Apologies for my long silence.
It’s been a summer of upheaval and dislocation – none of it bad, all of it stressful. Since I last posted anything here, June 14, I have changed both location and vocation: from Duncan, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta; from pastoral ministry to academic work. I traded the Pacific Ocean for the Rockies, the pulpit for the lectern.
I spent the summer in-between: not a pastor anymore, not a professor yet; not from Duncan for long, not in Calgary for a while.
Then last week we moved, and I started work. I write this the morning after my first class – a three-hour marathon that I have to repeat 14 more times. I drove home last night both exhausted and grateful. Three hours is a long time to try to hold anyone’s attention. The students were engaging, curious, insightful, and stayed admirably awake. But me? I was reeling.
I kept having to remind myself not to preach. Me instinct for that roots deep. I speak a text, and my mind crowds with illustration, application, exhortation – all my pastoral impulses run amok. This isn’t entirely a bad thing in a classroom – after all, students need to be doers of the word, just like the rest of us – but I could see the look of bewilderment on several faces. Should I be writing this down? Will this be on the final exam? Is this related to your last point?
It’s going to take me a while to get the rhythm for this. Right now, I’m in-between.
Around us, a household slowly emerges from a maze of boxes, thanks mostly to Cheryl’s tireless efforts. The space, inch by inch, gets colonized with our furniture, our pictures, our presence. (My office at work, on the other hand, looks like one of those rooms from a bombed out library in WWII. Alas, my efforts at conquering it are less heroic).
Part way through last night’s class, I asked each person to introduce themself, to tell where they were born, and to say what place they now called home. I was last to go.
“My name is Mark,” I said. “And I was born in Calgary.” Then I flinched answering the last question. “And what place do I call home?”
I wanted to say Duncan.
With a shock of sadness, I knew it’s not so. Then with a shock of joy, I realized what is so: I’m already here. I’m no longer in-between.
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”
I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.
It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.
Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.
The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.
This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.
But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”
That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.
So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.
The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.
Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.
Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.
I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.
When I do get it right, I gain all around.
Lord, help me get a grip on myself.
Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?
It’s folly to stone your prophets.
Yet I see it all the time: people (I include myself here) who deal with unwelcome truth by rejecting the truth-teller. The child who denounces his mother for telling him his behavior is unacceptable. The employee who grouses about her boss for giving her a less than sterling review. The wife who harangues her husband for asking her to cease her gossip, or the husband who berates his wife for asking him to be kinder.
You know the beat.
There is some device in us that resists truth and resents those who bring it. The device is very active in my own brain. I can feel my hackles rising, my breath shortening, my jaw clenching, and my mind racing as soon as I see the slightest criticism coming my way. I start thinking up excuses before I even know what I’m excusing.
One of the best disciplines I’m learning is to turn off the device. Or at least ignore it. I’m teaching myself, not just to not resist honest criticism: I’m teaching myself to actively seek it and wholeheartedly welcome it. A question I’m asking people more and more: “Is there anything about me you wish I’d change?”
And then I take a breath.
And then I get an earful.
It’s rarely as bad as I dreaded. It’s always better than I hoped. It’s usually fair and accurate. In the end, it’s always life-giving – which the Bible says is a sign of true rebuke.
So far, I’ve been talking about criticism from people who love you. From those who want your best.
But let me push this even further. What do you do with harsh criticism? With the snipes of the cranky, self-appointed prophet – the accuser in the guise of a prophet? With the attacks of your enemy? With the barbs of the one who wants the worst for you?
Here’s a hard truth: they may be right. The day King David fled Jerusalem at the advance of his son Absolom’s revolt, an old embittered enemy – Shimei – followed him and taunted him all the way. He hurled rocks and dirt at David. He unleashed a brutal litany of curses and accusations.
David’s response? I think God is telling me something here.
God sometimes uses the mouth of an enemy to tell us what we refused to hear from the mouth of a friend. When we stone our prophets, it’s actually grace when God sends a foe to take his place.
Next week. I’ll to write about responding to criticism. But I wonder if you have a story of when God has used a friend, or maybe an enemy, to tell you a hard truth?
The curse of giftedness is laziness. It's complacency. It's settling for mediocrity, because mediocrity for a highly gifted person might be brilliance for a less gifted one. A one-talent person has to work hard to gain every inch. But a ten-talent person – a highly-gifted musician or chef or hairdresser or speaker – can coast for miles, and still get applause.
Recently I took a hard look in the mirror and realized I've been coasting in a few things. I'm not highly gifted in anything. But there are a few areas I've been living short of my ability.
I'm putting a plan together to change that.
Here's what my plan includes:
• Engaging in honest self-assement. I have to muster the courage to look full at myself and admit where I've become lazy, ineffective, unproductive, or deficient.
• Seeking honest feedback. I need others who love me enough to tell me the truth, no matter how unflattering, and then give them permission to tell it.
• Carving out time. No one drifts toward excellence. For me, two things are crucial to my getting better: reading, and practice. Both require dedicated time.
• Finding someone ahead of me willing to help me. I seek people who are brilliant at what I want to get better at, and I ask them to teach me or coach me.
• Deciding what success looks like. I try to envision what getting better looks like and then I set measurable goals toward it.
I'm writing this from Chicago, where I'm attending the Willow Creek Summit. This morning Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, said we should all change our middle name to "Better," as a pledge to live up to our full potential.
I have no intent of changing any part of my name.
But I do intend to get better.
What about you? Is there any area you're living short of your ability? What's your plan to get better? I'd love to hear about it.
My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.
Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay