down my boiling body. I would be living with pure adrenaline until she was found.

My protective spirit has been boosted just a bit toward my daughters since that scare. Part of me is still combing a beach screaming for Lindsey inside, the other part is typing at a computer in an air conditioned room.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Spiritual Warfare thoughts....

I'm not the kind of Christian that blames everything on Satan.

When I get a cold accompanied with the sniffles, my first thought isn't "Satan gave me a cold." Frankly, I consider this thinking quite silly.

I also don't think that the level of attack I'm experiencing always relates to how important I am. What I mean is that I don't think it's wise to determine your prestige in the Kingdom of Heaven by how miserable your life is down here on earth. I've seen myself come this subtle summary before and it's seductive. "I'm having a horrible week, I must really be a threat to Satan for Him to come after me like this." I'm not saying there isn't a place of this thinking from time to time, but this can be a form of denial when taken to an extreme.

I love to feel important, and my flesh figures out ways to read things into life to make me feel so. If someone doesn't like me I figure out a way to turn myself into the hero and them into the villain. What I'm saying is that sometimes I can make really stupid decisions and somehow spin doctor the the story into an attack from the Enemy. But in reality, I was just stupid and no one was attacking me but me. "I have seen the Enemy, and he is me."

The desire to live in an epic story with an important role can really mess you up when it comes to this kind of stuff. You can drum up some pretty crazy conclusions just to substantiate your pre-determined storyline.

And the idea of spiritual warfare seems to play into this narcissism perfectly if we're not careful.

Sometimes when I hear people using Satan as an excuse for their incompetence or immaturity I just want to scream. "I just really feel that the Enemy is coming against me." And to that I wanna say, "Not so buck-a-roo, you just haven't been getting good sleep." or "Give me a break, you can't work all the time and do nothing to invest in your marriage and then blame the Devil for the divorce." I could give you example after example, but suffice it to say that we are notorious for coming up with every reason but ourselves for failure.

Is the "Enemy" real, oh yeah! Is he prowling around like a Lion, you betcha! But he's also prancing around like an Angel of Light. We can't forget this. When you're looking for the Lion all the time, you'll miss the Light. And I'm finding him in the Light more than anywhere else.

Christians that fixate on Satan lose credibility over time. They one-dimensional, uni-directional mindset makes them impossible to befriend in the realm of reality. Their compulsive urges to attribute everything to the supernatural and the paranormal cripple them in the realm of the natural and the normal. And here's the kicker for me, the only thing that kept me in Christianity after I graduated high school was finding God in the natural and normal. I had had my fill of faith and heavenly places and things above, what I was starving for was finding somebody or something that spoke of normalcy. Something that made sense instead of always playing the "spirituality" card.

I needed to see people owning up to mistakes and taking responsibility for their ineffectiveness. I needed to witness someone interacting with the world without thinking it was "out to get 'em". I needed to see love without strings attached to "rewards in heaven" and compassion without the "obsession with conversion" breathing down your neck. I needed to interact with someone who could talk about stuff without trying to figure at a clever spiritual parallel, the "all-roads-lead-to-Rome" kind of conversation where you are always interrupting the rhythms of reality with the rhymes of spirituality. It's almost like you don't think reality is worth anything or has any meaning in and of itself when you're looking to spin it into kingdom conversation whenever there's an opening. Or worse yet, when you're looking for ways to inject "Spiritual Warfare" into every little disappointment someone shares or rough patch they're experiencing. It does not honor a persons story when you highjack it and turn it into an opportunity to pitch your belief system. It's inhumane.

And people can feel it. When you're around someone who can't think outside that box, you can smell it a mile away. It has an odor that is unmistakable. And people, over time, cleverly figure out a way to remove themselves from that person's presence. It's not because they don't like them, they just don't like what everything gets turned into around them. And the worst part is that when a person who is a "Warfare junkie" picks up on this, their belief system allows for them to interpret it as "Spiritual Attack" and a privileged position to suffer for the sake of Christ as an ambassador of the gospel. It's a spiritual spiral that can sink someone for life because the negative feedback can simply galvanize the person's theological stance and make them all the more zealous to spread the message (spread the mess).

Let me be clear. I believe in Spiritual Warfare with all my heart. I believe there are many who could use a dose of the supernatural to wake them out of their natural slumber. I know that we don't wrestle against flesh and blood (alone). I know the "weapons of our warfare are not carnal but are mighty in God for tearing down strongholds". I know that even Jesus was tempted by the Enemy and that He prayed in the Lord's Prayer to "be delivered from evil".

I've been to Warfare conferences and read scores of Warfare books. I believe them with all my heart. But this metaphor of Christianity must be kept in check and balanced with the other thousand metaphors that the Bible uses to describe the life of a believer. For some reason this metaphor gets the most playtime and I think it's because it plays on our need to feel important and heroic. There's just something that feels good about thinking the Enemy is after us all the time, it's addictive. We matter. We are on the front lines. We know things no one else knows. If he could take me out then it would effect everybody else. I'm a threat and he's after me, I just know it. And the inner dialogue goes on and on until you're like Nash in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" out in his shed thinking you're saving the world when you're really lost in your own "sub-reality" with some newspaper clippings, a bunch of tacks and some yarn. There's just something powerful about feeling like you're always in the "crosshairs" of the enemy. You're the main target. You are.

It's subtle isn't it. Cause we can't live like warfare doesn't exist and we can live like it's the only thing that exists.

I just had to get this off my chest.