Category Archives: Life

Random Musings

High School Reunions
Just had my 20 year reunion.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  Overall, I came away from it deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with so many in such a brief time.  My class had over 550 students, so 20 years later I’m still meeting people that I never had a class with, and was very pleasantly surprised to hit it off with a couple of guys that I hope to do some camping/paddling with in the near future.  Time has been very well to most everyone that I saw, and the level of genuine interest and mutual respect far exceeded anything we had 20 years ago.  Any downers?  Barely.  I was amazed at the ‘metaphysical acrobatics’ one classmate was willing to perform in the quest to convince everyone that he had no regrets (really – we all have them).  There were a few odd moments where crickets would have been heard chirping, if not for the noise, one or two mild blow-offs, and – i think – one “so-long-and-have-a-nice-life”. 

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Books & Tea
Jim_Tea1 I just started re-reading CS Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”.  It’s an amazing book – challenging modern concepts of “Love” (“There is kindness in Love, but Love and kindness are not coterminous…”), and trying to tackle the “intolerable intellectual problem” of human suffering.  Lewis has a gift for stating things eloquently and plainly at the same time.  He can turn a topic around and over, examining it from multiple angles and provoke the reader to not only consider his opinion, but to think for themselves as well.  Much to my own dismay, I’ve taken a special liking to Darjeeling tea (a lot of it) – and I (as I do even now) constantly have a cup nearby.  As Lewis said, "You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

Career
I often marvel at how much we’ve changed in our view of “career” from the Baby Boomer Generation to Gen X.  I think it would be easy to dismiss much of the modern view as selfish, but I think it’s much more than that.  Globalization and the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancements have turned the normal view of the business world on it’s end.  While I love having a so-called “cutting edge skill” – the reality is that it’s always at the risk of obsolescence.  In this kind of climate, long term trust in a corporation is unthinkable.  The employee/employer relationship – at least in my field – seems to be shifting towards a more symbiotic one (at best).  I think that’s a good thing overall – but the lack of continuity has its drawbacks.

Netflix
Seriously – people need to get over it.  We’ve gotten streaming in addition to DVD-by-mail basically for free for years now.  This is a company that has had their pulse on the future in multiple critical instances.  No brick and mortar – remember the Blockbuster ad campaign about having the option to hit stores as well as the mailbox?  Ha – a dinosaur memory at this point.  Then, Netflix sees the promise in Amazon’s cloud hosting capabilities and transfers nearly everything to the cloud, saving themselves millions in hardware costs alone (not to mention the immense technical labor overhead involved in maintaining data centers at that scale).  They see the end of DVDs – sooner than most of us think.  Most brand new TVs have apps to run services like Netflix and Hulu – and if they don’t, it’s easy to either use your blue-ray player, or a computer.  I see it as their strategic move to convince the “one DVD a month” families like mine to just switch to only streaming.  The rest of the revenue they pull in as a result will fund the efforts to digitize even more movie selections (a process that is much more intensive than most realize).  So sure, whiners, go use Redbox or Blockbuster.  You’ll be back. :-)

 

of rogues, jedi and growing up

lukeAt four years old, I saw Star Wars in the theater – I can still remember the opening scene – the massive Star Destroyer chasing Leia’s ship.  I can trace nearly all my love for space to that moment.  When it was revealed in “Empire” that Vader was Luke’s father, I was so devastated I tried to wish it away.  Luke was my hero – the hero. All through my childhood and teen years, it was an established fact – bordering on a right of passage – that Luke was the dominant hero figure.  I still remember being so disappointed that Leia told Han “I love you”.  And then – to make matters worse – finding out that Leia was Luke’s sister!  Wasn’t the hero supposed to get the girl, too?

Then something happened.  I grew up.  The safe & insulated world of my teens disappeared amidst the emotional tsunamis of divorce, college & moving away.  The endless optimism and hope I had for the future began to be tempered by real experience.  Luke started to sound a little whiny.  I found myself more sympathetic to Han.  Sure, he was rough around the edges, but likable.  He flew a fast ship, knew how to come through in a pinch, understood loyalty, took care of his own and I could appreciate that.

