A Tool to Use or a Gift to Steward?

Intention #3: Write Often

Discipline.  I’m not a fan.  And yet discipline is a crucial aspect of my third intention: write often.

I doubt anyone would describe me as a disciplined person.

For the twelve years I studied piano, I never practiced on a consistent schedule.  Scales?  Pass. Instead, I crammed the few days before a recital or competition with hours of ruthless practice.

I’ve never really had a “daily quiet time.”  During my freshman year of college, my routine looked like this: leave Spanish class, buy a Coke and a muffin, head back to my dorm room, listen to an Elizabeth Elliot message, read the Bible for seven minutes, journaled for seven minutes, and pray for seven minutes.  But when my schedule changed, so did my quiet time rhythms.

Discipline Brings Freedom
Older and wiser, I now know that discipline can bring freedom.  The jazz pianist who practiced the scales, the cadences, and the rhythms can improvise with ease.  The person who read the Bible and prayed consistently knows God deeper and reflects his character effortlessly.

Discipline begins at a young age.  Our parents and caretakers discipline us to train our character.  Our teachers discipline us to train our hands to write and our brains to spell and add.

In many ways, discipline makes some practices and habits second-nature so that we have freedom for other endeavors—freedom to turn words into poems, numbers into lunar orbits, and notes into smooth sax solos. In other words, discipline pays off in the long-run.

I write often because I hope that the discipline will pay off.  Perhaps the Perhaps it will pay off in a book deal, or a life changed by something I write.  Perhaps the payoff will be smaller—better word choice, stronger verbs, or less clutter.

Discipline is Stewardship
Why writing though?  Why not concentrate my efforts on being disciplined at something else?  Why not running or playing the guitar or cooking the perfect white sauce?  I chose writing because I felt called to write more.

I didn’t discover this calling at the end of 2017; rather it had been bubbling up to the surface every now-and-then for years.  Don’t get me wrong.  I had been writing.  Writing had been part of my curriculum development, consulting, and teaching work, but I approached writing as a tool to use rather than a gift to steward.

Thinking about writing as a gift to steward means I need to invest in it—I need to commit time, energy, and resources to develop my writing.  Here are a few of the investments I’ve made already in 2018:

  • Started reading and applying concepts from On Writing Well
  • Attended a writing conference
  • Put my writing “out there” on my blog and in other publications
  • Practiced storytelling through #StoryTweeting
  • Bought new software, apps, and tech tools to increase my productivity

We invest because we hope for a return.  Again, we’re back to the idea that discipline can pay off. But when?

Honestly, I have not seen much payoff yet.  It’s only May.  I bet, however, that the payoff will come.  When I write often, I relentlessly push the flywheel, hoping for a breakthrough.

Discipline Leads to Development
When I think about giftedness, I think about all of the inventories and lists created to help us identify our gifts.  Few, however, direct us in ways to develop our gifts.  (StrengthsFinder 2.0 is one exception.)  Our gifts need nurture and care so that they can grow.  We need to learn how to use them well so that God can use our gifts for the benefit of others.

What are some of your gifts?  What have others affirmed in you?  When have they noticed aptitude and potential?  Do you treat those gifts more like a tool to use than a gift to steward? What might happen if you applied a little bit of discipline and development to that area of giftedness?    

The Check-In Prayer

Intention #2: Inquire of the LORD

Recently I discovered a new type of prayer: The check-in prayer.

Typically I default to one of three prayers:

The Gratitude Prayer
Dear God, thank you for the joy that my planter of tiny succulents brings me. Amen.

The Wisdom Prayer
Dear God, I don’t know how to encourage my friend as she walks through this crisis. Help me, please.

The Intercessory Prayer
Dear God, my friend has a book proposal due in a few months. You have called her to be a wife, a mom, a program director, and a writer. Help her find the time to write. Amen.

I pray in these ways because I believe God gives. He gives beauty and words and time. He gives life and breath and food and shelter. He gives courage and direction. He gives help and healing and wholeness.

What else do I believe about God?  And how do my beliefs shape how I pray?

Prayer is tricky. We’re never quite sure how to do it. We’re not quite sure how it works. Still, we know we ought to talk with God. So we pray.

I noticed the check-in prayer during my study of 1-2 Samuel. These two books recount Israel’s transition from theocracy to monarchy. The Israelites abandon the rule of God to the rule of men, the leadership of prophets to the leadership of kings. In these two books, we learn about the first two kings: Saul and David.

The author of 1-2 Samuel does not allow the reader to miss the stark contrast between Saul and David. In particular, I observed a major difference in how they prayed. David inquired of the Lord. Saul did not.

