A Dignified Look at Our Failing Reality

We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town.  You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes.  Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills.  Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate.  Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly.  I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse.  It was then that it began to dawn on me:  getting old sucks.

I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar.  My body is just not able to handle what it used to.  And I know that I’m not alone.  I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury.  Whether it was the one guy who, right before jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.

I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age.  At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life.  It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet.  I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire.  With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, instead flailing wildly to upright herself.  She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings.  In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on.  To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month.  Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.

Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity.  I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.

Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out is quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is our bodies are not built to last long or endure much.  We are born to die.

The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind.  In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.

Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog.  What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity.  Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live.  Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life.  Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.”  Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.

There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in ourselves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful request for humility regarding our humanity.  There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech.  It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh.  This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward.  Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live.  Develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  Amen.

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Prideful Rants and Pointless Competitions

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

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

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

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

A couple of minutes later, I got an answer.

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

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

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

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

Yeah unfortunately, it’s a limited release. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was most definitely there.  Semantics, I suppose. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great new year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope your day is better too! 

Cheers

I was shocked.  I quickly wrote back:

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

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

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

His final response?  Only this:

 

 

The Inner Warmth of Simple Gestures

When entering the cat shelter, even though we are greeted with a variety of responses from all 75 cats, there is one overwhelming response and need that dominates the whole place: attention.  Almost every cat there wants to be petted, rubbed, roughed up, or scratched.

My family and I have been volunteering at a local cat shelter for the past couple of years, where we come in once a week to clean cages, change litter boxes, feed, and fill water dishes, but for the most part, what these cats want more than anything else, is to be acknowledged through human touch.  Since they don’t have owners, their exposure to people is very limited, so when we get near Mew-Mew’s cage or see Joey waiting at the door for us, we know that they just want to have some much-longed for attention.  Sure, there are the few who want nothing to do with people for the most part, as initial reactions are clouded with bad memories and fear, but even the most hardened of feline hearts melt after enough time.  Just ask Smudge, who went from batting at us with open claws to full on mush who just needs to have his neck scratched.

What I’ve observed from these cats is that despite their rough exteriors, their past experiences, or their temperaments, there are common character traits among all of them.  There exist desires that they all share, needs that must be fulfilled, with the biggest being a need for people to pay attention to them.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed at birth with this trait.  To them, there is something fantastically comforting about rubbing up against us or having us stroke their backs.  Perhaps they feel comforted or validated.  Maybe it reminds them that someone’s taking the time to devote efforts to them.  We may never know the impact that such a small gesture makes, but we know that they all want it.

This need is not regulated to just their world: these are human needs, too.  We have a tremendous need for attention and validation.  Don’t believe me, just check your friend’s Facebook or Instagram feed (or maybe your own).  We have a need for others to like our pictures or statements, commenting on how impressed they are with our lives.  And there’s nothing wrong that need; it’s just an observation of who we are as a species.  Despite what Simon and Garfunkel may claim, no man is a rock or even an island: we all desire some sort of connection with others, so that we know we are not alone.

When we need it, it can be frustrating and devastating when we don’t get it.  Posting a picture to social media that gets no likes can be upsetting.  Those days where you walk into work and no one acknowledges that you are there, almost as if you are invisible, seem surreal.  Having waitstaff walk past you while you’re trying to get his or her attention is baffling.  During those times, you feel like jumping up and down and waving your arms because you can’t believe no one notices you.  Not getting noticed when we need it is an exasperating experience.

And a great deal of consolation comes when we finally do get acknowledgement.  Over the winter break, my students were given a task: make a difference in the lives of three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it.  I purposely left the assignment very open-ended to see what they would do.  When I read their responses, the creativity was quite surprising.  Some took it upon themselves to help others where they saw need, but others decided to just change people’s lives for the better by handing out random compliments and smiles.  The responses they got surprised even them, as people radiated the kindness that was given them.  Individual’s days were made significantly better by such small gestures, as we feel comforted when someone notices us.

