Working Hard is Hardly Working for You

I’m really busy, lately.  I won’t bore you with the details, but what is most telling during this time is how cluttered my home desk gets, and not with work.  Instead it’s filled with materials that I find relaxing, items that help me get away from it all: comic books, enjoyable readings, Sudoku puzzles, newspapers, and magazines.  Since they have nothing to do with work, they are not a priority, and are left untouched until I am no longer busy.  One can usually get a sense as to how busy my life is by how chaotic this area is: the more there is, the busier I am (and conversely, when fully empty, it means that I have time for leisure activities).  So, during this time of heavy work, there gets to be quite the pile.

In mentioning this scenario, most people don’t really see a problem.  For those of us who prioritize well, we know that we get done what needs to get done first, looking to escape later when there is time to escape.  Yet, look at that word: “escape.”  Why do we call these activities escapist if we don’t get to them until there is nothing from which to escape?  Why do we wait until everything is finished before we start them?  The obvious reason is because there is work to do, but I would like to make a case that excessively working without these escapes is nothing more than a futile exercise in entropy.

Put simply, one of the laws of entropy (or thermodynamics) suggests that for some tasks, the more effort you put in, the fewer results you will get in return; the harder you try, the less you’ll succeed.  For example: a student has a test tomorrow, and when he gets home, he tries to read the relevant chapters, scanning them several times.  He then takes notes on those chapters, filling out several pages worth.  Next, he chooses to stay up late and quiz himself on those chapters, creating flashcards and diagrams to help with his studying.  He sets an early alarm to review all the material.  On the bus in, he works towards memorizing all his notes and reviewing his flashcards.  He continues to study up to the minute that the test is given, yet when he gets his grade back, the grade is not as high as the other student who studied for a few hours when she got home, had dinner with her family, made one set of flashcards and reviewed them twice, watched a little television, got lots of sleep, and didn’t study at all when she got up the morning of the test.

I’ve seen these two scenarios play out thousands of times.  The one who tried hard ended up burning himself out, where the one who worked, but took breaks with activities she enjoyed, ended up renewed, filled with energy, and performing at a higher capacity.  More isn’t necessarily better.  There exists, in each of us, a point where going beyond said point has diminishing returns, and we are then not of any use to anyone, including ourselves.  However, when we stop before we get to that point and then couple it with times of leisure, we are more productive despite the less time devoted to work.  God gives us opportunities for rest for a reason, and if we don’t take them, we become overworked and overstressed.

When the work is piling up, we seem to think that we need to tackle it right away and continue to tackle it even when we are exhausted.  We don’t take time to do the things we enjoy, activities that renew our spirit.  Christ felt this way, too.  After a long day of preaching to the crowds, despite their demands for more, Christ decided to get away, even though there was still work to be done.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”  Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.  There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.   Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. – (Mark 4. 35-39)

Even though the storm raged around them, Christ ignored it.  Even though the work was piling up, He was in need of renewal (and more than likely, the only reason He calmed the storm was so that the disciples would leave him alone and let Him rest).  Often, it’s more important to rest and be renewed than it is to tackle the work.  Christ knew that there is always time for work, but there will not always be time for rest.  And the more rest He got, the more productive He could be later.  By accepting these God-given occasions for rest and renewal, we are allowing God to grant us the rest we need, so we can continue to work for Him in all things.

This week, despite the work that may be piling up for you, stop after a reasonable amount is done, and start to do the activities that refresh your mind and renew your spirit.  Whether it be time for yourself, time with God, or time with others, take time to make the time.  The work will still be there when you get back, but by taking the time to do what nourishes your soul, you will be able to tackle the work that much more productively.  Overworking yourself won’t get as much done as you might think, but by breaking up that work with activities that renew your spirit, you can be ready to tackle more later, being the full-charged person that God desires you to be.  Amen.

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When Love is Found in the Trash

Despite her strong streak of neatness and order, my wife leaves trash all around the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t the slightest bit aware of it.

I noticed it many years ago, that when she would open something that had a tear-off part to it (like the corner of a bag of chips, the pull-strip to a frozen box of peas, etc.), she would pull it, throw it on the counter, and then put all her attention on whatever she had just opened.  I’ve observed this behavior several times, testing to see if she could even see the garbage that she was leaving on the counter, but after a few days, she still seemed to not notice it.  It was as if the trash became invisible once it hit the marble top.

Since I tend to be wrong in most matters in my marriage (or at least that’s what my wife tells me), I was anxious to point out this flaw of hers and finally be right about something.  I’ve been waiting for just the right moment, but that moment never seemed to come.  So, instead of alerting her to this behavior and attempting to change its course, I decided to do something different: I would change myself.

Instead of seeing her strewn trash as an annoyance, I decided to allow it to endear her to me.  Her refuse-tossing then became a cute flaw of hers, a little secret that only I knew.  Even to this day, I’ve never told her about it, so she still has no idea of her deed or how it makes me smile to see it.  What was once something that irked me regularly, I now get joy from every time I throw it away myself, because it reminds me that I am happy that she is in my life.

