Ultimate Flexibility

IMG_2360Years before Sara received a prophetic Facebook post and our planning began for a year long journey, she introduced me to Travis Eliot’s Ultimate Yogi program.  I should preface this by first stating that in 2007, Sara had given birth to our first born, Anjali, and shortly thereafter joined a fitness group for moms called Stroller Strides.  I had been exercising and getting into better physical condition by that point and I scoffed at the notion that I would be challenged by a fitness routine for a bunch of stroller toting moms.  I was most assuredyly wrong.  I so enjoyed the group that I even attended on a fairly regular basis when Sara was out of town or otherwise unable to go, Anjali in her Bob Stroller and all.  So it should not have surprised me that several years later, having recently moved to Madison, that Sara would inroduce me to a new program which I would underestimate only to learn to love it later.

My initial misgivings with the program revolved predominantly around the idea of Yoga as a fitness routine.  I guess I envisioned a white bearded old man sitting cross legged surrounded by a plume of incense smoke and humming mantras.  The first few practices I saw Sara doing I was unimpressed and I am sure I made it known.  But, as a strong woman, and someone who knows me well, she took no offense and continued after her objective of achieving the 108 day program laid out by Mr. Eliot.  I continued about my regular routine of running and visits to the gym until one day I saw Sara doing a practice that left her barely able to breath.  Sara has always been a better athelete than I so for her to be winded made me think back to the Stroller Strides days and to reconsider my thoughts on the Ultimate Yogi.  So, sometime around mid-May, Mother’s Day if I recall correctly, I agreed to join Sara for a yoga practice.  I should clarify that I had done a practice once before at the local gym and rather enjoyed it, but I was somewhat hesitant about sitting in my living room and having a dvd version of Travis Eliot talk me through an hour long program.  To up the ante a bit this particular practice was going to be way, way outside my wheelhouse.

You see, the Ultimate Yogi program is 108 days of scheduled practice, meditation, and diet.  The program for this particular day called for a practice known as Yin Yoga.  Yin Yoga, for those unfamiliar with Yoga parlance, is a practice in which you get into a yoga pose or asana, and hold it for a long period of time.  I had thought at this point that I was fairly flexible, and I was very wrong.  The one hour program proceeded to stretch muscles I was unaware even existed and in my competitive spirit I stupidly tried my hardest to stretch more than I could.  I fortunately did not pull anything but I did proceed to become phsysically ill from the release of years of pent up toxins.  I felt immediately terrible, relaxed, loose, and exhausted simultaneously.  It was blissful in hindsight.

I share this rather embarrassing event because, as we fast forward to present day, I am gazing across our room at the two yoga mats Sara and I insisted be part of our travels.  We weren’t sure what our fitness regime would or could be while travleing but we knew that no matter where we were we could find enough room for a mat and that we could carve out an hour for yoga.  I have not been a diligent practitioner of Yoga, not nearly as much as I would like, but in the last three years or so I have greatly increased my flexibility.  My body feels better, my fitness routine is improved, and I can see a palpable difference in my mood and sense of well being on the days I practice.  This is by no means an infomercial, but rather an observation on the benefits of flexibility, and not just physcially.  Through this process we have learned to be flexibile in so many ways.   The Apostle Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Philippians.

“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:12-14

His faith gave him the flexibilty to handle the challenges that he encountered because God gave him the strength to do so.  In times of stress we have leaned on the same faith to give us the ability to smile through our troubles and know that our outcome is in the hands of God and that His plans will prevail.  Likewise our physical ability to handle the trials of travel has been enhanced by our yoga practice.  We are more physically and mentally able to handle the change and challenges ahead because we have been given the tools and strength to do so.

We are currently residing in Thailand and to be sure this was our first real challenge of this journey.  With very few English speakers and immediate obstacles to our travel plans upon arrival, we had to muster every ounce of our flexibilty.  We found ourseleves in the Bangkok immigration office working on a visa extension for 30 days.  However, some improper planning on our part had put us into a bind with our hotel check-out time and plans for a flight to another city that night.  For a brief time we were stressed, lamenting just what would happen and how we could possibly make everything work.  And then we let go.  We became pliant and allowed the situation to come to us rather than fight our way through.  We had a budget that would allow for unexpected costs and we had been been under budget in other areas.  It was not ideal to spend the extra money to accommodate the changes we needed to make but once we finally let go of our concerns and made the choice not to fight the reality of our situation, but rather embrace it, we were at peace.  We looked at the benefit of being able to spend one more night in Bangkok, another night for the kids to swim in a pool, less stress to concern ourselves with how we could race back to make the flight.  We simply…were.

The world is a yoga mat.  Every day we have a choice to practice, to engage, or to quit before we start.  We can embrace challenge and change and become stronger or we can walk away from it and hope that tomorrow will offer something easier and more familiar.  Either way the mat is always there, always waiting, for whatever we choose to do.  I end with two quotes.  One from Buddha, fitting since we are living in a country that is over 90% Buddhist, and one by Travis Eliot.

