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.

Quiet, Unpaid for, Kindness

When my wife asked my son where his favorite sweatshirt was, his eyes went heavenward as he traced his steps over the last couple of days.  After a minute, he came to the realization that he had absentmindedly left it in a heap in the sand at a playground a day after a major rainstorm.  At that point, we considered it a lost cause, as it most likely was damp and moldy, but we could also tell how much the sweatshirt meant to him, so I volunteered to take him back.  Upon arriving, we discovered the sweatshirt not where he had left it, but instead hung on a railing, underneath an awning, completely dry.  Thanks to a random stranger, my son had his sweatshirt back in pristine condition.

A week later, the day after a fireworks display, I was running around the town lake when I spotted a child’s Abercrombie zipper jacket in a heap down on the river bank.  After a moment of quick reflection, I flashed back to how someone had hung up my son’s sweatshirt.  So, I ventured down to get this one, found a visible post by the road, and hung it there so the owner would hopefully find it.  A day later, it was gone, most likely with the original owner.

Kindness can have a ripple effect, where one good deed gets passed on through a series of people.  The “pay it forward” idea came into vogue a few years ago, where people would commit random acts of kindness without provocation, in the hopes that the receiver would find someone else on which to pass that kindness.  So, we now read stories of fast food drive-thru lines where each person pays off the debt of the person behind them (with some streaks stretching up to 167 cars and beyond).  Although pay it forward mentality is a great start, too often we do something for someone else with the expectation that they must do something for someone else, hence, the string of drive-thru payments.  The real kindness in this scenario is that first person who pays for someone else, as they’ve paid double.  I’ve read related stories where the cashier, after telling customers that their meal was paid for, then sits in expectation that these customers will now pay for the person behind them.  (Wary be the person who breaks the chain.)  So, although the sentiment is nice, the grumbling of the person who now must pay for the family of four behind them when all they wanted was a drink kind of breaks the intention of the process.

Although kindness begets kindness, the most effective approach is altruistic kindness (kindness for the sake of being kind) where there is a kindness effect without expectation of reprisal, paying it forward, or even of thanks.  I never met the person who hung up my son’s sweatshirt, but his or her impact was profound.  Kindness is strong enough on its own to be an influence.  Expected thanks and reciprocation are nice, but they diminish the effect that pure kindness has.

Years ago, I gave a gift to someone, and when he didn’t react the way I wanted him to, I became frustrated and disappointed.  However, I realized that the issue was not with the receiver, but with the giver.  Instead of making someone’s day better, I had centered it around myself and was looking to make myself feel good about having made someone’s day better.  What I should have done is given the gift without expectation, because kindness speaks for itself.

Recently, Coca-Cola developed a series of commercials and programs where the idea is that human kindness and decency is infectious: individuals exposed to kindness tend to improve their outlook on life, then finding moments of kindness to pass on to others without an expectation of reprisal or thanks.  In the videos, people show kindness to strangers with no need of thanks or reciprocation.  The reward is in the giving, thus making the world a kinder place.  Kindness is so powerful that the author of Proverbs knew how much of an impact it can have: “Do not let kindness and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (3.3 NASB).  As Christians, we can make the world better through kindness that speaks for itself: we do not need to speak for it.  Our message of Christ’s love is in our actions, not in our tongues.

Christ’s example of unfailing, unreturnable, indescribable love on the cross is the ultimate model of kindness without provocation or expectation.  Hence, when others hear of His selfless sacrifice, they have trouble coming to terms with His actions as this act of kindness is that powerful.  This week, be kind for the sake of being kind.  Don’t worry about your impact, and don’t expect thanks.  And don’t pick one act of kindness and be done; open the floodgates of the kindness you have to offer.  Know that your kindness speaks for itself, and its silent words are more effective than anything you might have to say.  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.

