Seven Steps To Living Our Personal Greatness

There are some people who we regard as great, who we admire and respect, who seem to be almost superhuman. Whether it be the amazing strength and precision of a Serena Williams or the genius intelligence of an Albert Einstein, their accomplishments seem to transcend ordinary humans like you and me.

But this evening I would like to focus on a different kind of greatness, a greatness that we respect not because someone seems flawless and superhuman, but because we can plainly see that are very very human, because we can see that they are a messy, broken person just like you and me. A messy, broken person can inspire me in a way that a superhuman person never can, for in their path to personal greatness I see a path that I can follow too.

This evening I would like to consider just such a man, a man who was full of flaws and full of brokenness and was pretty beat up by the world. A man who took the mess that was his life and walked a path that touched millions of people. A man who beautifully lived out his personal greatness. A man called Johnny Cash. I would like for us to look at seven steps, seven steps that Johnny took along his own path to personal greatness that we can take to grow and become the great souls that God has intended us to be.

But I want to warn you: I firmly believe that these seven steps are all absolutely necessary. Not a single one is optional. You can’t decide “I like number one and number four, but number three looks too hard, I’ll pass.” You need to commit to following each and every one of these steps to become the great soul that the world so desperately needs you to become.

Step 1: Stop Listening to Negative Voices

The first step that we all must take in walking the path to our personal greatness is to stop listening to the voices that condemn us. We all hear these voices, and they come from three sources.

The first voice we must stop listening to is the voice of others. They are all around us, and some of them unfortunately come from people who are close to us. They tell us we can’t accomplish our goals, that we shouldn’t go for our dreams, that we’re not smart enough, strong enough, lucky enough, beautiful enough– you name it. Sometimes these people are trapped by their own fear or anger or jealousy or confusion, sometimes they mean well but just don’t have the wisdom they need, but whatever the case their words are a slow poison to our soul.

In Johnny Cash’s life two of the people who were closest to him, who should have been his biggest supporters– his father and his wife Vivian, were the two people who were constantly reminding him of his failures and shortcomings. If he had kept listening to their voices, he would never have became the man that God had destined him to be.

The next condemning voice we must stop listening to is what we think is the voice of God. Many of us grew up seeing God as the stern father figure looking down just waiting for us to mess up. Often that image or another like it permeates our thoughts more deeply than we imagine, even if we later learn the true image of our loving compassionate God.

I myself realized in my 30s that even though I held an intellectually correct view of God, that deep in my heart I imagined him up in heaven saying something like, “Well, that Hollandsworth, well, he’s certainly messed his life up a lot, he’s nowhere near what I wanted him to be, but, you know, I did promise to forgive him and accept him, so I guess I’ll have to go ahead and do it.” To be able to see that false voice in my heart and discard it was one of my first steps of true spiritual growth.

The last condemning voice we must silence is our own. We all have it– that voice that keeps reminding us of every flaw and shortcoming we have ever had. As long as we are listening to it we can never hear our true song. Simply recognizing it’s there is the first step to banishing it. Many people even give it a name, like Sad Sally, and when they start hearing the condemnation playfully chase it away with a silly phrase like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Sally, but I just don’t have time to think about that today.”

Step 2: Open Up to Love

After we discard the voices of condemnation, we can start to open up to love. It is only love that can give life and health to our wounded hearts, and prepare us for even greater things. Just as with the condemning voices, we must look to both others, God, and ourselves for such love.

In Johnny’s life, the person who gave him such a life transforming love was June Carter. Even when he was so lost and confused that he was destroying himself, her love remained steadfast for him. Hers wasn’t a sentimental, rose-colored glasses, here today and gone tomorrow kind of love. It was a love that was strong and wise and didn’t gloss over or ignore his failures, but loved him through his failures and was convinced there was something greater there. I think that there are in each of our lives people who are willing to show us that kind of love, if we are willing to seek them out and receive it.

