The Top of the Fence Post

Alex Haley, author of Roots, had a picture on his office wall of a turtle sitting on a fence post.

He said the picture was there to remind him of an important lesson: If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help getting there.

Haley said, “Every time I’m tempted to think, ‘Aren’t I marvelous? Look at all I’ve accomplished!’ I look at that picture and remember how this turtle — me — got up on that post.”

(By the way, the turtle-on-the-post illustration has been spun countless ways; I like Haley’s the best.)

This is a good time of the year to take the time to say thank you to the ones — and, specifically, the One — who helped you make it to the top of the post.

Obviously, we begin by giving thanks to the Father for all that he has done.

But let’s not forget also to say thanks to those who play a part in bringing his goodness our way.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… (Philippians 1:3-5)

Is there someone to whom you can say ‘thank you’ today?

Settling in for the Long Haul

When John Grisham got the idea to write his first novel, he was a practicing attorney with a heavy caseload and the full-time obligations of family life.

He had a story that he wanted to tell, but there was no easy way to get it done. He knew he couldn’t crank out a novel in a few short weeks, like Stephen King and James Patterson seem to do.

So he decided to do what he could: he would go to the office an hour early each day and write one page.

One page a day. This way, he could finish his first draft in about a year.

And that’s how it played out.

The book was called A Time to Kill. It found its way to a publisher, became a best-seller, and then a popular movie, and it launched an impressive writing career.

This happened because John Grisham made the intentional choice to settle in for the long haul, focused on doing today what needs to be done.

This means that on the days he didn’t feel like writing, he wrote anyway.

And when he wasn’t sure what should happen next in the story, he kept on writing.

When countless agents and publishers said “No thanks” to his first round of queries, he continued to write.

He settled in for the long haul.

There’s a verse in Proverbs that speaks to this.

Steady plodding brings prosperity; hasty speculation brings poverty. (Proverbs 21:5)

It may not seem all that exciting, but if you have any hope of accomplishing what you hope to accomplish, and becoming the person you hope to become, today just might be mainly about plodding along.

Practice Days

In his book Today Matters, John Maxwell talks about asking legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who had won 10 NCAA championships while at UCLA, what he missed most about coaching.

Wooden’s response?

PRACTICE.

He missed practice the most.

He said, “What you do in practice determines your level of success. I used to tell my players, ‘You have to give 100% everyday. Whatever you don’t give, you can’t make up for tomorrow. If you give only 75% today, you can’t give 125% tomorrow to make up for it.'”

Much of what we’ll do today could be labeled ‘practice,’ though we’re more likely to call it preparation: preparing for the next meeting, the next message, the next service.

It’s amazing how much life consists of getting ready. Wooden’s words remind us that we don’t have the luxury of coasting through these “non-game days.”

Even our practice days deserve 100%.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. (Colossians 3:23)

The Science of Happiness

Good morning, friends. In the past few weeks I have posted a few memos about happiness, for a good reason: There are many who think that their happiness in life — especially now — is determined by elements beyond their control.

This isn’t the case. An individual’s level of happiness is almost entirely up to them.

True, some factors can make happiness a bit of a challenge at times, but it’s never beyond our reach.

According to a recent CNET article, the idea that happiness is built in and can’t be changed is a misconception. It really is up to you, and your willingness to tend to five key areas:

• Build meaningful relationships with friends and family.
• Demonstrate kindness toward others.
• Show compassion for yourself and others.
• Express gratitude.
• Focus on the present moment, rather than obsessing about the past or fretting over the future.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who teaches a course called The Science of Happiness at UC Berkeley, says that happiness doesn’t mean you feel pure joy and cheerfulness every hour of every day.

She says, “People who pursue happiness in that sort of belief system end up being less happy than people who define happiness in a more overarching, quality-of-life way.”

Happiness means accepting negative experiences and having the skills to deal with them as you continue moving forward.

What some might call happiness, the Bible calls joy. It’s more than a good feeling caused by a good moment. It’s deep enough to endure difficult days.

It’s a choice that we make, again and again.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

The Secret to Happiness

What is the secret to happiness? 

The list of nominees is the same for almost everyone: income, health, family, success.

Results of a Harvard study, however, indicate that the answer is none of the above.

What is it, then?

Volunteering to help others. Another way to say it: Serving.

Research conducted by Dr. Eric Kim concludes that people over the age of 50 who volunteer to help others for at least 2 hours a week have a higher sense of well-being than those who don’t.

And it goes beyond a sense of well-being. Helping others is a catalyst toward other lifestyle benefits, such as lower risk of death, a lesser chance of health-related complications, and increased physical activity.

Dr. Kim says that serving others doesn’t just strengthen communities, it also “enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.”

