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.

Seeds of Violence, the Size of an Ant

I horridly stared at my bathroom floor as hundreds of ants marched their merry way back and forth across, creating a steady stream from one corner to the next.  In years past, I had some trouble with these small critters, as when the weather warms up, they tend to emerge.  However, nothing prepared me for what now lay before me.

I spent some time brainstorming a solution.  We have a basic rule in our house, where nothing is allowed to die.  We tend to remove mice and insects from our home and relocate them outside or down the street.  Yet, an infestation was another issue.  I thought about sweeping them all up, but I knew that they would either just return or that there were just more where these came from.  (Most likely, both scenarios were probable.)  So, I began to consider instant extermination, immediately killing hundreds of ants and betraying our household rule.

However, I reconsidered and decided on a different approach.  I spent time examining their traffic pattern and noticed that they were coming in and out of a small hole at the base of the bathtub.  I took some clay and filled the hole, as hundreds of confused ants ran roughshod.  When I returned a few hours later, they had all left on their own and haven’t returned since.  From a very small action of non-violence and patience came great change.

When faced with difficult and dire situations, as a society we don’t always stop and think of how to respond in a slow but non-violent way.  Governments tend to find a bigger bomb, bigger guns, or additional soldiers, attempting to overpower the enemy through swift violence and intimidation.  The Dalai Lama, the wise Buddhist leader of Tibet and a strong proponent of non-violence, when faced with intimidation from China to rejoin their republic, was threatened with violent means.  Faced with a moral dilemma of how to respond, many of his people desired him to rise up and fight off the militia, but the Dalai Lama knew that his people were outnumbered and would most likely be slaughtered.  Instead, he adopted a stance of patience, understanding, and non-violence, and has managed to maintain it for the past 60 years.  He has been quoted as saying, “Through violence, you may ‘solve’ one problem, but you sow the seeds for another.”  As such, he has been able to preserve his people, stand his ground on his beliefs, and avoid a mass genocide.

Responding with violence is quick and easy, whereas non-violence takes great patience and time, as seen through the Dalai Lama’s example.  Similarly, Christ’s example leading up to and on the cross reflects that non-violent and patient approach.  When Christ was arrested, Simon Peter struck the high priest with his sword, cutting off the priest’s ear.  Christ quickly admonished him: “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.52).  Throughout His trial, Christ refused to fight back.  On the cross, Christ could have called down all manner of angels and struck down everyone, saving Himself, but he chose not to.  Through His patient and non-violent example, He conquered death, saving us all from condemnation.

In my classroom, I have found that when my students are loud and rowdy, if I respond by being louder than they are, it only adds to the chaos, with me shouting them into submission.  It becomes a power struggle.  However, if I am silent and wait patiently for them, they quiet themselves down and the wild spirit of chaos is eliminated from the room.  Struggle does not exist.  If we take time to respond to strife and chaos through choices that reflect patience, quiet, and peace, we achieve a far greater result than responding with our basest instincts, many of which are rooted in our sinful nature.  This week, when you find the desire to engage and fight back, choose disengagement and patience, and you will find that the fruit it produces will bring you, and those around you, peace.  Amen.

Swapping Anger for Empathy (and Donuts)

A friend of mine was recently celebrating his son’s ninth birthday party by hosting a sleepover.  As a special request, they had the local bakery make specialty donuts in the shape of the number “9” to give out to everyone when they awoke the next morning.  Making sure to be careful about planning the event with enough time, the father called the order in well-ahead so that the bakery would be able to fulfill the order.

On the morning of the sleepover, the man and his son went to pick the donuts up, only to find that one of the baker’s workers had given away half of the order to another customer by accident.  The father’s mind and heart filled with outrage, as he stood ready to angrily lash at them for their obviously careless mistake.  After a moment of lividness, he took a deep breath and asked the manager how they could solve the problem.  She quickly got on the phone to see what she could do.

Anger tends to be the go-to emotion for many people when life sometimes takes a turn away from what was expected.  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum keenly suggests that all anger is deeply rooted in feeling a lack of control in our life.  When anger rears its head, most times it is because of insecurity, where situations and relationships are deemed beyond our control, or events and outcomes are going against our wishes and wills.  Anger rises when our best laid plans go awry and we try to fix what we can’t; it is our futile response at attempting to solve problems.

When things don’t go our way, we also quickly look to blame someone, finding a target for our anger.  Yet, when we do, we ignore the problem and focus on the individual.  By shifting focusing to the problem, we look towards a solution, which is really what we truly want.  Anger might feel good in the present, but a solution feels even better in the future.

While the manager was on the phone, a young girl quietly came over and sheepishly took the blame.  Upon her confession, the father’s anger began to subside as he realized that this young girl was doing her best and was already embarrassed by the situation.  Despite whatever righteousness he thought he could achieve through his anger in that moment, he might have destroyed this poor girl had he responded in anger.