Then something else happened.  I experienced deep heartache over someone I dated in college.  I graduated, toured regionally with some bands and scraped by on peanut butter sandwiches and the free employee lunch at Macaroni Grill.  I discovered I hated always playing other people’s music and never having time for my own.  I decided to switch careers.  As a melancholy artistic type suddenly thrust into the heart of corporate America, I was unprepared for the backstabbers.  The white collar backstabbers weren’t anything like the blue collar backstabbers of my warehouse college jobs – they were a vicious breed apart.  I had to grow a thicker skin, think on my feet, learn how to get cussed out in front of others while staying calm – all the while trying to better my skills so that finding a new job would be a reality and not just a wish.  I was married.  I had kids.  Things like self-defense turned into home and family defense.  I had to ask myself – in the unlikely event of someone breaking in or attacking my family – would I be willing to use deadly force.  I was surprised not only at the answer, but the depths from which it resounded a loud “YES.  I WOULD NOT HESITATE.”  Images of Mel Gibson from the Patriot come to mind.

hanI wasn’t just sympathizing with Han, now.  Here’s a guy that improvised everything.  Even the ‘fast ship’ of his – without which he would never have met Ben and Luke, gotten connected to the Rebellion and ultimately redeemed himself – had been won in a game with best “frenemy” Lando.  Simple chance.  And let’s not kid ourselves – he wasn’t just rough around the edges.  He could take cold, calculated risks to get out of danger.  Don’t believe your eyes on the re-released versions of Star Wars.  In the original, Greedo never got a shot off.  Han shot him cold, all the while trying to look relaxed and stall for time as he unsnapped his holster to take the shot.

I would have taken that shot, too, and I find that unsettling.  Life is wonderful and full of so many incredible gifts – but it can also be darker than the darkest dark.  No human being emerges from the dark unchanged.  Archetypes like Han Solo, and Maximus Decimus Meridius from “Gladiator” resonate with men because we often have so much in common with them.  Improvising, and trying to look calm while we’re wondering if the hyper drive is actually going to work the next time we fire it up.  We have an emotional depth we don’t always know how to communicate, so we’re left telling the woman who just said “I love you” a simple “I know.”  In the case of Maximus, we feel betrayed by existing power structures and we overwhelmingly react with passion to the moment of his greatest discovery – who he truly is.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

This was an identity forged & discovered through tremendous hardship & loss.  Are there any other truer revealers of who we are?

There’s something about anti-hero redemption as well.  As much as I loved “Back to the Future” as a kid, I sheepishly admit that most of my childhood was spent feeling like this guy at this moment:

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George has no idea he can knock Biff out.  He acted more out of courage and principle than he ever had up to that moment.  He goes from “peeping Tom” to true rescuer, and his timeline is forever altered for the better.  Han learns there are better things to fight and live for – and goes as far as being willing to die for them.  Joseph Donnelly reaches the moment of his dream and shouts “This land is mine!  Mine by destiny!” and all the hardship that passed before pales in comparison. 

That’s what these anti-heros’ redemptions really offer – hope that you don’t have to let the darkness turn you into a cynical has-been.

Edward F. Mooney writes, “Job gets the wonder of a world returned, but he does not learn why he suffered.”  That can seem unfair, but the answer is a good one: “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside”.  I don’t want to stop at just not being a cynical has-been.  I want move on to the reception of a life beyond dust and ashes…

When life gives you class vi rapids…

In conversation I tend to be as direct as tact will allow.  So you’d think blogging would be even easier, right?  Not for me.  I want to write about the deep and shallow things of life, but I over the last year I have stopped short several times of actually posting, for fear I’d say too much, reveal too much or offend someone I care for.  But the real reason is that I feel like I’ve been paddling through serious white water for the last year, and blogging, journaling, or even simply taking a quiet solitary walk haven’t been on the table as serious options.

On July 6th, 2010, I was sitting in an office at the Sommet Group, in Franklin, TN.  The developers had become aware that layoffs were coming, and most – if not all – of us would be let go.  One of my fellow developers had left for an interview and texted me as he left the building: “At least a dozen FBI are headed into the building!”  I knew in my gut that they were bound for Sommet, though I couldn’t tell you why.  It turns out the our CEO had been embezzling money.  Sommet handled payroll for other small businesses, and we were apparently taking their money and instead of funding payroll taxes, IRAs, medical insurance, FSAs, etc., our CEO was using it to subsidize a failing business unit along with a lavish lifestyle.  So we weren’t just in trouble for our own company’s delinquency, but for dozens of others.  Employees from across those small businesses (including Sommet) were discovering that their retirement, medical insurance and other benefits weren’t actually being funded, though the money was being withheld from their checks.

