Know the Test Question and You Will Ace Life

I have reoccurring nightmares about Dr. Holloway. That’s not his real name. But the story is. Dr. Holloway taught a history class at my university. He would give four major tests each semester. Two would be multiple choice. Those weren’t so bad. The other two were essay. I liked to write so the essay part was fine. What wasn’t fine is he would write one question on the board and you either knew something about that one thing or you didn’t. He also scheduled his tests on Monday, which ruined the weekend.

On one occasion I had studied as well as I could. The test covered over 500 pages of the textbook. I walked in the room, sat down, got my paper and pen ready, and then he wrote on the blackboard one question.

I panicked. I could not remember anything about what he put on the board. I did some deep breathing exercises to calm my nerves but still nothing came. So I started writing about everything I could remember in the 500 pages. I even wrote with a rhythm worthy of a Martin Luther King speech. I would say, “I can tell you about …” and I’d write all I could about that topic and then I’d say, “But I can’t tell you about the question you wrote on the board.”

I repeated this cadence for several pages until I had written down everything I could remember. I wanted him to know I had not blown off the test. I just didn’t know the answer to the question he was asking.

Have you ever felt life was something like that? You know quite a bit about a lot of things but maybe you don’t know the answer to the one thing that’s going to be on the test? Sometimes you just want to know what is on the test, don’t you?

Unlike Dr. Holloway Jesus does not leave the test question to guesswork. There’s a story in Matthew 12 where Jesus and his disciples are going through a grain field. They’re hungry so they pluck some heads of the grain to eat. The Pharisees register that as “work” and unlawful and they voice their dissatisfaction with the group.

Jesus responds by reminding them that David—their great king—did something similar. And then he said, “…if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.’

They should have known. Three chapters earlier they had been at Matthew’s house and Jesus told them then to “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” Like many students they had either blown off their studies or quickly forgotten.

Mercy is the test. “Learning” it means to “learn by putting into practice.” This type of learning happens when head knowledge becomes heart knowledge and flows out of a person’s life.

When you learn mercy you stop being the moral police for everyone else and let Jesus do his work in your own heart.

When you learn mercy you dethrone yourself and allow Jesus to sit as Lord of your life.

When you learn mercy you no longer see people as issues or problems but as people with needs.

A friend of mine and I were frustrated with Dr. Holloway’s tests so we devised a plan for study. Before the essay tests we would get together and work our way through the pages we were to be tested on. We would review the big ideas, the important dates, and the primary people.

But then we’d find some obscure pieces of history that covered only a couple of paragraphs and we’d say: “This is not that important. It will probably be on the test.” And it always was. Every test after the first one we aced because we figured out what would be on his test.

That first test, though, set me up for a failing grade. I went to talk to Dr. Holloway about it. He didn’t promise me anything. He just listened politely. When grades came out I expected to get the first failing grade of my life. Instead he gave me a “C.” “C” as in Mer-“C”.

Jesus has stepped to the chalk board and written one word: Mercy.

That’s the test. Make sure you go and learn it today.

How to Forge Through a Funk

A few years ago I experienced a rough season. Literally every day for several months was filled with some new “issue” I had to deal with. Stress levels were high and relaxation times were low. It was a season that could only be described as a “funk.”

Maybe you’ve been there too. Sleep seems hard to come by. You’re already tired when the alarm goes off. You move like a zombie through the day. Your mind is somewhere else while people are talking to you. And getting things accomplished is just not happening.

How do you forge through a funk? You need to answer that question. Most employers may understand a day or two every so often. But you simply cannot go through a long period of time without some productivity before there are consequences.

Here are some steps that have helped me when I entered the funk:

  • Get up. Yes, that sounds pretty simple, but it’s the first step. (Literally and figuratively.) I remember a life skills seminar once where the speaker was asked by a college student: “How do you get out of bed every morning.”

The college student thought his life was difficult. And maybe it was. So the speaker looked at him and said, “Well, here’s what I do. When the alarm goes off I put one foot on the floor. And then I follow it with the other foot. Then I stand up. That’s how I get out of bed every morning.”

