Upstream

Upstream cover

 

The title of this soon to be released book by Dan Heath intrigued me when I first heard about it. Who wouldn’t want to learn about how to solve problems before they happen?

 

When I was given the opportunity to get an Advance Reader’s Edition to read and review from the author, I was happy to accept. The title Upstream first of all would need a definition in order for me to sense the topic of the book by this New York Times bestselling coauthor of Made to Stick and Switch.

 

To begin to grapple with the definition it’s important to recognize the opposite word – downstream – and how they contrast from each other.

 

“Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred; upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.”

 

With excellent examples to demonstrate the scope of these two definitions, I was curious to learn more. One of those reasons was the certainty that all of us tend to do more downstream thinking than upstream thinking with one significant group as an exception. Mothers. Mothers spend much of their time looking out for what the child or children entrusted to them need to learn or do in order to be safe and experience success from birth onward. They look ahead almost innately to what things will be needed to prepare the child for what lays ahead.

 

My professional career as a Marriage and Family Therapist exposed me to learning about systems theories and models in order to be more effective at working with individuals, couples, and families. Systems thinking is the heart of upstream thinking. It means looking at everything that impacts or influences the problem within the system you may be seeking to improve, and too often we get involved with tunnel thinking and cannot see things through a systemic lens.

 

Dan Heath develops the concept of upstream through a series of stories and examples of what happens within industries, companies, health plans, school systems, businesses, and more that are stuck in the downstream reactive mode and then shows the consequence of moving into a broader system thinking upstream model.

 

Along the way he points out things that hinder upstream thinking and keep us stuck in so many ways including problem blindness (“I don’t see the problem” or “This problem is inevitable”) and lack of ownership (“That’s not mine to fix”) and tunnel vision.

 

It might sound like the focus is on “the big picture” and as I read the book it became evident that was not quite the answer because to do upstream thinking requires us to get close to and see the issue or problem firsthand. Yes, systems look at complex layers of things, but it begins by putting names and faces to what we want to change, not just data.

 

As the author looks at how to develop upstream thinking and feedback loops within and connecting various systems, you will discover a wealth of information pointing to how this concept can be applied in a vast cross section of what we are involved in daily including our individual lives. You will also learn the significant value of those feedback loops to begin to identify potential consequences that could create new problems if you miss seeing them.

 

“Upstream thinking is not just for organizations, it’s for individuals. Where there’s a recurring problem in your life, go upstream. And don’t let the longevity of the problem deter you from acting. As an old proverb goes, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’”

 

One thing is clear about upstream thinking – it means and requires action and it starts with a crucial lesson:

 

“You can’t help a thousand people, or a million, until you understand how to help one.”

 

I had no idea what I was in for when I began this book, but page by page I became more excited about the endless possibilities it opened up. This is a book you will want to add to your reading list no matter what your age or profession. In the weeks ahead it is likely you will read little nuggets I gained in the book.

 

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath will be released on March 3, 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The One True Companion

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

 

As I was reading in a new book I am going to review in a few days, I found (as I often do) many little sentences here and there that fueled my thinking. For me that usually means lots of those little “post it flags” attached to the edges of pages of the book I want to revisit.

 

The one that caught my attention this time was one by Dan Heath:

 

“…we don’t succeed by foreseeing the future accurately. We succeed by ensuring that we’ll have the feedback we need to navigate.”

 

There is no doubt that none of us (save the Lord alone) can accurately foresee the future. Many of us who live by the scouting principle of being prepared try to do so as much as possible. We cannot know when we will experience a job loss or a major repair for our cars or home, but we try to plan for that with insurance and a little extra money in the budget if possible. If we are lucky, we grew up around other older adults who told us this would be important before we ever experienced it ourselves.

 

That’s one area most of us learn about in one way or another and the lesson helps us navigate whatever hits us as we go – at least for those typical things we encounter like a hot water heater failing or a “fender bender” not covered by insurance.

 

Another area some of us do very well with is how we handle our health for the future. We plan with insurance coverage, try to eat a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. We know that as we age our bodies will begin to run into a need for a few repairs here and there and if we steward our health well, it may not prevent an unthinkable diagnosis but it will put us in a better position to avoid one or handle it better when it comes.

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For a great many more of us we lose track of how time is flying and that drinking all those sodas every day are doing a number on us (even if they are not loaded with sugar). We continue work or party late into the night and forget our bodies were designed for regular rest and sleep. Our friends nudge us to take risks that we join without much thought to what it may cost us in the future, even if we are okay with them now.

 

It would help if we had something like a GPS system we commonly use now for all aspects of life. These newest ones we travel with not only tell us how to get from one point to another, but they also tell us about a pothole ahead on the highway, an accident that has stalled traffic that we won’t discover for another 30 minutes, and that there are alternate highways to take to avoid the dangers we might meet ahead.

