Archive for the 'Spiritual Disciplines' Category

The Enigma of Failure: Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall – 1

I enjoy business books.

Even though I’ve been in campus ministry and out of the for profit sector for six years now, I still think much about my time spent at Intergrated Project Management Company as hugely formative, and realized the power a great company can have on both individuals and communities. The Wall Street Journal seems to agree as well, naming IPM as one of the top 15 small workplaces in the country last year.

It was there when I was first introduced to Jim Collins, and his two business classics: Built to Last, a book primarily based on how enduring companies are built, and Good to Great, a response born out of a question from Collins’ friend who didn’t know how to take his good company and help it become great.  Jim Collins has spent a lot of time talking about success.

Until now.  In How the Mighty Fall, Collins turns to the dark side and analyzes how those companies that had all the advantages fell from the top.  And it isn’t pretty – it’s like analyzing a train wreck.

How the Mighty Fall is going to be criticized pretty heavily by several folks. People will likely talk about how it doesn’t have the same rigor as the other books, and they may be right.  They’ll probably say that Collins had an idea and sought to prooftext under the guise of research in order to align with his works in Good to Great and Built to Last.

Whatever.  They may be right, but I think there is something else that is deeper than people’s criticism that underlies their motivation: America has an aversion to failure.

We are scared of it.  We love winners – when the US Olympic Basketball Team lost for the first time, which was inevitable, the players felt like they let the country down.

How the Mighty Fall is an analysis of tragedy. Perhaps it’s just the dark side of me, but I kinda like looking and analyzing failure.  I remember my freshman year of college having dinner with one of the lead engineers in the Challenger Shuttle explosion, and hearing his seething anger combined with intense sorrow over what had happened. It shook him to the core. It shook me, a 17 year old freshman, in a way that I’m still not sure if I understand.

Even (and especially) in my own life, I’ve learned more from my failures than any of my successes. An old high school friend that I’d lost track of long ago facebook messaged me and asked me about being successful. I laughed out loud when I read the message.

I think several people can look at me on the outside and think I’m successful – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted to be considered successful. But I truly think I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. I hide failure well – but I can point to at least one epic fail I’ve had in school, in business, in ministry, in relationships, in family, in church, etc.

It’s so much so that when I speak openly about failure, people have this strong need to correct me that I didn’t fail because I learned from it. That’s true – but it’s like saying that you prefer to buy a pre-owned car rather than a used car.  A subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that someone else used the car before you. Similarly, a subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that I really screwed up.

Failure used to scare me – a lot. I still don’t like it, but more than ever I believe failure has been the genesis of my growth. Why? To quote Rich Lamb, “Grace is only possible past the limits of our success.”  And our limits of success are discovered only through experience. Experiencing failure. We can only experience epic grace when we’ve epically failed – or, as Jesus said, “she has loved much because she has been forgiven much.”

I only really understand grace through entering failure.

The biblical characters who haunt me most are Saul (the tragic Old Testament King) and Judas (the disciple who betrayed Jesus). Both were filled with the presence of God, either being filled with the Holy Spirit or being with Jesus. Why did they fail? They were more preoccupied with the perception of others view of their success and managing their images than true obedience to what God called them.

I’m going to be looking at each of Jim Collins stages of destruction of a company – both looking at what Collins says regarding business, but apply it to other areas – in ministry, and in our own lives with God.

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

Why? Because the exposing the dark side for what it truly is allows for us to strip it of it’s power. Evil that presents itself clearly as evil is so easy to detect. We watch films and hear the darker musical score and know evil’s coming. Life isn’t the movies – real evil doesn’t have a soundtrack.

The power of evil comes through masquerading as goodness. The best lies aren’t the bold face ones – it’s subtle deceit that twists the truth and leaves us in a place that we never wanted to be, wondering how we got there.

We are afraid of failure because we’re afraid of being exposed – that what we be seen for what we really are.  Shame and failure are linked. Fear of failure is a lie that keeps us from really knowing that we can be loved unconditionally. Exposing failure for what it is allows us to see more than we could ever dream – but it requires a rigorous assessment of what’s really there without dressing it up.

So, let the failure stripshow begin.


On Thankfulness

“We are only grateful people when we can say thank-you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

Henri Nouwen

I confess, I’m not naturally a thankful person.

