Mind full vs. Mindful

I’ve been known to occasionally miss the moment when it happens.  If my last devotional was any indication, I am sometimes too stuck to my phone and miss what’s happening around me.  My wife calls it selective listening, hearing only what I want to, but I choose to refer to it more accurately as half-engaged listening, hearing only half of what is said.  It’s less a choice and more a default, something I’ve been trying to fix for years.

I’ve been able to narrow down what’s at the root of my problem, and it’s that I am not fully present in the moment.  What exactly does that mean, though?  How is it that my mind is elsewhere, not fully engaged with what is happening, and how can I change that?  A recent trend has labeled this corrective practice as “mindfulness,” the basic human ability to be fully present, being aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.  It means experiencing everything that is currently happening to you and around you, with a mind towards the present moment.

Thinking that this movement sounded kind of hippy-dippy to me, I took a class to look much more into it, and I discovered that it’s way more than yoga and meditation.  Instead, it’s a heightened awareness of the present moment by being fully engaged in it, thus experiencing everything that it has to offer you.  Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh summed up this practice succinctly: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment.  Only this moment is life.”  Or to put it another way, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” as stated by the late 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller.

In this class, we participated in various exercises that engaged our senses with the present moment.  One such exercise was eating raisins.  For years, I have been criticized by many that I eat much too fast.  As such, I don’t savor my food, a desire I long for.  This exercise forced us to slow down our eating by having a handful of raisins to eat, but we were only allowed to eat one raisin at a time.  We were then told to make observations about the textures, the smells, the tastes, and the varied flavors, making us more engaged in the present and not thinking about anything but what we were doing at that moment.  It forced us to slow down and be present in what was happening – eating the raisins – and less focused on the outcome – finishing the raisins.  Try it, and you’ll be surprised by how much you’re missing in life by moving too fast through it.

So why practice mindfulness and how does it fit into our faith?  If we become more fully engaged in the present, we learn to experience and appreciate all that God is doing.  We learn to slow down and recognize God in the details of our world.  Paying closer attention to what God is doing in our lives and how we are working for and against it helps us to better align ourselves to what his plan is for us.  We pay more attention to our current state, noticing what we are thinking and feeling, and through a heightened awareness, coming to a conclusion as to why we are thinking and feeling that way.  We are able to refocus ourselves on what God desires for us, and we in turn appreciate and grow closer to Him as a result.  Worries about the past and future fall to the wayside as we focus on the present and fully engage in it.

And there are strong biblical foundations in mindfulness.  Repeatedly, God asks us to, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3.2), citing a desire for us to control where our mind is at.  We are asked to be in the present: “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6.34).  And God asks us to rise above and “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12.2), which is accomplished through a stronger awareness.

Yet mindfulness also has its detractors, but many of those detractions are set in myths and misunderstandings of what mindfulness is.  Mindfulness isn’t about “fixing” yourself; it’s about being aware of who you are and seeking God for help.  Mindfulness is not about stopping your thoughts and ignoring the future; it’s feeling His current presence and trusting Him with your future.  Mindfulness does not belong to a religion like Buddhism; it is practice based in thinking and action that is no more religious than breathing.  Mindfulness is not an escape from reality; it is an embracing of who you are at this time.  Mindfulness is not a panacea; it’s not going to cure all your ills – it’s a path towards better living.  And the ultimate goal of mindfulness isn’t meant to be stress reduction; it’s to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.  Through this heightened awareness, we come to better appreciate and understand His plan and kingdom, embracing what He is offering us at this moment.

Mother Teresa once said that “each moment is all we need, not more.”  Knowing that God created this moment for you helps you to be mindful of what it is He has planned for you.  Mindfulness is not about living for the moment but living in it, gaining an awareness of it with an eternal perspective.  By being mindful, you can appreciate, love, and learn not only what God has created for you but also why He did so.  This week, find ways to appreciate and engage the moment, renewing your mind and heightening your senses with an awareness of where you are, which will help you in turn with where you’d like to be.  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.

