I can be great (But it’s not what you think)

I always had this belief that I would be successful.

This belief was instilled in by a mother who was a high school dropout, married at 17, and had lived a modest, yet decidedly meager life.

But in her sons, she saw greatness.

She pushed me to memorize the math tables that swirled in my head. She turned off the TV and stuck books in front of my square eyes. The B plus was a sign of failure. The second-place wasn’t good enough. She never relented in telling us that we weren’t like the other kids.

“You can do better.”

Doctor. Pilot.

"Greatness"

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Scientist.

Any of those professions would be fine with her.

But there were the realities. And they were biggies. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I was color blind and could never fly. I couldn’t figure out physics.

I wasn’t ready to concede. After all, I wasn’t normal like the other kids, or so I thought. Let’s just say, I didn’t have self-esteem issues.  I swallowed a lot of that medicine, actually believing that I was above average, special, and skilled.

The great pretender

I depended on my ability and was frustrated when I was told I “couldn’t.” So I began to pretend I was all of those things. Confidence is one thing, but pride is another. And it’s a very thin line to walk.

Now, at this ripe middle age, I’m at the point where I’m comfortable in my own skin. I laugh about my inabilities. If my abilities aren’t so hot, that’s fine. But I still feel the fire to do something, to be somebody.But reading the red letters really tells me something.

If you want to be great,” He said. “Learn to the be servant of all.

Now, I wanna be great, but in a different way. And that will chase away the negative frustrations and usher in joy.

A Letter to My Younger Self – The 10 Percent Rule

I come from a long line of thriftiness.

Perhaps it was the fact that my father’s kin were Norwegian peasant farmers who staked a claim in the hard North Dakota soil, planting beets and potatoes, hoping to make a living. They endured the ups and downs of dusty, dry summers and frigid, windy winters. They cobbled and they scrimped and saved.

Photo by Jennifer Dukes Lee

My mother’s side were Polish Jews, escaping Europe with little but their wits and small bags of precious stones to their names. Most of them died with about the same possessions they brough into this world.

Both forks of the family lived through world wars, depressions and recessions. Both sides had periods of plenty, followed by years of scarcity. Feast always seemed to prepare for famine.

Every generation had worn its sorrow, sung its song of woe. And yet, they had unshakable faith backed up by remarkable thrift.

So I came along, a single river combing the two streams. I was full of the American dream, my eyes dancing with opportunity. I saw the sleek Lincolns in magazines and the new houses being built on the edge of town and the shiny Florsheim shoes the men at the bank wore. I was ready to break the chain of my forefathers and live a little. After all, I was 18,  a head full of steam and a high-school diploma in my pocket. .

Sometime around then my grandmother died and I was pressed into helping clean out her house. She had grocery store bags neatly stacked in a corner and rubber bands from the newspaper in tidy coil. Bread twist ties were in a little jar. Old buttons were harvested from clothes too thin to wear. Everything was repurposed. Everything was useful – again.

In her kitchen, above the little table where she kept rows of lined books that detailed every penny spent was a laminated sign. It said,

“Save 10 percent. Give 10 percent to God. Spend the rest with great joy.”

If only I knew then, what I know now

I proceeded to live my young adult life as a I pleased, squandering the wisdom of my relations. I spent money  I didn’t have on things I didn’t need. Student debt. Car loans. Bigger houses than anyone in my family had ever owned.

And now, as I am looking at retirement in few years, I’m thinking just how wise that advice in the frame was — in retrospect of course. I wish I would have lived that lesson. If only I would have unrolled a letter to myself, written from the future me, that gave the same message of thrift, life would have been different.

  • I would have learned obedience and trust in God.
  • I would have put more money away for the rainy days and the sunny days of retirement.
  • I would have learned my heart would follow my treasure.

If only I could write a letter to my younger self.

Share Your Story – A Community Link-Up

So how about you?  What kind of letter would you write to a younger you? Would you give career advice? Workplace suggestions? Educational ideas? Maybe you would warn the younger you about finances, family, and friends. You can’t go back in time, but the experience you share might just be able someone else. The Bible is clear that we need to learn from our elders. So let’s pull up chairs, lean in close and share our stories.

