Thinking Like a Graduate Might Save Your Life

One of my favorite authors is Shauna Niequist, author of Bittersweet and Cold Tangerines.  This past Saturday she spoke at the Azusa Pacific University commencement, and she just posted her speech two days ago.

I love this speech.  She is talking to graduates, but I feel like so many adults (myself included) have lots to learn from Shauna’s commencement speech.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” but he might as well have said, “Let the college graduate come to me.”

We are so busy accumulating things and “succeeding” (whatever that means) in life that we forget to stop and value what we have and who we are.

So stop.  Listen to what Shauna has to say, and see if her words don’t stir something deeper inside of you.  Here is a link to the speech as originally posted in her blog.

Forces of Nature

Thank you for having me. I am so incredibly honored to be with you today. I know that I am a little bit of an unconventional choice for a commencement speaker, but I’m okay with it if you are. I knew I was out of my natural habitat when I was asked if I would be bringing my own regalia. I did not bring my own regalia, first, because I didn’t know what it was, and second, because when I figured out what it was, I realized I certainly didn’t have any.

I’m not a scholar, or an expert in anything at all, but I graduated from a Southern California college very much like this one, on a day very much like this one fourteen years ago. That makes me about half a generation older than you. In half a generation, some things are still the same. The Dave Matthews Band, U2, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still touring. Traffic is still the major topic of conversation in LA, and they’re still making Mission Impossible and Men in Black movies.

But a few things are really different. In 1998, Gwen Stefani was just a girl, and No Doubt was an Orange County band. Now the No Doubt guys are dads, and Gwen Stefani pretty much runs the world. When I graduated from college, you could bring anything you wanted on an airplane—liquids, weapons, etcetera. Also, when I graduated from college, many of you still had your baby teeth.

You all grew up with computers—that pesky half generation between us means that I remember a world without email, and you don’t. Also, when I was in college, no one was taking cell phone pictures of all the dumb things I did and posting them immediately on Facebook. For this I am very grateful.

One thing that has not changed at all is that we as a culture love to move on to the next thing, on to the next thing, on to the next thing. You’ve already experienced this, I’m sure. The second you started high school, people started talking to you about college. As soon as you arrived, people wanted to know your major and your plans after graduation. The bad news is that this never stops. After you go on two great dates with the same person, your aunts and grandmas want to go ring shopping, and the moment you are pronounced husband and wife, someone will ask you about a baby.

I am not kidding when I tell you that one of my family members came to meet our baby Mac in the hospital—he’s seven months old now—and while he was holding this brand new baby, that sweet family member asked when we were thinking of having another baby. I thanked him for asking and told him I’d be delighted to revisit that conversation just as soon as I could walk again.

We tend, as a culture, to be future-focused, on to the next thing, but let’s not be so quick to move past what’s happened here, in this place, in this season. There are some ways of living that you’ve experienced in this context that I believe are so helpful for the new season you’re entering, ways of living I’d like to encourage you to keep for the next leg of the journey. 

First, as of today, you are no longer a college student. Congratulations! But my hope is that you will never, never, never stop being a student. Some of my favorite people in the world are people who possess an unquenchable curiosity about life, people who, no matter their age or accomplishments, are still learning, still asking questions, still willing to be wrong. 

Your formal education has concluded, but I cannot encourage you enough to continue your own education. Travel, read, ask questions, challenge assumptions, ask for help. Listen to people’s stories, ask good follow-up questions. Never assume that you know all there is to know about a place, a person, or a situation. Commit to being a life long-learner, a person of relentless curiosity.

And become a student of your own developing self. Pay attention to what moves you, what you love, what makes you angry, what makes you exhausted. There are no right answers to those kinds of questions, but if you don’t pay attention, you may find yourself several years down the road, living a life that looks good on paper, but doesn’t ring true to the deepest parts of you. That’s a terrible place to be. Become a student of what you love, because what you love flows out of the way God made you.

Another thing about college life that I would recommend you take with you is a commitment to living in community. The people that you’re sitting with right now are your tribe, the brotherhood and sisterhood of people who know you, who love you, and who will walk with you into an uncertain future. The relationships you’ve formed here are of great importance, and I urge you to continue to value and invest in these friendships and relationships.

