Saturday, August 31, 2013

Playing Stupid Part 2: The Downside

Yesterday I shared some of the benefits of "playing stupid." But what about those times it blows up in your face? Here are three terrible ways that it can all go wrong:

1. People will think you're an actual idiot.

This one seems obvious, doesn't it? I mean, sure, I may get a laugh if I pretend a student's newfangled cell phone confuses my old man sensibilities. But what if someone standing there legitimately wonders if I'm behind the times?

In Iowa this happens a lot with agriculture. I exaggerate what I don't know. Here's a status I threw up on my Facebook wall, "I don't know why everyone is talking about putting in their plants this month. Carrie and I just spent the day harvesting a huge crop out of our garden. There were these yellow flowers. And white puffy ones. And prickly green plants. Must be beginner's luck -- we're excelling at this gardening thing."

Photo credit: David DeHetre via Flickr

Very kindhearted people wrote me to say, "Aw, Matt, those are actually dandelions and thistles." >-< Ouch, they really thought I was that out of it? In their defense, I have learned a lot in this past year that locals take for granted. For example, I've learned the definition of "detasseling" (which is different from detasseling in the Jewish neighborhood I grew up in).

Truly, I appear stupid enough throughout the day without the help of "playing stupid."

2. The Same Story gets Repeated Again and Again

"Playing stupid" is the kryptonite of gossip. It's true. But when someone approaches trying to pull me into a salacious story and I demurely opt to "play stupid," there is a high probability that individual is going to launch into the full story anyway.

I should be clear: I always encourage people towards uplifting, honest, two-way conversation, and to avoid talking behind other's backs. Does that change a person's desire to spill everything they know? For some reason, no.

Fortunately not everything is gossip. Sometimes I'm just respecting confidentiality and trying not to accidentally confirm what is private information. I "play stupid" by keeping quiet and the caring individual shares information I already knew.

3. People give you Free Stuff

This is a downside!? Actually, yes, it is. Because even if the item is given with 99% kindness, there is still that last 1% of pity. And like a drop of steroids in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 1% is all it takes to spoil the batch.

I made a casual, self-deprecating joke about my gardening efforts and suddenly there was a crate of homegrown tomatoes outside my front door. I exaggerated the ease of lawncare in Arizona (no mowing + no weeding = happy Matt) and now I have a donated lawnmower and weed eater sitting in my garage.

These random acts of kindness spotlight the unbelievable, extravagant, constant generosity of the people of Algona. Thank you, everyone! And if I was straightforward with my need/request, "Does anyone have a couple extra tomatoes from their garden I could try?" then no big deal.

But when the offer is made because I exaggerate my need or ignorance? Well then I just feel dirty receiving this charity. You'll see, one day a guy in a suit and sunglasses will knock on my door. All he'll say is "3rd degree lawnmower theft" and cart me off to jail. I'm truly the lamest form of con man: the accidental kind.

Conclusion: Is "playing stupid" worth it?

Yesterday I wrote the upside, today I wrote the downside. So what do you think, reader? Have you ever been caught in a situation where you pretended not to know? Have you found any notable benefits or consequences to playing stupid?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Playing Stupid: Why Not Having a Clue Ain't so Bad

Do you ever play stupid? I know I do. All the time. And I know what you're thinking, haha, but yes, I do mean intentionally playing stupid. Let me give you three examples:

Photo Credit: Ethan Lofton via Flickr

1. Conflict: Mr. Neverhappy storms into the church office, slamming the door behind him and digging his pointer finger into the surface of the desk as he shouts, "I have been in this church for 38 years and I have NEVER seen the annual potluck handled this way!"

I have a choice in this moment. I can argue the finer details with this gentleman, trying to prove to him the correctness of the committee's reasoning for the minor changes, or I can ease tension by playing stupid. I respond, "Talk to me. What have you enjoyed most about the annual potluck over the years? Help me understand."

Stupidity works here because I'm not ignoring his feelings. I am showing respect to his expertise. And once he knows he has been heard, as the conversation develops, I'll have the chance to help him see things from a new point of view.

2. Gossip: Mrs. Chatter lowers her voice and takes a step closer, "Did you hear the latest about Miss Soandso?" Hmm, obvious gossip. Or how about the sneakier version when Mrs. Chatter walks up and asks, "I would really like to pray for Miss Soandso. What's the latest?" Oh my. What to do?

If I know for a fact that information can be shared with the congregation then I will go ahead and share, encouraging Mrs. Chatter to pray for God's activity in Miss Soandso's life. But what if I'm unsure what information is meant for the public? I never lie; instead, I play stupid, "Oh, hmm, good question. Well here's what I know: she would feel really encouraged to know someone is praying for her. You should give her a call today to let her know you're thinking about her."

That's not a sidestep; it's a genuine attempt to put the focus where it belongs.

3. Humor: This is my favorite use of the stupid persona. A middle schooler pulls out their cell phone and I suddenly become an 80 year old man confused by the most basic technology, "Wait, cell phones can take pictures now!?" I'll make any stupid joke if it makes a member of the youth group laugh -- I have no shame.

