The Spirituality of Ribs

Have you ever eaten really good ribs? I’m not talking about the Applebee’s all you can eat riblet basket (not that there is anything wrong with that). I mean REALLY GOOD ribs. The kind that would make a vegetarian second guess their life choices.

Ribs prepared by a true BBQ pit master have more in common with a work of art than a meal. They don’t just leave you with a full stomach. Somehow, they find a way to fill your soul.

A few years ago, I dedicated myself to honing my skills as a ribs artist. It’s a quest I’m still engaged in to this day. After some initial experimentation, something became very clear… great ribs don’t “just happen”. Preparing a great rack of BBQ baby backs takes intentionality.

The process involves selecting the right seasonings, preparing the ribs to be seasoned, letting them marinate in the spices for at least 24 hours, cooking them “low and slow” and choosing (or making) the perfect BBQ sauce.  Yes, it takes practical know how but it also takes time… A LOT of time! The kind of time that seems ridiculous in our fast paced society.

If there is a grilled item that is antithetical to ribs it would be the hot dog. Because hot dogs are easy to cook, taste OK and can be easily crammed down our gullets in rapid succession, they have become the quintessential American cookout food (never mind that no one really knows what is in them). The Nathan’s hot dog eating competition on July 4th, started out as a novelty but now seems like a celebration of our culinary values.

As I’ve embraced the difference between grilling ribs and hot dogs, I’ve learned that anything worth savoring takes time. Some of this time seems passive, like the process of marinating, but you can’t rush it. Picking the right seasoning and then letting it do the work is essential.  Similarly, we need to seek the right environment for our souls and refuse to rush.

I’m glad God has the attitude of the ultimate pit master. He refuses to hurry. He knows the best conditions for me to thrive. Best of all, he loves me much more than anyone could ever love a rack of ribs. He feels the same about you too.

When I embrace these facts about God, it gives me a lot more patience with myself and with the people around me. I realize that most change in life doesn’t happen in the time it takes to cook a hot dog. Most deep transformation takes place over the course of weeks, months, years and decades.

In a world that shouts, NOW! and is increasingly impatient with waiting, the beautiful truth that “anything worth savoring takes time” is an important lesson to internalize in my soul.

Ready Player One

I guess the modern phenomenon of “binge watching” shows and movies has more of an effect on my media consumption habits than I would like to admit. Often, my movie going experience has more in common with stuffing myself at a buffet than savoring every bite of a gourmet meal.

This past weekend, I left my house with my twelve-year old son thinking I was going to the Golden Corral. What I received was a creative five-course meal prepared by one of the best “chefs” of our generation.

The previews for “Ready Player One” didn’t inspire me to pull out my phone and order tickets from Fandango. After all, who needs another dystopian story, highlighting the dark places our current dependence on technology might take us. Little did I know, what I would actually get is a glimpse inside the soul of one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time.

Steven Spielberg is a master at taking an audience along on an emotional journey. Think about the way “Jaws” highlights our fear of the unknown or how “ET”, defined a generation by tapping into a longing for connectedness.

My theory is “Ready Player One” flips the script. Rather than Steven Spielberg getting you to experience YOUR emotions, he gives the audience permission to participate in HIS journey through aging and transitions (I realize this could be shaped by my own current journey…see my last blog post). As we are allowed access to his inner world, we come to the realization that even the most gifted people must turn their creation over for others to steward.

In the movie, the creator of a virtual reality universe dies. Everything he has built during his entire life will be turned over to someone else. In order to decide who gets the authority to rule his creation, he plants an “Easter Egg” in the game. Whoever finds it will be awarded the ½ trillion dollars that his company is worth and the right to do with the universe as they see fit.

We follow the battle between a giant corporation (that wants to rule his creation as a means to make money) and a renegade bunch of individuals (who grow to realize they need each other).

In the middle of a ton of great 80’s music, as well as references to many of his own movies, we gain an understanding of what it must be like to be a creative genius like Steven Spielberg.

I experienced three revelations through this story.

My first observation is there is an inherent loneliness in transitions. No matter the field, leaders often experience isolation and rejection. This reality can feel even more heightened as you let go and move into a different season.

The second principle is transitions bring us face to face with regret. None of us skate through life doing everything perfectly. A sign of maturity is freely admitting what we wished we had done differently.

