Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lessons from a Ditch Digger

We had a mostly good Spring and Summer in 2013.

Packing and moving had its good and bad points. Whoever says they like to pack up a house is demented! We got rid of a lot of stuff, reminding us that while we advocate living more simply, we have a long way to go to live more simply so others might simply live.

Getting the privilege of purchasing a house rather than living in a church parsonage has been awesome - mostly. We've always put sweat equity into each house, part of our ministry back.

We moved at the end of June, had two great Sundays @ The Park, two weeks later I left for Russia and the World University Games (see post FISU). I returned from my "hobby job" to the "real job" but soon encountered a "new job." There were no Trustees to call, but there were good friends.

At 3 p.m. on that Tuesday, after receiving 2 inches of rain in an hour, we found water seeping into our walk-out basement. Just seeping, not flooding, but still quite a nuisance. For a house sitting on a hill, nicely sloped away in front and back, it was baffling, frusting, irritating and completely nauseating! So I began digging, doing whatever I had to to get the water away from the house.

Here's some of what I learned in my unexpected job as a ditch digger.

1. The cause is not usually near the presenting problem. When the flower bed between the stone patio and the house was filled with water for days on end, it's a problem. But that's not where the real problem is. The first order of business was getting the water away from the house, so we dug a 50 foot ditch through clay and rock. Up near the house, after removing 5 stones from the patio (something about the number of stones and conquering that which is bigger than you are seems awfully familiar), we found a crushed drain tile. We opened it up and everything drained. The bottom of the yard was a budding mosquito birthing unit.

Still the water flowed - and flowed - and kept flowing.

Finally after 3 weeks we found the culprit that caused all the issues - a tree root enjoying the spring water flowing through a storm water pipe had grown to 7 feet when stretched out on the ground. That spot was 75 feet from the crushed tile we initially uncovered.

When something infiltrates our lives, the cause is probably a good distance away. In Galatians 6:7 we read:
"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.
A man reaps what he sows."

Here's an adage to live by: we reap WHAT we sow, MORE than we sow and LATER than we sow. Plant corn and you expect corn, not apples. There's a distance from the planting to the harvest. There's a separation between the problem and the cause. It's not always right in front of your face. The presenting issue is not the problem, it's only a symptom. Marriages don't fail in one day. The problems are cumulative. The drain gets clogged with junk, eventually poisoning the relationship.

Lately we've watched Justin Bieber & Miley Cyrus implode. It didn't happen overnight and what we're witnessing is the result of something else.

There are times when I don't believe a problem can be blamed on the principle of reaping and sowing. Someone else's sin can cause pain in our lives. Another's determination to identify you as poison isn't a "reaping and sowing" moment. It's probably more of a "I deserve what I tolerate" axiom.

2. Watch out! There are very few honest people in the world. I had no less than 5 companies come give me their opinion and estimates on dealing with this problem. No one dug. No one wondered. They just wanted to dig. Estimates ranged from $4500 to $11,000 for anything from a sump pump, 2 sump pumps to tiling the entire house again (we already have tile inside and out). One guy said to the

eventual "honest guy" - "you could have made some money on that job." Instead, the "honest guy," Don, wants to make a living but not at the expense of people. I'll never use another plumber as long as he's in business. $535 and the problem has been solved. I've already recommended him to 2 others.

My last day at my previous job, no less than 12 people said to me: "Thank you. We always got openness and honesty from you." Had it been said in a group, I would have been suspect but these were individuals. It was one of the best days of my life. Be honest. Be transparent. Tell the truth. The truth always comes out so you might as well start with it. Could it be difficult? Certainly. Might there be consequences? Yes. But the consequences of lying or shading the truth are much more painful.

Honest people are hard to find. My character flaw - ok, one of them - is that I trust people. I believe they actually are telling me the truth. This "new job" was yet another wake up call.

3. Patience wins the day. The first three days of my "new job" were less than pleasant. I was a bit jet-lagged to be sure, but more than that I was thinking about the implications of water in the basement, even a little water. While I immediately called water experts, I wasn't satisfied they had the answer - besides, I didn't have the money! I called friends - landscapers, talked with neighbors, a computer salesman (hey, I'd go to anyone!). I fretted like I've never fretted before but I knew we hadn't found the issue yet.

