Crunch Time

Man, I can be a jerk to live with when I am stressed out.  I realized yesterday that my outlook had been skewed by my schedule and (more importantly) my priorities and that had made me more than a bit difficult to get along with.  Don’t get me wrong; I have my reasons for feeling like a mummy (“pressed for time”…thank you, I’ll be here all week!):

  1. We transition to two worship services in 2 1/2 weeks at church, and we still need about 8 volunteers to make it a success.  That seems like a small number, but it’s still a stress.
  2. I have a ridiculous weekend ahead.  I am hosting Dr. Dave Anderson this weekend for Graceline, and he is preaching at church this Sunday.  That’s cool!  But I have a funeral to officiate and a family to grieve with on Saturday too, which of course is occupying a lot of my mind.
  3. I have a huge pile of grading on my desk, and 75 research papers coming in on Wednesday. Ahhhhhhhhh!
  4. I am working on my Easter sermon, my second ever in first-person.  That takes WORK.  The last one went well and I want this one to also.
  5. Last but CERTAINLY not least, both Laura and I are not able to run right now.  She had surgery to remove more tissue after her melanoma diagnosis, which put her out of action for 4 weeks.  Then I hurt my foot and need to take about 10 days off too—no running or kenpo. 

The end result: Stress.  The outcome: John is a jerk who gets snappish and surly. 

As I looked at the reason I get that way, it really boils down to simply being too focused on tasks and not focused on God and people.  I look at the “task” of two worship services and realize that we are doing that to help people, not to have something to do.  I look at this weekend and thank God that I get to be with that family and get to know Dr. Anderson better.  I realize that God has entrusted me with helping 75 students understand the New Testament better, and this is their chance to show me that!  My Easter sermon shouldn’t be a chance to be impressive but to help real people see the impact of the resurrection of Jesus on their lives.  And certainly, I realized that being unable to work out has given Laura and me some time to sleep in, to goof off, and to rebuild some margins in life.  Blessings, all.

And the schedule?  Well, God isn’t hanging me out to dry, either!

Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
(Isaiah 41:10)

Yesterday I completely revamped my prayer list too.  I took every task off of my list and instead changed to praying for people.  Monday, for instance, I am now praying for Laura, for my heart, for vision to lead our church, and for those who don’t know Christ in my life.  Tuesday is Elizabeth, the men that I am mentoring as well as my mentors, and my staff at church.  And so on.

And the change in focus has brought with it much more peace and much more willingness to be kind, to be present and to let small annoyances stay small.

How do you react to stress?  Is it schedule, or assignments, or money that makes you anxious?  Do you run to God or from Him when stress hits?  And when you can’t run to your normal stress relief, how do you cope?

The Big Picture

Chennai Marathon 2010photo © 2010 Simply CVR | more info (via: Wylio)

Sometimes I have to remember that the big picture is more important than today.  That can be hard when the demands of today are right in my face and I want to be successful at every task and every challenge, but that’s just not how life works.

I am struggling through a lesson in “keeping the big picture in mind” in my marathon training.  I (finally!!!) went for a run in my Vibrams on Thursday after owning them for a couple of months.  It was SO fun, and it was only two miles right?  Wrong.  I stressed a joint in my right foot pretty hard, and made that foot awfully sore.  I went to the chiropractor and got it adjusted, and he told me a couple of things:

  1. I need to ice it twice a day.
  2. I can’t run my planned long run on Saturday; I had 20 miles on my goal sheet for this week and he said it ain’t happening.
  3. I need to take a couple of days off and rest it so that it won’t bother me long term and impact my ability to complete my first marathon in June.

“Remember,” Dr. Kevin told me, “your goal is the marathon in June, not 20 miles on Saturday.  Rest now to succeed then.”  I know he is right, so even though I would LIKE to take a run today, I can tell that my foot needs one more day of rest before getting out for a run.  So I will listen, even if (a big) part of me wants to get out for a run today.

I see Jesus practice something similar in Luke 4:1-13.  The temptations that He faced were real; the temptation to doubt the provision of God, the protection of God, and the plan of God were far more significant for Him than for us.  But Jesus wouldn’t take the bait.  He never let today, with its struggles and challenges and needs, get in the way of the bigger, more significant goal of glorifying the Father by fulfilling His plan in Jesus’ life.  He was focused on the larger, more significant goal rather than the minor, in-His-face goal.

