Why Stop Now?

Why would anyone retire? I’m serious. Why not just pivot to work you enjoy doing. (As soon as I wrote “pivot” I thought of Ross moving the couch on Friends. Anyway…)

All of us have at least three different levels of capacity. First, we have what I will call abilities, things at which we are good, but the work doesn’t feed our souls. I’m good with finances, and run the finances of RLT Pathways, but I can’t say I enjoy it. We are competent when we work within the realm of our abilities, but we are not inspired. If you are relegated to the realm of abilities, I understand why you might want to retire. No one wants to do soul-sapping work.

In addition to abilities, we have gifts. A gift is something at which you excel that you enjoy doing so much you lose track of time when you are doing it. For me, writing is a gift. Running an organization is a gift. Counseling is a gift. If we are lucky and have had good mentors along the way, we also may be able to identify our pinnacle gifts. A pinnacle gift is work at which you excel beyond others. If you don’t know what your pinnacle gift is, you can determine it by asking a single question: What do people most affirm about you? The answer is likely your pinnacle gift.

My pinnacle gifts are public speaking and coaching and developing other public speakers. At TEDxMileHigh earlier this month I got to practice both of my pinnacle gifts, by coaching our speakers through the memorization and delivery process, while also emceeing the event. I was in seventh heaven. To make it even better, though a little stressful, I preached at Denver Community Church the next morning, then preached at Left Hand Church that night. Both were brand new messages. All weekend I was in my sweet spot. Monday I crashed.

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why would anyone retire? Now you see why I might ask that question. I don’t want to retire. I want to reach higher. Oh gees, I just realized that rhymes. It’s okay, I’ll stay with it anyway. I want to reach higher.

At this stage of my life, I’m not interested in working 70-hour weeks, but I do want to achieve the greatest return on investment of my time. Whether it is preaching at Left Hand or another post-evangelical church around the nation, working with TED or TEDxMileHigh, counseling clients, speaking for corporations, or serving on the town board here in Lyons, I want to serve within my wheelhouse and in the areas of my gifts or pinnacle gifts. If I am doing that, why would I retire?

I call what I am currently doing semi-retirement, though most people would not consider it to be that. Friends half my age often say they have a hard time keeping up with me. But I’ve always been fairly productive, so for me, what I am doing is, in fact, semi-retirement. For instance, I do not want to be the lead pastor at a church anymore, though I love preaching regularly. I do not want to run a non-profit, though I’m happy to volunteer for several. And I do not want to do anything early in the morning. So you can forget that breakfast meeting.

I suppose the bottom line is that I hate being bored, and I want to make a difference in the world. I want to alleviate suffering, while causing as little as possible. Turns out that last part doesn’t get easier with age.

My parents lived well into their 90s. Dad was still driving at 95, though the wisdom of allowing that was, uh, a bit suspect. He only really slowed down in his final year. I hope I have that kind of time remaining, and that I can approach it with the kind of energy Dad sustained. I don’t think about my age much. I still take on the kinds of new challenges I took on at fifty. Back then it was working for the first time as a television host. Now it’s coaching TEDx speakers in their script finalization, memorization and delivery, and serving TED speakers as a Speaker’s Ambassador.

And oh yeah, the running for public office thing. I did that too. I mean, five-hour board meetings that start at 5:30 pm might be a bit much, but I’m learning a lot, and I love our little town.

This week, it’s been writing a sermon for Sunday, met with the November 12 TEDxMileHigh speakers for their inaugural meeting, served folks from the last TED event, pastored people from church, and dug into the 165-page staff draft of the Lyons Thrive Comprehensive Plan. Yeah, that last one is a bit much. But hey, they’ve diligently done good work and I will read every single page.

And so it goes.

Eyes Like That

I don’t really like people knowing my age but with the Internet being what it is, anybody who wants to figure it out can do so. I emceed the TEDxMileHigh Reconnect show on August 6th, and the CEO of one of our sponsoring companies said, “I Googled you last night. I can’t believe you are that old! You look amazing.” Then he told the whole group standing around how old I was. (At least he didn’t do it in front of 2,000 attendees.) I thought about telling him that it’s okay to have an unexpressed thought, but he seemed like a sweet enough guy, so I let it go.

I also let it go because I too have a tendency to speak when remaining quiet would have been wiser. Uh, some of you, uh, know that. It’s one of the reasons I like Anne Lamott. She sometimes writes stuff, and you think, “Was it a good idea to actually put that in a book?” Anne Lamott seems good with it. She has learned to embrace herself as she is.

That is not a well-honed ability of mine – embracing myself as I am. The last year has been tough, because I’ve had more than one occasion in which I’ve needed to offer myself forgiveness, and it hasn’t come easily. I can be hard on myself. My genes and a giant fundamentalist dose of, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” are responsible for that.  If only I’d known that word perfect meant, complete in all of its parts and for its intended purpose. Yeah! Understanding that would have been helpful. I could have spared myself a hell of a lot of agony over not being, well, perfect. Of course, there are still those self-critical genes – damn multi-generational transmission process.

Anyway, learning self-acceptance is hard work. But when you are able to extend grace to yourself, it is much easier to be curious about yourself and others. “Why did I behave that way? ” “I didn’t know I was capable of doing that.”  “What brought that up from the basement?” Curiosity is so much more productive than self-flagellation. Curiosity can actually lead to growth, though it is a kind of growth that is likely to start as mourning. But don’t worry, it’s a  good kind of mourning.

