When We Deny Ourselves What We Were Meant to Do

As some may have noticed over the past couple of months, my writing output dried up a little.  I haven’t been as consist as I usually am in getting out my devotionals.  And it wasn’t out of laziness; there was real reasoning behind what I actually deemed a decision: the demands in my life were too great to sit down and write.  I had spent time being sick, there were debilitating snow storms and tornadoes that wreaked havoc in our area and we were without electricity, work was overbearing for a multitude of reasons, and I needed a mental break from a handful of commitments in my life, with writing being one of them.  I figured that this elimination would help me relax and de-stress, and I’d have one less thing breathing down my neck.

What a stupid decision that was.

At the time, I felt that writing was taking up too many of my resources, where if a month or two went by here and there, I would feel a sense of relief, that I could churn out devotionals whenever I felt like it.  So, I thought, let’s blow this off for a bit.  Instead, I would partake in relaxing activities that required little to no energy.

Yet, not putting forth the effort to write ended up causing more problems for me than actual writing.  As a result, I didn’t feel like myself.  I felt off.  I was ornery, discombobulated, and unfulfilled.  I tried filling up on other things that took a lesser amount of creative juices, but that didn’t work, either.  What I was missing throughout all of this was one key aspect:  in life, I need to write.

For many, we have that thing in our life that we need to do otherwise we don’t feel like ourselves.  It’s our lifeblood.  Without it, we dry up and/or suffocate.  When I decided to not write, I discovered that writing is the thing that I need to be me.  Without it, my life seriously suffers.

Since I’ve discovered this need, I’ve had to force-schedule myself to write, and as much as I kick and scream my way into it, once I start, it’s as if the world has quieted itself.  I am alive and I am whole once again.  How funny that the exertion of energy and resources, when allocated to the right places, can result in even more energy.  When in the middle of writing, I feel the world coursing through me, electrifying me with each word I type.  It completes me as a person.  It is my lifeblood.  My thing.

I mentioned this discovery to someone the other day who cited that many people go their entire lives and never discover what their thing is, that they just move from one unfulfilling thing to another, never finding that same serenity that I have been finding when I write.

Yet, why writing?  And what is it I am feeling?  With writing, I’ve realized that I am blessed with this ability, as if I was made to do it.  In the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” the true story about British track athletes training for the 1924 Olympics, one of the main characters, who is quite skilled at running, is asked why he runs.  His response is simple: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run I feel His pleasure.”  Because this character discovered and embraced what God blessed him with, he feels alive, whole, and smiled upon by God.  He knows the skill that he is infused with by God, and by embracing it, he is embracing life, and that God is pleased when he embraces his gift.

Now I know that some are reading this and thinking that there is nothing especially skilled about them that they can embrace, but believing that is part of the problem.  We too often dismiss ourselves as nothing special, but nothing is further from the truth.  Ephesians 2.10 states: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  If we believe that we are made in His image, with His hands, formed in the womb by Him, loved and cared for by the Creator of the universe, then we can begin to believe that we are in fact His masterpiece, and that our existence is imbued with great importance.  Because He made us, we are uniquely special.  And by believing that, we can begin to believe that we were made special with a purpose in mind.  Our job is to find out what that purpose is, what our thing is, and when we embrace it, we can feel His joy.  And even though I am bleary-eyed exhausted as I write this late at night after a day of insurmountable work and intense deadlines that at one point made my hands shake in real terror, I am now happy.  Denying who I am and what I can do denies that happiness, something I didn’t realize until I chose to stop writing.

This week, spend time in prayer and meditation, asking Him to help you know in your heart that you are His creation, special and unique.  Then, look for your thing.  Find out what God has created inside of you.  It may not be as extraordinary as being able to run in the Olympics, but it is special because He made you that way.  Embrace that with all of your might despite how hard it may seem to get out of the starting gate, as once you embrace what it is you are blessed with and meant to do, you’ll quickly discover the joy of being created for a purpose.  Amen.

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The Needless Burden of Your Baggage

I can remember years ago when my nonagenarian grandmother was alive, that no matter what befell her in her old age, she refused to let anything get her down.  For years, she was happy to enjoy the simple pleasures in life like cooking for others, visitors, and family.  We’d ask her, on any given day, how she was feeling, and she’d tell us, “I can’t complain.”  That response always astounded me because she clearly had much about which to complain as it wasn’t like she was pain-free.  Yet despite her cataracts, arthritis which resulted in a hunched over frame, losing her hearing, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, she refused to complain.  I thought maybe she was just modest or didn’t want to focus on the negative (both of which may be true), but I believe she wouldn’t complain for another reason.

