The Needless Burden of Your Baggage

I can remember years ago when my nonagenarian grandmother was alive, that no matter what befell her in her old age, she refused to let anything get her down.  For years, she was happy to enjoy the simple pleasures in life like cooking for others, visitors, and family.  We’d ask her, on any given day, how she was feeling, and she’d tell us, “I can’t complain.”  That response always astounded me because she clearly had much about which to complain as it wasn’t like she was pain-free.  Yet despite her cataracts, arthritis which resulted in a hunched over frame, losing her hearing, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, she refused to complain.  I thought maybe she was just modest or didn’t want to focus on the negative (both of which may be true), but I believe she wouldn’t complain for another reason.

In life, she never wanted to be a burden on anyone, desiring to do most things herself.  So, I’ve concluded that she responded with no complaints because of just that: she didn’t want to burden others with what she was going through.  She’d rather keep it to herself and bear the burden silently.

But isn’t sharing the burden a Godly trait?  Our earthly burdens are frequently referred to as “our yoke,” with scripture instructing us to place it upon Christ where He will give us rest.  Galatians 6.2 teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  We frequently see our fellow travelers struggling with difficult baggage, and it does them great good to share those struggles with an attentive ear and a firm shoulder.  But this is not about those selfless people or those sacrificial times.

This is about the me-monster.

Comedian Brian Regan told a story about how at a party, no matter what he said, this other person had a bigger story.  When Brian told about an accomplishment, the other person would say something along the lines of, “Well, if you think that’s something, then…” and would proceed to top whatever he had to say, obnoxiously eclipsing him at every turn.  Similarly, the me-monster can rear its ugly head when it comes to sharing burdens.

We all know that person (or maybe more than one) whom we never like to ask how they are doing, because we know we are in for a long story about how much they’ve been suffering lately.  They will go on to complain about their health, how their kids are treating them, what indignities they’ve suffered at work, all because they just love to put burdens on other people and top other’s stories.

Get a few of them together, and unlike my grandmother’s approach, it’s a who’s who of bodily ailments: whose sciatica is acting up, what pain was emanating from where the other day, or how their senses are slowly getting dulled in the coming years.  You see, the me-monster doesn’t also just like to one-up you with their accomplishments, they also like to out-do you in how much they have to put up with.  They are a black hole of sympathy in the room, drawing all sunlight and hope away from everyone for the sheer desire to elicit misery and empathy.  In short, they want you to feel bad for them because it makes them feel good.

And it doesn’t do anyone any good in the process.  The me-monster just gets bigger and those around it are further alienated and minimized.  Sometimes, burdening others with our troubles isn’t the answer.  Sometimes it’s better to just carry them ourselves if we can.

I was faced with this dilemma recently, when I learned at work that there was a chance I might lose my job due to budget cuts.  I had been there twelve years, but in my department, I was third from the bottom.  This information weighed on me as I wondered how I was going to deal with it.  For many, as was my instinct too, their first action is to share the burden with a loved one or spouse.  I thought through this action, but realized that in sharing my burden with my wife, she would have to put up with that burden as well, carrying it around, needing to deal with it.  I didn’t want to have to have her suffer with this information yet, as like I said, there was only a chance of me losing it.  So, why put my burden on her and force her to contend with it when I could quietly suffer with it just fine myself?  By telling her, the only person who would benefit would be me from the sympathy, which is arguable because if my wife is worrying about this, then our marriage suffers too with the amount of stress I’ve introduced.

So, I decided that I would tell her when the threat was more real or when I couldn’t deal with it myself, just like my grandmother who was suffering silently just fine by herself.  There was no need to burden others with what she was going through, so I followed likewise.  And as it turns out, my threat passed, and it seems I have a job next year.  So, by telling her back then, not only would I have been burdening her with this information, I would have been needlessly burdening her, just like the me-monster.

Just because we are suffering, that doesn’t give us license to share with everyone around us.  Even Christ didn’t share with everyone the burden of His impending crucifixion.  Sure, when the burden becomes too much, confession to someone close helps lift that burden, but just becoming the me-monster and burdening everyone else in our world doesn’t make for a very inviting existence.  So the next time you have an opportunity to share your burden, weigh whether you need to or not.  Don’t let the me-monster take over your communication, and instead take a note from grandma by choosing to radiate optimism and not complain.  Amen.