Over  at the High Calling we are looking for people to part of the conversation. Using the prompt, “A Letter to my Younger Self,” write your story on your blog sometime before Aug 24, 2014 and then share it using the linkup tool over there. If you don’t have a blog, just drop over there and share your thoughts in the comments.

We’ll read all of your stories and chose a few of them to feature right here at The High Calling next week.

Submission Guidelines

Make sure your story is 600 words or fewer. Good storytelling is a must. Follow the theme as closely as possible, while still exercising your God-given creativity. Read past High Calling features to get a feel of our style and focus.

Publish your piece on your blog and submit your piece along with the URL on the link-up below byAug 24, 2014  in order to be considered for a featured spot.

Independence Day

“I am so sorry.” The words came slowly, like a hardened tube of glue, squeezed out slowly from the bottom.

His eyes brimmed with tears and he shook with shame. He wore the tattoos that showed his company pride, battles fought in a far-away land. But the biggest fight of his life was being fought in front a group of strangers that he had wronged.

“I can’t drink. I shouldn’t drink. It makes … do things.” That was an understatement. In the middle of the night he and two others had burst into our campsite, screaming, full of anger. One girl in our party was sleeping in the back of a pickup. They put their lights into her face, full of assumption and hate. The liquor screamed terrible things.

Others came out, rushing to her defense. Some tried talking sense, but there was no point in reasoning with senselessness.

All three were veterans and were quite vocal that they had fought for our freedom to camp that weekend.  It’s true – that our rights come at heavy price. But these men wore their heroism like chains.

They all rushed off into the night. But this one crawled back the next morning, his head heavy with the wooden affect of the drink. Still, he had to set things right.

The father of the daughter stood close to the man – smelling the stale breath, hearing the confession.

It wasn’t easily received. After all, his daughter had been threatened. Terrible words were spoken.  But the dad uttered the words. “I forgive you.” But he followed up with the most difficult question for the man to wrestle with. “Do you know why?”

—-

Peter came to Jesus, complaining of repeat offenders. The same people, who never learned their lesson it seemed. Always saying the wrong thing. Always doing the wrong thing. At some point, “we have to cut them off, right?”  Peter suggested a limit of seven. That seems generous enough.

But Jesus shook his head at the suggestion. Seven times seventy. A figure that connotes an unending supply of forgiveness, modeled after the Father.

—-

We try to find a rule for others to live by and then an escape clause when it applies to us. Our debt wiped off the board, but so unwilling to extend the same grace to others.

When we don’t forgive, we are handed off to the jailer. Trapped by our own pride and stubbornness. Smug, we may be right, but we are prisoners.

—-

One by one we gathered around this young vet, a man shaken by war, running from the demons of his memory. First one hand, then another. A dozen hands praying over his torture, casting back the voices in the name of One who’s name caused them to tremble.

Eyes wet we opened them to a dawn of forgiveness.

We all went about our way, hoping to settle into the fun of the day, after all it was the 4th of July Day.

We spent the day on the water and laughing. In the evening the BBQ  sent smoke signals to the sky, telling the world that we were celebrating Independence Day.

It was hard to shake the drama from the previous evening.  None of us knew where that man really was, we were hopeful that he would be finding the healing of forgiveness.

Freedom

Photo by David Rupert

As the darkness came, there would be no fireworks display, a price for being in the mountains and the dry tinder. But one boy at the campsite created his own show, waving a sparkler around and around in a happy dance. He yelled loud enough for the world to hear one word.

“Freedom!”

Patience: How to Embrace This Place

Have you ever avoided any mention of tomorrow because you can’t even get through today? Forget thriving through life. You just want to survive. All the hopes and dreams you want are elusive. Like the Psalmist, you ask, “How long must we wait?”

Where is this land of milk and honey? Where is the blessing? Where is the healing?  There’s no joy, because you are in the desert. Suddenly all the happy Scripture verses and trite bits of encouragement seem terribly hollow.Music doesn’t cheer. Books no longer intrigue you. Friends bore you. Teachings sound inconsequential.