In life, she never wanted to be a burden on anyone, desiring to do most things herself.  So, I’ve concluded that she responded with no complaints because of just that: she didn’t want to burden others with what she was going through.  She’d rather keep it to herself and bear the burden silently.

But isn’t sharing the burden a Godly trait?  Our earthly burdens are frequently referred to as “our yoke,” with scripture instructing us to place it upon Christ where He will give us rest.  Galatians 6.2 teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  We frequently see our fellow travelers struggling with difficult baggage, and it does them great good to share those struggles with an attentive ear and a firm shoulder.  But this is not about those selfless people or those sacrificial times.

This is about the me-monster.

Comedian Brian Regan told a story about how at a party, no matter what he said, this other person had a bigger story.  When Brian told about an accomplishment, the other person would say something along the lines of, “Well, if you think that’s something, then…” and would proceed to top whatever he had to say, obnoxiously eclipsing him at every turn.  Similarly, the me-monster can rear its ugly head when it comes to sharing burdens.

We all know that person (or maybe more than one) whom we never like to ask how they are doing, because we know we are in for a long story about how much they’ve been suffering lately.  They will go on to complain about their health, how their kids are treating them, what indignities they’ve suffered at work, all because they just love to put burdens on other people and top other’s stories.

Get a few of them together, and unlike my grandmother’s approach, it’s a who’s who of bodily ailments: whose sciatica is acting up, what pain was emanating from where the other day, or how their senses are slowly getting dulled in the coming years.  You see, the me-monster doesn’t also just like to one-up you with their accomplishments, they also like to out-do you in how much they have to put up with.  They are a black hole of sympathy in the room, drawing all sunlight and hope away from everyone for the sheer desire to elicit misery and empathy.  In short, they want you to feel bad for them because it makes them feel good.

And it doesn’t do anyone any good in the process.  The me-monster just gets bigger and those around it are further alienated and minimized.  Sometimes, burdening others with our troubles isn’t the answer.  Sometimes it’s better to just carry them ourselves if we can.

I was faced with this dilemma recently, when I learned at work that there was a chance I might lose my job due to budget cuts.  I had been there twelve years, but in my department, I was third from the bottom.  This information weighed on me as I wondered how I was going to deal with it.  For many, as was my instinct too, their first action is to share the burden with a loved one or spouse.  I thought through this action, but realized that in sharing my burden with my wife, she would have to put up with that burden as well, carrying it around, needing to deal with it.  I didn’t want to have to have her suffer with this information yet, as like I said, there was only a chance of me losing it.  So, why put my burden on her and force her to contend with it when I could quietly suffer with it just fine myself?  By telling her, the only person who would benefit would be me from the sympathy, which is arguable because if my wife is worrying about this, then our marriage suffers too with the amount of stress I’ve introduced.

So, I decided that I would tell her when the threat was more real or when I couldn’t deal with it myself, just like my grandmother who was suffering silently just fine by herself.  There was no need to burden others with what she was going through, so I followed likewise.  And as it turns out, my threat passed, and it seems I have a job next year.  So, by telling her back then, not only would I have been burdening her with this information, I would have been needlessly burdening her, just like the me-monster.

Just because we are suffering, that doesn’t give us license to share with everyone around us.  Even Christ didn’t share with everyone the burden of His impending crucifixion.  Sure, when the burden becomes too much, confession to someone close helps lift that burden, but just becoming the me-monster and burdening everyone else in our world doesn’t make for a very inviting existence.  So the next time you have an opportunity to share your burden, weigh whether you need to or not.  Don’t let the me-monster take over your communication, and instead take a note from grandma by choosing to radiate optimism and not complain.  Amen.

Be Proactive: Get Yourself a Life Anchor

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who was relaying some of the difficulties he was going through at his job.  He talked about how it was a really rough year for him, and that those in charge were attempting to not only make his life more difficult but also to try to remove him from his job.  They filed some paperwork against him back in February, so all of this burden had been weighing on him for the last four months.  I couldn’t begin to fathom what he was going through.  Yet, when talk began to shift to his family, he noticeably brightened, and his demeanor changed for the better.  He mentioned about how wonderful they were, how his child was the highlight of his day, and how much he was enjoying his home life.  He then said to me this adage, one with which I wasn’t too familiar until then, “Happy at home, happy at life.”  As long as everything was good at his home, then everything would be alright no matter what the circumstances were anywhere else.

I walked away from that conversation astounded at his ability to compartmentalize his emotions, to leave his depression at the source: work.  It was as if he had put up a physical barrier between the two areas, so that none of the bad stuff could seep into the good areas.  Perhaps his secret was keeping work at work.

