Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Result of Stepping in It

Having a house with three dogs and a big backyard, the “waste” can build up pretty quickly if not attended to.  So, someone in our household is always picking up after them, attempting to keep our yard free and clear.  Yet, no matter how hard I try, for some reason, I have always managed to step directly into a pile of it.  It’s actually a running joke in our house, as no one else seems to have this problem.  Despite trying to keep a look out, I usually end up with it on the soles of my shoes.  The worst part is the discovery, as I don’t usually find out that I’ve stepped in something right away.

Sometimes, I manage to track it in the house, and am horrified to find it trailed behind me.  Sometimes it’s when I enter an enclosed space, and either myself or the people around me sense the odor.  And when I am alerted by others, the overall sensation (both mine and theirs) is disgust and revulsion.  The overwhelming smell is so strong, that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what level of fame or power you have in life: there’s nothing like a little poop on your shoes to bring you down several notches.

As Christians, our living example to others is one of our strongest tools in showing the world Christ.  Yet we have a tendency to “step in it” in life, thus destroying any ministry or power our example might have.  When we become involved with events or activities that clearly are not Godly, we have “stepped in it” and that act permeates any other good that we are trying to accomplish.  Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, suggested that “we put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Corinthians 6.3).  He knew that one small stench can destroy an entire lifetime’s worth of work, so he warned us to watch our step.

So how are we “stepping in it,” exactly?  When I literally step in it, it’s usually because I am paying attention to the wrong things in life and not what is on the ground in front of me.  Thus, we “step in it” by having the wrong focus, drawing attention to ourselves through the wrong means.  Vala Afshar, a writer for The Huffington Post, recently tweeted that we should not be impressed by “money, power, looks, title, or network.”  When we focus on improving these very human areas in our own life, and often times blindly so, we tend to bring attention to our own person and what we have accomplished as individuals.  We have stepped into areas that take the focus off Christ and put it on ourselves and our achievements, establishing a stench of personal triumph.  Gandhi is often cited with the idea that he liked Christ but did not like Christians, and most likely because Christians step in it frequently, making our examples very un-Christ-like.  When we focus on bettering ourselves, the stench is staggering enough to illicit revulsion and rejection, no matter how great our words and examples are.

Then, Afshar tweeted that we should be impressed by “character, kindness, generosity, humility, and passion,” areas that take the spotlight off ourselves and place it on Christ’s example and teachings.  By building up these areas in our life, the stink is eliminated and our ministry of Christ’s love through us is manifested.  We no longer celebrate our personal success but instead rejoice in His love for us, and the smell of His embrace is much more attractive than what we may be tracking in on our shoes.

If our priorities and goals are misaligned, and we seek this first list of qualities, the overwhelming foulness permeates any other admirable goals we may be trying to attain, and people will be driven off.  Yet, if we center ourselves daily on Him through prayer and meditation, realigning our efforts on these Christ-like qualities, people will be drawn to Him through us, and will experience the much more inviting sweet scent of His love for the world and all its people.  Amen.

Precarious Shifts in Perspectives

As permanent members of this planet, our view of others, our problems, and the horrors of this world are what we experience daily.  Their importance fills our lives and troubles our minds to the point of being fully consumed by them.  The good news: it is possible to put these events into perspective.

In 1968, members of the Apollo 8 mission spied the Earth from a distance for the first time.  They described seeing our planet as “hanging in the void” of space, dangling precariously.  They then reported experiencing a profound cognitive shift in their consciousness, citing that they understood the “big picture” of our existence and how fragile our planet and its inhabitants are.  These astronauts recorded that they felt as if we were just one small cog in a larger, more intricate process of the universe.