When in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, we are often told to love people despite their flaws, because if we were to take the ill-advised time to see others for all their faults and misgivings, we would all run from one another, and the institution of marriage would collapse.  So, we choose to overlook a great deal in one another for the sake of the relationship.  We decide to focus not on what makes one another undesirable but what make each other special.  Yet when the annoyances come up, and they do come up, choosing to put up with them is an act of love.  Love is a choice, and when we choose to see them for who they are, not for who they might be, that is choosing love.

Our sinful nature easily makes us distasteful to one another, so we can only imagine how repulsive it must be to a perfect being.   However, as the Bible repeats to us over and over, God inexplicably sees us for our flaws and loves us even more.  Paul, the writer of Romans 5.8, fully encapsulates Christ’s unreasonable love for us in this statement: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  God looked at us, and seeing our despicable nature, decided that He would do the most selfless, loving thing He could do: die for us so that we could be saved.  The purity of His view on our nature displays a deep devotion to us, one that goes far beyond any flaw we might have.  He looked beyond our flaws, beyond our heart, and chose to love us more than we could possibly love Him back.

Christ puts forth a model in how we should love one another, yet is it really enough for us to just look past each other’s flaws and appreciate one another despite them?  Yes, the act of looking past each other’s misdeeds and imperfections is our choice, but if it is from us, then all the credit goes to us.  So, how can we see God in the other person if we are busy patting ourselves on the back for seeing the best in our significant others?

Seeing past my wife’s inability to find the trashcan helps me appreciate her more, but it also sends me a deeper message about my place on this earth.  It is a strong reminder that even the best of us are flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that none of us are alone in our imperfections.  When we frustratingly seem to be repeating the same mistakes in our lives ad nauseum and become frustrated with the way we are, a little trash on the table is an acute reminder that we are all in this together.  There is a commonality amongst us all that reveals our humanity, reinforcing the idea that there is not even one of us who is perfect, which isn’t a bad thing.

Realizing that we are not perfect and never going to be can be a humbling and sobering thought, yet there is a surprising amount of comfort to be found in it, as well.  Too often, we strive for perfection in our lives, an unattainable concept, when we should be putting forth efforts to strive to more carefully and deeply love on another.  The debris on the table is a reminder to me that I should avoid working towards a perfect life, which only leads to self-righteousness, and instead work towards a loving life, one where I will never confront her about her garbage.  This week, don’t let the annoyances of others and the faults of their character exasperate you, but instead, let it be a reminder of how much this world needs love, and then start fulfilling that need in others.  Amen.

 

Don’t Stuff Yourself

Despite that the wise in our society advise us to take “everything in moderation,” it sure is hard to follow that adage around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Being surrounded by so many delicious treats, along with lots of lovingly-cooked dishes, it’s easy to want to stuff your face.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I can most definitely relate.

This year, I told myself that I wouldn’t indulge, and that I would take just a little bit.  I didn’t want to dismantle a fairly-regimented eating design.  So, I tool a little bit of everything.  That was my first mistake.

After filling up my plate with a little bit of everything, I took note of the large pile of food I had collected.  I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to that point.  Not a single spot of plate could be seen, and the height achieved was somewhat admirable.  To rectify, I then determined to not finish my plate.  I would only eat three or four bites of each item, giving the rest to my three dogs.  That was my second mistake.

The suggestion to eat only 3-4 bites was an issue, as I had about 10-12 different kinds of food on my plate, the size of 3-4 bites each.  I couldn’t neglect any one food, now could I?  After 10 minutes or so, I was regretfully staring at the clean bottom of my empty plate.  Not that it was bad (that was clearly not the problem); it’s that the food was so good.  I had eaten too much of a good thing, and all before dessert.  As most people know, that overstuffed feeling is never pleasurable.  No matter how good something is, overdoing it never leads to satisfaction.

Additionally, overdoing it leads to a quick burnout, despite your good intentions.  I watched this idea take shape while we were exercising as a family.  We had decided to complete two rounds of a series of exercises (squat thrusts, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  My son decided that this amount of exertion wasn’t enough for him, so he went for the hand weights.  Standing at 90 pounds, he managed to hold a 10-lb weight in one hand and clutch two 5-lb weights in the other.  I didn’t say anything, wondering how long this was going to last.  He made it through about 15 lunges before he decided against this course of action.  He had burned out quite quickly, despite his good intention to get stronger.

Overdoing it never leads to the intended result.  We end up instead getting too much of what we wanted with none of the satisfaction or results.  Think of it this way:  you have to cook a turkey for 1 hour at 425 degrees.  To save time, you do some math, and decide that you could cut that time down significantly by cooking at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.  So, you decide to cook your turkey at 1700 degrees for 15 minutes.  Makes sense on a logical level, but try biting into that turkey, and you’ll see the reality of your inept cooking.

Solomon tried this approach, too.  He decided that since he was king, he could be happy by giving himself everything that he wanted.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2.10).  However, the more he dove into what he enjoyed, the more diminishing the returns were: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (verse 11).  Everything in moderation.  If we don’t overdo it and temper ourselves, we enjoy life more, growing more in the process.

