Monday, October 28, 2013

Ezekiel and Toy Story... Who Knew?

The life of an Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, became the focus of discussion during a recent Sunday school class I teach.  I challenged our youth with a question about how a negative event could be designed by God.  Take for example Ezekiel.  He was called by God to be a prophet.  He was personally tasked rather heavy responsibilities and warned of personal consequences if he didn’t do what he was asked to do.  He had incredible visions and very powerful spiritual experiences where angels or even God would speak to him concerning future events.  During Ezekiel’s initial call and several times throughout his prophetic career God very clearly told Ezekiel that he was speaking to a stubborn people who would not listen to him.  Ezekiel seemed called to a futile mission, one in which he should not expect any results.

“If you’ve ever sat with a grieving family… I’m sure you’ve encountered such thoughts”

The force of my question to the youth came from chapter 24 of Ezekiel’s own book.  The message from God tells him that Israel’s fate is sealed and there is nothing that can be done.  Judgment is certain.  At this point in Ezekiel’s life God has told him that he would not be respected, the people would not listen, he would be made fun of, and that there is no chance for Israel to avoid their coming punishment.  THEN, don’t miss this, THEN God tells Ezekiel that He is going to kill his wife, his beloved, and that Ezekiel’s response to her death is to be the next message to a doomed people.  Wow.  One honest student was brave enough to admit that he struggled with the picture of a God who could preform a seemingly cruel act against one of his faithful servants. 
I think any honest person will admit that they occasionally struggle with situations in which God appears to be ignoring, insensitive, or cruel.  If you’ve ever sat with a grieving family or spoken with someone who just received word of a potentially terminal disease ravaging their body you likely have encountered such thoughts.
While the teens in my class wrestled with this Ezekiel’s relationship with God, I was struggling to come up with a way to make this a positive learning experience for them.  I didn’t want them leaving depressed or afraid of their God.  Then it hit me.  Toy Story.  My kids love the movies.  Toys competing for playtime with their owner, afraid to be replaced every birthday and Christmas.  The toys stated purpose was to “be there” for Andy, their little boy owner.  In the second movie the main toy character Woody, a cowboy with a pull-string, slowly gets pushed aside for a newer more high-tech toy named Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger.  The pain and despair of the older toy is clearly captured as he finds himself increasingly neglected.  Woody’s mindset was clearly depicted as a desire for usefulness, for purpose.  For a toy it was far better to be used and possibly damaged fulfilling his purpose as a toy than to be in perfect working order and forgotten or unused.  It would be better to be broken and played with in a little boys hands than to be perfect and sitting on a shelf. 
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus spoke of this kind of dedication to God when he mentioned that it would be better to make it to heaven maimed than go to hell whole.  Even the Apostles expressed this mindset when in Acts chapter 5 they counted it a blessing that they were found “worth to suffer” for His name’s sake.  The common thread found in Ezekiel, Jesus, the apostles and even Toy Story is that is it far better to be damaged in the Master’s hand than to be unused and far from Him.

“It is far better to be damaged in the Master’s hand than to be unused and far from Him”

The truth of the matter is that Ezekiel most likely had a better grasp on the eternal than 99.99% of people in history.  He saw God high and lifted up, was taken places by the Spirit, and spoken to regularly by God.  If after all of those experiences Ezekiel still believed that all there was to life was what we experienced during our short 80-100 years of living, I would be amazed.  It isn’t a stretch for me to believe that in the mind and understanding of Ezekiel death was not an end but merely one experiential segment of our eternal journey.  Did he miss his wife, his beloved, I’m sure he did.  Did he ache for her when she was gone?  Absolutely.  Did he ever regret submitting to be used by God?  Doubtful.  If life can get that bad for Ezekiel while in the Master’s hands, imagine how bad it could have been if he wasn’t.
I hope my experiences with God give me the faith and strength to genuinely believe that a life spent in the hands of God (regardless of the final cost) is better than a life wasted apart from Him.  Honestly, though, I pray I never have to exercise that kind of faith statement.  My admiration extends to those who already have.  Thank You for your example.   

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Law Of Least Resistance

Some call it the blame game, some call it side-stepping the issues, while others call it denial.  Regardless what label you choose, its driven by the Law of Least Resistance.  In nature the Law of Least Resistance determines the path of electricity and water, ultimately determining the shape of a river or stream.  In some cases common sense utilizes the Law of Least Resistance.  Take for example someone trying to cross a river or stream, the least resistant path is generally where the river or stream is narrowest or shallowest and therefore easiest to get across.  Unfortunately the Law of Least Resistance is most often witnessed when things go wrong.  Blame flows more easily away from someone, while praise and acknowledgement flow more easily towards them (deserved or not).

