A Dignified Look at Our Failing Reality

We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town.  You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes.  Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills.  Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate.  Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly.  I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse.  It was then that it began to dawn on me:  getting old sucks.

I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar.  My body is just not able to handle what it used to.  And I know that I’m not alone.  I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury.  Whether it was the one guy who, right before going jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.

I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age.  At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life.  It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet.  I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire.  With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, flailing wildly to upright herself.  She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings.  In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on.  To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month.  Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.

Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity.  I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.

Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is that our bodies are not built to last long or endure much.  We are born to die.

The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind.  In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.

Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog.  What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity.  Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live.  Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life.  Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.”  Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.

There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in our selves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful humility of our humanity.  There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech.  It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh.  This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward.  Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live.  Instead, develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  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 more than just the money.  It was that I was able to take next to nothing and create something from it.  Everything I needed, I had laying around me: I just had to take hold of it and use it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regret: The Greatest Motivator

I often ask my high school students, that if they could give words of wisdom to younger people, what would they tell them?  Most have the same sentiment behind them, with messages of “be true to yourself” and “try your hardest,” but one that more frequently comes up, one that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept behind, is the idea to “live with no regrets.”

Our youth culture seems to have adopted the idea that you should never regret anything you do, which is how my students misinterpret this statement.  The idea that this concept is truly ushering in is that instead, we should make the correct decisions in life, not ones that we will be sorry for in the future.  Regret can be the most horrible of feelings to live with, as it is connected to actions of the past, which are of course, unchangeable.  Thus, regret means we live the rest of our life wishing we had approached a situation differently, unable to change the outcome of something that happened so long ago.

In my own life, I have two or three major regrets when I was in college. Of them, the biggest, the one worth mentioning, is that I wish I had spent a semester abroad in another country.  I know many people who did, and they all had an amazingly memorable time.  My wife went to Mexico and lived with a host family, immersing herself in the Spanish-language culture.  My brother went to Belgium and worked with the world’s greatest cooks and chefs.  With great jealousy, I’ve listened to my former students discuss their experiences in France, Spain, and Germany, and about how they soaked up every bit of art, music, theater and literature of the place, while I can only reminisce about my days in my dormitory.

It is said that we more often regret the things that we don’t do rather than the things that we ultimately do.  To look back at lost opportunities is to live in a cycle of hellish present-day torture, one with seemingly no end to it.  To repeatedly hear the words in our mind, that we should have done x, y, and z when we had the chance, is to be filled with despair and helplessness at the missed situation that presented itself, the one we never took the chance to experience.

Regret is also not regulated to any group or individual; all are susceptible.  Even the apostle Peter experienced it while Christ was being arrested, tortured, and headed for crucifixion on the cross.  Jesus had previously mentioned to him that he would deny Christ three times, a suggestion at which Peter balked.  Yet, when the time came to admit knowing Him, Peter denied Christ on all three occasions: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’  And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61-2).  This failure would haunt him for the remainder of his life, that he had the chance to publicly acknowledge Christ to a group of people who were rejecting Him, and he blew it.

But how do we know for sure that it haunted him?  The answer lies in the actions that Peter put on display for the remainder of his life.

Although regret is a tremendously devastating feeling, it can also be one of the greatest motivators, pushing us to live differently.  It can fundamentally change our course of action for the rest of our life, as we know that we missed out on something and never want that feeling to come ever again.  For myself, I missed out on the chance to travel abroad and experience a different culture when I was in college.  However, even though I still feel that regret, I have learned to transform my feeling of regret into a motivator for my future actions.  As such, I now travel as much as I possibly can whenever I get the chance to.  Each summer is spent in a different country, and I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different cultures, more than I would have had I never regretted that initial decision in college.  Similarly, Peter went from regretfully denying Christ three times to being one of the most outspoken apostles for Christ, the one on whom the church was built, the one who preached to enormous amounts of people following Christ’s death, regardless of the consequences.  Because Peter had denied knowing Him and felt that regret, he decided to transform that regret into action and never deny Him again, preaching His name whenever and wherever who could.

The philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was quoted as saying, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.  To regret deeply is to live afresh.”  The issue is not having regrets; it’s what we do with those regrets that matter most.  The deeper the regret, the deeper the change in our lives there can be.  If we learn to dismiss our regrets or try to live without any regrets, we are not really living but are just learning to be numb to life, accepting an existence with no impact on others or ourselves.

So, don’t dismiss your regrets or try to fix them: embrace them.  Like pain, regret is a sign that something is wrong and in need of attention.  Addressing your regrets doesn’t mean they will go away.  In fact, it’s better if they don’t, because they will now be a daily reminder to live stronger and bolder as a result of them.  Then, learn to transform them into actions that steer your life on a different course, one that doesn’t get rid of your regrets but instead course corrects your life into amazing opportunities, thus being motivated to truly live.  Amen.

The Ferocious Grace of the Protective Parent

I once heard someone say that he didn’t think he was ever capable of murder until he had children and learned otherwise.  At first, I misunderstood this person’s concept, thinking that he was referring to the idea that children can really drive a person insane to the point of wanting to remove them from this earth.  God knows every parent has felt that way at one time or several.  However, what that person was actually expressing was that he never thought himself able to actually kill someone until he felt the protective nature of being a parent.  I then understood and now agree: if anyone ever did anything to my child, I would most likely murder them in cold blood.

Now, I write that previous sentence with a slight bit of humor and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but there is a great amount of truth to it in the sense that being the parent and protector of someone, you really feel that there is no end to the amount of protection you would provide.  When you become a parent, you don’t really realize the protective nature that is suddenly invoked within you until someone crosses your child’s path.  I’ve heard hypothetical stories in debates about the death penalty, and the argument of “well, if someone did something to your child…,” and I have always considered the high road of what was allowable morally, and how God’s law doesn’t permit murder, etc.  However, everything changes when you become a parent, because your love for them is no longer driven and garnered by reason and logic but instead by pure animal nature.  Someone does something to them, mama (or papa) bear instincts kick in, and that person better watch out.

I especially felt it kick in once when my son came home one day with a prize that he had earned in class for having repeatedly excellent behavior.  He went into the prize box and took an item of his choosing as a reward, and when he returned to his desk with it, he was met with a number of jealous glances from his classmates.  Later that day, he confessed to my wife and I that one of his male classmates was so jealous of this prize, that he told my son that he was going to come to his house at night and kill him in his sleep.  Being in 4th grade, the likelihood of that actually happening was somewhat minimal at best, so we weren’t so concerned with an impending homicide, but we were upset about the fear that was now instilled in my son.

Through gritted teeth, I attempted to calm my child, letting him know that he had done the right thing in telling us, and that we would work to rectify the situation, but on the inside, I wanted to go out and break that other 4th graders legs.  My instinct to protect my son and destroy anything that was hurting him was so fierce, that I seriously considered hobbling someone one-fourth my age.

My father used to always tell me that, “no one will ever love you like your mother,” a phrase I repeat to my own son often.  The concept there is that whoever my son’s mate ends up being in life, no one will feel as protective or willing to suffer for you as much as the people who raised you.  I can remember my mother, when I was sick, wishing that it was her instead of me who had fallen ill.  I see that now in myself, when I spy my son sick or in pain, that my desire to not have him suffer is so great, I wish I could take his suffering upon myself.

And if our desire to take on the suffering of our children is that great, one can only imagine God’s desire to care and relieve our suffering, as we are His children, a title that we have been given.  Repeatedly, we are proclaimed as such: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!” (1 John 3.1).  Based in love, we are His children just as He is our Father, and given the protective parental nature we feel, His protective nature must be eons more strong and caring.

