Four Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple[ of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Taking care of your body not only honors God, it is good leadership. It gives you more energy and enables you to think more clearly, so you can be at your best for God. Your body, which includes your brain, will either make you better or hold you back.

I’m a productivity geek. I’m always looking for ways I can make the most of my efforts. If I’m going to put time and energy into improving my life, I want to make sure the potential payoff is the highest possible.

Here are four things I have found that do that. They are working for me. They are the things that have taken the least amount of time and effort, but have made the biggest improvement in my health.

All that said, I’m not a doctor, so consult your physician first.

One: Get a good night’s sleep

This seems obvious. But, it wasn’t to me. For most of my life, I thought I could survive on five or six hours sleep. It wasn’t enough. A year ago I started getting seven to eight hours a night and I noticed a huge improvement in my personal effectiveness. I also noticed that I stopped nodding off while driving home from work.

As this WebMD article shows, getting enough sleep will improve your mood, memory, ability to think clearly, weight control and immune system. So why wouldn’t you?

Two: Cut out or cut back refined sugar consumption

I’m going to meddle. Sugar consumption is the American way. Most processed foods contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Then there’s candy, cookies, ice cream and other yummy desserts. But, other than the taste, there isn’t a lot of good to say about sugar. It’s a major contributing factor in belly fat and weight gain.

According to myfitnesspal.com, cutting out (or cutting back on) sugar can lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, decrease heart attack risk, improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression and lower the risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Talk about a high payoff for a simple thing.

Three: Practice Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF)

This one was a revelation to me. Also known as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, TRF is based on the idea that our bodies weren’t designed to eat continuously. Early hunter-gatherers didn’t get three meals a day. They ate when they had food and their bodies did without food for long stretches.

In TRF, it’s not about what you eat, it’s about when you eat. You consume all of your calories during a limited period of time, say eight to ten hours. A typical TRF or intermittent fast would be to eat during an eight-hour period and fast for 16 hours. So, for example, you might eat between 9am and 5pm, then fast from 5pm until 9am. You may get benefits from a fasting period as little as 10 hours, but the longer the fast, the better the results.

Studies show that even if you eat the same foods, with TRF you are likely to gain less weight or even lose it. This has been true in animal studies and early human studies. According to this article from the National Institutes of Health, TRF protects against weight gain and can even reduce weight for the same number of calories consumed. It can also reduce fat accumulation, the risk of Type II diabetes, as well as improve metabolism and cholesterol levels.

The good thing about TRF is you don’t have to change what you eat. It’s not a diet. And you don’t necessarily need to do it every day. Even occasional practice and have benefits. There are a variety of TRF approaches, so check out this article to see six different approaches.

TRF is working for me. But your results may be different. You should definitely consult your doctor on this one.

Four: Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

This is not new. When you think of HIIT you probably think of those insane Crossfit people. But, research by Martin Gibala at McMaster University has shown that interval training is incredibly effective, even in sedentary people. In one study, Gibala found that one 60-second period of intense exercise (think running for your life) was as effective in improving health as 45 minutes of steady, moderate exercise.  This one-minute period was embedded in a total exercise session of 10-minutes that included warm-up, recovery and cool-down.

The great thing about HIIT is that it can be done with just about any exercise including walking, running, biking (real or stationary), elliptical and isometric exercises, just to name a few.

Walking, you say? Yes…if you normally take a 30-minute walk, then try walking as fast as you can for one minute at some point during your walk. Better yet, do several intervals of intense walking interspersed by one-minute cooldowns. Start with one and work your way up. Consult your doctor first, but give it a try.

For me, HIIT means I get to do more for my health in less time. On non-running days, I’ll often do a very short workout on a stationary bike. I do 11 minutes and I get five one-minute intervals of intense pedaling interspersed with one-minute warm-up and cool down periods. Afterwards, I feel like I’ve been exercising for a half-hour or more. Again, your results may vary.

A word of caution.

Don’t try to do all of these things at once. They are working for me and they have allowed me to get healthier for the same amount of time and energy (or less) than I was spending previously. However, I added each of these to my daily routines at separate times. If you saw my blog on developing habits, you know that we only have so much cognitive energy and developing a new habit uses a lot of it. So pick one thing and try it. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t have to think about it anymore and you can try something else. By adding one thing at a time, you can continually improve your health and feel great about it, too.

