Dreaming Reasonably and Achieving Realistically

I have a morning ritual where as soon as I get up, I step on the scale.  I can’t start my day without it.  Each and every time, as I await the blinking screen to reveal the appropriate number and correctly assess my weight, several prayers run through my head, as I hope that I’ve miraculously lost those four pounds while I slept.  As life would have it, I am never four pounds lighter than when I went to sleep.  Disappointment then sets in, as I begin to feel that I’m never going to lose them, ever.

The other day, as I was waiting for the numbers to appear, I finally came to my senses and realized that I will never lose all those pounds overnight, but I might be a small amount (1/4 of a pound, maybe) lighter than I was yesterday.  I ended up resetting my expectations towards something more realistic, and when the numbers came up, I found that I wasn’t disappointed, again.  My realistic goal lent itself to my achieving a measured but reasonable level of success, which encouraged me to work harder towards larger goals, a practice where if we can replicate it in our lives in other areas, will help us to grow in life and in our faith.

My students are often also guilty of this same crime.  I’ve explained to them that there is frequently a direct relationship between time dedicated to writing their papers and the grade they get: the more time you commit, the better your grade.  However, they end up waiting until the last minute to write that paper, leaving mere hours left before it’s due.  They write as fast as they can until they reach the end of the page and then hit the print button, all with little planning out of the essay.  When they get the paper returned with high expectations for a great grade, they are bewildered and angry as to why the grade is so low, as they often don’t connect reasonable effort with reasonable goals.  To try and combat this practice, I’ve been establishing short term goals for them before the paper is due, so that they can achieve smaller goals on the way to their great grade.  I have them complete their introduction on one evening, plan out their body paragraphs on another, etc., thus forcing them to work on the paper over a few nights so that they have more reasonable, achievable, more realistic goals to complete.

There’s something to be said with tempering a child’s dreams and helping those dreams to be realistic and achievable.  Many young people feel that they can do anything if they want it badly enough, but the truth is that wanting is not enough, especially when the object of desire is well beyond their reach.  We love to tell the younger generations to dream big, but when we step aside as they develop an unreasonable goal that they’ll never reach, it all leads to them being detrimentally disappointed when it fails and unable to pick themselves up from their defeat.  Instead of allowing them to develop big but impractical dreams, we should step in and help them to shape those dreams towards something big and reasonable.

As a model for careful and reasonable planning, take Christ’s ministry as an example.  The purpose of His life was to save the world, yet He didn’t try to tackle all of that at once or in a short amount of time.  He spent a great deal of His life working on Himself and his skill set, getting His education, and developing His prayer life.  Waiting until He was in His 30’s, He then started His ministry through hard work and careful forethought: “One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night.  At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles” (Luke 6.12-3).  For someone who’s going to save the whole world, twelve people isn’t that many with which to work.  Yet, He managed to train, teach, and develop these twelve into a strong handful of preachers who managed to spread the message of Christ’s salvation through most of the world over a reasonable period of time.  Christ could have taken in thousands and worked with them to spread His message, but He knew not to tackle such a large task all at once with such an enormous group of people.  Instead, Christ developed practicable, possible goals over an unhurried amount of time, thus finding success at a reasonable, developed rate, instead of trying to achieve an enormous goal in a very brief amount of time.

Even today, as smokers stare down at a cigarette and long to quit, the decision to tackle it seems overwhelming given the amount of familiarity and addiction they feel.  Very few are able to quit cold turkey without sliding right back into old habits.  So, smokers develop plans to close out their practice through a series of strategic maneuvers over a specific time period: small, realistic, achievable goals measured out over a reasonable amount of time.  And just like them, along with Christ and His disciples, we too must set practical goals for ourselves so that we can find a measured amount of success over a realistic period of time, thus earning encouragement towards greater accomplishments.  Should we try to bite off more than we can chew, we end up discouraged, disillusioned, and defeated because we haven’t achieved enough, if any, success.  For your next big dream, approach steps that are climbable, not cliffs that are unscalable, by taking a minute to look at your goals and dreams with the eyes of a realist, one who plans carefully and creates smaller goals that lead up to larger ones, thus not crushing your hopes but cultivating them for the next climb.  Amen.

