The George Costanza approach to transformation

Last night I found myself enjoying a glass of wine and reruns of Seinfeld.  Why?  Because Seinfeld episodes are prolific…and spectacular.  So why not?  The episode I was watching was entitled “The Opposite”.  Near the beginning of the show George enters the coffee shop and claims,

Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

Who hasn’t felt this way?  Who hasn’t looked back over their life and wished that something could have turned out differently?  While many may not go to the extreme of saying their “life is the opposite of everything I want it to be,” it is safe to assume there is some part of our life that isn’t what we hoped for.  We may look over our life and wish we had contributed more to the well being of other people.  We wish we had a more positive influence on others in our lives.  Maybe we look at our relationships and, when we are honest, they are more shallow than we would like them to be.  We may look at who we project to be and who we are deep down and see two different people and long for the authenticity and courage to make those two people one and the same.

I believe the reason this happens is because we live in a world where pain is inevitable.  All of us have been hurt in life.  No one is immune.

And no one likes pain.

In response to a world where there is pain we develop self-protections to minimize pain.  We keep people at an arm’s length so there is less pain if the relationship breaks down.  We don’t say what we are actually feeling so as to avoid potential conflict.  We use humor to try and defuse pain.  We get aggressive when we feel threatened by a person or situation.  We withdraw from relationships when we first begin to sense pain.  We never try anything new or take risks because the thought of failure is too much to bear.  All of these (and there are many more) are self-protections used by us to avoid pain in a painful world.

While these self-protections keep us from pain, they also keep us from experiencing life.  Keeping people at arm’s length (or another way to say it would be keeping the relationships shallow) does protect you from pain.  But it also keeps you from enjoying an authentic relationship where you are truly known by another person and accepted for who you are.

Our self-protections are so ingrained in us they become instinctual.  When a potentially painful situation arises, we react out of instinct and we do what it is we do whenever a painful situation arises.  And because we react the same way every time, we get the same results.  So when George Costanza exclaimed, “Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat…It’s all been wrong” he was on to something very profound.

The instinct that tells you not to let people get to close to others is all wrong.  The instinct that screams your not good enough is all wrong.  The instinct that says you are defined by what you do is all wrong.  These wrong instincts lead us to a life that we never wanted.

If we want something different out of life then we have to stop listening to our instincts.

George comes to the following conclusion which drives the events of the rest of the episode.

Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

Maybe this is what we need to do.  So for example, if I wish I had more authentic relationships where I known, when my instinct tells me not to be vulnerable because it might be painful, maybe the best thing I can do is the exact opposite and be vulnerable.  Maybe then I will experience relationships where I am known.  If my instinct is to disengage from the relationship, I do the opposite and engage.  If my instinct is to become angry, I become quiet.  If it is to play it safe, I take a risk.  Doing the opposite of our instinct is doing something different, and doing something different will lead to something different.

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A response to Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson is quickly becoming even more irrelevant than ever.  His most recent statements should be, and are rightly being, condemned.  This week Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife if she were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s because the disease was a “kind of death.”  According to Robertson the person is “not there” anymore.  It is baffling to me how he can arrive at this conclusion considering he argued against the removal of Terri Schiavo from life-support  just six years ago.  The cognitive disconnect is astounding if not disturbing.

Russell Moore on his blog states very succinctly what I am feeling.

 This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This couldn’t be more correct.  Husband and wives are called to love each other as Christ loves the church.  Which is not simply a nice way of calling spouses to a higher standard when it comes to their marital vows, it is a mysterious, Holy Spirit breathed sign of Christ’s love for the church.  A love that pursued, chased after, picked up, cried for, fought for and died for a bride who had left her first love.  It can be argued that the bride (the church) did not even know Christ during the moment of his greatest sacrifice.  If this is the picture marriage is to represent, how on earth can Robertson make the claim he is?

There is no doubt the anger I am feeling is coming from the personal experience I have with this issue.  My grandmother and my grandmother-in-law both suffer from this debilitating disease.  And yet, as I watch my family, especially my grandfather and in-laws, care for my grandmothers I am amazed at the grace of Jesus that flows through them.  There are few more beautiful and moving shadows of the love of Jesus towards us as sinners, outside of parenting a child, than the shadow of watching the gentle, quiet, sacrificial love of someone caring for a person who cannot return the act.  Not only is it a beautiful picture of sacrificial love, but it is a transforming experience for the caretaker.  They cannot be left unchanged by the experience.  And for the Christian, the hope is through the giving of care for the weak, we are made into the image of Christ.

