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November 2005
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January 2006

Take A Break

Yesterday I had a meeting with our accountant. Midway through the meeting, he got up from the table to get something from his office. When he came back, he had some insight into our business situation that saved us a lot of money! He had a creative (and legal) idea and it came right after he took a break, after he distanced himself, for just a few minutes, from the issue at hand.

I also saw this phenomenon recently in Zimbabwe. We were in a meeting where we debated an issue for two hours. Then we took a tea break and, during that ten-minute break, settled the issue that had been so hotly debated. We "saw" something when we got up from the table that we could not see until we had a change of scenery--and some refreshments to go with it.

Then there is the example of my favorite game on my handheld computer called Text Twist. In that game, I have two and a half minutes to make as many words from the six letters the game provides. If I find the word that uses all six letters, I can go on to the next level. If not, the game ends. Often I will shut the game down with 30 seconds left and go back to it later. Many times I will immediately see the word that I could not see the first time I looked. There was something about the rest, the break in routine, that allowed my creativity to be released.

I am devoted to applying this principle in a more systematic way as we enter the New Year. Sometimes the answer isn't more effort and concentration, but rather rest and distance. Right now I am facing a major problem with my email server that isn't allowing me to communicate with the 19,000 names I have in my database. My wife asked me this morning, "How are you going to attack this problem?" I answered that I wasn't going to attack; I was going to rest and wait.

Is there some issue that you are facing that doesn't seem to have a solution? Then may I suggest that you table it for a few minutes or a few days and see if the answer doesn't emerge as you reapproach the problem later with a rested brain and renewed faith.

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Your Best Day

I am a big fan of Marcus Buckingham, a British author and speaker. Buckingham worked for the Gallup Organization for many years but now speaks and writes about management and leadership issues. I heard him speak at Bill Hybel's leadership conference last year and I have shown the DVD of that speech to many groups.

Buckingham spoke on the topic from his latest book, The One Thing You Need to Know: About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success. I think his insights on the difference between leadership and management are great. Buckingham asks five questions that will help any manager determine more about the people being managed: what are their strengths, learning styles and productivity triggers.

One of the questions is: What was the best day at work you've had in the last three months? You may want to think on that question for yourself. When I was showing the DVD to a group recently, I gave them time to answer that question and tried to answer it for myself. I determined that my best day was the day I flew to Vancouver, Canada, got people onboard a ship headed for Alaska and taught an onboard session later that day on purpose.

In other words, my best day was when I was traveling and teaching.

Buckingham makes the point that the one thing you need to know is this: You need to stop doing what you don't like doing. That's it. That's so simple, yet I constantly look past that, trying to redouble my efforts to enjoy what I will never enjoy doing.

So this Sunday I will be in Baltimore. Then I will be home for a week and then head to Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, and West Palm Beach. I am home for a day and then I'm off to London and Africa, teaching everywhere I go. I will be home February 27. I have taken Buckingham's advice and I have stopped doing what I don't like so I can do what I like. When I do what I like, I get better results and I'm happier. Is there anything wrong with that?

If not, then why not try it yourself? As you end this year and start another, take time to answer what your best day has been in the last few months. Then ask yourself how you can have more of those days in 2006. Happy New Year!

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Email Problems

I have been unable to send my weekly Bible studies or The Monday Memo the last two weeks. I have encountered some technical difficulties that I don't know how to correct or where to go to get help. I send both programs through my own computer using Outlook. I maintain distribution lists for each program, and I have 6,000 names for the Bible studies and 12,000 for The Monday Memo. Since last week, I haven't been able to get any of my lists to go through. They are all returned with an error message that some of the addresses are being rejected by the server.

So until I can get some insight into the problem, I will be unable to send out any weekly updates as I have done for the last five years. If you know any Microsoft Outlook experts out there, please let me know who they are and how I can get in touch with them.

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The Orlando Magic

Last night my daughter and I went to see an NBA game here in Orlando. The Magic played the Milwaukee Bucks and it was an entertaining game, which the locals won 108-93. I was surprised at how few people were at the game; the arena was only half full.

My 25-year-old daughter loves sports and she is always fun to take to a game. She attends pro football and basketball games regularly, and will also go along to see baseball and hockey, although those aren't her favorites. She is good friends with many of the Baltimore Raven football players, much to the chagrin of her father who is a lifelong Pittsburgh Steeler fan.

