The creative road

The Creative Road

I have a problem: I’m an impatient, procrastinating perfectionist (in recovery).  I like things to be a specific way, but my timing is often too late, and my attention span too short, to get me to where I want to be.

This problem manifests itself most clearly in my work as a writer and pastor.  I love the beginning of the creative process, when ideas are running through my mind like a Lamborghini on the Autobahn, because progress is rapid and smooth.

But the moment I choose a topic to address, progress begins to slow until I eventually feel like my mind is in a horse-cart on some cratered, back-country road.  It sucks, but I don’t think this feeling is unusual for people who do creative work.  In fact, I don’t even think it’s a problem, unless I start looking for a shortcut, an easy way off the road.

When you take the easy way out, when you don’t push through the potholes, you sacrifice the quality of your product.  When you procrastinate and start on a project too late, you almost force yourself to skip the struggle, on the other side of which is a greater product that has the potential to make a greater impact.

It's better to experience difficulty in the process than disappointment in the product.Listen to me: Even if you’re really skilled at what you do, don’t use your talent to justify turning off the road prematurely.  It’s better to experience difficulty in the process than disappointment in the product.

Earlier this week I was writing a sermon for this Sunday.  I had some good notes, and had invested a significant amount of time in explaining and illustrating two major points before I realized they weren’t really major points at all (it’s a long story).

In the past I might have told myself, “I can make this work.  I didn’t invest all this time in these points for nothing!”  But this time I took a step back, identified the main point of the text, and made my previous points sub-points of a sub-point!  And you  know what?  I’m really, truly excited to preach this weekend, because the product is good.

Don’t procrastinate.  Don’t take shortcuts.  Stick to the process so you can celebrate the product!

 

Advertisements

What do you expect from God?

What do you expect

When was the last time you prayed and expected God to respond?  When was the last time you attended a church service or small group gathering and really expected God to show up in an incredible way?

There was a time in my life when I might have thought it was arrogant to expect anything of God.  Many times I tagged “thy will be done” onto the end of my prayers not out of a healthy reverence for God, but out of a fear that he wouldn’t answer at all (I thought it would save me some embarrassment if he stayed silent or chose not to act the way I had asked him to).  I was praying, but not in faith.

“Faith” in the dictionary is defined as belief in a person or thing.  “Expectation” can be defined as belief that a person will act in a certain way.  I think that in the church, just as in the dictionary, we’ve divorced these two words from each other, even though they’re really nuances of the same idea.

See, those of us who know God can expect some things from God, not because he owes us anything, but because we understand his character.  We understand he is good, loving, just, generous, faithful, and more, so why not expect him to answer our prayers in accordance with his character?

I’m currently reading through the Psalms, and I recently came across this little morsel from King David:

“Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord.
    Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly.”

(Psalm 5:3, emphasis added)

I want to live a life of expectation, one where I’m constantly excited about what God could do in any situation.  I want to pray “thy will be done,” but out of honor and reverence rather than fear.  I want to trust that my Father wants what’s best for me, because he’s told me that he does.

 

Can God trust you with more?

can-god-trust-you-with-more

A few years ago my wife and I took our dog, Bear, to a local dog park to play and swim.  Despite being an intimidating 85 pounds at the time (he’s a Newfoundland mix), he was a big-ol’ lover who wouldn’t even bark at a fly, let alone hurt one.

But something changed that day.  At the park there was one dog who towered over him, a Great Dane puppy that was young and eager to assert his dominance.  The Great Dane wasn’t growling or biting, but he incessantly tried to mount Bear, and on several occasions did so in the water, pushing Bear under, leaving him gasping for air.

Each time this happened we tried to  put an end to it as quickly as possible, but the damage was done.  From that day on Bear had the equivalent of puppy PTSD.  We tried taking him on walks in public places, but every time he passed another canine, no matter how big or small, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he growled and snarled and tugged on his leash.

It was heartbreaking.  During this time Bear never showed any aggression toward humans, but because of his size and his behavior toward all other dogs, we decided for a long time to not walk him in public.  We couldn’t trust him.

That is, until recently.

bear-at-vet

Bear and I

Recently I started taking Bear on walks up and down our road, a quiet “no outlet” street in the country.  I thought it would be a good idea, because he really needs the exercise and companionship, and I rarely see anyone walking another dog down the road.

