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Just Let It Go!

An open palmA friend of mine enjoys being with elderly people. It’s a good thing, because she spends several hours a week working in a nursing home. One of her favorite people there is a woman by the name of Mabel. Recently Mabel was sitting across the table from someone who suffers from dementia. The poor woman was perseverating, going over and over incidents from the past that still bothered her. Though her conversation was garbled and hard to follow, she seemed tormented by her thoughts.

So Mabel went into action. Looking the woman straight in the eye, and with all the force of her personality, she offered the best advice she could give: “Just let it go! Let it go!” A little confused herself, Mabel didn’t realize the woman she was talking to no longer had the mental capacity to follow her sage advice.

But Mabel’s words still found their mark. In the days and weeks that followed, my friend kept remembering the scene. Whenever she faced circumstances she couldn’t control, she could almost hear Mabel exhorting her, “Just let it go! Let it go!”

What is it that you are having trouble letting go of? Is it a situation with your family? Is it a comment your friend made? Is it a frustrating coworker? Is it a nagging memory that has you in its grasp? Whatever it is, it’s time to hand it over to God.

Today, let’s praise God and thank him that we are still in our right minds. And let us also ask him to send us his Spirit so we can let go of the things we cannot control in order to take hold of the help he gives.  More

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Compared to Whom?

Happy childrenHave you ever heard someone remark in surprise at how happy the people they visited in a third-world country seemed despite their poverty?

I noted something similar when I saw the movie Babies, a delightful film capturing the first year in the life of four adorable babies on four different continents—Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Japan, Bayar from Mongolia, and Hattie from the United States. While the babies have many things in common, like their penchant for sucking on toes, in many respects their lives are strikingly different. Ponijao, for instance, is literally “dirt poor,” wearing next to nothing and playing happily with rocks, empty cans, and refuse. Mari, on the other hand, enjoys the obvious advantages of being born into a prosperous and sophisticated Japanese family. Despite the fact that these children are at opposite ends of the material spectrum, both seemed reasonably happy.

Of course, temperament can have a significant impact on our sense of happiness. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Robert Sapolsky points out that once you have the basics covered, such as food and shelter, being poor isn’t as bad for you as feeling poor. The trouble is, many people feel poor. “Thanks to urbanization, mobility, and the media,” he points out, “something absolutely unprecedented can now occur—we can now be made to feel poor, or poorly about ourselves, by people we don’t even know. You can feel impoverished . . . by Bill Gates on the evening news, even by a fictional character in a movie.”(1)

Though Ponijao and Mari are too young to be affected by this dynamic, it may be that Ponijao will grow up in his isolated village a happy man, unaware of his relative poverty, while Mari will unhappily realize some are better off than she is. When it comes to the Ponijaos and Maris of the world, most of us fit into the Mari category. Knowing that, let’s be on guard against comparing ourselves to movie stars and moguls, choosing instead to be content with what we have.  More

(1.) Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 376–77.

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Safety

Paper chain peopleMany years ago a friend of mine lost her husband. He didn’t die from an illness or an accident. He wasn’t a casualty of war or self-inflicted violence. In fact, he didn’t die at all. Nor did she lose him to another woman or to drugs. Her husband just closed up inside, spending more and more time on the Internet, searching for God knows what, until he finally vanished from her life, demanding a divorce. My friend was bewildered and hurt, unable to rescue her marriage because she didn’t even know what was wrong. She suspected an addiction to pornography, but she couldn’t prove it. Her husband wouldn’t say. Not a word.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the isolating effects of sin and the power of confession to break that isolation: “In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.”(1)

But as soon as the sin is confessed, its grip is broken. As Bonhoeffer says of the repentant sinner, “He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God.”(2)

Psalm 139 speaks of God’s ability to see through our darkness. Confessing our sins to a trusted sister or brother in Christ can help us enter that place of safety, right in the middle of God’s people.   More

(1). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 112.
(2). Ibid., 113.

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Zoom!

A man rushing to cross the streetIf you asked me to use one word to describe the average speed at which most of us live our lives, my answer would not be warp speed (because that’s two words) but zoom!

Zoom to get ready in the morning. Zoom to drop the children off at school. Zoom to get to work. Zoom to make it to the next meeting. Zoom to the doctor’s office. Zoom back to work. Zoom to complete the next assignment. Zoom to the grocery store. Zoom home. Zoom to grab dinner. Zoom to soccer practice. Zoom to the drug store. Zoom home again. Zoom to bed. Zoom, zoom, zoom! No wonder we feel so worn out. Some of us even zoom our way through church.

