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A Liturgy For All or A Lesson From Smells and Bells

The red-cloaked individual emerges from the curtains with a long pole. The chain dangling from its top ends on a basketball sized iron orb. Smoke is beginning to fill the room. Is this a Mortal Kombat role play? If so, I am not dressed appropriately.

I’m at church. An Episcopal church. The cloaked individual is an alter server called the thuriver. His weapon is one of blessing and is called a thurible. He swung the thurble three times as directed to him by the liturgical calendar. After making his way to the front of the room the weapon is used to bless the gospel book. Then he walks to the tall alter and blesses it with another sacred swing. One more swing toward the communion table. Then one long aggressive swing toward the congregation!!

“Get over here!”

“Liturgical” and “non-liturgical” are terms often used to define whether a church’s style is predictable and stiff (liturgical) or skinny jeans’d and U2’d (non-liturgical). But in fact all churches have liturgies. Larger church liturgies have communion sponsored by Starbucks and baptism brought to you by Paddock Pools but they nonetheless orient their life together via rituals. Simplistically, these weekly liturgies are an order of events meant to reorient us toward an intended way of life. Professor and farmer Fred Bahnson puts it this way,

“The music, the prayers, the bowing and rising, the incense—all of it was breaking down my defenses. That’s what good liturgy does…it stops your racing mind and turns you toward God.”

Good liturgy is designed — just like a building, car, or iPhone5S — to interact and influence the one that engages it. Good liturgy is a grand story made up of thoughtful rhythms that help us understand our place in it. The liturgies of a religious gathering are designed to influence a “Godly” way of life — prayer, confession, awareness of the Other. The thurble, prayers, and songs are not thoughtless or rote. Rather they are the repetitious weekly practices that form us.

In its most simple literary form, liturgy means “the work of the people.” We all do work. We all have rhythms (Taco Tuesday or morning prayer) symbols (a tattoo or a business card), and practices (yoga, meditation, or hashtagary). So whether we realize it or not, we are liturgical beings.

I have a way (values, objectives, etc) that I want to live. But there is always a gap between these values I espouse to and the values my life reflects. In order to close that gap I need an ordering of behaviors to form my life. Below is a sample of these rhythms — my liturgy. Some of my rituals have taken hold by accident and others have been intentionally designed. Some of them are enjoyable, others are mundane. But I need all of them to reorient me to the life I want to live and the man I want to be.

Sunday night dinner

Thousands of miles separating good friends — many of us can relate. During what were very transient years for my wife and I, we had one thing that remained. For nearly 7 years we have talked to our friend Jari on Sunday nights. What used to be Skype has turned into dinner on Sunday nights (because she moved to SF). We talk about our weeks, our missteps, our hopes, and cook fancy pants food. Life together in its most basic form.

Monday mornings

My schedule is always in flux and my tasks are always changing. For this reason I rise very early on Monday morning, and with a warm cup of coffee review my calendared week. I then try to imagine what the person living that week will need to be reminded of. I then select one word. I connect it with an image. I print it. I pin it to my corkboard. I meditate on and pray this word throughout my week.

Sunday brother text

In most church services there is a moment in time where you “pass the peace.” My brother and I do that every Sunday with something we call the “Sunday Brother Text.” It’s always a message of longing — how we miss each other, look forward to when we can get together again. Its also about bowel movements. It reminds me that in spite of all of life’s efforts, nothing separates family.

Coffee grinder dance

My son hated the coffee grinder and so like a good cognitive behavioral therapist, my wife and I decided to make the loud scary coffee grinder (like the scary snort) a positive experience with a massive dance party. Unintentionally this moment has been a great opportunity to stop being so GD serious and for me to recall that there are many things I am not good at.

The meal plan

Both my wife and I have a love of cereal. If left alone we would eat CTC (Cinnamon Toast Crunch) and Resse’s Peanut Butter Puffs for every meal. To avoid our carboholic tendencies we have a weekly conversation about the healthy dinners and lunches that we intend on eating. This conversation is boring and takes a lot of time and planning.

Goodnight smile

Studies show that couples who go to bed at the same time and do not have a TV in their room are likely to have way more sex and less divorce. We try to heed this advice (which means that I often miss the evening Sportscenter!). My wife and I try to be very present to each other in the evenings. Our best laughs, talks, and cries come in the evening before we slumber. And every night before I turn the light off, I say “big smile, please!” and I get the toothiest most beautiful grin. This is my benediction.

If you have been to a traditionally liturgous church service, you know that liturgy is rarely a tweet-about-it-hellofafun-time. To commit to the mundane of rhythms costs you something. But if you don’t design it (your finances, your marriage, your faith), and commit to it, your life will default.

Tweeting for Trayvon or Why Our Charity Changes Nothing

I believe that we are all to be committed to the work of creating a just world. I’m afraid that I settle for a cheap version of that.

In the center of San Francisco, amidst the 15-foot bay windows and Victorian ornamentation sits two blocks of small, taupe, housing units. While the surrounding two bedroom homes rent for $5000/month to the Twitterati, these apartments can be had for less than $600. My home is one of the gorgeous Victorians sandwiched between these banal blocks of apartments. And I like it that way.

