Success, Improvement, and Making Excuses

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(Opinions are my own, not official statements of Dallas Christian College.)

I was listening last night to Brian Kimmelman’s podcast, The Moment.  In one of his recent episodes, he had a conversation with one of the great young alt-country singer songwriters, Jason Isbell.  (BTW, he pronounces it IS-bull, not Is-BELL.  Who’d’ve guessed?)

Isbell was talking about his newest CD, Southeastern, which has been quite successful, and how his work ethic has changed and developed over the years.  My recollection / paraphrase of what he said:

On all my previous recordings, I thought I was doing the best I could, that I was being a perfectionist and getting the best out of myself.  At the same time, I was making all these excuses for my lack of success: “The world doesn’t like my kind of music.  No one is selling records anymore.  My music is too good, too honest for mass mainstream success.  I’m too intelligent to be anything but a niche artist.”

All of things may be true, or partly true, but none of them matter.  The thing that matters is perfecting your craft, pushing yourself to improve your processes and to work harder and harder, to refuse to compromise.  Because I WASN’T doing my best on my earlier records, even though I thought I was.

There’s a lesson here for us.  Whatever we do, regardless of setting–church, college, family, career–we can ALWAYS improve the way we do it.

We can ALWAYS make excuses for why we’re not succeeding the way we want to, why we’re not having the impact for God we want to have.

In the churches I’ve been in, we’ve said or thought things like:

“We don’t fit the neighborhood demographically.  We’re too small to build critical mass.  We’re too small to offer the programs people want.  We’re too white to appeal to the mass of African-Americans who are moving into our town.  There are too many Baptists in our town, and they won’t go to any other denominations.  Etc., etc.”

All of those things may have been true, and NONE OF THEM MATTER.  The only thing that matters is finding a way to improve your processes, your craft, your product.  NOTHING ELSE COUNTS.  Nothing else is faithful with what God has given you control over.

My college, Dallas Christian College, is small.  Actually, it’s VERY small.  We’re not a small college, we’re a miniature college.  And we’re not this small by choice; we would love to be larger.  And we have our excuses for why we’re small: we cost too much, we require too many Bible classes, our facilities are old, we’re hidden behind those buildings, churches don’t support missions (including colleges) like they used to, blah blah blah blah blah.

Here’s what I think: NO MORE EXCUSES.  It doesn’t matter if they’re true or not.  If we’re going to be faithful to what God is calling us to be, we’re going to keep trying to improve our processes, our craft, our product, our results.  NOTHING ELSE MATTERS, because that’s what faithfulness requires.

My favorite radio station, The Ticket (KTCK 1310 am) used to have a commercial with the tagline, “trying hard to suck less every day.”  That needs to be our motto: tirelessly working to improve the educational experience of our students.

I think we need to quit making excuses for why we’re not succeeding in this way or that way.  We need to redefine success, so that it’s NOT first numbers.  Instead, success must be defined as students who are having the best possible educational experience.  If we work tirelessly to improve that, then (just as with Jason Isbell) we’ll find that success = letting go of the excuses and doing whatever it takes to “suck less every day.”  And (just as with Jason Isbell) other types of success may follow.

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Understanding ISIS

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In 1987, Chuck Colson published Kingdoms in Conflict, which began with the following fictitious scenario.  Militant Jews were preparing to blow up one of Islam’s holiest sites, knowing that in so doing they would provoke “total war” with their Muslim neighbors.  They were taking this action in the sincere belief that, in so doing, they would precipitate the coming of the Messiah to deliver Israel from her enemies.  In Colson’s story, the American President–an evangelical Christian–sat on his hands too long, torn by doubts over whether he should interfere politically or militarily with what might be the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

Graeme Wood’s piece in the Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” paints a detailed explanation of ISIS and their aims that reminded me of Colson’s story.  ISIS is sincere in its belief that its actions will bring about the end of the world.  They are apocalypticists, who see the world in terms of two forces (Islam and non-Islam) locked in an all-out fight to the death.  And they long for that struggle to escalate, because it will usher in the next age, when Islam will triumph over all other religions and worldviews.

