Doggie Needs and Bicycle Wishes

I know I’ve written about it before, so I’ll make my mention of it here brief: in the town I grew up in, twice a year was dubbed “clean-up week” where people put everything and anything at the curb.  My father educated me in the ways of being the careful garbage picker, a badge I proudly wear even to this very day.  (Really.  I just picked up a lovely Bombay desk set earlier this afternoon.)  Additionally, I love building and creating things.  So, when I was under the age of 13 and living at home, and being the educated youth that I was, I would scavenge piles of refuse for bike parts to build an entire bike.

A pedal here, a rim there, a wheel fork over there, and a seat post the next block over, I would search for various bicycle parts in an attempt to build an entire bike from all of them.  Like a mad scientist drunk on his own power, I created life and from the ashes of garbage arose a Frankenstein bike, forged in my backyard.  Believe it or not, it would actually work, and I could sell it for a small fee at my annual garage sale, but it was more than just the money.  It was that I was able to take next to nothing and create something from it.  Everything I needed, I had laying around me: I just had to take hold of it and use it.

Like a modern-day MacGyver (a show whose main message, apparently, is that we have all the resources we need around us, and that we just need to learn to draw upon them in order to succeed), I was using the materials available to me to accomplish want I wanted.  God’s word sends a similar message, as seen in Philippians 4.  In writing to the church, Paul lets them know that they have always been there for him whenever he needed them.  Even when no one was reaching out to help him, the church of Philippi could always be counted upon.  In return, Paul reassures the church that just the same way they met all of his needs, “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (4.19).  This message suggests that whatever it is we need in life, God provides it for us, as He knows what it is we need.

Now, there are several circumstantial lenses in which to examine this verse.  The first is the most obvious: times of trouble.  The implication is that when you are in trouble, God will always provide whatever it is you need in that time of difficulty.  If we are Christ’s children and He is our father, then He will provide for us according to our needs, and we can rely on Him for provision.  So, we can always count on Him when times are tough; He is the hope that will carry us through those times.  Invoke His promises and repeat them often, and you will find comfort as well as resources.  It might not be what you expect, but it will be what you need.

The second lens is just that, times of need (which is different than times of trouble).  In times of need, times might be tough, but they don’t count as trouble.  For example, I have an elderly dog who just turned sixteen.  She is fairly blind, deaf, arthritic, and shows sign of dementia.  The way our house is set up, our dog door empties out onto our deck, and the dogs go down three stairs to use the yard.  Over the winter, our old dog decided she didn’t want to use the stairs anymore and stuck to the deck, which was fine, as it was then snow covered.  However, now that the snow is melting, we don’t want her going to the bathroom on the hardwood.  So, we decided that we needed a ramp for the stairs.

Without much money for materials (and not to mention a severe lack in carpentry skills), I racked my brain as to how to accomplish this feat of construction.  It needed to be long enough and sturdy enough, thus just putting a piece of plywood down wouldn’t cut it.  Little did I know, that this time of need would be supplied by God.  I just had to open my eyes and look around me, as God had already given me everything I needed.  Soon, I noticed that a climbing ramp to my son’s jungle gym, if turned upside down, would provide the perfect ramp.  It was here all along.  With a few twists of a screw driver, it was in place, and I didn’t need to buy or build anything.  Much like my bike parts, everything I needed was right around me.  I just needed to put it all to good use.

When we find ourselves in trouble or need, we can trust that God will provide for us, as He promises that He will.  However, we have to remember that the way we view our needs and the way God views them may differ.  It’s very easy to look at our respective situations and think that God has forgotten about us, as He doesn’t seem to be providing.  However, there are one of two possibilities that may exist.  Maybe, like the dog ramp, it’s there right in front of us, and we just don’t see it the way God sees it.  Or maybe, if what we think we need is nowhere to be found, then it’s not what we truly need.

This week, as you look at your difficulties and troubles, first reassure yourself that He will provide.  Then, try to see the situation not through our human eyes but through His kind, loving, empathetic, ethereal eyes.  See your situation through Him and seek your answers in a different way.  You may be looking for the wrong thing, or you may have your resources right in front of you.  Either way, through Him, you will overcome.  Amen.


Inspired, Snowbound Bravery

In a previous devotional, I had mentioned an assignment I gave my students over the winter break: make a difference in the lives of at least three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it.  Keeping it very open-ended, I put no limits on them as to how they could accomplish this task, whether the difference be through words, actions, or even virtual.  When it came time to read the results, I was very moved by their responses and what they chose to do.

As previously covered, some students decided to improve the lives of those around them by handing out random compliments, words of encouragement, or just a simple smile and a greeting.  As most were taken by surprise by this unwarranted kindness, the recipients of these actions were pleasantly surprised that someone was taking the time to make them feel good about themselves.  Then, there was another group: students who kept a keen eye out for those in need, offering help where it was desired, looking to fulfill needs where they could.  Since it had recently snowed, many wrote about shoveling a walk or driveway for someone unable to do it themselves.  Some sought out the homeless and worked towards feeding them at soup kitchens or buying them lunch.  Others helped elders in need with crossing a street, while another helped one into a car from their wheelchair.

