Slippery Happiness, Unfaltering Joy

This summer, our family made the investment of season passes at our local water slide park.  Unfortunately, so did many other families.  On particularly warm days, we’ve ventured over only to find the place filled with people to the point where each slide has excruciatingly long waits.  Even hiking over to each ride is a task, as the crowds fill up the walkways and movement is at a minimum.  However, for those moments when we finally get to go on the slides, the rides themselves are a blast.  Our excitement blows through the roof as we scream all the way down into a refreshingly icy pool, cooling us off from the oppressive summer heat.  It’s in those moments that we find our happiness, but that feeling only lasts until we hit the next line or swimmer-clogged footpath.  It’s really a mystery as to why we subject ourselves to such temporary happiness there.  When it comes to happiness, we’ve seen how temporary it can be, but we forget that it’s also highly circumstantial.  Happiness usually depends upon who we are with, where we are, and what we are doing.  In our culture, we too often confuse happiness for joy, thinking that they are synonymous (as most dictionaries would have us believe).  However, the two are vastly different, as joy can be experienced anywhere and in any circumstance.  Our society too often encourages us in a “pursuit of happiness” or to not worry but instead be happy, but what both of these approaches encourage is a temporary feeling that cannot be created, but only found, chased down, and held onto for a brief time.  Also, happiness is a passive response to circumstance, so how can it even be actively pursued?  We are so obsessed with pursuing happiness, as it’s the best that this earth has to offer us.  Through the eyes of this world, happiness seems so attractive, but the better alternative is joy, which is not of this earth.  Joy can be achieved despite our circumstances, and can remain well past any temporary happiness that we might find.  Joy is something that is not only active, but also expected of us, as seen in Philippians 4.4 (NLT): “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!”  In this verse, God commands us to be joyful as an act of our will, that we need to choose joy.  In fact, as Christians, we have an obligation and responsibility to be joyful, despite our circumstances, whether they be wonderful or difficult times.  Happiness during hardship is not expected or even possible, but joy during those times is.  Like the happiness I experience at the water park, it is regulated to those fleeting moments of frictionless sliding, but no matter what the situation or crowd, my real joy comes from my active relationship with my family.  No matter the size of the line or crowd, choosing joy by being with my family is more fulfilling, even if we never make it on a slide. Now, most of us seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of joy, as we don’t know from where it comes and or how to invoke it as a function of our own will.  To receive joy, we first need to set the goals of our minds and efforts away from happiness and reconfigure them towards joy.  Then, we need to actively seek joy by following His commands.  As seen throughout the Bible (and especially in Job), joy comes as a result of God’s grace when we seek Him and follow His commands.  The more we follow, the more joy we receive, and the more joy we receive, the more we want to follow.  Through this cyclical relationship, our need, desire, and fruitless drive for happiness will decrease, and our hearts and minds will reset, filling our lives with heavenly joy.  Amen.

Imbalanced Animalistic Decision-making

Being a dog owner now for fifteen years, and having owned four during that time, I pride myself on not necessarily being a dog expert, but at least knowing more than the casual dog owner.  For example, I can discern the different woofs that my dogs make at the window during the day, understanding the subtle differences between barks for a stranger, barks for a friend, and barks for a squirrel.  Additionally, I noticed that, for the most part, dogs (and most likely just about all other animals) lack an ability to make an informed decision regarding any issue in their lives.  For example, it’s early morning when the entire house is still asleep, and one of my dogs decides to not only start scratching his ear, but also to do so in a fashion where his foot violently and loudly hits the floor right in front of my son’s open bedroom door.  I pop my head up from my pillow and shout his name, and the look he gives me reveals that he has no idea what the ramifications of his actions are, and wonders what my problem is.  Another example is when one of my other dogs decides to lay down on the hardwood floor, she doesn’t gently ease herself down.  Instead, she throws herself head first, making an enormous “thunk” as head and wood meet, an action that most likely causes immense pain and headaches.  She probably wonders why her head hurts every time she decides to lay down.  Many might argue that what separates us from the animals is opposable thumbs, the ability to use utensils, or the desire to use the bathroom privately.  I suggest that what separates us is discernment and the ability to consider consequences.  Often times, when faced with decisions, we tend to weigh what factors should be considered, what might happen as a result, what past practice has shown, etc.  We develop an informed decision, a skill that I can only assume is God-given as the Bible is rife with examples of everyday individuals faced with difficult decisions (Abraham and Isaac, Solomon, Moses), who very carefully come up with a solution that is both wise and adhering to God’s plan.  Since we are imbued with this ability, God must have a plan for us to use it properly.  Philippians 1.9-10 reveals that plan: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”  As suggested by this verse, our decision-making process should be rooted in love, knowledge, and insight (what we feel, what we know, and what we believe) so that we may choose that which brings us closer to Him.  So if the process is so clear, what ends up clouding our judgement?  Perhaps it’s found in a lack of balance between these three factors, love, insight, and belief.  Our emotions might get in the way of seeing the truth.  Or maybe something we believe drives us more than what we know for sure.  Or perhaps what we know makes us doubt our beliefs.  What causes the imbalance in these three is our sinful nature, the idea that our human flesh influences one more than the other two.  The only way to escape this imbalance during a time of decision-making is to withdraw from this world, seek Him in prayer and meditation, and allow God to speak to you regarding what the answer is.  This way, you have decreased and possibly eliminated the pull that the flesh has over these three areas, thus giving you sound judgement.  If we seek Him during this time, we can then raise ourselves above this world, putting to rest our animal instincts.  Amen.

