Who’s Your Audience?

As a comedy performer and writer, this is one of the first things I ask myself when creating new material. A comedy show at a downtown bar that regularly hosts burlesque and poetry readings attracts quite a different crowd than a comedy show at a craft brewery in suburbia that hosts bluegrass pickin’, beard growing contests, and children’s birthday parties.

Considering the identity of your audience also applies when you present yourself as a salesman, teach in a rural school, or even post to social media. If you want your jokes to land, sell your product, instill understanding, or earn some likes; you have to package your message just right so those to whom you present receive, accept, and respond positively to it.

On Friday, President Trump addressed the nation, speaking exclusively about China and taking no questions about the protests erupting across America. Instead, he took to the protective Presidential bunker unused since September 11, 2001 and tweeted, “If they had [breached the fence] they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”

On Monday, President Trump stated, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” As he spoke, police were deploying tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of protestors outside the White House before curfew and without warning. The President then led a retinue across a cleared Lafayette Square to be photographed standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while brandishing a Bible.

His words? The President spoke them to convince us how strong he was, referring to himself as “your president of law and order” after people accused him of cowardice for hiding in a bunker.

His actions? The President stood in front of a church that had been damaged in a fire and held up a Bible declaring, “We have the greatest country in the world,” which leaves me confused.

Was he illustrating that because the church was damaged during a protest, the protestors went against the law of God? Was he showing that America was founded on Biblical precepts and would therefore triumph over evil? Was he trying to look tough, appealing to religious conservatives? Was he claiming God was on his side? Was it some combination of these? Did I miss his point completely?

As an evangelical Christian, I believe the Bible both communicates the message that God loves all people without exception and tells the story of how He, Jesus, pursued relationship with humanity throughout history. I read God’s Word to deepen that relationship, gaining the courage to love others as I am loved.

The Old Testament book, 2 Chronicles, summarizes the reigns of every Israelite king from David’s son, Solomon, to King Zedekiah whose rule culminated with Babylon subjugating Israel. For the author of 2 Chronicles, the true test of whether a king was effective or not was if they “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” The kings who led their people in serving the Lord and obeying Him enjoyed long reigns and victory over rival kingdoms. Those who turned away from God saw their reigns cut short and suffered defeat in battle, so Biblically, a leader who achieves success is the one who realizes their audience is the Lord, ensuring everything they do is done to please Him.

In the New Testament, the book of Titus states, “An elder (leader) must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

If it’s your job to lead a nation, and you are bold enough to stand in front of a church, hefting a Bible like a shot put, then who you are as a person should reflect the standards to which God’s Word calls you.

Mr. President, the world is watching, If you’ve done wrong; been unfaithful to your wife; raised unscrupulous children; are overbearing, quick-tempered, drunk on power, and violent. If you pursue dishonest gain, are inhospitable, love what is evil, fly off the handle, are morally and ethically corrupt, deny the truth, and tear people down; you need to set an example by humbling yourself, admitting you’ve done wrong, and seeking to heal the hurt you’ve caused. If not, this desperate situation will collapse into a crisis from which we may never recover.

Don’t perform for your political base; don’t flex when you feel threatened. We’re all looking for someone to follow, and if you’re following Jesus in name only, if you don’t make Him the audience to whom you devote yourself 100%; you risk shortening your time in power and relinquishing your role as the nation you’ve led succumbs to subjugation.

Do the right thing.

False Prophecy

Yes, I realize it’s been 10 days since my last post. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. We’ll go with that lie. Sure.

Imagine confirming that what the prophet decreed was God laying down exactly how the world would end and abandoning everyone and everything you ever knew to help fulfill the prophecy, but then you discover the prophecy was wrong. My grandfather, along with a few hundred people, gave up their lives, thinking they were specially chosen to survive, but then the Soviet Union never pushed the button.

At that point, they had two choices. Either:

A) Admit they were wrong and leave the church. Maybe try to restore some of those relationships they severed.

B) Double down on the incorrect prophecy with an additional prophecy explaining how the first was correct and would still happen. God just chose to test their faithfulness, which they passed with flying colors. Well, most of them. Some were disillusioned and left the church.

