Look for the good

Look for the good

A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.

I’ll never forget the first book.  None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections.  I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book!  Obviously, HE like it.

I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections.  He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book.  Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas.  Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership.  You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not.  In my class, I don’t want to see another critique.  I want to know what you learned.”

That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day.  By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything.  I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me.  But, the point of the assignment was to learn.

How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing?  What arrogance!  What a loss!

I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator.  But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else?  Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t.  But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect.  Affirm the good.  Celebrate the good.  Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”  

Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are.  What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).

If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing.  C was considered average.  Think about that.  Average: normal, typical, to be expected.  C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm!  Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs.  But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!

There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose.  ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary?  Pastor.  Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary?  Pastor.”

And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong!  I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School.  On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests.  As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.”  Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation!  It was still a failing grade!

My point?  Perfection is impossible.  But, better than average happens all of the time.  Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed.  A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!

Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose.  But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).

When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.

If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me.  I seem predisposed to it.  I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course.  The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s.  The downside is, critics can be JERKS.  Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it!  I really don’t want to be a jerk…

So, here’s my suggestion.  When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…

  • The benefit of the doubt:  Maybe you misunderstood.  Maybe there’s more to the story.  Maybe you missed something.  Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
  • Celebrate the Good:  Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
  • Acceptance:  Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates.  We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement.  But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful.  Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
  • Humility:  Are you really so perfect?  Never burnt a meal?  Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class?  Never misunderstood something?  Never said something you wish you could take back?  Never taken half-measures?  Never spilled your milk?  Never changed your mind?
  • Receptivity:  Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut).  Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open.  Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.

Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!”  She seemed so surprised!  In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive.  On others, I’ve very traditional.”  All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.”   Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years.  I responded, “That’s really not unusual.  Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.”  She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”

The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole.  Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others.  No single word defines me!

Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate.  I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.”  That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.

My advice – look for the good.

 

Post-Easter Pondering

Post-Easter Pondering

For the second year, I’ve written daily blog posts for Lent.

I don’t presume to believe I have that much to say, worth sharing publicly.  I could have just journaled daily for Lent.  But, there’s something about the discipline of writing a complete thought, that others might read, and the accountability of public posting, that’s particularly helpful to me.

Like I said, I haven’t presumed anyone would read anything I write.  But, for those who do, I am grateful.  I hope it’s been worth your time and attention.

On this Monday after Easter, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what this Lent has meant to me; specifically, what I’ve learned from the discipline of daily blogging.

Reflection 1:  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting

When I wrote my first post, Two Essential Elements, on Ash Wednesday, I never could have imagined how the events of that day would unfold.  By nightfall, seventeen were dead, seventeen were injured, Nikolas Cruz was in custody, and our entire community was in a state of shock.

We scrambled to change our evening Ash Wednesday service, to provide comfort, care, and prayer in the immediate aftermath, as we have with much of our ministry every since.

Personally, I had no idea how this tragedy would affect me emotionally, spiritually, and theologically, leading to some significant wrestling with God and a difficult search for Truth.  It’s been a difficult journey, as has been evident in some of my blogs.  Though I still have questions, and am still uncomfortable with some of the answers, I’ve been forced to dig deeper than I would have otherwise.

Reflection 2:  Closer Observation and Deeper Reflection

Daily blogging requires a fresh idea, worth putting into words, daily.  Knowing I needed something to write required me to be more observant, and more reflective.  I had to pay closer attention to the details of life, of conversations, of what I was thinking and feeling, and what I was reading and learning.

I can’t help but wonder how much of life I normally miss, simply because I’m not paying attention.

Reflection 3:  A Complete Thought

Reflecting is often open-ended, as were many of my blogs.  But, offering a blog for public viewing requires a higher degree of “completion.”  A particular blog may have started with a question, or a partial thought, or an observation.  But, before I could hit “publish,” I was compelled to complete my thoughts, to the best of my ability.  Though I often end posts with questions, I tried to never leave a reader wondering what I was attempting to say.

Reflection 4:  Everything is Spiritual

Yes, I’m a pastor.  Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about God.  Yes, I spend a lot of time reading spiritual material.  But, beyond that, looking for daily inspiration for blog posts has opened my eyes to spiritual truths in unexpected places.

God is everywhere, in everything.  All we have to do is look.

Reflection 4:  Views, Likes, Comments, and Shares

I’ll confess, I’m a bit obsessed with how people react to my writing.  I’m always curious about what posts attract readers’ attention, and which ones don’t.  I wonder what will create controversy.  I wonder what will be helpful.  I wonder about how much of my self to reveal.

I’m embarrassed to admit, I check my stats a lot.

Vanity.

Some days are more humbling than others.  My least viewed post, Remember Your Baptism?, was only read 29 times.  But, that anyone – even 29 anyones – chooses to ready these posts honors me.

On the other hand, What Broke Him, was read over 3600 times, and shared on Facebook 961 times!

I also realize blogging daily may be overkill.  I don’t read the same writers everyday.  Why would anyone else?  I can’t help but wonder if less is more.

Reflection 5:  Am I Passive Aggressive?