There’s no doubt in your mind that you heard the call – it was clear and loud. But it’s been a long time and here you are, waiting on a miracle, hoping for a sign, asking for a whisper.

And there’s nothing.

patience

Who wants to wait?

Waiting is no fun. And I admit, in these times we don’t want for anything. We want expedited shipping and instant updates and up-the-minute status reports. Technology has taken the lessons out of life.

I remember when I got my learner’s permit. I was 15 1/2. And those six months before I could my license were excruciating. I was ready right now!  I was tall enough. I was smart enough. And how difficult could this driving thing be? That is, until I scraped my parents station wagon against a street sign. I wasn’t ready.

So I had to wait another three months. And I learned the rules of the road. I learned how to use mirrors. I learned how to anticipate. But most of all, I learned how to wait.

Patience1

 

Embrace this place.

Before David was the king of Israel, he oversaw his father’s flocks. No amount of pleading could ever drown out the bleating. The sheep just wouldn’t listen. It had to be a miserable life for a precocious little boy.

Often alone, he would write songs and poetry. He talked to God. He was a loner’s loner.

So when Jessie lined his sons up for the prophet to anoint, David was left out of the pickings. Still, Samuel knew there was another — a boy who was nothing to look at on the outside, but was just right for the job on the inside. David was annointed as King. But he didn’t ride a processional back to the palace. He didn’t get his pick of servants or have people start kissing his ring. He went back to the sheep, and there toiled for 15 years.

That’s a long time to wait. Even though he was annointed, he wasn’t ready. He was only 15 — still on a learners permit. He needed to learn how to lead and to fight and to trust God. And those lessons don’t come with a six-month permit.

Pastor Andrew Mattrone preached out of this passage last week. And he encouraged all of us to not flee from our aloneness, to be patient in our season, to wait on God. He talked about the now-ancient process of developing film.  “Trust the developer,” he said

I remember dropping film off at the Fotomat booth in the parking lot outside of Safeway. It would take 5-7 days before the prints came back. Overnight processing came at a premium. Now we have digital – instant photos. Andrew reminded me that we no longer appreciate the time it took for a good photo. There was a process – from tray to tray that couldn’t be rushed.

patienceSoon, Polaroid photos were a hit – because you could have your picture in just a minute. Skip the development process, even though the resulting photo was garbage. “At least I didn’t have to wait.” What other sacrifices am I making, simply because I’m impatient?

God is more about the process. We are more about the instant. We want the image of ourselves to be perfect … right now.

As Andrew said, “God has to do a work in you before he can do a work through you.”

Are you in a dark place, waiting for the developer to finish so you can see the light of day? Andrew gave three pieces of advice. Be faithful. Be obedient. Trust God.

“Embrace this place”

Or as David Carradine was told in the 70’s TV hit, Kung Fu

“Patience Grasshopper”

Patience

Many thanks to Andrew Mattrone for preaching this message. As a young man, I can see God’s hand on you. Continue to wait on him. When you feel discouraged, remember this word that God gave you. 

 

Straight Lines Matter: Choosing Order Over Chaos

He used a device on a tripod and I had no idea how in the world it worked.  That was his department. And someone else was hauling the fence posts. Someone else was mixing concrete. My job was to dig the holes centered where the stakes had been meticulously placed.

Digging holes isn’t precise work. There are hidden rocks, impacted pockets of soil, and tree roots to work around. Still, the hold needed to be centered. I groused and grumbled at the constant instructions to center my digging, but the task at hand pushed me to fight through the heat, sweat dripping down my brow and down the spine of my back.

It was just a summer job – one of those jobs you take to put gas in the car and to take a girl out for a movie. It wasn’t meant to teach life lessons or give insight into the meaning of life.

But it did.

Once that fence was erected it was perfect. The boss stood at the end of the fence, one eye closed as he gazed down the boards and gave a hearty thumbs up.  We all stood to the side, covered in dirt and flecks of concrete, picking splinters out of our hands. Beaming, we slapped each other on the head and shook hands.