Finding that sweet spot of moderation is key, the point at where you’ve achieved what you wanted but didn’t go too far and ruin it.  It’s the same concept for the things we enjoy as for the things we work so hard at.  We desire to grow and develop, but if we take it too far and overdo it, we end up doing more harm than good.  Athletes work hard to grow stronger and develops skills, but at some point, they risk pulling a muscle.  The same can go for our spiritual lives.  I’ve seen many young Christians get heavily involved in as many Christian aspects as they possibly can, only to get sick of it quickly and reject everything shortly from there.  Just because it’s good, overdoing it doesn’t mean it will be better for you.

Years ago, a fellow teacher taught me that when teaching your students, you want them disappointed that the bell rang, not grateful that it did.  You always want them to ask you to continue to read something when stopping, instead of being thankful that you stopped.  You want them to want more, but if you give them too much, they won’t want more, anymore.  For the things we enjoy, more doesn’t make it better.  God created these things for us to enjoy, but taking them all in at once doesn’t lead to more enjoyment.  And growth, like cooking a good turkey, takes time.  Overwatering a plant doesn’t make it grow faster.  So, don’t go all in all at once; leave yourself wanting more.  Pace yourself and plan out over time.  God gave you a heart that wants; now ask for a spirit that is patient.  That way, you’ll avoid burnout and stuffing yourself, and instead will enjoy the things that God meant for you to enjoy, growing at the speed at which God wants you to, without all of the exhaustion and fatigue.  Amen.

It’s Not Good to Be Fine

When I asked my son if he was okay, and he told me he was “fine,” I knew that he was far from it.  He had just competed in a Taekwondo forms tournament, a risk in itself for any fragile 9-year old ego, and was knocked out in the second round.  He stood next to me, keeping on a brave face, not looking me in the eye.  After he told me he was fine, I motioned for him to come closer to me, where I let him sit in my lap.  His arms quickly snaked their way around me, grabbing me tight as he fought back tears.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked.  It was a fair question, so I reassured him that he had in fact not messed up his forms at all.  Maybe some of the other kids just had tighter forms or louder snaps, I told him.  He had done his best, and I was proud of him, but for that moment, his disappointment was all too palpable.  He was doing his best to hide it and to root for his friends who were still in the running, so he repeatedly professed that he was okay, but for him, those were just words he could use to hide behind.

When people claim that they are “fine” or “okay,” they rarely are.  In fact, they are usually quite the opposite of those qualities.  And the more we claim to be fine and okay, the more those words betray our steely facades.  Almost always, people who claim something just a little too loudly and often are those who are the most insecure inside.  Hence, as an example, comedians are often times the saddest of all individuals.  Or when someone’s looks or personality are attacked, and they claim that they don’t care just a few too many times, it’s because they really do care and are trying to hide it.  Say it once, and it’s probably true.  Repeat it often, and you’re trying to not just convince others, but yourself, as well.

So, people who make tremendous claims about themselves publicly are doing so because they in fact do not possess that quality and are trying to make it seem so.  An individual who claims they are very smart probably isn’t.  Someone who is very smart has no need to prove to other people that they are: their actions speak for themselves.  More show, less tell.

While reading an article in the newspaper the other day about hypocrisy among some Christian politicians, I saw an interview with Omaha pastor Rev. Eric Elnes, who claimed that those who speak loudest often have something to hide: “Blazing with self-righteous indignation toward others is often what people use to hide their own sins in the shadows,” Elnes said.  “This is probably why Jesus’ biggest problem — by far — was with the self-righteous.  When it came to those whom society cast away as ‘sinners,’ Jesus was repeatedly gentle, gracious, encouraging, and forgiving, but he continually castigated the self-righteous.”

Quite true, as evidenced by the multitude of rejected individuals that Jesus would often tend to.  Some of his closest friends were those who had outwardly sinned for the whole world to see (prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves), those who never claimed to be good people.  For Christ, he would rather be with a sinner who was easy to spot than one who secretly sinned but professed righteousness and was clean on the outside.  Christ knew that those were the people that had real sin to hide.

In Luke 11 (and in Matthew 23), the authors of these two books recount Christ’s specific teachings against people who were more religious than faithful, in sections now known as the “Woe of the Pharisees.”  In each section, Jesus criticizes and chastises the Pharisees, a group whom professed great faith publicly on a number of points.  On one occasion, Christ is invited to dine with the Pharisees, so He takes the opportunity to speak out against such self-righteous people, revealing them for who they really are.  As was religious tradition, individuals were to wash before eating, not for the purposes of cleanliness but as a result of excessive, man-made ceremonial tradition that was seemingly based in the Torah (it isn’t).  So, Christ chooses to forgo the washing of hands to draw a comparison: “But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11.38-9).  Like those who profess that they are fine, okay, and don’t care, their outside is seemingly clean, but inside they are rotting away.

