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.


The Inner Warmth of Simple Gestures

When entering the cat shelter, even though we are greeted with a variety of responses from all 75 cats, there is one overwhelming response and need that dominates the whole place: attention.  Almost every cat there wants to be petted, rubbed, roughed up, or scratched.

My family and I have been volunteering at a local cat shelter for the past couple of years, where we come in once a week to clean cages, change litter boxes, feed, and fill water dishes, but for the most part, what these cats want more than anything else, is to be acknowledged through human touch.  Since they don’t have owners, their exposure to people is very limited, so when we get near Mew-Mew’s cage or see Joey waiting at the door for us, we know that they just want to have some much-longed for attention.  Sure, there are the few who want nothing to do with people for the most part, as initial reactions are clouded with bad memories and fear, but even the most hardened of feline hearts melt after enough time.  Just ask Smudge, who went from batting at us with open claws to full on mush who just needs to have his neck scratched.

What I’ve observed from these cats is that despite their rough exteriors, their past experiences, or their temperaments, there are common character traits among all of them.  There exist desires that they all share, needs that must be fulfilled, with the biggest being a need for people to pay attention to them.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed at birth with this trait.  To them, there is something fantastically comforting about rubbing up against us or having us stroke their backs.  Perhaps they feel comforted or validated.  Maybe it reminds them that someone’s taking the time to devote efforts to them.  We may never know the impact that such a small gesture makes, but we know that they all want it.

This need is not regulated to just their world: these are human needs, too.  We have a tremendous need for attention and validation.  Don’t believe me, just check your friend’s Facebook or Instagram feed (or maybe your own).  We have a need for others to like our pictures or statements, commenting on how impressed they are with our lives.  And there’s nothing wrong that need; it’s just an observation of who we are as a species.  Despite what Simon and Garfunkel may claim, no man is a rock or even an island: we all desire some sort of connection with others, so that we know we are not alone.

When we need it, it can be frustrating and devastating when we don’t get it.  Posting a picture to social media that gets no likes can be upsetting.  Those days where you walk into work and no one acknowledges that you are there, almost as if you are invisible, seem surreal.  Having waitstaff walk past you while you’re trying to get his or her attention is baffling.  During those times, you feel like jumping up and down and waving your arms because you can’t believe no one notices you.  Not getting noticed when we need it is an exasperating experience.

And a great deal of consolation comes when we finally do get acknowledgement.  Over the winter break, my students were given a task: make a difference in the lives of three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it.  I purposely left the assignment very open-ended to see what they would do.  When I read their responses, the creativity was quite surprising.  Some took it upon themselves to help others where they saw need, but others decided to just change people’s lives for the better by handing out random compliments and smiles.  The responses they got surprised even them, as people radiated the kindness that was given them.  Individual’s days were made significantly better by such small gestures, as we feel comforted when someone notices us.

Feeling noticed and having connection isn’t regulated to the weak, either.  The strongest of us need companionship and connection, too.  The night before Christ was to be arrested and crucified, He knew it was coming, and feeling the immense pressure of His impending sacrifice, asked for someone to be with Him.  He withdrew to Gethsemane and prayed, taking a few of His disciples with Him.  “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26. 38).  Feeling alone, overcome, and lonely, Christ felt the need for companionship and asked that His friends stay and support Him.  He knew that just being there with Him was enough of a consolation, so that He wouldn’t feel as if He was facing hardship alone.

We should never feel the need to go at it alone.  Even the most hardened of exteriors longs for human connection beneath.  We all hurt, we all want connection, we all want comfort.  Just like the cats, we are all preprogrammed at birth with the same basic human needs.  I continually impress upon my students the need to acknowledge someone who is all alone by giving them just a smile, a friendly hello, or whatever else they are willing to give.  Sometimes, just asking if someone is okay is enough to make them feel better.  The idea that we don’t need to suffer alone is a great comfort to many, giving quiet consolation where there is loneliness.

Knowing this fact, don’t feel the need to face things down alone.  Ask for people to be near you; reach out to others when feeling the hardships of life.  Just making that connection with another is sometimes enough to get you through things.  And when you spy someone alone, remember that despite what they may look like on the outside, they may be silently struggling inside.  Don’t be afraid to smile and greet them, as that extension of warmth might be just what they need to get through that day.  Amen.

When Love is Found in the Trash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Beauty and Rewards of a Found Nerf Bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Oasis of Christlike Generosity

At my yearly physical with my doctor, I told him how I had been running more and more over the past year.  He encouraged me to train even harder and lengthen my runs to the point of a half marathon (13.1 miles).  With his great advice, I jumped at the chance.  However, the additional advice he gave me that I didn’t heed might have been the more important: stay hydrated.

