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.

The Inner Warmth of Simple Gestures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Stuff Yourself

Despite that the wise in our society advise us to take “everything in moderation,” it sure is hard to follow that adage around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Being surrounded by so many delicious treats, along with lots of lovingly-cooked dishes, it’s easy to want to stuff your face.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I can most definitely relate.

This year, I told myself that I wouldn’t indulge, and that I would take just a little bit.  I didn’t want to dismantle a fairly-regimented eating design.  So, I tool a little bit of everything.  That was my first mistake.

After filling up my plate with a little bit of everything, I took note of the large pile of food I had collected.  I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to that point.  Not a single spot of plate could be seen, and the height achieved was somewhat admirable.  To rectify, I then determined to not finish my plate.  I would only eat three or four bites of each item, giving the rest to my three dogs.  That was my second mistake.

The suggestion to eat only 3-4 bites was an issue, as I had about 10-12 different kinds of food on my plate, the size of 3-4 bites each.  I couldn’t neglect any one food, now could I?  After 10 minutes or so, I was regretfully staring at the clean bottom of my empty plate.  Not that it was bad (that was clearly not the problem); it’s that the food was so good.  I had eaten too much of a good thing, and all before dessert.  As most people know, that overstuffed feeling is never pleasurable.  No matter how good something is, overdoing it never leads to satisfaction.

Additionally, overdoing it leads to a quick burnout, despite your good intentions.  I watched this idea take shape while we were exercising as a family.  We had decided to complete two rounds of a series of exercises (squat thrusts, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  My son decided that this amount of exertion wasn’t enough for him, so he went for the hand weights.  Standing at 90 pounds, he managed to hold a 10-lb weight in one hand and clutch two 5-lb weights in the other.  I didn’t say anything, wondering how long this was going to last.  He made it through about 15 lunges before he decided against this course of action.  He had burned out quite quickly, despite his good intention to get stronger.

Overdoing it never leads to the intended result.  We end up instead getting too much of what we wanted with none of the satisfaction or results.  Think of it this way:  you have to cook a turkey for 1 hour at 425 degrees.  To save time, you do some math, and decide that you could cut that time down significantly by cooking at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.  So, you decide to cook your turkey at 1700 degrees for 15 minutes.  Makes sense on a logical level, but try biting into that turkey, and you’ll see the reality of your inept cooking.

Solomon tried this approach, too.  He decided that since he was king, he could be happy by giving himself everything that he wanted.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2.10).  However, the more he dove into what he enjoyed, the more diminishing the returns were: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (verse 11).  Everything in moderation.  If we don’t overdo it and temper ourselves, we enjoy life more, growing more in the process.

Finding that sweet spot of moderation is key, the point at where you’ve achieved what you wanted but didn’t go too far and ruin it.  It’s the same concept for the things we enjoy as for the things we work so hard at.  We desire to grow and develop, but if we take it too far and overdo it, we end up doing more harm than good.  Athletes work hard to grow stronger and develops skills, but at some point, they risk pulling a muscle.  The same can go for our spiritual lives.  I’ve seen many young Christians get heavily involved in as many Christian aspects as they possibly can, only to get sick of it quickly and reject everything shortly from there.  Just because it’s good, overdoing it doesn’t mean it will be better for you.

Years ago, a fellow teacher taught me that when teaching your students, you want them disappointed that the bell rang, not grateful that it did.  You always want them to ask you to continue to read something when stopping, instead of being thankful that you stopped.  You want them to want more, but if you give them too much, they won’t want more, anymore.  For the things we enjoy, more doesn’t make it better.  God created these things for us to enjoy, but taking them all in at once doesn’t lead to more enjoyment.  And growth, like cooking a good turkey, takes time.  Overwatering a plant doesn’t make it grow faster.  So, don’t go all in all at once; leave yourself wanting more.  Pace yourself and plan out over time.  God gave you a heart that wants; now ask for a spirit that is patient.  That way, you’ll avoid burnout and stuffing yourself, and instead will enjoy the things that God meant for you to enjoy, growing at the speed at which God wants you to, without all of the exhaustion and fatigue.  Amen.

