On a recent airplane flight from LA to Hawaii I found myself without a book to read. My iPad mini was loaded with at least ten books in the “to be read” queue, but I was thinking about beaches and sunshine. I knew I needed a real, physical, old-fashioned book. Without much hope, I popped into the airport sundries shop and managed to strike gold.
Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, is one of those books that is likely to change my life over the course of the next year in ways I did not anticipate.
Bottom Line Premise: Once you stop trying to do it all, you can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
We are in a society with an over-abundance of choices. We have too many choices of how to spend our time, our money, our calories and our passion. Not only do we have too many choices, but we have too many really great choices and very few ways to escape the frenetic pace. The message in essentialism is not the minimalist, ascetic message of yesterday. It’s rather, a call back to conscious choice in how we invest ourselves in the world around us.
McKeown, after a discussion on the basic philosophy of essentialism, breaks the book down into exploring useful habits (escape, play, sleep etc. — all welcome topics when vacationing in Hawaii), eliminating non-essentials and executing a plan.
I took away several action points that we put into place almost immediately in our personal life and in our business:
- Get over the social awkwardness of saying “no” to social commitments or unwelcome business opportunities. You know the kind of thing I mean: the dinner you don’t really want to attend, or the job that is outside the sweet spot of your company’s profile.
- Add in healthy habits and schedule them. It sounds ridiculous, but my husband and I used to feel proud of our ability to be night owls, and almost ashamed of going to bed before midnight. Our daughters would poke fun at going to bed during “dork time,” as they called it. No more. Sleep really helps. Small habit change….huge payback.
- Add a buffer. Whether pricing jobs or booking a calendar, not scheduling everything so close to the edge provides huge peace of mind.
- Editing is one of the most important tasks of day-to-day life. As a writer I was already well-aware of the value of a great editor. Video productions pop with the right editing. The scenes left on the cutting-room floor are what create a truly great storyline. In life, as well, we need to edit. We need to edit our possessions, our activities, even our thoughts. One of the first suggestions McKeown makes is to go to the closet and eliminate some nonessential items, just to feel the lightness of letting go.
The author intersperses the benefits of essentialism throughout the book, but the last section highlights the increase in concentration, focus and flow you will reap from paring dow to the essentials. Well worth the read, and worth spending some time processing the true essentials in my own life. Not bad for an airport book!
Some quotes from Essentialism:
In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.
Saying no is its own leadership capability. it is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience. We are novices at “no.” Then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We develop more skills. We keep practicing. After a while we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal, and in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We can handle almost any request from almost anybody with grace and dignity. Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said to me, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’
An essentialist produces more — brings forth more — by removing more instead of doing more.
In life, disciplined editing can add to your level of contribution. It increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter. It lends the most meaningful relationships and activities more space to blossom.
Last year I probably read over a hundred books. But I stopped doing something important. I stopped blogging and reviewing them. In the process, I lost the opportunity to share the “voices” God used to shape me last year. So in the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions, I’m promising more frequent book reviews!
This Book, Dreaming with God by Bill Johnson, inspired me to get creating. Why? Here’s the theme that hit me.
Satan can’t create anything. Only God and those made in his image can create.
Wow! Want to read that again? Does it make you want to run out and create a fingerpainting, a pie recipe, a song, a new game? It should! Think about it! The creativity of God can best be expressed through the lives of believers. And living in that reality day by day is the only way to truly transform culture.
Coming on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, this truth moved me. We can cry all we want about needing cultural transformation. We all know that there is something wrong, and that mankind can’t fix it on his own. Evil is evil. But there is one thing that we can do to bring about transformation: live in the image of our creator.
Create new movies, new videos, new words that bring life and healing rather than death and destruction. Create new spaces where people can be loved. Create new relationships where the lonely are surrounded by family, and God’s love is poured out to overflowing.
None of this is easy, and that’s one of the central messages of Bill Johnson’s book. There is a mystery to life that requires us to embrace the unknown.
It is right there, on the razor-thin edge of faith and knowing, walking and hearing, that creativity and cultural transformation is born.
Why read this book
- You long to hear God speak through creative acts
- You are dealing with people in culture that is moving away from God and wish to change that
- You feel a tug to create
- You need wisdom in how and what to create and need God to speak
Yesterday’s creative challenge was so simple and so fun. Walking through Restoration Hardware I saw a display similar to the one you see in the picture above. I came home and created my own in a matter of minutes. Using old books — I used fairly cheap mass-market paperbacks that were in a donate pile — rip the covers off the book. Divide the book into sections about 1/4 inch thick and rip the sections apart. Taking one section, divide it in half and just spread it out so that the binding “breaks.” Begin rolling up this flattened book, tie with twine and enjoy it! I made a few scrolls and displayed them in a basket that used to contain Christmas goodies. So happy!
