21 Day Attitude Adjustment

For those who don’t know what this contraption is, it’s a post hole digger. And it doesn’t work. I put it in the ground and waited for it to dig a hole, and the darn thing just sat there. It didn’t dig a lick.

Now it happens I was working on this project on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon; so maybe my digger was just trying to keep the Sabbath. But I’ve used it on other days of the week with similar results. Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, an occupational hazard for preachers. But I hasten to add that yesterday, a rainy football Saturday, was my day of rest in my recliner in front of the TV. I believe, especially in our crazy busy world, it’s more important to get some regular rest than to be legalistic about which day or days we do so. Jesus thought so too. When criticized for healing on the Sabbath he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV)

But I digress. To be honest, I’m not very adept at manual labor — but even I know tools don’t work by themselves. Maybe someday, but not yet. My project in this case is putting a fence around our garden to deter or at least discourage rabbits, deer, and other critters from nibbling our produce. Fortunately I only need post holes for the gate, but digging even 2 post holes is hard work. So it didn’t take long before I was tempted to go negative about how hard it was and how I’d much rather be watching more football or playing golf on such a glorious day. And then a little voice in my head that sounded strangely like my wife’s was whispering in my ear, “Attitude is a choice. I can either feel put upon for working so hard— or I can enjoy being out in God’s beautiful creation, breathing fresh air, and getting some wonderful (and much needed) exercise!”

To be honest I don’t always or even often listen to that cheerful voice, but I’m trying to practice more gratitude and nourish a more positive attitude. Yes, I know there’s so much in our world today that is way too easy to be negative about, but I do have a choice. I can either focus on the negative or the positive. It’s really as simple, and as hard, as following the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Would I rather hang out with some David Downer or someone with a positive approach to life’s challenges? Pretty easy choice isn’t it? So if that’s who I’d rather be with then that’s who I need to be, even when I’m all by myself. Not only does my throwing a pity party for myself do me no good, it’s a bummer for those around me.

I continue to marvel at and be inspired by people who exude faith and positive vibes when life deals them so much unfair pain and suffering: people who are confined to wheel chairs who refuse to stop living and express gratitude for friends and family and good memories of lives well lived; parents who give nothing but unconditional love to children who break their hearts with rebellion and rejection; or someone like President Jimmy Carter who takes brain cancer and the limitations of being 95 in stride and keeps working to make the world a better place for his sisters and brothers. It’ a choice!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my wife Diana at this point. The reason I said the voice in my head sounds like her is because she is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. I don’t always appreciate it when she urges me to be more positive, but I know she’s right because she practices what she preaches; and I am blessed to have a front row seat to see how it works for her and the way she influences others.

On this day choosing a more positive attitude worked for me, and like any other discipline each time I practice that behavior it becomes easier to do it next time and eventually will become a habit that I don’t have to talk myself into. Easy? No, or I’d have mastered it long ago. You may have heard as I have many times that it takes 21 days of practicing a new behavior for it to become a habit, but I just learned recently from a Physical Therapist why that’s so. She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.

It’s a choice; and just like my post hole digger, it’s up to me to make it work.

Life as Improv

drama masks
As a retired pastor I have often joked that I cannot find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible, but not being employed by a church during busy and important seasons like Holy Week reminds me of both the benefits and challenges of being “retired.” It is certainly nice to be more relaxed and not put in an extra-long work week with preparation for 3 or 4 worship services on top of dealing with routine responsibilities and any pastoral emergencies. It’s great to have more time for personal and family activities that pastors sacrifice even more than usual during the busiest times of the church year.

On the flip side retirement often lends itself to a feeling of being less relevant and important, maybe like being the maid of honor or mother of the bride, though I confess I’ve never been in either of those roles. And speaking of roles, I was reminded today of Shakespeare’s line from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…” Some days retirement for me feels like I am still on stage but I no longer have a script. Some days I have trouble remembering which act or scene I’m in or even what play. I miss cues and interactions with other actresses and actors who are no longer in the cast.

When I was a child I had a blind trust in my parents and others in authority to direct my life and give me wise counsel. I made my way through much of my education playing the part quite well of one who learned my lines and fed them back to teachers on exams. With age comes an increasing realization that life is more improv than memorizing lines or taking direction. Many of my mentors have made their final exit from this stage of life, and the need to write my own script and take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of my life without a boss or other authority figure directing my play is both intimidating and liberating.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of God as the great director or playwright of our lives. It sounds comforting to think God has predetermined our fate and knows the outcome of our lives. But then we realize the terrible cost we pay for that escape from freedom and responsibility. If we surrender our free will to a notion of such a controlling God or any false gods we become more like puppets than actors and lose the very essence of our humanity.

Life as improv means cutting the puppeteer’s strings that bind and control us, being open to new challenges as adventures to be embraced instead of wasting our time looking for a script to tell us what we should be doing at any given stage of life. We humans don’t come with an owner’s manual. Lots of people try to usurp the role of producing and directing our lives for us, but ultimately the stage lights go up again every day and we get to improvise.

Unfortunately religion is often used as a tool to stifle creativity and freedom. Yes, we need guidance and direction from a higher power, but we do not need a micro-manager for a God. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be viewed as a guide book or a rule book, but in reality they are really a collection of scripts from the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith journey. We can learn from the lives of the heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (and also from the villains who show us what not to do). But their lives and contexts are not the same as ours. We have to write our own scripts that account for the unique circumstances of the scenes we are called to perform in the 21st century. That does not mean we start from scratch. The basic guidelines for living a faithful life of integrity don’t change. Very few of us can memorize a long script or recite multiple chapters and verses from the Bible. But the essence of God’s direction for our lives is neatly summarized in key verses. Among the favorites that I fall back on when I can’t remember my part or all my lines are these:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Those words do not dictate stage directions for what I should do in a particular situation, but they describe the quality of the character we are all called upon to play no matter what our role is. The roles change from time to time as Shakespeare tells us, but how we are to play our parts is very clear. God as director says, “Love me and love your neighbor.” The details and nuances of how we do that is where we get to improvise.