Saturday, August 14, 2010

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Dad, are we in neutral? Reaching the "Green Mesa" with fuel to spare.

"Dad, are we in neutral?"    The voice of my teenage son emanated from the back seat of the van."    More on that shortly.

You ever run out of gas?    Physically (in your car, or in your body), financially, emotionally, spiritually? 

I have only "run out" twice in a car.   More on the others in a minute.  The first time for the car was on a vacation; the kids were very young, the weather was hot, things were hectic, and it just happened.   Thankfully, a kind gentlemen, a complete stranger, was adjacent to us and quickly assessed the situation and game me a ride to the closest station.     The second time was mechanical failure in the car; a bad gas gauge.   Same story, a kind gentleman, this time a friend, was close by and accessible.    Whether by distraction or otherwise, it's never a fun place to be.    Same goes for the physiological, the emotional, and the spiritual.    You always want to have plenty "in your tank".

I said I've only "run out" twice.     If we consider "almost running out" occassions, I must admit to a close call another time or two.    Ironically enough, both were on vacation trips; a time when the tank should be full and the experience rich.    The first instance was last summer, 2009, while taking the "every other year" trip to the beach.   Meeting up with family had us traversing a less dense section of the Texas hill country, and as we rounded the bend out of a decent sized town, it looked like I had a few gallons left.   The map said 30 miles to the next town, and on we went.     Problem is, the next town was not much a town, and their bright yellow and red Shell franchise (the only station in town) had obviously been closed down for quite some time.  Now what?    Like many of the situations referenced in these blog posts, you have to just go on.   And you pray.   (side note: nothing seems quite as self serving as praying for a gas station, or for your last gallon of gas to last.    OK, maybe praying for one million dollars fits that bill.  Not praying for the money necessarily for me, mind you, but something much greater.  That may be a more detailed blog for later; much later, like "when I retire")   After sweating through the next 50 miles, we coasted into a small hamlet, engine still running.     Thankfully, the gas station was right on the bleeding edge of town.    According to our Honda Pilot owner's manual, the tank holds 18 gallons.    I pumped in 18.6 before the first auto click on the pump.   Yikes.    Brings new meaning to "running on empty".     I squarely blame this one on that previous town not having an open station, or was it my fault, for not being fully prepared for what might lie ahead?

Fast forward to vacation 2010: the trek west.     This one has a little more defined application, I promise.    One of our desired destinations was Mesa Verde National Park, and the ruins of the cliff dwelling homes of ancient native North American people from hundreds or thousands of years ago.     If you've ever been there, you have noticed several things: 1) it is in the middle of nowhere, 2) the mesa sits quite a distance above the plain that you drive in from, and 3) there is a large sign at the park gatehouse that reads "No Fuel in the Park".     No problem, I thought.    We have 1/4 tank remaining in the minivan we'd borrowed from my parents, it seems to get pretty good mileage, we are here at our destination, and the nearest town back with a station was only about seven miles or so.       As we began to drive up the mesa, a sign (this one in traditional green) read "Cliff Dwellings: 23 miles".    Huh.    46 mile round trip back, plus 7.    Probably still OK.    Another sign was ahead, this one in orange.    Construction: be prepared for long delays.    Ugh.     After a long wait in park with a line of other cars, we began to be escorted further up the mesa in a long chain of single lane traffic.   No turning back now.    We are committed.

"Ding".   The sound rang from beneath the dashboard.  The low fuel warning light was now on.  Sherry then asked, "what was that ding for?", and so the conversations (and the internal calculations) began.    If you have ever been to Mesa Verde, it is a steep 15 or so mile climb to the visitors center at the top of the mesa.   You then drive 8 to 10 miles down a modest decline to the cliff dwellings, all with a 25 mile per hour posted speed limit.    Then it hit me.    "I can coast through almost all of this sprawling national park, at least half way".    As we started down to the ruins, I quietly slipped the van into neutral and gleefully noticed the RPM gauge staying below 1,000.     "We just might make it back", I thought.     "We likely won't make it back", was my fear.    For the next two to three hours, the occasional refrain came from the back seat: "Dad, are we in neutral?".    Fast forward to the end of this incident.     After sweating our way back up to the top of the mesa, we coasted the final 15 miles out (a decline of about 4,000 feet), and found a small (and expensive) excuse for a single gas pump about 200 yards outside the park.    I put in a couple of gallons, and drove on into town for a decent fill up.    All told, my calculations show we probably exited the park with a little over a gallon to spare.    Mission accomplished.     How did it happen?     Several things: 1) awareness of the issue, 2) a change in approach (coasting, when appropriate), 3) a slight change in plans (we skipped a section of the park, but both a thunderstorm and the 2 to 3 hours of heat had sapped each of our physiological tanks, as well).

