Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

Having just come back from London and exploring all the local sights, we were anxious to get on with our next ambitious undertaking: Lego London Bridge.  At 4287 pieces, it was our biggest challenge yet, and usually, Lego numbers the bags sequentially to make the process more manageable, but this time the bags were not numbered at all.  So, my son and I cleared the dining room table, dumped out all the pieces, and got ready to settle in for the next week.

After about an hour or two, my wife pulled us away from the table.  I thought her intention was to give us a break, but it was more to make a private comment to me: I was too focused on finishing.  I wasn’t enjoying the process (nor was he) as my goal was to build the bridge, instead of enjoying Lego time with my son.  I was so focused on the end result, that I was missing out on the journey.  Later that day, I shifted my approach, which made for a much happier Lego time for all of us.

This wasn’t the first time I focused on the goal and not the journey, as I tend to have that problem a lot.  We have three dogs, and when we go for a walk, I’m usually at the front, so far out in front of everyone that I have to be reminded that the goal is not to finish the walk but to enjoy the stroll.  I quite frequently and literally forget to “stop and smell the roses,” but thanks to those that surround me in love, I am reminded to re-shift my focus.

I recently wrote about the importance of pain, that we should embrace pain and increase our thresholds if we want to experience growth.  If we want the reward, we need the pain.  Pain is part of the journey, and if we can take a minute to note the pain, along with all of the other emotions and struggles during the journey, we will become more appreciative of the end result because we know what it took to get there.  So, we should embrace the journey, no matter how painful it is to get there, as the journey is what matters.

It’s good to have goals, but probably more important is the path that gets you to that goal.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  When we talk about our accomplishments, we usually tell of what it took to get us there, as that’s where our true character lies.  The journey increases our wisdom, opens our eyes, and broadens our perspective.  We are so quick to reject the journey and focus only on the goal, but we should take our time and enjoy the ride.

In our faith, God is the one that can refocus us back onto the journey by putting our faith in Him for guidance.  Proverbs 3.5-6 tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  This verse isn’t telling us to get to the end of our journey and accomplish our goal, but to focus on God who will reveal the journey and the direction of our paths.  By putting our faith in Him, He will reveal to us the steps in our journey, as that is the more important part.

Later this month, I will be running a Spartan Dash, where I am run 4 miles but have to overcome 15-20 obstacles in the process (crawling through mud, climbing high walls, carrying buckets of rocks, etc.).  At the end of the race, I will receive a certificate for finishing.  Is the reward the certificate itself?  Of course not, as the certificate represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the certificate and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that certificate represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that certificate, I won’t remember receiving it, but I will remember the obstacles I overcame.  The journey will be what matters, not the goal.  When I look at our finished Lego project, some part of me will be happy for the accomplishment, but a larger part will fondly remember the time I had with my son building it.  If I appreciate the actual running in the race and the actual building of the Legos, I will appreciate the actual moment instead of missing it because I’m too focused on the goal.

The journey is the present, whereas the goal is the future, and if we focus on the goal, we ignore what is around us and end up missing out.  The great 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller put it best when he said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  If we focus on the goal instead of the journey, life will pass us by, but by looking to Him to make our paths straight, we appreciate and embrace the journey and are richly rewarded along the way, not just at the end.  Amen.

An Oasis of Christlike Generosity

At my yearly physical with my doctor, I told him how I had been running more and more over the past year.  He encouraged me to train even harder and lengthen my runs to the point of a half marathon (13.1 miles).  With his great advice, I jumped at the chance.  However, the additional advice he gave me that I didn’t heed might have been the more important: stay hydrated.

For some odd reason, I chose to run on one of the hottest days of the year for my long weekly run (while on my beach vacation, which only made the sun even worse).  I’d chosen to run on the main running strip of the island, along with a good number of other runners as I find that running with others brings about encouragement and competition.  Yet, halfway through my recently increased distance run, I found that I was quickly losing steam because of the 90-degree heat and relentless sunshine.  I’d forgotten his advice, and since this distance was new to me, I was unfamiliar with the toll it would take.  Far from home and penniless (who brings a wallet when they run?), I was destitute, parched, and not sure I was making it home in one piece.  Suddenly, like an oasis in the desert, I came across a huge cooler of bottled waters with a sign:  Help Yourself.  Apparently, one family on the island puts out a large cooler of free water for the runners daily.  I grabbed one, hydrated, and spiritedly made it home all thanks to this family.

