Faithful Follower: The Role of a Lifetime

In the beginning of her senior year, one of my students was running across the football field during a pep rally, tripped, and fell flat on her face in front of the entire student body.  For the rest of the year, and even up to this point, she has been known as “that girl.”  It’s a label and role that has stuck with her for some time.  Thankfully, she has a great sense of humor about herself and has embraced the role with grace.

Just like her, senior superlatives play a similar role and function in that they create a label and role for that person.  Many of us probably still remember who was voted “most artistic”, “most likely to succeed”, or “cutest couple” because the roles set forth a certain set of expectations.  Whether or not they lived up to those titles remains to be seen for many, but the idea is that once established, these people tend to feel a responsibility to live up to them.

I play a number of roles in my life, one of which is teacher.  For the entirety of my existence, I will be known as my student’s former teacher, a role that I will never lose.  When my students run into me thirty years from now, I will still be their former English teacher, and there will be a certain set of expectations from them as to how I will act when I see them.  It seems there are some roles that you can never turn off or change.

Another role that can never be turned off is that of parent.  Last week, my wife had to go out of town for four days to a conference, so I was left home alone with my 10-year-old son.  In addition to developing a strong appreciation for single parents, it was reinforced in my brain that the role of parent is a 24-7 job.  I was never not his father during that time, as like most children, he needed a tremendous amount of attention and assistance in his day.  Whether making a lunch, doing laundry, or cleaning up after him, there is never a moment where I can say to him, “I don’t think I can parent today.  You’re on your own.”  It doesn’t work that way.

I was recently at a social function where I witnessed a mother say to her 4-year-old son that she was going to leave him to go hang out with her friends and then promptly left.  Abandoned, the child began to cry, as he felt scared and lost.  (My son ended up going right over and volunteering to hang out with him so that the kid would feel better.)  Apparently, that parent doesn’t realize that you can’t turn off being the role of “mom.”  It’s a full-time job.  Sure, there are scheduled breaks, but even those are often at the whim of a child’s schedule.  When we become a parent, if we take on that role and the responsibilities that come with it, we work towards our child’s success.  Reject the role and responsibilities, and we run the risk of harming the child’s well-being.

There are roles that no matter what, we just can’t shake, nor should we.  (If you don’t believe me, try taking off your wedding ring next time you’re at a party and see how much you spouse approves.)  Another role that we can’t get rid of is that of Christian.  When we decide to commit ourselves to Him, our lives reflect that change.  Our words and actions are then used for His glory, not our own.  Our stumbles are only a reflection of our humanity.  However, what doesn’t reflect a saved life is one where the individual turns off being a Christian, where he or she decides to not adhere to the standards set forth by the role.

Now, many might look at that last sentence and think that they are doing fairly well, as they don’t drink excessively, do drugs, cheat on their spouse, etc.  Yet, many of us shake the role of being Christian when we maintain our silence in the face of adversity.  We conveniently forget that we answer to a higher power when we look away from people in times of need.  We don’t actively take on our role as Christian when its time to take a stand for what is right.  And we choose to be silent when a voice could lovingly correct a path.  Through passive allowance, we actively reject our role as Christian – it is only when we stand firm in our role that we maintain our status.

Although a daunting charge, what we can take great assurance in and be joyous about is the fact that although we may not always be firm and consistent in our roles, He is consistent in His role as our savior and king.  As His followers, He will always be there for us, and there is nothing we can do to lose the assurance of our salvation.  Designated as His sheep – which by definition are creatures that have a tendency to wander and are in need of being herded – He is our eternal shepherd.  In John 10.27-8, Christ proclaims that, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”  No matter how strong and harsh the influences of the world may be, there is nothing that can steal us away from Him.  Our role as Christians is eternal because of His strength, and it can never be taken away from us.

As Christ is consistent in His role as our savior, so should we be also as His chosen and saved.  We should strive towards actively taking on the role of being a Christian and making it the defining characteristic of who we are, a role that cannot be altered or turned off no matter the circumstance.  This week, spend time in prayer and meditation where you are seeking a deeper, more consistent role as a chosen representative of his flock, taking a more active position as one of His own.  Abandon convenient conformity: let your faith be unshaken and immovable, letting the rest of this world conform to it.  Amen.