For some odd reason, I chose to run on one of the hottest days of the year for my long weekly run (while on my beach vacation, which only made the sun even worse).  I’d chosen to run on the main running strip of the island, along with a good number of other runners as I find that running with others brings about encouragement and competition.  Yet, halfway through my recently increased distance run, I found that I was quickly losing steam because of the 90-degree heat and relentless sunshine.  I’d forgotten his advice, and since this distance was new to me, I was unfamiliar with the toll it would take.  Far from home and penniless (who brings a wallet when they run?), I was destitute, parched, and not sure I was making it home in one piece.  Suddenly, like an oasis in the desert, I came across a huge cooler of bottled waters with a sign:  Help Yourself.  Apparently, one family on the island puts out a large cooler of free water for the runners daily.  I grabbed one, hydrated, and spiritedly made it home all thanks to this family.

Part of it was the much-needed water at the right time, but more so, it was the completely selfless, unprompted giving from this household that gave me the encouragement to push forward.  That this house put out water for those in need was enough encouragement to push me all the way home.  They will never know the encouragement that they were to me, which makes their witness and actions even more powerful.  Weeks later, their actions still resonate with me, and probably will for some time.  But what about that offer of water to a thirsty runner had such an impact?  It seems so simple a gesture, but when broken down, it shows the depth of that act.

It was faceless – Matthew 6 details the ways in which we as Christians should give to the poor.  Of the many points Christ makes in his Sermon on the Mount, the first is in verse 2: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.”  When we give, we usually like to get credit for our efforts.  If we don’t see the smiling faces and hear the thanks, we don’t feel fulfilled.  However, when those actions occur, the impact of the giving is lessened.  That day, no one was standing near the water, no one was handing it out to us, no one was waving us onward.  The water was merely there, and there was no one to thank.  As a result, my reaction is not about how great that person or family is, but is instead about how inspirational that act is, with God’s face taking the place of the family’s.

It was unprompted – Christ continues in his instruction in verses 3-4 by discussing what should motivate a person to give: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Not only should giving be faceless, but it should also not be prompted by anything.  One hand does not indicate to the other to give.  It gives because it can, like the people in the house.  None of us were shouting on the streets about how we needed water.  No one had passed out in front of their house.  They just took it upon themselves to give where there might be a need.

It was selfless – As indicated in past devotionals, when we give, we should not expect anything in return.  This house could have easily put a donation bucket next to the water, suggesting that we should “pay it forward” to upcoming runners, with our money being used to buy future provisions.  However, nothing of the sort existed and not a thing was expected in return for their generosity.

If we want our giving to have an impact, we need to remember these three tenets when we give:  be faceless, unprompted, and selfless.  It sounds easy, but it’s much harder than we think, as we enjoy the returns on our efforts.  However, with Godly recognition that comes through prayer and meditation, we can have our need for acknowledgement met, knowing that our giving is much stronger this way and our witness that much more powerful.  When you give, and you feel the need to be recognized, ask God to fulfill that need for you so that your impact can reach its full potential.  Amen.

Argumentative Choices and Other Insults

I’ve been given the middle finger a number of times in my life.  Oddly enough, it’s rarely been by any of my students (or at least not to my face).  The majority of times have been while I’ve been driving when someone else on the road disagrees with a driving decision that I’ve made.  When my son was 4, a man in another car gave me the middle finger within sight of both of us, and my son interpreted the gesture to me by saying, “Daddy, he’s saying that you should only go one way on this road.”  Indeed, that other driver wanted me to go one way, although I’m not quite sure that where he wanted me to go was where I was driving to.  Either way, these fingers haven’t really altered my behavior or outlook much in life.

The other day, I watched with great curiosity as a middle-aged woman quickly zipped into a parking spot, cutting off another man just as he was about to enter from the other direction.  He blared his horn at her and took another spot close by.  As they emerged from their respective cars, they both began speaking at the same time, she with an apology (which would indicate that she knew she was at fault), and he with accusation about how dangerous her maneuver was, followed by a vulgar name for her.  At that point, she changed from being sorry to being offended, as she told him that he had no right to call her that.  In that moment, the fault then went from her to him, as now he was wrong for calling her that name.  He yelled at her again, now adding insults about the way she looked, but that addition only made his situation worse, because now anyone around him was offended by the way he was treating this woman.

When a problem arises where we are angry or offended, there are three types of argument approaches we can take: pathos, logos, and ethos.  Pathos is when we respond using our feelings in an attempt to sway the other party, logos is when logic is used to persuade, and ethos is when reputation is referred to when trying to convince.  The topic of argument and people involved usually dictate the approach.  This gentleman driver clearly responded using pathos, showing how angry he was, whereas a logos approach would have been more effective.  Had he avoided calling her anything inappropriate in his anger and instead used a logos approach by explaining the dangers of her driving, he might have curbed her future driving behavior, but now she was just dismissing him as just a jerk.

