Do Something Great

It’s a messy thing, this democracy of ours.  Government of the people, by the people and for the people is beautiful yet fearsome to behold.  When a country is founded upon freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality for all, fierce disagreements, chaos, confusion, political posturing, and down and dirty fighting are inevitable.

That’s why I love Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday honoring the birthday of our first President, George Washington.  It reminds me how precious our freedom is, especially when we are not of one mind.  The first Presidents’ Day was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22, 1796, during the last full year of his presidency.  Today the holiday honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in particular as well as all of our other presidents.

“I am keenly aware of my aloneness.”  In the movie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln thus describes to his wife a dream he had in January 1865, shortly before his inauguration for a second term.  The number of dead continued to mount in the Civil War where 750,000 people died, which was almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today.   The pain of every death weighed upon his heart.


The toll of this brutal war would not be redeemed unless slavery was ended, but it was not assured simply by a military victory for the North.  Lincoln was committed to keeping the Union together as well as abolishing slavery, which was deliberately omitted from the U.S. Constitution a century before as an unsolvable problem.

Lincoln had declared that all slaves were free in his January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, but it was merely a proclamation.  If the13th Amendment to the Constitution were not passed before the Civil War ended, Lincoln would no longer have the authority of War Powers, in which case the Emancipation Proclamation could be declared illegal, throwing the country back into the abyss.

Abraham Lincoln was a mysterious, complex man: private, intuitive, politically shrewd, and profoundly relational.  Unlike George Washington, who was one of the richest men in America, Lincoln was a most unlikely president, pulling himself out of poverty by his proverbial bootstraps.  Lincoln had almost no formal education, mourned the death of his first love, failed in business, and had bouts of melancholy.  Only one of his four children lived to adulthood.

In Lincoln we see one of our greatest presidents lead this country through one of our darkest moments by allowing his God-given gifts to guide him.  First, Abraham Lincoln was a man of acute emotional intelligence.  He was the quintessential non-anxious presence who virtually always remained calm and centered even when the storm raged around him.

Much of Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Teams of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Goodwin writes that when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election he appointed to his cabinet three men who had competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination: New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.  There was rivalry, competition, and outright fighting among Cabinet members, but Lincoln managed the intensity of his team with kindness, an open mind, encouragement, and gratitude for the skills each man brought to the table.

Although the decision to seek passage of the 13th Amendment was his alone, Lincoln knew that without input and counsel from others the goal could not be accomplished.  Lincoln had an uncanny ability to individually connect with his cabinet and lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum.  Because he was not threatened by a variety of perspectives, Lincoln was able to build trust and form coalitions that accrued political capital.  Whether in politics, business, the church, or our families, it’s always about relationships, isn’t it?

Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” reputation did not put him above the nitty-gritty of cutthroat politicking, however.  Republicans constituted 56% of the House of Representatives, but they needed a 2/3 vote.  Lincoln’s team did whatever was necessary to win, including arm-twisting, bullying, offering patronage jobs to Democrats, or threatening other lawmakers if they were resistant.

A second gift of Abraham Lincoln was an inner moral compass that pointed him toward true north.  Thaddeus Stevens was by most accounts the fiercest opponent of slavery and had the sharpest tongue in Congress.  Because Lincoln was committed to both ending slavery and preserving the Union, he planned a careful strategy to pass the 13th Amendment.  However, by 1865 Stevens described Lincoln as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.”

In a memorable scene between Stevens and Lincoln, Stevens argued eloquently that all men and women, whether in the north or south, should listen to their inner moral compass.  That compass, Stevens continued, points toward True North, to the truth that all people are created equal and slavery should be abolished.

Lincoln’s reply demonstrated his political genius.  “The compass may point true north, but it does not warn us of obstacles and swamps along the way.  If we plunge ahead without heeding the obstacles we could sink in a swamp… and then what good is true north?”  In other words, doing the right thing is not always a straight road.  When both sides are convinced they are right, barriers will usually appear that hinder the road to True North.  If Lincoln had plowed heedlessly ahead without caution, prudent negotiation, and getting everyone on board, the path to equality might well have become sidetracked.

A third gift that undergirded Lincoln’s presidency was his deep compassion for the suffering of an entire country.  At the end of his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln said,  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln insisted that there be no retribution shown to the South after the war was over.  In the movie, Lincoln speaks to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the war, “Once he surrenders, send his boys back to their homes, their farms, their shops…  Liberality all around.  No punishment, I don’t want that.  And the leaders – Jeff and the rest of ‘em – if they escape, leave the country while my back’s turned, that wouldn’t upset me none.  When peace comes it mustn’t just be hangings.”

Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of religion in public life and had considerable contact with preachers of various denominations.  Lincoln’s theology was eclectic and his spirituality authentic.  Lincoln knew who his True North was and relied on God’s power to give him wisdom and grace to lead the country.

On May 18, 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter in his own penmanship to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which had passed a resolution of encouragement and sent it to Mr. Lincoln.  This was his reply,

“Gentlemen: In response to your address allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; endorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you in the nation’s name for the sure promise it gives.  Nobly sustained as the Government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any.  Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the rest, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all.  It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to heaven than any.  God bless the Methodist Church, bless all the churches, and blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”

Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, four blocks from the White House.  In order to assure privacy for Lincoln during Wednesday night prayer services, Rev. Phineas Gurley allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.

One Wednesday evening as Lincoln and a companion walked back to the White House after the sermon, the president’s companion asked, “What did you think of tonight’s sermon?”

“Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”

“So, it was a great sermon?”

“No,” Lincoln replied.  “It failed.  It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln asked the House of Representatives to do something great so that our country would become something great.  Despite his assassination on April 15, 1865 Abraham Lincoln changed the course of human history.  Lincoln’s legacy will forever inspire and encourage ordinary people like you and me to discover our truest self in Jesus Christ and make a positive difference in our world.  Do something great.



Sleeping on It

January 14, 2012

“Sleeping on it” seemed counterintuitive when I was younger.   One of my pet peeves has always been procrastination.  Responding in a timely manner to requests, phone calls, emails, and project deadlines values other people and is a best practice in all organizations, including the church.  I become impatient with myself when I can’t make decisions or motivate myself to get a job done, especially when my delay negatively affects other people.

Unfortunately, I had gotten into the habit over the years of making decisions too quickly.  Rather than take careful time for discernment, I would find myself saying yes on the spot.  Unfortunately, the next day I’d regret my haste and berate myself, “Why did you do that, Laurie?  Why didn’t you make room for God to weigh in?”

     It’s only been in recent years that I have learned to value the spiritual necessity of intentional delay.  I now know that I make better decisions when I wait rather than respond immediately to major requests.  After making one too many commitments that I could only keep by doing shoddy work, I promised myself to do all in my power not to say yes right away.  Sleeping on it gives God a chance to speak when I am resting and open.

A few weeks ago a colleague asked me to take on a major responsibility.  It was intriguing and fit my skills and passions well.  I almost blurted out “Sure, I’ll do it” but bit my tongue.  I listened carefully, asked many questions, and replied, “This sounds very interesting, but I can’t make a decision now.  I need to pray about it for a day or two, then I’ll get back to you.”  Two days later I said no, explaining that the timing was not right.

     Knowing when and how to delay an action or decision is not only an art and a skill, but it’s a mark of spiritual maturity as well.  In his recently published book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy writes about the advantage that the great tennis player Novak Djokovic has over other professional tennis players.  It’s the fact that he waits a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball.

Partnoy writes, “Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.  During superfast reactions, the best performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second.”

Tennis players have only 300 milliseconds to react to a serve and try to return it.  Amateurs cannot possibly move to the right spot and swing with accuracy and power in 300 milliseconds.  However, Djokovic can do it in 100 milliseconds.  Because he has so much physical speed Djokovic has more time to process the serve and swings at the last possible millisecond.   Why should we wait?  Because it gives us time to observe, process, and prepare.

Great athletes, writers, actors, musicians, and leaders pause as long as necessary.  Have you ever noticed that the best hitters in baseball know how to wait for the best pitch?  Writers don’t publish the first thing that pops into their head but allow ideas to percolate and compose many drafts before they are satisfied.  Actors practice pausing over and over until they know how to best convey their message.  Rests in music are deliberately and strategically positioned by composers in order to maximize the effect of the notes.   The pregnant pause is a rhetorical technique in public speaking and preaching.

Patience in investments can reap enormous returns.  When Warren Buffet is asked how long he will delay in buying a stock, he will say “indefinitely.”  Partnoy quotes Buffet, “I call investing the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing.  You stand at the plate, the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47, US Steel at 39…  All day you wait for the pitch you like; then when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.”