Advertisements

When Life Deals You Bitter Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foundation-less Fear Caked in Mud

I always enjoy challenging myself, but this time I thought that maybe I had gone too far, or at least that’s what my nerves were telling me that morning.

An athletic and somewhat younger friend of mine was looking for a partner in an upcoming race, something of which I was happy to do.  However, this wasn’t just any race; it was a Spartan Military Sprint, which meant 5 miles (no problem), mostly uphill (a little bit of a problem), and 20 military-style obstacles (what?!?).  From what I could see online, these obstacles consisted of jumping over 5-8 foot walls, climbing cargo nets and ropes, carrying sandbags and buckets of rocks, lifting 115 pound cement weights, and maneuvering on rings, all while running through mud.  It seemed like a good idea at the time of commitment, as that was two months beforehand and this event wasn’t until the end of the summer, but as the end of August became more of a reality, my fears kicked in and I could feel my stomach dropping.

Since I’m as stubborn as I am foolish, I’d never quit something I committed to, so I awoke that morning scared out of my wits, running out to the store an hour before the race to buy power bars to eat (maybe those will help!).  It was there that I just happened to run into a friend of mine.  The chances of me seeing her in that area at that time with me being in that area at that exact same time right before the race were astronomical, so I could only chalk it up to diving intervention.  I told her about my upcoming race, a race that she had previously done herself, and told her how scared I was.  With a desire to help me out, she told me that we first needed to identify what it was that I was afraid of.  I hadn’t really considered this line of reasoning before, and after a moment of reflection, I told her that it was mostly a fear of what could go wrong, that I was afraid of something unknown, and nothing more than that.

Fear can stop us in our tracks, paralyzing us to the point of avoidance and inaction.  Our inclination for flight over fight usually wins out.  However, if we can look at our fears with a clear head and a logical mind, we find that there is nothing to fear.  Fears are often based on nothing and are a result of our being worked up over nothing.  We fear the unknown future and worry about what could happen, but if we reason out the possibilities, we realize that our fears are baseless.

Likewise, my fears for this race were based on nothing but fear.  It wasn’t like a fear of snakes or spiders, as those have tangible objects at the heart of the fear.  My fear was based on not what I could see or feel, but on the possibility of disaster.  When my friend questioned me, and I realized that my fears were based solely on the unknown of what lay ahead, I realized how unfounded my fear was and that the possibilities really weren’t so bad.  My tension lessened, and I immediately calmed down.

In 1932, towards the end of the Depression, the country had experienced a harsh economic and agricultural downtown, so they elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president in the hope that he would bring about change.  Knowing the obstacles that he and the country faced, in his inaugural address he talked about what was really stopping us: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  We can get so wrapped up in being worried about the unknown, that the only obstacle we really have is ourselves.  We create our own obstacles through fear.  If we can pinpoint a source of our fear and find that there’s no foundation there, then our fear quickly dissipates.

When King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace because they refused to worship his gods, they were initially given a chance to repent.  Instead, they refused to defend themselves, as they had no fear as to what would happen to them: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3.17-8).  They felt that it didn’t matter if they were thrown in, because either way they weren’t worshiping a false god.  They showed no fear because there was no foundation for it.  They reasoned out the outcomes, and for them, death was not a thing to fear but was a means of being with God.

With my race, I also began to consider the worst that could happen.  When I went through the scenarios, none were really all that bad.  Logic and clearheaded thinking kicked in, and I grasped that there really was nothing tangible I was afraid of.  My baseless fear was causing me to not act.  For the three Biblical figures, clearheaded thinking lead to two possible scenarios, and since both were acceptable, there was no need to fear.  If we can take time to think clearly, we can get at the heart of our fear and see what really lies there. Then, we can work towards lessening it or eliminating altogether, two approaches that lead us towards action.  This week, take time to examine the fears that hold you back and determine what is at the center of those fears.  Chances are, your fears are built on shaky ground.  Amen.