In our house, we have some rules when it comes to keeping work out of the house.  Both being teachers, we sometimes commiserate about our jobs in an empathetic sort of way, but often that just leads to further depression about our individual situations.  So, we try to remind each other to not talk about work (frankly, I need a lot more reminding than she does) and focus on what is in front of us.   Another tactic we have is to avoid work email at home.  Let’s face it: nothing good can come of checking work email over the weekend or at night.  It just adds to the stress of our days, literally dragging our emotional selves back to work, thus oozing into our homelife like a plague.  As such, we avoid checking it altogether.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But sole avoidance can’t be enough.  That approach is just so reactive.  What was my friend’s secret?  There must be a pro-active step in there somewhere.  Well, a week or so ago, my away-from-home world seemed to be crumbling around me.  Worse yet, it was happening on a Friday, and going into the weekend would be tough.  I knew there was nothing I could be doing to fix or change my situation, as it was completely out of my hands.  Let go, and let God, I suppose (but again, merely reactive).  If we want to have happiness in life, we need to take proactive steps, steps where we chose to do something not in response but in a precautionary way, like a preventative medicine.

I’ve previously written about how love is a verb, as in love being a choice action.  Yes, sometimes love is a feeling, but feelings are temporary.  If love is a choice, then we can choose to love when we don’t feel like it.  Can happiness be the same thing, then?  If happiness is a feeling, and feelings are temporary, can I choose happiness as I’ve chosen love?

And that’s just what I did, and it’s what I believe my friend is doing now: choosing happiness.  When the world is collapsing around you, you can make happiness a choice, where despite what you are feeling now, choose to be happy regardless of your situation.

And how do we choose happiness when everything is disastrous?  For my friend, his family was stable, they were in good health, the relationship with his child was something to be celebrated, and they were all secure.  He found the steady anchors in his life from which he could draw, those deep wells of richness that buoyed him during the storm.  For me, I tried the same approach: my home was secure, my family loved me, I loved them back, and together we were able to laugh and have fun.  And with that as my anchor, it worked.

Yet for those who have much less than my friend and I have, where does one turn for happiness?  At the very LEAST, we can choose happiness through the joy of our salvation.  Isaiah 12:2-3 discusses the happiness that can be found in knowing that we are saved: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; He has become my salvation.  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  The thought that a better place patiently awaits us is a reason for us to choose happiness.  And the writer of Isaiah describes salvation as a well, with the idea that no matter how much we may draw water from it, it will always fill itself back up again to be drawn from in the future, the definition of a true and constant anchor.

And that is the nature of the knowledge of our salvation.  Despite the odds and circumstance stacked up against us, there is happiness to be chosen no matter where we are.  The firm nature and knowledge of our final resting place is the most certain anchor and reason for choosing happiness in our lives that we can possible have.  This week, find the happiness anchors in your life, things that are going well for you that you can hold onto and find happiness in.  And no matter what, remember that being saved is the one true constant in our lives, and no matter what, we can always choose happiness based on that solid fact.  By choosing happiness, we can truly and proactively overcome whatever comes our way.  Amen.

When A Lack of Context Confuses the Message

Out of context information can have unusual and hysterical consequences.  The internet is filled with movie quotes where, out of context, the result is both puzzling and funny.  Without knowing the circumstances of the moment, we can’t really understand the intent of the speaker or the impact of the words.

Once in a coffee shop, comedian Lewis Black overheard a woman in her mid-twenties explain to a friend that, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.”  Upon turning around to ask what was meant by that sentence, the pair was gone, and he was left to ponder the meaning of such a cryptic confession, forever.  Without the context, our understanding is minimal at best.

In some cases, taking information out of context can have tragic consequences, as evidenced in the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  Shortly beforehand, a Native American holy man started a “Ghost Dance,” a traditional ritual meant to cleanse the world of evil.  The movement continued and spread across the Western US tribes, but when word finally reached the ears of soldiers, it had been misinterpreted as a dance intended to eliminate the world of whites.  As a retaliation, the troops attacked and killed Sitting Bull and 146 other Indians.  Had those involved only looked to the origin and context of the dance’s intention, no one would have been hurt.

Scripture can also be mishandled and misused if taken out of context, especially when it is removed from the book in which it is written and interpreted to fit the speaker’s intention.  The book, and now television series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale” reveals the danger of this practice.  Set in the near dystopian future where fertility has sharply declined, women who have proven fertile are turned into handmaidens, forced to copulate with married men in an attempt to bring forth children for an established couple.  

To justify their practice, those in charge cite Jacob’s servant Bilhah, an obscure character from Genesis who conceived a child with Jacob because his wife Rachel was unable to bear children.  Quoting Genesis 30.3, “Here is Bilhah, my servant.  Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her,” they get the scripture right but ignore the context as to why Bilhah was given: the bitter rivalry that existed between Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel.  Where Leah was fruitful, Rachel was not bearing Jacob any children, so she set her husband up with her servant in an effort to keep pace with Leah and favor with her husband, not because God willed it.