Feeling noticed and having connection isn’t regulated to the weak, either.  The strongest of us need companionship and connection, too.  The night before Christ was to be arrested and crucified, He knew it was coming, and feeling the immense pressure of His impending sacrifice, asked for someone to be with Him.  He withdrew to Gethsemane and prayed, taking a few of His disciples with Him.  “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26. 38).  Feeling alone, overcome, and lonely, Christ felt the need for companionship and asked that His friends stay and support Him.  He knew that just being there with Him was enough of a consolation, so that He wouldn’t feel as if He was facing hardship alone.

We should never feel the need to go at it alone.  Even the most hardened of exteriors longs for human connection beneath.  We all hurt, we all want connection, we all want comfort.  Just like the cats, we are all preprogrammed at birth with the same basic human needs.  I continually impress upon my students the need to acknowledge someone who is all alone by giving them just a smile, a friendly hello, or whatever else they are willing to give.  Sometimes, just asking if someone is okay is enough to make them feel better.  The idea that we don’t need to suffer alone is a great comfort to many, giving quiet consolation where there is loneliness.

Knowing this fact, don’t feel the need to face things down alone.  Ask for people to be near you; reach out to others when feeling the hardships of life.  Just making that connection with another is sometimes enough to get you through things.  And when you spy someone alone, remember that despite what they may look like on the outside, they may be silently struggling inside.  Don’t be afraid to smile and greet them, as that extension of warmth might be just what they need to get through that day.  Amen.

It’s Not Good to Be Fine

When I asked my son if he was okay, and he told me he was “fine,” I knew that he was far from it.  He had just competed in a Taekwondo forms tournament, a risk in itself for any fragile 9-year old ego, and was knocked out in the second round.  He stood next to me, keeping on a brave face, not looking me in the eye.  After he told me he was fine, I motioned for him to come closer to me, where I let him sit in my lap.  His arms quickly snaked their way around me, grabbing me tight as he fought back tears.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked.  It was a fair question, so I reassured him that he had in fact not messed up his forms at all.  Maybe some of the other kids just had tighter forms or louder snaps, I told him.  He had done his best, and I was proud of him, but for that moment, his disappointment was all too palpable.  He was doing his best to hide it and to root for his friends who were still in the running, so he repeatedly professed that he was okay, but for him, those were just words he could use to hide behind.

When people claim that they are “fine” or “okay,” they rarely are.  In fact, they are usually quite the opposite of those qualities.  And the more we claim to be fine and okay, the more those words betray our steely facades.  Almost always, people who claim something just a little too loudly and often are those who are the most insecure inside.  Hence, as an example, comedians are often times the saddest of all individuals.  Or when someone’s looks or personality are attacked, and they claim that they don’t care just a few too many times, it’s because they really do care and are trying to hide it.  Say it once, and it’s probably true.  Repeat it often, and you’re trying to not just convince others, but yourself, as well.

So, people who make tremendous claims about themselves publicly are doing so because they in fact do not possess that quality and are trying to make it seem so.  An individual who claims they are very smart probably isn’t.  Someone who is very smart has no need to prove to other people that they are: their actions speak for themselves.  More show, less tell.

While reading an article in the newspaper the other day about hypocrisy among some Christian politicians, I saw an interview with Omaha pastor Rev. Eric Elnes, who claimed that those who speak loudest often have something to hide: “Blazing with self-righteous indignation toward others is often what people use to hide their own sins in the shadows,” Elnes said.  “This is probably why Jesus’ biggest problem — by far — was with the self-righteous.  When it came to those whom society cast away as ‘sinners,’ Jesus was repeatedly gentle, gracious, encouraging, and forgiving, but he continually castigated the self-righteous.”

Quite true, as evidenced by the multitude of rejected individuals that Jesus would often tend to.  Some of his closest friends were those who had outwardly sinned for the whole world to see (prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves), those who never claimed to be good people.  For Christ, he would rather be with a sinner who was easy to spot than one who secretly sinned but professed righteousness and was clean on the outside.  Christ knew that those were the people that had real sin to hide.