So.  FBI *and* IRS agents raided our office that Tuesday.  They were very nice, but it was a serious situation.  I literally left my post-raid interview with the FBI and headed straight to a job interview at a consulting company in Nashville – talk about context switching!  Thank God my good friend Garry Kean was in town – I was able to talk to him at Starbucks for a few minutes prior to my job interview.

The ensuing job search was rough.  Sommet didn’t pay us the last two paychecks, and despite recruiters promising “Sure, there are plenty of senior level jobs in Nashville”, none materialized.  I secured some side work that would help keep us afloat, but it wasn’t much.  At the end of July, at the recommendation of my good friend and former Sommet co-worker, Alex, I interviewed with a company in Chattanooga, TN.  They offered me right in the range I needed – and they were the only offer I’d had since Sommet collapsed, so we were Chattanooga-bound.

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It’s been interesting.  Chattanooga is a good city overall – lots of interesting things to do, great restaurants and it’s small.  We love living on Signal Mountain, and I work with some very good people.  I would never have considered the job here if Alex hadn’t recommended I interview – and getting the chance to continue working with him has truly been one of the most rewarding things about the new job. 

But I’m also not going to lie – it’s been a tough year.  Our first six months was overshadowed by an awful rental house.  My second full month on the job saw my team working loads of overtime, so I was practically gone the whole month.  If we haven’t been travelling, we’ve been sick, vice versa, and sometimes both.  Making friends has been a challenge as well.  We’re still looking for a church (thought we’d found a good one, but alas no).  Steph has met more people than I have.  I’m extremely thankful for friends like Jon – though he lives in Nashville, we’ve stayed in regular contact and have managed some visits as well, and Alan.  You don’t replace the network of family and friends that was built across 15 years very easily, if at all.

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I’m thankful for a good job – and one that continually challenges me to step up in my skills.  There’s still the interesting dynamic, though, of working alongside people who wanted to move to Chattanooga and plan to retire here, whereas I would’ve never considered it outside the events of last summer.  In the words of Gomez, “I’m just as lost as you are” – especially when it comes to what lies ahead.  It’s been tough having to lay aside so many things I love – writing and recording, camping, and others.  I don’t see an end to the white water just yet, but I still have the paddle in a firm grip….

Flood reflections a year later

JimAboutToJumpIn May 2010, the Cumberland River flooded the worst is has in 500-1000 years.  The damage done to the greater Nashville area alone was simply beyond words.  As events would have it, I wasn’t in Nashville when the flood began.  Was I somewhere safe and dry?  Far from it.  I was canoeing a section of the Cumberland (BSF) north of Nashville with a good friend.  When the outfitter dropped us off the day before, he simply said “Yeah, I hear you might get some rain tomorrow.”

We noticed the water level was higher than usual as we paddled to our half way point (I’d canoed this section of the river at least twice before), but we didn’t really give it another thought & settled down for the night, slept in and fixed breakfast.  About the time I was literally swallowing my last bite of eggs, the sky unloaded.  We scrambled to collect our gear – but the problem with canoe-camping is it’s so hard to resist the urge to pack heavy gear, since you’re not carrying it on your back.  We finally hiked the gear down to the bank and started packing the canoe.  I noticed heavy currents of silt flowing from upstream.  The water level had risen a few inches over night, but it wasn’t terribly alarming at the moment.  The rain failed to let up, and we had come prepared, so we just accepted that the last 9 miles was going to be a soaker.  We had no idea.

This section of the river normally had long gentle slopes – with some shoals here and there, with the occasional Class II or III rapid.  This time, though, the water flow was beyond anything I’d seen.  Here we were in a fully loaded canoe – easily 250-300 lbs of gear, plus two adults, and we were fighting through rolling waves peaking at 3-5 feet.  Each time the nose of the boat plunged down from a peak, we braced ourselves for the inevitable swamping.  We got lucky though – constantly bailing between paddling and steering.  However, the water level was rising faster.  The temperature was dropping, and a cold biting wind had kicked up.  Our rain gear was actually soaked through (save for plastic ponchos we eventually pulled out), and it was mainly our life jackets helping hold body heat in.

