You Need to Speak Up and Say Something

I’ve never been a proponent of silence.  In my classroom, I like loud, brash, full-contact learning.  For me, silence is rarely golden.  My students are aware of this fact too, as they are allowed to participate when appropriate.  And when it is not appropriate, I will let them know, so that they can correct themselves.  Being teenagers, this happens often, and I have no problem calling them out on it, and similarly, they have no problem correcting themselves.  In my experience, I’ve found that it is the way in which they are sharing or the language used that is inappropriate, not necessarily the message.  So, when a student of mine made a particularly ignorant statement, I wondered how I should handle it with respect to her and the other students.  Unfortunately, I choose silence.

As she spoke out about our current political climate, her comments were tinged with obvious misinformation and a somewhat racist slant.  When others tried to correct her and argue, she flat our refused to listen to them, as I silently observed.  When the conversation finally died down, I moved on to the next part of the lesson, never commenting on her statements.  However, that night I found myself troubled by the situation, not so much for her statements, but that I didn’t take a stance against them.  So, I formulated a plan, and the next day I started the class by referring to the past conversation.  I felt that the whole class needed to hear that I was opposed to her comments, feeling that they were uninformed.  I made sure to refer to the statements and not the student, suggesting that they were not acceptable, and that those who stood idly by (myself included) should have said something.  It was a tough decision to make, as I knew I would get blow-back from both the student and her parents, but I knew I was right to label the statements as such, because if I didn’t, it was the same as agreeing with them.

That I didn’t speak out against her words indicated that I allowed them, and silence makes us complicit with actions that surround us if we don’t speak out against them.  For example, if we hear a racist joke, and we laugh along with the joke teller, it is assumed that we have the same values as the one who told the joke.  If we don’t protest, we are lumped in with the offender.  Our true character is seen not only in the actions we take but in the actions we allow, and by not speaking out against someone else’s wrong or insensitive actions, we are complicit and just as wrong as those committing the action.

From a historical standpoint, the Holocaust is filled with such examples of individuals who knew what was happening but did not speak out against it.  If we see evil, it is our obligation to name it as such and work towards its elimination, yet many stood silently by as atrocities accumulated over the years.  Tremendous harm can be done by not speaking out when initially necessary, as evil spreads quickly.  Prolific writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech from 1986, felt that saying or doing something when faced with wrongdoing was our obligation:

We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

By not taking a stance, we give evildoers permission to continue, giving them strength through our lack of stance.  In his first letter to Timothy, Paul took such a stance.  In his ministry, he encountered two Christians spreading ignorant statements about the faith.  Paul decided to label the behavior and call out those who were wrong for doing it: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth…Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus who have departed from the truth.  They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (1Timothy 2.15-18).  The teachings of these two were apparently such an infection, that Paul needed to identify them by name.  Evil and ignorance are like a disease, and if we don’t stop them right away, they can spread quickly.  If we take a stand, we can stop them from perpetuating, and like my uninformed student who refrained from ignorance for the remainder of the year, we can halt the spread of wrongdoing through our actions.

So, should we be calling out everything we see and self-righteously point out people’s ignorance?  I’m not sure how popular we would become if we handled it in that fashion.  Even the Bible suggests that when we rebuke, we do so gently, as our goal is to stop the behavior, not stomp the sinner.  We need to pray for wisdom when it comes to how to take a stance and speak out.  Through careful consideration and an ear aimed Heavenward, God will make known to us the correct way in which to do so.  Whether a gentle, kind word be needed or a harsh, steadfast stance, through prayer and meditation, He will reveal the answer to us, but If you see something, you should say something.  The only incorrect path is to do nothing at all and allow wrong and evil to persevere.  Despite how hard it may be, or what costs it may incur, we need to speak out when there is cause to, as by doing nothing, we passively give a knowing nod of silent approval.  Amen.

Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

Having just come back from London and exploring all the local sights, we were anxious to get on with our next ambitious undertaking: Lego London Bridge.  At 4287 pieces, it was our biggest challenge yet, and usually, Lego numbers the bags sequentially to make the process more manageable, but this time the bags were not numbered at all.  So, my son and I cleared the dining room table, dumped out all the pieces, and got ready to settle in for the next week.

