“A River Runs Through It” – Introduction

May 9, 2015

This marks the 8th year in which I’ve read Norman Maclean’s “minor classic” novella, A River Runs Through It. If you have never read the story (it is only a little over 100 pages long), but have seen the movie, then I will either surprise or confirm your suspicions of my intellectual pretensions by saying: the movie a more than decent adaptation of the book…but the book is still better.

Let me give you a little history of my experience with the story:

My first reading was in May of 2008, when my family’s dog, Otis, and I were staying with my Great Uncle Mike at his place way up in the mountains of West Virginia, along the south branch of the Potomac River. It was the beginning of the summer before my final year of college, and I knew everything. My express purpose for reading the story was in preparation for a seminar on Norman Maclean which I was taking in the fall, along with my four of closest friends, both at that time and to this day.

Fredand Otis
(Me, with my friend, back in 2008.)

Now you have two of the elements of why the story is important to me: I was going on a (mostly) fishing trip, and was preparing for an intellectual excursion with a group of trusted companions. But behind and before that is my upbringing, learning to fish from my father on this same stretch of river.

All of these things are appropriate, because the story is very much about fathers and sons and brothers. That those things are in the story, as well as in my reading and understanding of it, will likely be reflected in what I write about it here.

The story (along with a kind of companion story which is included in volume) has taken on additional meaning(s) as well, over the last few years. And I think this year will be no exception, which is what makes a book enduring in one’s mind, and worth reading time after time.

This year will probably be more spiritual or faith-based in what I take from it, I can already tell. Something more from my Heavenly Father, and my spiritual brothers (and sisters!), and in mind that only strengthens the foundation of love I have for the story already.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I expect to.


Preacher Man

Last week I spoke at the Atlanta Mission for the Wednesday night chapel service. There were about 40 people in attendance, including my girlfriend and the guys from my small group.

You can listen to my talk here: “Living in the Freedom of God’s Grace”

Or, if you’re like me, and are repulsed by the sound of my voice, here’s a brief summary of my talk…

I begin with a reading and discussion of the story of “Jesus and the Adulterous Woman,” as recorded in John 8. (For the past few weeks – months, really, at this point – this story keeps coming in discussions I’m part of, so I kind of figured God wanted me to use this somehow.)

Jesus’ words from that story are well-known, even if you didn’t know they are from this story:

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”


“Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

The first phrase is common rhetorical currency, even among non-Christians. The second phrase, which ends the story, is (in my opinion) widely preached though little practiced among Christ-followers. (I place myself in both categories – Christ-follower and non-practitioner of Jesus’ teaching here.)

I do not condemn you. I do not judge you. You’re free to go. And free to stop sinning.

You see, I am the adulterous woman. You are, as well. So is each and every one of us. The faces change, the sin is different, but the forgiveness is the same.

But here’s the thing, to my mind: WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?? The chapter ends with Jesus’ words. On one hand, what else do you, I, or anyone else need to say? Jesus’ words are the ultimate summation: “I do not condemn you.”

On the other, God’s grace and forgiveness requires that we accept it. Freedom from sin is a blessing, and a responsibility. It is serious. In fact, what could be more serious?

The remainder of the talk – which I called “The Application” – I used to discuss three things I believe are necessary to truly Live in the Freedom of God’s Grace. These are the things each of us must “do” after we have our “go and sin no more” moment.

1. Acknowledge – Psalm 32

This Psalm of David is, in my opinion and that of many people much more qualified to judge such things, perhaps the best scripture on the necessity and power of confession and forgiveness.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.[b]
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

My choice of the word “acknowledge” comes from verse 5, as you can see. But how perfect and powerful a word and an action. Acknowledge. Or “admit,” if you prefer. Own up to.

You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize and even feel the power of confession. “I’ve got to get something off my chest,” you might say to someone you have wronged. Doing so frees you from a burden.

Keeping silent only makes us waste away internally – morally – and the depression that often results from that has physical consequences as well.

Acknowledging our sin – saying “Yes, God. You’re right. I am wrong,” when He says “Go and sin no more.” That’s what He desires of us. Not in a “Let Me hear you say it, let Me see you beg” kind of way. Why would He? He’s already said “Neither do I condemn you.” Really, acknowledging sin is more for me, for you, for each of us as human beings as much or more as it is part of the act of forgiveness. (You can challenge me on this theologically…I admit I haven’t done lots and lots of hard thinking about that. So I might be partially right on this, at best.)