Just how caring?  To the point that our identity is no longer our own and we are named heirs to His kingdom in the same way that our blood-related children are heirs to our own homes and money.  The author of Galatians 3.26-9 writes about how we are now one in Him and are inheritors of His riches: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  We are so much His child that we are deemed the offspring of Abraham, as if we were of His actual blood and flesh.  So if we are truly children of God, then the desire as Father to protect us and take on our suffering makes sense, and is evidenced in how He sent Christ to suffer for us.

We might be able to only fathom God’s love and protective nature for us, but we can get a glimpse of it in the love that our parents have for us and in the love we have for our own children.  It’s a comforting feeling knowing that we are never alone, that there is always someone watching over us, desiring us to be pain-free and protected.  This week, when you find yourself feeling low and alone, pray to Him who desires to comfort you in those difficult times, and feel the loving, watchful eye that looks over you and is preparing your inheritance even as we speak.  Amen.

Avoiding Explosions and Reducing the Pressure

My son, and admittedly myself, tend to giggle like idiots whenever we open up a bottle of seltzer and find that it’s been shaken up too much beforehand.  Laughing throughout, we flailingly reach to tighten the cap as quickly as possible as we get covered in carbonated water.  As a result of increasing pressure inside of the bottle with nothing to let out the pressure, the bottle was just waiting for our hands to get a hold of it while the pressure was temporarily contained.

Similarly, while a teenager, I made quite the wicked discovery that if I combine water, sugar and a certain common chemical in a soda bottle and shake it up, it explodes with quite a bit of force, as the reaction inside is stronger than what the plastic container can hold back.  Inside this container, the pressure continued to build until it could either be contained or released, and since the bottle was too weak to contain the pressure inside, it would explode at great decibels.  My friends and I had a number of misadventures with that discovery, with thankfully no repercussions in our lives or in the lives of others.

Pressure also builds up in our relationships and interactions, and just like these containers, unless something or someone comes along to release that pressure, it will continue to build until it eventually explodes when it can’t be contained any further, and not always in the best of ways.

In my last devotional, I recounted a story about an email fight I had with an art gallery over a failed purchase that went from inquisition to threats to personal comments to almost public shaming.  It was at that point, right before I was about to post my public review, that I saw how the pressure had built up in these interactions, how all parties were so concerned with being right and having the last word, that the pressure just kept building between us.  We really seemed out to destroy one another, even though we had never met, and I wasn’t sure where it was going to end, either.  False bravado, hubris, cockiness, whatever you want to call it.

Additionally, I noted the physical toll that these interactions were taking on me.  I felt heavier, as if these words were physically weighing on my shoulders.  Slouched over at my computer, I angrily typed, pounding down on the keys while furious grimaces crossed my face.  The thoughts of what I wanted to do to these people, making them pay for their words, ran rampant in my head, and I’m pretty sure that the other party was feeling and doing the same exact things.

Thinking about how a tea kettle, as it builds up steam, needs to vent that steam or else it will explode, I was certain that at some point, someone had to let the pressure out of this situation.  I suddenly realized that I had the power to do it, so I composed that final long email of unwarranted reconciliation.  As I wrote, I felt progressively and significantly lighter, free of our words, as if they were being lifted off me.  When I wrote, I wasn’t expecting anything and didn’t even think I would hear back from them.  I just knew that I didn’t want to carry that burden any more.  I was tired of being angry.

Carrie Fisher once said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.    Anger towards another does nothing but destroy ourselves.  So, to break free from the cycle of anger, we need to find a valve, something or someone that lets out the steam.  Unfortunately for Kim and Julia, they couldn’t find one between the two of them.

These two senior students had been bickering with one another for a day or so.  Towards the end of my class, it started up again, but was increasing in intensity.  For every biting comment one had, the other had an even stronger one.  It would go back and forth until each of them was yelling at the other.  Thankfully, being the end of the period, the bell rang and acted as the steam valve.  However, it started right up again the next day, right at the beginning of the period.  From snarky looks, to sniping comments, to hostile body language, to screaming insults, I finally stepped in to let the steam out and release the pressure.  I excused one from the room and relocated the other to a different part of the room, telling each one not to talk to the other.  It worked, for the moment, so I met with each of them later that day to help them let out more steam and pressure.  After talking reasonably with them and imbuing some patience, they calmed down and realized how each one’s comments and actions were escalating the situation, and how they needed to learn to deescalate, or else ensuing disaster and self-harm would follow: each one was getting so worked up over the other that it was staring to take a personal toll on their individual selves, not each other.