Why does this work? Because people let their guard down when they know you don't take yourself too seriously. Those who understand the joke are invited to participate and when it's done in a good-natured way, everyone wins.

But I can't stress this enough -- if you're in youth ministry, never, NEVER, make the student the butt of a joke. Even if you think it's just some friendly sarcasm. Even if the student uses sarcasm themselves. Try your best to avoid it because you're the authority figure and you never know how your words are shaping the emotional lives of those who hear them.

Of course we all know there are times playing stupid can backfire. Tomorrow I'll share some events from my own life when playing stupid was definitely the wrong choice.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Questioning your Faith

[I would love to share with you an article I contributed to this week's Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. Enjoy!]

Two years ago I took a leap of faith; I boarded a plane to come serve at Algona First United Methodist Church. Outside of childhood visits to relatives in Cherokee, this would be my first taste of Iowan living.

Combines? I could not pick one out of a John Deere line-up. Plants? I was thrilled when plants grew in our new garden even after being told most were weeds. Sports? I quickly learned that a “Hawkeye” was more than just the name of a Marvel comic book character.

Honestly, I felt a little nervous stepping onto that plane. For reassurance I peeked into the cockpit to ensure there was a pilot. I double-checked the city listed on the ticket. I imagined what I would experience in Iowa but until I moved, I would never fully know.

Photo Credit: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography via Flickr

Think how unsatisfied I would have felt to remain in the airport, perpetually stuck collecting travel data but never departing. Or, on the other extreme, consider the absurdity of boarding a plane that is clearly missing a wing.

Is faith so different from that airplane? We can study it from a distance but until we try it out for ourselves, important answers will elude us.

For example, the Bible is silent on many issues: Should we genetically engineer our food? How many dates should a couple go on before getting married? Mac or PC?

The Bible gives us principals but it is up to us, through experimentation and faithful discernment, to transform knowledge into wisdom.

I used to be scared by these unknowns. I thought that if I worked for a church, people expected me to have an answer for every question. Then I learned to trust 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (NRSV). I learned that there is an important difference between exhaustive knowledge and sufficient knowledge. Some mystery is okay.

This is wonderful news and honestly, it is why Christian faith is so dynamic. Since God’s goodness, mercy, and justice are infinite, we will never stop discovering aspects of His love. As theologian Oswald Chambers shares, “The meaning of prayer is that we get hold of God, not the answer.”

This “approach” to faith is bigger than trying to be good enough or guaranteeing where we will go after we die; instead it is an active, daily relationship with Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3 NRSV).

I want to encourage you today: if you are unsure whether Jesus is truly the Son of God then that is okay. Take a chance. Let God know that you have questions but are willing to take that first small step towards Him. God promises, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7 NRSV).

If you already have a relationship with Jesus then where are you holding back? Step out of your comfort zone and lean into mystery, knowing that God will be with you every step of the way.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Power of a Cliché

Beginner's writing classes are all the same. During the first lesson the teacher will at some point, inevitably, share this one-size-fits-all mantra: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that abstract nouns are not as powerful as sensory details. So instead of vaguely saying, "I feel sad," you should give details, such as, "I could feel the warm tear run down the side of my cheek."

Hmm, okay. But consider this situation: I'm walking into the nursing home to visit an elderly man from my congregation. He is dying and not happy about it. Not. At. All. My hope is to lift his spirits but I am unsure of how this conversation will go. Should I avoid clichés as I talk with him?

Photo Credit: Tom Newby Photography via Flickr

If I'm focused on details then walking into a nursing home is almost sensory overload. The smell is what hits me first; it fills my nostrils, that institutional mix of urine and bleach. My ears catch the faint beeping of machinery [beeping is good!], as well as distant groans. Most of the residents here are past the point of caring what socially inappropriate sounds leave their bodies. I see heads lift to check whether I am a family member who has come for a visit.

I tend to catch all these details if I'm focused on myself and my experiences.

But if I'm truly focused on the individual I'm visiting then the visit takes on a different story. I see a man in need of a lifeline, who is trapped in darkness and looking for light, who is at the end of his rope. He shares, "the walls are closing in! I've run out of steam. Time is up."

When people are dying they speak in clichés. Why is that? In the context of a writing class, clichés are less effective and usually the consequence of laziness or avoidance. But is that what's going on with a dying man? Or for that matter, the young couple who has recently had their first child, or the teenager who is discovering romance for the very first time? We resort to clichés in life's most meaningful moments.

I believe people speak in clichés because it's a shared and intimate language. After all, an experience doesn't become a cliché unless it repeats throughout time and is experienced by many people. Using a cliché is a way to connect with others and feel less alone. There's no guesswork, it ensures you're instantly heard and understood. So when it comes to writing poetry then by all means, avoid clichés. But all I know is that the last thing a dying man yearns for is sensory details; his pain takes the form of clichés, and that's good enough for me.