I remember the first time I visited the home of one of my high school friends. A corner of his family room housed a music section with a baby grand piano, some brass instruments, and a beautiful old guitar lying on a shelf.
The guitar looked like something special. I took it down from the shelf, dusted it off, tuned it up, and strummed it. I thought I was in love.
I asked my friend about its history. The guitar has been given to his mother when she was young. She had never learned to play it, but she had a sentimental attachment to it, and she loved seeing it sit in their music corner.
I wrote down the model and serial number and visited my favorite guitar store to discover its roots. It was a customized 1940’s Gibson guitar with rare Indian Rosewood sides, real ivory inlay, and a custom fingerboard. It was a literal treasure.
Years before some unknown master craftsman had fashioned this custom guitar using special woods, saws, braces and glues, to make a masterpiece. Now it sat on a shelf gathering dust. My friend’s mom thought, “It added atmosphere.”
I think this is the common picture of Christian calling: to look good on the pews—maybe a little dusty—while missing the God-designed purpose: releasing our music.
Twenty-five years ago a client asked me to meet with her president for an hour-long lunch. Her president was an industry innovator. But, she told me, the president was also almost wordlessly introverted. She proposed I come prepared with a stockpile of stories to fill the conversational void.
The night before my visit, I talked with my father. He suggested an alternate plan.
My father said there is nothing people like more than to hear the sound of their own voice. Instead of telling amusing anecdotes, he suggested I ask questions.
The next day (at lunch with a reticent president) I asked question after question. The one-hour lunch stretched beyond two, and he talked almost non-stop. He waxed eloquent of his fly fishing hobby. He explored the mysteries of different fly rods. He told tales of the intricacy—and successes and failures—of tying fish flies.
After two and a half hours, he glanced at his watch astonished. He was late for his weekly executive board meeting.
A board member later laughed about that board meeting. He said that the reclusive president practically bubbled with passion about our lunch. He wanted each executive to meet me. He said I was the greatest conversationalist he had ever met.
The thing was, I hadn’t told a story. Not one. I just asked questions.
About thirty-five years ago, I lived in a community of a hundred men who kept everything in common. We literally pooled our money. Out of that pool we paid for our clothes, food, rent, and even our cars.
Before we had a non-profit name, the cars we bought were registered in one of the men’s names (usually whoever was convenient at the time). We had a little fleet.
One day I was in a car with Bruce (the first time I’ve used a real name) when he was pulled over for speeding. The officer sternly asked for a driver’s license and the car registration. We always kept the registration in the glove box; always … except this time.
Bruce told the office he didn’t have the registration, and the officer asked Bruce who owned the car. Bruce glanced at me red-faced, turned to the officer and stuttered, “Sir, I don’t know who this car belongs to.”
The officer replied incredulously, “Let me get this straight. You are speeding in someone’s car; you can’t find its registration. You don’t even know who it belongs to; but you don’t want me to think you are stealing it.” He strode back to his squad car.
A few minutes later he marched back with a speeding ticket. After handing the ticket to Bruce, he leaned in the open window and he dead-panned,
“By the way, sir, just in case you’re curious, this car belongs to you. You own it.”
A friend of mine challenged me to adopt—perhaps embrace—a Transcendent Pursuit for the coming year, something life changing, something I can bring to the world to make a difference.
Then I re-read the first chapter of Genesis. It felt like I was reading it for the first time, and I felt the nudge of God.
The first thing I noticed was the creative artistry of God. The opening verses do not focus on God’s unparalleled power. Instead they reveal—and almost revel in—the beauty. After each creative act God doesn’t say, “That was powerful;” he says, “This is beautiful” (a better translation than what we are used to).
Next I noticed that God sees potential where no one else ever could. God hovers over and looks into the chaos and void; he takes the raw materials of darkness and depth, and he creates light, and it is beautiful. As are the oceans and fields and skies.
After observation and creation, God gives. He gives this unparalleled treasure of creation to man. The opening chapter of the Bible surges with swarming fish, teaming land animals, luscious vegetation, and a sky pregnant with stars.
And God turns to man and says, “It’s yours. Take it. Care for it. Love it.”
The opening of the Bible reveals a completely different God than any man has ever created. The opening of the Bible reveals God as an artist, seeing beauty, creating incomparable art, and giving it away. It is a radical image of God.
My kids and I used to have a small Lionel train set in a corner of my tool room. Ten years ago we dismantled the small set with dreams of a bigger and better train set in a newly created basement room called the Train Room.
We dreamed of the perfect train layout with switches, freight yards, and realistic scenery; with a moving crane, sawmill, draw-bridge, and coal dump; and with cities, tunnels, mountains, and farms. It would fill the new 15 by 18 foot Train Room.
Our quest for perfection derailed us. We dreamt of glory, and for ten years we did nothing. We ran out of steam. The Train Room became the junk room, a closet in which to hide things that belonged nowhere else.
It also stored the dusty train set that we dismantled ten years ago.
The day before Christmas, my kids suggested we re-assemble the train set in the new Train Room. We cleared the “closet” out (never mind where all that junk went), we put the table up, we rewired the accessories, and we set the trains back on track once again.
It was a blast. Doing something adequately was far better than doing nothing perfectly.
Years ago I had two friends with almost opposite personalities and with almost identical approaches to life.
John (not his real name) was direct, and I mean really direct. You always knew his opinion. He spoke his mind without hesitation. On any topic and at every opportunity. You always knew where you stood with him.
He took a personality test which confirmed he was direct. He decided to “play to his strengths,” and he became ever more direct (and also a bit harsh and insensitive). He said, “God has given me a spirit of boldness.” And he boldly told everyone what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
Instead of a friend I had a drill sergeant.
Linda (also not her real name) was a servant. Always serving, whether you wanted her to or not. She’d grab you a cup of coffee, fluff your sofa pillow, and stare at you with big attentive eyes. Unlike John, you never knew what she thought. When she hinted at a problem, you weren’t sure if your shirt was unbuttoned or your house was on fire.
Her personality test affirmed her “servanthood,” and she became insufferable. Her creed was, “I just want to serve,” her mantra was “Let me help you with that”, and her affect was suffocation.
When I was nine or ten years of age, I hit my sister. (I’m sure she deserved it).
Photo Credit: Tabitha Cichy
My parents were not happy. They sat me on the sofa. They told me that my behavior was unacceptable. They asked me if I wanted to be the kind of person who retaliated with violence.
And then they orchestrated unpleasant consequences.
I don’t remember the actual consequences of that day, but whatever they were, they worked. I never again retaliated with violence.
But look at the motivations for my morality. My parents appealed to my identity (I didn’t want to be THAT kind of person), and they appealed to my comfort (I didn’t want to experience THOSE kinds of consequences).
In other words, my parents taught me morality by appealing to my self-centeredness.