The Needless Burden of Your Baggage

I can remember years ago when my nonagenarian grandmother was alive, that no matter what befell her in her old age, she refused to let anything get her down.  For years, she was happy to enjoy the simple pleasures in life like cooking for others, visitors, and family.  We’d ask her, on any given day, how she was feeling, and she’d tell us, “I can’t complain.”  That response always astounded me because she clearly had much about which to complain as it wasn’t like she was pain-free.  Yet despite her cataracts, arthritis which resulted in a hunched over frame, losing her hearing, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, she refused to complain.  I thought maybe she was just modest or didn’t want to focus on the negative (both of which may be true), but I believe she wouldn’t complain for another reason.

In life, she never wanted to be a burden on anyone, desiring to do most things herself.  So, I’ve concluded that she responded with no complaints because of just that: she didn’t want to burden others with what she was going through.  She’d rather keep it to herself and bear the burden silently.

But isn’t sharing the burden a Godly trait?  Our earthly burdens are frequently referred to as “our yoke,” with scripture instructing us to place it upon Christ where He will give us rest.  Galatians 6.2 teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  We frequently see our fellow travelers struggling with difficult baggage, and it does them great good to share those struggles with an attentive ear and a firm shoulder.  But this is not about those selfless people or those sacrificial times.

This is about the me-monster.

Comedian Brian Regan told a story about how at a party, no matter what he said, this other person had a bigger story.  When Brian told about an accomplishment, the other person would say something along the lines of, “Well, if you think that’s something, then…” and would proceed to top whatever he had to say, obnoxiously eclipsing him at every turn.  Similarly, the me-monster can rear its ugly head when it comes to sharing burdens.

We all know that person (or maybe more than one) whom we never like to ask how they are doing, because we know we are in for a long story about how much they’ve been suffering lately.  They will go on to complain about their health, how their kids are treating them, what indignities they’ve suffered at work, all because they just love to put burdens on other people and top other’s stories.

Get a few of them together, and unlike my grandmother’s approach, it’s a who’s who of bodily ailments: whose sciatica is acting up, what pain was emanating from where the other day, or how their senses are slowly getting dulled in the coming years.  You see, the me-monster doesn’t also just like to one-up you with their accomplishments, they also like to out-do you in how much they have to put up with.  They are a black hole of sympathy in the room, drawing all sunlight and hope away from everyone for the sheer desire to elicit misery and empathy.  In short, they want you to feel bad for them because it makes them feel good.

And it doesn’t do anyone any good in the process.  The me-monster just gets bigger and those around it are further alienated and minimized.  Sometimes, burdening others with our troubles isn’t the answer.  Sometimes it’s better to just carry them ourselves if we can.

I was faced with this dilemma recently, when I learned at work that there was a chance I might lose my job due to budget cuts.  I had been there twelve years, but in my department, I was third from the bottom.  This information weighed on me as I wondered how I was going to deal with it.  For many, as was my instinct too, their first action is to share the burden with a loved one or spouse.  I thought through this action, but realized that in sharing my burden with my wife, she would have to put up with that burden as well, carrying it around, needing to deal with it.  I didn’t want to have to have her suffer with this information yet, as like I said, there was only a chance of me losing it.  So, why put my burden on her and force her to contend with it when I could quietly suffer with it just fine myself?  By telling her, the only person who would benefit would be me from the sympathy, which is arguable because if my wife is worrying about this, then our marriage suffers too with the amount of stress I’ve introduced.

So, I decided that I would tell her when the threat was more real or when I couldn’t deal with it myself, just like my grandmother who was suffering silently just fine by herself.  There was no need to burden others with what she was going through, so I followed likewise.  And as it turns out, my threat passed, and it seems I have a job next year.  So, by telling her back then, not only would I have been burdening her with this information, I would have been needlessly burdening her, just like the me-monster.

Just because we are suffering, that doesn’t give us license to share with everyone around us.  Even Christ didn’t share with everyone the burden of His impending crucifixion.  Sure, when the burden becomes too much, confession to someone close helps lift that burden, but just becoming the me-monster and burdening everyone else in our world doesn’t make for a very inviting existence.  So the next time you have an opportunity to share your burden, weigh whether you need to or not.  Don’t let the me-monster take over your communication, and instead take a note from grandma by choosing to radiate optimism and not complain.  Amen.