Questions for Reflection:

Which of these four changes gets you most excited?

How can you get started?

What will it feel like to succeed?

 

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Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

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How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?

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How to Take an Emotional Stand

Photo: Jon Eben Field (CCA 2.0)

For the first three decades of my life, I had difficulty taking an emotional stand. I define that as being able to say what I feel, what I believe, in a non-anxious way. I would just stuff my feelings. I thought it was no big deal, but what happened was at some point I would blow my top. All the pent up feelings would come out in a fit of rage.

The anger wasn’t necessarily directed at the people who deserved it because it was an accumulation of things. My boss did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A family member did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A clerk in a convenience store gave me poor customer service and I stuffed it. Unfortunately, it was usually my wife or one of my children that triggered the blow-up. They weren’t the reason for all the anger. But I would unload on them. It’s always easier to unload on those closest to you, even in unhealthy ways.

Why does this matter?

I’ve found that in families, churches and organizations, people have a hard time taking emotional stands.

This is unhealthy. When people aren’t able to articulate how they feel and what they believe in a healthy way, it results in the kind of outbursts that I described. Or passive aggressive behavior. Or blaming and conflict. It makes it challenging to communicate in healthy ways.

In the church, it is almost impossible to lead change, unless you, as a leader, can take emotional stands in a healthy way.

Here are four suggestions to help you do it better.

Say what you believe, using “I” statements.

This is communication 101. By saying “This is what I believe. This is what I think we should do. This is how I feel about it,” you are taking responsibility for yourself. In family systems theory, we call this self-defining. If you can’t do this, you are sunk.

Don’t blame others for the situation or how you feel.

The opposite of taking responsibility for self is blaming others. This usually comes in the form of “You” statements. “You always get in the way. You don’t understand how I feel. You are SO inconsiderate.” In family systems we call this defining others. Somebody may have made a mistake, may have hurt you or may even be in the wrong (at least in your opinion), but blaming is counterproductive. It will only make the other defensive and will lead to a hardening of their position.

Give the other person the freedom to disagree.

The point of taking an emotional stand is NOT to convince the other person to agree with you. That can lead to conflict and defensiveness, just like blaming. Nobody likes to be told what to do. If you define yourself, but require the other to agree with you, explicitly or implicitly, then you are trying to define them, as well. By saying, “This is what I believe. You may feel differently, but that’s how I feel,” you give people the emotional space to deal with their own feelings. You’re not trying to define them, just yourself. This is healthy. People who are emotionally healthy will appreciate that. They may not agree, but they will have a conversation. People who are not as healthy will react in unhealthy ways called sabotage, but that’s for another post.

Keep your anxiety in check.

I don’t consider it an emotional stand if you are yelling and screaming. And it’s certainly not when you are blaming. When you can’t check your anxiety that’s how it usually comes out. Of course, you can also deal with your anxiety by not saying anything and stuffing it, but we’ve already shown why that’s not a good thing.

By defining yourself in non-anxious ways, you help keep the entire conversation in a better place. You may feel anxious inside, but if are aware of it, you can do something about it. I have found that role-playing the conversation in my mind or with others is helpful. This helps to anticipate the rough spots and to be able to act less anxious when taking an emotional stand. It doesn’t mean you won’t face anxiety from the other, but it does mean you will be better prepared to keep your own anxiety from causing a problem.

I believe it is the responsibility of a leader to be able to do this. Leadership is about influence and inspiration. This is how to lead in a healthy way that helps your family, church or organization grow or change. It starts with you.

Questions for Reflection:

How do you deal with your own anxiety?

What do you do when you need to take an emotional stand?

What can you do to get better?

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Does Your Family Make You Anxious? (And Why It Matters for Leadership)

I was once at a meeting of mostly clergy colleagues. There were eight of us sitting around a table. It was August and the leader asked everyone to share about what they had done that summer. As we went around the table, the answers were pretty consistent.

“I just got back from a week of vacation with my family, Ugh!”

“I vacationed with my family and I survived.”

“Our family got together and it was pretty good for a few days, but then it got ugly.”

