Keep a Close Watch

An Air Freshener and Self-awareness

I have this air freshener in my car because well… you know.  When I first got it I literally couldn’t smell anything else in the car.  Seriously, it was so incredibly overpowering that I considered throwing it away and getting a different one.  You know how these things go though, over time I completely stopped smelling it and I just left it there not thinking much about it.  Then Lauren and I had to go somewhere and as soon as she stepped in the car she noted just how strong the air freshener was.  I had gone completely nose-deaf to it.  I thought the air freshener was ready to be replaced, meanwhile anyone in the car with me was being overpowered by it.  Oops.  Here’s the thing though, we do this with our lives as well.  We have attitudes and behaviors in our lives that we are completely unaware of but others are intensely affected by them.  I say “we” because the truth is I’ve seen my own struggle with self-awareness through the adverse effects I’ve unintentionally had on others.

Fugitives of Self-Knowledge

This theme of self-awareness is widely accepted as a critical aspect of life.  Just typing ‘self-awareness quotes’ into Goodreads yields over 1000 results.  One of my friends and mentors includes self-awareness in his 4 key mindsets for leaders.  Yet despite all of this most of us go through life without taking the time to consider our actions and behaviors.  As one of my professors once said, “We are fugitives of self-knowledge.”  Listen to what Paul says to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16 ESV)”  Paul’s use of the imperative indicates his eagerness to convey his message to Timothy.  Paul is makes a very interesting and yet important claim about self-awareness.  He is essentially saying that by developing a knowledge of self we are able to save not only ourselves but others as well.  What does he mean by this?  To answer that question let’s look at the effects of self-UNawareness.

Came in like a wrecking ball

When we aren’t aware of our selfish behaviors we end up hurting others and in many cases we end up playing the victim suggesting that we are the ones who have been hurt.  Furthermore, if we don’t keep a close watch on our lives then we often become hypocrites where we say and preach one thing yet do another without even thinking about it.  In fact, it has often been said that the thing we hate in others is the very thing we see in ourselves.  So when we lack self-awareness we can easily fall into the trap of alienating others, playing the victim, or simply becoming hypocrites.  It isn’t hard to see how this effects others’ perception of us and furthermore their perception of God.

Unfortunately, a lack of self-knowledge acts more like a wrecking ball in our lives than we think.  It has the devastating power to destroy our relationships as we have seen, but it also has the power to keep us trapped in unhealthy patterns and lifestyles.  Remember Paul said that self-awareness would save Timothy as well as his hearers.  I hear all the time how busy people are and how they don’t have time for this or that.  For a few this is legitimately the case, they are working several jobs just to put food on the table, but for the majority I suspect there is more time available than they realize.  I know for me personally, I have the tendency to waste time on buzzfeed lists or games on my phone that promise to take only a few seconds or minutes and turn into much longer periods of time.  Without awareness of these things we waste time on things that are genuinely unimportant and miss spending time on things that are critical to our lives.  Imagine with me if we developed a profound self-awareness.  If we could look at our actions and behaviors and truly see how we are acting, imagine how our lives would be different.  Perhaps we would learn to love more deeply and become defensive less often.  Maybe our relationships would begin to flourish and our withholding of forgiveness might diminish.  We might even find time that we didn’t know we had and be able to pour it into individuals and family members that we care deeply about.  I believe that self-awareness has the ability to lead to a sense of freedom in our own lives and provide healing to those who are in desperate need of it.

Action Steps

So how do we handle this?  How do we develop a self-awareness that will enable us to live genuine, authentic, and attractive lives?  Here are a few things that I would suggest.

  • Keep a journal each day.  Record in it your daily habits and any conversations that strike you as important especially arguments that you had.  Spend some time thinking about how you may have come across in that conversation.
  • Consider the spiritual practice of the Daily Examen.  This is an ancient spiritual practice that was formalized by St. Ignatius of Loyola.  ( Here is a great article explaining the Daily Examen in more detail)
  • Ask others for honest feedback.  This one will take time as most people have an aversion to offering feedback of this nature.  Consider doing it anonymously through a third party like you would if you were doing a 360 leadership evaluation.
  • Find a spiritual director.  I can’t emphasize this one enough.   My spiritual director has helped me to see things that I’m too close to see and has helped me grow in ways that I never could have before.
  • Record how much time you spend doing certain activities.  Even just monitoring the time you spend will help change your behavior.

