Dreaming Reasonably and Achieving Realistically

I have a morning ritual where as soon as I get up, I step on the scale.  I can’t start my day without it.  Each and every time, as I await the blinking screen to reveal the appropriate number and correctly assess my weight, several prayers run through my head, as I hope that I’ve miraculously lost those four pounds while I slept.  As life would have it, I am never four pounds lighter than when I went to sleep.  Disappointment then sets in, as I begin to feel that I’m never going to lose them, ever.

The other day, as I was waiting for the numbers to appear, I finally came to my senses and realized that I will never lose all those pounds overnight, but I might be a small amount (1/4 of a pound, maybe) lighter than I was yesterday.  I ended up resetting my expectations towards something more realistic, and when the numbers came up, I found that I wasn’t disappointed, again.  My realistic goal lent itself to my achieving a measured but reasonable level of success, which encouraged me to work harder towards larger goals, a practice where if we can replicate it in our lives in other areas, will help us to grow in life and in our faith.

My students are often also guilty of this same crime.  I’ve explained to them that there is frequently a direct relationship between time dedicated to writing their papers and the grade they get: the more time you commit, the better your grade.  However, they end up waiting until the last minute to write that paper, leaving mere hours left before it’s due.  They write as fast as they can until they reach the end of the page and then hit the print button, all with little planning out of the essay.  When they get the paper returned with high expectations for a great grade, they are bewildered and angry as to why the grade is so low, as they often don’t connect reasonable effort with reasonable goals.  To try and combat this practice, I’ve been establishing short term goals for them before the paper is due, so that they can achieve smaller goals on the way to their great grade.  I have them complete their introduction on one evening, plan out their body paragraphs on another, etc., thus forcing them to work on the paper over a few nights so that they have more reasonable, achievable, more realistic goals to complete.

There’s something to be said with tempering a child’s dreams and helping those dreams to be realistic and achievable.  Many young people feel that they can do anything if they want it badly enough, but the truth is that wanting is not enough, especially when the object of desire is well beyond their reach.  We love to tell the younger generations to dream big, but when we step aside as they develop an unreasonable goal that they’ll never reach, it all leads to them being detrimentally disappointed when it fails and unable to pick themselves up from their defeat.  Instead of allowing them to develop big but impractical dreams, we should step in and help them to shape those dreams towards something big and reasonable.

As a model for careful and reasonable planning, take Christ’s ministry as an example.  The purpose of His life was to save the world, yet He didn’t try to tackle all of that at once or in a short amount of time.  He spent a great deal of His life working on Himself and his skill set, getting His education, and developing His prayer life.  Waiting until He was in His 30’s, He then started His ministry through hard work and careful forethought: “One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night.  At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles” (Luke 6.12-3).  For someone who’s going to save the whole world, twelve people isn’t that many with which to work.  Yet, He managed to train, teach, and develop these twelve into a strong handful of preachers who managed to spread the message of Christ’s salvation through most of the world over a reasonable period of time.  Christ could have taken in thousands and worked with them to spread His message, but He knew not to tackle such a large task all at once with such an enormous group of people.  Instead, Christ developed practicable, possible goals over an unhurried amount of time, thus finding success at a reasonable, developed rate, instead of trying to achieve an enormous goal in a very brief amount of time.

Even today, as smokers stare down at a cigarette and long to quit, the decision to tackle it seems overwhelming given the amount of familiarity and addiction they feel.  Very few are able to quit cold turkey without sliding right back into old habits.  So, smokers develop plans to close out their practice through a series of strategic maneuvers over a specific time period: small, realistic, achievable goals measured out over a reasonable amount of time.  And just like them, along with Christ and His disciples, we too must set practical goals for ourselves so that we can find a measured amount of success over a realistic period of time, thus earning encouragement towards greater accomplishments.  Should we try to bite off more than we can chew, we end up discouraged, disillusioned, and defeated because we haven’t achieved enough, if any, success.  For your next big dream, approach steps that are climbable, not cliffs that are unscalable, by taking a minute to look at your goals and dreams with the eyes of a realist, one who plans carefully and creates smaller goals that lead up to larger ones, thus not crushing your hopes but cultivating them for the next climb.  Amen.

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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.

Finding the Strength to Forgive

I’m having a hard time forgiving, lately.  It’s not because I am unable to grant forgiveness when it’s asked for.  I’m happy to give it out to people who have a humble and repentant heart.  I am having trouble forgiving when it isn’t being asked for.