I see this in myself too often spiritually too.  I put the urgent in front of the important.  I put time for sermon prep in my schedule but too often get too busy to spend time in significant prayer or non-prep Bible reading.  I prioritize mentorship but often not being mentored or just hanging with my wife and kids doing family stuff.  I too often put the intermediate goals (a good sermon, a smooth transition at church, a belt in kenpo) ahead of the big goals (glorifying God in my family life and ministry and self-defense).  And as I take a day off to rest, my foot reminds me that in those areas too I need to keep the bigger goals in mind and plan today with the end in mind.

How about you?  Where have you let the goals of today and the tyranny of the urgent get in the way of the bigger picture?  Are you focused on the big picture and setting goals appropriately, or are the minor battles and ideas of today so important that you have lost sight of the reason you are living to begin with?  And (maybe most importantly for me) can you mentally and emotionally allow what might look like a setback to be a reminder and a re-commitment to the more important objectives you’re chasing?

A Fresh Perspective

Oh man was I frustrated today.  Like, grind my teeth and say dirty words frustrated.  For the past week I have been completely and totally looking forward to a buffalo “hunt” that I was going to get to do tomorrow.  Okay, it’s not really a hunt (they’re privately owned animals on a farm), but still I was going to get to harvest an organic, free range buffalo!  And I was going to eat it and turn its hide into an awesome rug, then wear it and walk around the house saying “Tatonka.”

And then it all fell apart this morning.

First and most importantly, the one guy I just HAD to have come with me backed out for various reasons.  He knows how to take and prepare a large animal, and I don’t have the experience to do it without him.  So when he backed out, I was in trouble.  Well maybe next Tuesday? Nope, busy already.  Thursday? Nope, booked helping the Bible department at ACU.  After that?  Well, they’ll be sold and gone by then.  It started to look hopeless.

I was upset, to say the least.

My catharsis right now is running.  I run to clear my head and to think.  This morning I skipped my run because Laura and I ran a ridiculously hard half-marathon on Saturday in the White Tanks with 1800+ feet of climbing in the 4 miles in the middle. (then descending the same…ugh)  I was so sore this morning that I slept in instead.  But I was so frustrated that I decided to go for a run at noon just to clear my mind.

I ran like the wind.  I felt slow, but my last mile was one of the fastest miles I have ran this year!  I just ran my body hard and ran the emotions dry, then asked God to show me His view of the situation.  I shut my mind off and focused on my breathing and on putting one foot in front of the other at a hard pace. 

Afterward, I had a new perspective.  I had asked God for some clarity, and while He hadn’t told me why it had fallen apart, He reminded me that He isn’t angry with me and that He knew what was best.  Who knows, maybe the whole thing would have been a disaster for me.  Maybe I would hurt myself, or we will need the money we would have spent to do something else.  Maybe I will get drawn for elk this year and will need the freezer space! (oh please, Lord, let this be it!)

At the very least, I wasn’t so angry anymore.  I was still not excited about it, but at least I was at peace instead of raging at the injustice of it all or upset at my friend who canceled.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. ” (Romans 12:2, NAS)

I thought of this verse this afternoon as I considered the attitude shift.  I hadn’t had a spiritual mountaintop, just a hard run on sore legs.  I hadn’t sat and prayed my heart out, just asked God for some clarity as I hit the “start” button on my run tracking program on my phone.  I hadn’t meditated on Scripture much either.  And yet despite that, God took the request I made and used my run to change my heart toward the situation.  And for that, I am really grateful.
What does God use in your life to change your perspective?  Is it a nap, or music, or a loved one?  Is it counsel or video games or a good book?  Is it prayer or Scripture reading or exercise?  When you’re upset with the world, how do you let God work the emotions out of you and give you a new perspective on the situation?

The Next Step

“Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1, NAS)

I love these words of Paul’s.  I am studying the New Testament with my students at Arizona Christian University, and yesterday we dug into 1 Thessalonians.  The tone of this letter is so much different than his tone in Galatians.  He was flat out mad at the Galatians for their legalism, but it seems that the Thessalonians were doing a great job.  They were pleasing God and walking with Him well.  They had it going on!  I just imagine them thinking that compared to many other churches (the Galatians and Corinthians come to mind), they were awesome and could just keep at what they were doing.
So what was Paul’s response? “Excel still more.”  He didn’t want them to rest on their laurels or read their own press clippings.  They thought that they were on the mountain top, but to Paul they were at base camp!  He was pleased with their progress but not content with their situation.  There was still more work to do if they were going to be everything that God wanted them to be.
I’m trying to do this in my walk with God as well as in my other areas of life.  I have run 3 half-marathons in the past year, which is great.  But now it’s time to “excel still more.”  So between now and June I will lose 15 pounds and on June 5th plan to run my first FULL marathon. (pray for me…it appears I have lost my mind!)  Our church is doing well in so many areas, but now it is time for me to “excel still more” in leading our staff, empowering our ministry leaders, and building authentic relationships with more people in our congregation.   I made some changes to my classes at ACU and Phoenix Seminary this semester too, so time will tell if they make the classes better.
How can you “excel still more”?