Robertson McQuilkin relates this experience in caring for his wife.

I don’t have to care for her, I get to. One blessing is the way she is teaching me so much—about love, for example, God’s love. She picks flowers outside—anyone’s—and fills the house with them.

Lately she has begun to pick them inside, too. Someone had given us a beautiful Easter lily, two stems with four or five lilies on each, and more to come. One day I came into the kitchen and there on the window sill over the sink was a vase with a stem of lilies in it. I’ve learned to “go with the flow” and not correct irrational behavior. She means no harm and does not understand what should be done, nor would she remember a rebuke. Nevertheless, I did the irrational—I told her how disappointed I was, how the lilies would soon die, the buds would never bloom, and please do not break off the other stem.

The next day our youngest son, soon to leave for India came from Houston for his next-to-last visit. I told Kent of my rebuke of his mother and how bad I felt about it. As we sat on the porch swing, savoring each moment together, his mother came to the door with a gift of love for me: she carefully laid the other stem of lilies on the table with a gentle smile and turned back into the house. I said simply, “Thank you.” Kent said, “You’re doing better, Dad!”

The full article can be found here

Too often we are concerned about what we get out of our relationships with people.  We apply economic cost-benefit analysis to our relationships to determine whether they are worthwhile for us to maintain.  Has the market influenced us that deeply?  Have we reduced human interaction, even love, to such that its worth is dependent on what it offers?  Has the idea of sacrifice completely been lost?  How many of us, like McQuilkin can say, “I don’t have to care for her, I get to”?  I see this attitude in my grandfather.  I see it in my in-laws.  And it is inspiring.  That doesn’t mean it is without difficulty.  Quite the contrary.  But what is so inspiring is that in the midst of the difficulty they continue on.  When most would give up, they press on.  When there is nothing coming back to them, the give some more.  How that doesn’t give greater testimony to the love of Jesus and the faithful presence of Christians in the world I will never know.

Moore’s conclusion is absolutely beautiful and spot on.  So I will simply end by quoting it:

Jesus tells us he is present in the weak, the vulnerable, the useless. He is there in the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46). Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85 year-old woman who flinches because she think he’s a stranger. No television cameras are around. No politicians are seeking a meeting with them.

But the gospel is there. Jesus is there.

Courage to not know

This post is largely inspired by the talk given above.

No one can deny this simple truth: the world we inhabit is amazingly complex.  Think of everything going on around you right now.  Think of the sounds you hear, the things you see, the complex reactions happening enabling you to see; the light hitting your retina and cones, the signals being sent to your nerves and to your brain, the brain processing that information allowing you to see.  Simultaneously, your brain is telling your sympathetic nervous system to send signals to your heart to keep it beating and your diaphragm to keep you breathing.  There are complex chemical reactions happening to metabolize the food you had for lunch so your body has the energy it needs to do all the things it does.  This is just your body.  Now if you are sitting next to someone double it.  And if you are sitting on the lawn add in photosynthesis.  And if you check your phone add in the signals being sent back and forth…..

You get the point.  Our world is wildly complex.  And part of the complexity is the interconnectedness of everything.  Never before in human history has the world been so connected.  Just pay attention to our stock markets.  What happens in Japan or Europe has immediate implications on US markets and vice versa.  This increasing connection simply adds to the complexity.

The complexity of the world we live in makes it impossible for us to know how everything works with any certitude.

In the video above, Harford very clearly makes this point.  And I believe his conclusion is spot on.  The complexity of the world is such that no one can really know how to fix problems.  Hartford uses the example of Unilever’s process of developing a nozzle to create detergent to illustrate this point.  Unilever hired an expert to create a nozzle that would perform the necessary function.  But it didn’t work.  Unilever resorted to a trial and error method that eventually led to a working nozzle.  And no one knows how or why it works.

Apply this idea to bigger problems.  Can a single person fully understand the depth of the global final crisis to be able to solve it?  Or even the American recession?  Of course not.

The solution according to Harford?  Trial and error. Built into the system of trial and error is room to accommodate what it is that we don’t know.  Especially what it is that we don’t know we don’t know.  When you assume that trial and error is necessary to solve a problem you aren’t as discouraged when you fail.  In the failure there is learning.  We learn something we didn’t previously know, so we create a new trial and do it all over again.  However, if we operate with a god-complex, assuming we know all there is to know and have come up with the lone solution, our ability to adapt to new information dramatically decreases.