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Time to Clean Up Your Friends

Solid house, solid foundation – but what happens when rot seeps in?  Indian spiritual master Sai Baba was quoted as saying, “A house must be built on solid foundations if it is to last.  The same principle applies to man, otherwise he too will sink back into the soft ground and becomes swallowed up by the world of illusion.”  And likewise, when I was first starting out on Facebook, when it came to laying the foundation of who my “friends” were, my foundation wasn’t as solid as it should have been.

First, I connected with people with whom I was actually friends and cared about.  It was a sincere means of continuing the relationship we worked so hard on in our virtual lives, so everything we did and said online was to build each other up.

Once that was established, I continued building my friend list by connecting with people with whom I’d lost touch, namely old high school and college friends.  Although we were not as close anymore, it was still a delight to see who these people had become, how they had grown and matured, and the families and careers they cultivated.  We exchanged comments and “likes” on our pictures, encouraging each other in our mutual enthusiasm.

After, I allowed curiosity to get the better of me regarding how certain people turned out in life, people with whom I went to high school but wasn’t necessarily friends with.  So, I started friending them, too, adding lots of people I had almost no connection with ever to my foundation, which turned into people I outright disliked, with the hope that I would see that I ended up better than them in life.  It somehow made me feel better about myself to see that the former quarterback now had a gut and the homecoming queen had let herself go after two kids.  (It used to be that you had to wait until the 20-year reunion to see who got bald, allowed their physique to go downhill, got pregnant early, married someone well-below them, but now all you have to do is connect with them on social media to see where they’re at.)

Yet this reveal only led to more questionable steps, and I fell down the slippery slope of looking up old romantic interests.  I loved judging and critiquing where they were at in life, validating the success I had found without them.  The more I became obsessed with people’s shortcomings on Facebook, the more I craved.  One look at my newsfeed, and a host of negative emotions inside of me would bubble to the surface.  I had clearly created a monster because my foundation was weak.

I had allowed all the wrong people into my life for all of the wrong reasons.  I opened myself up to stumble by inviting people in for the sole purpose of feeling better about myself.  Instead of surrounding myself with people I loved, I sought out people that I wanted approval from.  That toxicity had taken root in my online life and was quickly destroying my virtual one, as well.  Posting online for me had no longer become a celebration of what God was doing in my life but was turning into me proving to everyone how great my life was, all because I was trying to prove something to all the wrong people.

If I wanted to eliminate this behavior, I had to root out the problem and rebuild my foundation.  It reminded me of the early church, and how getting established and maintaining themselves was crucial to cementing a strong foundation on which to build.  Philippi was the location of the first Christian community established in Europe.  Fighting an uphill battle as one of the few established Christian churches in the area, they had to make sure they covered all their bases when it came to growth.  In Phillipians 4.8, Paul gives them a final word of encouragement to ensure success: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  They needed to eliminate anything that could be considered foundationally toxic if they were to grow, so the idea that they should concentrate only on good things made sense.

So, to my friend list I went.  Although inherently not evil, social media like Facebook is a breeding ground for toxicity.  We all know those friends and relatives of ours that only post either complaints about their life, diatribes about the state of the world and government, or grievances about how they are not as appreciated as they should be.  Most of these posts are very “me-centric,” where the individual feels that they have been wronged somehow.  So, I started with these people, as their negativity was the easiest to spot.

I didn’t want to “unfriend” anyone, as that just seemed petty and counterproductive, but Facebook has an option to eliminate their posts from your newsfeed – you can stay friends, but you don’t have to listen to them anymore.  After muting a number of these toxic individuals so that I could focus on more positive aspects in life, I looked to those people I friended just because I wanted dirt on them.  They were a little harder to find, as I had to make some tough calls, but once they were eliminated from my newsfeed, I noticed my foundation was now filled with encouraging aspects, words of advice, times of happiness, and people who when they popped up in my feed, I felt joy.  I suddenly found that social media could be cleaned up and used for good purposes once the toxicity (both from myself and others) was rooted out.

So, the same should go with us: if we want growth, we need to eliminate toxicity and stumbling blocks from our foundational lives.  Although my example was online, the same could go for our actual lives.  Eliminating individuals that either fit that toxic profile or cause us to become toxic goes a long way for building ourselves up in a stronger relationship with Him.  A focus on the good, pure, and noble parts in life helps us emulate those characteristics and avoid becoming the monsters we so despise.  This week, look to lessen and/or eliminate exposure to people who don’t bring out the best in you and parts in your life that breed toxicity.  Focus on the lovely and the admirable, and you can become the change you desire to be.  Amen.

