Friday, May 23, 2008

The good luck algorithm.

The good luck algorithm.

I recently had the opportunity to hear an MIT professor speak at a conference. The topic of her discourse was casinos and it was terribly fascinating. Honestly, some of the things she told us were pretty startling. There was one idea in particular that I have been unable to shake and that is, the "good luck algorithm."

You see, casinos gather reams and reams of information about the people that play in them. They study the ergonomics of the slot machines, the impact of different lighting systems, the number of times a certain type of person will play a certain type of game, etc. But the scariest thing they measure is something called your "pain point."

That's a phrase they use to describe your threshold for abuse. A pain point represents how much money you can lose before you'll get up and leave. A pain point represents how taken advantage of you will be before you exit the casino. A pain point represents your breaking point.

Why do they measure it? So they know when to start the "good luck algorithm."

Here is how it works: When you hit your pain point, casinos see that happening and will set in motion a process to win you back. Suddenly, as you walk down the long carpeted hall to the exit, someone taps you on the shoulder "randomly." They say, "excuse me, we just wanted to thank you for being such a loyal supporter of the casino. Would you like a free steak dinner and a coupon for five turns on a slot machine?" You smile a little. The pain starts to melt away. "Hey," you think, "maybe this place isn't so bad after all." You walk back in and start to play again.

The reason I mention this story is that I think the devil works the same way. Not that casinos are demonic, but that the devil has his own algorithm, the "bad luck algorithm." When things are going well in your life, when things are moving along smoothly, suddenly someone taps you on the shoulder, "Hey, Mark, is that you? It's me Pamela, we dated in college? Wow, it's been so long, you still look great. Haven't lost those college muscles." Or maybe it's just the opposite, in the midst of a really challenging time, you see the chance for some momentary escape. A sign for a strip club suddenly feels larger and more inviting than it used to. The chance to buy those shoes and never tell your husband about the money suddenly materializes. Some temptation dances it's way magically across your field of vision. In an obvious way. In a subtle way, it doesn't matter.

Wherever you are, remember, the tap on your shoulder is never accidental. It's never coincidence. It's never "just one of those things."

It's the bad luck algorithm. And if you're not careful to tell God you need help with the math of your life, the odds are going to be stacked against you.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What the barber taught me accidentally.

What the barber taught me accidentally.

I am not fancy. You might think I am, but I am not. I shop the clearance section of Marshall's, eat 97 cent Totino's pizzas and get my haircut at "Fan Favorites." That's not really the name of the store but in order to share what I am about to share, I needed to switch it up a little.

Things are kind of crazy right now. Some cool stuff is happening on the book end. Some really awesome, smart people are asking me for advice. Some opportunities I have always dreamed about are opening up. But, amidst all of that, is the temptation to get drunk on the idea of doing something "big."

I will undoubtedly share this on stuff christians like someday (and feel like I have written about this idea before), but for you faithful few, here is the idea I am talking about. I often think that in order for my faith to "count," I have to do something "big" for God. I have to change the world. I have to win a whole country to Him. I have to shake the very foundation of the earth with what I am able to accomplish.

The problem is, when you think that way, you start to define your faith and your life and your worth that way. If no one ever reads my blogs again, then I am not a good Christian. If the book does not get published, I have failed God. If I don't ever speak at the Catalyst Conference, then this was all a waste.

But recently, a barber at Fan Favorites changed that for me.

Fan Favorites is one of those sports-themed places where 98 televisions are blaring ESPN and there are sports posters all over the place. The other day I went in and the woman cutting my hair started to tell me about her life. In a matter of minutes, she told me that her husband of 30 years had left her 6 weeks ago. The pain and hurt in her was palpable and although I certainly didn't push, she continued to share. From a voice that sounded gray, if that's possible, she told me about how things fell apart. She told me the sadness. She told me the regret.

When she was done, I told her the best marriage truth I had ever heard:
The one thing men want above all is to know that they are enough. That their masculinity, their power, their value, their strength is enough for their wife.

The one thing women want above all is to know that they are not too much. That they can be as big and as beautiful and as powerful as God made them without overshadowing a man who is too fragile or insecure.

I didn't tell her to fix her marriage or what the Bible says about divorce. I just shared an idea with her, but when I did, it was like a fuse was lit.

"Yes!" she said, "He didn't want me to go back to school. He didn't want me to have my own friends or outside interests." She paused, "Since we've been apart I have started taking care of myself and have lost weight and started to make new friends." She started to get happy and by the time I left, this once shy, pain stricken barber was shouting to me when I was at the door, "You look great. It is a great haircut because I am a great stylist!"