2. Accept – John 21: 15-19

My second point is drawn from the passage of scripture entitled “Jesus Reinstates Peter.”

Recall that, during Jesus “trial” and the events leading up to His crucifixion, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus predicted he (Peter) would.

I don’t know if the word “sin” even begins to touch on what Peter did. Try to imagine…Jesus is raised from the dead – as He said He would, as you, Peter, did not believe – and now you’ve got to, well, you’ve got to try to live down that whole denial thing. Maybe you’re hoping Jesus just doesn’t bring it up.

But He does. And He does so in the most personal way. It’s at once the most painful and most powerfully liberating way possible.

He asks Peter not once, not twice, but three times: “Peter, do you love me?”

Each time, in response, Peter says “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”

The three times, of course, mirrors Peter’s denial, a fact that John records for us. But more than that – and this is something I do not mention in my talk because it has just now occurred to me – Peter acknowledges Jesus’ omniscience (all knowing-ness).

When Jesus told Peter he (Peter) would deny Him (Jesus), what was Peter’s response? “Never, Lord!”

He was so insistent. He could not believe that Jesus could be right about that.

So Peter saying here “Lord, you know that I love you,” is Peter’s admission – or is it his recognition? – that Jesus, as the Son of God, truly knows all things.

I think in the same way that we must acknowledge our sin, to own to it, so must we perform an act of acceptance of it. It must be an ACTIVE acceptance, which brings me to the final point…

3. Act – Philippians 3:12-14

The final thing that we must do – not once and for all but constantly and consistently – is to Act, or take action.

I take this third point from two sources. The first is some thinking/writing that I did about Gratitude, back in a Thanksgiving blog post at the end of last year. In that I quote John Piper, from whom I first learned about the etymological relation of the words Grace and Gratitude. Apparently, writes Piper, they have the same root word in the ancient Greek.

Why do I think this matters? This means that the proper response to Grace is a life of Gratitude, or grateful action. We demonstrate our freedom in God’s grace by showing that same “Go and sin no more” spirit to others who have not yet heard it or experienced it.

The apostle Paul, in Philippians 3, writes:

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Both here and elsewhere, Paul acknowledges his sin, he accepts God’s grace, and he acts. He is “straining forward,” which I think is a recognition of the reality that God’s grace is never perfectly realized in any of us, same as he says “Not that I have already obtained this…”

Grace and forgiveness was purchased for us by Jesus’ death on the cross. And while our salvation can be assured through faith, I, for one, believe I have daily need to Acknowledge my sin, Accept that God’s grace is real and all-sufficient, and to then Act – boldly and consistently – from that spirit and attitude of gratitude.

God is working to make these things real for me, in spite of my best efforts to ignore Him many days.

Spilling and Pouring

If you read my last post, then you know how Wednesday, 2/4/15, started. Well, let me tell you how that day ended…

After work, I went to a charity social sponsored by the Atlanta United Way. “Charity social” could, of course, be called “cocktails for a cause.” I’ve got no problems reconciling interest and duty, in case you’re wondering.

This event had about 150 guests in attendance, so both space and hors d’oeuvres were at a premium. I was making my way among the crowd, shaking hands, kissing babies, and reminding people to vote early and often. (Don’t worry, I’ll be relieved of my smugness soon…)

As I tried to squeeze in between a few groups, I became “that guy” and bumped into a waiter carrying a tray of drinks – FULL of drinks – who was, at the very moment, standing over a table of people…including one very unlucky young lady.

All of the drinks…spilled…all over her. I don’t mean a glass of wine in her lap. Think of the frat house “trash can punch” version of an ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.” It was not as bad as you’re imagining it. It was worse.

It’s entirely possible Crayola will name a crayon after me and how I looked in the aftermath – “Fred Red.” I apologized over and over, gave the poor girl my business card, asked her to let me pay for her dry cleaning bill, then made like a tree. When you are “that guy,” you don’t stick around and see how much worse it can get.

(Note: As of this post’s publication, the unfortunate recipient of my clumsiness has not contacted me.)

I slept hard that night, having been shaken this way and that by my emotions, the ups and downs that the day brought. Mostly, I just wanted to put SpillGate behind me.

God had other ideas.

The next two days (February 5th and 6th) of readings from My Utmost for His Highest are a two-part series entitled “Are you ready to be poured out as an offering?”