My grandfather opted for option B. The thing is, like any lie, in order to cover it up, you have to lie again, so things make sense. Thing is, this wasn’t an isolated incident. It begat 50 years of whoppers that some still believe to this day.

Wal-Paul abandoned his family and started a new life based on a lie, which became a twisted perspective on reality.

But he was happy. What harm could it do?

Oh, let me tell you.

Which One?

I never wanted to hug Wal-Paul. Note how I refer to him. It’s either by his official title of “my grandfather,” which denotes how we were related genetically, or I call him Wal-Paul, a name concocted by smashing two other names together, one being the identity he used when visiting, and the other being the mantle he picked up to show how important he was. Whenever I saw him, I never knew which personage he’d put on parade.

Both Wal and Paul were gregarious and eager to be the focal point for the evening. Wal was stationed near the front door and would pull whomever stood within arm’s length in for a bearhug, exclaiming, “Come give your grandpa a hug! I’m so glad you came to see me.”

Paul would sit either at my uncle’s kitchen table or in a metal folding chair near the family room’s fireplace. Here’s where it got tricky. Whenever he got comfortable, you never knew if it was Wal or Paul who sat there. They both looked exactly the same. They were both flanked not only by the second woman they married after leaving my grandmother but also by the Full Gospel Assembly’s resident prophet as well as his wife.

The only way to tell the difference is if nonsense started coming out of my grandfather’s mouth.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

Get to Work

I know; I know. I just published a post last week, and you’re used to me waiting six months between entries, but just hang with me, I promise it’ll be worth it.

I get sweaty.  (Not quite what you wanted, was it?) Not only that, I like getting sweaty, because for me to perspire enough to put deodorant to the test, I have to be doing work. For instance, the last time I got sweaty enough for my daughter to notice when she went in for a hug was at church this morning. You see, I led children’s worship, and it’s hard work trying to lead kids ranging from four years to fifth grade into the presence of the Lord. Sure, it may have had something to do with the fact I didn’t know the songs as well as I should, and the munchkins seemed more interested in wrestling each other to the ground instead of lifting their eyes to heaven, but I gave it enough to soak through my shirt.

The thing is, it’s not that difficult for me to get my skin glistening. The wife calls me “her little furnace” and enjoys snuggling up next to me when the nights are cold, but she can’t stay there. Apparently, I give off enough heat even at rest that she can hang on only for a few minutes before retreating to her side of the bed.

I also soaked through another shirt just yesterday. No, I wasn’t accumulating miles upon a treadmill, nor did I wrap myself in layers upon layers of fleece. My buddy, Steve, and I were running the trails of Infirmary Mound Park in 30-degree weather, and I had on a pair of shorts, some running tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. Don’t be crazy — I prepared for the December weather. I had on my insulated running shoes, a light jacket, ear protectors, and a pair of gloves, as we were outside running for over an hour.

I never did anything like this as a kid. I hated being dirty. Smelling bad meant something was wrong, which I had to remedy immediately.

So what’s changed? Now, sweat equals accomplishment. As a middle school English teacher, I don’t get many opportunities to sweat through my dress shirt. Sure, there’s been times in late August when the cooling unit’s not doing it’s job, and I have to crack a window or face melting into a puddle, but that’s the exception.

In my day-to-day, nitty-gritty life, it’s easy to avoid working hard enough to activate my integumentary system, and I have decades of experience coming up with reasons not to face physical challenges, which made me a soft spectator.

People watching is fun; observing human behavior can provide deep insight to our collective psychological condition, but restricting yourself to what equates to a seat on the short bus means you’ll get somewhere eventually, but you’ll have surrendered any influence on your trajectory to reach a destination with which you’ll have no connection.

I sweat to exercise influence. I work to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I create music and movement to inhabit my skin and draw myself and others closer to Perfection.

Embrace those tasks that seem difficult; don’t wait for someone else to do the work for you. Surrender your life to service and discover the person you were always intended to be.

The Unexpected

Cycling 30 miles with a friend is much easier when both tires hold air. That’s how inner tubes function, remaining inflated to provide a cushion upon which you can fly down the road with grip and precision, so imagine my frustration when at 5:30 this AM I discovered my rear tire was flat. Simple fix. I’ll just use my handy bicycle pump here and fill up this…Why’s it not inflating? Do I need to change my inner tube? What is this, the third or fourth time I’ve had to take my bike apart in the last few months to replace that piece of faulty rubber? Shit.

