Putting the Human in Humanity

As I was overhearing two people having a not-quite heated but not-quite agreeable discussion about our current president in my classroom, it was clear that even though they were not seeing eye to eye, they seemed at least open to listening to what the other was saying.  Finally, in a moment of exasperation, the non-Trump supporter explained, “I don’t understand why.  Help me to understand.” Instantly, the sentiment reverberated in the room, as everyone listening suddenly realized what we were sorely lacking: empathy.  It was a moment of clarity for that person and for all those around, as they realized that we are living in a time period where understanding is needed more so than convincing, but most are not living that way.  

Ever since that moment, I’ve been trying to get a hold of where the nation and our individual situations are headed.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, a fact that I easily admit to not as anything else other than a fact.  I merely did not agree with his views and policies and felt that he did not accurately represent me.  So, during the election process, I found my default to be one of quick judgment of him and his supporters, and since they disagreed with me, it must be their mental shortcoming.  In fact, most of the country seemed to be defaulting to that approach, which may explain why we are now so divided.  The fact is, judging and dismissing is easier than trying to understand the opposing viewpoint.  Empathy requires patience, time, and openness, all signs of humanity.

So in an attempt to bring us together, I’ve been recently trying a new approach, where when I encounter a political opinion contrary to my own, I want to know why they feel that way and how they got there.  I may not agree with their view or decision, but at least I understand them.  If our ideas of what’s best for the country don’t match, that doesn’t make either side inherently evil; it just makes them different.  It’s our intolerant reactions to one another that invites evil.

The “Serenity Prayer,” a staple wall-hanging in many Christian households, reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With the three active requested characteristics being serenity, courage, and wisdom, they can be categorized as three traits that align with empathy and understanding, all of which fall under the same umbrella: acceptance.  In Romans 15.7, the apostle Paul encourages us to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Even though we rejected, persecuted, and crucified Him, Christ was still able to accept us.  Surely, we can do the same for those that merely disagree with us.  

So when I asked some Trump supporters about what they thought of the latest enacted policies, I instead pursued a line of questioning that helped me to understand why and how they could support them, not a line of defense that created intolerance and discord.  From there, I learned of the past pain and struggle that plagued them, how they grappled with disappoint and failure, and how these new ideas provided hope for them.  This approach humanized them, and I could now see why they felt that way.  In the end, I didn’t agree with their stance, but the conversation went a very different way than it could have, as I was learning to accept them and reflect His approach to others, as well.  Through this humanizing act of acceptance, we can model His example, giving others a glimpse at His glory and bringing the country closer together in the process.  Amen.

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Varied Measurements of Effort

My son was so excited to bring his “Splat Ball” home to play with around the house.  Throw it at any surface and it will stick, smoosh outward, then reform into a ball.  Seemingly endless fun.  He paid a few dollars for it, and after a few hours of tossing it around, it broke.  We reassured him that nothing lasts forever, but in our minds, we were thinking, you get what you pay for.

I recently heard a speaker who was discussing his long history in the martial arts.  He explained to the students that there was no getting around it: what you put in is what you get out.  If the students were expecting to advance through the ranks with only the occasional practice session, some studying, and a handful of determination, they would be sorely disappointed with how far they would get in their training.  He explained that in martial arts, as in many other areas, there is a connection between effort and success.  There are no shortcuts: you must be willing to put in the time and effort towards success, sometimes doing tasks that aren’t always enjoyable, but result in strong outcomes.  He concluded with the idea that with maximum effort comes maximum result.  Should the students put their all into their practice, they will achieve the maximum amount of success.

Just last week, I reinforced a similar concept with my students.  Halfway through the year, a handful were still not studying, reading, or completing homework.  They would observe classmates academically passing them by, getting great grades and achieving all types of success, as they remained behind, baffled as to why they weren’t doing better than they were.  To pep talk them into a greater effort the night before a big assignment, I jokingly let them know that several studies have shown a proven connection between success in school and success at obtaining a decent earning job later in life.  Although my attitude was tongue-in-cheek, the concept still holds true.  If they study and work hard, the chances of them earning a decent living significantly increase as they grow.  It’s not a mystery.

In all three of these instances, the concept remains the same: what you put in is what you get out.  If you choose to do very little, your results will match the effort, and vice versa.  Christ also preached this concept, that if we put effort into our faith, we will receive blessings in return.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, His first response was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22.37).  He knew that if we put in all our heart, mind, and soul, that God’s plan would be made fully manifest in us, much more so than if we just put in a little effort.  If we choose to work on our faith, the results will reflect that effort.

