Fallen Idols, Shaken Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Limited Evidence Limits Our Decision-making Ability

The other morning, I was awakened to the sound of hammering from next door.  I really despise the lack of consideration when it comes to noise in the early morning hours.  Nothing burns me more than someone doing construction while the rest of us are trying to sleep.  I imagined going over there in my self-righteousness and yelling at that person, mentioning how thoughtless and selfish they were being by making that much noise at so early a time.  I begrudgingly opened my eyes in anger and annoyance, only to notice that the clock read almost 10:00 AM, and that my neighbor was not in the wrong: I had overslept.

Incorrect assumptions based on limited evidence often incorrectly drive our actions and decisions to misguided ends.  We take what we have in front of us and figure we know the best course of action based on that evidence.  As a result, we end up making such wrongheaded decisions that we end up looking silly or foolish in the process.  When we make uninformed decisions, our word is tarnished, our reputation sullied, and the amount of trust we get in the future is limited.  There is almost no situation or turn of events that benefits from a decision that doesn’t consider all of the facts and scenarios.

Sometimes it’s easily chalked up to the sweet, endearing innocence of our age, such as when I am playing basketball against my 9-year-old son and his two friends, the three put their arms out to measure them against each other to see who has the longest arm, as that person must be the best at basketball.  Or when they decide to “huddle up” before a basket and give each other code names when passing, thinking that I’ll be so confused by the changes that I won’t know which way to turn.  (You can imagine that I figured it out fairly quickly.)  It’s adorable to watch at that age, but when age is no longer an excuse for our uninformed assumptions, we need to rethink our approach.

For example, the other day, I mentioned to my class that I often participate in a podcast about superhero culture, and that I had recently recorded an episode that delves into the Spider-Man mythos.  I encouraged them to listen to it, as it was relevant to the unit we are currently tackling, the role of superheroes in our culture.  A few hours later, I was called down to the office by my assistant principal and principal to attend a closed-door meeting.  By the tone of their voices and looks on their faces, I could tell I was in trouble.  I sat down and was told that a few students had come to administration and told them that I was maliciously writing about the school in an online blog, which is nothing close to a podcast about superheroes.  After revealing all of the evidence to my bosses, they sheepishly closed their laptops and apologized, as they had received incorrect information.  Apparently, the students who came forward did not have all the correct facts, and had emotionally reacted to a situation where further investigation was needed, and the administrators who listened to them just assumed that this information was true.  Being a generally good-natured person, I laughed off the experience and now recall it as a funny story.

Yet, other times, we are not as lucky.  Assumptions can have detrimental, sometimes catastrophic results.  Assumptions in manual jobs can result in faulty, even dangerous construction.  Assumptions by an athlete can develop into a missed score or even a loss.  Assumptions in our relationships can lead to missed connections and breakups.  And possibly most dangerously so, assumptions in our faith can lead to breakdowns of trust, churches that split, and salvation opportunities lost.  To an extreme, assumptions can cause fanaticism and wars.

The author of Proverbs, in addition to the multitude of other common-sense suggestions, offers sage advice when it comes to how to avoid assumptions and acting without the proper amount of evidence: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame… In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18.13, 17).  To avoid failure, embarrassment, and wrongheaded decisions, the author encourages us to listen and wait.  Patiently listening to all of the evidence first and avoiding responding immediately can help us make a fully-realized, informed decision or statement.  Additionally, waiting for more evidence instead of being the first to jump into the argument allows for a fully-formed decision or statement, one that reflects age and wisdom.  By taking our time, we can spare ourselves the embarrassment of foolishness and instead reflect thoughtful consideration.

So how can we steer ourselves into that direction?  First, we need to be less rash.  So many times, our decisions and statements are driven by emotion.  By taking emotion out of the equation, we can thoughtfully and carefully consider the situation.  Lessening the effect that emotion has on us helps us to make clearheaded, informed decisions.  To establish that practice, we need to work on our meditative life.  Taking the time to quiet ourselves and listen to what God has to offer helps us to be informed.  Quieting ourselves and our surroundings leads to a meditative life, one where we speak less and listen more.  This week, take a few minutes out of each day to just sit and be still.  Quiet your surroundings and yourself.  Build up patience and develop your listening skills.  Through stillness and calmness, we can avoid the trappings that come with assumptions and be led towards a less foolish, more informed life.  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.