Less than a mile before the takeout point is a rapid called Devil’s Jump.  On a normal day it’s really something that only experienced boaters should attempt.  I’ve run it twice, and it’s a blast, but it’s tricky.  But on May 1st, 2010, it could only be described as Biblical.  We pulled off well upstream and scouted out the area.  An entire section of the river, littered with boulders the size of cars and small houses – normally all visible – was submerged.  The passage through the left side of the river (where I’ve run the rapid before) was thundering so loud we nearly had to shout to hear each other from a few feet away.  There was no way a fully loaded canoe was going to survive it.  With al the submerged rocks, it was a certainty that if one of us were thrown from the boat, it would be a slim chance of getting back above water.

The only way through was around – via a portage/backpacking trail that’s barley wide enough to allow passage for one person at a time.  The rain was full deluge, and had been for a while by then, so as we unpacked the boat to carry the gear down the 1/4 mile trail, the trail was already under water and slicker than vaseline.  Four trips and at least an hour later, we had all the gear at the other end of the trail and collapsed onto the soaked rocky bank for a minute.  The water level had risen what appeared to be 1-2 feet since we’d stopped to scout the rapid.  I just couldn’t believe it.  At this moment I was very concerned for our safety – and was considering tying to boat off somewhere and getting up on the mountain and pitching camp.  We were cold, wet, exhausted and I wasn’t sure how wise it was to get back in a river that was obviously flooding.  The take out point was maybe half a mile away, so we decided to go for it – it’s a good thing we did.

We had no idea how extensive the flooding was.  We were so behind schedule that my wife had called the outfitter and they came down looking for us (and missed us).  We were later told that if we had pitched camp to get away from the flood, we would have been stranded there for 3-4 days unless we’d decided to hike out instead (and hiking would have still involved crossing the river).  When we finally reached cell service on the drive back, we began to learn of conditions back home.  People abandoning cars on I-24, some not making it out in time.  The huge school building being carried from Bell Rd down to I-24.  Franklin flooding thanks to the Harpeth.  Entire subdivisions being destroyed in Bellevue.  The Cumberland flooding downtown Nashville.

JimJumpIt still seems so surreal.  It drives home, for me, the importance of keeping your head in dangerous situations.  Sometimes a calculated risk is better than retreat – but when it comes to the power of moving water, any calculated risk is riskier than you’d think.  Little did I know, my experience over those 48 hours as the BSF rose from 1100 cubit feet per second to over 20k were a foreshadowing of the year ahead!  That’s a story for the next post….

Gratitude

I’ve been off the grid for a while due to being laid off unexpectedly.  It truly is amazing how quickly things can change.  One minute you’re part of one of the premier software teams in Nashville, TN – pinching yourself every day, thinking “this must be a dream….this is too good to be true”.  The next minute you’re unemployed and in the hole financially thanks to a thieving CEO.  I will blog about the “why” behind the layoffs another time, but suffice it to say that we not only lost our jobs, but were owed at least 3 weeks pay (which we’ll never see).  Job hunting was….interesting.  Despite numerous recruiters’ claims “Sure, there are plenty of senior level software positions open in Nashville”, none materialized.  I learned of an opening in Chattanooga through a fellow developer, and after researching them (plus interviewing), felt like it was great opportunity.

Fast forward to tonight.  I’m in my hotel, ready to start my second week with the new company tomorrow.  I’ve been sick for the last week – with the worst of it hitting me this weekend.  I miss my family, still have a house to pack (and…gasp…sell) and was primed and ready for a mini-pity party tonight.  My mind started wandering over silly little regrets – you know, the ones from 20 years ago that suddenly pop into your mind leaving you as embarrassed now as you were then.  Whether out of habit, or desperation, I began to discuss my situation aloud in prayer.  I lamented over those silly things, but especially over the very real financial challenges my family faces today: selling a house in a down market & expecting a loss; being without a paycheck since June; the credit debt we’re incurring until paychecks arrive, etc.