Now may be the time goodbye to this town and this campus. But absolutely do not say goodbye to the people who have walked most closely with you during this season. This is just the beginning for many of your most significant experiences together. You have just barely laid the foundation—keep building, keep making memories, keep telling each other the truth, even when it’s hard. You cannot imagine how badly you’re going to need these friendships throughout your life. The people you’re sitting with today are your lifelines for the next passage—hold very tightly to them.

My best friend’s name is Annette, and we met the first week of our freshman year of college. A few years later, I stood in her wedding and then she stood in mine. I visited her in the hospital when her son was born, and then five months later, she visited me when Henry was born. Still now, after years and moves and babies and long distance, she teaches me and challenges me, tells me the truth and makes me laugh, and if my college experience had given me nothing else, it would have been worth it for that friendship.

Another aspect of college living that I think you should hang on to for a few years at least pertains to your stuff. Most college students have almost no stuff. When Annette and I drove my car back to Chicago after graduation, the only thing that wouldn’t fit was a twin bed I’d bought for $99, so I left it in the house I was moving out of, because some guys from my college were moving in after we left.

College living generally means all your earthly possessions can be stacked up in four crates and a duffel bag. You run a nimble organization, with very low overhead. That’s good. Stay with that for a while. There’s no need for a mortgage and bedroom set and media center. Decide, before you start accumulating things, what you want your life to be about, because you might find along the way that those things you thought you needed end up being the things that handcuff you to a lifestyle you don’t want. Stay nimble with low overhead, so that you can listen closely to the whisper of the spirit instead of the scream of financial obligations.

You may feel right now quite uncertain about the future, and you’re anticipating that one day, things will stop feeling so scary and foreign. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, especially on such a happy day, but that feeling will never come, not when you start your job or find your spouse or buy a home. That wiggly, sometimes scary feeling like anything could happen and you don’t totally know what’s next, that feeling is called life, and it would be best for you make friends with that feeling, because it will be with you for ever. It would be best as well for you to remind yourself that you’re not the only one feeling it. We tend to believe that everyone else has the answers to the most important questions, but I have it on good authority that everyone else is just as scared and uncertain as we are.

Dear graduates, this is the heart of what I want to tell you: God made you. He loves you, and he created you for a purpose. I used to think that purpose was singular—like I was made to be one thing and one thing only. But the more life I live, and the more things I become and un-become as life progresses, the more I realize that he’s not calling me to be a certain thing, but rather that he’s calling me to live a certain way. He’s created me and calls me to address the world’s need with my gifts, with my heart and my mind, with my hands and my voice.

It’s very easy to wait around on the sidelines for your very specific, perfectly-fitted part to play. But in my experience, you might find yourself waiting around for a long time. In my experience, God uses willing hands, not spectacular ones. He uses passionate people, not extraordinarily-gifted ones. We all want to feel that sense of everything coming together, our gifts and our passions and our life experiences. We all want to have that “I was made for this” feeling. In my experience, the way to that feeling is to put on your boots and get to work.

Start where you can, when you can, with what you have. Start with your belief that God loves you, and that he made you on purpose and for a purpose. Not for a moment, but for an ongoing lifestyle of service and sacrifice and vision. Don’t wait around and expect that amazing experience to come find you and tap you on the shoulder. Start making the world better every day, every day, every day, with your hands and your resources and your love and your willingness and your belief and along the way, you will find your place. 

In the twentieth chapter of Acts, Paul wrote “I consider my life worth nothing to me, in order that I may testify solemnly to the goodness of the gospel of the grace of God.” That’s the heart of it all. God made a deeply beautiful and multifaceted world, and along the way, that beautiful world became broken, still very beautiful, but now also very broken.

This is where it gets exciting. You can make it better. You can testify to the goodness of the gospel of the grace of God. You can bring the garden back to life. You can stand in the way of injustice, or isolation, or abuse. You can sing or dance or teach or write stories that call us back to our better selves. You can be architects and speech therapists and scientists and athletes and pastors who give themselves, in daily, unglamorous ways to making the actual world better, to beating back the darkness and bringing light and life and motion and healing to the corner of the world that you’ve been called to.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. 
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Dear graduates: the life you’ve been waiting for is happening all around you. This is it. This is life in all its glory, swirling and unfolding around us, disguised as pedantic, pedestrian non-events. But pull off the mask, and you will find your life, waiting to be made, chosen, woven, crafted.

Your life, right now, is exploding with energy and power and detail and dimension, better than the best movie you have ever seen. You and your family and your friends and your house and your dinner table and your garage have all the makings of a life of epic proportions, a story for the ages, because they all are. Every life is.