  1. In your walk with Christ.  What one area do you think that God wants you to change today to be more like Him?  How can you take a strength of yours in your walk with God and make it even stronger?
  2. In your relationships. Is your marriage good?  Your parenting?  Your friendships?  Where are you meeting standards, but want to change that “C” into an “A”?  What is one step you can take today to move in that direction?
  3. In your vocation. If you’re good at your job, what separates you from being great at it?  Would 10% more focused effort lead to 25% more success?  Can you be more agreeable to coworkers, or easier to lead as a team member?  Can you be a better model for those you supervise?
  4. In your finances. If your most successful friend from a financial standpoint looked over your finances, where would they say that you could make some changes to strengthen your giving, your saving, or your spending?

Doing good enough, in God’s eyes, is…well…not good enough.  Where can you “excel still more” today to the glory of God?

Enjoy the Journey

Sorry for being so scarce since returning from vacation.  It’s been a little hectic with renovations going on at church, school starting at Southwestern College and Phoenix Seminary, and starting a new series in my preaching ministry.  It’s been right back to my hectic life!  I promise that there are a couple of important lessons I learned in Rwanda that I have not had time to blog yet; there’s a lesson on relationships and on food that are coming, so hang in there with me!

One of the challenges of our crazy summer was our fitness and running in particular.  I like to run and have completed two half-marathons. (check here and here for my thoughts on those; the first one still makes me emotional to read)  However, in the craziness of the trip to Rwanda and the cruise my running definitely tapered off.  In the weeks of the trip to Africa I ran not one iota.  In Belgium I was too tired or busy, and in Rwanda it was either too early, too late, too much air pollution, too much to do, or what have you.  I ran once in the week between Africa and the cruise, and twice on the cruise while eating enough for a whole family.  I gained about 10 pounds over the month.

So needless to say my running shape was long gone.  I was overweight, had no muscle memory, and couldn’t keep close to the pace I was hitting in June.  3 miles was a huge undertaking, whereas I had just run 13.1 and felt great at the end.  How discouraging!

As I was slogging through a run last week I thought about the fact that I was really “suffering” through my run.  It was harder than expected, it was hot, I was tired and slow, blah blah blah.  I was frustrated that my fitness was garbage and started talking to God some while running, asking Him to ease my suffering and to get me through it until I could get back where I wanted to be.

And then he whacked me upside the head.

Loud and clear in my heart I heard, “Enjoy the suffering.  Don’t endure it; enjoy it.  It is making you into the runner you want to be, so be grateful for it.”  If you re-read my post from the PF Chang half in January linked above, that is the same spiritual lesson that He reminded me of there. 

11      All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. 
12      Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 
13      and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:11-13, NASB)

Discipline is no fun, and we can really resist suffering in our spiritual lives like I was resisting it in my running.  But that’s not how God works any more than it is how physical fitness works!  You’ve got to be willing to train in order to run, to start small and make incremental improvements to get better.  Records are not broken on accident, and frankly they are not broken on the race course.  Instead, they are broken on purpose on those solo training runs where you push yourself to be better than you were.  The race is the celebration more than it is the test.

The same holds true in our spiritual lives.  Enjoy the trials, the struggles, and the tests of faith.  Recognize that they are the “training runs” of your walk with Christ and that He will use them to make you into the person He wants you to be.  It’s that discipline and suffering and struggle that will mold you into a Christ follower who brings Him glory and has true and lasting joy in the midst of whatever comes.  That is how to experience what the author of Hebrews wants for us in Hebrews 12:1-2:

1      Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2      fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So with that lesson from God in my mind I set out to regain my form.  I am not nearly there, but I can see little flashes of the old me as I regain my form.  My weight is headed in the right direction, with about 10 pounds to go total.  More than that, though, I am enjoying the process again and looking forward to lacing up my running shoes.

My prayer is that whatever you’re going through today that you hear the lesson I learned and find a place to enjoy the process, not just the product.  Whether your struggle is spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational, educational or financial the same truth can change your outlook on your day. 

Enjoy the suffering and the struggle, not just the result.  Try it and see what God does to your outlook on life as well as your results.  As the founder of American Kenpo, Ed Parker, once said, “Whatever the attitude, so is the response.”