In Luke 11 (and in Matthew 23), the authors of these two books recount Christ’s specific teachings against people who were more religious than faithful, in sections now known as the “Woe of the Pharisees.”  In each section, Jesus criticizes and chastises the Pharisees, a group whom professed great faith publicly on a number of points.  On one occasion, Christ is invited to dine with the Pharisees, so He takes the opportunity to speak out against such self-righteous people, revealing them for who they really are.  As was religious tradition, individuals were to wash before eating, not for the purposes of cleanliness but as a result of excessive, man-made ceremonial tradition that was seemingly based in the Torah (it isn’t).  So, Christ chooses to forgo the washing of hands to draw a comparison: “But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11.38-9).  Like those who profess that they are fine, okay, and don’t care, their outside is seemingly clean, but inside they are rotting away.

Christ desires just the opposite, that we be sinful on the outside, because we are made human, and clean on the inside, by believing in Him as our salvation.  We shouldn’t pretend that we’re perfect because we aren’t.  We are a chosen, fallen people, individuals who are loved and saved by Him not through our works of seeming perfection, but through His love for us.  Yet we are so afraid of imperfection, that like the Pharisees, we hide behind showy, outward actions and language.  This week, instead of pretending to be perfect, be imperfectly loud.  Don’t hide behind words that put forth a put-together exterior.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Christ loves us for our imperfections, as most likely others will, too.  With genuine words and actions, let your sincerity shine forth, and be the wholly imperfect being that you were made to be.  Amen.

Sore Throats and Hard Hearts

This past week has been a rough one for my health, as I just can’t shake this horrible cough.  It’s been keeping me up at nights, haunting me throughout my day, and tearing up my throat something fierce.  Blindly convinced that the problem lies solely within my throat, I’ve been guzzling honey and cough syrup in an attempt to get rid of it, but all to no avail.  Since my cough has been the most prevalent aspect of my illness, I’ve been focused solely on correcting that part, fixated on the one part that bothered me the most.  My exploration for a cause and cure has been narrow at best since the solution must be found within the symptoms of my cough, right?  However, what I soon found out was that I was neglecting congestion, which through negligence then allowed for an infection to set in, which was the cause of my throat being sore, thus triggering my cough.  In light of this new discovery, a little Mucenix was added and the infection and cough began to clear up.  If I had just taken a minute to expand my outlook beyond the cough and find what was truly at the root of my illness, I might have tackled it sooner before the infection had set in.  It wasn’t until I began to look beyond the coughing (the aspect of my illness that I was allowing to define my health) that I was able to see other aspects.  I just couldn’t look beyond the cough and see the larger picture.

The same can be said about how we view some people in our lives.  I have friends who have so much hatred for a particular person because of something he did years ago, that they now allow that action to define everything he currently does and is as a person.  There is an old adage that suggests that when you hate someone, everything they do is offensive.  Similarly, these friends can’t see beyond his past action, so now everything he does is tainted by that past choice.  Because they allow everything he does to filter through his unforgiveable past, they incorrectly see these well-intentioned current actions as an offensive affront and attack.  They have allowed an infection to set into their minds as they have refused to budge on their opinion of him, whereas if they could just see beyond this initial, seemingly defining aspect of him, they might see him for his current ideas, good choices, and insight.  By neglecting forgiveness, they have allowed for an infected mind and a hardening of their hearts to settle in.

We become so blinded by our own ignorance when we refuse to forgive others, that everything they do is infected in our eyes.  Ephesians 4.17-18 explains the dangers of blinded thinking: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”  When we choose to not forgive for past transgressions, minor or not, we harm ourselves and our walk, hardening our hearts in the process.  Then, we miss out on His blessings, and an infection of the mind takes a hold of us.  If we see past that issue and forgive, we allow for His work to be done in us, but it is only through willing introspection and prayer that we can avoid a hardening of our hearts.  This week, find those people in your life that you’ve defined by their one or two wrong actions from long ago.  The time has come to unburden your hardened heart and allow His healing to lift the infection that you’ve allowed to settle into your mind.  Amen.