Freedom and happiness are found in the flexibility and ease with which we move through change.

– Buddha
“I know it can be a little challenging but the benefits are worth it.  Be focused, be committed, and be ultimate.  And we’ll see you next time on the mat.”
– Travis Eliot
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Work in progress…

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Walls. They provide protection, define boundaries, separate rooms, and split nations. Metaphorically they have been known to represent a period of difficulty in sports, learning, or life in general. They are also representative of emotional barriers, blockades erected to keep others out or to protect what is inside. While there are many great examples of architecturally magnificent walls (think China for example), there are many more examples of walls with far less ubiquitous appeal. An historical and modern example come to mind. The modern of course being President Trump’s campaign centerpiece, a great wall of his own to separate the United States from its southern neighbor. The historical wall fittingly given our current area of service is the Berlin Wall. A divide created to ostensibly force an ideological separation. In any case, most walls are associated with some degree of isolation and attempt to protect “what is mine” from those who want it.
A quick search of the Internet yields a surprising number of quotes related to the benefits of walls, however. Will Smith, in a metaphor for how to create success or build a career said:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
The Chinese national anthem, alluding to its masterfully built territorial boundary also exalts the greatness of a wall with the lyrics: “Arise! People who don’t want to be slaves! With our very flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall.” I am sure Successories, the online and retail shop specializing in photos and posters designed to maximize office motivation has an entire section devoted to the pros and cons of walls.
One of my favorite wall references however is not the now famous Ronald Reagan exhortation to Mikhael Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall” but instead a cinematic allusion found in the film Facing the Giants. The film centers on a football coach who, to put it mildly, is having a run of bad luck. I won’t spoil the film other than to make reference to its use of the Biblical story of Nehemiah in which the King of Israel asks him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah is a master craftsman but surprisingly his real skills are evoked when Jerusalem’s neighbors, who had been the perpetrators of the destruction of the old walls, learn of his plans to rebuild. They gather their forces in preparation to put a halt to the rebuild operations. Nehemiah rallies not troops, but brick layers telling them to lay bricks with one hand and hold spears with the other. No doubt tough work, but in the end Nehemiah builds his stone wall all while fending off some ne’er do wells. I like the story (and the movie is a family favorite as well) because it spends less time discussing why they need the wall, how they fought to build it, or how many of the enemy died. Instead, it is a story of a man who learns of the destruction of a great wall that protected a holy city. He feels a calling to offer his services to the king to rebuild these walls, even at his own peril, and succeeds. This is a story of how building a wall is sometimes just as important as tearing one down.
Now by this point the question is likely coming to your mind, as it is mine. What is the point of this wall discussion? Glad we asked. When we struck out on our service year we planned our first stop to be in Germany. This was not by our design but rather was a good fit for our hosts. We knew only that our first service opportunity with the community would be to assist with the church’s Vacation Bible School program. More on that event another time but suffice to say it was amazing. Beyond this three days of work we honestly had no idea how we could be of service to a first world country in middle Germany. On the first Sunday after we arrived I learned somewhat second hand what the next project would be. Following our first Sunday service we had the opportunity to fellowship with the congregation. While it was difficult what with very few of them able to speak conversational English and our almost complete lack of any serviceable German I was able to determine during one conversation that I was “the guy” who was going to build the wall. Internally I chuckled a bit having just recently arrived from the US, a fresh dose of daily news about the “left” and the “right” takes on our President’s wall plans. Politics aside it goes without question that this is a divisive issue, most walls are just that after all. In any case I found it a bit amusing that an American was being asked to build a wall in Germany.
That evening the pastor of the church, a very kind, patient, and amusing man, invited us to his home across the way from the church to join he and his immeasurably lovely wife for dinner. We gladly accepted and were surprised to meet their youngest son, home from studies on holiday, along with his girlfriend. They were gracious enough to serve as the evening’s interpreters. The evening began with standard casual conversation, introductions, questions about where we come from, why we were there, and where we planned to go next. We asked about the church, how many members, a little background about the town, and what we should see on weekend excursions. Eventually, however, I broke down. Having spent the better part of 23 years working more or less full time I was disinclined to being idle. For the last 6 days we had done nothing but eat, rest, and sightsee. I was planning a year of service, not vacation. My mind was racing to find out what good could be accomplished here in this town which would look no more out of place in the United States than my own hometown. The pastor chuckled and simply said, “next week”. This phrase has become somewhat of an inside joke for us as I have come to know it to mean that what is to come will come, be patient. My first brick – patience.
