How much we impact others is always difficult to measure. Mark Twain once quipped that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.” There are people I can remember from twenty years ago that I only met once, yet there was that one thing they said that sticks out in my mind, words that left an impression on me, and they probably don’t even remember the conversation. When my seniors graduate, I give them five piece of advice to help them in their life. Of the five, one is “People remember the smallest things, and for them that may be the most significant thing.” I use it as a means to show how our impact is often larger than we think it is, how the smallest action or word can stick with a person for a lifetime, despite how insignificant you might think it is. For example, I can remember one church youth group member of mine who, when I asked him why he decided to come to youth group for the last year, told me that it was because the first time he came, I said hello to him. I couldn’t believe that such a small gesture, one I didn’t even remember, could make such an impact, but it was that feeling of acknowledgement that compelled him to stay. Similarly, I recently reached out to two people I knew were going through a rough time, people I don’t usually talk to who crossed my mind, just to let them know that I was thinking about them. I thought I’d take the chance with what I deemed a small gesture. However, the response went on and on about how much it meant to them, that someone was thinking about them. I later learned that there was very little keeping one of these two in the world, and my call may have been the only thing that kept him in this world a little longer. Here, acknowledgement translated to encouragement. Lifting each other up as Christians is a direct command from the Bible, as 1 Thessalonians 5.11 writes: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” This directive indicates a need among us to continuously do so, to be compassionate, to empathize, and to encourage. I knew what it felt like when it feels as if no one cares, hence I made that call to help them feel a little less alone. It took thirty seconds, yet those seconds of acknowledgement matter in years to those people. There are countless numbers of people who walk around us thinking that no one cares about them, that most wouldn’t notice if they were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth. As Christians, we have the obligation and the power to reach out to those who feel that way, and most often all it takes is an acknowledgement. When I see my students grappling with difficult times, just asking if they are okay is often times enough to help them feel better. They usually don’t even share what they are going through, but just the knowledge that someone noticed is often times enough for them. God is revealing these people in need to us, sometimes right in front of us and other times in the form of a passing thought. Our job is to act, letting these people know that we noticed them and that they matter. This week, when someone crosses your mind or path, take it as a sign to reach out and let that person know that you noticed and were thinking about him or her. It may be just the message that keeps them going. Amen.
My students are quite the reflective group and love to explore their lives in writing and discussion, so I started them journaling as a means of personal exploration. However, instead of just giving them the task of daily reflection, I give them daily prompts like writing about “a time when you said something that you regretted saying afterwards” or about “a fear you conquered and how.” This time, I asked them to list ten things for which they are grateful. It seemed too elementary, and some even groaned, but I had a plan. The next day, when reviewing our lists, I mentioned that too often we focus only on what is wrong in our life and not on what is right. We look at the problems and not the blessings and how it’s important to anchor our lives back to the things that are wonderful to have. I discussed my son who, in Tae Kwon Do, does meditations every day and repeats out loud how he is grateful for his family, health, and home. Then, we each list two things for which we are grateful. It seems a meaningless task, because the practice seems so forced, but I was surprised as to how it changes our focus. When he meditates in class, his teacher asks the kids how many of them got up this morning, how many ate something, and how many can talk and hear. He tells them about how there are many kids who can’t do those things, and the things for which we should be grateful are often times taken for granted. In class, I then showed my students the short film “Chau, Beyond the Lines” (Netflix) about a Vietnamese teenager whose mother drank water tinged with Agent Orange, and he was then born with physical deformities. He lives in an orphanage with other children in similar situations, where many of them lack arms, legs, and body muscle. Chau just wants to be an artist, so he competes, but all the contests are timed, and what takes most kids 30 minutes takes him several hours. Even though he learns to hold the brush with his mouth, he still never wins. Lacking any strong muscles in his arms and legs, he struggles to get around and live what he calls a “normal” life, but by the end of the film, he manages to not only sell his artwork regularly, but to sustain an apartment on his own with that money. And what is most notable is his attitude: although he struggles with even the simplest tasks, his radiant smile and sincere words reflect how he is grateful for so much in life. He focuses on what is good in his life and refuses to be dragged down by what he cannot do. In our lives, we hang our heads, miserable in our lives, ruminating on the negative details that pervade our existence, forgetting to anchor ourselves in our blessings despite being surrounded by them. Thessalonians 3:18 tells us to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” We tend to focus instead on what we don’t have and can’t do. We have been blessed with so much in our lives and we take so much of it for granted. Looking at Chau, we realize just how lucky we are, yet he considers himself lucky for what he can do. If we spend time remembering our blessings, despite our situation, the focus on the things we lack fall to the wayside. This week, develop a routine of focusing on what God has done for your life. Anchor yourself in your blessings and refuse to be mired in misery. Amen.
