Tag Archives: journal of student ministries

the seduction of balance, part 2

i wrote an article on balance for the journal of student ministries a number of months ago, and have been waiting an appropriate time before i can post it here also. seems it’s been long enough.

in part 1, i wrote about “theologizing balance” and “teeter-totter balance”.

here’s part two:

the seduction of balance

Discipleship as Edge-Craft

Three books in particular have shaped my thinking on this:

Purple Cow
In Seth Godin’s easy-to-read, brilliant book about marketing, Purple Cow, he makes a case for the fringe. All good ideas, says Godin, come from the fringe, from the edges. This term, by the way, comes from the business-development world where “edge-crafting” has become a buzzword.

Godin builds his case on a silly little experience: He was driving in England, and saw a field of black-and-white cows. He thought they were beautiful, and, as it wasn’t a scene he saw everyday, something to behold. But as he drove, he saw more and more of these fields, filled with more and more of the same kind of cows. They grew boring in their sameness.

As he continued to drive, he wondered what might catch his attention amidst the myriad black-and-white cows. The image that came to mind was that of a purple-and-white cow. Whether it was off on its own, or right in the middle of one of the herds, that would be something to notice!

Godin goes on to apply this simple insight to the worlds of business and marketing. In our world of overwhelming data, only the truly unique stands out and gets noticed.

We’ve made the gospel—even Jesus—a black-and-white cow. Our obsessions with balance and sameness (which, while different, are closely related) truncate the uniqueness of a passionate, consuming, unordinary life of discipleship. Shoot, look at Scripture: God has always been with those on the edge, those on the fringes.

The Medici Effect
The second book deals with creative idea generation and is called The Medici Effect. This intriguing little book argues that truly inventive ideas come from the intersections of seemingly unrelated fields of study. The concept is fascinating. Refining a particular field of thought, taking it an additional step, doesn’t often lead to breakthroughs in thinking, technology, solutions, or other areas of ideation. True breakthroughs are made when different fields of study intersect and cause us to think about things completely differently that we had previously.

Our traditional thinking on balance is incremental: Constantly tweak the various aspects of my life, priorities, and responsibilities, with little nudges toward a perfectly balanced wheel. That might work in the back room of a bike shop, but it’s not a reflection of real life (which is more is like the see-saw).

The Drunkard’s Walk
Finally, I recently read The Drunkard’s Walk, a heavy-lifting book about randomness. An extensive section of the book talks about Normal Distribution (what we commonly call “the bell curve”). The author writes quite a bit about social entropy that pushes us to value the middle of the curve, as if it has more value. He also writes extensively about how things that we tend to think of as aberrant, or truly unique and odd (even “chance”, or “unrepeatable”) still fall within the predictable, normal distribution.

There are implications for us to notice here, in our discussion of balance. The pull toward the center (toward normal) is more mathematical than it is biblical. You might counter: “But doesn’t that just show that mathematics supports God’s design?” Well, yes; and, no.

Normal Distribution is a thing of beauty, in a way, and a reflection of God’s design. But we err when we overlay value on the curve, as if the more-populous middle is better, and the less-populous edges are bad. (Back to the platypus, for instance—is the platypus bad?)

The Normal Distribution shows us that the whole thing—the whole stinkin’ bell curve—is normal! In other words, the edges are just as predictable as the middle, which means our definition of “normal”—if thought of only as the center of that curve—is actually flawed!
Piece all these ideas together, along with a good look at the life of Christ and an honest appraisal of ourselves, and I believe we have a picture of discipleship as edge-craft, not a balanced wheel.

(I wonder if our spiritualization of the center of the normal distribution is why the church – and the evangelical church, in particular – has struggled with artists for so long. Artists value the edges, the unique, the different. This is inherently at odds and threatening to the social value system of churchianity. I’ve noticed, through the years, that artsy folk – musicians, painters, dancers – have often felt more at home in charismatic churches. Maybe that’s because my charismatic brothers and sisters have a built-in appreciation for unique experience, rather than normalization.)

Values vs. Balance

There’s still a reality I have to face: Sometimes unbalance sucks. When I was traveling too much—a clear indictor of unbalance—everything in my life suffered because of it. My family didn’t get enough of my time and presence, and felt I didn’t value them. My co-workers hardly saw me, and I wasn’t part of the daily mix on a regular basis. And my own workload suffered, there weren’t enough “normal” days to catch up.

I think I’d used my distaste for the spiritualization of balance as an excuse to live a horribly unbalanced life. I was spiritualizing (or at least justifying) my choices just as much as someone obsessed with the center of the bell curve. I had to make some changes to bring my life (and use of time) into alignment with my values.

And that’s when it struck me: Balance can be just another idol. On the other hand, values should be the driving force of our choices in life. I’m not all that interested in balance, really. Instead, I want to live a life (and have those around me experience my life in a way) that is in alignment with my values. This is a very different motivator than wheel tuning. This is a motivation, and practice, that says, “Based on Scripture, responsibilities, personal preferences and wiring, the input of my community, and calling, what values are the drivers in my life?”

For me, this was an acknowledgement that being in close connection with my wife and kids is a higher value to me than, say, speaking to groups of teenagers in other states. And, likewise, spending time with the staff of Youth Specialties is a higher value to me than spending time with others talking about Youth Specialties. With those acknowledgements (and others), it only made sense to significantly trim back on the (good) things begging for me to travel.

Those are my biggies, but here are a few more:

I tend to like “fast.” But “slow” is actually a higher value to me than fast. So I need to be extremely intentional about slowing down.

I like to talk more than listen. I tend to think I have good ideas that everyone else needs to hear. But, I have a higher value on collaboration than I do on getting my ideas adopted by everyone. So I need to be intentional about listening.

