The First Domino

To live a full life, we need to properly position the first domino. If we do, then all other subsequent dominoes fall into place. That first domino must be about love, God’s love to be exact. Love God first, others second. The later is not possible without the first.

In conversations, words without love are just noise. If you don’t speak in love, then it doesn’t matter what you say. You can be the most charismatic and articulate conversationalist, but you’ll have wasted your breath.

Empathy is a powerful tool for showing love in a conversation. Empathy has three main parts:

  1. Use your eyes to start the conversation. Look at the other person intently. Give them your full attention. By doing so, you’re saying you love them because attention is love.
  2. Listen to understand how the other person is feeling. This requires being silent. If you’re talking, then you’re not listening because you can’t do both at the same time.
  3. When you do speak, speak in a soft, calm, inquisitive tone. This requires humility.

The key attribute in mastering empathy is subordination. Subordination of self-love to God’s love so that you may understand how to properly love others. Let’s call this a Kingdom-first policy. That’s the properly positioned “first domino.”

If we approach everything this way, He guarantees that the things we need will come as a natural by-product of seeking His love first. Taking a Kingdom-first approach guarantees relational harmony with others. Taking a relational harmony-first approach does not guarantee God’s love will be thrown in. In fact, it significantly raises the risk that self-love will trump the love of others, thereby defeating the purpose of making an attempt at a relationship or conversation.

What’s the number one measure of success for your life? Is it money? Is it status? It is material things? Is it God’s love?

It’s a fair question to ask because no one can serve two masters. You will either hate one and love the other, or you’ll stand by and be devoted to one and and despise and be against the other.

What’s your first domino?

Mind Over Emotions

What is the foundation upon which you live your life? Does your mind rule your emotions or do your emotions rule your mind? Do your daily decisions flow from how you feel, or do they flow from a posture of your heart that is properly aligned with who God says you are and what He wants for and from you?

If you and I were to spend any meaningful time together, you would know my faith guides and drives me. It demands with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind and with all my strength that my love for God and love for other people are at the forefront. This is my #1 personal value to strive toward. It means every second of every minute of every day is spent working for that end. Even though I often fall short, that’s my goal.

Some days are harder than others. Why? Because it seems like I’m swimming against the cultural current. Dominant culture suggests feelings should chart our course. A new religion has been formed centered around us, ourselves and our feelings. That religion is very attractive because it caters to our emotions and egos. It wants to give us full reign to our natural expressions, our authentic selves, to be who we are without constraints or consideration that we are born of God.

Such raw passion, as evidenced as of late, is never so useful as in groups. It turns herds into stampedes used for destruction. When feelings, not thoughts – when our spirits, not His – drives us, mobs soon become monstrous.

Here are some carefully crafted half-truths this new religion uses to stir and incite:

  • Feelings define us. Who we are is how we feel, not what we believe or who we belong to.
  • Emotions happen. Emotions are what happens to us and we cannot actually fight them or train them.
  • Emotions interpret reality. Emotions are the lens through which reality is seen, never vise versa. Therefore, reality is relative to our emotional state.
  • Love is a label. Love is the crown jewel of all feelings and a label to be stamped on what was once highly objectionable.

Living as a contrarian is not easy. Fighting conformity to the pattern of this world feels like running the back half of a marathon in the heat of summer. Nonetheless, I am committed to keep running. I am committed to training my mind to receive my God-given gifts and hopefully influence others to do likewise. It’s all very possible when we intentionally love God first, others second and ourselves third. The order is of the utmost importance, which is why our minds must rule our emotions.

The Three Most Important Values in Your Life

Can you name the three most important values in your life right now? If you can’t, then you certainly can’t live by them. Why is this so important? Because if you don’t decide what’s most important in your life, other people are going to decide for you. They’re going to push you into their mold, and you’ll live your life by their values, not yours.

A picture of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona near sunset. The chapel appears to rise out of the rock formations characteristic of the area. Picture take by Matthew P. Del Buono (source Wikipedia)

Here are my mine:

  1. Servant Leadership: Always be looking for opportunities to meet the needs of others.
  2. Equip for Excellence: Always be learning, growing, improving with God’s standard as my standard.
  3. Positivity: Always believe the best. Always look for the silver lining when bad things happen. Trust that in all things God works for the good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

These are my core values. I live by them day-in, day-out. They are constant reminders and pointers.

They are reminders for the moments when I ask, “Where did the time go?” They keep my eye on what’s important.

They are pointers to the humbling reality that I must learn to number my days so that I may get a heart of wisdom. And with that wisdom, I must love God first, other people second and myself third, in that order.