Now, for the attempted application.    I've mulled over this one for a couple of weeks.    Coasting is not the answer, not for your car, not for your body, nor for your financial, emotional, or spiritual life.     Changing the game plan, reducing our RPM's/consuming less, lowering our expectations, etc, are all take aways we can apply to various facets of our life here.    But you can't remain in neutral.    Just like that van coasting down the steep grades at 25 to 35 MPH with no fuel in use, the point comes that you begin to lose momentum, and eventually, that you will come to a complete stop.       The point is, make sure you have enough to get where you need to go.    Be prepared.   Have a contingency plan.    Think thru the "what if" moments in advance.

Physically: eat well.    Exercise.    Get plenty of sleep.

Financially: don't overspend.   Save.  Plan for negative events and emergencies.  I'm still working on this one, and may be for a while.  Change your habits when the environment around you changes (anyone ever heard of a thing called "recession"?).    Give some away.

Emotionally:   Learn to laugh at yourself.    Enjoy laughing with (not at) others.      Sacrifice.    Love.    Accept love in return.     Learn to forgive, others and yourself.    Learn to forget (some things) and move on.    Give of yourself.

Spiritually:   Pray.   Thank God, Praise God, and ask for His guidance and help.    Read your Bible.    It's interesting to see that others in history, even great folks, made some mistakes.   Some even ran out of gas.    Israel's family had to go all the way to Egypt to get grain to survive.    Thankfully, someone there named Joseph had planned ahead, albeit with help and insight from God.

Back to my story to close this blog entry.     Mesa Verde means "green mesa".     The big green mountaintop.    Sounds lush and inviting.       We had enough gas to reach the destination and back.     Lessons learned: plan ahead, but willingly and intentionally adjust as your environment changes.    

Maybe "appropriately abridge your ambitions" would be a good title.   Now, if someone can only teach me how to abridge my blog entries....

Don't stay in neutral too long.    You would not want to miss the "Green Mesa".


Will Jesus fulfill us here on earth? from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

mapview of the most recent was fun 2,500+ miles and a cloud of fun

Friday, August 13, 2010

    Sunday, August 8, 2010

    Prospecting: Gold, Fool's Gold, and the high cost of attainment

    Brief thoughts this morning.   On the jeep tour last week, the driver, Eric, asked the kids if they wanted to do some "prospecting".    He retrieved his hammer/axe, and off we went.    For us, prospecting was selectively walking around the river and collecting a few rocks, and expending some effort to break them open to see what's inside.

    For the miners of not so many years ago, it was different.   They were chasing wealth, a fortune, and knew their lives would be changed forever.    That they were, but not necessarily for the better.   Eric shared how they used mercury as a separating agent in the refining process, ignorant of the health risks as they would manually squeeze refined mountain ore, mercury, and water through socks to see what they could ferret out of some value.  He explained that the life expectancy of the average miner was not too good, so who cared about a little extra poison in their system, even if they did know?     Brings new perspective to the phrase "ignorance is bliss".    

    Thousands of mines dot the landscape in the mountains of Colorado.   Almost all of them are abandoned.   What happened?    Well, many did not find their fortune, after leaving home and family, and died at an early age.   For those who did "strike the mother lode", fortune was fleeting.   The U.S. went off the metal standard for its currency decades ago, and Gold, Silver, and other metal prices plummeted accordingly.   Mines shut down, whole towns disappeared, and fortunes were lost.

    Now back to me, and to us as a generation and a society.   What fortunes are we chasing?    Is it real gold, or is it fool's gold?    And even if it is the real thing we pursue, how worthy is it?   Will it's value last, will it satisfy us, or will in tarnish, fade, or be lost in the sands of time.    I'm amazed by all the stories in the Old Testament about how everything was adorned with gold in Israel.    Where is all of that gold now?   Gone.    It has been plundered, melted, and recast again, and again, and again.    For all we know, some of it may be in your wedding band right now.

    What is the price of the fortune we are chasing?    Our health?   Our family?    Our focus should be on what's really important: the lives and souls of others.

    Matthew 6:19-20: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.

    I came back with some cool "trinkets" from the prospecting.   They will sit in my office for years to come.    May they remind me of the true value of life, and what I should pursue each day.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    From "The Grand Canyon" to "Wolf Creek Pass". A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

    We have all seen pictures of the Grand Canyon and know what it is.