Pouring, huh? Nice one, God. Not going to let me forget what happened, are you?

Both entries are as spiritually sobering (see what I did there?) as you might expect. Here are some examples:

Are you willing to sacrifice yourself for the work of another believer—to pour out your life sacrificially for the ministry and faith of others? Or do you say, “I am not willing to be poured out right now, and I don’t want God to tell me how to serve Him….



Tell God you are ready to be offered as a sacrifice for Him. Then accept the consequences as they come, without any complaints, in spite of what God may send your way.


Immediately my mind jumps to the new small group Bible study that I’m part of, and to the Starting Point group (kind of like a faith inquiry-type thing) that I’m helping to lead at church, and to other people that I just know God has brought into my life right now.

Suddenly it all makes sense. I felt like the “inner circle” of disciples who were with Jesus during His transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Me: “Yes, God! I get it! That whole spilling thing last night, yeah that was rough, and I feel bad for that girl, but that was a sign, wasn’t it?? You’ve got something for me to do, so let’s do this! You and me, God!”

(It’s like a metaphor, but it’s really happening!)

And then: “Wait…what’s that, God? Oh, there are more verses in the story?”

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Oh. So Peter kind of missed the point. And so did I.

Actually, I think it is “points,” plural, and they are as follows:

1. In my rush to want to “serve God,” I’m ignoring God Himself, and what He wants to teach me. It’s as though He is saying: “Don’t be so concerned with ‘doing something,’ just be still. Listen. Pay attention. If you’re really doing that, then rest assured you won’t miss any opportunities to do what I want you to do for me.”

Noted. Though probably not to the extent it should be.

2. We cannot stay on the figurative spiritual mountaintops of our lives. We do – and, as Christ-followers, must – live in the Valley, among the widows and the orphans, and with the lost and downtrodden and angry and the hurt. That is life. It’s not life that I’ve experienced, and I won’t pretend otherwise. But it is life that (likely) a majority of people in this world know.

The “transfigured” moments are special, and exist for our encouragement. God uses those times to “fill our cups to overflowing,” so that He may pour them out – pour us out, pour me out – in the times and ways He chooses.

Spilling is an accident – trust me, I know. Pouring is on purpose, and must be done in a measured, even timely, way. It is an act of will. And not my will, but God’s. Not in my way, but His.

The questions I’m praying my way through are:

• Do I believe that God can and will be everything and more that I can ever need and even desire? That even those “transfigured” moments are merely peaks on a mountain with no summit?
• Will I obey God, consistently, with no expectation of “reward” and even when those peaks are far behind me and with the next one out of sight?

Said another way: Can I reconcile God’s promise of perfect love with the knowledge that I must live in complete uncertainty of what He has planned for me?

I am, and always will be, afraid of the unknown and what seems to be out of my control. I will be weak from being poured out. I will be shamed by my failures – my “spills.”

But Jesus will be standing right there in front of me. Will I see Him? He will tell me to get up, and not to be afraid. Will I listen?

God of 2/4/15

This morning I left my house later than I should have to go to work, and the line of traffic was long. Neither of those things is unusual, in case you are wondering.

Almost as soon as I got into my office, the phone rang. It was Janet.

Janet is our company’s CFO, and she is an Accountant’s accountant. The numbers have to match down to seven decimal places. Details are her currency, life blood, and lover. She has a constant fear of auditors, regulations, and other such bureaucratic notions and concerns.


Now, I have a hard time with anything above basic math, and I may as well have a tattoo of the phrase “Eh, close enough!” on my arm. It’s my motto.

Basically, Janet and I are caricatures of people that will not get along in a professional setting. And lately I have felt as though my fast and loose ways are under special scrutiny from her magnifying glass and log books.

Back to the story…

So my phone rang, I saw that it was Janet, gave an exasperated “harrumph” and answered.

“Oh hi. Can you come down to my office? I need to see you about something,” she says. She never says that. That’s way too vague for her. She actually lacks the ability to be passive aggressive because such “confrontation” lacks the requisite detail.

“Of course, I’ll stop by in a few minutes,” I say, then wipe the Unctuous from the phone before setting it down.

I take my sweet time, shuffle a few papers, grab a cup of coffee, greet my other colleagues, and then head to Janet’s office. I’m already loaded for bear, a bandolier of “how dare you question that purchase!” bullets strapped across my chest.