What are the three most important values in your life right now? Write them down. Reflect on them. Refine them. Live them.

If you’d like to share them with me, then I’d love to hear from you. Email me at marc@mindwolves.com.

Thank you for reading this. Thank you for who you are. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. I am grateful.

Busy, Not Hurried

Whether you realize it or not, there is a spiritual war over your mind. It’s the classic good versus evil match-up. Who wins is determined by you. Your mind doesn’t care who wins, but it reveals who wins.

Good vs. Evil

Every day is a new battle in the war. Your incremental preparation, training and execution determines the daily outcome. There will be an ebb and flow. The enemy is a formidable opponent and you’re human, so mistakes will be made. You won’t win every battle, however you must win more than you lose to make progress in the war.

So the question is, how can you ensure that happens? There is only one way. It involves establishing a work ethic proven effective against the enemy.

To go any further, we must establish what is meant by the word work. Work implies purpose. It entails the mental and physical effort done to achieve that purpose. In the end, our whole life is actually a single work, i.e. a life’s work. Awareness of that gives us a calling. Therefore, in this context, work and calling are synonymous. Our work ethic embodies the meaning of success, which is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. This work ethic also implies life is more than work and allows for periods of rest, retreat and sleep.

To ensure the likelihood of success for the battle of your mind, your work ethic must serve to get to know and love God. When you establish the rhythms, patterns and habits to know the mind of God, then your career transforms into a ministry, which is simply any career whereby you’re serving others in God’s name. Ministries come in all shapes, sizes and flavors, both for-profit and not-for-profit, but their common denominator is helping others to glorify God.

When employing this work ethic, your ministry will be one of energy and industry, not laziness and lethargy. You won’t think of your work as your own, but of your Father’s. You’ll expend energy God gives you, day in and day out, to carry out your calling. You’ll be in great demand. Your days will be long, but you’ll never feel anxious or frenzied. Your life will be busy, but not hurried. You will know your calling and be “all in,” but not without sleep or leisure. You’ll live in a calm, assertive, empathetic manner.

There’s a lot at stake in the spiritual war over our minds. By winning more daily battles than we lose, we’re called to expend energy and effort for the good of others. This is what makes our life’s work good: that it is good for others, not just ourselves. We work for this good because God is at work in us.

Strengthen Your Empathy Muscle

Since I was 12-years old, I’ve lifted weights. It’s still a habit of mine 38-years later. Over the years, my objectives have shifted. Early on, I was focused on core strength for playing football. After college, I was more interested in muscle mass and density and contemplated body-building. As a husband, father and professional, I balance maintaining and preserving muscle with long-term health and fitness.

This me in 1987 as a Freshman working out at Rec Hall at Penn State University.

In addition to my physical workouts this week, I also worked out in my mind gym. My mind gym is where I spend the first fifteen minutes and last fifteen minutes of my day, every day. It’s also where I go when needed throughout the day to clear and calm my mind to think about something important.

One of the muscles strengthened in my mind gym is my empathy muscle. Frankly, it’s the most important muscle these days, and I wish I would have started training it when I was 12. Hey, better late than never.

Why do I assert it’s the most important muscle? Because it helps me bring about unity with other people, no matter what. It helps me to prioritize what I have in common with them, thereby prioritizing our likenesses over our differences. I feel an extreme sense of ownership to that end. The burden is on me to:

  • Seek to stand in their shoes by understanding their experiences
  • Aim to get in their mind by understanding their viewpoint
  • Strive to put myself in their place by imaging what they are feeling

When I can do this, we’re able to form unity in our minds. We can still be unique, but have an eye towards the big picture by sharing a vision. That’s what being like-minded is about.

When I can do this, how we treat and respond to each other changes. We see each other as a person and not just someone we want to argue with. Our convictions and beliefs don’t change with the conversation, however we start to see the other person in a new light and maybe grasp why they feel and believe what they do.

Seeking, aiming and striving to understand someone’s viewpoint doesn’t mean we’re weak-minded. It actually reveals the strength of our empathy muscle. What would our world be like if a critical-mass of people had strong empathy muscles? I pray for the day when we reach that tipping point.

You Go First

Empathy is transformational in relationships. Like any other skill, it can be mastered with practice and patience. Empathy requires figuring out what the other person is thinking and saying before you seek to be understood. Too many people are consumed by speaking first to make their point heard. The irony is that their point will fall on deaf ears unless they are willing to understand others first. We are often so busy trying to get people to see it our way that we don’t stop to listen to what they are saying.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) (Public domain in the U.S. because it was published before 1925.)