Another moment shows a head disciplinarian correcting an out of line handmaid with the verse “Blessed are the meek,” the first half of Matthew 5.5.  As one who knows her scripture, the handmaiden quotes back the omitted second half of the verse: “for they will inherit the Earth.”  If we cut and paste scripture to our own designs, we can make it fit any and all agendas.  If we want truth, we must look at the entire portion of the text, understanding the full picture.

Out of context information is a half-truth, as it only contain half of the intended truth.  If only half of the truth is conveyed, is the other half made up of a lie?  The story of the Garden of Eden seems to suggest so.  When God tells them to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge because they will die, the serpent tells them that they won’t die, but will be like God instead, which is technically true.  They may not die immediately, but they will introduce themselves to death, and they will be like God in that they will know sin, just like God does (with the only difference being that God is incorruptible, but humans are not).  Through the serpent’s half-truth, half-lie, mankind fell.

Which is the way out of context, half-truths often work: evil gets a foothold.  When talking at the Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke and encouraged the crowd with the power of the whole truth: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”  (John 8. 31-2).  Christ lead them to listen to his teachings, and that through truth, not out of context information, they would find their freedom.  So, to fully understand the meaning of scripture, it is important to understand the full teaching.

We are quick to use scripture when it suits us, but when we pull it out of the larger picture, we misuse the verse and potentially abuse its intent.  For example, Matthew 7.1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” and we interpret the meaning to be that we should remain neutral and free of judgement, but upon inspection of the larger context, He is actually telling us that it is alright to judge others, but only when free from hypocrisy.  Matthew 18.20 says that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” which many interpret to mean that church is wherever Christians gather, but they would be wrong. Instead, the context is suggesting that when two or more Christians agree on a matter, Christ is also in agreement with them.  And Matthew 5.39 says that “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” which many suggest that when injured, we should offer up our other cheek for further injury.  However, the context instead suggests that when injured by evil, we should not retaliate but walk away instead, a very different response than what we often hear.

Context is key.  Without it, we open ourselves up to evil’s intent.  Instead of soundbites of scripture, know the message and story around it.  Don’t interpret without it, or your understanding is minimized and possibly wrong.  Get the whole picture, or risk losing the whole message.  Amen.

The Prickly Growth of Undiscovered Talents

It’s a funny thing when a cactus can invoke inspirational scripture.  One would usually expect just the opposite.  Yet, when my eyes fell upon it the other day, I was reminded of His words in Jeremiah 29.11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.’”

One summer, my family and I were walking along the street at our island shore house, when we came across a well-manicured home that had developed some stray growths of cacti in and around their front walkway, apart from the usual landscaping.  In the road, we found a round piece of that cactus that had been broken off from the main growth.  Around the size of a flat baseball, my son picked it up and announced that he wanted to bring it home and plant it.  Never the one to discourage him in his well-intentioned plans, we brought it home together, planted it in a pot, sat it on the windowsill, and excitedly anticipated its growth.

For the next two and a half years, I watched that cactus do absolutely nothing.  I waited for it to show some signs of life, but it grew neither in size nor stature.  Occasionally, I’d poke it, expecting it to be soft with interior rot, or wiggle it, thinking that it was rootless, but despite it’s lifelessness, it remained immobile either way.  We put it outside in the summer, exposed to the elements, expecting either growth or death to overtake it, but it looked exactly the same at the end of the season.  A few dozen times I almost threw it out, deeming this exercise a pointless endeavor, but I would then resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm or taking up any resources.  So, I left it, and eventually forgot about it.

It wasn’t until my son brought my attention to it, two and a half years later, that it meant anything to us.  That cactus that sat dormant for years, suddenly had a large growth coming off the top of it, and that growth was growing at an exponential rate.  Despite my doubts in the potential of that prickly plant, it was very much alive and thriving, now creating quite the spectacle for us.

It’s hard to assess the potential of a person or thing from the outside without taking a look as to what lies on the inside.  On the long-running science fiction British television show “Dr. Who,” the main character time-travels in a Tardis, a machine that resembles a typical London telephone booth.  Despite its outward appearance, the mechanics are much more complex when you step into it, as the running joke on the show is the line uttered by all who enter: “It’s bigger on the inside.”  And that sentiment really is true for measuring the scope of an individual’s potential, with us being bigger on the inside, capable of much more than we think we are.