The San Francisco Housing Authority, created in 1938 to help poor families build better lives through subsidized affordable housing, is responsible for the housing projects in my back yard. In recent years the SFHA has been praised for 70 years of ensuring that urban environments do not just turn into a bounce house for the ultra rich. One of the many reasons that my wife and I moved into our neighborhood (Hayes Valley) five years ago was because we loved the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity that was created by having this affordable housing around us.

When I take my son to the park I hear white, progressive, urbanites say that they want to raise their kids in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, teach their children three different languages, and have them using chopsticks before they enter kindergarten. We share these good intentions. I mean, my wife will only buy toys that have a Spanish to English switch. Verde! Rojo! Triangulo! We teach our son that we have all been created different but that all are equal and can play in the same sandbox. Literally.

This desire to respect diversity and fight for justice was once again brought center stage last week, as George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Those who are honest have used periodical articles, blog entries, and Facebook posts to admit their own subtle or overt prejudice. And perhaps as we have read these articles and watched the news coverage we have felt as if there is a little George Zimmerman in us. Perhaps we have felt like perhaps you are capable of snap judgments based on little information other than appearance and sterotype. I know that I have.

I have been provoked by Trayvon’s story and I feel like I should live differently. But haven’t I already chosen to live in a way that is inclusive of all? My son’s books say abrir and cerrar when he reads them. We live in a ethnically diverse neighborhood with crime and corner store drug deals. I’m living differently!

But who am I living differently for?

We are frequently provoked or moved to action. We are provoked by dramatic videos at church that ask us to give to a missionary in Ethiopia. Our heart strings are pulled by Sara McLaughlin singing over images of scratched up schnauzers. We are provoked by the Zimmerman trial that perhaps we too profile others by the color of their skin, their clothing, or the way they speak.

But what do we do with these provocations?

If the Trayvon Martin story is any evidence we respond through online petitions and Facebook rants. Discovering that you too have a little Zimmerman in you might lead to an evening of heartache and a grin the next time you pass the projects. But I fear that most of us stop here. I fear that our provoked feelings of guilt and the actions that we take following them are more about ourselves than they are making a difference in the lives of those who are mistreated. We take our guilt, load our kindergartners into our SUVs, and drive to the neighborhood with the “good school.”

In a Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher and activist Paulo Freire says,

“Discovering himself to be the oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed…charity holds the oppressed in the fast position of dependence. This will not do.”

Charity – whether in the form of polite smiles, volunteer hours, or money – simply reinforces the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. Charity changes nothing. Without real relationship people remain objects to use and at best objects to “help.”

I know not one name of anyone who lives in the neighboring housing projects. My decision to live life in a diverse neighborhood is not about creating justice for those who do not have it. I have dehumanized them and made them a trinket that reinforces my urban, progressive, sense of self. That has nothing to do with their rights or freedoms.

Paulo continues,

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor – when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.

Sharing a Huffington Post article on Facebook or instigating a conversation about racial injustice while you drink a $12 beer is exactly the kind of abstraction that keeps our neighborhoods, policies, and hearts locked in patterns of oppression. Change only comes when we engage concrete situations where injustice lives. Those concrete situations can only be entered when we learn names, give hugs, and spend time getting to know those who are the oppressed. Or as theNew Yorker says this week,

“People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change”

Relationship is the risked act of love and the crucible for change. Whether it is physical healingemotional healing, organizational healing, or in this case systemic healing of cultures, science (social, psycho, and neuro) is telling us that relationship is required for change.

And regardless of where the home is situated, this relationship is hard to establish within ornate Victorian walls. It is time that I leave those walls. Time that I stop using my neighbors to ease my own guilt. Time to connect with others in a meaningful way that could lead to meaningful change. Change that begins and must continue with me.

The Dangers of Imagination or How A Story Can Strengthen Your Family

I asked him one question and his reply filled the rest of the hour. Talking to one of my clients by phone, I was sitting in my home office, sipping coffee, my UGG slippers keeping my tootsies warm and he was in Fort Worth, Texas (I presume wearing a cowboy hat and sitting under an American flag) giving me an ear full.

One of the more important and standard parts of my consulting work is the diagnostic interview phase. It gives our firm an opportunity to learn about the business, the organization’s inner workings, and to validate that the answer to their organization’s questions lie less in the consultant’s mind but more in their own expertise.

When I begin one of these calls I have a page full of questions to ask. I never get through all of them but this call was an outlier – I only asked 2 questions in 60 minutes. The first question was straightforward. “Given that your organization is trying to adapt to changing market conditions, how would you articulate your organization’s strategy?”  He was quiet at first, stuttered, and clicked like an engine that won’t turn over. Then he warmed up and said “Well, it feels like I hear about a different strategy every day” Then I asked question 2, “And why do you think that is?”

I listened to 54 minutes of verbal diarrhea. He claimed the organization had no vision because the senior leaders were tired of running the company and were planning on vesting their shares and quitting together.  Strategy was changing because the board of directors was incompetent. Because the last consultants sucked. Because the guy that delivers the sandwich platters is having an affair with the front desk lady. Because they replaced casual Fridays with casual EVERYdays. This man who clearly cared about his company was more clearly without any good information. He did not have an explicit understanding of why the strategy changed and so he made a bunch of stuff up.

I never do that. Do you? Naaaaa.