Actually, only about half of the responses were along these lines, but it was startling to me. I never realized vacationing with family was such a problem. Since we’ve been married, that’s pretty much all we do. We vacation every year in Cape Hatteras with my wife’s family and we get together at least every other year with my family, including my mom’s sisters and my cousins.

In fact, when one of my kids was young I was asked, “Dad, when I grow up and get married, will my (spouse) be a part of the family?”

“Of course,” I said.

“No. I mean, will they be able to come to Hatteras with us?”

For my children, being family meant vacationing together, in a good way. I’m not saying we’re perfect. Like any family, we have our issues. Vacationing together is not one of them. So, I was surprised by the responses at the meeting.

So here’s the question: Does your family make you anxious?

I’m not talking about just your immediate family. I’m also talking extended family. This is what family systems theory calls your family of origin. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

I would say that if there isn’t something about your family of origin that makes you anxious, then you are unconscious or in denial.

The primary factor in this kind of family induced anxiety is surrounding togetherness pressure. This is the pressure to conform to existing, mostly unspoken, family norms. These surrounding togetherness pressures show up in things as basic as how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and how you do vacations. They extend to how children are raised, how money is handled and how you deal with conflict (or not). Anytime you feel the pressure to conform in your family of origin, you are feeling a surrounding togetherness pressure.

Here’s the thing. The problem is with you.

If you are feeling anxious about pressure to conform, that’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s how your family rolls. If you don’t like it, then it’s up to you to do something about it. In family systems, we call this taking an emotional stand. There are two components to this.

First, own your own position without blaming others. Say, “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. This is what I would like to see.” If you are blaming others for the way you feel, that’s not taking an emotional stand, that’s being childish. The key here is to be able to state your position while giving others the freedom to have their own position, as well.

Second, stay connected emotionally in a non-anxious way. This is called being a non-anxious presence. Taking an emotional stand is meaningless, even harmful, if you withdraw from those in your family. It’s not really taking responsibility for your own condition, it’s running away. Conversely, staying connected while you spew your anxiety over everyone around you is not helpful either.

So how do you do this?

Do your own work. Reflect on your family of origin and start to unpack the unwritten rules that make you tick. Anytime you feel anxious, ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is especially true if you are anxious and you don’t handle it well. If you spew anxiety at others and blame them (reactivity), if you get passive aggressive or if you just stuff it and get resentful (adaptivity), then you are not taking an emotional stand.

It’s likely that if you are anxious, there is an unresolved issue with someone in your family of origin. There is someone with whom you have never been able to take an emotional stand. Or someone has hurt you and you haven’t been able to forgive them. Or a host of other possibilities. This is not easy work. It may even require a therapist.

Why does this matter for leadership?

Because any time you feel anxious in a given situation, whether in your family, church or organization, the anxiety is your issue, not anybody else’s. More importantly, the source of the anxiety is not the situation you are in, but your inability to deal with it. And that goes back to your own family of origin. If you want to be better able to handle your anxiety in ANY situation, you need to do your own work in your family of origin. Deal with the unresolved issues. This is especially important if you know your anxiety creates problems because you get reactive, passive aggressive or adaptive.

Effective leaders are able to take emotional stands in non-anxious ways. This does not mean that they don’t listen to others. It means they are able to say what they believe and own it, while giving others the freedom to do the same. Effective leaders deal with surrounding togetherness pressures in their family, church and organization in helpful, healthy ways.

You will get anxious. We all do. I get anxious all the time. But I work on how to deal with it. I’m conscious of it. I work to be a more healthy member of my own family of origin, as well as my church and the ministry I serve. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try to be aware of my anxiety and deal with it appropriately. That’s all we can do.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you deal with it?

What would help you to take non-anxious, emotional stands with others?

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Three Leadership Lessons I Learned from Mary and Mary

8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:8-10 NRSV

The two Mary’s have something to teach us about fear. In Matthew’s resurrection account, not only are they the first to see the risen Jesus, but they are commissioned by an angel and Jesus to go to Galilee and tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Here are three leadership lessons that I learned from them.

Just show up.

Woody Allen was famously quoted by his Annie Hall co-writer, Marshall Brickman, in this 1977 New York Times article, “As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80% of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed, I’ve done both.”

Mary and Mary just showed up. They had no real reason to go to the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea had prepared the body when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Besides, there were Roman guards standing watch. But something compelled them to “go see the tomb.”