However, some assistance was for people you might not immediately rush to help, as the thought is that they might not need it.  One student wrote about how she saw an older man in a supermarket who was holding quite a bit of fruits and vegetables.  Provoked only by the sight of him, she approached with a shopping cart, helped him transfer what he was holding, and offered to push the cart around the store for him.  Smiling in immense gratitude, he continually thanked her, joking about how if it wasn’t for her, he might have dropped a banana and slipped on it like they do in the cartoons.  Another wrote about a neighbor struggling with carrying boxes from his car to his house, and how the student went over and just started helping.  Yet another was about a woman in a store who was clearly having trouble bagging her items, and in frustration, dropped a bag.  The student approached her, asking if she needed help.  She looked up, sighed, and responded with an exasperated, “Yes, please.”  What amazed me with each of these was the bravery that each student showed by jumping in and helping, running the risk of making a situation worse or being rejected, and the immense gratitude from each of these people who needed help but might have been too polite or proud to ask for it.

So, it was with uncanny irony that I found myself in a similar situation during this past hurricane-like, zero-degree weather snowstorm.  I watched out my house windows with great curiosity as a car attempted to climb the hill of my street, only to slide back down and become wedged in the drainage ditch.  He got out of his car and studied the situation, while my wife ran out to check on him, inviting him into our home.  An older Russian man, she offered him whatever she could, returning with a shovel and some coffee.  I offered to lend a hand, but he politely declined.  For the next 45 minutes, we watched him work unsuccessfully, as we wondered what we should do, if anything.

With great hesitation and trepidation, I swallowed whatever fear I had about rejection and reaching out to someone I didn’t know, thought back to the bravery of my students, suited up, and marched myself outside.  When I got there, it was clear that he had no plan but was too polite to ask for help.  I also found out that he had just been in an accident on the highway, so he was already having a horrible time getting home.  He lived not far, and was so close to getting through this all.  So, we dug, gunned the engine, turned the wheels, dug some more, talked, laughed, worked, and had the car out soon after.  With his heavy Russian accent and somewhat broken English, he told me that when the weather is warmer, I am to bring my family to his house and he will feed and entertain us.  What was initially frightening to me became a wonderful moment of human connection.  Although it took everything for me to go out there, it really took nothing to do so.  As my students often put it in their writing, to put yourself out there and help another person, although scary at first, is actually incredibly easy and makes such an enormous difference not only in that person’s life but in the world, as well.

The Bible calls upon us to treat our neighbors well, loving them as we love ourselves.  The call to be kind and loving is made repeatedly.  1 Peter 3.8 says: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”  Yet why and for what purpose?  Yes, there is cause to model Christ’s love for others who may not see it otherwise, but it’s also to spread His love, letting its contagious nature take root in each of us.  When Christ’s disciples were told to go and spread the good news of His miracles and resurrection, the number of His followers went from a handful to millions.  Similarly, the example of my students’ courage in approaching others in need led me to take a comparable action with this snowbound Russian man, and who knows what my example will lead to next.

This week, look for opportunities to be brave and lend a hand where it’s needed but isn’t asked for.  Let the bravery of others before you take hold in your soul and inspire you to act similarly brave.  And allow your actions to inspire others, continuing a kindness that started well before all of us, tracing back to the cross, the kindest of all acts that inspires us in all we do.  Amen.

Let It Go

I seem to have a problem getting rid of things.

In my basement garage, I have a storage cabinet that is reserved for just that.  Often times, I will get an appliance, tool, home décor item, and in the box will be an extra part that is included for some situation that won’t really ever apply to me.  For example, my refrigerator comes equipped with a drink dispenser on the front door with a water filtration system for that dispenser inside.  The fridge came with a plug for that filtration system in case I ever want to not use it.  Seeing that this plug is in some way invaluable to my life, I have stored it in my cabinet of requirement, you know, just in case.  At some point, I might want unfiltered water.

When I first got married, I brought quite a lot of baggage with me, literally.  I had several boxes of crucial belongings that were absolutely necessary to my life, things I couldn’t live without:  old calendars that contained dates significant to my life, tattered movie posters of films I’d never seen, stuffed animals I’d won at middle school carnivals.  My closets and storage rooms were filling up fast.  As luck would have it, I married someone the opposite of me, someone who doesn’t like to look back or reminisce.  So for her, if she hasn’t used it in the past year, out the door it goes.

Over the course of my marriage, my wife has helped me to slowly pry my fingers off my “treasures.”  She started with garage sales, something I went along with because at least my stuff was being traded for money.  However, she pulled a fast one on me, as when we finished setting up, she announced that everything now out of the house was not allowed back in the house.  Once the sale was over, we curbside alerted the neighbors to our stash, a concept I was mostly okay with because at least my stuff was still being put to good use.  However, once the garbage men came, it was goodbye to what I thought was invaluable.