A few days passed, more sightseeing, enjoying the town, grocery shopping daily, and making an impression on the townsfolk (it’s amazing how quickly you can become recognized when you can’t speak the native language). Sara and I were given snippets here and there of what would come to pass for Vacation Bible School and I was hopeful to hear more about the wall project. But, as Pastor Joannes extolled, I was patiently awaiting “next week”. Surprisingly though, amidst the run up to the very busy and time intensive VBS preparations I was told that Pastor Johannes and I would be taking a run to the neighboring town of Felgeleben. There I would see the site of the church and get my first look at the project. We would be meeting Achim, the owner of the construction company contracted to assist in the wall project. Achim is a true gentleman, kind, no doubt wise, and completely incapable of speaking English. It should be noted that in East Germany students were taught German and as their second language, Russian. As a result, older GDR citizens such as Achim would have very little access to English teaching. Beyond that though Achim clearly knows his craftsmanship and doesn’t need to speak English for anyone. He was easily able to convey what my work would entail speaking wholly in German but using visual cues. Johannes helped with translation and after a short 30 minute meeting it was clear that I was to help re-mortar a standing wall for the church building which had been built around 1890. The wall was complete with missing bricks (allowing a peep hole through to the other side), generous coverings of old ivy roots, and even some trees that were attempting to make a go of growing in the brick. The wall was in poor shape to say the very least. But I was excited for the work and given the generosity already shown to our family there was no way I would even think of passing up the opportunity. Brick two – willingness.
About a week later I was given the green light for the go ahead on the project. We arrived at 7am and met with Achim and one of his staff, Michael. Michael thankfully knew some English, which he learned in school but had not used since then, some 30+ years prior. I suspect his retention of the English language stemmed from his penchant for 80’s music which he kindly played on the portable stereo while we worked. Michael took his orders from Achim and then explained that our first job was to clear the wall of debris such as old vine roots, rotted out mortar, and the occasional aforementioned sapling. By 11am my IWatch proudly buzzed me that I had accomplished my move goal for the day. Based on the amount of sweat and soreness my body felt I had no doubt about that. Unfortunately for my hydration and achy muscles the day was far from over. Finally clearing the bricks of that which was ailing them, we power washed and then Michael gave me what was arguably the shortest but perhaps most effective tutorial on Fugen (the German term for mortar). Unfortunately, his English vocabulary was not the strongest for this type of discussion so what I learned I deciphered from the few words I could remember from German classes and an almost terrified focus on every movement he made. I realized in very short order that the plan was for him to show me the ropes, hand me the trowel, and then for me to complete the mortaring of the wall by myself. I was immediately grateful for my father-in-law who some 15 years prior had helped me with a home project to install a gas grill in our backyard. I was also acutely aware that it had been 15 years since I had done any masonry work and that the project we worked on had taken two days or so at most. I was in over my head, literally the wall is a good 7 feet high and my masonry knowledge was rivaled only in ignorance by my international travel experience. I set out to begin the project mindful of the directions which I pieced together from Michael and I realized that while I had just a few short weeks ago been a rather successful salesperson with a strong client base, a litany of responsibilities, and been considered a go-to guy for solving many problems, was now an abject novice. Brick three – humility.
Walls, it seems, even if already standing, do not always conform to the wills of those who build them. As it turns out they are somewhat temperamental. For example, walls, and the mortar which protects them, don’t particularly like hot weather and sunlight. It tends to dry out the mortar too quickly rendering it dry and flaky and less able to stand up to the abuses of mother nature. As a result, in very short order I was forced to alter what I thought was a game plan of how I could tackle this wall project efficiently and effectively. By nature I fancy myself a problem solver and figured I could have this wall redone in a matter of days. For a seasoned pro this may have well been possible. For me, not so fast my friend. Admittedly I can happily say I was able to quickly catch on to some of the tricks I saw Michael employ to work quickly but effectively but the ramp up was painstakingly slow. Thus I had to reluctantly take pride in very small victories. But my plans for completing the wall in a few days were thwarted. From meetings at school to extremely unusually warm weather, I had to rethink and re-plan. I would have been far more concerned with this outcome if not for the encouraging drop-ins from Johannes and Achim. Achim especially, despite our inability to understand the other’s language, was especially encouraging. As near as I could tell he was not scolding me for poor craftsmanship or hastening the collapse of the wall but was instead pointing out the areas I had done well and where I had missed the mark. A truly gifted manager, Achim motivated me to always improve, recognize what the good work was, and strive to achieve it again. I learned that in order to achieve this I needed to be able to adjust to weather, my own shortcomings, and to a great language divide. In other words, I needed a fourth brick – flexibility.