Paul’s urging to keep a close watch on ourselves is vital to the Christian life.  May we develop a profound self-awareness in order that we might save ourselves and those around us.

self awareness

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Disengaging in order to flourish

The gentle sounds emanating from my smartphone alert me to the fact that it is time for me to wake up.  I go ahead and disconnect it from its power source and crawl out of bed.  Throughout the day my phone will serve to remind me what meetings I have, emails I need to respond to, and texts that are vying for my attention.  On top of that, it will serve as an entertainment source for when I’m bored (or for when I want to procrastinate) and a way to keep in touch with friends through social media.  For all of these services it demands only one thing… my unwavering fixation.

In her book, The Joy of Missing Out, Christina Crook explores this unwavering fixation that has grown out of the technology boom of the modern era.  The compulsive checking of emails and the incessant check-ins on Facebook have become the norm for society.  As Christina points out in her book, the very definition of compulsive behavior is an irresistible urge that is often against one’s own wishes.  Our phones are within arm’s reach, our inbox remains open on our computers and our latest tweet was only a few minutes ago, yet we find ourselves drained with little desire or ability to interact with others face to face.  Ultimately, it is us who have been disconnected from our power source.

Christina decided to do a 31 day Internet fast after coming to the understanding that her time on the Internet was allowing her to “emotionally disengage” from herself and her loved ones.  This book was born out of that experience and recounts many of the lessons that she learned during that time.  Included among these insights are the practices she now uses when engaging with the world of technology.  This important book, not only points out the problem many of us are too close to see, but also provides motivation for finding balance in an increasingly unbalanced world.

Through engaging stories and heartfelt confession, Christina endears herself to the reader and gently convicts us of our own shortcomings in how we deal with technology.  Her opening chapter recalls what it was like to be without a smartphone or the Internet and the joy that this brought in her younger days.  She then presents the stark contrast of that world and the modern one where technological progress is heralded while relationships grow shallower and more distant.

Technology, she argues, is meant to relieve burdens, yet there are many that we should not wish to be rid of such as the hard work of preparing a meal for friends.  With the unexamined progress of technology many burdens that are good for human flourishing are being removed, thus hindering the development of relational skills among children and adults alike.  She asks the poignant question, “Have we, by outsourcing the work of our lives, outsourced the living of life?”

She is careful not to diminish the good that has come from technology but is also astute in relating the unexpected consequences of technological consumption.  She observes that while technology has made many things possible, it has also made us entirely independent.  The dependency on others that we have lost has caused us to lose the intimacy that many of us now long for.

At this point, one might begin to hear the defensive voice suggesting that technology is a neutral tool that is to be used to better society.  Christina points out, however, that the compulsive behaviors surrounding technology suggests otherwise.  When something detracts from creativity and imagination it ceases to become a neutral tool and instead becomes a hindering influence.  Christina captures this essence well, demonstrating that much of our time spent using technology has done more to hinder creativity than to promote it.  Indeed, I found myself convicted of my own unexamined use of technology and the effects that it has had on my decision making and creativity.

As a response to technology, Christina offers the practice of being present.  Undoubtedly, we have all been in a situation where we have been at lunch with someone and mid-conversation they reply to a text or send an email that simply can’t wait.  Perhaps we ourselves are the guilty party.  Christina challenges this mindset and argues that in the vast number of circumstances those texts and emails can wait for a moment and thus our focus should remain on the person in front of us.

In addition to the practice of being present, Christina also encourages us to practice the Examen of Consciousness and to eliminate online usage that is not life-giving.  This Jesuit practice forces us to honestly reflect on our behaviors and aids us in becoming more intentional with our actions.

Fasting from the Internet may seem to many as an impossibility and perhaps even a bit irresponsible, yet there are many benefits to be had.  Christina argues that, “When we deprive ourselves of our digital technologies with the intention of making room for quiet reflection and stillness, we help develop self-discipline and fortitude, fostering a greater openness to God.”  It is therefore by fasting from these things that we are able to overcome the inordinate attachment that we have to our devices and instead recover the intimacy that many of our relationships lack.

