Take A Step Back. (Jesus Stories, Part 1)

There's a great story near the end of the first chapter of Mark. Jesus and the disciples were hanging out in Capernaum, at Peter's mom's house. Jesus was healing people and the word was starting to get out about this new rabbi in town. The house quickly filled up. Mark wrote that literally the entire town showed up at the doorsteps. (Mark 1:35) Jesus spent the entire night healing people and casting out demons.

The next morning, when everyone was still asleep, Jesus went off to the mountain in solitude to pray. The disciples eventually found him, clamoring, "Everyone is looking for you!" "Let's keep this show going!" "We can set up our movement here and let the crowds flock to us!" Jesus had other plans. They packed up their bags and moved on to the next town.

The gospel of Luke says that Jesus "often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." (Luke 5:16) One thing I notice, when Jesus withdraws to pray, is that he comes back with a renewed sense of vigor, vision, and purpose. There is something to learn here.

Solitude is a spiritual discipline that allows us to break away from the noise. When we withdraw into solitude and silence, we can take stock of how things are going and how we are doing. We can remind ourselves of who we are and what we want to be about. We can listen to what God might have to say to us.

It is for these reasons that many of us avoid solitude and silence. We might not want to have an honest conversation with ourselves or with God. We might want to avoid the things that have shown up in our lives that we outwardly are ashamed of but secretly like. Solitude has a way of making you come to terms with how things actually are.


Jesus broke away from the crowds when he was getting too popular. We saw this in the story already mentioned in Mark 1. The whole town loved him, and after going into solitude, he left town.

He also went into solitude immediately after he fed the 5000 and his popularity was at an all-time high. He came back down from that and gave his worst sermon ever. "Eat my flesh. Drink my blood." The crowds dispersed.

One time in John's Gospel, when Jesus perceived that the crowds were going to come and make him the king, 'withdrew again to a mountain by himself.' (John 6:15) Jesus knew who he was and what he was here for.

There is a lesson for us here. Whenever we get in danger of believing our own hype, we might need to withdraw, spend time with God, remember who we are, and remember what we are supposed to be about.


Solitude can serve not only as a leveler of ego, but also as a balm for pain. Sometimes we can't get out of our own head. Can't stop beating ourselves up. Can't stop making a mountain of a molehill. 

When we get stuck and can't move forward or move on from something, it's helpful to take a step back. Get some perspective. Learn to see things from the bird's eye view. Remember who you are, and what you want to be about. Remember the promises of God. Shine light on false beliefs. Take a deep breath before plunging back into life.


There is such a thing as too much solitude. Isolation. Loneliness. God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." The purpose of solitude is to help keep ourselves aligned and healthy so that we can live in community with others in a healthy way. Don't withdraw too much or too often.

That rhythm is different for each of us, some of us need more than others. But a good rule of thumb (that I just made up)- Try and carve out at least half a day of solitude once a month. Try to carve out around an hour of solitude each day. As a father of four small children, I know how impossible that can seem. WAKE UP EARLY. Drink a lot of coffee. Spend time with your thoughts and with God.

Also, there might be times when you need to get 'solitude' with your core people. When Jesus was REALLY distressed, right before his arrest and crucifixion, he pulled his closest friends in and said, "I need you to withdraw into the wilderness to pray with me." Now, they completely blew it and fell asleep. But I think Jesus modeled something significant there. Sometimes we need the encouragement, perspective, and support of others when we are heading into the wilderness.


Shark Music.

I have an unhealthy fear of swimming in deep waters. I, like many others my age, saw the movie Jaws way too young. That movie, that music, constantly plays in my head in those moments in the deep and the murky. I can justify it as a healthy precaution, but I know deep down it isn't really that reasonable. I know that statistically, I am more likely to die by a falling coconut hitting my head than a shark attack, but this fear doesn't care about statistics. WHAT JUST BRUSHED BY MY LEG. (Oh, it was my other leg.) In those moments, I have to constantly tell myself that the water is safe.

Circle of Security International is an organization that helps parents become better equipped to raise healthy children. They often use an activity with parents called “Shark Music” to help them notice how their past pain influences how they are currently showing up as parents.

The group is shown a video. Calm, classical music is playing. There are scenes of wandering through a forest, eventually reaching a beach with a beautiful ocean. The video evokes emotions of curiosity, serenity, and peace. The parents feel relaxed.