Part of it was the much-needed water at the right time, but more so, it was the completely selfless, unprompted giving from this household that gave me the encouragement to push forward.  That this house put out water for those in need was enough encouragement to push me all the way home.  They will never know the encouragement that they were to me, which makes their witness and actions even more powerful.  Weeks later, their actions still resonate with me, and probably will for some time.  But what about that offer of water to a thirsty runner had such an impact?  It seems so simple a gesture, but when broken down, it shows the depth of that act.

It was faceless – Matthew 6 details the ways in which we as Christians should give to the poor.  Of the many points Christ makes in his Sermon on the Mount, the first is in verse 2: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.”  When we give, we usually like to get credit for our efforts.  If we don’t see the smiling faces and hear the thanks, we don’t feel fulfilled.  However, when those actions occur, the impact of the giving is lessened.  That day, no one was standing near the water, no one was handing it out to us, no one was waving us onward.  The water was merely there, and there was no one to thank.  As a result, my reaction is not about how great that person or family is, but is instead about how inspirational that act is, with God’s face taking the place of the family’s.

It was unprompted – Christ continues in his instruction in verses 3-4 by discussing what should motivate a person to give: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Not only should giving be faceless, but it should also not be prompted by anything.  One hand does not indicate to the other to give.  It gives because it can, like the people in the house.  None of us were shouting on the streets about how we needed water.  No one had passed out in front of their house.  They just took it upon themselves to give where there might be a need.

It was selfless – As indicated in past devotionals, when we give, we should not expect anything in return.  This house could have easily put a donation bucket next to the water, suggesting that we should “pay it forward” to upcoming runners, with our money being used to buy future provisions.  However, nothing of the sort existed and not a thing was expected in return for their generosity.

If we want our giving to have an impact, we need to remember these three tenets when we give:  be faceless, unprompted, and selfless.  It sounds easy, but it’s much harder than we think, as we enjoy the returns on our efforts.  However, with Godly recognition that comes through prayer and meditation, we can have our need for acknowledgement met, knowing that our giving is much stronger this way and our witness that much more powerful.  When you give, and you feel the need to be recognized, ask God to fulfill that need for you so that your impact can reach its full potential.  Amen.

Faith Maturity and Teenage Romance

As one who has explored the hallways of the American high school educational system and has taken great care to study the teenage species, I’ve observed many different types, but the most categorically defined ones are the dating couples, which can be broken down into three types, as their behavior is characteristic of the longevity of their relationship.

The first type of couple is the newly formed to six-month couple, which is the most easily spotted of the three.  With this twosome, the couple tends to be easily discovered fully connected to one another, longingly staring into each other’s eyes, which is often punctuated with a lot of family-friendly-ish groping and deep kissing.  This type is not aware of the world around them, specifically unaware of the hordes of people that are fully grossed out by this type of behavior.

The second type is the six-month to year couple, which is defined by the close proximity of the two species to one another, and is observed to have a tremendous need for constant hand-holding.  Occasionally, the amorousness is necessitated with semi-long eye connection, although, unlike the first type, this couple can be easily distracted by friends and onlookers, especially when the male species’ best friends or teammates have an offer of something better.

The third type of couple is the year-plus couple, a type which is not easily spotted in the wild because of 1) the high extinction rate of such couples and 2) the severe lack of physical proximity and public displays of affection, except for the hard to observe quick lip-peck given as the class bells ring.  

Although humorous, there is truth to these observations, especially as these relationships are examples of the often changing and sometimes maturing habits of these couples.  In short, as time goes on, the behaviors towards one another change and grow.  As many who are in long term relationships can attest to, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and “puppy-love,” where both members physically can’t get enough of one another.  Then, as the relationship develops and deepens, the physical nature of it cools and intimacy is achieved not always through physical means but through intellectual and emotional means, hence why young couples make-out in public whereas older couples are content to sit and enjoy one another’s company.

