Monday, October 29, 2012

The Pursuit – and Attainment – of Excellence

Even across the lake that separates World Showcase from the
rest of EPCOT, Spaceship Earth is an imposing sight.

I’m a great admirer of quality and excellence, whether in technology, the creative and performing arts, retail and professional services, manufacturing, or any other endeavor. Individuals, businesses or products that “exceed expectations” always capture my attention.

So our recent family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. registered high on my personal admiration meter. We visited four of the entertainment complex’s theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT and Animal Kingdom. Each in its own unique way boasted exceptional quality.

Cinderella's Castle becoming a visual
spectacle during evening fireworks shows.
This was our fourth time to visit either Disney World or Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., so I wasn’t surprised. But it was heartening that the Disney commitment to providing guests with an unforgettable, even “magical” experience remains as strong as ever. Walt Disney died in 1966, but his vision for providing a place for visitors to “relive fond memories of the past…and savor the challenge and promise of the future” hasn’t dimmed.

Whether it was the first glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle walking down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom; Spaceship Earth, like a gigantic golf ball looming over guests entering EPCOT; enjoying one of the entertaining and colorful stage shows; or meeting famous Disney characters while dining, each day’s “menu” provided the stuff of enduring family memories.

Minnie Mouse - and Minnie admirers - pause
during a tasty evening meal.
Each of the “cast members,” ranging from performers and ride operators to individuals promptly scooping up abandoned trash, excelled at carrying out his or her respective role. Customer service was paramount wherever we went.

And rightly so. Even a single day at Disney World is pricey. So the priority must be to create fond, memorable experiences, not reasons for grumbling over the dent in the family budget.

The term create is an interesting one itself as applied to the Disney enterprise. Its legendary founder, the late Walt Disney, made a striking comment about that:

"it's a small world" is a favorite of Disney World
guests of all ages.
A longtime friend of mine, Bob Foster, operated Lost Valley Ranch, a popular guest ranch near Colorado Springs, Colo. for many years. Mr. Disney, just months before his passing, was one of Bob’s guests. According to Bob, one afternoon they were sitting on the front porch of the ranch house, surveying the facility’s magnificent natural setting.

Mr. Disney observed, “That which man has made can produce recreation, but only God’s handiwork will produce re-creation.”

Re-creation. An intriguing term, especially coming from such an astoundingly creative and innovative individual. But he was right. The Creator has provided the raw material, along with the skills, talent, wisdom and expertise needed to engage in wonderful feats of re-creation. Most amazing of all, He trusts us to be stewards of it all He has placed at our disposal.

I don’t write this simply as a testimonial to the sights, sounds and servant spirit that comprise the various venues of Disney World. Although it certainly lives up to its reputation. I write because that’s as it should be – even more so for those of us that profess to serve the Creator God.

In Colossians 3:17, 23 we’re told, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him…. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Members of the extended Tamasy clan strike a Goofy pose.

Despite the high caliber of their enterprise, the people at Disney World have no overtly expressed spiritual motivation for their pursuit of excellence. Theirs is certainly not a “Christian” endeavor. But if they can succeed at that, doing work that – whether intended or not – pays fitting tribute to the Creator…why shouldn’t we?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Finding Your ‘Sweet Spot’

Last week I was telling someone about how much I enjoy my job, that as a journalist every day I’m able to engage in a challenging and intriguing variety of writing projects, including books, magazine articles, website content, a weekly email workplace meditation, and blogs.

“Sounds like you’ve found your sweet spot,” he responded.

Finding your "sweet spot," whether
in tennis, golf - or life - can make
all the difference in how things turn out.
It’s been years since I played tennis, but the term sounded right. I knew when I hit the sweet spot on my racquet – which was infrequent – I had a good chance of having the ball go exactly where I intended. In a similar way, after decades of training, experience, success and failure, I believe God has taken my career exactly where He’s intended for it to go.

Sadly, not everyone can say the same. In fact, studies indicate more than half of all workers dislike or even dread their jobs. They show up each day because they need to pay the bills, not because they want to be there. “Work is a necessary evil,” the mantra informs us. For many people, that seems true, but it doesn’t have to be.

In The Heart of Mentoring, the book David Stoddard and I co-authored, we talk about aligning passion with work. What lights your inner fire? What pursuits infuse you with enthusiasm and energy? Or to borrow my new friend’s words, “What’s your sweet spot?”