I used to be a much more critical person. I still am sometimes – it rears its ugly head often. But it was about seven years ago when I wanted to be more gracious and affirming of others.  And I have honestly changed significantly – I’m happy to say. But I’m not there yet.

Thankfulness for me is a discipline. I like being among the poor because they are more often thankful and they remind me that simplicity helps us recognize our need for God. I used to always wonder why the Bible said, “Blessed are the poor,” in both Matthew and Luke.

Some people like to qualify that statement by saying Jesus wasn’t talking about the material poor – the “poor in spirit.” And while it is true that is what Matthew says, Luke just leaves it at “blessed are the poor.”

I don’t think we can just leave that statement to be hyperbole.  It’s much more comfortable when we leave it that way – but I don’t think it was intended to make pie-in-the-sky happiness that seems to be a never attainable ideal.

To understand our need for God is to be blessed.  To rejoice and be thankful is a result of being satisfied that God provides.

How do you cultivate thankfulness in a life?

Reasons of the Heart, Part 1

From Reasons of the Heart, From John Dunne

“Now my soul is troubled” even Jesus can say, even in the Gospel of John, when he is facing death.

“Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out,” he says, though, when he goes through fear to courage.

One goes through fear to courage, it seems, through desperation and despair to hope, through sorrow to joy, through conflict to peace, through circumstances to heart’s desire.

The way to necessity is the way of circumstance and conflict and suffering and guilt and death.  The way of possibility is the way of “going through.”

“God is how things stand,” for the one who sees only the way of necessity.

“God is that all things are possible,” for the one who sees the way of possibility.

What is God we can ask, for one who actually does “go through?”

On Feet and Maundy Thursday

I have a toenail fungus.

I finally got embarassed to the point of getting it fixed when a certain friend pranked me with a pedicure, and I felt so bad for the nail technician (or whatever you call the person who hacked away at my blocks of feet.)

It’s kinda gross – the nail gets all yellow and thick.  I finally went in about three weeks ago to get medication for it, and there is a sad side effect to the drug. Since the drug slightly effects the liver, I’m not able to enjoy adult beverages.  So, no tasty malt beverages for 3 months.

Feet are an interesting thing.  One of the common faux-pas I had in Egypt was crossing my legs and exposing the bottom of my foot to the person next to me.  It’s basically the equivalent of giving your neighbor the finger in the Middle East.

More than once I caught myself doing it, and learned how to apologize in Arabic real quick.

What is it with feet, anyway?  I was at a baby shower yesterday, and the father-to-be noticed that the first three cards all had little baby feet on them.  They are cute…

…until they look like mine when you get old.  All calloused with toenail fungus.


It makes me think even more about what happened on Maundy Thursday.  Maundy is a derivative of the latin mandum, or command.  It’s when Jesus washed his disciples feet and gave them the commandment to wash one another’s feet.

If you’ve never participated in a footwashing, it’s a trip.  There is nothing like looking at someone when you are sitting and they look you in the eye and wash your feet.  I remember clearly in Cairo when one of my students went out of her way to wash my feet.  I was speechless, and there is something that gets me everytime when I read John 13.

Why would Jesus ever stoop so low as to do the offensive task of washing his disciples feet? The line that gets me every time – “he loved them to the end.”

I’ve read each of the gospels probably close to 100 times. Maybe more. I’m still fascinated each time I read that line.

He loved them to the end. To the end of washing the feet of those who would deny him and betray him.

He loved them to the end. To the end of enduring their stupidity, yet welcoming them back and restoring them from their guilt and shame.

He loved them to the end.  To the end of allowing them to doubt and leave and return and believe.

He loved them to the end.

Maintenance outside and in: Don’t just do something – sit there.

Last week I was a little down in my facetime in front of my computer.  On Friday, I spent my normal routine in reading the NY Times, and then opened my Microsoft Outlook, and for some strange reason it wouldn’t open.

I tried my other MS Office applications, and the same thing happened.  Other than Windows, Microsoft went on strike. 


It started a week of maintenance on lots of things – my car, my computer, myself – “that time of the month” when I go to the chemo ward for my phelobotomy, going to the dentist, surgeon for a couple of rechecks (all fine, thanks) and setting up a couple other appointments.

