Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV)
I am on the road again this week working with a client. One of my roles with this client is to mentor some of their young professionals. Most are in their first managerial role. Over the years, I have learned that there is a pattern to the challenges with which they struggle. Just yesterday, I heard one of the most common struggles: “What do I do with the poor worker?”
These are the frustrations and common complaints I hear from managers and supervisors regarding poor workers:
The poor worker is never on time whether it is first thing in the morning or returning to work from break. The only thing to which the poor worker seems to apply themselves is how to appear to be working while doing as little as possible. The poor worker takes thirty-minute bathroom breaks. Poor workers like to smoke because the fifteen-minute smoke break (immediately upon arrival, mid-morning, post-lunch, mid-afternoon) is treated as a smoker’s right on top of the normal breaks. When the manager returns to the floor from a meeting the poor worker can be seen scrambling to look productive. The poor worker encourages a general lack of productivity across their team so that the standard expectation of productivity will be generally lower.
I thought of the poor worker as I read this morning’s chapter and Solomon’s admonition to consider the ways of the hard working, diligent little ant.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I admit that I look back on my life journey and observe a stark difference in the average experience of a young person in today’s culture. The economy of my childhood afforded opportunities and expectations for learning a work ethic. When I was seven and eight years old I was shadowing my brothers on their paper routes. At ten, I was substituting as a newsie for my friend, hawking papers twice-a-day in the wards of the local VA hospital. At eleven I had my own route in which I not only delivered papers, but also collected money from customers, learned basic accounting, kept a ledger, and was held accountable for the quality of my work and the accuracy of my figures. By thirteen I was working in a restaurant bussing tables. At fifteen I was working a cornfield. At Sixteen I working retail evenings and weekends. During college, I often worked three jobs while taking a full load.
I contrast this to the “poor workers” with whom my young protègès struggle. I also observe what appears to me to be a great number of young people who are employed for the very first time in their lives post-high-school or college.
In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the simple virtue of hard work which was instilled in my early, formative years. I confess, like all young people, I had to be prompted, required, reminded, and scolded as I learned the lessons of said virtue. Some of those lessons are burned into my conscience. And, for that I am grateful.
Speaking of which, I have a full-day of training, coaching, and reporting ahead of me today with a client. My day begins early and ends late.
Time for me to get to work, my friend. Thanks for reading.
Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.
Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.
I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.
First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.
I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.
Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.
I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.
I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.
I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:
Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.
I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.
Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.
Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.
Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.
Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”
Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”
I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.
Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.
Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.
First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:
“Forget the past.”
“Tomorrow is never promised.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.
For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.
There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.
I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.
Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.
Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.
Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.
Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.
“Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.
“They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.
When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).
Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.
I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.
Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.
My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.
“Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.
Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”
Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder. Esther 9:16 (NIV)
This past weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s only the second reunion that I’ve attended and it was a lot of fun to catch up with old classmates and where their life journeys have taken them. I walked to Kindergarten with some of these people. We played Kick-the-Can, Freeze Tag, and Ding-Dong Ditchem’ as children and experienced all the awkwardness of adolescence together. It was especially sobering for me to see the table of memorials to all classmates who have already passed, and to recall moments and life events I experienced with each of them. It was strange to have such vivid memories with these amazing individuals from my childhood and to realize that so much time has passed. One of the common conversations that evening was how our children (and now grandchildren) have no concept of what everyday life was like for us.
I found myself expanding that thought to a macro-level this morning as I read the chapter. It’s been a while since this chapter-a-day journey took me into such a bloody text. It is difficult for this twenty-first century, enlightened Western mind to get my head wrapped around such bloodshed and carnage. I’ve observed along the way that we have a penchant in our modern culture to whitewash, rewrite, or simply ignore certain aspects of history, including the brutal violence which was an everyday part of the culture in ancient days. “Kill or be killed” was the way of life and survival for most tribes and people groups.
