In Defense of Meditation: The Best Faith Practice You’re Missing Out On

When we think of meditation, we often have a stereotyped image of an older, swami-like, long-bearded man, cross-legged in the lotus position, who may even be floating an inch or two off the ground while chanting unintelligible but harmonic syllables.  Carrying this image around, we feel that meditation is something both inaccessible and irrelevant.  The idea of wise-men reaching higher plains of existence seems unattainable, and more importantly, somewhat un-Christian.  Yet, if we investigate the scriptures, we see that meditation is both valuable in our Christian lives, and that we are called to meditate as a part of our faith.

That mediation is rooted solely in Eastern religions is untrue: sometimes when a practice is helpful, it transcends any one religion.  I read somewhere that just because a Buddhist eats breakfast, that doesn’t make breakfast a Buddhist tradition.  In fact, the Bible makes several mentions of the need for meditation, as the Hebrew and Christian authors knew that it was vital to a healthy relationship with their creator.

Mentioned in the Old Testament, authors often associated meditation with memorization and consideration of His laws: “Oh, how I love your law!  I meditate on it all day long.  Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.  I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119.97-99).  Law meditation was practiced to gain a better understanding and appreciation of His Divine plan.  With a stronger understanding, we see His love for us throughout it.

The New Testament then widens the umbrella to include more items beyond the law on which to meditate: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4.8).  We are called to control and focus our thinking on items that fit these descriptions, and meditation helps us to willingly and consciously accomplish this task, as seen when Christ withdrew to meditate.

So, if we are called to meditate, how do we?  Unfortunately, many tune out at this point, as the idea of sitting quietly for 20 minutes ends in boredom or napping.  However, too many think that this approach is the only way to meditate.  Unlike the stereotype, mediation requires fewer requirements and parameters than you might think.  With the recent introduction of mindfulness into our vocabulary in the last devotional, we can see how meditation falls under that umbrella and the one established by Paul and other biblical authors.  If mindfulness is about being fully present and focused on the now and about heightening our awareness, then mindful meditation should help accomplish those goals for the purpose of strengthening our relationship with Him and shaping us as vessels ready to accept what God has ready for us.

With several ways to meditate, there are some basic foundations upon which to build these choices.  You don’t need a meditation cushion, special bench, or any sort of equipment to access a meditative state, but you do need these two things: time and space.  Whether two minutes or twenty, dedicate time solely for meditation.  Also, set aside a space, preferably somewhere with a minimum of distractions.  When you finally have both, take a moment to observe the present as it is by drawing from your senses.  Observe the sounds around you, the smells, the physical sensations you feel.  The aim of mindfulness and meditation is not quieting the mind or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: to pay attention to the present moment without judgement.  Easier said than done, right?  Yes, your mind is going to wander, and thoughts are going to pop into your head about obligations, conversations you’ve recently had, things you’re worried about, whatever.  Try to let those thoughts and judgments roll by, like leaves floating by on a stream – they are there, but they neither affect you nor stick around.  Make a mental note of them and let them pass, returning to observing the present moment as it is.  And be kind to your wandering mind; don’t get frustrated and annoyed.  Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up; just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off and gently bring it back.

For those like me who need more structure to their meditation, there are guided meditations that exist online for many purposes.  A quick search on YouTube results in mediations that help with anxiety and fears, detachment from overthinking, healing and sleep, gratitude, and “unstoppable courage”.  Some are longer than others, so find the guided meditation that works best for you.  Don’t worry about how you should sit or if you should keep your eyes open or not: guided meditations explain everything for you.  Again, just finding the time and space is all you need to do.

Another method is “Body Scan Meditation” which can be guided or not.  In short, you pick a point in your body (usually the head or the toes) and work your way mentally to the other end of your body, feeling all sensations in each part, becoming aware of everything that is happening to you physically.  Body Scan Meditations are excellent at calming your mind and focusing your thoughts.

