When Life Deals You Bitter Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Mouthful of Guilt and Shame

As the dentist checked each of my teeth meticulously, he uttered a brief technical term number of concern to his assistant.  I had been going to this dentist for many years, and for the last 43 years, I had proudly proclaimed that I never had a cavity, a fact of which my dentist was acutely aware.  So, much to my surprise, after he finished the exam he informed me that, in fact, I had a small cavity on the surface of a back tooth.

He braced himself and said to me, “Now, I know that this is probably a blow to your ego,” (it was), “but it’s only a small spot that can be easily removed.”  I was devastated, my perfect record shattered.  I reeled with questions about how this could happen, what did I do to deserve this, and where had I gone wrong.  He reassured me that it was next to nothing, but the problem with next to nothing when it comes to cavities is that it’s still a cavity.  You can’t be a little pregnant: you either are or you aren’t.

All week, I felt completely self-conscious about my mouth.  I could feel it slowly spreading to my other teeth.  I felt as if I needed to be brushing more, that my mouth was now diseased, and that more importantly, everyone could see that I had somehow been neglectful of my oral hygiene.  Make way!  Unclean!  I was mortified to be seen in public, as everyone would probably figure out that I had ruined myself and developed rot in my teeth, and I’d appropriately be labeled a leper.  

As far as ruined perfection goes, like the small blight on my perfect pearly whites, as Christians, even the smallest sin makes us imperfect sinners, where He is perfection incarnate.  Because of our sin, we cannot enter His presence.  Although this fact bears repeating, it is mostly a given in Christian circles.  The idea is pressed firmly into our souls.  Yet what we often overlook is Satan’s role in the proceedings after forgiveness occurs.

As a forgiven people, we frequently forget our forgiven status, as Satan will do whatever it takes to drive a wedge between us and God.  So, he reminds us of our sin by means of guilt and shame, having us relive our mistakes repeatedly in our minds.  Resultantly, our thoughts run in circles around our faults, errors in judgement, and poor choices as we become anxiety-ridden with the labels we place on ourselves as defined by our actions.  Satan makes these sins seem much bigger than they actually are in our own head, but we forget that since God has forgiven us of our sins, He also forgets them.  In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he writes to his audience regarding God’s opinion towards our sinful actions: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:12).  If we are remembering our forgiven sin and feeling shame, those feelings are not from God, as they reject the forgiven aspect of our actions, thus denying His nature and separating us from Him.  If we focus on being forgiven, we are grateful and give thanks and praise; if we focus on the guilt, we are embarrassed and want to run and hide.  So to keep our focus on Him, we must remember this fact:  our sins and mistakes are not as big or as noticeable as we think they are.

In her TED Talk entitled “Don’t Regret Regret,” American author and journalist Kathy Schulz talks about a tattoo she has on her shoulder that she lamented from the moment she got it.  After talking about how horrible it was for the majority of the talk, she finally reveals it to the audience, as they all realize that it isn’t that bad of a tattoo.  In her reveal, she helps us realize that often times our mistakes in life are not as ugly or as big as we make them out to be to ourselves.  Similarly, when I finally went to get my cavity filled, it was on the surface so much so that I didn’t even require any anesthesia.

Putting an optimistic spin on the way we view our mistakes, Schulz summarizes with the idea that our mistakes should not “remind us that we did badly; (but should) remind us that we can do better.”  If we can view our own forgiven sin in that light, we prevent Satan from haunting us with the specter of our past selves, and we can instead see the perfect image of our future self that will be made complete in His glory.  For that reason alone, we should not allow guilt and shame to control us, but we should rejoice in that we are free from the shackles of self-imposed disgrace.  Sometimes a small fixed cavity is nothing more than that.  Amen.

Good Grief

Although an assurance, death is never something for which we seem to be prepared.  As those who are left in its wake, our confidence is often shaken and our endless questions remain.  Though answers sometimes elude us, what is certain is that we as a collective do not discuss the process enough or even know how to handle its aftermath.

This week, I took part in the receiving line at my father-in-law’s funeral service, a viewpoint of death from which I had not previously experienced.  Standing next to my family, I shook hands with extended relatives, friends, former students, and past co-workers, all of which had wonderful stories and anecdotes about how he had touched their lives.  Outwardly, we attempted to put on the bravest face we could find, reaching down deep for some sort of superficial courage, but inside, we were wracked with shock and a bevy of emotions at our loss.  Although mostly unspoken, I could see the deep grief etched into the faces of my family and those who were left behind.

