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Cumber

A stick figure man trying to pull a heavy loadEver try running when you’re overweight? No fun, is it? The same is true when you’re running the spiritual race Paul speaks of. Imagine trying to run the Boston Marathon in a fat suit while dragging everything you own along with you, and you will get a sense of what I’m talking about. The problem comes down to what the Quakers call “cumber”—the unnecessary accumulation of material goods that clutter our lives and distract us from the things of God.

I like the way Paul speaks about running straight to the goal and having “purpose in every step.” What a way to think about our lives! To be honest, I don’t often think that way. I’m guessing you don’t either. But I want to.

How can we get rid of things that encumber us, that keep us from focusing more of our time and energy on seeking first the Kingdom of God? We can begin by taking time to identify and deal with the things in our lives that make us feel spiritually flabby and overweight.

Even if you only have time for a tiny step today, take it. Do something small—clean out a drawer, give away some clothes; just begin the process. As you lighten your load, you may find it easier to run the spiritual race. Ask God today to help you aim straight at the goal, with purpose in every step.  More

(Image courtesy of nkzs at freeimages.com.)

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The “Speak Wall”

A student reading posts covering the "Speak Wall"“I’m lonelier than you might think.”

“My smile hides a lot about me.”

“I have attempted suicide.”

“All I want is to be loved.”

Students at Grand Rapids Christian High School have posted these and other messages on something called the “Speak Wall.” Unlike social networking sites such as Facebook, this is a literal wall—a place where they can tack up an anonymous note telling the truth about themselves without anyone knowing who they are. Students can also post notes of encouragement in response to another’s gutsy self-disclosure. The story of the eight-hundred-foot wall recently made front-page news in the Grand Rapids Press.(1)

But what is so newsworthy about teenage angst? Perhaps the story hit the press because it occurred at a school with the reputation of catering to students who already have it made. The Speak Wall gives voice to the widespread brokenness of even the most privileged among us.

I wonder what would happen were we to construct a Speak Wall in our churches and workplaces. Would we find similar brokenness? I suspect we would. We might even add our own plaintive notes to the wall.

However you are feeling right now, know that you are not the only one who struggles. Join me in crying out to God, letting prayer become your personal Speak Wall. Pray honestly and with hope for yourself and for others. And then do your best to forge connections with other believers so you can say what’s on your heart—and listen to what’s on theirs.   More

(1) Tom Rademacher, “Students Share All on ‘Speak Wall,’” Grand Rapids Press, May 6, 2011.

(See The Grand Rapids Press story and more images at http://photos.mlive.com/grandrapidspress/2011/05/the_speak_wall.html).

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Don’t Give Up!

A wheelbarrow full of gardening toolsLast spring a friend of mine was going through a tough time. So she asked some of her friends to pray, throwing in the request that perhaps we could also pray for a neighbor whose house and yard were an ever-present eyesore. One week later, when I asked how she was doing, she said that the gorgeous spring weather was lifting her mood. Then she added this comment:

I asked for prayers that our crazy neighbor would clean up her trashed house and yard. This, after almost thirty years of frustration. Well, the day after I asked for prayers, this very neighbor started to rake, trim, and plant new bushes in her yard. It was so unbelievable that my husband and I reasoned she was getting ready to sell. That’s when I remembered my prayer request. Wow!

Yesterday my friend’s nonbelieving husband remarked, “I don’t know what you did to Janine [not her real name], but now she’s outside painting her rusty railing!”

Chuckling, my friend told me her neighbor has been up at the crack of dawn every day working on her yard. “I laughed,” she said, “as I confessed to my husband that our group has been praying for Janine to clean up her act.”

Though my dear friend still struggles with various challenges, it seemed as though God was saying, “Hey, if I can work through your neighbor, I can do anything. Don’t give up.” I think she got the message.  More

(Image courtesy of tizwas01 at freeimages.com.)

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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

(Image courtesy of leocub at freeimages.com)

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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.

(Image courtesy of sumi at freeimages.com)

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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.

(Image courtesy of hoefi at freeimages.com)

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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.

(Image courtesy of nickobec/freeimages.com)

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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.

(Image courtesy of sraburton at freeimages.com)

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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.

(Image courtesy of kitsos13/freeimages.com)

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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

(Image courtesy of SailorJohn/freeimages.com)

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