Transformational empathy starts with this statement, “You go first.” Then, all you have to do is shut up and listen.

After they’ve shared, you say, “It sounds like … (repeat to them what you understood they were communicating to you).” Then they will either say, “that’s right,” or they will correct you and tell you what they really meant. Either way, you get to understand and also make them feel respected and understood. It’s a genuine win-win.

Try it. It’s a simple four step system.

  1. Say, “You go first.
  2. Stop talking and listen.
  3. Say, “It sounds like … (repeat what you think they meant).”
  4. Stop talking and let them affirm or correct you.

Repeat as often as necessary. You can replace “It sounds like …” with “It seems like …” or “It feels like …” for variety.

To master transformational empathy, challenge yourself to use it with everyone in your life. Not only will you acquire the skill, but you will also enhance your relationships and influence.

Outsiders

Let’s define an “outsider” as anyone who doesn’t believe what you believe. To keep those people outside, then all you have to do is make them feel as though you’re better than them by judging their belief as wrong. If your aim is to keep them outside, then it’s very easy to do. Simply judge them.

However, if your aim is to make them an “insider”, i.e. someone who sees things as you see them because they have a genuine change of heart, then you must learn to “walk properly” with outsiders so that you will be “well thought of” by them. That is the only way to gain influence so that a change of heart is possible.

To that end, what are the means? What does “walking properly” look like?

First, you must walk in wisdom. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person. Second, walk with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile you may be put to shame. Lastly, carefully choose your words, possess a kind demeanor and live your life serving others for their benefit so that they can experience genuine love and goodness.

By doing this, you will be representing yourself and your beliefs well, thereby exposing the outsiders to them. In time, you will become well thought of by the outsiders. Hopefully, so much so they’ll wonder why and how you’re able to do it. That’s your opening to testify and influence them to have a change of heart to believe what you believe.

Now, there are certainly snares along the way. You could succumb to temptation that brings disgrace to yourself and your reputation. Such traps are plentiful and there are those who would love to see you fall. If it happens, you lose all credibility and the ability to influence the outsiders. These self-harming decisions only serve to solidify the outsiders’ unbelief.

I’m a God-fearing person and believe He exists. Outsiders, i.e. non-believers, matter to me because they matter to God. Therefore, I want to walk property with them. I delight to make outsiders into friends, brothers and sisters so that I may be well thought of by them so they may see God’s glory. I am very sensitive to falling into the traps that hurt the cause, and Lord knows I have stumbled. Nonetheless, I am driven by faith and working hard for Him.

These two things, faith in God and working hard for Him, are what give me peace. It takes the pressure off of me. It doesn’t mean I will succeed all the time, but it does mean even if I don’t succeed, there is a bigger plan and God is ultimately in control of everything happening in my life. When I focus on working hard, I can rest easy knowing I did my best and trust God with the results. I’m not the smartest, nor the most talented, but God gave me a good work ethic. I rely on grit. No one is going to out work me.

Imagine if more “insiders” took this posture with outsiders. Focus on working hard, walking properly and trusting God is present in all interactions and circumstances. There’s be less ugly judgmental self-righteousness and more genuinely humble neighborly love.

Pre-Decide

What if we pre-decide to choose people over policies and relationships over rules? What if we pre-decide to …

  • exhibit patience?
  • chose not to be offended?
  • quit taking everything so personally?
  • change the degrading way we talk to others?
  • focus on what we have in common?
  • chose the big picture?
  • value the other person above being right?

What a wonderful world it would be. In fact, it would be just as God intended.

While sympathy suggests you share the feelings of someone else because of a similar experience, empathy implies you have the capacity to imagine the feelings of someone else without actually haven’t felt them yourself. Sympathy is easy because we’ve walked the same walk, but empathy requires a bit of work on our part. Pre-deciding to take the aforementioned actions requires empathy.

Are you willing to do the work?

If so, then here’s the first thing you must commit to … listen with purpose. Ask questions and offer clarifying comments that allow you to understand what the other person is feeling. The goal is to get a glimpse into their life and learn why they feel the way they do.

  • It sounds like you’re frustrated because …
  • It seems like you’re sad because …
  • It feels like you look forward to …
  • You were unfairly treated?
  • Get even with them?
  • What does that look like?
  • How do you expect to do that?

It’s important to truly listen and think about what you hear the other person saying. Drafting your response while they’re talking is like preparing to debate them. The end goal here is people coming together to value each other more than caring about being right. While you can’t control the other person, you can control yourself. Own it. Own being empathetic.