And the funny thing is, I never ended up missing that stuff.  So, I grew braver and started to get rid of more, and I quickly found that it was easier than I thought.  In fact, there was a great deal of relief looking around at all the “found” empty space there now was.  I had been holding on to those needless items so much so that I was mired in the past, unable to move forward, and quickly running out of room for what the future held.

The same can be said for how we needlessly hold onto unpleasant memories and pain.  Like my possessions, when I have a stressful situation, I am someone who holds onto that moment, reliving it over and over in my head, with each replay being just as painful as that initial encounter.  Last week, I noted that it’s just me that’s holding onto those moments when they happen in my life.  At work, I was recently reprimanded for a small matter, and I had been running that moment through my head continually since.  Yet, when I ran into this person a few days later, it was clear that she had moved on and was no longer thinking about it.  I was the one stuck in that moment, not her, and I was the one that was continually punishing myself, not anyone else.  By holding onto it, I had made it a much bigger deal than it was.

Christian author C.S. Lewis said that, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars.  You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”  When we run these painful experiences in our collective heads, we are neither moving past them nor healing.  If we want a wound to heal, we have to stop touching it.  Holding on to these needless items doesn’t help us to grow and prepare for the future: it keeps us mired in a stressful past.  We have to learn to let go and look ahead.  Proverbs 4.25-27 tells us to, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.  Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”  Whereas looking away and back to the past causes our feet to stray, if we keep ourselves fixed on the future ahead, we stay on the path of goodness.  We then maintain a forward momentum of growth and movement, keeping us firmly on the path laid out for us by God.

So how can we let go and move forward?  First know that reasoning out and thinking about the pain or that moment isn’t healthy.  We tend to think about it repeatedly because our mind is trying to get control of a past situation, which is of course impossible.  The key is to give up trying to control what we can’t control.  Let God take over what we cannot.  One way to do so is through meditation and prayer, fixing your mind on things that are good, beneficial, and holy.  Spend time sitting quietly, allowing your mind to consider thoughts that build you up, releasing what it is that’s holding you down and keeping you in the past.  And this most likely won’t cure you in one sitting.  Since that pain is so visceral, your brain has rewired itself to focus on it.  So, repeated, scheduled prayer and meditation will recondition your mind towards the proper path that God has in store for you.  It will take some effort on your part, but it will help you become unstuck from the past.  With the right amount of time and dedication, you’ll be able to let go of those painful items that you’ve been pointlessly carrying around with you, and with your lightened load, you will be ready to receive the blessing that God is ready to give you.  Amen.

Working Hard is Hardly Working for You

I’m really busy, lately.  I won’t bore you with the details, but what is most telling during this time is how cluttered my home desk gets, and not with work.  Instead it’s filled with materials that I find relaxing, items that help me get away from it all: comic books, enjoyable readings, Sudoku puzzles, newspapers, and magazines.  Since they have nothing to do with work, they are not a priority, and are left untouched until I am no longer busy.  One can usually get a sense as to how busy my life is by how chaotic this area is: the more there is, the busier I am (and conversely, when fully empty, it means that I have time for leisure activities).  So, during this time of heavy work, there gets to be quite the pile.

In mentioning this scenario, most people don’t really see a problem.  For those of us who prioritize well, we know that we get done what needs to get done first, looking to escape later when there is time to escape.  Yet, look at that word: “escape.”  Why do we call these activities escapist if we don’t get to them until there is nothing from which to escape?  Why do we wait until everything is finished before we start them?  The obvious reason is because there is work to do, but I would like to make a case that excessively working without these escapes is nothing more than a futile exercise in entropy.

Put simply, one of the laws of entropy (or thermodynamics) suggests that for some tasks, the more effort you put in, the fewer results you will get in return; the harder you try, the less you’ll succeed.  For example: a student has a test tomorrow, and when he gets home, he tries to read the relevant chapters, scanning them several times.  He then takes notes on those chapters, filling out several pages worth.  Next, he chooses to stay up late and quiz himself on those chapters, creating flashcards and diagrams to help with his studying.  He sets an early alarm to review all the material.  On the bus in, he works towards memorizing all his notes and reviewing his flashcards.  He continues to study up to the minute that the test is given, yet when he gets his grade back, the grade is not as high as the other student who studied for a few hours when she got home, had dinner with her family, made one set of flashcards and reviewed them twice, watched a little television, got lots of sleep, and didn’t study at all when she got up the morning of the test.

I’ve seen these two scenarios play out thousands of times.  The one who tried hard ended up burning himself out, where the one who worked, but took breaks with activities she enjoyed, ended up renewed, filled with energy, and performing at a higher capacity.  More isn’t necessarily better.  There exists, in each of us, a point where going beyond said point has diminishing returns, and we are then not of any use to anyone, including ourselves.  However, when we stop before we get to that point and then couple it with times of leisure, we are more productive despite the less time devoted to work.  God gives us opportunities for rest for a reason, and if we don’t take them, we become overworked and overstressed.

