Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I want to write something about Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent but it's all swirling around inside me and doesn't want to be formed into words just yet. Something about how sobering and helpful it is to be reminded of the importance of true repentance which I'm going to define for now as grief about the brokenness of our world and my own life and a deep, genuine desire for transformation.

I want to write something about how my friend--a very devout Roman Catholic--used to get so excited about realizing it was okay to pray extemporaneously and how she loved to "just pray her heart," as she put it, a whole new practice for her. That was happening right about the time that I was realizing that sometimes the ancient prayers expressed my heart better than my own words could--that somehow my heart would rise and expand to fit the beauty and truthfulness of the prayers of others.

I would write about how blessed I've been to add to my life from the traditions of Christians around the world and throughout time and how grateful I am that they are available to me. And I would say something about how nervous I am about my Lenten experiment in making choices and how challenged I feel by it. If I could just put it into words, these are some of the things I would say.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


My experiment has shown me that I don't really intend to make consistently good choices on a daily basis. I certainly intend to make more good choices than bad choices and I'm very committed to avoiding really bad choices but when it comes to moment-by-moment decision making, I tend to go by what I want in the moment. I'm planning to expand and intensify the experiment during Lent--no shame, no guilt, just a heightened awareness about how I make decisions and what it would look like and feel like to genuinely intend to live differently. I'm starting to feel the power of the word "intend."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Baby steps

C and I went to the gym this morning and did the treadmill for half an hour. C has been going just about every single day--I'm very proud of him. Me, this was my first trip. I've been waiting to get completely back on my feet--after massive doses of Advil for four days, I think I'm finally there.

Anyway, can I just say that working out is not my thing! Now that I've gotten that out of the way, though, I think I'm learning to enjoy it just a bit more. I definitely have more energy when I exercise and I like the social aspect of it, visiting with my friend PB and with C. Actually, half our church has joined this gym, so the social aspect may be about to change dramatically. (Notice that I didn't say which way! We'll wait and see . . . )

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The second experiment

A few years ago, my friend JTH said that he was praying to live so that anytime God whispered into his ear about a decision or a choice, he could immediately respond in obedience. He referenced Isaiah 30:21 about how we will hear "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a voice saying, "This is the way, walk in it."

So, I decided to try it for a day and see what happened. I always wake up with good intentions but I also tend to be unfocused and maybe just a tad cynical about my ability to consistently live well. So, on Friday, I gave it a try. I made the commitment that no matter what happened, I would do my best to make the best choice in that situation.

So, I didn't eat the extra bowl of cereal for breakfast. I spent some time with God and my Bible instead of wasting precious morning time surfing the net. On my way to work, I listened to a CD I love instead of the negative, aggressive radio show that I usually settle for. I was extra tuned in to my clients and saw them through a particularly loving lens. For lunch, I drank water and had extra vegetables and thoroughly enjoyed it.

It didn't fall apart until about 7 p.m. and it happened before I even realized it. I was very tired, had just gotten home from traveling and was in pain from a fall earlier in the week, so by the time evening came, I was on autopilot mode--and autopilot mode is about doing what's easy and not making choices. I didn't eat supper but snacked mindlessly standing at the counter. The TV was making noise but I couldn't tell you what was on. I didn't make eye contact with Boo when she came through the room, absentmindedly asking how her day was.

I thought about how many times I disconnect from my choices because of fatigue or . . . well, disconnection. I guess it really is a self-reinforcing cycle. It seems that the key is not just making good choices but keeping up the awareness that I am making choices, even in autopilot.

I'm planning to try the experiment again in a day or two, when I'm not so tired and see what happens. In a way, it seems like a less tiring way to live because there would be no agonizing about those small decisions. the better choice is usually evident--I just waste a lot of energy sometimes resisting it! Anyway, just thinking about how it all works together . . . as usual, it's all more complicated than it looks!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias

When I was in college, I had a social psychology text by Elliot Aronson that just floored me. I even thought about ditching ministry for research just so I could do more with social psychology. Well, Aronson has a new book out and it is just as fantastic.

The title is "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Mistakes, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts." It's a cute title but the book is a systematic and comprehensive look at cognitive dissonance, something that has fascinated me all my adult life. C teases me about my compulsive need to be "consistent," which is directly related to the fact that I can see cognitive dissonance all the time but I can't do anything about it except in my own life.