Next, the exact same video is shown, but this time with ominous music playing. Tension is steadily rising. You fear a monster behind every tree and turn. When you reach the water, you’re convinced there is a shark lurking underneath. The shark music dramatically impacts your experience of the video.

All of us walk through life with background music playing in our heads. We don’t even notice it, hence the term ‘background music,’ but it is dramatically impacting the way that we experience and interact with the world. How you think shapes how you live. Our past experiences shape our expectations and perceptions of our present reality.

In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan wrote, "How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them." When we hear Shark Music going off in our heads because this situation looks similar to that other situation, fear can kick in and get us to act in ways that aren't congruent with who we want to be.

Circle of Security shares that, for parents, this can impact how they respond to their children's emotions. Parents might perceive anger as 'pathetic,' fear as 'weakness', sadness as 'manipulative', and happiness as 'over-excited.' A healthier approach would be to see anger as a desire to 'help organize my feelings', fear as 'protect me', sadness as 'comfort me', and happiness as 'enjoy with me.' I don't know about you, but that really resonates with me, not only as a parent, but just as a human!

It would serve us well to learn to recognize when Shark Music plays in our heads and impacts the way we perceive and respond to the world and people around us. It might not just be past wounds that pop up for us, but our own insecurities and fears about what's going on in that moment. We might fear being hurt, or being taken advantage of/duped, losing control, looking bad, etc. There are a lot of possibilities. Sometimes fear is helpful, but more often than not it can hinder us.

Here are a few quotes to wrap up this idea-

"The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become." -Heraclitus

"Don't let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it:
Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test."

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." -Victor Frankl

"First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." -Jesus

"The one who fears has not been perfected in love." (1 John 4:18)

White Belt Empathy

Little known fact- I've taken karate a few times in my life. Never really long enough for it to be useful. I think one time I got a couple of green pieces of electric tape attached to my white belt. I was Karate level 1.2. If I was the aggressive type, that might have been enough to be dangerous. Something that made me cocky enough to try out a few moves on someone before being utterly humiliated. My white belt demonstrated that I was a force to be reckoned with. I knew just enough to get me in trouble without doing any good.


When I took karate lessons three different times, one of the first things they taught me (and thus I now know really well), is the block shown above.  If someone ever punches me in this specific manner, boy do I have their number.

I think all of us struggle at times with what I'd call "white belt empathy." That is, really, a false sense of empathy. We know just enough to get us in trouble. With white-belt 'empathy', my one counter move to any conflict is, "This person's an @%%#$%^, and I'm right." Of course, that doesn't serve me well in the real world. We are all infinitely complex creatures, with both our own brokenness and our own beauty. 

The essence of empathy is to put yourself in someone else's shoes so you can see their perspective and understand more. White-belt empathy is when you create a worst-version projection of someone else. You are seeing things from the shoes of the one-dimensional diminished construct you've built of the other person. (often to serve your own needs and interests.)

If you think you are a victim, if you think they are trying pull one over on you, get away with something, control, manipulate, etc...you can easily justify your own behavior and thoughts. It only creates a further disconnect, especially if the other person is playing the same game.

If you really believed the worst version you have in your head of the other person, why would you even bother continuing a relationship at all?

It is impossible to be arrogant and to have empathy at the same time. The Latin meaning of arrogant means 'to claim something for oneself.' Empathy, by contrast, means to 'feel what someone else is feeling.' It is difficult to connect with someone else's longings while simultaneously thinking only of yourself.

And of course, empathy is hard. It's difficult to really try and consider someone else's perspective when you've justified your anger, fear, and reactions based on your first assumptions. You'll have to have the humility to admit that you might have been wrong.

A key for empathy is to assume the best intentions in the other. Pursue evidence that helps provide a fuller story. Look for the longings behind the complaints and the conflict. (In the other as well as yourself.) There is much beauty and treasure when you learn to recognize the primal longings that exist in all of us. Notice your own fears, insecurities, and pain. How they might be distorting how you are experiencing the other and the situation.

John Steinbeck said it like this:

"In uncertainty, I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love."

I think that idea might be worth grabbing a coffee, taking a long walk, and thinking about. 

***This framework for empathy is looking at empathy primarily in the context of resolving conflict. Empathy of course is an essential tool in all walks of life. The Bible speaks endlessly towards our need to love each other well and connect over our longings, fears, successes, and disappointments. "Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15) "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together." (1 Corinthians 12:26) "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2) "Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind." (1 Peter 3:8)

Mentors and Gratitude.