One meditation technique I recently started is the recitation of mantras–one sentence statements intended to target a specific need in life.  You can create your own or find them online.  I have a few written in my phone that go off as reminders during the day, so that no matter where I am, when I see it come up, I stop and spend time considering the truth behind it.  For example, I noticed that my negative past actions tend to discourage me, so once a day, I am reminded that, “My past does not define who I am nor prescribe my future,” and if I spend time meditating on this truth, I can overcome that discouragement.  Detractors might suggest that this action is human achievement-based, cutting out the need for God’s intervention, but we would argue that this God-given practice refocuses our minds towards His healing and a closer, more appreciative walk with Him.  By silencing the negativity in my life, I am better attuned to the loving aspects He has created within me.

We tend to overcomplicate meditation, but in truth, we need only find the time and place for it, and the rest comes easily with the right tools.  By renewing our minds and spirits and refocusing on what matters, meditation provides a centeredness that helps us hear Him better.  It trains us to release the negativity that can pervade our lives and see the good in this world that is God.  By trying out meditation this week, we can learn to appreciate our lives, become more centered, and ready ourselves for the plans that He has for us.  Amen.

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Mind full vs. Mindful

I’ve been known to occasionally miss the moment when it happens.  If my last devotional was any indication, I am sometimes too stuck to my phone and miss what’s happening around me.  My wife calls it selective listening, hearing only what I want to, but I choose to refer to it more accurately as half-engaged listening, hearing only half of what is said.  It’s less a choice and more a default, something I’ve been trying to fix for years.

I’ve been able to narrow down what’s at the root of my problem, and it’s that I am not fully present in the moment.  What exactly does that mean, though?  How is it that my mind is elsewhere, not fully engaged with what is happening, and how can I change that?  A recent trend has labeled this corrective practice as “mindfulness,” the basic human ability to be fully present, being aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.  It means experiencing everything that is currently happening to you and around you, with a mind towards the present moment.

Thinking that this movement sounded kind of hippy-dippy to me, I took a class to look much more into it, and I discovered that it’s way more than yoga and meditation.  Instead, it’s a heightened awareness of the present moment by being fully engaged in it, thus experiencing everything that it has to offer you.  Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh summed up this practice succinctly: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment.  Only this moment is life.”  Or to put it another way, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” as stated by the late 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller.

In this class, we participated in various exercises that engaged our senses with the present moment.  One such exercise was eating raisins.  For years, I have been criticized by many that I eat much too fast.  As such, I don’t savor my food, a desire I long for.  This exercise forced us to slow down our eating by having a handful of raisins to eat, but we were only allowed to eat one raisin at a time.  We were then told to make observations about the textures, the smells, the tastes, and the varied flavors, making us more engaged in the present and not thinking about anything but what we were doing at that moment.  It forced us to slow down and be present in what was happening – eating the raisins – and less focused on the outcome – finishing the raisins.  Try it, and you’ll be surprised by how much you’re missing in life by moving too fast through it.

So why practice mindfulness and how does it fit into our faith?  If we become more fully engaged in the present, we learn to experience and appreciate all that God is doing.  We learn to slow down and recognize God in the details of our world.  Paying closer attention to what God is doing in our lives and how we are working for and against it helps us to better align ourselves to what his plan is for us.  We pay more attention to our current state, noticing what we are thinking and feeling, and through a heightened awareness, coming to a conclusion as to why we are thinking and feeling that way.  We are able to refocus ourselves on what God desires for us, and we in turn appreciate and grow closer to Him as a result.  Worries about the past and future fall to the wayside as we focus on the present and fully engage in it.

And there are strong biblical foundations in mindfulness.  Repeatedly, God asks us to, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3.2), citing a desire for us to control where our mind is at.  We are asked to be in the present: “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6.34).  And God asks us to rise above and “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12.2), which is accomplished through a stronger awareness.

Yet mindfulness also has its detractors, but many of those detractions are set in myths and misunderstandings of what mindfulness is.  Mindfulness isn’t about “fixing” yourself; it’s about being aware of who you are and seeking God for help.  Mindfulness is not about stopping your thoughts and ignoring the future; it’s feeling His current presence and trusting Him with your future.  Mindfulness does not belong to a religion like Buddhism; it is practice based in thinking and action that is no more religious than breathing.  Mindfulness is not an escape from reality; it is an embracing of who you are at this time.  Mindfulness is not a panacea; it’s not going to cure all your ills – it’s a path towards better living.  And the ultimate goal of mindfulness isn’t meant to be stress reduction; it’s to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.  Through this heightened awareness, we come to better appreciate and understand His plan and kingdom, embracing what He is offering us at this moment.