“Blame flows more easily away from someone, while praise flows more easily towards them”

When I was younger I was working with a couple of older gentlemen on a construction site.  A need arose for a quick solution: simply rerouting some caution tape from one place to another.  One of the men looked at me and asked if I would do it, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to serve.  Upon completion of my task the older gentleman who requested my assistance said this with a smile on his face, “If you want something done right ask a busy person, if you want something done quick ask a lazy person”.  I maintain he wanted the caution tape run correctly.  To believe otherwise would be to accept a truth about myself I don’t like or admire.  Plus, it’s easier to believe that I’m the go to guy when someone wants something done right.  That doesn’t require me to change. 

“The longer we prevent blame from flowing towards us the longer we prevent growth”

When the reality of a situation shines a light on some aspect of our life or character that we wish had remained hidden, the Law of Least Resistance jumps into action.  In an instant, with lightning fast reasoning and ninja like precision, we are able to assess the situation and redirect blame to another.  We almost instinctually look for ways in which something is not our fault.  Excuses flow from the Law of Least Resistance.  You may have witnessed the Law of Least Resistance if you’ve heard, uttered, or thought something like:
“If I wasn't so busy with work I could be there for my family"
“I’m a good husband she just makes me crazy sometimes”
“If they paid me what I was worth I would work harder”
“If they had been clearer with their expectations I would have done better”
“If people knew what I had to deal with…”
 Notice how each thought subtly shifts culpability.  It's not only lawyers who know that the smallest thought can introduce reasonable doubt and subsequently shift blame.  

“You are never more aware of your faults than you are when you know people are watching ”

Simply being aware of the Law of Least Resistance should help us identify how active it is in our lives.  The longer we prevent blame from flowing towards us the longer we prevent growth!  I hate it that the most successful growth seems to come from the most public failures.  Character shortcomings revealed in private are too easily ignored or written off.  Abusive parents and spouses abuse with more vigor within the privacy of their home.  They won’t abuse in public, around in-laws, or coworkers.  To do so would be to publicly reveal their wrongs.  To keep it hidden makes it easier to reason away disapproving behavior, to redirect blame.  The Law of Least Resistance helps keep our flaws from coming into the light.  Flaws no one sees do not demand near the attention they would if they were made public.  Don’t believe me?  Have someone you don’t know watch you eat and see if you aren’t more self-conscious, making sure you chew with your mouth closed, wiping your mouth more frequently, or covering your mouth after each bite.  You are never more aware of your faults (external or internal) than you are when you know people are watching.  Nothing draws the attention away from you like the Law of Least Resistance.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Potential Rut Of Potential

I recently spent some time with an elderly gentleman who was reflecting on his life.  His reflection was not prompted by health concerns or end of life considerations; in fact he had been pondering the state of his life for better than a year prior to my arrival in his living room.   Not long into our conversation it became abundantly clear that he was eat up with guilt and regret.  His life was not at all how he had hoped it would have turned out, but strangely enough it was exactly what he felt he deserved. 

’Potential’ is to the future what ‘almost’ is to the past: the undone”

The living room was dark, illuminated only by the light of an overcast day seeping in through his broken screen door and the flicker of his TV.  The smell of decades of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air along with shame and despair.  For better than 30 years he had struggled with alcohol and gambling.  He was 30 years divorced from his only wife and mother to his 4 children.  The high point of the past 6 months was finally receiving disability for something that had long plagued him.  From his worn out recliner he relayed his story.  It flowed from him effortlessly.  It was one he had undoubtedly punished himself with when no one was around, which was often.  He had been happily married, actively involved in a church, had just built a house with several acres he was successfully farming to supplement his income from a job he loved. Then he said something that sent my mind in a whirl. He said “It all changed August, 1977”. 

If you’re like me, I bet your thinking there was a death in the immediate family or a tragic accident that left him crippled.  Surely there was something nearly cataclysmic that happened that was simply out of his control resulting in a tragically wasted 30 years.  If you are like me, then you too would be wrong.  As it turns out he took a chance in 1977, at the urging of family and friends, which ultimately failed.  He claims God told him to leave the opportunity alone, but he went anyway.  He has grown to believe that his current state of life is the ongoing punishment for his disobedience.  He frequently asks God’s forgiveness for what happened 30 years ago, but I believe he has never forgiven himself.  While I could elaborate on some of those God and forgiveness issues, I want to draw your attention to a hidden danger in this story.

