A Dignified Look at Our Failing Reality

We recently attended the local Norman-Rockwell-esque winter festival in our town.  You know the one: kids sledding, hot chocolate, music, snow trail hikes.  Additionally, the town set up a small skating rink where a number of children were testing out their skills.  Never much of a skater before, I was happy to stand to the side and observe rather than participate.  Watching these children repeatedly fall flat on the ice only to get up again and fall another few minutes later, I was amazed at their resilience, as they would continue on painlessly.  I then thought about how my own body would handle those falls, and I could easily imagine how the slightest stumble would result in a week of back pain, Tylenol, bed rest, or worse.  It was then that it began to dawn on me:  getting old sucks.

I think about what I used to be able to do, how I could eat as much as I did, stay out late every night, participate in so many contact sports, whereas now I am full after a slice and a half of pizza, like to be in bed by 8 PM on a Saturday night, and am content with watching sports from afar.  My body is just not able to handle what it used to.  And I know that I’m not alone.  I just read a thread of personal accounts the other day about people who injured themselves in situations that should not have resulted in injury.  Whether it was the one guy who, right before going jogging, slipped on a leaf and broke an arm, or the other gentleman who, when reaching into the sink to retrieve a fork, slipped a disc in his lower back, I found that I could identify with these people, as I’ve similarly injured myself in fairly innocuous ways: just ask my chiropractor.

I also write this as I watch my sixteen-year old elderly dog Elinor’s body steadily deteriorate with age.  At this point, we’ve dealt with it for so long that it’s not sad or tragic, as she’s had a long life.  It’s just that we can’t believe that her body hasn’t given up on her yet.  I had always believed that I wanted to live to a ripe old age, but my dog’s physical state is seriously making me rethink that desire.  With her arthritis, she can’t stand for long and can’t get up easily from a laying down position, flailing wildly to upright herself.  She is mostly blind and deaf, so she walks into walls and doesn’t hear our warnings.  In addition to her Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, we try to feed her as much as possible because her body has trouble keeping the weight on.  To combat her ailments, she takes approximately $500 in pills every month.  Whoever suggested that there is great dignity in death has never seen our dog.

Famous surgeon and Yale professor Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter” wrote:

The belief in the probability of death with dignity is our, and society’s, attempt to deal with the reality of what is all too frequently a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature the disintegration of the dying person’s humanity.  I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die.

Seeing firsthand a great deal of death, Nuland was quite the expert, and knew that the idea that we die with grace and honor was a mere fallacy, one that we like to believe is true of ourselves, but ultimately find out quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is that our bodies are not built to last long or endure much.  We are born to die.

The composer of Psalm 103.14-6 writes about how frail we truly are: “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  We like to think that we are strong and will last forever, but we are really just dust in the wind.  In addition to our belief in our own false immortality, we long to age gracefully and with great decorum, yet based on the Psalmist’s view and Nuland’s philosophy, that is not the case.

Yet, there must be a greater hope than what is being presented by both authors and my dog.  What is really at root of our focused desire to live longer and die with great dignity is not a lack of hope in the permanence of life but instead a misguided focus on the source of our dignity.  Dignity comes not in how we die but in how we live.  Nuland goes on to say that, “when the human spirit departs, it takes with it the vital stuffing of life.  Then, only the inanimate corpus remains, which is the least of all the things that make us human.”  Our humanity lies not in the weak body we are so desperate to maintain but instead in the seeds we have sown throughout our life and the relationship we have cultivated with our God.

There is no honor in our decaying flesh but in the perfection in our selves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful humility of our humanity.  There will never be dignity in death, but there can be dignity in who we are as a person, through our Christlike attitudes and Godly speech.  It is inherent in our souls, not in our flesh.  This week, instead of working hard to build and maintain dignity in your outward appearance, turn inward.  Don’t let age and your body’s physicality define your dignity: find dignity in how you live.  Instead, develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  Amen.


Regret: The Greatest Motivator

I often ask my high school students, that if they could give words of wisdom to younger people, what would they tell them?  Most have the same sentiment behind them, with messages of “be true to yourself” and “try your hardest,” but one that more frequently comes up, one that they seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept behind, is the idea to “live with no regrets.”