    Wolf Creek Pass (el. 10,863 ft.) is a high mountain pass on the Continental Divide, in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. It is the route through which U.S. Highway 160 passes from the San Luis Valley into southwest Colorado.   

    A canyon is a just that; a big hole, surrounded by lots of higher places.   A mountain pass is just that, a path that takes you though a mountain range, essentially from one side to the other.    Without a pass, or passageway, you would have to "go around", or just be content to stay where you are presently.     There's an intended analogy here, from the physical place to a mental  and emotional place.

    Our family made our way through Wolf Creek Pass yesterday en route from southeast Colorado to meet up with friends in central Colorado.   It was my first time to go through there.   All in all, this has been quite a trip.   Family vacation.   Escape from work for a couple of weeks.  "Senior Trip" for HVB, who moves off to college in a few days after we return.   The down time provided on this vacation has been in itself a significant part of the journey.

    Some. definitions are in order here.   Serendipity, propinquity, epiphany, even narcissism.    Stay with me.    Hopefully there is a point at the end of this.

    Serendipity: an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

    Propinquity: nearness in place; proximity; nearness of 
    relation; kinship; affinity of nature; similarity; 
    nearness in time.
    Epiphany: a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or 
    essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

    Narcissism: inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love;vanity.

    Now to tie all of this together.  This trip has provided some mental and emotional "passes" for me, as well.   We've been high in elevation (mountain jeep ride), and we've been low (Grand Canyon floor).   Emotionally, the same can be said for me over the past few weeks, months, or even years.   As we drove through Wolf Creek Pass yesterday, my mind was literally exploding with thoughts, ideas, and big words.

    Discoveries by accident; nearness in place; proximity; 
    nearness of relation; kinship; affinity of nature; 
    similarity; nearness in time; 
    a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight 
    into the reality or essential meaning of something.

    A disclaimer is in order here.    I've probably posted over 250 pictures to Facebook of this family trip, this "pilgrimage", if you will.    I've gotten lots of responses, comments, etc, many of which contain humorous comments about how over the top I've been with the Facebook activity.   But I've wanted to log, to pictorially journal, if you will, the moments, the sights, and even the emotions of the trip.    I've snapped over 1,800 pictures in the past week, but the ones posted to FB are very intentional.   Some pristine scenery shots, but most containing moments, family, and specific memories or feelings.      It has been fun, but admittedly it feels a bit narcissistic.    

    There has been method to the madness.    First, all of these pictures were taken on an iPhone (I left my laptop at home, intentionally, on this trip, so no backup of pictures is occurring and FB is archiving my favorites), and you are always only one mountain pass or one canyon away from dropping the phone "into the abyss".    Second, I am an early riser, and I've intentionally stayed away from email on this trip, and aside from early morning hikes, Facebook, reviewing and posting favorite pictures, and prayer has been my morning quiet occupation while the family sleeps.     Likewise, processing the shots, mentally, has been part of the emotional journey for me.     Finally, I did want to share.  That's why I'm writing this post this morning, while my family still sleeps.   It is a key part of my own mental and emotional journey.  If that makes me come across as a little narcisstic, then that's a risk I have to take.  Isn't that what Facebook, blogging, etc is all about.    We live in a reality world.   People share in each others lives and thoughts in ways never imagined or deemed appropriate years ago.  In this world of reality TV (Big Brother, Survivor, etc), a little positive reality is a good thing.      

    It's been said that perception is 90% of someone's reality.    We all have our own perceptions.   People have their own perceptions of me.    Mr. CFO.    Mr. Uptight.   Mr. Goofball.    I even learned this week that one of my daughter's good friends thought that Sherry and I were separated, I suppose because Sherry is living with and managing Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic disease, so I'm often seen in public, at church, etc with the kids but without Sherry.   Who knew?     So, hopefully, the distribution of these favorite images of the week will add to, or more appropriately, clear the perception of who Jeff Bingham is, and that faith, family, and fun are at the core of my being.

    So, back to "serendipity, propinquity, and epiphany".     There is a reason God rested on the 7th day, and a reason he commanded us to do the same, originally.   We've gotten away from that.    We are a workaholic, playaholicy, spendaholic, stessaholic society and generation.    We need to learn to slow down, "Be Still", and rest our mind.      When you do that, it's amazing what you remember, realize, think, and feel.