Christ desires just the opposite, that we be sinful on the outside, because we are made human, and clean on the inside, by believing in Him as our salvation.  We shouldn’t pretend that we’re perfect because we aren’t.  We are a chosen, fallen people, individuals who are loved and saved by Him not through our works of seeming perfection, but through His love for us.  Yet we are so afraid of imperfection, that like the Pharisees, we hide behind showy, outward actions and language.  This week, instead of pretending to be perfect, be imperfectly loud.  Don’t hide behind words that put forth a put-together exterior.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Christ loves us for our imperfections, as most likely others will, too.  With genuine words and actions, let your sincerity shine forth, and be the wholly imperfect being that you were made to be.  Amen.

Fallen Idols, Shaken Foundations

I am now sorry to say that I grew up with Bill Cosby as my tv father.

In the 70s and 80s, I thought Cosby was a comedy god, and as a child, it was impossible to escape him.  Whether he was telling me to eat my Jell-O pudding pops or making me laugh with the rest of the Fat Albert gang, I thought he was the funniest person ever.  As a huge fan of comedy, I can remember watching “Bill Cosby: Himself,” his quintessential stand-up special from 1983, over and over, trying to memorize his jokes and imitate his cadence, movements, and especially his voices.  On Thursday nights, my parents and I would gather around the television to watch sweater-clad Cliff Huxtable teach his children another valuable lesson about life, and really, he was teaching me, too.  We probably ended up watching all 197 episodes, so it was a real honor when I saw him perform in person in 1994 at my college when he came to do a concert there.

He also managed to be such a role model in his act.  He never cursed or spoke negatively about anyone (except maybe his children).  He also used his celebrity status to speak out about young black men and the role they play in society, how they needed to take responsibility for their actions and words.  So, it was with a heavy heart and a tremendous amount of sadness when, in November 2014, I learned that Bill Cosby may have raped and sexually assaulted as many as 60 women over the course of his career.

As a country, we went through a variety of reactions to the news, from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, and so on.  How could someone we trusted so much with our time and invested so much with our hearts betray us in such a way that was so disgracefully awful?  To this day, we still shake our heads in disbelief at the allegations: not that we think they are false, but that they are so shamefully unbelievable.

Role models and idols play a big part in our lives.  Ask anyone who their influences were growing up, and they will most likely name a celebrity, athlete, or musician.  Some name a person closer to them, like a sibling, parent, or teacher.  Then, and sometimes even now, we look to these people for guidance and example; we think they have the answers and their lifestyle reflects that wisdom.  Yet when these role models misstep and fall, we are deeply shaken, as if our foundation has crumbled from beneath us.  We spent so much time building our belief system and moral code on their teachings and examples, that to see them fall is detrimental to our support system.  When Lance Armstrong battled cancer and fought his way back onto his bicycle, we were inspired to struggle.  When he won 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions, we thought him a hero.  And when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs the whole time, we didn’t know how to continue.

For Christians, our role models are those who walk in Christ’s footsteps and in His word.  Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God.  Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith,” while in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul advises us to “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”  For us, Christ is the only true role model, as He will never fall.  Humans may, but He won’t.  Yet what happens when they do?

Recently, I’ve directly experienced leaders and role models who were looked up to by many and guided by several, fall quite hard.  What has been left in their wake are people who are now just as lost as I was when Cosby’s accusers came forward.  So how do we overcome these catastrophes and rebuild?  How can we recover from such a loss of faith?

For those who are directly affected, you can start by talking out your emotions when you’re ready.  Finding someone, or a group of people, who will listen without judgement or interruption is extremely cathartic and cleansing.  Express your every thought and feeling: how angry, sad, or alone it made you feel.  Deal with the emotions head on instead of bottling them up inside.  Also, listen to others who similarly idolized that individual.  Hearing their grief may help you to realize that you are not alone.  Additionally, petition God for healing and comfort, allowing His love to wash over the deep wounds that seem incurable.

For those who are not directly affected but know others who are, you might be the one that can walk them through this difficult time.  When they are ready and willing to talk, listen in the same way as mentioned above: without judgement or interruption.  Offer allowable emotional support, meaning that you ask permission to touch or hug them.  If they are willing to, give it.  If not, let them know that you understand.  Just the knowledge that it’s there is sometimes comfort enough.  Finally, be the role model when others people’s role models fall.  Model how to respond in a crisis like this one.  Be a good listener and supporter.  Your example can set a new foundation where the previous one lay.

Obviously, putting faith in another person can be a risk, as our only perfect faith recipient, the one that will never fail, is Him.  But being human, we tend to put our faith and trust in others, and that faith can be betrayed because we are human.  The only thing we can do is be ready for when that failure happens and have a plan for recovery.  Although the fallout as a result of our fallen idols is emotionally unpredictable, what we can predict is how to heal from it.  Amen.

When the Hits Just Keep on Coming

I never had a dog growing up.  I was never really close with animals, either.  So when I married what was clearly a dog person, I knew my canine-less days were numbered.  That’s when we brought home Elinor, our rescued black lab.  When we first met, she walked over to me and flopped right into my lap.  We were best friends from the start, and my heart quickly melted as I immediately learned the joys of living with man’s best friend.  That was sixteen years ago.