The astronauts experienced what is more commonly known as “The Overview Effect,” where individuals view the world from space and feel as if Earth is nothing more than a tiny ball in a much larger universe, suspended in the vacuum of emptiness shielded by a paper-thin atmosphere.  When experiencing this effect, astronauts have reported that all the conflicts that divide people and the boundaries that break us up suddenly become incredibly unimportant, and a need for universal harmony and peace is instilled.  In other words, they learned not to sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.  The pettiness we experience on a day to day basis just isn’t worth fretting over or fighting about, because in the larger realm of things, it just isn’t that significant.

This week, I felt a profound shift of my own.  I had been worried about school and developing my lesson plans, how I was going to fit in certain activities into my life, and being able to maintain my day to day lifestyle with enough time, energy, and money for everything that we needed in our household.  My world then came to a complete halt when I discovered that a close family member had died.  As if at the drop of a hat, everything that I was so worried about previously didn’t matter in the slightest.  Priorities like school, activities, and deadlines became meaningless.  The surreality of my existence and a new set of priorities eclipsed everything else and my life was brought into a new reality and perspective.  Much like those astronauts, the small stuff no longer mattered, as I firmly grasped the frailness of life.

Sometimes our lives can be so overwhelming that what we really need is a different perspective to realize what is truly important.  Although my moment was sad in nature, it really drew me closer to those around me, helping me see past the triviality of daily life because my perspective had been changed.  In our daily walk of faith, we too can be bogged down by the minutiae that negatively affects us and eats away at our emotions.  Psalm 90.2 helps us to get that proper perspective, one that shuns out all the superfluous noise: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  To know that God was, is, and always will be, erases a lot of what plagues us daily.  He was present before anything else, and He will outlast any and all of our problems and squabbles.  A shifted perspective onto Him and his vastness leads us to a cognitive shift that resets our priorities and helps us to see what is truly important.

Focusing on His everlasting nature helps us to see the bigger picture, that everything on this Earth is delicate and temporary, that our problems are much smaller than we realize.  This week, take time to meditate on God’s existence, remembering that He is bigger than any problem we have in our lives.  With a proper perspective, our focus on the particulars of this world quickly blur, as our vision on Him and what’s important comes into sharp focus.   Amen.

The Tangled Strings of Gift Giving

In the subtle art of gift giving, there is a careful balance that must be achieved between the two agreeable parties.  Often times, when a gift is being given on a mutually celebrated holiday, the two parties enter into an agreement, whereas when a gift is given, the accepting party must reciprocate with a gift of similar monetary value.  Additionally, an equal amount of enthusiasm must be expressed upon receiving said gift, or the gift-giver may feel slighted and insecure regarding the pleasurable nature of said gift.  If the holiday is one-sided (i.e. – birthday), the receiver of the gift must express a certain measurable amount of both surprise and enjoyment for the received gift in an attempt to raise the esteem level of the gift-giver.  If, after measuring the amount of enjoyment for said gift, the gift-giver is dissatisfied with the response, then succeeding feelings of jealousy and resentment may incur, which may be followed by events of bickering, brawling, and/or relationship breakups.

When giving a gift, there can often times be a lot of baggage that comes with it.  The above, although tongue-in-cheek, illustrates a point: that when giving or getting a gift, there comes a certain amount of worldly expectations.  When people give, they expect something in return, whether it’s another gift or some reasonable expression of gratitude.  String are usually attached.  And the expectation of gratitude comes not just from gift giving but from any time people go out of their way to do something for someone.  I can remember specific times when people have cooked something for me, and they hover over me waiting for the confirmation that I love what it is they’ve done for me.  Should I express anything less than absolute love for the food, there is immediate disappointment.

One of the main reasons as to why we attach worth and emotions to material things is because of the ownership we have regarding these items.  When we give something, we extend a part of ourselves, and if the person doesn’t respond as expected, we feel personally injured because of the selfish value we place on things and their worth.  We give, expecting to receive.   We become attached not to the selfless act of giving but to the emotional and material worth of the exchange.  As we are attached to our things, we measure our relationship based on this interaction.  Mark 10.25 cites the attachments we have to our possessions with this parable: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In addition to our attachments, the verse suggests that human attachment to things directly connects with the amount of things we have.  The more we have, the more attachment there is.  Hence, when we give large, expensive, important gifts, we expect an equitable response.

