Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Skype Hype

My wife Sharon is down in Guatemala for a couple of weeks at the Casa Bernabe orphanage where she led a team of 37 youth and youth leaders. She has been planning and organizing this trip for nearly a year and I am so proud of her accomplishment. I talked to her earlier today and she said that the group was already fully engaged in their efforts to help out. Today they painted. And painted, and painted…

Last time she went there I missed her terribly and was disconcerted by a little civil unrest that she got caught up in (see “The Adventures of Sharon”). This time I was better prepared and I equipped her laptop with a webcam and installed Skype. I gave her a short training session before she left and we set a time to talk following her arrival the next day. It was just plain awesome to hear that call come in and then to see her smiling face when I answered (see picture).

I remember when I was much younger and I dreamed of the day when we would have video phones. Now we have the technology but hardly anyone uses them, self included. I wonder why? Is it the extra gadgetry or the complication of setting it up? [Shrug]. In our case it was a lot easier than using the cell phone. We would have had to call Verizon and get it set up and then she would have had to do some kind of download on her phone. After that we would have had to go to the bank and take out a home equity loan to pay for the air time. Skype on-the-other-hand is $free-ninety-five.

During our video calls I’ve felt much more connected to what is going on. There were youth coming in and out of the room while we were talking and my friends Trevor and Kim even joined in for a bit so I got to see them too. I could even see what the place looked like instead of just imagining it. It was way cool.

I wish I could have video calls with my dad and Becky in Kwajalein but they don’t have broadband there for the masses yet. It’s been a year since I last saw them. The good news is that they will be flying in for a visit July 19th which is the same day that Sharon returns from Guatemala. Woohoo!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Two Steps Down the Road to Financial Freedom

Today marks a significant milestone in a journey my wife and I began just over a year ago. Today we and I jumped from Step 2 to Step 4 of Dave Ramsey’s “The 7 Baby Steps to Financial Peace”. I received my severance check from Micron and as soon as it cleared the bank I started paying off debts and putting money in savings. Here are the steps if you aren’t familiar with them and our status:

Put $1,000 in savings as an Emergency Fund

[Done - $2k – June 2007]

Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball

[Done – July 2008]

Put 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings

[Done – Four months – July 2008]

Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement

[I’ve been contributing for 15 years – Currently at 7%]

College funding for children

[Have a small fund and am contributing a small percentage]

Pay off home early

[Currently paying 120% of the normal payment]

Build wealth and give!

[Giving was first on our list so we’ve been doing that – Building wealth will come last if at all]

Technically, I’m breaking the rules a bit but rules are meant to be broken, right? For example, I’m contributing to a college fund for Brendon even though I haven’t completed Step 4. I figure that it won’t do him much good if I start the college fund 5 years from now.

I wish that I could claim that I had done this the hard way through the sweat of my brow and long years of denying myself (not really) but, in fact, I have to give thanks to the Lord, good old Micron, and the patience and generosity of my new employer. I took my boss out to lunch today and thanked him personally for making this possible. Had he not been willing to wait 4 months for me to start my employment I would not have been able to do this for another couple years.

I am elated to free from all non-mortgage debt. This is the freedom that I know God wants us to live in and I pray he gives us the wisdom and discipline to stay here. If you’re debt-free then congrats! If not, I’d encourage you to start now.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Time of Transition

This week marks a significant transition in my life. Friday was my last day at Micron and tomorrow I will start my new job. The team I worked with had a farewell lunch for the three of us who were leaving and afterwards I stopped by my new office to drop off the boxes in my car since it was right across the street. As you can see from the picture to the left, I was quite surprised by the computer they had set up for me. For the less enlightened among you, that computer is a Tandy TRS-80 Model III (affectionately known as a Trash 80) circa 1980. What a great group of people. I am so looking forward to working with them. In fact, I think I’ll bring donuts for all on Monday morning.

On Tuesday my son will return home after his year at Anthem. He has spent most of the past month on his missions trip which included stops in Dallas and New Orleans before the main outreach in the Dominican Republic. I am very much looking forward to hearing about all of his experiences in school and on his missions outreach. It’s been a lonely year without having my computer gaming buddy around. I’m looking forward to some father/son time.

This week is also my last week of involvement in Vineyard Leadership Institute. I’ve been involved with VLI for over 5 years with two as a student and three as an Assistant Coordinator with a brief stint recently as the Site Coordinator. The final final exam is this Thursday. It’s such a great program but it just hasn’t thrived in our current church culture. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it is the high level of commitment, the cost, or simply inadequate promotion. Whatever the reason, it will be sad to see it go. I went into the classroom to sort through all of the materials this weekend and was touched by the nostalgia.

This week also turned out to be the week that my friend Chad informed me that he is embarking on a new journey. I’ve known Chad for almost 10 years. First as a pastor, then as a mentor, and ultimately as a friend (I use the word ultimately there in both senses of the word – completion and magnitude). It just won’t be the same without him. I’d like to talk more about this but I am still in process and I’m not sure that it would be profitable to do so. Let me summarize with this: I long for the day when the church can live in true relationship. I long for the day when brothers and sisters don’t vote each other off the island. I long for the day when we don’t have to shed tears because people we love on both sides of a grievance cannot find reconciliation.

So what next? Well, I’m sure that I will have a big challenge in my new position. I have a lot to learn to get up-to-speed and will probably spend a lot of time reading Visual C++ books and such. I will also be focusing solely on marriage ministries in the absence of VLI and there is a lot going on in that area right now. There are some new couples who will be training this month to facilitate the Dynamic Marriage class alongside Sharon and I and we are already signing people up for classes in the fall. And, of course, I’m looking forward to spending some time with my son. The computers have been upgraded and I’ve installed some great new games for us to play together.

Though this past year has been exceedingly difficult, I am so thankful that God allowed my faith to be tested. I am grateful that he has shown me how much I have that truly matters. I am also so very thankful for the many blessings that he has poured out upon me and my family. I am amazed by his mercy and grace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hardware Review: Linksys DMA2100 - Media Center Extender

It might seem kind of odd to have a review of an electronic device on my blog but I assure you it is not. I love computers and I also fancy electronic gadgets. Well, the Linksys DMA2100 is a computer related electronic gadget and those are the best kind. I've also been waiting for one of these for almost a decade. Yes, I realize they haven't been around that long but it was around 10 years ago that I first asked myself why they didn't slap a network connection and some electronics in my receiver or come up with some kind of digital convergence box that would allow me to access all of the media on my computer and play it or display it on my home theater system. Well, that day has come because that's pretty much what this little black box from Linksys does.

These kind of products have been around for several years now and I have watched them with great anticipation. I've kept holding off on my purchase though because I was waiting for a better price point and, more importantly, I have been waiting to see an affordable product that has the features I want and favorable reviews to go with it. The DMA2100, though not perfect, seems to have been the first device in its class to achieve a reasonable level of user satisfaction. After reading through most of the reviews I felt that the few shortcomings noted were relatively minor so I went ahead and purchased it from Newegg.

Setup was relatively simple and straightforward for someone with a high level of computer expertise and a moderate level of home theater knowledge. I had only two problems during setup. For some reason the box would only accept wireless keys that were 5 or 9 characters in length and which were also numeric. This was easily resolved by changing my wireless network key. The second problem was my own confusion regarding the code that had to be entered on the attached computer which was generated from the DMA2100. The instructions were not very clear regarding the order of setup. At least not to me. Anyway, after wasting 90 minutes or so on those little problems I had the thing up and running.

I can now watch all the movies on my computer, look at all the pictures my wife has taken, and listen to any of our music. It's just so freaking cool to have access to my entire digital library from the comfort of my living room without having to go through the hassle and expense of putting a noisy media computer in my home theater cabinet. Instead, I have a small black box the size of a 10 CD case sitting on my center channel speaker. I opted for the wireless network connection and so far it has worked fine. I haven't tried any high quality HD (high definition) content yet but the built-in performance tester indicates that I should be fine to do so. You will need an 802.11n wireless router in order to view HD content. I'd recommend one anyway unless you are going to wire in an Ethernet connection. An 802.11g wireless router with a good connection would probably be okay for standard video content but I wouldn't care to push it. I went with the Linksys WRT600N router to stay in the family and also because it was affordable, had all the features I wanted, and had excellent reviews. The dual-band feature is really nice if you have legacy wireless laptops or other devices too.

