Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Looking For Whales In All The Wrong Places

One of the last places I expected to go in 2015 was Alaska, but lo and behold, crazy things happen and a few weeks ago I found myself flying to Alaska for work.

If you're open to it, God will take you to places you never thought you'd end up. Do yourself a favor and don't waste those opportunities.

One of the first things I grabbed when I landed in Dutch Harbor, Alaska – the place where Deadliest Catch is filmed – was one of those tourist pamphlets that tell you about all the cool things you need to do while you're there.

The port of Dutch Harbor is located on the island city of Unalaska (I don’t know why a city in Alaska is called Unalaska, so don’t ask me) and one of the things that caught my attention in the brochure was that humpback whales hang out in Unalaska Bay, which was right behind my hotel, in July and August before migrating south for the rest of the year.

I have never seen a whale outside of SeaWorld so this was kind of a big deal, and I was determined to see at least one during my eight-day stay in Alaska.

One night, I walked over to the bay around 8:00 p.m. (During the summer, the sun doesn’t set in Alaska until around 11 p.m. It’s weird.) and walked along the shore until I found a big rock with a smooth enough surface to sit on. I sat and looked out at this large body of water, my eyes fixed straight ahead to where the bay leads into the Bering Sea. I didn't want to blink and miss a whale breach or come up for air or whatever else these playful humpback whales might do, so I tried to keep my blinking to a minimum. 

And then I waited. 

A few minutes passed by, then half an hour and then an hour and now I started to feel the wind start to pick up and the temperature start to dip – 'flip-flop weather' for an Alaskan, which is somewhere in the lower 60s, is still chilly for most Miamians. And still, no sign of a single whale... and I started to think maybe all this whale stuff was a trick by the locals to attract tourists to their little island 800 miles away from Anchorage.

I looked at my phone and saw that it was 9:15 p.m. and told myself if I didn’t see a whale in the next 15 minutes, I’d call it quits and try again the next day. That’s when I heard something off to the distance on my left, way out of my line of sight.

I started to walk along the rocky shore towards the other side and saw some people standing by the side of the read next to their pulled-over cars, looking out towards this thin inlet that led into the bay. Then I saw what looked like a puff of smoke coming out of the water accompanied with a faint whoosh – the sound that had grabbed my attention moments earlier. And then another and another.

Before I knew it, I was looking at a pod of at least dozen humpback whales swimming across the inlet into the far side of Unalaska Bay, coming up for breaths of air on this early summer evening. Some of the whales, as they prepared to dive deep, would reveal their flukes before disappearing below the surface.

I was mesmerized, watching from shore as these magnificent creatures just hung out in Unalaska Bay, mere hundreds of feet away from where I stood. I couldn’t believe I was here – just a few months earlier, this would have been a moment I never would have imagined possible. Yet, here I was. It’s a memory I’ll never forget, and one I’ll be thanking God for for a very long time.

But I never would have experienced that moment if I kept sitting on that rock, focusing on the same spot of unmoving water with eyes and ears closed off to everything else happening around me.

Sometimes, we do the same thing in life – we’re looking for something and we’re looking for it in a certain direction, expecting it to just show up at some point and finding… nothing. More often than not, we lose a lot more than just an hour of time.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I had my sights focused on a particular thing when God was gently urging me somewhere else to experience something else – something better. Come and see what I’m doing over here. Come and see how I want to use you in this area of your life right now. Come and see.

We have to be willing to lift our heads, take off the blinders and look around with eyes wide open and ears ready to listen. Sometimes we're looking for the right things in the wrong places.  The whales of our lives aren't always where we expect them to be. You never know what might be hanging out around the corner.    

Thursday, July 30, 2015

4 Ways To Refresh Your Goals

“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.” - Proverbs 16:3

* * * * * * *

Flashback: It’s New Year’s Eve. I spent the last two to three weeks planning and brainstorming new goals for a new year. It’s usually one of my favorite times of the year: the promise of a clean slate and a chance to start over.

And that was especially so for this New Year’s. I was hopeful that I’d make great strides forward spiritually, mentally, physically and relationally. And now I had a list of goals to strive for that would help me closer to where I wanted to be. It was gonna be awesome!

Fast forward a few months: I glance up at that list for probably the first time in two or three months and I cringe looking over it. It was like making awkward eye contact with that person you were once great friends with but you’ve been avoiding for them, making excuse after excuse for not making it out to T.G.I. Fridays for endless appetizers.