(As a side note, his example of a politician who would voice this and refrain from the god-complex of “I alone fully understand and have a solution to X” would indeed be extremely refreshing.  Maybe even restoring my hope in politics.  But I digress)

This idea isn’t groundbreaking.  But don’t we see the antithesis of this everywhere?  I think of how often I hear someone in the church say they have the solution to all the problems.  There is a part of me that finds it even more laughable when those who confess to love Jesus claim to have the answer.  We claim God alone has wisdom and full understanding.  We believe “there is a way that seems right to man, but in the end leads to death”  (Proverbs 14:12).   And yet we claim with confidence, “If people would just read their Bibles more” as if that would solve problems.  Let me be clear, it won’t hurt, but the idea that it would solve all problems is a little oversimplified.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much we can know and understand.  We can know the person of Jesus, the love exemplified on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the transformational work of the Holy Spirit on a life.  But there is much we don’t know.  We don’t know why God allows devastating diseases like cancer to ravage a child’s body.  We don’t know why God permits destructive tsunami’s to destroy so many lives.  We don’t know why a husband leaves his wife and children.  And claiming we do is nothing short of claiming to have the  mind of God, and that is a dangerous claim.

As pastors, the pressure to have a god-complex is even greater.   People want certainty.  People want to make sense of the world around them.  People want answers.  The pastor is in a unique situation where they can provide people with answers and solutions and certainty, and when we do, the adoration can be intoxicating.  Crack cocaine may not be more intoxicating than adoration.

Or perhaps, because there is a desire among the people for certainty, it is much less scary to provide them with some band-aid presented confidently as the antidote to an epidemic than to claim you don’t know the cure.  It is so much easier, and satisfying, to say, “I am a god and understand everything perfectly” than to say, “I don’t know.”  It is so much more comfortable to not fail, to not be seen as imperfect, or to not be seen as someone who knows than it is to say, “I haven’t a clue.”

Admitting uncertainty, fallibility, and failure comes with pain.  There is a necessary humility to live publicly with one’s own inadequacy.  One has to have given up any pretense of rightness in order to be wrong again and again and the fail towards a solution.  But isn’t this grace?  Isn’t this what we as Christians hope so fiercely in?  Do we not believe that despite our bumbling, despite our fallibility, despite our shortcomings, despite our missing the mark again and again there is grace enough to cover a multitude of mistakes?  Yes!  And yet, sadly, we fail to practice what we preach and resort to a prideful, “I alone know” response when faced with the complexity of life.

The courage to admit uncertainty, to be fallible, to make mistake after mistake is exponentially greater than the courage to be right.  Being right is easy.  Being wrong is hard.  But being wrong might just be the first and most essential step in being right.

Would you follow you?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Matthew 28:19-20

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  1 Corinthians 11:1

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.”  Philippians 4:9

It is evident from the scriptures that, as Christians, we are to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  For most Christians this is a given.  What is not a given is how we are to fulfill that command.  It has been startling for me to read passages like 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Philippians 4:9 where Paul calls others to simply do what he does.  Paul is literally saying, “Do you want to follow Jesus?  Do you want to know him more?  To you want to experience more grace in your life?  Then do what I am doing.  Live like me.”

Which isn’t all that revolutionary.  It is exactly what Jesus told us to do in The Great Commission.  “Go and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.”  For three years Jesus showed the disciples how to live and what it means to be human, and then he commissions them to go and teach others how to live.

Discipleship modeled for us by Jesus and Paul is simply calling others to follow what we are doing in our pursuit of Christ.

The question that looms is, “Would I follow me?”

I answer the question very tentatively at first.  The answer I give says a lot about how I view myself.  Answer “yes” and I look a little arrogant and probably disqualify myself from being someone worth following due to an under developed sense of humility.  Answer “no” and, outside of the obvious “you aren’t worth following because you don’t think your worthy to be followed, you might not be worth following because a lack of confidence and/or  false humility.  It is a tricky question.

So let me as honestly as I can answer the question.  Would I follow me?

No….

….but that’s a qualified ‘no’.

Here’s why I say it is qualified.  I don’t say ‘no’ because I think I lack character, or vision, or that I would be ashamed to have people see how I live.  The reason I would say ‘no’ is altogether different.  Looking at the lives of those who I wanted to follow and who have discipled me, I see a characteristic in them that is absent in me.  Those to whom I have sought to model my life after have been people who push me.  They ask me to do things I didn’t know I could do.  They ask me to examine myself and stretch myself.  At times in ways I don’t want to stretch.  And it is always hard to say ‘no’ to these people because I see them doing the same things of themselves.  They push.  The desire.  They ask for more.