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The Prickly Growth of Undiscovered Talents

It’s a funny thing when a cactus can invoke inspirational scripture.  One would usually expect just the opposite.  Yet, when my eyes fell upon it the other day, I was reminded of His words in Jeremiah 29.11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.’”

One summer, my family and I were walking along the street at our island shore house, when we came across a well-manicured home that had developed some stray growths of cacti in and around their front walkway, apart from the usual landscaping.  In the road, we found a round piece of that cactus that had been broken off from the main growth.  Around the size of a flat baseball, my son picked it up and announced that he wanted to bring it home and plant it.  Never the one to discourage him in his well-intentioned plans, we brought it home together, planted it in a pot, sat it on the windowsill, and excitedly anticipated its growth.

For the next two and a half years, I watched that cactus do absolutely nothing.  I waited for it to show some signs of life, but it grew neither in size nor stature.  Occasionally, I’d poke it, expecting it to be soft with interior rot, or wiggle it, thinking that it was rootless, but despite it’s lifelessness, it remained immobile either way.  We put it outside in the summer, exposed to the elements, expecting either growth or death to overtake it, but it looked exactly the same at the end of the season.  A few dozen times I almost threw it out, deeming this exercise a pointless endeavor, but I would then resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm or taking up any resources.  So, I left it, and eventually forgot about it.

It wasn’t until my son brought my attention to it, two and a half years later, that it meant anything to us.  That cactus that sat dormant for years, suddenly had a large growth coming off the top of it, and that growth was growing at an exponential rate.  Despite my doubts in the potential of that prickly plant, it was very much alive and thriving, now creating quite the spectacle for us.

It’s hard to assess the potential of a person or thing from the outside without taking a look as to what lies on the inside.  On the long-running science fiction British television show “Dr. Who,” the main character time-travels in a Tardis, a machine that resembles a typical London telephone booth.  Despite its outward appearance, the mechanics are much more complex when you step into it, as the running joke on the show is the line uttered by all who enter: “It’s bigger on the inside.”  And that sentiment really is true for measuring the scope of an individual’s potential, with us being bigger on the inside, capable of much more than we think we are.

The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25, shows how we are all capable of much more than what we might at first seem.  In the story, a wealthy man goes on a journey, and upon leaving, gives bags of gold to three of his servants, entrusting that they would each do something with them.  The first two doubled how much gold the master gave them, but the third took his gold, dug a hole, and buried it, so that when the master returned, he could give it back.  When the master finally did return, all three reported what they had done with their gold.  With the first two, he was delighted that they had worked with what he had given them.  With the third who buried it, the master was furious and whipped the servant.  Among the many points in Christ’s story, one is that we all have the ability to produce great things with the talents that we are given.  That the servant could have done something with his gold, but he chose to not explore the possibilities is the reason the master becomes so furious with him.  We all are created with the ability to affect great change in the world, but when some choose to do nothing, it is considered the greatest waste of human potential.

Now, some may say that they have nothing to really offer the world, but much like my cactus, the talent is most definitely there: it may just be hidden from view for a short while.  With a little exploration and close examination, we can find what it is you have to offer.  Brian Tracy, a Canadian-American motivational public speaker, was quoted as saying that, “The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”

Every year, I am asked what grade I would like to teach, and every year I choose juniors.  In addition to being able to experience the many milestones that come with that age group (driver’s license, first job, prom, etc.) one main reason I choose them is the maturity transition that comes at that age.  Up to this point, many of them are not self-actualized; they don’t have a grasp on who they are or what their potential is.  During this year, they suddenly start to realize what it is they can do, what their talents are, and how they fit in with the rest of the world.  I love being able to take them through that transition, showing each of them that they have tremendous worth and value in this world.

And that really is the transition that we all need to discover in ourselves.  We need to see the talents that lie within us, just waiting to burst out and make the world a little more wonderful.  Each of us has something inside that can make that worldly change, but like the first two servants, it’s up to us to do something with it.  This week, find time to be introspective, searching within yourself for that dormant talent that has the potential to make someone else’s life better, because with a little self-exploration and time, you’ll find that we really are bigger on the inside.  Amen.