As I’ve been learning about the enneagram (I’m a 9 and The Journey toward greater health and wholeness), I’m learning that 9s (my type), have a tendency towards passive aggression.  The last thing I want to be is passive aggressive.  But, I do, admittedly, avoid conflict, often swallowing and suppressing my hurt and anger.  Perhaps that anger slips out in unconscious ways.

Undeniably, I’ve felt the freedom to be “snarky” in a number of my posts.  Would I be as open and honest in public, or face-to-face?  Honestly, probably not.  Have I use my blogs to be passive aggressive?  Maybe.

This is, very likely, one of my growth areas.

Reflection 6:  TV and Social Media

For several years, I’ve given up TV and Social Media for Lent.  Though my blogs automatically post to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been “logged out” since Ash Wednesday.  Normally, I give up TV and Social Media, simply to create more space for quiet, reflection, reading, and writing.  And, after Lent, I’m never in a hurry to turn the TV back on, and I’m usually slow to reengage on Social Media.

But, this year, with all of the negative news, especially surrounding the Parkland Tragedy, I was glad to be shielded.  I suspect, in my own inner-turmoil, watching the news or reading ugly posts would not have been good for me.

Reflection 7:  Post-Easter 2018

My personal belief is, whatever we do, or stop doing, for Lent, ought to have some impact on your life when Lent is over.

For example, in 1992, I gave up meat for Lent.  I’m still a vegetarian, 26 years later.

What about this year?

Some have asked if I will continue blogging.  I certainly won’t be blogging daily!  Last year, I blogged sporadically; mostly after major events, or if something was on my mind.  This year, I am going to attempt to write a weekly post, every Monday, and then when I feel led to write anything else.

I also have a stack of books to read – as always.  But, these were books I planned to read for Lent.  The Parkland tragedy, and my inner-turmoil, forced me into some books I hadn’t planned to read.  So, my Lent stack is still mostly unread, now becoming my Easter reading, instead.

Reflection 8:  Grateful and Curious

If you are reading this, or any of my previous posts, “thank you.”  I’m honored and grateful you take the time to read what I write.  I’m grateful when you respond.  I’m grateful when you share my writings with others.

And, I’m curious.  Is there anything you would like for me to write about in the future?  Any topic?  Any issue?  Any ideas?

I’m very open to your input, questions, suggestions and requests.

Thank you again for reading my posts.  Have a blessed 50 days of Easter!

 

Perspective via Gratitude

Perspective via Gratitude

Last night, I watched Ben Stiller’s latest movie, “Brad’s Status.”  Stiller plays the role of a middle-aged dad, touring colleges (Harvard, Tufts) with his high-school-aged son, Brad.

Stiller’s character is in full-blown mid-life existential crisis.  His career doesn’t provide the status he longs for.  His college friends are, seemingly, far more successful and happy.  He feels forgotten.  His son might surpass his own achievements.  He believes he’s “plateaued.”  Throughout the movie, his thoughts are filled with compliant, blame, jealousy, fantasy, and dissatisfaction.

During a conversation with a female Harvard student, of Indian descent, complaining about his life, and acknowledging his own jadedness, the student replies, “You’re fifty years-old and you still think that the world was made for you.”  She goes on to accuse him of having “white, middle-aged male, first-world problems,” compared to the majority-world population that lives in poverty, where women have no rights.  Though he runs a non-profit, to help fund service organizations, she asks if he knows a single poor person.  She concludes by saying, “You’re doing fine.  You have everything you need.  You’re fine.”

Perspective.  We all need perspective.

Stuck in his own internal, repetitive, negative thoughts and angst, Stiller’s character can’t see beyond what his life isn’t.  An outside perspective reveals the shallowness of his complaints, and his failure to see his life for what it actually is – privileged.

Don’t we all do that?  Isn’t it easy to lose perspective, fixating on our deficiencies and dissatisfactions, rather than all that we have to be thankful for.

Many spiritual teachers suggest the key to maintaining proper perspective is practicing gratitude.  G. K. Chesterton said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

What are you grateful for, this day?

Right now, I’m grateful for…

  • A beautiful, cool, leisurely Saturday morning…
  • The time and space to lounge in my bathrobe, this morning, and express my thoughts here
  • Twenty-seven happy years of marriage to my best friend
  • Two children, and a new daughter-in-law, whom I dearly love and feel immense pride in
  • The people who’ve loved me, parented me, mentored me, inspired me, and shaped me
  • The privilege of being a pastor for almost twenty-five years, and the great ministries and people I’ve been fortunate to serve
  • Knowing God
  • Opportunities, daily, to pursue my hopes and dreams
  • A beautiful home, a generous salary, and all of my needs – and most of my wants – provided
  • The many opportunities and advantages I’ve been afforded in life
  • Better friends than I deserve
  • The life I have, the life I’ve lived, and the life I still have before me
  • Opportunities to keep learning, growing, developing, and becoming
  • For all that is easy to say “thank you” for, and for all that took longer to be thankful for
  • For perspective

And, I’m deeply grateful to anyone reading these words, or anything else I write.  There are certainly many better, more insightful bloggers.  There are certainly better ways to spend your time.  That you would be interested, and take the time, to read my random thoughts honors and humbles me.

I’m grateful for you.

What are you grateful for?