Practicing the Present: The Art of Being Self-Conscious

Before we had to put her down, my dog, Gidget, never seemed to worry about the future. She did have a sense of time—or at least she seemed to know when I was due home from work. If she thought at all about the future, it was never very far into the future. And she didn’t worry about death. Right up to her last breath, she never gave it a thought. When we took her to the vet to have her put down, she had no clue what was coming. I don’t know if that made it easier or harder for us.

Many of us live in a world of strategies, five-year-plans, and future goals. My dog’s life was lived entirely in the present. If she had a sense of the future, it extended only as far as the next few moments. She looked forward to the cookie that I tossed her when she came in from outside. But she didn’t wake up in the morning and think about what she was going to do that evening. Even if she could, she would not have asked me to mark an important date on the calendar. As far as I could tell, she existed entirely in the present tense.

Yet her experience is not what I mean by living life in the now. Practicing the present doesn’t mean that we live our lives with a kind of animal immediacy, thinking only of what we need or desire in the moment. It is not reactive living that responds to whatever stimulus I happen to be experiencing in the moment without reflection. Christian living in the present tense demands a kind of self-consciousness that is guided by the Holy Spirit and filtered by the truth of God’s Word. It is a reflection of our capacity to act as a volitional being created in the image of God.

We don’t usually think of self-consciousness as a virtue. It is a trait of an awkward soul. Our image of the self-conscious person is one of shuffling timidity. It is the aspect of someone who has no confidence but is nevertheless self-absorbed. The self-conscious person is one who is continually engaging hand wringing and apology. Even worse, self-consciousness seems to us to be the path that leads to unhealthy introspection, if not to outright narcissism.

We are suspicious of introspection because we associate it with the kind of navel gazing that is characteristic of eastern mysticism. Are we really supposed to sit on a mat and think about ourselves? Such an approach seems to be looking in the wrong direction, especially for Christians who are oriented toward doing. We suspect it would be better to turn the focus away from ourselves. We would prefer to be busy rather than spending extended periods of time thinking about ourselves.

We are right to be suspicious of morbid introspection. Any practice of self-conscious introspection that is not informed by both the truth of God’s Word and the hope of the gospel can only move in two directions. Either it will lead us in the direction of denial, so that we persuade ourselves that we are better than we really are. Or it will move in the direction of shame and despair. Introspection alone does not necessarily lead to a genuine self-understanding. Genuine self-understanding in turn does not always lead to hope.

When we stop and engage in self-conscious introspection we continue to feel the momentum of all that preceded that moment. This is why our initial experience may be unsettling instead of peaceful. In a sense, our minds and our lives are still in motion. The jumble of thoughts, worries, that have been stirred up by the turbulence of our lives comes rushing into that quiet space and we can’t help feeling like we should move with it. We may be distracted at first and agitated. We feel like we should do something. If we are determined to be still and wait for the disorder to settle down, we soon discover something else. We have been in motion because we have been busy but that is not the only reason. Those who wait out the initial storm often realize that they have been in motion because we have been in flight. Perhaps it is a flight from ourselves. It may be a flight from God. Usually, it is a combination of both. As the dust settles in that quiet space of reflection, we begin to see those aspects of ourselves and our lives that we have been trying to keep at bay.

For me, this usually happens at night, when I am forced to stop moving. I lie down to sleep, but the momentum of the day continues. I rewind the events of the past day and watch them again, evaluating my performance. I am like an athlete watching a video of the game that just ended. I criticize my actions. I replay my conversations, improving my responses with all the things I should have said when I had the chance. After I have sorted through all the remains of the day, I turn my attention to the more distant past and begin to sift through my memories like an archaeologist looking for clues. From there, I project into the future with the past as my template. Will it get better? Will it be worse?

I am not alone in this. The intersection of the past and future at the point of the present is a pattern we often find in the Psalms. But the psalmist does more than simply review the past and speculate about the future. The psalmist ponders the reality of God’s presence. When you read the Psalms you discover that The psalmist intentionally directs his gaze toward God. This is an exercise of the intellect. It is an exercise in reasoning. He doesn’t blank his mind in an effort to unite with God’s essence. He argues with himself and takes stock of the facts. “This is what my situation is,” he says. “This is what God has done in the past. Is it really possible that He will deal differently with me in the future?” The implied answer to the psalmist’s question is no. This sounds like it could be a pep talk, and in a way, it is. But it is more. It is the psalmist’s attempt to detect God’s presence on the landscape.

Several years ago, I visited the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As I walked the grounds, I noticed that there were photographs displayed throughout the park. Some things had changed. The people in the pictures were gone. They had died long ago. But the basic features of the landscape were still the same. I recognized the same rolling hills and the same great boulders portrayed in the faded photographs. The recognition sent shivers down me. Suddenly this historic battle no longer seemed like an artifact of history. It was as if what was past had somehow been transported into the present. Something similar happens for the psalmist as he traces the lines of God’s faithfulness onto the landscape of his present experience. As he surveys the future, he expects those features to remain. The circumstances may change, but God’s presence will remain the same. When we engage in this kind of introspection, we are trying to do the same. We are examining the landscape of the present to find the recognizable features of God’s presence in our lives.