Currency, Reputation, and Fake News

One of the best classes I ever took in college was World Religions.  As a seemingly confident Christian, I sat in the front row with my other Christian friends, ready to defend whatever attack this professor was going to bring, but instead of victory I found myself unexpectedly whittled and sharpened.  Throughout the class, whenever I made a statement about my faith, I was challenged by the professor to back up my beliefs.  I could no longer just point to the Bible as my evidence, suggesting that it’s true because the Bible says it is, but was forced to fully explain why I believed what I believed, citing history, hard evidence, archaeology, and science for the supports to my faith.  To just suggest that it was true because I felt it wasn’t enough: I had to justify it with facts.  Going into the class I knew what I believed; coming out of the class, I knew why I believed.

When it comes to being a Christian, truth is our currency.  We deal in truth in all things when it comes to our faith and in making strides for our own spiritual journeys along with advancing His kingdom.  Jesus claimed that there is freedom to be found in knowing what is true.  When Christ speaks in John 8.32, He claims that if we adhere to His teachings, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” while in 14.6, Jesus says that, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Without truth, we have nothing but a handful of lies along with a destroyed reputation.  To speak truth and know what is true is to have the power to be free.  So, in all things, we must know the complete and absolute truth behind what we do and what we say, or like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, who viewed nothing but projected shadows on a blank wall and believed them to be their reality, we run the risk of believing a false reality, and nothing says false reality more so lately, than fake news.

To be clear, fake news is the (mostly) online existence of sensationalist and exaggerated news stories whose sole purpose is to spread misinformation for reasons that include, more often than not, financial or political gain, usually through social media.  These stories are usually not backed up by legitimate factual sources and are based in rumor, speculation, and falsehood.  You would think that truth usually rises to the top in these instances, but few check the background of these stories for sources and to confirm what is claimed to be true in these scenarios, as we post them to our social media accounts with the intent to shock and outrage those who read.  That’s one of the main draws of fake news and what makes it so appealing: it initially makes us seem informed and grants us the attention we so often crave.

Yet, if we are actually dealers in truth, we must look beyond the sensationalist nature of these stories and see what truth, if any, lies in them instead of blindly reposting them for our friends and family, wielding them wildly like a rusty sword that divides and infects our relationships with false rhetoric and illogical conclusions.  And when the real truth comes out, reputations are ruined, and no one wants to believe what we have to say any more.  Our truth has become tainted and our message soiled.  Our currency is worthless.

So how do we handle truth in the era of fake news?  Test it, repeatedly.  Don’t just accept news, but put it through a wringer.  Research it, and get to the bottom until you are absolutely sure of its validity.  Find your evidence and know why it’s true, or not.  Then, if it’s not true, reject it.  If you’re unsure, keep it to yourself.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  If we are serious about Christ and His truth, we cannot risk being caught with anything less than the truth.  Our testimony is our most useful tool, and without truth and a reputation for honesty, we are hobbled as warriors for Him.  Nothing destroys a witness like the smallest bit of falsehood, enclosing him or her within the impenetrable walls of an inescapable prison.  Remember that only truth will set you free.  Amen.

Feeble Attempts Past our Expiration Date

With the now warm weather and springtime growth comes a host of fresh vegetables and fruits.  While visiting our local fruit stand, our eyes go wide with the deliciousness that nature presents, yet often our eyes are bigger than our appetites, and we end up buying more than we need.  Now normally, that purchase isn’t a problem, but with all of what we are buying being local produce, the shelf life on a lot of these items isn’t very long.  The amount of purchases that must thrown out to the animals can be heartbreaking, but at least someone is enjoying them.

With spring produce and warm weather also comes spring cleaning, when we go through our pantry and refrigerator, looking for things that have found their way to the back and as such have become neglected and lost.  More often than most, these items are well past their expiration dates, and despite looking just fine, have gone bad on some level.  Moving on to our medicine cabinet in this cleaning frenzy, we traditionally find a multitude of no-longer used medicines that have also migrated past their expiration dates, and are now not as effective as they once were, or just aren’t healthy to consume.  The power of time takes its toll on all things, apparently.