After about an hour or two, my wife pulled us away from the table.  I thought her intention was to give us a break, but it was more to make a private comment to me: I was too focused on finishing.  I wasn’t enjoying the process (nor was he) as my goal was to build the bridge, instead of enjoying Lego time with my son.  I was so focused on the end result, that I was missing out on the journey.  Later that day, I shifted my approach, which made for a much happier Lego time for all of us.

This wasn’t the first time I focused on the goal and not the journey, as I tend to have that problem a lot.  We have three dogs, and when we go for a walk, I’m usually at the front, so far out in front of everyone that I have to be reminded that the goal is not to finish the walk but to enjoy the stroll.  I quite frequently and literally forget to “stop and smell the roses,” but thanks to those that surround me in love, I am reminded to re-shift my focus.

I recently wrote about the importance of pain, that we should embrace pain and increase our thresholds if we want to experience growth.  If we want the reward, we need the pain.  Pain is part of the journey, and if we can take a minute to note the pain, along with all of the other emotions and struggles during the journey, we will become more appreciative of the end result because we know what it took to get there.  So, we should embrace the journey, no matter how painful it is to get there, as the journey is what matters.

It’s good to have goals, but probably more important is the path that gets you to that goal.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  When we talk about our accomplishments, we usually tell of what it took to get us there, as that’s where our true character lies.  The journey increases our wisdom, opens our eyes, and broadens our perspective.  We are so quick to reject the journey and focus only on the goal, but we should take our time and enjoy the ride.

In our faith, God is the one that can refocus us back onto the journey by putting our faith in Him for guidance.  Proverbs 3.5-6 tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  This verse isn’t telling us to get to the end of our journey and accomplish our goal, but to focus on God who will reveal the journey and the direction of our paths.  By putting our faith in Him, He will reveal to us the steps in our journey, as that is the more important part.

Later this month, I will be running a Spartan Dash, where I am run 4 miles but have to overcome 15-20 obstacles in the process (crawling through mud, climbing high walls, carrying buckets of rocks, etc.).  At the end of the race, I will receive a certificate for finishing.  Is the reward the certificate itself?  Of course not, as the certificate represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the certificate and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that certificate represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that certificate, I won’t remember receiving it, but I will remember the obstacles I overcame.  The journey will be what matters, not the goal.  When I look at our finished Lego project, some part of me will be happy for the accomplishment, but a larger part will fondly remember the time I had with my son building it.  If I appreciate the actual running in the race and the actual building of the Legos, I will appreciate the actual moment instead of missing it because I’m too focused on the goal.

The journey is the present, whereas the goal is the future, and if we focus on the goal, we ignore what is around us and end up missing out.  The great 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller put it best when he said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  If we focus on the goal instead of the journey, life will pass us by, but by looking to Him to make our paths straight, we appreciate and embrace the journey and are richly rewarded along the way, not just at the end.  Amen.

Pain Threshold Adjustments that Allow for More

Years ago, when I taught in an inner-city school district, almost all my male students had one of two dream jobs in mind:  rapper or NBA athlete.  They could imagine themselves on the court, scoring the winning basket, or lyrically mesmerizing a packed stadium, with both scenarios having their names chanted by thousands of admirers.  I’d often ask them how they were planning on achieving this dream, and they would usually respond by telling me that it was just going to happen.  I’d inquire about a plan, but they almost never had one, thinking that if they wanted it badly enough, they would achieve it.  They could picture the end result, and they believed that the detailed image was enough to get them there.

There seems to exist a pervasive lie in our culture that if you want something enough, you will get it.  However, this equation doesn’t factor in the cost of achieving that goal.  Many of us want to have a great body and can picture ourselves with one, but few are willing to put in the long grueling hours at the gym.  Several want to be rich and can imagine how we’d live, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up doesn’t appeal to many.  We want a successful romantic relationship, but we treat love more as a feeling than an action, and end up not acting much more beyond how we feel.  We forget that work is needed to achieve our dreams, and to get what we want takes time, patience, and more importantly, pain.