In contemplation, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. It is a discipline that helps me to align my perspective with God’s by tracing His presence on the landscape of the past, present and future.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Leaving Home

We put our house up for sale a few weeks ago. It sold quickly, but it unnerved me to have strangers peering into our closets and judging us for even a few days. As anyone who has purchased a home can tell you, the experience is just as awkward for the buyers. Perhaps even more awkward. Buying a house is like getting engaged after a round of speed dating. You spend a few minutes with the object of your desire frantically trying to gauge what its bones really look like under all that makeup. Then with fingers crossed you commit your life and fortune to it.

The experience brought to mind all the houses I have lived in over the years. Each has been good in its way, a testimony to God’s provision for me. But I have not always felt the same about every place. I have loved some and others I have not liked at all. The difference between them was not due to aesthetics alone, although beauty does often play a role in the way we feel about the places where we live. Nor do I think that the comfort of a home is entirely a function of its design. Design is important, of course. The old architectural dictum which says that form follows function is true. But there is more to a home than merely organizing and decorating space.

The difference between space and place is lived experience. But after residing in our current community for almost two decades, I realize that it is only space to me. I leave it without feeling any great sense of loss, at least, not yet. I suspect that once I have moved, I will discover that I am more bonded to the house, the neighborhood, and the city than I knew. As theologian Gilbert Meilaender has observed, we are “creatures of place and time.”  We shape the spaces in which we live, marking them to suit our tastes and our personalities and they, in turn, shape us both for good and for ill. The habits of life we practice while living there become familiar and offer a kind of comfort even if we don’t especially like the area. Happy experiences are engraved upon our memory, while the things we suffer leave scars.

The Bible seems to speak in two voices when it comes to this matter of place. On the one hand, it speaks of those who belong to Christ as displaced persons. We are aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11). We are pilgrims who are on the way to somewhere else. At the same time, the God of the Bible is a God who recognizes the importance of location. He interacts in time and space. Before He created humanity, He created the dwelling place they would inhabit and placed Adam there (Genesis 2:8). Humanity’s purpose is similarly linked to location. The statement of Genesis 1:27 that humanity was created to be male and female anticipates the commission given in the next verse that they should “fill the earth.”

God’s call to Abraham was one that required him to change his location. Although Abraham is praised in the book of Hebrews for living his life as a pilgrim, God’s promise to him had to do with place. According to Genesis 12:1, “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” Abraham was not called to rootlessness but re-location. It is also no accident that the final act of the Bible’s redemptive drama will be played out on a stage which places one particular location at the forefront. Scripture calls Jerusalem the place where God chose to put His name (Deuteronomy 12:5; 2 Chronicles 6:6).

What does this mean for us in the here and now? It means that we are pilgrims like Abraham, but we are also rooted. It means that we have been designed by God to be “in place.” I realize now (perhaps too late) that I have lived most of my adult life in ways that fail to acknowledge this fundamental dimension of human design. That is to say; I have lived my life in a hurry, moving through the world as if it were little more than a space that I passed through on my way to somewhere else. I have lived a life without roots to any particular locale. Some of this has been a function of my vocation. The call of God drew me away from my home and family when I was in my twenties. But these days I wonder if there were other less noble reasons for the sense of detachment I so often feel. I was a pilgrim, but I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t also in flight, not only from my family of origin but perhaps even from myself.

This is an old story, of course. It is also a biblical story. The theme of flight from home is the story of the prodigal son, Jacob, and ultimately Adam himself. In an essay entitled “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry observes that through much of human history the normal pattern was for one generation to succeed another in place. Berry sees this pattern reflected in the benediction of Psalm 128:5-6 which says, “May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you live to see your children’s children—peace be on Israel.”

But the Bible is too honest to limit itself to this beautiful vision. It is also full of stories where this cycle of succession is broken. Tension with his brother forces Jacob to flee from his family to live with his uncle. Moses is taken from his mother and raised in the palace of Pharaoh and then eventually flees Egypt to take refuge in the wilderness. David is called away from his family to serve Saul and is eventually anointed as king in his place. Then David’s son instead of succeeding him mounts a coup in the hope of replacing his father. Many of these stories include the corollary theme of return. Like these biblical figures, we know what it feels like to leave. What we don’t know is how to return. “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return,” Wendell Berry writes.

One of the mundane tasks connected with our impending move was the need to subscribe to cable service. Adam, the salesperson who waited on us, bore all the trademarks of a certain generational style: scruffy beard, piercings, and tattoos. He was amiable and talkative. After asking about our story, he shared a little of his own. Adam was originally from Michigan and had moved back to that state after spending many years away. He had recently moved back and relocated his mother to the town where he now lives. “You know, I didn’t keep in touch with her very well during the years that I was gone,” he told us with a pained expression.

