Who’s in your house?

How much community can you handle? Back when I was a young man our church identified the Biblical or Greek concept of oikos, a word which means, more or less, household. It annoys me to use Bible-sounding language when unnecessary, so I’ll just say house in italics to represent this concept of close relationships. I remember that the magic number for how many people you can reasonably have close relationships with at a time was 30.

We like to think we can handle more, but count out how many people you’ve had significant conversations within the last 21 days (since the beginning of the year, post-holidays).  Now look at how many of that group you have a significant conversation with on at least a monthly basis for the last year, or solid, tangible plans to do so this year. The number shrinks rapidly.

My house includes a wife and four kids. They are a sixth of my close community. After that, I had a meeting with my non-profit’s board chair (6). A small group that meets by phone, five more people (11). A significant conversation with one member of our congregation I talk to pretty regularly, on a deep level, oh, but he’s in the aforementioned small group. Nine coaching clients (most of these count as work relationships to some extent, but on another level my job is to provide a significant relationship in other peoples’ houses.) (20). Even though it is my job, I can still only participate in a limited number of deep relationships. I can build a bigger house by having this sort of “relationship hosting” as my livelihood, the money allows me the time for more than 30. At most, if I retain any sense of balance, the number doubles to 60. If i was meeting with three times more coaching clients per month, not only would I be maxed time-wise, I’d be falling over with relational exhaustion. And I’m an extrovert!

I have 899 Facebook friends. As if it is some sort of badge of honor, popularity, or marketing reach. It is, in fact, to some extent all of these things. But it should not be mistaken as part of my house.  

Think critically about who’s in your house. You need some who give something to you, a few you give to, and many who give a relatively even relational value exchange. If you get out of whack you start complaining on social media, because you’ve forgotten that the virtual world isn’t your house. It’s not pretty. Sometimes there are people like Goldy Locks Who are in your house breaking your furniture and eating your gruel. Get them out, unless you intentionally invited them and have some boundaries (Ok, you can eat the gruel, but no going into the parlor and breaking my china). Does this mean you can’t find a measure of community online? Of course not.

Think about it this way: coaches use a Wheel of Life to help you chart your satisfaction in a variety of areas, usually 8-12 areas like work, spiritual life, family, finances, health, marriage, and hobbies. Having at least one person you can share authentically with about your progress or failure in each area is critical. Perhaps your spouse is a great sounding board for work, your spiritual life, but tunes out when you bring up golfing. OK, find somebody else in your house to talk to about that. This is where the internet can prove handy, especially when you’re a Scrabble geek, or you like lengthy discussions about … community. Thanks for reading!














Intentional Community #5

A blog reader asked me to comment on the topic of Slackers in your intentional community.

You’re trying to engage your community with purpose and intent for accountability and growth, and you run into slackers. It doesn’t matter what your format or system is for intentional community. They will be there, sitting at the table, waiting to eat.

Someone asked me recently if I could push a big RED button and something in the world would change, I said that for me, it would be that everyone in the world would have at least one good friend.

Slackers are a bit like the monkeys on Monkey Island in Thailand. A guy named Tim and I kayaked out with half a loaf of bread and fed these wild monkeys. First of all, we figured out quickly who was the Alpha male. (No females even showed up for the handouts. Not sure why.) We had to work to get bread to the others. The Alpha was a little bolder, willing to brave water up to his knees. He was ready to chase anyone off, baring his teeth and screeching. Tim and I made sure to stay far enough out that we couldn’t get bitten. A bite from one of these guys would be bad news. One of the monkeys climbed up on Tim’s kayak and found his water bottle. The little dude punched a hole with his teeth and sucked out the fresh water. The monkeys lost interest in us when we ran out of bread. It seems they could tell the handout session was over. Perhaps they saw that our hands were empty, maybe they just knew by experience, or maybe they could even smell that we didn’t have any left in our pockets or bags, but they left pretty quickly.

