Working Hard is Hardly Working for You

I’m really busy, lately.  I won’t bore you with the details, but what is most telling during this time is how cluttered my home desk gets, and not with work.  Instead it’s filled with materials that I find relaxing, items that help me get away from it all: comic books, enjoyable readings, Sudoku puzzles, newspapers, and magazines.  Since they have nothing to do with work, they are not a priority, and are left untouched until I am no longer busy.  One can usually get a sense as to how busy my life is by how chaotic this area is: the more there is, the busier I am (and conversely, when fully empty, it means that I have time for leisure activities).  So, during this time of heavy work, there gets to be quite the pile.

In mentioning this scenario, most people don’t really see a problem.  For those of us who prioritize well, we know that we get done what needs to get done first, looking to escape later when there is time to escape.  Yet, look at that word: “escape.”  Why do we call these activities escapist if we don’t get to them until there is nothing from which to escape?  Why do we wait until everything is finished before we start them?  The obvious reason is because there is work to do, but I would like to make a case that excessively working without these escapes is nothing more than a futile exercise in entropy.

Put simply, one of the laws of entropy (or thermodynamics) suggests that for some tasks, the more effort you put in, the fewer results you will get in return; the harder you try, the less you’ll succeed.  For example: a student has a test tomorrow, and when he gets home, he tries to read the relevant chapters, scanning them several times.  He then takes notes on those chapters, filling out several pages worth.  Next, he chooses to stay up late and quiz himself on those chapters, creating flashcards and diagrams to help with his studying.  He sets an early alarm to review all the material.  On the bus in, he works towards memorizing all his notes and reviewing his flashcards.  He continues to study up to the minute that the test is given, yet when he gets his grade back, the grade is not as high as the other student who studied for a few hours when she got home, had dinner with her family, made one set of flashcards and reviewed them twice, watched a little television, got lots of sleep, and didn’t study at all when she got up the morning of the test.

I’ve seen these two scenarios play out thousands of times.  The one who tried hard ended up burning himself out, where the one who worked, but took breaks with activities she enjoyed, ended up renewed, filled with energy, and performing at a higher capacity.  More isn’t necessarily better.  There exists, in each of us, a point where going beyond said point has diminishing returns, and we are then not of any use to anyone, including ourselves.  However, when we stop before we get to that point and then couple it with times of leisure, we are more productive despite the less time devoted to work.  God gives us opportunities for rest for a reason, and if we don’t take them, we become overworked and overstressed.

When the work is piling up, we seem to think that we need to tackle it right away and continue to tackle it even when we are exhausted.  We don’t take time to do the things we enjoy, activities that renew our spirit.  Christ felt this way, too.  After a long day of preaching to the crowds, despite their demands for more, Christ decided to get away, even though there was still work to be done.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”  Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.  There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.   Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. – (Mark 4. 35-39)

Even though the storm raged around them, Christ ignored it.  Even though the work was piling up, He was in need of renewal (and more than likely, the only reason He calmed the storm was so that the disciples would leave him alone and let Him rest).  Often, it’s more important to rest and be renewed than it is to tackle the work.  Christ knew that there is always time for work, but there will not always be time for rest.  And the more rest He got, the more productive He could be later.  By accepting these God-given occasions for rest and renewal, we are allowing God to grant us the rest we need, so we can continue to work for Him in all things.

This week, despite the work that may be piling up for you, stop after a reasonable amount is done, and start to do the activities that refresh your mind and renew your spirit.  Whether it be time for yourself, time with God, or time with others, take time to make the time.  The work will still be there when you get back, but by taking the time to do what nourishes your soul, you will be able to tackle the work that much more productively.  Overworking yourself won’t get as much done as you might think, but by breaking up that work with activities that renew your spirit, you can be ready to tackle more later, being the full-charged person that God desires you to be.  Amen.

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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.

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.

The Warm Embrace of Failure

With the end of the school year upon me and my students, the thoughts that run through the heads of some are often laced with the pungent and distinct fear of failure.  Students need to graduate to their next level of education, whether that be college or just the next grade, and some of my outliers’ grades are just not up to muster.  So, some do not make the cut and thus must repeat the work they did, or did not, do.

What strikes me most odd about these students is that they often become the one’s that keep in touch with me the most or are the happiest to see me years later.  I recently ran into one the other day, who was a terrible student both academically and socially when in high school, failing many classes, yet when she saw me, she energetically embraced me and relayed the many adventures she had been having as a photographer for National Geographic.  She admitted just how terrible she had been in school, but explained that she had figured herself out and was now much happier, hence embodying a key aspect of failure:  it’s good for you.

We as a culture deeply fear failure and try to avoid it at all costs, thus we avoid risk.  Artist Robert Sauber explained that, “If you have no regrets from the life you have lived, your biggest regret should be the life you haven’t lived.”  If we have no failures in our lives, then perhaps we are not taking risks that carry with them the possibility of failure.  So, if we spend a lifetime being failure averse, when failure comes, we don’t know how to handle it.  According to a recent New York Times article, not long ago the faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe an observation they had made: students seem unable to cope with simple struggles because they do not experience any setbacks in life.  Because their students have little to no experience with failure, when it does come, they don’t know what to do and experience complete fallout as a result.