I tend to jump into a problem and just start doing something. That was not the way to deal with this issue, as my lovely wife gently encouraged me. I knew the water needed to get away from the house, but after that, I just wasn't sure.

"Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation."

When we are patient we are imitating God. My fretting did nothing except stress out my family and cause me some heart-burn! Patience is the highway of salvation - God's patience with us. The best solutions come at the end of our patience.

So if a problem surfaces in your life, look around, but not right around. Look far around. The cause is likely not right next to where you are now. Then start digging and learning!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Keeping Relationships Healthy

People. The greatest influence on us, the greatest contributor to our success and the greatest stressor we can know. People.

Some people start their own business because they're tired of office conflicts, but they still have to relate to people. Some people get out of marriages because of the ongoing conflict. We can't get away from relationships. Is there a way to keep them healthy?

In my reflection on recently reaching the half-century mark, I wrote this principle about growing healthy relationships:
Give the benefit of the doubt

As a USA Swimming official our mantra at a meet is "the swimmers always gets the benefit of the doubt." Our training is that if we have to think about what we saw, if we don't raise a hand immediately, if we aren't completely certain about what we saw, then we can't make the disqualification recommendation. If I raise my hand but then think about it and wonder, it's better to put my hand down than go forward.

Here's how it works in relationships.

The first and most important key to healthy relationships is to look first at myself. Is there something going on in my life, inside of me, that is acting as a filter to possibly misinterpret words or actions?

We're driving to a dinner date and my wife innocently and gently says: "You turn here but remember to get in the left lane." A few moments later, "It's probably better to turn here than go up another block." As we get closer to the restaurant my blood is getting warmer. "Make sure to park around that way." OK, I've about had it. Does she think I don't know what I'm doing? Would she like to drive or does she enjoy driving from the passenger seat? Is she suggesting I don't know where I'm going, that I don't take her out often enough?

All these thoughts and more can easily begin to take over and I'm no longer in a good mood.

I've learned to ask a different question - even if it's later and not in the heat of the moment:

What is so sensitive in me that it hurts when
those words push on it?

So often we like to say: "Why does she do that to me?" That will only lead to isolation, dividing us whereas looking inward will bring healing and draw us together.  

It's easy on a pool deck to give the benefit of the doubt. It's not emotional. It's either right or wrong. If I'm not sure, I don't recommend a disqualification. In relationships there is so much emotion.

To temper my temper - or emotions - it is helpful to recite 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 with a twist. Instead of "love is patient and kind….." I say: "This action - these words - are patient and kind?" Are they? Am I? In the heat of the moment, it's not easy, but through practice I've learned to ask forgiveness, ask for help interpreting my emotion and mature in a way that adds value to relationships.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Making a Marriage Better

Doing some reflecting as my 50th approached, I identified multiple truths - 50 of them to be exact - I've learned and sought to apply in my life. One of the most important is this:

The love and commitment of a good woman is worth more
than anything I could ever possess.

I've lived for 50 years and been married more than half of it (27 years in 2014). One time Stephanie and I were talking with another couple and they asked: "How long have you been married?" I responded, "20 wonderful years." A look of confusion came across Stephanie's face. "It's been 22 years, dear." "Yes," I said, "but 20 wonderful ones!" Suddenly the backside of a hand whacked me across the stomach. We laughed….and I've never said it again!

Not every year of marriage is as good as the others. It doesn't mean I'd trade any of them, for the diffiult years make the marriage what it becomes in the future.

I've read plenty of books on marriage - attended multiple marriage conferences - counseled couples in trouble - celebrated weddings with couples - and learned only that I have so much still to learn. One thing I do know is that our commitment to our marriage is the most important commitment (besides our one to Jesus) that we could make and keep.

A good marriage can be used by God to shape us. It's one of His best tools for growing the fruit of the Spirit in us. Afterall, what marriage is good without love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? (Galatians 5:22-23)

If I understand Ephesians 5 correctly, marriage is one of God's greatest tools to demonstrate to the world the depth and breadth and patience of His love for us. So making a marriage better matters a lot.

I think our marriage is good. It's not perfect but it is good. There is however one thing we have done that has had a great impact our marriage. Arguably it's the greatest return on investment in this essential relationship.

We've spent time and money on our marriage. 