Putting the Human in Humanity

As I was overhearing two people having a not-quite heated but not-quite agreeable discussion about our current president in my classroom, it was clear that even though they were not seeing eye to eye, they seemed at least open to listening to what the other was saying.  Finally, in a moment of exasperation, the non-Trump supporter explained, “I don’t understand why.  Help me to understand.” Instantly, the sentiment reverberated in the room, as everyone listening suddenly realized what we were sorely lacking: empathy.  It was a moment of clarity for that person and for all those around, as they realized that we are living in a time period where understanding is needed more so than convincing, but most are not living that way.  

Ever since that moment, I’ve been trying to get a hold of where the nation and our individual situations are headed.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, a fact that I easily admit to not as anything else other than a fact.  I merely did not agree with his views and policies and felt that he did not accurately represent me.  So, during the election process, I found my default to be one of quick judgment of him and his supporters, and since they disagreed with me, it must be their mental shortcoming.  In fact, most of the country seemed to be defaulting to that approach, which may explain why we are now so divided.  The fact is, judging and dismissing is easier than trying to understand the opposing viewpoint.  Empathy requires patience, time, and openness, all signs of humanity.

So in an attempt to bring us together, I’ve been recently trying a new approach, where when I encounter a political opinion contrary to my own, I want to know why they feel that way and how they got there.  I may not agree with their view or decision, but at least I understand them.  If our ideas of what’s best for the country don’t match, that doesn’t make either side inherently evil; it just makes them different.  It’s our intolerant reactions to one another that invites evil.

The “Serenity Prayer,” a staple wall-hanging in many Christian households, reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With the three active requested characteristics being serenity, courage, and wisdom, they can be categorized as three traits that align with empathy and understanding, all of which fall under the same umbrella: acceptance.  In Romans 15.7, the apostle Paul encourages us to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Even though we rejected, persecuted, and crucified Him, Christ was still able to accept us.  Surely, we can do the same for those that merely disagree with us.  

So when I asked some Trump supporters about what they thought of the latest enacted policies, I instead pursued a line of questioning that helped me to understand why and how they could support them, not a line of defense that created intolerance and discord.  From there, I learned of the past pain and struggle that plagued them, how they grappled with disappoint and failure, and how these new ideas provided hope for them.  This approach humanized them, and I could now see why they felt that way.  In the end, I didn’t agree with their stance, but the conversation went a very different way than it could have, as I was learning to accept them and reflect His approach to others, as well.  Through this humanizing act of acceptance, we can model His example, giving others a glimpse at His glory and bringing the country closer together in the process.  Amen.

Giving God Your Full Attention

I can usually tell when my students are listening to me or not.  Their attention is usually fragmented by any number of devices or distractions that surround them on a daily basis, so I must be aware when they are listening and when they aren’t.  Often times it’s some social media-like thing that they are immersed in, or they’re lost in thought about some problem they’re facing at home or with someone they’re dating, or sometimes both.  The issue is that because of the demands placed on them in life and the social expectations they should be living up to, there is too much going on for them to participate in active listening.  Although, I can’t really point the finger much.  At home, my wife often accuses me of only hearing every third word she says, as I often get the gist of what she is saying right, if not the details.  I suppose for my students, the same can be said about me in that I just have too much going on in my life and head to actively listen sometimes.

When we want someone to actively listen to us, we sometimes ask them to look directly at us when we are speaking, in an effort to make sure that they are listening attentively.  In my class, when I am saying something important that I don’t want to have to repeat, I often times ask them to “Listen with your face” so that I can make sure they hear every word and idea that I am saying.  Perhaps committing more than just your ears to hearing is the key to actively listening.  Since more than one sense is necessary in these situations, so it can also be said of worship.  When we pray or worship God, whether on our own or together, we can and should be committing more than just our minds and ears to Him.  In Romans 12.1, Paul doesn’t limit us to only those two commitments, but feels as if we should be using as much of ourselves to glorify Him. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

Many years ago, I decided that it was not enough to just commit my voice to God in worship, but to commit as many of my senses to Him as possible.  So, when we would recite a prayer or song, I would make sure to not only speak it, but to commit my eyes to Him by reading along as well, even if I already knew the prayer or song by heart.  Additionally, I could commit my ears to Him by listening to the church body around me participating along with me in the song.  I can feel the power of His prayers and songs by touching the prayers and verses as I recite them aloud.  I could take in the smells of candles and incense, knowing that they are there to bring glory to Him.  And I can taste the communion wine and bread, remembering the sacrifice He made for me.  However, despite committing these five sense to Him, there still remains a sixth one that is most important: the heart.  We can utilize our sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to glorify Him, but if our hearts are not for Him, then those commitments are meaningless.  It is the heart that guides our mind and actions, and without it, those senses and commitments are meaningless.  So, this week, let’s not only commit all our senses to Him, but our hearts as well, so that we can fully promise ourselves to Him in life and in spirit.  Instead of just listening with our faces, let’s listen with our hearts, too.  Amen.