Grief has come to be understood as a necessary part of the process; it’s the survivor’s way of grappling with death firsthand and with the confusion that comes as a result.  Yet, we seem to have a problem with how to address grief.  Mistakenly, many view grief as a weakness of faith and do not fully understand or accept it, so we tend to be unsure as to how to deal with it when we encounter it.  Because we don’t talk enough about it, when we see it we attempt to cure it, thinking that grief is a human flaw.  However, grief is a sign of faithful individuals wrestling with the complexity of life and the seemingly contradictory nature of death when juxtaposed with an all loving creator.

So, when we expressed our grief to some, we received well-intentioned but dismissive comments intended to halt our grieving process.  When people saw us struggling with grief, their work mistakenly turned away from comforting and gravitated more towards justifying the situation, moving from an emotional response to a logical one.  In our faith journeys, we are sometimes (although not enough) taught to question everything, but when grief rises to the surface, we are too quick to dismiss it instead of embracing it and allowing it as part of that journey.

Reasonably, the limitations of human knowledge lead to uncertainty within all of us.  We are unable to answer the simple question of “why,” as the answer eludes us as long as we reside on this side of the curtain, while the heavenly realm continues to exist behind the thin veneer that separates us from our complete knowledge.  Resultantly, doubt creeps in from the lack of answers, not as a sign of our loss of faith but instead from a lack of satisfying responses to our endless questions.  Hence, when we are filled with pain and doubt, grief emerges not as a sign of faithlessness but as a sign of our humanity.  In Matthew 27.46, a crucified Christ, limited by human knowledge and wracked with pain, cries out in grief to His father and creator. “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”  Much like ourselves, Jesus’ answer was not provided to Him in that moment, and like Him, we are fundamentally forced to confront our doubt.  Also like Him, our agonized uncertainty is not a reflection of faithlessness but is the sign of one’s individualized wrestling with questions and a frustration with our limitations as imposed upon us by our humanity, none of which should be dismissed.

Grief makes us not so much question God’s existence but instead question our understanding of our faith, refining it not through commonplace platitudes but through empathetic understanding and acceptance.  Despite the emotional toll it may take, we need to resist the urge to halt or dismiss grief, as we need it to help us through these difficult times and emerge a more mature Christian.  Although oftentimes unpleasant, a Christ-like wrestling with our faith and our doubt through grief leads us to a stronger, steadier understanding of our existence and further solidifies our relationship with God.  Amen.

Grappling with Prayer, Searching for Answers

I’ve always had a difficult time with prayer.  In my endless searching, the problem I’ve always had has been exactly what the nature and purpose of prayer is.  At a young age, much like many other children, I was taught the Lord’s Prayer as a means of praying, not really understanding what each part meant.  Then, also like many, I would tack on my list of requests for blessings (naming the people closest to me), followed by a list of desires (things that I wanted to see happen in my life).  As I grew older and searched more, the words of the Lord’s Prayer deepened, and I understood them beyond just a memorization, however the way in which I would pray never reconciled with what my beliefs about God and the world were.  Many of us use prayer as a wish list, and the intensity of that wish list increases as the situation becomes more desperate.  A lost wallet or a possible failed test invokes passionate prayer, whereas a life of contentment and ease leads to calmer, contemplative prayer.  So, is the success of prayer based on human effort?  Just before Christ’s death on the cross, His prayer “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42) models for us to not request our own desires but to look to adhere more to His.  Similarly, Søren Kierkegaard theorized that the purpose of our prayers “is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,” an idea that suggests our goal not be to change God’s mind, but instead our own path and mentality.  So, the words of the Lord’s Prayer “your will be done” and the follow up list of requests as pulled from my own will seem to contradict each other in approach.  CS Lewis, a fiercely private individual, was often asked about his prayer life, but would dodge these questions, feeling that prayer was something that was done, not talked about.  However, he too struggled with the purpose of prayer, feeling that requests (petitionary prayer) conflicted with the Lord’s Prayer (a surrendering to His will).  Lewis was quoted as saying that in his search, he worked towards “prayer without words,” a form of prayer that allowed him to meditate on individuals and visualize events without having an agenda towards a desire.  Additionally, he felt that in our search for how to pray, asking the question “Does prayer work?” misleads us into thinking that prayer’s success is an act of the will (the more faith we have and the harder we pray, the more likely our prayers will be answered).  In searching out answers for this apparent contradiction, Lewis felt that more surrendering and less requesting was in order, as requests are based in our sometimes short-sighted, earthly emotions, whereas surrendering allows for His perspective.   Like Lewis, our views on prayer are limited by our human perspective: we don’t have the answers and don’t know what effect prayer has.  Maybe our prayer requests, although important, are not how we should pray but instead may give us clues on which to focus.  Instead of a laundry list of requests, maybe when we tell others that they are in our prayers, in addition to providing comfort with those words, we then look to pray without words, seeking a meditative approach for support, as only God knows what is best for them.  We can allow ourselves and others to be drawn closer to Him not by putting conditions and stipulations on our expectations but instead wordlessly including those around us and supporting them in Him through ways we may never understand and down paths we didn’t even know existed.  Instead of focusing on our feelings about God, we could instead focus on God.  More importantly, although we don’t have all of the answers regarding how to pray, we can continue to seek them out, struggling to understand prayer through communion with Him.  It is then, in the quiet struggle and boundless searching, that we truly find Him.  Amen.