Common Traits, Common Myths

Look at any gathering of people, and what you will obviously find among every group is commonality.  They are together because they have something in common, and sometimes it may not be that significant a thing.  When we were little, our best friend was most likely our neighbor, because we had the commonality of the same street.  In the high school cafeteria, a scene which hasn’t changed in quite a number of years, you are bound to find some group with common interests no matter what table you look at: the football players, the honor students, the gamers, theater tech, whatever.  We tend to flock together based on our common interests, and when we find a group that has similar interests to ourselves, we tend to stick with those people because of that commonality.  Similarly, I mention to my students that the single reason they go to school with the people they do is also because of geography: they all live in the same town, so they go to the same school.  Yet, is being a neighbor or living in the same town enough to bond people together?  When they all decide to go to college, the bonds they form there are traditionally stronger than high school, as the commonality of those college people goes well beyond geography: they all choose to go there, thus they have that common interest.  So, I warn my seniors that when they leave high school, there’s a strong chance that their friendships with each other will fall apart, because geography may no longer be enough to keep them together.  As we get older, our commonalities tend to go deeper.  Yes, we attend book groups, frequent recipe web sites, and walk our dogs together as a means of connection, but if these are the only commonalities you have with those people, more than likely you are satisfied with only spending an hour a week with them.  In age, we tend to require depth to our relationships, a place where our values, thought processes, and emotional resonance tend to all vibrate at the same frequencies.  When we meet together at church, we have the commonality of faith, a trait that goes deeper than most others.  We have our foundations rooted in Christ, believing that He is our savior and we live to serve Him.  Yet, despite this strong common thread and bond that runs through us, dissension and a lack of harmony sometimes enters the picture.  We forget about our common ground because we don’t actively pursue a deepening to our relationships.  1 Peter 3.8 instructs us towards a stronger bond based on our faith: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”  In addition to being like-minded (our commonality), we must move beyond what brought us together and work on what keeps us together.  Of the five commands to us in that verse, one is mental (like-mindedness), two are emotional (sympathy and compassion), one is an internal action (humility), and the other encompasses all of them (love).  If we truly want to get along and grow as a body, we need to actively care for each other using our head, heart, and hands.  Resting on our faith really isn’t enough, or we risk becoming like the Pharisees who cared for no one but the law.  Putting these words into action, we should lift each other up in thought, word, action, and prayer, looking to better others within the body instead of merely bettering ourselves.  This week, allow your interactions with other Christians to be not only based in your beliefs, but also rooted in a faith that requires effort and action, one that puts others before ourselves, and use your commonality not as criteria for interaction to be met but as a foundation upon which to build.  Amen.

Making Big Issues with Little Things

As a high school teacher, whenever I see a crowd of people quickly gathering at a common location in the hallway, it’s never for a good reason.  Usually, tempers are heating up, and someone is about to fight.  I heard the yelling and the excitement, ran to the center of the group, and found two boys in each other’s faces.  It had been a stressful week for the whole school, and we had been trying to patch up the community after some recent disturbing events, so it didn’t come as a surprise that people were on edge.  I got one of the boys aside, while another teacher got the other, and he tried to explain to me what was happening and what the misunderstanding was.  I told him that it didn’t matter who said what or who was at fault; we are all going through a lot right now, and we need to just be patient and understanding.  It was more important as a community for us to heal, be whole, and focus on the bigger picture of our school.  He agreed, regrouped, and moved onward.  I can remember a similar message being spoken to me when my brother and I would fight in the back seat of the car on long car trips.  It didn’t matter who’s doing what: you’re brothers.  Just get along.  Sometimes, we focus too much on the pettiness of life and lose sight of the bigger picture.  However, I think we can all agree that life is too short to be overwhelmed by unimportance and to not sweat the small stuff.  In Philippians 4.2-3, Paul had a similar message to two women in the church who were having a conflict: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  Paul is so concerned with this argument, that he calls these two women out by name in an open letter to the church, pleading with them to reconcile.  The matter of their disagreement is never mentioned, as Paul feels that it’s not even worth mentioning because it detracts from the larger issue and isn’t worth it.  Paul isn’t concerned with who said what first, whose fault it is, or who is continuing it.  His message: refocus and just get along.  Paul knew that the church and God were too great to be brought down by squabbling over the smaller, petty, selfish issues.  He could see what lay ahead for them and the church, and knew that this misdirection of energy was taking away from their purpose.  I was very saddened to learn that about a year or two ago, several people in the congregation I attend got into an argument over a doctrine of the church.  Apparently, words were said, disagreements were established, and lines were drawn.  As such, our church lost several members who decided to attend another church because of this issue.  If we are to heed Paul’s advice, it doesn’t matter who’s at fault, who said what, or who started it.  Our church and its people are too precious to be hung up on such a small issue (and everything is small compared to God’s plan).  For an argument to exist to the point that people leave indicates selfishness, a focus on pettiness, and a shift from the bigger picture.  As Christians, we need to focus on the bigger picture of Heaven and salvation and unite over that vision.  This week, find that person with whom you’ve been in conflict, remind yourself of the bigger picture, and just get along.  Amen.