It’s. About. To. Go. Down.

I walk in, at which she immediately smiles, hops up from her chair, and hands me a brown paper bag. It was a lunch sack. She had gone to a favorite deli of hers last night, and made me a special ham and turkey sandwich. The bag included chips, and an apple, and a cookie.

What could I say? Well I managed to say “thank you,” a bunch of times, in between her describing in CPA-like detail, in just the way she can, this deli, how she discovered it, the quality of the smoked turkey, etc.

Suddenly it was a beautiful moment, made even more so by the fact that, in my haste this morning, I forgot to grab something for lunch and would have otherwise spent $10 on food from our building’s cafeteria.

I’m reminded of my favorite selection from my favorite daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.

The selection is from January 9th, called “Intercessory Introspection.” It’s worth reproducing here at some length.

The great mystical work of the Holy Spirit is in the dim regions of our personality which we cannot get at. Read the 139th Psalm; the Psalmist implies – “Thou art the God of the early mornings, the God of the late at nights, the God of the mountain peaks, and the God of the sea; but, my God, my soul has further horizons than the early mornings, deeper darkness than the nights of earth, higher peaks than any mountain peaks, greater depths than any sea in nature – Thou Who art the God of all these, be my God. I cannot reach to the heights or to the depths; there are motives I cannot trace, dreams I cannot get at – my God, search me out.”

Do we believe that God can garrison the imagination far beyond where we can go?

Read the rest here: http://utmost.org/classic/intercessory-introspection-classic/

Personally, I love Chambers’ paraphrase of the 139th Psalm. But the original – at least the NIV translation of it – is good, too. I’ve cherry-picked a few verses from the chapter, and encourage you to read it in its entirety.

1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Read the rest here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+139&version=NIV

I’m quick to put people in “boxes,” people like Janet. It’s easier than trying to understand them, and appreciating the subtleties of their character, and loving them in ways that you can only do when you truly know them – the very ways that God demands we love each other.

Similarly, I try to put God, and his love for me, in a box. “Oh, well God doesn’t do that. He does this, and acts this way, and not that way. Ho-hum, I’m so wise, I know all about God.”

Then God washes my feet. Or has Janet bring me a sandwich. Sometimes, and some days – like on 2/4/15, that’s the same thing.


What’s the box look like, the box you’re trying to place God in? Who is your “Janet”? And what will God really do when I – when we – let him be the God he so desires to be for us?

Jesus, Webmaster Extraordinaire

This is another post I wrote for for the North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog, so it is only tangentially related to The Conditions of Success. But it was fun to write, and it deals with tactical steps toward success in this area of my life, so I consider it worth posting here. Hope you enjoy. -Fred

“Search Engine Optimization and Starting Point”

Last night was our Starting Point group’s first meeting, and my first experience as an Apprentice-Leader. Among the many comments from participants regarding “why they are here,” one received the most agreeing head nods from others in the room: “This church is relevant to my life.” As leaders, and likely long-time listeners to Andy’s sermons, we know that at an almost instinctual, maybe even taken-for-granted level.

God, and the church, must be seen as relevant to today’s Christ-followers and seekers. Relevance is neither a substitute for, nor necessarily an indication of, the presence of Truth, but our failure to take it into account as leaders of Starting Point groups, and as Christ-followers more generally, will only serve to undermine our belief and argument that ours is a God whose love does not change with time.

Having dispensed with that bit of “inside baseball,” here is a way to think of relevance as it applies to the Digital Age, and to that other (seemingly) all-seeing and all-knowing quasi-deity in our daily lives: Google.

There is an entire industry among online marketers known as Search Engine Optimization, or “SEO.” It’s the process – and an unending one, at that – of designing and populating websites in such a way as to make them appear higher on search engine rankings.

Now the SEO mavens among us may take some issue with this greatly over-simplified version of the main points of their tradecraft, but there are four widely accepted pillars of a quality website that is optimized for search engines, Google in particular. I think each of them bear direct relevance to our Starting Point groups in particular, as well as to our Biblical Great Commission.

1. Content – “Content is King,” so goes the phrase among bloggers and website producers. It’s true – there is no substitute for quality content, be it for websites, or the church. You can’t fake it (at least for very long), and you can’t create it quickly. But content that is unique, high-quality, and constantly fresh – not to mention relevant – is the only proven method for improving a website’s search ranking.