We had almost made one full lap down and back, when suddenly a little terrier came sprinting off of my neighbor’s front porch, aggressively growling and barking at Bear.  It all happened so fast I didn’t even react.  I felt a paralyzing pang of fear, and I just held my breath.

The little dog came nose-to-nose with my monstrous beast, but Bear didn’t bite or growl or anything like that.  He simply wagged his tail.

I seized the moment, tugging gently on the leash and saying, “Come on, Bear,” and my dog trotted up beside me as the terrier returned to its stoop.  I was as proud as a father watching his 6th grader graduate from elementary school.

The next day, during another walk, the same thing occurred.  A dog (this time a larger one) ran aggressively toward Bear, and again Bear passed the test.

I don’t know what changed in Bear’s mind.  I don’t know if time caused him to simply forget what happened with the Great Dane, or if he simply has more courage now, but what I do know is this: I can trust him again.  Why?  Because he’s passed the test (twice).

I believe that God wants to trust us with more, too, but he won’t do so until we show we can be trusted with what he’s already given us.  We have to pass the test we’re currently taking before he’ll give us a harder one.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable in which a man is going away on a long trip.  Before he leaves, the man gives his three servants some money, trusting that they will invest it wisely and earn more for him while he’s away.

When he returns from his trip the master finds that the first two servants generated more money for him, prompting him to declare about each of them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities.”

The third servant, however, failed to use well what he had been given, prompting the master to take the seed money away from him and give it to the first servant.

“To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance,” the master says.  “But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”

See, my dog passed the test.  And because he passed the test, because he could be trusted with little, I now know I can trust him with more.  I can trust him in public places again, which means he’ll get to enjoy the experience of public parks and paths again soon.

But can you be trusted with what God has already given you?  Are you passing the test?  Even if you feel like he hasn’t given you much, are you using whatever time, talent, and treasures he’s provided in a way that honors him?  If not, can you really be upset if he doesn’t eventually (whether on this earth or in the Kingdom to come) give you more?

 

You can stay stagnant, or you can get agitated

you-can-stay-stagnant-or-you-can-get-agitated

There’s a part in many washing machines called the agitator.  It’s job is to…well…agitate.  It does so by swishing back and forth, stirring up the water and detergent and clothes.

If it weren’t for this particular part, the clothes would never truly get clean.  Filling up a tub with laundry, soap, and water, then letting the whole concoction sit still for an hour, won’t make them as spotless as you’d like.  You have to shake things up–literally.  It’s in this chaotic swirling that things are made right again, and your clothes come out as fresh as a spring rain.

Isn’t the same often true of our lives?  We don’t like to be agitated, but it’s for our own good, because the opposite of agitation is stagnation.  So many of us get bogged down in the same-old-same-old of everyday life that we feel like we’re standing still while the world around us is pressing forward.

Here’s the thing: The situations we lament as inconvenient obstacles are often God-given opportunities in disguise.

I was recently speaking to the students at my church, and I told them that good friends always tell the truth.  Sometimes truth is painful to receive, but in the long run it makes us better.  I used Jesus as an example, showing them how he constantly shared truths that, even to this day, pierce the hearts of men and women, revealing their sin and their need for a Savior.

Jesus’ words are agitating, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t benefit us.  If he didn’t challenge our way of life, we wouldn’t have known there was a better way at all.  He made us uncomfortable for a moment so we could experience eternal comfort with him later on.

So don’t just endure the agitations in your life, identify and embrace them!  Ask God, “What do you want me to learn from all this?”  Discomfort is a friend of progress, so if you want stop being stagnant you’ll have to start getting a little agitated.

A letter to me

a-letter-to-me

What are you waiting for?  What is holding you back from doing what you need to do to get to where you want to be?  You have to stop waiting for the planets to align.  It’s just not going to happen.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 says, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant.  If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.”  We root our excuses in reason, but at some point you have to step out in faith.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan and prepare for whatever your dream is, because you should.  Proverbs says, “Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty” (21:5).

But I suspect most people get stuck in the planning stages of their dreams and never get to the execution part.  Why?  Because they’re waiting for everything to be perfect.

Listen: The road to your dreams is not paved and perfect. It’s muddy and messy and, at times, miserable–but it’s worth it.