Marriage Focused Time - Life will help you avoid the important discussions and connections that make a marriage good. We chose to make time to attend conferences like Family Life and Marriage Encounter. In 2012 I took a 3 month sabbatical and one trip was a marriage weekend with the Navigators at Glen Eyrie. When we were young and had little money, we rented DVD's (ok, they were actually VHS tapes) and watched some marriage teachings at home, using them as discussion starters.
Glen Eyrie Weekend Getaway

The time and money we spent on those conferences were well worth it. They forced us to talk about important things that life was helping us forget. We've never regretted investing the time and spending the dollars to grow our marriage.

The time is intentional, focused on the relationships, allowing others to challenge us through their teaching and example and questions. One time we went to a Christian Counselor for a "tune-up." There was nothing wrong that we could identify but we knew the relationship could be better. It took someone from the outside to help us see inside.

Whether it's a walk in the park, a lunch date (because lunches are cheaper than dinners) or a trip to the grocery, time away from the kids is essential.

Galcier Bay, Alaska - 25th Anniversary Cruise
Vacations - So many in the U.S. don't take all their available vacation days. We make sure we take as many as possible. One goal we've had is every 5th anniversary is a "big" trip, usually a cruise. What about the kids, you ask? We leave them for those days, and other days. The priority of our marriage is one of the greatest gifts we've given to our children. When they were young and we had a date night, they sought to manipulate us with crying and complaining. Checking with the babysitter later, they were fine after 3 minutes.

Taking time away for the two of us was vital to prepare for the season of life we've just entered - the empty nest. We love it. We miss our kids but we love it being just us again. The important thing is that we still like each other! A big part of that is we took the time and spent the money to create memories together.

It goes without saying that we also took some really fun family vacations too! We traveled with a pop-up camper, and fixed much of our own food to make them affordable.

Individual Hobbies - While we love each other, our relationship together doesn't cancel out our individual strengths and passions. Stephanie loves to quilt and is energized by that time. She needs that outlet for her God-given creativity. I, on the other hand, am competitive to the core so she supports my time at the Y as well as officiating for USA Swimming around the country.

We've tried to make sure we're not gone more than a couple of nights each week, but give room and support for those longer trips be they to North Carolina and a folk art school (guess who did that one) or a swim meet in Russia.

Peter I Summer Garden - St. Petersburg, Russia
Marriage is like a garden. It will produce beautiful flowers but only with intention and attention. Without it, weeds will grow and a few individual splashes of color may occur, but there will be no bigger picture creating a pattern that can inspire the world.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to Guard Your Heart

The doorbell rang and two young men presented an opportunity for shoveling the snow from my front walk and driveway. I declined, knowing more snow was coming and it's good exercise to boot. Then one of them said: "By the way, sir, your keys are in the door."

O My Goodness!

I quickly realized they'd been there all night, since taking our dog, Scamp, for a walk in the warmer 40 degree sunshine on the previous day. I had unlocked the door, let the dog in and proceeded to take in some packages left at the front door. I closed the door, locked it and left the keys hanging in the lock outside.

I'm a bit mortified and disappointed in myself that I put my family at some risk. I left the keys to our house available for someone else to use in gaining access.

It got me thinking about the ways we leave our hearts vulnerable, giving the keys to our soul to those who would endanger our relationship with Jesus.

1. Not taking sin seriously. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, lust & gluttony are the 7 deadly sins. These are the most frequently identifiable pathways to destruction. When we refuse to deal with sin in our lives, we are leaving the keys to our hearts available to the Enemy. No matter how much we learn about the Lord, as long as this pathway is available, our growth will be short-circuited.

I remember someone saying to me: "You can't get away with sin. You might think you are for a moment, but in the end there will be a price to pay."

When I wink at sin I will eventually suffer. It's one reason I've instituted some guardrails in my life, especially around relationships with persons of the female gender.

2. Not learning from criticism. In a recent Executive Coaching survey produced by Sherpa Coaching, the term "self-awareness" saw the greatest increase in response to a question about the benefits of coaching.

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. 
Who can understand it? - Jeremiah 17:9

Our hearts have a unique ability to give us a false reflection of ourselves. There is no way I can hope to uncover all of my short-comings and weaknesses. When I refuse to listen to and learn from criticism, I am handing over the keys to my heart, allowing deception to reside where clarity and wisdom are needed.