Words of Change Outside of Time and Space

Years ago, I attended the New York City 26-mile marathon (as a spectator, mind you), to cheer on my good friend who was running in the race.  I planted myself around the 22-mile marker, as I assumed those last few but still far miles were what needed the most encouragement.  I watched runner after runner go by, surrounded by people shouting out inspiring words to the other struggling athletes.  Before our friend reached us, I noticed that there were several people shouting out words of encouragement to multiple people.  After weighing, and ultimately discarding, the idea that maybe these people just knew a lot of the runners, I came to the conclusion that what these onlookers were doing was reading the t-shirts of the runners for numbers and names and then shouting them out, boosting the spirits of these supposed strangers.  I smiled and thought the practice adorable, that the result was a small lift in the runners’ long struggle.  However, I severely underestimated the result, as I recently discovered for myself.  I was running a short but quick 3-miler around a nearby lake and was just entering the last mile.  I had been pushing myself, but found that I was hitting a proverbial wall.  I mindlessly glanced over to some people hanging out on an adjacent lawn, when one of them stood up, gave me a big toothy smile, and put both thumbs in the air.  I’m not really sure what happened after that, but I remember smiling back after getting a quick boost of adrenaline, and when I finished that mile, I was a good 30 seconds faster than the previous two, a huge difference in the world of running.  His well-timed, well-placed, good-natured gesture made an enormous impact in my struggle, and we’ve never even met.  It’s no secret that the Bible is filled with commands to lift up and encourage each other.  1 Thessalonians 5.11 tells us: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  Yet what many of us don’t consider is that we should encourage and lift up all people that God puts in our life, including people that we don’t even know.  This outside-of-the-box approach to Christian living is a chance for believers to take a step out in faith and give a much-needed lift to the many that struggle around us daily.  It’s a chance for Christians to affect a strong positive change in the world, developing it towards one that values kindness over opportunity.  And these interactions don’t even need to be aimed at those who, like the runners in the marathon, are clearly struggling towards their goal.  I remember a stranger who gave me a compliment on my tie in a gas station from fifteen years ago, and I still smile every time I see that tie.  His comment brought a little more lasting light into my life, and I wasn’t even in need of any at the time he delivered it.  As a result, I now tend to go out of my way now and compliment people who have clearly and purposely altered their appearance (new haircut, tattoo, piercing, hair color, whatever), even if it’s not my particular taste, because I know that every time they look in a mirror, a compliment can help them smile and accept themselves a little more than they do at that time.  If God is truly purposeful in all His decisions, then everyone you run into in your life is there for a reason.  The challenge to us is to step out of our comfort zone and try it with someone we don’t even know.  With a few words of encouragement, you can be the difference that we Christians so desire in this world, and that difference may just ripple out well beyond the two of you and that moment.  Amen.