Mother Teresa once said that “each moment is all we need, not more.”  Knowing that God created this moment for you helps you to be mindful of what it is He has planned for you.  Mindfulness is not about living for the moment but living in it, gaining an awareness of it with an eternal perspective.  By being mindful, you can appreciate, love, and learn not only what God has created for you but also why He did so.  This week, find ways to appreciate and engage the moment, renewing your mind and heightening your senses with an awareness of where you are, which will help you in turn with where you’d like to be.  Amen.

Changing Lives with Just a Light

The power of a smile has a tremendous strength when you apply it.  It has the ability to completely change the direction of people’s days.  It forces them to take a moment away from their own lives, step out of themselves, and acknowledge another person’s positive response to a situation.  I do it whenever I am walking through the halls here at my school, where I will smile at as many teenagers as I possibly can.  You would think that they would roll their eyes or show some sort of teenage mock disgust, but the majority of the time, they are just so excited that someone acknowledged them.  They feel validated and valued.

As a teacher, I try to alter as many people’s days as I can for the better, setting them on a stronger course, attempting to improve this world for the better through others as much as I can.  And although a smile is a great way to change someone’s direction for their day, you can’t keep smiling at them day after day.  It’s either not possible, or it wouldn’t have the same repeated effect.  A smile is a good start, but it’s only a start.  If we want to be true agents of positive change in this world, what are our options?

Supposedly, another route is to help people change their practices and break their negative habits by getting people to change their minds on their approach to life.  But are people truly capable of change?  Search the internet and you’ll find a host of articles and websites touting the ways in which you can change your life, your body, your marriage, etc.  (Although you usually need to purchase something from them in order for any of this change to happen.)  But is this change permanent?  According to a study cited by University College London, it takes an average of 66 days to break a habit, although that is only possible through intensive repeated practice that is both focused and determined.  Just suggesting a change to someone isn’t enough to actually change them.

For example, I had a student for the last two years who was the epitome of laziness and poor decision-making despite strong intelligence.  He would almost never come to school and would certainly never do his work.  About a year ago, I met his well-meaning, bright, hard-working girlfriend who had stuck by his side for quite some time.  As she was aware of his failings, I pulled her aside and asked her if she was with her boyfriend in an attempt to change him for the better.  She sheepishly smiled and admitted so, to which I told her that for the most part, people don’t really change, and that she’s fighting an uphill battle.  Sure enough, almost a year later, not much has changed in him, and she’s still trying.  I wish her well and hope that she beats the odds.

This situation then made me reconsider what my role as a teacher was, as I am consistently trying to change people’s lives and improve this world.  If a smile is only temporary, and advice and correction don’t have the right amount of impact needed to course-correct a life, what is the sweet spot between making people happy and changing their minds?  The answer: inspiration.

Although hard to pinpoint and quantify, inspiration is that moment in our life that challenges our current situation and propels us to a moment where we realize that we are better than we are.  An article in Harvard Business Review suggests that, “Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations.  Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities.”  As teachers, both professional and Christian, we don’t need to change minds or cheer people up; we need to inspire.

It dawned on me this past graduation when I received two letters from graduating students who had written me similar messages.  After thanking me for the last two years with them, they cited how I had inspired both of them to follow their passions in life – one a marine veterinarian and the other a makeup artist.  Both had these dreams for years but both had dismissed them, chasing career paths that weren’t really what they wanted but what they thought others wanted for them.  Although I’m not really sure when that moment of inspiration came, I know that at some point a time came for them when they realized that they were capable of more.  As teachers, we have the ability to inspire people to be more than they are.

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, He cited how we should influence others to be better than they are.  In each of us, He mentions, there is a light that glows.  This light should be put on display for others, not to show how great we are but to guide people as they navigate their own lives:  “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.16).  Notice the position of the light in this verse: “before others” – not at others, but in front of them, illuminating their path so that they can see what might have been missed.  He doesn’t say that we should force them onto the path, take their hand, or move their feet – just shine a light on it.