I didn't change her life. She and I didn't figure out divorce or come up with a plan that other people should follow. This post isn't really even about divorce. This is about realizing that for God and for us, it's about people. Not selling books, not selling out speaking gigs, not getting big or successful. It's about loving on people.

That's what I felt like God said in that moment, "See Jon, I'm glad that more people are reading your sites, but that's not what the goal should be. The goal should be loving on people. That conversation with that barber is every bit as world changing as writing a book. Don't ever underestimate the power of a personal conversation."

And that's what the barber helped me learn.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Michael Jordan and the Prodigal Son and Me.

Michael Jordan and the Prodigal Son and Me.

I met Michael Jordan one summer while he was golfing at a country club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. My uncle and his family lived on the golf course and I was spending a few weeks there before I started the seventh grade.

When word spread that Jordan and a gang of other important people in the clubhouse that morning we all went down to get a closer look. This was before Jordan became human. Before the gambling and his father’s murder and the failed baseball experiment and the infidelity. Jordan was a God at the time and I had a Nike swoosh mark shaved into the back of my head to prove it. I told everyone in Pinehurst that summer that I had my haircut that way as a tribute to a friend in Boston that had been shot and killed for a pair of Air Jordans.

I’m not sure why I lied like that. In the ninth grade after I shaved stripes in my left eyebrow (insert your own Vanilla Ice joke here) I told everyone I knew that my neighbor Kerri Kapapolous had done it while I was asleep. She yelled at me in front of my whole world in the cafeteria during lunch. For at least a week I spent my lunchbreak in the school library pretending to read the paper because when it was unfolded and held upright in your hands it offered a pretty good hiding place.

Maybe I’m like Samson, razors bring out the worst in me, but Michael Jordan didn’t know any of that. Neither did Dean Smith or Dr. J, who were with him.

They all signed the back of the shirt as well as a couple of random rich looking white guys. If I ever become a random rich guy and I’m having dinner with Lebron James and some awkward eighth grader comes to the table and asks me for my autograph cause he assumes I’m famous too I hope I’d say “You don’t want my autograph kid, I’m just a random rich guy.”

Later that day with the autographed shirt safely tucked in a drawer I went back down to the clubhouse. It had been 3 or 4 hours and I wanted to see if I could get Jordan’s autograph on a piece of paper to frame.

The party had already finished golfing and all the fans had gone home. I saw Jordan walking to his car in the parking lot. I ran out after him and said “excuse me Mr. Jordan, can I please have your autograph?”

He stopped in his tracks and turned, a golf bag resting high on shoulders that towered over me. With a look that froze opponents across the planet he said “didn’t I already sign you kid?”

Life is Limited
In the real world, in parking lots in Pinehurst, North Carolina, life is limited. Your hero turns to you and tells you that he’s not going to give you another autograph. Your hero tells you he remembers you and that you’re not getting a second signature, the only thing you want that day. That stupid summer, with a lopsided swoosh mark growing back in the back of your head and a mouth full of lies.

Sometimes I think God is like that. Bothered by me, tired of my requests for his time, even if it’s just 3 seconds for him to sign off on some prayer I’m saying or need I’m sure I can’t live without.

He’s on his way somewhere important after a round of golf with Moses and Elijah or Elisha whichever one plays. I’m chasing him down in the parking lot. He turns with his big God golf clubs and he looks down at me. And he says in that massive voice of his “Didn’t I already forgive you kid?”

Forgiveness is the thing I ask for the most. In my head maybe I know that God’s forgiveness is eternal and inexhaustible but in my heart I feel like he’s going to run out of them. That he’s got a limited supply. And I’m burning them up, one by one, sin by sin.

The Day After the Party
I’ve read the story about the prodigal son more than anything else in the Bible. If you’ve messed up life like I have it’s a pretty good read. I think when you get arrested they should read you that to you right after your Miranda rights. Imagine you’re in the car handcuffed and the cop in the passenger seat is just up there with the NIV version. I think that’d be a nice way to take a little sting out of going to jail.

Part of the reason I’ve read that story so many times though is that I think there’s something missing from it. I feel like there’s some verse or passage that I might have skipped that makes the whole thing make sense. It seems too good to be true. The prodigal son takes his inheritance, blows it on fast living, ends up in a pig pen and then gets a party thrown for him when he returns home. I’ve always wondered what the day after the party was like:

The first rays of sunshine crept across the floor and landed on a pile of party favors being swept up by a servant. A welcome home banner was being taken down and across the house the sounds of morning reverberated.