Finally, taking the time to hand off leadership well can bring peace. By realizing our significance isn’t found in a role, we have the opportunity to return to the simplest version of ourselves. We can rest in the fact that we are loved because of who we are, not because of what we do.

I wonder if Steven Spielberg would agree with my assessment of his journey. I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

Hanging Up Your Cleats

As a kid, I had the impression that heroes don’t move on.

No one could replace Superman in his cape. Batman didn’t turn over the keys to the Batmobile. Spiderman couldn’t teach a mere mortal to swing effortlessly from one building to another.

I still remember one of the days when that view was shattered. It was May 30th, 1989. I was glued to the television as one of my greatest childhood heroes addressed a hive of buzzing reporters.

A single microphone perched on top of a podium was the only thing between Mike Schmidt and the crowd. The scene was slightly jarring. He was in a suit and tie while his number 20 Philadelphia Phillies jersey was lifelessly draped in front of him.

I loved that jersey! Over the years I watched it trot around the bases after game winning home runs. I saw that jersey jump fearlessly into the dirt and make unthinkable defensive plays. I witnessed it dive head first into bases while the umpire shouted “SAFE!”

Of course, the jersey was simply a symbol. In reality, I was in awe of the man who wore it. Many people consider Mike Schmidt the best 3rd baseman of all time and he played for my team. For me, he wasn’t just “a” hero. He was “MY” hero.

He began his remarks by saying,

”I left Dayton, Ohio, with two bad knees and a dream of becoming a baseball player; I thank God it came it true,” 

Shockingly, tears began to flow from his eyes onto his trademark thick mustache. You can watch the video here.

It was evident his historic baseball career was over. A piece of me wanted to weep too. I was confronted by the reality that my hero was a human being. It was like a fastball straight to my gut.

We all are hit by this truth in the people we love and admire. Whether your hero is an athlete, musician, political figure, chef, spiritual leader or social activist, a time comes when they either “hang up their cleats” or pass away.

The same will happen to you too.

One of the toughest parts of leadership is letting go. Transitioning from one role to another is disorientating. In order to do it well, we must release ourselves from everything we were known and respected for. Only then are we free to live out the next chapter of our lives.

Without a doubt, some people don’t give themselves enough time to develop into the leader they were intended to be. They expect extreme change overnight and fail to hone their gifts to their fullest.

Others stay in positions of leadership beyond what is healthy for them and the organization they oversee. The humility needed to make this change is too much for them to embrace.

Thank you, Mike Schmidt for showing me that a hero can acknowledge past success, grieve the current loss and move on with joy into the future. You are still trotting around the bases in my memories.

 

Killing a King

He deserved it.

I should know. I’ve seen a lot of criminals in my life.

They don’t get handed over to me because they are boy scouts. If I told you what some of those low-life scumbags have done, you’d want to wash your ears out.

My job might not make you feel warm and cozy inside. Honestly, I don’t care! I keep you safe and comfortable. You might not like me, but you NEED me!

I’m the ultimate deterrent. I know how to make someone feel so much pain they wish they were dead but I can keep them alive, like a barely-breathing billboard. It is an advertisement that shouts to everyone who passes by, “Don’t mess with Rome…the biggest, baddest, empire on the planet!”

Supposedly, that man was the leader of an uprising. He claimed to be a king.

My fellow soldiers and I decided to show him what happens when you mess with the real king…Caesar!

We laughed as we beat him with rods and whipped him until chunks of his flesh were flying from his body.

I expected him to direct the usual string of expletives at us. Vile words fuel me. They let me know I’m doing my job well. This guy didn’t say anything to us. Nothing! We beat him harder to make sure he got the message.

After we were done with him, we came up with the hilarious idea of giving him the “royal treatment”. We draped “his majesty” in a purple robe and jammed a crown made of thorns on his head.

We laughed again until we couldn’t breathe.

Apparently, the crowd didn’t think their king was humiliated enough. They shouted for us to crucify him. My friends and I were more than happy to oblige.

Then something happened that I can’t explain. As I grabbed him to take him away, he turned his bloody face toward mine. His expression should have oozed anger and hate but I swear it looked like he felt sorry for me.

