Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm.  Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.

According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind).  Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people.  They are frozen in place just thinking about it.  Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.

The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns.  Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God.  When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.

When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil.  18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.”  If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?

Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up.  When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God.  The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught.  If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”

Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”  When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil.  If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.

Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him.  Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving.  Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well.  They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.

It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court.  Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.”  God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path.  Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him.  Amen.

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.

Paving the Path with Calloused Understanding

In my part of the world, usually around this time of the year, the same scenario occurs regarding the safety of our children and their relationship to the environment.  Temperatures end up dipping drastically, stay well below freezing, resulting in soft, mushy snowballs becoming deadly rock-solid weapons in the hands of most.  This snow usually arrives around December, falling lightly and leaving a soft, pillowy covering on our lawns.  Sled grooves are created, snowmen are constructed, and forts abound.  Yet, by mid-January, those grooves become walking hazards, snowmen become grotesque in their features, and forts are now highly fortified bunkers.  Through repeated exposure to the cold temperatures, our once enjoyable snow becomes impenetrable, and anyone who didn’t clear off a surface back then has no chance of doing so now.

Repeated exposure to a harsh environment can harden even the softest of surfaces.  Musicians, through repeated use of their hands on their instruments, develop callouses that build up over time, hardening their skin until the they have little to no feeling in that area.  Hardened steel, a process where metal is exposed to extreme heat and then resists bending and warping, can be used in the creation of machinery.  Individuals can also become hardened through repeated exposure to harshness from others.  With the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, tell a person something enough times and they will eventually believe it and become that way.  Tell a child he or she is stupid and will never achieve anything academically, and sure enough, that child will be failing classes shortly thereafter.  People who reside in poor living conditions surrounded by poverty and crime quickly lose the hope they once had for getting themselves out of their situation, and even the best become hardened themselves, often times succumbing to committing the crimes that once plagued them as victims.

And a hardened heart is just the beginning. The result of a hardened heart frequently leads to further complications, heading the individual down a continuously wrong path.  The author of Proverbs 28.14 writes about these complications with, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”  According to the verse, not only does a hardened heart lead one towards further destructive issues, it also denies that person God’s plan and blessings.  A hardened heart can block what God’s love intends for you.  However, the verse also provides a way out for the hardened individual, a means for that person to receive His gifts:  humility.  If we are able to come before God and acknowledge His sovereignty, the result can be nothing other than a thawed and softened heart.  Recognize Him, and your path will be corrected.

In a month or so, the spring sun will begin to melt the hardened winter snow, and what was once impenetrable will become soft and accessible.  Much like the penetrating rays of the warm spring sun, God’s sovereignty can penetrate even the hardest hearts, a fact that gives hope to us all, whether on a personal or global level.  For ourselves, we can seek Him in prayer at the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves and accepting His love, allowing it to wash over us, resulting in a thawed heart filled with understanding and kindness.  However, we are also living in a time where entitled, proud world leaders unwittingly criticize everyone who seemingly goes against them, and then with hardened hearts, move forward with their plans, regardless of how it affects others, barely taking into consideration the human ramifications beyond themselves.  For them, much prayer is needed, that they too would see God not as a tool for achieving an end, but as the Heavenly ruler over all of us.  Now, more than ever, we must be praying for them and their paths, that their decisions be guided not by hardened hearts but by the humility that comes through knowing and worshiping Him.  Amen.

