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 of 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 run 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 certificate for finishing.  Is the reward the certificate itself?  Of course not, as the certificate represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the certificate and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that certificate represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that certificate, 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.

Boldness: The Key to Miracles

Years ago, a British test pilot was flying a solo mission, when halfway through he discovered a rat on board with him who was chewing on his fuel line.  He assessed the situation and realized that if the rat was successful in completely chewing through the line, he would definitely not have enough fuel to get to where he was going and may not even have enough to land.  So instead of risking the landing, he decided to take the plane higher.  Since there was no oxygen higher up, he was able to successfully kill the rat and save his plane.

Often, when we are facing persecution and trouble, we tend to go low, hide out, and wait for the storm to quietly pass us by.  We rarely, if ever, face the storm head on and boldly proclaim victory in the face of it.  Instead, our humanity kicks in and we become meek in the face of adversity, and when we are timid, we are not only doubting our own abilities, but we are also doubting God’s ability to work through us.  When we feel the need to go low, God desires us to go high, as that’s where He can do His biggest works.  By going high with boldness and declaring victory for Him, we open the floodgates for his miracles to be done through us, giving Him even more glory.

Scripture repeatedly shows that God desires to use us way beyond our capacity.  Whether leading people out of Egypt despite speech issues, fathering a child while in the twilight of life, or facing down actual lions, individuals who were not fundamentally extraordinary were used for extraordinary achievements once they showed boldness.  When people see our boldness, it gives God a stage to accomplish His work through that boldness.  God wants us to achieve well beyond what people expect of us, work that we would never be able to do ourselves, because people then know that it couldn’t have possibly come through us: it must be from God.  It’s as if boldness is the calling card and invocation for God’s angels and for His plan to work through us.  When we go high, God takes us even higher.

Similarly, in Acts, after Christ’s ascension, the apostles Peter and John boldly preached to the crowds to the point that the leaders jailed them, threatening them to stop.  After being released, Peter and John continued to do what got them in trouble in the first place, boldly preaching the gospel, but now with an even greater boldness.  Together, they prayed: “‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’  After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.29-31).  As they became bolder, God took that boldness and worked to end their persecution, taking them and their followers even higher.  When we invoke boldness, God uses us beyond what we are capable of doing, all for His glory.

When we decide to go low in the face of adversity and land the plane instead of flying higher, we sometimes end up just saving the rat, allowing him to chew on the lines another day.  We need to show boldness in the face of persecution and to go high, ending that oppression and cutting off the enemy.  This week, when you are feeling as if the world is closing in on you, show a boldness in your faith that allows God to work miracles through you.  When the world wants you to go low, go high instead.  Amen.

A Haunting in Our Forgiven Lives

As I reached down to grab what I thought was clearly my vibrating phone in my pocket, my hand came up empty, and I rolled my eyes to discover that, once again, I had been tricked by my own body: my phone wasn’t even with me.  Apparently, I am not alone in experiencing this phenomenon (as many will be relieved to hear).  The idea of “phantom ringing” started to appear years ago with the proliferation of pagers, and once we all turned to owning smart phones, the feeling went widespread.  A singularity that afflicts most at one point or another, many will admit to swearing that they feel the vibrations of their phone against their leg, only to find no such vibrating occurring.  Chalk it up to how tied we are to our phones, I suppose.

However, a similar situation also occurs with 60-80% of amputee patients.  Dubbed “Phantom Limb Syndrome,” this condition arises when patients who have lost a limb or other significant body part feel varying amounts of pain, discomfort, or itching in a part of the body that no longer exists.  Patients absentmindedly reach down to rub or scratch the missing part, only to be painfully reminded that the part is no longer there.  They have become so used to the limb being a part of them, that their body is having trouble adjusting to a time without said body part.  Like the phone, it is as if the specter of the limb haunts the person missing it, leaving them with nothing but empty air to grasp at.

I mention these two ghostly examples as they are like the way in which we allow past sin to hang over us, where even though we have been forgiven and the sin is no longer with us, it negatively affects our actions and mindset, discouraging us from being the forgiven person we are.  We sometimes have a hard time grasping Christ’s forgiveness, as He takes our wrongs and, once forgiven, places them as far away from us as possible.  Psalm 103.12 states that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103.12).  Our sin can be no further away from us than where Christ has placed it.  We are completely dissociated from it.

Yet, we tend to ruminate and reflect on what we’ve done despite the forgiveness we’ve received.  Yes, we’ve all done some pretty bad things where we’ve hurt others, cursed God, and destroyed ourselves both literally and physically.  Despite the forgiveness we’ve sought and received, we allow our past actions to hang over us like a dark cloud.  Like the man who walks through a spider web and for the next few hours swears that spiders are crawling on him, the guilt of our sin hangs lifelessly over us, haunting our every move regardless of the forgiveness received.  Despite our feelings, that sin is not there, so why do we allow the guilt to hang over us?  It is because we’ve lived with our actions and the guilt of them for a great deal of our life, so we “phantomly” perceive them to be there.  Like the non-existent phone or ghostly limb, we erroneously think it’s with us always, yet the reality is that those sins have been forgiven, and we need to adjust to this new reality.  Christ desires us to not only be forgiven but to feel forgiven, as that is when His grace shines most brightly.  So perhaps we need to rebuke the specters of our past sins and their associated guilt and begin to live as the forgiven, saved people we are.  This week, don’t allow forgiven sin and phantom guilt to haunt you.  Refuse to let it dampen the joy that comes with grace.  Don’t let Christ’s mercy be dulled by the perceived grime of our past actions, but instead reject that phantom guilt and live as saved individuals.  Amen.