Missing and Taking Our Chances

About five years ago, our area in New York was hit with a brutal snowstorm.  With gale force winds, we were pummeled by a foot and a half of snow, right in the middle of October.  Never in a million years did we imagine having to trick-or-treat through snow banks.  During that time, a majority of the area lost power, and entire neighborhoods were without electricity for a week and a half, with our family being a part of that chaos.  Being autumn, the temperature wasn’t too bad, but without power, we had no water (lousy well pump), no refrigeration, and no television or internet entertainment.  So, we found ourselves scrambling for dry ice, showering with seltzer water, and stocking up on flashlight batteries.  It was around that time that we decided we should own a generator.

During the electrical outage, we could hear these generators steadily vibrating at other people’s houses as the hum of our heart’s jealousy kept in harmony.  We searched everywhere for one to purchase, every Lowe’s and Home Depot, every online center, every hardware store within 500 miles, but nobody had one, because everybody wanted one.  We never ended up getting one during the outage, but two months later, we found one to purchase, well beyond when we really needed it.  It was a lot of money, too.  At the time, it seemed so silly to be plunking down so much cash for something that we didn’t and probably wouldn’t need in the foreseeable future.  Being a young couple in a new house, we didn’t have the money to spare.  Yet, we invested in the somewhat unimaginable future.

For five years, that generator sat there and gathered dust in the corner of my garage.  Each time I did laundry, I’d think about how much money I spent on something that seemed so useless.  Granted, it gave me peace of mind that if something should happen, I’d be set, but it seemed like buying insurance for a day that would never come.

Until it did.

A few weeks ago, we had four Nor’easters in our area, and one of them knocked out power in our town for days.  With freezing temperatures, we dusted off the generator, read the instructions (I’d never used it before, remember?), turned it on, plugged it in, and turned the house back on.  It was a glorious moment to see everything roar back to life despite our current situation.  I’d never been so happy to have bought that generator.  But the people who weren’t so happy were those that had gone through that first storm years ago and decided to do nothing in preparation for this storm.  And sure enough, getting a generator now was too little, too late, too few available.  They watched my house with that same jealousy I felt years ago, wishing they could go back and buy a generator when they should have, when they didn’t need it.  If only they could undo their actions and invest in an unforeseeable future.

It’s hard to live with the desire to go back and undo our past actions.  Thankfully, Google has a solution for that.  I discovered it a few years ago when I sent an email and realized I had horribly misspelled the recipient’s name.  I felt that that same feeling we all get when we accidently send a text meaning to say that someone is “the sweetest” but our phones autocorrect it to “the sweatiest.”  Google now has an option to undo any sent email message.  The way it works is that when you send your email, Google holds it for 30 seconds, so you get time to rethink your actions.  So many times, this function has come in handy, whether because of poor proofreading or unchecked emotion.  If only life had an undo button, where we could go back and change our actions because we weren’t aware of how much we needed to change something for the present.

For the rich man of Luke 16, having an undo button in his life is an understatement.  He lived lavishly, never being denied anything, while Lazarus, a beggar, ate when he could.  The rich man knew every comfort in life, whereas Lazarus knew not a single one.  When they both died, the rich man went to Hades and the beggar went to the right hand of Abraham.  The rich man begged for relief from his agony as he was being tortured forever.  “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (16.25-6).

If only the rich man could “undo” the actions in his life that led him to this unreturnable point, and he could take back all of the poor investments he made when he was alive.  Had he invested in a future that was hidden to him, he would have ended up in a better position, but since there is no “undo” button in the afterworld, he was forced to accept his fate.

It’s hard to plan for a time that is hidden from us.  Making an investment in an unforeseeable future seems futile and pointless at the time, but had Noah listened to the advice and laughter of his neighbors, he and his family would never have survived the flood.  Since life doesn’t come with an undo button, we need to plan in faith for future consequences, ensuring that we are well-prepared for when the worst, or the best, comes.  In that way, when the end comes for us all, we cannot claim ignorance or a lack of time, as we had the knowledge and the resources to prepare.  This week, despite all that may be going your way, prepare yourself for when change might come.  Assess your situation and evaluate just how prepared you are, as like the rich man, there is no chance to undo your circumstances and take back the poor investments you’ve made.  Instead, invest in a future with wisdom and preparedness.  Amen.