 

No one has designed one of those, but perhaps they don’t need to do that (for as convenient as that might be). Maybe we have what we need already.

 

If we are following a Christian journey of transformation, we have a clear and evident option – the Holy Spirit – who is our very best companion to guide us through the sometimes-murky waters of daily life. Those subtle nudges and quiet whispers are meant to help us navigate the uncertain path of the future and help us succeed in ways far beyond temporal success.

 

Unfortunately, we too often don’t have very keen hearing, or we decide those nudges and whispers are of our own making and we ignore them. At times that can mean we miss out on a blessing of some sort, a glimpse of the Lord working that we might overlook. At other times it can mean we put ourselves at risk or in danger because we don’t make an appointment with our doctor or we forget about the condition of our tires as we are about to take a long trip.

 

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That is when we most need spiritual friends who travel with us on the journey to speak into our lives when we don’t hear or tune out that one true companion to navigate into the future of each day.

 

It’s regrettable that not all of us are blessed with such persons in our lives or may not have them during certain seasons. Reading about the life of Christ and his companions – disciples – He journeyed with tell me they are important for more than one or two reasons.

 

In David Benner’s book, Sacred Companions, he describes the function of spiritual friends this way:

 

“The task of spiritual friends is to help us discern the presence, will and leading of the Spirit of God.”

 

I love that.

 

But if those spiritual friends seek to replace the Holy Spirit or if they lack wisdom and discernment as they walk with us, we can be tempted to refuse any offers from them or healthier spiritual friends that may come our way. That is not what faith teaches us, but our wounds can move us to do so at times.

 

“The Christian spiritual journey is a journey we take with others. Each of us must take our own journey, and for each of us that journey will be unique, but none of us is intended to make the journey alone. The myth of the solitary Christian making his or her way alone to paradise flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches about the church as the body of Christ.”

David Benner

 

I think one of the things that hinders healthy spiritual friendship is our failure to pay attention to those relationships around us. We get so focused on our own life and all of its nuances that the relationship God may have provided withers for lack of nourishment.

 

Spiritual friends notice things about us, not just a new hair cut or diet plan. They notice things they sense that we may never talk about. They pick up on weariness without our telling them. They notice if we are quieter than usual. They can tell you a great deal about our heart and current walk with the Lord from what we say and what we don’t say.

 

That kind of friend is rare indeed, but a great gift to share the journey with. It’s not unlike the gift Frodo has in his friend, Sam, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

 

When you read that, some of you lament that you don’t have such a person. Others of you immediately have the face of such a person in your past or current life come to mind.

 

The key to remember is you have one true companion – the Holy Spirit, who was given from a loving Father God to navigate the unseen future of every moment.

 

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An Issue of Character

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I was born with a unique DNA and there is much that goes into that genetic makeup, helps determine my temperament, my gifting, my intellect, and my tendencies as well as the personality, which began before I was born. The same is true for each one of us.

 

Those nine months before I was officially born influenced every aspect of my functioning. From the day of my birth, environmental factors and experiences were added to the mix of what shaped who I was. All of these did not, however, bear the burden of the development of my character.

 

Yet, I could certainly look at all the history of the things I have mentioned and choose to blame them for my character and its shape.

 

I could easily blame any number of my flaws, weaknesses, and negative qualities on all these other things. I think we are all good at that. I think it comes from the DNA from the original garden where we humans began when Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve.

 

Were the things they chose which led to so much turmoil influenced by forces outside of themselves?

 

Of course!

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Even so, they made a choice to allow those influences to determine the shape of their character and absolve them of the responsibility of their choices. They forgot they were players in a great battle against forces that were not flesh and blood, but used flesh and blood to taunt, tempt, tease, and triumph over them.

 

Thousands of years later, we are tempted to be not much different than Adam and Eve.

 

We blame our brother or sister when we are young children for why we chose to act in a certain way. Oddly enough, when we grow up to be adults, we often do the same thing. We blame our parents for not providing us for what we needed so we could be smarter, better, and more successful.

 

As adults, we might blame our bosses, our spouses, our professors, or the government. We can blame the neighborhood we grew up in and what happened to us there at any age or stage of life.

 

Adam and Eve ultimately blamed the serpent, the evil challenging them there and we can do that as well. Before we are done, we might also be tempted to blame God since He was the one who got everything started in the first place.

 

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Photo by Juan C. Palacios from Pexels

If we continue to do these things, these are the very things that will shape our character and result in tendencies to feel victimized, bitter, angry, resentful, and more. We can insist that many of the things that are in play were not our fault and that might also be true, but the issue is what we do with those very things.

 

What truth do we allow to have the power to inform us about who we were and are as well as whose we are?