Once you’ve identified that, you can try to match those things with your work in some way, either by redefining your job responsibilities or setting a goal of finding a new job that more closely relates to the things you’re most passionate about.

I understand in today’s uncertain economy, with limited employment options, that’s easier said than done. But I can’t think of many things more debilitating than having to pull yourself out of bed day after day and getting ready for a job you hate. Do you think Thomas Edison got up each morning and muttered, “Do I have to mess with light bulbs again”? Or Mother Teresa grumbled, “Another day of fussing with poor, dying people”? Or Michelangelo complained, “I don’t think I can stand painting another ceiling or sculpting another statue”?

They, and many others we could name, found their own “sweet spots.” Whether they recognized it or not, they had discovered God’s calling on their lives and pursued it with gusto, determination and passion.

Maybe you’re thinking, “But how do I find my sweet spot?” or “I know my sweet spot, but there’s no place for it where I work right now.” I can appreciate your frustration, even discouragement. There have been times in my career when I felt the same way.

However, I firmly believe God has a special, individualized plan for each of us – including the work we do. If we’re willing to include Him in this quest to link our passions with what we do for a livelihood, He’ll guide us in the right direction. After all, we have promises like these from the Scriptures:

“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5).

“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3).

There you have it: Delight in the Lord, first and foremost, and commit your work to Him, seeking to honor Him through it. If you do that, He’ll do one of two things – direct you to a different job, more suited for what He designed you to do, or transform your attitude toward the job you have so you’ll start to regard it as a blessing rather than a curse.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Not Getting an ‘F’ in Life

If you’ve viewed many non-family movies of late, you’ve probably noticed Hollywood’s fascination with the so-called “F-word.” I’m not going to write about that, but recently it occurred to me that some other words starting with “f” are also problematic, although in different ways.

"F" is a letter that's
usually best to avoid - on
exam, a report card, or in life.
In a devotional book I enjoy reading, Grace for the Moment, author Max Lucado makes this assertion: “My life is not futile. My failures are not fatal. My life is not final.”

Simple statements. But profound. At least for each of us that profess to be followers of Jesus.

Author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau referred to the seeming futility of life when he wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” In a tune from the ‘60s, Peggy Lee sang the haunting refrain, “Is that all there is?” Sadly, many people today share that pessimism.

But the Bible asserts our lives aren’t futile – they have purpose and meaning. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). God has specific plans for each of us. Another passage affirms our special status with God: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Failure is another concern that plagues many of us. "What if I'm not good enough?" "What if I can't finish what I've started?" Fear of failure, experts tell us, can immobilize us, causing us to choose no action at all rather than attempting something and failing in the process.

The Scriptures present numerous examples of people who experienced crushing failures, yet were restored to usefulness by God: For instance, the Old Testament includes Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David. And in the New Testament we find Peter, who betrayed Christ three times yet became a pillar of the early Church, and the apostle Paul, who was transformed from being a persecutor and murderer of Christians into a bold, outspoken disciple of Jesus.

And the greatest assurance of all is that life is not final. Contrary to those who believe there is nothing beyond the grave, the Word of God promises that in many respects, death is just the beginning of real life. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Jesus told His followers,  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).

So as we place our trust in Christ one day at a time, we need not fear futility, failure or finality. He has overcome them all, and we’re promised, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Contemplating . . . Bread

Today a comic-strip cartoon got me thinking about a kind of crumby topic: Bread. In the cartoon, “Frank & Ernest,” one of the characters, looking at a tray of gingerbread men, declares, “I see bread people!” – a wry reference to the famous line, “I see dead people,” from the suspense thriller, “The Sixth Sense.”

I don’t see bread people – or dead people, for that matter. But it occurred to me that of all the foods we eat on a regular basis, bread is probably one of the most underappreciated. We take it for granted. It’s there with almost every meal, in one form or another, but when someone asks, “What’s for dinner?” we never hear anyone saying, “Bread.” It’s not the main attraction for any meal, but we expect bread to be there, whether we’re eating at home or in a restaurant. It’s a staple for dining.

It's so important that when I was a kid, we had a bread truck come into our neighborhood every week, delivering bread door to door.

Think about it: Without bread, the lunchmeat on our sandwich would make for very greasy fingers. Can you imagine how messy a meatball sub would be without the bread? And what would a typical American breakfast be without toast? When you need a quick snack, you could do far worse than a peanut butter sandwich (with or without jelly).