When Immaturity Results in Unfounded Fears

With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve start a new yearly tradition: watching scary movies.  Now, I know that this practice seems like a no-brainer to many people, but for me it’s something entirely new.  In my youth, I’d always been too afraid to watch anything in the horror genre.  As such, many perennial and seminal classics have passed me by, and I am now playing catch-up by watching such favorites as “Halloween”, “Poltergeist”, and “The Exorcist” for the first time.  Although I am thoroughly enjoying my time going through them (as many of them are amazingly engrossing movies with excellent scripts), I find that they are not as scary as I had feared.  Like the small child that forever feared that the bogeyman lived in his closet, and upon investigating, found only his hanging clothes and a few forgotten about toys, I’m feeling somewhat foolish, as it took me thirty or so years to work up the courage to watch these movies.  They may have been frightening at the time, but now they are quaint and amusing.  However, I would argue that it’s not necessarily the movies that have changed, but that it was me.  For example, I was watching a forgotten about 1987 movie entitled “The Gate” the other day, and found it to be both goofy and somewhat predictable.  Afterwards, I watched a positive review of the film and was encouraged to view it through the eyes of a pre-teen.  When I rethought the film, I realized that scenes where rubber latex demon arms reached out from under a bed to grab at the main heroes would have been completely terrifying to a ten-year old me.  Similarly, another scene where the main character grows a functioning eye in his hand would have absolutely and completely freaked me out.  However, because I now know that nothing frightening will ever be waiting for me under my bed, save for some over-sized dust bunnies, and that the chances of an eye growing out of my hand are next to none, these events don’t phase or affect my current viewing self.  I have grown and matured as an adult, and those child-like fears do not affect me anymore.  My thinking has matured to where I know that these sights are not real, and thus ridiculous and not frightening.  1 Corinthians 14.20 suggests that we approach evil in a similar manner: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”  Paul encourages the Corinthian church and us that our minds should be mature with discernment, that we should be able to logically decide what is good and right, rejecting what is wrong, but that we should also have the same level of experience with evil similar to that of a small child.  We should not pursue evil but should be innocent and devoid of experience.  Christ wants us to mature our minds with knowledge and understanding, but let our experience with evil be immature, which would explain why I would have been so frightened as a child with these films.  As a child, my experience would be small, but my mind would be immature, so I would not approach these films as I do now: rejecting the frights as foolishness.  Because I was so welled up with fear and immaturity, I chose to not watch scary movies, but now that my mind has matured, I am no longer paralyzed in action.  So, in our maturity, let’s reject the fears that plague us that shouldn’t.  Don’t let fear stop us from moving forward.  Let’s mature our minds and realize the fears that are holding us back, as fear is the great inhibitor of achieving truly great and wonderful things with our lives.  Amen.

