Beach Balls, Failure, And The Surplus Of Meaning

Last week I told you a bit about WHY I got my doctorate. I shared why I went into the program 3 years ago and now (3 years later) what I think were some of the bigger reasons that God led me to it … reasons that I didn’t see back then, but can see much more clearly now.


Today, though, I want to share with you my top 3 biggest takeaways from the program.  Over the course of the last 3 years I’ve taken 6 classes, have read a bazillion books, have written a gazillion papers, and have somehow written and defended a 170 page document about social media and how the church can use it to connect people together and connect people to God.


ALL the while …


Moving from New Jersey to North Carolina.


Raising a human.


Working 1.5 – 2 hours from home.


Owning a house.


And dealing with a variety of other crazy curveballs that life has thrown our way – my wife was in a car accident last Fall and totaled her car, I had the flu, our daughter had a respiratory infection with a 105 fever.


… Nuts.




All of that to say, I’ve learned a few things about life, leadership, the spiritual journey, and being human and I thought I’d use this week to share with you just a few of those things that have impacted me the most from the classroom in this doctoral journey.




Here we go.  3 years.  3 takeaways.


TAKEAWAY ONE – Deal With Your Beachballs


In my first class in the program I studied under Dr. Rob Reimer as he took our class through some principles of caring for your soul.  If you haven’t heard of Dr. Reimer, you’re missing out.  Stop what you’re doing, go to Amazon, and buy these books.




Soul Care


Pathways to the King


Confession: since encountering those books I’ve experienced a significant shift in my theology and my understanding of God and so although I might not feel as strongly about every part of those books as I once did, they have had a profound impact on my faith and my walk with God, I go back to them constantly, and I recommend them for everyone, everywhere.


They are important books that have shaped my walk with God and they are on my list of the top 10 books I’d recommend people read.


Anyways, in essence, the class taught us that we can’t effectively care for people if we aren’t effectively caring for ourselves and one of the most important parts of the class was a section on beachballs.  


Wait, what?


Let me explain that.


Everyone has stuff happen in their lives that affect them in profound, (often) negative ways.




Like, we live in a world that is full of chaos where stuff happens to us that we don’t plan to happen, don’t wish to happen, and wish we could undo and make go away.


Some of us were abused.


Some of us lost parents at an early age.


Some of us grew up alone.


Some of us have horrible memories of childhood.


Some of us have horrible memories of marriage.


Some of us have had lives that have just plain sucked.


Some of us made terrible decisions in the past.


(Can I get an AMEN?)


In short, we’ve all been dealt a blow or two or three that made a lasting, negative impact on our lives.  Life happens, as they say, and there is often no way to escape the inevitable hurts and pains that accompany it.  


The question, though, is what do we do with those pains and hurts?  Like, when life happens – how do we respond?  What do we do with what’s been handed to us?


For many of us we do whatever we need to do in order to keep going, right?  And so we push the beachball of pain beneath the surface of the our lives and do everything we can to keep it from popping back up so that we can just …








That beachball, though, pops up when we least expect it or least want it to.  Doesn’t it? Like, your spouse says something fairly innocent, but says it with that same tone or look on his face that your abusive father used to have when he spoke to you or your mother and it absolutely sends you off the handle.  


You launch back at him.


You throw a plate at him.


You tell him to get out of the house and never come back.


You make him sleep on the couch.


You tell him you hate him.


You give him the cold shoulder.


Not because he is your dad, but because the beachballs lunged right through the surface of your soul.  The look he gave you or the tone he spoke to you in reminded you of your dad; your dad did those things or said those things to you 30 years ago, but 30 years later you’re still trying to pretend it didn’t happen by jamming the beachball beneath the surface of your life … hoping it’ll just disappear.




It won’t.  It never does.  It refuses to be ignored.  Instead, it keeps coming up, keeps popping up, and keeps creating more headaches, more chaos, and more heartbreak in your life.  Every time something happens or someone says something to you that reminds you of your dad and the horror he created in your childhood, the beachball makes a splashing appearance.  


This is obviously an extreme example, but you get the picture, right?  When we don’t deal with our crap, our crap comes back to deal with us and bite us down the road.  When we push the beachball of pain beneath the surface of the water, it’s only a matter of time before we’re not paying attention and it pops back back up in our face and the faces of those around us, and creates more and more and more trouble. 


And so one of the first things I learned in this program was that I need to deal with my beachballs.


For me, dealing with my beachballs took on a variety of different forms.  For starters, I went for some counseling.  It was a requirement in the class and I’m glad that it was.  For about 6 months I met with a counselor every other week and we talked about my father.  I’m not going to get into all the details here, but let’s just say that I was carrying around a variety of different sized beachballs that I’ve spent years trying to keep underwater any way that I could.  