If we really are serious about changing the world for the better, making it a brighter, more thoughtful, blessed place, inspiration is our means.  In a world where happiness is fleeting, and people are stuck in their ways, we have the ability to shine a light before others so that they can be inspired to take the path in front of them, helping them to not only be better than they are, but to realize the full potential that God has created in them.  This week, shine your light so that others may be inspired to be better than they are.  Amen.

When We Deny Ourselves What We Were Meant to Do

As some may have noticed over the past couple of months, my writing output dried up a little.  I haven’t been as consist as I usually am in getting out my devotionals.  And it wasn’t out of laziness; there was real reasoning behind what I actually deemed a decision: the demands in my life were too great to sit down and write.  I had spent time being sick, there were debilitating snow storms and tornadoes that wreaked havoc in our area and we were without electricity, work was overbearing for a multitude of reasons, and I needed a mental break from a handful of commitments in my life, with writing being one of them.  I figured that this elimination would help me relax and de-stress, and I’d have one less thing breathing down my neck.

What a stupid decision that was.

At the time, I felt that writing was taking up too many of my resources, where if a month or two went by here and there, I would feel a sense of relief, that I could churn out devotionals whenever I felt like it.  So, I thought, let’s blow this off for a bit.  Instead, I would partake in relaxing activities that required little to no energy.

Yet, not putting forth the effort to write ended up causing more problems for me than actual writing.  As a result, I didn’t feel like myself.  I felt off.  I was ornery, discombobulated, and unfulfilled.  I tried filling up on other things that took a lesser amount of creative juices, but that didn’t work, either.  What I was missing throughout all of this was one key aspect:  in life, I need to write.

For many, we have that thing in our life that we need to do otherwise we don’t feel like ourselves.  It’s our lifeblood.  Without it, we dry up and/or suffocate.  When I decided to not write, I discovered that writing is the thing that I need to be me.  Without it, my life seriously suffers.

Since I’ve discovered this need, I’ve had to force-schedule myself to write, and as much as I kick and scream my way into it, once I start, it’s as if the world has quieted itself.  I am alive and I am whole once again.  How funny that the exertion of energy and resources, when allocated to the right places, can result in even more energy.  When in the middle of writing, I feel the world coursing through me, electrifying me with each word I type.  It completes me as a person.  It is my lifeblood.  My thing.

I mentioned this discovery to someone the other day who cited that many people go their entire lives and never discover what their thing is, that they just move from one unfulfilling thing to another, never finding that same serenity that I have been finding when I write.

Yet, why writing?  And what is it I am feeling?  With writing, I’ve realized that I am blessed with this ability, as if I was made to do it.  In the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” the true story about British track athletes training for the 1924 Olympics, one of the main characters, who is quite skilled at running, is asked why he runs.  His response is simple: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run I feel His pleasure.”  Because this character discovered and embraced what God blessed him with, he feels alive, whole, and smiled upon by God.  He knows the skill that he is infused with by God, and by embracing it, he is embracing life, and that God is pleased when he embraces his gift.

Now I know that some are reading this and thinking that there is nothing especially skilled about them that they can embrace, but believing that is part of the problem.  We too often dismiss ourselves as nothing special, but nothing is further from the truth.  Ephesians 2.10 states: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  If we believe that we are made in His image, with His hands, formed in the womb by Him, loved and cared for by the Creator of the universe, then we can begin to believe that we are in fact His masterpiece, and that our existence is imbued with great importance.  Because He made us, we are uniquely special.  And by believing that, we can begin to believe that we were made special with a purpose in mind.  Our job is to find out what that purpose is, what our thing is, and when we embrace it, we can feel His joy.  And even though I am bleary-eyed exhausted as I write this late at night after a day of insurmountable work and intense deadlines that at one point made my hands shake in real terror, I am now happy.  Denying who I am and what I can do denies that happiness, something I didn’t realize until I chose to stop writing.

This week, spend time in prayer and meditation, asking Him to help you know in your heart that you are His creation, special and unique.  Then, look for your thing.  Find out what God has created inside of you.  It may not be as extraordinary as being able to run in the Olympics, but it is special because He made you that way.  Embrace that with all of your might despite how hard it may seem to get out of the starting gate, as once you embrace what it is you are blessed with and meant to do, you’ll quickly discover the joy of being created for a purpose.  Amen.