Imbalanced Animalistic Decision-making

Being a dog owner now for fifteen years, and having owned four during that time, I pride myself on not necessarily being a dog expert, but at least knowing more than the casual dog owner.  For example, I can discern the different woofs that my dogs make at the window during the day, understanding the subtle differences between barks for a stranger, barks for a friend, and barks for a squirrel.  Additionally, I noticed that, for the most part, dogs (and most likely just about all other animals) lack an ability to make an informed decision regarding any issue in their lives.  For example, it’s early morning when the entire house is still asleep, and one of my dogs decides to not only start scratching his ear, but also to do so in a fashion where his foot violently and loudly hits the floor right in front of my son’s open bedroom door.  I pop my head up from my pillow and shout his name, and the look he gives me reveals that he has no idea what the ramifications of his actions are, and wonders what my problem is.  Another example is when one of my other dogs decides to lay down on the hardwood floor, she doesn’t gently ease herself down.  Instead, she throws herself head first, making an enormous “thunk” as head and wood meet, an action that most likely causes immense pain and headaches.  She probably wonders why her head hurts every time she decides to lay down.  Many might argue that what separates us from the animals is opposable thumbs, the ability to use utensils, or the desire to use the bathroom privately.  I suggest that what separates us is discernment and the ability to consider consequences.  Often times, when faced with decisions, we tend to weigh what factors should be considered, what might happen as a result, what past practice has shown, etc.  We develop an informed decision, a skill that I can only assume is God-given as the Bible is rife with examples of everyday individuals faced with difficult decisions (Abraham and Isaac, Solomon, Moses), who very carefully come up with a solution that is both wise and adhering to God’s plan.  Since we are imbued with this ability, God must have a plan for us to use it properly.  Philippians 1.9-10 reveals that plan: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”  As suggested by this verse, our decision-making process should be rooted in love, knowledge, and insight (what we feel, what we know, and what we believe) so that we may choose that which brings us closer to Him.  So if the process is so clear, what ends up clouding our judgement?  Perhaps it’s found in a lack of balance between these three factors, love, insight, and belief.  Our emotions might get in the way of seeing the truth.  Or maybe something we believe drives us more than what we know for sure.  Or perhaps what we know makes us doubt our beliefs.  What causes the imbalance in these three is our sinful nature, the idea that our human flesh influences one more than the other two.  The only way to escape this imbalance during a time of decision-making is to withdraw from this world, seek Him in prayer and meditation, and allow God to speak to you regarding what the answer is.  This way, you have decreased and possibly eliminated the pull that the flesh has over these three areas, thus giving you sound judgement.  If we seek Him during this time, we can then raise ourselves above this world, putting to rest our animal instincts.  Amen.

Delicious Journeys and Savory Struggles

Being summertime, the local fruit stands are open and abundant with delicious treats.  A great lover of fruits, this time is especially wonderful for us, as there are a variety from which to choose.  What always struck me as funny is how some of the most delicious fruits are the ones that are most difficult to open.  Take the pineapple, with its sharp top barbs and difficult to hack at skin.  It takes tremendous effort to get to the edible parts, but the process is worth it. Another is the pomegranate, which houses delectable seeds, but whose outer skin/shell is tough to open and navigate.  Then there’s the coconut, which given the proper machete, you should be able to eat it.  Yes, the struggle is tough, but that great effort makes the rewards that much sweeter.  Similarly, I am reminded of a martial arts student I recently witnessed, attempting a very difficult brick break.  He had two large bricks on top of several cinder blocks and was planning on jumping up and back-kicking the bricks.  I watched him work up to the break, convincing himself of his impending success, only to have his first attempt be too close to the target.  He ended up knocking over the entire structure, without breaking the bricks at all.  His second try was just as unsuccessful, but not quite as disastrous, as he managed to knock over but not break only the top levels.  All around him, other students were successfully accomplishing similar breaks as this man failed time and again.  Their success was met with cheers and excitement, where his failures were met with anticipation and disappointment.  The masters pulled him aside to talk him through the break, but the look of discouragement was palpable.  The crowd began to rhythmically slow clap for him, encouraging him.  One last time, he stared down his target, lined himself up, jumped as the crowd waited, and successfully broke his bricks.  The crowd jumped to their feet in applause as he ran about the square wildly, waving his arms in triumph.  The response to his break was greater than any other there, because the audience had seen him struggle, fail, and finally overcome his obstacle.  Had he succeeded the first time, the reward would have been good, but because of the struggle, the reward was that much greater.  When we struggle and succeed, as opposed to solely succeeding, we become greater through the process and the outcome is better than had the success come easily.  Romans 5.3-5 shows that great effort, although discouraging and difficult, is good for who we are: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”  Struggle makes us stronger than if we had just easily succeeded.  When hatching, a baby bird must struggle against its shell to strengthen its wings and then grow up strong, but when it hatches easily, it stays weak and develops as such.  Like baby birds, when we struggle, our growth pulls at us, tearing at our inner fiber, but when we overcome, our fiber and ourselves are stronger as a result, we grow more than we normally would have, and we celebrate more in the end because of the journey, not just the result.  When we struggle, God roots for us, and when we finally push through that struggle and succeed, God jumps to His feet in celebration because of the journey.  So as you become discouraged in your struggles this week, know that the taste of victory grows exponentially as a result of the journey.  Amen.