My challenge for today was a little bit different. Last fall David moved his office into a bonus room over our garage, previously a bedroom. Ever since then I’ve been looking enviously at this room, a smaller office near our bedroom. I’ve needed and wanted a space of my own for a long time. So today I began the process of taking the space over as a creative place for solitude and writing and creative projects. I’m pretty pleased so far! The biggest drawback to the space is the necessity of also having our rowing machine in the space — not inspirational, at least not to creativity! — but I’m willing to work around it!
I’ve been drifting at the edges of the human trafficking issue for a year or two now, joining my church in the Hope for Freedom cause, reading, talking, networking. I have sat with prostitutes who were trafficked into the trade by relatives and “safe” friends. I’ve heard their stories and seen their redemption. I’ve seen homes for restoring the souls of young girls. And I’ve read. I’ve read news reports of raids, successful and not. I’ve read books that were released, both secular and Christian. I’ve done what I could, within the confines of my suburban life, to engage in the fight for those with no voice, no justice.
Somehow, however, that deepest well of emotion that lives inside me has not been tapped. Maybe it’s the words we use: human trafficking, modern day abolitionist, modern day slavery. They are cold, distanced. Maybe it’s the size of the numbers: 27 million in slavery. It’s too big a number, and it seems unreal. Maybe it’s just my own selfishness and blindness, living in my insulated life. I have cared about the issue. I have worked for it. I have prayed over it. But I haven’t really lived it.
I just finished reading God in a Brothel, An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue by Daniel Walker. Somehow this book has hit me harder than any of the others I’ve read. For one thing, the book is written in the first person. There are few dry statistics here: most of the book is first hand experience. Walker infiltrated the kinds of places we’ve only seen in movies, the dark and dangerous corners of the world. He put himself on the line to covertly photograph and record financial transactions. He looked into the eyes of the six year old girl offered to him for his own pleasure, and he lived with the grief when he couldn’t find her again to rescue her.
Somehow, I felt it. I felt it in the pit of my stomach.
This is a dangerous book. It will wreck you on many levels. And I need to warn you, it is not a pretty book. Walker doesn’t spare us. He shows us how the go-go bars in South East Asia operate. He lets us feel the fear of girls who refuse to talk about their captors. Perhaps most gut wrenching, he talks about the temptations for him, bombarded on every side by the moral perversion of the sex industry.
And oh yes, just about the time my American soul feels self-righteous about the standard of our country, Walker takes us to Las Vegas and Atlanta. Ouch. Worse, he tells us why investigations in those cities will never go anywhere.
It’s a complicated world we live in. Some of these girls are in their industry by choice, and so do not fall under the umbrella of trafficking. Some of them were deceived by friends, or kidnapped by strangers. Saving them isn’t always easy, and the right answers aren’t always the obvious ones. But the cause of justice — the cause God gave to all of us — demands that we try.
Walker actually went and did something about it.
Read this book, if you dare.
I end with a card given to Walker following the rescue of 13 year old Melissa — a girl who now wants to be a lawyer to help fight the injustice of trafficking.
I wish that you will never be tired of helping such many children like me. I’m so lucky for the opportunity that you gave. Thank you for all the help and support that you have given and showed me. I promise I will try my best to achieve all my goals in life. I’ll reach for them, I’ll try my best to succeed. I will never forget you, never.
It slips my mind, sometimes, that someone reading my posts may not know where they are written. With very few exceptions, most of my writing is done in Starbucks. If I didn’t write the actual post there, I at least scribbled notes to remind me later of the direction I’m going to take.
I don’t know all the reasons why Starbucks is my choice, but one of them is because it simply isn’t HOME. I can come here and focus, be myself, daydream and create. At home, well there’s laundry to be done, a new magazine in the mail, roaming dogs who terrorize me at every opportunity. The stuff of life. I connect with myself better — sometimes — when I’m not so surrounded by myself.