Let It Go

I seem to have a problem getting rid of things.

In my basement garage, I have a storage cabinet that is reserved for just that.  Often times, I will get an appliance, tool, home décor item, and in the box will be an extra part that is included for some situation that won’t really ever apply to me.  For example, my refrigerator comes equipped with a drink dispenser on the front door with a water filtration system for that dispenser inside.  The fridge came with a plug for that filtration system in case I ever want to not use it.  Seeing that this plug is in some way invaluable to my life, I have stored it in my cabinet of requirement, you know, just in case.  At some point, I might want unfiltered water.

When I first got married, I brought quite a lot of baggage with me, literally.  I had several boxes of crucial belongings that were absolutely necessary to my life, things I couldn’t live without:  old calendars that contained dates significant to my life, tattered movie posters of films I’d never seen, stuffed animals I’d won at middle school carnivals.  My closets and storage rooms were filling up fast.  As luck would have it, I married someone the opposite of me, someone who doesn’t like to look back or reminisce.  So for her, if she hasn’t used it in the past year, out the door it goes.

Over the course of my marriage, my wife has helped me to slowly pry my fingers off my “treasures.”  She started with garage sales, something I went along with because at least my stuff was being traded for money.  However, she pulled a fast one on me, as when we finished setting up, she announced that everything now out of the house was not allowed back in the house.  Once the sale was over, we curbside alerted the neighbors to our stash, a concept I was mostly okay with because at least my stuff was still being put to good use.  However, once the garbage men came, it was goodbye to what I thought was invaluable.

And the funny thing is, I never ended up missing that stuff.  So, I grew braver and started to get rid of more, and I quickly found that it was easier than I thought.  In fact, there was a great deal of relief looking around at all the “found” empty space there now was.  I had been holding on to those needless items so much so that I was mired in the past, unable to move forward, and quickly running out of room for what the future held.

The same can be said for how we needlessly hold onto unpleasant memories and pain.  Like my possessions, when I have a stressful situation, I am someone who holds onto that moment, reliving it over and over in my head, with each replay being just as painful as that initial encounter.  Last week, I noted that it’s just me that’s holding onto those moments when they happen in my life.  At work, I was recently reprimanded for a small matter, and I had been running that moment through my head continually since.  Yet, when I ran into this person a few days later, it was clear that she had moved on and was no longer thinking about it.  I was the one stuck in that moment, not her, and I was the one that was continually punishing myself, not anyone else.  By holding onto it, I had made it a much bigger deal than it was.

Christian author C.S. Lewis said that, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars.  You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”  When we run these painful experiences in our collective heads, we are neither moving past them nor healing.  If we want a wound to heal, we have to stop touching it.  Holding on to these needless items doesn’t help us to grow and prepare for the future: it keeps us mired in a stressful past.  We have to learn to let go and look ahead.  Proverbs 4.25-27 tells us to, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.  Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.  Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”  Whereas looking away and back to the past causes our feet to stray, if we keep ourselves fixed on the future ahead, we stay on the path of goodness.  We then maintain a forward momentum of growth and movement, keeping us firmly on the path laid out for us by God.

So how can we let go and move forward?  First know that reasoning out and thinking about the pain or that moment isn’t healthy.  We tend to think about it repeatedly because our mind is trying to get control of a past situation, which is of course impossible.  The key is to give up trying to control what we can’t control.  Let God take over what we cannot.  One way to do so is through meditation and prayer, fixing your mind on things that are good, beneficial, and holy.  Spend time sitting quietly, allowing your mind to consider thoughts that build you up, releasing what it is that’s holding you down and keeping you in the past.  And this most likely won’t cure you in one sitting.  Since that pain is so visceral, your brain has rewired itself to focus on it.  So, repeated, scheduled prayer and meditation will recondition your mind towards the proper path that God has in store for you.  It will take some effort on your part, but it will help you become unstuck from the past.  With the right amount of time and dedication, you’ll be able to let go of those painful items that you’ve been pointlessly carrying around with you, and with your lightened load, you will be ready to receive the blessing that God is ready to give you.  Amen.

Repeat Performance

I know that I’ve written about this concept before, and the repetition of it only reinforces the point: I tend to repeat myself a lot.