When the work is piling up, we seem to think that we need to tackle it right away and continue to tackle it even when we are exhausted.  We don’t take time to do the things we enjoy, activities that renew our spirit.  Christ felt this way, too.  After a long day of preaching to the crowds, despite their demands for more, Christ decided to get away, even though there was still work to be done.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”  Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.  There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.   Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. – (Mark 4. 35-39)

Even though the storm raged around them, Christ ignored it.  Even though the work was piling up, He was in need of renewal (and more than likely, the only reason He calmed the storm was so that the disciples would leave him alone and let Him rest).  Often, it’s more important to rest and be renewed than it is to tackle the work.  Christ knew that there is always time for work, but there will not always be time for rest.  And the more rest He got, the more productive He could be later.  By accepting these God-given occasions for rest and renewal, we are allowing God to grant us the rest we need, so we can continue to work for Him in all things.

This week, despite the work that may be piling up for you, stop after a reasonable amount is done, and start to do the activities that refresh your mind and renew your spirit.  Whether it be time for yourself, time with God, or time with others, take time to make the time.  The work will still be there when you get back, but by taking the time to do what nourishes your soul, you will be able to tackle the work that much more productively.  Overworking yourself won’t get as much done as you might think, but by breaking up that work with activities that renew your spirit, you can be ready to tackle more later, being the full-charged person that God desires you to be.  Amen.

When Love is Found in the Trash

Despite her strong streak of neatness and order, my wife leaves trash all around the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t the slightest bit aware of it.

I noticed it many years ago, that when she would open something that had a tear-off part to it (like the corner of a bag of chips, the pull-strip to a frozen box of peas, etc.), she would pull it, throw it on the counter, and then put all her attention on whatever she had just opened.  I’ve observed this behavior several times, testing to see if she could even see the garbage that she was leaving on the counter, but after a few days, she still seemed to not notice it.  It was as if the trash became invisible once it hit the marble top.

Since I tend to be wrong in most matters in my marriage (or at least that’s what my wife tells me), I was anxious to point out this flaw of hers and finally be right about something.  I’ve been waiting for just the right moment, but that moment never seemed to come.  So, instead of alerting her to this behavior and attempting to change its course, I decided to do something different: I would change myself.

Instead of seeing her strewn trash as an annoyance, I decided to allow it to endear her to me.  Her refuse-tossing then became a cute flaw of hers, a little secret that only I knew.  Even to this day, I’ve never told her about it, so she still has no idea of her deed or how it makes me smile to see it.  What was once something that irked me regularly, I now get joy from every time I throw it away myself, because it reminds me that I am happy that she is in my life.

When in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, we are often told to love people despite their flaws, because if we were to take the ill-advised time to see others for all their faults and misgivings, we would all run from one another, and the institution of marriage would collapse.  So, we choose to overlook a great deal in one another for the sake of the relationship.  We decide to focus not on what makes one another undesirable but what make each other special.  Yet when the annoyances come up, and they do come up, choosing to put up with them is an act of love.  Love is a choice, and when we choose to see them for who they are, not for who they might be, that is choosing love.

Our sinful nature easily makes us distasteful to one another, so we can only imagine how repulsive it must be to a perfect being.   However, as the Bible repeats to us over and over, God inexplicably sees us for our flaws and loves us even more.  Paul, the writer of Romans 5.8, fully encapsulates Christ’s unreasonable love for us in this statement: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  God looked at us, and seeing our despicable nature, decided that He would do the most selfless, loving thing He could do: die for us so that we could be saved.  The purity of His view on our nature displays a deep devotion to us, one that goes far beyond any flaw we might have.  He looked beyond our flaws, beyond our heart, and chose to love us more than we could possibly love Him back.

Christ puts forth a model in how we should love one another, yet is it really enough for us to just look past each other’s flaws and appreciate one another despite them?  Yes, the act of looking past each other’s misdeeds and imperfections is our choice, but if it is from us, then all the credit goes to us.  So, how can we see God in the other person if we are busy patting ourselves on the back for seeing the best in our significant others?

Seeing past my wife’s inability to find the trashcan helps me appreciate her more, but it also sends me a deeper message about my place on this earth.  It is a strong reminder that even the best of us are flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that none of us are alone in our imperfections.  When we frustratingly seem to be repeating the same mistakes in our lives ad nauseum and become frustrated with the way we are, a little trash on the table is an acute reminder that we are all in this together.  There is a commonality amongst us all that reveals our humanity, reinforcing the idea that there is not even one of us who is perfect, which isn’t a bad thing.

Realizing that we are not perfect and never going to be can be a humbling and sobering thought, yet there is a surprising amount of comfort to be found in it, as well.  Too often, we strive for perfection in our lives, an unattainable concept, when we should be putting forth efforts to strive to more carefully and deeply love on another.  The debris on the table is a reminder to me that I should avoid working towards a perfect life, which only leads to self-righteousness, and instead work towards a loving life, one where I will never confront her about her garbage.  This week, don’t let the annoyances of others and the faults of their character exasperate you, but instead, let it be a reminder of how much this world needs love, and then start fulfilling that need in others.  Amen.