The Hostile, Gnarled Claws of Resentment

A friend recently showed me a humorous cartoon of a sweet-faced, innocent-looking elementary school girl eating lunch while others look on and comment.  The message to the cartoon: “Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive,” with the onlookers’ comment being “Look at this jerk eating those crackers like she owns the place.”  Obviously, the girl is just eating lunch, but the message is clear: when there’s someone we don’t like, his or her every action is questionable, every word is judged wrong, and every motive must be devious.  At one of my locales, we’ve reached a standoff between a couple of regulars, where they hate each other so much that everything they do is deemed belligerent and aggressive, despite that fact that it probably isn’t.  However, these people have such a deep-seeded aversion towards each other that they refuse to resolve it.  Watching this hostility occur, and attempting to mediate it, I found myself wondering from where this hatred came.  Unable to find it’s root cause, I continued to search and found from all involved parties that none of them had ever approached the other to confront, but instead harbored resentment and then continued onward.  One of those involved has often quoted to me this adage: “silence breeds monsters.” When we have issues with another person and merely move forward in anger without confrontation, that anger usually doesn’t go away, but instead sinks its talons into us in the form of resentment, which is what seemed to have happened here.  Just the other day, I became angry at one of these involved individuals for personal reasons.  I sat at home steaming, building him up in my mind to be a tremendous fiend.  I sought advice from someone who suggested I merely confront him.  Hesitantly (and somewhat fearfully), I called him and started off with a direct question about the matter.  What followed was an often-engaging and very satisfactory half-hour conversation where we both hung up with a better understanding of each other and the situation.  With my anger dissipated and an understanding on both sides, he worked to resolve it, complimenting me on my directness and initiative.  As such, our relationship is now stronger, as he knows that when there is an issue, I will bring it to him.  Ephesians 4.26 states: “In your anger do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”  As an often used maxim for married couples, many interpret this verse to be that they shouldn’t go to bed angry.  More than likely, the verse means that we should deal with our anger before it is too late to deal with it: the point where anger turns to resentment.  Then, we begin to despise the other person instead of not liking what it is that he or she has done or said.  When we allow that process to happen, marriages sour, friendships spoil, and coworkers turn despite the fact that these are people who will be in our lives well after the offense.  Like pouring salt onto fertile land, long-held anger poisons the relationship, and nothing can grow as a result.  Additionally, the sin then becomes doubled, as it includes not just the individual who committed the wrong, but also the wronged person, who now harbors sin against that other person.  When we are wronged or offended by another’s actions or words, nothing can be gained from holding onto that anger, and the best approach to letting it go may be to confront, as you will most likely gain an empathetic understanding of the moment in question.  By letting go of our anger through respectful confrontation, the long term gains won’t involve contempt and resentment.  Amen.

The Unruly Resistance of Truth

There are some topics that people avoid like the plague because it incites too much debate and discussion.  If you are unsure of this fact, try bringing up either religion or politics at your next family dinner.  As for me, I love to be able to challenge people’s thinking.  Being able to present a new idea or concept that reveals some aspect of the world to a group that was beforehand unaware of that information which then causes them to make a positive change in their life has always been a strong desire for me.  For that reason alone is most likely why I went into teaching, because it’s there that I have a captive audience whom I can challenge on a daily basis.  My students are somewhat used to this approach, so it was very much a surprise to me when I brought up questions of latent racism that exists in our country and was greeted with an immense amount of argument and resistance.  We were reading articles about the daily feelings and struggles of people of color, and as I continued, hands shot up, anger was induced, and many voices were heard.  Many balked at these claims and argued them to the smallest detail, most arguments stemming from the point that they themselves are not racist in their speech or actions.  I allowed them to present their ideas with little commentary on my part.  Having recently presented this material to two of my black senior boys, they both confirmed it as true, saying that as black men, they feel these feelings daily.  The next day in class, I addressed the outrage of the previous day, but this time I reminded them that these articles accurately reflected the way that these two boys, and many others like them, actually feel on a daily basis.  Although the class was not actively racist, their inaction to squash racism and to not speak for those who can’t may implicate them, a difficult truth for them to accept.  This confrontation with my class brought a very harsh truth to my own attention:  when we are presented with harsh truths, we often times react badly through rejection and avoidance.  We don’t deal well with truths that challenge our thinking, and in a childlike manner, throw proverbial tantrums to either avoid the conversation or immediately prove the other person wrong.  Maybe it’s because when we hear a harsh truth, we are forced to make a choice: accept it or reject it.  Christ encountered this resistance quite often.  When He walked among us, despite that He accomplished much in His ministry on Earth, when we were confronted with the truth of Him being the Messiah, our prejudices kicked in when we chose to free a thief instead of a Nazarene, we rejected His truth as savior, and we crucified Him, an act that Peter addressed to the crowds: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you…and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2.22-23).  The truth of His power was irrefutable, but we fought against the harsh truth of Him being our God.  Christ as our savior is a harsh truth that forces us to choose.  And like my students who bravely faced down harsh truths, we are changed in the wake of that acceptance.   Being confronted with a harsh truth is never easy, and we may hide from it, shun it, and argue it to no end.  But tackling one is absolutely life changing.  This week, stare down those truths that you have been avoiding and make your decision.  In its aftermath, your new life and view awaits.  Amen.