When I left school in June and headed into my summer, I’d just had a colleague lie to me, betray my confidence, and attempt to undermine my authority.  He was clearly in the wrong, and I was clearly in the right.  Anyone who knew the situation would agree.  I tried to open the lines of communication between us, so I quietly and safely sent an email that said we should get together and talk.  He never responded or approached me.  In fact, we spent about two weeks not talking and never resolved it.  We started last year’s school year as friends and went into our summers very far apart from one another.

We returned from our summers, and when he spoke to me, he acted as if nothing had happened and that we were all good.  I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I tried to go with it as much as possible, but inside I was not over what had happened between us.  I felt that there was still so much unsettled air between us.  Since this person was someone I have to work with on a daily basis, I didn’t want to start something up again, but inside I was still angry.  So, what does one do when the offending party moves on but the offended party isn’t ready to, especially when it’s people in our everyday lives?

It’s easy to dismiss a person’s wrongdoing when when you can avoid them.  We don’t feel forgiveness needs to happen if we don’t usually run into them.  Out of sight, out of mind.  People who have little to no impact on us can be ignored.  Hence, the person who cuts us off in traffic is a major offender until we turn the corner and they are out of sight.  A person talking during a movie only bothers us until the credits are rolling.  But someone we see often and has a large role in our lives, how can we move forward and let go of our anger when the situation has not been resolved?

But isn’t forgiveness a sign of softness, where we allow ourselves to be a doormat where others can tread upon us without consequence or admission of guilt?  Author and pastor T. D. Jakes has said that, “We think that forgiveness is weakness, but it’s absolutely not; it takes a very strong person to forgive.”  Granting forgiveness when it is undeserved or unasked for is of course difficult, so much so that it takes strength and struggle to be able give it.  We seem to have an inherent need for others to admit that they were wrong and sorry, so to deny that need takes strength, whereas to embrace it is easy.

Take the example of the prodigal son, a boy who demanded his inheritance, squandered it away on indulgent living, only to find himself broke and destitute to the point of groveling back to his father despite the way he had treated his father in the past.  What is most significant to note in this passage isn’t necessarily the son’s return but the way the father treated him when he returned: “So he got up and went to his father.  But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20).  Without even being able to utter a word, the father took his son into his arms.  He required no admission of wrongdoing, no asking for forgiveness, not even a “sorry.”  The father had already forgiven the son well before this moment and was ready to rejoin him whether the son was sorry or not.  He chose to love his son regardless of the way he had been treated, a sign of great strength.

So, it came as a strong test for me this past weekend when my own nine-year-old son said some very bad words in anger to a friend of his when that friend was visiting our house.  Horrified and ashamed at him for his behavior, my wife and I reprimanded him, and we could see that he too was horrified and ashamed.  I so wanted to stay mad and punish him severely for his choice and teach him a hard lesson, but I watched as my wife afterwards took him into her arms and spoke kindly and gently to him, illustrating the way the prodigal’s father mustered up strength and embraced his wayward son.  Their examples taught me the strength it takes to choose love when anger and resentment reside in our hearts, so I embraced him, too.

Christ’s response to us is the same, that despite the way we treated Him on the cross or the way we treat Him daily, He chooses to love us despite our words and actions.  His great strength to do so models for us how we are to release our anger and resentment and instead choose love.  This week, when you come across others that you have resentment for due to unresolved issues, pray for the strength to choose love.  Choose to let go of your anger, and He will lift your burdens from you, helping strengthen you towards a greater ability to forgive.  Amen.

Your Best Life Awaits: Just Be Patient

When my senior student Jackson told me he was going to be applying to the University of Delaware, I was beyond thrilled.  He had visited the campus, fell in love with it, and was ready to be a part of the great legacy that had started for me many years ago.  As my alma mater, I had frequently talked it up in class, touting its many wonderful assets.   I was a Fightin’ Blue Hen all the way, blue and yellow true.  As one of my best and brightest students, I was excited for the fact that someone like him would be representing Delaware, as he embodied what it meant to be a UD student.  But when the wait-list letter came to him in January, his heart sank and his shoulders drooped, dismayed by the lack of unrequited love from the college.

As the months dragged on and his status of wait-listed remained, he began to begrudgingly look elsewhere for his future as the light on Delaware slowly dimmed.  At some time in the spring, he made his way out to the University of Tennessee for a visit, mostly through a chance opportunity, and took a liking to it.  It wasn’t what he really wanted, but it was a decent substitute.  This fall, he’s reported back to me that he is deliriously happy there and can’t imagine life anywhere else.