One summer, I was visiting a pain-management specialist regarding an injury I had sustained in my shoulder.  In helping me deal with my injury, he reminded me that he was in the business of pain management, not elimination.  So, he then asked me an appropriately key question:  how much pain was I willing to live with?  How much pain could I tolerate in life?  I considered the question, and came up with an expectation, as he explained to me that pain is not the sign of an unhappy life.  With pains come gains.

We often feel entitled to have a pain-free life, but how does a pain-free life benefit us at all?  Pain teaches and guides us.  Most of us can agree upon the idea that there is no success and happiness without struggle, but we forget that we also need pain throughout the struggling process.  If you’re not feeling pain, you’re not making any progress, and if we truly want to achieve beyond ourselves, pain is necessary, especially when it comes to happiness.  Think about the last major victory or accomplishment you had in your life, and chances are there was a great deal of pain that preceded it.  Without the pain, there is no reward.

To achieve the glittering goals we set for ourselves, we must be willing to put up with pain.  Hence, if you want to be a successful rapper, you should be willing to endure the pains of practicing for hours every day, developing and sharpening a working sense of language and rhyme schemes, recording numerous songs, sending out demo tapes to promoters, working small clubs, building up a following, etc., with a similarly rigorous regiment for being an NBA star.  If you aren’t willing to have that much pain in your life, then the goal is not realistic or what you want is just a fantasy.

Similar to the pain in our lives and the ways in which it shapes us, in the smelting process of developing excellent tools, there is a great deal hammering, scraping with sharp objects, and heating with intense fire.  From that process comes sharp, strong tools.  Without the pain, the tool is blunt or weak.  Isaiah 48.10 shows us a similar process when comparing the making of tools to the fashioning of our spiritual lives: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  If we want to be stronger in who we are, we must be subjected to the Refiner’s fire, the pain and testing that brings us closer to perfection and closer in our walk with Him.  Without it, we will never grow much beyond where we are now, and with a lifetime of wondering what could be with our dreams, we will look back at a mostly pain-free but stagnant existence, wondering with a disappointed glance what happened.  We must invite and embrace pain in our life if we want to be refined and develop our level of success and happiness.

By inviting pain, we allow for risk, but we have become averse and fearful of negative experiences because we feel that our life is defined by them, thus deeming us failures.  So, we tend to avoid risk and passively accept the lulling coldness of mediocrity.  However, by taking risks and embracing hard and painful experiences, we develop ourselves in ways that help us grow towards a stronger, happier life, one filled not with regret but with satisfaction.  Instead of asking yourself what do you want out of life, maybe it’s time to find out how much pain you are willing to endure, thereby setting you on a course towards greater gains in life.  Amen.

An Oasis of Christlike Generosity

At my yearly physical with my doctor, I told him how I had been running more and more over the past year.  He encouraged me to train even harder and lengthen my runs to the point of a half marathon (13.1 miles).  With his great advice, I jumped at the chance.  However, the additional advice he gave me that I didn’t heed might have been the more important: stay hydrated.

For some odd reason, I chose to run on one of the hottest days of the year for my long weekly run (while on my beach vacation, which only made the sun even worse).  I’d chosen to run on the main running strip of the island, along with a good number of other runners as I find that running with others brings about encouragement and competition.  Yet, halfway through my recently increased distance run, I found that I was quickly losing steam because of the 90-degree heat and relentless sunshine.  I’d forgotten his advice, and since this distance was new to me, I was unfamiliar with the toll it would take.  Far from home and penniless (who brings a wallet when they run?), I was destitute, parched, and not sure I was making it home in one piece.  Suddenly, like an oasis in the desert, I came across a huge cooler of bottled waters with a sign:  Help Yourself.  Apparently, one family on the island puts out a large cooler of free water for the runners daily.  I grabbed one, hydrated, and spiritedly made it home all thanks to this family.

