Monday, November 6, 2017

The Versus Series: Urgency vs. Importance

This is my 9th of 10 columns on the importance and proper use of words. 

When I was a newlywed and young youth director, a wise associate pastor gave our church this admonishment: “Never let the urgent things in life usurp the important.” Although he only preached occasionally, the words of Tom Steller resound with me to this day. 

So how does one differentiate between what is “urgent” and what is “important”? I propose that urgent things are constant and ubiquitous: daily responsibilities, texts, emails, phone calls, appointments, chores, homework, jobs, etc. Important things are more transcendent: things that last beyond the short-term. Priorities of import may seem like “still, small voices” in our lives but nonetheless ultimately deserve the lion’s share of our hearts’ attention, even amidst the inevitable urgencies that require more quantity of time most days.

Way back in my 30’s, I read two books that changed my life in this regard: Margin by Richard Swenson and A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. In the former, Swenson, a medical doctor by training and former practice, diagnoses our problem (especially in America) by what he calls “the Overload Syndrome.” We’re often simply too busy to focus on important things. His prescription is to create intentional “margin” in every area of life, all toward the goal of balance. He warns, “Our rush toward excellence in one quadrant of life must not be permitted to cause destruction in another.” Swenson teaches that balance is a more noble goal than hyper-focused excellence (which always leads to “negative excellence” elsewhere), and he challenges the reader to consider how to balance the major categories of life even if more ego-feeding or tangible achievements suffer. In other words, Swenson essentially challenges us to choose the important over the urgent.

Sittser’s book is of an even more sober nature, dealing squarely with devastating grief due to loss of all kinds, from the loss of human life to the loss of relationships, health, or dreams. He writes that when we experience a major loss, especially a death, time stops: “We live life as if it were a motion picture. Loss turns it into a spapshot.” Suddenly, often with no warning, what we thought were such urgent and often time-wasting pursuits (e.g., immersing in daily screen time) seem insignificant. We grieve, we contemplate our own mortality, and we’re forced to change priorities. Those of us observing others’ trials would be wise to grieve with those who grieve. Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2, ESV). Laying to heart life’s end is important.

This month especially celebrates giving thanks. My goal is to renew my efforts to create and steward margin, focusing on the important things and living a lifestyle more free from the bondage of urgency. Even an hour a day (a few minutes at a time) may be all we can muster for the important. But a little goes a long way.

The Versus Series: Tragedies vs. Atrocities

This is my 8th in a series of 10 columns in 2017 on the importance and proper use of words, and how language influences how I lead this youth company. 

“Words mean things.” I often heard that phrase by a radio personality during my college years (even as I trained for my own hopeful radio career). Similar to my preference for a neat hairstyle and weighing myself to the tenth of a pound every morning, I prefer to be precise rather than sloppy (as I put it) with word use. Along with several other word-use topics this year, one of my personal soapboxes involves the over-use of the word “tragedy.” 

When I think of a tragedy, I think of something that happens to someone, such as a natural disaster, accidental (or disease-caused) death of a loved one, or a shattered dream, just to name a few. In the strongest terms, however, I do NOT call it a “tragedy” when someone is murdered, assaulted, abused, or otherwise the victim of a fellow human’s act of evil, whether on an individual or mass scale. Human acts of evil done to others are atrocities, not tragedies. (They may be both, but Justice demands word accuracy, and “atrocity” is not too strong a word for an intentional act of evil.)

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that within every human heart lies the capacity for atrocities. Even hating someone is considered like murder in Jesus’ eyes (Matthew 5:22) and lust is as sinful as adultery (Matthew 5:28). However, there are still legal and consequential difference between evil thoughts and evil actions. To think an evil thought is sinful; to act on it is an atrocity.

