The Improper Prioritization of Pokémon

About two years ago, when it first was released, I got a text from a friend asking if I was playing the game Pokémon Go.  He was much younger than I was, so I immediately scoffed at the text, secure in the fact that I was an adult.

And then I started playing it.

For those not in the know, the game is played on a smartphone where you hunt around looking for virtual creatures to capture and put into your collection.  You must actually search the real world, as they are tied to specific locations.  You also have to visit virtual “stops,” where you collect items that help you capture said creatures, and gyms, where your creatures train and earn you points.  The more activity, the higher your rank, the more the benefits and clout in the game.

I became quite obsessed with the game’s intricacies, developing a high ranking with a big collection.  The advertising motto of the game is “Gotta catch ‘em all,” and that was what I was going to do.

But then, it’s not just about getting them all but also about getting the best of what you have.  So, I would look for the most powerful Pokémon and train them to be stronger.  I would find reasons to go into town looking for them when I had no reason to.  Then, they released “shiny” versions of these creatures, which don’t actually have more power but are trophies to have.  These shinys were only available for the keenest of eyes, so more trips into town for that, because I couldn’t miss out on those.  After that, they started with group capture events for really powerful creatures, so I joined a virtual group that would meet up to take them down.  That was followed by “community day” when certain creatures would have a specific move that was only obtainable during a three-hour window, so for that small window I would wander the town looking to collect as many as I could.

I spent a lot of time playing, and it somewhat overwhelmed my life.  Time that I could be spending doing productive activities or with family and friends was being consumed by the game.  Even when I was with family and friends, I would still be secretly playing when they weren’t looking.  This somewhat drug-like addiction of mine came to a head about a month ago, when it was Tyranitaur day, one of the most powerful and sought-after Pokémon, which would be available in shiny version and with the rare move of smack down.  I would be king with this creature!

When the day came, I saw that my wife needed to be with me during that three-hour window.  When I would normally go out PokeHunting, I stayed home with her.  Now, don’t crown me a saint just yet: I was secretly climbing the walls knowing that I was missing out on this event.  And when it ended, I missed out on the moveset and the shiny version, but it was then that I realized, so what?

Why was I so taken by something that would never love me back, pouring so much of my energy and time into a game that, realistically, comes to nothing in my life.  I had nothing to show other than a high score, which isn’t exactly the message I want written on my tombstone:  Here he lays, a level 39 Pokémon trainer.  It was an accomplishment that didn’t matter.  More importantly, I also realized that with missing out on this big event, there was going to be another big event around the corner, with many more big events to follow.  In short: there’s always going to be another really sought after Pokémon upgrade and no amount of playing or collecting Pokémon was going to satisfy or fulfill me.  In the amount and escalation of gameplaying I was doing, I was chasing after an unobtainable goal.

Now, although this example isn’t at first easily relatable to most, it serves a purpose as a model for similar experiences in our own lives.  So, here’s another:  a year or so ago, I couldn’t stay off social media.  I was slowly sucked in to what others were doing, and I was reading everything that every one of my “friends” were posting, making sure to “like” or comment.  Hours would pass where I was entrenched in the lives of others, but with each sitting, I had nothing to show afterwards.  I wasn’t any closer to these people, and those people I was close with were further from me because of my inattentiveness.

In both cases, I found myself not necessarily choosing what I wanted to do but falling into something that consumed my life and time.  Author and pastor Andy Stanley was quoted as saying, “We don’t drift in good directions.  We discipline and prioritize ourselves there.”  If we want to go where we need to go, we need to prioritize and make sure we go there.  Without a conscious awareness of where we should be putting our time and energy, we usually choose what is easy instead of what is good.

Our priorities reflect our values.  Luke writes, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12.34).  If we decide that our treasure is a meaningless chasing of social media, drugs and alcohol, career, or Pokémon, then that is where our heart is, and not in places where it should be (wives, husbands, children, family, and friends, etc.).   And if we prioritize meaningless activities and practices, that fulfilment will be constantly elusive.  But with the right prioritization, we can be satisfied.