Simple? Yes. But it’s the only way to defeat the funk. Staying in bed will not help.

  • Finish something. Another speaker has suggested that the way to make a difference is to begin your day and immediately finish something. I’ve written about this here.  The example given is to make your bed. It may be that you sit down and complete a journal entry. Or maybe you make breakfast and clean your dishes when done. Whatever it is, start it and finish it.

And when you get to your workplace do the same. Find one thing that needs to be done and do it. Make it something simple and short. Once you’ve already knocked something off the list at home and something at work you will be encouraged to do more.

  • Make a list. “Funk” is defined as “a state of great fright or terror.” You can find yourself in a funk because of a dejected mood. But it may also be a sense of anxiety over the tasks ahead. One affects the other.

I’ve learned to talk to myself in those moments. When faced with a difficult task or one that I’d rather someone else have to deal with, I merely face it head on and remind myself, “It’s not going to go away. It will be here tomorrow. So I might as well get it over with. An unpleasant task today will not magically disappear overnight. Take care of it today and it will be gone tomorrow.”

One way to stay focused in a funk is to make a list. Break a bigger project into pieces and tackle it one bit at a time. When your mind wanders train yourself to come back to the list. As you complete each part write “done” to the side. Your progress will help you progress.

  • Take a break. Breaks are needed to help you keep going. The first time I hiked in the Rockies I learned that going uphill in direction and elevation is a huge contrast to hiking on flat land. Even if you are in good shape. When you are in a “don’t feel like doing anything” state it is even more difficult. When the climb is steep you have to set goal markers in the distance and tell yourself, “When I get to that spot I’ll sit down and catch my breath.” If you don’t you’ll have a tough time finishing the hike.

The same is true in your daily routine. So set yourself some “rewards” along the way. For example, do 50 minutes of work then take a 10-minute break. Get up and take a walk. Read an article for fun. Check in with a co-worker. But keep it under control and then after you are refreshed go back to your list. (see #3 bullet point)

  • Add accountability. Tell someone else what you need to get done and that you want them to ask you how you are doing on that task. Give them permission to hound you a bit. The added accountability will give you the extra nudge you might need to keep pressing forward.
  • Do More When You Feel More. When you feel the funk lifting a bit try to do a little extra. I recently had a day when the stars seemed to align. I needed to do some writing and when I began the words just came without effort. I finished one assignment in record time so I decided to move on to the next one. And, like the first, the sentences just flew across the page as quickly as I could type them on my laptop.

That spurt of productivity put me a week ahead on writing. You can do the same. Because there will be days you and I are in a funk. It’s unavoidable. And there are moments we need to be free to not be as productive. No one can push at near 100% 100% of the time. Build some free space into your schedule by doing more when the energy is there.

Don’t let the funk keep you down. Try these things to overcome it.

And if it helps, listen to funk music while you do.

Learn Mercy. Throw Some Parties.

The two diplomas I’ve earned hang on a wall in my office. For years I had them tucked away on a shelf. But Karen decided they needed to be framed and displayed.

When I wasn’t looking one day she took them to a frame shop. When she opened up the diploma folder along with the sheepskin was a card. Apparently our seven-year-old son Taylor wanted to commemorate my graduation. He wrote:

from Taylor To Rick Allen Brown. The Best dad in the world. Sertificit of Honer for Rick Allen Brown which is a masters of Devinity Graguit. This picture is about an Early Bird which is eating a worm.

There is also a drawing of a bird pulling a very worried worm up from the ground in his beak.

If you were to analyze the note you’d see it one way. The spelling isn’t all right. My middle name is “Alan” and not “Allen.” “Divinity” is misspelled as well as “graduate.” But really, who cares? This was a gift from a seven-year-old to his dad.

My reaction when Karen showed me the diploma and picture framed together? I told Karen, “That card means more to me than the diploma.”

And people mean more to our Father than crossing T’s and dotting I’s. Unfortunately, the church can forget that. Even in the first century the Jewish teachers focused on three identity markers that said who was “in” and who was “out”: dietary laws, circumcision, and the Sabbath. Who you ate with fit in with the dietary laws. They looked at the spelling instead of the heart.