The reason I say, “No, I would not follow me” isn’t because I don’t think I’m not a person worth following.  I say ‘no’ because I have not been a person who asks something of others.  And this isn’t just limited to asking things of those who have followed me, but asking in general.  I typically don’t ask for help.  A few months ago I wanted to ask someone to be a mentor to me, and it scared me to the core.  I had to be forced to ask for what I want.

As I reflect back on those relationships in which I was discipling someone, I have to regrettably admit that I didn’t ask well.  I didn’t ask them to push themselves.  I didn’t ask them to do more than they thought they could.  I didn’t ask them to make bigger steps in obedience to Christ.  I didn’t ask them to consider more of the Kingdom of God.  I didn’t ask them to follow me.  Consequently, their growth as followers of Jesus wasn’t what it could be.

Neither was mine.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  Okay, there is one reason expressed a lot of different ways:  fear.  I feared I would be seen as demanding asking people to push themselves.  I feared I would be seen as seen as arrogant because I “knew” what someone needed to do to step into the kingdom.  I feared the accountability that kind of relationship fosters.  I feared if I explicitly asked them to follow me, they would say no…

…so I didn’t ask.

One of the more paradigm shifting ideas I am learning is that it is okay to ask.  In fact, as a leader it is necessary to ask.  Learning how to ask someone to be better than they believe they can be is the essence of what being a good leader is all about.  It is the essence of making disciples.  Jesus asked fisherman to follow him so they could be more than they, or anyone else, imagined they could be.  Who thought a bunch of fisherman from a small village could change the world?  But he asked.  He asked Nicodemus to stop trying to wrap his mind around the idea of being born again and step out in faith.  He asked the rich young ruler to sell everything.  He asked Zacchaeus to lunch.  He asked a young boy for his lunch in order to feed five thousand people.  He asked John to care for his mother in his absence.  He asked the disciples to lose their life.  He asked.

If this is what Jesus has done, then this should be what I am doing.  So I am learning how to ask.

So for my first ask…

Would you follow you?

Lady Gaga, irrationality, and leadership

A friend once gave me some great leadership advice. Leaders need to spend time trying to understand how the world occurs to a person in order to make sense of their actions. Why? Because no one ever wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “Today I am going to act in a way everyone else would think was irrational.” Rather, people act in a manner that is completely rational to how they view the world. If leaders understand how others view the world, then they can understand their actions.

I think this is great advice. Its insight is brilliant because of it’s simplicity. But it has me wondering…is there a singular rational way to live?

We live in culture that loves irrationality. Chance, collage, anarchy and deconstruction are things we adore. These are so ingrained in us as a culture we have no problems swimming in the incongruity enabled by them. For example, Lady GaGa could easily be considered the poster-child for post-modernity and irrationality. She crosses gender, sexuality and race boundaries seamlessly. The art of her performances seeks to display the role culture plays in constructing our identities. At the same time she sings, “I was born this way…” This seems completely irrational and paradoxical. How can one claim that gender, for example, is a social constructed label while singing that the way one is established at the time of birth long before society has a chance to construct something?

Back to my friend’s statement.

How do people view the world? If they see the world as paradoxical in nature and devoid of any absolutes then perhaps, the irrationality makes complete sense. Who is to say whether we are socially constructed or if we are born a certain way? What if it is a combination of the two? Perhaps it just arises out of living in a world that seems full of contradiction and irrationality. We live in a world that is beautiful and ugly, complex and simple, full and empty, hopeful and despairing, blessed and tragic. A world where at times all events seemed to be threaded together by a single narrative, and other times is seemingly individual events occurring in chaotic randomness. Surrounded by all that, how does one keep themselves from becoming irrational?

In light of this, I believe the advice my friend gave me is spot on. Admittedly, I often judge the behavior of others to be irrational. But it irrational to me.  Which is simply to say that based on how I perceive the world I have determined there to be a singularly rational way to operate irregardless of the circumstances and forces impacting another persons perception of the world.

As a leader, taking time to listen and understand why they do what they do provides many opportunities to lead.  Listening communicates a concern for the person and builds relational capital.  It allows the leader to learn and gain a broader understanding of the world and how it impacts those around them.  Finally,  it provides a place for the leader to facilitate greater change.  If a leader can understand how one acts based on how the perceive the world, they can help change, not only the action, but the perception of the world.  Which is absolutely transformational.  It is the type of change that affects the whole life of the person.  It changes how they think, how they act, their attitudes, and their relationships.

And as a leader, it changes me.