There are just a couple of detractors from an otherwise perfect device. From time to time it does crash while trying to access or play some media. However, I think this is actually the software running on my host computer and not the media extender itself. The DMA2100 has to connect via a wired or wireless network to a host computer that is running the Windows Media Center OS or a computer with Vista Home Premium or Ultimate edition, both of which have Windows Media Center functionality. The one thing that I am really unhappy with is that the DMA2100 doesn't recognize some types of video files as a playable format. For example, I might have an AVI file that is encoded using the popular DIVX encoder. Well, DIVX is a flavor of MPEG-4 but the DMA2100 doesn't recognize it. It will play videos that have been encoded using XVID though which is also a flavor of MPEG-4. It is relatively simple to work around the issue by downloading a third-party application that allows you to change the fourcc code in the file itself from DIVX to XVID. This fools it into thinking it was encoded with XVID even though it wasn't. Although this workaround is relatively simple, it is a real pain. C'mon Linksys, this was a poor oversight but also something that you could easily fix with a firmware upgrade and numerous people, myself included, have complained to you about it. If you're reading this, please fix it.

Oh, and Microsoft, if your reading this: What on earth made you combine my pictures and video libraries on the same row so that I have to navigate like a knight on a chessboard to get to my movies? Please put it on a separate line or let me configure it that way. Also, it would be sweet if you could get all of the bugs worked out on the live TV stuff. I'd love to watch movie trailers and news clips but right now it's just too painful. I have around a 99% chance of crashing if I try to watch three video segments from your downloadable content offerings.
Overall, I have been extremely pleased with my little media extender. I'd say that the technology is still maturing and has a ways to go before the average couch potato can plug and play with ease but it's getting close. Now all I need are some friends to come over and enjoy it with me…

Friday, June 6, 2008

Movie Review: Fireproof

Last night my wife and I had the privilege of attending the first public screening of the upcoming move Fireproof. The movie is scheduled for release in theatres September 26, 2008. When we received the invitation I though to myself, "Oh great… Another one of those low budget Christian films that's poorly scripted and acted." After watching the film last night I am pleased to say that I couldn't have been more wrong. I went because the focus of the movie is directed at strengthening marriages and that's my cup-of-tea. I figured I could probably get some value out of it or at least be able to say that I went. Instead, the movie deeply tugged at my heart strings and spoke to me about my own marriage. I was also introduced to something that will undoubtedly become a very powerful tool for ministering to marriages when it is released in the fall. It's the best marriage related video I have ever seen.

I was impressed by how well they portrayed everyday struggles and temptations instead of going out on a limb with plot elements that weren't relevant to the everyday person. It was easy to relate to the characters, to feel their hope and dissapointment. At the same time, they added larger-than-life aspects that created suspense and made for a very entertaining movie experience.

Fireproof stars Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea. It was produced by Sherwood Pictures who also brought us Facing the Giants and Flywheel. A website named fireproofmyparriage has also been setup to provide additional resources for couples. A study guide will be released in the spring of 2009.

Here is a brief synopsis from the Fireproof website:

At work, inside burning buildings, Capt. Caleb Holt lives by the old firefighter's adage: Never leave your partner behind. At home, in the cooling embers of his marriage, he lives by his own rules.

Growing up, Catherine Holt always dreamed of marrying a loving, brave firefighter...just like her daddy. Now, after seven years of marriage, Catherine wonders when she stopped being "good enough" for her husband.

Regular arguments over jobs, finances, housework, and outside interests have readied them both to move on to something with more sparks.

As the couple prepares to enter divorce proceedings, Caleb's father challenges his son to commit to a 40-day experiment: "The Love Dare." Wondering if it's even worth the effort, Caleb agrees-for his father's sake more than for his marriage. When Caleb discovers the book's daily challenges are tied into his parents' new found faith, his already limited interest is further dampened.

While trying to stay true to his promise, Caleb becomes frustrated time and again. He finally asks his father, "How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?"

When his father explains that this is the love Christ shows to us, Caleb makes a life-changing commitment to love God. And with God's help he begins to understand what it means to truly love his wife.

But is it too late to fireproof his marriage? His job is to rescue others. Now Caleb Holt is ready to face his toughest job ever ... rescuing his wife's heart.

If you are married, thinking about getting married, or know someone who is married then I would highly recommend this film. If you don't fall into any of those categories please knock on the coffin lid so we can let you out. Bad jokes aside, please do put it on your calendar. You'll be glad you did. Just be sure to take a box of tissues… Or two.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Me and My Muchacha in Mexico

A few weeks ago Sharon and I went on our first cruise to the Mexican Riviera (or so it's called). We went with Royal Caribbean on the Vision of the Seas for a 7 night cruise and had a great time getting away from everyday stresses and just reconnecting with each other. I feel very refreshed since I've been back and seem to have all the energy I will need to get through my last few weeks at Micron before transitioning to my new job. It was my one opportunity for a vacation this year and it was and excellent choice. Times like these are to rare for us and we are both very thankful that we were blessed to have this opportunity to spend time together seeing more of God's incredible creation and having an opportunity to experience a different culture and meet some interesting people on the ship.

If you’ve never gone on a cruise I would highly recommend that you try it at least once. I never thought much of it because I thought it would be boring but that is far from the truth. In fact, there were far more things to do than there was time to do them. Contrary to what I had previously thought, my biggest challenge was choosing between all of the options. As we were departing LA Harbor on the ship my dad gave me some great last minute advice before we lost our connection: “Just remember”, he said. “Don’t try to do everything.”

Here’s a summary of our trip:
Day 1 – We flew from Boise to LA and boarded our ship (a long process). After standing at the bow as we departed, our first order of business was to eat some of the wonderful food we’d heard about and take a tour of the ship. The food was as good as we had heard and it took more than that first night to learn our way around the ship. When we entered our cabin that evening we were very blessed to find that our friends (Pastors Joe and Janet Ingrao) had bought the anniversary package for our room. It was decked out with streamers, signs, and other decorations and included a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. Wow! There was also a souvenir package that the couples from the Dynamic Marriage class we had just facilitated bought us as a thank-you gift and it included a nice photo album that we have filled and put on our living room table. We were speechless since they had already thanked us with a basket full of goodies for our vacation before we left.

Day 2 – (At sea) We finished exploring the ship and spent the day by the pool just relaxing and working on our tans. We went to the theater that evening and the song and dance performance was better than we expected. The entertainers performed small segments from numerous well known Broadway shows.

Day 3 – (Cabo San Lucas) We booked an excursion that involved a short boat trip down the coast to a secluded bay where we snorkeled and explored underwater on a small craft called a “bob”. It was basically a stationary, air-filled diving helmet attached to an underwater moped. We were escorted by divers who brought all kinds of sea creatures for us to hold like sea urchins, starfish, and puffer fish. On the way back we followed a pair of humpback whales –mother and child—who treated us to several spectacular breaches.

Day 4 – (Mazatlan) We booked another excursion from the excursion desk. This one involved a short trip across the inlet to Stone Island where we had a leisurely lunch on a nice beach. There were several activities to choose from and we chose as horseback ride on the beach and sea kayaking. It was quite a challenge trying to get the kayak past the surf and we wiped out a couple of times. Sharon got a temporary tattoo and we bought our customary souvenir to put in our world travels display when we returned home.

Day 5 – (Puerto Vallarta) I booked a zip-line excursion for us before leaving home (Los Veranos Canopy Tours). It saved us over 40% over the cruise line’s price and we got to choose a more exciting one. It was a blast! The drive alone was spectacular as we drove along the mountainside above the ocean south of Puerto Vallarta. Then we headed up into the Sierra Madres where we took 14 zip lines. The highest was over 600 feet above the river below and was around a quarter mile long. The last line brings you down to a wonderful Mexican restaurant perched on white granite above the river. You can jump or slide in for a refreshing swim after your trek through the jungle. We enjoyed some great food and ice cold cervezas. Afterwards we got to pet some small monkeys and other critters in a small zoo they had on location.

Day 6&7 – (At sea) After all our excursions we were ready for a relaxing two days at sea. We just lounged around and enjoyed each other’s company. We read a bit and also finished season four of Stargate Atlantis which I had brought on my computer. We also fit a wine appreciation class in there somewhere and took advantage of some of the shipboard entertainment opportunities.

Day 8 – We returned to LA and flew back to Boise.

All-in-all it was a wonderful vacation. Sharon and I were able to spend a lot of much needed time together. It’s only the second trip the two of us have taken together since our honeymoon almost 23 years ago. It was long overdue. We are tentatively planning a Mediterranean cruise for our 25th anniversary in 2010 and we would love to go with some friends and/or family too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Last night I received some terrible news about something that happened to a good friend. That's vague, I know, but it's the kind of situation you can't talk about publicly for a variety of reasons, at least not now. And yet I feel a compulsion to say something. It's my blog after all and I want a marker for this date because it's a significant event in my life.