Matthew was clearly on the outside. He didn’t quite fit the identity markers of the day. He was a Jew so he probably met the circumcision criteria. (I’m not quite sure how they checked that one out.) Maybe he was lax with dietary laws and missed a Sabbath every now and then.

So when Jesus called Matthew, Matthew followed. Then he threw a party at his house and invited his tax collector and sinner friends. In their culture “reclining at table” with people was a sign that you approved of them, that you accepted them. The Pharisees saw it, didn’t like who Jesus was hanging out with, and complained. Jesus answered them with this important line: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

“Mercy” comes from the Old Testament word hesed. It’s used over 250 times in the Old Testament. It’s used 127 times in the 150 Psalms. If you had asked an Israelite in Old Testament times to give you one word to describe their God this is the word they would give: hesed.

Jesus says to “learn” what it means. The word for “learn” is one that means to “learn by use and practice.” Jesus was practicing hesed. The Pharisees were not. They were practicing sacrifice. And because they did they expected something from God.

Matthew expected nothing. And yet he got everything. And when he did he had to share it. Mercy means breaking down barriers and throwing parties where Jesus is present.

Imagine what could happen if we “learned mercy.” Our communities would change. And if our communities changed our cities would change. And if our cities would change, our nation would change. And if our nation changed…well, you can see that the world might change.

Matthew learned mercy. He took his tax collector pen and invited friends to meet Jesus. He used it to write his Gospel so his Jewish friends could learn that they could never offer enough sacrifices to expect anything from the Messiah.

But they could learn mercy. Learning mercy translates into loving people who aren’t expecting anything. It means throwing a few parties.

Even when some words on the invitation are misspelled.

Question: How can you learn “mercy” this week?


Eliminate the Number One Predictor of Divorce

You’ve seen the signs before:

    • A rolling of the eyes.
    • A snarled lip.
    • A sarcastic tone to the voice.

You’ve seen them targeted at you. And perhaps you’ve targeted the same at another. Those are the signs of what is called “contempt.”

And contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. So says John Gottman. Named among the top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker, Dr. Gottman is known for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction.

And the number one predictor of divorce is contempt. Contempt does not just appear one day out of nowhere in a relationship. It begins with negative thoughts about the partner that simmer on the back-burner for some time. As the negative thoughts make their way into the habitual thinking about the other partner they create a sense of superiority in the one full of negative thoughts.

  • They start thinking they are smarter.
  • They start thinking they are always “right.”
  • They start thinking of the other as despised.

And not only do they “think” it. They start verbalizing it. Contempt can surface through words and actions of disrespect, sarcasm and ridicule. It leaves the other feeling worthless and unloved.

Contempt is nothing new. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “scorn.” Loving relationships cannot thrive on scorn. In fact, they won’t.

Jesus spoke to the issue of contempt in Matthew 5.21-22:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Notice he begins by talking about anger. Dallas Willard says that anger indulged always has an element of self-righteousness and vanity. That then leads to contempt, or a feeling of superiority over the other person.

In the Matthew passage the original word for “fool” is “raca.” It was an Aramaic word used in Jesus’ time to denote contempt. Willard says it may have originated from the sound a person makes when they collect spittle from the throat in order to spit.

How many relationships survive when one party spits on the other? Not many. That’s why the progression in what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is important. Notice his topics:


Each moves a relationship one step closer to breaking up. Arrest your anger and you won’t form contempt. Curtail contempt and you won’t start looking around. Lasso your lust and you won’t consider divorce.

Gottman is right. Contempt must be eliminated from the relationship. How? Take a cue from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” Each word is a verb. Start acting in loving ways and watch the feelings follow. Appreciate your partner. Affirm your partner. Show affection to your partner.

And then rehabilitate your body language. Stop rolling your eyes. Stifle the sarcasm. Smile instead of smirk.

Your face will thank you. And so will your marriage.

Question: Do you see yourself anywhere along the progression of Matthew 5? If so, what will you do about it?