The other day I listened to two guys do the same at Starbucks. One was a regular, Dan, and I never caught the other’s name. Let’s call him Fred. These two guys began jabbering, and when I got up to go, literally two hours later, they were still jabbering. In the course of the hours they covered politics (conservative, but Dan has a liberal bent that inclines him to social justice), chiropractic (Fred is a chiropractor, and was convincing Dan — accurately in my humble opinion! — that chiropractic care could help him recover from his recent shoulder surgery), the military (both served, one flew planes, the other loved them). They covered their families, their work habits, their Starbucks drinks. They circled back around to why character and integrity matter in politics more than party affiliation, though each were registered Republicans. In short, they connected.
It was a life group in action. What do you call it at your church? At ours, during various moments, they have been life groups, journey groups, small groups, affinity groups. Whatever your definition, these two men joined a small group.
But let me ask you this question: when was the last time you saw two men begin with a passing nod acquaintance and end up with an intimacy and a feeling of belonging to the same tribe over the course of two hours?
That’s the genius of living life out in the community, in third places, shoulder to shoulder with your neighbors and strangers. Alan Hirsch, in his new book RIght Here Right now, says that “We have to be able to speak meaningfully into a culture, but in order to do that, we have to seriously examine a given culture for clues to what God is doing among a people….what is good new for THIS people?” My friend Dan was doing that. He was listening to Fred and conversing with him where he was at, the conversation meandering. And because it took place in this third place, others were welcome to join in or not. Some did, interacting as long as time and circumstances allowed. Others didn’t, living their own lives.
Either way, small group was had here in Starbucks, and a whole bunch of us got to join in.
I’m making the choice to go for community wherever possible. After all, I’m, pretty sure that’s where Jesus hung out. I just wonder if he’d have picked MY Starbucks!
There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”
— CS Lewis
Who am I now that I’m not who I was?
This is a question that has been running around my head for the past year. David and I are, predictably, in a season of change in our lives. Part of that change was inevitable: our kids are moving out and all those responsibilities will soon rest mainly on their shoulders. This is an amazing transition, and it has humbled me to watch the girls begin it. Another part of our season of change is due to our family circumstances. We just sold my dad’s business in Boston, and are now entering a new phase in our own business lives as a result. Put both these circumstances together and — in my opinion — you have an opportunity for God to step in and write His story all over your future!
So this is the state of affairs as I begin to read Soulprint, by Mark Batterson. You may remember that Mark’s first book, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day,” was my first in-depth blog review and set the course for not only Coffee Shop Journal, but my spiritual growth plan for the past four years. (You can find the first of the Lion posts here, if you want to go back and read them.) Mark has since written two other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, but didn’t impact me like Lion.
Soulprint is getting ready to set my course for the next few years. In a return to the kind of vision of hope that moved me years ago, Mark Batterson is writing about God’s unique plan for us to step into our future and accept the vision God has for each of us. Our fingerprints, he says, are unique. So are our “soulprints.” An that uniqueness is not just God’s unbelievable gift to you, the lottery you won in life. It is a responsiblity! He has planned for you to be…YOURSELF!
Is that not the most amazing thought?
You are good enough to do the task God has designed for you. As Mark says in the first chapter, “You were created to worship God in a way that no one else can. How? By living a life no one else can — your life. You have a unique destiny to fulfill, and no one can take your place. You place an irreplaceable role in God’s grand narrative.” Anything less than being all that God created us to be amounts to forfeiting our spiritual birthright.
Stop and think about that again.
How many times have we read the story of Esau in Genesis 26 and wondered how in the world could Esau have sold his birthright for…soup? Really, Esau? Soup?
But maybe we are doing the same thing. Oh, we might be selling for a slightly higher price — at least a few filet mignon dinners — but when we stop being all we can be, we’ve sold out just like Esau.
“Let this promise soak into your spirit…It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”
For the rest of the book, Batterson uses the life of David to illustrate how God takes all the moments of our life and connects the dots into the role he has for us to play.
“Every past experience is preparation for some future opportunity. And one way God redeems the past is by helping us see it through His eyes, His providence. So the key to fulfilling your future destiny is in your past memories.”
David the lion-killer (oh! There come the lions again!) is transformed into David the giant-killer. God is literally hand-crafting us one at a time for the destiny He planned.
I don’t know about you, but those thoughts challenged and comforted me. My mind went back to the day we sold the business up north. On the phone with Buddy Hoffman, a pastor and dear friend who has mentored us over the years, I was wondering out loud what was next for us. Buddy said, “One thing you know: it will look nothing like the past and yet it will also look everything like the past.” It’s good to know that God never expected me to be my Dad, or my Mom, or my pastor, or Mark Batterson, or the many authors I admire. He never planned for me to plan my life around them or anyone else. He planned for me to be me.