In two chapters of this book, Christina offers strong motivations for change.  She points out the long-term trajectory of technological progress which at times sounds much like science fiction if not for the reliable sources that she draws on to corroborate her stories.  She contrasts the bleak future of a society reliant on technology with the flourishing society that is centered on relationships and real life contact.  As an additional motivating factor, Christina discusses the fact that our current online habits will be mimicked by our children as they mature into adulthood.  In order for us to teach our children how to use the Internet responsibly we must first do so ourselves.  She ends the book by summarizing strategies for how to effectively use the Internet and ways where we can practice our own technology fasts.

The book is well-researched and well-written, although there are times where the stories become repetitive such as the recounting of her experience of being locked out of her house.  This story in particular is retold on several occasions with the same lessons be drawn out each time.  There are a few places as well where she implies that mental illnesses have increased as a result of our technological progress, but the evidence supporting it is far from conclusive.

The Joy of Missing Out is a timely book for the rampant technophilia of our society.  It is a problem that many of us are already aware of, yet Christina’s voice is one worth listening to.  Her personal insights have been gained through an intentional disengagement with technology and that disengagement has led to a more thoughtful practice.  As our society moves forward and continues to expand the boundaries of what technology can do, a thoughtful discussion is required into what is being sacrificed for “progress.”  Christina offers her voice and invites us to take an active part in this ongoing conversation.  May we heed that invitation.

This review originally appeared on Englewood Book Review.

Selah

Recently, I was reading a book called The Sacred Year by Mike Yankoski.  It is a book filled with spiritual wisdom and insight.  It was hard-earned though through a rediscovering of his faith and reigniting the passion that had seemingly fizzled by the demands of being a sought-after Christian author and speaker.  Yankoski quoted Tolkien to try and put words to it by saying that he felt like he was butter scrapped across too much bread.  Anytime someone quotes Lord of the Rings they  are speaking my love language.  Isn’t that the truth though?  The dryness that he felt in his faith was something that I could resonate with and I have a suspicion I’m not alone.  It may only last a day where the endless tasks just seem to pile up and you just go through the motions.  Other times it lasts for a season or a season of life.  You realize intellectually that you want your faith to be at the center of your life, but there is just this dryness that you can’t seem to shake.  Been there, done that.  Yet isn’t there something that stirs in us that says that it’s not supposed to be this way?  That a life of faith is supposed to be vibrant and filled with joy and anticipation.  What are we do with Jesus’ statement in John 10:10 that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly?    Are we missing something?

There was a meme that floated around the internet a while ago that I think captures an important point here.

zombie apocaplypse

The truth is that for many of us, it is relatively accurate.  We have spent so much of our time invested in social media and in technology that we have detached from the rest of the world.  I find it interesting, however, that the image on the right immediately makes people think about the walking dead.  Let that sink in.  Our obsession with technology and our compulsion to be on our phones has caused us to lose that abundant life that Jesus wants for us and instead we have traded it in for a life that feels like, “butter scrapped across too much bread” or, in the case of this meme,  like the walking dead.  So what do we do?  How do we change our lives to feel that passion again?

Yankoski offers this word: Selah.  It is a Hebrew word we find in the Psalms that Yankoski translates as, “Shut up! And pay attention!”  The meaning is clear regardless, we are called to stop what we’re doing and to truly pay attention.  In other words, we need to savor that moment.  We need to slow down and to practice the spiritual discipline of attentiveness.  For many of us this is a hard thing to do. We are so busy and so rushed that we become task oriented and seek to cross things off our to-do lists as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Yet perhaps if we slowed down to truly savor moments we might begin to have a clearer view of what God is doing.  Think of it like drinking a nice glass of wine.  To truly appreciate the glass of wine, you need to let it swirl around in your mouth and allow the tongue to taste all that is there.  In other words you need to selah.  

The spiritual practice of attentiveness goes back through the centuries.  It is the practice of slowing down for the purpose of seeing what God is doing.  Those of us who are always doing something may feel guilty for slowing down because it feels lazy but there is a purpose behind it.  It is to see what God wants to do in your life and where he may be leading you.  This can be done in any number of ways.  Inspired by the book, I decided to engage in this practice of attentiveness in a slightly unconventional way.  Each week, I am now baking a loaf of bread from scratch.  It forces me to slow down.  Instead of simply buying a loaf from the grocery story I have to mix the ingredients thoroughly.  It teaches me patience because the dough requires hours to rise and then again more patience as the smell of baking bread wafts through the house as it bakes in the oven.  Yet the finished product is worth savoring.  It is far better than the typical loaves of bread that I buy from the grocery store and I even just enjoy it by itself.  Yet more than all of that, when I allow that time to be filled with prayer, I’m again humbled by God.  The dryness lifts and God’s refreshing spirit fills my heart.

