Gauges

There are two types of people in this world…those who can comfortably let their cell phone battery drain down to one percent and those who begin to panic when it reaches the half way point.

I am the second type of person.

Once my phone dips into a range I consider “the danger zone”, I feverishly start to look for an outlet. The same is true in my car. There is nothing more stressful than watching my gas gauge get perilously close to “E”. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I push the limits, but I can’t breathe easy until I know my tank is full again.

Over time, I’ve discovered that I have a set of internal gauges that tell me how I’m doing too. It’s easy to pretend they don’t exist because they don’t light up like the ones on my dashboard. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as real. Often the consequences for ignoring the gauges of my inner world are even more painful than getting stuck along the side of the road or not having access to my phone.

Here are a few of the gauges I use to monitor the health of what is going on inside my soul…

Positivity vs. Cynicism

I’m a pretty positive person by nature. When I am in a healthy spot, I tend to see the bright side of circumstances and believe the best about the people around me.

I know my emotional gauge is telling me that something is wrong when I start to become cynical. When the first words out of my mouth are sarcastic or my thoughts become jaded, I need to take some space and evaluate what is going on beneath the surface of my life.

Rested vs. Exhausted

When my emotional tank is full, I feel rested and at peace. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not busy. It means I have enough margin in my life not to run myself into the ground. Perhaps the best way to describe this way of life is “at ease”.

A clear sign that my tank is running low is the need for multiple cups of coffee in order to make it through the day. When I combine a weary physical state with rushing between activities and no space for silence/stillness, the results aren’t pretty.

Present vs. Distracted

I have learned to pay attention to my interactions with people as I monitor my inner world. When I am at my healthiest, I am able to stay engaged and focused in conversations. I feel “present” with others.

I know something is “off” when my mind begins to dart around in the middle of talking with another person. Living with a distracted mind isn’t fun for me (or the people I’m interacting with).  

Those are just a few of the gauges that I have learned to monitor in my life. How about you? What are some of the gauges that tell you how you are doing?

For Finn

Three year-old boys aren’t supposed to die of cancer…but in this broken world sometimes they do.

Recently, our family attended a memorial service for a super hero named Finn. Finn’s parents (Dan and Brandi Lee) are very special to my wife and me. We had the opportunity to mentor them during their time in college at Syracuse University. We even had the amazing honor of being in their wedding.

Now we were in a crowded church for a different type of service. As I sat in silence, a question came into my mind, “What if Dan and Brandi Lee came up to me right now and said, ‘John we need you to say a few words’?” What in the world would I say? How could I possibly convey anything that would be worthwhile? What follows was the first thing that came to my mind. My words truly don’t do justice to their love, their faith or the struggle of their courageous boy but it is the best attempt I have at speaking from the heart…

“Jesus wept”.

Those two words are more than just the shortest verse in the Bible. They give us a picture into the heart of God. Jesus didn’t need to cry. He knew he was about ready to raise his friend from the dead. Yet, he looked at all the people in pain around him and experienced the grief of losing someone so close to him and he cried…not just a tear running down his cheek. He bawled his eyes out! 

For those of us here who are following Jesus, it’s not just OK if we weep today. It is a sign that we truly have the heart of the person we claim as our King.

So today we choose to weep.

We weep for Finn. No three year-old child should experience the ravages of cancer. We were not intended to have our childhood ripped away by a devastating disease. Three year olds should be playing with cars, not worrying about colostomy bags. They should be outside soaking in the rays of the sun, not going through rounds of radiation. They should be hopping around their house, not shuffling through a hospital. Young lives were not designed to be shattered like this. I believe Jesus isn’t apathetic toward Finn’s pain. Something tells me that as Finn suffered, Jesus wept. As we think about Finn’s strength in the midst of this horrific battle, we weep too.

We weep for Dan and Brandi Lee. How many of us would have the courage and grace to endure what they have gone through as parents? Place yourself in their shoes for a moment. They were already under the intense pressure of raising three boys, one of whom has special needs. Add on top of that, a cancer diagnosis for their youngest. They gave everything they could over the last couple of years emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. They emptied themselves in order to find healing for their child. In the end, their child was still taken away. How many of us here could still muster the faith to sing, “It is well with my soul”? Dan and Brandi Lee, the level of sorrow you are experiencing is like walking through hell. Jesus knows. I believe he weeps with you. We weep with you too.