Now, the verse is not suggesting that we get rid of all of our possessions.  In fact, if all we have is from God, then getting rid of them would be rejecting His gifts to us.  He gave them to us for a reason.  Instead, what the verse is suggesting is that we acknowledge our faults as people, becoming aware that we naturally become attached to our things.  If attachment is a default, then Christ calls us to a higher reasoning, imitating Him as he gave Himself to us, knowing that we would reject His gift.   Jesus had no expectations when he offered His body for sacrifice.  There was no agreement between us and Him.  He did it as a selfless act of giving and love, and we should similarly follow, denying our sinful nature and embracing His motivations by focusing on Him instead of the act.  As you give to others, don’t wait for thanks or gratitude in order to feel love.  Give selflessly because you want the other person to feel His love, instead.  Amen.

Grappling with Prayer, Searching for Answers

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

Allowing for Examination Reversal

My students are in for a surprise, and not necessarily one that they will enjoy.  I just finished grading their first paper, and oh boy did I have a lot to say.  It’s a harsh lesson for them to learn, with that much correction being in one paper, but in the long run, that correction will pay off for them should they decide to heed it.  What was most disconcerting was just how many corrections, suggestions, and instructions I had to write on each of those papers, with many of them rooted in two areas:  paying attention more closely to what was covered in class and fixing skills that should have been polished years ago.  I came to those two conclusions after spending a long time scrutinizing and analyzing their work with a close eye, paying close attention to trends in their work and what was truly at the heart of their mistakes.  Now, it would be easy to stop there, however, what I need to take into mind is what their failings says about me as a teacher and my methodology.  As I examine their work, I need their work to examine me.  Their mistakes speak volumes about what I thought I effectively covered in the first five weeks of class, and how I need to alter my instruction to fit their needs.  Also, in reading their papers, their responses acted as a commentary on the clarity (or lack thereof) of my assignment, and how I should alter the wording.  Similarly, when we study the Bible, to just get at the heart of what the word is saying and means is one thing, but how often do we let God’s word look at us under the microscope?  When we study His word, do we allow His word to study us?  Scripture was built that way, as Hebrews 4.12 tells us about the nature of His word and the role it can play: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  For as often as we examine and study God’s word, we need it to study us right back.  Yes, we might spend time investigating what a verse or passage means in our lives, and how we can change or be encouraged as a result of reading it, but how often do we really allow the scripture to strip us bare and expose us for our flaws and insecurities?  As a living being, God’s word has the ability to take our lives, examine them with a careful eye, rebuke us and tear us apart, only to put us back together again through His watchful instruction and love.  Allowing our lives to be examined by truth is vital if we desire a closer walk with Him.  So we know how to examine the Bible, but how do we allow ourselves to be examined by His word?  Silencing the world around us from distraction begins to create in us a heart willing to listen.  Inviting quiet, inner peace and focus when we delve into His word also opens us up to instruction.  Finally, humbling ourselves before Him, casting all our desires and trophies at His feet will bring us to a point where anything the word has to say to us will be heard and internalized.  With a quiet and prepared heart ready to listen and learn, we then allow God’s word to examine us with a love and care that exceeds any and all personal attempts to interpret scripture through our own efforts.  Instead of deciding what the word says to you, quiet yourself and listen. Let it speak to your life.  In our own silence, His words will speak volumes.  Amen.