Putting the Human in Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

A Life, Fully Lived

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

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

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

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

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

The Readiness for What Comes Next

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

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

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

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

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

Little Daily Pushes

It seems that with every corner I turn, this world and its people are always pushing and testing me.  My son sees how much he can get away with regarding chores, my dogs test how much of that sandwich I’m really going to eat, and my students push for how much homework they do or don’t have to do when I assign it.  My patience is tested in traffic, my endurance is tested in assigned tasks and state mandates at my job, and my tolerance is tested by politics and government.  As a result, I may struggle to overcome, but I am always a better person as a result of that struggle.  However, the one thing that these struggles all have in common is that they are all from outside sources and are (for the most part) fairly unavoidable.  So in contrast, what about struggle that comes voluntarily from within?  What about struggle that we purposefully bring upon ourselves for the sake of growth?  What about pushing our own boundaries for the sake of purposeful growth?  Let me show you what I mean: this week, I tried an experiment during a run.  Instead of my usual distance at a certain designated rate, I added an extra mile but didn’t decrease my rate.  I wanted to push myself further just to see if I could.  In the end, I surprised myself with a better rate than I aimed for, thus learning about myself that I am faster than I allow and give myself credit for.  The fact that I was willing to choose an area of my life, explore it, and push it just a little more has developed me as a person and has made me not only happier but also more satisfied.  Socrates’ quote “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is often seen as a mantra for those that wish to truly live, and similarly, God calls upon us to explore and push ourselves to be better than we are: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3.40).  That we are living is a miracle in itself, so we should celebrate and embrace this miracle of life, adopting an exploratory stance, pushing ourselves daily to develop ourselves as Christians and as people.  Without that push, we invite spiritual and mental atrophy, a shriveling up of our identity and our faith.  We lose the desire to strike out in faith and to take chances in our day.  In the past, I have emphasized thinking beyond ourselves and reaching out to others (known and unfamiliar) not only for God’s glory but also to affect a positive change in our world.  Personal exploration and pushing a little beyond what we know is a key in achieving this goal.  Doing what is safe in our lives will achieve some results, but by reaching out just beyond what we think we are capable of, we allow God to work in and through us, gaining a firmer understanding of who we are.  And these pushes don’t have to be monumental; just explore yourself, find that line, and move one step past it.  Like doctors who suggest that to increase one’s lung capacity you should breathe as deep as you can, hold it, then take in two sharp additional breaths, we likewise do not need to leap, but instead just take a small daily step in incremental growth.  To start, at the end of the day, try asking yourself this question:  what did I learn about myself today?  If you can answer it, then you have pushed yourself.  If nothing comes to mind, then make that your goal for the next day.  That our time is limited here on Earth means that our chances dwindle with each passing day.  Push yourself just a little more and embrace the few chances you have.  Amen.

Slippery Happiness, Unfaltering Joy

This summer, our family made the investment of season passes at our local water slide park.  Unfortunately, so did many other families.  On particularly warm days, we’ve ventured over only to find the place filled with people to the point where each slide has excruciatingly long waits.  Even hiking over to each ride is a task, as the crowds fill up the walkways and movement is at a minimum.  However, for those moments when we finally get to go on the slides, the rides themselves are a blast.  Our excitement blows through the roof as we scream all the way down into a refreshingly icy pool, cooling us off from the oppressive summer heat.  It’s in those moments that we find our happiness, but that feeling only lasts until we hit the next line or swimmer-clogged footpath.  It’s really a mystery as to why we subject ourselves to such temporary happiness there.  When it comes to happiness, we’ve seen how temporary it can be, but we forget that it’s also highly circumstantial.  Happiness usually depends upon who we are with, where we are, and what we are doing.  In our culture, we too often confuse happiness for joy, thinking that they are synonymous (as most dictionaries would have us believe).  However, the two are vastly different, as joy can be experienced anywhere and in any circumstance.  Our society too often encourages us in a “pursuit of happiness” or to not worry but instead be happy, but what both of these approaches encourage is a temporary feeling that cannot be created, but only found, chased down, and held onto for a brief time.  Also, happiness is a passive response to circumstance, so how can it even be actively pursued?  We are so obsessed with pursuing happiness, as it’s the best that this earth has to offer us.  Through the eyes of this world, happiness seems so attractive, but the better alternative is joy, which is not of this earth.  Joy can be achieved despite our circumstances, and can remain well past any temporary happiness that we might find.  Joy is something that is not only active, but also expected of us, as seen in Philippians 4.4 (NLT): “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!”  In this verse, God commands us to be joyful as an act of our will, that we need to choose joy.  In fact, as Christians, we have an obligation and responsibility to be joyful, despite our circumstances, whether they be wonderful or difficult times.  Happiness during hardship is not expected or even possible, but joy during those times is.  Like the happiness I experience at the water park, it is regulated to those fleeting moments of frictionless sliding, but no matter what the situation or crowd, my real joy comes from my active relationship with my family.  No matter the size of the line or crowd, choosing joy by being with my family is more fulfilling, even if we never make it on a slide. Now, most of us seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of joy, as we don’t know from where it comes and or how to invoke it as a function of our own will.  To receive joy, we first need to set the goals of our minds and efforts away from happiness and reconfigure them towards joy.  Then, we need to actively seek joy by following His commands.  As seen throughout the Bible (and especially in Job), joy comes as a result of God’s grace when we seek Him and follow His commands.  The more we follow, the more joy we receive, and the more joy we receive, the more we want to follow.  Through this cyclical relationship, our need, desire, and fruitless drive for happiness will decrease, and our hearts and minds will reset, filling our lives with heavenly joy.  Amen.