Knowing that Someone Notices

How much we impact others is always difficult to measure.  Mark Twain once quipped that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.”  There are people I can remember from twenty years ago that I only met once, yet there was that one thing they said that sticks out in my mind, words that left an impression on me, and they probably don’t even remember the conversation.  When my seniors graduate, I give them five piece of advice to help them in their life.  Of the five, one is “People remember the smallest things, and for them that may be the most significant thing.”  I use it as a means to show how our impact is often larger than we think it is, how the smallest action or word can stick with a person for a lifetime, despite how insignificant you might think it is.  For example, I can remember one church youth group member of mine who, when I asked him why he decided to come to youth group for the last year, told me that it was because the first time he came, I said hello to him.  I couldn’t believe that such a small gesture, one I didn’t even remember, could make such an impact, but it was that feeling of acknowledgement that compelled him to stay.  Similarly, I recently reached out to two people I knew were going through a rough time, people I don’t usually talk to who crossed my mind, just to let them know that I was thinking about them.  I thought I’d take the chance with what I deemed a small gesture.  However, the response went on and on about how much it meant to them, that someone was thinking about them.  I later learned that there was very little keeping one of these two in the world, and my call may have been the only thing that kept him in this world a little longer.  Here, acknowledgement translated to encouragement.  Lifting each other up as Christians is a direct command from the Bible, as 1 Thessalonians 5.11 writes: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  This directive indicates a need among us to continuously do so, to be compassionate, to empathize, and to encourage.  I knew what it felt like when it feels as if no one cares, hence I made that call to help them feel a little less alone.  It took thirty seconds, yet those seconds of acknowledgement matter in years to those people.  There are countless numbers of people who walk around us thinking that no one cares about them, that most wouldn’t notice if they were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth.  As Christians, we have the obligation and the power to reach out to those who feel that way, and most often all it takes is an acknowledgement.  When I see my students grappling with difficult times, just asking if they are okay is often times enough to help them feel better.  They usually don’t even share what they are going through, but just the knowledge that someone noticed is often times enough for them.  God is revealing these people in need to us, sometimes right in front of us and other times in the form of a passing thought.  Our job is to act, letting these people know that we noticed them and that they matter.  This week, when someone crosses your mind or path, take it as a sign to reach out and let that person know that you noticed and were thinking about him or her.  It may be just the message that keeps them going.  Amen.

When Hard of Hearing is Just Too Hard to Hear

My oldest dog Elinor just turned 14 which is fairly old for a dog.  Her spirit is still fairly strong, but her body is weaker than it used to be.  You can see the stiffness in her joints and the pain she experiences when she walks, but her desire to be filled with vigor is still definitely there.  When we call her, she rarely responds, and when we tell her to come back, she never complies.  She will incessantly bark at all the wrong hours of the day, and when we tell her to stop, she never does.  All of this evidence adds up to the conclusion that she is mostly deaf.  However, open a bag of treats while she is on the other side of the house, and she will come running.  I tend to disagree with the deaf diagnosis and feel that in her age, she has developed selective hearing.  She chooses to hear what she wants to, and at her age, and I suppose she’s earned that right.  On the other hand, I might argue that my 7 year old son has not earned that right, especially when I ask him to put something away or clean up after himself.  Nor have my students earned that right either, especially when they’ve selectively forgotten that I told them they had homework.  There is a distinct difference between someone who is hard of hearing and a message that is hard to hear.  When we find someone else’s words uncomfortable and against our desires, we tune them out.  We develop selective hearing when we hear things upon which we don’t want to act.  The Bible is riddled with people who heard the voice of God directly or through a prophet who chose not listen, and as a result, were punished, reinforcing the idea that choosing not to listen to wisdom never works in our favor.  God’s reasons for having us listen to reason and wisdom are quite simple.  When Solomon wrote the wisdom of Proverbs, in the opening chapter he laid out his purpose for writing these words which include:  “for gaining wisdom and instruction, for understanding…for receiving instruction…for giving prudence…—let the wise listen and add to their learning” (1.2-5).  There is great strength to be gained in listening to wisdom, and God can often speak to us through the people around us, using them as His vessel.  So, how do we know when God is trying to tell us something?  The times when that strong desire to not even want to think about or consider what others are saying because the message is too hard to hear is usually the times when God is trying to talk to us and we are not listening.  When we may not want to even entertain the company of a specific person or group because we don’t want to hear what is said may be because the message is too hard to hear for us personally.  It affects us too deeply.  For many of us, it’s hard to hear to forgive when you’ve been hurt so deeply.  It’s hard to hear to sacrifice when you hold so dearly on to certain things.  It’s hard to hear to cut out a part of your life when you find so much comfort in it.  It’s hard to hear to give when you have nothing left to offer.  In this New Year, spend time seeking out the people and situations where you have developed selective hearing.  When what others have to say is hard to hear, it mostly likely needs to be heard, and not listening to God’s counsel can have dire consequences, but listening to a hard to hear message will ultimately bring you closer to God.  Amen.