It seems kind of mean to compare slackers with monkeys, but remember, my personal vision statement is that everyone would have at least one friend. Even monkeys. Even Slackers. The point isn’t to be mean, it’s to be frank.

Principle number one: You are the only person responsible for the depth of community you experience. You do not get to blame it on others if people don’t show up and you therefore don’t get to have community. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, you need to build in redundancy to combat the fact that other people are typically not as concerned about building community with you, specifically, than you are concerned about it for yourself, and therefore for others by extension of your involvement.

Principle number two: we are called to share our bread, even with monkeys. Bread is of course analogous to money, but it can also easily mean time, emotional energy, or whatever else you give to relationships.

Principle number three: Your bread isn’t limitless. If people aren’t reciprocating in your relationships, you’re going to run out. When that happens the monkeys will leave or you will get in your kayak and paddle away. No harm, no foul, monkeys are used to this pattern. They may act offended, but they’re really just pushing to see if you don’t have a few crumbs left.

My hope and belief is that everyone has the ability to grow and mature, to become a leader (not analogous to the Alpha male, who is more like a bully) and steward the gifts God has given them, but the stark reality of the world is that while everyone shares that potential, some do and some don’t. That takes us back to the first question, will you be one who does? Who shows up? Who makes community a priority?

The second thing is that because you’ve made this a priority, you’ll make sacrifices. You’ll give sometimes and get nothing in return. This WILL deplete you. You’ll have to retreat, gather new resources, rest your aching heart, and try again, make another investment. I suspect a combined approach is healthiest:

Reach out to some of the monkeys who took your bread. Maybe next time around they’ll get it. Also, reach out to new people, because this helps build redundancy. You may find some new monkeys, but you may also find some people who will stick with you. Somebody else is looking for this. I am, and I have plenty of friends who do. Intentional community is a real possibility for your life.

Finally, keep investing. It’s a bit like the stock market. Sometimes you buy stocks and they fall for a while, but if you keep them, they can come roaring back. Sometimes you buy in with a high-flying stock and it crashes. But any financial adviser will tell you this: keep investing, even when the market is down. Especially then.

You’ve got to find someone who needs one good friend. Then go be it. They may be a long-term monkey, or they may just be a stock that’s down at the moment. Either way, you’ve done something good for humanity.

Remember this: if you stop investing, you may not realize it, but you just became the monkey.



Writing Thursday, #3 in the series: Improving your abilities in Language

Getting better at Language:

Last week I talked about sharing authentically from your heart, and some differences to think about between being a poet or musician and a novelist / screenwriter / actor.

When it comes to sharing your heart, you have to understand the language (context as well as tongue) that you’re writing for. So how do we get better at understanding the language of our medium and genre?

As with heart, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to vocabulary, either. Still, the tools at your disposal should be as broad as possible. So the building block of language is vocabulary.

That’s an easy 5- minute exercise to come up with: Read through the dictionary for five minutes every Wednesday. Look at five words. Note the ones you didn’t know before and make a flashcard for each. Don’t assume you’ll really learn the new word without looking at it seven times.

But the bigger question is how to grow in your ability to understand the Language — that is the context of your medium and genre — so that you’re well prepared to write in that realm.

This points to an exercise that is a lot longer than five minutes. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of landscape painting, for example, is to look at a lot of great landscape paintings, preferably in person. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of mystery novels is to read a lot of them — and the best ones you can find.

I wrote a literary novel. My editor asked at one point whether I was trying to write the Great American novel, and I said, “why would I try to write anything else?”

Eco says that “When the writer (or the artist in general) says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules. … Telling how you wrote something does not mean proving it is “well” written. Poe said that the effect of the work is one thing [heart] and the knowledge of the process is another.”

It’s also been said that while Joyce was writing long, flowery sentences, Twain used sentences such as “It was a man.”  Part of using language effectively, both in the details of vocab selection and in the broader scope of speaking the language of the genre and medium, is to begin to walk unnoticed by the reader.