Part of it was the much-needed water at the right time, but more so, it was the completely selfless, unprompted giving from this household that gave me the encouragement to push forward.  That this house put out water for those in need was enough encouragement to push me all the way home.  They will never know the encouragement that they were to me, which makes their witness and actions even more powerful.  Weeks later, their actions still resonate with me, and probably will for some time.  But what about that offer of water to a thirsty runner had such an impact?  It seems so simple a gesture, but when broken down, it shows the depth of that act.

It was faceless – Matthew 6 details the ways in which we as Christians should give to the poor.  Of the many points Christ makes in his Sermon on the Mount, the first is in verse 2: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.”  When we give, we usually like to get credit for our efforts.  If we don’t see the smiling faces and hear the thanks, we don’t feel fulfilled.  However, when those actions occur, the impact of the giving is lessened.  That day, no one was standing near the water, no one was handing it out to us, no one was waving us onward.  The water was merely there, and there was no one to thank.  As a result, my reaction is not about how great that person or family is, but is instead about how inspirational that act is, with God’s face taking the place of the family’s.

It was unprompted – Christ continues in his instruction in verses 3-4 by discussing what should motivate a person to give: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Not only should giving be faceless, but it should also not be prompted by anything.  One hand does not indicate to the other to give.  It gives because it can, like the people in the house.  None of us were shouting on the streets about how we needed water.  No one had passed out in front of their house.  They just took it upon themselves to give where there might be a need.

It was selfless – As indicated in past devotionals, when we give, we should not expect anything in return.  This house could have easily put a donation bucket next to the water, suggesting that we should “pay it forward” to upcoming runners, with our money being used to buy future provisions.  However, nothing of the sort existed and not a thing was expected in return for their generosity.

If we want our giving to have an impact, we need to remember these three tenets when we give:  be faceless, unprompted, and selfless.  It sounds easy, but it’s much harder than we think, as we enjoy the returns on our efforts.  However, with Godly recognition that comes through prayer and meditation, we can have our need for acknowledgement met, knowing that our giving is much stronger this way and our witness that much more powerful.  When you give, and you feel the need to be recognized, ask God to fulfill that need for you so that your impact can reach its full potential.  Amen.

Argumentative Choices and Other Insults

I’ve been given the middle finger a number of times in my life.  Oddly enough, it’s rarely been by any of my students (or at least not to my face).  The majority of times have been while I’ve been driving when someone else on the road disagrees with a driving decision that I’ve made.  When my son was 4, a man in another car gave me the middle finger within sight of both of us, and my son interpreted the gesture to me by saying, “Daddy, he’s saying that you should only go one way on this road.”  Indeed, that other driver wanted me to go one way, although I’m not quite sure that where he wanted me to go was where I was driving to.  Either way, these fingers haven’t really altered my behavior or outlook much in life.

The other day, I watched with great curiosity as a middle-aged woman quickly zipped into a parking spot, cutting off another man just as he was about to enter from the other direction.  He blared his horn at her and took another spot close by.  As they emerged from their respective cars, they both began speaking at the same time, she with an apology (which would indicate that she knew she was at fault), and he with accusation about how dangerous her maneuver was, followed by a vulgar name for her.  At that point, she changed from being sorry to being offended, as she told him that he had no right to call her that.  In that moment, the fault then went from her to him, as now he was wrong for calling her that name.  He yelled at her again, now adding insults about the way she looked, but that addition only made his situation worse, because now anyone around him was offended by the way he was treating this woman.

When a problem arises where we are angry or offended, there are three types of argument approaches we can take: pathos, logos, and ethos.  Pathos is when we respond using our feelings in an attempt to sway the other party, logos is when logic is used to persuade, and ethos is when reputation is referred to when trying to convince.  The topic of argument and people involved usually dictate the approach.  This gentleman driver clearly responded using pathos, showing how angry he was, whereas a logos approach would have been more effective.  Had he avoided calling her anything inappropriate in his anger and instead used a logos approach by explaining the dangers of her driving, he might have curbed her future driving behavior, but now she was just dismissing him as just a jerk.