I’m not sure why so many in the media and even in our everyday conversations don’t differentiate more often between tragedies that “happen to” people and atrocities that are “done to” people. Like so many other words that are either misused or under-used, I don’t let that imprecision stop me from what I try to do in my own life and in the lives of those I mentor: learn to be content in the midst of tragedies, and pray for justice for those who are victims of atrocities (and for the perpetrators too, even if forgiving them in one’s heart). In both cases, trusting God is key to healing. “Give thanks in all circumstances...” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

On a micro-scale, may our Jughead families and staff be agents of healing for others with various tragedies (large and small) that we experience in life, and may we not only avoid being party to atrocities of action, but may we also guard our hearts and take captive every thought lest it lead to an atrocious act of evil. Character counts, inside and out. We try to nurture that here in many ways, every day. It’s about so much more than juggling.

The Versus Series: Facebook vs. Face-to-Face

This 2017 series on the importance and proper use of words attempts to articulate the ways in which language influences how I mentor and lead this youth company. Whatever one’s worldview or quirks, may these topics serve to edify and challenge.

I’ve never had a Facebook page. This isn’t necessarily due to a moral aversion to it (although the gossip-oriented origins of its founding should give one pause); I just know that my personality is too obsessive to dare to have one, at least amidst my intense people-oriented career. I’m the only one of my siblings on both sides of the family who eschew Facebook, and I think all of my Millennial nieces & nephews have one even as other venues of social media are more in vogue with the under-35 generation (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat...I’m sure I’m forgetting some ;-).

I do know of some Millennials who are at least cautious in their use of Facebook, wisely noting that once something is posted online, it may be permanent. Posting photos of oneself in embarrassing situations or engaging in groupthink political rants may appeal to one’s friends, but it is dangerous when it comes to job prospects and losing others’ respect due to digital versions of TMI. My nephew was recently granted a phone interview with an exciting new job prospect. Nice, but the real prize was his follow-up in-person interview. A Facebook minimalist, he has nothing to hide online from his potential employer, and his current customer relations career surely served him very well in that interview.

As for me, I am face-to-face every day. Yes, I email and text, but to be present in a conversation seems sadly rare, and that’s an advantage of having a brick-and-mortar location for our juggling clubs in our age of increasingly doing business and communication online. Even though technology helps our lives in innumerable ways (just ask the Floridians currently out of power for days or possibly weeks), it can also become a barrier to real, flesh-and-blood relationships for which we’re designed.

The Apostle Paul ends his famous “love chapter” this way: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Real life ultimately beats digital life every time.

We as humans need to know and be known. Choose face-to-face over social media whenever possible. That’s one of the benefits of JH. I thank you all for empowering your kids to pause their devices and “like us” by having human interface through the excuse of juggling and growing together, in person. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: "I’m proud of you" vs. "I’m pleased with you"


The blessed man in Psalm 1 “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season” (v. 3a). Spring for us means Juggle Jam season, followed by much motivation to achieve records at every level, yielding a harvest of all kinds of fruit throughout May each year. With the applause of JJ19 still echoing in our ears and hearts, I’ll compare two kinds of accolades (i.e., fruits) and why I avoid one in favor of the other.

As with some of my other linguistic convictions, the following preference isn’t an indictment on others’ choices. But for me, I avoid the phrase “I’m proud of you.” First, it’s not a sentiment I see in Scripture (every form of “pride” in a concordance is almost always negative); second, I’m not sure what it means. 

Regarding my second objection, I realize that for an authority figure (parent, coach, teacher, peer-leader, etc.) to express pride in an individual likely means a satisfaction in knowing from where a student has come in achieving any given feat. A younger person may have overcome a broken bone, a broken heart, or a learning disability to conquer a performance or task. I understand that “pride” could describe my emotion when I get teary any time a group dance move is pulled off, a big laugh is heard, or a dropless routine is performed. But to describe that as my pride may be claiming too much credit.

The word I strongly prefer to “proud” is “pleased.” The related word, “pleasure,” is a much broader description of my emotion toward a person who has accomplished something, and it avoids presumption on my part that I had much if anything directly to do with said milestone. Even God the Father didn’t say He was “proud of” Jesus at His baptism or Transfiguration. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). That’s a good Model to mirror. 