The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25, shows how we are all capable of much more than what we might at first seem.  In the story, a wealthy man goes on a journey, and upon leaving, gives bags of gold to three of his servants, entrusting that they would each do something with them.  The first two doubled how much gold the master gave them, but the third took his gold, dug a hole, and buried it, so that when the master returned, he could give it back.  When the master finally did return, all three reported what they had done with their gold.  With the first two, he was delighted that they had worked with what he had given them.  With the third who buried it, the master was furious and whipped the servant.  Among the many points in Christ’s story, one is that we all have the ability to produce great things with the talents that we are given.  That the servant could have done something with his gold, but he chose to not explore the possibilities is the reason the master becomes so furious with him.  We all are created with the ability to affect great change in the world, but when some choose to do nothing, it is considered the greatest waste of human potential.

Now, some may say that they have nothing to really offer the world, but much like my cactus, the talent is most definitely there: it may just be hidden from view for a short while.  With a little exploration and close examination, we can find what it is you have to offer.  Brian Tracy, a Canadian-American motivational public speaker, was quoted as saying that, “The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”

Every year, I am asked what grade I would like to teach, and every year I choose juniors.  In addition to being able to experience the many milestones that come with that age group (driver’s license, first job, prom, etc.) one main reason I choose them is the maturity transition that comes at that age.  Up to this point, many of them are not self-actualized; they don’t have a grasp on who they are or what their potential is.  During this year, they suddenly start to realize what it is they can do, what their talents are, and how they fit in with the rest of the world.  I love being able to take them through that transition, showing each of them that they have tremendous worth and value in this world.

And that really is the transition that we all need to discover in ourselves.  We need to see the talents that lie within us, just waiting to burst out and make the world a little more wonderful.  Each of us has something inside that can make that worldly change, but like the first two servants, it’s up to us to do something with it.  This week, find time to be introspective, searching within yourself for that dormant talent that has the potential to make someone else’s life better, because with a little self-exploration and time, you’ll find that we really are bigger on the inside.  Amen.

Missing and Taking Our Chances

About five years ago, our area in New York was hit with a brutal snowstorm.  With gale force winds, we were pummeled by a foot and a half of snow, right in the middle of October.  Never in a million years did we imagine having to trick-or-treat through snow banks.  During that time, a majority of the area lost power, and entire neighborhoods were without electricity for a week and a half, with our family being a part of that chaos.  Being autumn, the temperature wasn’t too bad, but without power, we had no water (lousy well pump), no refrigeration, and no television or internet entertainment.  So, we found ourselves scrambling for dry ice, showering with seltzer water, and stocking up on flashlight batteries.  It was around that time that we decided we should own a generator.

During the electrical outage, we could hear these generators steadily vibrating at other people’s houses as the hum of our heart’s jealousy kept in harmony.  We searched everywhere for one to purchase, every Lowe’s and Home Depot, every online center, every hardware store within 500 miles, but nobody had one, because everybody wanted one.  We never ended up getting one during the outage, but two months later, we found one to purchase, well beyond when we really needed it.  It was a lot of money, too.  At the time, it seemed so silly to be plunking down so much cash for something that we didn’t and probably wouldn’t need in the foreseeable future.  Being a young couple in a new house, we didn’t have the money to spare.  Yet, we invested in the somewhat unimaginable future.

For five years, that generator sat there and gathered dust in the corner of my garage.  Each time I did laundry, I’d think about how much money I spent on something that seemed so useless.  Granted, it gave me peace of mind that if something should happen, I’d be set, but it seemed like buying insurance for a day that would never come.

Until it did.

A few weeks ago, we had four Nor’easters in our area, and one of them knocked out power in our town for days.  With freezing temperatures, we dusted off the generator, read the instructions (I’d never used it before, remember?), turned it on, plugged it in, and turned the house back on.  It was a glorious moment to see everything roar back to life despite our current situation.  I’d never been so happy to have bought that generator.  But the people who weren’t so happy were those that had gone through that first storm years ago and decided to do nothing in preparation for this storm.  And sure enough, getting a generator now was too little, too late, too few available.  They watched my house with that same jealousy I felt years ago, wishing they could go back and buy a generator when they should have, when they didn’t need it.  If only they could undo their actions and invest in an unforeseeable future.

It’s hard to live with the desire to go back and undo our past actions.  Thankfully, Google has a solution for that.  I discovered it a few years ago when I sent an email and realized I had horribly misspelled the recipient’s name.  I felt that that same feeling we all get when we accidently send a text meaning to say that someone is “the sweetest” but our phones autocorrect it to “the sweatiest.”  Google now has an option to undo any sent email message.  The way it works is that when you send your email, Google holds it for 30 seconds, so you get time to rethink your actions.  So many times, this function has come in handy, whether because of poor proofreading or unchecked emotion.  If only life had an undo button, where we could go back and change our actions because we weren’t aware of how much we needed to change something for the present.