Okay, enough of zoom. What can we do to dial back a bit so we can experience times of refreshing? The first thing we can do is to realize that trading time for money is often a bad bargain. Much of our rush, rush life is powered by a desire for money. We work longer and play less so we can get ahead. A higher salary, a nicer house, more toys. Wayne Muller puts it graphically by saying that money “is the temple to which we are all drawn to worship, bringing our offerings of time, and taking away the blessings of money.”(1)  Put it that way, and our addiction to speed seems downright sinful.

When it comes to work, we may not always be able to slow things down. But most of us have at least some discretionary time. This week, ask yourself how you can get a better return when it comes to investing the precious resource of your time.   More

(1). Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 98.

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The Bad Thing About More

A cartoon of a man's closet door bursting open with stuffHaving too much is rarely a recipe for peace, though it’s tempting to think so. When you have lots of stuff, you need to spend lots of time paying for it and lots of time taking care of it. Our many possessions can tie us down, making it difficult to respond to opportunities God gives. Oddly, having too much often makes us want to have even more.

In his classic book on the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that when modern people want to emphasize something in print, we often underline or italicize words. The Bible and other forms of ancient literature used a different tactic—repeating words within the text, as if to say, “Listen and listen up!” Deuteronomy 16:20, for instance, says, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (nrsv). Isaiah 40:1 declares, “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.”

Heschel points out that only one of the Ten Commandments is proclaimed twice, and that’s the last one, which goes like this: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else your neighbor owns” (Exodus 20:17)(1). By emphasizing the command, God puts a double fence around our tendency to want more, especially if the more that we want belongs to someone else.

You may not feel wealthy compared to those around you, but most of us who are living in the affluent West are rich compared to the rest of the world. No matter how much we have, all of us can fall into the temptation of coveting what we don’t have. If you find yourself stressed out by everything you own, ask God for help and wisdom to begin paring things down. Then listen and listen up so you can experience more of God’s peace in your life!   More

(1). Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 90.

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Sensing God’s Peace

White buildings against the dark blue of the Aegean Sea.Several years ago a business leader by the name of Michael Hyatt embarked on a three-week pilgrimage to Mount Athos, visiting several Orthodox monasteries. Toward the end of the trip, Hyatt and his companions visited a small monastic community located on the edge of the Aegean Sea. During their visit, one of the monks offered the travelers tea and pastries served up with stimulating spiritual conversation.

When it was time to go, Hyatt stood on the veranda overlooking the brilliant blue sea and remarked to one of the monks, “I hate to leave, Father. It is so peaceful here.”

Nodding, the monk remained silent for a few minutes and then replied, “You know, Michael, anywhere can be this peaceful, if”—he paused for emphasis—“you have God in your heart. But if you don’t, then even a place as beautiful as this can be hell.”(1)

Most of us can relate to Hyatt’s experience. Standing at the edge of a lake, staring up at starry skies, or walking through snowy woods, we sense a peace we wish would go on forever. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the created world has this effect on us, coming as it does from the good hand of God.

Let’s enjoy the beauty of nature, savoring the peace we find there without being seduced into thinking that a villa on the beach or a cabin on a mountaintop is what we really need to be happy. Only God, living within us, can give us what our hearts desire. More

(1) Michael Hyatt, “Where to Find Peace in Turbulent Times,” Michael Hyatt Intentional
Leadership (blog), February 28, 2011, http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=52d5c7778a3adfda535c3b349&id=c17029a0c2&e=53afb51cde.

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Natural Limits

Ever travel to Amish country? If so, yA horse-drawn buggy on the roadou know what it feels like to be transported to the nineteenth century. In parts of Michigan, not far from where I live, you can see Amish farms dotting the countryside. Most Amish deliberately limit their farms to eighty tillable acres or less since that’s the amount of land a family can work. Instead of seeing natural limitations as something to be overcome, the Amish embrace them. In her book Amish Peace, Suzanne Woods Fisher tells the story of an Amish man “who joked that if he were meant to plow at night, God would have put a headlight on a horse.” The Amish, she says, “respect natural limitations: sunlight and seasons, hunger and fatigue.”

This desire to acknowledge, preserve, and live within certain limitations is one aspect of Amish life that most sets them apart. After all, they live smack in the middle of a culture that prides itself on pushing the limits at every opportunity, overcoming barriers to productivity and play by offering a constant array of new and better gadgets and technologies. Computers, video games, cell phones, and other technological wonders take up more and more of our time. We don’t think twice about the constant flow of electricity that enables us to get less and less sleep so that we can do more and more. We’re like children who don’t want to go to bed, lest we miss something.