Science is showing us that it’s not just my cowboy client who does this but all of us. You and I (unconsciously) rely on our memory to take all of life’s randomness and thread it together into a cohesive story. Recent scans of the brain show that the hypocampus, the area that is responsible for storing our memories, is not just a repository but also the engine for our imagination. Thus research has concluded that when we lack the explicit memories needed to make sense of life we use the same part of our brain to imagine details and then we treat those imagined details like facts.  When we cannot see reality we grow confident in its mirage.

For a more personal look at how we do this, take for example the 21-year-old college student who does not know why his parents got divorced when he was tee ball age. Without explicit memories of what his parents fought about or how they did or did not work to smooth things over, he is left to draw his own conclusions. The conclusions that he draws are that his parents never should have married and that had they not had children, perhaps all of their differences would not have surfaced. He then lives his life like this is the truth. While those reasons are a possibility, there is likely a more nuanced and difficult reality that he is without. But what’s wrong with believing in the mirages and not knowing? According to research not knowing may be costing us strength when we need it most.

Research done by Bruce Feiler claims that the key to resilience – in love, work, and play – is to know your family’s narrative.  In a recent summary of his work in the NYT he says,

The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient – meaning they could moderate the effects of stress. The more children knew about their family’s story, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

This research is saying that we are who we are because of what we have experienced and what we have been told about those experiences. And if our self is deeply informed by what we are told of our experiences, the more we are told about them (good and/or bad) the more control we feel we have to create our own story. It seems that the unknown company strategy, family history, or politician’s past creates an anxiety within us. The more we have to use our imagination to fill in the gaps of the story, the less confidence we have and the easier it us for us to abdicate responsibility for creating a better story.

If you are a teacher, an entrepreneur, a parent, a spouse, a therapist, a boss, or a leader of any kind who wants to build resilience and productivity you must start telling your story – not for your own good but for the good of others.

I am grateful for a first hand experience of this.

Last week my wife and I endured 12 hours of travel with a sassy one year old to get to rural Ohio for a family reunion of sorts. On our second and final night there, I sat on the ground, my one year old in my lap, as my Grandpa opened a white box. The contents of the box were passed around the room. All 28 family members received a copy of a spiral bound document. My Grandpa, nearing 80, decided it was time for him to tell his family more of his own story – his struggle with his disability, his feelings of futility, and his indebtedness to his wife and his Creator.

As I read the Kinkos bound document I learned about the center from which he wanted to live, the values he hoped to instill in his children and grandchildren, and the way he wanted to make a difference in his town and world. In those pages, I understood more of who my Grandfather was, who my Mom was, and ultimately who I was.  I learned pieces of my story that I never knew were there. And for that I feel gratitude and strength to continue to live that story.

________

We (often individuals in leadership or power) withhold information because we want to protect others or because we don’t think that it’s important. Parents don’t want children to know about their debaucherous 20s, executives don’t want their organization to know about the missteps that cost them millions, and pastors believe that more information will just cause more drama. This is not protecting anyone but is in fact weakening them.

When you withhold your story you withhold the key to others living a great story.

It definitely takes a level of foolishness to explore and share our stories and to let go of our imaginations that may be protecting us (and certainly causing us stress). But this foolishness actually frees us!  So do we have the courage to learn our stories? Do we have the strength to tell our stories? To believe that knowledge frees us? And then do we have the audacity to live our stories?

I’m not sure that I always have this courage, but if my grandpa is any evidence, then perhaps I do.

A Neurobiological Reflection on ARE YOU MY MOTHER? or A Wandering Grownup

With snot crusted eyebrows and a diaper full of poop puree creamier than the whipped sweet potatoes that he devoured, my 10-month-old son leaps out of my arms and eagerly points toward his bookshelves. Developmentally preferences such as which foods to eat and what hand to dominantly use are still a mystery but when it comes to books, Benton already knows exactly what he wants.

I am convinced that there are only two types of children’s books 1) those that speak to the deepest truths of the human condition and 2) those that were written while the author was on a peyote bender. While my son enjoys a peyote inspired text from time to time (what the hell is going on in Goodnight Moon?) his favorite book is Are You My Mother? For this I am grateful.

Are You My Mother? is the story of a young bird’s search for someone or something to take care of it. One look into that birdie’s desperate eyes and I could identify. I now wonder if this book is about our 20s and maybe our 30s or maybe all of life. Aren’t we all looking for the partner, job, amount of money, sedan, city, attire, or community that will provide us with comfort, safety, and a sense of belonging? Aren’t we all looking for our preverbal bird mother? Just say yes and stay with me.

I recently read a book for adults (a neurobiology text called A General Theory of Love, which I highly recommend) that told the story of an infant’s brain’s response to its mother. Good chemicals (oxytocin) flood the brain when any sense (smell, touch, glimpse) of mother and bad chemicals (cortisol) increase up to six times with just 30 minutes of separation from a mother. Most people believe that this attachment theory (as its referred to in psychological circles) is only relevant for infants, but the authors say strongly, “adults cannot be stable on their own – not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be.” They go on to describe that in the absence of oxytocin and our brain’s other chemical needs, we cling to just about anyone or anything – as happens with our baby bird character.

