The Vanity and Laziness of Busy People

This book changed the way I think about being a dad. It hooked me first with the title that I thought was pithy and cheesy, but I realized it referred to the time spent reading the book, that it’s a quick 60-minute read that would change your child’s life.

Well, perhaps it has changed my childrens’ lives–that is a more difficult thing for me to say, but I can say it changed my life and the way I think about being a dad. I read this book nearly every year since my Mom gave it to me nearly two decades ago when I first became a dad. The insights are not groundshakingly new, but as one wise person said, “We don’t need to be instructed as much as we need to be reminded.” And this is a reminder that no one ever had written on their tombstone, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

General William R. Looney III, Air Education a...

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Like Coach Tony Dungy, this book encourages men to get off their butts and get their work done efficiently and quickly, not to postpone and procrastinate work then make excuses at the end of the day that we had so much work, honey, that I’m just going to have to stay late today. When the fact for many men is that they went on a leisurely lunch, wasted time on the internet checking ESPN, let others waste their time, and didn’t take charge of their day.

Pastor Eugene Peterson and time management guru David Allen agree that people who do not manage their time well do this out of laziness and lack of vision for what they are doing. So they let others “tell” them what to do by checking email endlessly for some fire to put out or way to take their time rather than getting busy on the initiatives that move an organization forward or simply getting the job done or tasks a supervisor has already asked you to do.

I’ll close with this searing quote from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, who repudiates the idea of “the busy pastor” and even titles the chapter this quote is drawn from as “The Unbusy Pastor:

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the “busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

“The poor man,” we say. “He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa soicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice—that I am important. If I go into a doctor’s office and find there’s no one waiting, and I see through a half-open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he’s any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book. Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor’s office, I am also impressed with his importance.

Such experiences affect me. I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. The pastor is a shadow figure in these people’s minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.

Eating Crow at Thankgiving

Families might be better off at Thanksgiving if we’d all eat some crow instead of turkey.

Two weeks ago I suggested that Garnett members prepare some “flocks and herds” like Jacob did when he returned to meet his brother. To translate to our cultural metaphor, “eat crow.”

Jacob had ripped off Esau’s deserved double portion of inheritance and blessing of the eldest brother. Esau was so furious that Jacob ran for his life and didn’t show his face in Edom for nearly two decades.

When he did return, he took his wives, servants, and children. And some of the servants went ahead with literally hundreds of herds and flocks to appease the anger of his brother Esau.

Jacob actually thought Esau would come out against him in battle, but Esau welcomed his brother with an embrace. At first Esau rejected Jacob’s restitution, but Jacob convinced him to accept, and they returned to Edom together.

Later God in Israel’s life would help them develop burnt, grain, fellowship, sin, and guilt offerings that placed emphasis on the treatment of neighbor (Leviticus 6:1-7). We often think of restitution only in legal terms, but it extends to relationships as well.

Restitution is the act of making right something that was wrong and adding some type of payment, often in excess of the victim’s loss, to make amends for an offense. A police officer once told me restitution is an important idea in law enforcement, and it certainly remains part of the United States justice system. Often called “punitive damages” today, restitution not only discourages the offender from doing it again but also sends a signal to witnesses to curb any desires of breaking the same law.

In the case of Jacob, he made restitution. Seeking forgiveness, Jacob gave a “moral gift” of flocks to his brother Esau. While some might feel shame from having sinned against a family member or embarrassing themselves years before, one benefit of this kind of public humiliation is that it’s already out there. It’s known in the family, and you don’t have to explain–instead, you can ask for forgiveness and offer some kind of restitution.

I don’t believe restitution must be a sentence or punishment. Restitution can be done voluntarily. I recently did some restitution to restore a relationship at Garnett Church. I bought a gift and wrote out a prayer as a way to help heal a heart I had wounded. This is not always easy to do, but I eat lots of crow throughout the year personally and professionally. As my friend Rubel Shelly says, “It’s not easy but after all, eating crow is fat free.” Seems to be part of the territory of being human.

What about you at Thanksgiving with family or friends? Do you have some herd gathering to do before you go?

The Gift

I received a gift in 1975 that changed my life forever. I was a young boy when Saigon, South Vietnam fell.

Fearing the take over by the North Vietnamese, Saigon practically emptied, with evacuation of troops, government, and civilian personnel, including many Vietnamese. In April 1975, President Gerald R. Ford ordered Operation Babylift, which would evacuate nearly three thousand orphans out of South Vietnam. A C-5A Galaxy plane later crashed, killing 138 passengers and hurting morale of the troops, but this did not dampen the resolve of the international community and the U.S. government. President Ford ordered American involvement in another operation. This one called “Operation New Life,” which resulted in evacuation of 110,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Most of those refugees traveled through Guam, and the majority made their way to the U.S. and some to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

I’ve never been to Vietnam, but in 1975, at Christmas, Saigon came to me and my family in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. With Operation New Life in full swing in 1975, I never imagined New Life would come to my hometown, to my living room, and I would be changed.