Further, because of its brand of Islam, ISIS is singularly designed to frustrate any attempts at peace-making.  They believe:

  •  … that recognizing any boundaries between their nation and other nations is a grave sin against Islam.
  •  … that elections and democracy are grave sins against Islam (because they contradict theocracy); not only so, but negotiating with any elected leaders is also a grave sin against Islam.
  •  … that they will go to war with the West, and that they will suffer grave losses until only a few thousand faithful subjects of the Caliph are left, cornered in Jerusalem by the armies of Rome (the Christian West).
  • … that only when the faithful jihadis have been all but destroyed, will Jesus (the second prophet of Islam, not the Christian Messiah) return to destroy the anti-Messiah and give the Muslims victories over all their enemies.

Notice how perfectly this insulates them against peace-making efforts.  There is no legitimate authority except Allah and his direct interpreters, no delegation of authority to kings or leaders.  Whatever happens–victory or abject defeat–is a fulfillment of their prophecies, a direct act of Allah.

Seriously: read Wood’s essay.  It’s both terrifying and enlightening.  And it actually got me to reconsider one of President Obama’s actions that has puzzled me: why does he refuse to refer to the religious motivations of the Islamic terrorists who have acted recently, or why has the White House avoided mentioning that the 21 Egyptians beheaded the other day were beheaded because they were Christians?

Answer: ISIS is trying to provoke a war with the West.  The more they can paint their actions as a war against Christianity and the West, the more it feeds their apocalyptic ideology, and the more appealing it makes them to Muslims who already lean in their direction, who long for the purity and clarity of fundamentalism.

Right or wrong (I think wrong), Obama and his people have decided that they can’t lose if they refuse to play the game.  They are hoping that other Muslims will rise up and destroy ISIS.  But what if al Quaeda decides to partner with ISIS?  Or if ISIS’s ambitions–so far confined to their local area–grow, or they move toward Israel?

Ranking the Series Finales

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JUSTIFIED, which I love, is heading into its final stretch. This brings to mind the series finales of other TV dramas that I have been hooked on, over the years.

Three notes:
1. I was never a DEXTER watcher, so it’s not here. Same with SIX FEET UNDER.
2. I’m limiting my list to series that had a true final chapter, true finales. LAW & ORDER, for example, did NOT. Neither did DALLAS.
3. I’m a fifty-something white guy. I’ve spent my life as a TV watcher watching fifty-something white guy shows. I don’t give a rip about DeGRASSI, or MY SO CALLED LIFE, or whatever.

Of the shows I’ve watched religiously since 28 Feb 1983 (the series finale of M*A*S*H, the first TV show I truly loved in an adult way), what were the best series finales?

ABSOLUTELY LOVED:
• BREAKING BAD. Perfect show, perfect finale. Walter White looked upon all his works and died.

• LOST. Illogical, emotionally resonant, sweet and satisfying.

• FRINGE. Like LOST, but not quite so much.

• THE SOPRANOS. The last few episodes were a bloodbath, until Leotardo got what was coming to him. (Think: watermelon.) You think Tony will emerge, unscathed and unchanged, and then … nothing.

(I believe the explanation for the final frames that David Simon has supposedly confirmed off the record; the guy in the nylon jacket came out of the restroom and splattered Tony’s brain all over the onion rings. The blacked out screen was Tony’s perspective as he died, like a light switch being turned off.)

• NYPD BLUE. After Jimmy Smits left, the show never really recovered. But the finale was surprisingly strong, and Sipowicz come full circle.

MEH
• THE WIRE. Should’ve ended a season earlier.

• BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Should’ve ended a season earlier.

• THE BRIDGE. Never lived up to its promise; too complicated, too many twisting plot lines.

ABSOLUTELY HATED
• THE X-FILES. They should have ended the series two years earlier, and spun off Dogget and Reyes.

• St ELSEWHERE. Absolutely ripped off the viewers who’d devoted so many years (and so much vocal support) for the show.

• CHEERS. Not a drama, but a great show. Final season was a total mess. Finale even more so.

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Ok, so what did I miss?