After the manager got off the phone, she said that she could have a new batch made later that evening.  He knew that he didn’t need the donuts until all the boys woke up, so he told the manager that as long as he had them today, he would be alright.  When he returned that night to pick up his order, he was met with three times the amount he asked for, all already paid for, along with various other free bakery items.

We have to wonder how this event would have turned out had he vented his anger.  He might have gotten what he wanted, but at what cost?  Proverbs 29.11 writes, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”  By holding onto his anger, he managed to salvage a girl’s feelings, be a good role model for his son, get a lot more bakery items than he asked for (and all for free), and be able to walk back into the store with his head up and be greeted with genuine kindness.

When we focus on the solution and respond with empathy instead of anger, the ripples of compassion and understanding spread far beyond the moment and affect more than just the outcome.  This week, as you find yourself angered and outraged, remember that these emotions stem from our insecurities and desire for control.  Then, re-route your intentions towards solving the problem instead of lashing out at others.  The results will be much more satisfying in the long run than any expression of anger could possibly grant.  Amen.

Withdrawal, Disengagement, and Peace

For better or worse, it’s’ very easy to get caught up in the moment.  When emotions are running high and all of the events around us start to swirl together, we tend to fall prey to our feelings as our mind becomes less of a priority, fading into the background of influences.  Oftentimes, once that moment passes, our senses start to come back to us, and we realize how rash we’ve acted.

A short time ago, a student was missing from my study hall.  I had seen him earlier, so I knew he was in the building, but for some reason, he was not where he was supposed to be.  I fumed as I quickly filled out a behavioral referral, emailing an administrator and his mother.  When he returned, I launched into a tirade about responsibility.  He innocently told me that he was in the cafeteria because he needed to eat something.  I blindly continued my rant, suggesting that it was irresponsible.

Later that day, his mother emailed me back, mentioning that she was surprised and asking if he had ever exhibited behaviors like this one before.  I sheepishly replied that he hadn’t, and meekly explained where he had been.  She replied that although she was sorry for his absence, perhaps I had been too ‘hasty’ in my discipline and that a firm word or two would have sufficed.  After some reflection, I realized she was right.  If I had just taken a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and put a lid on my emotions, I would have handled the situation very differently.  I acknowledged my clouded judgement to her and withdrew the referral.

There is great strength in withdrawing from our lives for a time to recollect our thoughts and get our heads straight.  For years, presidents have logged vacations and golf outings so that they could have time to themselves, recharge their proverbial batteries, and return with a refreshed attitude and mindset.  Marriage requires the same approach, especially where children are involved.  Similarly, I frequently warn my students away from emotional responses in social media, reminding them that although it feels great in the moment, that moment is the only reward: the rest is filled with regret and consequence.  If they just take a moment to withdraw from the screen and allow their minds to reengage above their hearts, they will quickly realize the negative impact their actions could have.  Time away helps us to get ourselves together so that we can avoid ourselves at our worst, thus being our best selves for others when we return.

Right after Christ had fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes, a tremendous miracle, He decided to escape the excitement and be alone.  “After He had dismissed (the disciples), He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray.  Later that night, He was there alone” (Matthew 14.23).  The feeding was more than likely incredibly emotional, moving, and taxing, taking a toll on Him as it simultaneously swept Him up in all the excitement and thrill of the moment.  So, Christ recognized the need to withdraw, get His emotions in check, and recharge Himself so that He could be at His best for His disciples.  A short time away from the thunderous hum of life allowed Him to get back into a more peaceful state, allowing for a closer walk with God, His father.

Withdrawing from the world when emotions run high not only prevents us from potential emotional mistakes, but also resets our priorities and brings us closer to Him through the peace that comes with a silencing of the world.  This week, take time to retreat from the world so that your mind is not clouded by your emotions, and allow God to refresh you in the peace of that retirement.  Amen.

Putting the Human in Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing for Examination Reversal