“Young people still grow up in rural areas and go off to cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do” Wendell Berry explains. “Now the norm is to leave and not return.” For many young people, there is nowhere to which they can return. There is no family homestead. If the parents are alive, they are often as rootless as their children. They now live somewhere where their children have never lived. The children may feel bound to their parents but not the community where they live. How could they? They have no shared experience there. They possess no cherished (or dreaded) memories of it. The children may visit, but they do not go home. They cannot go home because home no longer exists.

A couple of years ago I drove by the house where I grew up. That house, a small brick ranch in a working-class suburb of Detroit, was not especially attractive. It was functional, which is more than I can say for our family. When we lived there the address on the front porch hung slightly askew, perhaps loosened from its place by the hardships of ordinary life or some seismic upheaval from within. For some reason, my father never fixed it. Maybe he liked the off-kilter look it gave the house. Perhaps he was just lazy. Whatever the reason, it was a fitting symbol of the lives we lived inside. As I sat in the car looking at the house from the curb, I could easily imagine that my mother was on the other side of the front door, seated on the living room couch with her legs drawn up beside her and the amber tip of her cigarette pulsing like a heartbeat. But I knew it was only a fantasy. My parents were long gone. Nobody I knew lived inside. If there was comfort in the sight, it was the kind one gets when visiting a grave.

There is an old gospel song which declares, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” But it seems that these words are only half true. To say that we no longer feel at home does not mean that we have no home. It also does not mean that we should have no sense of place. The final picture that we see in the Bible, or perhaps better, the first glimpse which the Bible gives us of the life that is to come, is one which is anchored to place. Like Abraham, we too are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). That will be a real city in a real place. We are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth and for the new Jerusalem to come down out of heaven from God (Revelation 12:1-2). These biblical promises are a reminder that even in this rootless age, those who belong to God are rooted in place. There is a home even when no place feels like home. It is the place where all God’s pilgrims will finally come to rest.

Practicing the Present: Race Among the Ruins

When I was a pastor, I found that the hardest part of visiting church members at the hospital was leaving them in the same condition I found them in when I entered the room. It seemed to me that my visits should make a difference. If they did not, what good were they? On each occasion I read Scripture, spoke words of comfort, and prayed. Yet when I was done people seemed no better off.

It’s one thing to talk about practicing the present when life is ordinary. We can face the bread-and-butter struggles of daily living with some serenity, confident of God’s presence. As long as we know that our problems are merely day visitors who show up for a few hours and then go on their way, we can easily put up with them. We might even be willing to bear with them for a few days or a few weeks because we know that in time, things will go back to normal. Our trials are unwelcome guests, but we say to ourselves, “This too shall pass before long.” 

But sometimes the circumstances that visit us arrive for the long term with no sign of leaving. They don’t come for a short stay. They move in and become part of the family. My employer tells me that my position has been eliminated and there is no other opportunity for me with the company. The doctor’s diagnosis indicates that my condition will be prolonged, without any certainty of treatment. My spouse decides to leave me, or my child says that he or she is gay. We have entered into a new “normal” in which boredom is the least of our problems. Suddenly, we hate our life as it currently is. The thought of practicing the present under such conditions not only appears foolish but seems cruel. How do we practice the present when the present is no longer a good place to be? It is almost impossible to offer an answer to such a question that does not sound glib.

Furthermore, the answer that we might offer while contemplating such circumstances from a distance is liable to be very different from the one we would give while suffering through them. The Psalmist might well say, “It was good for me to be afflicted” in Ps. 119:71. But that is the perspective of someone after the trial is over. His tone is very different when he is in the midst of it. Then he cries, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1–2)

Frankly, the church has always tended to mistake stoicism for grace. That is why many of us are so inclined to offer platitudes in the face of suffering:

“Suck it up and tough it out.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Things could be worse.”

These aren’t the things we actually say, but the things we do say often amount to the same sentiment. We dress our platitudes for church, of course. We mention God and talk about things working together. We remind people of the blessings that will come out of this suffering and of the wisdom they will gain as a result. We tell them that obstacles are only opportunities in disguise. What we say is sometimes true and may even help. But they can’t remove us from the circumstance. Our friends move on and return to their ordinary lives while we are left in our suffering to contemplate what has happened to us. “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”  C. S. Lewis observed.

It took me a long time to realize that my role as a pastor when visiting the sick was not to fix their problems but to practice the present. Every visit was a symbol of God’s presence with them in the midst of their suffering. Scripture promises God’s control and care in even the worst of circumstances. Prayer opens the door for God’s involvement and serves as a reminder that our suffering does not go unseen. Years after those visits, which seemed so impotent to me at the time, church members would tell me how much comfort they derived from them.

This ministry of being present is an important pastoral tool in helping people take ownership of difficult circumstances that are beyond their control. It’s also a tangible reminder of Christ’s presence and His dominion over sickness, death, and destruction. “The kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. But Jesus Christ always lingers in the darkest places in the world” pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed.