I suddenly realized how silly I sounded.  It’s not that my problems are’t real or important to me or to God, but seriously, I needed perspective!  In all of human history, I (along with millions of Americans) am in the upper echelons of salary and standard of living.  Even when I sell my house and take the loss I expect, we will recover and wind up in better shape than we’ve ever been thanks to a generous offer and a cheap cost of living in Chattanooga.  While I can easily pine-on-demand about wanting a life of meaning, how many millions of people have lived lives in the muck and filth of places like Kibera – maybe at one time they hoped for something better, but the world crushed it out of them, leaving them dead inside long before death claimed them?  I was struck with profound gratitude – the sense of which only grew as I voiced aloud what I was thankful for.

I have a job – and less than a month after I lost my old one.  I love what I do – how many people can truly say that?!  My job allows my wife to stay at home with our boys.  My wife and sons are healthy, safe and without want when it comes to necessities. Despite our impending move two hours from our current home, my boys have enjoyed 3 years with my mom and step-dad close by – and the two hours to Chattanooga is really not bad at all.  Living in Chattanooga puts us closer to my dad, step-mom and my oldest sister.  Despite the awful way my last job fell apart, working there introduced me to some of the sharpest developers I have ever met, and allowed me to forge friendships I will value the rest of my life.  I could go on….there truly is so much I have to be grateful for.  Saying it out loud is a powerful thing.  I encourage you to try it as well…

(Oh, and I’m also thankful for the 17-inch Macbook Pro my new company bought for me to use!)

In Which I Gain Some Fatherly Perspective…

Most of us have heard our parents say, at some point, that they’ve tried their best to do better for us than their parents did for them.  Most of us that are parents have figured out that they really meant it when they said that.  It’s far too easy, though, to focus on where our parents have fallen short, and miss their sometimes herculean efforts to be better parents than their own.

My parents separated when I was 15.  The ugly reality of divorce is that no matter how well all parties involved handle the aftermath, it’s still an aftermath!  Take the classic teen-know-it-all-hormone-induced-confusion-and-angst of most 15-year-olds, couple it with a divorce and constant conflict with your father and what you get is a recipe for long term negative focus, to put it lightly.  Complicating things, I misread my father for several years.  You see, we have a lot in common – shared interests, personality traits, values, habits, vocal inflections, etc.  It’s easy to assume you know the other person’s motives and intent when you have so much common ground.  About ten years ago, one of my sisters had us take the Myers-Briggs assessment and I was amazed that my father and I both weren’t “ENTJ”.  That was a critical moment for me, after which I really began to pay more attention to who my father was – and respect our differences.  Gone were the arrogant presumptions – now replaced with at least some humility.  Over the last two decades – and as a result of moments like those – my relationship with my father has improved beyond my expectations and hopes.

This year, my father’s birthday coincided with Father’s Day, and I took my oldest son with me to visit him for the weekend.  I found myself thinking back over the stories he’s told me of his childhood.  The youngest of 7 children – over 20 years separating him and his oldest sister (a sister who was more a mother to him than sister, and more grandmother to me than aunt).  His mother died when he was 14.  His father was, by all accounts, a good man, but strong on discipline and sparse with praise and emotional connection.  I learned this weekend that his father never took him camping or canoeing – something he did with me for many years when I was young.  And it occurred to me that those weekend trips (and many were week-long trips) that my dad took with me cost him real vacation time & rest.  Canoeing 50 miles, while tons of fun, isn’t terribly relaxing or easy on the muscles and back!  Many dads simply want to sleep on the couch during a football game, rather than in a tent in a south Georgia swamp, cooking cheap hot dogs over fires made with wet firewood.  What 42-year-old wants to don a backpack and hike sections of the Appalachian Trail with a bunch of 12-year-old boy scouts?  My dad did.  He made the choice to do something with me that I loved, something his father never modeled or did for him.

