Father with son: Building together (part 1)

The sins of the son shall be upon his father?

In January 2020, my Dad died at the ripe age of 93. In this two-part blog, I write about my vivid memories of helping him build his garage in the 1960s.

My dad built his brick-built garage, one small piece at a time. Back in the mid-1960s, he could not afford to buy the concrete for the base in one purchase, but he could buy and persuade others for oversupply. Perhaps four or five such pourings made the garage base complete; bricks came in small batches too, as money allowed. Dad was not a builder, but he was an engineer and knew how to make accurate measurements, except for one unforgettable incident.

Frugality was the dominant theme of British civilian life from the war period until the mid-sixties, though many of the “veterans”, that is those born between the two world wars, never quite broke free from the constrictions it placed on every area of life. For that generation, thrift was in their psyche from birth. Dad did eventually break free of its stifling power in the second half of his life.

Brick-work starts with the corners. Get the corners right, and all else follows. As Dad laid bricks, I would stand with him and watch. To me, he seemed like a proper brickie. The corners came along well; the rows followed.

Everything was going well until Dad told me off one day. I don’t remember what it was about, but I felt angry. Revenge was on my ten-year-old mind. In a quiet moment, I slipped out of the house and moved his line up a row of bricks at one end so that the string now sloped. The gentle upward slope of the line was not apparent to a casual glance. Having done my deed of sabotage, I forgot all about it. Why shouldn’t I? I felt better now.

Later, to my horror, Dad was laying more bricks. It is clear that the row started well, level to the undiscerning eye, but I could see that the mortar gradually became thicker. That is until the middle of the row when Dad discovered his mistake. I say “his mistake” because that is how he relayed the error to my Mum. As he told my Mum of “his mistake”, I froze with a mixture of horror and fear. Suddenly my small act of rebellion escalated to fear as I wrestled with “Should I tell him?” and “What would happen if he suspected me?” I decided to tough it out and hope that he never suspected me of ruining his work.

Evidence thwarts toughing it out. A recently discovered photo shows the thickening mortar as the row progressed. It also shows the point at which Dad got some revelation and realised that the line was not level. From the point of realisation the cement joints then gradually returned to the usual thickness.

I wanted to vent my anger; not to create a monument to it. Consequences of our actions are sometimes more abiding than we intend.  To this day, I feel mildly guilty that my act of rebellion remains evident in his mistake.

Some years later, I confessed to my Dad, and he saw the funny side of it, but my act of sabotage has left evidence. I never understood why when discovering his mistake that he did not redo the row. Mystery.

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Creative imagination

Sometimes I encounter a situation that I do not know how to resolve. At the beginning of 2020, like every year for the last twenty years, I write my goals for the next twelve months. Since retirement, this discipline is even more important to me because I have entered a new chapter of life.

Each new year brings with it a challenge to review my financial situation, and I usually prune back some of my discretionary spending. I have already cut back a newspaper and a magazine subscription, and several small fry items from my budget.

One of my larger financial threats in 2020, is that I have a drop in income because of the expiry of an income protection insurance policy one year ahead of becoming eligible for my State Pension. How am I to bridge the income gap?

To help solve this problem and others, I have found using visualisation an essential ingredient in finding a solution. I begin by sitting quietly and listening to what my inner life is saying to me. Of course, as a Christ-follower, I believe that the Holy Spirit plays an important part in the revelation of what I see and hear. Although I do not want my blog to be a vehicle for an explicit expression of my faith, my faith is an indispensable part of who I am.

By sitting quietly, in a relaxed position and eyes closed, I can scan my life and permit the non-judgemental comment of my inner self to rise to the surface. When a self-comment or a new image emerges, I try to capture the dancing butterfly. Sometimes I will write down what I see or hear, other times, the strength of the impression is sufficiently robust for me to hold that thought.

The next phase of using my imagination is to ask ‘Is this feasible?’, ‘Is it sustainable?’ and ‘Is it wise?’ these foundational questions help me sort through the ideas to check if they have a valid connection with my real world.

As I have sought to develop my creative imagination, I have learned that I am bigger on the inside than I am on the outside. My inner world is my private Tardis, unappealing from the outside, vast and exciting on the inside; with places to go.

Recently, when listening to Anton Lesser reading Stephen Hawking’s book ‘Brief Answers to Big Questions’, I drew inspiration to consider the importance of creative imagination. In general, the book is a wonderful exposition of his ideas and a demonstration of Hawking’s creative imagination.