For the rich man of Luke 16, having an undo button in his life is an understatement.  He lived lavishly, never being denied anything, while Lazarus, a beggar, ate when he could.  The rich man knew every comfort in life, whereas Lazarus knew not a single one.  When they both died, the rich man went to Hades and the beggar went to the right hand of Abraham.  The rich man begged for relief from his agony as he was being tortured forever.  “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (16.25-6).

If only the rich man could “undo” the actions in his life that led him to this unreturnable point, and he could take back all of the poor investments he made when he was alive.  Had he invested in a future that was hidden to him, he would have ended up in a better position, but since there is no “undo” button in the afterworld, he was forced to accept his fate.

It’s hard to plan for a time that is hidden from us.  Making an investment in an unforeseeable future seems futile and pointless at the time, but had Noah listened to the advice and laughter of his neighbors, he and his family would never have survived the flood.  Since life doesn’t come with an undo button, we need to plan in faith for future consequences, ensuring that we are well-prepared for when the worst, or the best, comes.  In that way, when the end comes for us all, we cannot claim ignorance or a lack of time, as we had the knowledge and the resources to prepare.  This week, despite all that may be going your way, prepare yourself for when change might come.  Assess your situation and evaluate just how prepared you are, as like the rich man, there is no chance to undo your circumstances and take back the poor investments you’ve made.  Instead, invest in a future with wisdom and preparedness.  Amen.

A Dignified Look at Our Failing Reality

We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town.  You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes.  Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills.  Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate.  Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly.  I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse.  It was then that it began to dawn on me:  getting old sucks.

I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar.  My body is just not able to handle what it used to.  And I know that I’m not alone.  I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury.  Whether it was the one guy who, right before jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.

I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age.  At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life.  It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet.  I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire.  With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, instead flailing wildly to upright herself.  She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings.  In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on.  To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month.  Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.

Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity.  I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.

Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out is quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is our bodies are not built to last long or endure much.  We are born to die.

The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind.  In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.

Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog.  What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity.  Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live.  Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life.  Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.”  Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.

There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in ourselves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful request for humility regarding our humanity.  There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech.  It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh.  This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward.  Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live.  Develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  Amen.

Doggie Needs and Bicycle Wishes

I know I’ve written about it before, so I’ll make my mention of it here brief: in the town I grew up in, twice a year was dubbed “clean-up week” where people put everything and anything at the curb.  My father educated me in the ways of being the careful garbage picker, a badge I proudly wear even to this very day.  (Really.  I just picked up a lovely Bombay desk set earlier this afternoon.)  Additionally, I love building and creating things.  So, when I was under the age of 13 and living at home, and being the educated youth that I was, I would scavenge piles of refuse for bike parts to build an entire bike.

A pedal here, a rim there, a wheel fork over there, and a seat post the next block over, I would search for various bicycle parts in an attempt to build an entire bike from all of them.  Like a mad scientist drunk on his own power, I created life, and from the ashes of garbage arose a Frankenstein bike, forged in my backyard.  Believe it or not, it would actually work, and I could sell it for a small fee at my annual garage sale, but it was done for more than just the money.  It was that I was able to take next to nothing and create something from it.  Everything I needed, I had laying around me: I just had to take hold of it and use it.

Like a modern-day MacGyver (a show whose main message, apparently, is that we have all the resources we need around us, and that we just need to learn to draw upon them in order to succeed), I was using the materials available to me to accomplish want I wanted.  God’s word sends a similar message, as seen in Philippians 4.  In writing to the church, Paul lets them know that they have always been there for him whenever he needed them.  Even when no one was reaching out to help him, the church of Philippi could always be counted upon.  In return, Paul reassures the church that just the same way they met all of his needs, “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (4.19).  This message suggests that whatever it is we need in life, God provides it for us, as He knows what it is we need.

Now, there are several circumstantial lenses in which to examine this verse.  The first is the most obvious: times of trouble.  The implication is that when you are in trouble, God will always provide whatever it is you need in that time of difficulty.  If we are Christ’s children and He is our father, then He will provide for us according to our needs, and we can rely on Him for provision.  So, we can always count on Him when times are tough; He is the hope that will carry us through those times.  Invoke His promises and repeat them often, and you will find comfort as well as resources.  It might not be what you expect, but it will be what you need.

The second lens is just that, times of need (which is different than times of trouble).  In times of need, times might be tough, but they don’t count as trouble.  For example, I have an elderly dog who just turned sixteen.  She is fairly blind, deaf, arthritic, and shows sign of dementia.  The way our house is set up, our dog door empties out onto our deck, and the dogs go down three stairs to use the yard.  Over the winter, our old dog decided she didn’t want to use the stairs anymore and stuck to the deck, which was fine, as it was then snow covered.  However, now that the snow is melting, we don’t want her going to the bathroom on the hardwood.  So, we decided that we needed a ramp for the stairs.