In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that Xerxes did not seem to bat an eye at the destruction of Esther’s enemies. But, I have to remember that his father, Cyrus, established the Persian Empire and became the world’s first “superpower” by destroying a lot of people. Xerxes had a reputation for holding onto that power and his Empire by brutally suppressing any kind of rebellion against him and his kingdom. Again, it was simply the way of life during that period of history.
There are two things happening in today’s chapter that are often lost on the casual reader. The first connects to something I pointed out the other day. The face-off between Mordecai (descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin) and Haman (descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites) is a historical rematch. In the first round (see 1 Samuel 15), Saul did not complete the task of wiping out Agag and his followers. In today’s chapter, the destruction of Haman and his followers was historically perceived by the Hebrews as righting an old wrong that Saul should have completed.
Second, while Xerxes’ proclamation gave the Hebrews permission to plunder their enemies, you’ll notice the text clearly points out that they chose not to do so. Again, this is further evidence that the events of today’s chapter were perceived as righting the wrongs of Saul, who was forbidden from plundering King Agag and the Amalekites but did so anyway. The story of Esther is layered with the theme of reversals: the reversal of fortunes, the reversal of specific events, and the reversal of past wrongs.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. Based on conversations this past weekend, I and my classmates clearly wish that our children could understand what life was like for us:
“If you only knew what it was like without smartphones.”
“If you only knew what it was like to write a research paper on a daisy-wheel typewriter without the internet, Google, or Wikipedia.”
“If you only knew what it was like to walk a mile to school every day in the winter.”
“If you only knew what it was like to be at college and communicate with your parents once a week (at most) because they didn’t want to pay for the collect call.”
“If you only knew what it was like to be expected to get a paper route and start working as soon as you were 11 or 12 years old.”
In the same way, I imagine Mordecai and Esther inviting me to take off my modern, rose-colored glasses and to attempt to see beyond my politically correct horror at the violence of their time in history. I imagine them beckoning me to try and imagine what it was like to live in the “kill or be killed” realities they experienced every day when there was no other choice. “If you only knew what it was like,” I hear them say, “to walk in our sandals as exiles and captives in a foreign land surrounded by enemies bent on killing us.”
I don’t think it’s fully possible, but I’ve found it worth the effort to try. The stories of history have secrets to teach me; Secrets that provide wisdom for my own life journey, and for the journeys of my children and grandchildren.
As Jesus said, “Seek, and you’ll find.”
And so my “seeking” begins for another day, in another week.
“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” Daniel 7:28 (NIV)
As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it fascinating to realize how prophecy in its various forms plays a big part in so many of our epics and stories. It is most often found in our fantasy epics and mythological tales. Nevertheless, I find it also popping up in the most unusual places. Wendy and I have a favorite series of contemporary spy novels. In the series, the protagonist has a small handful of episodes with a mysterious old woman who knows things about him she couldn’t possibly know and sees what is going to happen to him. The mysterious world of the prophetic is part of our human experience.
Of course, if one journey’s through God’s Message at all you’re going to run into prophetic passages. In today’s chapter, the book of Daniel switches from stories of Daniel’s life to a series of journal entries recording dreams and visions that he had.
There are a few lessons that I’ve learned about prophecy as I’ve read and studied it over the years. This morning I am reminded of three – make that four – lessons I’ve learned that I try to always remember when I’m reading prophetic passages.
First, there is a mystery to the prophetic. Here I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite mystics, Richard Rohr. He states that mystery isn’t something you can’t understand but something you can endlessly understand. It’s not easy to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on it, it slips away from you. If you’re left-brained and want a simple, black-and-white answer then prophecy will drive you crazy. Which leads to a second discovery.
The prophetic can be layered with meaning. In today’s chapter, the beasts of Daniel’s vision have all sorts of connections to the Babylonian myths and literature that he was forced to study when he was taken into captivity. These connections are largely lost on us today. Yet, it can also connect to other prophecies written by other prophets in scripture. Its imagery can connect to contemporary symbols of which Daniel had no knowledge. Unlike parables that typically have one main lesson to teach, the prophetic can be layered with meaning for both the times it was written, times that came later, and times yet to come. Which leads to my third observation.