Christ was acutely aware of how to approach people in argument, choosing the most effective method to achieve the means He desired.  Never one to act without thought, He expressed pathos when he kicked the money changers out of the temple, as had He tried to convince them to leave through logic or reputation (sharing that He was the son of God), He wouldn’t have achieved His desired outcome.  His Sermon on the Mount relied on logos, as He knew that He was talking to a crowd that already thought of Him as a great teacher, so He didn’t need an ethos approach, and these people valued reason and logic, so pathos would have undercut His purpose.

In Luke 11, Christ is invited to eat with the Pharisees and the lawmakers, and after assessing the situation and His audience, He argues with the Pharisees first, by using an ethos argument to sway the entire group.  Of all those at the table, He would have known that the Pharisees considered themselves the most strict and law-abiding of everyone, so Christ attacked their reputation: “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash his hands before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (38-9).  By showing the others that the Pharisees were only outwardly sinless, they would question the Pharisees’ authority and listen more closely to Christ’s teachings.  Through Christ’s shrewd choice of argument approaches, He achieved His purpose of having the others question the established authority.

When we find ourselves locked in argument, our go-to choice is often pathos, as we want to express our emotions.  However, we need to take a minute and look towards the outcome of the argument: what do we want accomplished?  When we identify our goal, we can then analyze our audience and see what approach works best to achieve that goal.  Too often, like the man in the parking lot, we get caught up in the moment and say things we don’t mean, and once they are out, we find that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot through our own efforts and our argument is null.  Let’s learn to reflect and act upon that reflection instead of thoughtlessly reacting to our environment.  Take the time to take a step back and see how to best approach the moment, and often, your Christ-like reflection and approach will not only bring you the end you need but also bring peace into the situation.  Amen.

The Warm Embrace of Failure

With the end of the school year upon me and my students, the thoughts that run through the heads of some are often laced with the pungent and distinct fear of failure.  Students need to graduate to their next level of education, whether that be college or just the next grade, and some of my outliers’ grades are just not up to muster.  So, some do not make the cut and thus must repeat the work they did, or did not, do.

What strikes me most odd about these students is that they often become the one’s that keep in touch with me the most or are the happiest to see me years later.  I recently ran into one the other day, who was a terrible student both academically and socially when in high school, failing many classes, yet when she saw me, she energetically embraced me and relayed the many adventures she had been having as a photographer for National Geographic.  She admitted just how terrible she had been in school, but explained that she had figured herself out and was now much happier, hence embodying a key aspect of failure:  it’s good for you.

We as a culture deeply fear failure and try to avoid it at all costs, thus we avoid risk.  Artist Robert Sauber explained that, “If you have no regrets from the life you have lived, your biggest regret should be the life you haven’t lived.”  If we have no failures in our lives, then perhaps we are not taking risks that carry with them the possibility of failure.  So, if we spend a lifetime being failure averse, when failure comes, we don’t know how to handle it.  According to a recent New York Times article, not long ago the faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe an observation they had made: students seem unable to cope with simple struggles because they do not experience any setbacks in life.  Because their students have little to no experience with failure, when it does come, they don’t know what to do and experience complete fallout as a result.

Now, several colleges are attempting to tackle the problem head on by recoloring the idea that failure is something everyone experiences in life, and that people manage to come back from it.  Students are learning to “fail well” and cope with the event when it comes.  Upperclassmen and faculty relay stories to the incoming freshman about failures they’ve experienced, and how they learned to pick themselves back up, learn a lesson, and grow as a person.  Smith College’s program now explains that, “When you can fail well, the world opens up to you.  There’s no challenge you can’t pursue, no risk you can’t take, because you know how to get back up when you’re knocked down.  Your potential for change, for possibility, and for success as you define it becomes limitless.”

Thomas Edison, in referencing his experience with inventing the light bulb, was quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  The more he failed, the more he learned.  His multiple misfires and miscalculations built him to be a better, more innovative inventor.  His optimistic outlook on failure and the lessons he gleaned from them led him to his greatest creation.  Embracing failure helps us to re-evaluate, leading to a stronger self and outcome.  The author of Psalm 119.71 likewise reveals that, “It was good for me to suffer, so that I might learn your statutes,” as his failures gave him a greater appreciation of God’s promises.  Like athletes that re-watch footage of their losses, analyzing where they went wrong and how they can do better the next time, if we take the time to allow for failure as a means of self-improvement, we can grow as a result.

Our failures are not an  end but a beginning to something newer and better.  In 1968, while working at the 3M company, scientist Spencer Silver was attempting to come up with an extra strong adhesive but failed and developed just the opposite: a very weak one that easily peeled off when removed from any surface.  As the project was deemed a failure, another scientist (Art Fry) took the adhesive papers and ended up using them as bookmarks in his church hymnal book because they didn’t leave any glue residue on the pages, thus inventing Post-Its.

This week, take risk where there is the possibility of failure, and if failure should come, take that failure and turn it into a time of learning and personal growth.  Utilize it to grow not only closer to Him, but also to evolve as a person, being one who sees life not as a safe haven for success but repainted as a welcoming series of failure opportunities.  Amen.

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.