I gave him another uncomfortable laugh and shoved him away.

The next several hours were pretty normal for executions. We forced him up a hill. Dislocated his shoulders, drove some nails into his arms and lifted him into place. He still never rained down cursing on us (or any of the spectators gawking at him).

Eventually, we got to relax. We played a game to decide who got to keep his clothes.

I didn’t hear him say much (it’s tough to talk when you are hanging from an old piece of wood) but I swore he uttered the words “forgive them”.

About that time, the sky grew dark. I shifted nervously as my laughing grew more and more uncomfortable.

Even though his death only took a few hours, it felt like an eternity.

When he gasped his last breath there was a violent earthquake. It seemed like the ground beneath our feet was grieving. In horror, one of my fellow soldiers cried out, “He was a son of the gods!”

My laughing stopped.

Questions raced through my mind.

“Who was this man?” “Why did he really die?”

Even worse, “If I killed an innocent king, am I the one who deserves to die?”

I flashed back to the time he stared directly at me. If there is a king who would look at me with love after everything I’d done to him, HE is the kind of king I would give my life to follow.

Choose wisely

Millions of Americans rushed to their local gym this past week with excitement and resolve. I should know. I’m one of them.

Over the years, I’ve tried to make exercise a regular part of my routine but a couple of months ago that “routine” became a little…well, let’s just say “sporadic”.

Maybe it started when I broke two of my toes. Perhaps my desire to spend more quality time with baked goods added to my lack of motivation. Whatever the reason, I realized I needed to start fresh.

Upon my return to the gym, I discovered something crazy. I had become weaker! The weights I once threw around with ease, were now were accompanied by involuntary grunts and groans.

It didn’t stop there. When I ran, I was considerably slower than before. I’ve never set any land speed records but even the thought of running at my previous speed made me want to hyperventilate. It was enough for me to ask myself, “What the Hans and Franz is going on?!!”

As I sat on the edge of my bench, looking like a face swap between a dejected Charlie Brown and a forlorn Mr. Clean, I had a realization. Yes, getting back into shape is a pain (in more ways than one) but there is also a valuable lesson to be learned.

Our bodies are gift to us. They teach us that the decisions we make turn us into the people we will become.

Even though we might not like it, we can understand the ramifications of our decisions on our bodies. For example, if I eat more than my fair share of Italian cookies and choose to skip the gym for a while, my physical well-being is going to suffer.

What is often tougher to see are the ways that we are affected emotionally, spiritually and intellectually by the decisions that we make.

Each of us has thousands of choices to make within the course of a day. In the end, our lives become the sum total of those decisions.

Does that mean we need to obsess over every little decision? No, but it may mean we take our daily choices more seriously.

Sometimes it’s helpful for me to look at extreme examples in order to grasp a concept. For instance, one of the biggest news stories of this past year was the rampant nature of sexual harassment across our country. I am thankful that this has become a national topic of discussion. Sexual harassment is an epidemic and it has to stop!

Interestingly enough, these stories have shown that sexual harassment isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” problem. It doesn’t have its roots in what ethnicity or economic background you come from. At the core, sexual harassment is a heart issue.

My guess is none of the men who are accused of sexual harassment woke up suddenly one morning and said, “I’m going to start terrorizing women today”. Most likely, they came to that point after years of little decisions. One gray area turned into another and then another until finally they had become a person who could act so heinously without ever giving it a second thought.

So what’s the point? Are we all doomed to become pathological liars or abusers? I don’t think so. Still, our decisions may lead us to another tragic place. We may fail to be who we were designed to be.

Who do you want to become? Are the choices you are making today bringing you closer to becoming that person or taking you further away?

My prayer is that the decisions I make in 2018 will lead me closer living out my created purpose. I hope you’ll experience that joy too.

A picture says a thousand words…or does it?

The sands of time bury pictures on Facebook until they are so far under the surface that we hardly remember their existence. A few days ago, I was scrolling through some of my forgotten treasures.

As I clicked from one picture to the next, I found myself uttering noises like, “Awwwww!!!” or “Heyyyyy!!!” Each image captured a special moment in time. I was moved as I watched how much my kids have grown, how my hair hasn’t and all the adventures we have shared over the last decade or so.