It’s Not Good to Be Fine

When I asked my son if he was okay, and he told me he was “fine,” I knew that he was far from it.  He had just competed in a Taekwondo forms tournament, a risk in itself for any fragile 9-year old ego, and was knocked out in the second round.  He stood next to me, keeping on a brave face, not looking me in the eye.  After he told me he was fine, I motioned for him to come closer to me, where I let him sit in my lap.  His arms quickly snaked their way around me, grabbing me tight as he fought back tears.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked.  It was a fair question, so I reassured him that he had in fact not messed up his forms at all.  Maybe some of the other kids just had tighter forms or louder snaps, I told him.  He had done his best, and I was proud of him, but for that moment, his disappointment was all too palpable.  He was doing his best to hide it and to root for his friends who were still in the running, so he repeatedly professed that he was okay, but for him, those were just words he could use to hide behind.

When people claim that they are “fine” or “okay,” they rarely are.  In fact, they are usually quite the opposite of those qualities.  And the more we claim to be fine and okay, the more those words betray our steely facades.  Almost always, people who claim something just a little too loudly and often are those who are the most insecure inside.  Hence, as an example, comedians are often times the saddest of all individuals.  Or when someone’s looks or personality are attacked, and they claim that they don’t care just a few too many times, it’s because they really do care and are trying to hide it.  Say it once, and it’s probably true.  Repeat it often, and you’re trying to not just convince others, but yourself, as well.

So, people who make tremendous claims about themselves publicly are doing so because they in fact do not possess that quality and are trying to make it seem so.  An individual who claims they are very smart probably isn’t.  Someone who is very smart has no need to prove to other people that they are: their actions speak for themselves.  More show, less tell.

While reading an article in the newspaper the other day about hypocrisy among some Christian politicians, I saw an interview with Omaha pastor Rev. Eric Elnes, who claimed that those who speak loudest often have something to hide: “Blazing with self-righteous indignation toward others is often what people use to hide their own sins in the shadows,” Elnes said.  “This is probably why Jesus’ biggest problem — by far — was with the self-righteous.  When it came to those whom society cast away as ‘sinners,’ Jesus was repeatedly gentle, gracious, encouraging, and forgiving, but he continually castigated the self-righteous.”

Quite true, as evidenced by the multitude of rejected individuals that Jesus would often tend to.  Some of his closest friends were those who had outwardly sinned for the whole world to see (prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves), those who never claimed to be good people.  For Christ, he would rather be with a sinner who was easy to spot than one who secretly sinned but professed righteousness and was clean on the outside.  Christ knew that those were the people that had real sin to hide.

In Luke 11 (and in Matthew 23), the authors of these two books recount Christ’s specific teachings against people who were more religious than faithful, in sections now known as the “Woe of the Pharisees.”  In each section, Jesus criticizes and chastises the Pharisees, a group whom professed great faith publicly on a number of points.  On one occasion, Christ is invited to dine with the Pharisees, so He takes the opportunity to speak out against such self-righteous people, revealing them for who they really are.  As was religious tradition, individuals were to wash before eating, not for the purposes of cleanliness but as a result of excessive, man-made ceremonial tradition that was seemingly based in the Torah (it isn’t).  So, Christ chooses to forgo the washing of hands to draw a comparison: “But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11.38-9).  Like those who profess that they are fine, okay, and don’t care, their outside is seemingly clean, but inside they are rotting away.

Christ desires just the opposite, that we be sinful on the outside, because we are made human, and clean on the inside, by believing in Him as our salvation.  We shouldn’t pretend that we’re perfect because we aren’t.  We are a chosen, fallen people, individuals who are loved and saved by Him not through our works of seeming perfection, but through His love for us.  Yet we are so afraid of imperfection, that like the Pharisees, we hide behind showy, outward actions and language.  This week, instead of pretending to be perfect, be imperfectly loud.  Don’t hide behind words that put forth a put-together exterior.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Christ loves us for our imperfections, as most likely others will, too.  With genuine words and actions, let your sincerity shine forth, and be the wholly imperfect being that you were made to be.  Amen.

Fallen Idols, Shaken Foundations

I am now sorry to say that I grew up with Bill Cosby as my tv father.

