Before I started out the door for vacation last summer, I quickly looked around for some reading material.  If I was going to be spending long hours on the beach (getting ridiculously sunburned), I was going to need something to occupy myself.  And since I had failed to take a trip to the library the day before, I was pretty much at the mercy of what happened to be lying around the house.  The book that I grabbed was one that a friend of my wife’s had given her, but I was desperate – and fortunate.

The book was called Anonymous, and the gist of the book centered on the idea that while Jesus spent 33 years or so on this planet, about thirty of those years happened behind the scenes where no one was watching.  The author, Alicia Britt Chole, called these the hidden years, and speculated on how those years impacted Jesus.  While I don’t know that I agreed with all of the theology presented, I was captured by the idea that hidden years are often exactly what God has in mind for us.  In our world we measure significance by achievement, but God measures it in an entirely different way.  When we face the times in life when we feel forgotten, abandoned, stuck or discarded, God will step up to make those days worthwhile.

At first I didn’t underline some of the good things the author said – after all this was my wife’s friend’s book.  But then I just went ahead because there were too many significant points to let them pass (my apologies, Sharyl).  I’ll share one of them here, but then I would recommend that you get the book – especially if you feel like you have been asked to step behind the curtain in life.

“What does [being hidden like Jesus] build in us?  What grows in that underestimated gap between God’s calling and others’ perceptions, between our true capabilities and our current realities?  Most of us struggle if our dreams are delayed one year, let alone twenty.  We find God’s pauses perplexing.  They seem to be a waste of our potential.  When those pauses extend beyond what we can comprehend or explain (say, for instance, three days), we often spiral into self-doubt or second-guessing.

“But in anonymous seasons we must hold tightly to the truth that no doubt strengthened Jesus through his hidden years: Father God is neither care-less nor cause-less with how he spends our lives.  When he calls a soul simultaneously to greatness and obscurity, the fruit – if we wait for it – can change the world.”

I could have picked several other quotes that were just as good or better – but this one still provides some great food for thought.  You are not forgotten by God.  You have not been sent off to the corner to wait.  You have been chosen by him to be hidden and anonymous so that he can do something big in you!


Swim your own race

For some reason this week an old story came back to mind – and I think it is worth telling.

Many years ago the Special Olympics came to South Bend and I decided to be a spectator.  I headed over to the Notre Dame campus and took a seat in Rolf’s to watch some of the swimming events.  And I watched one that I will never forget.  Eight participants took their places on the edge of the pool awaiting the starter’s gun.  In an instant they were all in the pool – swimming their four-lap race.  And it was a close race – at least for seven of the participants.

But there was one young man who was not keeping up, falling way off the pace.  At first the attention of the spectators was on the other seven – and everyone cheered when the race came to an end.  But then everyone realized that there was one more swimmer in the pool – and everyone started to rally behind him.

“Go!  Go!  Go!”  The crowd came to their feet – me among them – to cheer on the lone swimmer who was more than a full pool length behind.  But he kept swimming and the crowd kept screaming until finally he touched and finished the race.  He climbed out of the pool to be greeted by the raucous cheer of the crowd, then he stood on the deck of the pool and pumped his arms in triumph.  It  didn’t matter that he had finished long behind the other competitors.  It didn’t matter that he took home last place.  What mattered was that he had finished his race.

I learned a good lesson that day, though I forget it all too often.  I forget that life isn’t a competition between me and anyone else.  It’s not about me comparing myself to someone else to make sure that I’m good enough.  Nope, the challenge of life is to measure myself against my potential – and to make sure that I’m measuring up to the plan that God has in mind for me.

The challenge of life – is to swim my own race.  Even if everyone else seems to be outdistancing me.  Even if the attention of the crowd is focused elsewhere.  Even if my efforts don’t seem to be worthwhile.  Even if I’m not making the progress that I’d like to be making.  I just need to keep swimming, swimming my own race.

And that’s what I would say to you.  Swim your own race!

Mourning with those who mourn

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  Romans 12:15

Tomorrow I will be conducting another funeral.  That seems to come with the territory when you are a hospice chaplain.  And no doubt there will be tears shed at the service.  There should be.  God created us with emotions and the ability to grieve.  I believe that is one of His gifts to us.

But have you ever stood beside someone who was grieving and didn’t quite know what to say our do?  These are just a few suggestions that I would pass on from my experiences in the past few months.

1.  You don’t need to say anything; you just need to be there.

2.  Don’t tell them that time will heal and that they will feel better down the road.  While that is probably true, a person who is grieving really isn’t concerned about 6 months from now.  He’s just trying to make it through today.  This is not the time to find the proverbial silver lining.  This is the time to agree with them that sometimes life stinks.