Of course, the person who loves us more fully and completely than anyone is God, and probably the most central part of our spiritual journey is learning to stay moment by moment in His loving presence. There is nothing more important in my spiritual life than simply taking the time to be still and deeply feel God’s love for me bathing my soul and nourishing my spirit.

When we have banished our condemning voices and are filled up with the unconditional love of God and others we will have the strength to finally accept our own love unconditionally. This self love is not pride or haughtiness, but a warm gentle embrace of seeing and accepting ourselves as the beautiful creations of God that we are.

Step 3: Create Beauty from Your Pain

We are messy, imperfect beings living in a messy, imperfect world. Every one of us has to come to grips with the pain that we have experienced in our lives.

We can spend our life endlessly mourning our pain, or we can be daily asking “Why?” or shaking our fists at God. But all of those options are dead ends: we will never get the answers we seek, and we will never take a single step of spiritual progress while we try to out think God. As long as we choose to see ourself as a victim that will be all that we can be: just a victim.

But there is another way: to accept that the world is as it is, to let go of asking why we have experienced our pain, and move beyond and create beauty out of the pain. This simple choice moves us from being a victim to a creator.

Johnny’s life was full of suffering, from the pain of losing a beloved brother when he was a teen to a failed marriage to decades of struggle with drug addiction. But through a deep personal faith in God and the support of friends he was able to transform his pain and suffering into beauty. His suffering allowed him to create music and achieve greatness that he could never have done without it.

How do you create your own beauty out of your pain? There is no simple formula; it is as individual as your life story. But let me offer two perspectives. The first is from the poet Rumi, who once wrote, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” It is in our wounds and pain that we often most clearly see the light, love, and grace of God if we will be open to it. The second is from Helen Keller, who knew a great deal about transforming pain into beauty. In an interview she once explained,

“Out of this sorrowful experience I understand more fully all human strivings, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.”

Even though our pain is uniquely ours, we can let it show us what it means to be human, and thereby let it give us a connection to the pain of each and every human being.

Step 4: Believe your Greatness

God created us all with a personal greatness, a one of a kind beauty and strength for us to give to the world. But the weight of the world and our past mistakes cloud our sight of God’s vision for us.

To fulfill what God wants us to become we must reclaim His vision for us, we must regain our childlike faith and believe once again that we can be great. We cannot become anything that we do not first believe that we can.

Johnny Cash was a man who did recognize he had something great to offer the world, but still he struggled to believe it. The film Walk the Line powerfully portrays Johnny’s struggle with his self-worth in light of his past mistakes. In one scene, in the midst of his self-pity, June Carter serves as his angel, his messenger from God, to guide him back:

Johnny: What have I done? Just hurt everybody I know. I know I’ve hurt you. I’m nothin’.
June: You’re not nothin’. You are not nothin’. You’re a good man, and God has given you a second chance to make things right, John. This is your chance, honey.

We are new creations in Christ. We must be willing to believe God’s pronouncement that we are good men and women, and believe in our greatness to make our mark.

Step 5: Sing your own Song

As we walk our path toward our personal greatness, a constant temptation is to look to someone else’s path and follow it. For some, it may be the path that parents or family pressure them into, for others they may feel they have to conform to their culture or their friend’s expectations or their churches’. But we can never truly live out our personal greatness unless we are willing to find and follow our personal path.

In Walk the Line, one of the pivotal points in young Johnny’s life is portrayed while he is auditioning for a producer by singing a conventional gospel song of the day. Of course, the producer has heard a hundred men sing songs like that, but he also senses something deeper, something greater in Johnny. He stops him mid-song, and he states,

If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.

And that’s exactly what Johnny did– he had the courage to sing his own song. Not everyone loved it, and not everyone agreed with it, but that didn’t matter. It was his song and his alone to sing.

That’s what we have to do too. We have to find our song and sing it, we must find our life and live it. We have been given it by God before we ever came into this world, and it is ours alone to live.