As a teacher, it comes with the territory.  In class, I need to make sure that all 25 of my students have retained all of the information I just relayed to them.  So, I will say it once, then rephrase it for them to make sure everyone gets it.  Most likely, I will repeat the information twice the next day, as well as posting it online for them to read.  It’s not that I like to hear myself over and over; it’s that the repetition helps to cement it in people’s minds.

The idea of repetition has been around, and repeated, forever.  Ancient religions, as a practice, have their followers repeat a mantra (a word or sound) several times, which can open up their minds, bettering themselves emotionally and physically.  The resounding nature of the Hindu “om,” which is viewed as the sacred, universal sound of the universe, is repeated in meditation and prayer to remind them of their connection to everything.  Likewise in yoga, individuals repeat the sound as a mantra, unlocking the universe.  The idea is that through repetition of a mantra, or key phrase, you yourself become the key that unlocks the door to those secrets.

Repetition of a word helps to reinforce a concept and remind us of its importance.  Hence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, repeats the word “dream” nineteen times throughout the brief address, as King really wanted to reinforce the optimistic tone of his vision.  Many other historical orators have relied on the same concept, and the effect is memorable.  Whether it be Churchill stressing the multiple places in which we will fight, or JFK listing the multiple reasons to go to the moon, repetition reinforces and makes a message stick.

So, it would stand to be wise then for the authors of the Bible to utilize repetition to emphasize their points.  Among many repeated words and phrases, one concept that is frequently referred to in the Old Testament is the pact between the Israelites and God.  In Jeremiah 30.22, the author quotes God with: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”  These words, and several similar variations of them, are repeated to highlight the covenantal relationship we have with God, stressing the promises He makes, how He will keep them, and how we will vow to be His people.  If it is repeated as often as it is, it must be important, and when we examine the importance, we see how the entire Old Testament is built upon that foundation, thus paving the way for Christ, fulfilling God’s promise of a savior.

How then does this concept translate to our own lives?  I found myself answering that question last week as I was embroiled in a great deal of personal strife, and a specific Bible verse found its way to me that day.  Although I found comfort in that verse, comfort wasn’t what I needed: I needed to believe that verse.  So, I kept it with me throughout the day, repeating it whenever I saw it or remembered it.  And sure enough, the repetition of that verse helped me to deal with my problem.  For us, the repetition of a verse or a personalized motto, can have a multitude of benefits.

According to self-help author Meg Selig, the creation of a motto can alter our thinking and how we approach life.  A repeated motto can change the course of action in your life, replacing a toxic mindset that permeates your thoughts.  It can remind you of who you really are and what you stand for, refreshing core values, strengthening your resolve, and deepening your beliefs.  Whether inspiring you to work at something worth doing or a means of calming your thoughts and mind, the repetition of a motto or mantra has numerous valuable results ranging from breaking a habit, replacing negativity, increasing productivity, or giving you the much-needed encouragement to continue.

There are many options to help you develop a motto to repeat to yourself throughout your day.  First, decide on what your needs are in your life.  Is there something you are dealing with?  Something you’d like to change about yourself?  Something you’d like to face down and overcome?  Then, develop a brief, easy to remember, emotionally intelligent phrase or sentence that meets your needs, or as was my case, find a verse that connects with you, one that helps you through your struggles.  Commit it to paper or to memory.  Carry it around with you, and in those quiet moments of down time (or when things get most hectic), take it out and repeat it to yourself.

With enough repetition, it will find its way from your mouth to your heart and back out through your thinking and actions.  And when you get tired of just repeating it to yourself, meditate on it, thinking about the meaning of keywords, weighing the construction of that sentence or phrase, and evaluating the tone that comes with it.  Approach it from a variety of angles, and you will start to see the change you desire occurring within you.  God’s promises are repeated over and over to us throughout the Bible, giving us a model for meditation and change.  By taking up the mantle of repetition and using it to better ourselves, we can work towards becoming more Christlike in our words and actions, developing towards an existence that more models our savior.  Amen.

When Love is Found in the Trash

Despite her strong streak of neatness and order, my wife leaves trash all around the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t the slightest bit aware of it.