Pain Threshold Adjustments that Allow for More

Years ago, when I taught in an inner-city school district, almost all my male students had one of two dream jobs in mind:  rapper or NBA athlete.  They could imagine themselves on the court, scoring the winning basket, or lyrically mesmerizing a packed stadium, with both scenarios having their names chanted by thousands of admirers.  I’d often ask them how they were planning on achieving this dream, and they would usually respond by telling me that it was just going to happen.  I’d inquire about a plan, but they almost never had one, thinking that if they wanted it badly enough, they would achieve it.  They could picture the end result, and they believed that the detailed image was enough to get them there.

There seems to exist a pervasive lie in our culture that if you want something enough, you will get it.  However, this equation doesn’t factor in the cost of achieving that goal.  Many of us want to have a great body and can picture ourselves with one, but few are willing to put in the long grueling hours at the gym.  Several want to be rich and can imagine how we’d live, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up doesn’t appeal to many.  We want a successful romantic relationship, but we treat love more as a feeling than an action, and end up not acting much more beyond how we feel.  We forget that work is needed to achieve our dreams, and to get what we want takes time, patience, and more importantly, pain.

One summer, I was visiting a pain-management specialist regarding an injury I had sustained in my shoulder.  In helping me deal with my injury, he reminded me that he was in the business of pain management, not elimination.  So, he then asked me an appropriately key question:  how much pain was I willing to live with?  How much pain could I tolerate in life?  I considered the question, and came up with an expectation, as he explained to me that pain is not the sign of an unhappy life.  With pains come gains.

We often feel entitled to have a pain-free life, but how does a pain-free life benefit us at all?  Pain teaches and guides us.  Most of us can agree upon the idea that there is no success and happiness without struggle, but we forget that we also need pain throughout the struggling process.  If you’re not feeling pain, you’re not making any progress, and if we truly want to achieve beyond ourselves, pain is necessary, especially when it comes to happiness.  Think about the last major victory or accomplishment you had in your life, and chances are there was a great deal of pain that preceded it.  Without the pain, there is no reward.

To achieve the glittering goals we set for ourselves, we must be willing to put up with pain.  Hence, if you want to be a successful rapper, you should be willing to endure the pains of practicing for hours every day, developing and sharpening a working sense of language and rhyme schemes, recording numerous songs, sending out demo tapes to promoters, working small clubs, building up a following, etc., with a similarly rigorous regiment for being an NBA star.  If you aren’t willing to have that much pain in your life, then the goal is not realistic or what you want is just a fantasy.

Similar to the pain in our lives and the ways in which it shapes us, in the smelting process of developing excellent tools, there is a great deal hammering, scraping with sharp objects, and heating with intense fire.  From that process comes sharp, strong tools.  Without the pain, the tool is blunt or weak.  Isaiah 48.10 shows us a similar process when comparing the making of tools to the fashioning of our spiritual lives: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  If we want to be stronger in who we are, we must be subjected to the Refiner’s fire, the pain and testing that brings us closer to perfection and closer in our walk with Him.  Without it, we will never grow much beyond where we are now, and with a lifetime of wondering what could be with our dreams, we will look back at a mostly pain-free but stagnant existence, wondering with a disappointed glance what happened.  We must invite and embrace pain in our life if we want to be refined and develop our level of success and happiness.

By inviting pain, we allow for risk, but we have become averse and fearful of negative experiences because we feel that our life is defined by them, thus deeming us failures.  So, we tend to avoid risk and passively accept the lulling coldness of mediocrity.  However, by taking risks and embracing hard and painful experiences, we develop ourselves in ways that help us grow towards a stronger, happier life, one filled not with regret but with satisfaction.  Instead of asking yourself what do you want out of life, maybe it’s time to find out how much pain you are willing to endure, thereby setting you on a course towards greater gains in life.  Amen.