“The end goal is not a revelation of who you are. The end goal is a revelation of who God is. After all, you won’t find yourself until you find God. The only way to discover who you are is to discover who God is because you are made in His image….He sets us free from who we’re not, so we can become who we were destined to be.”
[I rarely do in-depth processing of books on the blog, usually settling for a brief recommendation and what I learned from a particular book or author. But Soulprint is hitting me at a deeper level…so be prepared for at least several posts while I take this journey! And take my advice…go grab a copy.]
I will confess: I’m a “happiness” junkie.
It’s not entirely my fault, being born with my own particular DNA which makes it impossible for me to live in a depressed state for long. There have been times, however, when I’ve slumped into that “I don’t really care about the world just let me sit on my couch” state of being for one reason or another. During those moments, the sunshiny days of being happy for no particular reason at all seem far, far away. About as far away as the kingdom of Far, Far Away.
My faith, however, always points the way back for me, and happiness is the most amazing gift, given by God. In the book of Philippians He tells us to think about good things, lovely things, true things. It’s good advice — and advice born out by scientific proof, by the way — and it never fails to turn the corner for me. I change what I think about and I change how I feel.
I’ve noticed an upsurge in interest in the field of happiness (or positive psychology) in the bookstores lately. And I am intrigued. I’m always intrigued when scientific inquiry and faith come together like that. The basic premise of the happiness research revolves around the concept of neuroplasticity: that the brain can rewire itself and learn, grow, change. As Christians, we’ve always known this. After all, Romans tells us that our lives can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. God changes us from the inside out. Now science has proven the fact that our brains physically change in response to learning with all sorts of fun studies. One such study focused on London cabbies, who apparently have to carry around an incredibly complex map of their city in their brains, resulting in one area (the hippocampus) which grows larger than the normal person’s hippocampus. I didn’t even know I had one, but apparently mine is not all that spectacular compared to a cabbie’s.
In any event, the big news is this: we can teach our brains to think differently. We can teach ourselves to do what God commanded, and be…happy.
This blog is the first in a series on some of the happiness research and what it means for us in everyday life. There are some concrete ways that we can “think on the things that are lovely and true,” following God’s advice. I think it will be interesting to give ourselves permission to experience happiness, joy, and the peace that passes understanding…no matter what the circumstances around us say.
Incidentally, the way I refocused my thoughts during those blue times and began thinking new thoughts should hardly surprise you. I went to the bookstore. I smelled the lovely smell of new books. I picked some up books half-heartedly, and found myself interested. I went home with a couple to read. A hot tub, a good book and time to read them? Mission accomplished.
So there’s your first principle to finding happiness: change what you are looking at.
One of my guilty pleasures each Christmas season is to devour (yes, that’s the appropriate word) a few light and fluffy Christmas novels from the display at Barnes and Noble. It’s a ritual each November: when it’s still too early to pull out the decorations and the first peppermint mocha hits the counter at Starbucks, I survey all the new Christmas tales and begin making my list. This year the book first on my list is the newest installment of Thomas Kinkade’s series of books set in the fictional town of Cape Light. You know Thomas Kinkade for his paintings, but he also paints with words, and the help of his co-author Katherine Spencer! While the book is one of a series, it can stand pleasantly on its own and will probably intrigue you when you read the lives of the cast of supporting characters, all richly drawn because they have books of their own!
The plot line follows two main characters. Lucy is a nurse married to a crusty diner owner. She waitresses in the hours she isn’t nursing, raises two sons, and is a genuinely caring and busy person. Towards the beginning of the Christmas season a young runaway named Zoey plops herself down in a booth at the diner to escape the cold, where she is discovered by Lucy at closing time. With nowhere else to send the girl in small Cape Light, Lucy brings her home (against the wishes of that cantankerous husband) and begins the process of rescuing a soul who doesn’t necessarily want to be rescued.
Betty, a nearly 50 year old real estate agent turned caterer, is struggling to find her place in the Christmas season. She has been divorced for eleven years, and is now watching her son get engaged and her friends live their lives set in families. Lacking in Christmas spirit, however, Betty decides to get out of herself and help plan and fundraise for the local food pantry. In the process, the Santa hired for a big party teaches her a lot about life and about herself. Her journey is an example of how God uses all the events of our lives — big and small — to give us clues about who we were created to be.