Our youth culture seems to have adopted the idea that you should never regret anything you do, which is how my students misinterpret this statement.  The idea that this concept is truly ushering in is that instead, we should make the correct decisions in life, not ones that we will be sorry for in the future.  Regret can be the most horrible of feelings to live with, as it is connected to actions of the past, which are of course, unchangeable.  Thus, regret means we live the rest of our life wishing we had approached a situation differently, unable to change the outcome of something that happened so long ago.

In my own life, I have two or three major regrets when I was in college. Of them, the biggest, the one worth mentioning, is that I wish I had spent a semester abroad in another country.  I know many people who did, and they all had an amazingly memorable time.  My wife went to Mexico and lived with a host family, immersing herself in the Spanish-language culture.  My brother went to Belgium and worked with the world’s greatest cooks and chefs.  With great jealousy, I’ve listened to my former students discuss their experiences in France, Spain, and Germany, and about how they soaked up every bit of art, music, theater and literature of the place, while I can only reminisce about my days in my dormitory.

It is said that we more often regret the things that we don’t do rather than the things that we ultimately do.  To look back at lost opportunities is to live in a cycle of hellish present-day torture, one with seemingly no end to it.  To repeatedly hear the words in our mind, that we should have done x, y, and z when we had the chance, is to be filled with despair and helplessness at the missed situation that presented itself, the one we never took the chance to experience.

Regret is also not regulated to any group or individual; all are susceptible.  Even the apostle Peter experienced it while Christ was being arrested, tortured, and headed for crucifixion on the cross.  Jesus had previously mentioned to him that he would deny Christ three times, a suggestion at which Peter balked.  Yet, when the time came to admit knowing Him, Peter denied Christ on all three occasions: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’  And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61-2).  This failure would haunt him for the remainder of his life, that he had the chance to publicly acknowledge Christ to a group of people who were rejecting Him, and he blew it.

But how do we know for sure that it haunted him?  The answer lies in the actions that Peter put on display for the remainder of his life.

Although regret is a tremendously devastating feeling, it can also be one of the greatest motivators, pushing us to live differently.  It can fundamentally change our course of action for the rest of our life, as we know that we missed out on something and never want that feeling to come ever again.  For myself, I missed out on the chance to travel abroad and experience a different culture when I was in college.  However, even though I still feel that regret, I have learned to transform my feeling of regret into a motivator for my future actions.  As such, I now travel as much as I possibly can whenever I get the chance to.  Each summer is spent in a different country, and I’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in a number of different cultures, more than I would have had I never regretted that initial decision in college.  Similarly, Peter went from regretfully denying Christ three times to being one of the most outspoken apostles for Christ, the one on whom the church was built, the one who preached to enormous amounts of people following Christ’s death, regardless of the consequences.  Because Peter had denied knowing Him and felt that regret, he decided to transform that regret into action and never deny Him again, preaching His name whenever and wherever who could.

The philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was quoted as saying, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.  To regret deeply is to live afresh.”  The issue is not having regrets; it’s what we do with those regrets that matter most.  The deeper the regret, the deeper the change in our lives there can be.  If we learn to dismiss our regrets or try to live without any regrets, we are not really living but are just learning to be numb to life, accepting an existence with no impact on others or ourselves.

So, don’t dismiss your regrets or try to fix them: embrace them.  Like pain, regret is a sign that something is wrong and in need of attention.  Addressing your regrets doesn’t mean they will go away.  In fact, it’s better if they don’t, because they will now be a daily reminder to live stronger and bolder as a result of them.  Then, learn to transform them into actions that steer your life on a different course, one that doesn’t get rid of your regrets but instead course corrects your life into amazing opportunities, thus being motivated to truly live.  Amen.

Avoiding Explosions and Reducing the Pressure

My son, and admittedly myself, tend to giggle like idiots whenever we open up a bottle of seltzer and find that it’s been shaken up too much beforehand.  Laughing throughout, we flailingly reach to tighten the cap as quickly as possible as we get covered in carbonated water.  As a result of increasing pressure inside of the bottle with nothing to let out the pressure, the bottle was just waiting for our hands to get a hold of it while the pressure was temporarily contained.