The same can be said of our faith.  When I was a younger, less-mature Christian, church was a full body workout.  Praise singing at the top of my lungs, tears, falling on my face in prayer: it was all very emotional stuff.  Yet, as I matured in my faith, I’ve found that I prefer a more introverted, quieter, intellectual approach with God.  That’s not to say that I don’t’ feel the occasional flutter of excitement when I feel His presence; it’s just that my faith has deepened and I now practice differently, because it ran its natural course that way in my journey.  In fact, CS Lewis often spoke of his matured faith as less emotional and more cerebral, where his growth was a natural outcome of spiritual practice, not a decisive one.  If we exercise our faith enough, we observe natural growth and change.

So, does this mean that extroverted, excited Christians are immature?  Not so.  What I’m suggesting is that if we are growing in our faith and maturing in our relationship with Him, then there should be a noticeable progression in our behaviors.  Ephesians 4.15 reveals this maturing in our faith:  “But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head.”  The process of growing in Him and maturing in our faith is a natural result of our spending time in His presence, as we more intimately develop our faith in Him.  

Like the couples in the hallways, our understanding and ways of intimacy grow in an observable direction the deeper the involvement.  If we look at our faith and practices and notice that they are the same today as they were in the very beginning, then the evidence suggests that we are not growing and maturing but instead have become stagnant and stunted.  Faith maturity is the natural outcome to involvement.  We might know what we want our faith and practices to look like, but we need to work to get there.  Older couples didn’t achieve deep intimacy right away: it took work, dedication, and exploration.  So, if you find yourself static and dormant in your faith, maybe a greater involvement or commitment is what is needed.  Set yourself on Him, and growth will come naturally.  Like in any relationship, your behaviors and practices will develop naturally and deepen in meaning only through getting to know Him more.  Then, you will see a noticeable change and evolution to your faith practices, a sure sign of deeper intimacy and spiritual maturity.  He longs to be closer to you, so commit yourself to a deeper relationship with Him.  Amen.

Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.

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.

Paving the Path with Calloused Understanding

In my part of the world, usually around this time of the year, the same scenario occurs regarding the safety of our children and their relationship to the environment.  Temperatures end up dipping drastically, stay well below freezing, resulting in soft, mushy snowballs becoming deadly rock-solid weapons in the hands of most.  This snow usually arrives around December, falling lightly and leaving a soft, pillowy covering on our lawns.  Sled grooves are created, snowmen are constructed, and forts abound.  Yet, by mid-January, those grooves become walking hazards, snowmen become grotesque in their features, and forts are now highly fortified bunkers.  Through repeated exposure to the cold temperatures, our once enjoyable snow becomes impenetrable, and anyone who didn’t clear off a surface back then has no chance of doing so now.

Repeated exposure to a harsh environment can harden even the softest of surfaces.  Musicians, through repeated use of their hands on their instruments, develop callouses that build up over time, hardening their skin until the they have little to no feeling in that area.  Hardened steel, a process where metal is exposed to extreme heat and then resists bending and warping, can be used in the creation of machinery.  Individuals can also become hardened through repeated exposure to harshness from others.  With the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, tell a person something enough times and they will eventually believe it and become that way.  Tell a child he or she is stupid and will never achieve anything academically, and sure enough, that child will be failing classes shortly thereafter.  People who reside in poor living conditions surrounded by poverty and crime quickly lose the hope they once had for getting themselves out of their situation, and even the best become hardened themselves, often times succumbing to committing the crimes that once plagued them as victims.

And a hardened heart is just the beginning. The result of a hardened heart frequently leads to further complications, heading the individual down a continuously wrong path.  The author of Proverbs 28.14 writes about these complications with, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”  According to the verse, not only does a hardened heart lead one towards further destructive issues, it also denies that person God’s plan and blessings.  A hardened heart can block what God’s love intends for you.  However, the verse also provides a way out for the hardened individual, a means for that person to receive His gifts:  humility.  If we are able to come before God and acknowledge His sovereignty, the result can be nothing other than a thawed and softened heart.  Recognize Him, and your path will be corrected.