 

The battle is not about flesh and blood but make no mistake we are definitely caught up in a great battle. Perhaps that is why some of my favorite movies are those in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings because they serve to remind me in powerful ways of what is happening and what my role is to be.

 

I love the lines between Frodo and Gandalf as Frodo regrets the burden of the ring that has fallen to him:

 

“’I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”

 

Today each of us has that same choice.

 

In a wonderful book by Ken Gire entitled The North Face of God, Ken writes a description that stirs my mind, heart, and spirit and helps shape my character and my choices. It reads as follows:

 

“There is a battle that lies before us, before each of us, a battle set in motion before the dawn of time and fought in every generation until the once and future King returns. Now the fate of our Middle-earth falls on us, on you and on me and on all who bear the name of the King. The enemy has never been more relentless, never more cunning, never more ruthless. A daunting decision stands between us and that enemy.

We can sheathe our swords in retreat. We can lay down our swords in surrender. We can fall on our swords in despair. Or we can, with the brave who have gone before us, draw our swords and ride with full fury into the enemy’s ranks.”

 He has not promised us ease, world peace, or a perfect life without challenges, wounds, and scars, but He HAS promised us He will be with us always, never stop loving us, and grant us grace when we falter.

 

Today I choose to ride with the One who has won my heart and affection.

 

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Say It Again

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Our days can get pretty cluttered with messages in words and other forms from every direction that by the time we lay our heads on our pillows we can easily lose track of all of them. But sometimes we are blessed with a message we would love to hear again because it blessed us, encouraged us, gave us new insight, buoyed our sagging confidence, gave us hope, or reminded us we were loved for who we are rather than what we do.

 

No matter what your love language – “hearing” something that lightens a day again is something we wish we could recapture.

 

The problem is that too often all those other messages bombarding us also distract us from saying it or expressing it in whatever way blesses the other person. We let moments slip away with that tyranny of the urgent instead of focusing on the important.

 

It happens to us all.

 

Few contexts provide more opportunities than within our family life, but some days or maybe many days we don’t “say it again” or say it as if we were expressing it the first time. As a result, those most important relationships can get stale with the dailiness of life.

 

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Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

Sure – we might do well with birthdays, Christmas or other special occasions. We recall what candy a person likes, what fragrance brings a smile, what food is a favorite, or what place “takes us back.” All that is good, but what if we tried for a “better?”

 

It’s not about being more expensive or exotic, but more about being creative about delighting the other person the way you took time to do when you were first in relationship with them. The things we always do together are hopefully ones we enjoy, but so many of those are to the same places, doing the same things, and the pop and sizzle of feeling appreciated and cared for doesn’t land as it once did.

 

Some countries and cultures celebrate Valentine’s Day focusing on those we love with candy, cards, flowers, a night out, and more, but what about all those other days that we might call “ordinary?”

 

One of my favorite assignments for couples I worked with as a marriage and family therapist was to assign one of the two persons to plan a date that could not cost more than $5-$10 at most. It can be easy to not take special time together because of the cost because it isn’t just the cost of the movie (Who knew so much money would be needed for that little outing?) or dinner out, it’s the cost of the gas or transit and maybe the cost of a babysitter.

 

When we are just starting out, we more often tend to be more creative with our outings because we are more limited in money. When we look fondly over our shoulders, those times always make us smile because they were so much fun.

 

When I gave this assignment to a couple married more than 45 years whose marriage had gotten a bit “stale,” I had no idea what to expect. The assignment went to the husband whose wife thought he didn’t have a romantic bone left in his body.

 

But guess what?

 

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Photo by Rio Guruh Imawan from Pexels

He told her the time and date for their outing and what the appropriate clothing would be. When the time arrived, he took her to a local park near time for the sun to go down. where there was an observation tower. He also took binoculars and a small basket of treats and together they sat on the top watching and listening the chorus of the birds at sunset.

 

His wife had always loved birds and this time of day, but she could not have guessed he would come up with such an idea. It happened when I put a limit on the dollar amount ($5 for them) when they were typically going to movies, theater, and upscale places for dinner.

 

His wife was not only shocked, but thought it was one of the most romantic dates they had ever had together. It took a little thought and consideration of the person he wanted to delight, and he nailed it!!

 

If you have never tried something like this, you might want to give it a whirl. I have done it from time-to-time with various people who are dear to me. One example was when our daughter was about to turn 12 and I celebrated with the “12 Days of Birthday.” Each day leading up to her birthday there was some little surprise meant to delight her heart, many of those involved more time than expense such as giving her a manicure while she sipped tea. That turned out to be such a fun time that she has done it for each of her four children as they were turning 12.