Our parents are children, too, just like us.  They carry their own set of hopes, fears and disappointments which they shared with their own parents.  I am tremendously fortunate that, regardless of all the ‘aftermath’ of coming from a broken home, both of my parents have fought hard to give me a better life than what they had.  I’m not dismissing or trivializing the challenges – don’t get me wrong, divorce sucks.  There are years we can’t get back, and words all of us wish we could forget having ever said.  But then the picture of redemption arrives.  Maybe at first it’s just fragile ‘green shoots’.  But it grows up in the presence of – in spite of – the pain, difficulty and scars, almost as if to prove to the hurt that it can’t be stopped or overcome.  Redemption, by its very nature, not only rescues us, but laughs in the face of our former captor.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23: 5)

 

Disappearing

EmptyCanoe What exactly is disappearing?  Time.  In one of the great ironies of life, you simply never realize how much time you waste as a kid until you’re an adult, or as a single person until you’re married, or as a married person until you have kids.  A closely related cruel irony of life is that my interests seem to grow in an inverse proportion to the time which I have to indulge them.

We’re at that point in life where we simply have to accept that certain things we want aren’t going to happen” – a good friend of mine said that the other day, and he’s right.  This isn’t about depressed defeatism.  Actually, it’s about focus, tenacity, clarity & purpose.  While I may wax nostalgic about the seemingly endless hours I had available when I was 23, I have so much more now – where it counts – than I did then.  I’ve lived long enough to be fooled by my desires, and that has given me discernment.  I’ve had enough successes to know I can hold out for what matters, and enough failures (far more, it seems!) to stir the pot of healthy discontent.  I’ve experienced enough heart ache to know that hearts mend when they’re planted in the right place.  I’ve seen enough of the reward of deep friendships to know that relationships trump ‘tasks’ and ambitions, period.

But – among all the things I’ve learned – there is one thing I simply do NOT do well: taking a break.  I’ve neglected the important ritual of at least one family vacation each year with my wife and kids.  We’ve taken trips, don’t get me wrong, but something gets in the way all too often.  I’m even worse about personal time by myself – to unplug, take a walk, think, pray, stare at the clouds.   Somehow I’ve missed the importance of the discipline of vacation.  That’s right, I said discipline.  More often than not, I’ve avoided vacation simply because we’ve not been disciplined in managing our time or money in order to afford it.  It’s fallen too low on the list of priorities – below the dinners at Olive Garden & the mind-numbing “I’m exhausted after work and mistakenly think a night of TV-vegging will relax my mind”.  Not having a regular habit of solitude and vacation has robbed me, I believe, of the critical perspective of the benefits involved.  I too easily forget how rested (oddly enough) I can feel after a vigorous canoe trip; I quickly forget the clarity and focus that comes as a result of spending several days in a new place with my wife.  Instead, I’ve gravitated towards the dangerous icon of the “reluctant martyr”.  “Gotta suck it up and keep  moving forward”; “{insert name, job, or church here} can’t afford for me to be away right now”; “I’m too busy to relax.”

The last few months have changed all that.  A perfect storm of both family-related and work-related hardships quickly proved that I can’t expect to be resilient and bounce back from tough schedules (physically and mentally) if I’m not going to give my body, my mind and my family what they need.  I used to be good at burying it, but I think the birth of my second son tipped the scales towards the “don’t even think you can hide this anymore” direction.  The discipline of vacation and solitude in my life has finally begun moving towards its proper place.  I need the time personally, to think, dream, clear my mind from daily demands & distractions and come back with clarity of purpose and focus.  My wife and I need the time to break out of the typical mold of the daily grind.  We need the weekend getaways & the nights reading at the coffee shop.  Our kids need the focused time with us, and we – as a family – need the week-long excursions to see old friends & family, & to explore new places.

In a couple of weeks, I will begin practicing what I preach when I disappear into the woods of Tennessee and Kentucky with a close friend and a canoe loaded with camping gear…

At a Loss…

I’ve been quiet recently, as my thoughts have been tangled up in some of the ‘proverbial’ big questions of life and its inevitable hardships.

I’ve often puzzled at the spoken and unspoken attitudes about suffering which I’ve encountered in many evangelical church settings.  You’d think that we’re all destined for “upward and onward” in life – as if things would always get progressively better and brighter.  I don’t buy it – it simply doesn’t fit with real human experience (not to mention Biblical teaching).  There’s an underlying impression from so many in those circles that hardship must be because you’re not doing something right or often enough, or there’s a secret sin in your life.  To which I can only respond by saying “read the book of Job”.  Guess what?  Life sucks sometimes, and for no obvious reason.