I hate working on my computer. I know I graduated from an Institute of Technology and all, but really, computers aren’t my specialty.  Sure, I was the IT back-up at my previous company – but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I sure didn’t want my number called – all I had a little document that I wrote down whatever I thought I was supposed to do and never ended up using it.  Besides, most of the time I would tell people to turn their computer off and then on again, and presto! – it worked.

But as I was waiting getting my car fixed (costing way more than I had hoped), working on my computer (which would later crash), getting blood drawn in the chemo ward, sitting under a knife, my mind drifted to the role of maintenance in other unseen things.

One of my favorite improv comedy shows in Chicago is called, “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.”   

Too Much Activity Makes the Andy Go Crazy.

Believe me, I can work a lot.  I’ve worked a few too many 100 hour weeks and even more than 24 hours straight a couple times. I used to be proud of that – kind of a Bilhorn thing.

But it does take its toll.

At the end of this week, I’m headed out to the country in Wisconsin to have my regular two days of silence. It’s a long road trip where I drive out to clear my lungs, my mind, and often my heart gets soft once again.  

My soul needs maintenance.  As I get older, I need it more. Ministry isn’t a detached, impersonal activity. My friends lovingly make fun of me because of my capacity to create spreadsheets and look at data.  I think it’s an escape for me – data is often impersonal and doesn’t cause me to be emotionally drained.  

If you do ministry right, you enter in – and that is dangerous. If I don’t take care of my soul, I begin to die, and ministry dies with it.

Americans are known internationally for our capacity for produce – to be productive. Sitting and doing nothing is considered a waste of time.  We’ve often heard it said, “don’t just sit there – do something!”

An old Filipino proverb takes the reverse idea, saying, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” It’s not something we Americans in our hyperactive lives do (nor I), but I need it more with age.

In a culture that values me for what I produce, write, say, speak, act, make, create, it’s time for me to cease and be still, and let my soul rest and be valued not for what it produces.

At the end of the week, as it goes against every activistic bone in my body, I won’t just do something.  I’ll sit there, and let God under the hood of my life and do some maintenance.


I left for a few days of vacation Saturday to Florida – thankfully, I have a set of team meetings where our director has chosen for us to meet in Orlando for a few days.  Many of us Northerners jump at the chance to come a few days early to enjoy the sun so lacking this time of year.

As I was checking through the airport, I realized I didn’t have my cell phone on me.  I went back to the check station and asked if they found a phone, and the answer was no.  So I called my roommate and it turns out I left it on the table at home.  

For about 10 minutes, I was panicked.  But then, this overwhelming sense of relief came over me.  I don’t have to worry about taking calls this week. I don’t have to have my information immediately accessible to me. No checking email. No texts. No calls. No voicemail.  

A colleague of mine says, “Andy, I’d have that thing shipped to me next day air if I were you.” 

I don’t need that.  No way. I’m free.

I got video fowarded to me, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” and it got me thinking a lot about the instant accessibility we demand.  I couldn’t help but think of my friends and my students with this video.

Not having my phone was great for a week. I didn’t need it. I felt more fully present in the moment.  I’m reading a book, “Coming Home to Your True Self” and one of the things that struck me was how we don’t live in the moment. We are often reliving past mistakes or anxious about what the future holds. One of the beautiful things about children is that they so often live in the moment.

I thought of this as I led a small group after our sermon at church today, and one of the women had her 8 month old son who missed his morning nap.  So he hung with his mom and slept while we all talked. When he woke up, he was fully present in the moment with his mom, enjoying making eye contact with me and playing games.  

(Since I’m the small group leader, I’m sure I should be doing more important things…like listening intently to what everyone is saying. But put a baby in front of me and that’s one welcome distraction.)

But he’s fully present in every moment, trusting that his Mom will take care of him.  And it’s beautiful.

Maybe my attachment to my phone detaches me from being in the moment, being fully present to experience the present rather than dwelling in the past or the future.  Maybe everything would be amazing, and I’d be happy.

Facebook & Fasting: A Sacramental Life

I grew up in a great church, but there were some things I didn’t really understand.  Like the church calendar.  The only thing I really got as a kid was the whole advent thing – primarily because I had to watch my younger brother and sister as kids fight over who would put up the December 24 ornament on the homemade advent calendar Mom made.  It almost came to blows sometimes…and you wanna watch out for my sister. She can hold her own.