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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 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, instead 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 is quite the opposite.  (Nuland himself died four years ago from prostate cancer.)  The truth is 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 ourselves that comes from being baptized in the blood of His crucifixion, renewed daily through a prayerful request for humility regarding 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.  Develop a perfect humanity through a closer relationship with Him, crucifying the flesh and finding yourself blessed with a dignified soul.  Amen.

The Ferocious Grace of the Protective Parent

I once heard someone say that he didn’t think he was ever capable of murder until he had children and learned otherwise.  At first, I misunderstood this person’s concept, thinking that he was referring to the idea that children can really drive a person insane to the point of wanting to remove them from this earth.  God knows every parent has felt that way at one time or several.  However, what that person was actually expressing was that he never thought himself able to actually kill someone until he felt the protective nature of being a parent.  I then understood and now agree: if anyone ever did anything to my child, I would most likely murder them in cold blood.

Now, I write that previous sentence with a slight bit of humor and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but there is a great amount of truth to it in the sense that being the parent and protector of someone, you really feel that there is no end to the amount of protection you would provide.  When you become a parent, you don’t really realize the protective nature that is suddenly invoked within you until someone crosses your child’s path.  I’ve heard hypothetical stories in debates about the death penalty, and the argument of “well, if someone did something to your child…,” and I have always considered the high road of what was allowable morally, and how God’s law doesn’t permit murder, etc.  However, everything changes when you become a parent, because your love for them is no longer driven and garnered by reason and logic but instead by pure animal nature.  Someone does something to them, mama (or papa) bear instincts kick in, and that person better watch out.

I especially felt it kick in once when my son came home one day with a prize that he had earned in class for having repeatedly excellent behavior.  He went into the prize box and took an item of his choosing as a reward, and when he returned to his desk with it, he was met with a number of jealous glances from his classmates.  Later that day, he confessed to my wife and I that one of his male classmates was so jealous of this prize, that he told my son that he was going to come to his house at night and kill him in his sleep.  Being in 4th grade, the likelihood of that actually happening was somewhat minimal at best, so we weren’t so concerned with an impending homicide, but we were upset about the fear that was now instilled in my son.

Through gritted teeth, I attempted to calm my child, letting him know that he had done the right thing in telling us, and that we would work to rectify the situation, but on the inside, I wanted to go out and break that other 4th graders legs.  My instinct to protect my son and destroy anything that was hurting him was so fierce, that I seriously considered hobbling someone one-fourth my age.

My father used to always tell me that, “no one will ever love you like your mother,” a phrase I repeat to my own son often.  The concept there is that whoever my son’s mate ends up being in life, no one will feel as protective or willing to suffer for you as much as the people who raised you.  I can remember my mother, when I was sick, wishing that it was her instead of me who had fallen ill.  I see that now in myself, when I spy my son sick or in pain, that my desire to not have him suffer is so great, I wish I could take his suffering upon myself.

And if our desire to take on the suffering of our children is that great, one can only imagine God’s desire to care and relieve our suffering, as we are His children, a title that we have been given.  Repeatedly, we are proclaimed as such: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!” (1 John 3.1).  Based in love, we are His children just as He is our Father, and given the protective parental nature we feel, His protective nature must be eons more strong and caring.

Just how caring?  To the point that our identity is no longer our own and we are named heirs to His kingdom in the same way that our blood-related children are heirs to our own homes and money.  The author of Galatians 3.26-9 writes about how we are now one in Him and are inheritors of His riches: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  We are so much His child that we are deemed the offspring of Abraham, as if we were of His actual blood and flesh.  So if we are truly children of God, then the desire as Father to protect us and take on our suffering makes sense, and is evidenced in how He sent Christ to suffer for us.

We might be able to only fathom God’s love and protective nature for us, but we can get a glimpse of it in the love that our parents have for us and in the love we have for our own children.  It’s a comforting feeling knowing that we are never alone, that there is always someone watching over us, desiring us to be pain-free and protected.  This week, when you find yourself feeling low and alone, pray to Him who desires to comfort you in those difficult times, and feel the loving, watchful eye that looks over you and is preparing your inheritance even as we speak.  Amen.

Fallen Idols, Shaken Foundations

I am now sorry to say that I grew up with Bill Cosby as my tv father.

