Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Argumentative Choices and Other Insults

I’ve been given the middle finger a number of times in my life.  Oddly enough, it’s rarely been by any of my students (or at least not to my face).  The majority of times have been while I’ve been driving when someone else on the road disagrees with a driving decision that I’ve made.  When my son was 4, a man in another car gave me the middle finger within sight of both of us, and my son interpreted the gesture to me by saying, “Daddy, he’s saying that you should only go one way on this road.”  Indeed, that other driver wanted me to go one way, although I’m not quite sure that where he wanted me to go was where I was driving to.  Either way, these fingers haven’t really altered my behavior or outlook much in life.

The other day, I watched with great curiosity as a middle-aged woman quickly zipped into a parking spot, cutting off another man just as he was about to enter from the other direction.  He blared his horn at her and took another spot close by.  As they emerged from their respective cars, they both began speaking at the same time, she with an apology (which would indicate that she knew she was at fault), and he with accusation about how dangerous her maneuver was, followed by a vulgar name for her.  At that point, she changed from being sorry to being offended, as she told him that he had no right to call her that.  In that moment, the fault then went from her to him, as now he was wrong for calling her that name.  He yelled at her again, now adding insults about the way she looked, but that addition only made his situation worse, because now anyone around him was offended by the way he was treating this woman.

When a problem arises where we are angry or offended, there are three types of argument approaches we can take: pathos, logos, and ethos.  Pathos is when we respond using our feelings in an attempt to sway the other party, logos is when logic is used to persuade, and ethos is when reputation is referred to when trying to convince.  The topic of argument and people involved usually dictate the approach.  This gentleman driver clearly responded using pathos, showing how angry he was, whereas a logos approach would have been more effective.  Had he avoided calling her anything inappropriate in his anger and instead used a logos approach by explaining the dangers of her driving, he might have curbed her future driving behavior, but now she was just dismissing him as just a jerk.

Christ was acutely aware of how to approach people in argument, choosing the most effective method to achieve the means He desired.  Never one to act without thought, He expressed pathos when he kicked the money changers out of the temple, as had He tried to convince them to leave through logic or reputation (sharing that He was the son of God), He wouldn’t have achieved His desired outcome.  His Sermon on the Mount relied on logos, as He knew that He was talking to a crowd that already thought of Him as a great teacher, so He didn’t need an ethos approach, and these people valued reason and logic, so pathos would have undercut His purpose.

In Luke 11, Christ is invited to eat with the Pharisees and the lawmakers, and after assessing the situation and His audience, He argues with the Pharisees first, by using an ethos argument to sway the entire group.  Of all those at the table, He would have known that the Pharisees considered themselves the most strict and law-abiding of everyone, so Christ attacked their reputation: “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash his hands before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (38-9).  By showing the others that the Pharisees were only outwardly sinless, they would question the Pharisees’ authority and listen more closely to Christ’s teachings.  Through Christ’s shrewd choice of argument approaches, He achieved His purpose of having the others question the established authority.

When we find ourselves locked in argument, our go-to choice is often pathos, as we want to express our emotions.  However, we need to take a minute and look towards the outcome of the argument: what do we want accomplished?  When we identify our goal, we can then analyze our audience and see what approach works best to achieve that goal.  Too often, like the man in the parking lot, we get caught up in the moment and say things we don’t mean, and once they are out, we find that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot through our own efforts and our argument is null.  Let’s learn to reflect and act upon that reflection instead of thoughtlessly reacting to our environment.  Take the time to take a step back and see how to best approach the moment, and often, your Christ-like reflection and approach will not only bring you the end you need but also bring peace into the situation.  Amen.

Certain Assumptions and Warlike Behaviors

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything.  I know that sounds trite and cliché, but the confession is true.  I now realize that everything I thought I knew wasn’t as solid as I thought it was, and that I was assuming quite a bit to get to where I was then.

Let me explain with this example:  Scientists have been recently developing a space messaging system, technology that sends information into deep space in hopes of receiving an answer.  Although we’ve been listening for otherworldly messages since 1985 with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and in 1974 we even sent a onetime 3-minute deep space signal to a specific star, now a new group called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) plans on sending numerous messages out into the stars to see who is listening.