We weep for ourselves. Finn was courageous, independent, optimistic, wise and loving. Boys with those qualities grow up to be men with those attributes. As we look around at our world today, who wouldn’t want more men with that type of character? When we lost Finn, we lost someone extremely precious. We didn’t simply lose a boy. We lost a future leader and inspiration. Jesus weeps with us in the middle of our grief too.

The Bible tells us that because of Jesus we don’t have to mourn like people without hope. We cling to the hope that Jesus brings today. For that very reason, we are able to enter into our grief without fear. We serve a king who cried and today we cry too.

*FYI, If you don’t know Dan and Brandi Lee personally, I’d highly suggest visiting their blog. This will give you a firsthand look at their journey. You’ll also get the opportunity to meet the avocado-loving super hero that inspired this post.

Fast or Far

Like many of us, I entered the New Year committed to getting back in shape. As part of that process, I began to run…again. Perhaps it’s the endorphins or my best efforts to distract myself from the pain, but I have started to notice more parallels between running and leadership.

Specifically, one of the biggest decisions that leaders need to make is the choice between going fast or going far. Rarely do they end up requiring the same things from us. Neither one is inherently better than the other. Becoming a world-class sprinter or a champion marathoner are both amazing athletic achievements. Yet, they require different types of training and focus.

Here are some post-run reflections…

1. Going farther requires attention to pace and rhythms

When I try to approach a long run like a sprint, I end up dragging and barely able to finish. Similarly, leadership for the long haul requires a pace that is sustainable. You can only go “all out” for so long before you drop over.

2. Train for EITHER quick results or sustainability

Sprinters and marathoners don’t train the same way. The type of muscles that sprinters work so hard to develop would deplete a marathoner’s body of oxygen in the middle of a long race. Similarly, systems that would be ideal to see quick results often don’t end up being what you need to have a long-term impact.

3. Having a community of people around you will help you go farther.

I’ve had the opportunity to run the “Tough Mudder” a couple of times. The first time I did it, the course was 11 miles of mud, obstacles, mud, hills, mud, feats of strength…and mud. It would have been impossible for me to navigate the course on my own. As a matter of fact, the courses are specifically designed so that you HAVE to depend on other people. Life has much more in common with a Tough Mudder event than a sprint. The farther you want to go, the more you need to depend on the people around you.

4. Tracking your progress is essential for staying in a long race.

Why are smart watches that keep track of your pace and distance so popular? Well, one reason is because when you are running for a long time, it’s motivating to know what progress you are making. That’s also the reason why there are mile markers in races. Mile markers let you know how far you’ve gone and give you the psychological strength to keep pressing on. If you are leading something over a long period of time, it is imperative to have ways to measure your progress.

Those are four similarities that I have noticed. I’m sure there are a ton more. I’d love to hear your insights on this too!

Two Truths and a Lie

Have you ever played the icebreaker “Two Truths and a Lie”? If not, the premise is pretty simple. You give two facts about yourself along with something that isn’t true. Other people have to guess which statement is a lie. Like most icebreakers, it is usually awkward but there are rare moments when the game gives you significant insight into other people.

I’m about to let you know the “two truths and a lie” that I use most often. Unfortunately, this means I’m giving away my secrets so we’ll have to play a different icebreaker the next time we are together… or I will need to come up with completely new facts about myself…but that seems like a lot of work!

Here you go. See if you can guess which one is the lie. 1. I played college baseball. 2. I am half Native American. 3. I have jumped out of an airplane.

Well, what do you think? Which one is the lie?

If you don’t know me, you may have even gone as far as to go to the “about me” section of my blog to search for clues. That may have helped you…or it might have driven you farther from the truth.

The lie is…I have jumped out of an airplane.

At this point, most people look at me with disbelief. The truth that throws them for a loop isn’t that I played college baseball (even though there’s plenty of reason for them to question that one too). Most people are shocked that I am half Native American.

When I let people know this part of my ethnicity, the first response is often “NO WAY!” Generally, I follow that up with “Yep. My mom is full Native American”. Most people still aren’t convinced so they say something like, “Does she LOOK Native American?” to which, I respond, “Yes. Dark hair and dark skin”. Often there is still a look of skepticism on their face when they ask, “What tribe are you from?” When I tell them I’m from the Sappony tribe, they look at me as if to say, “Is that tribe even real?!”. 7 times out of 10, people will follow that up with “Well, I’m part Native American too”. When I ask them who in their family was an American Indian, they often don’t know.