Don’t Stuff Yourself

Despite that the wise in our society advise us to take “everything in moderation,” it sure is hard to follow that adage around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Being surrounded by so many delicious treats, along with lots of lovingly-cooked dishes, it’s easy to want to stuff your face.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I can most definitely relate.

This year, I told myself that I wouldn’t indulge, and that I would take just a little bit.  I didn’t want to dismantle a fairly-regimented eating design.  So, I tool a little bit of everything.  That was my first mistake.

After filling up my plate with a little bit of everything, I took note of the large pile of food I had collected.  I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to that point.  Not a single spot of plate could be seen, and the height achieved was somewhat admirable.  To rectify, I then determined to not finish my plate.  I would only eat three or four bites of each item, giving the rest to my three dogs.  That was my second mistake.

The suggestion to eat only 3-4 bites was an issue, as I had about 10-12 different kinds of food on my plate, the size of 3-4 bites each.  I couldn’t neglect any one food, now could I?  After 10 minutes or so, I was regretfully staring at the clean bottom of my empty plate.  Not that it was bad (that was clearly not the problem); it’s that the food was so good.  I had eaten too much of a good thing, and all before dessert.  As most people know, that overstuffed feeling is never pleasurable.  No matter how good something is, overdoing it never leads to satisfaction.

Additionally, overdoing it leads to a quick burnout, despite your good intentions.  I watched this idea take shape while we were exercising as a family.  We had decided to complete two rounds of a series of exercises (squat thrusts, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  My son decided that this amount of exertion wasn’t enough for him, so he went for the hand weights.  Standing at 90 pounds, he managed to hold a 10-lb weight in one hand and clutch two 5-lb weights in the other.  I didn’t say anything, wondering how long this was going to last.  He made it through about 15 lunges before he decided against this course of action.  He had burned out quite quickly, despite his good intention to get stronger.

Overdoing it never leads to the intended result.  We end up instead getting too much of what we wanted with none of the satisfaction or results.  Think of it this way:  you have to cook a turkey for 1 hour at 425 degrees.  To save time, you do some math, and decide that you could cut that time down significantly by cooking at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.  So, you decide to cook your turkey at 1700 degrees for 15 minutes.  Makes sense on a logical level, but try biting into that turkey, and you’ll see the reality of your inept cooking.

Solomon tried this approach, too.  He decided that since he was king, he could be happy by giving himself everything that he wanted.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2.10).  However, the more he dove into what he enjoyed, the more diminishing the returns were: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (verse 11).  Everything in moderation.  If we don’t overdo it and temper ourselves, we enjoy life more, growing more in the process.

Finding that sweet spot of moderation is key, the point at where you’ve achieved what you wanted but didn’t go too far and ruin it.  It’s the same concept for the things we enjoy as for the things we work so hard at.  We desire to grow and develop, but if we take it too far and overdo it, we end up doing more harm than good.  Athletes work hard to grow stronger and develops skills, but at some point, they risk pulling a muscle.  The same can go for our spiritual lives.  I’ve seen many young Christians get heavily involved in as many Christian aspects as they possibly can, only to get sick of it quickly and reject everything shortly from there.  Just because it’s good, overdoing it doesn’t mean it will be better for you.

Years ago, a fellow teacher taught me that when teaching your students, you want them disappointed that the bell rang, not grateful that it did.  You always want them to ask you to continue to read something when stopping, instead of being thankful that you stopped.  You want them to want more, but if you give them too much, they won’t want more, anymore.  For the things we enjoy, more doesn’t make it better.  God created these things for us to enjoy, but taking them all in at once doesn’t lead to more enjoyment.  And growth, like cooking a good turkey, takes time.  Overwatering a plant doesn’t make it grow faster.  So, don’t go all in all at once; leave yourself wanting more.  Pace yourself and plan out over time.  God gave you a heart that wants; now ask for a spirit that is patient.  That way, you’ll avoid burnout and stuffing yourself, and instead will enjoy the things that God meant for you to enjoy, growing at the speed at which God wants you to, without all of the exhaustion and fatigue.  Amen.

When Life Deals You Bitter Disappointment

It’s been said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your future plans.  We are trapped in the present, with no possibility of seeing exactly what is coming, and for God who exists outside of time, He has a better sense of what our lives look like.  So, when we get our hopes up for what we think is coming, or have certain expectations for our day, it can sometimes be quite foolish of us to think we know for sure what’s coming, which sometimes comes in the form of overwhelming, crushing, disappointment.

Take this past Monday, for example.  With the beginning of a three-day week for me, things were looking good, I had several big plans for some great ideas in motion, and I was hoping to see those plans move forward on this day.