Similarly, while a teenager, I made quite the wicked discovery that if I combine water, sugar and a certain common chemical in a soda bottle and shake it up, it explodes with quite a bit of force, as the reaction inside is stronger than what the plastic container can hold back.  Inside this container, the pressure continued to build until it could either be contained or released, and since the bottle was too weak to contain the pressure inside, it would explode at great decibels.  My friends and I had a number of misadventures with that discovery, with thankfully no repercussions in our lives or in the lives of others.

Pressure also builds up in our relationships and interactions, and just like these containers, unless something or someone comes along to release that pressure, it will continue to build until it eventually explodes when it can’t be contained any further, and not always in the best of ways.

In my last devotional, I recounted a story about an email fight I had with an art gallery over a failed purchase that went from inquisition to threats to personal comments to almost public shaming.  It was at that point, right before I was about to post my public review, that I saw how the pressure had built up in these interactions, how all parties were so concerned with being right and having the last word, that the pressure just kept building between us.  We really seemed out to destroy one another, even though we had never met, and I wasn’t sure where it was going to end, either.  False bravado, hubris, cockiness, whatever you want to call it.

Additionally, I noted the physical toll that these interactions were taking on me.  I felt heavier, as if these words were physically weighing on my shoulders.  Slouched over at my computer, I angrily typed, pounding down on the keys while furious grimaces crossed my face.  The thoughts of what I wanted to do to these people, making them pay for their words, ran rampant in my head, and I’m pretty sure that the other party was feeling and doing the same exact things.

Thinking about how a tea kettle, as it builds up steam, needs to vent that steam or else it will explode, I was certain that at some point, someone had to let the pressure out of this situation.  I suddenly realized that I had the power to do it, so I composed that final long email of unwarranted reconciliation.  As I wrote, I felt progressively and significantly lighter, free of our words, as if they were being lifted off me.  When I wrote, I wasn’t expecting anything and didn’t even think I would hear back from them.  I just knew that I didn’t want to carry that burden any more.  I was tired of being angry.

Carrie Fisher once said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.    Anger towards another does nothing but destroy ourselves.  So, to break free from the cycle of anger, we need to find a valve, something or someone that lets out the steam.  Unfortunately for Kim and Julia, they couldn’t find one between the two of them.

These two senior students had been bickering with one another for a day or so.  Towards the end of my class, it started up again, but was increasing in intensity.  For every biting comment one had, the other had an even stronger one.  It would go back and forth until each of them was yelling at the other.  Thankfully, being the end of the period, the bell rang and acted as the steam valve.  However, it started right up again the next day, right at the beginning of the period.  From snarky looks, to sniping comments, to hostile body language, to screaming insults, I finally stepped in to let the steam out and release the pressure.  I excused one from the room and relocated the other to a different part of the room, telling each one not to talk to the other.  It worked, for the moment, so I met with each of them later that day to help them let out more steam and pressure.  After talking reasonably with them and imbuing some patience, they calmed down and realized how each one’s comments and actions were escalating the situation, and how they needed to learn to deescalate, or else ensuing disaster and self-harm would follow: each one was getting so worked up over the other that it was staring to take a personal toll on their individual selves, not each other.

Proverbs 16.32 teaches us that it is “better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”  To conquer a world, anyone with enough strength and armies can do that, but to be patient, listen, and calmly go about life takes special finesse and skill.  The latter is much more difficult as it involves craft and aptitude, whereas the former just takes brute force.  So, the next time you find yourself escalating to anger, look for that steam valve and choose patience.  It won’t be easy, as everything in you will want to bring forth anger, so create preexisting paths to help you calmly go about your way.  Find what helps to let out the pressure and deescalates the situation before the containment explodes.  When angry, some count, others visualize something pleasant, some seek out other people, and others flip the situation around to create an empathetic standpoint.  Whatever works for you, seek His guidance and His model for how to approach the situation, and you will find yourself conquering not worlds but your own emotions.  Amen.

The Inner Warmth of Simple Gestures

When entering the cat shelter, even though we are greeted with a variety of responses from all 75 cats, there is one overwhelming response and need that dominates the whole place: attention.  Almost every cat there wants to be petted, rubbed, roughed up, or scratched.