Don’t delay.  Seize the day.  Live without regrets.  Execute well.  Trust God.  Remember what matters.  Keep a good perspective.  Breathe…now go get it.

A new (and better) way to work

top-20mobileapps

It’s pretty audacious for me to proclaim I know of “a new way to work,” especially since Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, teaches us that “History merely repeats itself.  It has all been done before.  Nothing under the sun is truly new” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Yet just because something isn’t new to the world doesn’t mean it isn’t new to us.  I like to go shopping at a second-hand store located just outside a wealthy community.  Why?  Because it gives me a chance to glean gently used, high-quality clothing for a fraction of the original cost, and that which was deemed “old” by its original owner suddenly becomes “new” in my possession.

The same is true of wisdom.  The most valuable insights are of ancient origins, yet when applied to our condition they become fresh again in our lives.

How does this apply to work?  Well, let’s look to the wisdom of Solomon once again.  Ecclesiastes is a book he wrote about his search for meaning on this earth.  Early in the book, Solomon details how he “had everything a man could desire” (2:8), and how he had become greater than all his predecessors, yet at the end of it all he was still disappointed.

In Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, Solomon writes:

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.

How tragic!  To spend so much precious time and energy, only to look back disappointed at the meaninglessness of the your work!

But later in the chapter (verses 24-25) Solomon the Wise comes to an interesting conclusion.  He states:

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?

Here’s what I’d like to draw out of this text: he says it is from the hand of God that we enjoy our work, not the product of our work.  It is a blessing to find pleasure while working, not just in our off time after our money has been earned.

In other words, it is a blessing to enjoy the process, not just the product, of your work.

As a writer, sometimes I just want my work to be finished.  My projects are becoming longer and longer, because I used to almost exclusively write articles and now I’m writing books.  But God has blessed me to do something that I enjoy, and it is crucial that I don’t overlook the process when writing longer works, because it is in the process that we grow, and it is in the process where he grants us joy.

The same is true of our lives in general.  Sometimes we just want to give up on ourselves, on who we’re becoming, because we just want God to transform us, to make us like him, instantaneously.  But I think he often keeps the destination out of reach, at least for a while, not because he’s cruel or unloving, but because it is the journey that prepares you for the destination.  And if you can find joy in the journey–with all of its hardships and struggles–then know that joy has been given to you by God.

One final thought: There is a limit to how much we can enjoy the things of this earth, because we were not made for this earth but for the Kingdom of God.  If you find your work to be meaningless it is probably because you, like Solomon, have learned it will not last.  But those who serve God faithfully can know their lives are a ministry that is making an eternal impact.

Here is my word of encouragement to you, words Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:58:

 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Be Helpful, Not Just Clever

welcome_to_fight_club_14317627100Pastors are tasked with shepherding the flock, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost, but there’s an additional pressure we often feel that has nothing to do with our calling.  We often feel like we have to be clever on top of everything else, offering a performance that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and when we can’t come up with just the right tweetable phrases we feel like our sermons are somehow inadequate.

That feeling reminds me of the scene from Fight Club (the movie) when the nameless protagonist (Edward Norton) meets a rebellious soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight.  Norton’s character is an empty shell of a man who tries to fill the void in his soul by attending various therapy groups and by shopping from catalogs, and when he puts on a facade for Durden (who sees right through him) he gets called out for it:

Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever met… see I have this thing: everything on a plane is single-serving…

Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it’s very clever.

Narrator: Thank you.

Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?

Narrator: What?

Tyler Durden: Being clever.

Narrator: Great.

Tyler Durden: Keep it up then… Right up.

[Gets up from airplane seat]

I want to ask the same question to pastors: How’s that working out for you?  Lately, I’ve been asking myself the same thing.  I will say this: there’s nothing wrong with being clever, as long as it isn’t our end-game.  Jesus was insanely quick on his feet and delivered some strong, punchy statements that are definitely clever, but he was also helpful, so that is what we should all strive to be too.

His words were not empty.  They weren’t powerless.  They were marinated in meaning, and ours should be too.

The delivery is imp
ortant, but even more so is the substance.  So let’s be people of substance, in our lives and our words.  Whether we’re a pastor or a plumber, let’s make sure our voices are saying what matters, not just what sounds good, interesting, or entertaining.