Lacking Sight, Lacking Prejudice

Growing up, when my father was driving, I sometimes needed to let him know that the traffic light was changing.  It not that he wasn’t paying attention when driving.  He is partially colorblind and was unable to see a lot of yellows and oranges.  I can remember writing messages in yellow crayon and showing them to him, with him being unable to read them.  I found it astounding that he was unable to see colors that I could so clearly make out.  In fact, he most likely didn’t even know what the colors yellow and orange looked like, or at least what they looked like to me.  I can’t imagine looking at a sunset and not being able to differentiate the nuanced hues and dazzling deep colors that so pervade the horizon.  And his case is minor, as there are many who see no colors at all.  Looking at the world and not being able to know what the colors red or blue look like seems like a tremendous loss, but wouldn’t a little colorblindness in our society be a good thing, especially recently with all of the racial complication we face as a country?  God is often described as being colorblind, that he sees us not as black, white, whatever, but all as one people.  Galatians 3.28 says that God sees us not for our physical characteristics, gender, status, or individual beliefs, but instead for one characteristic only:  saved and not saved. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  For all the petty differences that we use to separate ourselves from each other, God is colorblind to those issues.  This past weekend, I attended a truly unique event in Central Park.  Someone created a Facebook group inviting whoever wanted to come, to a giant water gun fight.  The date and time and a couple of simple rules (don’t squirt people with cameras, no water balloons because of pollution) were the only items on the page.  Approximately six thousand people responded to the invitation, including myself and my son.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what we found was a great example for us:  thousands of people from all walks of life, giggling and squirting each other with water.  It didn’t matter who you were, what your age was, status, or personal beliefs: we were all there just to have fun, and no one was singled out or differentiated against.  If you were holding a water gun, it was a license to participate and get soaked.  We squirted men, women, small children, senior citizens, gay couples, straight couples, people who looked as if they were in gangs, people from all cultures and countries, a man in a wheelchair, everyone.  No one cared about color, lifestyle, ability, gender, or age.  No one was afraid or biased, and everyone laughed, squirted back, and had a great time.  Everyone was equal in that field.  It was a perfect world for that hour and a half, where we were all focused on one goal and colorblind to our differences.  I imagine that the kingdom of Heaven is very much like that field, where everyone is having fun and no one sees any differences between anyone else.  As Christians, our job is to give this earth a glimpse as to what awaits everyone in Heaven, as we should treat each other with colorblind eyes.  This week, avoid getting hung up on the differences that exist between one another and see each other for the sole difference of being saved or not.  Your sightlessness will create a stronger vision.  Amen.

The Uphill Struggle of Contentment – Part I: Times of Plenty

When I ask my students how much money they want to earn in life, the answer is surprisingly not millions. Most wish to have just enough to do what they want to do in life.  They want money to the point that they don’t have to worry about money.  What they seek, and many of us do, is contentment, or the desire to be satisfied with what one has.  If we can reach contentment, then we will never want more than what we have.  However, what few fail to realize is that if you are not content with what you currently have, you will never be content.  I was recently speaking to someone about a friend who is trying to pursue her dreams, has so many of the pieces set up, but no matter where she goes or what she achieves, she is never content.  She has so much going for her, but she cannot be satisfied with what she has.  I mentioned that if she isn’t content no matter the circumstance, she will never be content.  Contentment is something that is achieved despite your current situation.   As an example, Paul in Philippians 4.11-13 describes his ability to achieve contentment despite being shipwrecked, imprisoned, tortured, and rejected: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Paul’s contentment came from above, not from around him.  Whether he was successful or unfortunate, he was content because of his relationship with God.  So how do you know if you are content?  How can you measure and test it?  Well, it’s not in our surroundings, as it’s easy to feel contentment when things are going your way.  And outward events often mask the true inward nature.  Having everything doesn’t equal contentment; we feel content, but that feeling isn’t necessarily a reflection of actual contentment.  Instead, during times of plenty, the contented person is thankful and humble, praising God for all great things, attributing his or her riches to Him.  The discontented person during these times of blessing doesn’t attribute these events to God, as the sinful nature produces pride and arrogance, wanting to take credit for these events often through bouts of self-righteousness.  Our eyes turn away from God and instead turn to ourselves.  Discontented people puff themselves up with their accomplishment, out to prove to the world and themselves that these great events are happening because of who they are, not because of who God is.  Additionally, lack of contentment in times of plenty produces jealousy, with jealousy being the idea that you have some but want what others have in order to increase what you have.  Jealousy means that the amount you have is not enough and you are willing to take from others to increase what you have.  During a time of plenty, should jealousy, pride, or arrogance arise, maybe we are not as content as we thought.  If we look deep enough into our hearts, we soon realize that it’s a standard none of us can achieve.  In truth, only one was so content in this life that He died for our sake, so as broken people, we should forgo outward appeasement and seek inner gratification.  Only through a close personal relationship with Christ can true contentment be found, so ignore your surroundings and look to Him.  Although we can never be completely content, like Paul, we can strive for contentment through a closer walk with Him.  Amen.