In a Starting Point environment, we as leaders must be work to present the truth of Christ’s love to each person in our group in their own way, with fidelity to scripture, and we must be prepared to do it week in and week out. There is no substitution for this step, which why it is ranked first in this list.

2. Links – SEO masters know the importance of having links on your site, as well as having links from outside sites to your own. There is both a quality and quantity aspect to this. In terms of quantity, think social media: if hundreds or even thousands of people are posting and re-posting a link to your site, that will improve your search ranking. But, like everything about social media, that is fleeting, unless you’re able to create and re-create that demand on a consistent basis. (Again with the relevance…). More permanent links, both into and away from your site, and to and from quality sources, are looked upon favorably by Google. On the “to” side, this is not easy. You can’t just call up another site owner, especially one with a lot of traffic, and get them to post a link to your site. They need reason to do so, and will want evidence that your site is of sufficient quality – and relevance! – for them to promote to their own audience.

As Starting Point leaders, we often find it necessary to create links – think “connections” – from other sources of information when trying to convey some important truth in one of the lessons. The credibility of the link or connection, in the mind of the participant we are talking to, is crucial. It could be something you’ve both read, a shared experience, or even a mutual friend or acquaintance. Rather than relevance, you might call this “relatability.” And remember: the number of links is important, as is the quality of them.

3. Popularity – the closest SEO equivalent of relevance, popularity cannot be faked. You’ve either got content that people want to view, or you don’t. Many SEO practitioners, depending on the subject matter of their website, attempt to “ride the news” cycle and create content based on what’s going on in the world. There is both an art and a science to this, and only truly quality content creators can do this both regularly and well.

As stated previously, popularity/relevance is not the determiner of Truth. The Starting Point curriculum and guide already does a great job of relating the faith to the most pressing questions of 21st century seekers, but always consider other ways that you, as a leader, can tailor the discussion to the specific needs and interests of those in your group.

4. Reputation – A good one takes a long time to create, yet it can be lost in an instant. None of us need to be told that the online world is fickle and often unpredictable. Something you wrote on a blog a long time ago could, due to some event, come back to draw positive attention to your site when you least expect it. But, once you’ve established an audience, the wrong content could ruin your reputation, and, ultimately – assuming bad publicity is actually bad, itself no longer a given – also your search ranking.

I won’t be so condescending as to give us a lengthy reminder about what your Starting Point group participants should or should not see you, as their leader, doing when you’re out and about on the weekends. I’m referring as much or more to your reputation within the walls of the Starting Point meeting room. The tone that each of us sets from the moment of first interaction, and every little action along the way, could make or break a participant’s willingness to engage further with their process of faith. I don’t mean to suggest that you and I ought to act as though we are walking on pins and needles, or to make overthink every little gesture or comment we’ve made, or forgotten to make – that’s not helpful. But this can serve as a reminder that little things can make add up to make an eternal difference.

You may have noted some significant overlap between and among the categories. They are not separate silos. Action or inaction, adeptness or ineptitude, in one category necessarily affects the others. Like SEO, our leadership in Starting Point, and as witnesses for Christ in general, requires a loving, long-term, integrated approach.

The Fear of Success

We all have a fear of failure, at some level, even if we’ve learned to recognize it before it shows up in our thoughts and actions and we’ve learned to push it down and bury it. That’s hard, and I’m nowhere near that place, even with the things I am “good” at. But what I’m more concerned with here is our Fear of Success.

That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why would you be afraid of something good, and (hopefully) beneficial, and what is surely the result of much time and hard work on your part? It can manifest itself in many ways: simple mistakes that you should no longer be making,  such as a failure to double-check the smallest details in your work. Or it can be more serious self-sabotaging behaviors, such as a social gaffe in an important meeting. “We as human beings have a tendency to get in our own way,” I’ve heard it said, I think by a former professor of mine, though I can’t recall precisely who it was. Those specific behaviors can be largely solved for by changes in mindset, added accountability, or other such safeguards that we can put in place. Essentially, they exist at a tactical level.

What I’m concerned with here is the Fear of Success that exists at the strategic level, points of demarcation along any path toward success. (There I go with the whole path and travel thing again, I know.) You can break it down to four broad areas, roughly linear progressions, that your inability – or refusal – to deal with make success not just uncertain, but impossible. Let’s call them “The Four Delimiters of Success,” which is kind of a crappy name, save that all four of these also start with “D,” so that alliteration makes it all okay in the end!