Maybe this is one reason why Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than receive: Your gift of service to others come back your way, in full measure, even running over. [Acts 20:35, Luke 6:38]

In the words of King Solomon…

Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed. (Proverbs 11:25)

Ideas Waiting to be Recognized

In last week’s memo I talked about the “gratitude ball” that Duke University used for motivation during their NCAA championship run in 2015.

The idea was implemented by head coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

It’s important to note, however, that the idea didn’t start with him. It came from the associate head coach, Jeff Capel.

Krzyzewski realized right away it would be an effective motivational strategy, so he grabbed hold of the suggestion and made the most of it.

I like everything about the way Krzyzewski handled this.

First, he fostered a leadership environment where assistants and associates felt free to share their ideas.

Second, he recognized a good idea when he heard it, and he was willing to put it to work — even though it wasn’t his idea.

Third, he made it a point to give Capel the credit he deserved.

This is how effective leaders do it.

The simple truth is, if every workable idea has to come from you and you alone, your leadership efforts will always want for workable ideas.

But if you’re willing to listen, and willing to take a risk on someone else’s suggestion, and wiling to give credit when it credit is due, the team you lead will reap the rewards.

There are brilliant ideas all around you, ready to be recognized, waiting to be acted upon. Could there be one nearby that you have overlooked?

Gratitude-Inspired Excellence

In 2015 Duke University head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski implemented a powerful strategy that would give his players an extra motivational push as they prepared for March Madness.

He designated a special team ball, and asked everyone — coaches and players — to sign the ball with the names of those who had helped them get to where they are in life. They wrote the names of coaches and teachers and pastors and parents and friends and family members, until dozens of people were represented.

And then they took it with them everywhere: team meals, airplane trips, in the classroom, in the locker room.

Significantly, the ball’s existence wasn’t public knowledge. It wasn’t intended to attract outside attention. It was intended to challenge the team to perform with gratitude-inspired excellence throughout the remainder of the season.

It worked.

After the Blue Devils had won yet another national championship, everyone whose name had been written on the ball received a special note: “Thanks! You were with us every step of the way!” [You can read more about Krzyzewski’s gratitude strategy here.]

YOUR GRATITUDE LIST

There are, without a doubt, at least a few people in your life for whom you could say, “I thank God every time I think of you.”

What if you were to make a memento — a whiteboard, a blank page in the back of your Bible, or even a porcelain coffee mug — and cover it with the names of those who have helped you become the person you are?

What if you made it a point to live each day in pursuit of gratitude-inspired excellence?

Can you imagine the kind of championship you might win?

Nothing To Do With Anything

Jim Abbott grew up dreaming of playing baseball with his friends, even dreamed of someday playing in the major leagues, but the dream was considered all but impossible.

The reason? Jim was born with only one hand.

Still, every day he would practice throwing a rubber ball against against a brick wall, quickly shifting his glove to his hand to catch the rebound. In the process, he developed speed, strength and accuracy.

Soon, he was good enough to play Little League ball with his friends, in spite of his handicap.

And then, good enough to stand out as a top level pitcher in high school.

And good enough to lead the University of Michigan to two Big 10 championships, where he was also named the nation’s best amateur athlete.

Even good enough to be drafted by the California Angels in 1989.

A few years later, while playing for the Yankees, he experienced the highlight of his career: He pitched a no-hitter against the Indians during the ‘93 pennant race.

In a post-game interview, he said…

“When the final out was made, a lot of things went through my mind. The only thing that I didn’t pay attention to was my handicap. It had nothing to do with anything.”

Today there may be so-called limitations in your life that you’ve let yourself believe are holding you back … but, ultimately, they have nothing to do with anything.

That’s because we serve a God whose power knows no limits, and whose grace can sustain us through whatever life brings our way.

Even the circumstances that appear, on the surface, to be impossible — they have nothing to do with anything, because we serve a God whose power has everything to do with everything.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. (2 Corinthians 4:2)

3 Characteristics of Critics (and Your Best Response)

We’ve all heard what Elbert Hubbard said:

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

However, for those called to do kingdom work, this just isn’t an option.  The truth is, we’ll all be criticized. We just need to learn how to deal with it.

Samuel Goldwyn, founder of MGM Studios, gave his people the following advice:

“Don’t pay any attention to the critics. Don’t even ignore them!”

As impossible as that sounds, I think I know what he meant.

A good example of enduring criticism can be seen in David.

You remember the story of how the Philistine Goliath stood before the Israelite army, defying them day after day to defeat him in battle. No one believed he could be conquered; the Bible says that they were all “dismayed and shaken.”

But when a ruddy-looking red-headed teenaged shepherd boy named David happened on the scene, he got the idea that he, by God’s power, could slay this giant.

When he said something about it, his own brother spoke with burning anger:

“Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” (1 Samuel 17:28)

David’s brother, Eliab, epitomizes the nature of critics. Here’s how.

• He was obsessed with the trivial. David was about to win a mighty battle for the glory of God, but Eliab was more concerned with the sheep.