So I say to the Jugheads: Well done this year and in JJ19! I’m pleased with you immeasurably; you bring me joy as someone who (by God’s grace) has had any part in your development. I’m inspired as you overcome, grow (including your names!), and reach beyond what you thought possible. Keep seeking pure, true pleasures this summer and beyond.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Good Luck vs. Godspeed

I don’t believe in luck. Luck is a superstitious notion that somehow “the Universe” or “random chance” (over millions of years, I might add) is determinant of one’s success, failure, and fate in life. First, the word “luck” is not ever mentioned in my set of Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (the Bible); second, I simply have an aversion to trusting something as crucial as my well-being, joy, and eternal destination to random, impersonal chance.

Pop culture backs me up in a couple of ways. Despite the obvious overtones of Eastern Mysticism in “Star Wars,” I do appreciate the line of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Episode IV: A New Hope” when he remarks to Han Solo, “In my experience there is no such thing as luck.” In the novel The Hobbit, Gandalf clarifies his own casual use of the term “luck” when recounting Bilbo’s adventures at the end: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” So, whether science fiction or fantasy, even the illusion (or presumption) of “luck” yields to a higher purpose.

How much more, then, should anyone with history-based faiths such as Judaism and Christianity eschew using “luck,” even as a form of well-wishing? Whether for a specific event such as an athletic contest or a Juggle Jam performance, or for a long-term blessing at a graduation or for a big change in life, my term of choice is “Godspeed.” Both dictionary.com and my Merriam-Webster app trace that term’s origin to Middle English (either the 14th or 15th century) based on the phrase “God spede,” or “God prosper you.” Interestingly, our ubiquitous parting phrase, “good-bye,” didn’t originate until the 16th century but has a very similar meaning: “God be with ye.” 

Why does this matter? Well, for me, I’m so very grateful that I’m not sovereign over my own life. True, I admit that I’m somewhat of a control freak when it comes to handling my resources of time, treasure, and talents. However, that’s stewardship, not sovereignty. I believe that God is sovereign over my life, which means I don’t have to “trust to luck;” I trust in the LORD. So, whether it’s the challenge of directing my 22nd annual juggling show (don’t forget we had three spring shows in the 90’s as the Wise Guys!), mourning with those who mourn (due to deaths or cancer diagnoses), or even celebrating small victories that are nothing to the world but could be the world to a child, I’ll use “Godspeed” as a practical prayer for any given person’s endeavor or struggle. And in this groaning lifetime which yearns for redemption, I’ll also say “good-bye,” for we all desperately need Him so very much.

Friday, March 3, 2017

"Amazing Grace" Verses: The Unsung Stanza

This third in a 2017 column series on the importance and proper use of words is based on a homonym for “versus.” Taking a long-time international icon, the 1779 hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, I’ll examine the unsung verse and its conspicuous absence from almost every rendition. I share this to shed light on a deep aspect of this ubiquitous song; to personalize it to my own life; and to honor a family dear to us in the midst of a severe trial.

We’ve all heard the beautiful bagpipes at funerals and other solemn occasions. Most of us have memorized Verse 1, which Rev. Newton wrote when recalling his countless sins as the captain of an English slave ship. We’re familiar with “dangers, toils and snares,” the precious hour of first belief, and the final verse referring to 10,000 years (added long after Newton’s original hymn). But Verse 3 in many hymnals (Verse 4 in some anthologies) is probably my favorite:

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.


Interestingly (and unfortunately, since this verse is so often neglected), this is the only lyric that mentions “the Lord” (a title for Jesus) and the only one that refers directly to God’s Word, to hope, and to the Lord Himself as the Source of protection and inheritance for believers. The theological depth of this verse underlies my personal experience and is currently being lived out among old friends.