Practicing the present doesn’t magically make grief or anxiety disappear. When we practice the present we are not transported emotionally into some other realm, so we do not have to deal with the trauma that has happened to us. Nor does it deliver us from the changes that inevitably come. Eventually, our appetite returns. We put on our clothes and go back to work. We pick up the kids from school and feed the dog. But it’s not as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

Practicing the presence does not deliver us from turmoil. It does not transfer us into a special state of grace that somehow enables us to float above our circumstances so that we feel untouched by them. We may experience regret. We can be confused about what we should do next. We might feel afraid. We may even be angry enough to scream and sad enough to weep. Or we may feel nothing at all, as we seek a temporary respite from our circumstances in the numbness of shock.

If practicing the present is unable to deliver us from the frailty that attends all mortals when they find themselves in great difficulty, what good is it? What exactly does it do for us? The answer is that it delivers us into the hands of God.

If you practice the present, God will not magically make all the bad things that have happened to you disappear. Things can always get worse. What I can promise you is that if you look for God amid your circumstances, you will find Him. Our afflictions often act as a goad whose uncomfortable prodding compels us to follow paths we would not have chosen otherwise. The landscape may appear barren. It may seem to you that you have been abandoned. Even though you may not sense Christ’s presence amid your circumstances, you can trace His proximity on the map of His promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present: The Courage of the Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It’s hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Author Wendell Berry writes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

Practicing the present requires that we reclaim a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane but by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We don’t need to be attempting great things all the time. We don’t need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).  

We do not need to resort to extraordinary acts of devotion to experience the reality of God’s presence. Nor does the reality of God’s nearness evaporate when we grow busy or our circumstances become difficult. During those times when we find it difficult to sense the nearness of God, He is as present as ever. From the highest heavens to the lowest depths, whatever situation we may find ourselves in is one in which God is already there (Ps. 139:8).

Although we always inhabit the present, we often feel as if it is moving past us. Try as we might to seize upon the moment and hold it fast, it still slips from our grasp. That good feeling we have passes or the season changes. The song that moved us so deeply comes to an end and somehow replaying it over again does not quite have the same effect. It is easy to think that we are standing fast as time marches past us and fades in the distance. We are caught in time’s irresistible current and swept into the future. As much as we might want to revisit the past, we can do so only in our minds. We have moved beyond the past and cannot return to it, no matter what the science-fiction writers say. The future is as removed from us as the past. We may be moving inexorably toward it, but the future will always remain in front of us. We can only imagine or speculate what will take place there.

But God is the master of time. It serves God’s purpose. The same God who established the regular cycle of day and night, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest also orders the seasons of our lives (Gen. 8:22). Our times are in His hand (Ps. 31:15). God always acts on our behalf at the “right time” (Rom. 5:6). This was true of the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). It is just as true in the commonplace things that concern us every day. Why do we brood about the past and fret over the future? According to Jesus, it is because we have lost sight of God. God gives meaning to the present.  His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. The present is more than a place where the past comes to rest. It is more than a staging ground for the future. The present is where God shows up.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Practicing the Present

I am a sucker for books and movies about time travel. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and any Star Trek episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise travels back to the twentieth century—I love them all. But over the years, I’ve learned a few important things about time travel. For example, as far as I can tell from these books and movies, backward is better than forward. When you travel back in time, you know what you’re getting. The future, on the other hand, is unknown and always seems to get worse. But that doesn’t mean that the past is safe. When you travel back in time, you had better not touch anything. Apparently, the smallest change can have devastating effects on the space-time continuum. You may come back to the present and find that you don’t exist.

In real life, time travel is impossible, but that doesn’t mean I have no interest in the past or the future. The truth is, I’m often preoccupied with both. Sometimes it’s because I’m thinking about the past, trying to understand what I have experienced and how it affects my life. Just as often I’m concerned about the future. Maybe it’s because I’m looking forward to what comes next. More often it’s because I’m worried about it. What gets lost in all of this is the present. Like the quiet child in a loud family, it’s often overlooked. Either way I tend to brush by the present, as if it were some stranger I pass on a busy street. Or if I do give it attention, it’s usually only a kind of grudging consideration—the sort you might give to someone who whines until your attention is wheedled away from the thing that really interests you .

“I have been scattered in times I do not understand,” St. Augustine complained. He saw his life as one that stretched in many directions at once. Like Augustine, our minds too are scattered in time, so that our interests range far beyond the present. At one moment, we peer intently into the past, hoping for the mists to clear and longing to catch a glimpse of a present that has disappeared from view. In the next, we skip far ahead, hoping to scout out the future and stake a certain claim. Unfortunately, the beauty and value of the present is often lost. We are here in body but not in mind. We are only halfhearted in our attention and sometimes in our service. To someone whose interest is chiefly on the future, the present is only a way station. Its primary function is to serve as a staging ground for what comes next. For the person whose focus is mostly on the past, the present is a cemetery filled with monuments to the glory days that will never come again or with a painful record of the injuries and slights we have suffered.