Be Proactive: Get Yourself a Life Anchor

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who was relaying some of the difficulties he was going through at his job.  He talked about how it was a really rough year for him, and that those in charge were attempting to not only make his life more difficult but also to try to remove him from his job.  They filed some paperwork against him back in February, so all of this burden had been weighing on him for the last four months.  I couldn’t begin to fathom what he was going through.  Yet, when talk began to shift to his family, he noticeably brightened, and his demeanor changed for the better.  He mentioned about how wonderful they were, how his child was the highlight of his day, and how much he was enjoying his home life.  He then said to me this adage, one with which I wasn’t too familiar until then, “Happy at home, happy at life.”  As long as everything was good at his home, then everything would be alright no matter what the circumstances were anywhere else.

I walked away from that conversation astounded at his ability to compartmentalize his emotions, to leave his depression at the source: work.  It was as if he had put up a physical barrier between the two areas, so that none of the bad stuff could seep into the good areas.  Perhaps his secret was keeping work at work.

In our house, we have some rules when it comes to keeping work out of the house.  Both being teachers, we sometimes commiserate about our jobs in an empathetic sort of way, but often that just leads to further depression about our individual situations.  So, we try to remind each other to not talk about work (frankly, I need a lot more reminding than she does) and focus on what is in front of us.   Another tactic we have is to avoid work email at home.  Let’s face it: nothing good can come of checking work email over the weekend or at night.  It just adds to the stress of our days, literally dragging our emotional selves back to work, thus oozing into our homelife like a plague.  As such, we avoid checking it altogether.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But sole avoidance can’t be enough.  That approach is just so reactive.  What was my friend’s secret?  There must be a pro-active step in there somewhere.  Well, a week or so ago, my away-from-home world seemed to be crumbling around me.  Worse yet, it was happening on a Friday, and going into the weekend would be tough.  I knew there was nothing I could be doing to fix or change my situation, as it was completely out of my hands.  Let go, and let God, I suppose (but again, merely reactive).  If we want to have happiness in life, we need to take proactive steps, steps where we chose to do something not in response but in a precautionary way, like a preventative medicine.

I’ve previously written about how love is a verb, as in love being a choice action.  Yes, sometimes love is a feeling, but feelings are temporary.  If love is a choice, then we can choose to love when we don’t feel like it.  Can happiness be the same thing, then?  If happiness is a feeling, and feelings are temporary, can I choose happiness as I’ve chosen love?

And that’s just what I did, and it’s what I believe my friend is doing now: choosing happiness.  When the world is collapsing around you, you can make happiness a choice, where despite what you are feeling now, choose to be happy regardless of your situation.

And how do we choose happiness when everything is disastrous?  For my friend, his family was stable, they were in good health, the relationship with his child was something to be celebrated, and they were all secure.  He found the steady anchors in his life from which he could draw, those deep wells of richness that buoyed him during the storm.  For me, I tried the same approach: my home was secure, my family loved me, I loved them back, and together we were able to laugh and have fun.  And with that as my anchor, it worked.

Yet for those who have much less than my friend and I have, where does one turn for happiness?  At the very LEAST, we can choose happiness through the joy of our salvation.  Isaiah 12:2-3 discusses the happiness that can be found in knowing that we are saved: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; He has become my salvation.  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  The thought that a better place patiently awaits us is a reason for us to choose happiness.  And the writer of Isaiah describes salvation as a well, with the idea that no matter how much we may draw water from it, it will always fill itself back up again to be drawn from in the future, the definition of a true and constant anchor.

And that is the nature of the knowledge of our salvation.  Despite the odds and circumstance stacked up against us, there is happiness to be chosen no matter where we are.  The firm nature and knowledge of our final resting place is the most certain anchor and reason for choosing happiness in our lives that we can possible have.  This week, find the happiness anchors in your life, things that are going well for you that you can hold onto and find happiness in.  And no matter what, remember that being saved is the one true constant in our lives, and no matter what, we can always choose happiness based on that solid fact.  By choosing happiness, we can truly and proactively overcome whatever comes our way.  Amen.