Are You My Mother? begins with the mother bird leaving. Page 1 and my heart rate is up (and so is the cortisol). I don’t care what Mother Bird had to do, you don’t leave a baby bird in a nest in a tall tree! Good thing there is not CPS in Are You My Mother?

So the bird, all alone and looking for anything to provide it security, falls out of the nest to begin its search. He cannot fly, but he can walk. I liken this to college. Do you remember the first night when you realized you didn’t have a curfew? FREEDOM! I stayed in the Taco Bell parking lot so long that night. And like the bird, as we take our first steps into our freedom we search for things to attach to. The bird wanders, confronts a cat and then a hen and asks “are you my mother?” Are you the thing that will make me feel secure?

Then, my favorite part of the search is when the baby bird approaches the Dog. The book reads “I’m not your mother,’ said the Dog, ‘I’m a Dog.’” I wish that money would say that. I wish that professional success would say that. Can you imagine if that fourth gin and tonic could talk to you? “I’m not going to take care of you,” said the cocktail, “I’m a cocktail.”

Finally the baby bird meets a SNORT – a large crane device that makes loud farting sounds (or at least that’s what I do when I am narrating). Oddly this giant, red, noisy, SNORT picks up the baby and returns it to its nest atop the tall tree where it is reunited with its mother. The only object that the wandering baby bird was scared of was the very thing that delivered the bird to where it needed to be.

________

Who or what do we believe takes care of us? Is it our spouses? Is it our charisma? Is it the 10k in our bank accounts? Is it busyness and a full iCal? Is it our titles? Is it our 401ks? Is it our reputation? Is it our freedom?

And is there something that seems as dangerous as the SNORT? A new job? A move? Breaking up with your boyfriend? An honest conversation at work or with a family member? Have you avoided the SNORT? Is it possible that these seemingly dangerous things could actually return you to your nest and the real source of your security?

Perhaps I am making too much of a children’s book. Perhaps I’ve got a second hand peyote high. But I am challenged by this book. Aware of how I have left the nest and wandered. Inspired to engage the scary and large. And most of all reminded that real attachment is found by returning to The Always Loving.

Infant Baptism or Why We Must Overcome Process Fatigue

I am currently in the midst of a lengthy process to become a member at our church. For those that are not church-goers or attend one of those new-fangled churches that think membership is only for CostCo and the occult, I believe being a member of a church is a really positive thing. In my opinion it shows a profound understanding of the interdependence of humanity and our ancient need to commit to a people and place.

So I deeply believe in church membership, but I’m thinking about quitting our church’s process.

My exploration of membership began when my wife and I were talking about baptizing our infant son. At our church, in order for an infant to be baptized, their parents must be members. I decided against pointing out the story in which an Ethiopian Eunich (a sexually ambiguous someone) was baptized by Phillip at the very sight of water. God forbid my son casually drive by the pacific ocean with a member of our church and ask to be baptized – they’d point him to a stack of paper work.

I am in the midst of a 5-page document comprised of check boxes and essay questions. I don’t mind essay questions, but these are getting absurd. I am more than happy to talk how my faith has been a source of strength throughout my youth and adult years. That seems relevant. But then you ask about a “life experience” that has shaped who I am. First of all, am I writing a memoir or trying to get my baby baptized? Secondly, how much time do you have? And then you ask me “Where do you want to serve?” Prison ministry? Underserved youth? You know what I really want to serve? I want to serve margaritas on Cinco De Mayo. Comprehende? Frustrated by this membership process, I quit.

Soon after setting down the membership application, I began to feel like a hypocrite. As a consultant, many of our clients get the same “process fatigue” I had. But rather than pouting like me, I urge them to take the process seriously. Executives generally don’t enjoy seeing a consultant in their halls to begin with, but when we ask them to fill in a few blanks of a template document that’s content they seem to understand intuitively, their expensive blood begins to boil. They see the processes we invite them to as hoops and hurdles to overcome rather than being of any assistance.

But I beg our clients to see the importance of slowing down, thinking through each question, and choosing good language. Why? Because I believe that good process adds more value than good ideas.

We see it all around us. A good coffee bean is crap if you burn it with water over 200 degrees. A good plant will die without proper pruning and watering. A great business idea will fail if its leaders don’t systemize their successes. The most intelligent and attractive couples will divorce if they don’t routinely discuss the quality of their relationship. We cannot rely on the quality of an idea, or an ingredient, or past success. If something is important to us, we should have a thoughtful process for it.

Oh. Ok, I get it. So my church wants me to take membership seriously because it is important to them. They are showing intention and inviting me to the same. They want me to slow down. They want me to think about it. Feel about it.  Sure it is mundane, too thorough, and long. But what could be better for something important? Just ask a mother of 10 pound twins. Would she have liked the process to be shorter and less uncomfortable? You bet. Would a shorter pregnancy have impacted the babies’ health? Likely.

We tire of process quickly because we naturally want resolution. We want the outcome without the bumps and bruises of the hard work. We want the product without the process. But we must come to see that while we cannot always control the outcome, we are in control of the quality of the process.  And that the process is where the real value is added and amazing outcomes made.

I am certain that one day my son will ask me, “Dad, why didn’t you have me baptized as an infant?” And rather than having a sophisticated theological answer I will tell him it was because of the paper work and the process fatigue. And he will judge me, call me a wimp, and say that I should have tried harder. I hope.

