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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Be Proactive: Get Yourself a Life Anchor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dignified Look at Our Failing Reality

We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town.  You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes.  Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills.  Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate.  Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly.  I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse.  It was then that it began to dawn on me:  getting old sucks.

I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar.  My body is just not able to handle what it used to.  And I know that I’m not alone.  I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury.  Whether it was the one guy who, right before jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.

I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age.  At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life.  It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet.  I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire.  With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, instead flailing wildly to upright herself.  She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings.  In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on.  To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month.  Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.

Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity.  I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.

Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out is quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is our bodies are not built to last long or endure much.  We are born to die.

The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind.  In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.

Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog.  What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity.  Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live.  Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life.  Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.”  Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.

There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in ourselves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful request for humility regarding our humanity.  There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech.  It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh.  This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward.  Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live.  Develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  Amen.

Prideful Rants and Pointless Competitions

Proverbs 29.11 says: “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”

The following is a word-for-word email exchange I had with a Brooklyn art gallery who specializes in pop-art.

Earlier that morning, I received a promotional email, stating that they were having a “mystery tube” sale, where 5-7 artwork pieces would be randomly put into a tube for the cost of one painting.  It was a steal, and I was really excited to buy one.  Since it was a timed release, first come first served, I made sure I was online at exactly the correct time, put one in my virtual shopping cart, got a text message confirmation number, and hit the “finish transaction” button, but a screen came up that said, “Your cart is empty.”  No purchase, no tube, nothing.  I quickly emailed the gallery:

Wondering what happened.  I had it in my cart, I got texts with an authorization code, and then it was gone when I completed my order.

A couple of minutes later, I got an answer.

Recommend not to use that option, uncheck the option in the last page of checkout for next time, it slows you down.

I was incensed.  Not only did I not get it or any offers of help, he seemed to be blaming me.  I returned with:

So, I lost the tube because I didn’t check out fast enough?!?!?

I figured that the excessive punctuation would properly display my emotional state.  His response:

Yeah unfortunately, it’s a limited release. 

Maybe it was the aloof “yeah” or the total lack of any offer to help that did it, nevertheless I was enraged.

Why is there not a timed countdown to checkout out, like most other places, where you have a certain amount of time to complete the purchase?  I’m calling bs on you guys.  I logged in, had it in my cart, and didn’t get through the checkout page fast enough, apparently.   

That’s a (lousy) way to treat us past customers who bother to have an account and have bought from you in the past.  

I patiently waited for an answer.  When three minutes went by, I emailed again:

I had the tube in my cart and someone stole it out of my cart. Do you realize the absurdity of that sentence?  If we were in a physical store, that would not be allowed by any party present. 

I would like this situation fixed before I post my Yelp review about what happened. 

Ah, let the looming threat of negative social media press hang over them.  I figured I had them cornered.  Yet:

No one stole it out of your cart, our website is first come first serve on checkout, you weren’t quick enough and the item sold out before you were able to check out.

No need to threaten with a Yelp review, we aren’t a restaurant. If you were nicer to us, we would remedy a situation, doesn’t look like that’s the case. 

Now he was getting sarcastic with me.  Well then…I could give as good as I could get!

It was most definitely there.  Semantics, I suppose. 

I’ll be sure to include this information in the Yelp review.  Despite your lack of faith in the Yelp system and social media, a reputation is everything, even in the art world.  My statement was to give you a chance to fix this situation before I made it a public matter.  I suppose you do not care for your reputation as much as I thought you did.

At let’s be honest here: you never had any interest in remedying the situation or you would have mentioned it sooner when I first emailed you.

Oh, and your timing couldn’t have been more perfect with this email.  I just read our conversation aloud to my class of high school art students right here in New York.  (There were two art students sitting next to me, but it sounded better written this way)

However, you’re not a restaurant.  I’m sure it won’t sway their opinion of your gallery in the slightest.

After I wrote this email, I sat back with such an immense amount of satisfaction.  I had him at every turn!  I had won!…As long as he didn’t write back, which of course, he did:

You could’ve emailed nicely and asked, “is there any way you guys have an extra” or “if someone cancels, can I please purchase,” instead you went on to threaten us with a negative Yelp review, yet expect us to help and work with you on a remedy?  That makes no sense, we rather help customers who are polite and acknowledging of the fact that they missed out on a mystery tube due to traffic and demand. 

Have a good day, no need to order from us in the future. 

The nerve!  I’d show him.  Then a new person (a manager, maybe?) emailed me with this comment:

This is what you discuss with your High School students?  Can I leave a Yelp review with your superintendent as well?

Now that was personal!  Argh!  And then this from him, too:

I think going for this purchase during class time might be an issue when you should be teaching. 

Don’t worry about future purchases. Added to the list. 

Have a great new year!

Sarcastic and smug!  How dare he!  I wanted to throw my laptop.  So, I sat down for the next 20 minutes and wrote a great, angry, biting review about how I was being treated, how this all went down, everything.  I’d destroy them!  I completely wrote the piece, sat back, and suddenly realized how stupid and meaningless this all was.  I breathed, rethought, and wrote the following email back to them:

I just spent the last 20 minutes writing (what I thought was) a scathing Yelp review about your gallery.  After finishing it, I took some time to get perspective. 

While I wrote it, I was so angry and vindictive, as our situation went from an exciting opportunity to purchase some art into a pissing contest that ended up with personal derogatory remarks about me.  (I don’t say this as a matter of resentment; I’m just point something out for the sake of this email.  Bear with me.)  I believe, and I think you would agree, that our emails got into the realm of who was going to have the last word, and with my review, I was determined that it would be me.  However, I have deleted the piece and ended up not posting it.  