Proverbs 16.32 teaches us that it is “better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”  To conquer a world, anyone with enough strength and armies can do that, but to be patient, listen, and calmly go about life takes special finesse and skill.  The latter is much more difficult as it involves craft and aptitude, whereas the former just takes brute force.  So, the next time you find yourself escalating to anger, look for that steam valve and choose patience.  It won’t be easy, as everything in you will want to bring forth anger, so create preexisting paths to help you calmly go about your way.  Find what helps to let out the pressure and deescalates the situation before the containment explodes.  When angry, some count, others visualize something pleasant, some seek out other people, and others flip the situation around to create an empathetic standpoint.  Whatever works for you, seek His guidance and His model for how to approach the situation, and you will find yourself conquering not worlds but your own emotions.  Amen.

Prideful Rants and Pointless Competitions

Proverbs 29.11 says: “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”

The following is a word-for-word email exchange I had with a Brooklyn art gallery who specializes in pop-art.

Earlier that morning, I received a promotional email, stating that they were having a “mystery tube” sale, where 5-7 artwork pieces would be randomly put into a tube for the cost of one painting.  It was a steal, and I was really excited to buy one.  Since it was a timed release, first come first served, I made sure I was online at exactly the correct time, put one in my virtual shopping cart, got a text message confirmation number, and hit the “finish transaction” button, but a screen came up that said, “Your cart is empty.”  No purchase, no tube, nothing.  I quickly emailed the gallery:

Wondering what happened.  I had it in my cart, I got texts with an authorization code, and then it was gone when I completed my order.

A couple of minutes later, I got an answer.

Recommend not to use that option, uncheck the option in the last page of checkout for next time, it slows you down.

I was incensed.  Not only did I not get it or any offers of help, he seemed to be blaming me.  I returned with:

So, I lost the tube because I didn’t check out fast enough?!?!?

I figured that the excessive punctuation would properly display my emotional state.  His response:

Yeah unfortunately, it’s a limited release. 

Maybe it was the aloof “yeah” or the total lack of any offer to help that did it, nevertheless I was enraged.

Why is there not a timed countdown to checkout out, like most other places, where you have a certain amount of time to complete the purchase?  I’m calling bs on you guys.  I logged in, had it in my cart, and didn’t get through the checkout page fast enough, apparently.   

That’s a (lousy) way to treat us past customers who bother to have an account and have bought from you in the past.  

I patiently waited for an answer.  When three minutes went by, I emailed again:

I had the tube in my cart and someone stole it out of my cart. Do you realize the absurdity of that sentence?  If we were in a physical store, that would not be allowed by any party present. 

I would like this situation fixed before I post my Yelp review about what happened. 

Ah, let the looming threat of negative social media press hang over them.  I figured I had them cornered.  Yet:

No one stole it out of your cart, our website is first come first serve on checkout, you weren’t quick enough and the item sold out before you were able to check out.

No need to threaten with a Yelp review, we aren’t a restaurant. If you were nicer to us, we would remedy a situation, doesn’t look like that’s the case. 

Now he was getting sarcastic with me.  Well then…I could give as good as I could get!

It was most definitely there.  Semantics, I suppose. 

I’ll be sure to include this information in the Yelp review.  Despite your lack of faith in the Yelp system and social media, a reputation is everything, even in the art world.  My statement was to give you a chance to fix this situation before I made it a public matter.  I suppose you do not care for your reputation as much as I thought you did.

At let’s be honest here: you never had any interest in remedying the situation or you would have mentioned it sooner when I first emailed you.