“Doesn’t every choice have the ability to change your future forever?”

This gentleman has hung the results of the last half of his life on one choice he made 30+ years ago.  He blames everything that has happened to him on that choice.  Since then bitterness and resentment towards those who encouraged that choice has only grown, along with his own regret.  That one wrong choice has become his excuse for underachieving ever since.  He has defined his life by a wrong decision made decades ago.  He struggles in the rut of what could have been, what should have been: the “almost”.  When the time is right I will challenge the reality he has built his life around with this question.  “You place a lot of weight on that one decision you made in 1977, but what about all of the choices you’ve made since then?”  Doesn’t every choice have the ability to change your future forever?  The bible declares in Lamentations 3:22-23 It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.  With each new day come new decision opportunities.  

This man’s life has challenged me to not define myself by one choice or one event in my life, past or future.  Future?  Yes.  If we’re not careful our life’s potential can become our defining characteristic i.e. “what I’m going to do”.  I can live being frustrated with where I am because I tell myself and everyone around me that I’m only here until something better comes along or until someone recognizes my potential.  I can just as easily blame my lack of achievement on something unachieved in my future as I can on something unachieved in my past.

"There are a lot of choices to be made between now and where we ultimately end up"

“Potential” is to the future what “almost” is to the past: the undone.  Both can motivate you or numb you into inactivity.  Either way there are a lot of choices to be made between now and where we ultimately end up.  If all we do is talk about “what we’re going to do”, one day that mantra is going to become the “what could have been”.  While I certainly don’t want to get stuck in the past replaying lost opportunities or failed attempts, neither do I want to get stuck in the rut of potential, never able to reach it.  Phrases most often heard in the rut of potential are “not yet”, “some day”, or “when things calm down”.  I don’t know, and I hope I never find out, when the moment is that someone’s greatest potential becomes his or her greatest regret.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Isolation... Not Just Being Alone

I love my alone time.  I love the escape from deadlines, complaints, to do lists, and trying to make small talk.  I like being alone, isolated from the thronging demands of life.  The irony of this moment is that while I write these words my two year old daughter is behind me tucked between me and my chair drawing on my back with her finger singing about how much she likes water, pausing occasionally to lean up over my shoulder and see what I’m doing and to ask me to draw her a picture.  Not exactly “alone time”.  But there’s a vast difference between isolated alone time and the isolation that destroys people, relationships, and businesses.  This destructive kind of isolation can be found in even the busiest of people. 

“Isolation comes in many forms and most don’t even realize how isolated they are until it’s too late”

Isolation can take many appearances; from the individual who lashes out at those who offer any form of criticism to the leader seeking to surround him or her self with “yes men” to the person far to busy to truly interact with anyone.  While not exhaustive, each of these people may not be isolated in the sense of being totally alone but they have strategically isolated certain parts of themselves from outside influences.  Generally speaking people excuse their isolation with claims of desiring consistency, authenticity, or preservation.  The perceived safety of isolation distracts from it’s destructive nature.  The danger in isolation, even selective isolation, is that it skews reality. 

“Destructive isolation can be found in even the busiest of people”

Any environment in which there is only one source of influence or one provider of truth has the potential to distort reality and be destructive.  The destructive nature of an inaccurate reality born out of isolation is perhaps most visible when we look at cults or peoples living in a compound with one leader as the sole source of it’s influence and “truth”. Unfortunately, isolation in our own lives is not nearly as obvious.  Far too often I witness homes in which a spouse or a parent’s anger creates a “protective” barrier around a family consequently isolating that family from healthy external influences.  The spouses and children of angry or even violent people are forced to live within the skewed reality the isolated person has created.  Isolated leaders often use guilt instead of anger as their method of corralling followers.  Failure to grow or attract new followers is credited to the weaknesses or ignorance of non-followers.  The unchallenged concepts of a leader, spouse, or family member can rapidly become absolute truth to the isolated regardless of whether or not they are right.  The longer skewed realities are allowed to go unchallenged the more fiercely the isolated defend those “truths” they have built their lives around. 

On a personal note I have noticed my own tendency for isolation when I get so busy running from one task to another that in my overexposure to tasks I end up isolating myself.  Busyness, for me, has become the most common way to create isolation.  If I stay busy, I stay distracted and I’m never in one place long enough to see the full impact of myself on that environment.  As a result I can live in a skewed reality in which I believe that I’m more productive, successful, pleasant to work with, easy to work for than I really am.  When what has actually happened is that I’ve not allowed myself to be present for critique because I’m off to the next task or project never allowing the previous environment to fully impact me.  In this manner success can isolate by inviting the successful to ignore the things that didn’t facilitate success.  Instead of becoming aware of the things needing change for growth, we can ignore/isolate from them and subtly focus only on the qualities that brought accomplishment.