First, I had emailed a great technology idea to my new tech director last week, but hadn’t heard from him since.  Being time sensitive material, I approached him when I happened to run into him in the hallway.  Since we hadn’t yet met face to face, I introduced myself and asked him if he had a chance to read my email.  Not remembering what I wrote, I refreshed his memory only to see a look of horror come across his face with the realization that he had ignored me.  (He suddenly recalled how sick he had been last week and was unable to answer his emails.)  After a moment of me talking, with him trying to get away as quickly as possible, I came to realize that he had no intention of following through with my idea.

Shortly afterwards, an examination of my first paycheck revealed some discrepancies not in my favor, and of course, no one was answering the phone over at payroll.

Next, I received an email I had been waiting for regarding a school program I had been working on for the last three years, something near to my heart.  I was bringing in a guest speaker I had met a while back, someone who impressed me with his take on teenage depression and suicide.  It was a message our student body desperately needed to hear given the events of the past few years.  Things had been falling into place, until I got the email from my principal who wrote that not only was an influential parent organization not supporting the program financially, they were opposed to it.  As such, we were going to have to move to cancel it.

Of course, I received this news on my way to a wake, where what was supposed to be a five-minute visit turned into almost two hours because of the line.  And if you’ve had the kind of day I had, you’ll know that a funeral home isn’t exactly the cure for depression and disappointment.

To add insult to injury, as I got home and got the mail, I found a jury duty notice waiting for my signature.

Life can be pretty cruel sometimes, never letting up even when you’re down.  Just when you think you can’t take any more kicks in the stomach, another is waiting for you around the corner, and the road to total defeat is a slippery slope.  In fact, psychologists have identified what they call the wedge of disappoint, consisting of the following five D’s:kraft_feelings_01.gifMapped out like a triangle, when we allow each one into our mind, it wedges the door open a little more for the next one, which if we allow it to, eventually opens us up wide enough to allow for utter defeat.  So how do we recover in the face of soul-crushing disappointment, avoiding the trap that leads to defeat?  Our answer lies in Moses.

Having grown up in royalty, Moses had been given great privilege and opportunity by the pharaoh’s daughter.  His future looked promising, but when he witnessed an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew, he acted to stop it.  “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand…When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian” (Exodus 2.12, 15).  In a moment, Moses lost everything he had been accustomed to for his entire life, a disappointment to say the least.  He could have spent years wallowing in pity over the life he lost, letting it consistently haunt him at every turn.  Instead, he saw this as a new chapter in his life, one which included meeting his wife Zipporah and having a child, speaking directly with God and receiving His commandments, and leading a nation to the promised land.  He embraced his disappointment not as defeat but as a sign of the next part of his life.  He knew God had a plan that He couldn’t see, so losing his privileged life might have been immediately crushing, but through time, patience, and resting in the knowledge that God would take care of him, Moses became hopeful.

Disappointment is common to us all.  When it happens, we shouldn’t try to shut it down, but instead allow it to run its course to the point that it leads to what comes next in our lives.  For myself, I let that banner day end in disappointment, along with some discouragement, but when I awoke the next day, through prayer, meditation, and a little encouragement from my wife, I experienced a renewing of my mind and spirit in preparation for the new day.  I could have easily moved on to being disillusioned with the people from the previous day, but instead I chose to be open-minded as to what comes next, which wedged open my mind not towards defeat but towards hope.  Allowing the cycle to progress creates bitterness, resentment, and pessimism towards the world and others, yet if we can stop the cycle from progressing towards a damaging outlook on life, we can remain hopeful and open to what God has next for us.  With His help and the passing of time, we can keep the door open for God’s promises and plan through a healthy approach to disappointment, bringing us joy and peace in our lives, drawing us closer to Him.  Amen.

The Beauty and Rewards of a Found Nerf Bullet

As nine-year old boys, my son and his friends are not into academic pursuits, tea parties and fashion shows, or even organized team sports for that matter.  When getting together, they are more interested in chaos, hunting each other, and various forms of minor destruction.  To combat this urge, and much to my son and his friend’s delight, my wife and I maintain a large vat of Nerf guns.

To be clear, my wife and I have never been fond of guns.  We really don’t like them.  And for years, we kept our son from most forms of media that involved guns.  However, as he grew and was influenced by the much older boys on the bus (bad habits and ideas are always picked up from the bus), the desire, and some might argue the genetic need, to play with guns has grown, so my wife and I don’t so much support the idea as try to temper it with Nerf materials.

When the boys are starting to get a little bored and restless (idle hands, blah, blah, blah), out come the Nerf guns, and they dive right in.  Stockpiling them from years of tag sales, I’m unsure at this point as to how many Nerf guns I actually have, but I know we’ve got all kinds.  Some shoot one bullet at a time, others, can shoot 20 in 10 seconds.  Though, what’s great about all of them is that they all take the same bullet.  So, we own a thousand or so Nerf bullets, which if you’re unfamiliar with them, are about 2 inches long, mostly dark blue foam, with a small orange rubber tip.  Chomping at the bit, the boys grab a large handful and go running around the house and yard.