It was a job well done.

The world runs on order

Working a construction job was educational. I learned how to drink water from a thermos and let it splash down the front of my shirt to cool me down. I learned how to run chalk lines and take measurement. I applied (finally) my math education in adding and subtracting fractions and calculating angles. I learned how to spit. But most of all I learned the importance of measurement, precision, and order.

If you don’t lay the foundation straight, then the footers are off. If the footers are off, then the headers are off. If the headers are off then the rafters are off. The walls aren’t straight and the doors don’t swing properly. Nothing fits into a room that’s not square. You pay the price in the flooring, the trim, the ceiling, and the walls.

I eventually moved from construction to administration. In the years before computer storage, we had file cabinets – rows of them. And there was a system of filing that was akin to the filing system in a library. It wasn’t really alphabetical, but broken down into categories. A sloppily-filled piece of paper meant hours of delay and stern rebukes from the manager.

The best societies are those with a rule of law, a central bank, and a solid education system. Look at every nation in the world that is dysfunctional and you’ll one or more of those items in crisis. This isn’t just a lucky coincidence. It’s the order of God. When he took the chaotic earth, formless, void and troubled and put order into the system, it blossomed with life.  That’s no coincidence.

Who really wants a world of chaos?

I’m the farthest person from a Type A personality.  I don’t’ wear my seatbelt. I find plenty of shortcuts and as a creative person, it’s my job to push against the boundaries. But I still understand the need for lines and I must learn to respect them.

I don’t always like rules of society, at work, or in my faith. But they are there to keep structure and to keep our silly human ways from wandering into the destruction of others and ourselves.

He’s not the God of confusion. And that’s gives me hope, because left to my own devices, it would be CRAZY around here.

fenceline

The High Calling is hosting a community linkup on the theme of “Your Work Matters to God.” Take a look at the submission guidelines, and consider whether or not you might have a story to tell.

Lost and Found

When I was seven, I knew a lot about bikes and Lincoln logs and lunch.  I didn’t know much about life.

There were the rituals, waking up for school, eating oatmeal with a drizzle of honey,  sitting in the class, dreaming of recess and riding my bike after school.

But life?  What was that? It was eating and breathing and always knowing my Mom was close by. Was there more?

I didn’t know about the struggles of those around me. I didn’t taste sickness or death. I was oblivious to the hatred at lunch counters or school buses. I hadn’t heard of the shootings at Kent State. I had heard of the war in Asia, but it never meant a thing to me. I was ignorant of the world and its troubles.

But I had bliss in my brother, my mom and dad, my friends in the neighborhood and school, and in my few toys. There was a coming of age when I found something that would bring me even more happiness.

My birthday was coming and all I wanted was a puppy.  My friend Jill had a big lazy lab that laid on the front porch. And Andre down the street had a beagle that howled at the birds. But I wanted a fun dog that would play fetch and greet me at the door and sleep in my bed. That’s the kind of dog I wanted.

Making choices

We went to the pound, because that was the kind of people we were.  My dad explained to the clerk that we just wanted to look. No commitment. We opened the heavy gate and the smell hit me like a wave.  And the sound – dogs on suddenly on alert howled and yelped and yipped and barked. We were both intruders and rescuers, but to my ears all the barks sounded the same.  I was scared, but this was the path to reaching my goal. I hung in there.TasteandSee

I looked over the choices.  There was a big dog that I’m sure I could have ridden like a horse. And another with big deep fur that mother would have hated vacuuming but I would have loved to sleep on cold winter nights. There was a fetcher, a growler, a bruiser, and a scrapper. But my eyes caught  one little guy who hung back from the commotion. He let the others throw themselves at the fence in crazed ecstasy, but he stood shyly, turning his face, and wagging his tail.

“That one,” I said. “The one with the happy ending.” My dad smiled and called for the clerk to pull out the tan and white dog. “Yes. The one wagging his tail….the happy ending.”

Here I am many years removed from that day. I’ve had some bad things happen. Some sadness. Some pain.  I’ve lost love and friends and loved ones .I’ve experienced the dark side of life.