In Defense of Meditation: The Best Faith Practice You’re Missing Out On

When we think of meditation, we often have a stereotyped image of an older, swami-like, long-bearded man, cross-legged in the lotus position, who may even be floating an inch or two off the ground while chanting unintelligible but harmonic syllables.  Carrying this image around, we feel that meditation is something both inaccessible and irrelevant.  The idea of wise-men reaching higher plains of existence seems unattainable, and more importantly, somewhat un-Christian.  Yet, if we investigate the scriptures, we see that meditation is both valuable in our Christian lives, and that we are called to meditate as a part of our faith.

That mediation is rooted solely in Eastern religions is untrue: sometimes when a practice is helpful, it transcends any one religion.  I read somewhere that just because a Buddhist eats breakfast, that doesn’t make breakfast a Buddhist tradition.  In fact, the Bible makes several mentions of the need for meditation, as the Hebrew and Christian authors knew that it was vital to a healthy relationship with their creator.

Mentioned in the Old Testament, authors often associated meditation with memorization and consideration of His laws: “Oh, how I love your law!  I meditate on it all day long.  Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.  I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119.97-99).  Law meditation was practiced to gain a better understanding and appreciation of His Divine plan.  With a stronger understanding, we see His love for us throughout it.

The New Testament then widens the umbrella to include more items beyond the law on which to meditate: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4.8).  We are called to control and focus our thinking on items that fit these descriptions, and meditation helps us to willingly and consciously accomplish this task, as seen when Christ withdrew to meditate.

So, if we are called to meditate, how do we?  Unfortunately, many tune out at this point, as the idea of sitting quietly for 20 minutes ends in boredom or napping.  However, too many think that this approach is the only way to meditate.  Unlike the stereotype, mediation requires fewer requirements and parameters than you might think.  With the recent introduction of mindfulness into our vocabulary in the last devotional, we can see how meditation falls under that umbrella and the one established by Paul and other biblical authors.  If mindfulness is about being fully present and focused on the now and about heightening our awareness, then mindful meditation should help accomplish those goals for the purpose of strengthening our relationship with Him and shaping us as vessels ready to accept what God has ready for us.

With several ways to meditate, there are some basic foundations upon which to build these choices.  You don’t need a meditation cushion, special bench, or any sort of equipment to access a meditative state, but you do need these two things: time and space.  Whether two minutes or twenty, dedicate time solely for meditation.  Also, set aside a space, preferably somewhere with a minimum of distractions.  When you finally have both, take a moment to observe the present as it is by drawing from your senses.  Observe the sounds around you, the smells, the physical sensations you feel.  The aim of mindfulness and meditation is not quieting the mind or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: to pay attention to the present moment without judgement.  Easier said than done, right?  Yes, your mind is going to wander, and thoughts are going to pop into your head about obligations, conversations you’ve recently had, things you’re worried about, whatever.  Try to let those thoughts and judgments roll by, like leaves floating by on a stream – they are there, but they neither affect you nor stick around.  Make a mental note of them and let them pass, returning to observing the present moment as it is.  And be kind to your wandering mind; don’t get frustrated and annoyed.  Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up; just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off and gently bring it back.

For those like me who need more structure to their meditation, there are guided meditations that exist online for many purposes.  A quick search on YouTube results in mediations that help with anxiety and fears, detachment from overthinking, healing and sleep, gratitude, and “unstoppable courage”.  Some are longer than others, so find the guided meditation that works best for you.  Don’t worry about how you should sit or if you should keep your eyes open or not: guided meditations explain everything for you.  Again, just finding the time and space is all you need to do.

Another method is “Body Scan Meditation” which can be guided or not.  In short, you pick a point in your body (usually the head or the toes) and work your way mentally to the other end of your body, feeling all sensations in each part, becoming aware of everything that is happening to you physically.  Body Scan Meditations are excellent at calming your mind and focusing your thoughts.

One meditation technique I recently started is the recitation of mantras–one sentence statements intended to target a specific need in life.  You can create your own or find them online.  I have a few written in my phone that go off as reminders during the day, so that no matter where I am, when I see it come up, I stop and spend time considering the truth behind it.  For example, I noticed that my negative past actions tend to discourage me, so once a day, I am reminded that, “My past does not define who I am nor prescribe my future,” and if I spend time meditating on this truth, I can overcome that discouragement.  Detractors might suggest that this action is human achievement-based, cutting out the need for God’s intervention, but we would argue that this God-given practice refocuses our minds towards His healing and a closer, more appreciative walk with Him.  By silencing the negativity in my life, I am better attuned to the loving aspects He has created within me.