There was that time Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word “mourn” means to mourn the specific nature of your own weaknesses, the parts of yourself that try as you might, you just can’t get ahold of. The parts of yourself that curiosity, insight, and the will to grow, still cannot be purged from your being. The best your curiosity, insight, and will can do is recognize these tendencies when they show up, and do your best to inflict as little damage as possible. The Jungian analyst James Hollis calls this kind of painful self-knowledge, “existential guilt.” While the knowledge itself might be existential guilt, I call the specific weaknesses my “abiding shadows.”

Some people are aware of their abiding shadows. They have learned to accept their humanity and no longer beat themselves up for not being perfect. They have stopped being judgmental toward themselves and others and have learned to be curious. Their curiosity is a manifest attribute of their self-acceptance.

Others carry a heavy judgmental spirit that truncates curiosity. It is a sign they have not yet accepted themselves as they are, flaws and all. Their judgmentalism is a coat of armor. They are masters at justifying their own decisions and condemning yours. They are novices at looking at themselves in the mirror. They have great ego need and not a lot of ego strength. I have a lot of sympathy for them, because we all start there.

To be a good therapist you have to be curious and self-aware. Otherwise, you are doomed to commit the sin of countertransference, projecting your own unresolved issues onto your unsuspecting clients. Most of us know where our abiding shadows lie. We don’t treat clients that are going to pull those up from the basement. We refer those souls to another therapist.

I’m a little bummed it took me so long to get somewhere within the vicinity of self-acceptance. I mean, I’m older than dirt. (Remember, the CEO told a whole group of people that.) But then I must remember that while I’m not so good in the self-acceptance department, I’m quite accomplished in others. Like maybe even wise. That is how life works. Our blind spots persist. Our abiding shadows abide. But the goodness and wisdom that reside within us, cohabitating with those abiding shadows, somehow manages to heal others through a kind of holy alchemy.

Life is more fascinating, redemptive, and hopeful when you start with curiosity instead of judgment. As you travel with others, you can gently help them find the obstacles that are keeping them stuck short of finding their own curiosity, insight and will to grow. With your peculiar wisdom as a guide, they can find the strength to look into the depths and see their own abiding shadows. You experience joy watching them come into that deeper self-awareness, because you know it will eventually lead to self-acceptance and amazing grace.

I cried on Monday when I found out Frederick Buechner died. He was the first author to crack open the door of my own curiosity. This is what he wrote in his wonderful little book, Whistling in the Dark:

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hat air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. the old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are – chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you. 

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

The Joy of the Ride

Okay, all right, I haven’t been writing. I know. Well, that’s not actually correct. I have been writing, but not blogposts.  It has been my privilege to serve as a speaker’s coach for TEDxMileHigh, helping finish up scripts and prepare speakers to deliver their talks on the TEDxMileHigh stage. For their recent August 6 show, I was working with all seven speakers, plus emceeing the show, which meant memorizing about 40 minutes of material for the four-hour show.

The good news is that the show is over, and it was wonderful! About 1900 people filled the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, and our speakers did a great job presenting their big ideas. This is the second time I’ve had the honor of working with TEDxMH speakers, and the first time I’ve had the honor of emceeing. I love working with TEDxMileHigh.

TEDxMH is the largest TEDx in North America, and one of the largest in the world. Their team is amazing. I pinch myself every time I get to work on one of their shows. It’s also my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED, the parent organization, working with their speakers on site, leading up to and after their talks. That also is a tremendous honor.

I worked in television for about 18 years, 11 of them as an on-air host. I loved every single day of shooting in some of the most beautiful places on earth. But nothing compares to getting amazing people ready to share their big ideas on a premiere stage, and then getting to emcee that same show. There is something about a live audience.

I get a one-week break before our next batch of TEDxMileHigh speakers meet for the first time for our November 12 show. One of those speakers is my friend, Linda Kay Klein, whose book, Pure, has helped so many who grew up in purity culture.

I’ve also been doing a lot of corporate speaking this summer, which is my major source of income nowadays. I was also privileged to have a two month sabbatical, after five years planting and serving Left Hand Church as one of its founding pastors. I’ve been back preaching for three weeks now.

During my sabbatical I took a brief trip to North Carolina to speak a couple of times for the Wild Goose Festival. My favorite part of the weekend was being able to spend time with good friends, and sit for an evening with Brian McLaren, Pete Enns, Diana Butler Bass, Jim Wallis, Josh Scott, Stan Mitchell, and a couple other post-evangelical leaders. I could have listened to them talk all night long.

And oh yeah, I’ve also been learning the ropes of being a member of the Board of Trustees for the wonderful town in which I live, Lyons, Colorado. Yeah, the five-hour meetings can be a little much, but I’m learning a lot about what it takes to keep a vibrant small town healthy.

I’ve mentioned two completely new fields in which I am now working, TED/TEDxMileHigh, and small-town government. I mean, why not? Why would I slow down now? These years are proving to be the most productive of my life, with the highest return-on-investment I’ve ever experienced.

You know, the ego is interested in just two things, power and safety. It does its best to repress anything else. For decades, my ego won out over my soul. But not anymore. The ego is interested in power and safety. The soul is interested in the ride. That is what I am enjoying now – the ride.

While I was running today, I kept thinking of the last couple of lines of David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness:

You must give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn

That anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you.

 Yeah, that.