A Life, Fully Lived

As a lifelong Jeopardy fan, Cindy Stowell had always dreamed of competing on the show.   She and her husband bonded over the show for years, answering questions together as she hoped for a future spot as a contestant.  This past summer, Cindy applied online and earned a spot to tape an appearance this summer, which aired this past December.  While competing, she managed to unseat the 7-day champion, last for 5 days in competition, and earn over one hundred thousand dollars in winnings.  However, Cindy never got to see her appearance on television because she died December 5th of Stage IV Colon Cancer at age 41.  She knew that she had precious few moments left, so she decided to continue to pursue her dream with additional vigor despite her failing health, and instead of resigning herself to what amounted to continuous fevers, excruciating abdominal pain, and just a handful of months left, she decided to live fully, as if any moment might be her last.

Death is such an enormous fear for so many that we become paralyzed by the mere thought of it.  We’ve lived our whole life avoiding the inevitable (and it is most definitely inevitable for all of us) that when we are faced with it, we cannot begin to fathom it.  In fact, we often spend so much time dreading that final moment, that we forget to actually live the other days as if we were truly alive.  We instead wrap ourselves in misery and guilt, victimizing ourselves and others instead of embracing what little time we have left and making the most of it.

Early in his career, Steve Jobs came across a quote that read, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  The realization he made there was that he had to stop morbidly worrying about death and instead start embracing life by making every moment count.  Instead of waking up each day wondering what the point was because it was all going to end anyway, he would ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Whenever the answer was “no” for too many days in a row, he knew that he needed to change something.  His decision to live each day fully and make his actions count led him to a fulfilled life that changed many others in the process.

Many verses of the Bible warn us that we don’t know how much time we have left before death’s embrace, and all of these verses have the same basic message: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come…What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’’ (Mark 13.33, 37).  Mark, and many other authors, knew that oftentimes death comes unexpectedly, so his advice is for us to stay alert, be on our toes, and not to resign ourselves to depression and inaction.  Changing our mindset from “waiting to die” to “living for life” alters our world and those around us, as we project an outlook of gratitude and optimism.

Both Steve Jobs and Cindy Stowell were taken from this earth much sooner than most, but they both chose to live in the moment instead succumbing to their fates.  Because these two people saw the end coming and instead chose to live as fully as they could, both are influential to those that know their stories, and their influence ripples outward, teaching us to love every God-given moment.  This week, repeatedly ask yourself if you are living this moment as if it were a gift, alertly living as fully as possible.  If not, it’s time to make a change and embrace life.  Amen.

Little Daily Pushes

It seems that with every corner I turn, this world and its people are always pushing and testing me.  My son sees how much he can get away with regarding chores, my dogs test how much of that sandwich I’m really going to eat, and my students push for how much homework they do or don’t have to do when I assign it.  My patience is tested in traffic, my endurance is tested in assigned tasks and state mandates at my job, and my tolerance is tested by politics and government.  As a result, I may struggle to overcome, but I am always a better person as a result of that struggle.  However, the one thing that these struggles all have in common is that they are all from outside sources and are (for the most part) fairly unavoidable.  So in contrast, what about struggle that comes voluntarily from within?  What about struggle that we purposefully bring upon ourselves for the sake of growth?  What about pushing our own boundaries for the sake of purposeful growth?  Let me show you what I mean: this week, I tried an experiment during a run.  Instead of my usual distance at a certain designated rate, I added an extra mile but didn’t decrease my rate.  I wanted to push myself further just to see if I could.  In the end, I surprised myself with a better rate than I aimed for, thus learning about myself that I am faster than I allow and give myself credit for.  The fact that I was willing to choose an area of my life, explore it, and push it just a little more has developed me as a person and has made me not only happier but also more satisfied.  Socrates’ quote “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is often seen as a mantra for those that wish to truly live, and similarly, God calls upon us to explore and push ourselves to be better than we are: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3.40).  That we are living is a miracle in itself, so we should celebrate and embrace this miracle of life, adopting an exploratory stance, pushing ourselves daily to develop ourselves as Christians and as people.  Without that push, we invite spiritual and mental atrophy, a shriveling up of our identity and our faith.  We lose the desire to strike out in faith and to take chances in our day.  In the past, I have emphasized thinking beyond ourselves and reaching out to others (known and unfamiliar) not only for God’s glory but also to affect a positive change in our world.  Personal exploration and pushing a little beyond what we know is a key in achieving this goal.  Doing what is safe in our lives will achieve some results, but by reaching out just beyond what we think we are capable of, we allow God to work in and through us, gaining a firmer understanding of who we are.  And these pushes don’t have to be monumental; just explore yourself, find that line, and move one step past it.  Like doctors who suggest that to increase one’s lung capacity you should breathe as deep as you can, hold it, then take in two sharp additional breaths, we likewise do not need to leap, but instead just take a small daily step in incremental growth.  To start, at the end of the day, try asking yourself this question:  what did I learn about myself today?  If you can answer it, then you have pushed yourself.  If nothing comes to mind, then make that your goal for the next day.  That our time is limited here on Earth means that our chances dwindle with each passing day.  Push yourself just a little more and embrace the few chances you have.  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.

Slippery Happiness, Unfaltering Joy

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