Lacking Sight, Lacking Prejudice

Growing up, when my father was driving, I sometimes needed to let him know that the traffic light was changing.  It not that he wasn’t paying attention when driving.  He is partially colorblind and was unable to see a lot of yellows and oranges.  I can remember writing messages in yellow crayon and showing them to him, with him being unable to read them.  I found it astounding that he was unable to see colors that I could so clearly make out.  In fact, he most likely didn’t even know what the colors yellow and orange looked like, or at least what they looked like to me.  I can’t imagine looking at a sunset and not being able to differentiate the nuanced hues and dazzling deep colors that so pervade the horizon.  And his case is minor, as there are many who see no colors at all.  Looking at the world and not being able to know what the colors red or blue look like seems like a tremendous loss, but wouldn’t a little colorblindness in our society be a good thing, especially recently with all of the racial complication we face as a country?  God is often described as being colorblind, that he sees us not as black, white, whatever, but all as one people.  Galatians 3.28 says that God sees us not for our physical characteristics, gender, status, or individual beliefs, but instead for one characteristic only:  saved and not saved. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  For all the petty differences that we use to separate ourselves from each other, God is colorblind to those issues.  This past weekend, I attended a truly unique event in Central Park.  Someone created a Facebook group inviting whoever wanted to come, to a giant water gun fight.  The date and time and a couple of simple rules (don’t squirt people with cameras, no water balloons because of pollution) were the only items on the page.  Approximately six thousand people responded to the invitation, including myself and my son.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what we found was a great example for us:  thousands of people from all walks of life, giggling and squirting each other with water.  It didn’t matter who you were, what your age was, status, or personal beliefs: we were all there just to have fun, and no one was singled out or differentiated against.  If you were holding a water gun, it was a license to participate and get soaked.  We squirted men, women, small children, senior citizens, gay couples, straight couples, people who looked as if they were in gangs, people from all cultures and countries, a man in a wheelchair, everyone.  No one cared about color, lifestyle, ability, gender, or age.  No one was afraid or biased, and everyone laughed, squirted back, and had a great time.  Everyone was equal in that field.  It was a perfect world for that hour and a half, where we were all focused on one goal and colorblind to our differences.  I imagine that the kingdom of Heaven is very much like that field, where everyone is having fun and no one sees any differences between anyone else.  As Christians, our job is to give this earth a glimpse as to what awaits everyone in Heaven, as we should treat each other with colorblind eyes.  This week, avoid getting hung up on the differences that exist between one another and see each other for the sole difference of being saved or not.  Your sightlessness will create a stronger vision.  Amen.