Now, I still play Pokémon Go, but I’ve limited my time and energy put forth to it.  It can still be an escape for me, but that’s all it should be.  I’ve prioritized it lower on my list, which is what we need to do for ourselves.  This week, figure out what your priorities are in your life, and evaluate how much time you are committing to those priorities.  Compare that with what you are spending a lot of time doing, and see if those two lists match up.  If they don’t, spend time in prayer and meditation developing a plan as to how to properly prioritize those things that are worth doing, and lessen those that aren’t worth your time.  Amen.

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The Prickly Growth of Undiscovered Talents

It’s a funny thing when a cactus can invoke inspirational scripture.  One would usually expect just the opposite.  Yet, when my eyes fell upon it the other day, I was reminded of His words in Jeremiah 29.11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.’”

One summer, my family and I were walking along the street at our island shore house, when we came across a well-manicured home that had developed some stray growths of cacti in and around their front walkway, apart from the usual landscaping.  In the road, we found a round piece of that cactus that had been broken off from the main growth.  Around the size of a flat baseball, my son picked it up and announced that he wanted to bring it home and plant it.  Never the one to discourage him in his well-intentioned plans, we brought it home together, planted it in a pot, sat it on the windowsill, and excitedly anticipated its growth.

For the next two and a half years, I watched that cactus do absolutely nothing.  I waited for it to show some signs of life, but it grew neither in size nor stature.  Occasionally, I’d poke it, expecting it to be soft with interior rot, or wiggle it, thinking that it was rootless, but despite it’s lifelessness, it remained immobile either way.  We put it outside in the summer, exposed to the elements, expecting either growth or death to overtake it, but it looked exactly the same at the end of the season.  A few dozen times I almost threw it out, deeming this exercise a pointless endeavor, but I would then resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm or taking up any resources.  So, I left it, and eventually forgot about it.

It wasn’t until my son brought my attention to it, two and a half years later, that it meant anything to us.  That cactus that sat dormant for years, suddenly had a large growth coming off the top of it, and that growth was growing at an exponential rate.  Despite my doubts in the potential of that prickly plant, it was very much alive and thriving, now creating quite the spectacle for us.

It’s hard to assess the potential of a person or thing from the outside without taking a look as to what lies on the inside.  On the long-running science fiction British television show “Dr. Who,” the main character time-travels in a Tardis, a machine that resembles a typical London telephone booth.  Despite its outward appearance, the mechanics are much more complex when you step into it, as the running joke on the show is the line uttered by all who enter: “It’s bigger on the inside.”  And that sentiment really is true for measuring the scope of an individual’s potential, with us being bigger on the inside, capable of much more than we think we are.

The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25, shows how we are all capable of much more than what we might at first seem.  In the story, a wealthy man goes on a journey, and upon leaving, gives bags of gold to three of his servants, entrusting that they would each do something with them.  The first two doubled how much gold the master gave them, but the third took his gold, dug a hole, and buried it, so that when the master returned, he could give it back.  When the master finally did return, all three reported what they had done with their gold.  With the first two, he was delighted that they had worked with what he had given them.  With the third who buried it, the master was furious and whipped the servant.  Among the many points in Christ’s story, one is that we all have the ability to produce great things with the talents that we are given.  That the servant could have done something with his gold, but he chose to not explore the possibilities is the reason the master becomes so furious with him.  We all are created with the ability to affect great change in the world, but when some choose to do nothing, it is considered the greatest waste of human potential.

Now, some may say that they have nothing to really offer the world, but much like my cactus, the talent is most definitely there: it may just be hidden from view for a short while.  With a little exploration and close examination, we can find what it is you have to offer.  Brian Tracy, a Canadian-American motivational public speaker, was quoted as saying that, “The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”

Every year, I am asked what grade I would like to teach, and every year I choose juniors.  In addition to being able to experience the many milestones that come with that age group (driver’s license, first job, prom, etc.) one main reason I choose them is the maturity transition that comes at that age.  Up to this point, many of them are not self-actualized; they don’t have a grasp on who they are or what their potential is.  During this year, they suddenly start to realize what it is they can do, what their talents are, and how they fit in with the rest of the world.  I love being able to take them through that transition, showing each of them that they have tremendous worth and value in this world.

And that really is the transition that we all need to discover in ourselves.  We need to see the talents that lie within us, just waiting to burst out and make the world a little more wonderful.  Each of us has something inside that can make that worldly change, but like the first two servants, it’s up to us to do something with it.  This week, find time to be introspective, searching within yourself for that dormant talent that has the potential to make someone else’s life better, because with a little self-exploration and time, you’ll find that we really are bigger on the inside.  Amen.

