When Life Deals You Bitter Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Your Best Life Awaits: Just Be Patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beauty and Rewards of a Found Nerf Bullet

As nine-year old boys, my son and his friends are not into academic pursuits, tea parties and fashion shows, or even organized team sports for that matter.  When getting together, they are more interested in chaos, hunting each other, and various forms of minor destruction.  To combat this urge, and much to my son and his friend’s delight, my wife and I maintain a large vat of Nerf guns.

To be clear, my wife and I have never been fond of guns.  We really don’t like them.  And for years, we kept our son from most forms of media that involved guns.  However, as he grew and was influenced by the much older boys on the bus (bad habits and ideas are always picked up from the bus), the desire, and some might argue the genetic need, to play with guns has grown, so my wife and I don’t so much support the idea as try to temper it with Nerf materials.

When the boys are starting to get a little bored and restless (idle hands, blah, blah, blah), out come the Nerf guns, and they dive right in.  Stockpiling them from years of tag sales, I’m unsure at this point as to how many Nerf guns I actually have, but I know we’ve got all kinds.  Some shoot one bullet at a time, others, can shoot 20 in 10 seconds.  Though, what’s great about all of them is that they all take the same bullet.  So, we own a thousand or so Nerf bullets, which if you’re unfamiliar with them, are about 2 inches long, mostly dark blue foam, with a small orange rubber tip.  Chomping at the bit, the boys grab a large handful and go running around the house and yard.

The typical aftermath carnage of said Nerf fights includes dark blue bullets throughout the house and yard, which sounds easy enough to clean up, but you’d be surprised.  As these bullets really gain some yardage when fired, they end up in every possible corner.  As a family activity, we’ll scour the yard for them before the dog or the lawnmower gets them, but we may miss a few.  If we’re lucky, we can gather up 95% of the bullets, but that still leaves 20-30 among the missing.   Actively looking isn’t really an option at that point, so we just keep our eyes open for the next week, looking under sofas, behind coffeemakers, in the laundry, wherever.  Although they are easy to miss because of the dark color and size, if we look closely enough for them, we can find them.

It’s easy to see God when things are going our way.  When the rewards roll in because of our efforts, or maybe despite our efforts, we easily celebrate the fact that God is in our lives.  However, when things start to dry up and the rewards aren’t flowing in quite as quickly or smoothly, we drift towards the thought that God has abandoned us or that He is quiet and lying dormant.  Yet, nothing could be further from the truth, as God has never left.  God is there, if we just take a minute and look for Him.

When someone says that “God is in the details” (a phrase older than the one that invokes the devil), what they usually mean is that if attention is paid to the small things in life, great rewards await.  For example, a buzzing bee may appear to be a nuisance, but appreciating the construction of that creature, the fact that it can fly, mate, and pollinate, as well as the extreme detail that makes up its body’s construction helps us to see the glory that is a bee and how wonderfully made it is.  Pay close attention, and you can spot what is often easily missed.  At our house, paying attention to the fact that these bullets are around but hidden rewards us greatly for the next Nerf fight.  For Christians, it is easy to miss God if you aren’t looking for Him, as God is much like these small Nerf bullets: He’s there if you keep your eyes open.

The Bible repeatedly states that God is all around us and in every living thing.  In his evangelical letter to the Romans, Paul lets us know that we are surrounded by God’s glory, even if it’s not obvious: we just have to look for it.  “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (1.20).  Truly, we have no excuse, because God is in all things around us.  If we don’t see it, it’s not His fault, but ours.  He’s the constant one; we aren’t.  If I don’t spot my son’s Nerf bullets, it’s not because the bullets have changed properties, abandoned me, or are lying dormant: it’s that I haven’t noticed them because I wasn’t looking hard enough.

If you find yourself feeling abandoned by God or you’re having trouble feeling His presence, take the time to look more closely at the details of His creation and reassure yourself that He is in fact surrounding us with His love.  Spend time just enjoying the beauty of this place, and His love for you will become more apparent the closer you look.  It really is quite a wonderfully created world, made just for us, out of love for us.  Now, we need to take the time to open our eyes wide enough to be able to spot what is so clearly on display for us every day.  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.

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.