My students are in for a surprise, and not necessarily one that they will enjoy.  I just finished grading their first paper, and oh boy did I have a lot to say.  It’s a harsh lesson for them to learn, with that much correction being in one paper, but in the long run, that correction will pay off for them should they decide to heed it.  What was most disconcerting was just how many corrections, suggestions, and instructions I had to write on each of those papers, with many of them rooted in two areas:  paying attention more closely to what was covered in class and fixing skills that should have been polished years ago.  I came to those two conclusions after spending a long time scrutinizing and analyzing their work with a close eye, paying close attention to trends in their work and what was truly at the heart of their mistakes.  Now, it would be easy to stop there, however, what I need to take into mind is what their failings says about me as a teacher and my methodology.  As I examine their work, I need their work to examine me.  Their mistakes speak volumes about what I thought I effectively covered in the first five weeks of class, and how I need to alter my instruction to fit their needs.  Also, in reading their papers, their responses acted as a commentary on the clarity (or lack thereof) of my assignment, and how I should alter the wording.  Similarly, when we study the Bible, to just get at the heart of what the word is saying and means is one thing, but how often do we let God’s word look at us under the microscope?  When we study His word, do we allow His word to study us?  Scripture was built that way, as Hebrews 4.12 tells us about the nature of His word and the role it can play: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  For as often as we examine and study God’s word, we need it to study us right back.  Yes, we might spend time investigating what a verse or passage means in our lives, and how we can change or be encouraged as a result of reading it, but how often do we really allow the scripture to strip us bare and expose us for our flaws and insecurities?  As a living being, God’s word has the ability to take our lives, examine them with a careful eye, rebuke us and tear us apart, only to put us back together again through His watchful instruction and love.  Allowing our lives to be examined by truth is vital if we desire a closer walk with Him.  So we know how to examine the Bible, but how do we allow ourselves to be examined by His word?  Silencing the world around us from distraction begins to create in us a heart willing to listen.  Inviting quiet, inner peace and focus when we delve into His word also opens us up to instruction.  Finally, humbling ourselves before Him, casting all our desires and trophies at His feet will bring us to a point where anything the word has to say to us will be heard and internalized.  With a quiet and prepared heart ready to listen and learn, we then allow God’s word to examine us with a love and care that exceeds any and all personal attempts to interpret scripture through our own efforts.  Instead of deciding what the word says to you, quiet yourself and listen. Let it speak to your life.  In our own silence, His words will speak volumes.  Amen.

The Length and Breadth of God’s Love in Hopeless Times

Summer vacations are traditionally used to spend time to relax and unwind, and don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent plenty of time doing that this summer.  However, as a family, we also like to spend our vacations learning something new, educating ourselves in some manner in our travels.  So this year, among the excitement and fun of travelling into New York City, I took a trip to the Twin Towers Memorial, the site of a national tragedy where thousands of lives were lost.  I watched as individuals traced their fingers over the names of the deceased, visitors gazed deeply into the fountains that poured into the ground where the towers once stood, and people reflected and wept.  We often ask why tragedy occurs in life, and many often end up blaming God for either causing such horrors to happen or allowing them to.  The truth is, we don’t really know God’s overall plan, and only He can explain such tragedies.  However, what we often miss is not why these events happen, but where God is during these times.   As David of Psalm 23 was being persecuted by his oppressors, he didn’t question why, but instead looked to God for security: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (23.4).  David knew that no matter what happened to him, God was with Him and that there was an end to this valley.  What I observed with these people in New York was that despite the pain, the hurt, and the emotion, God was there with them all.  He was with them in their darkest hour and He was going to stay with them throughout their suffering.  Similarly, on a trip to Hawaii, I took a day trip to Pearl Harbor, and found the situation to be quite similar there.  Another national tragedy where thousands of lives were lost, we visited the bombed area and the memorial that floats above the USS Missouri, a visible ship that sunk with hundreds of sailors on board.  As the oil still wept to the surface from the ship below, I discovered a deep and reverent silence around me.  Visitors took this trip as an opportunity for reflection and deep introspection on life, God, and man.  Tears were shed as the loss of life was contemplated.  There, too, God was present years after this tragedy had happened.  Clearly, God had filled these two places with His presence and stayed to comfort these people.  What might have been just another harbor or financial district, was now a place where God was contemplated and sought out, creating a place for God’s comfort.  Even though we don’t understand the why of tragedy, we can still see how God is made perfect in it.  What also struck me was how hurt can last so long.  Thankfully, when tragedy happens, God remains there until the last person is done hurting: that’s His promise to us.  He doesn’t abandon us but instead uses tragedy to draw us closer to Him, and He’s willing to stay until the very end of hurting, whether it be fifteen years, seventy-five years, or a million years.  At Pearl Harbor, we ran into a ninety-nine-year-old survivor who, despite experiencing this tragedy, joyously smiled as he met so many new people.  His shining example of healing displayed not only God’s willingness to stay with us forever, but also how His ability to take us back from the furthest edge of pain and hopelessness eclipses anything this world can throw at us.  Right now, if you are going through something awful, it may seem bleak, hopeless, and never-ending, but know that not only will it get better, but God will stay at your side and guide you through this time even until the end of time.  Amen.