Prophetic literature is the source of endless debate. You can see pieces of it that have a very clear meaning. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are good examples. Written hundreds of years before Jesus, they both eerily and accurately describe the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Yet most of it, like the beasts Daniel sees in today’s chapter, sounds like the writers were tripping on LSD. There are many theories as to their meaning, and because prophecy can be layered with meaning whose to say that more than one theory is correct? Which leads to my final observation.
The prophetic is a tempting rabbit-hole to fall into. I have known some individuals along my life journey who delve so deeply into the prophetic that it consumes them. Trying to nail down the exact meaning of a prophetic passage with absolute certainty can be like trying to solve a complex puzzle. Prophecy is a cool subject to study, but if it becomes consuming to the point of ignoring everything else and becoming spiritually out of balance, then it’s time to give it a break.
At the end of today’s chapter, we read that Daniel, troubled by his dream, recorded it in his journal and then moved on. I find that a good example to follow when it comes to the prophetic. Don’t ignore it, but don’t obsess about it either. Focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. Loving God, loving people, and continually trying to do the right thing as I walk the journey each day.
Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.
From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.
In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.
In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.
There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.
First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.
Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.
Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.
I quietly reached a milestone in my journey as a blogger yesterday. With my post Time, Distance, and Perspective I have blogged my way through the entire Bible twice. Along with posts that are basically diary entries about me and my family’s life journey, I have been posting my personal thoughts about one chapter of the Bible roughly every weekday for over twelve years.
Along the way I’ve learned some important lessons about blogging. I’d like to share five of them for any aspiring bloggers out there for whom it might be helpful. First, a little background is in order.
In March 2006 I began my blog and called it Wayfarer. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and my blogging journey began with only a sketchy sense of where I was headed. You’ve probably never heard of me because twelve years later the number of subscribers and followers to my blog is less than a thousand and the vast majority of those followers are simply other bloggers and businesses following me in hopes that I will follow them back. The actual number of faithful readers I have might be enough for a decent summer picnic and a pick-up game of whiffle ball, but that’s okay. My blog is called Wayfarer because it’s about the journey and there’s much to be learned when you keep trekking for twelve years.
The primary motivation for me starting my blog was simply to have an on-line journal for family and friends to keep tabs on me and the fam. If they want to know what we’re up to, they can simply check out the blog. While Facebook might accomplish the same thing, I control my blog and its content, not the algorithms and social media gatekeepers. I like owning my own little acre of the internet.
It’s also important to know that while I’ve blogged my way through the Bible twice, I don’t consider my blog a religious blog. I don’t represent any church. I’m not out there trying to convince anyone of anything. My “chapter-a-day” posts have their roots in my relationship with my good friend, Kevin. Kevin and I are both followers of Jesus and years before I started my blog we came to an agreement to help each other be better followers. We decided to read one chapter of the Bible every weekday. Because we both had jobs that required a certain amount of windshield time we simply called each other and shared with one another whatever we got out of that day’s chapter.
As I began my blog I thought it might be cool to simply transfer the chapter-a-day journey Kevin and I had already been on for years from the phone to the internet. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought to myself, “If we had a record of the chapter we read each day and what it made us think about?” That’s where it all started, and I’m still going.
So what have I learned along the journey? Here are my top five lessons:
Your Motive Matters
There are literally millions of blogs on the internet. My blog is on the WordPress platform, and WordPress reports that there are over 500 new sites started on their platform daily with a total of over 76 million sites and 15 billion pages of content.
If your motive for blogging is to get discovered for the talented writer you know you are and to become a famous celebrity blogger then you need to know that you are playing the Powerball of on-line popularity. Your blog is a very small needle in a ginormous global haystack. It’s been said that as many as 95% of bloggers who start a blog abandon it after a short period of time. So, why do it?