Christmas the year before, in 1974, was an eventful one. Up to that time, the biggest thing in my life was getting great Christmas gifts! I wanted something loud and dangerous, to the consternation of my mother.

There I am on the front yard, down on Mission Road where we lived, and my brother is handing me the gift, and he’s ecstatic, his hair is standing up, he’s just removed a helmet and pushed it down on my head, and he hands me the handle bars and there I am holding the prized gift of all gifts for a seven year old boy: a mini bike.

So I do what you’re supposed to do. I rev the engine with the throttle . . . and the mini bike begins to move. But there’s a problem . . .

I have not mounted the bike. I’m standing next to it . . . and the mini bike begins to move. So I do what I have to do. I move with it, slowly at first, then I pick up speed.

Now I’m running, trying to keep up with the mini bike. How can I jump on? I do not realize there is an option to let off the throttle and just stop it. Faster, Faster, I’m running, I’m sprinting now, I’m crying out for my brother to catch me, help me!

I can’t keep up, the mini bike is too powerful, too fast for my little legs. My brother says, “Let gooooo!” and I think he means the mini-bike itself. He means the throttle. Let off the throttle!

So I do what I have to do . . . I let go, of the whole shooting match. I let the mini bike go and stand there in the middle of the yard and watch the mini bike finish the trip, like a riderless horse.

The mini bike continues on down the slope and over a brick retaining wall several feet high. My hands are on my helmet as if I’d just thrown an interception in the Super Bowl’s last minute. What have I done? The gift for our whole family, the kids, the neighbors, the cousins.

My brother and I walk over to the mini bike to examine it for damage. Looks like nothing shattered. Maybe it’s OK. Then we pick it up and look at the front fork. It’s bent. I tear up. I’ve ruined Christmas for my brother and the rest of us. I’ve ruined our gift on the first day.

To ride the mini bike straight down the road from that day on, you turned the handle bars at a 20 degree angle.

I’ll never forget hiding behind the Christmas tree that night, sulking, warming my hands on the big red and green Christmas tree bulbs on the tinder box of a live Christmas tree. The bulbs were 6000 degrees Kelvin and yet another Christmas miracle occurred that year that fire did not engulf that tree spontaneously each night as the bulbs heated up.

And it was in that living room with the sculptured shag carpet, the gold threaded ivory drapes, the first-ever totally electric house in the city, a house so modern it prompted my mother to be quoted in the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise newspaper, a modern housewife they called her, and she said, “I go from room to room pushing buttons.” We mimic that quote, quite literally, to this day.

In that living room was a meeting that would change my life . . . and it had nothing to do with a mini-bike . . . that wasn’t the gift that changed my life. Another gift came in the form of a family who traveled across the world.

They had come as part of a mass evacuation called Operation New Life . . . some of the 90,000+ who’d made it from South Vietnam, through Guam, and received asylum in the United States . . . made it as far as Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. Then a friend of my dad’s urged him to sponsor a Vietnamese family. My father and mother have devoted their lives to helping those with little or no hope, the poor.

So Christmas 1975, in that living room where I had worried so much about a hunk of metal, the twisted mini-bike, a family came from across the world and entered our lives and changed me in ways I am trying to explain, but I would never be the same.

This was my first experience of people from another culture. The family who came to our house that day in 1975 is named “Vu.” They were mother, father, grandparents, and many children.

I remember the faces of the Vu family. I remember their faces didn’t look like mine. Their eyes were slanted. Or were my eyes the ones slanted? Their skin was a different color. They spoke a language I didn’t understand. But they didn’t understand my language, either. The Vus, in 1975, that Christmas were the first Asian family I’d ever met.

I remember going to the Vu’s downtown apartment. That’s where I ate my first eggroll.

During those turbulent years my family loved a Vietnamese family. And they loved us. They kept feeding us eggrolls. Our two very different families treated one another with respect and concern and love. Many of the Vu family still live in the United States and on occasion we’ll get a Christmas card from them and hear they are doing well.

As an eight-year-old child in 1975, I thought that mini-bike was the most important machine on the planet. I remember quietly moping next to our Christmas tree, thinking I had committed a terrible offense by wrecking our family’s motorbike. But my parents reminded me that the mini-bike was only rubber and steel. They reminded me of this fact by welcoming the Vus to sit by our Christmas tree with us. That’s where I looked at their eyes and watched them open the presents our family had given them.

I’ll never be the same after that visit and our visit to the Vu family home. I learned three things that Christmas in 1975:

  1. I learned that Christmas means helping someone desperately in need. Jesus entered a desperate world, and my parents showed love and received love from people desperate for a new life.
  2. I learned that eggrolls are good to eat.
  3. I learned that giving alone is not what Christmas is about. Christmas is first about learning how to receive, then you become a great giver.