In the 70s and 80s, I thought Cosby was a comedy god, and as a child, it was impossible to escape him.  Whether he was telling me to eat my Jell-O pudding pops or making me laugh with the rest of the Fat Albert gang, I thought he was the funniest person ever.  As a huge fan of comedy, I can remember watching “Bill Cosby: Himself,” his quintessential stand-up special from 1983, over and over, trying to memorize his jokes and imitate his cadence, movements, and especially his voices.  On Thursday nights, my parents and I would gather around the television to watch sweater-clad Cliff Huxtable teach his children another valuable lesson about life, and really, he was teaching me, too.  We probably ended up watching all 197 episodes, so it was a real honor when I saw him perform in person in 1994 at my college when he came to do a concert there.

He also managed to be such a role model in his act.  He never cursed or spoke negatively about anyone (except maybe his children).  He also used his celebrity status to speak out about young black men and the role they play in society, how they needed to take responsibility for their actions and words.  So, it was with a heavy heart and a tremendous amount of sadness when, in November 2014, I learned that Bill Cosby may have raped and sexually assaulted as many as 60 women over the course of his career.

As a country, we went through a variety of reactions to the news, from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, and so on.  How could someone we trusted so much with our time and invested so much with our hearts betray us in such a way that was so disgracefully awful?  To this day, we still shake our heads in disbelief at the allegations: not that we think they are false, but that they are so shamefully unbelievable.

Role models and idols play a big part in our lives.  Ask anyone who their influences were growing up, and they will most likely name a celebrity, athlete, or musician.  Some name a person closer to them, like a sibling, parent, or teacher.  Then, and sometimes even now, we look to these people for guidance and example; we think they have the answers and their lifestyle reflects that wisdom.  Yet when these role models misstep and fall, we are deeply shaken, as if our foundation has crumbled from beneath us.  We spent so much time building our belief system and moral code on their teachings and examples, that to see them fall is detrimental to our support system.  When Lance Armstrong battled cancer and fought his way back onto his bicycle, we were inspired to struggle.  When he won 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions, we thought him a hero.  And when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs the whole time, we didn’t know how to continue.

For Christians, our role models are those who walk in Christ’s footsteps and in His word.  Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God.  Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith,” while in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul advises us to “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”  For us, Christ is the only true role model, as He will never fall.  Humans may, but He won’t.  Yet what happens when they do?

Recently, I’ve directly experienced leaders and role models who were looked up to by many and guided by several, fall quite hard.  What has been left in their wake are people who are now just as lost as I was when Cosby’s accusers came forward.  So how do we overcome these catastrophes and rebuild?  How can we recover from such a loss of faith?

For those who are directly affected, you can start by talking out your emotions when you’re ready.  Finding someone, or a group of people, who will listen without judgement or interruption is extremely cathartic and cleansing.  Express your every thought and feeling: how angry, sad, or alone it made you feel.  Deal with the emotions head on instead of bottling them up inside.  Also, listen to others who similarly idolized that individual.  Hearing their grief may help you to realize that you are not alone.  Additionally, petition God for healing and comfort, allowing His love to wash over the deep wounds that seem incurable.

For those who are not directly affected but know others who are, you might be the one that can walk them through this difficult time.  When they are ready and willing to talk, listen in the same way as mentioned above: without judgement or interruption.  Offer allowable emotional support, meaning that you ask permission to touch or hug them.  If they are willing to, give it.  If not, let them know that you understand.  Just the knowledge that it’s there is sometimes comfort enough.  Finally, be the role model when others people’s role models fall.  Model how to respond in a crisis like this one.  Be a good listener and supporter.  Your example can set a new foundation where the previous one lay.

Obviously, putting faith in another person can be a risk, as our only perfect faith recipient, the one that will never fail, is Him.  But being human, we tend to put our faith and trust in others, and that faith can be betrayed because we are human.  The only thing we can do is be ready for when that failure happens and have a plan for recovery.  Although the fallout as a result of our fallen idols is emotionally unpredictable, what we can predict is how to heal from it.  Amen.

Pain Threshold Adjustments that Allow for More

Years ago, when I taught in an inner-city school district, almost all my male students had one of two dream jobs in mind:  rapper or NBA athlete.  They could imagine themselves on the court, scoring the winning basket, or lyrically mesmerizing a packed stadium, with both scenarios having their names chanted by thousands of admirers.  I’d often ask them how they were planning on achieving this dream, and they would usually respond by telling me that it was just going to happen.  I’d inquire about a plan, but they almost never had one, thinking that if they wanted it badly enough, they would achieve it.  They could picture the end result, and they believed that the detailed image was enough to get them there.