1. Defining It  – Our refusal to define success either broadly, or in a given situation, breaks down into a few possible reasons, some of which we would more easily admit to ourselves than others.
a. Afraid to be wrong – simple enough. It’s basically a fear of failure on a micro level.
b. Afraid of limiting ourselves – not really an excuse, unless you’re negotiating some sort of incentive structure for your annual bonus
c. Afraid of responsibility – if you put a stake in the ground, then you have to “own” that territory. Best to just avoid that, right?

2. Doing It – This is where the beautiful simplicity of Nike’s tagline comes in: Just Do It. Doing it, in this case, refers mostly to the starting of a process, because we all know that is the hardest part. Once you get going, momentum and inertia play an important role. The best thing I’ve read recently about “starting” is from Seth Godin:

Where to start

Start your first business this way: Begin with the smallest possible project in which someone will pay you money to solve a problem they know they have. Charge less than it’s worth and more than it costs you.


You don’t have to wait for perfect or large or revered or amazing. You can start.

That’s not an excerpt. That’s the entirety of what he wrote. Complete business plans and thoroughly validated financials are important – down the line. For now, Just Do It. Just start. We have too many tools available to us in the digital economy to make excuses about needing more money, or not being an expert, or not knowing where to begin…I’m talking as much or more to myself as anyone else here, understand, but anything other than getting started is just an excuse not to do it at all.

3. Dealing With It – I’m a little out of my realm of experience here, because how successful have I really been? Or maybe I’m just betraying my principles and thinking about this in terms of Money, Fame, and Power, of which I have little to none. But letting success “go to your head” can affect almost anyone, albeit on a local level. Whether it’s getting a date with that girl you’ve been interested in for months, finishing a well-executed project at work, or even something like buying (leasing, perhaps) that car you’ve been wanting, there are small ways that we get a little too big for ourselves, and those around us can take notice.

Conversely, faux-humility and overly self-effacing behavior is its own kind of problem, because you can end up resenting yourself and others if you don’t take a little time to appreciate your success (whatever it is), and then think seriously about what it took to get you to that point, in the hopes of repeating it. Proportion is the key element here – understand the importance of a success in context of your entire life and the world in which you live. Not allowing your high moments to get too out of control helps ensure your low moments don’t get you down more than they should.

4. Doing It (Again) – If you get to this point, now you’re left with the “What’s next?” question. It could be from those around you – say, your boss – or it could be, perhaps more aggravatingly, from your self.

I could not find a good clip of it on YouTube, but if you’re familiar with the movie Zero Dark Thirty, recall the scene where the main character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, as the only passenger on the military transport plane, is asked by the pilot, “So where do you want to go?” She breaks down into tears. She doesn’t know. How can she? She’s spent over a decade doing nothing but chasing down Osama bin Laden, and now he’s dead. Her work – her life’s work, to this point, is complete.

Maybe this example is a bit melodramatic for you, and for most of us. But that question – where do you go now? – is a real one that each of us has to contend with as part of our success. For the hard-working and high-performing among us, the issue is not complacency. It’s that the “high” you experienced with success is difficult to get back. And with respect to Mr. Godin, the injunction to “Repeat” usually isn’t enough. (Sidenote: I don’t think that he thinks that “repeating success” is as simple as repeating a process, only that the process of starting a business is likely not as complicated as we might think it to be.)

Right now I don’t have a good “three step process” I’ve read about for overcoming all this. This best I can give you is the importance of understanding this tendency in ourselves as humans, and of your responsibility to recognize the tendency in yourself in your specific circumstances.

As for what’s next: I’m working on a “Case Study,” which details my experience with my first real professional project, which was “widely” considered to be a success, and how it led to much of my thinking here, including the title of this project, “The Conditions of Success.” I’ll leave it yo you to decide whether it is biography, hagiography, or just therapy.

More soon…


“Militarizing” the Church?

This is a post I wrote for North Point Ministries’ “Starting Point” leader blog. Starting Point is a ministry for new Christians, or these seeking answers about faith, and I’m co-leading my first group starting in late January. There are a few “inside baseball” references, so please pardon those.

