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.

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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.

The Improper Prioritization of Pokémon

About two years ago, when it first was released, I got a text from a friend asking if I was playing the game Pokémon Go.  He was much younger than I was, so I immediately scoffed at the text, secure in the fact that I was an adult.

And then I started playing it.

For those not in the know, the game is played on a smartphone where you hunt around looking for virtual creatures to capture and put into your collection.  You must actually search the real world, as they are tied to specific locations.  You also have to visit virtual “stops,” where you collect items that help you capture said creatures, and gyms, where your creatures train and earn you points.  The more activity, the higher your rank, the more the benefits and clout in the game.

I became quite obsessed with the game’s intricacies, developing a high ranking with a big collection.  The advertising motto of the game is “Gotta catch ‘em all,” and that was what I was going to do.

But then, it’s not just about getting them all but also about getting the best of what you have.  So, I would look for the most powerful Pokémon and train them to be stronger.  I would find reasons to go into town looking for them when I had no reason to.  Then, they released “shiny” versions of these creatures, which don’t actually have more power but are trophies to have.  These shinys were only available for the keenest of eyes, so more trips into town for that, because I couldn’t miss out on those.  After that, they started with group capture events for really powerful creatures, so I joined a virtual group that would meet up to take them down.  That was followed by “community day” when certain creatures would have a specific move that was only obtainable during a three-hour window, so for that small window I would wander the town looking to collect as many as I could.

I spent a lot of time playing, and it somewhat overwhelmed my life.  Time that I could be spending doing productive activities or with family and friends was being consumed by the game.  Even when I was with family and friends, I would still be secretly playing when they weren’t looking.  This somewhat drug-like addiction of mine came to a head about a month ago, when it was Tyranitaur day, one of the most powerful and sought-after Pokémon, which would be available in shiny version and with the rare move of smack down.  I would be king with this creature!

When the day came, I saw that my wife needed to be with me during that three-hour window.  When I would normally go out PokeHunting, I stayed home with her.  Now, don’t crown me a saint just yet: I was secretly climbing the walls knowing that I was missing out on this event.  And when it ended, I missed out on the moveset and the shiny version, but it was then that I realized, so what?

Why was I so taken by something that would never love me back, pouring so much of my energy and time into a game that, realistically, comes to nothing in my life.  I had nothing to show other than a high score, which isn’t exactly the message I want written on my tombstone:  Here he lays, a level 39 Pokémon trainer.  It was an accomplishment that didn’t matter.  More importantly, I also realized that with missing out on this big event, there was going to be another big event around the corner, with many more big events to follow.  In short: there’s always going to be another really sought after Pokémon upgrade and no amount of playing or collecting Pokémon was going to satisfy or fulfill me.  In the amount and escalation of gameplaying I was doing, I was chasing after an unobtainable goal.

Now, although this example isn’t at first easily relatable to most, it serves a purpose as a model for similar experiences in our own lives.  So, here’s another:  a year or so ago, I couldn’t stay off social media.  I was slowly sucked in to what others were doing, and I was reading everything that every one of my “friends” were posting, making sure to “like” or comment.  Hours would pass where I was entrenched in the lives of others, but with each sitting, I had nothing to show afterwards.  I wasn’t any closer to these people, and those people I was close with were further from me because of my inattentiveness.

In both cases, I found myself not necessarily choosing what I wanted to do but falling into something that consumed my life and time.  Author and pastor Andy Stanley was quoted as saying, “We don’t drift in good directions.  We discipline and prioritize ourselves there.”  If we want to go where we need to go, we need to prioritize and make sure we go there.  Without a conscious awareness of where we should be putting our time and energy, we usually choose what is easy instead of what is good.

Our priorities reflect our values.  Luke writes, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12.34).  If we decide that our treasure is a meaningless chasing of social media, drugs and alcohol, career, or Pokémon, then that is where our heart is, and not in places where it should be (wives, husbands, children, family, and friends, etc.).   And if we prioritize meaningless activities and practices, that fulfilment will be constantly elusive.  But with the right prioritization, we can be satisfied.

