bending, not breaking

Hello again my friends. I am mortified to see it’s been an entire month since my last post. This was not the plan. I was hoping to post weekly. But then, sometimes I fail. I am coming to terms with this and will cease to worry about it now that it has been acknowledged. I am learning to give myself grace in this season as so many of my dear friends have been reminding me to do.

I’m not going to “rate myself” this week, as I’m sure I wouldn’t even earn 1 out of 5 stars. I will however pick up on last blog’s theme of the tension between a firm schedule and the need for flexibility. Even the strongest and tallest of structures must incorporate some flexibility or they risk crumbling when the earth decides to shake. I’ve been working these past weeks on modifying my schedule in order to make it more stable in the storm. And believe me; the waves have been rising and the boat has been rocking of late!

A friend recently compared grief to waves on the ocean. I think that’s a fair description. Always some churning under the surface but interspersed with moments of calm and stormy swells. The last few weeks I’ve had quite a few tidal waves. This makes it difficult to keep life on track. That is where the blessing of the flexible schedule comes in.

I told you last post that I see my ‘to do’ items as residing within a time block that hangs like a panel from a frame. This visual serves me well. If I spend an hour crying in the corner instead of accomplishing the scheduled task, I simply remove that panel from the frame of my schedule. If it’s a panel containing a daily activity like exercise or personal study, I discard it entirely. I will pick back up on it when the item is repeated the next day. No “catching up”. Playing catch up is a schedule destroyer. If it is a critical work task, then I may take that panel and move it to a new section of the framework. Here’s were the built in flexibility I was talking about comes into play.

Any schedule with any hope of maintaining its framework must have MARGIN built in to it.

Think of the margin in a book. Imagine taking that out. With text running continually from top to bottom, side to side with no white space. Our eyes would be tired and our brains overwhelmed. We need margins in our books. And we need margin in our lives too. Without it, we will not only be exhausted, but one line of life would spill into the next and any unforeseen addition to the story would cause a terrible, illegible, overlapping jumble. The whole framework of schedule comes crashing down without margin.

Margin means padding the schedule. If something usually takes an hour and a half, schedule it for two hours. That means if an unexpected need comes up, you have wiggle room. Margin means having an occasional blank hour on the schedule, maybe not daily but certainly within the week. As a pastor, if I don’t have margin and a congregant requires my attention, I run the risk of looking at people as interruptions rather than seeing them as they are, my main reason for ministering.

Margin solves most small hiccups in the plan. But sometimes the interruption in schedule exceeds the margin. Then I have to do the hard work of prioritizing. The critical time block item must go somewhere, so I may have to discard a less crucial panel. This requires grace for oneself. Those of us juggling too many pins at once will have to occasionally let one drop. An occasional drop happens to us all. We must acknowledge our humanity and imperfection and move on. If we find ourselves dropping pins frequently, its time to remove some roles from our repertoire.

There was a time in my young adult work life that I was expressing my difficulty covering all my bases of responsibility. An older, wiser man asked why I didn’t just quit one of those tasks. I looked at him with what must have been a comically puzzled and shocked face. Surely he knew how much I was needed in my role. Reading my mind, he plainly said, “Nobody is irreplaceable.” Ouch! It stung at first. But it was true. Not only that but it was freeing! Doing too many things is nothing more than an exercise in our own pride.

That brings me to my next point. Why do so many of us think the world will stop spinning if we take a day off? I’m talking about SABBATH.

If margin helps us maintain flexibility in the schedule framework, then Sabbath helps us maintain the vigor with which we engage it.

Simply put, we must rest if we are to have the energy to keep going for the long haul. Sabbath allows us the opportunity to recharge and gives time for needed reflection. It puts life and our place in it into perspective, reminding us that we do not hold our world together. That’s God’s job. Let’s exercise our faith by allowing him to do what only he can. Again, it is prideful to think that we cannot take a day to rest.

Margin and Sabbath have become critical to my survival. Occasionally though, I need something more. There comes a time when I need a SABBATICAL. Strictly speaking, a sabbatical happens every seventh year for a year. Modern use is more flexible in application. It simply means an extended break from one’s career. I am applying the term even more loosely.

I use the word sabbatical to describe a season where I hit the pause button on a certain course of action in order to contemplate how to best proceed in the future.

For example, taking a month off of blogging allowed me the time to determine how it would fit into my already full schedule. Originally I had scheduled blogging on my Sabbath day, reasoning that it was a quick and easy task and wouldn’t really interrupt my day of rest much. During my blogging sabbatical I realized that though I try to keep my posts on the short side, it really took me much longer than expected. Because writing is a type of self-healing for me, I spend a good deal of time in thought on what I write. Do I believe it? Do I live it? Why do I think this is important?

During a sabbatical, I answer the following questions. Is this is a task I should even continue? Should it continue in the same form or does it need material changes? When is the best time to accomplish this task? If I am adding a task to my to do list, is there some other task I need to remove in order to make room? Not every good idea is one we need to personally take responsibility for doing. But we often miss seeing that until we hit the pause button, back up and look at the whole picture. Sabbatical allows us the opportunity to do that.