The Fairness Principle, and Other Complaints

The phrase “that’s not fair” is a frequently uttered one by anyone under the age of 9.  In the teenage years, that same phrase is spoken approximately 7 times a day.  As we age, even though we don’t speak it as much, our minds still hold onto it and use it as a measuring stick throughout our day.  Apparently, everyone, regardless of age, has a certain judicial sense that states that life and situations should turn out fair, but of course we all know too well that the times when life is actually fair are few and far between.  To take an example from a recent sermon I heard, when we see a pregnant woman abusing her children being watched by a woman unable to conceive who has more than enough love to give, our fairness sense kicks in and we wonder how life can be this way.  As a species, we feel that those who want should get, those who wrong should be stopped, those who care should be rewarded, and those who hurt should be punished, but injustice is in abundance in our world.  In reading my students’ personal class journals, I’ve witnessed the unfair treatment of them in their short lives.  I’ve read about abuse, death, mistreatment, and rejection.  My first thought is almost always the same: it’s not fair that they should be dealt should a horrible hand and have to suffer through the pain and heartache that they have.  This level of awfulness really makes one question why God would allow so much of it in this world instead of enforcing fairness.   So what is God’s purpose for excluding fairness?  Why would the creator of the world decide to eliminate such a seemingly important aspect of our lives?   A thought came to me recently as I was dealing with a very unfair situation:  the world is unfair so that God can create situations where He can be glimpsed through others during those unfair times.  This week, my students have had to deal with the sudden and untimely death of one of their classmates, a boy of sixteen who took his own life.  With little to no answers and few ways of coping, these teenagers were plunged into tremendous pain and confusion in dealing with the unfair loss of their friend.  Although he was not a student of mine and I barely knew him, I, along with others like me, went to the wake to support those who did know him.  It was there that God was able to work through us as we comforted those in need, gave shoulders for the broken, and words of love to those who had none.   Others were able to glimpse God’s love through us.  Philippians 2:13 writes about how God can use us to display his love: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  But what does that concept have to do with the world being unfair?  Well, if the world were fair, we would rely on that fairness for everything, but because the world in not fair, we rely on God and others for love and comfort.  Fairness eliminates the need for others and any emotional component, whereas unfairness requires a need for us to love and care for one another.  It’s in that space of unfairness that God is able to do His work and complete His plan; our job is to be open for His instruction and ready to carry out that plan.  This week, pray for readiness to carry out His plan through you, as it may be one of the few glimpses of God that people get in their daily unfair lives.  Amen.

