Hi, My Name Is Joe

As a kid, I learned this song about a stressed-out guy named Joe. It went something like this:

Hi, my name is Joe
I got a wife and three kids and I work in a button factory
One day my boss came to me and said, “Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “no.”
He said, “Then push the button with your right hand.”

We would then begin to push a pretend button with our right hands and launch into the song again, ending this time with “left hand” and the addition of right and left hand pretend-button pushing.The song could continue ad nauseum, requiring participants to “push the button” with both hands, both feet, head, nose, and the optional silliness of tongue and backside. I remember trying to teach this song to my dad in the car once and wondering why he wasn’t getting into the spirit of things. (Oh, right, he was holding onto the steering wheel and keeping us alive.)

I haven’t sung about Joe the Button Pusher in years. But I haven’t forgotten about him. Because sometimes I am Joe — juggling work that I’m passionate about with the right hand, work that pays the bills with the left hand, and family, friends, church, hobbies, and health with my remaining weary appendages.juggling

Juggling. It’s a picture I keep coming back to when I think about life lately.

So I wonder: What are you juggling? What do you do when you start to realize you’re juggling? (No, really. What do you do? Help me out here!)

I’ve seen basically 3 options:

1) Keep juggling. Except that this is unhealthy, leading to burnout and manifest in an array of potential psychological, physiological, social, and spiritual consequences. (Even Joe the Button Pusher doesn’t keep juggling forever. Eventually, after probably an unhealthy duration of time, Joe’s Button-Pusher Boss asks Joe if he’s busy and he belts out yes.)

2) Say no. This is so healthy. And so hard. Resources like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s best-selling book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life have helped me get a bit better at saying no. Making a list of what I’m juggling and then prayerfully prioritizing the items on the list has helped me too. But, let’s be real. It’s still so hard. If for no other reason than sometimes we really can’t say no — can’t say no to a true emergency, to a child or elderly person who needs help, even to a task that’s stressful but we feel utterly called to do nonetheless.

3) Be like Benedict. This is a middle way, a via media, that I’ve been dabbling in recently using the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a way of not only saying a black-and-white “yes” to some things and “no” to other things but saying “with God’s help” to all things. This is a way of practicing the presence of God while working and even by working (although not to the exclusion of rest). St. Benedict upholds as his highest priorities ora et labora: “pray and work.” In fact, as Benedict writes, “he who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.” The contemporary writer and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris helps us see this in modern life in her writings like Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Benedict could see prayer happening in daily labor. Norris has seen prayer happening in daily laundry of all things.

What exactly does Benedict have to do with juggling many tasks? What would he do — what can we do — in Joe the Button Pusher’s situation?        

We can pray and work. We can pray while working and even by working. The juggling may continue, but it will continue with God’s help — a little steadier, a little stronger, a little sweeter.  


Climbing the Ladder

In some recent posts, both This Is Not a Travel Blog and Roots and Shoots, I’ve mentioned Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. Truly, it’s one of the most necessary, even prophetic books I’ve come acrossprophetic because stability is not something twenty-first century Westerners practice and necessary because stability is something twenty-first century Westerners need.

In a section on “the ladder we climb,” Wilson-Hartgrove summarizes a situation so eerily relatable to my own experience that I’m posting the paragraph here in whole:

“Practicing stability has meant unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else. For most young people in the West, ‘good education’ leads to a migratory existence. Conventional wisdom among the middle class says, ‘Go away from home for a good four-year degree. Go somewhere else for a master’s. Travel around and see the world a little. Then maybe think about a terminal degree somewhere else.’ Even on the fast track, this plan will take you into your midthirties. By then, of course, we’re well prepared for an economy that tells us where it needs us most. We sometimes call this ‘climbing the ladder,’ but even as a metaphor, it’s a stretch. Without a stable foundation to rest on, ladders become dizzying and dangerous.” (emphasis mine)

To be honest, Wilson-Hartgrove says that he largely followed this pattern himself, leaving home for “a good four-year degree,” going “somewhere else for a master’s,” and doing his fair share of domestic and overseas missions work along the way. And, to be honest, I’m probably living under the same paradigm.

But the problem isn’t necessarily so much with climbing the ladder so much as it is with securing the ladder.

The question for all you ladder-climbers like me is this: Do you have a stable foundation to rest on?

Do you have a healthy appreciation for affiliation (the people around you) and not just ambition (the goals you aspire to)?

Do you have some sense of a support network socially, core values morally, guiding practices spiritually, resilience emotionally, and a sense of preparedness practically and financially? (These are hard questions. We’ll probably be answering them for our whole lives.)

Do you know — really know — that you’re a child of God, loved no matter how high you climb or don’t climb, secure in His hand no matter how far you go or don’t go?

Roots and Shoots

There’s a question that’s plagued me for years: Why would a person leave something he knows to be good in exchange for something he hopes to be good? 

We’ve all done it — or had the opportunity to do it. I think of colleagues who have left good careers in, say, law or engineering to pursue ministry or art. Classmates who have left family and friends to work or study abroad. And, yes, now my own journey joining the ranks of those world-traveler classmates.

Why do we do this? What leads to such stay-or-go decisions? Certainly faith and gut feelings, maybe fortune telling and flipping a coin, come into play. But is there anything more, I’ve wondered, we can wrap our minds around?