Feeble Attempts Past our Expiration Date

With the now warm weather and springtime growth comes a host of fresh vegetables and fruits.  While visiting our local fruit stand, our eyes go wide with the deliciousness that nature presents, yet often our eyes are bigger than our appetites, and we end up buying more than we need.  Now normally, that purchase isn’t a problem, but with all of what we are buying being local produce, the shelf life on a lot of these items isn’t very long.  The amount of purchases that must thrown out to the animals can be heartbreaking, but at least someone is enjoying them.

With spring produce and warm weather also comes spring cleaning, when we go through our pantry and refrigerator, looking for things that have found their way to the back and as such have become neglected and lost.  More often than most, these items are well past their expiration dates, and despite looking just fine, have gone bad on some level.  Moving on to our medicine cabinet in this cleaning frenzy, we traditionally find a multitude of no-longer used medicines that have also migrated past their expiration dates, and are now not as effective as they once were, or just aren’t healthy to consume.  The power of time takes its toll on all things, apparently.

Time seems to be the enemy of us all.  Most things of this world don’t age well and have a point where the rising tide of time overtakes what is best in all things.  Even wine, despite getting better with age, reaches a point where it turns to vinegar.  When I walk the hallways of high school and spot young couples in love, by measuring the flames of passion that radiate, I can usually judge with a decent amount of certainty how quickly those flame will extinguish and the relationship will expire.  And despite our best efforts, our bodies don’t escape the ravages of time.  Most scientists and physicians suggest that, given the proper diet and treatment, the human body can work perfectly for the first 40-50 years before it starts to break down on its own, and that’s if we treat it well.  Founding father William Penn said that, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is a commodity, but we often don’t trade well with it.

Like our bodies and things of this world, each of us have an expiration date, too.  At some point, death will be the great expiration collector and will come for us.  What makes us different, though, is that often there is no telling as to when that expiration date is.  The Bible and other pieces of literature are filled with warnings about the fleeting nature of life, about how we must seize every moment of every day, or about how we don’t know how long we have.  Proverbs 90.12 give us this advice: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  If we realize that our time is limited, then we will most likely use our time wisely, and the biggest concern should be where we are headed after our expiration date.

A great deal of the population, when considering the afterlife, feels that it’s not something they need to think about at this point.  They’ve got time.  Yet if we live with this foolish notion, like rotted fruit, we will find ourselves out of time before we know it.  We need to live wisely while we still have time, and for many, that means committing our lives to Him as soon as possible.  With no knowledge of how much time is left, as even tomorrow may be our last day, we must firmly stand on the promises of His kingdom, and not the possible failing promises of a long life.  Assurance is found in what we know for sure, not in what we think may be.  If we live knowing that any day might be our last, then our decisions, especially those about the afterlife and what we are truly living for, will be handled with grace and wisdom, and our future will be secured.  Amen.

Love, Despair, and Cupcakes

Apparently, the afterlife is a tricky business.  According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans firmly believe in Heaven.  Most likely, they all have similar ideas as to what it looks like:  clouds, flowing rivers, delicious food, endless entertainment, etc.  However, in that same poll, Americans were asked about “the other place,” and it was found that only 64% of those who responded believe in Hell.  Do we as a country think that people are not punished in the afterlife?  Do those remaining 25% think that everyone gets a free ride into heaven?

Perhaps this disparity exists not because we doubt in the existence of Hell, but because we have varied ideas as to what Hell is.  We don’t really take time to grapple with the belief of Hell, because frankly, we don’t understand it.

Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that, “Hell is other people,” and although it feels like it at times, Hell must be much more than that.  Of those who believe in Hell, most if not all agree that suffering plays a key role.  Isaiah 66.24b describes that suffering with this visual: “The worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched.”  Yet no matter what we imagine with our human minds, I must think that it doesn’t even approach what Hell’s suffering is really like.  However, this past weekend, I think I caught a glimpse of Hell at the local Cupcake Festival.