Oh, and your timing couldn’t have been more perfect with this email.  I just read our conversation aloud to my class of high school art students right here in New York.  (There were two art students sitting next to me, but it sounded better written this way)

However, you’re not a restaurant.  I’m sure it won’t sway their opinion of your gallery in the slightest.

After I wrote this email, I sat back with such an immense amount of satisfaction.  I had him at every turn!  I had won!…As long as he didn’t write back, which of course, he did:

You could’ve emailed nicely and asked, “is there any way you guys have an extra” or “if someone cancels, can I please purchase,” instead you went on to threaten us with a negative Yelp review, yet expect us to help and work with you on a remedy?  That makes no sense, we rather help customers who are polite and acknowledging of the fact that they missed out on a mystery tube due to traffic and demand. 

Have a good day, no need to order from us in the future. 

The nerve!  I’d show him.  Then a new person (a manager, maybe?) emailed me with this comment:

This is what you discuss with your High School students?  Can I leave a Yelp review with your superintendent as well?

Now that was personal!  Argh!  And then this from him, too:

I think going for this purchase during class time might be an issue when you should be teaching. 

Don’t worry about future purchases. Added to the list. 

Have a great new year!

Sarcastic and smug!  How dare he!  I wanted to throw my laptop.  So, I sat down for the next 20 minutes and wrote a great, angry, biting review about how I was being treated, how this all went down, everything.  I’d destroy them!  I completely wrote the piece, sat back, and suddenly realized how stupid and meaningless this all was.  I breathed, rethought, and wrote the following email back to them:

I just spent the last 20 minutes writing (what I thought was) a scathing Yelp review about your gallery.  After finishing it, I took some time to get perspective. 

While I wrote it, I was so angry and vindictive, as our situation went from an exciting opportunity to purchase some art into a pissing contest that ended up with personal derogatory remarks about me.  (I don’t say this as a matter of resentment; I’m just point something out for the sake of this email.  Bear with me.)  I believe, and I think you would agree, that our emails got into the realm of who was going to have the last word, and with my review, I was determined that it would be me.  However, I have deleted the piece and ended up not posting it.  

A cycle of anger and vindictiveness was created that involved so much emotion, that by posting, I would just perpetuate that cycle.  What’s the point, really?  There’s enough hatred and anger in the world.  I don’t need to create more or encourage you to feel more anger and hatred towards me.  If I post, where would it end?  You might feel the need to respond, then I would, etc.  It’s all just not worth it.  Why should we care so much about something that is so trivial?  I believe that we are all better than that.

I’m not trying to sound better than anyone else or that I’m taking the high road.  I just wanted to let you both know that there’s no need to continue.  The truth is, I like your gallery, your artists, and your output.  I’m just sad that I missed out on the opportunity.

You still get to have the last word and be right with your previous email if you want to.  I don’t mind.  If it makes you feel justified, that’s okay.  You can even keep me on a “list” if you want.  I just didn’t want to be the source of any more ill feelings in the universe and be the cause of anyone’s day to be marred, ruined, or darkened to any extent.

You can respond if you want, but don’t feel the need to.

I sincerely hope your day improves and that your gallery has a successful year.

After I wrote that email, I felt lighter, as if enormous weights had been lifted off me.  I had gotten myself so caught up in this battle, that I lost sight of myself.  I closed my computer and walked away feeling relieved.  It was over.

So, it was a great surprise to receive this email a little later:

I appreciate the email. No harm no foul. All good. 

I’ll send you an invoice for a mystery tube as we have an extra for you =) 

Hope your day is better too! 


I was shocked.  I quickly wrote back:

Wow.  I really wasn’t expecting that, nor did I intend for that to happen.  I’m actually really moved.   

That was very thoughtful of you.  It’s a real testament to your character.

Thank you.  Truly.  And not just for the tube, but for making the world just a little bit better today.  It needs it.

His final response?  Only this:



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.

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.

Repeat Performance

I know that I’ve written about this concept before, and the repetition of it only reinforces the point: I tend to repeat myself a lot.