So maybe you’re feeling like you’re in a dry place right now.  Maybe you have been going a mile a minute and you feel like you’re missing out on that abundant life.  Perhaps like Yankoski and Bilbo, you feel like butter scrapped across too much bread.  Consider the practice of attentiveness, begin to savor life.  Selah.

Selah

Who do you want to be?

Who do you want to be?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  That was a popular question  when I was younger.  It always came from a well-intentioned adult in their attempts to make polite conversation with the young kid they had before them.  As I got older the question remained generally the same, but my responses began to mature from Orioles baseball player to things like doctor, chemist, math professor,  camp director.  Each big decision that I made would often prompt a new iteration of the question.  The question itself began to bear more curiosity than before.  Now, people truly wanted to know why I was majoring in math, or why I was at graduate school, or why I left graduate school, or why I entered Seminary.  Honestly, the question isn’t a bad one.  In fact, having a vision for where you want to go is vital to knowing what steps you need to take to get there.  Every leadership book out there and even every  business book stresses the importance of having this kind of vision.  It sets the trajectory for where you want to take the organization and of the kind of leader you need to be.  The other day, however, I was reading a book called Building Below the Waterline, by Gordon MacDonald, which asks a similar yet profoundly different question. Gordon asked  essentially, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”  This is not an occupational question like before, this one is about character.  It makes you think about the kind of person you want to be, about how you will be remembered.  It gets into the inner workings of  your life and makes you wrestle with how you want your life to be no matter your circumstances.

Last week, I talked about labels and how these influence our behavior in a rather powerful yet often detrimental way.  The answer to the question, “Who do you want to be?” has an equal ability to influence our lives and impact the decisions we make.  This was reinforced for me this past weekend during the bible study following our church service.  We were discussing the life of Joseph, the son of Jacob, who occupies the main narrative at the end of Genesis.  It is a powerful story of perseverance and faith.  I remember my former Old Testament professor once described it as the most beautiful and moving narratives he had ever read.  I see his point.  The man Joseph is favored by his father and one day he receives this dream where it appears that all of his brothers will eventually bow to him.  Now I won’t recount the entire narrative here (I encourage you to read it in Genesis 37-50), but needless to say, Joseph encounters incredible opposition following this dream including slavery and imprisonment.  Despite these circumstances and awful tribulations, Joseph remains faithful to God throughout and everywhere he goes he is given authority and responsibility because of the life he lives, because of the strength of character that dwells inside him.

I think the reason for this is because Joseph knew the answer to the question, “Who do you want to be?”  He was well-versed with it and had a vision of what God wanted for him.  I think in the low points of his life he clung to the dreams that he had as a young man.  He took comfort in the promises of God and that his task was to be the man that God needed him to be when those dreams were realized. Here is the reality:  we too have been given a dream and a vision.  We are called to be imitators of Christ and as such God wants us to live a certain way.  Essentially, he has given us a vision statement for our lives.  It is founded in grace and truth and is meant to influence every aspect of our behavior.  We are called coheirs with Christ and Beloved.  This vision of being a coheir with Christ should seep into our character and form us spiritually.  Once we have captured this vision, our actions need to be filtered through that lens.  Gordon MacDonald actually recommends making a vision statement for your life and putting it in the front of a journal, then every day you take some time to journal about your day and how you’re working towards that vision.  It’s a bit of a time commitment clearly, and yet just the thought of doing that stirs my heart.  To live a focused life, a life determined to follow God is perhaps one of the keys to the abundant life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10.  So I ask you this, “Who do you want to be?  How do you want to be remembered?”  The answers to these questions are the initial steps to living a grace-filled life.  Let us take them boldly and live abundantly.

A Rose by any other Name

I was in conversation with a friend and coworker of mine the other day while at lunch.  During the conversation he mentioned to me that he was recently struggling because he had recently learned about the conviction of a person he knew.  It had made him struggle, because if it had been anyone else, he would have just thought of this person as a murderer, but he knew him and he struggled to reconcile that person with the atrocity that he had committed.  You see we hear about murders all the time from the news and we see their pictures and there is something that triggers in our mind.  That person is now labeled as a murderer.  My friend was struggling because he knew this person beyond that identity, beyond that label.  He knew him as a human being.