It sounded so good on paper: cupcake competitions from over 50 vendors, a virtual conglomeration of confections.  The streets would be lined with all sorts of sweets ready for our tasting and purchase.  With salivating taste buds and high hopes, we embarked.  As we approached the vendors, we witnessed a wide variety of people with delicious-looking cupcakes in their respective carrying containers.  Our hearts leapt with excitement and anticipation.

Yet, as we got closer, our hearts sank as we saw large crowds surrounding all the booths.  We thought about waiting in line, but found that for the most part, the lines were not moving.  We pushed onward towards booths further up the block, only to find the same length of lines everywhere, all preventing us from getting any cupcakes.  I could literally see the cupcakes at the vendor stands, but couldn’t get even the slightest bit close to purchasing them.  It reminded me of the old parable that describes Hell as a massive, delicious banquet where everyone seated at the table cannot eat, as they are unable to bend their elbows.

At the festival, I could see Heaven and hope for it, but it was just out of reach, the true nature of Hell.  So maybe Hell should not be defined by what it is, but what it is not; not what it has, but what it lacks.  In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Hell is described as the polar opposite of Heaven, where everything in Hell is defined by what it lacks in comparison to Heaven.  The poem describes Heaven with eternal peace and light, where Hell has flames that radiate insufferable heat and eternal darkness.  2Thessalonians 1.9 describes Hell as being, “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  Maybe then we should look at Hell as the complete absence of God.  Perhaps Hell should be defined by how impossibly far it is separated from everything that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4.8), all qualities that are from God.  To be that far from the goodness and glory of God, that truly is Hell, and makes it completely devoid of hope.  To conceptualize that thought, think about the amount of time we spend on this Earth asking for God to be a part of our lives, with Him answering that call, and imagine what it would be like if when we asked, we knew that God would never show up.  If we frame Hell around the idea that it’s a place with a total and complete absence of hope, our true motivator, then we quickly realize that without hope there is nothing but empty despair, the true character of Hell.

In realizing what Hell is like, we more deeply understand the contrasting gift that is Heaven, giving us hope for an amazing eternity.  With hope in our hearts and an eye to the promises of the future kingdom, we know with great certainty that eternity with Him is most assuredly not out of reach.  Amen.

A Life, Fully Lived

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

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

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

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

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

The Readiness for What Comes Next

As 2016 was ending, like many, I wanted to put as much of it behind me as possible.  So, I surveyed my life and took inventory of what outstanding items needed my attention.  I found unreturned emails and texts that needed attending, bills and debts that needed settling, and personal projects that required completion.  News articles I had put aside to read but never did beckoned my call, books that were almost fully read that were abandoned for whatever reason garnered my attention, and an inbox that had been gathering dust looked to be emptied.  With that thought in mind, I turned to finishing off projects and business that had been lying around.  I tackled them all with one goal: finish them before the year is up.  So, with some determination and hard work, I succeeded in tidying up unfinished business by the first ring of the new year.  As a bonus, my proverbial crawling out from under the mountainous pile left me with enough satisfaction and optimism to head into a new year with renewed hope.

When the things in our lives stack up, we tend to tackle them with the thought that once we are done, we can finally rest.  However, we all know that life does not rest, and what we finish will be replaced with more.  And sometimes we tackle our piles in an effort to achieve or increase control in or lives, but we also know that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  Control of our lives is illusionary.  So why bother to do any of it if the struggle is never-ending and the control never achievable?

In the final act of “Hamlet,” after trying to control his surroundings for the majority of the play, the titular character comes to the realization that he in fact has no control at all, and that issues will continue to plague him despite his best efforts.  He concludes with the statement “the readiness is all,” meaning that his intentions should be more concerned with preparation for what comes next instead of a desire for total control, and some of that readiness is rooted in finishing what is at hand.  He does not give up tackling the tasks in his life; he merely works towards completing as much as he can so that his life is prepared for what comes next.