Closing myself off because the criticism is not legitimate or delivered with anger and spite, is just another way I leave the keys in the door.

3. Not serving the poor. When I only spend time with people like me I get a false impression of who I am. When I spend time serving the poor I find myself more vulnerable and open to growth through the exposure of chinks in my armor.

Refusing to spend time serving the poor leads directly to pride. It also cuts me off from the heart of the Gospel. The heart of God is with the poor and I theorize that getting close to the poor means getting closer to the heart of God. I hand over the keys to my heart when I close it off to the poor that God calls me to serve.

4. Not embracing my uniqueness. When I begin to compare myself to others I begin to walk away from guarding the door of my heart. When I look at the material lives of others, the size church of other pastors or for me how fast someone is swimming in the pool (always being sure to figure in the age algorithm!), it is then that I can walk away, off the path and leave my life more open to attack.

God created me uniquely, different from anyone else - and thank goodness for that! Just as I have a fingerprint that is like no one else's, so the impact of my life is different from anyone else's. God does not want to know how well I imitated someone else but how well I used the gifts He gave to me.

I could not believe I left those keys in the door. Since moving into our new home 7 months ago, I've talked with my wife about safety with our walkout lower level. Guarding relationships has always been a primary theme for me as a husband, parent and pastor.

How do you guard your heart?

Where have you left the keys in the lock?

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Deal with Conflict in Relationships

Everyone has conflict in some relationships in life, at least if my blog posts are any indication. A search for blog posts about conflict displays some of the top posts, including: Dealing with Difficult People - How to Deal with Conflict.

What do we do with people in our lives? My executive coach once asked me: "What's your greatest stressor at work?" I responded immediately: "People!"

In the world of the Church there is conflict because the Church is full of people….sinful people….flawed people…..human beings. That could be said of every place - every business - because every business deals with people. Conflict surrounds us because we're surrounded by people.

What I know is that conflict won't just go away. It can't be ignored if I want to get through it. I'm not suggesting I've been able to apply these principles and axioms perfectly, but I do know they work.

1. I deserve what I tolerate. This made my top 50 thoughts, axioms, pieces of wisdom and leadership principles I posted for my 50th birthday just a few days ago. It doesn't mean that all conflict will go away. It also doesn't mean that if there is conflict, I must conclude that I deserve it. It does mean that if I don't walk into the fog of the conflict that I do deserve the resulting infection.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you,
live at peace with everyone.

Some relationships will simply be conflicted because of personalities, values or a host of other issues. But when I refuse to walk into the conflict, not with harshness or an "I'm right" attitude, but with grace, then I deserve what I get from that relationship.

When we refuse to walk in, it will only get worse.

2. Own what is mine. Jesus had a marvelous insight into conflicted relationships:

In Luke 6:42, He counsels: How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? you hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

Before walking into that fog, it's best to ask and answer this question: "What do I own in this conflict?"

I've had my share of conflicts with staff, church members and acquaintances. One memorable one confronted me with a list of complaints. In a conversation with my supervisors they asked what complaints I had, trying to sort it out. My response was: "Let me share with you the 3 things that I have done which have contributed to the conflict."

Conflict will only be dealt with by looking inward first. We always have things to own because not only does each of us have a difficult person, we ARE a difficult person to someone else.

3. Know when to walk away. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to figure out a way forward in relationships and sometimes you have to walk away. I'm a "fix-it" guy and this pains me greatly. For me it's more about ego - that I have to admit I can't "fix-it."

It's the old adage: "You'll never please everyone, only some people some of the time."

I had someone say to me: "We'll never understand each other because you're an athlete and I'm not, you're from the city and I'm not…." And he left the church.

A friend counseled me about a conflicted relationships: "The two of you will probably never see eye to eye." She was right. Time to move on.

What do you recommend when dealing with conflict in relationships? What's worked for you? What do you struggle with the most?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

50 Shades of Black & White

50 is a moving target in life. In my teens it was really old. It was still old in my 20's. Getting into my late 30's and it seemed like I switched which end of the binoculars I was using. 50 was half-way. In my 40's, 50 was young. It's even younger today!  I don't feel 50.