The Uphill Struggle of Contentment – Part I: Times of Plenty

When I ask my students how much money they want to earn in life, the answer is surprisingly not millions. Most wish to have just enough to do what they want to do in life.  They want money to the point that they don’t have to worry about money.  What they seek, and many of us do, is contentment, or the desire to be satisfied with what one has.  If we can reach contentment, then we will never want more than what we have.  However, what few fail to realize is that if you are not content with what you currently have, you will never be content.  I was recently speaking to someone about a friend who is trying to pursue her dreams, has so many of the pieces set up, but no matter where she goes or what she achieves, she is never content.  She has so much going for her, but she cannot be satisfied with what she has.  I mentioned that if she isn’t content no matter the circumstance, she will never be content.  Contentment is something that is achieved despite your current situation.   As an example, Paul in Philippians 4.11-13 describes his ability to achieve contentment despite being shipwrecked, imprisoned, tortured, and rejected: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Paul’s contentment came from above, not from around him.  Whether he was successful or unfortunate, he was content because of his relationship with God.  So how do you know if you are content?  How can you measure and test it?  Well, it’s not in our surroundings, as it’s easy to feel contentment when things are going your way.  And outward events often mask the true inward nature.  Having everything doesn’t equal contentment; we feel content, but that feeling isn’t necessarily a reflection of actual contentment.  Instead, during times of plenty, the contented person is thankful and humble, praising God for all great things, attributing his or her riches to Him.  The discontented person during these times of blessing doesn’t attribute these events to God, as the sinful nature produces pride and arrogance, wanting to take credit for these events often through bouts of self-righteousness.  Our eyes turn away from God and instead turn to ourselves.  Discontented people puff themselves up with their accomplishment, out to prove to the world and themselves that these great events are happening because of who they are, not because of who God is.  Additionally, lack of contentment in times of plenty produces jealousy, with jealousy being the idea that you have some but want what others have in order to increase what you have.  Jealousy means that the amount you have is not enough and you are willing to take from others to increase what you have.  During a time of plenty, should jealousy, pride, or arrogance arise, maybe we are not as content as we thought.  If we look deep enough into our hearts, we soon realize that it’s a standard none of us can achieve.  In truth, only one was so content in this life that He died for our sake, so as broken people, we should forgo outward appeasement and seek inner gratification.  Only through a close personal relationship with Christ can true contentment be found, so ignore your surroundings and look to Him.  Although we can never be completely content, like Paul, we can strive for contentment through a closer walk with Him.  Amen.

The Insincere Sacrifice of Honesty

In the beginning of a relationship, sometimes couples aren’t as honest with one another or their families for the main reason that we want to be liked so much so that we suppress our true feelings.  When my parents were newly married, my mother’s aunt once made a dish for Christmas called squid in black ink (yes, it’s just like what you’re picturing right now),  and offered it to my father.  He of course couldn’t say no, as he wanted his new family to like him, so he ate and told her how much he liked it.  Assuming that he was telling her the truth, she returned to that recipe for him each Christmas along with sending an extra portion of it home to him in a jar.  When she visited for the holidays, she would gift him this delectable dish every year for the next twenty years, where he would pretend to be thrilled, but I would end up seeing it sit in our fridge with a red bow on top, untouched for the next month, until he could finally bring himself to throw it out.  The burden of her generosity haunted him for years, unable to tell her what he really thought for the sake of her feelings, as it remained not really a blemish on their relationship but just a mere uncomfortableness.  Although a minor example of maintaining dishonesty for the sake of a relationship, it serves as an example as to how dishonesty can prolong itself over time, where people have things they want to say to each other, but instead keep it buried deep where it often turns to anger and bitterness.  Many of our workplaces are filled with these relationships, where people enter meetings carrying the enormous sack of unsaid items with them, passively refusing to listen to other people’s contributions merely as a means of enacting silent revenge for the things that they feel but cannot bring themselves to say.  Proverbs 28.23 (NLT) says that “in the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery,” because a hard message is better than no message at all.  Silently fuming around unknowing others, to their faces we are all smiles and compliments, but that approach causes more harm in the long run than that initial, sometimes difficult, confrontation.  I recently heard a pastor talk of giving a sermon while his pants’ zipper was down.  Many in the congregation wanted to say something, but smiled and listened instead, most likely more fixated on the zipper than his message.  His wife was finally the one to tell him, but the pastor wished someone had said something sooner.  The initial confrontation of telling him might have been embarrassing, but the pastor would have appreciated that confrontation more so than insincere flattery.  Also, the longer insincerity takes hold, like a cancer it grows if untreated, and can turn into resentment especially in a long term relationship.  Some marriages are filled more with what is unsaid rather than what is said, as spouses hide their true feelings about certain subjects and situations for the sake of the relationship, fearful of how the other may react.  We’ve hidden our real feelings for so long that we are embarrassed to confront, yet that person would prefer the honesty, even if it hurts.  When confronting in love, although frightening at first, those actions can prevent further infliction of pain and misery.  If the two really, truly care about one another, the relationship will survive and thrive.  When we give honest criticism, we are giving information to our loved ones about how they can love us even more.  Present in that way, and the recipient, although possibly hurt at first, will appreciate your honesty and love you more for it.  Amen.