I was making progress. The wall was starting to look like a wall again. Not the prettiest sight due to my lack of skills but it would stand up for at least a few more years. I was getting into the groove, using the tools provided to me with more expertise and gaining a better understanding of how this was supposed to go. Sadly, I was becoming a bit arrogant. What better way to kill arrogance than with a sharp dose of reality. I was busily working away in the morning of the sixth day when I felt a sudden pain in my hand. Pain was not unusual at this point as the first five days had left my hands aching and cramped from tightly holding the mortaring tools as I attempted my best to make a perfect-ish wall. This pain was different. I removed my glove and realized that somehow a copious amount of mortar had worked its way into my glove and had now created what could only be described as the world’s most unexpected and equally unwelcome exfoliation treatment. My palm had shed what in my estimation was all of its skin though a medical expert would probably suggest a few layers. Nevertheless I had rendered my hand virtually useless and my self imposed work shift was less than half over. I stared at my hand, open wound stinging in the soft breeze, and then laughed. Just moments earlier I was certain I was becoming an expert brick layer and mortar technician and then within a blink I realized, rather painfully, how much I had to learn. I made a few adjustments, put the gloves back on, smiled and went back to work. It wasn’t the most pleasant day’s work but with each sting I was reminded to remain humble. Humility it seems can breed humor. Another brick in my wall.

I had put in about 65 hours worth of work on the wall when I came to find out what the project was about. I understood the wall was in poor condition. I understood that the church had told us they could use our help. What I had not known was that the Elders of the church were concerned about the cost of repairing this wall. As it turns out, despite the immensity and beauty of the churches in this town, there are very few Christians, or at least practicing Christians. I am not sure yet if this is a product of a generation of Soviet control or otherwise but Pastor Johannes estimated that only about 7% of the townspeople were Lutheran (the denomination of our hosts). As we all know, that number might represent those who identify but does not reflect the number who attend. As a result, the church is not in a financial position to simply reconstruct as it wants, and in some cases as it needs. So it was at this time that I learned that my work was a great help to the church as it represented a significant cost savings. Labor is expensive, but I work cheap. I was happy to learn then that my efforts were important. Not simply a nice touch to build a prettier façade on a church building but rather a needed and helpful contribution to the ongoing life of the church community. No doubt these people will still meet, still be believers, but it is affirming to know that they had a need which I could in a small way help to assuage. Moreover, I feel like my contribution now in some way “pays” for the generosity and welcome these people have extended to my family. Through their efforts and my own we have developed the final brick – appreciation.

I have thought a lot about the people of Schoenebeck as I have worked on this wall. I have thought a lot about how walls usually separate people. Good fences make good neighbors after all right? Well, perhaps good walls make good friends too. In a time in which the discussion of walls can incite vitriol and even violence, it is reassuring to my mind and heart that this wall has created understanding, peace, friendship, and opportunity for people of different backgrounds to find common understanding, if not common language.

In 1990, following the fall of the Berlin wall, two artists, one French and the other German-Iranian, painted a 7 meter mural on a portion of the wall still standing. It was attributed to an African saying.
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”

And so your adventure begins….

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “ Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8

After quite a buidup the day arrived.  But it did not come without fanfare, or rather without handwringing, tension, fights, and panic.  Despite the best laid plans, good intentions, and a lot of help from friends, our lead up in those final days in Madison was anything but calm and reassuring.  From a panicked run to drop off an unexpected overabundance of household goods to the loss of some electronics and a VERY later than expected departure from our home, one woud not think that we were even remotely ready to leave it all and head out.

Admittedly I was probably the one thinking that the most.  As expected the days leading up to our move from Madison to our temporary stay in Fond Du Lac flew by.  Each minute seemed but a second, each hour shorter than the last.  As time grew precious, patience began to vanish.  Sara and I kept our best foot forward trying our best to remind ourselves that all would be okay.  There was no reason to stress, we had plenty of time, the kids needed to enjoy their final days at our home.  Alas our Type A’s would not succomb to reason and the emotions of the oncoming embarkment combined with the desire to meet unattainable and ultimately unnecessary timelines took over.  Instead of thoroughly enjoying those last days we crammed cleaning, last minute venison jerky making, and final packing into every last moment.  When a box was too small or an item overlooked one or both of us would immediately curse with frustration while the other tried to calm the situation.

Saturday morning rolled along and after another late night the alarm at 6am was seemingly the last straw.  We grumpily arose realizing that the temper tantrums thrown by our two elder children the night before (on their last night in the house, oh my gosh how could they, we said at the time) would no doubt rekindle like an ember in a forest fire.  Sure enough within 10 minutes or so of our waking up we were greeted by the cocophany of children hollering at one another over some mundane transgression, I think someone’s arm hit the other person’s elbow or the like.  I could tell immediately this was not going to go as planned.  Now, I should note that the day before Noah himself would have feared the deluge that befell Madison and surrounding areas.  Moreover, the forecast called for additional rain starting particualry in the late afternoon.  Moving in the back of our open bed pick-up truck all of our backpacks laden with our meager posessions for the next year along with a rather nice leather chair to be stored was becoming a treacherours proposition.