In his old bedroom, the prodigal son rolls over and slowly opens his eyes. He’d dreamt it so often, dreamed of this place so often he didn’t believe it was real. Those nights in the dark, curled under a bush or beside the barn when his money was gone and his hope with it, he’d wondered if he’d ever know safety again. He sat up, surprised to find himself there, laughing at the memories of the night before. The feast, the party, the ridiculousness of it all. His family that celebrated his return as if his absence had only increased their love for him, amplified it. There was a knock on the door. He had a door again, that was something he had missed.

The head of a servant peered in:

“Sir, your father is waiting for you in the kitchen.” This servant didn’t go to seminary either and didn’t seem that concerned that in Biblical times “kitchen” was definitely the wrong word to use.

With a yawn and a scratch of his head the prodigal son got up. He put on his clothes and made his way to the kitchen. There at a small table sat his father.

“Sit down son.” He said, motioning to a chair across from him.

“Thank you for the party father. I never expected that and …”

“Son, we need to go over the list.” His father said, interrupting him.

“The list?”

“Yes” he replied, touching a large pile of blank paper with his hand. “We need to make a list of all the money you spent, all the mistakes you made and all the people you hurt. Then we need to figure out how you start repaying your debt.”

“I had a plan father. I had plan when I was walking home but when I saw you running I didn’t think I’d need it. At the party I forget what my plan was.” The son said, with a voice of shame and sorrow that had taken but a brief hiatus during the previous night’s celebration.

“Well, you’ve got the rest of your life for it to come back to you.” The father said taking out a pen and writing “family inheritance” at the top of the list.

I would say that most of my life this is how I would have written the second part of that story, the directors cut if you will, an alternative ending that was too harsh for the version they released in the Bible.

The father’s anxious sprint toward the lost son doesn’t make any sense. That’s not how life works. People pay for their mistakes. They don’t get a party for them. When you return home from wasting your inheritance on the world your father says “didn’t I already bless you kid?” End of story.

I don’t understand forgiveness and it’s always depressing to me when I read a book that tells me that’s the first step of the Christian walk, believing that God forgives you. If I can’t get past that first step than the rest of it, all the rest of it remains completely closed to me.

It’s not that I think I don’t need forgiveness. I just don’t understand how it’s possible. If I can’t earn it, than it’s out of my control and I’m powerless.

I remember the first time I ever knew how outrageous and insane real forgiveness was. I had gotten myself into some serious trouble at work. The kind of trouble that’s so big and ugly it makes you ashamed that there are people in your life close enough to you to get some of the trouble spilled on them. I wanted to push everyone away, to expel people from the planetary system that was me and just go float somewhere and die.

I called my wife on the phone and told her as much.

“I’m sorry you met me.” I said through angry, frightened tears. I was desperate for her to go, to pull away from me so I could inflict pain on only one person. The person I felt deserved it the most. Me.

“I love you.” She yelled through the phone.

“How can you say that? That doesn’t make any sense.” I responded.

“You don’t get to decide who I love. I love you. That’s my decision. You can’t take that away from me. I love you. I choose to love you.” She repeated words like these over and over again. She attacked me with love that day. And forgiveness I didn’t deserve. Forgiveness I couldn’t earn or make sense of.

I was overwhelmed that day. And I think that was such a thin sliver of what God’s forgiveness is like, how big and nonsensical is love is. I heard a minister once say that his forgiveness, God’s grace is given wastefully. He pours it out on us in such abundance that it’s almost wasteful.

The tenth party
I have to confess that most days I still think there’s a list God will ask me to work through the day after he throws me that welcome home party. I have a hard time understanding how something can be true and illogical at the same time. And so much of God is that way.

But some days, when I least expect it, in ways I can’t control, I believe a different day after for the prodigal son.

The first rays of sunshine creep across a dusty road and grate against the eyelids of the prodigal son trying to sleep uncomfortably on a bed of gravel. His teeth felt dirty, his mouth and hands stained with the red of cheap wine. A long scratch ran across his cheek, a shoe was angled beneath his head for a pillow. How many times did this make he thought from the part inside him that still remembered returning home. He was doing so well, things were so happy but his never agains always seemed to fail him in the end. How long would he be gone this time?

Miles away, an anxious father stands by the front window of his house.

“Sir, I checked his bedroom and the barn. His things are missing. He’s left.”

“I know.” The father says with sad eyes.

And then with slow steps he walks to a large closet and motions to the servant.

“Help me with this Welcome Home Banner.” He said pulling one from a pile of a thousand.

“Today could be the day he returns.”

(I wrote this about a year ago and took it down off my blog but a few folks asked for it to return. So despite it being really long, I put it back up.)