The Rhythm of the School Year

Monday was the first day of the school year. As much as I love hanging out with my boys – really, they become more fun to hang out with all the time – I do love the rhythm of the school year.

The bus for my 2 youngest comes just before seven, so I was out of bed at 5:30am because I had prepped from-scratch cinnamon rolls late Sunday night and had to get up early to start the oven. I spent some time on my deck trying to meditate, quiet my brain that seems full of negativity right now, and just be still for a time.  And then, after we got the boys out the door, I came back from a brutal interval run to savor the first empty, quiet house I’ve experienced since my Sabbatical began.

Every year on this day, I celebrate. And, honestly, it’s not because I’m glad to get my kids out of my hair, but, rather, because I love the structure that the school year provides. I find myself more disciplined, more focused, more productive in all areas of life when I’m forced to get up in the morning, when I have a reason to put my pajamas away, when I’m driven to get kids to bed at a decent time. All of those things lead to a better version of me.

Oh, I like summer too. I like unfettered. I like sleeping in. I like staying up late and flexible bed times. But somehow in the summer I tend to put on weight, neglect my creative pursuits, forsake spiritual exercises and often slip into bad self talk.

And so, at the dawn of a new school year, here are some of the rhythms I’m working on:

Sleep – I’m a night owl by nature. Give me time off work and I’ll quickly drift into staying up late and sleeping in. But the school year forces me to get myself out of bed and moving in the morning, which leads to me being more tired at night. It’s a virtuous cycle. I’ve become more aware over the last couple years of how critical sleep is to my well being.

Work – I’ve learned that I’m most productive between about 10am and 2pm every day. So, with the kids now in school, I’m getting up, helping with the breakfast, lunch, and getting them out the door routine, getting my run out of the way, and then settling down at my computer for a couple of hours to write.

Exercise – I’m training for a half marathon which is giving me a structure for running. It’s a fairly aggressive training plan, running 5 days a week. Last week I ran just over 42 miles (and did a 42-mile bike ride also). I’ve lost about 13 pounds since I finished building the house, and I’m hoping to lose at least 13 more over the next 10 weeks. That’s a pretty big goal, but I have the time to give myself to exercise, so I’m going to give it a shot.Mental/Emotional Health – I wrote a post a couple months ago about steps I was taking towards good mental/emotional health. And while I’m on hiatus from pastoring for a couple months, a lot of the same stuff applies.

Spiritual – As I mentioned above, I’m trying to sit quietly to start my day before the rest of the house wakes up. Like I said I’m not really a “morning person,” but if I wait until nighttime, I’m woefully undisciplined and will choose to watch TV or read a novel. So, even though it’s difficult, it’s a better rhythm for me to sit out on my deck early.

Relational – I’ve said before that I’m a raging extrovert, and I know from talking to some of you that I’ve given off the impression that I always want to be at a party. But – especially as I get older – that’s not nearly as true as it used to be. I’m still a raging extrovert, but what I crave is depth and intimacy with others. Jennifer and I are most happy when we are having real conversations with people, when we feel like we’re being vulnerable and people are being vulnerable with us. And those kinds of relationships take time, energy, discipline and sacrifice.

I heard someone say recently, talking about punk bands, that when the drummer is off, you know it immediately in a way that you don’t notice as quickly or dramatically with the other instruments. I think about these rhythms in my life much the same. When I get “off” in these areas, it quickly spirals into other areas.

What about you? With the school year beginning, what are the rhythms you need to put back in place? What do you have the opportunity and structure to do now that you couldn’t do all summer? What are the things you’ve done in the past that worked and you need to do again? What new rhythms do you need to try out?

Good Enough, Smart Enough

For the last 6 weeks, I’ve engaged in a new practice. Every day – usually several times a day – I say to myself, “I love you Charles.” At first it was weird. (It still is a little.) And at first I didn’t believe myself at all. (I’m starting to believe myself a little.) But I think this simple practice is transforming my life. (Little by little.)

It started when I was in Laguna Beach at Rob Bell’s Keep Going conference. I was sitting next to my friend Steve on the second night and we were watching Rob Bell and Pete Holmes do their show, Together at Last. It was hysterical (and poignant at the same time).

Pete was telling a story, and as an aside he mentioned how he reminded himself in the midst of a tense moment, “I love you Pete.”

And I gasped, and nudged Steve.

Do you know how, from time to time, someone says something in a conversation or you read a line in a book or hear a quote on a television show, and it cuts to your core?

In that moment, I knew that line was for me.

To be honest, I’m not very good at loving myself. I’m actually pretty hard on myself. I know people look at me and see accomplishments (houses built, marathons run, good grades, church plant, that kind of thing), but I don’t see myself that way. I see two marathons where I didn’t hit the times I was looking for. I see houses I built full of little mistakes. I see every point in every sermon where I could have been better. I see broken relationships that I’ve screwed up over the years.

Most of my self-talk is pretty ugly. It’s easy for me to get in dark places where I am 100% convinced that people in my life don’t really like me that much, but rather pity me, that people compliment me because I try hard or something like that.

Enter my new mantra: “I love you Charles.”

I was listening to Pete Holmes again the other day while I was out on a 9-mile run. He was interviewing Weird Al Yankovic, and Weird Al said something like, “Every day I wake up excited and I think, wow! I get to hang out today with Weird Al!” And as I was running, I thought to myself, THAT is what I’m after. That’s what inner peace, soul stillness, centeredness (whatever you want to call it) looks like. It starts with loving myself.