Step 6: Serve Others with Who You Are

Once we find our own song, it’s up to us to sing it for others, for that’s why we are here. We are here to love and serve others, and that is a large part of the greatness that Johnny Cash had. He felt a kinship with other messy, broken, disenfranchised people, and served them with his life.

One of his greatest triumphs, his live recording At Folsom Prison, came out of his heart to serve others. Recording a live album for prisoners was widely thought to be career suicide, but Johnny knew it was his path. Now widely recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, Life magazine described Cash’s singing as sounding like, “someone who has grown up believing he is one of the people that these songs are about.”

We may never receive such rave reviews or even thanks for our service, but it is still ours to give. But just like Johnny, if we give it in the spirit of true compassion, it will not fail to find its fruit.

Step 7: Start Now

This last step is the most important one. You can have listened attentively and agreed with all that I’ve said, but if you do not throw yourself into this last step you will never reach your true potential. And that step is simply: Start now.

We all have a hundred reasons to delay following our path. We’re too busy. We’re not financially secure. We need time to heal. We need to get our act together first. You name it, God has heard it. And you know what? There’s not a single reason that holds water.

Think about all the reasons that Johnny Cash had. If he had felt that he needed to become perfect before recording his first song, if felt he needed to have his act together first, we would have never been blessed by his music. He was never a perfect person: some of his demons he struggled with for decades. But the fact that he was still broken, still struggling, did not prevent him from journeying his path to his greatness.

It cannot prevent us either. If we wait until we have it all together before we start walking the spiritual path, we will never take the first step. Indeed, walking the path still messed up and broken is what makes it a path, a journey for us. The fact that we are a mess must not stop us. Please, please, don’t let it stop you. I’d like to close with one final quote. This one is from Alan Chambers, the founder of the ministry Exodus International which aids people who are spiritually struggling with homosexuality:

“We live in a very messy reality. Everyone lives in that reality. But in the midst of that reality, we have a God…who is crazy about us. Mess and all. Your mess isn’t the ‘gay stuff’, it’s simply the ‘life stuff.’” “But [God] would rather have messy children than no children at all.

All of us still have “stuff” we’re working on. But your stuff doesn’t need to stop you or define you. Whether you have relationship stuff or addiction stuff or abuse stuff, whatever stuff you have, your stuff isn’t you, it isn’t who you really are and doesn’t need to stop you from serving others right now, from following your spiritual path right now, and from living out your personal greatness right now.

The Power of Seeing Your Life as Story

Manuscript by Muffet via Flickr

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare, As You Like It

Many writers have spoken of the power of seeing your life as a story. Joseph Campbell has devoted much of his life to exploring how our myths shape us. Paulo Coehlo teaches that each person must discover their own “personal legend.”

I too believe that a vital part of the examined life, the successful life consists of seeing your life as story. Why? I see three distinct benefits. One is rooted in the past, one is anchored in the present, and the third is planted in the future:

1. Seeing your life as story lets you see how far you’ve come, the chapters you’ve already accomplished

2. Seeing your life as story gives you clear direction and focus for what actions you need to be taking now

3. Seeing your life as story gives you hope for the future, that there will be ever greater & more exciting chapters in store for you

To see your life as story, one useful technique is to think of your life as chapters. In each stage of your life there is a major challenge or conflict, and a major way that you need to grow to overcome the challenge, win the conflict, climb the mountain until you reach a new vista of awareness, strength, maturity and opportunity. What’s more, the lesson learned, the growth obtained in one chapter both paves the way for the challenge of the next chapter and equips you to successfully surmount it.

I can see these truths so clearly in my own life. Looking back over the past fifteen years of my life, I see four major chapters that I have lived. Each chapter has had its own challenge & growth, and the close of each chapter has opened the next. Now the chapters have overlap– it’s not that I was in chapter one for exactly four years and three days, and then chapter two started, but they have certainly been distinct passages I have traveled through.