But what do I say? I don't know. I'm a bit in shock. We both saw this was coming but now that it has finally arrived it seems unbelievable. I want to find words that will comfort my friend and not cause more distress. I want him to know how much I respect him and how much he means to me.

I heard a song on the radio this morning as I was driving to work. I was caught up in the lyrics because I could hear my friend singing them. I could see the tears on his face in my mind's eye as he sang them loud and powerfully, his hands lifted to Heaven in supplication. He didn't sing with anger but with resolve that he would overcome these circumstances with God's help and not let the injustice of it diminish him.

Unbreakable by Fireflight

Where are the people that accused me?
The ones who beat me down and bruised me
They hide just out of sight
Can’t face me in the light
They’ll return but I’ll be stronger
God, I want to dream again
Take me where I’ve never been
I want to go there
This time I’m not scared
Now I am unbreakable, it’s unmistakable
No one can touch me
Nothing can stop me
Sometimes it’s hard to just keep going
But faith is moving without knowing
Can I trust what I can’t see
To reach my destiny
I want to take control but I know better
Forget the fear it’s just a crutch
That tries to hold you back
And turn your dreams to dust
All you need to do is just trust

Lord, I pray you would help me to respond and not react in these circumstances. Grant me a measure of wisdom and compassion to guide me through this. I also pray for my friend that you would comfort and guide him. Give peace to him and his family as you lead them into a better place.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Home Sweet Home - Boise

Last week I signed a letter of acceptance for an offer of employment with a small, privately held company here in Boise. I will assume a position there as a Senior Software Engineer upon my severance from Micron and will help in the development of their core software products which are marketed to law enforcement and national defense agencies. Yes, I'm avoiding the mention of the company's name because I'm not sure they would prefer to have it appear on my blog if a customer were to do a Google search on it.

This job has been an answer to prayer for Sharon and I. In fact, the entire arrangement has God's fingerprints all over it. I first got the lead on this job last summer when the first talks of outsourcing began and before I knew that I would be selected. The lead came through some of Sharon's youth leaders who were friends with one of the company's owners. They were looking for a good C++ developer in the future during their company's next growth phase. When I learned last October that I would be outsourced, I contacted them and began the process that ultimately ended in the offer of employment.

With the possible exception of my first job out of college, I don't think I ever been so excited about a new job. Everyone I have met at this company has been a top-notch individual. It is obvious to me that they truly care about their employees and their customers which is something I haven't experienced in a long while. So how do I know they're top-notch? Well… Ask me in person and I'll be happy to share the details.

I've been very blessed to have secured employment here in Boise given how many people are looking for jobs and how few are available. Sharon and I were concerned that we might be compelled to leave the area in order for me to find suitable employment but just couldn't see how this could be God's plan for us given the ministry opportunities he had lead us into. We are overjoyed to have an answer to our prayers and amazed by how God has taken a set of grim circumstances and brought to a much better place than we were before.

Thank you Lord. I am very humbled by your care for us. Please help me to be a blessing to my new employer.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Adventures of Sharon

My wife is an amazing person and adventure seems to follow her around like a stalker. She survived a bad car accident when she was a little girl. During our early years of marriage when I was in college she was grabbed by a man who was robbing the restaurant at which she worked and put a gun put to her head. A few months later she used a shotgun to defend herself against a man who was trying to force entry into our apartment while I was at work. She didn't have to shoot though since the sound of the slide action was all that was needed. When she goes on trips with the youth at our church it seems that something crazy generally happens. Flat tires, blowouts, you name it.

Needless to say, when Sharon travels I start to worry. Last week was no exception as Sharon went to the Casa Bernabe orphanage in Guatemala on a scouting trip to prepare for an upcoming missions trip this summer where she will lead the youth back to help paint it and do some other work. When she left I was expecting not to hear from her for a week but I was pleasantly surprised that the orphanage had internet and I received an email from her letting me know that she had arrived safely. With regular communication I felt I wouldn't have to worry so much, or so I thought…

Sharon warned me that she wouldn't be able to write every night but after three days went by without hearing from her I was pretty concerned by Thursday night of last week. I just couldn't get to sleep that night and I was awake into the wee hours of the morning. I think I even had a mini panic attack or three. The only think I could do was pray and try to give the worry to God. It was hard though. I reminded the Lord that he promised not to give us more than we could bear (that's a correct interpretation, right?) and I assured him that if anything happened to Sharon it would simply be too much for me. I realized how silly this sounded as soon as I said it and in my chagrin I told God that I was sorry. The worry was still there though and I began to role-play what life without Sharon would be like. It's a great recipe for sleeplessness. You should try it next time you want to lie awake all night.

It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder but I won't admit there is any truth to it because something inside of me says that if I deny it then I'll have more power to prevent absences unless absolutely necessary. It's a rather convoluted logic but I'm sure that you feel the same way. The most I will admit is that the absence of someone I love deeply does help me see more clearly how much I take them for granted and how much I depend on them. It's an over-used quote from a movie I didn't even like but… "Sharon completes me."

On Friday morning I received a call from my wifey. She informed me that she was okay but that something had happened. My emotions went from joy to dread in a moment. The way she said it even gave me a little adrenaline jolt. I could hear my own pulse as she told a story about how she and her friend Kim had been trapped in a marked during a civil uprising in Guatemala City. The connection was bad and she was in a hurry since the call was expensive and on someone else's dime so I didn't get all the details right at the time. I understood her to say that they had been held inside a mall like area but she later clarified that it was actually an outdoor market. Anyway, there were lots of locals running around with sticks, pipes, and whatever else they could get their hands on that would make them look threatening. At the perimeter of the market, police lined up behind barricades, equipped with guns and riot gear, presumably to keep things contained. I got to see some pictures from the paper that Sharon brought back. Needless to say, they were a bit frightened at first and only received a little information about what was going on from their guides who didn't speak English well. They ended up staying there for 14 hours hoping things would settle down so they could buy food for the orphanage which was nearly out. Things finally did settle down and the market reopened so they purchased what they needed and headed back.

In hindsight it seems that maybe Sharon wasn't in any real danger but it was close enough that it made me think about how much she means to me. I began to consider some of the selfish and childish things I had done in the weeks prior that expressed love for myself rather than my love for her. I suppose this little adventure provided me some much needed clarity about what really matters.

Thank you Lord for the opportunity to see more clearly.

I love you Sharon and each day with you is a gift.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back to Basics - The Starbucks Church

I was very intrigued by an event that happened yesterday across our nation. At around 6:00 pm local time every Starbucks store in the U.S. was closed for approximately three hours so an estimated 135,000 employees could attend a back-to-basics training session. Their training consisted of watching a video message from Howard Shultz, their Chief Executive Barista, and being reminded of the simple yet important mechanics of brewing the perfect cup. They were also given a pep-talk and reminded of the importance of the customer experience.

I wouldn't consider myself a coffee connoisseur by any means and yet I would agree that Starbucks does deliver a consistently good 16-ounce-double-shot-mocha-hold-the-whip. I have a couple of friends who feel closer to God in a Starbucks than just about anywhere else. In fact, I meet with one of those friends at a local Starbucks every week. We used to meet at a Moxie Java that was walking distance for him but when a Starbucks opened up just down the street he insisted that we meet there instead even though it meant a good 5 minutes of additional drive time for us. The things we do for our friends...

I visited a Starbucks today because my wallet was too fat. Not with money, unfortunately, but rather with several plastic gift cards I'm still carrying from the holidays. I still had $1.35 on a Starbucks card that I needed to get rid of so I could thin down my wallet and avoid a trip to the chiropractor. My drink was perfect and my customer experience was good too. The barista greeted me with a smile and got my drink order started while I waited for the cashista to come to the register. I wanted to talk with him a bit about the training from the night before but, ironically, he was a little to busy to chat with the customers so I just got a few quick responses.