    As we prepared to leave on this trip, I was trying to get a million things done.    Sherry suggested a book to me: "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" by Donald Miller.    I love reading Don Miller's stuff.    He is a bit irreverant and unorthodox, (and he and I obviously have take a different life path to the places we are today) but his thoughts and message resonate with and challenge me emotionally and spiritually.      I wanted to buy the book before we left and read it "in the downtime", but did not have time to do so, and downloaded the audio book instead.   So, as we have been driving thousands of miles, I've been listening to "A Million Miles..." (an analogy of the journey from life to Heaven).     Read the book, or listen to it.    Stories of pain, passion, love, and learning.   It is a story about "telling a better story", or more appropriately, living a better story.  It has moved me, and hopefully, helped to change me for the better along with other parts of the trip.    Stillness; quiet; experiencing creation; experiencing my wife and kids; prayer.     I want to live a better story.  

    As we came through Wolf Creek Pass, we were looking at the constructed walls meant to keep rock slides from covering the road.   Suddenly, my son Alec asked us to put Mark Shultz's "Song Cinema" CD into the player.   I don't know why (actually, I think I do), as that is not usually part of his musical preference.   The words hit me, just like the rest of the experience:

    You stand on the edge
    You followed the call
    No turning back you are risking it all
    He whispers your name
    In a moment of truth
    The rocks fall around you
    The ground starts to move
    You step out on faith
    It's all that you know
    You jump into darkness and hold onto hope

    When the mountains fall
    When the rivers rise
    Security crumbles before your eyes
    The one thing you know
    In faith you'll find
    Something to stand on or you will be taught to fly

    So dream your dreams
    And live your life
    Knowing there's more than to merely survive
    Don't give up, don't give in
    Fight through the rain and lean into the wind
    'Til you come to the edge of all that you know
    Run right through the dark knowing you're not alone

    When you walk through the fire
    It will not consume you
    Though the water will rise
    It won't overtake you

    Though the mountains will fall
    Oh, still I am with you
    I've called you by name
    And I will not leave you
    I'm learning to trust you
    I'm learning to fly.

    Hannah goes to college in a couple of weeks.   I think Alec's musical selection was for all of us, but especially for her, and especially for her mother, and for me:

    A chapter done
    Turn the page
    And separate roads
    Lead separate ways
    But as we go, we're not alone
    No, we're not alone
    Because faith and hope and love
    Are waiting for you when we say goodbye

    I work in Christian Higher Education.    That seems like almost an oxymoron, at times, given the challenges we experience in the industry.   Being a good Christian in a stressful environment where training for and promoting being a better Christian is our mission.    Maybe I'll write more about that later.     But, back to serendipity.    I brought a business officer trade magazine with me "to read in my down time".    I've not touched it the whole trip.    But, for some odd reason, Sherry sat down and read it over coffee a few days ago, and there is a quote in there about being an administrator in higher ed, and that if you passionate about what you do and why, there will be struggle, pain, hardship, etc along the way.     If you love what you do (and I do), you should expect that, and even be rewarded by it.    Kind of a "refininer's fire" type of analogy.    Highly Biblical, and from a business officer magazine.   Who knew it would be in there, and that my wife would read it instead of me and share the insight in a way I might have only glossed over.

    As I've gotten older, I sometimes tend toward a state of perpetual angst.   Maybe it's part of getting older, but I always said I would not end up there.    I'm now getting comfortable being "the older guy in the conversation" (I've always viewed myself as "the young turk" persona, right or wrong), but I want to be thoughtful, insightful, helpful, and a blessing to others.    I want negative experiences to make me better, not bitter.   I want to bless and help others on the early part of their own journey.    My kids, my co-workers (young and old), fellow Christians, and especially, those who don't know Jesus that I experience along the way.

    I have gone on too long here, and could probably go on forever.    My heart and mind are full of so much right now.    What a blessing it is to be alive in Jesus.    We should not forget that, ever.     Look around as you are on your own journeys.     Watch for serendipity, propinquity, and moments of epiphany.    If we don't think God speaks to us today, we are not listening.     My mind has been empty and open to it this past week.    I want and need to take that down from this mountaintop and into the valleys and canyons (and the heat, ugh) that is part of our everyday life.     I need to be listening to God in the day to day, and looking for where he is leading.   If you have read this and know me, challenge me on that from time to time.   Ask me how I'm doing with it, and I'll ask you the same.    Maybe we can help each other on our journey of "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years".

    Finally, back to the narcissistic question.   We are all telling a story with our lives, and others are reading it, even when we don't realize, but it's not about us.

    I want to live a better story.    I realize that "I am just a tree in a story about a forest" (a quote from the book), and I'm blessed by that reality and understanding.    If I can bless, challenge, and help others by my story, and living and telling it in the best way possible, the good, the bad, the ugly, and most importantly, the beautiful, then let's take the journey, together.