Jesus first received flesh and blood, says John 1:14-18. He received food and clothes and was taught how to pray by his mother. He received the Holy Spirit. He received bread and fish from a little boy first before he gave fish and bread. He received a foot washing long before he washed feet. Jesus teaches us to receive. So Christmas is a good time to learn how to receive grace of God through the thoughtful gifts of our loved ones. When we grow in the grace of receiving, we learn something vital about God. Giving, doing good works, follows receiving the incredible gift of grace.

Maybe that’s partly what pointed me toward faraway lands like Uganda, where I worked as a missionary for seven years with a church planting team. With all its sugar cane and tropical plants and heat, Uganda looks and feels a lot like Vietnam. In Uganda I learned to eat food unlike what I grew up eating. I learned to keep the throttle low and my defensive driving skills high. And I learned that giving to those who are desperately in need is what I’m called to do as a follower of Christ. Maybe I went to Uganda because my parents taught me early in life that the motorbike was just rubber and steel, but the people of Vietnam and Uganda and the United States are all God’s creation.

And what I received in Uganda is another life-changing experience. I will truly never be the same after living in Uganda with my wife, Jill, and three children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. We loved and were loved by our wonderful Ugandan friends. My parents taught me at an early age how to make and be friends with people very different from us, from far away, who had come in Operation New Life. We, too, received New Life through their friendship.

I still eat eggrolls every chance I get, but these days I try to stay off motorcycles. But more four decades later, one of my best memories of Christmas is watching Vietnamese children open their presents and remembering the day I learned that to give may be more blessed than receiving, but we have to receive first. And Christmas with the Vus was about friendship of receiving and giving.

And those early childhood memories of my father’s and mother’s love shown to a Vietnamese family stick with me, because the Vus gave to us as well. I hope one day my three children will remember something I did to serve a Ugandan or American or anyone desperately in need. But even more than that, I hope my children know how desperately we all need grace, how we all need to receive love and grace of God before we really know how to give good gifts.

May your Christmas be filled with the same grace and truth that Jesus was filled with, that he received. May joy and memories of lessons learned and people who have blessed your life as my Dad and Mom, true servants of Christ, planted in mine by loving–and being loved by–a family of Vietnamese refugees. I didn’t know how to ride a mini-bike but I was paying attention to the coming of New Life.

Throw a pie

Left over ice cream pie from Ashley’s birthday party. Melted but still ice cold. Who wants a pie in the face? Anna sprints to her room and returns with a shower cap. Watch.

Jacob runs camera and commentary, laughs with his mom. My family laughing is music to my ears. For 23 years one of my favorite things in the world is my wife’s laugh.

600,000 without power in Oklahoma

I got my answer to the question, “Why do people go for milk and bread” when a winter storm is predicted. You never know.

How could we have known power would be out for 600,000 in Oklahoma? Turns out it was smart to buy milk and bread, because with trees down and power out, few stores could even open after the storm. Even mighty Wal-Mart has been crippled, though a friend was checking out when power went out, and the back up system kicked in for the cash registers and they never missed a “beep.”

How do you function while homebound without electricity in freezing weather? Some go to shelters, others to hotels. We decided to stay home and shared food and time with several neighbors. Some neighbors got generators. We have a gas fireplace and kept that going and cooked on the gas grill outside. Anna and two of her friends even made “no-bake” cookies on the grill burner.

Today, as most everything finished thawing, we cooked as we needed to for certain foods. We emptied lots of freezer bags into a pot and made some great chili that included cut up extra hamburgers from the day before. We kept some food outside where it was colder than the fridge or freezer.

Over the last three days, we’ve enjoyed fun times with neighbors, friends, family, playing games and eating together. Thanks to the Kings, Clarks, Smiths, Davises, Hodges for the fun times and helping and feeding each other.

We fed a few mouths here but ate breakfast at the Smiths, dinner at Kings one night, Davises the next and tonight Wade and Heather Hodges brought over meat that was thawing in their freezer, and Wade grilled four kinds of surf and turf. Good stuff.

Power returned for us this afternoon, but for still tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands across the state, power has still not been restored.

One of the funniest things about these storms is that when people are homebound, power and school are out, they go a little crazy, become disoriented. Their children make them nuts, and so what do they do? They put the kids to bed, go into the bedroom by candle light, shut the door, and start making more kids. Go figure.

They say most of the hospitals are online now and doing fine, but they’d better start thinking about hiring more maternity staff in August 2008.

Praying the Bible with your family

Praying the Bible with your familyI really like the series of books David and Heather Kopp have produced, for their focus on prayer practiced in families and home life. One of their books, Praying the Bible with your family is a great resource for family devotional times.

Here is an example of the format:

Quotes Job 38

Brief meditation on Job

Two questions: What do you think is the most amazing thing God has ever made? What does it tell you about God’s character?

Biblical principle

Prayer from the Bible: “God of hippopotamuses and hailstones, Lord of rainbows and coconut trees, Maker of snowflakes and snails and parakeets, Father of every living person–especially in this house . . .”

I was sold on the book while standing in the bookstore reading that prayer. I smiled and tucked the book under my arm and headed to the checkout. We soon began using it in our family times.