Now, I still play Pokémon Go, but I’ve limited my time and energy put forth to it.  It can still be an escape for me, but that’s all it should be.  I’ve prioritized it lower on my list, which is what we need to do for ourselves.  This week, figure out what your priorities are in your life, and evaluate how much time you are committing to those priorities.  Compare that with what you are spending a lot of time doing, and see if those two lists match up.  If they don’t, spend time in prayer and meditation developing a plan as to how to properly prioritize those things that are worth doing, and lessen those that aren’t worth your time.  Amen.

Changing Lives with Just a Light

The power of a smile has a tremendous strength when you apply it.  It has the ability to completely change the direction of people’s days.  It forces them to take a moment away from their own lives, step out of themselves, and acknowledge another person’s positive response to a situation.  I do it whenever I am walking through the halls here at my school, where I will smile at as many teenagers as I possibly can.  You would think that they would roll their eyes or show some sort of teenage mock disgust, but the majority of the time, they are just so excited that someone acknowledged them.  They feel validated and valued.

As a teacher, I try to alter as many people’s days as I can for the better, setting them on a stronger course, attempting to improve this world for the better through others as much as I can.  And although a smile is a great way to change someone’s direction for their day, you can’t keep smiling at them day after day.  It’s either not possible, or it wouldn’t have the same repeated effect.  A smile is a good start, but it’s only a start.  If we want to be true agents of positive change in this world, what are our options?

Supposedly, another route is to help people change their practices and break their negative habits by getting people to change their minds on their approach to life.  But are people truly capable of change?  Search the internet and you’ll find a host of articles and websites touting the ways in which you can change your life, your body, your marriage, etc.  (Although you usually need to purchase something from them in order for any of this change to happen.)  But is this change permanent?  According to a study cited by University College London, it takes an average of 66 days to break a habit, although that is only possible through intensive repeated practice that is both focused and determined.  Just suggesting a change to someone isn’t enough to actually change them.

For example, I had a student for the last two years who was the epitome of laziness and poor decision-making despite strong intelligence.  He would almost never come to school and would certainly never do his work.  About a year ago, I met his well-meaning, bright, hard-working girlfriend who had stuck by his side for quite some time.  As she was aware of his failings, I pulled her aside and asked her if she was with her boyfriend in an attempt to change him for the better.  She sheepishly smiled and admitted so, to which I told her that for the most part, people don’t really change, and that she’s fighting an uphill battle.  Sure enough, almost a year later, not much has changed in him, and she’s still trying.  I wish her well and hope that she beats the odds.

This situation then made me reconsider what my role as a teacher was, as I am consistently trying to change people’s lives and improve this world.  If a smile is only temporary, and advice and correction don’t have the right amount of impact needed to course-correct a life, what is the sweet spot between making people happy and changing their minds?  The answer: inspiration.

Although hard to pinpoint and quantify, inspiration is that moment in our life that challenges our current situation and propels us to a moment where we realize that we are better than we are.  An article in Harvard Business Review suggests that, “Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations.  Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities.”  As teachers, both professional and Christian, we don’t need to change minds or cheer people up; we need to inspire.

It dawned on me this past graduation when I received two letters from graduating students who had written me similar messages.  After thanking me for the last two years with them, they cited how I had inspired both of them to follow their passions in life – one a marine veterinarian and the other a makeup artist.  Both had these dreams for years but both had dismissed them, chasing career paths that weren’t really what they wanted but what they thought others wanted for them.  Although I’m not really sure when that moment of inspiration came, I know that at some point a time came for them when they realized that they were capable of more.  As teachers, we have the ability to inspire people to be more than they are.

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, He cited how we should influence others to be better than they are.  In each of us, He mentions, there is a light that glows.  This light should be put on display for others, not to show how great we are but to guide people as they navigate their own lives:  “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.16).  Notice the position of the light in this verse: “before others” – not at others, but in front of them, illuminating their path so that they can see what might have been missed.  He doesn’t say that we should force them onto the path, take their hand, or move their feet – just shine a light on it.

If we really are serious about changing the world for the better, making it a brighter, more thoughtful, blessed place, inspiration is our means.  In a world where happiness is fleeting, and people are stuck in their ways, we have the ability to shine a light before others so that they can be inspired to take the path in front of them, helping them to not only be better than they are, but to realize the full potential that God has created in them.  This week, shine your light so that others may be inspired to be better than they are.  Amen.

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.

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.