The Length and Breadth of God’s Love in Hopeless Times

Summer vacations are traditionally used to spend time to relax and unwind, and don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent plenty of time doing that this summer.  However, as a family, we also like to spend our vacations learning something new, educating ourselves in some manner in our travels.  So this year, among the excitement and fun of travelling into New York City, I took a trip to the Twin Towers Memorial, the site of a national tragedy where thousands of lives were lost.  I watched as individuals traced their fingers over the names of the deceased, visitors gazed deeply into the fountains that poured into the ground where the towers once stood, and people reflected and wept.  We often ask why tragedy occurs in life, and many often end up blaming God for either causing such horrors to happen or allowing them to.  The truth is, we don’t really know God’s overall plan, and only He can explain such tragedies.  However, what we often miss is not why these events happen, but where God is during these times.   As David of Psalm 23 was being persecuted by his oppressors, he didn’t question why, but instead looked to God for security: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (23.4).  David knew that no matter what happened to him, God was with Him and that there was an end to this valley.  What I observed with these people in New York was that despite the pain, the hurt, and the emotion, God was there with them all.  He was with them in their darkest hour and He was going to stay with them throughout their suffering.  Similarly, on a trip to Hawaii, I took a day trip to Pearl Harbor, and found the situation to be quite similar there.  Another national tragedy where thousands of lives were lost, we visited the bombed area and the memorial that floats above the USS Missouri, a visible ship that sunk with hundreds of sailors on board.  As the oil still wept to the surface from the ship below, I discovered a deep and reverent silence around me.  Visitors took this trip as an opportunity for reflection and deep introspection on life, God, and man.  Tears were shed as the loss of life was contemplated.  There, too, God was present years after this tragedy had happened.  Clearly, God had filled these two places with His presence and stayed to comfort these people.  What might have been just another harbor or financial district, was now a place where God was contemplated and sought out, creating a place for God’s comfort.  Even though we don’t understand the why of tragedy, we can still see how God is made perfect in it.  What also struck me was how hurt can last so long.  Thankfully, when tragedy happens, God remains there until the last person is done hurting: that’s His promise to us.  He doesn’t abandon us but instead uses tragedy to draw us closer to Him, and He’s willing to stay until the very end of hurting, whether it be fifteen years, seventy-five years, or a million years.  At Pearl Harbor, we ran into a ninety-nine-year-old survivor who, despite experiencing this tragedy, joyously smiled as he met so many new people.  His shining example of healing displayed not only God’s willingness to stay with us forever, but also how His ability to take us back from the furthest edge of pain and hopelessness eclipses anything this world can throw at us.  Right now, if you are going through something awful, it may seem bleak, hopeless, and never-ending, but know that not only will it get better, but God will stay at your side and guide you through this time even until the end of time.  Amen.