The first chapter, starting about fifteen years ago, is titled “Man Experiences God.” In my early thirties I was still stuck in the foolishness, immaturity and self-centeredness of youth. Although I was outwardly successful as a physician, and though I had been active in church all my life, God was more a theoretical concept than an active reality in my life. I knew quite a lot about God, but I didn’t know God– His love, His acceptance, His presence, His guiding spirit.

Looking back, I see that is why I had made little progress spiritually. I was like a seed that had seen water, knew what water was, but had never actually experienced water, the water of life that a seed must have to start the process of growth. My encounter with God’s love and presence becoming a vital reality in my life was like how Jesus described the wind in John 3– you can’t put a label on it, but its effects are unmistakable.

God’s life-giving presence opened the door for my second chapter, “Man Explores Himself.” During these years I went beyond many of my preconceptions and fixed ideas about who I was. I discovered my passion and talent for writing. I did mentoring and teaching. I did the unthinkable and ran a half marathon. I read dozens of books on spiritual and personal development. I pushed, stretched, and explored myself in a dozen different ways, and in doing so truly became the man God originally envisioned me to be.

As exciting and necessary as that chapter was, it only drove me into my third chapter, “Man Wrestles With God, Himself, & His Path.” Just like Issac of old, coming to grips with who I was and where my path lay was a process & a struggle. Many refer to going through a “mid-life crisis.” Although I never suddenly started wearing gold chains or driving a Harley, exploring who I was forced me to take a hard look at what I had done with my life, where I was, what God wanted for me, and where my future path really lay.

For many people this triggers disillusion, disappointment, and self-destructive behavior. But for some it can be a catalyst for radical positive change. For my friend Richard Iammarino, an honest exploration of who he really was led him to walk away from a secure academic appointment as a pathologist to go back to school to become who God had created him to be– a counselor.

For me, wrestling with God has largely confirmed that I am where God wants me to be, but with a renewed passion & focus on being a teacher & mentor, developing wisdom & loving well. But going through this chapter, and honestly questioning who I was and where my path lay, was an essential chapter to my story that I could not skip.

So now I see myself transitioning into a new chapter, “Man Confidently Walks His Path & Creates His Life.” I am to the point where I know who I am and my big questions about my life are answered, and I am ready to plow ahead with becoming the best me I can be, growing, maturing, creating, serving, loving along the path that God has laid out for me. I turned 48 years old today, and I feel excited and invigorated, looking forward to the years ahead, looking forward to my approaching sixth decade on this planet.

Will there be another chapter in my life beyond this one, one whose title is right now known only to God? I hope so– maybe even several. But seeing this story of my life, stretching from my past, grounded in my present, and reaching into my future, I can live today with confidence, excitement, peace, & joy. Carpe diem!



Peace Is Your Beginning, Not Your Destination

Peace of the soul is often looked on as a destination in life’s journey, something that we aspire to and may someday reach if we are wise enough or spiritual enough. After a recent vacation in Rome, I now see peace not as a destination, but as a beginning, as the best place to start each journey of my life.

I had arrived in Rome in a travel group of fifty high school seniors and parents, the last stop in a whirlwind tour of Europe. I was exhausted, still battling a raging stomach virus and losing. I had already lost my day in beautiful Florence to the bug, lying half conscious in a darkened hotel room.

And now my mind was in turmoil. Do I try to push myself out the door and hope that I can keep up with the group’s frantic pace to take in Rome in a day, or do I resign myself to missing my only chance to see the Eternal City?

Although you may never have been sick in Rome, I’m sure you’ve been exactly where I was at some juncture point in your life. When was the last time you felt turmoil in your soul? Was it a financial decision, a work situation, or a relationship quandary? Did you have multiple alternatives competing for your attention, or did you like me seem to have no option that avoided disaster?

So often our temptation when faced with any decision dilemma is to hurriedly choose one path and plunge forward, to avoid that uncomfortable no-man’s land of uncertainty. We choose a path before we’re at peace with it, and then hope that the calm that our soul is craving will show up along the way.