Relationships are powerful.  The things that you say and do – they hold tremendous power.  We all have moments that our brains seem all too willing to replay – a ‘pivotal’ moment in life where nothing was ever the same afterwards.  A book I’ve been reading recently has the dubious honor of bringing to mind one of those moments from years ago – one I’ve long preferred to keep buried.  A phone conversation with my father when I was 15, being told “You’re the man of the house, now.”  Forgiveness is also powerful.  It frees you from the trap you’ve set for yourself (no one else is going to fall into it, that’s for sure).  But, as I’ve learned all to well in the last 21 years, forgiveness is only the beginning.  It removes the hooks that would otherwise drag your heart into darkness, but it doesn’t, on its own, rectify things.  By itself, it doesn’t restore what has been stolen; it gives you a fighting chance. Two decades later, I’m still trying to take hold of that fighting chance as best as I can, though I confess that lately it’s been a difficult road.  Broken families are deep wounds, and I’ve apparently struck another vein in the mine of my heart.  But it’s not my own loss that I’ve been pondering only….

A man whom I dearly love, respect and whom I have looked up to as a big brother since I was 12 is suffering from terminal cancer, and has not been given long to live.  While my family and I have found immeasurable comfort in our shared faith, and in the reality of Heaven, we are not spared the grief of loss (however temporary in the grand scheme of things), nor the challenges it brings to my sister (whose husband is the man I’m referring to) and her three children.  I have not wept in years like the night I sat at his bedside and poured my heart out, wanting him to know how loved he is, and to have hope for the new life ahead of him.  I can see the concern in his eyes for his wife and children, and as a father myself, I can empathize.  In the days ahead, they will need me, and I, them.  My nephew is not much younger than I was when my family’s world was turned upside down.

It’s fitting I’ve been reading Kierkegaard lately.  Much like Job, we all want to ask “Why?!” in the midst of suffering – but it’s astonishing how unimportant that question becomes once  redemption arrives.  As Edward Mooney writes, “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside."  While I, as Christian, believe in a day of ultimate redemption, I also believe in the tens of thousands of days in between.  We can be a part of those “little redemptions” in other’s lives.  Crying with those who are hurting, giving generously to those who need, teaching those who are unskilled – none of which can happen if we let our own losses paralyze us.  And none of which can happen if we subscribe to the self-help, decorate-my-life-with-my-God-bracelet mindset that denies or avoids real suffering, and hides from the deep questions it provokes in all of us.

Being and Becoming

Parmenides Most of us, at one point or another, have stopped to consider who we are today, and compared ourselves to who we desire to be one day.  This is a great example of the philosophical tension between “being” and “becoming”.  In one sense, I’m not the man I was 10 years ago, nevertheless, I am the same man.  I survey my past and find many instances where I cringe at things I have done.  I’m not that man anymore.  I look ahead to the future and know that both joy and heartache await but I’m not yet the man I will be when I face those things – then I again, I am.  Confusing, isn’t it?!

Two of the earliest philosophers to wrestle with this question were Heraclitus and Parmenides.  Heraclitus is famous for the phrase “You never step into the same river twice”.  He argued that between “steps” into a river, both the river and you have changed.  In the the time it takes to place your left foot into the water, and then your right, the river’s composition changes, however slightly.  You are, at the very least, seconds older.  Heraclitus argued that everything is in a state of flux. “Whatever is, is changing”, he would say.

Makes sense, so far, right?  But this begged deeper questioning.  How can someone say I’m not real, because I’m changing?  It flies in the face of both common sense and experience.  Of course I’m real….right?  Another philosopher, Parmenides, made the claim that “Whatever is, is.”   R.C. Sproul summarized Parmenides’ argument by saying “Reality…to be real, cannot be changing.  Because that which is changing, never truly is.”  Let that tweak your brain for a while!  This dilemma – wrestling with the idea that if we, and the world around us, are constantly changing then we are never truly real – spawned entire schools of thought that believed the physical world is ultimately an illusion.  Striking a stark contrast, though, is the way in which God defines Himself to ancient Israel: “I AM” (not “I am becoming”).  To borrow terms from Aristotle, God is complete and full actuality.  Simply put, he is real and because He is real, he doesn’t change.  He has no need to grow to become more perfect in any area, since He is infinite, and infinitely perfect.  We, of course, are not infinite and we live as creatures ‘inhabiting time’ – so we are “beings” who are “becoming”.