Making Big Issues with Little Things

As a high school teacher, whenever I see a crowd of people quickly gathering at a common location in the hallway, it’s never for a good reason.  Usually, tempers are heating up, and someone is about to fight.  I heard the yelling and the excitement, ran to the center of the group, and found two boys in each other’s faces.  It had been a stressful week for the whole school, and we had been trying to patch up the community after some recent disturbing events, so it didn’t come as a surprise that people were on edge.  I got one of the boys aside, while another teacher got the other, and he tried to explain to me what was happening and what the misunderstanding was.  I told him that it didn’t matter who said what or who was at fault; we are all going through a lot right now, and we need to just be patient and understanding.  It was more important as a community for us to heal, be whole, and focus on the bigger picture of our school.  He agreed, regrouped, and moved onward.  I can remember a similar message being spoken to me when my brother and I would fight in the back seat of the car on long car trips.  It didn’t matter who’s doing what: you’re brothers.  Just get along.  Sometimes, we focus too much on the pettiness of life and lose sight of the bigger picture.  However, I think we can all agree that life is too short to be overwhelmed by unimportance and to not sweat the small stuff.  In Philippians 4.2-3, Paul had a similar message to two women in the church who were having a conflict: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  Paul is so concerned with this argument, that he calls these two women out by name in an open letter to the church, pleading with them to reconcile.  The matter of their disagreement is never mentioned, as Paul feels that it’s not even worth mentioning because it detracts from the larger issue and isn’t worth it.  Paul isn’t concerned with who said what first, whose fault it is, or who is continuing it.  His message: refocus and just get along.  Paul knew that the church and God were too great to be brought down by squabbling over the smaller, petty, selfish issues.  He could see what lay ahead for them and the church, and knew that this misdirection of energy was taking away from their purpose.  I was very saddened to learn that about a year or two ago, several people in the congregation I attend got into an argument over a doctrine of the church.  Apparently, words were said, disagreements were established, and lines were drawn.  As such, our church lost several members who decided to attend another church because of this issue.  If we are to heed Paul’s advice, it doesn’t matter who’s at fault, who said what, or who started it.  Our church and its people are too precious to be hung up on such a small issue (and everything is small compared to God’s plan).  For an argument to exist to the point that people leave indicates selfishness, a focus on pettiness, and a shift from the bigger picture.  As Christians, we need to focus on the bigger picture of Heaven and salvation and unite over that vision.  This week, find that person with whom you’ve been in conflict, remind yourself of the bigger picture, and just get along.  Amen.

Lacking Sight, Lacking Prejudice

Growing up, when my father was driving, I sometimes needed to let him know that the traffic light was changing.  It not that he wasn’t paying attention when driving.  He is partially colorblind and was unable to see a lot of yellows and oranges.  I can remember writing messages in yellow crayon and showing them to him, with him being unable to read them.  I found it astounding that he was unable to see colors that I could so clearly make out.  In fact, he most likely didn’t even know what the colors yellow and orange looked like, or at least what they looked like to me.  I can’t imagine looking at a sunset and not being able to differentiate the nuanced hues and dazzling deep colors that so pervade the horizon.  And his case is minor, as there are many who see no colors at all.  Looking at the world and not being able to know what the colors red or blue look like seems like a tremendous loss, but wouldn’t a little colorblindness in our society be a good thing, especially recently with all of the racial complication we face as a country?  God is often described as being colorblind, that he sees us not as black, white, whatever, but all as one people.  Galatians 3.28 says that God sees us not for our physical characteristics, gender, status, or individual beliefs, but instead for one characteristic only:  saved and not saved. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  For all the petty differences that we use to separate ourselves from each other, God is colorblind to those issues.  This past weekend, I attended a truly unique event in Central Park.  Someone created a Facebook group inviting whoever wanted to come, to a giant water gun fight.  The date and time and a couple of simple rules (don’t squirt people with cameras, no water balloons because of pollution) were the only items on the page.  Approximately six thousand people responded to the invitation, including myself and my son.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what we found was a great example for us:  thousands of people from all walks of life, giggling and squirting each other with water.  It didn’t matter who you were, what your age was, status, or personal beliefs: we were all there just to have fun, and no one was singled out or differentiated against.  If you were holding a water gun, it was a license to participate and get soaked.  We squirted men, women, small children, senior citizens, gay couples, straight couples, people who looked as if they were in gangs, people from all cultures and countries, a man in a wheelchair, everyone.  No one cared about color, lifestyle, ability, gender, or age.  No one was afraid or biased, and everyone laughed, squirted back, and had a great time.  Everyone was equal in that field.  It was a perfect world for that hour and a half, where we were all focused on one goal and colorblind to our differences.  I imagine that the kingdom of Heaven is very much like that field, where everyone is having fun and no one sees any differences between anyone else.  As Christians, our job is to give this earth a glimpse as to what awaits everyone in Heaven, as we should treat each other with colorblind eyes.  This week, avoid getting hung up on the differences that exist between one another and see each other for the sole difference of being saved or not.  Your sightlessness will create a stronger vision.  Amen.