Christ was acutely aware of how to approach people in argument, choosing the most effective method to achieve the means He desired.  Never one to act without thought, He expressed pathos when he kicked the money changers out of the temple, as had He tried to convince them to leave through logic or reputation (sharing that He was the son of God), He wouldn’t have achieved His desired outcome.  His Sermon on the Mount relied on logos, as He knew that He was talking to a crowd that already thought of Him as a great teacher, so He didn’t need an ethos approach, and these people valued reason and logic, so pathos would have undercut His purpose.

In Luke 11, Christ is invited to eat with the Pharisees and the lawmakers, and after assessing the situation and His audience, He argues with the Pharisees first, by using an ethos argument to sway the entire group.  Of all those at the table, He would have known that the Pharisees considered themselves the most strict and law-abiding of everyone, so Christ attacked their reputation: “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash his hands before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (38-9).  By showing the others that the Pharisees were only outwardly sinless, they would question the Pharisees’ authority and listen more closely to Christ’s teachings.  Through Christ’s shrewd choice of argument approaches, He achieved His purpose of having the others question the established authority.

When we find ourselves locked in argument, our go-to choice is often pathos, as we want to express our emotions.  However, we need to take a minute and look towards the outcome of the argument: what do we want accomplished?  When we identify our goal, we can then analyze our audience and see what approach works best to achieve that goal.  Too often, like the man in the parking lot, we get caught up in the moment and say things we don’t mean, and once they are out, we find that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot through our own efforts and our argument is null.  Let’s learn to reflect and act upon that reflection instead of thoughtlessly reacting to our environment.  Take the time to take a step back and see how to best approach the moment, and often, your Christ-like reflection and approach will not only bring you the end you need but also bring peace into the situation.  Amen.

Quiet, Unpaid for, Kindness

When my wife asked my son where his favorite sweatshirt was, his eyes went heavenward as he traced his steps over the last couple of days.  After a minute, he came to the realization that he had absentmindedly left it in a heap in the sand at a playground a day after a major rainstorm.  At that point, we considered it a lost cause, as it most likely was damp and moldy, but we could also tell how much the sweatshirt meant to him, so I volunteered to take him back.  Upon arriving, we discovered the sweatshirt not where he had left it, but instead hung on a railing, underneath an awning, completely dry.  Thanks to a random stranger, my son had his sweatshirt back in pristine condition.

A week later, the day after a fireworks display, I was running around the town lake when I spotted a child’s Abercrombie zipper jacket in a heap down on the river bank.  After a moment of quick reflection, I flashed back to how someone had hung up my son’s sweatshirt.  So, I ventured down to get this one, found a visible post by the road, and hung it there so the owner would hopefully find it.  A day later, it was gone, most likely with the original owner.

Kindness can have a ripple effect, where one good deed gets passed on through a series of people.  The “pay it forward” idea came into vogue a few years ago, where people would commit random acts of kindness without provocation, in the hopes that the receiver would find someone else on which to pass that kindness.  So, we now read stories of fast food drive-thru lines where each person pays off the debt of the person behind them (with some streaks stretching up to 167 cars and beyond).  Although pay it forward mentality is a great start, too often we do something for someone else with the expectation that they must do something for someone else, hence, the string of drive-thru payments.  The real kindness in this scenario is that first person who pays for someone else, as they’ve paid double.  I’ve read related stories where the cashier, after telling customers that their meal was paid for, then sits in expectation that these customers will now pay for the person behind them.  (Wary be the person who breaks the chain.)  So, although the sentiment is nice, the grumbling of the person who now must pay for the family of four behind them when all they wanted was a drink kind of breaks the intention of the process.

Although kindness begets kindness, the most effective approach is altruistic kindness (kindness for the sake of being kind) where there is a kindness effect without expectation of reprisal, paying it forward, or even of thanks.  I never met the person who hung up my son’s sweatshirt, but his or her impact was profound.  Kindness is strong enough on its own to be an influence.  Expected thanks and reciprocation are nice, but they diminish the effect that pure kindness has.