There are all sorts of legitimate motives for blogs and sites. Some are built simply to drive traffic and sell ads. Some are businesses trying to make a profit. Some are people trying to build a brand. There’s nothing wrong with any of those motives, but I found that it is important to know what your motive is for starting a blog. You should define “This is why I’m doing this. This is what I’m trying to accomplish.” It helps define what you need to do and how you invest your time and resources.
I’ve also found that a clearly defined motive can keep me going when I occasionally spy the meager handful of views that my brilliant post received and I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?!”
Have Something to Say
I think most people start a blog thinking they have something to say, but sitting down at the keyboard on a regular basis and getting it out can be a daunting experience. Once you get out those three or four posts that you’ve had mulling over in your head for years you find yourself asking, “What now?”
A couple of reasons I’ve been able to keep going for over 12 years goes back to the two motives I outlined when I started. I wanted to create an on-line journal of life, and life doesn’t stop happening. I can blog about our kids and grandson living with us this week as they prepare to live in Scotland. I can blog about the role in the play I’m working on or our latest trip to the lake. I also wanted to record my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. That alone has been a built-in content engine. I read the chapter each week day, and then I write my thoughts.
If you’re thinking about blogging, ask yourself: “What is the engine that’s going to keep giving me fresh content to write about?”
Views and Followers Don’t Correlate to Quality of Content
I read[/caption]I read a humorous article yesterday in Wired magazine about a woman whose young son was obsessed with fans. You know, the rotary blade, move the air kind of fans. Imagine her surprise when she discovered the her son was watching another boy on YouTube doing nothing but talking about fans. His videos talking about fans had hundreds of thousands of views. As does the video of the teen girl in Boise talking about her acne. As does the video of the guy falling off his skateboard.
One of the reasons bloggers fail is that they obsess about their stats. They slip into the comparison trap and fall prey to the injustice of the on-line world. I write a brilliant post about how to better cope with life in hard times and it gets read ten times (eight if you don’t count my wife and mother). Meanwhile, Fan Boy has hundreds of thousands of people listening to him talk about the virtues of the Lasko Model 2527 pedestal fan.
Number of views and followers does not correlate to quality of content. Embrace it.
I’ve written some really good stuff over the years. Yeah, that post about the eleventh chapter of Leviticus? Killer. But, I published into the blogosphere like a sower casting his seed and it died on the vine. So did most of other posts that I wrote. Sometime I hit that “Publish” button feeling like a post is really going to resonate with people…until it doesn’t.
Back in January of 2012 I was on my way home from a week-long business trip to Texas. In the plane I was thinking about all of the great experiences I’d had with my client that week, and it struck me that being a theatre major at Judson College had uniquely prepared me for my job in ways I couldn’t have fathomed at the time. So, I got out my iPad and in twenty minutes I wrote a post: 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success. When my plane I landed I published it quickly (I didn’t even proof it), and thought no more of it.
Two weeks later that post went viral. That one silly post I’d hastily typed on my iPad brought in over 30,000 views in one day (FYI: reaching a hundred views in one day is a stellar day on my blog). I had comments pouring in from actors and producers in Hollywood and Broadway. At one point I counted more than twenty colleges and universities who have my post linked on their department websites.
You never know what’s going to land.
I can’t count the number of times that I squeamishly hit the “Publish” button thinking that my post was the most worthless piece of schlock ever written, and then later that day I hear from a stranger saying “This was so good! You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.”
No. I didn’t have a clue. I’m just a sower scattering my seed one post at a time.
The Rewards Aren’t Necessarily What You Think
At this point, it might seem as if I’m being really discouraging about this whole blogging business. I certainly hope you discern between realistic and discouraging. There are all sorts of amazing rewards I’ve received from blogging that this Wayfarer would never have discovered had I not embarked on the journey and stuck with it.
I’m a way better writer than I’ve ever been in my entire life. You know that guy who wrote that it’s not about talent, but about doing something for 10,000 hours? Yeah, blogging thousands of posts across twelve years has improved my writing, my creative flow, and my self-discipline. All I have to do is go back to read one of my early posts (and then fire down a quick shot of Pepto Bismal), and I know how far I’ve come.