Too many of us stagnantly sit around in our faith, wondering where God is and why He isn’t helping, but we don’t examine the effort that we’re putting in for our own walk.  We forget the connection between maximum effort and maximum results, that what you put into it is what you get out of it.  We need to remember that even though God is there for us, we still need to continuously work on our relationship with Him instead of waiting for Him to come to us.  If you want a rewarding spiritual life, you have to work on it.  This week, take some steps towards putting your entire being into loving Him, and await His blessings in return.  With your great effort, God promises mighty results.  Amen.

A Life, Fully Lived

As a lifelong Jeopardy fan, Cindy Stowell had always dreamed of competing on the show.   She and her husband bonded over the show for years, answering questions together as she hoped for a future spot as a contestant.  This past summer, Cindy applied online and earned a spot to tape an appearance this summer, which aired this past December.  While competing, she managed to unseat the 7-day champion, last for 5 days in competition, and earn over one hundred thousand dollars in winnings.  However, Cindy never got to see her appearance on television because she died December 5th of Stage IV Colon Cancer at age 41.  She knew that she had precious few moments left, so she decided to continue to pursue her dream with additional vigor despite her failing health, and instead of resigning herself to what amounted to continuous fevers, excruciating abdominal pain, and just a handful of months left, she decided to live fully, as if any moment might be her last.

Death is such an enormous fear for so many that we become paralyzed by the mere thought of it.  We’ve lived our whole life avoiding the inevitable (and it is most definitely inevitable for all of us) that when we are faced with it, we cannot begin to fathom it.  In fact, we often spend so much time dreading that final moment, that we forget to actually live the other days as if we were truly alive.  We instead wrap ourselves in misery and guilt, victimizing ourselves and others instead of embracing what little time we have left and making the most of it.

Early in his career, Steve Jobs came across a quote that read, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  The realization he made there was that he had to stop morbidly worrying about death and instead start embracing life by making every moment count.  Instead of waking up each day wondering what the point was because it was all going to end anyway, he would ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Whenever the answer was “no” for too many days in a row, he knew that he needed to change something.  His decision to live each day fully and make his actions count led him to a fulfilled life that changed many others in the process.

Many verses of the Bible warn us that we don’t know how much time we have left before death’s embrace, and all of these verses have the same basic message: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come…What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’’ (Mark 13.33, 37).  Mark, and many other authors, knew that oftentimes death comes unexpectedly, so his advice is for us to stay alert, be on our toes, and not to resign ourselves to depression and inaction.  Changing our mindset from “waiting to die” to “living for life” alters our world and those around us, as we project an outlook of gratitude and optimism.

Both Steve Jobs and Cindy Stowell were taken from this earth much sooner than most, but they both chose to live in the moment instead succumbing to their fates.  Because these two people saw the end coming and instead chose to live as fully as they could, both are influential to those that know their stories, and their influence ripples outward, teaching us to love every God-given moment.  This week, repeatedly ask yourself if you are living this moment as if it were a gift, alertly living as fully as possible.  If not, it’s time to make a change and embrace life.  Amen.

The Transformative Properties of Pure Love

Having visited nursing and rehab homes before, I knew what to expect.  Often, hope is scarce as the hallways are frequently filled with the despondent aging, many of whom are being wheeled up and down the hallway just for a change of scenery.  They have seen a great deal of pain and loss in their lives, and the monotony of later life takes its toll.  So, any and all change of pace and scenery, including visitors, is quickly welcomed with great enthusiasm, being a bright spot in the day as it breaks up the routine, easing the pains of life and distracting them beyond the ills from which they suffer.  However, what I didn’t expect was how much the residents would change when they got a visit from our dog, Finn.

Sixty pounds of off-white long soft fur and a love of everyone, he’s pure mutt with an enormous heart that often exceeds the size of his brain.  With pleading brown eyes that beg for attention and a tail that never stops, he bounded into the home with great excitement, looking for the next person to meet.  Anxiously, he’d happily trot over to them, leaning against their legs as he welcomed their loving advances.  Astoundingly, faces not only lit up as people asked to meet him, calling him over to pet him and say hello, but their entire demeanor changed.  People who were immobile and pain-riddled suddenly forgot themselves and called to him with open arms, as Finn gave every ounce of love he had.  No matter who they were, their lives were instantly improved when Finn came to visit them.  The transformation that took place because of his presence was astonishing.