The beachballs would inevitably pop up each and every day in the form of …






Self hatred.




Lack of confidence.


… And just feeling stuck.  I was walking through my life as a 10 year old boy trapped in the body of a 34 year old man and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.  I didn’t know why I had no confidence in myself. I didn’t know why the voices inside told me that I wasn’t good enough.  I didn’t know why the voice of my father echoed and vibrated in my head in the moments when life required me to step up, take a stand, believe in myself, trust, move forward, etc.  


Along with other stuff, the counselor helped me unpack a lot of things from my childhood and although some of the beachballs still make an appearance every now and again, I’m more equipped to deal with them when they do pop up so that the pain of my past doesn’t spill over onto people in my life who I love, value, and appreciate.  




What’s your beachball?




How have you been dealing with it?


TAKEAWAY TWO – Failure Isn’t Failure


This one is huge.  The second class I took was about addressing our leadership failures. We had to pick one of our biggest failures as a leader, dissect it, figure out where we went wrong, and then re-write the script – we literally had to write a story of what it would look like for us to lead in that scenario differently than how we originally did so that it didn’t end up crashing and burning.  




I chose to talk about the church plant that Dana and I started in our garage.  There are so many angles of failure I could talk about, but the piece that sticks out in my head the most is that from day 1 of the church plant I was still trying to be what I thought everyone expected me to be.


I went to Bible college.


I went to seminary.


I earned a preaching scholarship.


My degree was in church development.


Almost all of my classmates were pastoring churches. And when I left seminary, I went to pastor a church as well.  But I hated it.  I hated it SO much that I left and went to work at Apple.  And while working at Apple something in me was stirring.  I thought it was the voice of God saying to “plant a church” or “start a church”, but looking back on it all of these years later I see that it was more so the imaginary voices of …


My classmates.


My professors.


My friends.


… All saying, “you went to seminary, you got your degree – this is the next logical step.  If you don’t do this, what else will you do?  This is who you are, this is what you’re supposed to do with a seminary degree.  If you don’t, seminary was a waste of time.”  




It was also the voice of my dad, deep down inside, telling me that I would never amount to anything and that I would never make a good pastor.  He used to tell me that I would make a lousy pastor and so when I left my first church, that voice got really loud.


“I told you.”


“You failed.”


“You’ll never amount to anything.”


And so something in me, deep down inside, wanted to prove that voice wrong.  And so I set out to start my own church that would make a difference in the world.  


If you didn’t guess, those are all horrible reasons for starting a church.  At the time those weren’t my reasons.  I really wanted to make a difference.  I really believed we were on to something big.  I honestly thought that’s what God was leading us to do.  But as I’ve had time away from that season of my life and have had the opportunity to process through it in class and with a counselor, I now realize exactly what was going on.   


Sure, we had glimpses of glory … 


There was the time we had almost 20 people packed in our little garage.  


There was the time a guy showed up from work hungover and stood outside with me crying because he never felt welcomed in church before, but felt welcomed in our garage.  


There was the time we baptized 3 people.  


There was the time one of our friends moved to Texas, but Facetimed into church every Sunday morning.  


There was the time we baked 3,000 cookies for 300 homeless people and hand wrote 300 Christmas cards for each of those homeless people.


… There were a lot of things about those couple of years that made a profound impact on me and others, but at the end of the day it bombed.  


And for a long time I carried around that guilt. It weighed heavy on me.  “I couldn’t handle pastoring an established church and I couldn’t even start my own church”, the voice inside said.  I felt like I let everyone down, including God, and I felt like I was wasting my degree as I put in shift after shift after shift working a retail job at Apple.  


(Where, ironically, I still work.  HA!)


But this class taught me something important – although I failed, I didn’t fail.  Or maybe better said, failure wasn’t the end, but only the beginning.  The failure of our church plant felt like the end of the road, but it was really just the beginning of an incredible journey because it taught me something very, very important that I will forever remember and forever carry forward:


I’m not wired to pastor a church and that’s OK.  


Some people are, I’m not.  Some people are born to do it, I wasn’t.  But that doesn’t make me a failure.  I might have failed, but I’m not a failure.  The failure was a lesson, an experience, a season of my life that was meant not to destroy me and push me down, but to refine me and build me up.  It was meant to give me more clarity, more understanding, more perspective on exactly who I am and what I was put on this earth to do.  


The failure shaped me.