In a month or so, the spring sun will begin to melt the hardened winter snow, and what was once impenetrable will become soft and accessible.  Much like the penetrating rays of the warm spring sun, God’s sovereignty can penetrate even the hardest hearts, a fact that gives hope to us all, whether on a personal or global level.  For ourselves, we can seek Him in prayer at the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves and accepting His love, allowing it to wash over us, resulting in a thawed heart filled with understanding and kindness.  However, we are also living in a time where entitled, proud world leaders unwittingly criticize everyone who seemingly goes against them, and then with hardened hearts, move forward with their plans, regardless of how it affects others, barely taking into consideration the human ramifications beyond themselves.  For them, much prayer is needed, that they too would see God not as a tool for achieving an end, but as the Heavenly ruler over all of us.  Now, more than ever, we must be praying for them and their paths, that their decisions be guided not by hardened hearts but by the humility that comes through knowing and worshiping Him.  Amen.

Giving God Your Full Attention

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

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

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

Grappling with Prayer, Searching for Answers

I’ve always had a difficult time with prayer.  In my endless searching, the problem I’ve always had has been exactly what the nature and purpose of prayer is.  At a young age, much like many other children, I was taught the Lord’s Prayer as a means of praying, not really understanding what each part meant.  Then, also like many, I would tack on my list of requests for blessings (naming the people closest to me), followed by a list of desires (things that I wanted to see happen in my life).  As I grew older and searched more, the words of the Lord’s Prayer deepened, and I understood them beyond just a memorization, however the way in which I would pray never reconciled with what my beliefs about God and the world were.  Many of us use prayer as a wish list, and the intensity of that wish list increases as the situation becomes more desperate.  A lost wallet or a possible failed test invokes passionate prayer, whereas a life of contentment and ease leads to calmer, contemplative prayer.  So, is the success of prayer based on human effort?  Just before Christ’s death on the cross, His prayer “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22.42) models for us to not request our own desires but to look to adhere more to His.  Similarly, Søren Kierkegaard theorized that the purpose of our prayers “is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays,” an idea that suggests our goal not be to change God’s mind, but instead our own path and mentality.  So, the words of the Lord’s Prayer “your will be done” and the follow up list of requests as pulled from my own will seem to contradict each other in approach.  CS Lewis, a fiercely private individual, was often asked about his prayer life, but would dodge these questions, feeling that prayer was something that was done, not talked about.  However, he too struggled with the purpose of prayer, feeling that requests (petitionary prayer) conflicted with the Lord’s Prayer (a surrendering to His will).  Lewis was quoted as saying that in his search, he worked towards “prayer without words,” a form of prayer that allowed him to meditate on individuals and visualize events without having an agenda towards a desire.  Additionally, he felt that in our search for how to pray, asking the question “Does prayer work?” misleads us into thinking that prayer’s success is an act of the will (the more faith we have and the harder we pray, the more likely our prayers will be answered).  In searching out answers for this apparent contradiction, Lewis felt that more surrendering and less requesting was in order, as requests are based in our sometimes short-sighted, earthly emotions, whereas surrendering allows for His perspective.   Like Lewis, our views on prayer are limited by our human perspective: we don’t have the answers and don’t know what effect prayer has.  Maybe our prayer requests, although important, are not how we should pray but instead may give us clues on which to focus.  Instead of a laundry list of requests, maybe when we tell others that they are in our prayers, in addition to providing comfort with those words, we then look to pray without words, seeking a meditative approach for support, as only God knows what is best for them.  We can allow ourselves and others to be drawn closer to Him not by putting conditions and stipulations on our expectations but instead wordlessly including those around us and supporting them in Him through ways we may never understand and down paths we didn’t even know existed.  Instead of focusing on our feelings about God, we could instead focus on God.  More importantly, although we don’t have all of the answers regarding how to pray, we can continue to seek them out, struggling to understand prayer through communion with Him.  It is then, in the quiet struggle and boundless searching, that we truly find Him.  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.