A popular Facebook meme says that you should never make fun of someone who speaks broken English — it means they know another language. At my son’s soccer games, the parents of Spanish-speaking families like to cheer for J.J., but they call him Yay-Yay. I love it, because I love that they root for my kid as well as their own, I see in this cheering the heart of a dad who wants all the boys to succeed. So the point is, when you’re not fluent in language it’s just going to be obvious. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write something with heart, so you shouldn’t stop writing any more than those dads should stop cheering. No! Keep going! In fact, it may give the writing a naive quality that somehow sings and may become considered great even if your language isn’t flawless. But on the other hand, fluency in context when you’re making something is worth working towards and attaining if you want to improve your abilities. Studying the language in terms of vocabulary is the building block, but reading the best literature in the category is understanding the culture that language fits into: and the best thing about this is to see how writers restrain themselves in terms of how they use the vocabulary they have, which certainly exceeds what they use: What you’re not saying is often more important than what you are saying.

Intentional Community 2

I was raised in Intentional Community (capitals on purpose). What some might consider a cult or commune was really a group of people considering carefully how to live together. In our case, the Intentional Community was called Plow Creek Fellowship. It was a Christian church (Plow Creek Church) and a communally owned, shared living environment of 150 acres or so, some farmland along the creek and some upon the bluffs, in the countryside of Bureau Co., Illinois (Plow Creek Farm) with six or seven houses (some of them housing multiple family units) on the farmland and several houses in the nearby village (Tiskilwa). Most of our communal life was lived on the farm property. We children attended public schools in Tiskilwa.

The impetus for this degree of intentionality at Plow Creek came from a study of the book The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, which talks about people sharing food and goods in common. People who joined Plow Creek did so with a great deal of deliberation on both the part of the existing community and the prospective members, because joining meant sharing money and property in a common purse. It meant, essentially, a commitment that felt lifelong, even though it turns out that was rarely the case. Many of the members, like my parents, came from the Jesus Freak movement of the 1960’s, they were hippies who didn’t smoke weed or wife-swap. Love was free, but there was no Free Love. Oh, and they were pacifists. Yeah… That was popular in rural Illinois. You bet.

I have seen people being intentional about what sort of community they engage in, and give their lives to, to an extreme degree. Once you joined, decisions were made by consensus (though I won’t say there wasn’t coercion from time to time).

Communes have fallen out of style– there are significant social problems within the system, not the last of which is the problem of slackers (once people have joined, you’ve got to feed them even if they don’t produce much, whether cash or crops, which is an economic drain on the system. You’ve voluntarily and permanently laid down the choice to give out of your own personal abundance and generosity, which is a good thing to do, until you don’t have any recourse not to do it). It’s hard to hold people accountable if you’ve got so much grace invested in the relationship that you can’t just, well, ex-communicate them. And if you’re not willing to end the relationship, you’re sort of stuck in an enabling vortex. Another problem is the relative isolation. It’s sort of what they wanted, but in rural Illinois, there weren’t many neighbors who could relate to the lifestyle and ideologies Plow Creekers espoused. Perhaps for another day: intentional communities: open or closed?

One thing I did learn is that if you want to be a leader who finishes well, you do need some sort of intentional community. You need commitment to a group of people who can hold you accountable, you need an out for extreme circumstances, and if you need to duck out for some reason then you need to get plugged back in right away somewhere else. The key is that you’re the one being intentional. Others will inevitably not be as committed to you as you are to the concept, if you’re truly embracing it.

We see this now in the coaching world. Those who want authentic community and are willing to be intentional about it will sign a coaching agreement, with regular check ins not only for their own growth but for the progress of the relationship with the coach as well. This can be done with a peer coach (taking turns) or a professional coach, a mentor or “Paul” and a downward mentor or “Timothy” and with a variety of other people you commit to sharing your life with.