In a particularly nostalgic moment, I came across a picture of my wife and me on a vacation. Since she happened to be sitting on the couch next to me, I pointed to the picture and said, “Look how happy we are!” Joy filled my soul, simply looking at the snapshot.

In response, my wife turned to me and said, “Is that all you remember about that trip?” It was like one of those scenes in a movie when that record scratching sound gets played. All of the sudden I was knocked off the 30,000 foot cloud I was riding on.

My mind was whisked away to a rather lengthy and passionate “discussion” we had on that very same trip. Even though it wasn’t our biggest fight, I remember it well. It encapsulated a lot of the frustration and feelings we have experienced over the years. In an instant, that very same picture that brought me a sense of peace and happiness, delivered feelings of discomfort and angst. Did that negate the joy we truly were experiencing the moment? No, but it didn’t represent every part of us either.

It has been said that “A picture says a thousand words” but I would suggest that those words aren’t always the whole truth.

When I am scrolling through a newsfeed…Yes, even my own! I can assume I know the entire story behind the picture that I am seeing. Rarely, is reality the same as that image.

I think of all the family pictures we took with wiggly, whinny kids (and parents for that matter). Sometimes it seemed like it took 50 or 60 photos to get ONE that looked halfway decent. Some of the truly “high” moments in life were also accompanied by “lows”.

This doesn’t mean the beauty of those magical moments isn’t authentic but it puts things in perspective. For someone so quick to see everything as, “all good” or “all bad” I need the reminder that things aren’t always that clear-cut. The boxes I create to put myself at ease are often crafted for my comfort rather than seeing reality.

Holding joy and sorrow in tension is one of the most difficult aspects to maturity. Yet it is essential if I want to see the world (and myself) accurately. It also helps when you are scrolling through your newsfeed.

Sometimes success means stepping into the batters box

Success. That word carries a lot of weight, especially in modern American society. We are obsessed with success. It is so much a part of the air we breathe that we don’t even stop to think about it. Movies, social media and the news are filled with stories that either celebrate the accomplishments of individuals or point a finger at their failures and subsequent demise.

If we aren’t careful, we can subtly fall prey to thinking that we are only worthwhile if everything we touch turns to gold. The problem is nobody has the secret “Midas touch”. Even if they did, that old fable reminds us that the results wouldn’t be as glorious as we envision.

We desperately need reminders of the true meaning of “success”. In my life, one of the places I have learned the most is through baseball.

I was reading an article about statistics in baseball on ESPN.com last week. I’ve added the link to it here.

The article talks about a player and manager named Cap Anson. This is a excerpt…

The legend goes that Cap Anson, asked what he’d like his tombstone to say, replied, “I guess one line will be enough: ‘Here lies a man that batted .300.’

 There are three reasons we care, for our purposes today, about Anson’s response. The first is the throat-clearing opener: “one line will be enough.” Anson had one of the game’s most extraordinary and complicated major league baseball careers. He was baseball’s first superstar, rapped 3,435 hits, won five pennants and almost 1,300 games as a manager, and played a prominent and despicable role in preserving segregation in the sport. A book could probably be written about any one of his 27 seasons. In his estimation, one line would be enough. That’s how powerful “batted .300” has been in baseball.

The article goes on to talk at length about why batting .300 is a significant accomplishment.

With all due respect to the author, I think he may have actually missed Cap’s main point.

It may offend our modern sensibilities but what if Cap wasn’t talking about the game of baseball at all? How about if he was talking about life? That certainly reframes the way I read his quote.

In the batter’s box of life, there are always opportunities to hit a home run or strike out. There are also times that you hit a nice single up the middle or you crush the ball but a fielder makes a nice play. No one succeeds in everything even when you are doing everything “right”.

No hot streak lasts forever and no slump defines what you are able to do at your next at bat. In the end, batting .300 in life is probably a very reasonable “batting percentage”.

I wouldn’t characterize my success in life in home runs, stolen bases or runs scored. I think the best way to judge my success is if I’m willing to get into the batter’s box day after day.

Am I willing to swing away even when I struck out my last time up? Can I stare down each pitch as it comes my way and give it my best shot? Can I take the occasional fastball to my arm or back?

In life, having the courage to step into the batters box is half the battle. After all, nobody bats 1.000.