Doggie Needs and Bicycle Wishes

I know I’ve written about it before, so I’ll make my mention of it here brief: in the town I grew up in, twice a year was dubbed “clean-up week” where people put everything and anything at the curb.  My father educated me in the ways of being the careful garbage picker, a badge I proudly wear even to this very day.  (Really.  I just picked up a lovely Bombay desk set earlier this afternoon.)  Additionally, I love building and creating things.  So, when I was under the age of 13 and living at home, and being the educated youth that I was, I would scavenge piles of refuse for bike parts to build an entire bike.

A pedal here, a rim there, a wheel fork over there, and a seat post the next block over, I would search for various bicycle parts in an attempt to build an entire bike from all of them.  Like a mad scientist drunk on his own power, I created life, and from the ashes of garbage arose a Frankenstein bike, forged in my backyard.  Believe it or not, it would actually work, and I could sell it for a small fee at my annual garage sale, but it was done for more than just the money.  It was that I was able to take next to nothing and create something from it.  Everything I needed, I had laying around me: I just had to take hold of it and use it.

Like a modern-day MacGyver (a show whose main message, apparently, is that we have all the resources we need around us, and that we just need to learn to draw upon them in order to succeed), I was using the materials available to me to accomplish want I wanted.  God’s word sends a similar message, as seen in Philippians 4.  In writing to the church, Paul lets them know that they have always been there for him whenever he needed them.  Even when no one was reaching out to help him, the church of Philippi could always be counted upon.  In return, Paul reassures the church that just the same way they met all of his needs, “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (4.19).  This message suggests that whatever it is we need in life, God provides it for us, as He knows what it is we need.

Now, there are several circumstantial lenses in which to examine this verse.  The first is the most obvious: times of trouble.  The implication is that when you are in trouble, God will always provide whatever it is you need in that time of difficulty.  If we are Christ’s children and He is our father, then He will provide for us according to our needs, and we can rely on Him for provision.  So, we can always count on Him when times are tough; He is the hope that will carry us through those times.  Invoke His promises and repeat them often, and you will find comfort as well as resources.  It might not be what you expect, but it will be what you need.

The second lens is just that, times of need (which is different than times of trouble).  In times of need, times might be tough, but they don’t count as trouble.  For example, I have an elderly dog who just turned sixteen.  She is fairly blind, deaf, arthritic, and shows sign of dementia.  The way our house is set up, our dog door empties out onto our deck, and the dogs go down three stairs to use the yard.  Over the winter, our old dog decided she didn’t want to use the stairs anymore and stuck to the deck, which was fine, as it was then snow covered.  However, now that the snow is melting, we don’t want her going to the bathroom on the hardwood.  So, we decided that we needed a ramp for the stairs.

Without much money for materials (not to mention a severe lack in carpentry skills), I racked my brain as to how to accomplish this feat of construction.  It needed to be long enough and sturdy enough, thus just putting a piece of plywood down wouldn’t cut it.  Little did I know, that this time of need would be supplied by God.  I just had to open my eyes and look around me, as God had already given me everything I needed.  Soon, I noticed that a climbing ramp to my son’s jungle gym, if turned upside down, would provide the perfect ramp.  It was here all along.  With a few twists of a screw driver, it was in place, and I didn’t need to buy or build anything.  Much like my bike parts, everything I needed was right around me.  I just needed to put it all to good use.

When we find ourselves in trouble or need, we can trust that God will provide for us, as He promises that He will.  However, we have to remember that the way we view our needs and the way God views them may differ.  It’s very easy to look at our respective situations and think that God has forgotten about us, as He doesn’t seem to be providing.  However, there are two possibilities that exist in this scenario.  Maybe, like the dog ramp, it’s there right in front of us, and we just don’t see it the way God sees it.  Or maybe, if what we think we need is nowhere to be found, then it’s not what we truly need.

This week, as you look at your difficulties and troubles, first reassure yourself that He will provide.  Then, try to see the situation not through our human eyes but through His kind, loving, empathetic, ethereal eyes.  See your situation through Him and seek your answers in a different way.  You may be looking for the wrong thing, or you may have your resources right in front of you.  Either way, through Him, you will overcome.  Amen.

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.

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.