Part of the campaign was a new motto: "Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we'll make it right." I appreciate consistency and quality but in reality I'd put up with a lesser quality drink for a better overall customer experience. I'm sure that Howie reads my blog regularly so here are my suggestions for improvement:

  • Turn down the freakin' music. When I go to Starbucks it's usually so I can visit with a friend. It would be really cool if I could actually hear them talk.
  • Remove those torture devices you have around the tables and replace them with some comfortable chairs.
  • Introduce America to Teh Tarik (pulled tea). You make a good Chai but if you added Teh Tarik to the menu... Dang!
I think closing the stores for this training was a bold move. I liked it and it made me wonder what it would be like if we did something similar in church. It seems that so many churches these days are compromising the basics in order to run their churches like a corporation. I understand the pressures that drive a church, especially larger ones, to be run more like a business. However, we can never afford to trade relational basics for a rigid corporate structure in a community of believers. Isn't this what Starbucks did? They slowly traded away the things that made them truly great in the first place and their customers began to seek out the smaller coffee houses with the atmosphere that Starbucks used to have before the advent of the automated machines. Before their employees became jaded assembly line workers that never knew the Starbucks that existed before it traded its culture for the bottom line.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we put a big sign on the door on Sunday morning that says, "Church is closed for training, come back next week", but what if we lay leaders and pastors got together for some back-to-basics training? Basics like these from Robert Fulgrum's book entitled "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten":

  • Share everything.

  • Play fair.

  • Don't hit people.

  • Put things back where you found them.

  • Clean up your own mess.

  • Don't take things that aren't yours.

  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

At first glance that seems like a rather unsophisticated list. It's nothing like what you might find in someone's magnum opus on church leadership with 99 principles guaranteed to propel your staff and congregation into the next wave of post-modern evolution. And yet, I have to laugh when I think about one of the issues that is discussed most frequently amongst the leadership of my church, namely the policies and procedures associated with coffee. Hot topics include:

  • Who gets to use the coffee bar and/or equipment?

  • When is it appropriate to use the good coffee versus the coffee for the masses?

  • Whe gets coffee for free and who has to pay?

  • Who's responsibility is it to clean up the coffee decanters?

I've seen all of the principles on the list above violated over the coffee issues with the possible exception of "Don't hit people".

Perhaps I can spiritualize things a bit more. How about these basics from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount according to Eugene Peterson's "The Message"?

  • You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

  • You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

  • You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.

  • You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.

  • You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.

  • You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

  • You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.

  • You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
I too have been found guilty of putting policies, procedures, and programs ahead of people and I am thankful for the reminder that I need to put people first. In his book entitled "Revolutionary Leadership" my pastor, Tri Robinson, teaches us that structure should serve the culture and never the other way around. That is a basic principle that Starbucks and I should always remember.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Granny Flipped Me Off

I was driving home from a meeting over coffee (well, chai actually) with my friend Chad yesterday when I encountered granny. I was driving on a two lane road that has been under construction since the end of the Jurassic age and came to a red light. On the other side of the intersection I could see a sign showing that the other lane --the left one-- ended and merged into mine. A 4x4 pickup pulled up next to me. You know the type: Large, loud, and altogether intimidating. The kind that is usually driven by a man who is trying to compensate for other shortcomings in his life, whatever they may be… I surmised immediately that as soon as the light turned green he would step on it to ensure that he would get ahead of me and not be forced to merge in behind me. Life is all about winning and losing for the overcompensators of the world. I knew I could take him with my Maxima but smiled to myself and conceded ahead of time that I would let him win. After all, it was his ego that was starving, not mine.

The light turned green and my stereotype proved accurate as the big 4x4 thundered to life and leapt out into the intersection leaving me in a cloud of dust and diesel. Fortunately, I had my AC set to recirculate for just such an occasion. Now, in my mental book entitled "Greg's Rules of Driving Etiquette" when one finds oneself in a merge situation there is an every-other-car rule. Apparently the guy in the punkmobile behind the pickup either hasn't read my book or doesn't think it applies to people who live at the center of the universe. You know what a punkmobile is, right? It's one of those cars driven by a young guy in has late teens or early twenties who's monthly insurance bill is more than his car payment. The ride is usually a Honda Prelude or Civic with the suspension removed that looks like a piece of crap decked out in chrome. It has dark windows too, of course, to prevent me from seeing inside, as if I were interested. The guy in the punkmobile is either trying to get high on diesel fumes or he's overcompensating too because he practically drives up into the bed of the pickup to ensure there isn't enough room for me to take my rightful place in the black cloud.

As I pass through the intersection and approach the merge sign I check my mirror and notice that there is a third car to my left who's driver is apparently oblivious to the fact the lane they are in is ending. It's a nice clean Ford Taurus. You know, the kind of car that is driven by little old ladies to church on Sunday. I'm not sure what she was doing out on a Thursday during rush hour but there she was with her little blue wheelchair permit bouncing back and forth over two bony hands in a death grip at the top of the steering wheel while she put everyone else in harm's way. Apparently she comes to the conclusion that I am not going to yield for her even though she is behind me and I have nowhere to yield to unless I want to harvest the construction cones to my right. Her face transforms into that of a dyspeptic gargoyle as she brakes, swerves in behind me, and plants one of her bony hands firmly on the horn to give me a lecture.

This is where things get ugly. I raised my hand an pointed to the merge sign on the right to justify myself. It was a useless gesture since we had already passed it and as soon as I did it I realized it was a mistake. I saw a look of shock appear on Granny's face but it was quickly replaced by rage. If she had clenched her teeth any harder I'm sure her dentures would have exploded and fragmented teeth would have blown out all over the front windshield. Then she took her gnarled fist off the horn and to my utter horror she extended one defiant, bony, finger toward me. I'm sure she saw my jaw drop via my rear-view mirror. I'm sure that I will have that image indelibly burned into my memory for the rest of my life.

As we pulled up to the next light I thought about getting out of my car and explaining to Granny that it was all a misunderstanding but I quickly realized that a good outcome was not likely so I just sat there under her recriminating gaze. Fortunately she turned at that intersection before she could bore holes through the back of my head and I was able to continue on in peace. At this point I took a nice deep breath and let it all go.

During the remainder of my drive home I thought about my encounter with Granny. The whole thing was kind of funny really, and it dawned on me that there must be an illustration in there somewhere. Here are some possibilities:

They don't make Grannies like they used to.
"My what bony fingers you have Grandma." "All the better to flip you off with my dear."
Objects in this mirror may be more sociopathic than they appear.

All kidding aside, I think there really is a lesson here about judgments. I made several about the drivers of the vehicles around me. Maybe the person in the truck --I don't even know if it was a guy-- was on the way home from the store with some medicine for a sick daughter. And maybe the person in the punkmobile was almost out of gas and thought they could make it home if they stayed in the pickup's draft. Okay, that's a stretch but I really couldn't come up with a valid reason they were such a jerk. And that leaves Granny. I'm not even going to try to defend her driving but I can certainly see how she might have gotten confused and thought I was cutting her off. With eyesight and higher brain functions so obviously impaired, it's no surprise that she also misinterpreted my "helpful" gesture as an in-your-face coup de gras.

I wonder how many times I have made a mistaken judgment about someone? I wonder how many times my higher brain functions or higher heart functions have been impaired and I have responded inappropriately? So, the lesson here for me is one that I have asked God for many times. I've asked the Lord to help me respond rather than react. Yesterday he showed me how ugly it can be when someone reacts rather than responds. I doubt I would have heard the message if the person hadn't been a sweet little old lady. Thank you Lord for the lesson.

"Oh, and Lord… Next time Granny goes down that road can you let her see the merge sign correctly?"

Monday, February 18, 2008

Watching the Creator Create

A year ago I attended a Focus training seminar here in Boise which I have blogged about a couple of times. Recently, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to participate in a Focus seminar as a Training Assistant (TA) where I helped as others went through the same process that I had. It was both a rewarding and profoundly moving experience. Although I can't provide details due to confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, I very much want to put my experience into words inasmuch as I can.

There is a movie I remember that conveys a powerfully relevant picture. The 1990 movie "Awakenings" tells a poignant story of rebirth. Here is a brief synopsis from IMDB:

A new doctor finds himself with a ward full of comatose patients. He is disturbed by them and the fact that they have been comatose for decades with no hope of any cure. When he finds a possible chemical cure he gets permission to try it on one of them. When the first patient awakes, he is now an adult having gone into a coma in his early teens. The film then delights in the new awareness of the patients and then on the reactions of their relatives to the changes in the newly awakened.

I see striking parallels between the awakening in the movie and the one that occurs during the Focus training as people more fully understand who they were created to be and how they can live their lives going forward. It's like they are given a small glimpse of what relationships and community could be like if we lived as our Creator intended us to. As a friend of mine put it during the training, "It's like watching the Creator create."