I want to propose an alternative. I call it the “practicing the present.” Practicing the present is more than the habit of slowing down and making ourselves aware of what is going on in the moment. It’s a way of locating ourselves in the world. It’s a way of seeing. Practicing the present is the habit of reining in our wandering mind and concentrating our attention on the here and now. This means, first of all, taking stock of things as they really are. What is the real landscape of my life? What do things really look like? We are doing more than assessing. We are trying to orient ourselves to reality. Those who dwell on the past and future are often living in a fantasy world. But God is at work in the real world. As we take stock of things as they really are, we do so with an awareness that God is truly present no matter how mundane or how bleak the circumstances appear.

Those who practice the present believe that God dwells in the midst of the muck and mire of daily life. Practicing the present doesn’t ignore the future or the past. But it does view both with a measure of sanctified skepticism. The future and the past can both be an unhealthy refuge for those who are disappointed with their present. Practicing the present also demands that we rein in, as much as we are able, our ambition and our anxiety. Both are common to human experience, and each in their own way can blind us to the reality of God’s presence. Ambition and anxiety can both cause us to forget the One who has numbered the hairs of our head and who is really responsible for the effectiveness of what we do for Jesus. Both ambition and anxiety can cause us to take too much responsibility for the success or the failure of what we do.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was shattered by the news. I felt betrayed, not so much by God, but by my own body. I lay awake nights thinking about the thing I had inside me and wishing that I could go back to the day before I knew of the diagnosis. When the doctor told me that my surgery appeared to be successful, I felt like a condemned prisoner who has just been given a pardon. “This is what forgiveness feels like,” I told my wife. Five years after the surgery, my blood work showed a slight change, and I panicked. The doctor assured me that the difference was insignificant. As far as he was concerned, I was still cancer free. Yet the old fear had returned, and I found it difficult to break free from it. What if the doctor was wrong? How did I know that the next test results wouldn’t show that my cancer had come back? I still think about it.

Fear often casts a shadow over the future as we worry about things that might happen. Just as often we fret about the past. Sometimes we worry that we have taken a wrong turn along the way or we regret some choice we have made. We wonder how the past has shaped our present or how it will affect our future. We speculate about how things might be different if we had acted otherwise. The trouble with all such fears is that we can do nothing about them. Once our choices have been made and the action is taken, we cannot go back and undo them. No matter how much we may regret the past, we do not have the power to change it. The future is similarly out of reach. We can speculate but we cannot know for certain what the future will be like. The past is a shadow, and the future a mirage.

In one sense, we can’t help practicing the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. Time travel is only the stuff of science fiction. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The truth is that the present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. So we may as well learn how to practice the present.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Oh, Hell.

In the early days of my walk with Jesus, I did not believe in Hell. Or at least, I did not want to acknowledge the reality of Hell. I had heard about Hell and even prayed a prayer to Jesus to be saved from Hell as a child. But by the time I began to live seriously for Christ in my early 20’s, I had pushed that aspect of the gospel to the margins of my thinking. I was more interested in knowing whether God existed. I was attracted to Jesus because of the message of God’s love. I came to Him for the relationship.

I knew about the cross, of course. I understood that it as the preeminent proof of Christ’s love. I knew that it was the remedy for my sin and I did believe in sin. How could I not? The evidence was right in front of me. Indeed, it was in me. Like the apostle Paul, I was unable to do the good that I wanted to do (Romans 7:19-21).  I suppose the experience of my own sinfulness combined with the stark reality of Christ’s death should have made ask whether the cross even made sense if the threat of Hell did not exist. But somehow, I was able to ignore the question.

Except, I kept coming across Hell in the Bible. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Jesus spoke about Hell in the Scriptures in a way that suggested that it was more than a metaphor. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” Jesus says in Luke 12:4-5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Jesus, it turned out, had more to say about Hell than anyone else.

If I was serious about following Jesus, I couldn’t affirm those aspects of His teaching that I liked and ignore those that made me uncomfortable. I realized that the same was true of the rest of the Bible. If I was going to accept it as God’s truth, I had to accept it all. There was no room to cherry-pick, holding on to the truths I liked and setting aside those I didn’t.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggested that those who find themselves in Hell choose to be there. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” One of the most insidious effects of sin is that it compels us to flee from the lover of our souls. Without the grace of God bestowed upon us in Christ, we would do so forever.

The cross is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. I was right to see it as evidence of God’s love. But it is also a blunt reminder of the penalty that sin requires. The cross is proof of our need to take sin more seriously than we do. Only a grave condition could warrant such an extreme remedy. The cross is a warning. Jesus’ cry from the cross foreshadows the agony of all who will experience separation from God for eternity because of their sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

It is almost impossible to speak about the reality of Hell without seeming glib. I think this reflects a kind of denial. If it is hard for us to fathom heavenly things, it is even more difficult for us to grasp the danger of Hell. For one thing, we do not want to think about it. It is all too easy to put any thought of it out of our mind. We do not really believe that we deserve it. Most of us harbor a secret hope that in the end, God will change the standard, the way our teachers sometimes did when everyone flunked the exam in school.