Avoiding Explosions and Reducing the Pressure

My son, and admittedly myself, tend to giggle like idiots whenever we open up a bottle of seltzer and find that it’s been shaken up too much beforehand.  Laughing throughout, we flailingly reach to tighten the cap as quickly as possible as we get covered in carbonated water.  As a result of increasing pressure inside of the bottle with nothing to let out the pressure, the bottle was just waiting for our hands to get a hold of it while the pressure was temporarily contained.

Similarly, while a teenager, I made quite the wicked discovery that if I combine water, sugar and a certain common chemical in a soda bottle and shake it up, it explodes with quite a bit of force, as the reaction inside is stronger than what the plastic container can hold back.  Inside this container, the pressure continued to build until it could either be contained or released, and since the bottle was too weak to contain the pressure inside, it would explode at great decibels.  My friends and I had a number of misadventures with that discovery, with thankfully no repercussions in our lives or in the lives of others.

Pressure also builds up in our relationships and interactions, and just like these containers, unless something or someone comes along to release that pressure, it will continue to build until it eventually explodes when it can’t be contained any further, and not always in the best of ways.

In my last devotional, I recounted a story about an email fight I had with an art gallery over a failed purchase that went from inquisition to threats to personal comments to almost public shaming.  It was at that point, right before I was about to post my public review, that I saw how the pressure had built up in these interactions, how all parties were so concerned with being right and having the last word, that the pressure just kept building between us.  We really seemed out to destroy one another, even though we had never met, and I wasn’t sure where it was going to end, either.  False bravado, hubris, cockiness, whatever you want to call it.

Additionally, I noted the physical toll that these interactions were taking on me.  I felt heavier, as if these words were physically weighing on my shoulders.  Slouched over at my computer, I angrily typed, pounding down on the keys while furious grimaces crossed my face.  The thoughts of what I wanted to do to these people, making them pay for their words, ran rampant in my head, and I’m pretty sure that the other party was feeling and doing the same exact things.

Thinking about how a tea kettle, as it builds up steam, needs to vent that steam or else it will explode, I was certain that at some point, someone had to let the pressure out of this situation.  I suddenly realized that I had the power to do it, so I composed that final long email of unwarranted reconciliation.  As I wrote, I felt progressively and significantly lighter, free of our words, as if they were being lifted off me.  When I wrote, I wasn’t expecting anything and didn’t even think I would hear back from them.  I just knew that I didn’t want to carry that burden any more.  I was tired of being angry.

Carrie Fisher once said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.    Anger towards another does nothing but destroy ourselves.  So, to break free from the cycle of anger, we need to find a valve, something or someone that lets out the steam.  Unfortunately for Kim and Julia, they couldn’t find one between the two of them.

These two senior students had been bickering with one another for a day or so.  Towards the end of my class, it started up again, but was increasing in intensity.  For every biting comment one had, the other had an even stronger one.  It would go back and forth until each of them was yelling at the other.  Thankfully, being the end of the period, the bell rang and acted as the steam valve.  However, it started right up again the next day, right at the beginning of the period.  From snarky looks, to sniping comments, to hostile body language, to screaming insults, I finally stepped in to let the steam out and release the pressure.  I excused one from the room and relocated the other to a different part of the room, telling each one not to talk to the other.  It worked, for the moment, so I met with each of them later that day to help them let out more steam and pressure.  After talking reasonably with them and imbuing some patience, they calmed down and realized how each one’s comments and actions were escalating the situation, and how they needed to learn to deescalate, or else ensuing disaster and self-harm would follow: each one was getting so worked up over the other that it was staring to take a personal toll on their individual selves, not each other.

Proverbs 16.32 teaches us that it is “better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”  To conquer a world, anyone with enough strength and armies can do that, but to be patient, listen, and calmly go about life takes special finesse and skill.  The latter is much more difficult as it involves craft and aptitude, whereas the former just takes brute force.  So, the next time you find yourself escalating to anger, look for that steam valve and choose patience.  It won’t be easy, as everything in you will want to bring forth anger, so create preexisting paths to help you calmly go about your way.  Find what helps to let out the pressure and deescalates the situation before the containment explodes.  When angry, some count, others visualize something pleasant, some seek out other people, and others flip the situation around to create an empathetic standpoint.  Whatever works for you, seek His guidance and His model for how to approach the situation, and you will find yourself conquering not worlds but your own emotions.  Amen.

