What You Look for Is Often What You Get

What You Look for Is Often What You Get

Like many people I know, I place little reminders around my office to remind me of things I’d like to remember. Several of these reminders are clustered on the small bulletin board I keep by my office door. Settled amidst this haphazard collection is a rather plain-looking white piece of paper with the heading “7 Responses for Healthy Systems.” Below this heading are seven bullet points:

  1. Focus on SELF, not others

  2. Focus on STRENGTH, not weakness

  3. Focus on PROCESS, not content

  4. Focus on CHALLENGE, not comfort

  5. Focus on INTEGRITY, not unity

  6. Focus on SYSTEM, not symptom

  7. Focus on DIRECTION, not condition [1]

I put it up in my office, where I view it multiple times a day, because I am fascinated by family systems theory as a leadership language for ministry. But mostly it’s because I need the reminder. I find all of these responses counter-intuitive. I’d like to be healthy and to lead a healthy church! Who wouldn’t? But sometimes it feels like we human beings are hard-wired to sabotage our own health simply by focusing our attention upon the wrong kinds of things.

I am reminded of this once again at the close of my day, when my wife and I pray together. One of the prayers we’ve added to our evening prayer liturgy is attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

God, help us as individuals and as a world to hear it now before it is too late: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and God's justice and all these other things shall be added unto you.” [2]

Of course, “Seek ye first…” is a quote from Jesus in the gospels. I don’t think Jesus had systems theory training, but this is a systems theory prayer. It’s a prayer that invites us to focus on self, strength, process, challenge, integrity, system, and direction. And “seek ye first” is a directive. “Focus on the Kingdom first,” it tells us.

It makes me wonder—in my life and ministry—where is my focus? What am I looking for?

Certainty? Whenever I go looking for certainty, I almost always find it. Is it false certainty? Without fail! I’m not sure any other kind of certainty exists. Unless it’s certainty in God’s promises, which feels less like how I hope certainty will feel, and feels more like faith.

Safety? When I go looking for safety, I always find it. Does it inoculate me from the riskier aspects of fully loving God and loving neighbor? I’ve never seen nor experienced a hedge of safety that didn’t keep out the good with the bad. When it comes to faith, sometimes safety isn’t all that safe.

The answers? Whenever I look for answers—to any question—I can find them! Are they be satisfying? Possibly. At least for a time. But I find most answers only seem to open up more questions. And I’ve also noticed that when my life becomes a quest for answers, I inadvertently cut myself off from the mysteries of life and faith that do not have easy answers.

A list of do’s and don’t’s? Whenever I go looking for a list of things to do and things to avoid, I find such lists in abundance! I also find I am endlessly creative in finding ways around those do’s and don’t’s. Rules and guidelines aren’t bad! Especially for maturing Christians. I have a few rules in my own life that help keep me focused on Christ. But faith cannot be reduced simply to a list of do’s and don’t’s. When I frame my relationship with God in this way, I set myself up to ask, “What is the bare minimum I can do to stay in this relationship?” I cut myself off from the more unpredictable and unregulated aspects of spiritual growth and transformation.

As Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

What you look for is often what you get.

So what are you looking for?

[1] This list comes from Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Rowman and Littefield, 2006)—a must read for congregational leaders, in my humble opinion.

[2] For this and other prayers by Dr. King visit http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/prayers-martin-luther-king-jr.

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