In 1992, I embarked on a year-long local tour of a semi-pro musical variety show called “Get a Grip!” with a four-person cast (including Joy Donley) of The Refreshment Committee Theatre Company. Our musical director, Michael Pearce Donley, composed a new melody for “Amazing Grace” to end the show. Rather than omit Verse 3, he actually used it as the chorus, so we sang it repeated times each show for many months. The song became even more dear to me as a result, even through my engagement to Wendy and our wedding toward the end of the tour. The lead singer in our finale, Paula Jean Brown Adamsson, died just a few years after our tour, succumbing to lymphoma in her mid-30’s. She lived out saving grace in her life, and her widower, (Jerry), two sons (Sam and Hans), and their subsequent step-mom (Kathy) have endured in life based on His promises.

Mike Donley himself experienced amazing grace and the Lord’s protection when he survived cancer in his 20’s, early in his marriage to Joy and years before he co-created Triple Espresso. On 12/15/16, their only son, Lewis, took his own life in a moment of crisis. He was 16. The same pastor who dedicated Lewis to the Lord as an infant delivered the eulogy. He said, “Lewis did not commit the unforgiveable sin...but it was unforgettable.” Mike & Joy are absolutely leaning on the promises of God, the personal Shield and Portion of Jesus, and the hope of this life which endures past death until their reunion with Lewis. Out of gratitude for their influence on me, and in support of their own acute need of God’s promised good and Word-secured hope, I dedicate this column to Mike & Joy Donley, their daughter Emma, and in memory of their son Lew.

When my own next crisis hits (and I know it will), I’ll once again trust in the truths of Verse 3, clinging to the Lord Himself through Whom all grace comes (John 1:17). And like John Newton, the Adamssons, and the Donleys, I’ll share my story and give God glory.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Cursing vs. Blessing

Intro. This series on the importance and proper use of words attempts to articulate how language influences how I aim to mentor and lead a flourishing youth company. Whatever one’s worldview, may these topics serve to edify and challenge.

Part 2: Cursing vs. Blessing.
Foul language, obscenity, cussing, swearing, blasphemy, four-letter words, vulgarity, potty-mouth...it should go without saying that such habits are prohibited at JH, but here I’ll lay out specific reasons why.

Columnist Dennis Prager wrote, “When I was a child, stadiums allowed smoking but not cursing. Today, smoking is unheard of, but cursing is ubiquitous. A visit to an athletic event may be marginally healthier for the body today. But it is can also be far more injurious to the soul.” I’ve never been a smoker, but Prager’s analogy comparing a hazardous physical habit to a hazardous linguistic habit is accurate. Profanity coarsens the soul and pollutes society.

This was poignantly taught to me by my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Robert Ellis. He often likened profanity and even improper grammar to littering, vomiting at the dinner table, or urinating on the sidewalk. Extreme examples, yes, but he got the point across to this former casual curser. (I still strive to tame my tongue.)

When I was in college, my brother and mentor, Tom, challenged me to stop saying “Oh my G-d” (even as I worked to reduce non-blasphemous curse words). He rightly claimed that I wasn’t even aware of it and I was offending those for whom such casual use of even a generic name for the Almighty was off limits. When I began courting Wendy, I learned that she was raised to further avoid “Oh my gosh,” since the heart intention is arguably similar. Admittedly, I’ve historically advised the Jugheads to substitute “Oh my gosh” for the more overt alternative, but I admire (and now try to follow) the wisdom of altogether avoiding sloppy (and for some, offensive) language.

Refraining from taking the Lord’s name in vain (most notably “Jesus Christ”) is paramount for those with a biblical worldview, but other Bible passages such as Ephesians 4:29 and James 3:8-10 indicate that “corrupting talk” and “(cursing) people who are made in the likeness of God” are also acts of evil. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing...these things ought not to be so” (Jas. 3:10, ESV). Even “PG-rated” words such as “damn” and “hell” should only be used in proper contexts; neither flippancy toward eternal matters nor cursing others with these words have any place in pure speech or thought. The 2nd part of Eph. 4:29 prescribes talk “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

I try to reinforce to the Jugheads (and to myself) that it’s healthier for the soul and for society to eliminate cursing in all its forms in favor of self-control, blessing, and a peace-filled demeanor--even when upset, injured, or cursed by others (Romans 12:14).