Prideful Rants and Pointless Competitions

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

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

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

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

A couple of minutes later, I got an answer.

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

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

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

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

Yeah unfortunately, it’s a limited release. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was most definitely there.  Semantics, I suppose. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great new year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope your day is better too! 

Cheers

I was shocked.  I quickly wrote back:

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

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

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

His final response?  Only this:

 

 

Don’t Stuff Yourself

Despite that the wise in our society advise us to take “everything in moderation,” it sure is hard to follow that adage around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Being surrounded by so many delicious treats, along with lots of lovingly-cooked dishes, it’s easy to want to stuff your face.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I can most definitely relate.

This year, I told myself that I wouldn’t indulge, and that I would take just a little bit.  I didn’t want to dismantle a fairly-regimented eating design.  So, I tool a little bit of everything.  That was my first mistake.

After filling up my plate with a little bit of everything, I took note of the large pile of food I had collected.  I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to that point.  Not a single spot of plate could be seen, and the height achieved was somewhat admirable.  To rectify, I then determined to not finish my plate.  I would only eat three or four bites of each item, giving the rest to my three dogs.  That was my second mistake.

The suggestion to eat only 3-4 bites was an issue, as I had about 10-12 different kinds of food on my plate, the size of 3-4 bites each.  I couldn’t neglect any one food, now could I?  After 10 minutes or so, I was regretfully staring at the clean bottom of my empty plate.  Not that it was bad (that was clearly not the problem); it’s that the food was so good.  I had eaten too much of a good thing, and all before dessert.  As most people know, that overstuffed feeling is never pleasurable.  No matter how good something is, overdoing it never leads to satisfaction.

Additionally, overdoing it leads to a quick burnout, despite your good intentions.  I watched this idea take shape while we were exercising as a family.  We had decided to complete two rounds of a series of exercises (squat thrusts, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  My son decided that this amount of exertion wasn’t enough for him, so he went for the hand weights.  Standing at 90 pounds, he managed to hold a 10-lb weight in one hand and clutch two 5-lb weights in the other.  I didn’t say anything, wondering how long this was going to last.  He made it through about 15 lunges before he decided against this course of action.  He had burned out quite quickly, despite his good intention to get stronger.

Overdoing it never leads to the intended result.  We end up instead getting too much of what we wanted with none of the satisfaction or results.  Think of it this way:  you have to cook a turkey for 1 hour at 425 degrees.  To save time, you do some math, and decide that you could cut that time down significantly by cooking at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.  So, you decide to cook your turkey at 1700 degrees for 15 minutes.  Makes sense on a logical level, but try biting into that turkey, and you’ll see the reality of your inept cooking.

Solomon tried this approach, too.  He decided that since he was king, he could be happy by giving himself everything that he wanted.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2.10).  However, the more he dove into what he enjoyed, the more diminishing the returns were: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (verse 11).  Everything in moderation.  If we don’t overdo it and temper ourselves, we enjoy life more, growing more in the process.

Finding that sweet spot of moderation is key, the point at where you’ve achieved what you wanted but didn’t go too far and ruin it.  It’s the same concept for the things we enjoy as for the things we work so hard at.  We desire to grow and develop, but if we take it too far and overdo it, we end up doing more harm than good.  Athletes work hard to grow stronger and develops skills, but at some point, they risk pulling a muscle.  The same can go for our spiritual lives.  I’ve seen many young Christians get heavily involved in as many Christian aspects as they possibly can, only to get sick of it quickly and reject everything shortly from there.  Just because it’s good, overdoing it doesn’t mean it will be better for you.

Years ago, a fellow teacher taught me that when teaching your students, you want them disappointed that the bell rang, not grateful that it did.  You always want them to ask you to continue to read something when stopping, instead of being thankful that you stopped.  You want them to want more, but if you give them too much, they won’t want more, anymore.  For the things we enjoy, more doesn’t make it better.  God created these things for us to enjoy, but taking them all in at once doesn’t lead to more enjoyment.  And growth, like cooking a good turkey, takes time.  Overwatering a plant doesn’t make it grow faster.  So, don’t go all in all at once; leave yourself wanting more.  Pace yourself and plan out over time.  God gave you a heart that wants; now ask for a spirit that is patient.  That way, you’ll avoid burnout and stuffing yourself, and instead will enjoy the things that God meant for you to enjoy, growing at the speed at which God wants you to, without all of the exhaustion and fatigue.  Amen.