There’s something pure about a dog’s love that is unlike human love.  When dogs meet someone, they never judge, accepting people for who they are.  Whether people were bed-ridden, wheelchair-bound, or with a walker, no matter the age, disability, or illness, Finn accepted them with his whole heart, and didn’t differentiate between any of them.  His total lack of judgment allowed for him to see people beyond their human failings and see them only for the love for which they were capable.  Additionally, a dog’s capacity for love is seemingly endless, as despite the number of people Finn met, or the number of times Finn met the same person, the well of love from which Finn’s love drew never dried up.  And because of that endless, boundless pure love, people’s hearts were changed as he brought what sorely lacked from so many of their lives: hope.

Similarly, Christ’s love shares many of these characteristics.  Endless and boundless, His pure love knows no judgement and can transform even the lowest.  Ephesians 2.4-5 displays the life-changing purity of His love: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”  Like Finn, Christ’s love brings life and hope where there previously was none.  Christ takes even the direst situations and completely changes them around with the addition of His pure love.  For this reason, when God intervenes in our lives, we are never what we once were.  Transformation and hope are immediate, as we are fundamentally different because of his selfless, non-judgmental love.  Although we are humanly flawed, we can still be aware of the transformative nature that pure love can bring and work towards imitating it in the way we interact with others.  What we can still hope and pray for is for God to work through us, using our words and actions to give hope and love where there was none beforehand.  In that way, His love transforms us and others through its pure, nonjudgmental nature, altering our hearts and minds forever.  Amen.

The Readiness for What Comes Next

As 2016 was ending, like many, I wanted to put as much of it behind me as possible.  So, I surveyed my life and took inventory of what outstanding items needed my attention.  I found unreturned emails and texts that needed attending, bills and debts that needed settling, and personal projects that required completion.  News articles I had put aside to read but never did beckoned my call, books that were almost fully read that were abandoned for whatever reason garnered my attention, and an inbox that had been gathering dust looked to be emptied.  With that thought in mind, I turned to finishing off projects and business that had been lying around.  I tackled them all with one goal: finish them before the year is up.  So, with some determination and hard work, I succeeded in tidying up unfinished business by the first ring of the new year.  As a bonus, my proverbial crawling out from under the mountainous pile left me with enough satisfaction and optimism to head into a new year with renewed hope.

When the things in our lives stack up, we tend to tackle them with the thought that once we are done, we can finally rest.  However, we all know that life does not rest, and what we finish will be replaced with more.  And sometimes we tackle our piles in an effort to achieve or increase control in or lives, but we also know that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  Control of our lives is illusionary.  So why bother to do any of it if the struggle is never-ending and the control never achievable?

In the final act of “Hamlet,” after trying to control his surroundings for the majority of the play, the titular character comes to the realization that he in fact has no control at all, and that issues will continue to plague him despite his best efforts.  He concludes with the statement “the readiness is all,” meaning that his intentions should be more concerned with preparation for what comes next instead of a desire for total control, and some of that readiness is rooted in finishing what is at hand.  He does not give up tackling the tasks in his life; he merely works towards completing as much as he can so that his life is prepared for what comes next.

By working towards completion, if not necessarily achieving it, we can prepare ourselves for what God has next for us.  After Christ had completed His ministry in human form, He hung on the cross preparing Himself for God’s next step. “After he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19.29-30).  Christ had completed all that He had to on earth, and His declaration indicated that He was now surrendering Himself to God’s will, ready for what comes next.

We tend to get bogged down easily with the number of tasks we take on in our lives, and too often we lose sight of the end and begin to unravel.  We forget to finish, along with the reason for finishing, and instead just forge onward, leaving a trail of incompletion in our wake and opening us up for a lack of preparation for what comes next.  We become stuck in neutral, and despite how much we step on the gas, we still don’t go anywhere.  So, when something else comes our way, it just finds its way to the top of our inbox pile, as we aren’t ready for it.  Then, opportunity and God’s plan passes us by.  However, like Christ, when we work towards finishing what is at hand with an eye towards readiness for what comes next, God is then able to start a good work through us.  This week, survey your life for what lies incomplete, as these incompletions may be holding up the riches God has in store for you.  Then, set goals for finishing those items with a desire not for completion but for the readiness.  The next big step in His plan for your life lies just around that corner.  Amen.