No Margin for Error

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It was a year ago this week that I rushed my father-in-law to the hospital.

It was my daughter’s senior year of high school; our youngest. I woke up at 5:30 AM and it was pouring rain. We had a 30-minute drive to school (one way) in good weather. So we hurried to gather our things and get out the door a few minutes early. It took 1.5 hours to get her to school and finally arrive at work. But this was our life. We were in a season that included no margin for error. And no margin for emergencies.

I sat at my desk trying to catch my breath. If I put my head down and worked hard, then I could accomplish my to-do list before I headed to pick my daughter up from school. And then the phone rang.

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My father-in-law needed someone to drive him to the emergency room. Everyone else was busy or unreachable. In my heart, I was angry. His health had been deteriorating for some time. And it was mostly from a life of cigarettes and alcohol even though he had been sober and smoke-free for many years. The reality was that he couldn’t escape the abuse he had put his body through. But I was certain this was a non-emergency. And I was angry that it had fallen on my shoulders.

My life during that season was chaos. I always felt I was spinning my wheels. And all of our extended family pressures were mounting. It seemed we were in it alone. I know God was with us. But, frankly, hearing people tell me that God was with me made me want to punch them in the face. Go ahead and judge all you want. You cannot heap guilt on me that I haven’t already heaped on myself.

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I’m sure my father-in-law could feel my anger and disapproval radiating from me as I drove in silence. When we arrive, the hospital rushed him inside and later transferred him to another hospital downtown because of the seriousness of his condition. Guilt and shame washed over me to replace the anger that had been there. What had seemed so outrageous was really only an inconvenience. I was only thinking about me and my schedule. And it had no margin for error or crisis.

We all have seasons like this in the course of life. Our youngest was in her senior year. I was a pastor with other denominational duties. And we ran a small business. That trip to the hospital was not the end. But it was the beginning of the end for my father-in-law.

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I have carried that guilt for a year. I tried to articulate it to God in confession more than once. But I choke on the words. It’s as if not saying the words will make it go away. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the opposite is true. However, I kept stumbling in the darkness.

My father-in-law died three months later. I wasn’t at the hospital that day. It was a Sunday morning and I was at church. My husband made it to the hospital and he was with his dad when he passed. I think it was good for my husband to be there. And we have spent the last nine months learning to live with margin.

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It’s been hard unlearning a bad habit. Yet, living without margin is not one bad habit. It’s 10 or 12 bad habits on top of one another all enmeshed. So changing one means changing them all. The initial chaos that ensues tries to tell you it’s not worth it. You want to keep your tangled mess of marginless life and push on. But that day in the ER one year ago? It was my life crying out and pleading with me to start over.

I am far from where I need to be, but I do have more margin in my life now. And I’m still working through the guilt. If my father-in-law was here, then he would tell me he forgives me. He might even tell me that he deserved it because of how he lived his life. And I would tell him he was wrong. I would tell him that his really bad decisions made me take a closer look at my own life.

And that day in the ER? He might have even saved my soul.

End Well: The Last 90 Days

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October 1st began the last 90 days of the year. We are in the last quarter of 2018 and the new year will be here before we know it. It’s tempting to begin thinking and planning for 2019 and miss out on what these next few months could offer. But there is still plenty of potential in 2018.

Let’s think back nine months ago to January 1st. You had dreams, plans, and goals for the new year. Some of them you may have abandoned before February 1st. But hopefully, you continued to pursue a few of them.

October is a great time to evaluate the last nine months. How far did you get? Did you achieve some of your goals already? Perhaps you made progress, but not as much as you had planned. What do you need to do to modify the goal?

Is there one practical step you can take this week? This month?

Let’s not waste this time. Let’s not quit on 2018 prematurely. We still have time to make it happen. Set aside an hour to brainstorm. Meet with a friend for some feedback. And let’s leave 2018 swinging for the grandstand!

Three Questions to Ask Yourself

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In Luke’s Gospel (chapter 15), he tells us that the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen. Then he says that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were gathering amongst themselves and complaining…mostly about Jesus and “the sinners”.

These two verses tell us so much about faith and life. They suggest there are positive ways to live that will help us be better people. But they also suggest there are negative ways to live that are detrimental to our spiritual well-being.

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I see three questions that we can ask ourselves as a spiritual health check. No. The first one is not whether you should have another donut. The answer to that question is yes, of course! The questions are these: What are we listening to? Who are we gathering around? What are we talking about? 

What/who are we listening to?

I confess that I am a podcast junkie. I listen to podcasts like most people listen to music or the news. And then there are the audiobooks. Best invention ever! I’m an audio learner and this current technology is my sweet, sweet friend. My podcast repertoire and audiobook shelf are filled with lots of authors and genres, although non-fiction is my favorite. It’s important to me that I am not living in an echo chamber listening only to people and ideas that are “just like mine”.

I wonder if this is what intrigued the “sinners” who gathered around Jesus. He was introducing ideas they had never heard. And they were loving it. The Pharisees were not loving it, however. They were upset that Jesus was coming along with a seemingly “new teaching”. I guess that’s why Jesus felt the need to repeatedly clarify that He was not giving a new commandment and he did not come to “demolish the Law”. The “sinners” were listening to Jesus. He was someone very different from them with new ideas. The Pharisees were listening to themselves and others who thought like them.

As leaders and influencers, I believe it is important to pay attention to what we are listening to. I’m not saying that we should censor what we are listening to. But we need to pay attention to it. It is beneficial to listen to and reflect on it. Does it leave us feeling anxious? Why? Does it leave us feeling discouraged? Why? Does it energize us, teach us, inform us, make us better leaders and humans?

Who are we gathering around?

In Luke’s Gospel, the “sinners” were gathered around Jesus; an influential leader of the day. Jim Rohn says we are the average of the five people we spend the most time around. I’m not sure how much social science backs this up, but I know that other people influence us and we influence them. If we, like the Pharisees, spend most of our time with negative people, then we will begin to see negativity all around us. The people in our lives influence our perspective in both positive and negative ways.

I hope you don’t hear me saying to remove all of the negative people from your life. Some of them need our influence. But we can be intentional about the amount of time and quality of time we give these relationships. I have found it helpful to limit interaction with certain people in my circle. And I have been more intentional to add people to my circle who can help me become all that God wants me to be.

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What are we talking about?

What are we talking about when we gather with others? A community is important. It gives us space to connect, grow, love, share, and become more than we can become on our own. But what do we talk about? Do we talk about trivial stuff? Do we share thoughts and ideas? Do we process our feelings? Do we talk about family, marriage, faith, health, or Hollywood?

I am an introvert. For me, small talk is my nightmare. I do it because it’s an icebreaker. But give me a deep conversation that requires me to use my brain and I can talk for hours. It energizes me. I am always looking for the person in the room that is ready to engage in something deeper than the surface. But not everyone feels the same. Maybe you spend your entire day thinking about solutions. And, at the end of the day, you need mindless chatter. Whatever our choice, I think our conversations influence our attitudes the same as what we listen to and with whom we hang out.

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At the end of the day, let’s ask ourselves these questions. What did we listen to today and did it inspire us? Who did we gather with and draw into our circle of influence? And what did we talk about?

When we stop to reflect on these things, it can give us insight into the people we are becoming. And it can help us wake up to the better things life has to offer.

 

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