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.

Resisting the Urge to Prove Them Wrong

As my nine-year old son grows up, I’ve noticed not only a streak of independence developing in him but also a mild streak of defiance.  I’m told this will only get worse as he enters his teens.  As such, we will tell him to do something at a certain time, and he will try to maintain his enjoyable activities as long as possible before he has to do what is needed of him.  His desires for what he wants to do are stronger than what he has to do: typical youth.  I can’t really complain: he’s a great kid.  In fact, he’s more compassionate and thoughtful than most others his age.  It’s just that sometimes, at that age, they want to have all the power with none of the responsibilities.

For example, the other day he was told that he could have 15 minutes of play time on his computer tablet playing games, watching videos, whatever he wanted to do to unwind.  Of course, 15 minutes came and went, and just like anyone that age, he didn’t alert us to the fact that he had gone over his time limit.  Giving him a few minutes of grace time, I went into his room to let him know that his time was up.  I was greeted with an argument about how much time he actually had.

“Okay, 15 minutes are up.  It’s time to put your tablet away.”

“You and mom said 30 minutes.”

“I’m pretty sure it was 15.”

“No, it was 30.  I’m sure of it.”

At this point, I walked out of the room, as I didn’t want to get into a back and forth argument that was clearly not introducing any new evidence to the discussion.  As I walked down the hall, I heard a young, squeaky, but frustration-filled voice yell, “Fine!  You win!”  That exclamation was then followed by several slamming of materials around the room with a few stomps of the feet.  It was clear that he was upset, and my first inclination was to respond by addressing his escalating behavior and faulty logic.  My inner voice wanted to engage him about how this wasn’t a contest, that I was right in telling him how long he had, that he was wrong to get mad, along with a host of other indignities I had suffered at the hand of this small human being.  Yet, I decided to choose a different approach, one of non-confrontation, as a power struggle wasn’t the answer.

We are challenged for power daily in a multitude of situations.  The grocery store customer in front of us who has 22 items in a 10-item line, the car that slowly pushed into our lane when we were doing the speed limit, the co-worker that leaves the office microwave dirty when we just cleaned it – all of the situations have the same setup in common: we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and someone else is challenging the system at our expense.  We are in the right, and they are not, and they are daring us to try to do something about it.  Although the situations are common, it is our reaction to those situations that often define our character and who we are.  We desire to correct them and show them how they are wrong and we are right; we want to feel the cathartic pleasure of knocking them down a peg and feeling better about ourselves because we were the ones who were sticking to the rules and staying on the right path.  Righteous indignation, indeed.

However, being right doesn’t always mean that we should speak up and correct.  Often times instead of bringing logic and righteousness to an argument, we end up just bringing a bigger mallet.  Suddenly, the rude driver becomes the angry, dangerous driver, arguments break out in the supermarket, and office relationships become sabotaged.  Righteousness doesn’t always bring peace and often times just makes a situation worse.  When someone confronts with power, a confrontation in return isn’t rooted in love, just in our own ego.

Christ also knew this fact, and followed that advice when he was brought in front of the Sanhedrin to be charged with crimes.  Instead of proving everyone wrong, Christ chose another way: “Finally two came forward and declared, ‘This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer?  What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’  But Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26.60-2).  Christ chose to not get into a power struggle with these men, as He knew that nothing good would come out of it.  He saw the bigger picture, that a fight here would detract from the larger issue at hand: man’s salvation.  He may have had the desire to prove them wrong and present His glory right then and there, but He knew that choosing love over righteousness was better.

So instead of fighting with my son, I came back in a minute later, eating a big bag of Cheetos, and I offered him some.  He stopped, pondered the offer, and dug in.  Peace was achieved not through confrontation but with an offer of snacks.  It was not a fight to be had.  What would I possibly gain by proving him wrong and verbally engaging him in a power struggle where tempers would flare and love would most definitely not prevail?  The bigger picture is the love I would like to cultivate and maintain with him, not a daily struggle of who’s right and who’s wrong.  And when someone conversely tries to engage him in a power struggle, I want his first response to be rooted in a desire for love and forgiveness, not dominance and personal victory.