After a half-century of walking (for the most time) upon this earth, I've taken some time to reflect. What are the lessons learned? Have I lived, so far, the way I wanted to? When things didn't go the way I planned, what happened? Can I spot the hand of God at work, in my past, in places I didn't see at the time and what does that mean moving forward? Turning 50 is a great time to reflect. My list has recent lessons and life-long ones alongside each other. I hope that is always the way it is.

Life has become more black and white for me. Wrong is wrong. Right is right. Truth is always best. There are standards and morals woven into the fabric of our universe. The common thread through it all is grace. The grace I've experienced from God is what He expects me to pass on to others, including myself.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes, from which I’ve learned some of my greatest lessons. I’ve had plenty of success, from which I’ve learned almost as much. As far as leadership, the greatest lesson is to not take things personally. When I make a mistake it doesn’t mean I am a mistake. When I fail, it doesn’t mean I am a failure. Quit Taking It Personally (Q-TIP) is a transformative lesson to relationships in every area of life – home, business and with myself. It’s a key component of self-leadership.

My life lessons are full of the things people have said to me from their observations of my life. I've been encouraged and challenged and honored to receive some enormous compliments, the greatest of which is "Thank you."

This list contains only a few of my lessons. I know there is much more to learn but for the moment here is what I would consider 50 important lessons and learnings, without commentary.

They are not in any particular order, except the first two. They're really important. I would not be who I am nor have accomplished what I have without  Jesus' work in my heart the love and support of my wife.

It's been a good ride so far. I wonder what the next years will hold?

  1. Following Jesus is completely worthwhile.
  2. The love & commitment of a good woman is worth more than anything I could ever possess.
  3. Pray constantly.
  4. I deserve what I tolerate.
  5. The truth will always win in the end so I might as well start with it.
  6. Give the benefit of the doubt
  7. Forgive quickly.
  8. Be careful with whom I spend time. I will tend to become like them. 
  9. Learn from the past, look forward to the future but live in the here and now.
  10. Some of the greatest lessons in life are learned in the most difficult and painful of times. How I wish it wasn't so.
  11. Figure out when I am at my best – when my life is full. Fill up with those things regularly.
  12. People are valuable and worth my time.
  13. Relationships are the stuff of life. Pursue them relentlessly. We were not created to go through life by ourselves.
  14. Take time for myself. Refresh. Renew. Recharge. Refocus. Regularly.
  15. Give trust up front. Take it away when it is betrayed.
  16. Read.
  17. Unplug.
  18. My greatest life regrets will be from what I didn’t do more than what I did do in life.
  19. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be accountable to some others for the way I live.
  20. Learn to listen. The people in my life are worth my time and attention.
  21. Take time to find out. Don't guess and therefore gossip.
  22. Learn to ask great questions.
  23. Don't try to fill every silent space.
  24. Exercise.
  25. Live more simply so others might simply live.
  26. Be willing to say yes and just as willing to say no.
  27. Take vacations.
  28. Schedule important things or life will help me avoid them. 
  29. Purge. Downsize.
  30. Establish and keep good boundaries. Don't own what is not mine to own. 
  31. I don’t have to change everything to change everything.
  32. Do what I know how to do. Don’t worry about what I don’t know how to do.
  33. Beware of first impressions. They're not always right.
  34. Don’t be defensive. Defensiveness will only serve to prevent growth.
  35. Find a hobby and pursue it with passion.
  36. Love is spelled T-I-M-E.
  37. Learn to say “Thank you."
  38. Get a coach. I can’t discover all my blind spots on my own.
  39. I'm not supposed to be able to figure it all out on my own.
  40. Bigger is not always better.
  41. Some people really are out to get me.
  42. Learn whom I am accountable to and what I am accountable for in life and work.
  43. Communicate clear expectations for those I lead.
  44. Learn to end things….and end them well.
  45. Q-TIP…..quit taking things personally.
  46. Use failure as a stepping-stone for moving forward.
  47. Live humbly.
  48. Don’t compare myself with others.
  49. Smile
  50. Every start has a lesson. Learn the lesson - Forget the start. (from swim officiating)
Thanks to the many of you who have traveled with me on portions of my life. You have made my life richer. I pray I have made yours richer as well.

I don't know if it's down hill from here, or it's just a chance to gain momentum for the next stage of this great journey called life. I'm ready for the thrill, the ups and downs, the stomach-churning drops and loops. It's the second half. Time to get living.