And now I’ve gained all of that back – and then some. I’m finding that I am still a seven-year old at heart, longing for the simple joys, the happy days, the joyous laughter.  Bliss. It’s never too late.

I make choices every day. And once again, I’m ready to choose the one with a happy ending.

“What were you thinking?” Overcoming the pains of regret

Quote

My brother rode over the home-built jump at the end of the road over and again, circling around to get just a little more air or turn the handlebar in a circle before landing.

My pant legs was full of grease from getting caught in the bicycle chain, but there was no stopping until the darkness pushed us grudgingly indoors.regret, fire, match, lighter

The next day, we started all over again. I found a matchbook in the middle of street and flipped open the cover to see five matches were still unused.

This was our lucky day. I wasted a match just to see if it worked, only to be scorned by my brother. Still, we were awed by the flame that danced in the breeze for about ten seconds until its heat seared my finger tip and I threw the match down.

Four left.

We found a newspaper that had blown against the metal fence and we crumpled it like we had seen our dad lighting the fireplace. It was my brother’s turn. He lit the newspaper and it leapt into flame, encouraged by a puff of wind. We clapped our hands in delight.

Suddenly, the newspaper lifted in the air and was aloft, a floating ship of fire. We laughed and  pointed at the spectacle, watching the fire aimlessly drift until it settled on the other side of the fence in the middle of the dry leaves of an abandoned field.

In just a few moments the little flame created a circle of fire that raced quickly away from us. Scared, we jumped on our bikes and hid down the block behind an outbuilding. A fire truck came a few minutes later, dispatched by a neighbor who no doubt saw the flames.

That afternoon, we got the courage up to see the scorched land. It was black and ugly, black soot stuck to some wooden fence posts. Ashamed, we told our mom that night.

What were you thinking?” she scolded us.
The words pierced me – as they do now – as I look at the regrets in my life.

The pain of regret

The middle age version of me needs to really go back in time and give the younger me some advice.  When I look back at some of the decisions I’ve made regarding relationships, careers, actions, and spoken words, I hear my mother’s voice all over again. “What was I thinking?”

I admit there are times when I wonder what my life would have been like without those stupid, silly, and often sinful decisions.

Regret is one of life’s most painful lessons. The problem is that you can never go back and undo those stupid decisions. The drink you took, the affair you started, the words you shouted, the job you quit, the person you insulted. You can’t jump in the DeLorean and go back in time to change.

As much as I wanted to, the flame had already scorched the land. I couldn’t snuff the match that had already started the grass fire.

All I have is grace

The world tells us that the good decisions eventually outweigh the bad, that in the end, as long as you are a “good person” that it all works out. The problem is that a single bad decision can ruin a lifetime of good decisions. I’ve don’t that in marriage, at work, and with friends.

These are natural consequences of actions.

But consequences are far different from karma, the belief that the good will reward the good and the bad will haunt the bad.  Brian Zibell preached last week and said this. “Karma is a lie. In God’s world, grace rules.”

2 Samuel 14.14 says this, “All of us must die eventually. Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God does not just sweep life away; instead, he devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.”

This is grace and I no longer have to wonder, “What was I thinking” because this is what He was thinking all along.

Yesterday is suddenly not the impediment I thought it was. I have today — and tomorrow, too.

Working for Free

____

My bicycle tire was in tatters, shredded by a jagged rock hidden in an open field. I pushed my bike home and that night showed it to my fix-it-father. He removed the tire from the rim, turning it over and over in his hands, and finally, with a grunt, declared it unfixable.

“So, can I have a new one?” I pled, my green eyes caked with the dirt of a long day outside.

He handed it back to me and said, “After you have enough money.”

My shoulders sagged, the realization that my summer fun had suddenly hit a major roadblock. No money, no wheels. Eventually I earned the $3 by pulling dandelions from Mr. Edgeman’s yard and clearing out trash from the Conroy’s fenceline. Little did I know that this was the start of a lifetime of chasing dollars so I could be mobile.

