How’s Your Snow Pack? Or The Necessity of Margin

 

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I’ve been reminded in many ways that most of us live life “just in time.”

Many live paycheck to paycheck, hopefully earning enough money “just in time” to pay the most important bills. Many complete a project “just in time” to meet the deadline (scary word!).

In retail and manufacturing, “Just In Time” (JIT) inventory management is a concept designed to increase efficiency, cut costs and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed. You don’t stockpile merchandise.

This may be good business, but it can be soul-draining when applied to personal and community life. Just in time praying, just in time communication, just in time physical effort—all equal lots-of-time stress!

It makes me think about the snowpack in the mountains. (Hang on– you’ll see where I’m going…) Living in an arid or semi-arid region means you pay attention to precipitation—rainfall and snow fall.

If you listen to weather reports in California, you are curious about the amount of rainfall, but you are really interested in the amount of snowpack (the accumulated snowfall in the mountains) because the snowpack is the real drought-buster. Rain is useful for recharging groundwater, but a deep snowpack can provide water for months and months. When the average Sierra Nevada Mountains’ snowpack melts in spring and summer it provides about 30 percent of California’s water needs.

Let me mix in another metaphor: It’s not wise to drive until you’re out of gas. In fact, it damages the fuel system of a car by drawing into the fuel lines the impure “residue” that settles in the tank. Problems multiply.

Likewise, we have spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and financial tanks (to name primary ones) that need to be sustained. We cannot count on the occasional rainfall of inspiration that may come. Each tank needs a “snowpack” source of sustenance.

What I call “snowpack” physician Richard Swenson calls margin. “Margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.” The reserves we develop provide “shock-absorbers” in our lives and relationships. But margin is in short supply.

The conditions of modern-day living devour margin.  If you are homeless, we direct you to a shelter.  If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps.  If you are breathless, we connect the oxygen.  But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.

Swenson compares the stressful state of lacking margin with the “blessedness” of cultivating margin in our lives:

              Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy.

Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink.

Marginless  is hurry; margin is calm.

Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.

Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture.

Marginless is reality; margin is remedy.

Marginless is the disease of our times. Margin is its cure.

SOURCE:   Richard A. Swenson, M.D., Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 1992),  13, 14. with slight revision.

The problem is that we don’t pay attention to our need for margin until it’s too late (see my blog Drink Before You’re Thirsty). The account of Joseph in Egypt illustrates the blessings of margin. Having interpreted Pharaoh’s dream warning of seven years of famine in the future, we read,

“Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it” (Genesis 41:48 NIV).

Jesus calls us to store up resources far more significant than worldly wealth and status,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew  6:19-20).

Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the gifts of time to replenish your soul, of activity to refresh your body and mind, of a phone call or coffee-date to catch up with a friend. It will never be easy to “make” time for these things. You just have to take it!

You may not see immediate results. But who would think, as they watch flurries float lightly down from the sky, that those flurries would accumulate to provide life-sustaining water for months to come?

10 Questions for the New Year

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The New Year is a great time to take inventory as you look back over the past year and do some “holy daydreaming” as you approach the new one. A primary tool for the most effective assessment and planning is asking good questions.

Questions have the power to change our lives. They move us from being spectators to participants. They cause us to stop and take stock of what we believe and how we behave. They push us to challenge our assumptions, assess our needs, clarify our thinking and confront our imposed limitations. They prod us to analyze, criticize and synthesize.

The Greek philosopher Socrates is best known for recognizing the power of leading students to discovery through questions.

In the course of writing my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, I was intrigued by the spiritual power of questions in the Bible. In the course of my research, I became acquainted with Bobb Biehl, President of Masterplanning Group International (Yes, there are two ‘b’s in his first name). In his booklet, Asking to Win: One Hundred Profound Questions, he writes,

As you master the art of asking profound questions you’ll be able to unlock information, insight and wisdom with a friend in any situation. You’ll be able to open doors to inner motivation and dreams which no one has ever been able to unlock. You’ll be able to solve problems, analyze risks and take leadership you’ve never before dreamed possible. For questions are like intricate brass keys which unlock the lock boxes of people’s minds and heart, their hopes and dreams.