Basically, cognitive dissonance is what we experience when we are confronted with two conflicting beliefs and we feel the internal pressure to resolve the conflict by making one of them go away. A few examples: The fact is that I had an affair. I'm confronted with two beliefs about myself that are in conflict: "I am a good person." "A good person wouldn't do what I did." Now begins the justifying process. Either I can decide that I'm not really a very good person (rarely happens) OR I can think of reasons why a good person would do what I did (and it usually has to do with blaming my spouse.)

Here's another example: You're a prosecutor in a rape case that convicts a man and sends him to prison. 20 years later, you learn that the DNA evidence exonerates him of the crime. You have two conflicting beliefs: "I am a good and competent prosecutor who would never send an innocent man to prison for 20 years." "The DNA evidence indicates that this man did not commit this crime." You will try to lessen this conflict (or dissonance) by deciding that the man may not be guilty of this crime but he is clearly a bad guy who needed to be kept off the streets for 20 years or by deciding that he obviously wore a condom and the semen in the rape victim is inexplicable or . . . whatever you have to do to hold on to your belief that you are a good and competent prosecutor. You may even decide that DNA evidence isn't all that reliable (even though you frequently use it when it will convict a suspect), never realizing your own inconsistency.

One of my favorite experiments has to do with cheating. Two people who believe that cheating is wrong but who are faced with the opportunity to cheat in order to pass a very important class make opposite decisions (one decides to cheat and one decides not to). Although before the they had very similar responses to hypothetical questions about cheating, stress, honesty, etc., now their answers will be very different. The one who decided to cheat will now believe that honesty is overrated, that most people cheat, that it's a necessary evil. The one who decided not to cheat is now even more firmly convinced that cheating is wrong and has even less empathy about the stress that might motivate someone to cheat. They start out very close together but that one decision drives them very far apart. You might think that the cheater would have respect for the guy who resisted temptation but he is more likely to feel contempt. Likewise, you might think that the noncheater would have empathy for the guy who gave in to temptation, having been tempted himself, but he is also far more likely to feel contempt.

Here's one more and then I'll quit: If you take a group of Israelis, say, and you present a peace plan to them that is actually the peace plan favored by Palestinians but you tell them that it is opposed by Palestinians, they will like it very much. Same with Republicans and Democrats or with people of opposite religious views. We like the ideas that come from people we think agree with us and vice versa, even when those views are reversed. We can't handle the dissonance that is caused when someone we dislike has good ideas.

This is a wonderfully fascinating and challenging book. The frustrating part is that you will suddenly see it everywhere (like psychics see ghosts) but you won't be able to do anything about it because people are mostly incapable of seeing their own self-justifying thinking. If Rush Limbaugh reads this book, he will either think it's bogus OR he'll think it applies to everyone except him OR his head will explode. That would be interesting.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Round and round

In the last 13 days, I've spent 4 days in Houston, on the teaching team for Faithwalking (one of those days was travel and preparation), 3 days in Dallas at the Leadership Network Innovation conference (and visiting my sister and her sweet, sweet baby and trying not to kill myself on all the ice), and 4 intense days with the pastors from Michigan (which went great!). Oh, yeah--and in the middle of that I gave a church-wide baby shower for a staff wife. I just got home about 4 hours ago and I'm home to stay until the end of the month.

Remember when you were a kid and you would spin around and around and around until you couldn't stand up anymore and then you would collapse on the ground and watch everything spinning around you? That's how I feel. I'm going to go finish dealing with email now and then I'm going to bed.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Two experiments

I'm trying something new. When it comes to speaking or preaching, I have always stayed very closely tethered to a manuscript and to what I've memorized. I tend to work on the language I want and then try to get pretty close to word-for-word. I'm aware, though, that the best work I do is as a teacher, when I almost always go by an outline rather than a manuscript.

So . . . for this week with the pastors from Michigan, I'm not taking a manuscript. I've thought through everything--nothing is new to me, so I'm familiar with everything I'll be saying--and I'm going to try teaching extemporaneously. I'm trying to remember that I know this stuff--I've done it in one form or another for years and there is no reason not to be confident, even without my training wheels.

I'll tell you about the second experiment when I get back.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

This week

This week I'll be with JTH and a couple dozen Reformed pastors from Michigan at Camp Tejas near Giddings, TX. We'll be talking leadership and transformation, of course--this time in the context of their denomination's efforts to strengthen their young leaders and identify churches that have the potential to be successful. Over the next couple of years, we'll be working with these pastors as well as their leadership teams which feels like a huge privilege. I'm looking forward to meeting the pastors (we already know the denominational leaders from previous trips to MI) and building relationships. Unfortunately, I have a really cruddy cold and I'm definitely not at 100%--disappointing.