I really like stuff. I like to buy music, drive a fun car, eat at nice restaurants, and go on cool vacations. But I also want my kids to attend their expensive private school—and I don’t want to live beyond my means or be controlled by materialism. So Jeannie and I listed our house for sale recently and are planning on downsizing to a house half the size, because I have a higher value on being present in the place God has us than on buying lots of stuff.

You know, if I’m being really honest, many of these “higher values” are still aspirational for me. But I’m choosing to bring my actions into alignment with them in the hope that they’ll become fully realized values.

Cautiously Re-Embracing Balance

Some time ago, after my decade-and-a-half fight with balance, a parallel dawned on me: Holiness and balance have something in common. I’m not holy, but I’m called to holiness. I don’t expect to become perfectly holy, but I’m still striving toward and hoping for holiness.

It’s the same with balance. I’m never going to be balanced, and I’m not sure I want to be. I don’t think it aligns with the passionate life of Christ. I think it naturalizes and diminishes grace. And I think it’s the enemy of creativity. But, that said—sigh—a bit more balance in my life wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

So, I need to live in this tension: I can live toward and in hope of more balance, with an acknowledgement that I’ll never fully achieve it. No, I haven’t come full-circle. But I’m on speaking terms with balance these days. I keep my boundaries strong so she doesn’t become an idol or start to tease with me with her flirty, seductive ways again. I respect her, and I ask her to respect me in my place of unbalance.

And, frankly, being a bit unbalanced is just all right with me.

the seduction of balance, part 1

i wrote an article on balance for the journal of student ministries a number of months ago, and have been waiting an appropriate time before i can post it here also. seems it’s been long enough. so, here’s part one:

the seduction of balance

When the editors of The Journal of Student Ministries asked me to write on the subject of balance, my first thought was that I could summarize everything I know about balance in a short, six-word sentence: I don’t have a freakin’ clue. Of course, not being sure if they’d allow me to use the word “freakin’,” I realized I would be taking the risk of having my little sentence shortened to five words.

But then, I put things in perspective. In order to write about balance, I should have some significant experience with the polar opposite: unbalance. Based on that qualification, there are very few who are more qualified to write on this subject.

I have had a challenging relationship with balance for most of my life. Though I long for balance, she eludes me (not unlike most of the girls in high school). And as the responsibilities, pressures, and stresses of my life have increased, balance has increased her elusiveness, almost to the point of scorn. I don’t like her; she’s fickle, condemning, distant, and judgmental. And she’s a tease—man, she is such a tease.

So for a number of years, I simply discarded the quest for her altogether.

Theologizing Balance

There was a time when I longed for balance. I was even sure it was a spiritual, holy thing. Like many of us, I first picked up the “spiritualization” of balance in Sunday school. Lessons like “everything in moderation” made their way into my juvenile theological framework. I saw that unique people were treated with suspicion (at best) or contempt (at worst), and that the social gravity in church always moved toward the center or “normal.”

Of course, like everything else in church, this gravitational push toward center (not just in social structures, but in everything: theology, musical style, youth ministry programming, and strength of coffee) got spiritualized. “God likes normal” was the implied message. God likes the center of the normal distribution (the bell curve), except when it came to inventing those wacky platypuses (Just look at God’s playfulness!).

That church-lady fear of uniqueness became a deep fondness for “normal,” and subsequently got spiritualized into a godly value; then eventually—as much tends to do—it became a system. Case in point (and this is just one of many cases in point that could be made, and not a particular slam on this wonderful organization): the Navigator Wheel of Discipleship.

I was taught the Navigator’s balance wheel model is a teenager, and I subsequently used it to train my own student leadership team. It’s a pretty tool. And like many clean and easy to grasp tools, it’s seductive: It’s apparent logic makes it sound so right.

The Navigator Wheel of Discipleship has a hub of Christ, with four spokes: Scripture, Fellowship, Prayer, and Witnessing. The tire—or, outside edge— is the Obedient Christian life. It was easy for me to explain to my student leaders why all four spokes were necessary. They’d all ridden a bike—and they knew what would occur if a wheel was missing a spoke. They could quickly deduce the “it doesn’t work right” ride of a wheel with one spoke shorter than the others. Balance, in this slick little model, makes perfect and complete sense.

The problem is that the model is built on a Western church set of values, not a scriptural set of values (of course, the other problem was that I was also teaching a value set I didn’t live—but that’s another story). I dare anyone to look at the life of Christ and say that balance was a key value.

Sure, Jesus had fellowship. Sure, Jesus pulled away for prayer (great lessons in those actions, to be sure). But Jesus portrays a life full of grace that isn’t balanced at all, but rather full of extravagance. Jesus displayed passion for the lost, poor, and oppressed in abundance. And there’s nothing balanced about a shepherd who leaves the flock for one sheep (a sheep who is far outside the bell curve). The Kingdom of God is one of excess: In grace, in love, in forgiveness. The value system of God is not about fairness and balance, which is very good news for us—if it were, you and I would be screwed!

Teeter-Totter Balance

A number of years ago, my friend, Dr. Kara Powell asked me how I found balance in my life. I responded that, as a visual person, I tend to think of balance as a teeter-totter. And, like any good fulcrum, the only time I really experience balance is when I’m passing it on the journey from one unbalance to another.

Whether or not you agree, you have to admit that there’s some truth in it. None of us is truly balanced. We all bring our passions, biases, perspectives, experiences, priorities, choices, responsibilities, and even sin to our little façades of balance. We all have lopsided wheels.

in part 2 (tomorrow), “discipleship as edge-craft”, “values vs. balance”, and the conclusion, “cautiously re-embracing balance”…