By working towards completion, if not necessarily achieving it, we can prepare ourselves for what God has next for us.  After Christ had completed His ministry in human form, He hung on the cross preparing Himself for God’s next step. “After he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19.29-30).  Christ had completed all that He had to on earth, and His declaration indicated that He was now surrendering Himself to God’s will, ready for what comes next.

We tend to get bogged down easily with the number of tasks we take on in our lives, and too often we lose sight of the end and begin to unravel.  We forget to finish, along with the reason for finishing, and instead just forge onward, leaving a trail of incompletion in our wake and opening us up for a lack of preparation for what comes next.  We become stuck in neutral, and despite how much we step on the gas, we still don’t go anywhere.  So, when something else comes our way, it just finds its way to the top of our inbox pile, as we aren’t ready for it.  Then, opportunity and God’s plan passes us by.  However, like Christ, when we work towards finishing what is at hand with an eye towards readiness for what comes next, God is then able to start a good work through us.  This week, survey your life for what lies incomplete, as these incompletions may be holding up the riches God has in store for you.  Then, set goals for finishing those items with a desire not for completion but for the readiness.  The next big step in His plan for your life lies just around that corner.  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 Motivating Factors of a Long Life

Type “ways to prolong life” into Google, and you will get about two and a half million results.  Most of the sites include ways to maintain a balanced diet, develop a healthy exercise regiment, and a long list of things to enjoy in moderation in life coupled with a list of things to avoid altogether.  In the past hundred years, science and medicine has successfully figured out ways to extend the average lifespan from 49 to 78 years, and the expectation is that we will figure out ways to extend well beyond that number in the next fifty or so years.  The emphasis in our society for life extension has been a major focus our entire lives, and all of us are looking to add some years onto our time on this earth.  The most valuable of all resources on the planet seems to be time.  Yet, this week the world learned of Mbah Gotho from Indonesia who professes to be 145 years old, according to his government’s verification of his stories and documents.  If the idea is that more time equals more happiness, than Mbah must be pretty thrilled to have lived so long, right?  When asked what he now desires most in life, he said, “What I want is to die,” and apparently this desire has not been a recent one.  He purchased his gravesite in 1992, when he was 122 years old and visits it every day, but for the past 24 years, he has continued to live on despite the expectation that his death was supposed to be a long time ago.  According to reports, he has outlived all ten of his siblings, four of his wives, and all of his children, as well as experienced all of the horrors of the world from the past century and a half.  Although unable to see well, he can still hear and function reasonably well for a 145-year-old man, but he feels as if he “has been through it all” and wants to pass on.  So, given this extreme example of us who want to live longer, and Mr. Gotho who has lived too long, is there a happy medium that exists that reveals how long we should live in order to be happy?  Perhaps it’s not the length of life that we should be concerned with but instead the quality.  We seem to think that more time is the necessary variable to additional happiness, however, the key seems to be not how much time we have but how we spend our time.  Psalm 90.12 asks for God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” for when we number our days, we then realize that time is precious, and that we should not spend time wasting time but instead living as if every day is our last: fulfilled days over longer ones.  Perhaps our reason for wanting to live as long as possible stems from a fear of death and a panic of the unknown.  The good news is that as Christians, there is nothing for us to fear as there is an assurance of heaven, but combined with the thought that maybe we’ve wasted a good portion of our lives, we tend to look for life prolongation as the answer.  Instead, let’s look to life enhancement and fulfillment through not only a daily renewal in Him, but also a purposeful life, one that seeks to make daily changes in the world and in people’s lives for the better.  When we embrace the idea of a finite existence on this earth, we acknowledge that someday we will die, thus freeing us of the burden of anxiety of our own demise.  Then, instead of spending our lives fearfully avoiding death, we spend it without fear and truly living.  Amen.