How to Live in the Era of Sprint or A Violation of Time

For work I am often out of town three nights at a time. I am staying in whatever hotel can give me the most reward points, I have plenty of email to catch up on in the evening hours, and I often do dinner or drinks with colleagues. No time for much of anything else. For those three days I’m on a work sprint. Then I return home to my wife and 9 month old. I’m exhausted mentally and physically (flying American Airlines and eating Cinnabon twice in three days is worse for your body than smoking). Taryn and I have a lot to catch up on but also have to manage life’s details. Did you order more baby formula online? Get a baby sitter for next Saturday? Did you notice that our garage door doesn’t work, our windows are leaking, and the neighborhood cat chewed through your bike tires? Another sprint.

I even schedule my social life in sprints. This week I have scheduled time with five different friends on five different days. Each is scheduled for 60 minutes. I have not seen these people in over a month but I think we are going to connect in the same amount of time it takes to tell the story of a whole week in the life the Kardashains? Silly.

One can imagine that hundreds of years ago the question “how long will it take to get to the beach?” was one about how far your two feet could take you. Or maybe they measured things in buffalo lengths. I don’t know. But now it comes with options and all of those options are about speed. How long will it take to get to the beach? Depends – are you taking your bike? Bus? Car? In the last 100 years vehicles were created that could move us faster and more efficiently than our feet or a couple of ponies could ever do. At one point progress was about Lindbergh flying over the Atlantic or simply stepping foot on the moon. Now it is about how fast we can do that.

We are in an era of sprint. Our work, our play, our intimacy, our phone calls, trips, spiritual rhythms, diets, marriages, are all done as periods of sprint. Some people believe this is the inevitable impact of technology. Others believe it is the devil. The conversation is bipolar. Move to Asheville, NC and have a farm and just chiiiiiiiill. Or get used to this pace because time is all we have! And time is money! Read The Four Hour Work Week!

It’s both. We are people living in time, with limited amounts of it. And we must live it well.

Author and Pastor Eugene Peterson says

“We are embedded in time, but time is also embedded in us. Creation is called into being, not haphazardly and not in a cacophony of noise but rhythmically.”

We have seconds, minutes, and hours. We have days, weeks, and seasons. Does our era of sprint ignore this? Should I just move to the Sonoma Coast, take daily naps, and drink Hirch Vineyard’s Pinot Noir each night? Peterson again,

Time is the medium in which we do all our living. When time is desecrated, life is desecrated. The most conspicuous evidences of this desecration are hurry and procrastination. Hurry turns away from the gift of time in a compulsive grasping for abstractions that it can possess and control. Procrastination is distracted from the gift of time in a lazy inattentiveness to the life of obedience and adoration by which we enter the “fullness of time.” Whether by a hurried grasping or by a procrastinating inattention, time is violated.

In an Era of Sprint we must remember that efficiency often withdraws presence. But we must not respond by retreating into laziness or isolation thinking that will enrich us. Time is a gift. Gifts are not managed, controlled, or made efficient. Gifts are received.

Each day is an opportunity to receive and participate in the rhythms given to us by our Creator. It is as we listen to these rhythms that we find the pace for our own life. So today, how will we receive our time? I’m not sure how I will receive it, but I better do it quick!!

Defense from the Unpredictability of Life or How to Ruin a Champagne Toast

I am of the opinion that red wine is for any meal, white wine is for cooking, and champagne is only for celebrating. When I have a glass of champagne in my hand I want to be laughing, hugging, and dancing – all with people in sequins. I can only recall one such time when this was not the case and I am certainly to blame.

My dear friend had just gotten engaged and a handsome herd us met to celebrate in the bar area of a high-ceilinged restaurant. The bar was louder than a middle school girl’s sleepover, but you could still hear the pop of each champagne cork. After a group toast or two, I cornered my newly engaged friend (my social awkwardness ensures I do this at all large social functions) to have a meaningful conversation about his monogamous future. After a smile and another hug I asked him “So! How might this thing end in divorce?”

He rightfully, took my sparkling rosé, set it on the bar, leaned in and whispered in my ear “You are a mad man. Please leave.”

While it may have been slightly inappropriate to ask him this just hours after his proposal, I had good intentions. It was a thought experiment. I was asking him to consider all of the possible paths to failure. Why? Because in my experience (of my own marriage and those in my family), you can’t predict how the future you or the future anyone else will behave and you certainly cannot predict how those behaviors will impact you. Why didn’t he see that that’s what I was after? So sensitive!

So if marriage (like investing, parenting, teaching, leading, oh and, LIFE), at least in my opinion, is so unpredictable, what are we to do? Pre-marital counseling? Compatibility tests? Live together first to make sure that she always smells that good? Those are all good risk mitigation tactics but mounting evidence says that those don’t work.

In my mind that leaves us one option – to create a more whole, centered, loving self that is prepared for the certainty of life’s unpredictability. And there is one thing that is guaranteed to screw that self-strengthening-process up: defensiveness.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, famously described human behavior as a collaboration between an elephant and a rider – the division between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. Haidt claims that rather than taking charge, the over matched rider tends to lean with the direction of the elephant and begins to logically defend the decision that was actually made by the automatic/implicit process. In other words our behavior is often un-rational (even to our own self) but we try to explain it so that it seems rational.