I was blessed to watch as people's lives were transformed by a process that allowed them to be awakened. There is a statement in the Declaration of Independence that I had not been aware of until recently that describes the state in which we often find ourselves: "...mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Although this declaration was made in the context of an oppressive government, it is nonetheless true in the larger context of life in general. As I stand and survey the shackles with which I am encumbered I am galled to observe that most are of my own devising. What joy is found, therefore, when I take my keys and allow myself to be free.

Serving as a TA was undoubtedly a sacrifice but it is truly better to give than receive. In giving I have received so much in return from each and every person in the training. I am excited to see what they do now that they have been awakened!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Google Valentine

Today on the Google search page there was a graphic for Valentine's Day (see picture) that I really liked. The reason that I thought it was special was that it featured an elderly couple. Culturally, it seems that we often associate romance with a beautiful, healthy, young couple and, yet, I think this older couple epitomizes Valentine's Day because they have withstood the test of time. In a day when most marriages don't make it to the 40th anniversary there is something spectacular about an older couple who is still stoking the fires of passion. Well done Google!

It seems that this time of year is always very busy for Sharon and I with V-Day sandwiched in between Sr. High and Jr. High winter camps and other community or ministry events like dinner banquets, marriage classes, or personal enrichment training. We celebrated for a few minutes last night and maybe we'll get another few minutes together tonight. The good thing is that romances is something we can celebrate all year long. We don't need to wait for this one day each year to remember how much we love each other.I was driving home from the store where I bought Sharon's gift when Superchick's song, "We Live" played on the radio. I love the chorus and it seem apropos for the season that Sharon and I just went through so I put it in her card:

We live, we love, we forgive and never give up

Cuz the days we are given are gifts from above

And today we remember to live and to love

If we bury that wisdom in our hearts then we too shall one day celebrate a very geriatric Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Things To Do Before I Die

Since I was a teenager I've kept a list in my head of things I want to do before I die and thought it was time to put in down on "paper". What better place than my blog?

Of course the list changes over time as new ideas come to mind. I even added a few from other lists that I looked at and thought up some new ones myself as I wrote these down.
Now I just need to figure out which of these I am going to do this year!

Things To Do

Drive one of the fastest cars in the world
Go skydiving
Go to Tahiti/Fiji with Sharon and stay in a bungalo over the water
Stay at a bed & breakfast on the isle of Iona in Scotland
Go on a guided tour of the Holy Lands
Take a Mediterranean cruise
Fly in a jet fighter
See an Irish dance musical in Dublin
Sail on a Yacht
Take Sharon to Italy
Preach a real sermon in church
Own the best gaming PC money can buy
Go on a missions trip to Asia or South America
Dance the Tango well
Experience weightlessness
Write a worship song
Watch a space shuttle launch
Drive the Autobahn
Ride in a hot air balloon
Bungee jump
Make love on a tropical island beach
Climb a mountain
See the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza
See a full solar eclipse
Visit Mt. Rushmore
Be 100% debt free
Write a book and have it published
Look through an observatory telescope
See a miracle
Already Done
Get married
Go scuba diving
Ride a bullet train
Make love in the wilderness
Sleep under the stars during a meteor shower
Have a house built for me
Go skinny-dipping
Drive the Amalfi Coast in Italy
See the Grand Canyon
See the Coliseum and St. Peter's Basilica
See the third world
See the redwoods
Go to Washington D.C.
Attend a Petra concert
Father a child
Fly first class
Give the Heimlich maneuver
Go sailing
Go whale watching
Go to Disneyworld
Go white water rafting
Baptise someone

Monday, January 28, 2008

I've Got Skills

During one of his many memorable dialogues, Napoleon Dynamite --from the movie with the same name-- lamented the fact that he had insufficient skills.

Napoleon: "I don't even have any good skills… You know, like… numchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills."

Recently I've had an opportunity to look at some of my own skills as I've updated my decade old resume. I know… I know… You're supposed to keep that up-to-date but life got busy...

Now I know you're all just wondering with barely suppressed excitement what kind of skills a Software Engineer would have. Well, let me tell you... I have skills the likes of which you have never imagined. I bet you can't wait to be impressed by the list so here it is:

Hardware Platforms: IBM ( System 360, ES 9000, RS 6000) Intel x86, Solaris

Operating Systems: IBM MVS, Windows (NT/XP/Server), Solaris Unix, Red Hat Linux

Languages: COBOL II, Pascal, OS 360 Assembler, C, C++, VB, Perl

Databases: IMS, DB/2, MS SQL Server, Sybase, Oracle

Software: MS Office, MS Project, numerous IDE’s and database design suites.

Actually, some of those skills are quite dated and make me feel rather old but they are a badge of honor so I keep them there just to show that I've been around a while. It's not like I'd ever want to go back to programming on COBOL or Assembler.

My most coveted skill is my experience with C++ - pronounced "See plus plus" This is the king of software development languages. Sure you could argue for some others on the basis that they are simpler to use, newer, or conform more closely to some ideal but at the end of the day we all know that C++ is the reigning king. This is the language I have been coding in for the past nine years or so. It's challenging to learn, difficult to use proficiently, and nearly impossible to master.

Of course, there are some other skills I wish I could list there. For instance, I wish I could, in good conscience, put Visual C++ or MFC there but my experience developing on the Microsoft Windows platform is too limited. It would be cool to put C#, Java, or ASP there too but, alas, I only have classroom experience with those.

I think Napoleon Dynamite had it wrong though. It's not the skills that matter but rather the person behind the skills. As I go forth in search of employment I'm going to focus more selling my character than my ability to manipulate characters (that's a programmer pun). And, of course I'll pray the 23rd Psalm in programmer style...

The Lord is my programmer,
I shall not crash.
He installed his software
on the hard disk of
my heart;
all of his commands
are user-friendly.
His directory guides me
to the right choices
for his namespace's sake.
Even though I scroll
through the problems
of life,
I will fear no bugs,
for he is my backup.
His syntax protects me.
He prepares a menu
before me
in the presence of
my enemies,
the hackers.
His help is only a
keystroke away.
Surely goodness and mercy
will follow me
all the days of my life,
and my data will be merged
with his and saved

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Wishy Washy

Early last year I had the opportunity to receive some feedback from a group of people regarding how they perceived me. Although they did not know me well they had an opportunity to observe my interactions with them and others for short period of time and I had given them my consent to provide this feedback. In short, and without all the gory details, they gave me the label "Wishy Washy".

Wishy Washy? I asked them for more explanation but they seemed inclined to let me spend some time figuring it out on my own. After I thought about it for a bit I came to the conclusion that the label they should have given me would be something like "Chameleon". I liked that label. I supposed that they observed my versatility in action and thought that it demonstrated a weakness in my character. Many people put on a chameleon personae because they want people to like them. I have been guilty of that occasionally but I don't consider it to be a major character issue. No doubt they thought that I had a low self-esteem and put on a mask so that people would like me when the truth of the matter is that I look for common ground between myself and others and engage them in those areas to form a relational bridge. As the Apostle Paul said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." I came to the conclusion then that what they saw as a limitation was instead a strength from my perspective.

Then a funny little thing happened that I like to call "2007". In the last minutes of "2007", as many of my friends and family were over at our house to celebrate the arrival of the new year, I began my prayer with the following: "Dear Lord, I am thankful that 2007 is over…". I hope God has a sense of humor. Every year has its ups and downs but 2007 was more like the Himalayas and the Mariana Trench.

When I was a kid my grandmother had an ancient washing machine that still had a wringer on the top. After the clothes had been washed you would put them between the rollers on the wringer to squeeze the water out so that they would dry faster on the clothes line. I was fascinated by the immense pressure the wringer applied and how much water the rollers could squeeze out. I remember the first time my grandmother actually let me put some clothes through it. It was a big moment for me because the wringer was always taboo. Grandma insisted that if left to our own devices we kids would get our fingers caught and the wringer would swallow up our whole arm. Grandma had lost most of the fingers on one hand in a printing press accident when she was sixteen so she was always very careful of everyone else's fingers. For someone who was so conscientious of lost appendages, I could never understand why she had a house so full of mechanical devices that would turn you into breakfast sausage if you weren't continually vigilant. There were wringers, mixers, fruit juicers, and metal bladed fans that were, in grandma's words, "wicked". In grandma's world these devices had evil hearts bent on destruction and they plotted and schemed how they could lure small children in with the promise of pleasure so they could then wreak havoc on them. For me, 2007 was a lot like grandma's collection of wicked appliances. I feel like I went through life's wringer and most of the life blood was wrung out of me. A bit of a hyperbole perhaps but it serves as a fair analogy too.