     When making important decisions, science has taught us the value of “sleeping on it.”  Simple decisions are best made by our conscious mind.  Overthinking easy decisions like what to eat for breakfast, what to wear for a routine day at the office, and what pew to sit in on Sunday morning robs us of the energy we need for more important decisions.  Hence, the origin of the “my pew” syndrome!

Most complex decisions, on the other hand, are best left to the unconscious mind.  Rather than stay up all night and agonize about a problem, sleep allows us to clear our minds and relieves us of the immediacy of making a decision.  Our own biases interfere when we brood incessantly.  By literally sleeping on important decisions, however, we allow the unconscious mind to bypass our own distortions and better assimilate information and solve problems.   Christians have been known to call it “giving it up to God” or “waiting on the Lord.”

Researchers tell us that when we are considering a major decision, like buying a car or house, taking a new job out of state, or getting married, “sleeping on it” offers a deeper perspective that complements the conscious weighing of the pros and cons of the situation.   It appears that the many factors affecting complex decisions can frustrate our conscious mind and are better processed by our unconscious mind during sleep, resulting in better choices.

When angels appear to individuals in the Bible, I wonder whether it might actually be a case of “sleeping on it,” even if a dream is not specifically mentioned.  An angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, proclaiming that his barren wife Elizabeth would become pregnant with a son named John.  An angel appeared to Mary, announcing that she would bear the son of God.  An angel appeared to Joseph, urging him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  After Jesus’ birth the same angel told Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt, and in a subsequent dream the angel said it was safe to go back to Nazareth.  An angel appeared to the magi, urging them to go home by a different way.

Is it any coincidence that angelic appearances in the nativity story occurred when individuals were asked to make major life decisions that involved no little degree of faith and trust?  Could it be that Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the wise men all needed to “sleep on it”?

     Churches have much to learn about the value of “sleeping on it.”  What frustrates many about decision-making in churches is that even the simplest decisions are often slow as molasses.   Church members procrastinate in completing projects because they are busy.  At times we put people in the wrong positions, and they don’t have the skills to lead others in making effective and timely decisions.   Leaders don’t follow up, committee meetings are not well run, and things slip through the cracks.

     Congregations can become more effective in their ministries by learning to make simple decisions more quickly and complex decisions more slowly.  Complex decisions might include a building program, the initiation of a major outreach project, starting a new worship service, developing a strategic plan, or entering into holy conversation about the sustainability of a declining church.  

At these times churches must allow their collective unconscious mind to be open to God’s leading.  Clearly, we cannot drag our feet, nor should we be influenced by a “heavy hitter” to act prematurely.  We need to exercise appropriate delay but not lose momentum.

When congregations engage in periodic prayer vigils and take time in meetings for discernment, we are better able to let go of our own biases, fears, and judgments and allow God to work through us, individually and corporately.  We seek God’s will, nothing more, nothing less.

Unexpected challenges will continue to crop up in our personal lives and in our churches in 2013.  We’ll be asked to take on major commitments and make critical decisions.  Occasionally, we should trust our initial gut instinct and go for it, impulse shopping and knee-jerk Facebook postings excluded!  Most often, however, rather than react instantly and regret unthinking words or decisions, we would do well to wait by practicing a standard reply, “I’d like to pray about this and will need to sleep on it.” 

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)



Holy Habits

January 7, 2012

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?  How are they working for you so far?  New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than promises to ourselves to develop new habits. The most popular New Year’s resolutions in the United States remain remarkably consistent year after year: lose weight, exercise, eat healthy food, drink less alcohol, work less, spend more time with family, manage debt, get more education, get a better job, quit smoking, get organized, volunteer more, and recycle more.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and the majority of our resolutions quickly fall by the wayside because we fail to develop new habits to replace them.  In his recent book, The Power of Habit; Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg defines habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”

It’s estimated that 40% of our daily decisions are habits.  19th century philosopher and psychologist William James once wrote, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Good habits make us more efficient because they evoke automatic responses that free us from the energy and time involved in making conscious decisions about our everyday life.  Our brain has a way of storing patterns of behavior by “chunking,” which converts behavior into unthinking routines that become repeated actions.

At the same time bad habits can be destructive to our body, mind, spirit, and relationships.  Hence the need for New Year’s resolutions.  Try as I might, I have great difficulty changing my bad habits.