I’ve gotten to know some amazing people and have enjoyed sharing the blogging journey with them. A few I’ve even gotten to meet in real life which has been awesome.
While I may not have hundreds and thousands of views of my posts, I’m continually humbled and encouraged when that “I really needed this” comment comes through or is casually mentioned by someone I would never expect. If my motive had to become popular then I would done things way differently.
What were my motives?
I wanted to create an on-line journal and archive of life. Mission accomplished.
“What year did we go to the ballet in Kansas City? Hang on, it’s there in the blog.”
“Oh my goodness, I’d totally forgotten about that time we did the ‘host a murder’ party at the winery!”
I wanted to create an archive of my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. Mission accomplished. All the way through the Bible. Twice.
Someday my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and perhaps even multiple other generations will be able to read through my daily thoughts and the things I pondered. Who knows what they might find meaningful, and funny, and perhaps even helpful in their own respective life journeys. That’s a reward that can’t be quantified.
So those are just five lessons from twelve years of blogging. Another milestone has been reached, and I’m still going. The journey continues. Who knows where it will take me. One post at a time.
Yesterday Wendy and I joined our friends in jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon. A regional touring production of the popular Broadway show about one of America’s founding fathers opened in Des Moines yesterday. The bottom line: Yes, it’s as good and amazing as everyone says it is.
Last night in bed Wendy was reading through different blog posts and articles about the places the hip-hop operetta strays from the facts of history. To be honest, I considered most of them to be nothing more than the typical ways writers are required to take license with history in order to tell one man’s life story in less than three hours on stage and to entertain the audience at the same time. I guarantee you that Hamilton has done more to motivate a generation of young people to dig into America’s history than any high school history teacher could do.
This morning as I read today’s chapter, the first of three chapters on the life of Judah’s King Asa, I thought about chroniclers of history whether they be relating stories via papyrus scroll, published novel, text book, research paper, or Broadway musical. The motivations and mediums may differ, but at a basic level the writers are all taking a lifetime of facts and reducing them into their own retelling.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the books of 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles were written at a time when Hebrew exiles had left the land of their captors in Babylon and returned to their homeland to rebuild and restore their country. The people, who’d been living in Babylon for a generation, are now staring at the rubble of Jerusalem and the rubble of Solomon’s Temple and they’re asking themselves all sorts of questions. Are we still connected to our history? Are we still connected to the God of our ancestors? Do we cling to the stories and faith of our ancestors, or do we ignore them and start over?
As I read through the accounts of the Kings of Judah written by the Chronicler I begin to see patterns. As noted in the past couple of weeks, the Chronicler is putting a positive perspective on the historical record. I can almost feel him encouraging his contemporary readers to dig-in, reconnect with their history, and celebrate their heritage just as Hamilton has done for our generation of Americans. He is also presenting a very simple, cause-and-effect story line. The kings who served God succeeded. The kings who abandoned God, worshipped idols, or were otherwise unfaithful experienced disaster and failure.
As I pondered this simple, cause-and-effect pattern I couldn’t help but think of Parson Weems who gave Americans the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The story was less about historical fact and more about teaching a moral lesson. Please don’t read what I’m not writing. The Chronicles are historical retelling (not fables as is Pastor Weems stories), but I can feel in the pattern of the Chronicler’s retelling that there is a moral lesson he wants his readers to catch: Follow God and be blessed. Abandon God and be cursed. It’s a good moral lesson. However, in the quiet this morning I’m looking back and finding that along my Life journey I’ve observed that Life does not always break down into simplistic, dualistic terms.
This morning I’m thinking about all the lessons that history has to teach us. After the show last night Wendy and I joined our friends for a spirited conversation over dinner about history, stories, and the wide-range of areas into which Hamilton poked and prodded our thoughts. The Chronicles, similarly, provide historical stories and lessons for us to take an apply to our daily journey some 2500 years later; Lessons that, like life itself, can at once be both remarkably simple and amazingly complex.
