When Life Deals You Bitter Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding the Strength to Forgive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Best Life Awaits: Just Be Patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundation-less Fear Caked in Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Maturity and Teenage Romance

As one who has explored the hallways of the American high school educational system and has taken great care to study the teenage species, I’ve observed many different types, but the most categorically defined ones are the dating couples, which can be broken down into three types, as their behavior is characteristic of the longevity of their relationship.

The first type of couple is the newly formed to six-month couple, which is the most easily spotted of the three.  With this twosome, the couple tends to be easily discovered fully connected to one another, longingly staring into each other’s eyes, which is often punctuated with a lot of family-friendly-ish groping and deep kissing.  This type is not aware of the world around them, specifically unaware of the hordes of people that are fully grossed out by this type of behavior.

The second type is the six-month to year couple, which is defined by the close proximity of the two species to one another, and is observed to have a tremendous need for constant hand-holding.  Occasionally, the amorousness is necessitated with semi-long eye connection, although, unlike the first type, this couple can be easily distracted by friends and onlookers, especially when the male species’ best friends or teammates have an offer of something better.

The third type of couple is the year-plus couple, a type which is not easily spotted in the wild because of 1) the high extinction rate of such couples and 2) the severe lack of physical proximity and public displays of affection, except for the hard to observe quick lip-peck given as the class bells ring.  

Although humorous, there is truth to these observations, especially as these relationships are examples of the often changing and sometimes maturing habits of these couples.  In short, as time goes on, the behaviors towards one another change and grow.  As many who are in long term relationships can attest to, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and “puppy-love,” where both members physically can’t get enough of one another.  Then, as the relationship develops and deepens, the physical nature of it cools and intimacy is achieved not always through physical means but through intellectual and emotional means, hence why young couples make-out in public whereas older couples are content to sit and enjoy one another’s company.

The same can be said of our faith.  When I was a younger, less-mature Christian, church was a full body workout.  Praise singing at the top of my lungs, tears, falling on my face in prayer: it was all very emotional stuff.  Yet, as I matured in my faith, I’ve found that I prefer a more introverted, quieter, intellectual approach with God.  That’s not to say that I don’t’ feel the occasional flutter of excitement when I feel His presence; it’s just that my faith has deepened and I now practice differently, because it ran its natural course that way in my journey.  In fact, CS Lewis often spoke of his matured faith as less emotional and more cerebral, where his growth was a natural outcome of spiritual practice, not a decisive one.  If we exercise our faith enough, we observe natural growth and change.

So, does this mean that extroverted, excited Christians are immature?  Not so.  What I’m suggesting is that if we are growing in our faith and maturing in our relationship with Him, then there should be a noticeable progression in our behaviors.  Ephesians 4.15 reveals this maturing in our faith:  “But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head.”  The process of growing in Him and maturing in our faith is a natural result of our spending time in His presence, as we more intimately develop our faith in Him.  

Like the couples in the hallways, our understanding and ways of intimacy grow in an observable direction the deeper the involvement.  If we look at our faith and practices and notice that they are the same today as they were in the very beginning, then the evidence suggests that we are not growing and maturing but instead have become stagnant and stunted.  Faith maturity is the natural outcome to involvement.  We might know what we want our faith and practices to look like, but we need to work to get there.  Older couples didn’t achieve deep intimacy right away: it took work, dedication, and exploration.  So, if you find yourself static and dormant in your faith, maybe a greater involvement or commitment is what is needed.  Set yourself on Him, and growth will come naturally.  Like in any relationship, your behaviors and practices will develop naturally and deepen in meaning only through getting to know Him more.  Then, you will see a noticeable change and evolution to your faith practices, a sure sign of deeper intimacy and spiritual maturity.  He longs to be closer to you, so commit yourself to a deeper relationship with Him.  Amen.

Feeble Attempts Past our Expiration Date

With the now warm weather and springtime growth comes a host of fresh vegetables and fruits.  While visiting our local fruit stand, our eyes go wide with the deliciousness that nature presents, yet often our eyes are bigger than our appetites, and we end up buying more than we need.  Now normally, that purchase isn’t a problem, but with all of what we are buying being local produce, the shelf life on a lot of these items isn’t very long.  The amount of purchases that must thrown out to the animals can be heartbreaking, but at least someone is enjoying them.