This tension between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ – and the ultimate question of ‘what is real’ took an interesting path for me recently as I was reading about John Henry Newman – an Anglican-turned-Catholic thinker, writer & priest (ultimately a cardinal) in the 19th century.  The memorial tablet at Newman’s death (in 1890) was inscribed with the words “Ex umbrus et imaginibus in veritatem” – "Out of unreality into Reality.”  While I’m honestly in no hurry, I do, though, often think about that “Reality” – and the deepest parts of me long to be as real one day as Newman is now.

Authority and Soap

Washington I think a lot about leadership – what makes a great leader?  What ruins one?  Are leaders born, made, or some combination of the two?  Often over the course of my life I have been handed the compliment of being told I have leadership qualities.  But what does that really mean?  Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to watch and understand people.  As a 15-year-old, reeling from the separation and divorce of my parents, my ability to understand others helped me overcome my natural inclinations towards mild introversion to become outspoken, bold, opinionated – but staying as likable as possible in the process (not always successfully, I might add!).  During those years I learned what I believe is one of the most important qualities for a leader to possess: the ability to admit you’re wrong and apologize.  I began to be amazed at how much respect someone was willing to give to you if you were simply honest, and how quickly it faded when you became defensive.  A good leader must possess the ability to admit they’re wrong, humbly apologize and take responsibility for their mistakes.

I’ve written before about discovering early on in life the immeasurable value of deep friendships.  As a result, leadership in my mind is inextricably linked to relationships and respect (the kind of respect that flows downhill).  No leader can be (nor is realistically expected to be) everyone’s best friend.  Making decisions that can affect so many lives is not an easy weight to bear – and it comes with it’s own version of loneliness.  However, good leaders must not insulate themselves from the lives of those they are responsible for.  If you want to be a good leader, then you must make every effort to remember that real people work for you, not numbers on a ledger, nor merely bodies in a cube.  They are real people with families, dreams, hopes, fears and yet-untapped abilities.

I once heard a man say “Authority flows to those who serve.”  As leaders, we serve those around us by enabling them to realize their goals and dreams.  The  best kind of “follower-ship” a leader can hope for is a fully-engaged-but-voluntary following by those who are endeavoring to be the best that they are capable of, with your company, department, church (or some other organization) benefiting from it in the process.  It’s a healthy symbiotic relationship.  This is not to say that other leadership styles don’t produce results.  Napoleon produced unprecedented results, until his maniacal arrogance blinded him to Wellington’s superior strategy.  A CFO I once worked for – brought in as a turn-around expert – successfully completed the turn-around and sale of our company.  However, he left in his wake an atmosphere of fear and contempt – as his style of explosive shout-downs and expletive laden rants were adopted by his underlings.  My departure from that company shortly followed.  A good leader delicately balances positional authority with the morale and support of those reporting to him, and seeks to inspire their support and buy-in to his vision as opposed to demanding it for fear of retribution.  As my father-in-law so wisely said, “Authority is like soap, the more of it you use, the less of it you have.”

If you are truly interested in becoming a good leader, I think you need to ask yourself if you could handle moving down the ladder as well as moving up?  It took about 2 years for me to learn this lesson.  Up until 2008, I had always moved “up”.  However, for many reasons, I hit a plateau.  The next natural step was another step “up” – and the CIO I reported to was offering a higher position.  But something wasn’t right.  It was as if the head coach was asking me if I wanted to move from quarterback to offensive coordinator.  More power and authority to implement things as I saw fit, higher pay, more prestige.  It had some tempting elements.  However, looking at myself in the mirror every morning, I knew that I was actually lucky I was even quarterback.  My knowledge of the ‘game’ was far from mature.  Instead, I sought a new team that was looking for a rookie quarterback to take a back seat to the arsenal of experienced ones, so that I could learn from those who’s abilities far exceeded my own.  A good leader knows when to not lead, and instead follow a better leader from whom they can learn.  A leader who holds tightly onto a position at the expense of their growth as a leader is no leader after all.