A cycle of anger and vindictiveness was created that involved so much emotion, that by posting, I would just perpetuate that cycle.  What’s the point, really?  There’s enough hatred and anger in the world.  I don’t need to create more or encourage you to feel more anger and hatred towards me.  If I post, where would it end?  You might feel the need to respond, then I would, etc.  It’s all just not worth it.  Why should we care so much about something that is so trivial?  I believe that we are all better than that.

I’m not trying to sound better than anyone else or that I’m taking the high road.  I just wanted to let you both know that there’s no need to continue.  The truth is, I like your gallery, your artists, and your output.  I’m just sad that I missed out on the opportunity.

You still get to have the last word and be right with your previous email if you want to.  I don’t mind.  If it makes you feel justified, that’s okay.  You can even keep me on a “list” if you want.  I just didn’t want to be the source of any more ill feelings in the universe and be the cause of anyone’s day to be marred, ruined, or darkened to any extent.

You can respond if you want, but don’t feel the need to.

I sincerely hope your day improves and that your gallery has a successful year.

After I wrote that email, I felt lighter, as if enormous weights had been lifted off me.  I had gotten myself so caught up in this battle, that I lost sight of myself.  I closed my computer and walked away feeling relieved.  It was over.

So, it was a great surprise to receive this email a little later:

I appreciate the email. No harm no foul. All good. 

I’ll send you an invoice for a mystery tube as we have an extra for you =) 

Hope your day is better too! 

Cheers

I was shocked.  I quickly wrote back:

Wow.  I really wasn’t expecting that, nor did I intend for that to happen.  I’m actually really moved.   

That was very thoughtful of you.  It’s a real testament to your character.

Thank you.  Truly.  And not just for the tube, but for making the world just a little bit better today.  It needs it.

His final response?  Only this:

 

 

Let It Go

I seem to have a problem getting rid of things.

In my basement garage, I have a storage cabinet that is reserved for just that.  Often times, I will get an appliance, tool, home décor item, and in the box will be an extra part that is included for some situation that won’t really ever apply to me.  For example, my refrigerator comes equipped with a drink dispenser on the front door with a water filtration system for that dispenser inside.  The fridge came with a plug for that filtration system in case I ever want to not use it.  Seeing that this plug is in some way invaluable to my life, I have stored it in my cabinet of requirement, you know, just in case.  At some point, I might want unfiltered water.

When I first got married, I brought quite a lot of baggage with me, literally.  I had several boxes of crucial belongings that were absolutely necessary to my life, things I couldn’t live without:  old calendars that contained dates significant to my life, tattered movie posters of films I’d never seen, stuffed animals I’d won at middle school carnivals.  My closets and storage rooms were filling up fast.  As luck would have it, I married someone the opposite of me, someone who doesn’t like to look back or reminisce.  So for her, if she hasn’t used it in the past year, out the door it goes.

Over the course of my marriage, my wife has helped me to slowly pry my fingers off my “treasures.”  She started with garage sales, something I went along with because at least my stuff was being traded for money.  However, she pulled a fast one on me, as when we finished setting up, she announced that everything now out of the house was not allowed back in the house.  Once the sale was over, we curbside alerted the neighbors to our stash, a concept I was mostly okay with because at least my stuff was still being put to good use.  However, once the garbage men came, it was goodbye to what I thought was invaluable.

And the funny thing is, I never ended up missing that stuff.  So, I grew braver and started to get rid of more, and I quickly found that it was easier than I thought.  In fact, there was a great deal of relief looking around at all the “found” empty space there now was.  I had been holding on to those needless items so much so that I was mired in the past, unable to move forward, and quickly running out of room for what the future held.

The same can be said for how we needlessly hold onto unpleasant memories and pain.  Like my possessions, when I have a stressful situation, I am someone who holds onto that moment, reliving it over and over in my head, with each replay being just as painful as that initial encounter.  Last week, I noted that it’s just me that’s holding onto those moments when they happen in my life.  At work, I was recently reprimanded for a small matter, and I had been running that moment through my head continually since.  Yet, when I ran into this person a few days later, it was clear that she had moved on and was no longer thinking about it.  I was the one stuck in that moment, not her, and I was the one that was continually punishing myself, not anyone else.  By holding onto it, I had made it a much bigger deal than it was.

Christian author C.S. Lewis said that, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars.  You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”  When we run these painful experiences in our collective heads, we are neither moving past them nor healing.  If we want a wound to heal, we have to stop touching it.  Holding on to these needless items doesn’t help us to grow and prepare for the future: it keeps us mired in a stressful past.  We have to learn to let go and look ahead.  Proverbs 4.25-27 tells us to, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.  Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”  Whereas looking away and back to the past causes our feet to stray, if we keep ourselves fixed on the future ahead, we stay on the path of goodness.  We then maintain a forward momentum of growth and movement, keeping us firmly on the path laid out for us by God.

So how can we let go and move forward?  First know that reasoning out and thinking about the pain or that moment isn’t healthy.  We tend to think about it repeatedly because our mind is trying to get control of a past situation, which is of course impossible.  The key is to give up trying to control what we can’t control.  Let God take over what we cannot.  One way to do so is through meditation and prayer, fixing your mind on things that are good, beneficial, and holy.  Spend time sitting quietly, allowing your mind to consider thoughts that build you up, releasing what it is that’s holding you down and keeping you in the past.  And this most likely won’t cure you in one sitting.  Since that pain is so visceral, your brain has rewired itself to focus on it.  So, repeated, scheduled prayer and meditation will recondition your mind towards the proper path that God has in store for you.  It will take some effort on your part, but it will help you become unstuck from the past.  With the right amount of time and dedication, you’ll be able to let go of those painful items that you’ve been pointlessly carrying around with you, and with your lightened load, you will be ready to receive the blessing that God is ready to give you.  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.

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.

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.