Now, several colleges are attempting to tackle the problem head on by recoloring the idea that failure is something everyone experiences in life, and that people manage to come back from it.  Students are learning to “fail well” and cope with the event when it comes.  Upperclassmen and faculty relay stories to the incoming freshman about failures they’ve experienced, and how they learned to pick themselves back up, learn a lesson, and grow as a person.  Smith College’s program now explains that, “When you can fail well, the world opens up to you.  There’s no challenge you can’t pursue, no risk you can’t take, because you know how to get back up when you’re knocked down.  Your potential for change, for possibility, and for success as you define it becomes limitless.”

Thomas Edison, in referencing his experience with inventing the light bulb, was quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”  The more he failed, the more he learned.  His multiple misfires and miscalculations built him to be a better, more innovative inventor.  His optimistic outlook on failure and the lessons he gleaned from them led him to his greatest creation.  Embracing failure helps us to re-evaluate, leading to a stronger self and outcome.  The author of Psalm 119.71 likewise reveals that, “It was good for me to suffer, so that I might learn your statutes,” as his failures gave him a greater appreciation of God’s promises.  Like athletes that re-watch footage of their losses, analyzing where they went wrong and how they can do better the next time, if we take the time to allow for failure as a means of self-improvement, we can grow as a result.

Our failures are not an  end but a beginning to something newer and better.  In 1968, while working at the 3M company, scientist Spencer Silver was attempting to come up with an extra strong adhesive but failed and developed just the opposite: a very weak one that easily peeled off when removed from any surface.  As the project was deemed a failure, another scientist (Art Fry) took the adhesive papers and ended up using them as bookmarks in his church hymnal book because they didn’t leave any glue residue on the pages, thus inventing Post-Its.

This week, take risk where there is the possibility of failure, and if failure should come, take that failure and turn it into a time of learning and personal growth.  Utilize it to grow not only closer to Him, but also to evolve as a person, being one who sees life not as a safe haven for success but repainted as a welcoming series of failure opportunities.  Amen.

Varied Measurements of Effort

My son was so excited to bring his “Splat Ball” home to play with around the house.  Throw it at any surface and it will stick, smoosh outward, then reform into a ball.  Seemingly endless fun.  He paid a few dollars for it, and after a few hours of tossing it around, it broke.  We reassured him that nothing lasts forever, but in our minds, we were thinking, you get what you pay for.

I recently heard a speaker who was discussing his long history in the martial arts.  He explained to the students that there was no getting around it: what you put in is what you get out.  If the students were expecting to advance through the ranks with only the occasional practice session, some studying, and a handful of determination, they would be sorely disappointed with how far they would get in their training.  He explained that in martial arts, as in many other areas, there is a connection between effort and success.  There are no shortcuts: you must be willing to put in the time and effort towards success, sometimes doing tasks that aren’t always enjoyable, but result in strong outcomes.  He concluded with the idea that with maximum effort comes maximum result.  Should the students put their all into their practice, they will achieve the maximum amount of success.

Just last week, I reinforced a similar concept with my students.  Halfway through the year, a handful were still not studying, reading, or completing homework.  They would observe classmates academically passing them by, getting great grades and achieving all types of success, as they remained behind, baffled as to why they weren’t doing better than they were.  To pep talk them into a greater effort the night before a big assignment, I jokingly let them know that several studies have shown a proven connection between success in school and success at obtaining a decent earning job later in life.  Although my attitude was tongue-in-cheek, the concept still holds true.  If they study and work hard, the chances of them earning a decent living significantly increase as they grow.  It’s not a mystery.

In all three of these instances, the concept remains the same: what you put in is what you get out.  If you choose to do very little, your results will match the effort, and vice versa.  Christ also preached this concept, that if we put effort into our faith, we will receive blessings in return.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, His first response was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22.37).  He knew that if we put in all our heart, mind, and soul, that God’s plan would be made fully manifest in us, much more so than if we just put in a little effort.  If we choose to work on our faith, the results will reflect that effort.

Too many of us stagnantly sit around in our faith, wondering where God is and why He isn’t helping, but we don’t examine the effort that we’re putting in for our own walk.  We forget the connection between maximum effort and maximum results, that what you put into it is what you get out of it.  We need to remember that even though God is there for us, we still need to continuously work on our relationship with Him instead of waiting for Him to come to us.  If you want a rewarding spiritual life, you have to work on it.  This week, take some steps towards putting your entire being into loving Him, and await His blessings in return.  With your great effort, God promises mighty results.  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 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.