As a teacher, it comes with the territory.  In class, I need to make sure that all 25 of my students have retained all of the information I just relayed to them.  So, I will say it once, then rephrase it for them to make sure everyone gets it.  Most likely, I will repeat the information twice the next day, as well as posting it online for them to read.  It’s not that I like to hear myself over and over; it’s that the repetition helps to cement it in people’s minds.

The idea of repetition has been around, and repeated, forever.  Ancient religions, as a practice, have their followers repeat a mantra (a word or sound) several times, which can open up their minds, bettering themselves emotionally and physically.  The resounding nature of the Hindu “om,” which is viewed as the sacred, universal sound of the universe, is repeated in meditation and prayer to remind them of their connection to everything.  Likewise in yoga, individuals repeat the sound as a mantra, unlocking the universe.  The idea is that through repetition of a mantra, or key phrase, you yourself become the key that unlocks the door to those secrets.

Repetition of a word helps to reinforce a concept and remind us of its importance.  Hence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, repeats the word “dream” nineteen times throughout the brief address, as King really wanted to reinforce the optimistic tone of his vision.  Many other historical orators have relied on the same concept, and the effect is memorable.  Whether it be Churchill stressing the multiple places in which we will fight, or JFK listing the multiple reasons to go to the moon, repetition reinforces and makes a message stick.

So, it would stand to be wise then for the authors of the Bible to utilize repetition to emphasize their points.  Among many repeated words and phrases, one concept that is frequently referred to in the Old Testament is the pact between the Israelites and God.  In Jeremiah 30.22, the author quotes God with: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”  These words, and several similar variations of them, are repeated to highlight the covenantal relationship we have with God, stressing the promises He makes, how He will keep them, and how we will vow to be His people.  If it is repeated as often as it is, it must be important, and when we examine the importance, we see how the entire Old Testament is built upon that foundation, thus paving the way for Christ, fulfilling God’s promise of a savior.

How then does this concept translate to our own lives?  I found myself answering that question last week as I was embroiled in a great deal of personal strife, and a specific Bible verse found its way to me that day.  Although I found comfort in that verse, comfort wasn’t what I needed: I needed to believe that verse.  So, I kept it with me throughout the day, repeating it whenever I saw it or remembered it.  And sure enough, the repetition of that verse helped me to deal with my problem.  For us, the repetition of a verse or a personalized motto, can have a multitude of benefits.

According to self-help author Meg Selig, the creation of a motto can alter our thinking and how we approach life.  A repeated motto can change the course of action in your life, replacing a toxic mindset that permeates your thoughts.  It can remind you of who you really are and what you stand for, refreshing core values, strengthening your resolve, and deepening your beliefs.  Whether inspiring you to work at something worth doing or a means of calming your thoughts and mind, the repetition of a motto or mantra has numerous valuable results ranging from breaking a habit, replacing negativity, increasing productivity, or giving you the much-needed encouragement to continue.

There are many options to help you develop a motto to repeat to yourself throughout your day.  First, decide on what your needs are in your life.  Is there something you are dealing with?  Something you’d like to change about yourself?  Something you’d like to face down and overcome?  Then, develop a brief, easy to remember, emotionally intelligent phrase or sentence that meets your needs, or as was my case, find a verse that connects with you, one that helps you through your struggles.  Commit it to paper or to memory.  Carry it around with you, and in those quiet moments of down time (or when things get most hectic), take it out and repeat it to yourself.

With enough repetition, it will find its way from your mouth to your heart and back out through your thinking and actions.  And when you get tired of just repeating it to yourself, meditate on it, thinking about the meaning of keywords, weighing the construction of that sentence or phrase, and evaluating the tone that comes with it.  Approach it from a variety of angles, and you will start to see the change you desire occurring within you.  God’s promises are repeated over and over to us throughout the Bible, giving us a model for meditation and change.  By taking up the mantle of repetition and using it to better ourselves, we can work towards becoming more Christlike in our words and actions, developing towards an existence that more models our savior.  Amen.