When God nudges you, when the Holy Spirit draws you, what do you do? Do you go? Or do you ignore God’s prompting and stay home in bed.

Being a Christian leader is about believing that God will direct your path. Will lead you and guide you. But there is an element of faith. You have to be willing to go without knowing exactly what’s in store. Mary and Mary just showed up and they saw an angel and the risen Jesus.

Do not be afraid.

The Mary’s are told by the angel to not be afraid. Then we’re told that they “…they left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples (MT 28:8).” The word that is used for fear in the text is often translated “awe or reverence,” as in the fear of the Lord. But the classical meaning is to withdraw, flee or separate because of dread or feeling inadequate. It is often used in the scripture to describe withdrawing from God’s will.

Which raises the question: How often do you know God is calling you to do something, but you feel inadequate?

Mary and Mary are described as having felt this way. But they went anyway.

I would say that more often than not, when I believe God is calling me to do something, I don’t feel adequate. Yet, there is this weird combination of fear, excitement and joy, just like the Mary’s experienced, because I know God is up to something. And when God does it, I know God deserves the credit.

So, when Jesus tells you to go do something. Just go.

Which leads to the third lesson.

Jesus IS with us.

The angel told Mary and Mary to go to Galilee and spread the word. He promised that Jesus would meet them there. So they went, even though they felt inadequate and afraid. As soon they did, Jesus showed up. And he reminded them once more, not to be afraid.

The faith journey is filled with uncertainty. When God is calling us to lead, we may have a glimpse of what the destination looks like. But nothing happens unless we make a move. Take a step. Move in the right direction. When we do, Jesus will remind us that he is with us. That we are not alone and we don’t need to fear.

Just show up. Do not be afraid. Jesus is with us.

How much could you accomplish for God if you remember these three things?

Questions for Reflection:

Where is God calling you to show up?

What are you afraid of?

What will it take to make a move in that direction?

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Two Addictions I Kicked (or Clarity Happens)

I have an addictive personality.

I always knew this. But, when I was in seminary I took a family systems course and did my genogram. A genogram is a family tree that focuses on emotional process and how things are passed from generation to generation. My own genogram showed me that addictive personalities were common, especially among the males, in my family of origin.

How this translated into my own life is that it is hard for me to do something half-heartedly. For the things I choose to do, I’m either all in or checked out.

One of my addictions was video games. This started right around the time that I finished seminary. We had gotten the original Nintendo game console for our kids, but I was the one who got hooked. I grew up loving pinball, then arcade video games, so this was no surprise.

My game was Super Mario Cart.

It’s a silly go-kart racing game that consumed me. I would play at night after everyone went to bed so that it didn’t interfere with my work life or family life. And I killed it. First I mastered the 50cc level. Then the 100cc level, which I thought meant I mastered the game. But as soon as I completed that, a whole new level, 150cc, magically appeared. I was sad when I mastered 150cc and nothing new appeared.

Then it was on to Mario Andretti racing. I always liked Indy cars, so this was cool. I got to race on tracks I had seen on TV, which made it even more realistic. It was around this time that my family got me a steering wheel, gas/brake pedal, gear-shift attachment. Big mistake. No more thumbs for me, I was really driving.

But something happens in an addiction. It’s no longer fun.

I got to the point that the only thing that mattered was winning every race. If I crashed or didn’t finish first it was a failure. And even winning didn’t feel good. I just checked it off and moved on. Worse yet, it started affecting my life. I would stay up later and later. Just one more race. Just one more race. If you’ve ever binge-watched a TV show, you know the feeling. I would stay up way too late and go to bed feeling unfulfilled. Not good.

My other addiction was the football team I grew up loving. I recently wrote about why I’m giving up my season tickets, but I have not been addicted for a long time. Oh, I love watching and rooting, but it wasn’t an addiction.

You see, when I was addicted, my life revolved around the team. The worst part was how I felt when they lost. It ruined my day. Made me grumpy. It often carried over into the next day. I would wake up and think about the game with regret. And they lost a lot. Not good.

So how did I kick these addictions? Clarity.

There were two separate but related incidents that occurred very close to each other in time. One when I was playing video games on a weekend day (my addiction had gotten out of hand). The other when I was watching my team lose.