There’s good news, though: summer is the perfect time to revisit some of those dusty goals. Summer is our halftime. Katy Perry and Left Shark are out on the field performing a few songs while we sit in the locker room, take a breather and make adjustments for the second half.

Maybe the first half didn’t go as you hoped it did: There were some changes at work that you had to navigate through. Your car betrayed you and you had throw money at it or on a new car, putting a huge dent on your financial plans. Or, let’s be real, sometimes we just don’t feel like following through on some of those goals.

If you’re on that "It’s-The-Middle-Of-The-Year-And-I’m-Way-Off-Track" island with me, we don’t have to toss all of our goals into the dumpster with last year’s goals.

Whether you have three goals or 57 of them (if that’s you, you should probably trim that list a bit -- more on that later), go down your list and consider these four options for each goal. Hopefully it'll help you get your goals, and you, back on track:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Find Your Subway: Why Your Small Platform Matters

Photo courtesy of Rico Albarracin 
When I visited New York for the first time last fall, I could barely go more than a city block or a subway stop without running into an aspiring artist, musician or performer of some kind.

A guy belting out on a saxophone at a subway stop. A young opera singer performing under a bridge in Central Park. One older gentleman was even banging on a couple of large empty buckets like they were bongo drums.

Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people pass right in front of these subway musicians and street performers everyday. Most of them probably pay them little attention, street performers being as common as street lights in the city that never sleeps.

If the performers are lucky, a few pedestrians stop and listen for a few minutes until their train arrives. And if they’re luckier still, a fraction of those who listen will drop in some spare change and loose dollars.

I’m sure many of them dream about landing on a bigger stage. Or maybe they just love to play. Both could be true. Regardless, they found a subway or street corner and decided to let the world hear what they had to offer.

Maybe your subway is a little online business you created, a blog you started or a little studio where you display your art. It could be the job you go to everyday.

If you haven’t found your own subway yet, here’s why you should:

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted by a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany in the 1990s that observed the habits of a group of violin students. All of the subjects, who began playing at five years old, were asked the same question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

All the violinists performed roughly the same number of hours over the first several years of playing, but beginning at around 8-years-old the practice hours began to diverge and an interesting observation was made: the elite violinists of the group had put in 10,000 hours by the time they were 20 years old while the rest had played considerably less.

10,000 hours. That’s how long it takes to become an expert at a particular subject or skill. Put it another way: If, starting today, I decided to practice piano for two hours every day, it would take me about 13-and-half years to become an expert pianist.

Makes you kinda wish that download feature in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves learns kung fu in a matter of seconds was real, doesn’t it?

In New York, I wondered how many days, months or even years some of those subway performers had been out there for. Some of them were extremely talented, capturing my attention and the attention of others who happened to walk by. That kind of talent and ability doesn't happen by accident. Getting good at something demands a commitment to consistency -- a willingness to keep showing up in the same spot and keep putting in the work.

Once we find out what we want to do and why we want to do it, we have to find a place to actually do it. We can't become an expert unless we find our own subway -- a place where we can do our thing, receive feedback from others and put in the hours we need.


If 10,000 hours of doing X, Y, or Z sounds intimidating, that’s because it is. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in that subway of yours. And as you put in your hours, you’re going to realize one of two things: you really do love that thing you’re doing... or you don’t love it as much as you thought you did. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are times where I don’t necessarily feel like writing and would rather do something else. There are even parts of the writing process I don’t really (e.g. I loathe transcribing interviews).

How did I figure out writing was my thing?

  1. I weighed what I loved and didn’t love about writing. The former outweighed the latter.
  2. I wrestled with my motivations and figured out my ‘why’ (honestly, I still regularly do this).
  3. I figured out I can’t not write. It’s part of who God created me to be.

Writing is a part of my worship. When I’m not writing, I feel like something is missing. That’s how I know this is what I want to do. That’s why I’m still working on my 10,000 hours.

Maybe this thing you want to try isn’t for you. But maybe it is. The only way to find out is to go find a subway, and do your thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Going Jonah

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” - Jonah 1:1-2

God gave Jonah pretty clear instructions. He wanted to use Jonah. He called him out for this mission in order to warn Nineveh and give the city's people a chance to turn things around.