The Motivating Factors of a Long Life

Type “ways to prolong life” into Google, and you will get about two and a half million results.  Most of the sites include ways to maintain a balanced diet, develop a healthy exercise regiment, and a long list of things to enjoy in moderation in life coupled with a list of things to avoid altogether.  In the past hundred years, science and medicine has successfully figured out ways to extend the average lifespan from 49 to 78 years, and the expectation is that we will figure out ways to extend well beyond that number in the next fifty or so years.  The emphasis in our society for life extension has been a major focus our entire lives, and all of us are looking to add some years onto our time on this earth.  The most valuable of all resources on the planet seems to be time.  Yet, this week the world learned of Mbah Gotho from Indonesia who professes to be 145 years old, according to his government’s verification of his stories and documents.  If the idea is that more time equals more happiness, than Mbah must be pretty thrilled to have lived so long, right?  When asked what he now desires most in life, he said, “What I want is to die,” and apparently this desire has not been a recent one.  He purchased his gravesite in 1992, when he was 122 years old and visits it every day, but for the past 24 years, he has continued to live on despite the expectation that his death was supposed to be a long time ago.  According to reports, he has outlived all ten of his siblings, four of his wives, and all of his children, as well as experienced all of the horrors of the world from the past century and a half.  Although unable to see well, he can still hear and function reasonably well for a 145-year-old man, but he feels as if he “has been through it all” and wants to pass on.  So, given this extreme example of us who want to live longer, and Mr. Gotho who has lived too long, is there a happy medium that exists that reveals how long we should live in order to be happy?  Perhaps it’s not the length of life that we should be concerned with but instead the quality.  We seem to think that more time is the necessary variable to additional happiness, however, the key seems to be not how much time we have but how we spend our time.  Psalm 90.12 asks for God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” for when we number our days, we then realize that time is precious, and that we should not spend time wasting time but instead living as if every day is our last: fulfilled days over longer ones.  Perhaps our reason for wanting to live as long as possible stems from a fear of death and a panic of the unknown.  The good news is that as Christians, there is nothing for us to fear as there is an assurance of heaven, but combined with the thought that maybe we’ve wasted a good portion of our lives, we tend to look for life prolongation as the answer.  Instead, let’s look to life enhancement and fulfillment through not only a daily renewal in Him, but also a purposeful life, one that seeks to make daily changes in the world and in people’s lives for the better.  When we embrace the idea of a finite existence on this earth, we acknowledge that someday we will die, thus freeing us of the burden of anxiety of our own demise.  Then, instead of spending our lives fearfully avoiding death, we spend it without fear and truly living.  Amen.

Stumbling Over Preventable Obstacles

I recently heard a pastor jokingly refer to his driving record, saying that if everyone would only drive as fast and good as he did, we would all get to our destinations quicker and more efficiently.  As a somewhat overconfident and delusional driver, I also tend to feel that I am similarly competent and accident-proof.  When my spouse is in the car, and she rolls her eyes at some sort of road miscommunication between myself and another driver, I am quick to point out that I’m an excellent driver and couldn’t possibly cause an accident. Taking my claim with a grain of salt, she reminds me that I need to not only think about my own driving but also the driving of others.  Even though I may be doing (close to) the right thing, other people could pose a threat.  Sometime we tend to get wrapped up in our own world and need to pay attention to what is going on around us, because sometimes, despite how good we may think we are, things get in our way that we should have seen coming.  My most recent manifestation of this principle stems from a recent jog.  I had been running six miles (three miles out, three miles back), and I was at the halfway point of the run, the furthest point from the beginning.  I had found a good pace, smooth movement, and a great rhythm.  As the sidewalk ended, it lowered itself gradually down to the street, but the curb had a good two-inch lip to it.  My left foot caught that lip hard, and I went right down.  I scraped up my two palms, left elbow, right knee, and had enormous bloody scrapes on my stomach from the road.  After muttering a most unprintable word, I analyzed the damage and decided to tough it out and run back.  I spent that return time trying to figure out what went wrong.  I was doing everything right, but when an obstacle was placed in front of me, none of that righteousness mattered.  I was so busy making sure that I was correct in all that I did that I didn’t think to look around me and make sure that other factors wouldn’t cause me to stumble.   The Bible calls us to be aware of our surroundings, attentive to what occurs so that we may not stumble as a result of our environment.  1Peter 5.8 commands us to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  As a driver, I need to look several steps ahead of myself and consider all possible scenarios.  As a runner, I need to pay attention to the next several feet in front of me, as problems along the route may await me.  As a Christian, we need to look past ourselves and think about the people around us, the places we inhabit, and the things we own, making sure that these people, places, and items won’t cause us to stumble.  We need to look ahead and avoid situations that won’t work in our favor.  Recovering alcoholics know enough not to enter a bar, no matter how strong they think they are: they can see far enough down the road to know that the possibility of destruction lies there, so they will take actions to avoid that outcome.  And we need to act with that same mentality.  This week, look at the people, places, and things that, if given the right circumstance, will cause you to stumble, and then look to cutting those factors out of your life.  A strong and healthy awareness of the dangers that surround you will be all the prevention needed to avoid a mighty fall.  Amen.