The reason so many of us do not believe in hell is that we do not believe in righteousness. Despite all our contemporary talk about “justice,” we have no real conception of justice, at least where God is concerned. We still believe in evil. But only as a hyperbole. Evil is an unrealistic extreme that we see in a handful of others. We do not think of evil in reference to ourselves. Ironically, was true for me, we are happy to claim the cross for our own benefit. But deep inside we can’t help wondering if all the blood and brutality of the thing was really necessary. We chalk it up to the meanness of human beings. Such thinking sentimentalizes the cross, reducing it to a mere symbol. The cross has become a meme for us. We certainly do not see what it has to do with Hell. Or with justice, for that matter.

In the end, the cross and Hell are inevitably related to one another. Hell is the ultimate exercise of divine judgment. Hell is proof that our sin ultimately has reference to God. It is to Him that we must answer. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” David declared after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51:4). Sin is more than selfish petulance. It is more than a moral offense against our neighbor. Whether we are willing to recognize it or not, sin is an offense against God, and He will call everyone to account.

This may be the most disturbing aspect of the cross for those who reject its message. It is a picture of what is owed. The cross is an emblem of God’s love. But it is also the ultimate reminder to any who refuse to accept Christ’s payment, that their debt will one day be called in.

Bread & Circuses

The recent implosion of James MacDonald’s ministry is a sobering reminder of how easily beguiled the church is by a pretty voice. Not only is the unfolding debacle painful to watch, it also ought to send a chill of fear down the spine of pastors and church leaders. MacDonald was no heretic. He was and is a biblical conservative. His failure, if the reports are true, was one of leadership character. I am not saying this as a mitigating factor. The pastoral epistles are clear that character and leadership style are as important in determining whether someone is fit to lead as doctrine.

My point is that the church is easily swayed by those who are compelling speakers. This is not a new problem. Paul complained about it in the Corinthian letters. Church history’s hall of shame includes many notable pulpit masters who made a name for themselves as speakers while engaging in behavior unbecoming to their office. What is surprising is not that these leaders sinned but that the church found it so easy to overlook their behavior.

We often plead grace in our attempt to excuse ourselves. Our preachers and leaders are sinners like us. They are “wounded healers.” We are sometimes reluctant to apply the biblical standards of leadership too rigorously to them out of fear that we will condemn ourselves in the process. But more often than not this kind of talk is just a smokescreen that obscures the real root of the church’s failure which is due to something far shallower. Simply put, we like a good speaker. If that requirement is met, we often don’t care about much else, as long as their weaknesses are not so public that they force us to take note of them.

The simplest explanation for such a one-sided evaluation on our part is that we have to listen to these people week after week. We would much prefer to listen without feeling that the experience is torture. But I do not think that this simple explanation is adequate. The opposite is more often the case. Many congregations tolerate preaching that is mediocre or even less because they are being cared for by a genuine shepherd.

I believe two other factors have caused the church to elevate speaking ability over spiritual leadership and even moral character. One is the church’s marketplace orientation. The other is the congregation’s growing tolerance for a distance between the church’s pastors and its members. These two are related. Churches tolerate good speakers who are weak pastors because they rely on the pastor’s speaking ability to market the church to non-attenders. This is especially true of churches that have grown large and where the pastor has become the brand. They  are “too big to fail.” There is too much at stake. The fortunes of too many people are tied to one personality to jeopardize it all by holding these leaders accountable. More than one fallen leader has sought protection from the consequences of their failure by threatening to bring the temple down on the heads of those who sought to expose them.

The popularity of the megachurch model, even though only a small minority of congregations can actually achieve it, has changed the way church members relate to their pastors. It has also changed the way Bible colleges and seminaries train for ministry (or don’t). We are being pressured to train performers and administrators instead of pastors. Those who attend megachurches do not expect to be pastored. They do not expect to relate to the preaching pastor at close range. They do not expect the pastor to invite them over to dinner or to show up at the hospital and pray for them when they are sick. They do not expect him to come to their home and ask about their spiritual well-being. They do not know what kind of office hours the pastor keeps if the pastor keeps any at all. They do not know what the pastor’s salary is, because it is masked in the budget, lumped together with all the other staff salaries. Indeed, the typical church attender has been trained to think that the pastor’s salary is none of their business. As a result, all the average worshipper knows about the preaching pastor is what they hear when the church gathers for worship. The resulting distance makes it impossible for the congregation to hold the pastor accountable for much of anything.

These cultural shifts are having a profound effect on the way churches think about pastoral ministry. The pastor is no longer a shepherd or even a preacher. The emphasis in today’s branded culture is on personality and performance. The difference is immediately felt when one hears them preach. One of my colleagues recently contrasted this new model with the pastors and Bible conference preachers of a generation ago. “Those old preachers were mostly men in grey suits, unimpressive in appearance but powerful expositors of the word,” she said. They were not interested in their image. They did not focus on style.