I discovered Marcus Aurelius' Meditations a few years ago, and it has quickly become one of my favorite books. It reads like the book of Proverbs, full of practical wisdom in quick sound bites. I highly recommend Gregory Hays' translation.

The first section of Meditations is a list of people that Marcus Aurelius is grateful to for the life lessons they taught him along the way. He also includes the specific lessons he learned from them, and there are plenty of great nuggets here. Yes, even in his acknowledgments section, MA is dropping wisdom. Here are some examples:

  • “Don’t waste time on nonsense.” (from Diognetus)
  • "You need to train and discipline your character." (from Rusticus)
  • “Learn how to accept favors from friends without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.”   (from Apollonius)
  • “Don’t shrug off a friend’s resentment—even unjustified resentment—but try to put things right.” (from Catulus)
  • "Learn how to sense when to push and when to back off." (from his adopted father)

This is just a portion of the wisdom from just the acknowledgments in his book! It is no wonder why Meditations has been so highly revered through the centuries. This is what I love about this first portion of the book. Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the great thinkers and was highly respected and very powerful in his time. He was the last of the "Five Good Emperors" of Rome. But he didn't forget where he came from. He didn't forget who poured into his life and contributed to his success. He shows both humility and gratitude here.

Many of us have had people that came into our lives at pivotal moments and made a great impact. Scott Teutsch and Karl Kaufman were two men that took me under their wings when I was a young man and taught me the Scriptures not only with their words but also with their lives. They were (and still are) great role models of what it looks like to live out the Christian faith in their careers, families, and personal rhythms. I'm grateful that they took the time to invest in me, and I hope that someday people will say the same of me. Scott was able to speak hard truth to me in love, making me take ownership while at the same time showing grace. Karl constantly showed how the Christian faith was meant to be lived out in specific, practical ways and that the journey is never over.

Of course, the list is still growing. I'm grateful for the staff at Area 10 and how they've modeled leadership and pushed me to grow. I'm grateful for the work of Kim Greene and others at the Barnabas Center and the grace and patience they've shown. I'm grateful for Dan Tocchini and his work with Blood and Ethos and the fruit I'm seeing in my own life from those conversations. I'm grateful for my wife for her relentless patience, wisdom, kindness, and grit. I'm grateful to my kids for teaching me patience. The list goes on.

Who are those key people in your life who helped shape the trajectory of your life? Who are the heroes of your story? What specifically did they teach you? What would it look like to let them know how much of an impact they made and how grateful you are for them?

Remember. Be grateful. Pay it forward.


Shape The Environments That Shape You.

The book of Deuteronomy is a sort of re-imagined Law for the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy could literally be translated "the second law." (Duo + Torah) What should life look like as they built their homes, became neighbors, settled disputes, etc? God had some thoughts. Deuteronomy 6 is known as the Shema, which simply means- LISTEN UP.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

(Deuteronomy 6:4-9, emphasis mine.)

God wanted this command, to love God with everything we have, to be a driving force in their lives. He wanted them to recite it and write it EVERYWHERE. When you wake up, remind yourselves. When you eat meals, remind yourselves. When you are walking down the street, remind yourselves. Put it on your doorposts, gates, and city gates so you see it when you leave and return. Write it on your hands and heads. Keep this idea constantly in front of you.

In other words, shape your environment so that it is constantly reinforcing this value. So much so that it is impossible to forget. Some Jews today take this practice literally and wear teffilin to remind themselves of the Shema word.


Even if you aren't religious, I think there is a strong lesson to be learned here.

We shape our environments and then our environments shape us.

The way that our homes and offices and lives are arranged constantly shape our rhythms and behaviors which in turn shape our character.

If a complete stranger were to walk into your house and take a look around, what would they say that you value? For most of us in American homes, the layout of our living rooms would communicate that we value being entertained by our televisions.

My wife is an avid reader, and one thing that helps her be successful is to constantly have the next few books that she wants to read already in the house. The less resistance you can create between you and your goals, the easier they will be to reach.

It is impossible to eat junk food if it is never in your house. You'll find yourself watching television less if you unplug it and put it in your closet until you really want to watch it. You'll find yourself playing a guitar more if you put it in the middle of your living room as a constant reminder of your goal. Your phone will interrupt your sleep less if you charge it in another room. You'll go to the gym in the mornings more if you set out your clothes and gear the night before. You'll use social media less if you delete the apps off of your phone. The list goes on.

What are you wanting to accomplish? What can you change about your space to make those accomplishments easier? Shape your environments so that they can help shape you into the person you want to become.