And now, here I am, all these years later – still working at Apple, not even regularly involved in a church, just finished up my doctorate degree, and am blogging, podcasting, and talking to people around the world about faith, God, spirituality.


Again: failure is not failure.  It wasn’t for me, and it’s not for you.  


TAKEAWAY THREE – The Surplus Of Meaning


I mentioned in some previous posts that I took a class towards the end of my coursework that totally rocked my world. The professor, I told you, was talking about stuff from the front of the classroom that was putting words on things I had been quietly thinking about and exploring over the previous 5-10 years in my private, little theological closet.  


Things about heaven.


Things about hell.


Things about Jesus.


Things about the Bible.


And on top of that, he was quoting authors and books that I had been reading and devouring in silence because I knew professors would look down upon the books and because I knew the authors of these books were considered heretical by my old tribe.


Rob Bell.


Brian McLaren.


Pete Enns.


Rachel Held Evans.


Peter Rollins.


… And more.


I knew that if I had shared these books and authors publicly and had made people aware that their thoughts and ideas had influenced me.  Well. I knew that wouldn’t go over too well, and so I kept my interest in and appreciation for them and their influence pretty low key and quiet.  


But then this professor stood at the front of the classroom and fearlessly shared these ideas and quotes to a room full of people I was afraid to let into my own little theological closet and something in me just unraveled and absolutely came unhinged and … 


The rest is history.


Anyways, so in this class the professor spoke about a philosopher named Paul Ricoeur

who is known for a whole bunch of things and ideas, but one of the things he’s most known for is a philosophical idea called the “Surplus of Meaning”.  


I’m not going to give you an entire discourse on the Surplus of Meaning and so there might be stuff I’m leaving out or missing or whatever, but (in short – very short), the Surplus of Meaning says that no thing or idea …


No book.


No story.


No event.


… Has just one, singular meaning, but many meanings. And a story, he says, means everything that it means although it doesn’t mean more than what it means.








No book (i.e. the Bible or stories of the Bible) has one meaning, but a variety of meanings.  And that book (the Bible, in this instance) can’t mean whatever we want it to mean, although it does mean everything that it does mean (meaning that it has a variety of different meanings).


And so as I sat in this class and listened to this professor talk about the Bible and Paul Ricoeur

and the idea of the Surplus of Meaning, I began to see something and have words for something that I had been wrestling with and thinking about for the previous 10 years of taking …


Bible classes.


Preaching classes.


Theology classes.


Language classes.


… I began to see that the feeling I had inside that we often make the Bible out to be way too systematic and use it to give answers that are way too solid and way too concrete and way too “I have this all figured out” – I began to see and recognize that that feeling was RIGHT.


The Bible doesn’t just have ONE meaning.


The stories that Jesus told don’t just have ONE interpretation.


The book that I’ve studied and loved for as long as I can remember isn’t as SYSTEMATIC as I had been told it was or that I once thought it was.


BUT, instead, I was free to read the text and DREAM. The ancient rabbi’s used to say that the Scriptures are like diamonds, meaning that every time you turn them and every time the sun hits them on a different angle or in a different way, you are able to see something different.


Something different.


Something deeper.


Something that inspires more awe and wonder.


Something new.


… Something that you didn’t see before.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m being honest this has always been my experience with the Bible – I’m always seeing something I didn’t see before, always seeing something new, always seeing something that has always been there, but (for whatever reason) was hidden from my own sight.  


That lecture in that class about Paul Ricoeur and the Surplus of Meaning is what helped give birth to the What If Project. The idea had been brewing, but it was that class and that lecture and those ideas that patted me on the back, gave me permission to open the theological closet door I spent so much time hiding behind, and uncovered the still, small voice deep in my heart that was whispering …


“Follow this.”


And so that’s what I’m doing, and will keep doing. Which leads me to next week. We’ll wrap up this 3 part series that I’m calling “Thoughts From The Doctor” and will aim to share with you what’s next for me.  Or, I guess, what I’m working towards in this next season of life.  One of the questions people always ask is, “OK.  So now you have your degree.  You have the highest degree you can possibly get.  Now what?  What’s next?”  


I don’t have a firm grasp on that.  Who does, right?  But I have some thoughts and ideas and inklings and leadings that I’m super excited about and so I’ll share a few things with you next week.


And how about you?  


How are you dealing with your beachballs?  Are you dealing with them or just pushing them away?


How have you processed your failures?  Is it a launchpad into something new or have you told yourself that YOU are the failure?  


And are you open to seeing things like life and faith and spirituality different than the ways in which you’ve always seen them?


Some things to think about, my friends.                             


Much love.