I appreciate Bobb’s image of questions as keys. Another image I see is that the right question is like a jeweler’s chisel that breaks open an uncut, dull-looking stone into a precious treasure with gleaming facets of beauty and value.

While we could explore literally hundreds of stimulating questions, that would be overwhelming. My hope is that you will use this blog in the coming days for some intentional reflection and planning. The best way to make any progress is to focus on a narrow framework of simply looking back and looking forward.

Remember: Five questions for looking back to celebrate and learn.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on remembering what God has done (and also crying out to God to remember his covenant with his people). Memory awakens gratitude and also provides the context for learning from our lives.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11 English Standard Version).

  • Where and when did I see you, Lord, working this past year?
  • If I had to summarize my year in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities came my way I never expected?
  • What opportunity/ opportunities did I miss?
  • What was my primary accomplishment this past year?

Anticipate: Five question for looking forward to maximize your time.

The Bible calls us to be intentional and make the most of the time God gives. There’s power when we focus on specific goals.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV).

  • What are two or three important goals I have for the coming year? (Think, for example, in terms of personal, relational, vocational and recreational—relaxation and renewal—areas).
  • What projects would energize me this year?
  • What do I need to stop?
  • What do I need to start?
  • What word or phrase can I use to keep my focus in this coming year?

These are my suggestions. I encourage you to ask and respond to additional questions that you feel will be most helpful. You’ll notice I haven’t asked any direct questions in the area of confession and repentance — though that is a rich area for prayer and reflection. Give yourself the gift of time– to make the most of the time God provides.

While wrong questions take us on senseless detours, the right questions take us to the very heart of life.

[Portions of this blog are adapted from my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, “Introduction,” xi-xii.]

Spinning Plates

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Jugglers are just one of the many entertainers we pay to generate anxiety. As if we don’t have enough anxiety already, we watch death-defying circus acts and terrifying movies that keep us on the edge of our seats. Perhaps it’s a type of catharsis for us: seeing others under more pressure or in worse situations than we are facing may make us feel better. But I’ll leave that to the trained psychologists.

Back to jugglers. They begin juggling a few harmless, ordinary balls, but then toss in a knife, then an ax, then a bowling ball—and we are just hoping they don’t cut off a finger or drop that ball on their toes. I can’t imagine doing what they do— until it comes to spinning plates. When I see a juggler spinning plates I feel like they are talking directly to me.

Spinning plates is what I do! I have lots of energy and very high expectations (we can talk about my Enneagram sometime, if you like…) and get too many plates spinning. It’s no surprise that I can get stressed running back and forth to all the wobbling projects just about to fall.

The good news is that I don’t waste much time on cheap plates. I am spinning many fine pieces of porcelain projects. Right now I’m spinning intentional preaching plans and vision plans, as well as leadership development and coaching plans for several different situations. I spin the usual you-gotta-do-this-to-keep-your-job plates. Oh, and I have a goal for publishing this blog and some other new materials. And did I mention that I’m a husband, father, grandfather and friend? Lot of plates. But you likely have as many.

So here’s the question: What do you do when you’re over-extended, especially with projects you are really interested in doing?

First, look at what’s “driving” each plate. Why did you choose to spin this plate? There are a number of commendable motives. The key is that you affirm that validity of that particular plate. It may not be a plate you would choose (like caring for a loved one with chronic illness), but you know it’s what you are called to do at this time. On the other hand, it may feel a plate imposed on you that you could choose to put down. I think of the pressure Jesus felt to meet expectations for performing miracles. When pressured, he refused to spin such plates (Matthew 12:39).