There seems to exist a pervasive lie in our culture that if you want something enough, you will get it.  However, this equation doesn’t factor in the cost of achieving that goal.  Many of us want to have a great body and can picture ourselves with one, but few are willing to put in the long grueling hours at the gym.  Several want to be rich and can imagine how we’d live, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up doesn’t appeal to many.  We want a successful romantic relationship, but we treat love more as a feeling than an action, and end up not acting much more beyond how we feel.  We forget that work is needed to achieve our dreams, and to get what we want takes time, patience, and more importantly, pain.

One summer, I was visiting a pain-management specialist regarding an injury I had sustained in my shoulder.  In helping me deal with my injury, he reminded me that he was in the business of pain management, not elimination.  So, he then asked me an appropriately key question:  how much pain was I willing to live with?  How much pain could I tolerate in life?  I considered the question, and came up with an expectation, as he explained to me that pain is not the sign of an unhappy life.  With pains come gains.

We often feel entitled to have a pain-free life, but how does a pain-free life benefit us at all?  Pain teaches and guides us.  Most of us can agree upon the idea that there is no success and happiness without struggle, but we forget that we also need pain throughout the struggling process.  If you’re not feeling pain, you’re not making any progress, and if we truly want to achieve beyond ourselves, pain is necessary, especially when it comes to happiness.  Think about the last major victory or accomplishment you had in your life, and chances are there was a great deal of pain that preceded it.  Without the pain, there is no reward.

To achieve the glittering goals we set for ourselves, we must be willing to put up with pain.  Hence, if you want to be a successful rapper, you should be willing to endure the pains of practicing for hours every day, developing and sharpening a working sense of language and rhyme schemes, recording numerous songs, sending out demo tapes to promoters, working small clubs, building up a following, etc., with a similarly rigorous regiment for being an NBA star.  If you aren’t willing to have that much pain in your life, then the goal is not realistic or what you want is just a fantasy.

Similar to the pain in our lives and the ways in which it shapes us, in the smelting process of developing excellent tools, there is a great deal hammering, scraping with sharp objects, and heating with intense fire.  From that process comes sharp, strong tools.  Without the pain, the tool is blunt or weak.  Isaiah 48.10 shows us a similar process when comparing the making of tools to the fashioning of our spiritual lives: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  If we want to be stronger in who we are, we must be subjected to the Refiner’s fire, the pain and testing that brings us closer to perfection and closer in our walk with Him.  Without it, we will never grow much beyond where we are now, and with a lifetime of wondering what could be with our dreams, we will look back at a mostly pain-free but stagnant existence, wondering with a disappointed glance what happened.  We must invite and embrace pain in our life if we want to be refined and develop our level of success and happiness.

By inviting pain, we allow for risk, but we have become averse and fearful of negative experiences because we feel that our life is defined by them, thus deeming us failures.  So, we tend to avoid risk and passively accept the lulling coldness of mediocrity.  However, by taking risks and embracing hard and painful experiences, we develop ourselves in ways that help us grow towards a stronger, happier life, one filled not with regret but with satisfaction.  Instead of asking yourself what do you want out of life, maybe it’s time to find out how much pain you are willing to endure, thereby setting you on a course towards greater gains in life.  Amen.

Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.  Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it fully and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing was serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we were also not created with the ability to cope with death, hence it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our close proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.

Seeds of Violence, the Size of an Ant

I horridly stared at my bathroom floor as hundreds of ants marched their merry way back and forth across, creating a steady stream from one corner to the next.  In years past, I had some trouble with these small critters, as when the weather warms up, they tend to emerge.  However, nothing prepared me for what now lay before me.

I spent some time brainstorming a solution.  We have a basic rule in our house, where nothing is allowed to die.  We tend to remove mice and insects from our home and relocate them outside or down the street.  Yet, an infestation was another issue.  I thought about sweeping them all up, but I knew that they would either just return or that there were just more where these came from.  (Most likely, both scenarios were probable.)  So, I began to consider instant extermination, immediately killing hundreds of ants and betraying our household rule.

However, I reconsidered and decided on a different approach.  I spent time examining their traffic pattern and noticed that they were coming in and out of a small hole at the base of the bathtub.  I took some clay and filled the hole, as hundreds of confused ants ran roughshod.  When I returned a few hours later, they had all left on their own and haven’t returned since.  From a very small action of non-violence and patience came great change.