In each of these incidents, one of my kids came up and asked me to do something with them. In each case, I snapped back that I was busy and they went away sad. It still makes me sad to think about it. I hope they forgive me.

Nobody had to tell me what was going on. I felt it deep down. You might say it was God getting through to me. But I stopped playing video games. And even though I kept rooting for my team it was different. If they lost, I reminded myself that it was just a game.

In fact, they lost so much for so long that my wife asked me, “Why do you still watch them?”

I would say, “It’s entertainment. You pay to go to sad movies don’t you (actually, she doesn’t)?”

Why do I share this?

Because every once in a while God gives us a moment of clarity where we understand what really matters.

These are life-changing, if we pay attention. And then do something about it. That’s what I learned.

I’m not suggesting that every addiction is so easy to kick. There are many that are devastating and seemingly impossible to be free from. But I am saying that doing my own family systems work helped me. It helped me to better understand who I am and what drives me. So when that moment of clarity came, I knew what I had to do.

I still have an addictive personality. But, I’m learning to focus it on positive things. I’ve been running regularly (some might say obsessively) since 2009. And for the last six months, I have been writing regularly. And in all of this, perhaps even because of this, I trust that there will be other moments of clarity. That’s how God works.

Questions for Reflection:

What consumes you? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

How does God get through to you?

What do you do about it?

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How to Nurture a Disciple of Jesus

This is a follow-up to the last post on what a Disciple of Jesus looks like. It came out of a discussion in a clergy study group where a colleague asked these two questions in tandem:

  • What does a disciple of Jesus look like?
  • How do you nurture this?

It was a great discussion and it got me to thinking. A lot. I think my friend is getting to the essence of the Christian journey. As a pastor of a church, he wants to be able to cast a vision so that people can see themselves growing as disciples, can know when they are on the correct path AND can have an idea of how to get there.

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks and here is my answer to the second question: The means of grace.

I’m not being flippant. I believe that growing as a disciple of Jesus is simple. Avail one’s self of the means of grace. I’m not saying it’s easy to do. But it’s not rocket science.

Before we go there, let’s define GRACE. This is my favorite word in all of theology. To me, it’s the key to everything. Grace is God’s unmerited favor for us. It is God’s unconditional love. It’s God loving us even though we don’t deserve it. It’s God loving us even though we can’t earn it.

To me, grace IS the power of God in our lives. When I experience God’s grace, I am more likely to be grateful, to be less selfish, to be more outwardly focused and to be more centered on God. To me, grace is a very real experience that brings us to God, reconciles us to God and molds us in the image of God. It is about nothing that we do and everything that God does. So we can’t take credit for it. We can only give thinks in awe and wonder.

When we pray for, love and forgive our enemies, that is God’s grace working in us. When we love others unconditionally, the way God loves us, that is grace working in us. When we are caring for the least, the last and the lost, that is grace working in us. So, going back to the last post, when we recognize a disciple of Jesus by her actions and her character, what we are recognizing is God’s grace working in her.

This is all nice, theological, theoretical stuff. But how does it work?

The means of grace.

This is why I’m such a United Methodist geek. Our Wesleyan tradition is built on this understanding and it continues to be relevant today. Let’s unpack it.

The means of grace are not grace. They are ways that grace is experienced. They are time-tested practices and rituals that Christians throughout the centuries have found to result in an experience of grace.

Here’s how the means of Grace break down in our Wesleyan tradition.

Works of Piety

These are inwardly focused practices intended to help us grow in our relationship with God. We can do these individually (private) or communally (public).

Acts of Devotion: Individual works of Piety include studying scripture, prayer and meditation, fasting, healthy living and sharing our faith with others.

Acts of Worship: Communal works of Piety include congregational worship, sharing in the sacraments (Baptism and Communion), Christian conferencing, which holds us accountable to others, and group Bible Study.

The individual works are self-explanatory. You might find a few thoughts on the communal works helpful.

In Communion, we experience the real presence of Jesus. Part of that experience is that we are doing this together with others and God is present in our midst. This is grace upon grace.

Why is Baptism a means of grace? My own experience has been that the longer I have journeyed with Jesus, the more my blessings have come from seeing how God is working in someone else’s life, not my own. When we do a Baptism in church, I am filled with joy and what God has done in the life of the person before us. That is grace.