Critics usually focus on the little picture, not the big picture.

• He made it personal. Eliab called David “conceited and wicked.”

This highlights the difference between criticism and advice. An advisor helps you evaluate your options and rethink your strategy. A critic just attacks your motives and condemns your character. As the poet Ezra Pound said…

“You can spot a bad critic when he starts by the discussing the poet and not the poem.”

• He underestimated David’s intentions. He said, “You came down here to watch the battle.”

No, David came to win the battle. He came to save the day. He was ready to do what brother Eliab and King Saul and the rest of the warriors weren’t: he was ready to risk his life for the opportunity to do something great for the glory of God. Eliab didn’t get that.

So what was David’s response?

“He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter.” (1 Samuel 17:29-30)

David didn’t get into a debate with his big brother about the purity of his motives or the extent of his vision. He didn’t even bother to explain what arrangements he made for the sheep. He just turned away from the criticism and talked to someone else.

And then, of course, he turned his attention to Goliath.

David had five smooth stones to work with. There was no point in wasting any of them on Eliab.
The temptation is to give critics more recognition than they deserve. The best response, however, is simply to turn away.

Turn your attention, instead, to doing that which God has called you to do.

When Second Place Wins the Race

On December 2, 2012, in a cross country competition held in Burlada Spain, Ivan Fernandez was about to finish a distant second behind Oympic Bronze medalist Abel Mutai, from Kenya.

In the final moments, however, Ivan saw something that didn’t make sense.

Just a few steps short of the finish line, Mutai stopped running. He had misread a sign and thought the race was over, but there were still 10 meters to go.

Ivan called out to Abel, encouraging him to continue forward, but since the two athletes don’t speak a common language, Abel couldn’t understand what Ivan was saying.

What should Ivan have done next, given the circumstances?

He could have passed his competitor by, easily taking first place for himself.

Instead, when he caught up with Mutai, he remained a step behind as he motioned him toward the proper finish line. The race ended as it should have: Abel Mutai was awarded first place; Ivan Fernandez came in second.

What an inspiring, heartwarming example of sportsmanship. No wonder this story is still making the rounds, eight years later.

Running to win…

Recently I mentioned this story to a friend, who said with a laugh, “Clearly, Ivan’s life verse is not ‘run in such a way as to win the prize.’” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

But, then again, maybe it is.

Maybe Ivan Fernandez understands, better than most, where the race is really taking place.

Maybe he understands, better than most, what winning really looks like.

When asked why he would make such a choice to surrender an easy prize, Ivan was quoted as saying…

“My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life where we push and help each other to win.”

In this race we’ve been called to run, winning the prize means that we make it our objective never to cross the finish line alone.

There may be someone running the race near you — to the left or to the right; slightly ahead or slightly behind — and today you’ll have the chance to nudge them onward.

Winning the prize, in this part of the race, means that we win it together.

A Quiet Soul

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, said, “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Practicing silence effectively requires … well… practice. It takes effort on your part.

In his book Noise Reduction Leonard Koren writes, “Like an unbroken horse or a spoiled child, your mind will resist any attempts to discipline it.”

We are addicted to noise. All day we are besieged with sound, from the time we wake up to the sound of the alarm until we drop off to sleep at night, often with the TV in the background to “keep us company.”

I encourage you to try a few moments of silence each day.

Beginning today.

Just a few minutes with no music, no radio, no TV, no conversation.

Just a few moments of absolute quiet in the presence of God.

These moments will be like nourishment to your soul.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Paganini and One String

Paganini and One String

Niccolo PaganiniHere’s a great story that has certainly made the rounds. (I first heard it from Chuck Swindoll.)

The violinist virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was performing one evening before a packed concert hall, surrounded by a full orchestra.

As he began the final piece, one of the strings on his violin snapped. A minor inconvenience; with seemingly effortless improvisation, Paganini continued to play on the remaining three strings.

A moment later, a second string snapped. Undeterred, Paganini continued the concerto on the remaining two strings.

Then a third string snapped. Still Paganini continued to play. He finished the piece with one string on his violin.

When the performance was over, the crowd rose in thunderous applause.

Paganini, ever the humble musician, raised his violin and boldly proclaimed, “Paganini and one string!”

He cued the conductor, the orchestra began to play, and he performed his encore, note for note, with one string on his violin.

WHEN SO LITTLE REMAINS.

The time may come when you feel like you’re down to one string — when there’s next to nothing left of your marriage, your finances, your future, your health, or your hope … and you know that you’re no Paganini.

Here’s the good news.

One string is enough. God’s grace is that amazing. His power is that invincible. His love, that unstoppable.

If you feel like one string is all you have left — and maybe it, too, is about to snap — you can stop trying to make everything happen on your own. Let God do in your life what only he can do.

As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. (Psalm 55:16)