People are sometimes surprised to find that I have a coach too. (This probably stems from the misunderstanding people have that ‘life coaches have it all figured out and will tell you what to do with your life’ which couldn’t be further from what coaches really do.)

I work every month with Mark. Mark’s a professionally trained coach and we exchange peer coaching. I also have another friend named Mark who isn’t a coach at all, but we’re best buddies and we’re intentional about talking about the temptations we face. I have another friend named Jonathan who meets with Megan and I monthly to check in with us on our growth as artists, as a couple, and as people who are serious about community. We pay Jonathan. I meet with Ralph for discipleship (I’m the “Timothy”). I meet with K. C. twice a year for coaching supervision through an organization that I contract with. In total that’s five people, two of whom get paid for working with me and three who don’t. Two of them live in my town, one in another part of the state, and two in Colorado. It’s not unusual for me to have a meeting almost every week with at least one of them. This isn’t anything like Plow Creek, yet everything about it reflects how I grew up: you don’t float through life on your own. Not because you’re trying to be a slacker: in fact, precisely the opposite.

By the way, Megan and I attend church regularly. None of the people I mentioned attend the same congregation we do. It’s sort of ironic but right now I have a lot less formal, intentional relationships within my congregation. I also run a nonprofit and none of these coaches or mentors are on the board. But I’m intentional about communicating with both of those groups too: my pastors know what’s going on, and so does my board. The key is that in every area of your life; from your marriage and sexuality to your career and spiritual life; from the addictions you’re kicking to the dreams you’re pursuing, you’ve got somebody you check in with. That’s how we do intentional community. That’s the whole point of this series. There’s value here.

Writer’s Group: I can do it on my own. Really?

Writing is a solitary existence. The best advice-givers, like Steven King in his book “On Writing” suggest that for a certain amount of time in the course of your manuscript you need to work alone, without allowing other people to see, read or influence what you’re doing.

That’s true, which is part of the reason our writer’s group doesn’t do critiquing. We don’t want to interrupt the flow.

On the other hand, you have to be highly motivated to keep plowing ahead. It’s so easy to just surf the net or go for a long walk rather than write. That’s why we get together for accountability. You set your goal for the month, and you’ve got to deliver.

My goal this past month was 15,000 words. My total was closer to 20,000. If I didn’t have a group I was committing to for that kind of production, it wouldn’t happen.

How many words are you writing this month? What’s your goal? Who’s holding you to it?

Writer’s Group: Setting a really great goal

What sort of goal pushes you but is attainable? That’s what Justin and I have decided to push ourselves and our group toward, so that each one is making headway in writing their book.

I’m setting this blog up a few days in advance. I committed to 15,000 words this month and I have just over a thousand left, two days to go. I’ll attain my goal. I’ll push for that last amount partly because I’m leading and it would be poor leadership if I don’t lead by example, and partly because I’m serious about meeting my goals anyway. And partly because I’m committing to it once again, with 51 hours to go.

We fully expect that the writers in our group will publish their books sooner, more frequently, and with more quality than if they were not in the group.

Yesterday I sent my editor my final comments on the first round of corrections for the full draft. In less than two weeks, my goal is to finalize all the copy and send it to press. I’m ambitiously shooting for publication, for books in my hands, by December 1.

Set your goals just low enough that you can attain them every month, and just high enough that it will take effort. Both of these are important. You MUST attain your goal each month, otherwise you become discouraged. You must also set it high enough that you have to work for it. Otherwise it’s not a goal. Think of it this way: if you say “my goal is to eat three square meals a day” but you already do that anyway, as sort of a natural course of events, it’s not really a “Goal,” is it? But if you change the goal to something like this: “I will eat small portions including hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks six times a day, making sure to chew my food completely, and cut out sweets for the next eight weeks” there is a pretty good chance you can do it, and a pretty good chance it will take some conscious effort. Just like health and fitness goals, writing goals must be attainable to keep up your enthusiasm and courage, and hard enough to let you know there’s effort involved. Best of luck in November, when many people write short novels … but you could be writing novels every month with just a little more regular discipline and accountability!

