Baking Cookies & Pulling Triggers


Last night I baked cookies, a lot of cookies.

It's because I'm manipulative.

This afternoon I have a creative meeting. For four hours I am locking into a room some of the best creative and musical minds I know. My goal is to get them to start thinking and dreaming about Christmas. What will it sound like? What will it feel like? How will this moment melt into the next? Should this piece here, perhaps, come as a complete surprise?

But it's mid-August, it's all hot afternoons and beckoning beaches. No one is thinking about Christmas except for me. But days like these—ones in which the stars are aligned and the schedules of talented people suddenly intersect—are few and far between. So I need to make the most of it, and to do that I need them to be fully engaged.

I've done my homework. I have a treatment, a rough draft of a script, and a mood/inspiration board that will do some of the work, but not enough. So there will also be twinkling lights and carols playing softly. There will be the smell of sweet cocoa, marshmallows, peppermint, and plates piled high with the cookies I made last night. These things will add some fun to the proceedings, and the extra effort will go a long way toward letting these friends know that I care about them and appreciate their help. All good things.

But there's more to it.

The Christmas season is full of memories and emotions, full of funny stories and sugar-plum dreams, but all of this often sits buried inside us, hibernating between New Year's and Thanksgiving. I need today's team to draw from this wealth of memory and emotion, and I'm hoping that the smells, sounds, and tastes of Christmas will help to trigger their minds and hearts to fully inhabit a season that's still a long way off.

Yes, I admit that it is manipulation, but my conscience is clean because I do it to myself all the time. In fact, I've been listening to Christmas music on my commute for the last two weeks. The other day, before I ever sat down to write the first word of the script, my first stop was at Starbucks to pick up a cinnamon dolce latte, the best approximation of the smells and tastes of Christmas. (And a far cry from my usual black coffee!) These things are powerful triggers that, when pulled, can take our minds and hearts to places we remember but never saw coming.

But it's not just at Christmas. All of life is full of triggers. Some summer afternoons I'll be driving with the windows rolled down, and I'll catch the whiff of a scent that immediately transports my mind to the memory of riding my bike through a field near my house in Ohio when I was six-years-old.

And I think for every creative person there are triggers that help us work. There are places, sounds, and sights that encourage us to do work or to do better work. Perhaps it's a walk through the park just before sunset, or the sight of an uncluttered desk. Or maybe it's the smell of a fresh ream of blank pages, or the call of a brand new brush. Perhaps it's the song we can't stop playing on repeat, or a glance at the silver-framed picture on the bedside table.

We each have triggers, things that inspire us, that transport us, that make us think differently and make us want to get to work... NOW.

Today, let's pull some triggers.


Why We Tell Stories

We are storytellers. That's what we do. That's what we were made to do.

And each year, around this time, I'm reminded that the the story that I'm made to tell, the one that echoes in every cavern of my life, is also the greatest story the world has ever known. In the next few days, all around the world, we get to tell the story of Easter. At ROCKHARBOR we get to tell that story in unique ways, ways that stretch us, exhaust us, and revive us all at the same time.

As storytellers, we are remarkably blessed to do what we do, to be entrusted with this story. The honor of it is exhilarating and humbling.

But sometimes I forget. Amidst the pace, the panic, and the pressure I too easily forget.

Telling stories is hard work. And telling stories well is very hard work. In the middle of the process we sometimes lose the scent of the purpose we're chasing and, occasionally, forget that it's a privilege. For this reason, it's important to hold onto certain moments we've witnessed as we've told stories, those moments that have reminded us that what we do is so much bigger than us.

As I sat on the stage yesterday in the dark and the cold of a late-night rehearsal I was reminded of one of these moments. It took place a little less than a year ago, just a few weeks after Easter.

That morning the whole family sat at the breakfast table. I'd made bad coffee and failed pancakes, and I was frustrated. One of those metaphorical dark and stormy cloud loomed over my head. Then Finnden, our then-two-year-old son, looked at Karen and I and said, “I want to watch Daddy's words.” (“Daddy's words” is what he called the creative storytelling piece from last year because it featured a spoken word I performed.)

He'd seen it twice on Easter morning. The first time he'd watched it he'd sat silently, taking it all in, but as he saw it again during the second service Karen said he was very scared when “sin” appeared. There was something he'd intrinsically understood.

Since then, Karen told me that he'd asked to see the video of the performance at least a dozen times, but he usually asked while I was at work, thus I'd never had the chance to observe him as he watched.

He was entranced by what he saw, his eyes scanning the screen. But what was even more amazing was what he would say. From time to time he would quote a line along with the video or he would narrate a portion, talking to no one in particular. When dancers who represented the fall of humankind entered the scene he said with a frown, “Bad sin come now.”

But a moment later he smiled and said, “Jesus come.”

When the story talked about Jesus' death he shook his finger at the screen and said, “Jesus not done.”