Surprisingly, Elinor is still around, even if she isn’t all there.  She still likes her walks, although at a moderate speed so she arthritically hobble down the road.  Her eyes are a bit clouded over and can’t quite see the way she used to, and her hearing is nominal at best.  Dementia seems to be settling in, so she has her good days and her bad ones.  Yet, she’s still with us, and we still love her, although her life for us can be quite difficult at times.

You see, because of the shape she’s in, she doesn’t always respond to her environment as she should.  We’ve found her in a corner waiting for a non-existent door to open, begging for food immediately after dinner because she forgot that she just ate, and following us around the house for hours getting to know us because she doesn’t remember who we are.  Yes, we love her, but it’s a constant test of that love to see how far and deep that love goes.  We try to laugh a little when she’s having “an Elinor moment,” because our appropriate choices for emotionally dealing with her are limited, but our hearts are with her, as we know she loves us despite what she does.

We would never let anything happen to Elinor.  She’s our family, and we’d do anything for those close to us.  But what happens when those close to us test the boundaries of that love through the choices they make?  For Elinor, she’s clearly not aware of the error of her choices and how they affect those around her, but what about those people who are capable of awareness?  More specifically, how do we deal with those friends and family members that repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again, and we are forced to accept them for who they are?

We all have those friends and family members that we keep at arm’s length because there’s something in particular about them that we just can’t deal with.  Perhaps it’s a differing political opinion or lifestyle that doesn’t complement our own.  Maybe it’s just that Uncle Harvey tells us the same joke every Christmas, and we’re expected to laugh at it every time.  But, what about those who we keep close to us that keep hurting us over and over because of the choices they make?  Is it right to cut them loose for the purposes of self-preservation?  Or should we give them another chance, knowing that they’re going to blow that one, along with the next ten?

When Christ was delivering His ministry to the people, He gathered together twelve disciples, but among them He had a few that He kept even closer.  Peter was one of Jesus’ closest brethren, someone in whom Jesus could confide.  The night before Jesus was arrested, He held a dinner for His disciples to reveal to them everything that was going to happen.  He told Peter that he would deny Christ three times the next day before the crowing of the rooster.  When Peter heard this statement, he was flabbergasted, as Peter would never do something so disloyal and hurtful to Christ.  Peter really loved Him, so the thought of turning against Him was foreign.

After Christ’s arrest the next day, Peter was questioned by many people about how well he knew Christ.  Since he didn’t want to get arrested, Peter swore that Christ was a stranger to him.  On the third time, Peter “began to call down curses, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’  Immediately a rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26.74-75).  Christ knew not just that Peter would deny Him, but that Peter would do it repeatedly.  Yes, Christ appeared to Peter after His death and built His church on him, but the fact that Christ was willing to not just forgive him, but forgive him knowing that Peter would betray Him repeatedly suggests something about the way Christ viewed him.

So, how do we see past the choices our closest confidants make and view them the way that Christ sees them, similar to the way Christ viewed Peter?  Remember, Christ judges the heart, whereas we tend to judge more external evidence.  Although Peter denied Him, his heart was still with Him.  It’s easy to be dissuaded by the outward appearance when someone close to you makes repeatedly hurtful decisions that cut through our own heart and feelings.  No one ever said that forgiveness and understanding were easy.  Seeing past their words and actions and going directly to what lies in their heart helps us to value them not for what they do but for who they are.  However, to get this type of eyesight, we need to rely on God to grant it to us.  Only through His heavenly power can we overcome this earthly outlook.  We need to ask for His eyes when we can’t see correctly with our own.  When we are tempted to look away because our eyes don’t like what they see, with His power we can overcome that temptation and see others as He sees them, keeping those that mean the most to us close to us, seeing instead what lies in their hearts.  Amen.

Little People, Big Wisdom

This being the fall, my seniors are now in the college application process, which puts me square in the middle of letters of recommendation writing.  It’s not a required task for teachers but a courtesy to their former students.  Thus, it’s work in addition to my work.  However, I’m happy to be a part of the process of seeing them getting accepted into their dream colleges and embracing the unknown futures before them.  Also, it allows me to gently reminisce about how these students contributed to my class in a meaningful way, as I have many that have made a lasting impact.

In the letter, I traditionally break up the recommendation writing duties into two areas: academic and personal, how they are as a student and how they are as a person.  In the first part, I discuss their writing abilities, how they contributed to discussions, and an anecdote or two about their experiences in my classroom.  The second part of the letter addresses what their character is like, who they are when no one is seemingly watching.  With the select few, I also discuss how they socially and supportively interact with others and how they balance their life, time, and efforts towards a number of commitments ranging from academics, athletics, extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, and possibly job employment.  What often develops from these observations is how they are a tremendous role model for others.  People look to them for example and can’t help but follow as a result.  They become pubic figures not be means of self-promotion but through true leadership: they work harder than anyone else does.

Now, it’s very easy to look at these high school seniors and think that it’s adorable that they are great models for their peers and to proudly smile at how hard they are working, but perhaps we are too shortsighted in seeing it that way.  Perhaps there is much to be learned in these teenagers’ examples.  Maybe we should look at how these individuals are role models for us adults, as well.  Maybe their example is one being set not just for the building, but for the community and beyond.  We claim that children are the future leaders, but maybe they are the current leaders, too.