I noticed it many years ago, that when she would open something that had a tear-off part to it (like the corner of a bag of chips, the pull-strip to a frozen box of peas, etc.), she would pull it, throw it on the counter, and then put all her attention on whatever she had just opened.  I’ve observed this behavior several times, testing to see if she could even see the garbage that she was leaving on the counter, but after a few days, she still seemed to not notice it.  It was as if the trash became invisible once it hit the marble top.

Since I tend to be wrong in most matters in my marriage (or at least that’s what my wife tells me), I was anxious to point out this flaw of hers and finally be right about something.  I’ve been waiting for just the right moment, but that moment never seemed to come.  So, instead of alerting her to this behavior and attempting to change its course, I decided to do something different: I would change myself.

Instead of seeing her strewn trash as an annoyance, I decided to allow it to endear her to me.  Her refuse-tossing then became a cute flaw of hers, a little secret that only I knew.  Even to this day, I’ve never told her about it, so she still has no idea of her deed or how it makes me smile to see it.  What was once something that irked me regularly, I now get joy from every time I throw it away myself, because it reminds me that I am happy that she is in my life.

When in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, we are often told to love people despite their flaws, because if we were to take the ill-advised time to see others for all their faults and misgivings, we would all run from one another, and the institution of marriage would collapse.  So, we choose to overlook a great deal in one another for the sake of the relationship.  We decide to focus not on what makes one another undesirable but what make each other special.  Yet when the annoyances come up, and they do come up, choosing to put up with them is an act of love.  Love is a choice, and when we choose to see them for who they are, not for who they might be, that is choosing love.

Our sinful nature easily makes us distasteful to one another, so we can only imagine how repulsive it must be to a perfect being.   However, as the Bible repeats to us over and over, God inexplicably sees us for our flaws and loves us even more.  Paul, the writer of Romans 5.8, fully encapsulates Christ’s unreasonable love for us in this statement: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  God looked at us, and seeing our despicable nature, decided that He would do the most selfless, loving thing He could do: die for us so that we could be saved.  The purity of His view on our nature displays a deep devotion to us, one that goes far beyond any flaw we might have.  He looked beyond our flaws, beyond our heart, and chose to love us more than we could possibly love Him back.

Christ puts forth a model in how we should love one another, yet is it really enough for us to just look past each other’s flaws and appreciate one another despite them?  Yes, the act of looking past each other’s misdeeds and imperfections is our choice, but if it is from us, then all the credit goes to us.  So, how can we see God in the other person if we are busy patting ourselves on the back for seeing the best in our significant others?

Seeing past my wife’s inability to find the trashcan helps me appreciate her more, but it also sends me a deeper message about my place on this earth.  It is a strong reminder that even the best of us are flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that none of us are alone in our imperfections.  When we frustratingly seem to be repeating the same mistakes in our lives ad nauseum and become frustrated with the way we are, a little trash on the table is an acute reminder that we are all in this together.  There is a commonality amongst us all that reveals our humanity, reinforcing the idea that there is not even one of us who is perfect, which isn’t a bad thing.

Realizing that we are not perfect and never going to be can be a humbling and sobering thought, yet there is a surprising amount of comfort to be found in it, as well.  Too often, we strive for perfection in our lives, an unattainable concept, when we should be putting forth efforts to strive to more carefully and deeply love on another.  The debris on the table is a reminder to me that I should avoid working towards a perfect life, which only leads to self-righteousness, and instead work towards a loving life, one where I will never confront her about her garbage.  This week, don’t let the annoyances of others and the faults of their character exasperate you, but instead, let it be a reminder of how much this world needs love, and then start fulfilling that need in others.  Amen.

 

Resisting the Urge to Prove Them Wrong

As my nine-year old son grows up, I’ve noticed not only a streak of independence developing in him but also a mild streak of defiance.  I’m told this will only get worse as he enters his teens.  As such, we will tell him to do something at a certain time, and he will try to maintain his enjoyable activities as long as possible before he has to do what is needed of him.  His desires for what he wants to do are stronger than what he has to do: typical youth.  I can’t really complain: he’s a great kid.  In fact, he’s more compassionate and thoughtful than most others his age.  It’s just that sometimes, at that age, they want to have all the power with none of the responsibilities.