But outside of advent – Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost…none of those really made any sense to me.  If you had put me under durress, I probably would have been honest and said that Pentecost was for those weird people with the Holy Spirit  (I was wrong), all I thought about Epiphany is that it was a good idea (I was ignorant), and Lent was what those “cathlicks (in Flannery O’Connor style)” did.  And people were always giving up stuff for Lent (I was uniformed).  In college, some of my catholic brothers gave up drinking, smoking; one gave up pornography, etc.  I saw it as a time to give up vices for a short time in order to pick them up again later after Easter.

Plus, I grew up a good evangelical kid – and I was told that we weren’t under the law, we were under grace. And we didn’t have to do those things anymore – we could be free in Christ.  So, all that other stuff was just extra.

So because of my experience, I had a pretty lame understanding of some of the deepest wells of spiritual disciplines available – particularly during the lent season.  Introduced to these in a small Vineyard Church plant in Hyde Park, and fleshing them out through becoming a Presbyterian has helped me understand some of the rhythms of the church calendar, and the power of sacramental theology – that is, an embodied spirituality. Augustine called the sacrament a “visible sign of an invisible reality.” 

I want to be careful and not think of sacraments simply as symbols – they aren’t.  Gordon Smith helped me understand this.  Think of a wedding ring.  Ask a married person, and that isn’t just a symbol. It brings them back to the moment when they put on their best clothes they ever wore, looked at their spouse, and realized this was who they wanted to spend the rest of their life with.  It’s not just a symbol – it reflects a deeper reality. 

If we think of persons as having primarily one of three centers of intellegnce, residing in the head, heart, and gut (look at the Enneagram for more on this) most of our spirituality in the Evangelical subculture focuses on the head and the heart.  We have amazing theologians who have written billions of words that help us understand more about God.  We have beautiful music and art that gives strong emotional reactions that help us be in touch with the feelings inside of us.  But for those who have intellegence in intution, the gut, there is a different kind of spirituality that typically connects well: embodied spirituality.  Sacramental spirituality.  We feel it, and our will is brought to the forefront and we meet God in a different way.

So in recent years, I’ve developed a fondness for the eucharist/communion/Lord’s table that I’ve not had before. It means a lot to me.  I enjoy Catholic mass because it centers on the Eucharist – not the head sermon, not the heart music.  It focuses on the body sacrament – a visible sign of an invisible reality.  

Lent seen as giving up a vice is incomplete to a sacramental spirituality.  It makes fasting a means to an end – where, as Scot McKnight says, fasting should be a response to a divine moment.  Grieving, really.  Grieving to respond to sin in our lives, broken relationships between us, and injustice all around the world. We are embodying the reality of our planet, and we use fasting to tell our bodies how the world hungers for righteousness and justice.

So here’s how I’m working this out in my life: I’m abstaining from facebook for Lent.  Sorry to my friends, but I’m realizing that as much as I want to think I’m indepenent of what others think of me, I still play to the crowd sometimes.  I got in the Facebook game at first because a student who didn’t return my emails said only his professors communicated through email.  I didn’t want to be seen in the category of curmodgony old professor, so I caved.  Now it’s a part of my routine, and even too much so sometimes.  After reading Al Hsu’s recent blog and Newsweek, I was further convicted and realized it’s time to take a break and abstain from Facebook for a good while.

I will make an exception on Sunday, because in the Lenten tradition, Sundays are times where you celebrate.  And I will spend some time on Facebook for Sunday to reconnect with the friends I so dearly love.  But I don’t want to be seen for my status update or my pithy comments – I want to be known for my character and perhaps abstaining for a time will be helpful for my soul.

I’ll also be fasting once a week, each of those days spending time identifying with the oppressed of another continent.  Using fasting as a sacramental response to the injustice of the world will help me remember that it’s a privilege to choose what and when I eat, and the freedoms I have aren’t to be taken for granted.

This is the most extensive preparation for Lent I’ve ever made – so I hope for it to be an enriching experience where I feel the absence of something for the sake of grieving the loss, and clinging to God in the process so that my heart, mind, and body may be fully in tune with reality – a sacramental life.

September 2018
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