The typical aftermath carnage of said Nerf fights includes dark blue bullets throughout the house and yard, which sounds easy enough to clean up, but you’d be surprised.  As these bullets really gain some yardage when fired, they end up in every possible corner.  As a family activity, we’ll scour the yard for them before the dog or the lawnmower gets them, but we may miss a few.  If we’re lucky, we can gather up 95% of the bullets, but that still leaves 20-30 among the missing.   Actively looking isn’t really an option at that point, so we just keep our eyes open for the next week, looking under sofas, behind coffeemakers, in the laundry, wherever.  Although they are easy to miss because of the dark color and size, if we look closely enough for them, we can find them.

It’s easy to see God when things are going our way.  When the rewards roll in because of our efforts, or maybe despite our efforts, we easily celebrate the fact that God is in our lives.  However, when things start to dry up and the rewards aren’t flowing in quite as quickly or smoothly, we drift towards the thought that God has abandoned us or that He is quiet and lying dormant.  Yet, nothing could be further from the truth, as God has never left.  God is there, if we just take a minute and look for Him.

When someone says that “God is in the details” (a phrase older than the one that invokes the devil), what they usually mean is that if attention is paid to the small things in life, great rewards await.  For example, a buzzing bee may appear to be a nuisance, but appreciating the construction of that creature, the fact that it can fly, mate, and pollinate, as well as the extreme detail that makes up its body’s construction helps us to see the glory that is a bee and how wonderfully made it is.  Pay close attention, and you can spot what is often easily missed.  At our house, paying attention to the fact that these bullets are around but hidden rewards us greatly for the next Nerf fight.  For Christians, it is easy to miss God if you aren’t looking for Him, as God is much like these small Nerf bullets: He’s there if you keep your eyes open.

The Bible repeatedly states that God is all around us and in every living thing.  In his evangelical letter to the Romans, Paul lets us know that we are surrounded by God’s glory, even if it’s not obvious: we just have to look for it.  “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (1.20).  Truly, we have no excuse, because God is in all things around us.  If we don’t see it, it’s not His fault, but ours.  He’s the constant one; we aren’t.  If I don’t spot my son’s Nerf bullets, it’s not because the bullets have changed properties, abandoned me, or are lying dormant: it’s that I haven’t noticed them because I wasn’t looking hard enough.

If you find yourself feeling abandoned by God or you’re having trouble feeling His presence, take the time to look more closely at the details of His creation and reassure yourself that He is in fact surrounding us with His love.  Spend time just enjoying the beauty of this place, and His love for you will become more apparent the closer you look.  It really is quite a wonderfully created world, made just for us, out of love for us.  Now, we need to take the time to open our eyes wide enough to be able to spot what is so clearly on display for us every day.  Amen.

You Need to Speak Up and Say Something

I’ve never been a proponent of silence.  In my classroom, I like loud, brash, full-contact learning.  For me, silence is rarely golden.  My students are aware of this fact too, as they are allowed to participate when appropriate.  And when it is not appropriate, I will let them know, so that they can correct themselves.  Being teenagers, this happens often, and I have no problem calling them out on it, and similarly, they have no problem correcting themselves.  In my experience, I’ve found that it is the way in which they are sharing or the language used that is inappropriate, not necessarily the message.  So, when a student of mine made a particularly ignorant statement, I wondered how I should handle it with respect to her and the other students.  Unfortunately, I choose silence.

As she spoke out about our current political climate, her comments were tinged with obvious misinformation and a somewhat racist slant.  When others tried to correct her and argue, she flat our refused to listen to them, as I silently observed.  When the conversation finally died down, I moved on to the next part of the lesson, never commenting on her statements.  However, that night I found myself troubled by the situation, not so much for her statements, but that I didn’t take a stance against them.  So, I formulated a plan, and the next day I started the class by referring to yesterday’s conversation.  I felt that the whole class needed to hear that I was opposed to her comments, feeling that the comments were uninformed.  I made sure to refer to the statements and not the student, suggesting that they were not acceptable, and that those who stood idly by (myself included) should have said something.  It was a tough decision to make, as I knew I would get blow-back from both the student and her parents, but I knew I was right to label the statements as such, because if I didn’t, it was the same as agreeing with them.

That I didn’t speak out against her words indicated that I allowed them, and silence makes us complicit with actions that surround us if we don’t speak out against them.  For example, if we hear a racist joke, and we laugh along with the joke teller, it is assumed that we have the same values as the one who told the joke.  If we don’t protest, we are lumped in with the offender.  Our true character is seen not only in the actions we take but in the actions we allow, and by not speaking out against someone else’s wrong or insensitive actions, we are complicit and just as wrong as those committing the action.