Let me suggest a better way: be willing to stay with the question, with the indecision, until peace comes, because what true peace brings is worth the wait. Let’s be clear: I don’t mean giving in to fear to avoid making a decision, like the gutless man who waits a decade or two to make sure the woman he loves is the one he wants to marry. And I don’t mean giving in to doubt or laziness to avoid all risk or any work.

But when we have the bravery and wisdom to patiently stay with the question until the mists clear, we reap multiple benefits. That morning in Rome, I was able to stay with the question until my mind settled down, and I came to a complete peace about staying behind and resting. A simple decision, yes, but an important one, and letting my soul come to rest and being okay with staying back poignantly illustrated just how valuable peace is to be the beginning of any journey.

First, I saw how peace brings a life nourishing emotion instead of a life draining one. Like it or not, every emotion we experience either nourishes us or drains us. Peace is a supremely nourishing state of the soul, and I immediately felt like a weight fell off my shoulders when I moved into a peace about my decision. Whether I had stayed or went, I could have ruined my day with resentment, doubt, despair, or anger if I had not first let my soul come to rest. Such negative emotions can grow and spread, infecting your entire outlook on life. The remedy? Not allowing them to start by being completely at peace with whatever path you take.

I also realized how peace releases you from following destructive paths. In my case, had I felt compelled to go out, it would have been disastrous. Looking back, I am sure I would not have been able to keep up, and would have been forced to take a cab back to the hotel or worse. But coming to a peace, being okay with acknowledging I was just too sick, released me from my own expectations. How many times do we see people going down wrong paths for them because they feel pressured by society or family or their own limited conceptions of what is best? Peace releases you from that prison.

Likewise, peace gives you the freedom & space to choose wisely. Have you ever had the misfortune of being in a high pressure sales pitch like to buy a timeshare? Whenever a salesman says you have to make a decision right then, he is counting on the fact that people tend to choose foolishly when they don’t have the time to find peace. But when your soul is at rest, you experience freedom that you can achieve no other way.

Along with freedom, peace gives you new vision & clarity. With negative emotions and pressures out of the way, our mind is relaxed and able to fully consider new alternatives and options. After resting the whole morning in the hotel, I had new options open to me, and I chose to venture out at my own reduced pace. This proved to be an excellent decision, letting me see part of Rome without tiring me out. No matter the situation or decision, having peace before you take that first step will vastly improve your decision making ability at every step.

Finally, having peace will allow you to fully enjoy each moment. Having peace meant that I was able to actually enjoy resting in the hotel, being grateful for a comfortable bed and a quiet room and the opportunity to let my body heal. Having peace allowed me to enjoy navigating around a foreign city by myself for the first time in my life, and enjoying the simple beauty of a fountain, of a meal, of walking down a lovely street.

Don’t consider peace merely as a desirable option in your life’s journey, something to pick up somewhere along the way. The benefits of peace are worth your time and effort, worth your patience, worth your commitment to seek it until you find it. The journey that begins in peace will end in joy. May you find peace and joy in all your journeys.

Life Is Like a Salad Bar

I love a good salad bar, because it is not just about eating but about creating. You have all these ingredients– different flavors, different sizes, different textures, different colors — and you get to decide which to use and how much of each to use. No two salads are the same— they will all look different and taste different. What will be the perfect salad to you will be revolting to someone sitting right beside you. What fun!

So, what are the principles for making your ideal salad? First, know your ingredients– what tastes sweet, what tastes tangy, what is crunchy, what is syrupy. Second, know yourself– what are your likes, and what makes your tummy unhappy. Third, don’t get tied down by any supposed rules or what other people think– who says you can’t have pickles and beets on a Caesar salad? Fourth, experiment, try different things and different combinations, don’t be afraid to go back to the bar again and again until you have exactly what you want on your salad. And lastly– relax, have fun, and enjoy.