So there you have it. Guard the schedule, but allow it to flex and bend to prevent a total break. Margin, Sabbath and Sabbatical are my tools to build in flexibility and continued maintenance of the ever-important schedule. Next blog I’ll share more on some of the changes I’ve made and why. Until then I pray for rest and peace to you all in the midst of your busy lives.

straining forward

Happy New Year! I haven’t written the last two weeks. Forgive me please. I was on vacation. I hope you too took some vacation time over the holiday season. I hope you had time to laugh, love, and reflect with friends and family. This was my first vacation since Kelley passed away, the 31st my first Sunday off since August. Originally, I had intended to blog during my time off. However, I quickly realized that I needed a total pause of as many self-imposed responsibilities as was possible. If “all the world’s a stage” as Shakespeare says then we all need times of intermission. I needed to slip backstage and recharge in the stillness and quiet of rest and privacy.

Now that I am easing back into my schedule, (alas, a horrible head cold is preventing me from whole-heatedly leaping back in full force), I am realizing the importance of time off from structure. A schedule that cannot bend with flexibility is bound to break completely. That’s really what I wanted to dedicate this, my third blog to addressing – my schedule.

As you now know, I evaluate myself weekly in five categories; physical health, mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, and following my schedule. It’s important to note that I am not rating myself on how healthy I am or am not in any of these categories. Rather, I am rating myself on whether or not I spent the allotted time “feeding” these areas of my life. Clearly then, the entirety of success or failure hinges upon the schedule. Speaking of success…

The week prior to my vacation was better than its previous week. I give myself 4 out of 5 stars. (I may be generous in my grading at this point in life. I will expect more of myself as time progresses.)

4 stars

I credit this improvement to an examination of the question posed in the last blog. “How do I contain failure in one place and move on into success in the next?” I think the way I perceive my schedule is the key to the answer.

I tend naturally to have a ‘to do list’ mentality. I see never-ending lists of things that need to be done in my head. And while there is little more satisfying than crossing something off that list, it can be difficult to ever be truly satisfied with myself know that the list continues to grow. The ‘to do list’ is never complete. This is where I am attempting to alter my perception.

Rather than seeing the activities on my schedule as lists needing to be checked off in order before completing my day, I am looking at each item as residing in a block of time. If the schedule is a framework, the time blocks hang like panels from the frame. Lists would look more like build blocks. Pull one from the bottom and the whole thing topples. But pull a panel from the frame and the other panels can remain safely in place.

I have blocked off on my calendar time to feed my spirit, soul, mind and body. These time blocks are allowed to float forward or back only slightly, not enough to sabotage the next block. For instance, if I fail to get in my full time allotment for exercise, I do not allow that time block to invade the next. If I did, I would again run into the domino effect and every part of my schedule for that day or even the week would be impaired. If I accept my lack of perfection for that one block of my day with grace and move on to the next block I can salvage the rest of my day and even end feeling okay with my progress.

It’s really all about looking forward, not back.

“One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward
to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13–14 ESV

I cannot continue to try to ‘catch up’ when I don’t finish a given task on time. I must “strain forward”. Letting go of what I wanted to get done, letting go of defeat and moving forward can be difficult, thus the need to “strain.”

With regard to my mental health exercise of writing, if I don’t get anything on paper one day, I need not even attempt to make it up. Instead, I will see that panel as having been removed, gone forever and I will move on with the next time block for the day. Nothing falls apart, I can still move onto my work as scheduled. When my workday is done, I do not stress about the tasks not completed. I have addressed as many time blocks for the day as I was able and there is nothing left to do until the next day. Seeing ‘to do’s’ in terms of time blocks on a framework rather than building block lists means that failure in one does not lead to failure in the next. The foundation doesn’t crack as long as the framework of schedule stands. It also means that there is no such thing as catching up. One cannot relive an hour that is past.

This then, is the one element in life that must be guarded. The framework of schedule must stand.

This may all sound quite rigid to many. I started this post off by talking about the need for flexibility in the schedule. There are ways to soften the rigidity, bring flexibility and thereby preserve the long-term integrity of the schedule. Three ways I know of are margin, Sabbath and sabbatical. But I will leave that for the next post. Until then my friends, keep looking forward!

the first week of the rest of my life

Here we are on a brisk Monday afternoon in Bellingham, Washington. The weather app says it’s sunny. I’ll have to take its word for it. Where I live amongst the trees the sun doesn’t rise high enough to visit us in the winter. However, the frost-covered scenery is quite lovely. I hope you also have some beauty to view from where you sit.

Last week I told you I was making a plan to take back my life. That plan included scheduling time in my day for “life giving activities”. The categories are as follows: physical health, mental health, emotional health and spiritual health.

Behold my first report card… But first, I need to tell you something about myself. I love star charts. I can’t help it. It’s in my blood. I home schooled my kids for eight years; I was a children’s Pastor for ten years and I worked as a para-educator for four years. I am fated to always see my progress or lack of it in the form of gold-foiled star stickers on graph paper charts. There’s something so gratifying about seeing all those shiny stars lined up in a row! Don’t despair; it won’t all be self-aggrandizing. As I am quite prone to failure, there will doubtless be weeks of utter humiliation. This week, I suspect, will be the typical showing.