Finally, Christian conferencing is a fancy way to say that we cannot journey alone. According to John Wesley, support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. Christian conferencing provides both support and accountability. In Wesley’s day, the primary way this was done was the class meeting. The modern day equivalent would be an effective small group.

Works of Mercy

These means of grace are outwardly focused and help us to grow in our relationship with others, as well as God.

Acts of Compassion: Individual works of Mercy include doing good works, visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and giving sacrificially.

Acts of Justice: Communal works of Mercy aim to end the systemic causes of injustice and oppression that cause the need for our individual works of Mercy in the first place. Working to end poverty, homelessness and discrimination of any kind are communal works of Mercy.

If you are a United Methodist geek, you may recognize that this format is used in Covenant Discipleship (CD) groups. CD groups are specifically focused on the means of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. I have participated in CD groups and can testify to their value. Although, I will say that any small group that is well-designed and well-led can help you to avail yourself of the means of grace.

Back to my friend’s question. How do you nurture mature disciples of Jesus?

The means of grace.

Here is the caveat. It’s difficult to nurture the means of grace in another. You can definitely have an impact on others when journeying together. But you can’t give them the desire for grace. That’s between each person and God.

You can lead a person to the well, but you can’t make them drink the living water.

As a church, we can share what a mature disciple of Jesus looks like. We can teach people about the means of grace. We can encourage people to grow in grace. Ultimately, the best thing each of us can do is grow in grace ourselves.

Questions for Reflection:

How are you growing in grace?

What individual practices would you like to start?

What communal practices would you like to start?

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What Does a Mature Disciple of Jesus Look Like?

I am in a clergy study group. This month, a colleague was leading devotions and he asked, “What does a mature disciple of Jesus look like?”

This is a great question. If you are a leader in the church it is essential. If the church is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need to know what that looks like. As Stephen Covey said, begin with the end in mind. Here is what I came up with.

A mature disciple loves God and neighbor.

That’s a broad statement, so let me unpack it. I’ve had the privilege of meeting people that Bill Easum calls Spiritual Redwoods. They are so spiritually mature that you know they have a deep relationship with God. Here are some of their characteristics.

They worship God, to worship God. Not to be “fed” spiritually or to be inspired, but to give their hearts to God. They may have a worship preference, but they don’t hold that out as the only way, because it’s ultimately not about style. It’s about giving themselves over to God.

They are non-judgmental. This is the loving neighbor part. Mature disciples know that they have been made whole by the grace of God. They know they don’t deserve it, but God’s unconditional love is just that, unconditional. They know they are not judged, so they don’t judge others.

They are constantly seeking God’s will. The lay leader in the last church I served was the late Bud McKee. I used to call Bud the Anti-BS. When people used to start to act up and get out of sorts, Bud used to say, “What do you think God would want us to do?” Bud was a spiritual redwood. When he would say this, people would settle down and focus on God.

It’s not about them. It’s about God and neighbor. This is something that is pretty easy to see in people. You can tell who is about themselves and who is about God and others. For the latter, mature disciples, this translates into a spiritual presence that is attractive and powerful.

They are intentional about connecting with the least among us. People are called to different ministries, but mature disciples are doing something that brings them face to face with Jesus in the least of these (MT 25:31-46). It might be the homeless, poor, sick, imprisoned, hurting or disenfranchised, but they get in the trenches in some way to connect with someone who is in great need.

They are generous with their time, talent and treasure. Mature disciples always seem to have time for others. They use what they do well for the sake of others. And they give of their resources to help others.

They push the church to be outward looking. In all of these characteristics, mature disciples remind the church that it is organized for the benefit of its non-members. They are concerned about the visitor and the newer attenders, wanting to ensure that they not only feel welcome, but that the programs of the church are meaningful and accessible. They favor making the building available for use by the community. They are willing to challenge church members who are only thinking of themselves or about what’s good for the congregation.

What would your church look like if it were full of people like this?

What am I missing?

The next post will answer my colleague’s follow-up question: “How do we nurture mature disciples?”

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Why The United Methodist Church Should NOT Split

“43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

My friend in seminary, The Rev. John Plummer, used to call me a “fence sitter.” John was more conservative theologically and I was more liberal. But, I rarely expressed my views strongly. And often, I would try to find what I could live with in opposing views. John used to say to me, “Sometime, Shitama, you’re going to have to take a stand.”