Yes. I think so.

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.

As you might guess from the title, I half-expected The Wisdom of Stability would convince me to cancel my Canada-bound plans and stay put. Indeed, Wilson-Hartgrove makes a strong case for committing to our communities both for our own sake and for the sake of the community.

But The Wisdom of Stability didn’t exactly change my mind; rather, it may have eased my mind. From its pages on staying-versus-going, I gleaned that we’re ready to go when:

  1. We’ve established roots. Quote: “We might even go so far as to say that true Christian mission is not possible until we have established roots of love through the practice of stability.”
  2. We’ve faced our demons. Quote: “Maybe none of us are safe to respond to God’s call until we’ve stayed put long enough to face our demons.”
  3. We’ve received a call to bless others (whether in specific, known ways or not). Quote: “We should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways — ready to hear the Abrahamic call” to go bless others.

Establishing roots helps us move with a support system in mind. arbol-raizbFacing our demons helps us move with peace in our hearts. Responding to a call helps us move with a sense of purpose in our souls. We should never move, I’m learning, because of restlessness, escapism, or even why-the-hell-not-ism (I just made that up) but because we’ve pursued some stability, some peace with the past, and some purpose for the future.

Picture a tree. It has roots, and it has shoots. Here’s the thing: both are important.

If you’ve been putting down roots for a while, praise God and consider challenging yourself with growing in some way. If you’ve been growing shoots for a while, praise God and consider challenging yourself with putting down roots in some way.

When Faith Goes Flat

Plenty of blogs, sermons, and songs address what to do when you’re down in “the valley of the shadow of death” or up experiencing a “mountaintop moment.” But what about when faith goes flat?

You rejoice.Amarillo 001

It surprises me that I’m saying that. And maybe it surprises you too.

Because we’re familiar with rejoicing when we feel thoroughly full of faith. But rejoicing when we’re steadfastly obedient in faith? That’s a bit harder to grasp.

Recently, I was discussing Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion with a group of InterVarsity students, and we came across Kelly’s description of a “flaming vision”:

“There is an infinite fountain of lifting power, pressing within us, luring us by dazzling visions, and we can only say, ‘The creative God comes into our souls.'”

The discussion leader asked if any of us had experienced a “flaming vision” of sorts. If we thought about it creatively, I’m sure we could each locate openings through which the creative God came into our souls in the lifting/pressing/dazzling way in which He came to Thomas Kelly. I tentatively told the discussion leader, however, that for a long time I haven’t had flaming and sudden visions…but perhaps flickering and steady visions.

Thomas Kelly would totally approve of flickering, we decided. Elsewhere in A Testament of Devotion, he writes:

“The vision fades. But holy and listening and alert obedience remains, as the core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, workaday living.”

The vision fades. That’s the human condition. So, there’s no need to feel guilty if your “flaming vision” has dimmed. On the contrary, you need the energy and excitement of the vision to settle down so that you can set to work bringing the vision into fruition.

But holy and listening and alert obedience remains. According to Thomas Edison (lots of smart Thomas-es in this blog, it seems), “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” So, too, perhaps is faith. It’s 1% vision and 99% obedience. 100% holy.

And this obedience is the abiding pattern of sober, workaday living. In college, when I could change schedules every few months, this line wouldn’t have quite made sense. After college, though, life got a little more sober and a lot more workaday. Yet, lo and behold, that doesn’t mean boring. It means abiding.

When faith goes flat, God is abiding with us. By holy and listening and alert obedience, we abide with Him.    


The Discipline of Retreat

Every day on my way to work I drive past the same shops and restaurants. The first day, I mused that one shop had a funny name and noted that a few restaurants looked like places to try in the future. After a few weeks of seeing this same scenery, however, I’ve made no new observations.

My psychology textbooks in college called this “sensory adaptation” — the process of experiencing reduced sensitivity to an experience due to repeated encounters with that experience.

The same thing happens to my spiritual life if I don’t take a retreat about once a season (could be more or less often for other people, but I choose once a season).

Why a retreat and not just a break, nap, etc.?

Because retreat entails “specific and regular times apart” — perhaps at a retreat center or outdoors — “for quietly listening to God and delighting in his company.” If a mere “break” in my daily commute could reverse my sensory adaptation process, then I would become acutely aware of my surroundings every time I headed off for work. But that isn’t the case. If a nap could do the trick, then I would wake up each morning noticing the sound of the alarm clock, the softness of the carpet underfoot, the smell of coffee downstairs. But, again, that isn’t the case.

We need retreat to notice new things about ourselves, our relationships, and our God.

A particularly good time for retreat is toward the beginning of something (e.g. beginning of a new job) or toward the end of something (e.g. end of a school year).

I recently ended college, moved halfway across the country, and began a new job. So, today, I took a retreat.

What made it a retreat? Well, I went to a place (a lake to be exact) where I rarely go and where I would be relatively undisturbed. I had few expectations of how the afternoon was going to go; God could say anything He wanted. So, I looked out over the water, asked God a question or two, opened my journal, and tried to let Him do just that.

It wasn’t mystical or anything, but reflecting on where God’s brought me and where He’s taking me was like letting an optometrist adjust my glasses prescription. I could see again — see past my accumulated sensory adaptation and see God at work.