A wise man once told me that sometimes life makes decisions for you.  The “Jurassic Park” movies have a similar theme: life finds a way.  For Christians, we like to suggest that when God closes a door, He opens a window.  All three of these approaches are basically surrounding the same idea, that in time, we always end up where we’re supposed to be.  The Bible is filled with example of individuals who, like us, were unable to see the planned course of their life, but it was revealed to them in time.

When a group of exiles found themselves discouraged and the light of their hope dimming, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to them relaying God’s words of encouragement: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (29.11).  This verse is usually cited to give encouragement to those who feel lost, letting them know that God has a plan for them.  However, it also indicates that the plan is often known only to Him and not to us.  That He knows the plan implies trust on our part.  We are blind to the course of our life, and we require Him to lay it out to us in due time, and if we trust Him, He will put us where we are supposed to go.

My senior students are panicking right now, as they have no idea where they will be next September.  I’ve been trying to keep them as calm as possible, so I let them know that the people who were sitting in their seats a year ago are all somewhere else now, and that they all figured it out.  Life found a way, and they all ended up where they were supposed to be.  For my current seniors, the only thing that stands between them and the knowledge of where they are going next is time.  In time, it will be revealed to them, so there is no need to panic because they’ll end up where they’re supposed to be.

Years ago, after my son was born, my wife and I tried to adopt.  We felt that we had the means to help someone who had nothing, so adoption would give us that opportunity.  We applied to a Russian adoption agency, interviewed, and were told that we were ideal candidates: we had a good income, we had stability, and we had proven ourselves to be good parents with our son.  We went home and planned our life and house for the eventual arrival of our child.  The timeframe should have been brief, but after the agency moved our paperwork through several regions over a five-year period and nothing was happening, we began to see the light dimming for us.  There were plenty of children in need, but American-Russian relations, when it came to adoption, were being politically strained, and we were caught in the middle.

No matter how hard we tried or how much money we spent, doors were closed in our faces repeatedly.  Finally, we figured that maybe God and life were trying to tell us something, so we withdrew our paperwork.  We realized that we already had such a great kid, so maybe we should call it quits while we were ahead.  Sure enough, two months later, Russia closed the door on all foreign American adoptions, no matter what stage they were in.  As such, we embraced the idea of being parents to one child, being able to give him anything he wants (without spoiling him), traveling all over the world, and turning the spare bedroom into a Lego room.  Now, we can’t imagine a better life than this one and are grateful for the way it all turned out.  God had a plan, but we were blind to the outcome because time is the curtain that separates us from the knowledge of that plan.  When God draws that curtain back for us, we realize that we will end up where He wants us to be, sometimes despite our best efforts to the contrary.

Our uncertain future, if we let it, can induce panic, as we want to control where we end up.  We need to realize that we don’t have any control to begin with, and that we’ll end up in the right place if we wait on and listen to Him.  He’s got a plan, and we need not be worried.  In time, we will see the greatness of it, but for now, a little patience and trust will smooth over the journey.  Amen.

Foundation-less Fear Caked in Mud

I always enjoy challenging myself, but this time I thought that maybe I had gone too far, or at least that’s what my nerves were telling me that morning.

An athletic and somewhat younger friend of mine was looking for a partner in an upcoming race, something of which I was happy to do.  However, this wasn’t just any race; it was a Spartan Military Sprint, which meant 5 miles (no problem), mostly uphill (a little bit of a problem), and 20 military-style obstacles (what?!?).  From what I could see online, these obstacles consisted of jumping over 5-8 foot walls, climbing cargo nets and ropes, carrying sandbags and buckets of rocks, lifting 115 pound cement weights, and maneuvering on rings, all while running through mud.  It seemed like a good idea at the time of commitment, as that was two months beforehand and this event wasn’t until the end of the summer, but as the end of August became more of a reality, my fears kicked in and I could feel my stomach dropping.

Since I’m as stubborn as I am foolish, I’d never quit something I committed to, so I awoke that morning scared out of my wits, running out to the store an hour before the race to buy power bars to eat (maybe those will help!).  It was there that I just happened to run into a friend of mine.  The chances of me seeing her in that area at that time with me being in that area at that exact same time right before the race were astronomical, so I could only chalk it up to diving intervention.  I told her about my upcoming race, a race that she had previously done herself, and told her how scared I was.  With a desire to help me out, she told me that we first needed to identify what it was that I was afraid of.  I hadn’t really considered this line of reasoning before, and after a moment of reflection, I told her that it was mostly a fear of what could go wrong, that I was afraid of something unknown, and nothing more than that.

Fear can stop us in our tracks, paralyzing us to the point of avoidance and inaction.  Our inclination for flight over fight usually wins out.  However, if we can look at our fears with a clear head and a logical mind, we find that there is nothing to fear.  Fears are often based on nothing and are a result of our being worked up over nothing.  We fear the unknown future and worry about what could happen, but if we reason out the possibilities, we realize that our fears are baseless.