Developing our creative imagination aids us to free ourselves from the constraints of set thinking and to imagine a different future. Our static thinking so often limits our horizons and sets us on a course to narrow and predictable outcomes from which we cannot discover new possibilities.

When Einstein presented his theories during the first part of the 20th century, his mind lived his theories first, in his creative imagination. Take, for example, one of his first thought experiments. Einstein imagined what it would be like if he sat on the leading edge of a beam of light. In visualising the experience, he was able to see some of the strange properties of light, speed and time. This experiment caused him to think deeply about the nature of our world.

Einstein first visualised in his mind an experience that was not possible to see from within his knowledge of life so far. By doing so, his thought experiments took him outside of his limitations and into new possibilities. Then he worked on the mathematics to prove his theories or modify them, using the thought experiments to give a dramatised window on his spark of insight.

In thought experiments, we can first test whether what we see is capable of being a window on the here and now. Einstein’s thought experiments are not a device to dumb down explanations to less gifted mortals; rather, they are an essential central ingredient of his discoveries.

So, by developing our creative imagination, we can free ourselves from aspects of our life when we are stuck, bored or need to move forward. They may be used to overcome a problem or puzzle, as Schrodinger famously did with his cat, or to visit another world to see new possibilities, as Einstein and Hawking did.

We don’t have to be a famous scientist to use thought experiments. Our creative imagination will open new doors, and those new doors will lead us into new rooms. In new rooms, we will see previously unimagined possibilities, or solutions to our puzzles and unlock a way forward to a different outlook. Once we see fresh possibilities, we will also see our world differently, and the insights we gain will propel us to explore situations that we have not previously seen.

By using our creative imagination, we can live in a different reality in our minds, and this provides us with a means of experiencing something new for ourselves or others. Seeing a new future or new opportunities through a creative imagination energises us into becoming bigger people. And, becoming a bigger person starts on the inside.

7 Questions to help develop our creative imagination

  1. Do I think ahead?
  2. Can I visualise my life beyond its present reality?
  3. Do I use visualisation to shape my goals?
  4. Do I look for new and creative ways to solve problems?
  5. Am I able to appreciate the views of others?
  6. Can I still myself and listen to what my inner voice is saying?
  7. Can I catch the butterflies of thought that flutter across my mind?

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Passion: Make a Difference

Have you ever noticed that passionate people often get things done? For me, godly passion just about trumps most qualities for getting things done. A passionate person cuts the passive middle ground down to size and gets people off the fence. Yes, passion isn’t always well received but a passionate person creates a conversation in surprising ways. A passionate person has something about them that cuts through ‘stuff’. Passion makes a strong appeal to the emotions and in the presence of a passionate person, we find ourselves being stirred. Jesus was passionate. Peter was passionate. John was passionate. Paul was passionate. Here are six things I’ve noticed about passionate leaders.

Passion energises: When I become passionate about something, I throw off the kind of caution that is born out of a fear of failure or self-consciousness or just being plain timid. From somewhere deep within, a new awareness and an ‘it really does matter’ attitude emerges. Mostly it comes from something or someone getting through my normal reservations and touching what really matters to me. I find myself willing to do what I was unwilling to do before, enthusiastically.

Passion refuses the status quo: Part of passion’s energy comes from a flat refusal to allow the present state of affairs to continue. The fact that something is accepted as normal, the way we do things loses its validity for not doing something. It has been said that ‘we will only move forward once the pain of staying where we are becomes greater than the pain of moving forward’. A passionate person has the ability to make us feel uncomfortable in a way that helps us to move on.

Passion is infectious: Passion is first caught. True, a passionate person needs to make more than an emotional appeal to make a difference. An emotional appeal is not enough on its own, but it does grab our attention and stir our hearts. To broaden its appeal, passion must partner with reason and be carried by a person or team that has credibility with integrity. Passion and reason are powerful when friends but they do not always start out well together.

Passion influences people: One person’s passion can be dismissed. But two people’s passion causes more probing questions to arise. Together these have more than twice the power to influence people. When we are part of a passionate church or organisation things will change. Change means getting things done and that helps construct the future that we envisage. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is an example of a passionate ministry. Things change quickly to bring growth and improvement. Why has CAP influenced so many thousands of people? Because their founder John Kirkby is passionate, therefore CAP is passionate. I cannot remain indifferent in his presence, my passion is soon stirred.