My family and I have been volunteering at a local cat shelter for the past couple of years, where we come in once a week to clean cages, change litter boxes, feed, and fill water dishes, but for the most part, what these cats want more than anything else, is to be acknowledged through human touch.  Since they don’t have owners, their exposure to people is very limited, so when we get near Mew-Mew’s cage or see Joey waiting at the door for us, we know that they just want to have some much-longed for attention.  Sure, there are the few who want nothing to do with people for the most part, as initial reactions are clouded with bad memories and fear, but even the most hardened of feline hearts melt after enough time.  Just ask Smudge, who went from batting at us with open claws to full on mush who just needs to have his neck scratched.

What I’ve observed from these cats is that despite their rough exteriors, their past experiences, or their temperaments, there are common character traits among all of them.  There exist desires that they all share, needs that must be fulfilled, with the biggest being a need for people to pay attention to them.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed at birth with this trait.  To them, there is something fantastically comforting about rubbing up against us or having us stroke their backs.  Perhaps they feel comforted or validated.  Maybe it reminds them that someone’s taking the time to devote efforts to them.  We may never know the impact that such a small gesture makes, but we know that they all want it.

This need is not regulated to just their world: these are human needs, too.  We have a tremendous need for attention and validation.  Don’t believe me, just check your friend’s Facebook or Instagram feed (or maybe your own).  We have a need for others to like our pictures or statements, commenting on how impressed they are with our lives.  And there’s nothing wrong that need; it’s just an observation of who we are as a species.  Despite what Simon and Garfunkel may claim, no man is a rock or even an island: we all desire some sort of connection with others, so that we know we are not alone.

When we need it, it can be frustrating and devastating when we don’t get it.  Posting a picture to social media that gets no likes can be upsetting.  Those days where you walk into work and no one acknowledges that you are there, almost as if you are invisible, seem surreal.  Having waitstaff walk past you while you’re trying to get his or her attention is baffling.  During those times, you feel like jumping up and down and waving your arms because you can’t believe no one notices you.  Not getting noticed when we need it is an exasperating experience.

And a great deal of consolation comes when we finally do get acknowledgement.  Over the winter break, my students were given a task: make a difference in the lives of three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it.  I purposely left the assignment very open-ended to see what they would do.  When I read their responses, the creativity was quite surprising.  Some took it upon themselves to help others where they saw need, but others decided to just change people’s lives for the better by handing out random compliments and smiles.  The responses they got surprised even them, as people radiated the kindness that was given them.  Individual’s days were made significantly better by such small gestures, as we feel comforted when someone notices us.

Feeling noticed and having connection isn’t regulated to the weak, either.  The strongest of us need companionship and connection, too.  The night before Christ was to be arrested and crucified, He knew it was coming, and feeling the immense pressure of His impending sacrifice, asked for someone to be with Him.  He withdrew to Gethsemane and prayed, taking a few of His disciples with Him.  “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26. 38).  Feeling alone, overcome, and lonely, Christ felt the need for companionship and asked that His friends stay and support Him.  He knew that just being there with Him was enough of a consolation, so that He wouldn’t feel as if He was facing hardship alone.

We should never feel the need to go at it alone.  Even the most hardened of exteriors longs for human connection beneath.  We all hurt, we all want connection, we all want comfort.  Just like the cats, we are all preprogrammed at birth with the same basic human needs.  I continually impress upon my students the need to acknowledge someone who is all alone by giving them just a smile, a friendly hello, or whatever else they are willing to give.  Sometimes, just asking if someone is okay is enough to make them feel better.  The idea that we don’t need to suffer alone is a great comfort to many, giving quiet consolation where there is loneliness.

Knowing this fact, don’t feel the need to face things down alone.  Ask for people to be near you; reach out to others when feeling the hardships of life.  Just making that connection with another is sometimes enough to get you through things.  And when you spy someone alone, remember that despite what they may look like on the outside, they may be silently struggling inside.  Don’t be afraid to smile and greet them, as that extension of warmth might be just what they need to get through that day.  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.