You have stories worth telling, memories worth remembering, dreams worth working toward, a body worth feeding, a soul worth tending, and beyond that, as though that was not enough, the God of the Universe dwells within you, the true culmination of super and natural.

You are more than dust and bones.

You are spirit and power and image of God.

And you have been given today.

How have Shauna’s words impacted you?

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What Leaders Can Learn from NASCAR

Coaches carefully instruct athletes on how to pace themselves.

Long distance runners have to judge exactly how far they can push their bodies while still keeping a reserve for the final sprint.  Bicyclers in the Tour de France have to hold just enough in reserve to explode into the lead at the right moment.

A different sort of pacing is learning to draft.  No, not beer.  Cars.  NASCAR.  Being able to patiently cruise on someone else’s bumper until just the right moment requires skill and finesse.

Leaders can learn how to draft from NASCAR.

Athletes and NASCAR drivers are highly skilled in pacing themselves, but leaders are not.  In fact, many leaders actively fight against you when you try to pace yourself.

“Hey, Jim, thanks for taking the call on your day off.  Look, I really need that document for my meeting in 10 minutes; can you email it to me?  Oh, yeah, and . . . and . . .”  Pastors and, admit it, you and I have all done this at some point.  Some of us still do it.  A lot.  In the name of ministry.  In the name of “winning another soul to Christ.”

The last time I checked Jesus let Martha sit at his feet, and he commended her for it.  The last time I checked Jesus waited in Jerusalem until there was no doubt that Lazarus was dead and gone before leaving to visit Mary and Martha.  He was never in a hurry, even in seemingly life-and-death situations.

You only have one body, one life, and one family; treat them well.  Pace yourself.

If you are having a hard time knowing how to pace yourself, here are a few points to consider.  These four things help me to clear my mind of distractions so that I can recognize when to sprint and when to just draft.  None of these are original with me.

  1. Review your priorities.  Know what is most important: God, you, your family, your job, ministry, in that order.  Set your face towards God, then make certain you are staying healthy.  Your family deserves your attention next, now that you are refreshed and have something to give them.  Your job is critical because it has to do with providing for your family.  Finally you can think about ministry.
  2. Draw firm boundaries.  What days do you have off?  How many hours are you going to work per week?  If you regularly work over 60 hours you need to reconsider your work schedule.  Be clear about those two areas with your leaders and let them know you are not available in your off-work times.  Period.  Communicate immediately when these boundaries are crossed.  If someone consistently pushes you past your boundaries, it is time to communicate more clearly or to ask God for a new job.
  3. Practice patience.  Review my blog from last week, A Leader’s Most Important Trait, to understand the role patience needs to play in our lives.  99% of life is not an emergency, yet we push people as if every project has to be done yesterday.  Remember the cliché, “Just because it is your emergency does not make it my emergency?”  It’s true.
  4. Remember it’s just a job.  At the end of the day your family, your relationship with God and your personal health are more important than your job, even if you have a job in ministry.  As Andy Stanley said so well in the book Choosing to Cheat, it is Jesus’ job to take care of the church, not ours.  Our first ministry is to our family.

Pacing yourself in ministry, much like drafting in NASCAR, is hard work, but it is the only way to guard against burnout.  To dig deeper, listen to Michael Hyatt’s podcast, Is Work-Life Balance Really Possible?

How are you going to pace yourself this week?

How to Be a Life Source

In John 6 many disciples were leaving Jesus because he had said some hard things, so Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them if they wanted to go, too.  Hearing that, Peter asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

What a profound statement.

“Why would we go to anything other than a life source?”  Pastor Vince of Lakeshore Community Church posed this question last fall, and the question has continued to intrigue me.

Why would I give my time and attention to anything or anyone other than a life source?

Life sources give life and energy to everyone around them.  The opposite, black holes of negativity, suck life from everyone who comes in contact with them.  People and even organizations (dare I say churches?) can be either life sources or black holes.

It’s a choice.

My dad has always been an encourager, both personally and as a pastor, but several years ago he decided he was going to give life wherever he goes.  As a result he does not listen to negative talk without trying to turn it around to a positive perspective.  As an elder at his church he challenges people who are resisting authority because those people are sucking life from the pastor.  And he is always encouraging me and helping me to dream about what my future could hold.

I want to hang out with him just reading what I am writing.  I love my dad.  And so does everyone else.  The world is his pulpit, and in his wake are people smiling and encouraged by stories, laughs, and prayers.