I have these two friends – one who is local and whom I talk to nearly every day and the other who lives in Minnesota.  Both of them are guys who regularly affirm their friendship with me. And I’m trying my best to learn to believe them when they tell me they love me and that I’m important to them and that they value my friendship and that they look forward to being with me.

So, that’s what saying to myself over and over again, “I love you Charles,” is about. It’s about getting to a place like Weird Al, where I can like me. (Did I just aspire to become more like Weird Al?) It’s about getting to a place where I can live in community, believing my friends and not thinking all the time that people are simply putting up with me or pitying me. (And if they are, so what? The goal is to get to a place where I like myself enough that I’m having a good time being with me.)

I think some of us have grown up in traditions where we’ve somehow caught the idea that we’re dirty, rotten sinners who having nothing good in us. We think that talk of “loving oneself” is hippy, dippy bullshit – although we’d NEVER say bullshit, of course. But I really don’t think we can know love until we learn to love ourselves.

And I think, telling myself all the time, it’s slowly beginning to change something in me. At the risk of TMI, I finished a long, sweaty run the other day, and I was bleeding through my shirt due to chafing. Jennifer was dutifully kind and felt bad for me, but I said to her, “It makes me feel kind of tough.” And then I thought to myself, “I like a guy who runs through the blood and finishes an 8-miler in the heat. I want to be around that person.” Hmmmm. Maybe I’m starting to believe myself a little bit.

Maybe this isn’t your struggle. Maybe you are full-to-the-brim with self confidence and you look yourself in the mirror every day and think, “I piss excellence.” But, my guess is there are a lot of you out there like me, who struggle to be okay with yourself, to like who you are, to enjoy your own company. May I suggest that you try telling yourself that you love you? Yes, it’s going to feel a little strange. You might feel a little like Stuart Smalley (“I”m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me”).  But somehow, saying it to yourself over and over, you might start to believe it.

Unexpected Holy Ground

Saturday night I found myself in a podunk, one stoplight town amidst the rolling hills of Northwestern Nebraska. It was the kind of town where my friend and I kept asking each other “what do people do who live here?” And yet we found ourselves hunkering down on a Saturday night to spend the evening.

We bypassed the two chain hotels – a Best Western and Motel Six, if I recall – and opted for a local inn. The bottom floor was a bar. Most of the patrons we saw were bikers headed to or from Sturgis and local Native Americans. This was the kind of place where the wall of liquor was filled with dusty bottles because everyone here drinks beer. (And maybe the occasional shot of Jack Daniels.) Checking in, we signed a register – remember those? – and were each given a drink on the house. It was like stepping back in time.

We walked up the two flights of stairs to the third floor, wooden floor boards creaking every step of the way. The rooms were wood paneled, the art kitschy and it looked as if nothing in the place had changed in at least 30 years. We dropped our bags and headed downstairs to claim our free drink.

We met the owner, who had an innkeeper’s knack for conversation. Where are you from? What brings you to our small town? Where are you headed? The normal conversation you have in a small town when you have nowhere to be and you aren’t in a hurry.

After she got us taken care of, she moved over to a corner of the bar where she pulled out a spinning wheel and started spinning thread. I had just read an article in the July issue of National Geographic about how Gandhi encouraged his followers to spin their own thread as a basis for Indian freedom from British rule. I asked her if she knew that tidbit about Gandhi, and her eyes lit up and we launched into a conversation about Gandhi, mediation, Martin Luther King and Jesus.

Meanwhile, her 90-year old mother had entered the bar and my friend started talking to her. We found out that as a young woman, she was a real life “Rosie the Riveter,” drilling the holes on the leading wing of B-29s for the riveters to put the rivets in the wing. When she opened the Inn in the early ‘60s, she was the first woman in their city to apply for a liquor license and had spent years working against “the establishment.” Along the way, she befriended the local Sioux, welcoming them into her bar and treating them as friends, to the point where they made her an honorary member of the tribe.

We left to grab some dinner at the place across the street, and I said to my friend as we marvelled about the conversations we had just had, “Funny, you’d never guess it, but that place is holy ground.” Unbeknownst to us, we had walked into a place that, just below the surface, was full of Spirit. Just below the surface, there was a desire to live deeply in the now, there were actions for justice, there were struggles for equality.

Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that while I’m a raging extrovert, it’s not the party that I’m always looking for. Rather, I want to go deep. I want to go below the surface and hear what’s really going on. I want to create a space, wherever I go, that allows for people to open up and feel safe revealing their true selves. But in the hustle and bustle of “real life,” it’s difficult. It takes intention and the skill to ask good questions. Mostly it takes time. It means not being in a rush to get off to the next place. But I’ve learned that this space is where I feel most alive.

And I don’t think I’m unique in this. I think all of us long for true, deep interaction with people. But we don’t know where to begin. All I’d say is begin where you are. Try out a question. Ask somebody something beyond “how’s the weather,” and “what about the Cubs,” and see where it goes. Not everyone is open to this and you’ll know almost immediately when someone has their guard up. But more often than you think, if you really lean in, people want to talk about their lives and have more than surface conversation.

So, may you this week find holy ground in unexpected places like an odd little biker bar Inn in podunk, Nebraska.