The initial idea of making initial contact with an alien civilization seems incredibly valuable and an enormous leap forward for humanity, but there are a variety of issues and conundrums that surround these actions, all of which are dependent upon several assumptions that we are making as a human race.  For example, we assume that should we reach an advanced people, these beings would want to develop a friendship with us.  By extending the olive branch to advanced worlds, how can we be sure that they will accept it?  (If you look through the annals of history, when Columbus came to America, it didn’t turn out so well for the Native Americans.)  We are also laboring under the possible delusion that as civilizations age, they become wiser and develop a totally peaceful existence.  What if these advanced groups have only become more warlike?  Some scientists have mentioned that they hope these civilizations are not angry or hungry, or we are in big trouble.

Also, when METI decides to send out its first message, there is debate as to what that message should be.  How do we know that those receiving it will not interpret it as a declaration of war?  Or an opportunity for colonization?  Or a loud beacon alerting them of our presence, when staying quiet might be the key to our survival?  And, with the universe being billions of years old, our world has only started thinking about contacting other worlds in the past hundred or so, while others might have been doing it for millions of years.  Maybe we’re one of the last worlds to the space party and are so far behind technologically that it may not be that other worlds don’t know that we’re here: maybe they just don’t think we’re worth contacting.

The only conclusion that can come from all this posturing is that we just don’t know what’s out there, what to expect, what to do, and we have no way of knowing any of it.  Thankfully, scientists are fully aware of what they do not know, so discussions and debates ensue, unlike some Christians who are not aware of what they do not know and just self-assuredly assume instead.

In fact, there are times that Christians are so sure of what they assume that they will base it as their entire foundation for belief.  As such, we assume that Jesus had long flowing brownish/blondish hair with brown eyes and light skin, as that is how He is often portrayed in art and film.  Yet given His lineage and the area in which he was raised, He most likely looked more Middle-Eastern than Arian.  We develop firm opinions on whether communion is actually Jesus’ body and blood or if it is just symbolic of His sacrifice, and we condemn anyone who thinks otherwise.  There are many that fully “know” what our own resurrection will entail, how long it will take, whether it will be bodily or spiritual, and how it will coincide with Christ’s return, but if we are to be honest, we really have no firm clue.

The fact that we don’t know is fine, but the problem arises when certainty comes when we are only assuming.  Wars and church divisions have come from arguments based totally on a hypothesis, as Christians can stand so firmly on assumption that it overwhelms them to the point of forgetting the two basic elements of Christ’s teaching: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.30-1).  At this point in His ministry, Christ knew that the various sects and lawmakers had so muddled every Jewish law that to be a follower involved too much specialized adherence and furious debate, so He boiled it all down to two laws.  However, since then, we have developed so many firm assumptions that many of us confidently stand on shaky ground, when the only fixed foundation should be these two rules.

There is a distinct difference between what we believe and what we know, and when we swap the two, we risk alienating the world and each other.  Instead of being immobile in your opinions, stop accepting assumption for fact and know that you do not know.  Instead, embrace your brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to the non-believer, putting love above all else, just as Jesus asks us to.  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.

Faith Maturity and Teenage Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm.  Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.

According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind).  Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people.  They are frozen in place just thinking about it.  Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.

The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns.  Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God.  When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.

When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil.  18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.”  If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?

Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up.  When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God.  The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught.  If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”

Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”  When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil.  If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.

Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him.  Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving.  Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well.  They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.

It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court.  Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.”  God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path.  Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him.  Amen.

Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swapping Anger for Empathy (and Donuts)

A friend of mine was recently celebrating his son’s ninth birthday party by hosting a sleepover.  As a special request, they had the local bakery make specialty donuts in the shape of the number “9” to give out to everyone when they awoke the next morning.  Making sure to be careful about planning the event with enough time, the father called the order in well-ahead so that the bakery would be able to fulfill the order.

On the morning of the sleepover, the man and his son went to pick the donuts up, only to find that one of the baker’s workers had given away half of the order to another customer by accident.  The father’s mind and heart filled with outrage, as he stood ready to angrily lash at them for their obviously careless mistake.  After a moment of lividness, he took a deep breath and asked the manager how they could solve the problem.  She quickly got on the phone to see what she could do.