We tend to overcomplicate meditation, but in truth, we need only find the time and place for it, and the rest comes easily with the right tools.  By renewing our minds and spirits and refocusing on what matters, meditation provides a centeredness that helps us hear Him better.  It trains us to release the negativity that can pervade our lives and see the good in this world that is God.  By trying out meditation this week, we can learn to appreciate our lives, become more centered, and ready ourselves for the plans that He has for us.  Amen.

Mind full vs. Mindful

I’ve been known to occasionally miss the moment when it happens.  If my last devotional was any indication, I am sometimes too stuck to my phone and miss what’s happening around me.  My wife calls it selective listening, hearing only what I want to, but I choose to refer to it more accurately as half-engaged listening, hearing only half of what is said.  It’s less a choice and more a default, something I’ve been trying to fix for years.

I’ve been able to narrow down what’s at the root of my problem, and it’s that I am not fully present in the moment.  What exactly does that mean, though?  How is it that my mind is elsewhere, not fully engaged with what is happening, and how can I change that?  A recent trend has labeled this corrective practice as “mindfulness,” the basic human ability to be fully present, being aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.  It means experiencing everything that is currently happening to you and around you, with a mind towards the present moment.

Thinking that this movement sounded kind of hippy-dippy to me, I took a class to look much more into it, and I discovered that it’s way more than yoga and meditation.  Instead, it’s a heightened awareness of the present moment by being fully engaged in it, thus experiencing everything that it has to offer you.  Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh summed up this practice succinctly: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment.  Only this moment is life.”  Or to put it another way, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” as stated by the late 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller.

In this class, we participated in various exercises that engaged our senses with the present moment.  One such exercise was eating raisins.  For years, I have been criticized by many that I eat much too fast.  As such, I don’t savor my food, a desire I long for.  This exercise forced us to slow down our eating by having a handful of raisins to eat, but we were only allowed to eat one raisin at a time.  We were then told to make observations about the textures, the smells, the tastes, and the varied flavors, making us more engaged in the present and not thinking about anything but what we were doing at that moment.  It forced us to slow down and be present in what was happening – eating the raisins – and less focused on the outcome – finishing the raisins.  Try it, and you’ll be surprised by how much you’re missing in life by moving too fast through it.

So why practice mindfulness and how does it fit into our faith?  If we become more fully engaged in the present, we learn to experience and appreciate all that God is doing.  We learn to slow down and recognize God in the details of our world.  Paying closer attention to what God is doing in our lives and how we are working for and against it helps us to better align ourselves to what his plan is for us.  We pay more attention to our current state, noticing what we are thinking and feeling, and through a heightened awareness, coming to a conclusion as to why we are thinking and feeling that way.  We are able to refocus ourselves on what God desires for us, and we in turn appreciate and grow closer to Him as a result.  Worries about the past and future fall to the wayside as we focus on the present and fully engage in it.

And there are strong biblical foundations in mindfulness.  Repeatedly, God asks us to, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3.2), citing a desire for us to control where our mind is at.  We are asked to be in the present: “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6.34).  And God asks us to rise above and “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12.2), which is accomplished through a stronger awareness.

Yet mindfulness also has its detractors, but many of those detractions are set in myths and misunderstandings of what mindfulness is.  Mindfulness isn’t about “fixing” yourself; it’s about being aware of who you are and seeking God for help.  Mindfulness is not about stopping your thoughts and ignoring the future; it’s feeling His current presence and trusting Him with your future.  Mindfulness does not belong to a religion like Buddhism; it is practice based in thinking and action that is no more religious than breathing.  Mindfulness is not an escape from reality; it is an embracing of who you are at this time.  Mindfulness is not a panacea; it’s not going to cure all your ills – it’s a path towards better living.  And the ultimate goal of mindfulness isn’t meant to be stress reduction; it’s to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.  Through this heightened awareness, we come to better appreciate and understand His plan and kingdom, embracing what He is offering us at this moment.

Mother Teresa once said that “each moment is all we need, not more.”  Knowing that God created this moment for you helps you to be mindful of what it is He has planned for you.  Mindfulness is not about living for the moment but living in it, gaining an awareness of it with an eternal perspective.  By being mindful, you can appreciate, love, and learn not only what God has created for you but also why He did so.  This week, find ways to appreciate and engage the moment, renewing your mind and heightening your senses with an awareness of where you are, which will help you in turn with where you’d like to be.  Amen.