Why? For me it is because admitting that the elephant is in charge is scary. Admitting that all of my decisions are not thought out, well informed, and their outcomes controllable is frightening. And this feeling that the unpredictable elephant is an antagonist that we must protect ourselves from is a driving force for our nation’s baseline anxiety (despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime). But this anxiety and our need for a predictable and controlled future may actually be robbing us of the attributes we need to withstand life’s unpredictability.

Right now, drop what you are doing, and put your hands up like you are about to be smacked in the face. Things just got real on this blog post! Like a boxer or a hillbilly in a bar fight – put your dukes up. Now with your hands in that same position I want you to imagine someone throwing you a large, expensive and very fragile vase. But don’t put your hands down! You might get smacked in the mouth! Continue to defend yourself and try to catch the vase! Not easy work, eh? If someone wants to try this and put the video on the internet, I wouldn’t mind.

Defensiveness is active. We get hyper focused on the perceived harm. Then we tense up and go to war with that harm. When we are defensive of ourselves (others, ideas, companies, cities, political parties), it is difficult to receive much of anything.

In my faith tradition there is a verse that says by His divine power, not our own, God has given us everything we need to experience a rich life. There are numerous Buddhist sayings that reinforce that wisdom is something received rather than struggled for. In his book, Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb agrees with this idea saying that all things that have life in them are “anti-fragile.” “Antifragile” is his phrase for things that naturally get stronger when experiencing pain or volatility. He believes that humans were created to thrive in changing unpredictability. But he says that many of us today “suppress harm and volatility” and thus create countries, organizations, and families vulnerable to catastrophe. In other words, by not receiving the way in which we have been created, and instead defending ourselves from life’s unpredictaibilities, we are increasing our fragility.

As a pastor (former in roll, current in duties) I have the privilege of standing with individuals as they commit to a lifetime of love. I also have the privilege of doing pre-marital counseling and seeing how hard they are willing to work for a thriving marriage. In my premarital counseling I often ask the happy couple to “blow it up.” I invite them to imagine chaos, trauma, and worse case scenario. I ask them the question I asked my champagne sipping friend.

We should ask ourselves more of these questions. How can we allow ourselves to feel the fear of failure, hardship, and pain (while understanding that many, because of the intensity of it, don’t get a choice to not feel those things)? The antifragile feel the uncertainty and know it is inevitable. We cannot realistically predict our future behavior or the behavior of those we relate with. Change, variance, and our unknowing are guaranteed.

But also guaranteed is our ability to survive – even thrive – in the face of this unpredictability. If only we could receive how we have been made. Receive the complexity and the mystery of our resilience. With gratitude. And toast a glass of champagne to that.

Beyond a Standardized Definition of Success or Why Networking Events are Hell

Forget rats, I’d like to do psychological research on people that attend networking events. First there’s the smiley girl that asks you (and everyone else) if she can get you a drink. Then that guy that is still wearing his Google employee badge – we got it hot shot. Also the unemployed, overdressed gentleman who is standing by the chip bowl handing out napkins and introducing himself as a “freelance consultant.” Finally there is the guy hunched over in the corner, making no eye contact, pounding a $6 merlot, and shoveling cheese dip into his mouth. That’s me.

I hate networking events. Although I am proud of my current work positions (which are much more solidified than 18 months ago), I respond to the “what do you do?” question from a place of deep insecurity. Over compensating I speak with a grandiosity that would make Kanye West blush.

I consult for Fortune 500 companies by revolutionizing their processes and strategies while simultaneously changing the fundamental way that they do business and making real sure that the way they lead exceeds everyone’s expectations, oh, oh, and I also work with social enterprises and world changing Millennials and impact investors who are looking to really change the world from the inside out without any exceptions all the way until it’s the best forever and ever, like, forever, the best. That’s what I live for, like, deeply. What do you do?

I’m embarrassed because that was a direct quote.

Why do I respond that way? Because among my peers here in San Francisco, that is what is valued. If you are working your ass off as a mechanic, you are going to get a polite smile and next thing you know you are “sipping” your “second” Merlot by yourself. People value size, progressiveness, and world change so I bolster my bio to fit the expectations.

Even as I type, the words of a self help book enter my mind “Jarrod, there is no need to puff your self up. You are the one who gets to decide what real success is. Define it for yourself!” Unfortunately, value is socially constructed. That Oprah like voice is a lie. I believe that value is the extent to which a society, group, or family holds something to be important. In other words, all value is social.

For example, do you understand why a dollar is worth what it is? Right now in your pocket, do you have a dollar? Probably not. You have a debit card though? What is that worth? The raw materials are worth less than 1/50 of 1 cent. But that card is linked to your bank. But does the bank have your dollars? And what is a dollar? Paper? Why is that worth anything? In the 7th century the coin was worth its weight in the metal it was minted in. But today, currency is a symbol. The dollar, pound, yen, and peso are socially standardized measures of value.

I am not a historian or an economist, and my concern is not the standardization currency. My concern is that we are also standardizing our definition of success. There is a socially standardized expectation that we should grow fast, be increasingly profitable, and ignore those that say otherwise. We should change the world, challenge the status quo, and make a big splash! We need higher test scores, bigger congregations, more downloads, twice as many unique visits, a bigger building, more patients cared for – the list is too easy to create.