Now to me, life really is like a salad bar. There is all this enormous variety spread out before you– different jobs, different places to live, different hobbies and friends, and a million different ways to combine all those to produce your ideal life. You can live in an apartment or a country house, work alone or with a team, like reading or going to the movies, buying NASCAR box tickets or opera box tickets (or maybe both!), having a bust the house open party or just a few friends over. It’s all your choice as to how to create your ideal life.

And guess what? The best way to approach creating your ideal life is a lot like creating your ideal salad.

You have to know what “ingredients” are available, and what your likes and dislikes are. Do you need supervision and structure in your work, or do you need to be a free spirit? Do crowds drive you crazy, or give you energy? Are you a beach or a mountain person? Part of becoming wise is being able to take an honest inventory of who you are and what your needs and desires are, and what dreams and opportunities meet your individual needs and desires.

Wisdom is also realizing where you are limiting yourself by saying “Oh, I can’t do that.” You can’t go back to school when you’re 60? Who said so, why not? You can’t live on a South Seas island? Well, if you know what other things you have to give up and your heart still sings, why not? Oh, I can’t do (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank) will think (fill in the blank) about me? Whose life are you living, yours or theirs? Take a hard look at where you’re setting limits in your life– do they really need to be there?

Wisdom also knows that life is a process, a journey. You will always be trying new ingredients, finding new things that are tasty to you, and finding that some things that were tasty ten years ago may not be a good fit any longer. You’ve been a marathon runner for ten years, so you have to keep doing it? No you don’t. Never run a marathon, so it’s too late now? No it isn’t!

Finally, wisdom knows that all this craziness we call life is not meant to be endlessly analyzed and brooded over, is not meant to be taken so seriously, but is meant to be lived— to be enjoyed, moment by moment, day by day. So look at your life and its ingredients— keep experimenting, keep blending, keep living, and enjoy your handcrafted creation of life every day.

GIGO for Christians

There is an old computer acronym called GIGO, which stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It means no matter how good the computer program is, if you feed it the wrong data, you will get the wrong answer.

The GIGO principle works in our lives too. If we feed our minds and our hearts with “input” from a mixed up, self-centered world, we will end up thinking, feeling, and acting just as mixed up too. We wonder why we see so many young people getting in trouble, so many people getting divorces, so many struggling with addictions, and yet we never stop to consider whether thousands of hours consuming television, movies, books, & music that falsely glorify God-rejecting values & behavior might have anything to do with it.

But we have the option of using an even more powerful principle: God In, Garbage Out. The power & presence of God is far greater than any garbage in our heart, and it is only a love for Him that can rid us of a love for the world. The 19th century Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers taught this in his famous sermon titled The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. He wrote,

How impossible it were for the heart… to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness… the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.

In other words, simply telling yourself, I won’t sin, I won’t do this or that which I know is wrong but I desire to do, is doomed to fail because the human heart HAS to desire, has to attach itself to something. You can’t simply tell a wrong desire to go away, you have to overpower and overwhelm that wrong desire with something infinitely more desirable— the love of Christ. God In, Garbage Out. It’s the only way to change from the inside out.

One Hundred Percent Trust

Jump Off by April Gazmen via Flickr

I had a friend tell me that he was “100% trusting God.” I smiled, and thought to myself, “Boy, I wish I could trust like that, one hundred percent.”

But then I thought, how would I rate myself? Ninety eight percent? Eighty percent? How much trust do I have?

Although I like living in a world of grays and probabilities, trust is black or white, all or nothing. You either trust or you don’t trust. If you jump out of an airplane, you can’t 86% trust that your parachute will open. You either trust and jump, or you don’t trust and stay in the plane.

That’s what trust really is: a choice that determines action. It’s not that you have eliminated any possibility of another outcome: every jumper knows there is a small chance that his chute will fail. But what separates the guy that jumps from the one who stays in the plane is that he has made a conscious decision to act as if the outcome were certain. It is the “leap of faith” that Kierkegaard spoke of: the bridge between logic & life.