3.5 stars

Three and a half out of five stars. I measured my follow through in the four previously mentioned categories plus an added evaluation for how well I stayed on schedule. Keeping up with the schedule was by far the lowest evaluated line item followed by emotional and mental health. I fared pretty well on both physical and spiritual health. However, there was not a perfect score on the paper.

I plan to elaborate on each of the categories over the coming weeks. This week, I’ll pick an easy one to explain – physical health.

I’m not a fitness nut, quite the opposite. I like to sit and read. I enjoy studying in solitude. I am a fair weather walker and hate to run. I used to like hiking moderate trails but I fear I would struggle to do so now. Oh, and I like food. I really, really like food. I’m 47 years old and overweight. How much overweight? I do not know, as I refuse to step on my scale until I can take my wedding ring on and off without some sort of lubrication. Once my fingers (that part of my person I see most often) don’t look like swollen sausages, I’ll brave the scale. Baby steps. I’m all about the baby steps.

Step one; walk on the treadmill for one hour six days per week. I’m sure most of you are rolling your eyes right now. “That’s it?” you ask. Yes. For now, that’s it. I don’t judge by how fast or how many miles walked. I just want to be moving continually for one hour. Why six, not seven? I take a Sabbath. I’ll write about that more later.

Step two; sleep eight hours per night. I’ve just been listening to podcasts about the health risks of too little sleep. Scary stuff. Look up “Eyes Wide Open” on the Hidden Brain by NPR podcast. I dare you!

Step three; drink more water. I’m starting off trying to get in eight glasses (64 oz.) and plan to work up to ten (80 oz.).

Step four; diet. I hate the ‘D’ word. To me, diet means portion control, several small meals throughout the day, no pasta, bread, sugar and very, very little potatoes or white rice. Ugh! It’s torture.

Right now I am only evaluating myself on step one, walking. Once I have that well established in my life, I’ll add step two then three and sadly, finally, four. This week I walked five out of six days. I’m fairly pleased with this. However, in evaluating why I failed on that last day, I’ve learned something valuable.

Each category has a direct bearing on the others.

My weekly foundation started to crack on day three with my mental health exercise. I was writing about the day Kelley died. It was too soon. I am not ready to go back there. After tears turned to convulsions I stopped writing and I didn’t return to writing until today. But that’s not where it ended. Those cracks in the foundation spread. They destabilized me and affected my pace, making it hard stick to my schedule. That in turn made it hard for me to fit in other exercises. My emotional health exercise is my personal Bible studying and journaling. That got knocked out on day five and six. Walking got taken out on day six. All this to make room for work not done during my day of despondence. One area of failure caused a domino affect, toppling the entire experiment.

I can see the problem clearly but I confess the solution evades my vision. I will have to continue to work on this, try new techniques and get back to you. I know failures are to be expected at times. What I need to find is a way to minimize the damage and stop the fault lines before my whole week crumbles and falls. How do I contain failure in one place and move on into success in the next?

Thank you my friends for exploring these questions with me. Share with me your thoughts. I’ll talk to you next week and perhaps, I may have some answers.

climbing out of the darkness

Here I sit. Writing my first ever blog. I know. I’m a little late to the party. I have thought about and rejected the idea of blogging for years. Mostly, I have avoided blogging because I know myself too well. I know I struggle from a lack of discipline. And I’m vain. There, I said it. My own vanity has kept me from attempting to start a blog these past decades because I don’t want you all to see me start something and not keep up with it. I fear public failure. I dread the shame of falling on my face yet again by my lack of follow-through.

Putting those fears aside, I’m diving in. Something stronger than fear is motivating me. I need to make changes to my life. I need to bring myself back to a state of health. I’ve made a plan to start a journey toward physical, mental, emotional and spiritual fitness. And I need accountability to stick to it. This blog is my form of accountability.

Why now? Well, I’ve recently been blindsided by a family tragedy strong enough to knock me to the ground and leave me gasping for breath as the world spins out of control and I descend into the darkness. (I’ll write more on that later.) What little I was doing to maintain a healthy life came to a screeching halt. I stopped caring about myself. I stopped following healthcare plans. I stopped maintaining a disciplined work schedule. I didn’t care whether I lived or died.

I’m now ready to climb out of my hole, out of the darkness. I’m read to live life in the light.

I’ve made a plan. It starts with a schedule. I tell my kids often, “If it’s not on the calendar, it isn’t real.” So to the calendar I go. In order to address each of the four areas of health I’ve mentioned, I’ve blocked off times in my day for life-giving activities.

For physical health – exercise.

For mental health – writing.

For emotional health – personal Bible study and journaling.

For spiritual health – worship and prayer.

Each week, I will blog on my progress. I’ll share what I discover in my travels towards the light. I’ll confess when I stumble in the darkness. And I hope, that in this exercise in transparency, I can bring encouragement and light to others like me, to those who stumble in the darkness.