I do not think that she meant that they had no style. They certainly did, but theirs was the kind of style reflected in Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks didn’t mean that the preacher should try to be a personality. “The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen” Brooks declared. “It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”

There is more to what Brooks describes in these words than what is popularly called “transparency.” Brooks did not merely mean that biblical truth is expressed through the container of the preacher’s personality. Rather he meant that the preacher is someone who has been shaped by the truth. In the language that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:15, the preacher is someone who makes every effort to present themselves to God as an approved worker in the word, not only handling it rightly in terms of its interpretation but reflecting its truths.

These days instead of “studying to show ourselves approved” it is our preaching that has become studied. By that, I mean that our overemphasis on personality and style has made our preaching self-conscious. It is affected. From dress to tone to the way we stroll about the stage, we seem to be as interested in crafting an image as we are in communicating a message. The congregation is complicit in this. Like the ancient Romans, the average church member no longer sees it as their responsibility to weigh carefully not only what is said, but the one who says it. They have traded this duty for bread and circuses. What the preacher is off the stage does not matter so much as long he holds our attention while on it.

James MacDonald is not the first nor is he the worst preacher to be accused of incongruity between life and message. I am not saying this in his defense. But I do think that he is too easy a target for us. It is easy to pile on after the fact and demand an accounting.  But he was not the only culpable party. In this image-driven age, when the church prefers circuses over bread, why are we so surprised?

Get Out of Your Discomfort Zone

The other day a friend asked me, “What are you doing to challenge yourself?” “Nothing,” I replied. “I don’t believe in it.” He thought I was joking. If I was joking, it was only a little. I don’t believe in the theology which says that God’s chief aim for us is to move us out of our comfort zone. I think His purpose for us lies in the opposite direction.

Before I tell you what I mean by this, let me tell you what I don’t mean. I am not saying that God would never ask us to do something that is uncomfortable. Discomfort is a common feature of daily life. You don’t have to go looking for it. Sooner or later it finds you. I am not saying that God would never expect us to deny ourselves. The Christian life is one in which we must “put to death” whatever belongs to the earthly nature (Colossians 3:5).

My problem with discomfort zone theology is the way discomfort seems like an end in itself. Discomfort zone theology is just a new version of the old asceticism that prompted the monastic fathers to drink rancid water and live on moldy bread. This old asceticism was fueled by a dualistic worldview which saw the body as a liability. Holiness was equated with hardship. These factors were aggravated further by a theology of salvation which placed the stress on human effort combined with a well-meaning but misdirected spiritual ambition.

Of course, our version asceticism is not like that of the monastic fathers. We do not wear clothing that is so coarse it makes us bleed or starve ourselves in desert caves. Popular asceticism in the evangelical church is usually little more than a missed meal now and then or maybe swearing off craft beer for Lent. But the discomfort zone theology that I am talking about also involves something else. In its most common form, discomfort zone theology is a motivational tool wielded by church leaders to move their members to action. It is rhetoric used to urge worshippers to do something they would not normally do. Go on a short-term mission trip. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Help out in the church’s mid-week children’s program. Pass out flyers. Get out of your seat and walk three rows to shake hands with someone you’ve never met. Get out of your comfort zone.

None of these practices is necessarily bad. Indeed, they are often quite helpful. But I do sometimes have reservations about the motives of those who make such appeals. I can’t help noticing how often the discomfort zone into which I am being urged to thrust myself corresponds with some ministry initiative that advances the church’s program. Why is it that my discomfort always seems to be to the church’s advantage? And why is God so eager to make me uncomfortable, to begin with?

Discomfort zone theology is also an ethos that shapes our approach to the Christian life. Being comfortable, it would seem, is a bad thing. As long as we are comfortable, we cannot pursue God’s will. Only by making ourselves uncomfortable can we please God. In this way of thinking, discomfort becomes more than an occasional side effect of obedience or an environment in which we are sometimes asked to exercise faith. It is now a destination. Discomfort is a mark of grace. It is proof of our genuine devotion. Steeped as we are in such a culture, we might be startled to discover that a theologian as eminent and ancient as Thomas Aquinas asserted the opposite. “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult” Aquinas wrote. He also noted that not everything that is difficult is necessarily more meritorious.

The trouble with discomfort zone theology is that it appeals to the worst side of our religious nature. As Theologian Josef Pieper explains, “. . . man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” Not only is this way of thinking unhealthy, but it is also a spiritual orientation which is fundamentally incompatible with the Bible’s theology of grace. I can’t help noticing that the same Jesus who tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him also seems to link that burden with the experience of rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I do not think you need to get out of your comfort zone. Life will take care of that for you. Life is challenging by its very nature. Live long enough, and you will inevitably be drawn into awkward relationships, unfamiliar territory, and unwelcome experiences. Discomfort will find you. Follow Jesus long enough, and you will discover that like Peter you are not in control of where you go. Sooner or later you have to go where you would rather not go.