In our house, my nine-year old son has an infinite more amount of wisdom than I do when it comes to comforting his mother, my wife.  When she becomes stressed out and at her wits end, I try to cheer her up in all the wrong ways, sometimes with choices that just exacerbate the situation.  However, when I observe my son approach her during these times and model a different, more empathetic approach that considers other aspects of her personality, I see her façade melt as he helps her forget her troubles with just the right words and actions.  Despite his age, he sets forth a model for me, showing me that wisdom can come at any age and that leaders are not always those with experience but are those with insight.

We too often confuse age for wisdom and youth for foolishness, but I know plenty of old foolish people, so by default, there must be young wise people.  We quickly dismiss young wisdom and example, as it seems to be our jaded nature to do so.  We think that if the bearers of ideas and concepts are young, then they must not know what they are talking about.  When we do, though, we then miss out on the blessings that are being offered in their examples when we can’t see beyond their age.

Similarly, when the apostle Paul took young Timothy under his wing in his ministry, Paul could see not only the potential in him, but also how tremendous a leader he currently was, too.  Being twenty years his senior, Timothy looked up to Paul as a leader and mentor, but what Timothy often failed to realize was that despite his age, Paul looked up to him as a leader as well, a result of Timothy’s model-like behavior that was on display for everyone.  In 1 Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to not let his age be a stumbling point for others, as his ministry was strong and worth listening to no matter what age Timothy was: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (4.12).  Timothy was only around thirty-five during this key part of his ministry, and as his teaching flew in the face of so many of the elders, Timothy was looked down upon, usually because of his age and lack of life experience.  Paul’s words to Timothy encourage him to overcome the discouragement that sometimes comes with being young and trying to be a leader.

Young people have just as much to offer as their older counterparts do, sometimes even more.  They possess a wisdom not tainted with pessimism that settles in as a result of our own experiences and failures.  The problem with us, the older generation, comes from the lack of humility we possess, as we feel that we know better.  If we can take a moment and swallow that pride, we might be able to open ourselves up to wisdom that can significantly benefit our lives.  If we can spend time examining the given wisdom, and not the age of the carrier of that wisdom, we can grow as individuals and draw from the leadership of those that we too often overlook.  This week, ask God for humility and wisdom and be prepared to receive great gifts in very small packages.  Amen.

When Limited Evidence Limits Our Decision-making Ability

The other morning, I was awakened to the sound of hammering from next door.  I really despise the lack of consideration when it comes to noise in the early morning hours.  Nothing burns me more than someone doing construction while the rest of us are trying to sleep.  I imagined going over there in my self-righteousness and yelling at that person, mentioning how thoughtless and selfish they were being by making that much noise at so early a time.  I begrudgingly opened my eyes in anger and annoyance, only to notice that the clock read almost 10:00 AM, and that my neighbor was not in the wrong: I had overslept.

Incorrect assumptions based on limited evidence often incorrectly drive our actions and decisions to misguided ends.  We take what we have in front of us and figure we know the best course of action based on that evidence.  As a result, we end up making such wrongheaded decisions that we end up looking silly or foolish in the process.  When we make uninformed decisions, our word is tarnished, our reputation sullied, and the amount of trust we get in the future is limited.  There is almost no situation or turn of events that benefits from a decision that doesn’t consider all of the facts and scenarios.

Sometimes it’s easily chalked up to the sweet, endearing innocence of our age, such as when I am playing basketball against my 9-year-old son and his two friends, the three put their arms out to measure them against each other to see who has the longest arm, as that person must be the best at basketball.  Or when they decide to “huddle up” before a basket and give each other code names when passing, thinking that I’ll be so confused by the changes that I won’t know which way to turn.  (You can imagine that I figured it out fairly quickly.)  It’s adorable to watch at that age, but when age is no longer an excuse for our uninformed assumptions, we need to rethink our approach.

For example, the other day, I mentioned to my class that I often participate in a podcast about superhero culture, and that I had recently recorded an episode that delves into the Spider-Man mythos.  I encouraged them to listen to it, as it was relevant to the unit we are currently tackling, the role of superheroes in our culture.  A few hours later, I was called down to the office by my assistant principal and principal to attend a closed-door meeting.  By the tone of their voices and looks on their faces, I could tell I was in trouble.  I sat down and was told that a few students had come to administration and told them that I was maliciously writing about the school in an online blog, which is nothing close to a podcast about superheroes.  After revealing all of the evidence to my bosses, they sheepishly closed their laptops and apologized, as they had received incorrect information.  Apparently, the students who came forward did not have all the correct facts, and had emotionally reacted to a situation where further investigation was needed, and the administrators who listened to them just assumed that this information was true.  Being a generally good-natured person, I laughed off the experience and now recall it as a funny story.

Yet, other times, we are not as lucky.  Assumptions can have detrimental, sometimes catastrophic results.  Assumptions in manual jobs can result in faulty, even dangerous construction.  Assumptions by an athlete can develop into a missed score or even a loss.  Assumptions in our relationships can lead to missed connections and breakups.  And possibly most dangerously so, assumptions in our faith can lead to breakdowns of trust, churches that split, and salvation opportunities lost.  To an extreme, assumptions can cause fanaticism and wars.