Time seems to be the enemy of us all.  Most things of this world don’t age well and have a point where the rising tide of time overtakes what is best in all things.  Even wine, despite getting better with age, reaches a point where it turns to vinegar.  When I walk the hallways of high school and spot young couples in love, by measuring the flames of passion that radiate, I can usually judge with a decent amount of certainty how quickly those flame will extinguish and the relationship will expire.  And despite our best efforts, our bodies don’t escape the ravages of time.  Most scientists and physicians suggest that, given the proper diet and treatment, the human body can work perfectly for the first 40-50 years before it starts to break down on its own, and that’s if we treat it well.  Founding father William Penn said that, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is a commodity, but we often don’t trade well with it.

Like our bodies and things of this world, each of us have an expiration date, too.  At some point, death will be the great expiration collector and will come for us.  What makes us different, though, is that often there is no telling as to when that expiration date is.  The Bible and other pieces of literature are filled with warnings about the fleeting nature of life, about how we must seize every moment of every day, or about how we don’t know how long we have.  Proverbs 90.12 give us this advice: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  If we realize that our time is limited, then we will most likely use our time wisely, and the biggest concern should be where we are headed after our expiration date.

A great deal of the population, when considering the afterlife, feels that it’s not something they need to think about at this point.  They’ve got time.  Yet if we live with this foolish notion, like rotted fruit, we will find ourselves out of time before we know it.  We need to live wisely while we still have time, and for many, that means committing our lives to Him as soon as possible.  With no knowledge of how much time is left, as even tomorrow may be our last day, we must firmly stand on the promises of His kingdom, and not the possible failing promises of a long life.  Assurance is found in what we know for sure, not in what we think may be.  If we live knowing that any day might be our last, then our decisions, especially those about the afterlife and what we are truly living for, will be handled with grace and wisdom, and our future will be secured.  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.

The Result of Stepping in It

Having a house with three dogs and a big backyard, the “waste” can build up pretty quickly if not attended to.  So, someone in our household is always picking up after them, attempting to keep our yard free and clear.  Yet, no matter how hard I try, for some reason, I have always managed to step directly into a pile of it.  It’s actually a running joke in our house, as no one else seems to have this problem.  Despite trying to keep a look out, I usually end up with it on the soles of my shoes.  The worst part is the discovery, as I don’t usually find out that I’ve stepped in something right away.

Sometimes, I manage to track it in the house, and am horrified to find it trailed behind me.  Sometimes it’s when I enter an enclosed space, and either myself or the people around me sense the odor.  And when I am alerted by others, the overall sensation (both mine and theirs) is disgust and revulsion.  The overwhelming smell is so strong, that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what level of fame or power you have in life: there’s nothing like a little poop on your shoes to bring you down several notches.

As Christians, our living example to others is one of our strongest tools in showing the world Christ.  Yet we have a tendency to “step in it” in life, thus destroying any ministry or power our example might have.  When we become involved with events or activities that clearly are not Godly, we have “stepped in it” and that act permeates any other good that we are trying to accomplish.  Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, suggested that “we put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Corinthians 6.3).  He knew that one small stench can destroy an entire lifetime’s worth of work, so he warned us to watch our step.

So how are we “stepping in it,” exactly?  When I literally step in it, it’s usually because I am paying attention to the wrong things in life and not what is on the ground in front of me.  Thus, we “step in it” by having the wrong focus, drawing attention to ourselves through the wrong means.  Vala Afshar, a writer for The Huffington Post, recently tweeted that we should not be impressed by “money, power, looks, title, or network.”  When we focus on improving these very human areas in our own life, and often times blindly so, we tend to bring attention to our own person and what we have accomplished as individuals.  We have stepped into areas that take the focus off Christ and put it on ourselves and our achievements, establishing a stench of personal triumph.  Gandhi is often cited with the idea that he liked Christ but did not like Christians, and most likely because Christians step in it frequently, making our examples very un-Christ-like.  When we focus on bettering ourselves, the stench is staggering enough to illicit revulsion and rejection, no matter how great our words and examples are.