The plan therefore called for waking up early, packing up the small collage of remaining items, a quick clean up of the last few rooms which hadn’t been cleaned in the week before, a stop for breakfast with friends, and then off we would go.  Up by 6, out by 1.  Well, as I should have remembered acutely from the beginng of this process, if you want to make God laugh, make a plan.  The Lord must have been in tears over this one.  The tantrum at 6:30 was just the start of what would amount to a roughly 15 minute interval of arguments and tears over which Sara and I had to redirect to help get our adolescent helpers back on track.  The plan to pack up our last remaining items turned into a full on call out of reinforcements as we realized rather quickly that someone (me) had either underestimated what the piles of boxes and backpacks would actually look like in the back of the truck or had overestimated the size of said truck.  Either way there was no way we were getting everyting to fit.  A quick call to our friends who are generously (the thesaurus has no stronger a term to describe their gratiousness) storing the bulk of our wares and our original plan shifted into a trip to make a drop off.  That which we could no longer fit, or felt comfortable in doing, was taken to Goodwill for another in a series of donations.  That which would not fit and not worth donating now made its way to an unplanned garbage dump drop.  By this point the only thing we had successfully accomplished on time was eating breakfast.  By 1pm we were still making deliveries, no where near completing our final packing as well as cleaning the house.  I was beyond fustrated and now, loooking at the forecast yet again, in almost terror that we would have to rely on our old green tarp to save the day.

We finally hit the road at 4:30 with yet one last stop to make to drop off some papers.  As I gazed upwards the ominous clouds left me with very little reassurance that we would make it dry.  My new plan was to make the drop then hit a gas station to pick up some bungee cords so we could tie down the tarp.  We left the driveway and drifted down the road, a few droplets hit the windshield but so far so good.  We arrived a few minutes later, parked under a large and fortunately impenetrabe elm, and were greeted with a sheet of rain.  We passed over our documents and then asked our friend if she might have some bungees to SOS, save our stuff!  We lucked out with some extra bungees and we amateurishly applied them to our tarp, providing a protective if not entirely waterproof shield.  Disaster averted, a few more goodbyes, and we were off yet again.

“Ha ha ha”, I can only imagine was the sound bellowing from the heavens.  We entered the freeway and within one exit I could see that this tarp was not making the 70 mile drive to Fond Du Lac.  I immediately envisioned the tarp either snapping the bungees or the grommets simply giving way and sending a giant green vehicular blindfold drifting down the highway.  While God was laughing, my insurance company most assuredly would not.  We quickly evacuated the highway, took refuge in a gas station, and hoped to find a more permanent and safe solution.  The store was completely devoid of hope in the form of bungees and rope.  The kids nervously watched as I returned from the store, no goods in hand.  They understood what this meant, damp clothing at best, a total loss at worst.  We had a quick family meeting and the decision was made to give it over to God.  The tarp would come off and be stowed away and we would pray for no rain.

Now those of you who have read our previous posts know that this trip was practically sponsored by “Signs ‘R Us’.  At every step we have felt called, compelled, or flat out shown the way.  Fast forward on our drive north and as we pull into our friend’s driveway, at 6:30 instead of 3, we were told that it had literally dumped rain all day up until just a short time, like twenty minutes or so, prior to our arrival.  In other words, had we followed our plan I would be typing this in my skivies or in the raw (my apologies for the visual) waiting for our clothes to dry and lamenting the loss of yet another household effect, not to mention our tablets, laptop, etc.  Some might see this as coincidence and I promise you that several years ago I would have too.  But when it’s “coincidence” on a reoccurring basis it sure is hard to ignore.

After a rather uneventful but enjoyable stay with our friends, Monday morning rolled around and we were ready to get going.  But prior to hopping on the train to get to the airport we had one more family meeting.  This time we talked about challenge.  The last few days had reminded us that our plan was not going to go off without a hitch or two.  There would be many situations out of our hands and control.  So this time we discussed taking a lesson from the Lord.  When the plan does not go accordingly, when someone steps on our foot, when we lose a waterbottle in the airport (happened on day 2 upon our arrival in Germany), we won’t get angry, we are going to LAUGH.

Epilogue:

As I finished typing and was going through a once over for typos Sara scorfunlly shut her tablet in dismay realizing that she may have just overpaid, by a fair amount, for our planned train ride tomorrow.  I simply smiled and reminded her to laugh (and to have a sip of wine).

A Positive Spin on Negative News

How do we create positives in a world of negative news?

Steven Pinker opined in the Guardian on February 17th that there is an overwhelming trend towards negative reporting in news outlets.  For a child growing up with cable and satellite television and the myriad channels dedicated solely to the dissemination of news and having seen first hand how the lead topics of every nightly report are murder, rape, war, and graft, this trend is no surprise.  I have only ever known the news to report first and foremost on the worst of the worst.  As Mr. Pinker pointedly remarks, the adage of the day is if it bleeds, it leads.  Having also lived in a small town, then a big city, and then to a small city, I have seen a wide spectrum of how this plays out.  On the local channels there is typically a nod to a trending national headline (almost always negative)  followed by local headlines.  In the larger towns this usually starts with who was murdered that day or if no one was, the next most egregious list of crimes that occurred.