For example, the other day he was told that he could have 15 minutes of play time on his computer tablet playing games, watching videos, whatever he wanted to do to unwind.  Of course, 15 minutes came and went, and just like anyone that age, he didn’t alert us to the fact that he had gone over his time limit.  Giving him a few minutes of grace time, I went into his room to let him know that his time was up.  I was greeted with an argument about how much time he actually had.

“Okay, 15 minutes are up.  It’s time to put your tablet away.”

“You and mom said 30 minutes.”

“I’m pretty sure it was 15.”

“No, it was 30.  I’m sure of it.”

At this point, I walked out of the room, as I didn’t want to get into a back and forth argument that was clearly not introducing any new evidence to the discussion.  As I walked down the hall, I heard a young, squeaky, but frustration-filled voice yell, “Fine!  You win!”  That exclamation was then followed by several slamming of materials around the room with a few stomps of the feet.  It was clear that he was upset, and my first inclination was to respond by addressing his escalating behavior and faulty logic.  My inner voice wanted to engage him about how this wasn’t a contest, that I was right in telling him how long he had, that he was wrong to get mad, along with a host of other indignities I had suffered at the hand of this small human being.  Yet, I decided to choose a different approach, one of non-confrontation, as a power struggle wasn’t the answer.

We are challenged for power daily in a multitude of situations.  The grocery store customer in front of us who has 22 items in a 10-item line, the car that slowly pushed into our lane when we were doing the speed limit, the co-worker that leaves the office microwave dirty when we just cleaned it – all of the situations have the same setup in common: we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and someone else is challenging the system at our expense.  We are in the right, and they are not, and they are daring us to try to do something about it.  Although the situations are common, it is our reaction to those situations that often define our character and who we are.  We desire to correct them and show them how they are wrong and we are right; we want to feel the cathartic pleasure of knocking them down a peg and feeling better about ourselves because we were the ones who were sticking to the rules and staying on the right path.  Righteous indignation, indeed.

However, being right doesn’t always mean that we should speak up and correct.  Often times instead of bringing logic and righteousness to an argument, we end up just bringing a bigger mallet.  Suddenly, the rude driver becomes the angry, dangerous driver, arguments break out in the supermarket, and office relationships become sabotaged.  Righteousness doesn’t always bring peace and often times just makes a situation worse.  When someone confronts with power, a confrontation in return isn’t rooted in love, just in our own ego.

Christ also knew this fact, and followed that advice when he was brought in front of the Sanhedrin to be charged with crimes.  Instead of proving everyone wrong, Christ chose another way: “Finally two came forward and declared, ‘This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer?  What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’  But Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26.60-2).  Christ chose to not get into a power struggle with these men, as He knew that nothing good would come out of it.  He saw the bigger picture, that a fight here would detract from the larger issue at hand: man’s salvation.  He may have had the desire to prove them wrong and present His glory right then and there, but He knew that choosing love over righteousness was better.

So instead of fighting with my son, I came back in a minute later, eating a big bag of Cheetos, and I offered him some.  He stopped, pondered the offer, and dug in.  Peace was achieved not through confrontation but with an offer of snacks.  It was not a fight to be had.  What would I possibly gain by proving him wrong and verbally engaging him in a power struggle where tempers would flare and love would most definitely not prevail?  The bigger picture is the love I would like to cultivate and maintain with him, not a daily struggle of who’s right and who’s wrong.  And when someone conversely tries to engage him in a power struggle, I want his first response to be rooted in a desire for love and forgiveness, not dominance and personal victory.

For us, the desire for harmony needs to overcome the desire to prove ourselves right.  We need offerings of peace when others test our resolve.  It is important to see the larger picture at hand, one where Christ’s example is seen through our response and His love is continued through our words and actions.  This week, when tested by others’ wrongs, when you want to offer conflict, make an offer of peace.  Christ is not seen when we seek to dominate with righteousness, but instead when others bring a sword to a fight, and we bring an offer of love (or Cheetos).  Amen.