Wise Answers for Misguided Requests

Questions can get us into a variety of trouble, as many times the answer is not what we really want to hear.  Sometimes, we are not ready for the truth.  Seemingly simple questions like “Do you think I can wear this when I go out?” or “Does this make me look fat?” are not so simple, especially if the person asking the question is not prepared for that truth.  I recently heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu tell a story about a man who was driving his car along an empty road at the top of a mountain.  The man came to a dangerous curve, when the car proceeded to plunge over the side of the mountain.  Miraculously, the man was able to throw himself from the car as it plummeted into the ravine, but he was able to grab hold of a very small, slender branch hanging over the cliff.  Beaten and bruised, he shouted, “Help!  Is there anyone there?”  His grip loosening and his body starting to weaken, he heard a loud voice from the heavens call to him: “Let go, my son, and I will catch you.”  There was a pause and a silence afterwards, until the man shouted, “Help!  Is there anyone else there?”  Sometimes, the answer we get is not always the answer we want.  We sometimes have it set in our minds what the answer should be, but when we get something other than what was expected, we don’t know what to do.  Or sometimes we are surprised with the answer.  I can remember two colleagues of mine from years ago that I absolutely detested based on their personalities, the things they said, their actions, everything.  I prayed that God would remove these people from my life, that He would transfer them, get them fired, have them quit, or anything to get rid of them.  Today, I count them as two of my closest and most valuable friends.  It was not the answer I was looking for, as I wanted God to change them and their situation.  Instead, he changed me and my outlook on them.  I often forget that when God answers prayers, He is doing it out of the love and kindness of who He is.  Matthew 7.9-11 establishes that we can trust His answers, as He would never give us one that would steer us down the wrong path: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”  So what happens when our prayers are seemingly unanswered?  God is clearly not ignoring, abandoning, or hating us.  Maybe we are just asking for the wrong thing.  Instead of me asking to change my co-workers, in hindsight what I should have been praying for is for God to change my opinion of them.  Perhaps when we pray in a situation like that one, we should not be asking God to change our situation, but for the ability to handle it.  Or maybe it’s that He’s got bigger and better plans for our lives, as evidenced by how I couldn’t see the pivotal role these two people now play in my life.  Too often, we place that verse about getting what we want when we ask in His name square in the middle of our requests.  But whereas our requests are based on our own timetable and laced with our own selfishness, His answer is based on pure love and selfless sacrifice.  If God truly loves us, then He will give us what is best for us, which is not always what we are seeking.  Amen.

The Forgotten Ramifications of Selfish Actions

One of my favorite genres of entertainment, be it TV, movies, whatever, is that of time-travel narratives.  The idea of being able to change the past and have an effect on future events has always fascinated and entertained me.  One of my favorite movies (and my son’s, which illustrates my upcoming point) is “Back to the Future,” where the main character accidentally travels back to when his parents were young and alters his own future by making them better people.  However, the ramifications of our actions don’t necessarily have to solely transcend time: the effect can be immediate.  In fact, a popular theory called “the butterfly effect” suggests just that concept: when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, it can cause a hurricane on the other side.  It’s an extreme example, but the concept is clear:  actions have reactions, sometimes to enormous effect.  Throwing the tiniest pebble in a calm lake creates ripples that can cover the entirety of the body of water.  Trying to remember and apply this concept for myself, I keep in mind that my personal decisions can have far-flung consequences with results that go well beyond myself.  For example, when I run and exercise, yes I am benefiting from my efforts by being healthy and feeling good about myself, but I am also making an investment in my son’s future, making sure that my health will last so that I will be around for when he grows up.  He is someone I deeply care for, so I want to make sure that I can provide for him by being there for him.  I am also acutely aware that he will grow up to become just like me in many ways, imitating me in my views and practices, so I want to be a good role model for him.  We too often forget that our actions have consequences for others, that for every bad decision we make, we don’t just affect ourselves but we also negatively and selfishly affect those around us.  Moses found this lesson out the hard way.  In the Old Testament book of Numbers, Moses and the Israelites are finally released from captivity and slavery and are working their way to the Promised Land.  As they approach it, despite the solid promises from God about the great land ahead and how He will bless them abundantly with it, Moses doubts and chooses to send spies out to see what awaits them.  Angry with Moses’ decision to do so, God chooses to punish everyone and have them all wander the desert for much longer:  “For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you” (14.34).  Because of Moses’ poor decision, the Israelites were denied access to the Promised Land and were forced out to the desert.  His bad decision severely affected everyone, and his inability to trust God rippled outward and punished not only himself but the people around him, too.  As we move through life, our selfish behaviors, our bad habits, and our sins affect more than just ourselves as they ripple through the people around us.  For every word we speak, every action we make, the persona we put forth, the character we display, there are consequences for these things.  You may not think you are harming yourself, but you might be silently destroying those who love and care for you.  This week, when you throw your pebble into the water, avoid creating waves of toxin headed for the people in your life; make sure that your ramifications have encouraging and uplifting effects on those people.  Be the change for good you desire for others and let that change flow outward.  Amen.