  • I love chocolate but am very sensitive to caffeine, so I usually only eat chocolate before noon.  Unfortunately, I have a habit of mindlessly nibbling on chocolate almost every morning when I sit down at my computer even if I am not hungry.
  • My iPhone is set up to beep when I receive an email, so whenever I hear the sound I habitually check my email, even when it is not appropriate to do so.
  • I am a faithful recycler at home and have five mesh bags in my car for grocery shopping, but I am not yet in the habit of remembering to grab the bags when I go into the store.
  • More than once I’ve headed to the church where I serve ¾ time when I really need to go to the church where I serve ¼ time.  I am habituated to traveling in the other direction.

Each habit, whether good or bad, has a cue, a routine, and a reward.  The cue for my morning chocolate routine is sitting down at the computer, which triggers a craving and offers the reward of comfort.  The key to changing a bad habit is recognizing the cue and substituting another routine to satisfy the craving and achieve the same reward, such as having a cup of tea instead of chocolate.

All twelve-step programs are based on habit replacement; that is, inserting new routines as responses to cues that formerly triggered addictive behaviors.  Alcoholics Anonymous has also discovered the secret of what has been called the Keystone Habit.  Keystone habits are those central practices that, when followed completely, cause a ripple effect that transforms the entire organization.  For AA the keystone habit is the higher power.  We cannot change habits ourselves.  Rather, when we believe in a higher power (God), we learn to believe in ourselves and others and claim the will to change.

Habits play an important role in our individual and collective spiritual lives as well.  A community is an amazing collection of habits, and when churches get their habits right, Holy Spirit routines take off and wholistic growth abounds.  In order for healthy and holy habits to form in churches, conscious decisions have to be made.  What are our core values?  What is our mission, vision, and strategy for ministry?

Hebrews 10:25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  John Wesley was surely familiar with Hebrews as he developed two keystone habits in the Methodist movement: works of piety and works of mercy.  Both works of piety and works of mercy were considered essential means of grace, ways in which God’s love is experienced as well as shared.

Wesley’s habits of piety included prayer, searching the scriptures, holy communion, fasting, Christian community, and holy living.  Habits of mercy were summarized by Wesley’s quote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  While works of piety emphasize personal and corporate spirituality, works of mercy move congregations outside their building to engage in evangelism, mission, and outreach in the community and world.

Healthy churches make deliberate decisions about their unique keystone habits based on works of piety and works of mercy.  When a new church start is launched we refer to their keystone habits as their DNA.  Those ingrained habits, which might include small groups, outreach, tithing, and spiritual growth, define the mission and ministry of the congregation from the very beginning.  By contrast, existing churches often have more difficulty changing keystone habits because of long-standing practices that may be preventing the church from growing and thriving.

How do we form new habits in churches?  By teaching church members to become spiritually mature self-feeders.  When church leaders cultivate spiritual disciplines in the lives of congregation members through works of piety and mercy, every person becomes a minister.  Furthermore, holy habits such as prayer, tithing, witness, discernment of spiritual gifts, and outreach not only become routine but are routinely transmitted to others.  Manifold blessings flow from healthy spiritual disciplines.

Why do some churches:

  • Have a high percentage of members attending worship?
  • Have a large number of families tithing?
  • Experience transformative worship week after week?
  • Follow a well-defined strategic plan for wholistic growth?
  • Make consistently wise and critical decisions in healthy ways?
  • Continually encourage new and innovative ministries to serve their community and the world?
  • Have a large cadre of spiritually mature leaders?

The reason is simple.  These congregations have developed such good habits and spiritual disciplines that their DNA is second-nature and is naturally transmitted to any guest who walks in the door or is served outside the door.

What habits can you identify in your church, good and bad?  What are your keystone habits?  Would congregation members be able to name them?  What conscious decisions does your church need to make so that congregation members become self-feeders and holy habits become automatic, thus saving time and energy for mission and ministry?

Do you believe that you can choose your personal habits?  Do you believe that every church can form its own unique keystone habits?  Do you believe that it’s possible to create new routines to replace ingrained and unhealthy responses to cues and cravings?  Do you believe that God gives you the power to develop habits of faith that convert mere followers to spiritual leaders?

I am working on my bad habits, but’s it’s slow.  I’m asking myself every morning, “Do you really want chocolate, or is it just a habit?”  I’m thinking about changing the settings on my iPhone so I won’t hear the beep.  I’m putting the grocery bags in the front seat instead of the back seat so I can see them.  I’m toying with placing a sign on the steering wheel, “Before you back out of the driveway, remember where you’re going.”  And I’ve memorized this quote from Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act… it’s a habit.

May all of your New Year’s resolutions become holy habits!