The Beauty and Rewards of a Found Nerf Bullet

As nine-year old boys, my son and his friends are not into academic pursuits, tea parties and fashion shows, or even organized team sports for that matter.  When getting together, they are more interested in chaos, hunting each other, and various forms of minor destruction.  To combat this urge, and much to my son and his friend’s delight, my wife and I maintain a large vat of Nerf guns.

To be clear, my wife and I have never been fond of guns.  We really don’t like them.  And for years, we kept our son from most forms of media that involved guns.  However, as he grew and was influenced by the much older boys on the bus (bad habits and ideas are always picked up from the bus), the desire, and some might argue the genetic need, to play with guns has grown, so my wife and I don’t so much support the idea as try to temper it with Nerf materials.

When the boys are starting to get a little bored and restless (idle hands, blah, blah, blah), out come the Nerf guns, and they dive right in.  Stockpiling them from years of tag sales, I’m unsure at this point as to how many Nerf guns I actually have, but I know we’ve got all kinds.  Some shoot one bullet at a time, others, can shoot 20 in 10 seconds.  Though, what’s great about all of them is that they all take the same bullet.  So, we own a thousand or so Nerf bullets, which if you’re unfamiliar with them, are about 2 inches long, mostly dark blue foam, with a small orange rubber tip.  Chomping at the bit, the boys grab a large handful and go running around the house and yard.

The typical aftermath carnage of said Nerf fights includes dark blue bullets throughout the house and yard, which sounds easy enough to clean up, but you’d be surprised.  As these bullets really gain some yardage when fired, they end up in every possible corner.  As a family activity, we’ll scour the yard for them before the dog or the lawnmower gets them, but we may miss a few.  If we’re lucky, we can gather up 95% of the bullets, but that still leaves 20-30 among the missing.   Actively looking isn’t really an option at that point, so we just keep our eyes open for the next week, looking under sofas, behind coffeemakers, in the laundry, wherever.  Although they are easy to miss because of the dark color and size, if we look closely enough for them, we can find them.

It’s easy to see God when things are going our way.  When the rewards roll in because of our efforts, or maybe despite our efforts, we easily celebrate the fact that God is in our lives.  However, when things start to dry up and the rewards aren’t flowing in quite as quickly or smoothly, we drift towards the thought that God has abandoned us or that He is quiet and lying dormant.  Yet, nothing could be further from the truth, as God has never left.  God is there, if we just take a minute and look for Him.

When someone says that “God is in the details” (a phrase older than the one that invokes the devil), what they usually mean is that if attention is paid to the small things in life, great rewards await.  For example, a buzzing bee may appear to be a nuisance, but appreciating the construction of that creature, the fact that it can fly, mate, and pollinate, as well as the extreme detail that makes up its body’s construction helps us to see the glory that is a bee and how wonderfully made it is.  Pay close attention, and you can spot what is often easily missed.  At our house, paying attention to the fact that these bullets are around but hidden rewards us greatly for the next Nerf fight.  For Christians, it is easy to miss God if you aren’t looking for Him, as God is much like these small Nerf bullets: He’s there if you keep your eyes open.

The Bible repeatedly states that God is all around us and in every living thing.  In his evangelical letter to the Romans, Paul lets us know that we are surrounded by God’s glory, even if it’s not obvious: we just have to look for it.  “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (1.20).  Truly, we have no excuse, because God is in all things around us.  If we don’t see it, it’s not His fault, but ours.  He’s the constant one; we aren’t.  If I don’t spot my son’s Nerf bullets, it’s not because the bullets have changed properties, abandoned me, or are lying dormant: it’s that I haven’t noticed them because I wasn’t looking hard enough.

If you find yourself feeling abandoned by God or you’re having trouble feeling His presence, take the time to look more closely at the details of His creation and reassure yourself that He is in fact surrounding us with His love.  Spend time just enjoying the beauty of this place, and His love for you will become more apparent the closer you look.  It really is quite a wonderfully created world, made just for us, out of love for us.  Now, we need to take the time to open our eyes wide enough to be able to spot what is so clearly on display for us every day.  Amen.

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 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 running 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 medal for finishing.  Is the reward the medal itself?  Of course not, as the medal represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the medal and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that medal represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that medal , 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.