In my view, bread should definitely be ranked in the upper crust of food groups. In terms of nutritional value, it’s definitely a cut above many of the things we like to eat. Even when we want to loaf around, bread is always there for us. If I wanted to start a bakery, I think a cool name would be Dough, Ray & Me. No matter how you slice it, bread has real pun-tential, don’t you think? It definitely appeals to my rye sense of humor.

But joking aside, I’ve always found it interesting that Jesus Christ used bread as a metaphor for describing Himself. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever,” He declared in John 6:51.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose this comparison? Why didn’t He opt for steak, potatoes, or even cake? My own experience has shown that He does in my life spiritually what bread does for me physically – satisfies my hunger, sustains me during times of need, and strengthens me for the day’s challenges.

At the same time, the Bible takes a different slant on the analogy when it states, “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), a statement Jesus affirmed in Luke 4:4.

Just as bread nourishes us, but usually serves to complement a more varied meal, we can’t look to physical resources alone for a fulfilling and contented life. The Lord offers Himself to meet our deepest spiritual needs as nothing else can.

Jesus utilized the bread metaphor one other way just days before His crucifixion. In Mark 14:22 it says He “took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’” The disciples didn’t understand it at the time, but Jesus was demonstrating His own body would have to be broken so their sinful lives could be made whole.

So the next time you sit down to eat and reach for the bread, remember the importance of also reaching for the Bread of Life.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life Is Messy

Recently I was at the breakfast bar of a local healthy foods grocery store where I meet with a man I'm mentoring. The store, undergoing extensive renovations, was a mess. Beams, boards and plastic coverings everywhere. It reminded me of a couple of years ago when we were remodeling our kitchen. My wife and I have enjoyed the finished result, but it was a messy process getting there.

These examples illustrate a truism we must accept: Life’s messy.

Think about it. Two people fall in love and marry, envisioning a life of idyllic harmony. That lasts about two hours. Then both realize they’ve married someone as imperfect as they are, and the lifelong challenge of building a lifetime partnership begins.

Soon the same couple eagerly awaits the arrival of their first child. The special day comes and the father almost passes out after observing the messy birthing process. The nurses clean up the baby, put a fresh diaper on it, and what does it do? It makes a mess. When they feed it for the first time, it spits up. For a fleeting moment they wonder, “We waited nine months for this?”

My wife would readily point out my home-office is always in various stages of “mess.” In fact, after I finish writing this, my goal for the rest of the day – and probably tomorrow – is to plow through piles of papers that have accumulated while I’ve been finishing a couple of projects. (The inserted illustration I've borrowed is not an actual depiction, but it’s not that far off.)

In physics, entropy refers to the tendency for things to move from order to disorder. I submit my office as evidence.

Other aspects of life are messy as well. Investing in lives of other people, helping them work through problems, can be plenty messy. Hiring new employees in the workplace can be messy, teaching them how to do their jobs properly and fit into the company culture. If those employees don’t meet expectations, correcting them – or even terminating them – can be especially messy.

But most of the time, a mess is necessary to create a masterpiece. You think Leonardo da Vinci didn’t spill some paint while painting the Mona Lisa? Don’t you imagine the Greek artist that sculpted the Venus de Milo didn’t leave chunks of marble around as he busily removed all the stone that didn’t fit his image of Aphrodite?

The Bible offers an interesting observation about the necessity of messes: Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest(Proverbs 14:4) In other words, if you want the productivity of an ox, you have to put up with its manure.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Happiness Is Overrated

How many times have you heard someone say, “I deserve to be happy!” or some variation of that to justify everything from buying a new 70-inch flat-screen TV to getting a divorce? The mantra tells us, “If it feels good, do it.” That will make us happy, right? And doesn’t God want us to be happy? Lots of people say He does.

I’m all for happiness, don’t get me wrong. Even the U.S. Constitution says everyone’s entitled to “the pursuit of happiness.” But I’ve learned that trying to hang onto happiness is like attempting to grasp steam rising from a hot cup of morning coffee. Now you have it – now you don’t.

Years ago a wise man made an important distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness, he explained, is determined by happenings. When something good happens, you feel happy. But when something bad happens a few minutes later, happiness is displaced by unhappiness.

Take the example of an athletic contest against your team’s dreaded rival. Near the end of the game, your team scores the go-ahead touchdown or goal. You cheer. You’re euphoric. “We’re going to win!” Happy, happy!