Passion narrows choices: Passion shifts the balance of power between ‘can’t’ and ‘can’ more than anything I know. Passion brings focus and focus brings productively. Focus narrows choice to bring about results. Whenever I have been tempted to bring too much change at a time I have found that it is much harder to carry people with me. They might come with me out of respect or loyalty but this is undesirable in and of itself, and produces limited results. Passion helps to deliberately narrow choices, to set priorities and this massively improves our chances of getting longed for results. Passion correctly and wisely handled makes an impact that invites others to join emotionally and rationally. Both are crucial ingredients.

Passion leaves a legacy: You have to die to leave a legacy. OK, you may not physically die (just yet) but we must die all the same. To be a passionate and consistent person takes a great deal of moral and spiritual courage. It is no longer about you. When we die to self we make a huge investment in others. They become our living legacy and carry the inner essence of the passion that we have imparted to them. We give it but we do not own it. This kind of authenticity is for others to use and build with. The world needs passionate people. The world needs you at your passionate best and in so doing you can make a real difference.

Great Leaders in Short Supply

Great leaders are in short supply. Beware of imitations; they are on sale everywhere and at bargain prices too. Wherever great leaders show up they define the season, the climate and the history. So what makes a great leader? The answer, I believe, is found in the authenticity of the person. It’s not found in technique, qualification, or experience although these things can be great add-ons.

Today, we are suffering from hurry sickness and from the corner-cutting quick fix. There is no such thing as a quick fix. Becoming a person of authenticity is a life-long commitment – no short cuts, no days off. Here’s some things I’ve noticed about authentic leaders.

Authentic leaders are not trying to look good: They are secure in who they are and know the contributions that they bring. They build the climate, set the tone and are deeply concerned for the welfare of those they lead. They are not in the business of looking good. But neither are they content to just work the system; no, they seek to change it or create it. They are prepared to risk short-term unpopularity in pursuit of that greater dream. They are not dependent on the approval of others for their self-worth but neither are they unconnected from their followers. Something within them burns for that greater dream.

Authentic leaders play for the long-term: They know the power of the compass and usefulness of the map. The compass sets the direction, the map the detail. In life we need both, but the authentic leader knows which to use and when. They know themselves; they are self-aware, knowing their strengths and the site of their limitations. Self-aware leaders are not ashamed of their limitations but they use that knowledge to find others who are strong where they are weak. Every leader needs headroom and a clear space to work. They thrive on building, creating space and offering their creation to others to work with.

Authentic leaders create the climate: These leaders know the importance of being climate creators. When they engage with people they set the weather. Their weather is infectious; always uplifting, encouraging and has high influence on others. They are in the business of creating the environment in which others will thrive. And they know that this climate fosters great individual and organisational behaviour. It is the leadership climate that fathers the working culture. That’s why your people become like you – you infect them with who you are.

Authentic leaders seek the welfare of team members: They don’t talk ‘me’, they don’t criticise others, and they don’t prattle on. Instead they give their attention to others, talk with their eyes, and affirm through gestures and actions. They operate through personal openness offering themselves ahead of knowledge or experience; this is how they offer their support and they are loved because of it. This kind of leadership is called ’emotionally intelligent’ leadership (EQ) and is now credited as a far better predictor of authentic leadership than IQ. Emotionally intelligent leaders care for their teams.

Authentic leaders create authentic followers: No one is a leader who does not create a following. And the simple truth is that the followers will behave like the leader. It’s an awesome truth, yet powerful. Be the person you want others to be; be yourself, be the light and others will follow. Acts 4:13 reads like this: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Jesus the authentic leader birthed authentic followers and still does today.

Finally, authentic leaders attract a following because of their character. They are humble, have a tested integrity, and are accessible socially and emotionally to others. As I have grown older I have understood that my leadership impact is defined by these things so much more than stellar performances. Yes, I want to leave a legacy and I want it to begin before I am no more. Our epitaphs are decided by others – compressed summaries of our lives inspired by who we really are in the eyes of others. Enoch ‘walked with God’, Simeon was ‘just and devout’ and Barnabas was said to be a ‘son of encouragement’. Great leaders breed great leaders. Live your legacy today.