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.

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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.

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.

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.

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 done for 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 (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 two possibilities that exist in this scenario.  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.