Second, give yourself permission to put one or two aside for the time being—as in my pause from blog writing. The world didn’t end when I didn’t publish weekly (though I’m sure many were just heart-broken not to have a nugget of wisdom from me… right?) I disappointed myself, but realized that there are seasons not only in the climate, but in life. Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 speaks of these varied seasons:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them… 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, 7 … a time to be silent and a time to speak…”

Third, manage your expectations for each plate. This is where your journal and a great listening partner come in handy. As you might have guessed, I feel compelled to give everything my best effort. I’ll never forget my annual personnel review when one of the elders, Wally, said to me, “Doug, we’re very pleased with your work—but also concerned.” “Concerned?” I responded with genuine alarm. “Yes, concerned. You need to learn that not everything deserves ‘A’ effort. We’re not grading you, but you need to figure out a way to get a few ‘C’s,’ or you’re going to burn out.”

Fourth, savor the present moment.  Plate spinners are most alive in the spinning. There will always be more plates and poles and opportunities to spin. Welcome Jesus’ invitation to focus on now.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message).

Gotta’ run– there’s a wobbler that needs some attention!

The Fun Cut

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I rode my bike with two of our sons, Matthew and Peter, to a park near us for our own version of spring training. We had a great time hitting and throwing the baseball. Yes, there were a few touchy moments, like when one threw the ball at the other’s head — not on purpose, of course… But we had a good time.

I was really getting into the Dad thing, so I suggested we ride to Thrifty Drug Store for ice cream cones. We each had two scoops — I am one generous dad, you know — and then started to ride home. Peter, age 7 or 8 , was leading us and started to turn down a street that would take us a long way home.

“Peter, where are you going?” I call out. “That’s not a short-cut.”

“I know, Dad,” he said, “It’s a fun-cut!”

I stopped pedaling. A fun-cut! What a concept! I laughed out loud. It changed the whole ride home. Suddenly, my focus wasn’t on the destination, but the joy of riding with my boys. Sound corny? I mean it: I took time to look around at the houses and chat with the guys instead of racing home to the next activity.

Looking for short-cuts is a hazard in our hurried lives. As we try to cram more activities into each day, we shorten the time and attention given to any one of them. Those afflicted with this malady of “compulsive short-cut-itis” find themselves thinking of the next thing, instead of the thing they’re doing. We’re not present in the present.

Not all short-cuts are negative, of course, but there are some shadow sides to them. For example, if I do only those activities that come quickly, I miss the joy of hard-won victories. If I do only the familiar, I miss the joy of adventure. If I do only that which is comfortable, I miss the joy of discovering I can push myself to endure and give more than I imagined. If I rush, I fail to savor the experience.

Among other things, a fun-cut means taking time to add elements like creativity and caring touches. One family showed me this recently. Joanie, the wife, came home and found her husband, Gary, very upset. He’d lost his money clip that held a significant amount of cash from a bank withdrawal he’d just made. They scoured the house, turned his pants’ pockets inside-out, checked chair cushions and car seats. They retraced his steps. He’d just gone to the grocery, and heaven forbid if it had fallen out of his pocket in the check-out line or parking lot.

“Just call the manager,” Joanie urged. After initial resistance, Gary finally called. When he described the money-clip, the manager said, “I found it and took it home for safe-keeping. I will get it and have it here for you in ten minutes.” What a relief!

Here’s the fun-cut. Gary offered the manager a reward, but the manager refused to accept it. They could have just walked away in gratitude, but this couple got a gift certificate to a local restaurant and took it to the manager the next day. “We wanted to thank you again for your honesty. We’re letting others know about the integrity of the person managing this grocery. Please enjoy a great dinner on us.”

What a great way to affirm someone! It took a little creativity, time, and expense. But you can’t match the joy!

The Bible calls us to “redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). I used to think this meant living efficiently with diligent time management. Now I affirm the wise stewardship of time, and believe it also includes living in a redemptive way. That means appreciating the fact that a bit of extra effort, a bit of “wasted time,” even a bit of indulgence, may have far more impact than just getting more tasks completed.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 is the most well-known passage on time in the Bible. Consider these verses as an invitation to take fun cuts even in the midst of life’s most difficult times.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:…
…. a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
… 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 New International Version)

Shortcuts may get us somewhere more quickly, but they may not be worth the cost in creativity, enjoyment and a more relaxed pace.