I am all for measuring success as long as we understand – what I am trying to come to terms with in my own work – that all things were not created equal. A professor of Biochemistry at Colombia University says “there is a proper size to everything in the world. We have lost entirely this sense of measure.” If there is a proper size to everything then we cannot have one, universal, standardized measure for success.  Consider this an ecological and anthropological truth. The Caryota palm tree can exceed 90 feet tall while a Serenoa Palm will never grow beyond 10. Were they both successful in growing? Yes. Can they rely on height as the metric for success? No.

But plants don’t have performance-based incentives, weekly calls with their investors, or report to the CEO. For us it can be quite exhausting, disheartening, and anxiety producing to be a part of industries, organizations, and even families that abide by this standard of success. The words of author Nassim Taleb (please check out Antifragile) ring true for me in this regard,

“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.”

I’m tired of running after it. You?

So perhaps the self help folks are correct and we do all need to take time to define success for ourselves. Or at the very least, slow down and realize that the definition of success we are after may be the culturally informed, standardized variety. Knowing how we measure success allows us to distinguish what is important to us and thus provides much needed guidance for what should be pursued as opposed to what could be pursued.

I am still not exactly sure of my proper size, shape, and contribution to the world, but I am beginning to feel the freedom that can come with this mindshift. If we all embraced this idea, maybe the envious job comparison will end, greed will cease, and the sleepless nights discontinue! And think about this…NO MORE NETWORKING EVENTS! WE WILL NEVER DRINK MERLOT AGAIN!

Why Your Soil Matters or Why I Love to Hate Gurus

Like a colorful pocket square on a tweed-suited salesman, the only pop of color along our Phoenix track home was the bright bougainvillea. If you have ever been to Arizona you have most certainly seen them lining the walls of retirement homes and master planned communities. There they are as common as golf shirts.

These bougainvillea varieties have pink or white flowers, thick and thorny stems, and are very common in warm climates. In our yard these bougainvillea grew like weeds. Out of the dessert soil or a crack in the adobe wall, out would pop this beautiful windy plant. It’s aggressive growing makes it a logical plant to use in landscaping, but how you contain its growth makes all the difference. Without any pruning this vine can leap up buildings like a rock climber, using its waxy thorns as pins and pitons.

For many years it was my chore to contain this pretty pink beast. While I am a man of great height, strength, and courage today (reader chuckles to themselves) as a child I was a bit more timid around ladders and didn’t do dirt. Needless to say that the 30 foot, thorny, vine creature was not something that I was very good at slaying.

Growing weary of my inability to tame the plant, I wondered if there was a way to outsmart it. Just like man – always trying to outwit the created order. To limit its height, I realized that I needed to move it away from the wall but also knew I must keep it alive because my mom loved it. So what if I just dug it up, potted it, and moved it a few feet from the fence? With a sweaty Tommy Hilfiger polo and some dirt under my nails, my experiment was complete. One potted bougainvillea.

What my experiment quickly taught me is that if you put the same plant in a different container, it reacts. This bougainvillea became sensitive. It dried out quickly. Its vines flopped over like wet noodles. The plant no longer grew up but out. It was now much easier to hedge. I GOT YOU, YOU DUMB PLANT!

The earth tells us that conditions matters. Temperature, the amount of water, how much wind, and in this case, what container something is in all have an impact on how something grows. It wasn’t that the bougainvillea stopped growing when moved to the pot, it was that it grew differently as a result of where it was hosted. This appears to be an ecological truth that we humans struggle with.

We live in the age of the guru. Right now your twitter feed has posts that read three ways to improve your team’s performance. The nine secrets to a better night’s sleep. Seven principals on the five steps to receive the three keys to greatness. I’ve always wanted to be one of these gurus – an expert in a specific field or a know it all – because gurus make them dolla bills! Why? Because in the age of the guru everyone is looking for clean, quick, answers.

But this kind of advice is like two Tylenol capsules for chronic back pain. We rely on guru-nic, simple, operational information when what we really have are transformational needs. Our chronic back issue needs physical therapy, one of those rolly styrofoam things, and $300 shoes with custom arch support.

Different learning needs require different learning contexts. If you turn to conferences, one off podcasts, Sunday’s sermon, and guru’s top ten lists you will grow accordingly. The fruit you bare will be trendy, temporary, and marginally helpful.  But I’m not sure this is what we want. This is not what I want.

I want transformation. I want to transform the way I use and view my money. I want to transform the way I parent. I want to transform my relationships. I want to transform how I work. I want to transform my prayer life. None of these things are easy. None of them are a quick solve. I (maybe you too) need transformation and therefore need transformational contexts.

We cannot assume that all plants will grow the same regardless of where they are placed.  I don’t believe we can pot ourselves in the soil of gurus and expect transformation. We cannot build gurueque soils and expect lives to be transformed. So what then is a transformational context?

I don’t really know. And to say I did would be pretty guru-otic, eh? Here are some qualities that I can identify, but I would love to hear your input.

Differentiated Encounters– It’s hard to be transformed while sitting on your couch. It’s too familiar and too pillowy. When we go to a new place, meet new people, or try new things the possibility of transformation begins.