“It’s good to know that I’m not alone,” were words that I had heard a few different ways from a few different people this week. The sentiment of it is true: as we live our lives, we like to know that we are not the only ones who are going through the thing in which we are going through. This week, I worked with a student who was struggling with severe depression and unhealthy thoughts, and after a series of worrisome events, I had to approach him and his mother, recommending that he get professional and immediate help. As the words were leaving my mouth, I could see him tensing up at the thought of the unknown. To calm him down, I told him that he was not the first to be sitting in this position with me, and that he wasn’t going through anything that others hadn’t already done before him. The counselor present told him that in fact there was a large population in the school who had experienced a similar situation to him, to which a look of relief washed over his face. The thought of going through the next few steps of his treatment was absolutely frightening to him, but to know that there were others who had gone through it and come out the other end alright was very comforting. When we suffer, we often times feel as if there is something wrong with us as individuals because we think we are the only ones experiencing this issue: we feel completely isolated from everyone, thinking that we are the only ones who feel this way. There is one bit of advice that I make sure to give my students year after year, advice that I wish someone had told me when I was younger: whatever it is you are going through, whatever you are experiencing, whatever it is that you are suffering with, you are not alone. Everyone else seems to have it together, yet on the inside we are an absolute mess. What I didn’t know then that I know now is that everyone is feeling that way on the inside: some are just better at hiding it than others. My students lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking that they are alone in their struggle to be thin, popular, smart, athletic, whatever, or that they are the only ones who feel alone, depressed, ridiculed, ashamed, or invalidated. But what they are going through is what people go through every day before them and after them, and at all ages. Ecclesiastes 1.9 states that: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Everything that life throws at us has already been thrown at others. There is nothing that is happening that hasn’t happened already, and a lot of it already happened to Christ when he walked the Earth. God knows what you are going through because it isn’t anything that others haven’t already gone through before you. So what does it mean if others have suffered similarly to you? It means that others, and God, understand and sympathize with your struggles. It means that when you struggle, God feels what you feel and is looking down on you with the knowledge of what it is like for you. It also means that there is hope, as many have made it through these struggles. This week, as you struggle, know that you are not alone. Know that what you are dealing with is nothing new, and that Christ suffers with you because He understands what you are going through. You are not alone. Amen.
“Can you smell that?” This question came up yesterday when someone who had never been at my home before sensed an odor outside my house that didn’t quite smell like it belonged there. Despite my protests and denials, and after some investigation, we discovered that there was indeed a leak to my sewer system just down the hill from my house. I hadn’t noticed it before that moment, but since he pointed it out, I can’t help but notice it now: it’s inescapable. I was amazed that such an obvious smell hadn’t been detected sooner, but the fact is that I didn’t notice because it had started out so small and grown by such small increments. The slow but significant growth over time that developed into an overwhelming power was not noticed because not only was I so accustomed to it but also because it had crept up on me. There are certain elements in life that we just become accustomed to because they are always there in the background. Much like the idea of background noise, we never really notice them until they’re pointed out to us. Sometimes these items become background noise not because of their incremental growth but because we’ve grown so used to them being there that they effortlessly float into the background of our lives. At Christmas time, we get so used to the Christmas decorations that invade our house and become so used to them being there, that they become everyday items to the point of invisibility. And just when we think we’ve put them all away, it is suddenly mid-March when a missed decoration is pointed out to us by a visitor. We can’t believe we didn’t notice it before then: we’d just grown so used to it that it becomes invisible. Another’s perspective can often shed new light on our situation. A second set of eyes can be helpful in seeing what is so obvious to many but so imperceptible to us. We tend to inadvertently overlook things in our lives that may be causing us harm, and our good intentions can be easily foiled by unnoticed sin. How can we notice the unnoticeable, perceive the imperceptible? The author of Proverbs 19.20 suggests: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” Opening up our lives to not only God but also to our fellow brothers and sisters invites counsel and good advice, helping to find those areas that we wouldn’t have noticed on our own. Asking for a keen eye on your life choices can guide you towards a closer walk with Him. We may be in desperate need of help and not even know it, but with close fellowship, we can find those background items before they overwhelm us. With close communion with others, we can lovingly find out what others so plainly see. In isolation, without the counsel of others, it can be a slippery slope of undetectable wandering. When enough frustration grows in our lives, we become ever-increasingly impatient, and unaware to our perception, a streak of anger takes hold of us. Addiction starts out small, and we think we can quit at any time, but before we know that it’s happening, that addiction controls us. Small compromises in our Christian walk grow to larger gaps we don’t notice. With the help of a close friend’s counsel, we can see the things that have taken more than a foothold in our lives when we ourselves don’t see them, and we can then work towards correcting them. Fellowship seeks in love what we can miss in ignorance. Amen.