So why do I keep on using my ethnicity as part of that icebreaker? Some people may see it as a novelty. For me, it goes much deeper. I don’t think you can truly understand ME unless you know that side of me. Outwardly, I might appear very white but being American Indian has shaped the way I view and see the world.

From a very young age, I can remember my mom telling me her experience living in the segregated South. It resonated with me not just intellectually, but in my soul. I felt like a part of me endured that same treatment.

When I visited that side of my family, I felt “home” in a way that I didn’t in other environments. I’m a storyteller at heart. Stories were always a central part of every family gathering. Sometimes these stories went on for hours but everyone told them in such compelling ways that time seemed to stand still.

There was also the wonder of watching my grandmother carefully tend a garden, the joy of sneaking into the refrigerator with my grandfather and the thrill of going fishing with my uncle. There was a belonging and connection that I still feel to this day.

Yet, when I left that place of safety, my ethnicity felt like a secret identity. No one else could tell where I came from or who I truly was.

Of course, the fact that I look so white means I never endured the kind of radical bias that my mom and other members of my family had to deal with. I have grown up with a level of privilege that they never had access to.

I have never been turned away from a hospital because of the color of my skin. I have never been forced to go to a special school with very little resources because I was deemed unfit to mingle with people of other races.

The suffering I have gone through is nothing in comparison to the rejection that many of them experienced. Yet, I know the feeling of not being believed that I am who I say I am. I know what it is like to live between two worlds. And yes, I know what it’s like to be mocked because of the color of my skin. Jokes that I often laughed along with because of the shame I experienced inside.

I hope my experience with ethnicity has turned me into a more compassionate person. I pray it has given me empathy for people who others reject. More than anything, I hope I am living my life in a way that would make my family proud. Similarly, I want my children to be driven, not simply by where they are going, but also by a profound appreciation for where they have come from. I hope they will carry on the “truth” of the legacy they have inherited.

Leading is Leasing

Have you ever taken pride in caring for something? Maybe you tended a garden. Perhaps you adopted a pet. It could be you are trying to raise a reasonably well-adapted child who ends up as a functioning member of society. No matter what you cared for, my guess is it got a little piece of your heart and soul.

During this summer, I spent a lot of time in a section of forest that my brother in law and I are leasing from a farmer. It’s not massive but 33 acres of trees, shrubs and unkempt paths can keep a person very busy.

As soon as the snow melted this past winter, I walked through the timber, setting out a plan for the year ahead. With the help of other people, I cleared an area where clover could be planted to feed animals. I also used my trusty saw to create paths through the woods. When the aforementioned clover grew, I mowed it down so it would become thick and lush. Basically, I did my best to make the woods a little slice of heaven on earth. It was a ton of hard work but it paid off!

This past week, I visited the woods to do a couple of final finishing touches before bow season. Contentment and confidence filled my heart as I reflected on everything that had been done over the course of several months. But when I exited the woods, I was surprised to see the landowner waiting by the side of the road.

The look on his face told me something wasn’t right. He explained to me that he had gone through some difficult financial times and was selling the land. As I listened to him, my heart went out to him. I was also hit by another reality… all that effort I put into creating a little sanctuary was going to be enjoyed by someone else. I felt a tangible sense of loss. It was like I was 10 years old and someone took my Optimums Prime Transformer directly out of my hands and decided to give it to another kid.

Have you ever lost something that you cared for? Maybe that garden you planted was invaded by pests, the pet you adopted ran away or that child (you spent 18 years raising) graduated and left the house.

Losing something we care for can be disorienting. I spent the next 3 or 4 days feeling sad.

As I leaned into that sadness, I had a realization…. Leading is leasing.

We never really own whatever we are given to lead. The challenge is ultimately to keep our hearts engaged and caring, knowing that we aren’t building our own kingdom. Our hope is to leave a legacy for others to enjoy.

What are you leading right now? Take time to savor it. Give it everything you have. At the same time, hold it with an open hand, knowing that the best leaders don’t focus on “owning” leadership. They live with the reality that what they care for was never truly “theirs” to begin with.

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!