Then the other team gets the ball and the star player for Most-Hated University takes it the length of the field for the winning score. You frown. You feel despair. Bye-bye, happiness.

I remember going to a theatrical performance one time, a very enjoyable evening. It was late, so I looked forward to going home. Preparing to leave, I discovered someone’s vehicle has slid on the ice-crusted parking lot and dented one of my car’s fenders. Instantly my smile drooped upside-down into a frown.

Oh – the rest of the wise man’s distinction: Unlike happiness, which depends on external circumstances, joy comes from within, he said. It gives a sense of well-being, hope and peace that endures even in the most dire situations: A discouraging health diagnosis, money problems, family conflict, crumpled fenders, a ruined roast with guests expected within five minutes. Unhappy developments, but happenings can’t touch internal joy.

That’s why the Bible can make this strange declaration: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

The apostle Paul presents a similarly curious admonition in his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome: “…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-5).

One who had experienced his share of hardship and adversity, Paul had it right. Struggles don’t make us happy, but they can make us better, helping to transform us into people of godly character. And therein lies the joy.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Seeing Life in Reverse

As my little grandson grows up, it appears his reflection
is not the only thing he'll be viewing in reverse.

Have you ever considered the fact we spend a substantial amount of time looking at our lives in reverse?

When I was a kid, I used to read Superman comics that sometimes featured “Bizarro World,” in which characters there were the exact opposite of the “real world” of Metropolis. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about mirror images – literally.

Next time you have the opportunity, take a thoughtful look in the mirror. What do you see? For me, my hair is parted on the left, but the guy staring back at me in the mirror parts his on the right. I wear a watch on my left wrist; his is on the right. If I have on one of my favorite T-shirts, it reads, ETATS OIHO. See what I mean?

Of course our brains become trained to reinterpret the reflected image so we don’t become immobilized by confusion. We mentally flip what we see so can we interpret things as they we know them to be. If we pretend to be throwing a ball with our right hand, we don’t perceive ourselves in the mirror as southpaw pitchers.

But it seems that in society, we’re not always as successful. Things that used to be regarded as good and virtuous – such as being monogamous in marriage and devout in faith – are increasingly viewed with ridicule or disdain, viewed as “old-fashioned,” even “ignorant.” Morality has been flipped.

For instance, today it’s regarded “courageous” when people declare themselves to be gay, but when someone affirms belief in traditional, male-female marriage, it’s considered being hateful and “intolerant.”

Economist, social theorist and author Thomas Sowell has pointed out many in society consider it “greed” to want to keep money you’ve earned, but not being greedy (or coveting, or jealous) to want to take someone else’s money.

Many think it wrong for people of faith to express their beliefs in a public forum, but it’s acceptable for atheists to impose their non-belief on others by suppressing religious expression.

In sports, it’s widely understood that to become more proficient, you must compete with someone of greater skill or talent. But in our educational system, we set standards at the lowest common denominator so poor achievers don’t feel badly about themselves.

The point is, we’ve grown so accustomed to reversed, mirror images of long-accepted values we’ve come to accept them as reality.

Such attitudes are hardly new. People have always had a tendency to look at things backwards. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the prophet bemoans, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).

And in the New Testament, after describing an assortment of sinful behavior, it says, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32).

Considering how society has reversed attitudes about many things today, maybe we are living in Bizarro World!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What About the ‘47 Percent’?

This sign was either created by a devious Liberal or
designed by a Conservative that's gotten off course.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney ignited a political firestorm in talking about “47 percent” that purportedly do not pay Federal income taxes.

Romney described them as “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it….” He then proceeded to declare his “job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Take out gun. Load it. Aim at foot. Fire.

I take little stock in politicians throwing out statistics that can’t easily be substantiated. As someone's said, “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

And to clarify, I regard myself as neither Liberal nor Conservative, especially when it comes to helping people in need. Liberals, in my view, believe if you throw enough money at a problem it will go away. (Look at our national debt – how’s that philosophy working?) On the other hand, Conservatives take the “God helps those that help themselves” approach. In other words, “If those lazy so-and-so’s would just get off their posteriors….” I’m all for personal initiative, but in reality, for many people it’s not nearly that simple.