With spring produce and warm weather also comes spring cleaning, when we go through our pantry and refrigerator, looking for things that have found their way to the back and as such have become neglected and lost.  More often than most, these items are well past their expiration dates, and despite looking just fine, have gone bad on some level.  Moving on to our medicine cabinet in this cleaning frenzy, we traditionally find a multitude of no-longer used medicines that have also migrated past their expiration dates, and are now not as effective as they once were, or just aren’t healthy to consume.  The power of time takes its toll on all things, apparently.

Time seems to be the enemy of us all.  Most things of this world don’t age well and have a point where the rising tide of time overtakes what is best in all things.  Even wine, despite getting better with age, reaches a point where it turns to vinegar.  When I walk the hallways of high school and spot young couples in love, by measuring the flames of passion that radiate, I can usually judge with a decent amount of certainty how quickly those flame will extinguish and the relationship will expire.  And despite our best efforts, our bodies don’t escape the ravages of time.  Most scientists and physicians suggest that, given the proper diet and treatment, the human body can work perfectly for the first 40-50 years before it starts to break down on its own, and that’s if we treat it well.  Founding father William Penn said that, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is a commodity, but we often don’t trade well with it.

Like our bodies and things of this world, each of us have an expiration date, too.  At some point, death will be the great expiration collector and will come for us.  What makes us different, though, is that often there is no telling as to when that expiration date is.  The Bible and other pieces of literature are filled with warnings about the fleeting nature of life, about how we must seize every moment of every day, or about how we don’t know how long we have.  Proverbs 90.12 give us this advice: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  If we realize that our time is limited, then we will most likely use our time wisely, and the biggest concern should be where we are headed after our expiration date.

A great deal of the population, when considering the afterlife, feels that it’s not something they need to think about at this point.  They’ve got time.  Yet if we live with this foolish notion, like rotted fruit, we will find ourselves out of time before we know it.  We need to live wisely while we still have time, and for many, that means committing our lives to Him as soon as possible.  With no knowledge of how much time is left, as even tomorrow may be our last day, we must firmly stand on the promises of His kingdom, and not the possible failing promises of a long life.  Assurance is found in what we know for sure, not in what we think may be.  If we live knowing that any day might be our last, then our decisions, especially those about the afterlife and what we are truly living for, will be handled with grace and wisdom, and our future will be secured.  Amen.

Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm.  Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.

According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind).  Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people.  They are frozen in place just thinking about it.  Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.

The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns.  Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God.  When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.

When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil.  18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.”  If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?

Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up.  When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God.  The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught.  If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”

Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”  When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil.  If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.

Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him.  Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving.  Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well.  They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.

It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court.  Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.”  God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path.  Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him.  Amen.

Love, Despair, and Cupcakes

Apparently, the afterlife is a tricky business.  According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans firmly believe in Heaven.  Most likely, they all have similar ideas as to what it looks like:  clouds, flowing rivers, delicious food, endless entertainment, etc.  However, in that same poll, Americans were asked about “the other place,” and it was found that only 64% of those who responded believe in Hell.  Do we as a country think that people are not punished in the afterlife?  Do those remaining 25% think that everyone gets a free ride into heaven?

Perhaps this disparity exists not because we doubt in the existence of Hell, but because we have varied ideas as to what Hell is.  We don’t really take time to grapple with the belief of Hell, because frankly, we don’t understand it.

Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that, “Hell is other people,” and although it feels like it at times, Hell must be much more than that.  Of those who believe in Hell, most if not all agree that suffering plays a key role.  Isaiah 66.24b describes that suffering with this visual: “The worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched.”  Yet no matter what we imagine with our human minds, I must think that it doesn’t even approach what Hell’s suffering is really like.  However, this past weekend, I think I caught a glimpse of Hell at the local Cupcake Festival.

It sounded so good on paper: cupcake competitions from over 50 vendors, a virtual conglomeration of confections.  The streets would be lined with all sorts of sweets ready for our tasting and purchase.  With salivating taste buds and high hopes, we embarked.  As we approached the vendors, we witnessed a wide variety of people with delicious-looking cupcakes in their respective carrying containers.  Our hearts leapt with excitement and anticipation.

Yet, as we got closer, our hearts sank as we saw large crowds surrounding all the booths.  We thought about waiting in line, but found that for the most part, the lines were not moving.  We pushed onward towards booths further up the block, only to find the same length of lines everywhere, all preventing us from getting any cupcakes.  I could literally see the cupcakes at the vendor stands, but couldn’t get even the slightest bit close to purchasing them.  It reminded me of the old parable that describes Hell as a massive, delicious banquet where everyone seated at the table cannot eat, as they are unable to bend their elbows.