I am already a bit like my dad in personality, but I have really tried to be more life giving in the past while, and I have noticed how people respond.  It’s addictive.  I love seeing people light up.  People desperately want to be loved, encouraged, and recognized.

Here are a few ways you can become a life source in your world.

1.  Always use a person’s name.  In the checkout line, grab the person’s name and use it like you have known them all your life.  “Hi, Nancy, how’s your day going?”  will change you from another customer into the person who took a personal interest.  9 times out of 10 they will brighten up.

2.  Ask them what their name means.  Only once have I had a person say, “Well, people ask me this a lot.  I was born as a result of an affair.”  And even then it was an opportunity to encourage her and love on her in a difficult place of her life by talking about how beautiful her name was.

3.  Eat chocolate.  What??  That’s right.  If a person has a tray of candies or something on their desk, if your diet will allow it, take one.  That is their way of lightening things up, so you will make them happy by taking one.  When I left my job at Lakeshore, the front desk person said, “But who will eat my chocolate?”  It made both of us smile.

4.  Don’t vomit.  When someone asks you, “How are you doing?” don’t vomit your life all over them.  They walk away stinking and messy.  You don’t have to lie, and you shouldn’t.  Have someone else you can talk to about the hard things, and then remind yourself that God is working on your future.  As a Christian you can know that “everything works together for good,” even when life is screaming something else.

5.  Fill your life with positive input.  Refuse to give prominence to black holes.  Turn off the gangsta rap (the radio, I mean; if that’s your spouse then you have a different problem) and find something else.  No, you don’t have to turn on John Tesh (ugh!).  John Ortberg talks about balcony people.  Get people in your life who are going to cheer you on and dream for you.

6.  Listen, look them in the eye, and ask questions.  Be present when another person is talking.  One of my biggest challenges over the years has been to bring myself fully into every conversation and not be day dreaming or scheming my cool response.  Just be and experience the conversation with your whole being, and the other person will feel validated.

If you are reading this and realizing that you are more of a black hole than a life source, get a trusted friend or counselor and talk it over with them.  Get some perspective so that you can begin to change.  Your life can be so much better.

How are you going to be a life source today?

conception

Some time ago I started to view God primarily through his name of Creator.  I don’t know of anything in particular that pointed me in this direction, except that one day I believe God put the following concept into my head:  If God created everything when nothing existed; if God imagined everything with no initial idea to prompt him other than the goodness of his heart, then doesn’t that make him the ultimate creative?  And if I am creative and enjoy creating things, am I not embodying something which is at the core of who God is?
Light and dark: God’s idea.  Land and sea: God’s idea.  Man and woman: God’s idea again.
God also said that he made us “in his image.”  Much ink has been spilled and even wasted on this topic, but as I considered God’s innate creative nature, and as I considered the words of Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way where she says that everyone is creative, I came to the conclusion that at least one way in which we are “made in his image” is in that we are creative.
Adam named all of the animals.  Pretty creative, in my book.  Tubal Cain made the first musical instruments.  Hats off to him.  All examples of how we are made in the creative image of God.
Recently I was reading through Matthew and this idea took another vein.  The archangel Michael said to Joseph in regards to Mary’s pregnancy that “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit – God – fathered Jesus through Mary without the help of a human father.  For me the formation and birth of a human life is one of the best reminders today of God’s creative power, because only he can create life.  Usually he does it through natural procreation between male and female, but here he went around that arrangement and fathered Jesus directly through the Spirit, making him 100% God but also 100% human.  Now THAT is creative.
I believe that God can “father” creative things or ideas in us every day just like he initiates life in a mother’s body.  Because God is by nature creative, and because as a Christian God lives in me, then I believe that if I am open to him God will put ideas into my mind, things “conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  He will breathe life into my mind through his creative movements.
We often call these movements “promptings” or “whispers” from God.  They are one and the same.  God conceives ideas and solutions in our hearts and minds when we are tuned in and listening closely to him.
Two months ago while I was preparing to lead worship God put an idea into my head of how to describe our spiritual walk when we do it our way rather than God’s way.  The next day, when I shared that example, many people connected with God through it.  God conceived life in my leadership, and I am grateful to him for it.
How about you?  What has happened in your life that might have been “conceived by the Holy Spirit?”  Put another way, What in your life has NOT been “conceived of the Holy Spirit?”