I thought of listing the major events of 2007 in a good vs. bad format but that is not so simple. Some events seemed bad but turned out for the good whereas in other cases it was the reverse. Wisdom would seem to suggest that it is impossible to make such judgments when our perceptions are so limited. I can put together a list entitled "Things That Put Me Through the Wringer in 2007" and leave it at that (somewhat chronological):

- Strained family relationships
- Relational challenges with colleagues
- Medical insurance disputes
- Focus
- Dynamic Marriage training
- Decision to pursue full time ministry
- Stock options become worthless
- Brendon's high school graduation
- Disneyland vacation
- Fears of layoff
- Medical costs
- My father moving overseas
- Brendon leaving home
- Brendon attending Anthem
- Loss of job to outsourcing
- Uncertainty of employment in Boise
- Chemically dependant mother
- Grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's
- Financial stress
- The painful trials of a good friend
- Uncertainty regarding my future at Vineyard Boise

Needless to say, this kind of stress has put a strain on otherwise healthy aspects of my life like my marriage and other close relationships. For the first time in a long time I have had to fight against the raging beast of depression. It's also been a long, steady struggle rather than a series of skirmishes. I wish I could proclaim victory but in truth I am still struggling with it. In truth I now understand the "Wishy Washy" aspect of my character. When trials come and pressures mount I seek to retreat to a place of safety. This is a conditioned response from my childhood. The very convictions that I felt so passionate about before seem to become anchors that pull me down and prevent me from finding the illusory safe haven that my fear would have me seek. Instead of Paul's encouraging words I am continually haunted by those of James" "...he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."

Well, there it is… (said in the perfunctory fashion of Emperor Joseph II in the movie Amadeus) So where to go from here? Good question. I know what Wishy Washy would do. He would let go of all the commitments and responsibilities that create stress and retreat to a self absorbed solitude filled with simple pleasures like computer games and fantasy novels. Perhaps he would find a job on the Kwajalein atoll in the tropics where his dad lives and go scuba diving with him. To appease my sense of guilt I could even pore myself into theological study and tell myself I'm preparing for future ministry. A future that will never arrive because when it does I'll just run and hide from it when the going gets tough.

So there's a start. I know what I won't do. And now that I have made it public, I have robbed the temptation of some of its power. That's one of the key advantages I have found to being authentic. So, again, where to go from here? I intend to stay committed to the ministries God has called me to unless something else prevents me. I am personally committed to stay in Boise unless God or circumstances direct me to leave. I haven't heard a specific word from the Lord regarding whether he will make a place for us here or if he is preparing a place for us elsewhere. It may end up that God sends us elsewhere and/or necessity demands it if I can't find employment in Boise. If this is the case I vote for Kwajalein and I promise not to kick against the goads too hard if it is.

I believe that our move to Boise was a God thing. When Sharon first mentioned the idea ten years ago I couldn't fathom leaving behind the relationships we had formed and the great job that I had at the time. Over the following six months things changed for the worse and God provided a place for us in Boise. Had I stayed I would have lost my job within the year. I want to stay in Boise too but even now I see doors closing that I previously thought had been opened for us to step through. I can't go into detail but suffice to say that there have been some disappointments and setbacks that have left us wondering if perhaps God is preparing us to take a fork in the road of our life journey.

Lord, I pray that you would work things out so that we can stay here. You know that in my heart Wishy Washy wants me to throw in the towel and start over but I pray that Sharon and I would walk in the center of your will for our lives. You have given me the freedom to plan the course in my life but reserved for yourself your sovereign right to determine my steps. Allow me to discern your will for us Lord and give me the courage to be obedient to it. I also pray that you would intervene in the lives of our dear friends who are struggling under the weight of such a heavy trial right now. Let us be a source of strength to them and speak only words of life to them. I feel like Jonathan caught between his love for his father Saul and his love for his friend David. Let all involved in these matters clearly hear your voice Lord. In Jesus' name. Amen.

There's my dirty laundry. Filled with metaphors, allusions and even the occasional pun, all laundry related. I know, it's another serious and heavy blog but I did try to throw in some humor to make it more like that dirty shirt that you throw in the dryer for a few minutes with a dryer sheet to freshen it up. I suppose that there is more that could be said but some things are just too personal or involve other people and must be held in confidence. I had lunch with my new friend Jason yesterday (an accomplished writer/editor/publisher) and I admitted to him that I had received feedback that my blog was tipping the scales on the depressing side. He gave me some tips on humor and story telling so I gave it a shot (let me know if it worked buddy). Of course, I also told him that I had learned to sit on things for several days until the emotions had suitably subsided so that I could edit it when I was more rational. I have a feeling if I do that this time that I won't blog this at all so I'll do a quick grammar check and throw it up there. Sorry Jason.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Best Friends = Dynamic Marriage

Sharon and I just finished facilitating a Dynamic Marriage class in our church last Sunday. This Sunday we look forward to an evening of debriefing and celebration as we get together one last time with the other couples for an Italian potluck dinner.

Even though we facilitated the class we also went through it as students ourselves. During the eight class sessions we learned some new things about each other but, more importantly, we spent a lot of time together during our nightly homework sessions. Part of the homework involved implementing the new tools that we learned during the class and as a result we have begun to form some helpful new habits.

Here are some of the most important things I learned during the class:

  • Prayer increases intimacy: As we have prayed together each night of the class we began to see each other's hearts more deeply. This is something we had not done frequently or consistently before but we will do so going forward. It has been a very positive factor in our relationship with each other and with the Lord.

  • Planning is essential: I have several bad habits (called Love Busters in the course) that I had given up hope of ever changing. However, I believe that I can overcome them if I put a plan in place, work on it regularly, and review my progress with my spouse.

  • We can be best friends: I never realized that recreational companionship was so important to my wife. It is included in the list of 10 needs but is one of the 5 needs that are predominantly male. Although she has shared her desire to have more fun in our relationship, the categorization of basic needs provided a framework that helped me understand Sharon's recreational need better. Basically, she needs to spend more time with me doing fun things instead of being serious and discussing issues and ministry related topics.

  • Her admiration is important: For myself I realized just how important it was for me to know that my wife admires me. Words of encouragement and affirmation make huge deposits in my "Love Bank" while criticism and cutting remarks make huge withdrawals.

We also gained a lot of insight from the other couples as they shared about their experiences as they went through the course.

I've read a lot of books on marriage and attended a lot of seminars but for some reason the very basic and simple principles taught in this class have proven over the years to be the most valuable to me. Additionally, the class provided a great opportunity for me to spend time with my spouse where we engaged in communication and putting into practice the things we learned. I am happy to say that my marriage is better than ever and I am looking forward to the next year with my mate for life (and my best friend): Sharon.

(For more information on the Dynamic Marriage class, see my previous blog entry on the subject)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Real Iron Men (Mentoring 1 of 2)

[I was privileged to have an article on mentoring published for Immersion Online recently and have permission to put it on my blog - Enjoy]

Of all the relationships I’ve had in my life there are a few that have really stood out above the rest. Notably, those in which I have sat at the feet of another as an attentive learner have proven to be the most valuable, especially in those cases where the things being learned were matters of the heart or character. These individuals are my mentors.

Several years ago I became acutely aware of how poor I was at encouraging others. I had received negative feedback from some individuals that I supervised and there was a common thread in what they said. All of them felt that I was good with constructive criticism but poor at delivering positive feedback or recognition for accomplishments. Later, I had the opportunity to observe someone in a ministry context who was very good at encouraging. I served under his leadership and watched him in action. During this time I noted how much people enjoyed serving him. I said to myself, “I want to be like him.” And so I began meeting with him regularly to provide myself the opportunity to learn from him.

During our sessions together I would ask him for advice on how to handle various relational situations. I’d bring my own ideas and then compare them to his recommendations. Over time I realized the difference in our approaches. I was very task oriented whereas he was very people oriented. Once I understood this, I began to model his behavior because I had come to understand that you cannot lead effectively without balancing both. Since then I have been more generous with praise and encouragement.

What happened between this seasoned pastor and I was the formation of a mentoring relationship. I learned a lot more about myself through our dialogues than just the insight into what limited me from being more encouraging. At first it wasn’t really a formal mentoring relationship, but over the years I learned more about what mentoring was and I recognized our relationship for what it was. At that point I decided to formalize it and asked him to be my mentor. I believe this was an important step because it established a mutually agreed upon parameter for our relationship that gave him more freedom to speak into my life.