In our current situation we are fortunate that the list of crimes is usually fairly short and mercifully aligned with drug overdoses or bank robberies, not mass murders or worse.  It has gotten to the point where I no longer watch the news because frankly, I am not interested in hearing about all the bad things that have happened that day.  I have no doubt they occur and I am not supposing that ignorance will yield bliss or make the problems go away.  But simply put, there really is nothing I can do to stop a drug dealer from dealing his drugs.  I cannot stop a group of gang members from shooting each other, and I cannot intervene when a parent abuses his children.  The Federal and state authorities are tasked with this effort.  Instead, I try to focus on the areas that I can impact.  I look for the politicians who will support tough crime laws that will directly empower those authorities tasked with preventing or at least cleaning up the mess left behind by evil.  I look for opportunities to create positive outcomes for our community so that there will be fewer people who feel helpless and turn to crime as what they perceive to be the only solution to their predicaments in life.  I try to find ways to bring good to the world when it seems all we hear is bad.

As Mr. Pinker points out, the statistics reflect that there is a propensity for apathy or inactivity when the situation seems hopeless.  Why do anything if everything you do has no effect?  Pinker also published a study which reflects statistically that the world is currently in the most peaceful era it has ever seen (as measured by violent deaths per 100,000 people).  There are fewer wars occuring now then any other time in known, recorded history.  Would you have believed that from watching your news feed today?  I know from my personal experience that if I had to answer whether I thought the world was safer or more unstable and dangerous I would have to default to the latter.  Why?  Because despite the evidence to the contrary (evidence which goes underreported or not reported at all) the multitude of news stories is focused on the negative.  I don’t know if this is a function of the human condition or not.  Are we so guilt ridden from original sin that we cannot fathom to be deserving of peace and prosperity?  Maybe we just need violence and disruption in order to feel important.

I cannot begin to speak for anyone other than myself but I will say that there was a time when I intensely obeserved the news, formulated my strong opinion about the need for a crackdown in all phases of life to stop the bad guys, and vowed to be vigilant in the efforts of justice in the face of lawlessness.  And then I had children.  I watched them play unassumingly and unaware of the evils and dangers that were, according to eyewitness news accounts, around every fathomable corner.  My children weren’t, fortunately, in danger of imminent abduction or murder.  Now, I count my blessings that I have been fortunate to live in neighborhoods where gang violence and drug abuse are not prevalent but crime doesn’t just happen in these places and the news is all too happy to report this.

So after careful observation I started focusing more on the positives.  Laughter, empathy, friendship.  And while I am aware that danger still exists, I am also focused more on how my children have given me the hope and courage to focus on the positives in the world.  You see, it’s easy to gravitate to the negative.  It makes you feel good to not be the bad guy.  It’s easy to say you did the right thing by condemning the man who raped his neighbor or the “sicko” who shot up a country music concert.  But it’s hard to do something about it beyond the words.  It’s hard to give up a Friday evening to go serve dinner to 100 strangers who have no home and are in desperate need of a hot meal to fill their stomachs.   It’s hard to volunteer your time at the county jail to bring comfort to a man who may have committed unforgivable crimes and to remind him that he is still a man, flawed like us all, but deserving of love nonetheless.  It is hard to forego that next latte or round of golf so you can donate to a charity that serves those in need, or those who are sick, or those who may not look, believe, or think like you.  Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there that make those sacrifices.  I only wish the news spent more time lauding their efforts, mundane as they might seem for the ratings gurus.

Perhaps the ratings for good deeds are low because those good deeds remind us of how we all could do more.  And the reminder that we aren’t as profundly good as we think ourselves to be is a turnoff.  It certainly is a lot easier to feel good about myself when I see all the bad things others are doing that I am not.  I can boast of my goodness relative to those who are stealing, murdering, and waging a war of unjustice.  But looking at the great deeds of others puts into stark relief that which I am not doing.  Am I living the life of Christ, a life for others or am I living a life of me, focused on my happiness, my personal gains, my status in society?  If the answer is the latter then it is no wonder that I am drawn to negative news as a buffer to my own falibility.

The great news is that we can all break this habit if we deep down desire to do so.  It is not easy, no habit is easy to break.  But in doing so we will live a life far more fulfilling and far more impactful than the one we live by just not being that guy on the news whose mugshot is the lead story.  We need those good news stories to challenge us to be better.  It’s okay for us to look at others and feel bad for not doing more.  In fact it might be really healthy for us.  A reminder that we can be better and should try.  Seeing someone just like us who is capable of making a difference should inspire us and give us the confidence that we too can do the same thing.  It doesn’t take someone special to do something good.  Quite the opposite.  If you really look at it, it takes someone special to commit an act of evil, if not, then there would be a lot more people committing crimes in this world right?  The fact is that we don’t need to be, and probably outght not be, special.  We just need to be us and we need to make a committment to do good for others.  The ratings might not be there but the path to salvation, to a happier life, and a safer planet surely is.