In the 70s and 80s, I thought Cosby was a comedy god, and as a child, it was impossible to escape him.  Whether he was telling me to eat my Jell-O pudding pops or making me laugh with the rest of the Fat Albert gang, I thought he was the funniest person ever.  As a huge fan of comedy, I can remember watching “Bill Cosby: Himself,” his quintessential stand-up special from 1983, over and over, trying to memorize his jokes and imitate his cadence, movements, and especially his voices.  On Thursday nights, my parents and I would gather around the television to watch sweater-clad Cliff Huxtable teach his children another valuable lesson about life, and really, he was teaching me, too.  We probably ended up watching all 197 episodes, so it was a real honor when I saw him perform in person in 1994 at my college when he came to do a concert there.

He also managed to be such a role model in his act.  He never cursed or spoke negatively about anyone (except maybe his children).  He also used his celebrity status to speak out about young black men and the role they play in society, how they needed to take responsibility for their actions and words.  So, it was with a heavy heart and a tremendous amount of sadness when, in November 2014, I learned that Bill Cosby may have raped and sexually assaulted as many as 60 women over the course of his career.

As a country, we went through a variety of reactions to the news, from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, and so on.  How could someone we trusted so much with our time and invested so much with our hearts betray us in such a way that was so disgracefully awful?  To this day, we still shake our heads in disbelief at the allegations: not that we think they are false, but that they are so shamefully unbelievable.

Role models and idols play a big part in our lives.  Ask anyone who their influences were growing up, and they will most likely name a celebrity, athlete, or musician.  Some name a person closer to them, like a sibling, parent, or teacher.  Then, and sometimes even now, we look to these people for guidance and example; we think they have the answers and their lifestyle reflects that wisdom.  Yet when these role models misstep and fall, we are deeply shaken, as if our foundation has crumbled from beneath us.  We spent so much time building our belief system and moral code on their teachings and examples, that to see them fall is detrimental to our support system.  When Lance Armstrong battled cancer and fought his way back onto his bicycle, we were inspired to struggle.  When he won 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions, we thought him a hero.  And when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs the whole time, we didn’t know how to continue.

For Christians, our role models are those who walk in Christ’s footsteps and in His word.  Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God.  Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith,” while in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul advises us to “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”  For us, Christ is the only true role model, as He will never fall.  Humans may, but He won’t.  Yet what happens when they do?

Recently, I’ve directly experienced leaders and role models who were looked up to by many and guided by several, fall quite hard.  What has been left in their wake are people who are now just as lost as I was when Cosby’s accusers came forward.  So how do we overcome these catastrophes and rebuild?  How can we recover from such a loss of faith?

For those who are directly affected, you can start by talking out your emotions when you’re ready.  Finding someone, or a group of people, who will listen without judgement or interruption is extremely cathartic and cleansing.  Express your every thought and feeling: how angry, sad, or alone it made you feel.  Deal with the emotions head on instead of bottling them up inside.  Also, listen to others who similarly idolized that individual.  Hearing their grief may help you to realize that you are not alone.  Additionally, petition God for healing and comfort, allowing His love to wash over the deep wounds that seem incurable.

For those who are not directly affected but know others who are, you might be the one that can walk them through this difficult time.  When they are ready and willing to talk, listen in the same way as mentioned above: without judgement or interruption.  Offer allowable emotional support, meaning that you ask permission to touch or hug them.  If they are willing to, give it.  If not, let them know that you understand.  Just the knowledge that it’s there is sometimes comfort enough.  Finally, be the role model when others people’s role models fall.  Model how to respond in a crisis like this one.  Be a good listener and supporter.  Your example can set a new foundation where the previous one lay.

Obviously, putting faith in another person can be a risk, as our only perfect faith recipient, the one that will never fail, is Him.  But being human, we tend to put our faith and trust in others, and that faith can be betrayed because we are human.  The only thing we can do is be ready for when that failure happens and have a plan for recovery.  Although the fallout as a result of our fallen idols is emotionally unpredictable, what we can predict is how to heal from it.  Amen.