3.  Encourage them to talk.  Most people need to express themselves – and no, they really aren’t complaining.  They’re just trying to verbally work through the angst that they are feeling.  And they may say the same things day after day.  Just listen.  And then listen again.

4.  Check back with them in a month.  At first family and friends surround people with lots of support, but then they return to their routine and forget about the person who is still grieving.  Refuse to lose track of them.  (In hospice we follow up with families for another 13 months.)

5.  Give the person time.  Grieving is not a quick process for most.  It’s a lot of “3 steps forward; 2 steps back” type of progress.  And when you are working with a grieving person you might want to let them know that relapses are normal and not to get frustrated.

6.  Be a part of their “new normal.”  Their lives will never, ever be the same again.  They might be better; maybe not.  They will certainly be different.  I call it their “new normal.”  At first they may not let you be a part, but patiently hang in there.  They may need you.

7.  Realize that grieving is the result of a loss.  In hospice that loss is generally a death, but people can grieve other things as well – the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of an opportunity, the loss of a dream, the loss of an ability.  People who experience extreme loss of any type will likely grieve.  Don’t let them grieve alone.

8.  Pray for them – and tell them that you are.  But don’t say it unless you really are.  The words “I have been praying for you” mean more than most people realize.

9.  If a person has lost a loved one, encourage them to talk about that loved one.  Maybe they have pictures they can show you.  Maybe they have some favorite memories that they can relate.  Help them keep the memories alive.  Maybe you have a memory yourself that you can share.

10.  Don’t worry if you don’t get it all right.  Just communicate that you care.  And then communicate it again.

What about the change?

Change is at the same time one of the most welcome and unwelcome parts of life.  We love change because of the variety it brings.  We hate change because it upsets our familiar routines.  We love change because it offers us a better way to do things.  We hate change because just when we learn how to do something we find ourselves having to learn a new way.  But all in all, change is good.

Organizations thrive on change. While the status quo may feel comfortable, the truth is that the world is changing, and if the organization is going to be relevant, it will have to change as well.

From my vantage point there are three types of change.

1.  Core change.  This involves changes at the bottom level.  They may be changes that affect systems or values or identity, but these changes will redirect the course of the organization, program or project.

2.  Cosmetic change.  This involves change on the surface level.  And often these are good changes as they make something better without requiring too much risk or investment.  These are small adjustments that while they may not change the DNA do change the way that people feel about things.

3.  Unnecessary change.  This involves changing things simply for the sake of changing things.  Nothing is broken, but for some reason someone feels the need to fix it.

Core changes are the hardest to make.  They require providing ample time for people to sort through their thinking and feelings on a matter.  Communication becomes vital as people must be convinced of the vision before they will embrace taking an action that will create a “new normal” for them.  The process is delicate and the stakes are high – but these changes also have the most potential for high impact.  If you want to make a core change you had better do your homework AND get the bulk of the people on board.

Cosmetic changes are much easier to make.  In any situation some simple improvements can usually be found and implemented. And these provide both good feelings and a sense of momentum.  Things feel new and fresh.  People are energized and excited.  This is a great place to build some positive buzz.

Unnecessary changes typically look like cosmetic changes – but they have the opposite effect.  They don’t excite people; rather they tend to annoy people as the change feels more like an inconvenience than a good idea.  When people don’t feel like something is amiss they’re usually not particularly pumped about fixing it.  Unnecessary changes on a core level can be devastating.

The challenge of leadership is to know what kind of change you are talking about.  If it is core change, proceed with care.  If it is cosmetic change, get after it – but just make sure that you haven’t miscalculated.  If the followers see the change as unnecessary, it’s going to cost the leader.

Saying goodbye

Yesterday thousands of people traveled to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.  But they didn’t go to see a game – they went to say good bye.  To Ernie Harwell.

To anyone who is a sports fan, particularly a baseball fan, Ernie Harwell is likely a familiar name.  But he was not a player.  He was the broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers.  For over 50 years he called their games on radio and TV.  Chances are you have probably heard his voice even though most of his work was on a local and not a national basis.

Ernie Harwell was a great baseball announcer, but other great broadcasters have passed on without the outpouring of affection that Harwell received.  But I think that’s because he wasn’t just a great announcer, he was a great person.  Everybody respected him.  Everybody liked him.   No one had anything bad to say about him.  It wasn’t what he did that made him so popular; it was who he was.

Ernie Harwell was also a man of faith, a Christ-follower.

The Detroit News offered this quote:

[Tiger General Manager] Dombrowski said Harwell and team officials met in September about a viewing or memorial. Dombrowski said he has never seen a man so comfortable talking about his own death.