At the festival, I could see Heaven and hope for it, but it was just out of reach, the true nature of Hell.  So maybe Hell should not be defined by what it is, but what it is not; not what it has, but what it lacks.  In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Hell is described as the polar opposite of Heaven, where everything in Hell is defined by what it lacks in comparison to Heaven.  The poem describes Heaven with eternal peace and light, where Hell has flames that radiate insufferable heat and eternal darkness.  2Thessalonians 1.9 describes Hell as being, “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  Maybe then we should look at Hell as the complete absence of God.  Perhaps Hell should be defined by how impossibly far it is separated from everything that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4.8), all qualities that are from God.  To be that far from the goodness and glory of God, that truly is Hell, and makes it completely devoid of hope.  To conceptualize that thought, think about the amount of time we spend on this Earth asking for God to be a part of our lives, with Him answering that call, and imagine what it would be like if when we asked, we knew that God would never show up.  If we frame Hell around the idea that it’s a place with a total and complete absence of hope, our true motivator, then we quickly realize that without hope there is nothing but empty despair, the true character of Hell.

In realizing what Hell is like, we more deeply understand the contrasting gift that is Heaven, giving us hope for an amazing eternity.  With hope in our hearts and an eye to the promises of the future kingdom, we know with great certainty that eternity with Him is most assuredly not out of reach.  Amen.

Seeds of Violence, the Size of an Ant

I horridly stared at my bathroom floor as hundreds of ants marched their merry way back and forth across, creating a steady stream from one corner to the next.  In years past, I had some trouble with these small critters, as when the weather warms up, they tend to emerge.  However, nothing prepared me for what now lay before me.

I spent some time brainstorming a solution.  We have a basic rule in our house, where nothing is allowed to die.  We tend to remove mice and insects from our home and relocate them outside or down the street.  Yet, an infestation was another issue.  I thought about sweeping them all up, but I knew that they would either just return or that there were just more where these came from.  (Most likely, both scenarios were probable.)  So, I began to consider instant extermination, immediately killing hundreds of ants and betraying our household rule.

However, I reconsidered and decided on a different approach.  I spent time examining their traffic pattern and noticed that they were coming in and out of a small hole at the base of the bathtub.  I took some clay and filled the hole, as hundreds of confused ants ran roughshod.  When I returned a few hours later, they had all left on their own and haven’t returned since.  From a very small action of non-violence and patience came great change.

When faced with difficult and dire situations, as a society we don’t always stop and think of how to respond in a slow but non-violent way.  Governments tend to find a bigger bomb, bigger guns, or additional soldiers, attempting to overpower the enemy through swift violence and intimidation.  The Dalai Lama, the wise Buddhist leader of Tibet and a strong proponent of non-violence, when faced with intimidation from China to rejoin their republic, was threatened with violent means.  Faced with a moral dilemma of how to respond, many of his people desired him to rise up and fight off the militia, but the Dalai Lama knew that his people were outnumbered and would most likely be slaughtered.  Instead, he adopted a stance of patience, understanding, and non-violence, and has managed to maintain it for the past 60 years.  He has been quoted as saying, “Through violence, you may ‘solve’ one problem, but you sow the seeds for another.”  As such, he has been able to preserve his people, stand his ground on his beliefs, and avoid a mass genocide.

Responding with violence is quick and easy, whereas non-violence takes great patience and time, as seen through the Dalai Lama’s example.  Similarly, Christ’s example leading up to and on the cross reflects that non-violent and patient approach.  When Christ was arrested, Simon Peter struck the high priest with his sword, cutting off the priest’s ear.  Christ quickly admonished him: “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.52).  Throughout His trial, Christ refused to fight back.  On the cross, Christ could have called down all manner of angels and struck down everyone, saving Himself, but he chose not to.  Through His patient and non-violent example, He conquered death, saving us all from condemnation.

In my classroom, I have found that when my students are loud and rowdy, if I respond by being louder than they are, it only adds to the chaos, with me shouting them into submission.  It becomes a power struggle.  However, if I am silent and wait patiently for them, they quiet themselves down and the wild spirit of chaos is eliminated from the room.  Struggle does not exist.  If we take time to respond to strife and chaos through choices that reflect patience, quiet, and peace, we achieve a far greater result than responding with our basest instincts, many of which are rooted in our sinful nature.  This week, when you find the desire to engage and fight back, choose disengagement and patience, and you will find that the fruit it produces will bring you, and those around you, peace.  Amen.

Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.