 

Another example was last Christmas when I gave my husband a box that contained a “Year of Dates.”  Tucked inside he would open a note each first day of the month and discover a special date for that month that I had planned. The parameters I gave myself was that it needed to be something new we had not done together or something we had not done in a long time. I know he enjoyed it, but I think I may have had the most fun planning and thinking through something different for each month.

 

The “Year of Dates” ended this past December when we celebrated our 55th anniversary. Some of the dates were as simple as a walk on a path we had not done together along with coffee at a coffee shop he had never been to. One involved visiting old friends who had moved to a city three hours away and getting reconnected after more than a few years and enjoying a local museum together. Another was taking a cooking class together even though my hubby only does grilling where food prep is concerned.  I could list all 12, but I would want you to use your own imagination if you try this one.

 

Now I am looking for when I can be creative again and with whom.

 

Sometimes we need to remember to say it again, but also say it in a fresh new way that reminds us of when that spark of love and appreciation was first born.

 

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Time to Prune Again?

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Photo by Pixabay

 

Here we are in the midst of winter in the northern hemisphere and images of my father pouring over various gardening catalogs and magazines come to mind. He grew up on a farm and even when farming was not his full time occupation, he was intrigued by all the ways to prepare soil, plant and nurture new seeds, plants, and trees, and also how to assure they would flourish and produce the very best as a reward for all his hard work.

 

I recall one of the tasks was pruning. How I respected his knowledge of knowing when each thing needed to be pruned. He died in 1995 and I did not gain his knowledge along the way except in the broadest terms.

 

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My dad knew when to prune apple, cherry, and peach trees he grew. I only know it wasn’t the same time he pruned the roses, blueberry, and blackberry bushes. It also wasn’t the same time he pruned the grape vines that grew producing their luscious delights in early fall.

 

No matter where I shop for produce, I cannot find anything that compares with the bounty that came from my dad’s hard work, knowledge, and passion for gardening. The closest I can come is to visit our local orchard.

 

Beyond the luscious results, why is pruning so important?

 

If you check online for that answer you will see that pruning not only gets rid of the dead and dying parts of the plant, shrub, or tree and allows for new healthy growth, but it also deters pests and other enemies of healthy vegetation and reduces the risk of healthy parts being broken off. Additionally, good pruning allows the vegetation to be shaped as you desire to promote the best healthy growth possible.

 

But there are other kinds of pruning as well.

 

Did you know our bodies have been designed for something called synaptic pruning that is done naturally in the brain between childhood (when large amounts of growth happens) and adulthood?  The process results in the brain eliminating extra synapses, removing connections we no longer need so that our brain functions are more efficient as we get older and start to acquire more complex bits of information.

 

And of course, there is the pruning Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John:

 

“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

John 15:2 (NIV)

 

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Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

Unquestionably the Lord knows more about pruning than any one of his human creation. We might be tempted to think His pruning is only of the “not so good” parts of us, but pruning is a long-term investment and commitment and He has more in mind than getting rid of what seems to be unproductive.

 

I love the fascinating work of Margaret Feinberg in her book Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey. If this book has not come your way, I would encourage you to add it to your reading list.

 

In the parable of the vineyard John writes about in his Gospel, consider the metaphor evident in the realities of being a vintner and preparing and nurturing a vineyard:

 

  • Soil needs to be prepared to provide for the very best root systems to develop.

 

  • Dormant shoots from a grape vine from a nursery are planted and pruned all the way down to two buds on the cane according to the chapter on wine and vineyards in Margaret’s book.

 

  • The second-year vines are scrutinized and managed even more carefully and pruned to assure they will develop in a way allowing the vine to be healthy and to produce for decades to come.

 

  • When the third-year results in some fruit on those vines, vintners let it drop to the ground. (It won’t be until the fourth year a small harvest will result in a little wine to be aged.)

 

Of course, it doesn’t stop there, but to delve into the fascinating intricacy of being a vintner, check out Margaret’s chapters on this in the book noted above.

 

Think of yourself as part of the Lord’s vineyard and how patiently He tends and prunes you over the course of your faith journey. And don’t forget there will be times when He trims fruitful areas because He knows the design He has for each of us and wants to develop even more fruit.

 

Sometimes He will prune something we enjoy or believe in and we will be tempted to alcohol-bar-beverage-black-background-312080believe it was a failure on our part or the enemy’s handiwork. Those possibilities might be true, but sometimes it is Him. Sometimes He prunes some area of ministry that we have given all of ourselves to or He may prune relationships that were precious to us.

 

Consider then that He is developing the most bountiful vineyard and the very best award-winning wine like we see in His first miracle of water to wine that the Gospel of John tells us about in the second chapter of that Gospel.

 

The Lord chose us, died for us even when we were broken and messy, and prunes us to produce the most incredible fruit and delicious wine anyone can imagine.

 

Trust Him with the pruning.

 

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