Then, Afshar tweeted that we should be impressed by “character, kindness, generosity, humility, and passion,” areas that take the spotlight off ourselves and place it on Christ’s example and teachings.  By building up these areas in our life, the stink is eliminated and our ministry of Christ’s love through us is manifested.  We no longer celebrate our personal success but instead rejoice in His love for us, and the smell of His embrace is much more attractive than what we may be tracking in on our shoes.

If our priorities and goals are misaligned, and we seek this first list of qualities, the overwhelming foulness permeates any other admirable goals we may be trying to attain, and people will be driven off.  Yet, if we center ourselves daily on Him through prayer and meditation, realigning our efforts on these Christ-like qualities, people will be drawn to Him through us, and will experience the much more inviting sweet scent of His love for the world and all its people.  Amen.

Withdrawal, Disengagement, and Peace

For better or worse, it’s’ very easy to get caught up in the moment.  When emotions are running high and all of the events around us start to swirl together, we tend to fall prey to our feelings as our mind becomes less of a priority, fading into the background of influences.  Oftentimes, once that moment passes, our senses start to come back to us, and we realize how rash we’ve acted.

A short time ago, a student was missing from my study hall.  I had seen him earlier, so I knew he was in the building, but for some reason, he was not where he was supposed to be.  I fumed as I quickly filled out a behavioral referral, emailing an administrator and his mother.  When he returned, I launched into a tirade about responsibility.  He innocently told me that he was in the cafeteria because he needed to eat something.  I blindly continued my rant, suggesting that it was irresponsible.

Later that day, his mother emailed me back, mentioning that she was surprised and asking if he had ever exhibited behaviors like this one before.  I sheepishly replied that he hadn’t, and meekly explained where he had been.  She replied that although she was sorry for his absence, perhaps I had been too ‘hasty’ in my discipline and that a firm word or two would have sufficed.  After some reflection, I realized she was right.  If I had just taken a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and put a lid on my emotions, I would have handled the situation very differently.  I acknowledged my clouded judgement to her and withdrew the referral.

There is great strength in withdrawing from our lives for a time to recollect our thoughts and get our heads straight.  For years, presidents have logged vacations and golf outings so that they could have time to themselves, recharge their proverbial batteries, and return with a refreshed attitude and mindset.  Marriage requires the same approach, especially where children are involved.  Similarly, I frequently warn my students away from emotional responses in social media, reminding them that although it feels great in the moment, that moment is the only reward: the rest is filled with regret and consequence.  If they just take a moment to withdraw from the screen and allow their minds to reengage above their hearts, they will quickly realize the negative impact their actions could have.  Time away helps us to get ourselves together so that we can avoid ourselves at our worst, thus being our best selves for others when we return.

Right after Christ had fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes, a tremendous miracle, He decided to escape the excitement and be alone.  “After He had dismissed (the disciples), He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray.  Later that night, He was there alone” (Matthew 14.23).  The feeding was more than likely incredibly emotional, moving, and taxing, taking a toll on Him as it simultaneously swept Him up in all the excitement and thrill of the moment.  So, Christ recognized the need to withdraw, get His emotions in check, and recharge Himself so that He could be at His best for His disciples.  A short time away from the thunderous hum of life allowed Him to get back into a more peaceful state, allowing for a closer walk with God, His father.

Withdrawing from the world when emotions run high not only prevents us from potential emotional mistakes, but also resets our priorities and brings us closer to Him through the peace that comes with a silencing of the world.  This week, take time to retreat from the world so that your mind is not clouded by your emotions, and allow God to refresh you in the peace of that retirement.  Amen.