I have always been a huge sports fan, but I've curtailed my interest over the last 10 years. I did this after I heard Jim Collins, the business author speak in New York City in 1997. He introduced me to the concept of a stop-to-do list. Collins said that every leader has a to-do list, but often we are only able to accomplish something we want to do when we make time to do it by eliminating something else. He used the example from his own life that he was able to increase how much he read only after he stopped watching so much television.

I was investing so much time and energy in watching and attending sports that I knew this was a way I could recapture time I needed to write and travel. So while I am still an avid fan, I have traded sports time for writing time and I've been much happier ever since.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if you had a stop-to-do list. As we close out this year, what can you stop doing in order to start doing something more important to you?

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The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Yesterday, my family and I went to see Disney's version of C.S. Lewis' classic tale, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This was the first volume of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, which I had read many years ago. I thought the movie was a delight to watch for the most part. As I sat and watched the movie, however, I had this urge to return home and start writing. I felt we were in the theater not celebrating Disney's movie magic, but rather celebrating the legacy of a gifted Christian man who impacted not just the church in his day, but all of British society and much of the world.

I wanted to go home and write because I have this nagging desire to produce something (or things) that will touch many people. I want to create something that will bring a smile to people's faces, that will last longer than I do. I know that this is something that I just can't do--it is a gift of God and a product of His grace.

I sat watching the movie, saying to myself, "Way to go, C. S. Lewis!" I was proud on his behalf and wondered if he would have been pleased with the rendition of his work. I sat and thought what a marvellously crafted story the movie represented. I was also delighted that another Christian work--after The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of The Christ--was making an impact on the world stage.

So here I am on Christmas morning, writing an entry for my blog. Is that weird? I hope not. I just didn't want to put off writing for a day, because if I'm going to produce what the world wants and God can use, I must become a better writer. Most importantly, I must simply keep writing, for I don't know what I will produce that God could use one day to touch a lot of people. That is where the faith comes in. So I will write and hope God will bless it, and maybe one day my work will be seen or read by many, some of whom will say, "Way to go, John Stanko." Who knows, it could happen tomorrow, or it could happen after I'm gone, or not at all. I can live with the results as long as I feel like I made my best efforts to produce the best work possible.

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A Mary Christmas

While this is the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus, at this time of year I can't help but think of His mother Mary. She was probably a teenager when the angel Gabriel appeared and announced that she would give birth to a son. What would grow within her was a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit. She didn't ask for this and as far as we know, she wasn't praying to be the mother of the Son of God. God chose her and that's the only explanation for why she was the woman who gave birth to Jesus.

Years ago I delivered a Sunday message entitled, "Have a Mary Christmas!" In it I focused on Mary and her surrender to the will of God. After she questioned the angel as to how it would be possible for her, a virgin, to give birth, the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would make it possible. I maintain that Mary then had as much information as she had before she asked, for Jews at that time had no theological context to understand who the Holy Spirit was.

Yet Mary asked no more questions and simply replied, "May it be to me as you have said" (Luke 1:38). That should be the attitude of all your heart this season as well. You may not understand what God is doing in your life or how He will finish the work He has started, but you should be responding like Mary, "Be it done unto me according to Your word!"

Perhaps you have come to the realization that something is growing inside you. It may be an idea or a dream, but in many respects it's like Mary's baby. You didn't ask for it; it just appeared one day and you haven't been able to get away from it. You've thought about school, your own business, going to Africa or starting a ministry for a long time. Perhaps you have procrastinated, tried to talk yourself out of, or just ignored this "baby" in you, but it just won't go away. It just keeps growing; you carry it with you wherever you go.

Maybe you're at the point now where you're asking, "Is this thing inside me the will of God? How do I know if it's the Lord?" I'll answer your question with another question: How do you know it isn't from God? What steps have you taken to prove that this "baby" living inside you isn't the will of God? Too often we are waiting for God to confirm His will before we take the first step, but more often, God confirms His will after we've taken the first steps.

So what can you do before the end of 2005 to give birth to this "baby" inside you? Can you make a phone call or take a trip to check something out? Is there someone with whom you could meet to find out more about how to birth this "baby?" The message of this season is one of faith; how can you use your faith to allow this baby in you to live and prosper?