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Herein is a fundamental Biblical truth. It is interesting to note how deeply this bit of conventional wisdom has permeated our culture. If you run an internet search on “iron sharpens iron” you might be surprised how many organizations have formed around the concept and how much literature has been generated that espouses it.

When it comes to sharpening a blade, there are two basic ways to accomplish this. One way would be to use something abrasive, like a grinding stone, which would remove some of the metal from the blade to create an edge. During this process, care must be taken to ensure that the heat that is created is not too great; otherwise, the blade will lose its temper and will not be able to maintain an edge. Another method is to use a sharpening steel to true the blade. When steel is employed to sharpen the blade none of the metal is removed. Instead, the tiny metallic fibers that have folded over from cutting are pushed back into alignment. When using this metaphor I think of the Holy Spirit as the one who has the ability to create the initial edge through the grinding process. Then, once the blade has a fine edge, the mentors in our lives help keep it true through small adjustments that bring us back into alignment. I believe this is exactly the point of the proverb where one man sharpens another.

So how does one find a suitable mentor? For effective mentoring to occur you should select someone who is above your station in some aspect. You may want to learn a practical skill or, more importantly, you may wish to strengthen a character trait or even refine some of your values. When I say “above your station” I mean someone you can readily acknowledge exhibits a character quality you desire that is superior to your own ability. There is something significant about arriving at this admission. I call it a teachable spirit. Humility is an important factor in the mentoring relationship. Without it you will find that your ego is constantly getting in the way and you will soon discover yourself reacting defensively to the mentor’s honing instead of listening to his or her counsel.

There is another important consideration that you should keep in mind when looking for a mentor. Avoid choosing someone who exhibits a significant moral failure or who has a major flaw in their character. These things tend to pervade all aspects of their life. Their modeling will be flawed and their counsel will undoubtedly become tainted as well. Whenever possible, it is prudent to avoid placing yourself in situations where you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Inevitably, some chaff always remains in the wheat.

Also, you need to be transparent with your mentor. The more you share about yourself, the better your mentor will be able to guide you. For instance, if you share with your mentor a decision you made and the resulting outcome then go a step further and share the motivations behind the decision and the feelings you experienced as a result of the outcome. Those two bookends provide much more information for your mentor to work with than what is in between. The decision and any analysis behind it provide a measure of your competence but the motivations and feelings reveal your heart and that is what your mentor needs to see to be most effective. Improvements in your competence are good but improvements in your character are of far greater value.

Finally, pray that God would bring wise mentors into your life. Proverbs 11:14 says, “…in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” What a blessing it is to have trusted mentors that can give you their counsel as you face the many challenges that life will throw at you along your journey. Look also for opportunities to be a mentor to others for, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Music Review: Classical Guitars Christmas

During high school I had the privilege of becoming best friends with John Troncoso and we are still friends today. Although we don't get to see each other often, we both enjoy the occasions that we do. Last year my family and John's family got together over Thanksgiving weekend. John's parents dropped by to visit for a while as well and we were privileged to receive our own personal, impromptu concert in John's living room.

John and Jose (John's father) have been playing classical guitar together for over 30 years. They had recently completed a recording project called, you guessed it, "Classical Guitars Christmas". I love Christmas music and I have a pile of such CD's at home. However, I find myself listening to just a couple of them repeatedly and relegate the others to a dusty pile in the back of the cabinet. Last year, I put this one on the top of my short preferred list. Yes, it's even pushed the original, and highly vaunted, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas down a position. In fact, we bought about a dozen of them and gave them always as Christmas gifts to our friends and family last year. I realize that it is expected that I should give high praise to help promote my friend's CD but, seriously, it's really that good.

If you happen to be looking for something new to spice up your Christmas music selection then I'd encourage you to consider getting a copy for yourself if you didn't already get one from us. The title here (Classical Guitars Christmas) is a clickable link to their web site where you can learn more about the CD and even order a copy if you like. Since John and Jose are incredibly accomplished guitarists and have been playing together for so long, they offer a very distinctive musical quality. The CD was also recorded with John in the left channel and Jose in the right so that when it is played it would simulate the sound you would hear if they were sitting in your living room giving you a private concert.

Aside from having a personal relationship with John and Jose and the quality of the music, the thing I most appreciate about this CD is knowing that the two people behind it are committed Christians. I love listening to my Mannheim Steamroller CD at Christmas but for me it adds so much more to know the heart of the artists behind the music. Because Christmas is all about Christ it adds so much more to the music to know that the artist truly engages the music at all levels: Body, mind, and spirit.

Donfaer's Adventures in Everquest

[This is the third and final installment on my online gaming interest. I realize it's been a long series but I have thought about it for some time and wanted to share this part of my life with everyone since it is my favorite pastime. Hopefully, you will enjoy the telling of the tale. Someone commented recently that my blog is too serious and could use some lightheartedness. Hopefully, this will be just that.]

Hail and well met. My name is Donfaer (see my picture to the left) and I am a guardian of the 70th level. To put things in perspective, that was the highest rank achievable until just recently. The world I come from is called Norrath and racially I am half-elven. If you have any jokes you'd like to tell me about half-breeds I'll laugh with you right up to the moment you become a new scabbard for my sword and we both stop laughing. I trust you get the point?

Now, where was I… Oh yes, Norrath. Mine is a world filled with wonder, adventure, and danger. Here there be elves and dwarves, trolls and ogres, gnomes and halflings, and many other sentient races. Norrath is also a magical world where the physical laws can be molded and shaped by the will of the caster through his knowledge of the arcane. Someone once told me of a sage from your world named Tolkien. Well, if you are familiar with his writings then you should have a fair picture of the world of Norrath. Ours is a land where the battle between good and evil is constantly waged and a few good and courageous souls rise up to stand in the gap.

Through the power of the amazing mystical device you call a kompewter, some of the us in my world are able to become avatars of the people from yours and allow them to experience our realm. In fact, I am the avatar of one named Greg from your world. He has told me that he is a master of the mystical kompewter and has regaled me with tales of his exploits using said device. Most of the time his explanations make as much sense to me as a Gigglegibber Goblin. Furthermore, I think maybe he embellishes things a bit. Perhaps someday we'll find a way to enter your world and see things truly for ourselves.

I digress so let's get back to the subject at hand. Avatars… I still remember the first time I found myself an avatar of Greg. Oh yes, it was quite a mess indeed. The poor sod hardly knew which end of the sword was which. He very nearly got me killed quite a few times. And a few other times he even managed to accomplish the deed. Fortunately, in Norrath death is a little less permanent than I understand it is in your world and our good cleric was able to resuscitate me after the rest of the group rallied together and took down our the foe. Yes indeed, those clerics sure come in handy at times. I suppose you probably need a bit of an explanation here though. You see, when you go off on adventure here in Norrath you want to make sure you are part of a group of people that have complimentary skills. As a guardian, I am a member of the warrior class. My job is to make sure that the opponents we challenge keep their attention on me because I am exceedingly strong and well trained in hand-to-hand combat. I can wear the heaviest of armor and learn the skills necessary to guard those who accompany me and keep them from harm. However, I know nothing about healing magics and couldn't call a fireball out of the ether to light a campfire, let alone send one hurtling at a foe. We refer to those folks squishies and they affectionately call us tanks. Some classes deal out major damage through magics or offensive combat while others can mesmerize foes with illusions or bring other creatures in to battle. There's a bit of rivalry between us all at times but I think that both sides understand that we couldn't work well without each other. I understand there was another sage from your world called the Apostle Paul who talked about people being different parts of the body and such. It's an intriguing concept and it serves as an adequate analogy methinks.

Greg told me during our first encounter that he usually had one of the wizard or healer classes as an avatar in his prior experiences. It still boggles my mind to know that he had a cleric avatar from 500 years in my past in the world of Norrath. I understand that you refer to these two time periods as Everquest 1 and Everquest 2. You certainly are peculiar people. Anyway, it seems that Greg wanted to get out of his comfort zone and take charge more. So he decided to select an avatar from the warrior class and assume a leadership role. Since tanks are the ones who coordinate the flow of battle it is generally they who serve as the group leader. Well, Greg came to the right place when he selected me. I can definitely say that he has learned quite a bit about leadership as a guardian.