From a historical standpoint, the Holocaust is filled with such examples of individuals who knew what was happening but did not speak out against it.  If we see evil, it is our obligation to name it as such and work towards its elimination, yet many stood silently by as atrocities accumulated over the years.  Tremendous harm can be done by not speaking out when initially necessary, as evil spreads quickly. Prolific writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech from 1986, felt that saying or doing something when faced with wrongdoing was our obligation:

We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

By not taking a stance, we give evildoers permission to continue, giving them strength through our lack of stance.  In his first letter to Timothy, Paul took such a stance.  In his ministry, he encountered two Christians spreading ignorant statements about the faith.  Paul decided to label the behavior and call out those who were wrong for doing it: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth…Their teaching will spread like gangrene.  Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus who have departed from the truth.  They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (1Timothy 2.15-18).  The teachings of these two were apparently such an infection, that Paul needed to identify them by name.  Evil and ignorance are like a disease, and if we don’t stop them right away, they can spread quickly.  If we take a stand, we can stop them from perpetuating, and like my uninformed student who refrained from ignorance for the remainder of the year, we can halt the spread of wrongdoing through our actions.

So, should we be calling out everything we see and self-righteously point out people’s ignorance?  I’m not sure how popular we would become if we handled it in that fashion.  Even the Bible suggests that when we rebuke, we do so gently, as our goal is to stop the behavior, not stomp the sinner.  We need to pray for wisdom when it comes to how to take a stance and speak out.  Through careful consideration and an ear aimed Heavenward, God will make known to us the correct way in which to do so.  Whether a gentle, kind word or a harsh, steadfast stance be needed, through prayer and meditation, He will reveal the answer to us, but If you see something, you should say something.  The only incorrect path is to do nothing at all and allow wrong and evil to persevere.  Despite how hard it may be, or what costs it may incur, we need to speak out when there is cause to, as by doing nothing, we passively give a knowing nod of silent approval.  Amen.

Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

Having just come back from London and exploring all the local sights, we were anxious to get on with our next ambitious undertaking: Lego London Bridge.  At 4287 pieces, it was our biggest challenge yet, and usually, Lego numbers the bags sequentially to make the process more manageable, but this time the bags were not numbered at all.  So, my son and I cleared the dining room table, dumped out all the pieces, and got ready to settle in for the next week.

After about an hour or two, my wife pulled us away from the table.  I thought her intention was to give us a break, but it was more to make a private comment to me: I was too focused on finishing.  I wasn’t enjoying the process (nor was he) as my goal was to build the bridge, instead of enjoying Lego time with my son.  I was so focused on the end result, that I was missing out on the journey.  Later that day, I shifted my approach, which made for a much happier Lego time for all of us.

This wasn’t the first time I focused on the goal and not the journey, as I tend to have that problem a lot.  We have three dogs, and when we go for a walk, I’m usually at the front, so far out in front of everyone that I have to be reminded that the goal is not to finish the walk but to enjoy the stroll.  I quite frequently and literally forget to “stop and smell the roses,” but thanks to those that surround me in love, I am reminded to re-shift my focus.

I recently wrote about the importance of pain, that we should embrace pain and increase our thresholds if we want to experience growth.  If we want the reward, we need the pain.  Pain is part of the journey, and if we can take a minute to note the pain, along with all the other emotions and struggles during the journey, we will become more appreciative of the end result because we know what it took to get there.  So, we should embrace the journey, no matter how painful it is to get there, as the journey is what matters.

It’s good to have goals, but probably more important is the path that gets you to that goal.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  When we talk about our accomplishments, we usually tell of what it took to get us there, as that’s where our true character lies.  The journey increases our wisdom, opens our eyes, and broadens our perspective.  We are so quick to reject the journey and focus only on the goal, but we should take our time and enjoy the ride.

In our faith, God is the one that can refocus us back onto the journey by putting our faith in Him for guidance.  Proverbs 3.5-6 tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  This verse isn’t telling us to get to the end of our journey and accomplish our goal, but to focus on God who will reveal the journey and the direction of our paths.  By putting our faith in Him, He will reveal to us the steps in our journey, as that is the more important part.

Later this month, I will be running a Spartan Dash, where I am running 4 miles but have to overcome 15-20 obstacles in the process (crawling through mud, climbing high walls, carrying buckets of rocks, etc.).  At the end of the race, I will receive a medal for finishing.  Is the reward the medal itself?  Of course not, as the medal represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the medal and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that medal represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that medal , I won’t remember receiving it, but I will remember the obstacles I overcame.  The journey will be what matters, not the goal.  When I look at our finished Lego project, some part of me will be happy for the accomplishment, but a larger part will fondly remember the time I had with my son building it.  If I appreciate the actual running in the race and the actual building of the Legos, I will appreciate the actual moment instead of missing it because I’m too focused on the goal.

The journey is the present, whereas the goal is the future, and if we focus on the goal, we ignore what is around us and end up missing out.  The great 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller put it best when he said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  If we focus on the goal instead of the journey, life will pass us by, but by looking to Him to make our paths straight, we appreciate and embrace the journey and are richly rewarded along the way, not just at the end.  Amen.