Feeling Good vs. Feeling Fullfilled

I have few vices in my life, as many of them don’t fundamentally appeal to me, but the one that truly weakens my resolve and loosens up my determination is ice cream.  Being a bit of an ice cream snob, I don’t go for the run of the mill stuff, but tend to spring for the more expensive types usually found in pint sizes and sold for more than the larger tubs.  Additionally, the more items added to the ice cream, the better, especially if mixed with peanut butter.  Soft ice cream is even more of a pleasure, as I am not quite as picky about quality, especially in the summer.  In fact, I could probably eat it every day if I could choose to.  However, if I were to do so, I would quickly gain great amounts of weight, lose aspects of my health, and quickly run the risk of a shorter life due to unhealthy eating.  So, ice cream is regulated in my life as a pleasure point, one that I can occasionally indulge in but not make a habit of, as the benefits are only temporary and the pleasure not long-lasting.  From another perspective, another activity I take part in frequently is running.  I run three times a week for a half-hour each time, working my hardest and pushing myself past where I thought possible.  It’s not exactly pleasurable, and pain and soreness come into play afterward, not to mention panting and exhaustion, but the experience is truly gratifying.  There is no pleasurable desire to run this often, but the benefits include better health, increased speed, athleticism, and feeling good about myself.  Thus, this activity is regulated in my life as a source of gratification, a habit where the benefits are not temporary and the gratification is very long lasting.  I may not enjoy running as much as eating ice cream, but I am more fulfilled by the first much more so than the second.  To be clear, pleasures indulge the senses and emotions; gratifications engage the whole person.  The next day, the pleasurable feeling fades and is eventually gone whereas the feeling of gratification lasts well-beyond that period. Worst of all, pleasure beckons us back for more, never satisfying us, whereas gratification calls us to be better people.  Even Proverbs 21.17 warns us of making pleasure a priority: “Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich.” And it is very easy to head down that road especially when we decide to overindulge our pleasures instead of healthily spacing them out.  As a society, we tend to pursue pleasure over gratification as the benefits are quicker, the immediate results are more enjoyable, and it is usually easier.  We go to the restaurant with lesser tasting food but larger portions instead of the tastiest food with smaller portions.   We turn on the TV and watch whatever is on instead of pursuing material that challenges our intellect.  We choose to lay around lazily instead of starting up an exercise regimen.  We have become pleasure addicts, where gratification no longer plays a role despite the immense benefits.  I recently had my senior students journal on a daily basis with prompts, and despite the difficulty of the questions and the investment it took to complete, most students said they were very proud of their final product and would come to treasure it years from now.  It is clearly better for us to engage in gratification over pleasure, or at least to balance out the two to our benefit. This week, despite the difficulty of the tasks, find at least three gratifying activities to engage in, and work towards fully completing them.  Gratification isn’t always the easy choice but it is always the one that outlasts beyond and benefits over any pleasure.  Amen.

When Answers Elude and Time Awaits

One of the worst announcements one can receive while flying is that the plane is in a “holding pattern,” whether in the air or on the runway (which actually may be the worse of the two).  The most frustrating part of that scenario is that your life comes to a halt, and the entirety of the situation, and the continuation of your journey, is completely out of your control.  There is nothing you can do to solve the issue, and no amount of expended effort will alter or hurry the outcome.  You simply need to sit and wait.  Having been in a holding pattern recently in my own life, I found that there isn’t a lot you can do to hurry the process.  What adds to the situation is that often times you are not told why your life is in this holding pattern, what factors have led to this moment, and which will lead you out of it.  Conversations are being held and decisions are being made without your participation, people and things are somehow influencing the withholding of answers, and the timeframe is undecided to the point that it could end in minutes or last forever.  You can’t even contribute to solving the issue because you have no idea where to begin.  There are no decisions that can be made on your end: you are just waiting.  When we find that we don’t have much choice in altering anything, we are then faced with a decision: what do we do with ourselves while we are waiting for answers?  We tend to turn inward and downward at these times.  It’s very easy for depression and despair to creep in, as the lack of answers can be frustrating and infuriating, and we spend that time choosing to wallow in misery and self-pity.  But there are other choices beyond these negative ones that we can make during times of the unknown.  In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, amongst several lessons, He preaches to the crowds how to act when your life has lost its forward momentum:  “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7 NLT).  A time of waiting for answers doesn’t mean we stop what we’re doing.  Waiting should not and need not lack productivity: choose to be constructive with that time and continue in your walk with God.  According to Jesus’ words, there are three things to do while you wait:  ask, seek, and knock (or pray, explore, and act).  As we wait for answers, we can be seeking God in meditation, praying without ceasing (1Thessalonians 5.17), no matter what the circumstances.  Don’t shut others out; open the lines of communication between you and God.  Then, we can spend that down time exploring our faith through study, looking to broaden and enrich it, seeking Him in all things for the sole purpose of growing as a follower.  Finally, we can act out our faith, taking small steps to walk in the ways that are revealed to us, knocking instead of laying dormant.  We may not be approaching the answers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress.  We can’t focus on solving the problem, but we can focus on improving ourselves for the sake of our relationship with God.  When you find yourself without answers, see that time as an opportunity for growth.  Ask, seek, and knock, instead.  A holding pattern doesn’t mean you have to put your life and faith on hold.  Amen.