Who are you?  Or perhaps a better question, who do people say you are?   This concept of labels and identity is of paramount importance because they’re insidious in nature and often wholly destructive.  Many of us carry around these labels without ever realizing that we have them.  Many labels have been given to us and some have been cultivated by ourselves and the things we’ve done.   For instance, I’ve heard people call themselves stupid because they did something wrong or made a mistake.  That label of stupid may sound trivial, yet it begins to take root and insecurities build up.  Often they try to prove themselves in order to compensate or they bring others down focusing on their weaknesses.  The insidious power of the label makes it so that they don’t realize what they’re doing and in the end they’ve been hurt and caused hurt all because of a simple label.  It doesn’t stop there however, we use labels to describe others as well.  We may never say them out loud, nonetheless these labels lie just below the surface dictating how we behave around them and interact with them.  The more strongly we hold to those labels the more we are governed by them.

There is hope though in the midst of this.  The theme of identity is crucial to the gospel and the entire narrative of scripture and offers redemption and hope.  I want to take a second and look at a single passage that is one of my favorites and perhaps one of the more mysterious passages in scripture.  It comes from Genesis 32 and it is often referred to as Jacob’s wrestling with God.  During the tussle, the man changes Jacob’s name to Israel.  One cannot pass by this too quickly.  You see the Hebrew culture understood this concept of labels.  They understood that the name you give to someone sets the course for their life.  It is often why kingly names were given with the hope that the child would live in to them.  Just think about what Jesus’ name meant:  God saves.  So anytime a person’s name is changed, we should look with an intentional gaze as to why.   The name “Jacob” has the meaning of “usurper” or of “the one grasping at the heel”.  It is a name that was given to him because he grasped the heel of Esau when they were born.  Unfortunately, just a cursory glance of Jacob’s life will attest to the fact that his name dictated his behavior.  He tricked his brother out of his birthright and inheritance, he deceived his father into blessing him, he cheated his uncle, and now he is wrestling with this man.  Throughout his life he has been one for deception and for looking out only for Jacob.  Yet the man changes his name to Israel.  The profundity of this cannot be overstated.

The name Israel is much debated in scholarship, but the general consensus is that it is a combination of two words:  “God” and “struggle.”  It is vague, however if this means that God struggles with Israel or if Israel struggles with God.  Some even contend that it isn’t “struggle” at all, but “rule” in which the meaning would be that “God rules Israel.”  Yet the fact remains that it establishes a close-knit relationship between Jacob and God.  Here God is saying that your identity of deceiver and of usurper has ended and now you have a new identity, an identity that is going to change the world.  It is this identity that sets the path for ancient Israel to struggle with God’s will and for God to struggle on their behalf.  In it lies a promise, a promise to be close, a promise of a beautiful relationship.

We have just gone through the Easter season where this was made true of us.  When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.”  He was saying that our old labels, the ones that inhibit us from growing, the ones that call us enemies of God are at an end.  The empty tomb invites us to leave those labels there, to take up a new mantle and new identity in Christ.  Not only that, but it calls us to examine our labels of others.  Do we hold, unconsciously ideas about others that cause us to behave differently around them?  Do we harbor some preconceived idea about them?  When we follow those labels and treat people according to them we inhibit their growth and make them carry a burden that is not theirs to bear.  Instead can we offer hope?  Can we believe in people and help them see a vision of what they could be?  God invites us into a beautiful relationship with him where we put to death our old selves and become something new.  We become coheirs with Christ, sons and daughters of God almighty.  Alleluia!

I want to point to one more passage to conclude.  Jacob understood this message and his life began to turn around.  Later in life we see him a bit more patient and less deceptive than he was.  His wife Rachel dies in childbirth and she names her son “Benoni” which means “son of my sorrow.”  Here this new infant has been given a name that is sorrow-filled and has the opportunity to set the course for his life, but Jacob does something in that moment.  He names him instead, “Benjamin”  which means “son of my right hand.”  The simple change is made, but it is beautiful.  On the one hand his name was one of sorrow and sadness, but on the other there is strength and courage.  Jacob realized the importance of a label and intentionally chose one that offered hope for Benjamin’s future.  Be careful what labels you use of others and yourselves.  Indeed, perhaps Shakespeare misspoke and indeed a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.