Scouting for God (post from 09/11/17)

Tracking signs from God, like hunting, takes patience and faith.

In the spring, good deer hunters flock to the woods in search of deer signs. They pick a day with snow still on the ground, not too deep to traverse but enough for deer to leave their prints behind. This is also the time of year that bucks start shedding their antlers, always a great sign for hunters looking to bag that extra big buck. The annual trek into the woods is usually dirty, wet, cold, and many times you come away with more questions than answers. But on that rare occasion you come across a trail, every hunter gets that excitement coursing through his or her veins, knowing they are on the right track. Frankly it usually starts with a hoof print or even a little scat. But with a careful eye, a patient and motivated hunter can usually follow the path of the deer, often times discerning where the deer are heading for breakfast and dinner, where they might be bedding down, and how many may be in the area. These spring tracking events are critical to setting up a successful fall hunt.

While the demands of our busy weeks keep me from doing proper spring scouting, the times that I do get out I cherish. I often feel like doing this difficult task is rewarded with the knowledge that I am practicing an ancient art: seeking, tracking, and harvesting. While the end result is food for my family I often find that these treks into the woods looking to set up the later hunt are often just as rewarding. The peace of being one with nature, listening and searching for any indication of wildlife is so basic and so fully human.

How to search for deer, I think, is not too dissimilar from how we seek God. We don’t seek signs from God for the sake of the signs themselves but rather for confirmation that we are on the right path. Like the deer leaving hoof prints, God leaves a mark to show us the path. And much like any hunter can attest, there are often times a LOT of paths to follow. Sometimes it feels like the trail goes in a thousand directions and taking the wrong turn will lead you only away from your target. But like any good hunter can tell you, practice only makes better, and sometimes it helps having a good friend with experience to help you along.

When tracking God we need only patience and faith, and that good friend we have to help us see the right path is Jesus himself. Whenever I get confused or lost while scouting I know the best solution is to stop moving, take a breath, and go back to the last spot I remember seeing signs and felt confident. When following God’s signs I think the same is true. Sometimes I miss the trail, miss the signs, and then I go back to the last place I remember seeing God at work. I take a deep breath and scan the area for that next sign and when I feel like I just cannot see it, I ask my friend Jesus for a little help. It’s amazing how willing He can be to help, especially when you need it most.

Along this journey Sara and I have seen many signs. I will admit that in the past if someone had told me they had seen or heard a sign from God I would have been pretty incredulous. But through this process of preparing to vacate our existing lives in exchange for something far…different, I have become acutely aware of the signs God has placed for me to find. Sometimes they have hit me like a sack of bricks, or a six point antler shed. No mistaking what you found there. Other times they have been far more subtle, like a few pieces of hair clinging to a tree branch. I cannot explain why the signs come hot and heavy one minute and hard to track the next, but I know they are there and every time I questioned if I was on the right or wrong path it seemed that I found a guidepost or indication which way to go. God has laid the path but God has asked me to find and follow it. The great news is that as long as my head and my heart have been open to seeing the path, I have been able to follow. It hasn’t always been easy, admittedly my faith has been tested. But when I was most desperate, afraid, and unsure, my response was to turn towards God, not away, and every time the signs have shone most brightly for me to follow.

So I ask you, don’t be afraid of the signs, embrace them. They are there to help you find the path. Just remember though that it isn’t the sign you seek but the reward at the end of the trail. Happy hunting!

Casting Off (post from 8/13/2017)

I think it was Rally Day at our church when I first remember hearing the story of Jesus telling his disciples that in order to truly follow him they would have to basically eschew everything they had ever known, cared for, sought after, or held dear. I recall our pastor remarking at the time at how scary that must have sounded. During a time when family meant survival Jesus was calling his disciples to abandon their family and friends. He told them to give away their possessions because no one who owned anything would follow because they would otherwise assess the values of their possessions lost and weigh them against the “value” of pursuing a life of faith. Frankly I couldn’t really blame them. How could Jesus ask them to give away so much? But, as our pastor continued, I realized the truth, though I remember reminding myself to come back to it a later date, essentially postponing the inevitable I guess.

The truth of course is simple, though not terribly easy to accept. What we “own” here is of little real value. They say that what you own eventually ends up owning you. Well, that I think was very true in my life. I sought riches, not of the biblical but of the commercial sense. I set goals for myself focused on material success. Taking a helicopter to work, owning houses in multiple seasonal locations, boats, cars, a sizable bank account. Funny thing is that when I set these goals I actually started to achieve them. Miraculously or not when I set my mind to it I was able to accomplish some great things. Great through the lens of my worldy self. I was still well short of my big targets of course but I had a large house, a boat, pool table, a bank account that could sustain me for several months, and the future looked bright.