For us, the desire for harmony needs to overcome the desire to prove ourselves right.  We need offerings of peace when others test our resolve.  It is important to see the larger picture at hand, one where Christ’s example is seen through our response and His love is continued through our words and actions.  This week, when tested by others’ wrongs, when you want to offer conflict, make an offer of peace.  Christ is not seen when we seek to dominate with righteousness, but instead when others bring a sword to a fight, and we bring an offer of love (or Cheetos).  Amen.

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.

Argumentative Choices and Other Insults

I’ve been given the middle finger a number of times in my life.  Oddly enough, it’s rarely been by any of my students (or at least not to my face).  The majority of times have been while I’ve been driving when someone else on the road disagrees with a driving decision that I’ve made.  When my son was 4, a man in another car gave me the middle finger within sight of both of us, and my son interpreted the gesture to me by saying, “Daddy, he’s saying that you should only go one way on this road.”  Indeed, that other driver wanted me to go one way, although I’m not quite sure that where he wanted me to go was where I was driving to.  Either way, these fingers haven’t really altered my behavior or outlook much in life.

The other day, I watched with great curiosity as a middle-aged woman quickly zipped into a parking spot, cutting off another man just as he was about to enter from the other direction.  He blared his horn at her and took another spot close by.  As they emerged from their respective cars, they both began speaking at the same time, she with an apology (which would indicate that she knew she was at fault), and he with accusation about how dangerous her maneuver was, followed by a vulgar name for her.  At that point, she changed from being sorry to being offended, as she told him that he had no right to call her that.  In that moment, the fault then went from her to him, as now he was wrong for calling her that name.  He yelled at her again, now adding insults about the way she looked, but that addition only made his situation worse, because now anyone around him was offended by the way he was treating this woman.

When a problem arises where we are angry or offended, there are three types of argument approaches we can take: pathos, logos, and ethos.  Pathos is when we respond using our feelings in an attempt to sway the other party, logos is when logic is used to persuade, and ethos is when reputation is referred to when trying to convince.  The topic of argument and people involved usually dictate the approach.  This gentleman driver clearly responded using pathos, showing how angry he was, whereas a logos approach would have been more effective.  Had he avoided calling her anything inappropriate in his anger and instead used a logos approach by explaining the dangers of her driving, he might have curbed her future driving behavior, but now she was just dismissing him as just a jerk.

Christ was acutely aware of how to approach people in argument, choosing the most effective method to achieve the means He desired.  Never one to act without thought, He expressed pathos when he kicked the money changers out of the temple, as had He tried to convince them to leave through logic or reputation (sharing that He was the son of God), He wouldn’t have achieved His desired outcome.  His Sermon on the Mount relied on logos, as He knew that He was talking to a crowd that already thought of Him as a great teacher, so He didn’t need an ethos approach, and these people valued reason and logic, so pathos would have undercut His purpose.

In Luke 11, Christ is invited to eat with the Pharisees and the lawmakers, and after assessing the situation and His audience, He argues with the Pharisees first, by using an ethos argument to sway the entire group.  Of all those at the table, He would have known that the Pharisees considered themselves the most strict and law-abiding of everyone, so Christ attacked their reputation: “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash his hands before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (38-9).  By showing the others that the Pharisees were only outwardly sinless, they would question the Pharisees’ authority and listen more closely to Christ’s teachings.  Through Christ’s shrewd choice of argument approaches, He achieved His purpose of having the others question the established authority.

When we find ourselves locked in argument, our go-to choice is often pathos, as we want to express our emotions.  However, we need to take a minute and look towards the outcome of the argument: what do we want accomplished?  When we identify our goal, we can then analyze our audience and see what approach works best to achieve that goal.  Too often, like the man in the parking lot, we get caught up in the moment and say things we don’t mean, and once they are out, we find that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot through our own efforts and our argument is null.  Let’s learn to reflect and act upon that reflection instead of thoughtlessly reacting to our environment.  Take the time to take a step back and see how to best approach the moment, and often, your Christ-like reflection and approach will not only bring you the end you need but also bring peace into the situation.  Amen.

Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.  Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it fully and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing was serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we were also not created with the ability to cope with death, hence it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our close proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.