Writer’s Group: Wrapping October (already!)

Next Thursday night, on the 22nd, it’s time again for Writer’s Group.

Two things to do in the next week if you’re participating. First, watch the video on relevancy and inspiration, you can find it on the Writer’s Group page here.

2. Start thinking about what sort of goal you want to set for November. November is that month when lots of people write a whole novel. Personally, I’m thinking about doubling my target from September/October and going for 30,000 words in four weeks from Oct 22 to Nov 19. By the end of October, we should be just about done editing my nonfiction project, and a 30,000 word goal in November would put me close to 2/3 done with my next fiction trilogy rough draft: I’d be over 120,000 words!

Maybe this November is your time to finish off the draft for your first book. But I think any month can be your NaNoWriMo. It depends on your schedule and determination. Is this your month to double your goal? Maybe it’s not. Be realistic! Nothing builds your energy for writing like hitting your realistic targets month after month.

This group is effective. Our participants hit their goals. If you want to start attending the writer’s group that meets monthly, send me an email to find out what the requirements for participation are. If you want to let others know how you’re doing this month, please comment!

UPDATE: I’ve written 13313 words this month. Under 1700 to go to meet my goal next week. How are you doing?

Congo: September 7. Day 1 of Training

This morning was full of what trainers do before a training. We set up the room, taking care to think about how to arrange tables and chairs and presentation area.

When we were done, I laughed, because in the States, I knew that the size of the room (maybe 10’x25′) vs. the number of people attending plus trainers (16) would be considered a tight squeeze. Feedback after the training would tell us to find a bigger room, if we were in the States. I’ve had that happen with about the same amount of people in a room twice as big.

At supper last night a missionary was telling a story about how he was on a bus sitting in a row with three chairs, and six people (one of whom was an obese mama who wanted her little boy to sit on the missionary’s lap). People are used to crowding into smaller spaces here, and our arrangement will be more than adequate.

We pulled tables out of storage that had a thin layer of dust on them, black as charcoal. I mean, black FROM charcoal dust in the air. One of the helpers at the Guesthouse (maintenance man) cleaned up the tables.

Charles, Jeanette and I had a long conversation about how to conduct the training. We’ve been circling for weeks, and we finally have a plan — for the first two days. I’ll be presenting Tuesday afternoon; Charles has everything up to that point. It’s now about 1:30 and our trainees are due to arrive in about half an hour. We’ll be sharing our room with Jacques, so we tidied up before he arrives (we had crap splayed all over the place). Grabbed a power bar and some jerky for lunch: our meal plan includes breakfast and supper today, the rest of the week only breakfast and lunch. We are pretty much foregoing one meal each day so that we are eating when the trainees eat.

I still haven’t changed any US dollars for Congolese Francs. I will probably ask Jacques to go with me this afternoon to help me change money. I want to buy some roasted peanuts to have in our room and I’ll need some Francs for that. I’ll probably pay Jacques 1000 Francs to help me change $20, which is to say he’ll get about a 5% fee. I brought 10 baseball caps I’ll give him and ask him if he wants to sell them. An opportunity to clean our closet results in some income for my brother…

IMG_2371 hibiscus.


Training off to a good start. The trainees trickled in from 2 PM until maybe as late at 5 but eventually everyone was here. Tonight my brain is a little like that egg on drugs. Scrambled. I’ve been using my French at my max capacity all day and I can’t even speak anymore this evening without jumbling my words up. Jacques has joined us and I spoke with him for a while here in our room, but eventually I had to tell him I just can’t speak anymore French today. The reality is I’m actually getting along pretty well and I’ve been asked before if I can coach in French. I think I might say next time “yes” because really I feel like if I can follow someone’s accent I should be able to handle 95% of the vocabulary. We’ll see about that later. Perhaps if I coach one or two of these guys after I go home a few times we’ll see how that goes.