The author of Proverbs, in addition to the multitude of other common-sense suggestions, offers sage advice when it comes to how to avoid assumptions and acting without the proper amount of evidence: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame… In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18.13, 17).  To avoid failure, embarrassment, and wrongheaded decisions, the author encourages us to listen and wait.  Patiently listening to all of the evidence first and avoiding responding immediately can help us make a fully-realized, informed decision or statement.  Additionally, waiting for more evidence instead of being the first to jump into the argument allows for a fully-formed decision or statement, one that reflects age and wisdom.  By taking our time, we can spare ourselves the embarrassment of foolishness and instead reflect thoughtful consideration.

So how can we steer ourselves into that direction?  First, we need to be less rash.  So many times, our decisions and statements are driven by emotion.  By taking emotion out of the equation, we can thoughtfully and carefully consider the situation.  Lessening the effect that emotion has on us helps us to make clearheaded, informed decisions.  To establish that practice, we need to work on our meditative life.  Taking the time to quiet ourselves and listen to what God has to offer helps us to be informed.  Quieting ourselves and our surroundings leads to a meditative life, one where we speak less and listen more.  This week, take a few minutes out of each day to just sit and be still.  Quiet your surroundings and yourself.  Build up patience and develop your listening skills.  Through stillness and calmness, we can avoid the trappings that come with assumptions and be led towards a less foolish, more informed life.  Amen.

Resisting the Urge to Prove Them Wrong

As my nine-year old son grows up, I’ve noticed not only a streak of independence developing in him but also a mild streak of defiance.  I’m told this will only get worse as he enters his teens.  As such, we will tell him to do something at a certain time, and he will try to maintain his enjoyable activities as long as possible before he has to do what is needed of him.  His desires for what he wants to do are stronger than what he has to do: typical youth.  I can’t really complain: he’s a great kid.  In fact, he’s more compassionate and thoughtful than most others his age.  It’s just that sometimes, at that age, they want to have all the power with none of the responsibilities.

For example, the other day he was told that he could have 15 minutes of play time on his computer tablet playing games, watching videos, whatever he wanted to do to unwind.  Of course, 15 minutes came and went, and just like anyone that age, he didn’t alert us to the fact that he had gone over his time limit.  Giving him a few minutes of grace time, I went into his room to let him know that his time was up.  I was greeted with an argument about how much time he actually had.

“Okay, 15 minutes are up.  It’s time to put your tablet away.”

“You and mom said 30 minutes.”

“I’m pretty sure it was 15.”

“No, it was 30.  I’m sure of it.”

At this point, I walked out of the room, as I didn’t want to get into a back and forth argument that was clearly not introducing any new evidence to the discussion.  As I walked down the hall, I heard a young, squeaky, but frustration-filled voice yell, “Fine!  You win!”  That exclamation was then followed by several slamming of materials around the room with a few stomps of the feet.  It was clear that he was upset, and my first inclination was to respond by addressing his escalating behavior and faulty logic.  My inner voice wanted to engage him about how this wasn’t a contest, that I was right in telling him how long he had, that he was wrong to get mad, along with a host of other indignities I had suffered at the hand of this small human being.  Yet, I decided to choose a different approach, one of non-confrontation, as a power struggle wasn’t the answer.

We are challenged for power daily in a multitude of situations.  The grocery store customer in front of us who has 22 items in a 10-item line, the car that slowly pushed into our lane when we were doing the speed limit, the co-worker that leaves the office microwave dirty when we just cleaned it – all of the situations have the same setup in common: we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and someone else is challenging the system at our expense.  We are in the right, and they are not, and they are daring us to try to do something about it.  Although the situations are common, it is our reaction to those situations that often define our character and who we are.  We desire to correct them and show them how they are wrong and we are right; we want to feel the cathartic pleasure of knocking them down a peg and feeling better about ourselves because we were the ones who were sticking to the rules and staying on the right path.  Righteous indignation, indeed.

However, being right doesn’t always mean that we should speak up and correct.  Often times instead of bringing logic and righteousness to an argument, we end up just bringing a bigger mallet.  Suddenly, the rude driver becomes the angry, dangerous driver, arguments break out in the supermarket, and office relationships become sabotaged.  Righteousness doesn’t always bring peace and often times just makes a situation worse.  When someone confronts with power, a confrontation in return isn’t rooted in love, just in our own ego.

Christ also knew this fact, and followed that advice when he was brought in front of the Sanhedrin to be charged with crimes.  Instead of proving everyone wrong, Christ chose another way: “Finally two came forward and declared, ‘This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer?  What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’  But Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26.60-2).  Christ chose to not get into a power struggle with these men, as He knew that nothing good would come out of it.  He saw the bigger picture, that a fight here would detract from the larger issue at hand: man’s salvation.  He may have had the desire to prove them wrong and present His glory right then and there, but He knew that choosing love over righteousness was better.