Working Hard is Hardly Working for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Stuff Yourself

Despite that the wise in our society advise us to take “everything in moderation,” it sure is hard to follow that adage around Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Being surrounded by so many delicious treats, along with lots of lovingly-cooked dishes, it’s easy to want to stuff your face.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I can most definitely relate.

This year, I told myself that I wouldn’t indulge, and that I would take just a little bit.  I didn’t want to dismantle a fairly-regimented eating design.  So, I tool a little bit of everything.  That was my first mistake.

After filling up my plate with a little bit of everything, I took note of the large pile of food I had collected.  I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to that point.  Not a single spot of plate could be seen, and the height achieved was somewhat admirable.  To rectify, I then determined to not finish my plate.  I would only eat three or four bites of each item, giving the rest to my three dogs.  That was my second mistake.

The suggestion to eat only 3-4 bites was an issue, as I had about 10-12 different kinds of food on my plate, the size of 3-4 bites each.  I couldn’t neglect any one food, now could I?  After 10 minutes or so, I was regretfully staring at the clean bottom of my empty plate.  Not that it was bad (that was clearly not the problem); it’s that the food was so good.  I had eaten too much of a good thing, and all before dessert.  As most people know, that overstuffed feeling is never pleasurable.  No matter how good something is, overdoing it never leads to satisfaction.

Additionally, overdoing it leads to a quick burnout, despite your good intentions.  I watched this idea take shape while we were exercising as a family.  We had decided to complete two rounds of a series of exercises (squat thrusts, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  My son decided that this amount of exertion wasn’t enough for him, so he went for the hand weights.  Standing at 90 pounds, he managed to hold a 10-lb weight in one hand and clutch two 5-lb weights in the other.  I didn’t say anything, wondering how long this was going to last.  He made it through about 15 lunges before he decided against this course of action.  He had burned out quite quickly, despite his good intention to get stronger.

Overdoing it never leads to the intended result.  We end up instead getting too much of what we wanted with none of the satisfaction or results.  Think of it this way:  you have to cook a turkey for 1 hour at 425 degrees.  To save time, you do some math, and decide that you could cut that time down significantly by cooking at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.  So, you decide to cook your turkey at 1700 degrees for 15 minutes.  Makes sense on a logical level, but try biting into that turkey, and you’ll see the reality of your inept cooking.

Solomon tried this approach, too.  He decided that since he was king, he could be happy by giving himself everything that he wanted.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2.10).  However, the more he dove into what he enjoyed, the more diminishing the returns were: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (verse 11).  Everything in moderation.  If we don’t overdo it and temper ourselves, we enjoy life more, growing more in the process.

Finding that sweet spot of moderation is key, the point at where you’ve achieved what you wanted but didn’t go too far and ruin it.  It’s the same concept for the things we enjoy as for the things we work so hard at.  We desire to grow and develop, but if we take it too far and overdo it, we end up doing more harm than good.  Athletes work hard to grow stronger and develops skills, but at some point, they risk pulling a muscle.  The same can go for our spiritual lives.  I’ve seen many young Christians get heavily involved in as many Christian aspects as they possibly can, only to get sick of it quickly and reject everything shortly from there.  Just because it’s good, overdoing it doesn’t mean it will be better for you.

Years ago, a fellow teacher taught me that when teaching your students, you want them disappointed that the bell rang, not grateful that it did.  You always want them to ask you to continue to read something when stopping, instead of being thankful that you stopped.  You want them to want more, but if you give them too much, they won’t want more, anymore.  For the things we enjoy, more doesn’t make it better.  God created these things for us to enjoy, but taking them all in at once doesn’t lead to more enjoyment.  And growth, like cooking a good turkey, takes time.  Overwatering a plant doesn’t make it grow faster.  So, don’t go all in all at once; leave yourself wanting more.  Pace yourself and plan out over time.  God gave you a heart that wants; now ask for a spirit that is patient.  That way, you’ll avoid burnout and stuffing yourself, and instead will enjoy the things that God meant for you to enjoy, growing at the speed at which God wants you to, without all of the exhaustion and fatigue.  Amen.