When the Hits Just Keep on Coming

I never had a dog growing up.  I was never really close with animals, either.  So when I married what was clearly a dog person, I knew my canine-less days were numbered.  That’s when we brought home Elinor, our rescued black lab.  When we first met, she walked over to me and flopped right into my lap.  We were best friends from the start, and my heart quickly melted as I immediately learned the joys of living with man’s best friend.  That was sixteen years ago.

Surprisingly, Elinor is still around, even if she isn’t all there.  She still likes her walks, although at a moderate speed so she arthritically hobble down the road.  Her eyes are a bit clouded over and can’t quite see the way she used to, and her hearing is nominal at best.  Dementia seems to be settling in, so she has her good days and her bad ones.  Yet, she’s still with us, and we still love her, although her life for us can be quite difficult at times.

You see, because of the shape she’s in, she doesn’t always respond to her environment as she should.  We’ve found her in a corner waiting for a non-existent door to open, begging for food immediately after dinner because she forgot that she just ate, and following us around the house for hours getting to know us because she doesn’t remember who we are.  Yes, we love her, but it’s a constant test of that love to see how far and deep that love goes.  We try to laugh a little when she’s having “an Elinor moment,” because our appropriate choices for emotionally dealing with her are limited, but our hearts are with her, as we know she loves us despite what she does.

We would never let anything happen to Elinor.  She’s our family, and we’d do anything for those close to us.  But what happens when those close to us test the boundaries of that love through the choices they make?  For Elinor, she’s clearly not aware of the error of her choices and how they affect those around her, but what about those people who are capable of awareness?  More specifically, how do we deal with those friends and family members that repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again, and we are forced to accept them for who they are?

We all have those friends and family members that we keep at arm’s length because there’s something in particular about them that we just can’t deal with.  Perhaps it’s a differing political opinion or lifestyle that doesn’t complement our own.  Maybe it’s just that Uncle Harvey tells us the same joke every Christmas, and we’re expected to laugh at it every time.  But, what about those who we keep close to us that keep hurting us over and over because of the choices they make?  Is it right to cut them loose for the purposes of self-preservation?  Or should we give them another chance, knowing that they’re going to blow that one, along with the next ten?

When Christ was delivering His ministry to the people, He gathered together twelve disciples, but among them He had a few that He kept even closer.  Peter was one of Jesus’ closest brethren, someone in whom Jesus could confide.  The night before Jesus was arrested, He held a dinner for His disciples to reveal to them everything that was going to happen.  He told Peter that he would deny Christ three times the next day before the crowing of the rooster.  When Peter heard this statement, he was flabbergasted, as Peter would never do something so disloyal and hurtful to Christ.  Peter really loved Him, so the thought of turning against Him was foreign.

After Christ’s arrest the next day, Peter was questioned by many people about how well he knew Christ.  Since he didn’t want to get arrested, Peter swore that Christ was a stranger to him.  On the third time, Peter “began to call down curses, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’  Immediately a rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26.74-75).  Christ knew not just that Peter would deny Him, but that Peter would do it repeatedly.  Yes, Christ appeared to Peter after His death and built His church on him, but the fact that Christ was willing to not just forgive him, but forgive him knowing that Peter would betray Him repeatedly suggests something about the way Christ viewed him.

So, how do we see past the choices our closest confidants make and view them the way that Christ sees them, similar to the way Christ viewed Peter?  Remember, Christ judges the heart, whereas we tend to judge more external evidence.  Although Peter denied Him, his heart was still with Him.  It’s easy to be dissuaded by the outward appearance when someone close to you makes repeatedly hurtful decisions that cut through our own heart and feelings.  No one ever said that forgiveness and understanding were easy.  Seeing past their words and actions and going directly to what lies in their heart helps us to value them not for what they do but for who they are.  However, to get this type of eyesight, we need to rely on God to grant it to us.  Only through His heavenly power can we overcome this earthly outlook.  We need to ask for His eyes when we can’t see correctly with our own.  When we are tempted to look away because our eyes don’t like what they see, with His power we can overcome that temptation and see others as He sees them, keeping those that mean the most to us close to us, seeing instead what lies in their hearts.  Amen.