The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah,and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Jeremiah 1:1-3; 6-7 (NIV)
While in high school I was part of an incredible church youth group. I almost typed the adjective “unique,” but to this day I don’t think there was anything “unique” about me and my peers. We were typical high schoolers with all the angst, foolishness, idealism, drama and absentmindedness of any group of teens. Our youth pastor for most of my high school years was a man named Andy Bales whose journey has taken him to do amazing things for the homeless in Los Angeles. Our church’s worship leader was a gentleman named Mike Mars.
The thing about Andy and Mike was that they believed that God could accomplish far more through us than anyone else believed or expected (even ourselves). Andy didn’t just disciple us, he taught us how to disciple others including our parents. Mike didn’t just assemble a “youth choir” to sing in front of our parents once or twice a year. Mike taught us how to put together an entire program, how to work together as a team, and then sent us on the road almost every Sunday of the school year to minister to other churches all over our state. Mike didn’t travel with us. He trusted us to do everything ourselves from making a first impression to set up, rehearsal, performance, giving the message, tearing down and loading out for the trip home. A couple of parents or adults chaperones rode along to watch, but they never had to do a thing.
Many of the “kids” in my youth group have gone on to continue in vocational ministries as missionaries, pastors, ministry directors and youth workers. I observed that most others have approached their life journeys as ministry opportunities to serve God as educators, doctors, and professionals in the business community.
This personal experience has colored my own world view. When our daughters were young people I tried to instill in them that they could be used by God’s Spirit and have an impact for God’s Kingdom right now. I’m proud of what they attempted, accomplished, and learned.
I am fond of reminding my local gathering of Jesus’ followers that no where in God’s Message is there an age requirement for being a believer, being called by God, being filled by the Spirit, having spiritual gifts, or exercising those gifts for God’s Kingdom. In fact, the list of Biblical characters who were called by God as young people (without education, without training, without official institutional certification of any kind) is impressive: Timothy, Mary, David, Samuel, Joseph, Esther, and Mark.
In today’s opening chapter of Jeremiah’s anthology of prophetic messages he shares that he was called by God as a boy. As typical of young people, Jeremiah responded to God, “but I’m just a kid!” But age is not a qualification for being called by God or doing God’s work. And when young people are called by God they tend to have spiritually productive life journeys. Jeremiah himself was a prophet for 40 years during a period of time when life expectancy itself was around 30 years (if you were one of the lucky few to survive infancy).
Forgive me for sounding like an old curmudgeon, but along my life journey I’ve observed that our culture seems to expect less and less of our young people. We protect them. We shelter them from life’s natural pains. We entertain them endlessly and hover over them to ensure that they experience minimal discomfort. We build up their egos while minimizing their opportunities to experience the lessons of accomplishing things on their own and learning the invaluable lessons of failure. We keep extending childhood to the point that becoming a capable, responsible adult is a post-graduate crisis experience with its own word: adulting.
This morning I’m thanking God for teaching me as a boy that I had a role to play in the Kingdom of God and that role began immediately. I’m saying a prayer of gratitude for Andy and for Mike who believed in me and my peers more than we believed in ourselves. I’m praying for a generation of young people who will rebel against being treated like snowflakes and who will lead a spiritual storm of revival and culture change that no one expects.
The old curmudgeon rant is over. Have a great day.
He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. 2 Kings 24:14 (NIV)
This past Saturday evening Wendy and I gathered with our local community theatre for an annual awards celebration. It was a gala affair and several people gave acceptance speeches for awards they received. I had several people comment to me that they picked up a theme in the speeches. Many members of our local theatre community moved into our small town from elsewhere. They spoke about their feelings of struggling to find a place where they belonged in the community and the theatre provided that for them. I relate to that. It was 13 years ago that I moved to Pella and found myself auditioning for a show, hoping to meet people.