Anger tends to be the go-to emotion for many people when life sometimes takes a turn away from what was expected.  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum keenly suggests that all anger is deeply rooted in feeling a lack of control in our life.  When anger rears its head, most times it is because of insecurity, where situations and relationships are deemed beyond our control, or events and outcomes are going against our wishes and wills.  Anger rises when our best laid plans go awry and we try to fix what we can’t; it is our futile response at attempting to solve problems.

When things don’t go our way, we also quickly look to blame someone, finding a target for our anger.  Yet, when we do, we ignore the problem and focus on the individual.  By shifting focusing to the problem, we look towards a solution, which is really what we truly want.  Anger might feel good in the present, but a solution feels even better in the future.

While the manager was on the phone, a young girl quietly came over and sheepishly took the blame.  Upon her confession, the father’s anger began to subside as he realized that this young girl was doing her best and was already embarrassed by the situation.  Despite whatever righteousness he thought he could achieve through his anger in that moment, he might have destroyed this poor girl had he responded in anger.

After the manager got off the phone, she said that she could have a new batch made later that evening.  He knew that he didn’t need the donuts until all the boys woke up, so he told the manager that as long as he had them today, he would be alright.  When he returned that night to pick up his order, he was met with three times the amount he asked for, all already paid for, along with various other free bakery items.

We have to wonder how this event would have turned out had he vented his anger.  He might have gotten what he wanted, but at what cost?  Proverbs 29.11 writes, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”  By holding onto his anger, he managed to salvage a girl’s feelings, be a good role model for his son, get a lot more bakery items than he asked for (and all for free), and be able to walk back into the store with his head up and be greeted with genuine kindness.

When we focus on the solution and respond with empathy instead of anger, the ripples of compassion and understanding spread far beyond the moment and affect more than just the outcome.  This week, as you find yourself angered and outraged, remember that these emotions stem from our insecurities and desire for control.  Then, re-route your intentions towards solving the problem instead of lashing out at others.  The results will be much more satisfying in the long run than any expression of anger could possibly grant.  Amen.

Good Grief

Although an assurance, death is never something for which we seem to be prepared.  As those who are left in its wake, our confidence is often shaken and our endless questions remain.  Though answers sometimes elude us, what is certain is that we as a collective do not discuss the process enough or even know how to handle its aftermath.

This week, I took part in the receiving line at my father-in-law’s funeral service, a viewpoint of death from which I had not previously experienced.  Standing next to my family, I shook hands with extended relatives, friends, former students, and past co-workers, all of which had wonderful stories and anecdotes about how he had touched their lives.  Outwardly, we attempted to put on the bravest face we could find, reaching down deep for some sort of superficial courage, but inside, we were wracked with shock and a bevy of emotions at our loss.  Although mostly unspoken, I could see the deep grief etched into the faces of my family and those who were left behind.

Grief has come to be understood as a necessary part of the process; it’s the survivor’s way of grappling with death firsthand and with the confusion that comes as a result.  Yet, we seem to have a problem with how to address grief.  Mistakenly, many view grief as a weakness of faith and do not fully understand or accept it, so we tend to be unsure as to how to deal with it when we encounter it.  Because we don’t talk enough about it, when we see it we attempt to cure it, thinking that grief is a human flaw.  However, grief is a sign of faithful individuals wrestling with the complexity of life and the seemingly contradictory nature of death when juxtaposed with an all loving creator.

So, when we expressed our grief to some, we received well-intentioned but dismissive comments intended to halt our grieving process.  When people saw us struggling with grief, their work mistakenly turned away from comforting and gravitated more towards justifying the situation, moving from an emotional response to a logical one.  In our faith journeys, we are sometimes (although not enough) taught to question everything, but when grief rises to the surface, we are too quick to dismiss it instead of embracing it and allowing it as part of that journey.