“I think it was because he knew where he was going,” Dombrowski joked during what was an otherwise somber press conference.

I’m not sure whether or not there’s baseball in heaven, but if there is I”m thinking Ernie Harwell might be calling his first game today.

Teacher talk

School was never my thing.  I never struggled – my grades were always good – it’s just that I didn’t really enjoy it.  I always looked forward to the day that I would graduate from college and be done with school.

So what did I do for the next twenty-three years?  I taught school.  Full time at first, then only a class or two here and there.  And I found that I liked it a lot better the second time around – when I was the one up front doing the talking.

A few years back I gave a message on the idea of wisdom as found in the book of Proverbs.  In digging through some files I found those notes which included a contrast between the Hebrew style of teaching and the style we employ in most settings today.  I think they are worth considering for anyone who is a teacher (parent, youth leader, pastor, boss, etc.) in life.

1.  Relationship-driven vs. content-driven. The Hebrew model put much more emphasis on who was teaching than on what was being taught.  That’s why the rabbis would invite students to “follow me.”  And that’s why I’m guessing that you remember your great teachers more than you remember any great lectures.

2.  Experiences vs. curriculum. Most of us spend hours studying to develop our content and then deliver it during the next class session.  (Can you say lesson plans?)  The Hebrew model was more likely to address a current event or something going on nearby – and pulling the life lessons from it.  This was certainly what Jesus did – think kids or bread or a widow giving her two mites.

3.  Active vs. passive. We learn some by listening.  We learn much more by doing.  But generally we test over what a student can remember rather than what he can do.  That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching Speech.  It wasn’t a big deal that you memorized the material, what mattered was your ability to practice it.

4.  Memorable vs. informational. This is the one of the big ideas behind the book of Proverbs.  Solomon put truth into a saying that could be easily remembered.  Lessons that I remember were delivered in unique and unusual ways that allowed me to lock in.  I still remember the guy in college who gave a sermon on running the race (Hebrews 12) while wearing jogging shoes and running in place for thirty minutes.

5.  Continual vs. segmented. We tend to break learning into little segments -whether by subject or by blocks of time or by purpose.  And when we’ve covered a topic we move on to the next one.  The Hebrew model was much more integrated.  I admit, that may be a bit tough to do at times, but our teaching might be more effective if we could do a better job of tying it to real life.

So the next time you prepare to teach – why not try using some aspect of the Hebrew model?

Let It Snow

I love snow.  Honestly.  And I’m just a little bit bitter that I don’t live in the Mid-Atlantic region right now.  Instead I live in Detroit – which with last night’s storm of about 8 ” has finally made it over the 20″ mark for the winter.  The entire winter.  That’s so lame.

But here’s what I love about snow.

I love snow days. Still.  And I don’t even go to school anymore.  But how awesome just to get a surprise day off in the middle of the winter.  For two years I was a school administrator and never got to call off for a snow day.  My popularity suffered.   (And I love how my kids wear their pajamas inside out the night before a predicted storm – supposedly for good luck.)

I love the look of the world the morning after a snowstorm. Trees flocked with white against a bright blue sky.  It seems so fresh and clean and bright.

I love big snowstorms. I still remember the big storms of ’77 and ’78 (that was a long time ago) when we got about three feet of snow all at once.  You couldn’t even walk in it.  But you could build some pretty cool snow forts without too much work.

I love snow ball fights. My favorite was a couple of years ago on a New Year’s Eve.  It started snowing just before midnight – so the kids and I went outside, built snow forts and pelted each other with snow balls until about 2:00 a.m.

I love driving in snow (except for the fact that it’s slow).  It’s just so much more challenging.  Driving on dry pavement all the time gets so boring.  And unplowed parking lots are the best places to drive.

I love tubing hills. The best one ever is on a sand dune in Saugatuck, Michigan.  About 5,000 ft. straight down.  Maybe not that big, but it seems like it.  Big enough to break my sister’s collar bone and rupture another guy’s spleen – all in the same day.  (I do NOT like walking back up the sand dune in the snow, however.)

I love how quiet everything is in the snow.

I love leaving footprints in the snow, and stamping out messages in the snow that you can read from the upstairs windows.  And I love building snowmen and making snow angels.

I like (don’t love) to run the snow blower. It’s a power tool – and it’s pretty much self-propelled.

I love Rick Mecklenberg, the weather forecaster in South Bend, Indiana, who always predicts way more snow than ever comes.   Still, he always gets me excited – even though I have to deal with the let down when it doesn’t happen.

I love how people rush to the store when a big storm is coming to buy bread and milk.  Why bread and milk?  And do you think those people typically eat bread and drink milk when it’s not snowing?  Me, neither.

Yep, I love snow.

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