Slippery Happiness, Unfaltering Joy

This summer, our family made the investment of season passes at our local water slide park.  Unfortunately, so did many other families.  On particularly warm days, we’ve ventured over only to find the place filled with people to the point where each slide has excruciatingly long waits.  Even hiking over to each ride is a task, as the crowds fill up the walkways and movement is at a minimum.  However, for those moments when we finally get to go on the slides, the rides themselves are a blast.  Our excitement blows through the roof as we scream all the way down into a refreshingly icy pool, cooling us off from the oppressive summer heat.  It’s in those moments that we find our happiness, but that feeling only lasts until we hit the next line or swimmer-clogged footpath.  It’s really a mystery as to why we subject ourselves to such temporary happiness there.  When it comes to happiness, we’ve seen how temporary it can be, but we forget that it’s also highly circumstantial.  Happiness usually depends upon who we are with, where we are, and what we are doing.  In our culture, we too often confuse happiness for joy, thinking that they are synonymous (as most dictionaries would have us believe).  However, the two are vastly different, as joy can be experienced anywhere and in any circumstance.  Our society too often encourages us in a “pursuit of happiness” or to not worry but instead be happy, but what both of these approaches encourage is a temporary feeling that cannot be created, but only found, chased down, and held onto for a brief time.  Also, happiness is a passive response to circumstance, so how can it even be actively pursued?  We are so obsessed with pursuing happiness, as it’s the best that this earth has to offer us.  Through the eyes of this world, happiness seems so attractive, but the better alternative is joy, which is not of this earth.  Joy can be achieved despite our circumstances, and can remain well past any temporary happiness that we might find.  Joy is something that is not only active, but also expected of us, as seen in Philippians 4.4 (NLT): “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!”  In this verse, God commands us to be joyful as an act of our will, that we need to choose joy.  In fact, as Christians, we have an obligation and responsibility to be joyful, despite our circumstances, whether they be wonderful or difficult times.  Happiness during hardship is not expected or even possible, but joy during those times is.  Like the happiness I experience at the water park, it is regulated to those fleeting moments of frictionless sliding, but no matter what the situation or crowd, my real joy comes from my active relationship with my family.  No matter the size of the line or crowd, choosing joy by being with my family is more fulfilling, even if we never make it on a slide. Now, most of us seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of joy, as we don’t know from where it comes and or how to invoke it as a function of our own will.  To receive joy, we first need to set the goals of our minds and efforts away from happiness and reconfigure them towards joy.  Then, we need to actively seek joy by following His commands.  As seen throughout the Bible (and especially in Job), joy comes as a result of God’s grace when we seek Him and follow His commands.  The more we follow, the more joy we receive, and the more joy we receive, the more we want to follow.  Through this cyclical relationship, our need, desire, and fruitless drive for happiness will decrease, and our hearts and minds will reset, filling our lives with heavenly joy.  Amen.

Imbalanced Animalistic Decision-making

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