Called my friend; explaining the issue. “No problem,” he said.

Thirty minutes, much blue language, and approximately three gallons of sweat later; my brand new tube nestled within the tire, the tire perched upon the rim, and the wheel whirred upon the bike. All I had to do was fill it with air. No dice. Each time I pumped, the inner tube expanded then went limp as a politician’s promise.

At a complete loss, I implemented that age-old mental tool utilized by athletes and generals alike: visualization. Drawing in lungfuls of air, I stifled my urge to scream, shut out the world, and pictured my next move.

If I were another person, this would’ve been my MacGyver moment. Taking only spit, vaseline, and a container from my garage workbench marked with an indecipherable chemical formula, I would’ve combined all three agents with a furrowed brow and a quick stir, producing a single puff of blue smoke. Then, while the concoction continued to boil, I’d give my flat tire a spin with my free hand and pour with my right. Defying physics, every drop of the viscous liquid would rush into the gap between the tire and rim, and as a gaggle of neighbor kids gaped in amazement, their notifications of uncaptured Pokemon forgotten, my tire would reinflate with a bang to thunderous applause.

But this is me, so I visualized going back to bed and called my friend, resigned to my fate.

Turns out, Matt was already on his way to my house.

Whip-quick, he had the wheel off my bike and the tire off the rim. Matt diagnosed the cause of my trouble, tried to file the issue smooth, and resorted to duct tape, tearing it in long, thin strips to prevent the gouges on my inner rim from further puncturing my inner tube. Fitting my tire back in place with care and focus, having provided the spare tube he brought with him, he had me road-ready within the hour. We didn’t get in the full 30 miles as planned, but Matt resolved a problem that overwhelmed me.

Shootings, outrage, protests, murders, hangings, bombings, atrocities, coups — the last few weeks have overwhelmed, and we stand lost, not knowing how to fix the world. Some express frustration when others post about prayer in response to these situations, reasoning real solutions will effect change far better than sending mystic vibes at the sky, but when I pray, I’m calling out to the God who listens to my needs and resolves problems.

After being observed by my principal and given a poor review the spring of 2013, I was placed on a one-year probationary contract and told if I did not improve my methods, my contract would be terminated the following spring. I spent the remainder of that school year and the following summer praying I’d keep my job, and each time I asked God what to do, I felt He assured me He’d take care of it.

The following school year, a retired teacher came alongside and mentored me, spending time in my classroom, observing, modeling good teaching, and helping me plan lessons. The right person came to help me at just the right time, and this year, myself, my co-teacher, Greg, and two others won awards for exemplary teaching for our portion of Ohio. I didn’t know how to fix my teaching, so I asked God for help, and He saved my career.

Prone to ear infections, nine-year-old me spent one Saturday feeling as though someone drove a spike into the side of my head, and without Urgent Care, my best hope was Mom giving me Tylenol and waiting for the doctor’s office to open Monday. Given the option of staying home from Sunday service, I chose to go despite the throbbing. Nothing unusual happened that morning until the man who prayed for me following the sermon placed his hand on my shoulder. As he spoke, a stillness settled into my chest and the pain in my ear receded until no trace remained. Unsure how to process what just happened, I staggered back a bit as the man let out a whoop of joy when I confirmed the pain was gone. God is not my uncle who during family volleyball games attempted to hit the ball every time it soared over the net no matter how many of his team members stood in the way; He’s a gentleman, intervening when invited.

I have numerous examples of answered prayer and can confirm God concerns Himself with the troubles that concern us even when things don’t turn out the way we wish; I prayed religiously for family members and friends who died of disease and begged God to improve tough situations only to see them get worse. Even when things went sideways, those times I didn’t think I’d make it through, God stood with me, bringing me out stronger and wiser than when the trouble began.

Whether it’s a flat tire, race riots, or someone running down children celebrating a holiday, calling God for help isn’t wasting your breath, it’s placing a problem into the most capable, loving hands one has ever known.