Years ago, I gave a gift to someone, and when he didn’t react the way I wanted him to, I became frustrated and disappointed.  However, I realized that the issue was not with the receiver, but with the giver.  Instead of making someone’s day better, I had centered it around myself and was looking to make myself feel good about having made someone’s day better.  What I should have done is given the gift without expectation, because kindness speaks for itself.

Recently, Coca-Cola developed a series of commercials and programs where the idea is that human kindness and decency is infectious: individuals exposed to kindness tend to improve their outlook on life, then finding moments of kindness to pass on to others without an expectation of reprisal or thanks.  In the videos, people show kindness to strangers with no need of thanks or reciprocation.  The reward is in the giving, thus making the world a kinder place.  Kindness is so powerful that the author of Proverbs knew how much of an impact it can have: “Do not let kindness and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (3.3 NASB).  As Christians, we can make the world better through kindness that speaks for itself: we do not need to speak for it.  Our message of Christ’s love is in our actions, not in our tongues.

Christ’s example of unfailing, unreturnable, indescribable love on the cross is the ultimate model of kindness without provocation or expectation.  Hence, when others hear of His selfless sacrifice, they have trouble coming to terms with His actions as this act of kindness is that powerful.  This week, be kind for the sake of being kind.  Don’t worry about your impact, and don’t expect thanks.  And don’t pick one act of kindness and be done; open the floodgates of the kindness you have to offer.  Know that your kindness speaks for itself, and its silent words are more effective than anything you might have to say.  Amen.

Certain Assumptions and Warlike Behaviors

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything.  I know that sounds trite and cliché, but the confession is true.  I now realize that everything I thought I knew wasn’t as solid as I thought it was, and that I was assuming quite a bit to get to where I was then.

Let me explain with this example:  Scientists have been recently developing a space messaging system, technology that sends information into deep space in hopes of receiving an answer.  Although we’ve been listening for otherworldly messages since 1985 with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and in 1974 we even sent a onetime 3-minute deep space signal to a specific star, now a new group called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) plans on sending numerous messages out into the stars to see who is listening.

The initial idea of making initial contact with an alien civilization seems incredibly valuable and an enormous leap forward for humanity, but there are a variety of issues and conundrums that surround these actions, all of which are dependent upon several assumptions that we are making as a human race.  For example, we assume that should we reach an advanced people, these beings would want to develop a friendship with us.  By extending the olive branch to advanced worlds, how can we be sure that they will accept it?  (If you look through the annals of history, when Columbus came to America, it didn’t turn out so well for the Native Americans.)  We are also laboring under the possible delusion that as civilizations age, they become wiser and develop a totally peaceful existence.  What if these advanced groups have only become more warlike?  Some scientists have mentioned that they hope these civilizations are not angry or hungry, or we are in big trouble.

Also, when METI decides to send out its first message, there is debate as to what that message should be.  How do we know that those receiving it will not interpret it as a declaration of war?  Or an opportunity for colonization?  Or a loud beacon alerting them of our presence, when staying quiet might be the key to our survival?  And, with the universe being billions of years old, our world has only started thinking about contacting other worlds in the past hundred or so, while others might have been doing it for millions of years.  Maybe we’re one of the last worlds to the space party and are so far behind technologically that it may not be that other worlds don’t know that we’re here: maybe they just don’t think we’re worth contacting.

The only conclusion that can come from all this posturing is that we just don’t know what’s out there, what to expect, what to do, and we have no way of knowing any of it.  Thankfully, scientists are fully aware of what they do not know, so discussions and debates ensue, unlike some Christians who are not aware of what they do not know and just self-assuredly assume instead.

In fact, there are times that Christians are so sure of what they assume that they will base it as their entire foundation for belief.  As such, we assume that Jesus had long flowing brownish/blondish hair with brown eyes and light skin, as that is how He is often portrayed in art and film.  Yet given His lineage and the area in which he was raised, He most likely looked more Middle-Eastern than Arian.  We develop firm opinions on whether communion is actually Jesus’ body and blood or if it is just symbolic of His sacrifice, and we condemn anyone who thinks otherwise.  There are many that fully “know” what our own resurrection will entail, how long it will take, whether it will be bodily or spiritual, and how it will coincide with Christ’s return, but if we are to be honest, we really have no firm clue.