Giant-slayer, beloved harpist, son-in-law. For brief moments, David found favor with King Saul. But, after David’s mighty military conquests, favor turned to jealousy and rage. Out of fear, Saul tried to kill David on several occasions, and eventually, David fled.

While hiding out with his army of the in-debt, in-distress, and discontented, David saw that Israel’s enemy, the Philistines, were fighting against a nearby town. David, Israel’s military hero with a sterling record against the Philistines, did not immediately rush to battle. First, David “inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I go and attack these Philistines?’” (1 Sam 23:2). And the Lord said to go.

Fearful of the mighty Philistines, David’s men were reluctant to fight. So “again David inquired of the LORD, and the LORD answered him” (1 Sam 23:4). This time, the Lord gave both directive and encouragement: “Go…for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand” (1 Sam 23:4).

When we walk with God, seeking to follow him, I don’t think he minds these check-in prayers. David was “a man after [God’s] heart.” God honored his check-in prayers with answers.

Check-in prayers remind us of our dependence on God.  They remind us that we do not have all of the answers.  Check-in prayers remind us that God has an interest in what we do.

In my recent research among Christian college students, some approached career decision-making without having check-in conversations. More than one student told me that their faith had not been a significant part of their decision-making process, but they were confident that God would intervene if they were making the wrong decision.

I’m not sure that God always checks in on us in that way. Yes, he gives us agency to make choices, but he wants to be a constant conversation partner in our decision-making.  If we leave God out of the conversation, we cannot assume that he will intervene if we have made a poor choice or are about to do something stupid. He certainly didn’t do that in Saul’s case.

Throughout his kingship, Saul acted impulsively. He refused to wait on the LORD. Only in desperation did he inquire of the LORD. Samuel the prophet had died. The Philistines prepared to route Israel. At that point, Saul decided to inquire of the LORD. “But the LORD did not answer him by Urim or prophets” (1 Sam 28:6).

In 2018, I’m trying the check-in prayer. Right now, I have a project in mind. It aligns with my gifts and what I perceive to be my calling. I think the idea may even be from the LORD, but I want to check in with him before moving forward. I think my prayer might go like this: “God, I have this project in mind.  I think it could work.  What do you think?”  I hope he will honor my prayer with an answer.

On Flywheels and Calling

Intention #1: Relentlessly Push the Flywheel

I am still not entirely sure what a flywheel is, but the flywheel concept has been seared into my mind for over a decade.  Among the many books deemed important for my formation during my pastoral residency was a business book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.   

In the book, Jim Collins describes the practices of companies that move from being good companies to great companies.  (He also wrote a companion book on how to apply the concepts to the social sectors.)  Our church leadership believed the principles in Collins’s book applied to churches, and so we read and discussed the book at the time when church staff were developing their ministry plans for the upcoming year.

One of the practices that help good organizations become great organizations is relentlessly pushing the flywheel.  If like me, you are unclear about what a flywheel is, this definition may or may not help:

“a heavy wheel for opposing and moderating by its inertia any fluctuation of speed in the machinery with which it revolves; also: a similar wheel used for storing kinetic energy (as for motive power)”

I do not understand machines or gears, and I took applied physics instead of theoretical physics in college, so this definition makes zero sense to me.

As I understand it, a flywheel is a huge wheel connected to several other wheels or moving parts.  Pushing the flywheel causes the other parts of the machine to start turning—slowly at first but then faster and faster over time.

In terms of business, or ministry, or, in this case, calling, relentlessly pushing the flywheel can create productive movement.  Collins describes the breakthrough that can come as a result of pushing the flywheel:

“Then, at some point—breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn, after turn…whoosh!…its own heavy weight working for you.  You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster.”  (p. 164-165)

But how does the flywheel relate to calling? In my last post, I mentioned that I had a vague sense of calling regarding my professional work.  It seemed like my gifts, skills, passion, and training aligned well with that of a full-time college or seminary professor.  I love to teach.  I love to conduct research.  I love encouraging students.

So I started doing what professors do.  I took adjunct teaching jobs.  I published journal articles.  I launched a research study.  I also continued my consulting work with a non-profit in the absence of a steady paycheck and without the promise of career advancement.  Slowly, slowly, I pushed the flywheel.

But I didn’t do so entirely on my own.  I invited God into my work and asked him to bless it.  One of my frequent prayers echoes the psalmist: “Establish the work of my hands” (Psalm 90:17).  It never hurts to ask God to help you push the flywheel.

And then, all of a sudden, the flywheel started to turn. Momentum built, and the machine started to run.  I saw the work paying off.  Not paying off in terms of significant income.  Not paying off in the form of a faculty position.  Relentlessly pushing the flywheel has paid off in more clarity about my calling and more opportunities to do work I love.