From that day on, money and work seemed to go hand-in-hand. Some of it was because of the blue-collar nature of my family, never expecting help from another’s hand as long as you had two of your own.

Some of it came from my church life. I can’t find it, but somewhere I must have had the Protestant Work Ethic Red-Letter Believers Study Bible, with verses like “If a man shall not work, then neither shall he eat,” and “the man who doesn’t provide for his own…is worse than an unbeliever” emblazoned on the cover.

Money should come from labor – it’s almost a universal law and a moral imperative. But is money always the object? What about giving away my talent? What about the joy of working for nothing?

Giving my Labor Away

In the past few years, I’ve discovered the sweet separation of money from work and the joy of giving my labor away without the pressing need for compensation. As I have matured, the line between work and money has blurred.

I’ve learned the pleasure of volunteering, taking those same gifts that help me earn a living and in turn, give them away – for nothing. I’ve raised my hand to edit newsletters, balanced the books for community groups, and organized files for a Boy Scout troop. I’ve written speeches for a friend suddenly thrust onto a stage, organized teams to communicate lofty goals, and penned obituaries for family members.

I work with many writers through The High Calling community and local writer’s groups. Instead of fame, or notoriety, or compensation, I encourage them to write for the passion of the craft. By forgoing the pursuit of money, it frees them up to follow their heart.

Now this sounds beautiful and wonderful, but if you are depending on your skills to put food on the table, it can be particularly insulting when you are asked to something for free. I had an awkward moment when I had to turn down “the opportunity” to edit a 50,000 word book from a friend who offered, “I can’t pay you, but I’ll buy you dinner.”

After all, that same work-ethic Bible says, “A worker deserves his dues.”

It’s a delicate dance isn’t it? This mosaic of work, money, and the Christian imperative to give both of them away.

How about you?

Do you have a story about working for free? What’s your attitude on compensation? Are you overworked, underpaid? Over at the

Money

Money (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

High Calling, we are soliciting posts on Working for Free, and we’ll highlight a few of them next week.

All the details are here.

Competition: Why Losing Hurts So Bad

I wrote the speech and then edited it, justifying and crafting every single word. Then I memorized it, hammering every inflection, timing every dramatic pause. As a high schooler I wasn’t in athletics. Maybe it was the aspect of losing. Maybe it was because we couldn’t afford shoes not available in the thrift store. Maybe it was because slow of foot. Instead, I poured myself into non-athletic pursuits. I even lettered in Speech. And this speech was a big one, the qualifier for state. It came off perfectly – my voice lilting and my composure perfectly erect for a flawless presentation. But it was only good enough for second place.  It still stings, I have to admit.  Perpetual runner-upcompetetion and losing As far as major disappointments go, Golfer Phil Mickelson has had his share, although this is not the worst. He’s finished runner-up at the U.S. Open on five occasions. He’s had near misses at Pinehurst and Shinnecock and Bethpage and Pebble Beach. And Carmelo Anthony, a great basketball talent, has never moved out of the first round of the playoffs. Have you ever lived in the shadow of someone else?   A brother who won the trophies, a sister who always go A’s, a coworker who gets the projects – and the praise. Even Olympians, who train and work for years for one single moment stand in silent defeat as a silver or bronze is hung around their necks. Often, they will fade to obscurity over a millisecond. Of all the losers, you are the best

“Research consistently shows that Olympic athletes are happier when they win a bronze medal, than when they win a silver medal. These findings were described as resulting from comparisons the medalists made. The silver medalist compares themselves. to the gold medal winner. But, the bronze medal winner compares him or herself to those people who did not win a medal.”

Jerry Seinfeld has a great piece on finishing in second place.

It’s really jealousy

Competition is healthy, as it keeps us producing and advancing. The race to the moon, or to build a faster chip, or to launch a product helps society create. But there is a path of least resistance that is unhealthy, crass, ugly, and … jealous of those who win.

History is full of knaves and fools who were inspired by nothing more than victory and vanquishing of the competition.

So where do I fall? Healthy competitor, sour loser, or jealous failure?

—-

What He said: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3).