The fact that we don’t know is fine, but the problem arises when certainty comes when we are only assuming.  Wars and church divisions have come from arguments based totally on a hypothesis, as Christians can stand so firmly on assumption that it overwhelms them to the point of forgetting the two basic elements of Christ’s teaching: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.30-1).  At this point in His ministry, Christ knew that the various sects and lawmakers had so muddled every Jewish law that to be a follower involved too much specialized adherence and furious debate, so He boiled it all down to two laws.  However, since then, we have developed so many firm assumptions that many of us confidently stand on shaky ground, when the only fixed foundation should be these two rules.

There is a distinct difference between what we believe and what we know, and when we swap the two, we risk alienating the world and each other.  Instead of being immobile in your opinions, stop accepting assumption for fact and know that you do not know.  Instead, embrace your brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to the non-believer, putting love above all else, just as Jesus asks us to.  Amen.

The Warm Embrace of Failure

With the end of the school year upon me and my students, the thoughts that run through the heads of some are often laced with the pungent and distinct fear of failure.  Students need to graduate to their next level of education, whether that be college or just the next grade, and some of my outliers’ grades are just not up to muster.  So, some do not make the cut and thus must repeat the work they did, or did not, do.

What strikes me most odd about these students is that they often become the one’s that keep in touch with me the most or are the happiest to see me years later.  I recently ran into one the other day, who was a terrible student both academically and socially when in high school, failing many classes, yet when she saw me, she energetically embraced me and relayed the many adventures she had been having as a photographer for National Geographic.  She admitted just how terrible she had been in school, but explained that she had figured herself out and was now much happier, hence embodying a key aspect of failure:  it’s good for you.

We as a culture deeply fear failure and try to avoid it at all costs, thus we avoid risk.  Artist Robert Sauber explained that, “If you have no regrets from the life you have lived, your biggest regret should be the life you haven’t lived.”  If we have no failures in our lives, then perhaps we are not taking risks that carry with them the possibility of failure.  So, if we spend a lifetime being failure averse, when failure comes, we don’t know how to handle it.  According to a recent New York Times article, not long ago the faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe an observation they had made: students seem unable to cope with simple struggles because they do not experience any setbacks in life.  Because their students have little to no experience with failure, when it does come, they don’t know what to do and experience complete fallout as a result.

Now, several colleges are attempting to tackle the problem head on by recoloring the idea that failure is something everyone experiences in life, and that people manage to come back from it.  Students are learning to “fail well” and cope with the event when it comes.  Upperclassmen and faculty relay stories to the incoming freshman about failures they’ve experienced, and how they learned to pick themselves back up, learn a lesson, and grow as a person.  Smith College’s program now explains that, “When you can fail well, the world opens up to you.  There’s no challenge you can’t pursue, no risk you can’t take, because you know how to get back up when you’re knocked down.  Your potential for change, for possibility, and for success as you define it becomes limitless.”

Thomas Edison, in referencing his experience with inventing the light bulb, was quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  The more he failed, the more he learned.  His multiple misfires and miscalculations built him to be a better, more innovative inventor.  His optimistic outlook on failure and the lessons he gleaned from them led him to his greatest creation.  Embracing failure helps us to re-evaluate, leading to a stronger self and outcome.  The author of Psalm 119.71 likewise reveals that, “It was good for me to suffer, so that I might learn your statutes,” as his failures gave him a greater appreciation of God’s promises.  Like athletes that re-watch footage of their losses, analyzing where they went wrong and how they can do better the next time, if we take the time to allow for failure as a means of self-improvement, we can grow as a result.

Our failures are not an  end but a beginning to something newer and better.  In 1968, while working at the 3M company, scientist Spencer Silver was attempting to come up with an extra strong adhesive but failed and developed just the opposite: a very weak one that easily peeled off when removed from any surface.  As the project was deemed a failure, another scientist (Art Fry) took the adhesive papers and ended up using them as bookmarks in his church hymnal book because they didn’t leave any glue residue on the pages, thus inventing Post-Its.