The Prickly Growth of Undiscovered Talents

It’s a funny thing when a cactus can invoke inspirational scripture.  One would usually expect just the opposite.  Yet, when my eyes fell upon it the other day, I was reminded of His words in Jeremiah 29.11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.’”

One summer, my family and I were walking along the street at our island shore house, when we came across a well-manicured home that had developed some stray growths of cacti in and around their front walkway, apart from the usual landscaping.  In the road, we found a round piece of that cactus that had been broken off from the main growth.  Around the size of a flat baseball, my son picked it up and announced that he wanted to bring it home and plant it.  Never the one to discourage him in his well-intentioned plans, we brought it home together, planted it in a pot, sat it on the windowsill, and excitedly anticipated its growth.

For the next two and a half years, I watched that cactus do absolutely nothing.  I waited for it to show some signs of life, but it grew neither in size nor stature.  Occasionally, I’d poke it, expecting it to be soft with interior rot, or wiggle it, thinking that it was rootless, but despite it’s lifelessness, it remained immobile either way.  We put it outside in the summer, exposed to the elements, expecting either growth or death to overtake it, but it looked exactly the same at the end of the season.  A few dozen times I almost threw it out, deeming this exercise a pointless endeavor, but I would then resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm or taking up any resources.  So, I left it, and eventually forgot about it.

It wasn’t until my son brought my attention to it, two and a half years later, that it meant anything to us.  That cactus that sat dormant for years, suddenly had a large growth coming off the top of it, and that growth was growing at an exponential rate.  Despite my doubts in the potential of that prickly plant, it was very much alive and thriving, now creating quite the spectacle for us.

It’s hard to assess the potential of a person or thing from the outside without taking a look as to what lies on the inside.  On the long-running science fiction British television show “Dr. Who,” the main character time-travels in a Tardis, a machine that resembles a typical London telephone booth.  Despite its outward appearance, the mechanics are much more complex when you step into it, as the running joke on the show is the line uttered by all who enter: “It’s bigger on the inside.”  And that sentiment really is true for measuring the scope of an individual’s potential, with us being bigger on the inside, capable of much more than we think we are.

The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25, shows how we are all capable of much more than what we might at first seem.  In the story, a wealthy man goes on a journey, and upon leaving, gives bags of gold to three of his servants, entrusting that they would each do something with them.  The first two doubled how much gold the master gave them, but the third took his gold, dug a hole, and buried it, so that when the master returned, he could give it back.  When the master finally did return, all three reported what they had done with their gold.  With the first two, he was delighted that they had worked with what he had given them.  With the third who buried it, the master was furious and whipped the servant.  Among the many points in Christ’s story, one is that we all have the ability to produce great things with the talents that we are given.  That the servant could have done something with his gold, but he chose to not explore the possibilities is the reason the master becomes so furious with him.  We all are created with the ability to affect great change in the world, but when some choose to do nothing, it is considered the greatest waste of human potential.

Now, some may say that they have nothing to really offer the world, but much like my cactus, the talent is most definitely there: it may just be hidden from view for a short while.  With a little exploration and close examination, we can find what it is you have to offer.  Brian Tracy, a Canadian-American motivational public speaker, was quoted as saying that, “The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”

Every year, I am asked what grade I would like to teach, and every year I choose juniors.  In addition to being able to experience the many milestones that come with that age group (driver’s license, first job, prom, etc.) one main reason I choose them is the maturity transition that comes at that age.  Up to this point, many of them are not self-actualized; they don’t have a grasp on who they are or what their potential is.  During this year, they suddenly start to realize what it is they can do, what their talents are, and how they fit in with the rest of the world.  I love being able to take them through that transition, showing each of them that they have tremendous worth and value in this world.

And that really is the transition that we all need to discover in ourselves.  We need to see the talents that lie within us, just waiting to burst out and make the world a little more wonderful.  Each of us has something inside that can make that worldly change, but like the first two servants, it’s up to us to do something with it.  This week, find time to be introspective, searching within yourself for that dormant talent that has the potential to make someone else’s life better, because with a little self-exploration and time, you’ll find that we really are bigger on the inside.  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.

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.