Without much money for materials (not to mention a severe lack in carpentry skills), I racked my brain as to how to accomplish this feat of construction.  It needed to be long enough and sturdy enough, thus just putting a piece of plywood down wouldn’t cut it.  Little did I know, that this time of need would be supplied by God.  I just had to open my eyes and look around me, as God had already given me everything I needed.  Soon, I noticed that a climbing ramp to my son’s jungle gym, if turned upside down, would provide the perfect ramp.  It was here all along.  With a few twists of a screw driver, it was in place, and I didn’t need to buy or build anything.  Much like my bike parts, everything I needed was right around me.  I just needed to put it all to good use.

When we find ourselves in trouble or need, we can trust that God will provide for us, as He promises that He will.  However, we have to remember that the way we view our needs and the way God views them may differ.  It’s very easy to look at our respective situations and think that God has forgotten about us, as He doesn’t seem to be providing.  However, there are two possibilities that exist in this scenario.  Maybe, like the dog ramp, it’s there right in front of us, and we just don’t see it the way God sees it.  Or maybe, if what we think we need is nowhere to be found, then it’s not what we truly need.

This week, as you look at your difficulties and troubles, first reassure yourself that He will provide.  Then, try to see the situation not through our human eyes but through His kind, loving, empathetic, ethereal eyes.  See your situation through Him and seek your answers in a different way.  You may be looking for the wrong thing, or you may have your resources right in front of you.  Either way, through Him, you will overcome.  Amen.

Regret: The Greatest Motivator

I often ask my high school students, that if they could give words of wisdom to younger people, what would they tell them?  Most have the same sentiment behind them, with messages of “be true to yourself” and “try your hardest,” but one that more frequently comes up, one that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept behind, is the idea to “live with no regrets.”

Our youth culture seems to have adopted the idea that you should never regret anything you do, which is how my students misinterpret this statement.  The idea that this concept is truly ushering in is that instead, we should make the correct decisions in life, not ones that we will be sorry for in the future.  Regret can be the most horrible of feelings to live with, as it is connected to actions of the past, which are of course, unchangeable.  Thus, regret means we live the rest of our life wishing we had approached a situation differently, unable to change the outcome of something that happened so long ago.

In my own life, I have two or three major regrets when I was in college. Of them, the biggest, the one worth mentioning, is that I wish I had spent a semester abroad in another country.  I know many people who did, and they all had an amazingly memorable time.  My wife went to Mexico and lived with a host family, immersing herself in the Spanish-language culture.  My brother went to Belgium and worked with the world’s greatest cooks and chefs.  With great jealousy, I’ve listened to my former students discuss their experiences in France, Spain, and Germany, and about how they soaked up every bit of art, music, theater and literature of the place, while I can only reminisce about my days in my dormitory.

It is said that we more often regret the things that we don’t do rather than the things that we ultimately do.  To look back at lost opportunities is to live in a cycle of hellish present-day torture, one with seemingly no end to it.  To repeatedly hear the words in our mind, that we should have done x, y, and z when we had the chance, is to be filled with despair and helplessness at the missed situation that presented itself, the one we never took the chance to experience.

Regret is also not regulated to any group or individual; all are susceptible.  Even the apostle Peter experienced it while Christ was being arrested, tortured, and headed for crucifixion on the cross.  Jesus had previously mentioned to him that he would deny Christ three times, a suggestion at which Peter balked.  Yet, when the time came to admit knowing Him, Peter denied Christ on all three occasions: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’  And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61-2).  This failure would haunt him for the remainder of his life, that he had the chance to publicly acknowledge Christ to a group of people who were rejecting Him, and he blew it.

But how do we know for sure that it haunted him?  The answer lies in the actions that Peter put on display for the remainder of his life.

Although regret is a tremendously devastating feeling, it can also be one of the greatest motivators, pushing us to live differently.  It can fundamentally change our course of action for the rest of our life, as we know that we missed out on something and never want that feeling to come ever again.  For myself, I missed out on the chance to travel abroad and experience a different culture when I was in college.  However, even though I still feel that regret, I have learned to transform my feeling of regret into a motivator for my future actions.  As such, I now travel as much as I possibly can whenever I get the chance to.  Each summer is spent in a different country, and I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different cultures, more than I would have had I never regretted that initial decision in college.  Similarly, Peter went from regretfully denying Christ three times to being one of the most outspoken apostles for Christ, the one on whom the church was built, the one who preached to enormous amounts of people following Christ’s death, regardless of the consequences.  Because Peter had denied knowing Him and felt that regret, he decided to transform that regret into action and never deny Him again, preaching His name whenever and wherever who could.

The philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was quoted as saying, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.  To regret deeply is to live afresh.”  The issue is not having regrets; it’s what we do with those regrets that matter most.  The deeper the regret, the deeper the change in our lives there can be.  If we learn to dismiss our regrets or try to live without any regrets, we are not really living but are just learning to be numb to life, accepting an existence with no impact on others or ourselves.

So, don’t dismiss your regrets or try to fix them: embrace them.  Like pain, regret is a sign that something is wrong and in need of attention.  Addressing your regrets doesn’t mean they will go away.  In fact, it’s better if they don’t, because they will now be a daily reminder to live stronger and bolder as a result of them.  Then, learn to transform them into actions that steer your life on a different course, one that doesn’t get rid of your regrets but instead course corrects your life into amazing opportunities, thus being motivated to truly live.  Amen.

The Ferocious Grace of the Protective Parent

I once heard someone say that he didn’t think he was ever capable of murder until he had children and learned otherwise.  At first, I misunderstood this person’s concept, thinking that he was referring to the idea that children can really drive a person insane to the point of wanting to remove them from this earth.  God knows every parent has felt that way at one time or several.  However, what that person was actually expressing was that he never thought himself able to actually kill someone until he felt the protective nature of being a parent.  I then understood and now agree: if anyone ever did anything to my child, I would most likely murder them in cold blood.

Now, I write that previous sentence with a slight bit of humor and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but there is a great amount of truth to it in the sense that being the parent and protector of someone, you really feel that there is no end to the amount of protection you would provide.  When you become a parent, you don’t really realize the protective nature that is suddenly invoked within you until someone crosses your child’s path.  I’ve heard hypothetical stories in debates about the death penalty, and the argument of “well, if someone did something to your child…,” and I have always considered the high road of what was allowable morally, and how God’s law doesn’t permit murder, etc.  However, everything changes when you become a parent, because your love for them is no longer driven and garnered by reason and logic but instead by pure animal nature.  Someone does something to them, mama (or papa) bear instincts kick in, and that person better watch out.

I especially felt it kick in once when my son came home one day with a prize that he had earned in class for having repeatedly excellent behavior.  He went into the prize box and took an item of his choosing as a reward, and when he returned to his desk with it, he was met with a number of jealous glances from his classmates.  Later that day, he confessed to my wife and I that one of his male classmates was so jealous of this prize, that he told my son that he was going to come to his house at night and kill him in his sleep.  Being in 4th grade, the likelihood of that actually happening was somewhat minimal at best, so we weren’t so concerned with an impending homicide, but we were upset about the fear that was now instilled in my son.

Through gritted teeth, I attempted to calm my child, letting him know that he had done the right thing in telling us, and that we would work to rectify the situation, but on the inside, I wanted to go out and break that other 4th graders legs.  My instinct to protect my son and destroy anything that was hurting him was so fierce, that I seriously considered hobbling someone one-fourth my age.

My father used to always tell me that, “no one will ever love you like your mother,” a phrase I repeat to my own son often.  The concept there is that whoever my son’s mate ends up being in life, no one will feel as protective or willing to suffer for you as much as the people who raised you.  I can remember my mother, when I was sick, wishing that it was her instead of me who had fallen ill.  I see that now in myself, when I spy my son sick or in pain, that my desire to not have him suffer is so great, I wish I could take his suffering upon myself.

And if our desire to take on the suffering of our children is that great, one can only imagine God’s desire to care and relieve our suffering, as we are His children, a title that we have been given.  Repeatedly, we are proclaimed as such: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!” (1 John 3.1).  Based in love, we are His children just as He is our Father, and given the protective parental nature we feel, His protective nature must be eons more strong and caring.

Just how caring?  To the point that our identity is no longer our own and we are named heirs to His kingdom in the same way that our blood-related children are heirs to our own homes and money.  The author of Galatians 3.26-9 writes about how we are now one in Him and are inheritors of His riches: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  We are so much His child that we are deemed the offspring of Abraham, as if we were of His actual blood and flesh.  So if we are truly children of God, then the desire as Father to protect us and take on our suffering makes sense, and is evidenced in how He sent Christ to suffer for us.

We might be able to only fathom God’s love and protective nature for us, but we can get a glimpse of it in the love that our parents have for us and in the love we have for our own children.  It’s a comforting feeling knowing that we are never alone, that there is always someone watching over us, desiring us to be pain-free and protected.  This week, when you find yourself feeling low and alone, pray to Him who desires to comfort you in those difficult times, and feel the loving, watchful eye that looks over you and is preparing your inheritance even as we speak.  Amen.