This week, take risk where there is the possibility of failure, and if failure should come, take that failure and turn it into a time of learning and personal growth.  Utilize it to grow not only closer to Him, but also to evolve as a person, being one who sees life not as a safe haven for success but repainted as a welcoming series of failure opportunities.  Amen.

A Mouthful of Guilt and Shame

As the dentist checked each of my teeth meticulously, he uttered a brief technical term number of concern to his assistant.  I had been going to this dentist for many years, and for the last 43 years, I had proudly proclaimed that I never had a cavity, a fact of which my dentist was acutely aware.  So, much to my surprise, after he finished the exam he informed me that, in fact, I had a small cavity on the surface of a back tooth.

He braced himself and said to me, “Now, I know that this is probably a blow to your ego,” (it was), “but it’s only a small spot that can be easily removed.”  I was devastated, my perfect record shattered.  I reeled with questions about how this could happen, what did I do to deserve this, and where had I gone wrong.  He reassured me that it was next to nothing, but the problem with next to nothing when it comes to cavities is that it’s still a cavity.  You can’t be a little pregnant: you either are or you aren’t.

All week, I felt completely self-conscious about my mouth.  I could feel it slowly spreading to my other teeth.  I felt as if I needed to be brushing more, that my mouth was now diseased, and that more importantly, everyone could see that I had somehow been neglectful of my oral hygiene.  Make way!  Unclean!  I was mortified to be seen in public, as everyone would probably figure out that I had ruined myself and developed rot in my teeth, and I’d appropriately be labeled a leper.  

As far as ruined perfection goes, like the small blight on my perfect pearly whites, as Christians, even the smallest sin makes us imperfect sinners, where He is perfection incarnate.  Because of our sin, we cannot enter His presence.  Although this fact bears repeating, it is mostly a given in Christian circles.  The idea is pressed firmly into our souls.  Yet what we often overlook is Satan’s role in the proceedings after forgiveness occurs.

As a forgiven people, we frequently forget our forgiven status, as Satan will do whatever it takes to drive a wedge between us and God.  So, he reminds us of our sin by means of guilt and shame, having us relive our mistakes repeatedly in our minds.  Resultantly, our thoughts run in circles around our faults, errors in judgement, and poor choices as we become anxiety-ridden with the labels we place on ourselves as defined by our actions.  Satan makes these sins seem much bigger than they actually are in our own head, but we forget that since God has forgiven us of our sins, He also forgets them.  In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he writes to his audience regarding God’s opinion towards our sinful actions: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12).  If we are remembering our forgiven sin and feeling shame, those feelings are not from God, as they reject the forgiven aspect of our actions, thus denying His nature and separating us from Him.  If we focus on being forgiven, we are grateful and give thanks and praise; if we focus on the guilt, we are embarrassed and want to run and hide.  So to keep our focus on Him, we must remember this fact:  our sins and mistakes are not as big or as noticeable as we think they are.

In her TED Talk entitled “Don’t Regret Regret,” American author and journalist Kathy Schulz talks about a tattoo she has on her shoulder that she lamented from the moment she got it.  After talking about how horrible it was for the majority of the talk, she finally reveals it to the audience, as they all realize that it isn’t that bad of a tattoo.  In her reveal, she helps us realize that often times our mistakes in life are not as ugly or as big as we make them out to be to ourselves.  Similarly, when I finally went to get my cavity filled, it was on the surface so much so that I didn’t even require any anesthesia.

Putting an optimistic spin on the way we view our mistakes, Schulz summarizes with the idea that our mistakes should not “remind us that we did badly; (but should) remind us that we can do better.”  If we can view our own forgiven sin in that light, we prevent Satan from haunting us with the specter of our past selves, and we can instead see the perfect image of our future self that will be made complete in His glory.  For that reason alone, we should not allow guilt and shame to control us, but we should rejoice in that we are free from the shackles of self-imposed disgrace.  Sometimes a small fixed cavity is nothing more than that.  Amen.

Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.  Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it fully and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing was serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we were also not created with the ability to cope with death, hence it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our close proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.