When Limited Evidence Limits Our Decision-making Ability

The other morning, I was awakened to the sound of hammering from next door.  I really despise the lack of consideration when it comes to noise in the early morning hours.  Nothing burns me more than someone doing construction while the rest of us are trying to sleep.  I imagined going over there in my self-righteousness and yelling at that person, mentioning how thoughtless and selfish they were being by making that much noise at so early a time.  I begrudgingly opened my eyes in anger and annoyance, only to notice that the clock read almost 10:00 AM, and that my neighbor was not in the wrong: I had overslept.

Incorrect assumptions based on limited evidence often incorrectly drive our actions and decisions to misguided ends.  We take what we have in front of us and figure we know the best course of action based on that evidence.  As a result, we end up making such wrongheaded decisions that we end up looking silly or foolish in the process.  When we make uninformed decisions, our word is tarnished, our reputation sullied, and the amount of trust we get in the future is limited.  There is almost no situation or turn of events that benefits from a decision that doesn’t consider all of the facts and scenarios.

Sometimes it’s easily chalked up to the sweet, endearing innocence of our age, such as when I am playing basketball against my 9-year-old son and his two friends, the three put their arms out to measure them against each other to see who has the longest arm, as that person must be the best at basketball.  Or when they decide to “huddle up” before a basket and give each other code names when passing, thinking that I’ll be so confused by the changes that I won’t know which way to turn.  (You can imagine that I figured it out fairly quickly.)  It’s adorable to watch at that age, but when age is no longer an excuse for our uninformed assumptions, we need to rethink our approach.

For example, the other day, I mentioned to my class that I often participate in a podcast about superhero culture, and that I had recently recorded an episode that delves into the Spider-Man mythos.  I encouraged them to listen to it, as it was relevant to the unit we are currently tackling, the role of superheroes in our culture.  A few hours later, I was called down to the office by my assistant principal and principal to attend a closed-door meeting.  By the tone of their voices and looks on their faces, I could tell I was in trouble.  I sat down and was told that a few students had come to administration and told them that I was maliciously writing about the school in an online blog, which is nothing close to a podcast about superheroes.  After revealing all of the evidence to my bosses, they sheepishly closed their laptops and apologized, as they had received incorrect information.  Apparently, the students who came forward did not have all the correct facts, and had emotionally reacted to a situation where further investigation was needed, and the administrators who listened to them just assumed that this information was true.  Being a generally good-natured person, I laughed off the experience and now recall it as a funny story.

Yet, other times, we are not as lucky.  Assumptions can have detrimental, sometimes catastrophic results.  Assumptions in manual jobs can result in faulty, even dangerous construction.  Assumptions by an athlete can develop into a missed score or even a loss.  Assumptions in our relationships can lead to missed connections and breakups.  And possibly most dangerously so, assumptions in our faith can lead to breakdowns of trust, churches that split, and salvation opportunities lost.  To an extreme, assumptions can cause fanaticism and wars.

The author of Proverbs, in addition to the multitude of other common-sense suggestions, offers sage advice when it comes to how to avoid assumptions and acting without the proper amount of evidence: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame… In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18.13, 17).  To avoid failure, embarrassment, and wrongheaded decisions, the author encourages us to listen and wait.  Patiently listening to all of the evidence first and avoiding responding immediately can help us make a fully-realized, informed decision or statement.  Additionally, waiting for more evidence instead of being the first to jump into the argument allows for a fully-formed decision or statement, one that reflects age and wisdom.  By taking our time, we can spare ourselves the embarrassment of foolishness and instead reflect thoughtful consideration.

So how can we steer ourselves into that direction?  First, we need to be less rash.  So many times, our decisions and statements are driven by emotion.  By taking emotion out of the equation, we can thoughtfully and carefully consider the situation.  Lessening the effect that emotion has on us helps us to make clearheaded, informed decisions.  To establish that practice, we need to work on our meditative life.  Taking the time to quiet ourselves and listen to what God has to offer helps us to be informed.  Quieting ourselves and our surroundings leads to a meditative life, one where we speak less and listen more.  This week, take a few minutes out of each day to just sit and be still.  Quiet your surroundings and yourself.  Build up patience and develop your listening skills.  Through stillness and calmness, we can avoid the trappings that come with assumptions and be led towards a less foolish, more informed life.  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.