From all the Stanko clan, I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

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I Made It

On the way to Florida yesterday, I finished two books, bringing my total number of books read to 72 for 2005. I read the last few pages of The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, edited by Philip Zaleksi, while my wife was driving and finished listening to A Crack In The Edge of the World by Simon Winchester while I was driving. My goal is to finish six books every month and I reached my goal for 2005. I track every title I finish in my handheld computer, and my records show that I have finished 393 books in the last five years. Drat! I should have reached 400!

The Best American Spiritual Writing is a curious mix of Christian and non-Christian writing with an occasional essay on a nature or environmental theme. The writing is indeed the best, but how they determine that some of the work chosen is "spiritual" is beyond me. I figure, however, that I am going to write the best myself, I should read the best that others produce.

A Crack in The Edge of the World was a long work that chronicled the events leading up to and following the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake in 1906. I found the geological explanations boring and hard to follow, but the historical material on San Francisco was fascinating and the story of the quake itself sobering, especially following the destruction of New Orleans this year after hurricane Katrina.

Winchester made a fascinating connection in the book between the earthquake and the rise of Pentecostalism in the United States. On April 18, 1906, the day of the earthquake, The Los Angeles Times newspaper ran an article about the strange little congregation on Azusa Street that was highlighted by ecstatic worship and speaking in tongues. The little church claimed that God would soon give a sign that these were the last days and that their Pentecostal expressions were indeed an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

On the same day that the article ran, the earthquake hit and most Americans believed it was an act of God. This served, in the author's mind, to give the new Pentecostal "movement" credibility that hasn't waned since 1906. So the author makes a case that the earthquake gave rise to religious fundamentalism, which in turn has impacted American politics and history for the last 100 years. I found that to be an intriguing connection from a man who is not a professed Christian.

At any rate, I hope to finish a few more books over the holidays. I seldom read fiction, but usually allow myself one such book over the Christmas holidays. This year I have chosen Ken Follett's book The Pillars of the Earth on the recommendation of a friend.

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Getting There

Yesterday my wife and I drove down to Florida from Pennsylvania to be with family for Christmas. Well, I should say I drove and my wife took a brief turn at the wheel. It is a 14-hour trip. I drove 13 hours, my wife drove one. The same scenario played out 31 years ago when we were married. We decided to drive to Miami Beach for our honeymoon, agreeing that we would share the driving duties of 32 hours roundtrip. My wife drove 3 hours and I drove 29 hours. What's worse is that she slept most of the trip. When she wasn't sleeping, she was looking for a restroom.

On our honeymoon, we pulled off at one exit to use a rest room. We got back in the car, my wife fell asleep, only to awaken a short time later to proclaim, "I need to find a bathroom!" We had not even reached the next exit on the highway. So yesterday's trip wasn't too unusual.

When I get in a car, I want to get where I'm going as quickly as possible, especially on long trips. Years ago we would drive to visit my family in Pennsylvania when we lived in Alabama. It was a 19-hour trip, but I would drive straight through. Here's how we would do it.

We would eat lunch at home, then pack our things along with our two young children in a borrowed station wagon. We would only stop for gas and toilet stops, packing a dinner to eat in the car. Then we would put the children down in the back of the station wagon to sleep (our luggage would be in a luggage carrier on top of the car), my wife would drive for an hour or two so I could nap, and then I would drive all night. We would arrive at breakfast time the next morning, having driven all night. Well, I drove, everyone else slept.

I used many tricks to keep me awake at night. First, I would pinch my inner thighs, and the resulting pain would give me a jolt of adrenaline. I would drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks, which would of course make me go to the bathroom. But I would not stop and the discomfort of having to go would help keep me awake. I consumed massive quantities of popcorn and pretzels, sometimes eating enough salt to wrinkle and dehydrate my lips and fingers. I listened to music through earphones, careful not to sing and disturb my sleeping passengers. And of course I would drive as fast as the law would allow (or fast as I could without getting caught). But beyond that, I just had to tough it out, occasionally just opening my window to allow the cold night air to blast me back to consciousness.