Likewise, my fears for this race were based on nothing but fear.  It wasn’t like a fear of snakes or spiders, as those have tangible objects at the heart of the fear.  My fear was based on not what I could see or feel, but on the possibility of disaster.  When my friend questioned me, and I realized that my fears were based solely on the unknown of what lay ahead, I realized how unfounded my fear was and that the possibilities really weren’t so bad.  My tension lessened, and I immediately calmed down.

In 1932, towards the end of the Depression, the country had experienced a harsh economic and agricultural downtown, so they elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president in the hope that he would bring about change.  Knowing the obstacles that he and the country faced, in his inaugural address he talked about what was really stopping us: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  We can get so wrapped up in being worried about the unknown, that the only obstacle we really have is ourselves.  We create our own obstacles through fear.  If we can pinpoint a source of our fear and find that there’s no foundation there, then our fear quickly dissipates.

When King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace because they refused to worship his gods, they were initially given a chance to repent.  Instead, they refused to defend themselves, as they had no fear as to what would happen to them: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3.17-8).  They felt that it didn’t matter if they were thrown in, because either way they weren’t worshiping a false god.  They showed no fear because there was no foundation for it.  They reasoned out the outcomes, and for them, death was not a thing to fear but was a means of being with God.

With my race, I also began to consider the worst that could happen.  When I went through the scenarios, none were really all that bad.  Logic and clearheaded thinking kicked in, and I grasped that there really was nothing tangible I was afraid of.  My baseless fear was causing me to not act.  For the three Biblical figures, clearheaded thinking lead to two possible scenarios, and since both were acceptable, there was no need to fear.  If we can take time to think clearly, we can get at the heart of our fear and see what really lies there. Then, we can work towards lessening it or eliminating altogether, two approaches that lead us towards action.  This week, take time to examine the fears that hold you back and determine what is at the center of those fears.  Chances are, your fears are built on shaky ground.  Amen.

The Beauty and Rewards of a Found Nerf Bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

Having just come back from London and exploring all the local sights, we were anxious to get on with our next ambitious undertaking: Lego London Bridge.  At 4287 pieces, it was our biggest challenge yet, and usually, Lego numbers the bags sequentially to make the process more manageable, but this time the bags were not numbered at all.  So, my son and I cleared the dining room table, dumped out all the pieces, and got ready to settle in for the next week.

After about an hour or two, my wife pulled us away from the table.  I thought her intention was to give us a break, but it was more to make a private comment to me: I was too focused on finishing.  I wasn’t enjoying the process (nor was he) as my goal was to build the bridge, instead of enjoying Lego time with my son.  I was so focused on the end result, that I was missing out on the journey.  Later that day, I shifted my approach, which made for a much happier Lego time for all of us.

This wasn’t the first time I focused on the goal and not the journey, as I tend to have that problem a lot.  We have three dogs, and when we go for a walk, I’m usually at the front, so far out in front of everyone that I have to be reminded that the goal is not to finish the walk but to enjoy the stroll.  I quite frequently and literally forget to “stop and smell the roses,” but thanks to those that surround me in love, I am reminded to re-shift my focus.

I recently wrote about the importance of pain, that we should embrace pain and increase our thresholds if we want to experience growth.  If we want the reward, we need the pain.  Pain is part of the journey, and if we can take a minute to note the pain, along with all the other emotions and struggles during the journey, we will become more appreciative of the end result because we know what it took to get there.  So, we should embrace the journey, no matter how painful it is to get there, as the journey is what matters.

It’s good to have goals, but probably more important is the path that gets you to that goal.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  When we talk about our accomplishments, we usually tell of what it took to get us there, as that’s where our true character lies.  The journey increases our wisdom, opens our eyes, and broadens our perspective.  We are so quick to reject the journey and focus only on the goal, but we should take our time and enjoy the ride.

In our faith, God is the one that can refocus us back onto the journey by putting our faith in Him for guidance.  Proverbs 3.5-6 tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  This verse isn’t telling us to get to the end of our journey and accomplish our goal, but to focus on God who will reveal the journey and the direction of our paths.  By putting our faith in Him, He will reveal to us the steps in our journey, as that is the more important part.