But we do miss something. We miss the peace that comes from accepting limits on our time and energy. And then we wonder why we feel so stressed. By hailing this Amish tendency to live within limits, I am not urging us to stop using technology, but we ought to learn from how others have chosen to live. By doing so, our lives will not be diminished but enhanced. More

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Star Pupil

Hands raised and clasped in a pleading way.Remember the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter? Instead of casting out the demon, Jesus seemed to ignore the request. (Keep in mind that in Jesus’ culture, men did not talk to women they did not know, and Jews did not talk to Gentiles.) Annoyed, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. He appeared to comply, stating that his mission was to the Jews only. But she would not give up. Then he went further, insulting her by comparing Gentiles to dogs, a common view among his contemporaries. Instead of taking offense, she simply said, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).

We are relieved that Jesus finally heals the woman’s daughter, but many of us view the story with unease. It seems to put Jesus in an unflattering light.

But remember that Jesus was a rabbi. And rabbis used various methods to instruct their disciples. Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, suggests an interesting interpretation. What if Jesus was giving his disciples an object lesson in faith? What if he was testing this woman and in the end commending her as one of his star pupils so his own disciples could learn something, not only from a woman but also from a Gentile? (1)

Here is how Bailey paints the scene, just after Jesus makes the comment about dogs: “Will she reply with a corresponding insult against the haughty Jews who despise and verbally attack Gentiles, even those in pain? Or is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on, yet again, with her request?” (2)

We see in this woman’s story an encouragement not only to persist in prayer but to continue to believe in God’s love and compassion in the midst of circumstances that may cast him in an unflattering light. Today, may her story impel us to continue to pray for those we love.   More

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(1). Though this explanation may at first seem improbable, read Kenneth Bailey’s convincing exegesis in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 217–26.

(2). Ibid., 224.

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Lashon Ha-ra

Two gossiping girls My children and I have developed a way to pass the time during a long drive. We take a simple phrase like “Look at that” and then say it with as many different inflections as we can think of in order to bring out various meanings. It’s amazing how quickly an innocuous statement can morph into one that communicates humor, threat, shock, disgust, delight, or anger, depending on your tone of voice and the way you say it.

In Jewish ethical teaching, it is considered wrong not only to slander someone but to say something that will lower someone else’s esteem in the eyes of others. The Hebrew term for this is lashon ha-ra. So, for instance, you wouldn’t say something like this: “I feel sorry for Joe. Being out of work for six months seems to have made his depression a lot worse.” Or “Too bad about Sarah’s breakup. I thought she finally found a guy who could love her despite her weight.” There are, of course, notable exceptions. You can express a negative truth when the person you are speaking to needs the information. So if your friend is thinking of consulting a financial adviser you know to be incompetent, you are free to tell him what you know. Otherwise you are obligated to keep silent.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains that even nonverbal communications can violate this law. “Making a face when someone’s name is mentioned, rolling one’s eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, ‘So-and-so is very smart’ are all violations of the law,” he says (1).  The same is true when it comes to the use of innuendo—implying something negative without actually saying it.

What if we were to adopt this rule of lashon ha-ra for ourselves? Wouldn’t it help us learn greater control of our tongues and our attitudes? Today make a promise to yourself to refrain from negativity toward others—in both your verbal and nonverbal communications. It may prove frustrating at first, but in the end, doing so will increase your peace and contribute to the peace of others.   More

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 23.

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How Much is Peace Worth?

A sky-diver preparing to jump out of the planeWhat would you do for a quarter of a million dollars? Jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course)? Parade around in a Mickey Mouse suit in hundred-degree weather? Eat a gazillion hotdogs smothered in red-hot chili sauce? Go swimming in Lake Michigan in February?

For that much money most of us would be willing to do any number of unpleasant things, as long as they didn’t involve moral compromise or danger to life and limb. But what are you willing to do today in order to live a life of greater peace?

I ask the question because the priceless peace we seek comes only from following the ways of God, which may not always feel easy. Sometimes they will feel downright unpleasant, at least at first. Here are a few examples. The woman filled with bitterness will need to pray for those who have hurt her. The man in an illicit relationship will need to break it off. The woman who has based her life on money will need to realize that everything she has belongs to God. The man who is too busy to pray will need to make time in his life for God.

So often the way toward peace is counter-intuitive, cutting as it does against our instinctive bent toward self-reliance, self-preservation, and self-aggrandizement. But since when does anything good ever come without effort?

If you desire the precious peace of God, decide today to listen for his voice and then do what he asks. Trust him for the results, and you will not be disappointed.  More

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