 Jesus’ call is not to get out of your comfort zone but to find it. His promise assumes that we are already uncomfortable. The yoke of rest that Jesus offers can be taken, but it cannot be seized by force. We do not manage ourselves into it, acquire it by bargain or even attain it by discipline. It comes to us through an exercise of faith. It is laid upon us. Rest as Jesus defines it is something that must be done for us. So the next time someone tells you to get out of your comfort zone, you should consider moving in the opposite direction. You are uncomfortable enough. What you need is rest.

To learn more check out The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap published by InterVarsity Press.

Life After Death by Meeting

I have spent a significant portion of my thirty-four years in ministry attending meetings. Sometimes I was in charge of the meeting. At other times, I was a reluctant participant, required to attend by the nature of my work. These experiences prompted me to try and understand the way groups and organizations work. Over the years I have come to few conclusions.

Those who lead the meeting rarely look at it through the same lens as those who attend. I learned this very early in my pastoral ministry.  When I led the church’s board meetings, I focused on the agenda, which often reflected my interests. I wanted the meeting to start quickly and lead to action. In other words, I wanted the board to see things my way and adopt my proposals. They had a very different focus. They usually spent the first thirty minutes or so making small talk, catching up, and talking about work or family. They were not in the same hurry as me. My goals were not nearly as important to them as they were to me. This difference in perspective results in a sort of nearsightedness on the part of those who lead the meeting. Leaders are so focused on their agenda that they often cannot read the people around them. Sometimes they do not want to.

Our interaction with people in meetings is one-sided. One of the things that surprised me most about my experience in meetings was how little others knew about me. Likewise, I found that I tended to relate to people in terms of their role and in some cases their caricature. You might think it would be otherwise. For decades I have spent hours with the same people in meetings. After all this time, I have concluded that they don’t know me at all. I don’t know them either. I know the persona that they project in the meeting, which may be very different from the actual person I pass in the hall. While this is understandable, it is also damaging. Our lack of common knowledge often leads to depersonalization. Bad behavior towards one another in the corporate world, is often justified by saying, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” The same rule holds in Christian organizations as well. Our work suffers when we lose sight of the personal nature of our interactions with one another. These one-sided relationships cause us to see others as negative stereotypes. One is the buffoon, another is the fool. There is the ranter, the suck-up and the tyrant. Depersonalization creates an environment where incivility and bullying flourish.

Meetings are inherently messy. The Gospel of John says that the whole world could not contain all the books that could be written about the things that Jesus did. Something similar might be said about books intended to make meetings go better. Leaders look for ways to make meetings run more smoothly the way the Knights of the Round Table sought after the Holy Grail. Both objectives are pretty much the same. They are beautiful but unattainable ideals. Good meetings, that is to say healthy meetings, are almost always messy. How can they not be when there are competing perspectives and agendas present? The search for an elegant process easily degenerates into patterns of behavior the squash disagreement and stifle creativity. The best thinking is born of serious disagreement that is worked out by people who have learned how to suspend their disbelief long enough to consider other alternatives. In the Christian realm, the quest for smooth meetings also fosters a climate of false civility. This consists of a forced peace which has a low tolerance for disagreement. Because we are unable to disagree well, we are unable to understand one another’s differences. Disagreement is not division. Messy does not have to be mean.

Meetings are necessary. Most of us feel about meetings the way some people do about their in-laws. We would avoid them if we could. But since we can’t, we will endure them as quickly as possible. Meetings get no respect. Books are written about them with titles like Death by Meeting, Meetings Suck, and Bad Meetings Happen to Good People. There is a way to lead without the messy collective deliberation that is inherent in all meetings. It is called tyranny, and it is never good. Churches and organizations are living systems made up of networked individuals. It is the human dimension of these bodies that makes them so messy. Meetings force us to face one another as a community and confront our differences. Most of the time the process is slow, painful, and ambiguous in its result. The messy work of disagreement, deliberation, and movement toward an awkward consensus is essential to the health of every one of these institutions. It is especially important to the church, which is a body of interconnected members. The rule of the church is not “Be sure you get your way.” It is “Have concern for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

In the last thirty-four years, I have only served on one committee which I feel approached this ideal. It was chaired by the associate dean of faculty Billie Sue Thompson (who is now with the Lord) and led a diverse and creative group of colleagues responsible for my school’s first-year experience program. We were a mixture of different personalities from a variety of departments. Some of us were outgoing others reserved.  Some were contemplative, while others were activistic. We occasionally got on one another’s nerves.

One of the first things that Billie Sue did was ask us to map ourselves as a group, to help us understand our collective personality. I learned some remarkable things. I discovered that the things that frustrated me most about my peers were usually the things that added value to our little community. The source of my irritation was their gift. In order to benefit from those gifts, I had first to learn to appreciate them. Before I could appreciate them, I had to know them. Most important of all, I realized that if this was true of them, it must also be true of me.

This understanding did not magically transform all of my meetings. Aggravation was not replaced by a warm huggy glow. My enemies did not magically become my friends. Those who had annoyed me continued to annoy me. But the change of perspective I learned from Billie Sue did help me to see them differently. The same change enabled me to see myself differently too. I learned to value them. In the process, I discovered that I had value too.

Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.