Later this month, I will be running a Spartan Dash, where I am running 4 miles but have to overcome 15-20 obstacles in the process (crawling through mud, climbing high walls, carrying buckets of rocks, etc.).  At the end of the race, I will receive a medal for finishing.  Is the reward the medal itself?  Of course not, as the medal represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the medal and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that medal represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that medal , I won’t remember receiving it, but I will remember the obstacles I overcame.  The journey will be what matters, not the goal.  When I look at our finished Lego project, some part of me will be happy for the accomplishment, but a larger part will fondly remember the time I had with my son building it.  If I appreciate the actual running in the race and the actual building of the Legos, I will appreciate the actual moment instead of missing it because I’m too focused on the goal.

The journey is the present, whereas the goal is the future, and if we focus on the goal, we ignore what is around us and end up missing out.  The great 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller put it best when he said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  If we focus on the goal instead of the journey, life will pass us by, but by looking to Him to make our paths straight, we appreciate and embrace the journey and are richly rewarded along the way, not just at the end.  Amen.

An Oasis of Christlike Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiet, Unpaid for, Kindness

When my wife asked my son where his favorite sweatshirt was, his eyes went heavenward as he traced his steps over the last couple of days.  After a minute, he came to the realization that he had absentmindedly left it in a heap in the sand at a playground a day after a major rainstorm.  At that point, we considered it a lost cause, as it most likely was damp and moldy, but we could also tell how much the sweatshirt meant to him, so I volunteered to take him back.  Upon arriving, we discovered the sweatshirt not where he had left it, but instead hung on a railing, underneath an awning, completely dry.  Thanks to a random stranger, my son had his sweatshirt back in pristine condition.

A week later, the day after a fireworks display, I was running around the town lake when I spotted a child’s Abercrombie zipper jacket in a heap down on the river bank.  After a moment of quick reflection, I flashed back to how someone had hung up my son’s sweatshirt.  So, I ventured down to get this one, found a visible post by the road, and hung it there so the owner would hopefully find it.  A day later, it was gone, most likely with the original owner.

Kindness can have a ripple effect, where one good deed gets passed on through a series of people.  The “pay it forward” idea came into vogue a few years ago, where people would commit random acts of kindness without provocation, in the hopes that the receiver would find someone else on which to pass that kindness.  So, we now read stories of fast food drive-thru lines where each person pays off the debt of the person behind them (with some streaks stretching up to 167 cars and beyond).  Although pay it forward mentality is a great start, too often we do something for someone else with the expectation that they must do something for someone else, hence, the string of drive-thru payments.  The real kindness in this scenario is that first person who pays for someone else, as they’ve paid double.  I’ve read related stories where the cashier, after telling customers that their meal was paid for, then sits in expectation that these customers will now pay for the person behind them.  (Wary be the person who breaks the chain.)  So, although the sentiment is nice, the grumbling of the person who now must pay for the family of four behind them when all they wanted was a drink kind of breaks the intention of the process.

Although kindness begets kindness, the most effective approach is altruistic kindness (kindness for the sake of being kind) where there is a kindness effect without expectation of reprisal, paying it forward, or even of thanks.  I never met the person who hung up my son’s sweatshirt, but his or her impact was profound.  Kindness is strong enough on its own to be an influence.  Expected thanks and reciprocation are nice, but they diminish the effect that pure kindness has.

Years ago, I gave a gift to someone, and when he didn’t react the way I wanted him to, I became frustrated and disappointed.  However, I realized that the issue was not with the receiver, but with the giver.  Instead of making someone’s day better, I had centered it around myself and was looking to make myself feel good about having made someone’s day better.  What I should have done is given the gift without expectation, because kindness speaks for itself.

Recently, Coca-Cola developed a series of commercials and programs where the idea is that human kindness and decency is infectious: individuals exposed to kindness tend to improve their outlook on life, then finding moments of kindness to pass on to others without an expectation of reprisal or thanks.  In the videos, people show kindness to strangers with no need of thanks or reciprocation.  The reward is in the giving, thus making the world a kinder place.  Kindness is so powerful that the author of Proverbs knew how much of an impact it can have: “Do not let kindness and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (3.3 NASB).  As Christians, we can make the world better through kindness that speaks for itself: we do not need to speak for it.  Our message of Christ’s love is in our actions, not in our tongues.

Christ’s example of unfailing, unreturnable, indescribable love on the cross is the ultimate model of kindness without provocation or expectation.  Hence, when others hear of His selfless sacrifice, they have trouble coming to terms with His actions as this act of kindness is that powerful.  This week, be kind for the sake of being kind.  Don’t worry about your impact, and don’t expect thanks.  And don’t pick one act of kindness and be done; open the floodgates of the kindness you have to offer.  Know that your kindness speaks for itself, and its silent words are more effective than anything you might have to say.  Amen.

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.