Delicious Journeys and Savory Struggles

Being summertime, the local fruit stands are open and abundant with delicious treats.  A great lover of fruits, this time is especially wonderful for us, as there are a variety from which to choose.  What always struck me as funny is how some of the most delicious fruits are the ones that are most difficult to open.  Take the pineapple, with its sharp top barbs and difficult to hack at skin.  It takes tremendous effort to get to the edible parts, but the process is worth it. Another is the pomegranate, which houses delectable seeds, but whose outer skin/shell is tough to open and navigate.  Then there’s the coconut, which given the proper machete, you should be able to eat it.  Yes, the struggle is tough, but that great effort makes the rewards that much sweeter.  Similarly, I am reminded of a martial arts student I recently witnessed, attempting a very difficult brick break.  He had two large bricks on top of several cinder blocks and was planning on jumping up and back-kicking the bricks.  I watched him work up to the break, convincing himself of his impending success, only to have his first attempt be too close to the target.  He ended up knocking over the entire structure, without breaking the bricks at all.  His second try was just as unsuccessful, but not quite as disastrous, as he managed to knock over but not break only the top levels.  All around him, other students were successfully accomplishing similar breaks as this man failed time and again.  Their success was met with cheers and excitement, where his failures were met with anticipation and disappointment.  The masters pulled him aside to talk him through the break, but the look of discouragement was palpable.  The crowd began to rhythmically slow clap for him, encouraging him.  One last time, he stared down his target, lined himself up, jumped as the crowd waited, and successfully broke his bricks.  The crowd jumped to their feet in applause as he ran about the square wildly, waving his arms in triumph.  The response to his break was greater than any other there, because the audience had seen him struggle, fail, and finally overcome his obstacle.  Had he succeeded the first time, the reward would have been good, but because of the struggle, the reward was that much greater.  When we struggle and succeed, as opposed to solely succeeding, we become greater through the process and the outcome is better than had the success come easily.  Romans 5.3-5 shows that great effort, although discouraging and difficult, is good for who we are: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”  Struggle makes us stronger than if we had just easily succeeded.  When hatching, a baby bird must struggle against its shell to strengthen its wings and then grow up strong, but when it hatches easily, it stays weak and develops as such.  Like baby birds, when we struggle, our growth pulls at us, tearing at our inner fiber, but when we overcome, our fiber and ourselves are stronger as a result, we grow more than we normally would have, and we celebrate more in the end because of the journey, not just the result.  When we struggle, God roots for us, and when we finally push through that struggle and succeed, God jumps to His feet in celebration because of the journey.  So as you become discouraged in your struggles this week, know that the taste of victory grows exponentially as a result of the journey.  Amen.

Wise Answers for Misguided Requests

Questions can get us into a variety of trouble, as many times the answer is not what we really want to hear.  Sometimes, we are not ready for the truth.  Seemingly simple questions like “Do you think I can wear this when I go out?” or “Does this make me look fat?” are not so simple, especially if the person asking the question is not prepared for that truth.  I recently heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu tell a story about a man who was driving his car along an empty road at the top of a mountain.  The man came to a dangerous curve, when the car proceeded to plunge over the side of the mountain.  Miraculously, the man was able to throw himself from the car as it plummeted into the ravine, but he was able to grab hold of a very small, slender branch hanging over the cliff.  Beaten and bruised, he shouted, “Help!  Is there anyone there?”  His grip loosening and his body starting to weaken, he heard a loud voice from the heavens call to him: “Let go, my son, and I will catch you.”  There was a pause and a silence afterwards, until the man shouted, “Help!  Is there anyone else there?”  Sometimes, the answer we get is not always the answer we want.  We sometimes have it set in our minds what the answer should be, but when we get something other than what was expected, we don’t know what to do.  Or sometimes we are surprised with the answer.  I can remember two colleagues of mine from years ago that I absolutely detested based on their personalities, the things they said, their actions, everything.  I prayed that God would remove these people from my life, that He would transfer them, get them fired, have them quit, or anything to get rid of them.  Today, I count them as two of my closest and most valuable friends.  It was not the answer I was looking for, as I wanted God to change them and their situation.  Instead, he changed me and my outlook on them.  I often forget that when God answers prayers, He is doing it out of the love and kindness of who He is.  Matthew 7.9-11 establishes that we can trust His answers, as He would never give us one that would steer us down the wrong path: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”  So what happens when our prayers are seemingly unanswered?  God is clearly not ignoring, abandoning, or hating us.  Maybe we are just asking for the wrong thing.  Instead of me asking to change my co-workers, in hindsight what I should have been praying for is for God to change my opinion of them.  Perhaps when we pray in a situation like that one, we should not be asking God to change our situation, but for the ability to handle it.  Or maybe it’s that He’s got bigger and better plans for our lives, as evidenced by how I couldn’t see the pivotal role these two people now play in my life.  Too often, we place that verse about getting what we want when we ask in His name square in the middle of our requests.  But whereas our requests are based on our own timetable and laced with our own selfishness, His answer is based on pure love and selfless sacrifice.  If God truly loves us, then He will give us what is best for us, which is not always what we are seeking.  Amen.