There's nothing quite as satisfying as being what we call a "raid tank" during a large offensive. Having 20+ people count on you to keep the opponent focused solely on yourself is quite a rush. During every moment you are aware that if you lose control it's likely all over. For every second that you don't maintain control your friends will drop like snowflakes in a fireball and if you don't get it back quickly it ends in what we call a wipe and it's time to bring out the clerics. Of course when a wipe occurs the blame does not always fall on the guardian. Everyone has a part to play and it is imperative that they play it right. Some of the other classes can dish out quite a bit of damage, you see, and that can really get the attention of a foe. We guardians do our best to poke here and jab there with both weapons and insults but if a wizard or a swashbuckler decides to let loose a bit too dramatically, even the best guardian is going to lose control of the situation. It's also imperative that the healers continually flood us with protective wards and healing magics during combat. Just the other day a whole group wiped because the healer's user decided to go make something called "microwave popcorn". Now I don't have a clue what that is but let me just say that when your tank is standing toe-to-toe with a fire breathing dragon and the damage ward doesn't get refreshed it's a rather illuminating experience.

I suppose that for some of you this sounds a bit whacky. In fact, Greg confided in me that he was a little hesitant to even share this part of his life for concern of what some of you might think or judgments you might make. Believe me, some of the things that I have heard about your world sound equally strange. For example, I just don't get the fascination you all have with games involving putting small spheres of various shapes and sizes into small goals of various shapes and sizes. I don't think Greg really understands it either since he has trouble explaining it to me. Apparently, it is considered quite honorable to be something called an armchair athlete in your world but the thing you call virtual reality is disparaged and looked down upon by a large portion of your society. And yet I hear that many of you sit and watch small boxes filled with avatars of other people pretending to be someone else for your amusement and that this too is socially acceptable recreation. How strange. Anyway, Greg thought that you might find it more interesting and insightful to hear things from my perspective.

One thing we both understand is that Greg needs to be careful about how much time he spends here in Norrath. Although this world is very real to me I can see how his spending time here could prevent him from being a brave warrior fighting darkness in his own world. Oddly enough, he tells me that sometimes my world can serve as a battleground for good in his world. Now that makes my head spin so I'm not going to go any farther down that road. Besides, he indicated that he has already explained all of that to you.

I'd like to chat more but Greg says his break time is over and he needs to work more on the kompewter. And, I must confess, I find your world rather tedious and there are goblins to fight and treasure to loot here in Norrath, so let me bring this all to a close with some final comments. In the past, there have been times when Greg has spent a bit too much time running around in Norrath and caused his relationships in your world to suffer. Even though there are some wonderful people here, Greg realizes that there are much more important things to do and people for him to fellowship with in the "real" world, most notably his lovely wife [By the way, I've met her and she is one beautiful lady] . Now, that being said, it is also true that Greg finds great recreation, fellowship and value in Everquest. The crux of the issue then is one of balance. Greg is committed to finding that balance and would appreciate your help in that regard. And, of course, you are also welcome to have a rousing good time with Greg and myself here in Norrath. It would be an honor to meet some of you in person someday should there be an adventurous spirit hiding inside of you. The land of Kunark, lost since the cataclysm, has been rediscovered here in Norrath and there is much to explore and learn. So until we meet: Excelsior!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Virtual Friends

It's been challenging to figure out how to summarize my online gaming experiences in a bite size chunk suitable for a blog entry. I've played numerous multiplayer online games over nearly the last decade but favorites were Everquest 1 & 2 so I'll just limit myself to talking about my experiences in those virtual game worlds. In this entry I'd like to focus primarily on some of the relational aspects of my Everquest experience.

My EQ1 adventures began around six years ago when a colleague/friend at work invited me to join his group. About half of the guild he was in was made up of people living here in the Boise area. They met once or twice a month for lunch at a local pizza place and when I started playing I instantly had over a dozen new friends when I joined their community. I really enjoyed the camaraderie we shared as we laughed about past foibles in the Everquest world or planned out our future endeavors together. On a couple of occasions we even got together for dinner and invited our spouses. At one such dinner we even had a couple from the guild who lived in Oklahoma drive all the way up to Boise to meet us. They were an interesting couple. They had met in-game, dated, and then got married (in the real world). This may sound strange but I've known several couples who met online like that and ultimately married. Anyway, I really enjoyed the opportunity to get out of my normal sphere of relationships which tended to be friends that I knew from church and ministry involvement. I felt it was good because it gave me an opportunity to take my light out from under the bushel so-to-speak. Too often we Christians isolate ourselves from contact with people "in the world".

My colleague and I became much better friends after we started gaming together. I think it was Plato who said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." I got to know him much better through play than I ever did through work. Unfortunately, he went through a rather painful divorce a short time later. Instead of using gaming to medicate he looked for other more social opportunities and later began dating. We kept the friendship going over the next few years though. Often we'd get in long discussions about the Christian faith. Later in our relationship after he had remarried he even gave me the opportunity to come over to his house and share the basics of the Gospel with him and after that he visited our church. His new wife was also a believer and I think he was just trying to sort things out. Somewhere inside I think he genuinely wanted to believe but just had trouble with certain aspects of the Christian Faith. Later, things changed at work and our relationship drifted apart. I wish it hadn’t and I accept the majority of the blame for it. I'd like to get together with him again. In fact, I just sent him an email to see if he'd like to do just that.

Our guild leader, and personal friend of my aforementioned colleague, worked out at the Micron PC site which was going through tough times. We encouraged him to apply for a job at the parent company since there was an opening in my group. He had great qualifications so I hired him into the group I managed at the time and soon we were all working together. It was a fun season until things became tense as Micron went through its own round of layoffs in 2003 and work conditions deteriorated. Oh well, that's another story.

After I had played EQ1 for a while my son decided that he would like to play the game as well. At the time I had proven myself as a very competent player and was fairly involved in one of the premier guilds on the server. Most of my friends from the Boise guild joined this larger guild so we could play some of the most difficult content the game had to offer that required 50-80+ people to complete. However, my son was having difficulty getting his character up to a high enough level with good enough equipment to accompany us. It was more important for me to game with him so I sold my EQ1 character and we waited a few months for EQ2 to come out. I still remember how excited both of us were to play together from level 1. It was great father and son time. I still think of those first few weeks of EQ2 as some of the most fun we've ever had together.

During our second week playing EQ2 we met a group of people who became some of our best in-game friends over the next few years. After we had played together for a while we formed a guild and added more people to our ranks. We had a lot of great times together. Even so, it's not all roses and sunshine. Sometimes people have differences of opinion that develop into conflicts or maybe they just get on each others nerves. Virtual worlds can be just like the real one in many senses. For example, our guild leader, Cord (his in-game character name), and I had a conflict once. I had a sense of humor that he found somewhat irritating and one day he let me know about it quite emphatically. I logged off and sulked like a kid for a few days before reconnecting with him to work things out. After that, we got along much better. I learned something valuable about being careful with my humor and was a better person for it. Several months later Hurricane Katrina hit the area that Cord lived in. I ended up leading a team from my church down to New Orleans and I offered to bring them over to help Cord with his house. He was very blessed by the offer but informed me that he and his dad were fortunate and that they were able to get the trees off of their houses a few days before I had arrived. We wanted to meet in person but the long drive around the lake and the curfew imposed prevented us from doing so. Cord decided to retire from EQ in order to help his family rebuild their lives in the wake of Katrina. I miss him but I fondly remember the relationship we shared for a time in the world of EQ.

One of the things that people like about virtual worlds is the anonymity that they provide. Many times people with disabilities, unattractive appearances, etc. can socialize in a way that they couldn't in a normal setting. Although this is a sad situation, I think it is good that they can get past those limiting attributes and be accepted for who they are on the inside when they visit a virtual world. Obviously this can be good and bad, especially when taken to extremes. Although some people choose to hide who they are in real life for various reasons, I am always very open about who I am. In our small EQ2 guild I became dubbed as "The Counselor" because I was always willing to talk with people who were struggling in life. I posted a biography about myself on the guild website and in that biography I shared that I was a deeply devoted Christian who was involved in marriage ministry in my church. As a result, people saw me as a person that they could go to for help. I specifically remember two people who came to me for help with their marriages. I was completely candid about my lack of formal credentials but that didn't bother them in the slightest because they had really come to appreciate me for qualities I demonstrated during gameplay. One of them really just wanted someone to talk to who was willing to listen and offer occasional feedback. Another was genuinely seeking help and I steered him in the direction of some materials that I thought would help him address some issues in his marriage. I also suggested that perhaps he needed to spend less time with EQ and more time with his wife. He agreed and I was sorry to see him retire from the game but I was glad to know that he was putting his marriage first.

Those are just a few highlights of my experiences that I hope will provide some insight into how relational online computer games can be. When I game in a virtual world I have a choice. I can hide behind a mask of anonymity or I can open my heart to others. It's no different than the choice I have in the real world.