And a few moments later, when Jesus rose from the dead, he exclaimed, “Sin go away!”

“People happy. Sin not hurting them!”

And finally, lifting his hands in the air, he shouted “I am new!”

The dark cloud above me disappeared, and in a sudden rush of emotion I realized my two-year-old son had, in his own way, just articulated the gospel. We had set out to tell the most meaningful story in the world to thousands of people, and one of the people who had heard it was my son.

That is one of those moments that I hold onto when, in the midst of the process, I lose sight of the purpose and the privilege of being a storyteller. We all need moments like these, and when we receive these gifts of grace, these stories, we must remember them, treasure them, and tell them.

Conversations & Percolation

It's time to bring others in. But only part way. I'm not yet ready for all-out collaboration. The idea is too new. Too unsteady. Heck, I'm not even sure it has legs yet. This is the time to bring in safe voices, voices that wonder aloud with me rather than making verbal lists of pros and cons. It's not the time for rash judgments and sweeping statements. It's time to engage in conversations that begin poking and prodding at the motionless form on the ground to see if it might have some life in it.

What is the point of these conversations? Well, there are two points. The first is to find threads. The second is to find if the threads can begin weaving into something better, bigger, more full than the idea making lazy circles in my mind.

I talked about threads awhile back, but, in short, threads are those commonalities that begin to point at themes. Are there a number of people asking the same question? Are so-and-so and them-over-there scratching at the same itch? Are there words, or ideas, or modes of presentation that seem to be popping up again and again in unexpected places? Many times the work of the creative person consists of latching onto these things, these patterns that no one else has yet noticed, and to bring them to the forefront, attaching them to an idea that is just beginning to grow.

This is the phase where it doesn't look like you're doing anything. Nothing at all. You're thinking about doing something, but there's very little actually "doing." Or at least how that looks.

But if you're well-accustomed to the creative process you'll know that this is the phase where the heavy lifting really begins. This is the difficult (and often quiet) phase of creativity where the idea is given time to grow and where you can begin to see the shape of it.

I can't skip this phase. I couldn't if I tried. One way or another I'm going to end up in this part of the process. I can skip it now and just get working, but the working will be interrupted—perhaps even stalled completely—by the necessity of this time. I can either allow the idea to add flesh to bones now, or I'll be drawing skeletons for days and will need to stop frequently to imagine what flesh on them might look like.

What It Means to Lead

A few of my observations on what it means to no particular order and by no means exhaustive. 1. It means having courage.

A friend of mine, CJ Casciotta, tweeted this the other day, and I thought it was genius:

Leadership is doing what others are afraid to do until they see you do it.

Some mornings I lie in bed, fighting myself because I just don't want to lead. I don't want to be the person at the front of the excursion into the jungle, hacking at every tropical shrub, spider and venomous snake that stands in the way.

Leading is hard because anything worth doing will be hard to do. You'll hate parts of it. Resistance will declare all-out war on you. Every insecurity you've ever had will bubble to the surface and be seen in the harsh light of reality. But that's what it means to have courage. That's what it means to do something meaningful...and to give other people meaning.

2. It means asking someone to follow. It might seem obvious, but so many of us skip this step. If you're going to lead, someone has to be following, and sometimes that doesn't happen until you ask them.

I rarely have people come up to me begging to follow me. That's not usually the way it works. Instead, we as leaders, have to perceive them. We have to have vision for them. We have to recognize what they uniquely offer. We have to inspire them toward a vision. We have to be open to the way they will change the thing we're leading.

And we have to ask. We just need to ask. I've found that, while most people aren't begging to be followers, they'll step up to the plate if you can show them how their strengths merge with your vision. And remember, you're promising them more than just the task at hand; you're doling out meaning and relationship.

3. It means slowing down long enough to let them follow. I'm going to have to circle back around to this another time, but in short, be okay with a slower pace if it means that other people can be in it with you. The product will be better for it. They'll be better for it. You'll be better for it.

4. It means turning things upside down. I believe leadership is about service. Not everyone would define leadership this way, but this is how Jesus defines it. Everyday I realize more and more that my role as "leader" is really to recognize, release and cultivate what is the unique potential in those who "follow" me. I think I'm going to have to circle back around to this one someday too because I can't begin to do it justice.

5. It means getting messy. We're talking about dealing with people here, and people are messy. All of us are messy and when relationships get real we tend to get our mess all over everything. But real leadership is rooted in relationship.

Why would I say that?

Well, for one, being known in relationship means there's more allowance for being imperfect. And, really, isn't this the best option...since being perfect isn't an option? If you're imperfect and detached, you are not going to be easy to follow. Loving people well also means that even if your grand vision comes crashing to the ground you can get up again because you haven't failed at what is most important.

I would rather love well than accomplish well.

I'm only just beginning to unravel my thoughts on this, so I think I'll need to circle back to this entire topic a few times. But I'm realizing that I do have some things I've learned and that I'm still learning.