But instead of doing what God asked him to do, Jonah went AWOL. He "ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord." (Jonah 1:3, emphasis mine)

I mean, Jonah didn’t even stop to ask God to send someone else or at least attempt to give God some reasons why he wasn’t the man from the job. He just looked for the nearest exit and booked it.

I don’t know why Jonah ran. Maybe it was fear; fear of what the Ninevites would do to him after delivering God’s warning to them. It could have been laziness; Jonah might not have felt like fulfilling this responsibility. Or it could have been indifference; maybe Jonah didn’t like or care enough about Nineveh -- If Nineveh’s going down, so be it, he might have thought.

Whatever the reason, Jonah decided he wanted nothing to do with God’s plan for Nineveh and took his chances going on the run. But the reluctant messenger quickly found out that you can’t outrun God. Hopefully for most of us, it won’t take a giant fish or a whale to figure that out.

Many times, I’ll go Jonah on life. I’ll do exactly what Jonah tried to do and run from my responsibilities. Instead of doing what I know God has called me to do, or at least trying to find out what to do next, I’ll run as far and as fast as I can.

While you and I might not end up inside the belly of a fish, we’ll end up in the belly of something else -- maybe isolation, toxic places or relationships, or even just exhaustion from trying to running for so long with nowhere to run to. When we run away from where God wants us to be, we end up in places we shouldn't be.

And, like Jonah, we have two choices when we find ourselves trapped in the belly of a difficult situation: turn around or stay there.

“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry… When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple,” Jonah cried out from inside that fish (Jonah 2:2, 7).

And then God commanded the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land. And Jonah went straight for Nineveh. I think he got the message.

In the belly of his dire situation, Jonah discovered what we all do when we run away: God is always right there. We can’t outrun His love, grace or mercy. We can’t outrun Him. God is not finished with you or me just yet. He never is.

He’s ready to take us into His arms again and steer us back on course once we turn back towards Him. Like the father in the prodigal son parable, He’ll meet us where we are and bring us back into the fold. We don’t just run to God; He runs to us, too.

Where is your Nineveh? What job or responsibilities are you trying to run away from? Who are the people you’re called to love and serve despite not really feeling like it? What dream or side hustle have you been neglecting in favor of a modern-day Tarshish called “Netflix”?

Let’s listen to God the first time around. Let’s do what He says. Let’s go to Nineveh.     

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Doing The Right Thing

Doing the right thing was easy in elementary school.

Share your toys. Turn in that lost sweater you found in the cafeteria to the lost and found. Do your homework. Don’t bite the other kids in class.

Simple. Easy. At least most of it was. Things are a little different now.

Doing the right thing now means making hard decisions; decisions I was hoping I could dodge, delay or ignore.

Doing the right thing means swallowing that big ol’ pill labeled pride, even though chugging a glass full of Pepto Bismol seems like a more enjoyable experience.

Doing the right thing means letting go of things I never really wanted to let go of, accepting that some things a lot of things are out of my control.

Doing the right thing means extending grace -- letting go of my right to be offended and angry and truly forgiving people, just as I’ve been forgiven for my own missteps.

Doing the right thing means saying "I was wrong. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"

Doing the right thing means owning up to the decisions (or non-decisions) and mistakes I’ve made and accepting the consequences that come with them.

Doing the right thing means staying put even though everything in me wants to run away. Or, on the flip side, stepping aside when I need to get out of the way. And knowing which option is the appropriate one.

Doing the right thing means rejoicing with those who are rejoicing, even though I don’t feel like rejoicing with them at all.

Doing the right thing means forfeiting comfort so that others might experience comfort for the first time.

Doing the right thing is somehow different now… it isn’t always going to be as obvious as not kicking the kid sitting next to me in kindergarten and stealing his crayons.

Doing the right thing isn’t as easy as it used to be. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing, because it requires me to surrender my own feelings, my own desires and my very self. It takes honor to do the right thing. It takes sacrifice. It takes courage.

And there's usually no expiration date on doing the right thing. It'll make itself known and then kind of sit there in our lives, waiting for us to act on it. If we don't, we can go weeks, months or years with the "right thing" weighing down on us.  

I have a choice. We all do. We can do the right thing, whatever that might look like in the circumstances we find ourselves in, or avoid it. 

I hope I choose to do right, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.