Practiced – My friend Mark says that if we want to transform we should leave the lecture hall and get into the dojo. To me, this is the difference between taking in guru knowledge and developing a deep understanding. Understanding comes as we practice, reflect, improve, practice, etc. It’s risky. It’s hard. It’s rarely fun.

With Others – We are more likely to transform if others are committed with us. That hard work of practice, failure, and learning cannot be done along. I would also add that having a guide, coach, or mentor with expertise is also essential to good transformation of self.

I see lots of gurus and I’m green with envy toward their “success.” But because of my own experience with the quick hitting, short lived advice, I question their results – the strength of their roots and if they will last through the winter. Where we are planted matters. I want to plant well and differently (this is an ache of mine as you can tell by the many similar posts I have written) but am still discerning how to best do that. Maybe I need a new pot.

Smokey the Bear Is Wrong or Why Pain is Part of the Deal

My marriage has provided me with a number of immaterial blessings –an introduction to the rich stories found in the ballet, a bigger heart for the oppressed, and an appreciation for Destiny Child’s back catalog. My favorite material blessing is a cabin named Bear Claw. Located in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona and owned by my in laws, this massive log cabin demands that you nap, write, and repeat. A massive wildfire threatened to take this cottage refuge away forever.

Every fire season in the western United States, we see on television the images of 100-foot flames spreading through tree crowns, while grim-faced news anchors report how many acres of forest was destroyed by the latest catastrophic fire.  Our distressed reaction is understandable as many homes and lives can be lost. Thank God then for hunky firefighters and the US Forest Service.

In 1905 the US Government adopted a “total fire suppression” policy and this was institutionalized by the creation of the United States Forest Department. This department and their coordinated government efforts (those helicopters that pee on stuff) is what saved my beloved Bear Claw from being destroyed. This fire suppression appexed in 1935, when the Forest Service implemented a “10 a.m. policy” which stipulated that a fire was to be contained and controlled by 10 a.m. the morning after the fire was initially spotted. See fire? Smell smoke? Get rid of it. This era was also iconized by the now 68-year-old Smokey the Bear who continues to be a pop-culture figure. Haven’t heard from him recently? Follow him on Twitter. Really.

But while the total number of fires is much lower than the early 1900s, the number of wildfires has sky rocketed (there are seven times as many today). Could there be correlation between fire suppression and the rise in wildfires?

Under ideal and controlled conditions, forest fires are beneficial.  Well before ol’ Smoky started tweeting, fire was a frequent visitor. Lightning struck and created flame. The heat revved up resin flow in bigger trees making them stronger, thicker, and more resilient. Fire cleared dead wood from the forest floor and allowed the life-giving rays to reach their roots. The ash added nutrients to the soil. Many species, including oak and pine, actually require the work of fire to initiate the blooming of the seedlings. Fire was not an ecosystem option. It was required for its health.

Today the massive wildfires claim millions of acres of land and burn at an intensity and temperature that is often too hot to leave behind the post-burn benefits those ecosystems are accustomed to. Like coffee that is too hot to drink, fire that exceeds its natural temperature just hurts things.

Fire suppression is good intentioned but is it possible that the effects of the government’s long-standing policy have done more harm than good?

Consider for a moment, not the forest ecosystem but our own selves. All of us experience catastrophic flame ups in our relationships, careers, spiritual lives, and inner selves. These flame ups claim the wellbeing of our families, friends, and psyche. They leave behind ruins that we struggle to make sense of. But could this be because we have done such a good job suppressing life’s natural blazes? That like the government’s plan of total fire suppression, we have starved our self-systems of the benefits of regular, natural fire?

In today’s world we buy things (The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months), get prescriptions, and avoid conversations so that we “overcome” the feelings of fear, pain, and worry. I am not sure that this avoidance is good. I understand that these are not enjoyable feelings, but they are inevitable and are the textures that give life its depth. Worry and avoidance do not help us skip over life’s hardships; it prohibits us from the benefits that such hardship bring.

It’s not whether or not forests will burn, but how. It is not a question of whether chaos, loss, and hardship will enter your life, but when. We can either involuntarily experience the destruction of wildfires, or we can embrace life’s natural flame and allow its benefits to seep deep into our lives.

So how do we set fire to some stuff now? How do we prevent wild fires? For starters I’d buy one of those crème brule torches.

I’m still trying to define what a “control burn” may look like for my life, but for starters I like this advice from Richard Rohr. He says,

“Do not waste any more moments of time lamenting poor parenting, lost jobs, failed relationships, physical handicaps, gender identity, economic poverty, or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal.”

Rohr is not talking about ignoring suffering. He is not talking about overlooking your unjust childhood or staying mute about the sadness you feel as you are unable to conceive. He is saying that there is goodness in the fire. That where there is flame there will be ash. Where there is ash there is nutrients for the soil. And where there is fertile soil there is a chance for new life.

While fires do leave behind acres of charred barren land, focus on the Coastal Redwoods of Muir Woods. See the tall Maple and the Tanoak of the Oregon coast. Listen to the Colorado wind blow through the Quaking Aspen’s dime sized leaves. Breath in the birch, pine, and juniper of the White Mountains. And remember that all the death that ever was or will be is nothing when sat next to life.