Starting Point and “The Art of War”

Yes, I dare to bring Eastern philosophy into my first post on the Starting Point leader group blog. So edgy and dangerous am I…

If you do not know, Sun-Tzu is the name of the author (or, according to some historians, a name for a collection of authors) of the ancient Chinese guide to strategy known today as The Art of War. No doubt you are least familiar with the title, if not the concepts, so I won’t give any lengthy explanation save to say that it is considered perhaps the greatest work of strategic assessment, specifically as it relates to military conflict.

As Christ-followers, we believe in the idea of spiritual warfare, a battle against Satan for the hearts and souls of our fellow man and woman. So as leaders in a ministry that caters specifically to those at or near the cusp of Faith, we should see ourselves as front line troops, and even the Generals that Sun Tzu refers to throughout.

At the very beginning of the work, Master Sun describes the five essential initial estimations that one must make prior to committing forces to battle. I see in these assessments some direct relation that we as leaders can make of our participants, especially in the early meetings, in order to stand the greatest chance of “victory” or “success” during the eight weeks our group meets.

The Five Assessments:

1. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) – Don’t worry, C.S. Lewis made this term safe for Christianity in The Abolition of Man, and defines it so:

“[The] way in which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”


“[Recognition] of an objective value or response to an objective order.

Think about how fundamental that is: if someone in your group does or does not recognize an eternal, universal moral order – explicitly Christian or not – you’ve learned something very important. The degree to which they do or do not believe in that order, the Tao, let alone try to live their life within it, necessarily changes how you may try to reach them during Starting Point.

2. Heaven – Finally, a term we’re comfortable with! By “heaven,” Sun Tzu means “the constraints of the seasons.” Remember that the rainy season or the dry season, summer or winter, were, in pre-modern warfare, important elements to consider. Just ask Napoleon.

As leaders, we must attempt to recognize the “Seasons of Life” (to borrow Charles Swindoll’s phrase) that our group members are in. Someone who is going through a divorce, or a recent job loss, or the death of a loved one, just to name a few such difficult events, is in a different “season” from someone who has none of those things to fight against, mentally and emotionally.

3. Earth – Translated and defined as “the terrain,” think of this topographically in terms of mountains or bodies of water that an ancient army had to cross. If you march 10,000 even well-trained men across a desert and a mountain range, they’re going to be tired when they arrive at the enemy’s city gates.

Similarly, we as leaders must assess the “terrain” of our group members: for example, their character and experiences. You could argue some similarity to “Heaven” here, and I’ll concede my argument is not air-tight, but in general I think the terrain to be more immutable features of the individual’s “landscape” that could be further accentuated by the particular season they are in. But the point is, there are elements beyond just the changing seasons to be aware of and contend with.

4. The General – This one hits home. Or it should anyway, because it’s you. And me. And our fellow leaders. Sun Tzu says that “The general encompasses wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, and strictness.”

You could make your own list of the virtues that a good Starting Point leader should have, but that’s not a bad one to begin with. Do you possess any of them? How about your Apprentices and Co-Leaders? Look for ways to act within your strengths as a General, and to let your fellow leaders in the group act on theirs, as they likely shore up your weaknesses.

5. Military Organization and Discipline – I beg your mental indulgence, as this one is kind of stretch to stay within my framework. The author calls this the “organization of material resources.”

A responsibility that we as leaders have is to run a well-organized group. Even a group that “gels” well together during each session could be detracted from by poor administration behind the scenes. That can ruin the collective experience or that of an individual. As someone who tends to think “big picture” and focuses getting the larger ideas right, I can tend to overlook details. So I’m especially cognizant of this one. (Huh, maybe this one was not as much of a stretch as I thought?)

“There are no generals who have not heard of these five. Those who understand them will be victorious, those who do not understand them will not be victorious,” says Sun Tzu. As a general in Starting Point, perhaps you had not “heard of these five” until now. But now you have have.

I asked Teesha McCrae, Starting Point Coordinator at Buckhead Church, how she defines “success” for a Starting Point group. What she wrote should serve as our basis for determining “victory.”

If you assume faith is on a continuum, with atheism or agnosticism all the way to the left and the mature Christ follower at the right, with the point of conversion in the middle, then “success” is defined as any movement to the right.

I like it. Maybe you’ve heard that from her before. And while this primer in the Art of War and its strategic assessments do not guarantee “success” or “victory,” even in the terms she suggests, I think it’s a starting point (yeah, I went there) for us as leaders that, when added to prayer, could see us through this 8-week battle in the midst of our Spiritual War.