You can’t spend your life waiting for a parachute with a “100% Absolutely Guaranteed” to magically appear on your back. There is an area right now in your life where you need to trust, where you need to make a conscious decision to act. Grab your parachute, open the hatch, and jump!

How to Live a Real Life

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.” –from The Velveteen Rabbit

I took a few minutes yesterday to write a short encouraging email to a friend. It was a simple thing, really, something I do often and that I enjoy doing for people I care about. I soon got the following reply:

I love you John. Thank you for sharing. :) You warm my heart with your words.

Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, I am becoming real. And just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is because of love. No, not the passionate, heart-stopping Hollywood stuff, but the ordinary give and take of simply loving people in simple and ordinary ways, and being open to receiving their love too. I like to think that’s what living a real life is all about.

But it’s not always so easy, is it? There seems to be two big traps that crowd out real life: fluff and drama. By “fluff” I mean things that easily occupy the time in our day, that seem to be engaging and life-giving, but that really don’t have anything to do with the real business of life, giving and receiving love. Spending hours watching entertaining television, surfing the net to watch the latest cute kitten video, watering vegetables you can’t eat on Facebook— they all certainly seem to be enjoyable, but do they help us become real? Are they paths to giving and receiving love, or are we just pointlessly spinning our wheels, going nowhere?

The second trap is what I call drama: anxiety, worry, focusing on what others think, power, bitterness, greed— there are so many things that suck us into a whirlpool of drama that consumes our time and energy without giving us any life in return. Whether it’s that nagging thought of whether we really look pretty enough or a resentment that fills every waking thought, every second of drama in our life is one second less that we have to abide in love.

So, once you cut out the fluff & cut out the drama in your life, what next? Fill your life with pathways to give love, according to your unique gifts and your unique place in the world. How do you love? I love best when I use words to encourage, teach, & give wisdom, when I listen, when I laugh, when I hug, when I help people with their health concerns. Spend time thinking about how you love best, and use your list to structure your time & priorities.

And how are you loved best? I am loved when I am open to God’s presence, when I am open to receiving gratitude (& hugs!), & when I immerse myself in life instead of being on the sidelines. Don’t be afraid of a life filled with both giving and receiving genuine love.

Do you want to become real? It’s simple: live a real life, a life filled with love. Start today.

Operation Is a Game, Not Your Life

“Operation”– one word takes us back to a childhood memory of sweating bullets to remove little white plastic pieces from a guy with a big red nose. Think about it— why did we get so worked up over that game? The diseases you were supposed to be curing were fake, the little crevices were WAY too small, and even the penalty for failing wasn’t your patient REALLY dying, but just a little red light & an annoying buzzer. But still the game sucked you in, and before you realized it your whole life was focused on removing that tiny wish bone.

But isn’t it so easy to live our lives just like that game? We see our lives as one “operation” after another, where we have to sweat through completing this task exactly right, or acting exactly right in front of our boss, or behaving exactly how another person wants us to behave, or meeting some internal flawless standard we impose on ourselves. We are constantly looking over our own shoulder, and if we make the slightest mistake a big annoying buzzer goes off in our head. BUZZ– you should have done that instead. BUZZ– you should have said that to him instead. BUZZ– you forgot that. BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.

And if that wasn’t enough, some people are trying to play operation with not only their lives but our lives too. They have us squeezed into their little box of exactly what we should say & do & think & be & not say or do or think or be. Their mental eyes are constantly watching & the minute we violate their rules then BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.

There’s a better way to live. First, be gentle with yourself. In Psalm 103 David reminds us that God has compassion on us, for he knows that “our frame is like dust”– that we aren’t capable of perfection. Have compassion on yourself. Forgive yourself. Life is not meant to be an operation game, with a buzzer constantly going off.

Second, don’t let anyone else be pressing a buzzer on you. They have no right to judge you, to pronounce that you have stepped outside their little box of what your life should be. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 7 that your life is between you and God alone. Let your wise Father guide you in His love, and ignore anyone else with a buzzer in their hand.