When faced with difficult and dire situations, as a society we don’t always stop and think of how to respond in a slow but non-violent way.  Governments tend to find a bigger bomb, bigger guns, or additional soldiers, attempting to overpower the enemy through swift violence and intimidation.  The Dalai Lama, the wise Buddhist leader of Tibet and a strong proponent of non-violence, when faced with intimidation from China to rejoin their republic, was threatened with violent means.  Faced with a moral dilemma of how to respond, many of his people desired him to rise up and fight off the militia, but the Dalai Lama knew that his people were outnumbered and would most likely be slaughtered.  Instead, he adopted a stance of patience, understanding, and non-violence, and has managed to maintain it for the past 60 years.  He has been quoted as saying, “Through violence, you may ‘solve’ one problem, but you sow the seeds for another.”  As such, he has been able to preserve his people, stand his ground on his beliefs, and avoid a mass genocide.

Responding with violence is quick and easy, whereas non-violence takes great patience and time, as seen through the Dalai Lama’s example.  Similarly, Christ’s example leading up to and on the cross reflects that non-violent and patient approach.  When Christ was arrested, Simon Peter struck the high priest with his sword, cutting off the priest’s ear.  Christ quickly admonished him: “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.52).  Throughout His trial, Christ refused to fight back.  On the cross, Christ could have called down all manner of angels and struck down everyone, saving Himself, but he chose not to.  Through His patient and non-violent example, He conquered death, saving us all from condemnation.

In my classroom, I have found that when my students are loud and rowdy, if I respond by being louder than they are, it only adds to the chaos, with me shouting them into submission.  It becomes a power struggle.  However, if I am silent and wait patiently for them, they quiet themselves down and the wild spirit of chaos is eliminated from the room.  Struggle does not exist.  If we take time to respond to strife and chaos through choices that reflect patience, quiet, and peace, we achieve a far greater result than responding with our basest instincts, many of which are rooted in our sinful nature.  This week, when you find the desire to engage and fight back, choose disengagement and patience, and you will find that the fruit it produces will bring you, and those around you, peace.  Amen.

Boldness: The Key to Miracles

Years ago, a British test pilot was flying a solo mission, when halfway through he discovered a rat on board with him who was chewing on his fuel line.  He assessed the situation and realized that if the rat was successful in completely chewing through the line, he would definitely not have enough fuel to get to where he was going and may not even have enough to land.  So instead of risking the landing, he decided to take the plane higher.  Since there was no oxygen higher up, he was able to successfully kill the rat and save his plane.

Often, when we are facing persecution and trouble, we tend to go low, hide out, and wait for the storm to quietly pass us by.  We rarely, if ever, face the storm head on and boldly proclaim victory in the face of it.  Instead, our humanity kicks in and we become meek in the face of adversity, and when we are timid, we are not only doubting our own abilities, but we are also doubting God’s ability to work through us.  When we feel the need to go low, God desires us to go high, as that’s where He can do His biggest works.  By going high with boldness and declaring victory for Him, we open the floodgates for his miracles to be done through us, giving Him even more glory.

Scripture repeatedly shows that God desires to use us way beyond our capacity.  Whether leading people out of Egypt despite speech issues, fathering a child while in the twilight of life, or facing down actual lions, individuals who were not fundamentally extraordinary were used for extraordinary achievements once they showed boldness.  When people see our boldness, it gives God a stage to accomplish His work through that boldness.  God wants us to achieve well beyond what people expect of us, work that we would never be able to do ourselves, because people then know that it couldn’t have possibly come through us: it must be from God.  It’s as if boldness is the calling card and invocation for God’s angels and for His plan to work through us.  When we go high, God takes us even higher.

Similarly, in Acts, after Christ’s ascension, the apostles Peter and John boldly preached to the crowds to the point that the leaders jailed them, threatening them to stop.  After being released, Peter and John continued to do what got them in trouble in the first place, boldly preaching the gospel, but now with an even greater boldness.  Together, they prayed: “‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’  After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.29-31).  As they became bolder, God took that boldness and worked to end their persecution, taking them and their followers even higher.  When we invoke boldness, God uses us beyond what we are capable of doing, all for His glory.

When we decide to go low in the face of adversity and land the plane instead of flying higher, we sometimes end up just saving the rat, allowing him to chew on the lines another day.  We need to show boldness in the face of persecution and to go high, ending that oppression and cutting off the enemy.  This week, when you are feeling as if the world is closing in on you, show a boldness in your faith that allows God to work miracles through you.  When the world wants you to go low, go high instead.  Amen.

Good Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.