Reasonably, the limitations of human knowledge lead to uncertainty within all of us.  We are unable to answer the simple question of “why,” as the answer eludes us as long as we reside on this side of the curtain, while the heavenly realm continues to exist behind the thin veneer that separates us from our complete knowledge.  Resultantly, doubt creeps in from the lack of answers, not as a sign of our loss of faith but instead from a lack of satisfying responses to our endless questions.  Hence, when we are filled with pain and doubt, grief emerges not as a sign of faithlessness but as a sign of our humanity.  In Matthew 27.46, a crucified Christ, limited by human knowledge and wracked with pain, cries out in grief to His father and creator. “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”  Much like ourselves, Jesus’ answer was not provided to Him in that moment, and like Him, we are fundamentally forced to confront our doubt.  Also like Him, our agonized uncertainty is not a reflection of faithlessness but is the sign of one’s individualized wrestling with questions and a frustration with our limitations as imposed upon us by our humanity, none of which should be dismissed.

Grief makes us not so much question God’s existence but instead question our understanding of our faith, refining it not through commonplace platitudes but through empathetic understanding and acceptance.  Despite the emotional toll it may take, we need to resist the urge to halt or dismiss grief, as we need it to help us through these difficult times and emerge a more mature Christian.  Although oftentimes unpleasant, a Christ-like wrestling with our faith and our doubt through grief leads us to a stronger, steadier understanding of our existence and further solidifies our relationship with God.  Amen.

Precarious Shifts in Perspectives

As permanent members of this planet, our view of others, our problems, and the horrors of this world are what we experience daily.  Their importance fills our lives and troubles our minds to the point of being fully consumed by them.  The good news: it is possible to put these events into perspective.

In 1968, members of the Apollo 8 mission spied the Earth from a distance for the first time.  They described seeing our planet as “hanging in the void” of space, dangling precariously.  They then reported experiencing a profound cognitive shift in their consciousness, citing that they understood the “big picture” of our existence and how fragile our planet and its inhabitants are.  These astronauts recorded that they felt as if we were just one small cog in a larger, more intricate process of the universe.

The astronauts experienced what is more commonly known as “The Overview Effect,” where individuals view the world from space and feel as if Earth is nothing more than a tiny ball in a much larger universe, suspended in the vacuum of emptiness shielded by a paper-thin atmosphere.  When experiencing this effect, astronauts have reported that all the conflicts that divide people and the boundaries that break us up suddenly become incredibly unimportant, and a need for universal harmony and peace is instilled.  In other words, they learned not to sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.  The pettiness we experience on a day to day basis just isn’t worth fretting over or fighting about, because in the larger realm of things, it just isn’t that significant.

This week, I felt a profound shift of my own.  I had been worried about school and developing my lesson plans, how I was going to fit in certain activities into my life, and being able to maintain my day to day lifestyle with enough time, energy, and money for everything that we needed in our household.  My world then came to a complete halt when I discovered that a close family member had died.  As if at the drop of a hat, everything that I was so worried about previously didn’t matter in the slightest.  Priorities like school, activities, and deadlines became meaningless.  The surreality of my existence and a new set of priorities eclipsed everything else and my life was brought into a new reality and perspective.  Much like those astronauts, the small stuff no longer mattered, as I firmly grasped the frailness of life.

Sometimes our lives can be so overwhelming that what we really need is a different perspective to realize what is truly important.  Although my moment was sad in nature, it really drew me closer to those around me, helping me see past the triviality of daily life because my perspective had been changed.  In our daily walk of faith, we too can be bogged down by the minutiae that negatively affects us and eats away at our emotions.  Psalm 90.2 helps us to get that proper perspective, one that shuns out all the superfluous noise: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  To know that God was, is, and always will be, erases a lot of what plagues us daily.  He was present before anything else, and He will outlast any and all of our problems and squabbles.  A shifted perspective onto Him and his vastness leads us to a cognitive shift that resets our priorities and helps us to see what is truly important.

Focusing on His everlasting nature helps us to see the bigger picture, that everything on this Earth is delicate and temporary, that our problems are much smaller than we realize.  This week, take time to meditate on God’s existence, remembering that He is bigger than any problem we have in our lives.  With a proper perspective, our focus on the particulars of this world quickly blur, as our vision on Him and what’s important comes into sharp focus.   Amen.