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.