Will “On Christmas Eve” change your life? Probably not. But it will add a little Christmas cheer and color to the few moments you have during this busy, busy season. A few minutes with a cup of coffee (a must) and a good book are just what I need to restore my peace on earth and good will toward all.
It is a quiet October afternoon and I’m looking forward to a yummy dinner with my in-laws tonight. Jillian is working and then shopping, Kylie is in Georgia, David is working away in his office, and two dogs are trying hard to play with/ignore each other. In other words, a calm, peaceful slice of time.
I, of course, am reading. Well, I was until I started writing.
It just occurred to me (and seemed worth writing) that I have traveled miles and miles in this past week, back and forth through time. All because I’ve been reading such a diverse group of books. As our literal travels take us here or there, I pick up book inspirations from each stop. Might I add, the Harvard Coop is a gold mine. Although they do have mice running around, which was disconcerting. And with my iPad and iPhone, it doesn’t take much for inspiration to strike.
Just a sampling from recent days:
This was a phenomenal book about a father in son who were in what should have been (and in some senses, was) a fatal car accident. The six year old son Alex was presumed to be dead, but managed to survive in an extended coma. During that time he was allowed glimpses into heaven. As committed Christians, the author and his son both understood the importance of what Alex had been allowed to see. His story is amazing, and well worth the time I spent traveling to heaven and back with little Alex.
I’m only up to chapter two of this book by one of my favorite preachers, but it’s already challenging me to “think audaciously” about what we can do for God.
Definitely one of those books that we should all read. Gabe puts on the Q conference each year (a highlight of my year), and this book (a follow-up to his first work, UnChristian) captures some of the essence of Q. Essentially the main idea is this: Christians are called to broaden their definition of the gospel and become “restorers” of God’s kingdom in this world. I love the concept. Read it: he writes better than I do.
My bloggy friend Diane recommended this to me recently, and she apparently knows exactly what books I need to read and when. This is a phenomenal reminder that life in the kingdom is a journey, and that sometimes that journey isn’t linear but is full of twists and turns and messes. Imperfect people don’t always get it right, but they are on the journey. If you are feeling stressed by the illogic of people around you, this book might speak to the wonder of what God’s doing in their lives. It gives you new eyes!
This is a book on harnessing your creativity by choreographer Twyla Tharp. It’s opening up new ways of looking at life for me, and inspires me to put the book down and create something. Which means it is taking me a long time to read the book, but that’s ok. It will keep.
I’ve just begun this book on the wholeness we can find only in our faith, but it is one of those books that lays a great foundation for growth. Really looking forward to this one over the next few weeks.
That’s still only a partial list, but seeing them altogether like that helps me realize where some of my strange thoughts actually come from! They are a synthesis of all that goes in my mind. An old quote reminds me that “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the experiences you have, the people you meet and the books you read.” So read on!
The hidden secret, the one no one wants to talk about, is that we are all broken.
It’s true, isn’t it? Pick out the super star, the guy or gal or couple that seems to have it all. Find the person who, by whatever standard you can imagine, seems to be on top of the heap. Spend some time with that person. Spend good time, quality time. Begin sharing your hearts. And you will find that underneath there is a person who has been beaten up by the world in one way or another. Because we are all broken. We just don’t all want to admit it.
This summer I read a book by Lisa Samson that brought that truth home to me in such a beautiful way. The story centers around the life and friendships of people who traveled in a side show (or a freak show, said less politically correct). Each of these characters, now enjoying their off season resting in a little bed and breakfast, are impacted by their individual oddities. Valentine is horrible burned and scarred, and now makes her living billed as the “Reptile Woman.” Her best friend Lella has no arms and no legs. Valentine tenderly takes care of her every need, while feeling unworthy of Lella’s frequent thank you’s. Rick is a contortionist. And all of them are discovered by Gus, a tattoo-covered missional monk who is living in a converted laundromat downtown.
The course of this book follows the awakening of faith in each of these characters, and the building of community out of the unlikely beginning of the freak show. It’s a beautiful picture of the church. Reading Embrace Me made me realize just how beautiful broken people really are. The skills, the wounds, the quirks and flaw are part of what make up the mosaic of life. If we can learn to appreciate our own brokenness as the journey God has brought us on, we can learn to appreciate brokenness in others. And it is in that acceptance that real community is formed.
Embrace Me is a fun story. It was just right for the back porch on a quiet summer day. But it surprised me in the end, when I realized that there is a deep longing in all of us for others to see our brokenness and love us unconditionally anyway.