I know The Rev. Plummer is correct.

But, I’ve also learned that there is something about being in the middle that is valuable.

Don’t get me wrong. I have VERY strong opinions. And they are seldom middle of the road. Ask my family or the people that work with me.

I have strong opinions on the big issues of the day, especially the ones that divide us. I don’t usually express myself on those. It’s partly to avoid conflict, but it’s mostly to try to find the spark.

What do I mean by that?

In Paul Scott Wilson’s book, Imagination of the Heart, he shows that the power of the sermon is in finding the spark between opposites. He likens it to electricity where you have two opposite poles, positive and negative. If you hold two oppositely charged wires close enough to each other, but not touching, there is a spark created in the gap. He says that’s the power in preaching.

Wilson says that there are two pairs of opposites that are the foundation of scripture: Law & Gospel and Judgment & Grace. Law and judgment are similar, as are gospel and grace.

If you have one side of the pair there is no spark.

If all you ever talk about is law and judgment, you are beating people over the head with the Bible and just making them feel bad.

If all you ever talk about is gospel and grace, you are making people feel good, but not calling them to accountability to any standard.

Wilson’s genius is in understanding that you need both poles to create the spark. It’s in the tension that energy is created.

For example, when the standard is to love your enemies (law), it feels nearly impossible to achieve. In fact, Matthew 5:48 tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Who can do that? If that’s all there is, I feel like I’m just letting God down. But when I couple that with the grace of God, which can enable me to love my enemy, there is a spark of inspiration. When, by the grace of God, it actually happens in my life, the spark ignites a fire in my soul.

So, I’m going to jump down off the fence for a minute.

I believe my denomination, The United Methodist Church, should change its stance to allow the ordination of LGBTQ persons and to allow all marriages to be celebrated in our churches.

That being said, since I am ordained, I have covenanted to uphold current church law, which I will do. If I decide to disobey church law I will do so on principle and will be prepared to turn in my ordination orders, if required. I’m not saying this is what I will do. I’m just saying that from an integrity standpoint, I either agree to uphold the covenant of my ordination or I must be willing to give that ordination up.

Now, I’ll start climbing back up the fence.

I believe The United Methodist Church must find a way for us to live together, allowing each annual conference to determine how it will handle ordination and each church to determine how it will handle weddings.

This would make a lot of people unhappy. But I believe this issue is bigger than human sexuality, justice, holiness and our own denomination.

I believe it is an opportunity to make a statement about the power of God to unite us as Christians, despite our differences.

Some of my closest friends are at the opposite end of the political and theological spectrum than I am. I have many clergy colleagues who also fit this category. Yet, we show respect and yes, Christian love, for each other. We put our differences aside because our common bond as Jesus followers is stronger than any of our differences. That bond enables us to do ministry together. To reach out to the least, the last and the lost. We pray together and serve together.

The United Methodist Church does that right now.

The impact of ministries such as Volunteers in Mission, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Imagine No Malaria are significant because we work together. What we call in UM speak, our connectional nature, enables us to do more together than we could apart.

These are just a few examples. Another is the ministry I serve. We have nearly 200 UM camps and retreats across the US because of our work together. Another example is Africa University. Founded by The UMC, it has produced over 4000 graduates who are addressing needs such as sustainable agriculture, disease prevention and ethical governance. The examples of our connectional work are too numerous to list all of them here. I think you get the point.

If The UMC splits, as many predict, our common work will suffer. Many would say that the two or more resulting denominations can still support these same ministries. But, do you believe they can do so as effectively when each has its own administrative structure? I don’t.

More importantly, if our denomination splits, it will be a spiritual failure.

We will have let our human condition get in the way of the power of God to unite. We will be just one more casualty in the culture wars and one more schism in the history of the church. And each side can stand tall, knowing that they stuck to their principles.

To me, this does not feel like God’s way.

You see, I believe that somewhere between the principled stands of each side is a place to live together that is grounded in the love and grace of Jesus.

It enables us to see that living and serving together, despite our differences, is the biggest witness to the power of God in this world. To me, that is the spark that can ignite the flame of God’s spirit in our lives and in our United Methodist Church. I am praying we can find a “way forward.”

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