So instead of fighting with my son, I came back in a minute later, eating a big bag of Cheetos, and I offered him some.  He stopped, pondered the offer, and dug in.  Peace was achieved not through confrontation but with an offer of snacks.  It was not a fight to be had.  What would I possibly gain by proving him wrong and verbally engaging him in a power struggle where tempers would flare and love would most definitely not prevail?  The bigger picture is the love I would like to cultivate and maintain with him, not a daily struggle of who’s right and who’s wrong.  And when someone conversely tries to engage him in a power struggle, I want his first response to be rooted in a desire for love and forgiveness, not dominance and personal victory.

For us, the desire for harmony needs to overcome the desire to prove ourselves right.  We need offerings of peace when others test our resolve.  It is important to see the larger picture at hand, one where Christ’s example is seen through our response and His love is continued through our words and actions.  This week, when tested by others’ wrongs, when you want to offer conflict, make an offer of peace.  Christ is not seen when we seek to dominate with righteousness, but instead when others bring a sword to a fight, and we bring an offer of love (or Cheetos).  Amen.

Dreaming Reasonably and Achieving Realistically

I have a morning ritual where as soon as I get up, I step on the scale.  I can’t start my day without it.  Each and every time, as I await the blinking screen to reveal the appropriate number and correctly assess my weight, several prayers run through my head, as I hope that I’ve miraculously lost those four pounds while I slept.  As life would have it, I am never four pounds lighter than when I went to sleep.  Disappointment then sets in, as I begin to feel that I’m never going to lose them, ever.

The other day, as I was waiting for the numbers to appear, I finally came to my senses and realized that I will never lose all those pounds overnight, but I might be a small amount (1/4 of a pound, maybe) lighter than I was yesterday.  I ended up resetting my expectations towards something more realistic, and when the numbers came up, I found that I wasn’t disappointed, again.  My realistic goal lent itself to my achieving a measured but reasonable level of success, which encouraged me to work harder towards larger goals, a practice where if we can replicate it in our lives in other areas, will help us to grow in life and in our faith.

My students are often also guilty of this same crime.  I’ve explained to them that there is frequently a direct relationship between time dedicated to writing their papers and the grade they get: the more time you commit, the better your grade.  However, they end up waiting until the last minute to write that paper, leaving mere hours left before it’s due.  They write as fast as they can until they reach the end of the page and then hit the print button, all with little planning out of the essay.  When they get the paper returned with high expectations for a great grade, they are bewildered and angry as to why the grade is so low, as they often don’t connect reasonable effort with reasonable goals.  To try and combat this practice, I’ve been establishing short term goals for them before the paper is due, so that they can achieve smaller goals on the way to their great grade.  I have them complete their introduction on one evening, plan out their body paragraphs on another, etc., thus forcing them to work on the paper over a few nights so that they have more reasonable, achievable, more realistic goals to complete.

There’s something to be said with tempering a child’s dreams and helping those dreams to be realistic and achievable.  Many young people feel that they can do anything if they want it badly enough, but the truth is that wanting is not enough, especially when the object of desire is well beyond their reach.  We love to tell the younger generations to dream big, but when we step aside as they develop an unreasonable goal that they’ll never reach, it all leads to them being detrimentally disappointed when it fails and unable to pick themselves up from their defeat.  Instead of allowing them to develop big but impractical dreams, we should step in and help them to shape those dreams towards something big and reasonable.

As a model for careful and reasonable planning, take Christ’s ministry as an example.  The purpose of His life was to save the world, yet He didn’t try to tackle all of that at once or in a short amount of time.  He spent a great deal of His life working on Himself and his skill set, getting His education, and developing His prayer life.  Waiting until He was in His 30’s, He then started His ministry through hard work and careful forethought: “One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night.  At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles” (Luke 6.12-3).  For someone who’s going to save the whole world, twelve people isn’t that many with which to work.  Yet, He managed to train, teach, and develop these twelve into a strong handful of preachers who managed to spread the message of Christ’s salvation through most of the world over a reasonable period of time.  Christ could have taken in thousands and worked with them to spread His message, but He knew not to tackle such a large task all at once with such an enormous group of people.  Instead, Christ developed practicable, possible goals over an unhurried amount of time, thus finding success at a reasonable, developed rate, instead of trying to achieve an enormous goal in a very brief amount of time.

Even today, as smokers stare down at a cigarette and long to quit, the decision to tackle it seems overwhelming given the amount of familiarity and addiction they feel.  Very few are able to quit cold turkey without sliding right back into old habits.  So, smokers develop plans to close out their practice through a series of strategic maneuvers over a specific time period: small, realistic, achievable goals measured out over a reasonable amount of time.  And just like them, along with Christ and His disciples, we too must set practical goals for ourselves so that we can find a measured amount of success over a realistic period of time, thus earning encouragement towards greater accomplishments.  Should we try to bite off more than we can chew, we end up discouraged, disillusioned, and defeated because we haven’t achieved enough, if any, success.  For your next big dream, approach steps that are climbable, not cliffs that are unscalable, by taking a minute to look at your goals and dreams with the eyes of a realist, one who plans carefully and creates smaller goals that lead up to larger ones, thus not crushing your hopes but cultivating them for the next climb.  Amen.