Here’s the second thing you must commit to … consider their stance. People often land on their worldviews and stances because of their upbringing, which is comprised of both negative and positive experiences. When you allow yourself to step into their world, even for just a few minutes, you’re less likely to be annoyed and show judgement. Empathy here allows you to see the other person for who they are and understand their different point of view.

My motive for pre-deciding to elevate people over policies, to place relationships over rules, to demonstrate patience, to not be offended, to not take things personally, to speak in an uplifting and affirming manner and to prioritize likeness over differences is to represent God well. After all, I’m on His team. Who doesn’t want to represent their team well?

As I come into contact with people who know Him and those who don’t, I desire to represent Him by showing love, respect and empathy, all covered with equal parts truth and grace. In treating people this way, I can trust God is working in the situation. At the end of the day, the point of loving people I disagree with is unity.

Whether the issue is petty or prominent, I can choose people first. I’ve pre-decided I want to represent God well enough so that others will want to get to know Him. A posture of empathy helps me to accomplish that. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Would you mind joining me in that cause?

I’m Third

This past week, my family took our best-ever family getaway. We went to a quaint lakeside camp nestled in the Laurel Highlands in western Pennsylvania. Run by the staff of Summer’s Best Two Weeks (SB2W), this 3-day 2-night family camp, appropriately named Summer’s Best Two Nights (SB2N), gave us a personalized, intimate, relationship-building experience. SB2W’s motto is “I’m Third,” which is a reference to the Bible verse in Matthew 22:37-29, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Lake Gloria Waterpark @ SB2W

At the root of I’m Third‘s meaning is Psalm 51:17, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” In other words, to allow yourself to be 3rd in priority, you must sacrifice your wants, needs and desires and subordinate your interests to those of God first and other people second, in that order. The posture of your spirit is akin to a broken heart. But, please don’t feel sorry for me or anyone else with that character trait for it is beautiful. The point here is that God intends for the beauty of brokenheartedness to mingle with the beauty of boldness so that a new reality emerges even more beautiful than the sum of both. It is one of God’s most beautiful works, and it is one of the most needed in our day. I’m Third captures that sentiment succinctly and eloquently.

The experience at SB2N has affirmed my passion to “be third.” The only way that’s possible is by having a passion for knowing God experientially and serving others in His name.

  • By being third, I am able to be a peacemaker at a time when society is dominated by conflict, anger and contention.
  • By being third, I receive an internal peace that overflows in my relationships with others.
  • By being third, when I experience disagreements, I have the peace of mind to respond in a Godly manner that defuses aggression and hostility.

Anyone who is preoccupied with exerting their rights, getting what they want and proving they’re right only breeds contention, anger, bitterness and resentment. None of those negative emotions can coexist with peace because they keep their focus off God and our their own selfish demands.

I am forever grateful for SB2W. They have packaged the solution to heal our society. Cultivate a passion for knowing God, a passion for serving others in His name and a passion for being third.

I’m grateful for my broken spirit. I’m thankful for my contrite heart. I’m Third.

No Credit, No Limit

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States of America, once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Just imagine what your family, your company, or your community could accomplish if everyone put ego aside and focused on the important tasks at hand. Such a simple concept, but so hard to accomplish. Why?

Because we’re all naturally selfish and essentially “self-employed”. By that I mean, we’re really working for our glory, our success. The only way to suppress that desire, i.e. to demote self and humbly elevate something above our ego, is to commit to building a relationship with God. That commitment entails daily habits that allocate time and energy to get to know Him. That is, in fact, the key to building any relationship. Devote time and energy, and it will incremental happen. All that’s needed is commitment. What follows is a win-win, for you and for other people in your life.

That begs the question, “Who are you working for?

For me, my boss is really a Jewish Carpenter. Whatever I do, I work at it with all my heart, as though I work for the Lord, not a human master. By doing this, it frees me from seeking praise of other people. It liberates me to serve others, no matter the congratulations or criticism I get from them. My desire to serve is not a function of their response. It is simply to serve and help others in God’s name. That’s where my joy is rooted.

The amazing byproduct of this is the ability to live life and pursue happiness irrespective of circumstances. Good and bad things happen to me, but I’m able to live a consistent, calm, assertive, joy-filled life because it’s rooted in God getting the credit. When that matters most, there’s no limit to the amount of good I can do and that’s such a blessed assurance.

It’s worth repeating … imagine what our families, our companies, or our communities could accomplish if everyone put ego aside and focused on the important tasks at hand. The truth is anyone who desires greatness must first become a servant.

What a wonderful world it would be!

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