BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

THE CAT’S IN THE CRADLE

Three little towheaded girls tossed me back two decades last Sunday. I was waiting my turn at Dairy Queen while their mom patiently absorbed and sorted through their excited chatter to find just the right treats. The other graying men standing near me were all smiles, utterly charmed by these beautiful innocents who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.

My three daughters, all grown-up now and making lives of their own, came rushing back to me just as charming and sweet–full of happiness and curiosity as little girls. My heart gave a lurch as I yearned for just one more of those long gone days.

But life and time doesn’t work like that, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to encourage you younger dads and moms to enjoy those fleeting moments with your kids. I know you need the encouragement because I know the pressures you face and how easily they distract you.

Children require nurturing in every way. Every day is one of learning, testing, trying, and needing, so very much needing your attention. “But there were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away,” to borrow from Harry Chapin’s poignant hit, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It is all too easy to let the pressures of providing, the stress of disciplining, and the other demands of life rob you of the joy of the moment, the excitement of the ice cream shop, the thrill of the zoo, and the silliness suffused in the life of a child.

Don’t miss those minutes, moms and dads. Don’t let your preoccupation with your boss, your business, your spouse, or yourself distract you from the tangible joys that are already yours in the lives of your children. Give thanks for every minute that they are home, for the time will come, and all too soon, when childhood waves goodbye.

As the mom and her girls turned away from the counter, treats in hand, our eyes met and I smiled, “I had three just like that. They are beautiful.” She just beamed, God bless her. And God bless you too, moms and dads, as you nurture your kids. Thanks for sharing them with us.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

BLUE CHRISTMAS Rx

Depending on whom you ask Christmas is either the best or worst time of the year. For some, “it’s those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call!” For others it’s anything but.

True, the oft-quoted myth that suicides peak during Christmas is just that, a myth. The rates actually go down.

On the other hand, WebMD reports that “Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas.

In other words, we’re less likely to do ourselves in, but perhaps more likely to think about it.

Those of us who have lost family members, or been through the trauma of divorce are most prone to the Christmas blues. Reminders of loved ones gone come in as many colors as gift wrap, and the complications of conflicts with step-families and feuding parents are well documented sources of holiday unhappiness. Add to that the amped up expectations for joy, the stress of preparations, travel, shopping, lack of exercise and extra eating and it’s no wonder some of us get grumpy and sad.

So if Blue Christmas is your holiday hymn, here are a few ideas to help you change your tune.

Change your geography. We humans are creatures of habit and highly sensitive to our environments. When we do the same things the same ways in the same places year after year it can be difficult to associate Christmas with joy, especially if the people who were part of that joy are no longer present. Change your geography. Do Christmas in a new location, the beach, the mountains, any place, so long as it’s a different place that you enjoy.

Change your traditions for the same reason. Change the routine. Drop some old traditions and build some new ones. Never baked Christmas cookies? Try it. Tired of baking? Stow your cookie sheets, send the kids to the store and tell them to be creative.

Change your attitude, about grief that is. Grief is like the tide; it comes in and goes out on its own schedule, unpredictable for us. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the holidays so we try to restrain it, but that’s the worst thing we can do. Like an ocean wave, grief has energy and that energy will find an outlet, even if we try to suppress it. Anger, bitterness, resentment, depression can be the results. Better to adopt a new paradigm for dealing with grief, to ride the wave rather than stand against it. When we do that it can take us to new places of healing and yes, joy. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” We can’t be comforted if we refuse to mourn.

Finally, change your theology. Remember that the first Christmas wasn’t all angels singing, shepherds kneeling and Magi giving gifts. It was also Joseph doubting, Mary wondering, Rachel weeping, and the family fleeing into Egypt. They were stressed out by Christmas too.

And while you’re remembering that, remember this: The true joy of Christmas can’t be found in the food, the gifts, the family and friends. These are only the celebrants and the elements of the celebration. The true joy is in the Christ child who came to “save his people from their sins,” and in the knowledge that God on high has declared “peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”

FINDING HAPPINESS

How do you find happiness? Apparently, more and more young Americans are finding less and less of it each year. At least that’s the opinion of author and political philosopher J. Budziszewski, who has had a ring side seat to rising generations as a professor for thirty-four years at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a recent World Magazine interview, Budziszewski (pronounced Bud-a-Chev-ski) says college kids are running in to the “hedonistic paradox” much sooner than previous generations. Hedonistic paradox is the title for the law of diminishing returns as applied to pleasure. The professor explained, “If you pursue truth and friendship for their own sakes, you will enjoy pleasure. If you pursue pleasure for itself, pleasure recedes and you are likely to find pain. Eventually you burn out … so many of these young people have started in on hedonism so young, and thrown themselves into it so thoroughly, that the paradox kicks in very early.”*

Budziszewski’s words struck a nerve because I had recently finished a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes whose author, King Solomon, knew more about the pursuit of pleasure than anyone. Solomon went after pleasure with the intensity of Peyton Manning dismantling an NFL defense. He had more sex partners, more and bigger parties, more financial success, more fame, and more of everything else than most of us could imagine. His conclusion? It’s emptiness, the vain pursuit of a slippery breeze.

So again, how do you find happiness? How do you find happiness that won’t burn you out and leave you in pain? Here are a few of the answers I’ve found. It has less to do with how and much more to do with who.

The who begins with God. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.” C. S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” I’ve found this to be true. When my relationship with God is first, every other pleasure is enhanced, like eating dark chocolate with black coffee, the combined experience is better than either one alone. Every good thing is a gift from my loving Father and I enjoy it more knowing it came from him. But when I put pleasure first even the good things are diminished.

Worship, the abandonment of all concerns and self-thoughts in praise and adoration, fills me with happiness and peace. Ditto prayer that has said all that needs be said and that does not end with “amen.”

The “who” continues with others: I’m never happier than when I’ve made my wife smile or laugh, than when I see her or my children flourishing in their gifts (she is always happy when she is creating beauty). Seeing others flourish, family, friends or fellow-believers fulfilling the calling and expressing the gifts the Creator gave makes me happy.

Communicating truth, whether in the pulpit, in a song, in this blog or face to face, telling the eternal truths of Scripture energizes me. I’m doing what my Father created me to do, and like Olympic runner Eric Liddel said of his gift of speed, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Sex with the wife of my youth, sex without shame and without fear, absolutely certain that our intimacy and vulnerability with each other is protected by covenant loyalty and blessed with innocence by our Creator, makes me deliriously happy.

The where and what include motorcycle riding in the mountains on a spring day, especially with friends. I find myself singing thanksgiving songs as I throw it through the curves.

A good meal with good friends, helping others solve their problems mechanical or spiritual, these things give me joy.

All the above accompanied by beautiful music performed with excellence, or just music all by itself.

All of these things are gifts from the hand of a kind creator who gave us this promise:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ John 7:37-38.

If you thirst for happiness, if you long for joy, go to him and drink and you will never thirst again.

*J. Budziszewski: Generation disordered. Q&A | The sexual revolution has left many college students with empty lives, but there is a longing for something more. By MARVIN OLASKY “Off the grid,” Sept. 5, 2015.