In today’s chapter we read about one of the most climactic events of the story of the nation of Israel. The Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city, Solomon’s Temple, and carrying everything of value, people included, into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s poem of Lamentations speaks his grief over the event. The events of the book of Daniel and the prophecies of Ezekiel tell of life in exile. Psalm 137 is an angry blues song grieving life in the Babylonian exile and expressing the desire for violent retribution on their captors.
Exile is a theme in our stories, our histories, and our life journeys. At some point in life, perhaps multiple times, we find ourselves unexpectedly stranded in unknown territory feeling like a stranger and in a strange place.
But in our epic stories there is always purpose in the exile. Harry Potter’s awful upbringing at the hand of his aunt and uncle planted and cultivated the seeds of the courage, endurance, and perseverance that would be required of him later. Aragorn lived in exile as a ranger for a hundred years, traveling the known world and living with different peoples, but it became essential to him becoming the man who would reclaim his throne. Even in the Great Story we find Israel learning important lessons that resonate in their culture to this very day. Even baby Jesus was taken into exile in Egypt to escape a murderous Herod.
Exile is an important theme in our journeys.
This morning I’m thinking about my own move to Pella. Without going into the story I will tell you that it was unforeseen and unexpected. There was a part of me that never wanted to be here. But, now I look back on the road I’ve traversed, where the journey has brought me, and I am so grateful for where the exile brought me and how exile taught me all about new things (including rediscovering my love of the stage). Exile is never easy, but it does have purpose in making me the person I’m called to be if I will choose to lean in and learn the lessons.
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many.” Isaiah 51:1-2 (NIV)
I’ve always been a lover of history. I love learning about the past, and I love it for a host of reasons. Among those reasons are the lessons found in one of life’s paradoxical mysteries. Things do change, yet we often use the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There are some things about human nature and society that remain amazingly static and simply get reinterpreted with each subsequent generation within the context of the times they find themselves. I find this a perpetually helpful reminder.
I can’t help but think of the current circumstances we find ourselves in here in the States. We feel acutely the tumultuous election in the United States and the deep division that’s being felt and expressed among our fellow citizens.
What has changed is that social media has allowed for unprecedented exchange and dissemination of immediate thoughts and feelings from POTUS to the lowliest citizen in real time. This has highlighted the stark differences of thought and opinion across hundreds of millions of people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade or two ago. We are quick to stake our claim that we’re “more divided than ever” and we are this or that “of all time.” Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that we as humans like to lay claim to being wholly unique and exclusive in our human experiences.
It’s another thing I love about the past. It teaches us lessons of comparison that put our present circumstances in context. I’ve seen snarkiness, sarcasm, rage, and vitriol across the entire spectrum from extreme right to extreme left and back again. We are living in divisive times. Nevertheless, we haven’t killed a half-million of each other as we did in 1860-1865 (the featured photo of this post is that of Civil War dead). I haven’t seen in recent months the attack dogs and fire hoses of Bloody Sunday. I haven’t seen news stories of entire neighborhoods on fire. I pray we can learn from those lessons and keep ourselves from returning to such insanities.
In today’s chapter, God through the prophet Isaiah hearkens the Hebrew people to learn a lesson from their history. He tells them to look back and remember the story of Abraham and Sara. He tells them to recall the promises made and kept to Abraham. They were encouraged to trust the promises of the past. As God was faithful in His promises to Abraham, He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham’s children.
This morning I’m thinking about the past. I’m recalling my own relatively short life journey and the difficult times I’ve witnessed and experienced. I’m recalling some extraordinary good times I’ve experienced as well. The things we feel so acutely in this moment will pass. They will give way to other experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Time will march on.
One of the things my faith has given me is a broader eternal context in which to place my present circumstances. I do believe there is a reason for all of this. I believe it’s all connected and part of a larger narrative. The past has moved us to this point int he story. We will propel the story forward in our lifetime. Just as Isaiah encouraged the Babylonian refugees to take comfort in the promises of Abraham, I can hearken back to the eternal promises given through Jesus, the prophets, and apostles and take comfort in them.