We made yesterday's 1,012-mile trip in 14 hours and 15 minutes. That now gives me something to shoot for on the way home next Wednesday, for I always like to better the time it took to come down when I return home. If I could just figure out a way to lessen our stops, I think I could make it home in less than 14 hours. Maybe my wife will sleep the entire way and I can make one or two less bathroom stops. I have five days to plan my strategy before it's time to return home. But for now, we plan on enjoying our time in Orlando and doing some last minute Christmas shopping today.

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A Whole New Mind, Part Two

Whole-New-Mind-1Today seems like a good day to complete the book review I began a few days ago of Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind. In the first installment, we discussed the first three of six senses or skills that Pink maintains we will need to have to make the jump from the information age to what he refers to as the conceptual age. I also attempted to tie these senses to some concept in the Bible to give those of us who use the Word as a guide some biblical perspective. Those first three senses were design, story and symphony. Now let's cover the last three.

4. Not just logic, but also empathy. Pink maintains that those who thrive in the conceptual will be their ability to understand what makes people tick, to forge relationships and to care for others. Of course, there is no better sense suited to a believer, who are empowered by the Spirit to love and care for others. "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited" (Romans 12:15-16). I think this sense helps avoid simply manipulating or using people as a means to a profit. People who empathize fix problems and help people.

5. Not just seriousness but also play. Ample evidence shows that joy and light-heartedness contribute to good health and creativity. Pink urges a balance between the seriousness of work and the joy of life. In my mind, this is related to joy and joy is on the most important barometers in finding your life work. What do you enjoy doing? Nehemiah said many centuries ago, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).

6. Not just accumulation but also meaning. Pink writes that today's abundance has enabled many people to pursue not just work, but purpose, transcendence and spiritual fulfillment. When he writes of purpose, of course my heart leaps. For purpose teaching is what I have devoted my last 15 years to develop. "The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4 NASU). The quest for purpose in work, life and ministry has launched a purpose craze and revolution that is changing the world. I'm glad Pink acknowledged this important sense.

So there you have it. Keep in mind that the Scripture references are my idea and not found in the book. But I couldn't help but make the connection between what Pink wrote and what I believe and it wasn't a hard thing to do. As I've said before, if you're looking for a good book to read during this holiday season, A Whole New MInd is the one I would recommend.

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Back Home

Pitts NiteI arrived home last night and it was quite a shock. The temperature was 15 degrees (that's minus eight Celsius for my friends overseas). Not that I'm complaining, however, for it sure is good to be home. Kathryn and I have a few things to do the next few days, and then it's off to Florida for a week of family with a little business mixed in.

We lived in Orlando while I pastored there from 1989-1993. It was a great experience for me. It was there that I learned to preach (I am still learning), not only as pastor of a church but also as president of a prison ministry. There were some weeks I spoke 5-10 times with all my duties, and that was after being an associate pastor when I spoke twice in 11 years--and the second time I spoke was the last Sunday I was there. You could say I averaged one message every 11 years during that season of my life.

Orlando is also special because it was there that I determined that I wasn't a Sunday pastor, trying to shepherd a flock through Sunday services and day-to-day church work. When Integrity Music offered me the opportunity to head their ministry division in 1993, I resigned the pastorate and took their position. I have had no regrets.

When you allow God to position you to do things that He created you to do, your effectiveness and joy increase. When I was a pastor, the largest Sunday service we ever had was 258 people. Now on Sunday nights when I write The Monday Memo, I send it to 12,000 people all over the world. 258 then, 12,000 now--do you see the difference? When I pastored, I was doing what I thought I should be doing. Now I am doing what I was created to do and I love it.

The ironic thing is that I am doing more pastoring now that I stopped trying to be a pastor in the traditional Sunday role. When I write The Monday Memo, I usually write about purpose and productivity and I sign off as Dr. John Stanko. Yet people write me, addressing me as "Dear Pastor," and share with me their intimate problems. I guess when I stopped trying to pastor how I thought I should do it, God positioned me to pastor in ways that are best suited to whom He created me to be.

So what about you? Are you doing what you think you should do or know you should do? There is a big difference as I found out. One way leads to frustration, the other to joy and fulfillment. Which way will you choose? I hope you will do what I did and choose life!

(Pittsburgh night shot courtesy Imbi Medri.)

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