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.

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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

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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

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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?

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

Rumble Strips: How the Side of the Road Keeps me Straight

Centerline rumble strip, as well as at edge of...

It was  a dark Wyoming highway, well past midnight, and I was making the 450-mile monthly trek back home from my Air National Guard weekend duty.

I was alone. No other cars were crazy enough to be out that late on a two-lane road. I had to stay awake. Occasionally I would see the orange glow of eyes along the road, tucked in the bushes, reminders that deer, antelope and elk were nearby.

I fiddled with the radio, settling in on a talk show from a distant place that bounced across the night sky. I opened the windows and adjusted the heat. Anything to stay awake.

My mind wandered.

I was thinking about my home, nestled against the Tetons. I was thinking bout what my work week held. I replayed conversations with coworkers and family members. The highlight reel of the day’s events began to play.

 And then I was jolted awake.

My car had drifted off the road and the “rumble strip” began to shake my car – and me – violently. You know that’s the patch of road that is purposely ridged so it shakes the tire and hopefully the occupant.

Now alert and awake, I eased my car back between the white lines. I pulled off at the next safe place and took a nap. I was saved from myself, thanks to the rumble strips.

Motor vehicles running off the road account for one-third of all traffic fatalities nationwide. These kinds of accidents account for most of the fatalities in rural areas and are most often caused by driver fatigue, drowsiness, or in attention. Many of us can testify that rumble strips on our highways work.

We can also agree that there some well- placed rumble strips in life, those warnings that keep us on the center of the road. These things jolt us back to reality, warning us that we are nearing the edge of safety.

Life is full of signs that are not to be missed. “Road out ahead,” “No Diving,” and “No Open Flames.” We can ignore the obvious signs, but we do so at our peril. Many have ignored the signs that scream at them, ignoring the warnings and the shaking of their being. They press on in supposed ignorance and end up in a ditch. Life does not operate in a vacuum. The cause and effect principle works every day. If you act, a direct result is often most assured.

Some who are reading this have heard warnings from their physicians as they patiently explain the effects of our causes. “Lose weight. Quit smoking. Quit drinking.”  The doc is right. He is a rumble strip trying to keep you on the road.

What kinds of rumble strips does God put in our lives? What He to do to keep us centered, to keep us from deadly crashes? We hear his voice. “Love your children,” “Give up the bottle,” “Stay away from evil influences,” “Quit abusing your body,” and others. Yet we insist on playing chicken with the cosmos in a futile attempt to beat the system.

Mankind has a long history of ignoring God. 2 Kings 14:15 tells the story of the Israelites rejecting God. It sums their actions ”they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers …they followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

Many of us have become useless to God, useless to our employer, useless to our friends and family simply because we have ignored the rumble strips around us.

How blessed are those who encounter the rumble strips, gentle reminders to get our lives back to the center.

 

Don’t Hide Your Talents

IMG_1078An excerpt from the High Calling, where my article “Leadership Influence” appears today.

…… Leaders don’t have self-esteem problems. We don’t suffer from thoughts of inadequacy. Instead we fear that by exerting our influence we will make others feel insecure. So we hide our light under a bushel, retreating from our God-given ability. We melt into the landscape, camouflaging our talents.

Have you ever been part of a team where no one will step up and take charge? Everyone looks around, hoping, praying that someone, anyone else will be responsible. We know full well that we could be part of the solution, and instead, by our passivity, we become part of the problem….Do you think your voice isn’t loud enough; your character not strong enough; your skills not persuasive enough? I’ve got news for you. The world can indeed be changed…

In the end, He is enough and that’s enough for me.

 

I invite you to read the whole article here.

 

When you are empty. Here’s hope.

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“…It’s times like these that I listen to the voices of doubt. “Hey you.You’re a fraud, a fake, a shyster.”The voice sounds like my own. It is my own, an echo of every fear within meI’ve heard it before—plenty of times.

I replayed the tape of my mistake last year that took a team to undo. And the time six years ago when I was told to shape up—or ship out. Maybe the voice was right. Maybe I was a phony. In no time flat the bold decisive middle manager was reduced to a bumbling corporate paperweight.

…Burnout robs us of our passion. It strangles our hearts. It makes us forget who we really are. We fill our lives with endless pursuits that simply return our hearts to start. We work long hours for recognition that never comes. We drop in our beds exhausted—and lonely. The truth is, I was the one who chose isolation over God.

It doesn’t have to be this way.”

I would be most honored if you would read the full post over at the High Calling, where I’m featured along with some other great voices as we explore Burnout and Fatigue.

 

A Journey to (True) Happiness

A group that I belong to, Writers on the Rock has produced a collaborative e-book A Journey to (True) Happiness..

The preoccupation our society has on happiness isn’t really so simple. What is happy? What is blessed? What is contentment? We spend so much time on happiness that we are most miserable.

I encourage you to download this book and would be most honored if you would share it as our gift.

A Journey to (True) Happiness

A Journey to (True) Happiness