Dreaming Reasonably and Achieving Realistically

I have a morning ritual where as soon as I get up, I step on the scale.  I can’t start my day without it.  Each and every time, as I await the blinking screen to reveal the appropriate number and correctly assess my weight, several prayers run through my head, as I hope that I’ve miraculously lost those four pounds while I slept.  As life would have it, I am never four pounds lighter than when I went to sleep.  Disappointment then sets in, as I begin to feel that I’m never going to lose them, ever.

The other day, as I was waiting for the numbers to appear, I finally came to my senses and realized that I will never lose all those pounds overnight, but I might be a small amount (1/4 of a pound, maybe) lighter than I was yesterday.  I ended up resetting my expectations towards something more realistic, and when the numbers came up, I found that I wasn’t disappointed, again.  My realistic goal lent itself to my achieving a measured but reasonable level of success, which encouraged me to work harder towards larger goals, a practice where if we can replicate it in our lives in other areas, will help us to grow in life and in our faith.

My students are often also guilty of this same crime.  I’ve explained to them that there is frequently a direct relationship between time dedicated to writing their papers and the grade they get: the more time you commit, the better your grade.  However, they end up waiting until the last minute to write that paper, leaving mere hours left before it’s due.  They write as fast as they can until they reach the end of the page and then hit the print button, all with little planning out of the essay.  When they get the paper returned with high expectations for a great grade, they are bewildered and angry as to why the grade is so low, as they often don’t connect reasonable effort with reasonable goals.  To try and combat this practice, I’ve been establishing short term goals for them before the paper is due, so that they can achieve smaller goals on the way to their great grade.  I have them complete their introduction on one evening, plan out their body paragraphs on another, etc., thus forcing them to work on the paper over a few nights so that they have more reasonable, achievable, more realistic goals to complete.

There’s something to be said with tempering a child’s dreams and helping those dreams to be realistic and achievable.  Many young people feel that they can do anything if they want it badly enough, but the truth is that wanting is not enough, especially when the object of desire is well beyond their reach.  We love to tell the younger generations to dream big, but when we step aside as they develop an unreasonable goal that they’ll never reach, it all leads to them being detrimentally disappointed when it fails and unable to pick themselves up from their defeat.  Instead of allowing them to develop big but impractical dreams, we should step in and help them to shape those dreams towards something big and reasonable.

As a model for careful and reasonable planning, take Christ’s ministry as an example.  The purpose of His life was to save the world, yet He didn’t try to tackle all of that at once or in a short amount of time.  He spent a great deal of His life working on Himself and his skill set, getting His education, and developing His prayer life.  Waiting until He was in His 30’s, He then started His ministry through hard work and careful forethought: “One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night.  At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles” (Luke 6.12-3).  For someone who’s going to save the whole world, twelve people isn’t that many with which to work.  Yet, He managed to train, teach, and develop these twelve into a strong handful of preachers who managed to spread the message of Christ’s salvation through most of the world over a reasonable period of time.  Christ could have taken in thousands and worked with them to spread His message, but He knew not to tackle such a large task all at once with such an enormous group of people.  Instead, Christ developed practicable, possible goals over an unhurried amount of time, thus finding success at a reasonable, developed rate, instead of trying to achieve an enormous goal in a very brief amount of time.

Even today, as smokers stare down at a cigarette and long to quit, the decision to tackle it seems overwhelming given the amount of familiarity and addiction they feel.  Very few are able to quit cold turkey without sliding right back into old habits.  So, smokers develop plans to close out their practice through a series of strategic maneuvers over a specific time period: small, realistic, achievable goals measured out over a reasonable amount of time.  And just like them, along with Christ and His disciples, we too must set practical goals for ourselves so that we can find a measured amount of success over a realistic period of time, thus earning encouragement towards greater accomplishments.  Should we try to bite off more than we can chew, we end up discouraged, disillusioned, and defeated because we haven’t achieved enough, if any, success.  For your next big dream, approach steps that are climbable, not cliffs that are unscalable, by taking a minute to look at your goals and dreams with the eyes of a realist, one who plans carefully and creates smaller goals that lead up to larger ones, thus not crushing your hopes but cultivating them for the next climb.  Amen.