Third, take a look in your own hand. Are you holding a buzzer over someone else? Do you have this picture of who they need to be to meet your needs, or to meet some definition in your mind? Holding that buzzer in your hand isn’t helping them, & it isn’t helping you.

Let go of the boxes, let go of the buzzers. Live in freedom & forgiveness, both for yourself & for everyone in your life.

Thoughts for a New Year

2010 has been such a good year. I feel so blessed to have been a part of so many people’s lives: patients, friends, & family. It was a blessing to help in their challenges, share in their sufferings, & rejoice in their joys. And I feel I have grown in so many ways this year too.

As I was reflecting on the year, I wanted to share some quotes on life. They come from a variety of sources. Many I have scattered on the walls of my office. Yes, I know they are all generalizations, and some are more on target than others, but all of them have reminded me of important truths about life. I hope they can do the same for you.

Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those you hold well.

Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons.

Don’t live in the past— you’ve already been there.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?

The best things in life aren’t things.

When suffering comes, do not resent it or resist it, but welcome it, for it brings depth & richness & wisdom to your life, just as beauty.

No Winter lasts forever, no Spring skips its turn.

Do not regret growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

Smiles reach the hard-to-reach places.

You must let go of what you are to become what you can be.

One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.

When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.

Tension is who you think you should be; peace is who you are.

Between the “don’t know the reasons why” of the past & the “don’t know what lies ahead” of the future lies today. Today is where God wants you to live.

You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back.

What you don’t experience positively you will experience negatively.

To the extent that you give the world your gifts you will feel joy.

A visionary is someone who realizes that they can choose how they will look at the world & how they will interpret every event.

If lessons in life were easy then they wouldn’t be lessons.

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

You’ve got to say no to some things to say yes to others.

Take life for what it IS and what it CAN BE, not for what is was or what you wished it would be.

You can either accept what is, resist what is, or change what is, but regardless you must deal with what is.

There will always be pain. There will always be joy. Choose joy.

The only way to live a life fully saturated in love is to live a life fully saturated in God.

The events of life aren’t important; the meaning we choose to assign to them is.

There is only one happiness: to love & be loved.

Two Kinds of Beauty

I was at an ice rink last week, watching people of all shapes & sizes strap on skates & push out onto the ice.

Amongst the chaotic mass of wobbling legs & flailing arms there emerged two young girls. They were like two serene swans gliding among squawking ducks on a pond. Both of them flew across the ice like they were born with skates on, but their skating styles could not have been more different.

The first, who could have not been more than eight, possessed extraordinary skill. She was performing jumps & camels with such precision & beauty that I was astounded. However, as I watched her for half an hour, I realized her movements were more than just precise. It became obvious that she was going through a predetermined sequence of moves. She was doing her daily practice drills, even while she was on vacation. She was indeed beautiful, a beauty born out of hundreds of hours of intense work & dedication.

There was another young girl that was beautiful in an entirely different way on the ice. She darted & glided, turning on a dime, chasing & teasing her brother. She was untouchable: flying across the ice wherever her heart led, with an effortless fluidity that showed that her skates & her soul were fully one. She was born to skate, & the beauty of her gift was a joy to behold.

So I pondered, gazing at two kinds of beauty, one borne out of determination & focus, the other a natural expression of a gift. These two girls were a microcosm of the two kinds of beauty present within all of us. We all have “left brain” beauty, beauty that comes to fruition after long hours of study or practice or just patient determination. All of us also have “right brain” beauty, that which is simply an extension of our innate nature, heart, soul, & body.

But we don’t need to artificially separate these two. They can work as one. The skater with natural gifts can grow & develop them even more with instruction & practice. The focused, determined skater will be even more beautiful on the ice when she lets her heart flow free.

So it is with you and me. Whether it is skating or writing or cooking or working or loving, we can be both art & skill, both work & play, both spontaneous & planned. It is when we embrace both sides of ourselves & live fully in them that we will show the world all the beauty that we have to offer.