I do see government – with both Republicans and Democrats in the White House – playing “sugar daddy” for an increasing number of people. In an online video I saw recently, a speaker (most likely a Conservative) warns listeners, “You are being enslaved…enslavement to the idea that the job of government is to take care of you and your family because you can’t do it yourself.” He charges, “the government has engineered a built-in bias to stay poor.”

I don’t agree with all of this fellow’s statements. But I’ve long believed that since the 1960s, and probably before, well-meaning Federal assistance programs have created a mindset for generations of Americans that government needs to take care of them because, tragically, they can’t do it themselves.

Have you ever wondered about your responsibility to the poor? How do you feel when someone comes up to you on the street and asks you for spare change? Or someone in the mall parking lot requests help because they’ve “run out of gas”? I’ve been stung by pretenders enough times that I’m always skeptical, but part of me wonders whether there is a legitimate need and if so, how God would want me to respond.

The central problem, beyond the fact some in disadvantaged situations are convinced of their helplessness, is many that would like to help themselves lack the education, training or basic skills necessary. How can you get a worthwhile job if you can’t read or write? Even if they can, many in poverty have no idea how to fill out job applications, much less present themselves well in a job interview.

As I’ve learned from people that spend their lives every day working with the poor, most disadvantaged people don't need a handout, but a hand up. I’ll never forget a statement by the founder of an inner-city ministry we support: “The greatest poverty is the inability to give.”

If someone lacks the resources to give to meet the needs of their family, much less give to help others, what does that say about them? Sadly, for many people, it tells them they’re worthless. It strips them of the dignity of knowing they can contribute meaningfully to the world around them.

Perhaps that’s one reason Jesus stated, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

In the Scriptures it talks much about the poor and affirmsthat the responsibility goes both ways. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10 we’re told, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." Interestingly, in Lenin’s socialist treatise of 1917, “The State and Revolution,” the Soviet leader made a remarkably similar declaration: “He who does not work shall not eat.”

But lest Conservatives rise up and say, “See, I told you!”, the Bible also says a lot about helping those in need. Here are just a few samples:

“He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy” (Proverbs 14:21). 
“He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).
“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered" (Proverbs 21:13).

Many other passages like these in both Old and New testaments make the point: God expects us to help the disadvantaged, and they should be encouraged to learn to help themselves. Nowhere is a system endorsed that promotes permanent dependency.

I’m not smart enough to propose the ultimate solution to assisting the poor. Jesus Himself conceded we would always have poor people among us. But isn’t it time we stopped putting Band-Aids on this very real problem, stopped looking the other way, and started working toward a cure?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Real People

Ah, the marvels of modern communication. Being a journalist I’ve spent my entire career in the world of communications – newspapers, newsletters, magazines, books, and now the Internet in various forms. Connecting with people seems easier than ever. Using social media I’ve been in touch with people I hadn’t communicated with in years.

Everyone we need to contact is right there
 - just hovering around in cyberspace.
Good, right? Yes – and no. Years ago an advertising slogan suggested, “Reach out and touch someone.” Despite the blitz of emails, voice mail, Facebook messages, tweets, YouTube videos, Skype and such, are we really “touching” one another in meaningful ways? 

I’m somewhat introverted by nature, so sitting at the computer for much of the day, utilizing electronic media to communicate with family, friends, colleagues, etc. works okay. But there’s nothing like being face-to-face, eye-to-eye to communicate effectively. In fact, communication experts tell us more than 90 percent of all communication is non-verbal – eye contact (or lack of it), body language, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, how we deliver the words we speak.

So when you fire off an email or text someone, chances are your intended recipients aren’t getting the complete message.

But it’s more than that. There’s no substitute for a gentle touch, a friendly grin, the wink of an eye to brighten another person’s day, to quietly convey, “You’re somebody. I know you exist, and you’re important.”

The Bible says a lot about the significance of in-person interaction. In Mark 3:14 it states Jesus appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” Long before the days of computers, cell phones and such, Jesus understood the importance of being in others’ physical presence to convey His message accurately and effectively.

Hebrews 10:24-25 urges us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another….”

Passages in the Old Testament speak of the limitations – and dangers – of living in isolation. Proverbs 27:17 states, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This can be accomplished somewhat by long distance – phone calls, emails, texts and such – but it works best “live and in person.”

And Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 emphasizes the same principle. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

By all means stay in touch with family and friends in all ways available, utilizing the benefits of modern technology. But whenever possible, don’t settle for images on a computer screen or disembodied voices. Never forget the joy of being around real people.