We had an interesting conversation about the word “accountability” and its French counterpart. Accountability has usually had a negative connotation in English, but the French word we’re using does not have that. I’m glad for that.

I watched the guys eat at supper. There are some hungry trainees here. I know these guys, who are mostly pastors, are probably feeding others before they eat. Or they may not have eaten all day! I was glad they had a place where they could really chow down. I thought we’d get Congolese food tonight, but instead we had a very American meal indeed: spaghetti (which the Congolese call macaroni) and meat sauce, garlic bread, salad. Supper was really important. Really, tomorrow we are offering to feed them lunch. There isn’t money in the budget for supper so I won’t be eating supper either. We brought some granola bars and jerky and that’s going to be our supper for the next three days. Food is important here. Really I thought that Robert could have eaten twice as much spaghetti. The dude is hungry. Here in the middle of training, guys are hungry. I mean it can permeate your thinking in a way most of my readers aren’t used to. So I’m praying that our lunches will be robust and that they’ll really carry us through the afternoon and evening training sessions.

Sentinels of Isolationism

Part of doing great accountability is helping people avoid the dangers of isolation. When we’re isolated, we can’t really progress. Now, I’ll be the first to say that too much progress is not necessarily a good thing. But when we’re truly isolated, not only are we prone to flawed-character activity (i.e. sin) but we also can’t really learn anything new from others. Anything from technology to language. We cease to communicate, and we end up like the Sentinelese: I became fascinated by the Sentinelese culture and spent an entire evening reading everything there is on the internet. Which isn’t much. Because they’re very isolated. So that’s the point.

North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Island chain contains the greatest example of an isolated culture left on the face of the earth. Numbering somewhere between 50 and 400, the inhabitants are locked in Stone Age life; it’s unclear whether they’re capable of using fire; their weapon of choice is a bow and arrow or spear, which they might be tipping with metal from shipwrecks. When intruders come for a visit the good Sentinelese people kill them. The Indian government, which recognizes them as essentially sovereign, understands their position to be one of self-defense. The last time they killed some poaching fishermen, the Indian government did nothing. As near as I can tell there has only been one exception to this rule of violence, when a group of anthropologists from India took gifts of coconut and came very close to shore.

The Indian government’s official policy is that nobody is to allowed to contact the Sentinelese. For one thing, nobody can speak their language. You’re likely to be killed; in this image a Sentinel Islander dares a helicopter to land. The pilot decided against it.


And you’re likely to kill them — by spreading infectious disease the Sentinelese are unable to combat.

It is incredible to me that these people have had such little contact with the outside world — for 5,000 years, minimum, some scientists think they’ve been alone on North Sentinel for 60,000 years.

I think it’s easy to idealize this primitive life. For one thing, these folks are so in tune with their natural surroundings, they appeared unharmed and unfazed when the tsunami destroyed so much in 2004. It is speculated that the Sentinelese were tipped off to the coming tsunami by something they alone would see in the waves that lap their shores. (The helicopter which took this picture was there to check and see if they were okay after the tsunami). So the language they speak with the waves and sky, the fish and trees, has a vocabulary for that. It’s also easy to idealize our technology-heavy culture. We have ships, and helicopters. We must seem to them as though aliens from another world had come to visit, perhaps to abduct them for horrible scientific procedures. Or perhaps we seem like demons. In any case, our technology doesn’t protect us from tsunamis.

The most notable thing is not whether living the Stone-Age vida loca is some sort of paradise on earth without knowledge of kindling, or whether these folks would be better off reading my blog on their Kindles. The most notable thing is their fear. Whatever else isolation has given them or taken away, they are afraid. Always afraid. Afraid in every recorded encounter. Isolation breeds fear. You don’t want to live a life of fear? Stop isolating yourself.