Do I welcome critique or seek to discredit contrary sources?

As I have written this post I realize that even my own children are isolated to a certain extent when it comes to their beliefs about me, their father.  Right now I am the “strongest bestest” dad who can fix anything.  It won’t be until my children are well into their teens that they realize their dad can’t do everything and that my influence on this world is frighteningly small.  If I do a good job with my kids they will not refuse to accept this truth but will accept the true reality in which they live:  that their dad, while awesome, has limits and doesn’t know everything. 

Isolation comes in many forms and most don’t even realize how isolated they are until it’s too late.  Hopefully an awareness of the potential negative effects of isolation will allow people to accept their faults and be willing to be changed by external authorities instead of defending their narrow-mindedness with anger and guilt.  Am I open to genuine feedback or am I personally offended when someone points out the error of my ways?  Do I welcome the advice of others or cringe at their suggestions and mentally discredit their perspective in order to maintain my own skewed reality?  My honest answer to these questions might just reveal an isolated environment of my life. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hidden Consequences to Hiding From Your Kids

I recently had an argument with my wife in front of my kids.  Well, let me correct that, I recently over reacted in a conversation with my wife in front of my kids and I enticed my wife into an argument that resulted in me walking into the garage and staring at my freezer.  Moments later my kids came out into the garage and gave me a hug followed by my wife who informed me the kids had decided, “Daddy needs a hug, from mommy too”.  My kids are 6 and 2.  So not only did I misbehave in front of my kids, I behaved in such an immature manner that it was even obvious to them.  That realization coupled with the hugs of my kids effectively melted my heart and demanded an apology from me, not only to my wife but to my children as well.

“If it’s not a behavior I want my children to possess, it should be a behavior I don’t want to possess”

While I’m certainly not proud of my behaviors that day, I have given that situation a lot of thought.  Did I drop the ball in parenting my children because I argued with their mother in front of them?  Did I just example to them how they are allowed to talk to their mother?  I have often heard parents claim that they go out of their way to keep from arguing in front of their kids.  They will often boast the fact that “our kids have never seen us argue”.  Is it healthier to hide the bad and display only the good for my kids?  If that is true, is it also true for my marriage? Should I hide things from my wife that might show me to be something other than what I want her to think I am?  What about at work?

After much deliberation, the following are reasons why I will not hide from my children when I’m disagreeing with my wife or anyone for that matter. 

#1 – What are you saying or doing in your argument that your children should not witness?  If it’s not appropriate for your kids to hear then it’s not appropriate at all!  I’m amazed at how many people have an age limit on appropriate behavior.  With society’s age based legalization of driving, drinking, and smoking, somehow morality got thrown into that mix as well.  When you are old enough to drive you are old enough to cuss… or is it when you are old enough to drink you are allowed to cuss… I can’t remember. 
Why do people even say “not around the kids”?  Isn’t it because we are trying to convey to them the right way to behave by not exposing them to wrong behaviors.  If it’s a behavior that I do not want my children to possess as adults, shouldn’t it be a behavior I do not want to possess as an adult?

#2 – Have a little self-control.  If the reason you are ushering your children out of the room for your arguments is so you can have more freedom to say what you want, then it sounds like you are creating an environment in which you are free to lose control.  What is the age that your children are allowed to stop losing control?  How long does a couple have to be married before they are allowed to quit treating one another with the common courtesies they extend to strangers?

“My arguments with others should example… proper speaking and behavior.”

#3 – If your kids never see you argue they’ll also never see you make up.  This can create in them an incorrect assumption that it is never ok to disagree with someone.  If they ever do disagree with someone then they are not going to know how to bring it to a healthy resolution.  Instead what we’ve effectively done is teach our children the importance of avoiding conflict.  Then we wonder why they get mad and retreat to their bedroom and won’t talk to us when they become teens.  When you usher your kids out of the room so you can have a conflict you are cheating them out of a learning opportunity to show them, nay, that examples for them, the proper way to argue or disagree and how to make up. 

My arguments with others should show observers that even when you are angry there is a proper way to speak and behave.  I should be modeling what it looks like to ask for forgiveness for raising my voice, storming out, or just being nasty and how to be the one to forgive.  If my conflicts aren’t teaching my children healthy behaviors and expressions of emotions then maybe what I need is to work on being a better example and stop hiding from my need for improvement.