But something in my goals was missing. I can’t put my finger on it but I think it was close to around the time my first child was nearing her due date. Sara and I talked more and more as the date was coming that we were missing religion and that we felt we should really reconsider our faiths and how we wanted to raise our daughter. We started looking at all sorts of religions: Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, you name it we considered it. And then it happened, God came into my life for the first time that I, in hindsight, can remember. I didn’t realize it at first but now I know why I found an audio cd. Yes I was searching for books on religion so to be sure it was not total coincidence, but this particular book, this particular day, everything was right. The book was WhereGod was Born by Bruce Fieler. I started listening and quickly found myself completely hooked. Bruce Fieler was telling my story, except it wasn’t mine, it was of course his. But the circumstances were striking. He questioned his faith, like me. He had not really turned away from God as much as not really pursued a relationship with God, just like me. And just like me, he was looking to find his faith or at least to find out if something was missing in his life. And of course it was. God was there all along, waiting patiently. Like the prodigal son coming home, Bruce Fieler found his faith again, and I was starting to as well. Sara and I talked at length and I remember distinctly sitting in our kitchen one evening, explaining to her that I felt like this book had been a calling to me. I felt like a great hole in my life was being filled and that God was calling me home.

Fast forward and now I am back at it, I guess. I feel like God called me home and brought me in. God comforted me and reminded me how wonderful life with God is. God let me become comfortable in his grace to see how I would respond. But I also think this was a time of preparation. God needed me to have some time with my faith, to strengthen it and to realize that it was a part of me that I needed. If God had asked me to cast off my material wealth and to forego those goals I had set so long ago and pursued with such vigor I might have turned away from God. My faith was still in its infancy. I needed time, practice, and belief that the faith I was pursuing was strong enough. So this September day, when our pastor told me to cast everything I knew aside, I got it. I knew what God was saying, though at the time I wasn’t ready to admit it. But like a catchy tune that sticks in your brain that you can’t seem to forget this thought kept coming back. It kept creeping in when I most wanted it gone. It made me question myself, my goals, my image of self worth. And then it reared it’s head with an authoritative thump when Sara brought to my attention the thought of traveling the country and serving.

Casting off is no easy thing, but once you hear God ask you to do it, it’s awfully hard not to, right? There is nothing that I could possibly own anymore that could compare to the feeling that I get when I feel the call of God to act out his will in this world. It is a sensation of love that is utterly overwhelming, sustaining, and empowering. I have never bought anything that could create the same sensation nor wanted anything more. And at the same time I have never felt so anxious about it. My brain is telling me this is a terrible idea. It’s unsafe, it is too risky, I am being absentminded of my long term benefit. But then my heart steps in and reminds my head that God hears all, sees all, and knows all. If I just put my faith in God that which is meant for me will occur. I cannot be sure it will resemble anything I ever imagined in store for me. Frankly I kind of hope it isn’t. Who needs to take a helicopter to get to work anyway? I am not suggesting that because I haven’t hit those goals that I am giving up and looking for an excuse in God. Rather, I am owning up to the fact that those were never good goals at the start. They would never sustain me in the long run and ultimately would have left me in constant want for more. I have never felt so full as when I turned myself to God. I now believe I never will.

Today, our pastor told us the story of Jesus walking on water. At least, that’s how I always remembered it. “See, kids, Jesus must have been divine because he could walk on water”. This time I heard it from Peter’s perspective. Jesus, appearing almost as a ghost wades through the stormy seas, a beacon of hope and serenity for a group of terrified fishermen who were drifting farther and farther from shore. Farther from home, farther from peace, farther from what they needed. Jesus approaches and tells them to not be afraid, all will be fine. Peter calls out to Jesus and asks, and in my interpretation maybe even begs him, if it is you lord call me out of the boat. Well of course Jesus does just that and in that very instant Peter leaves the boat. The part that gets overlooked often is that initially Peter is walking on water too! He is not divine but his faith has carried him over the danger of the deep and tumultuous seas. And then he feels the wind and turbulence and he begins to doubt and immediately starts to sink. But rather than drown and give up he calls out to Jesus, again begging, for his hand to save him. Jesus lifts Peter to safety and with, again in my interpretation a bit of a joking admonishment says to him, “ye of little faith….”

Lord, I am Peter. I am calling to you and asking you to call me from the boat. Take me from safety and that which I am told is comfort and security. Lead me into the stormy seas where only your peace, your serenity, and your grace can be found. I know my faith will be tested and I know I will doubt at some point along the path, but I have enough faith to know too that if I take that plunge you will be there to reach out your hand to lift me up again. I put my life and my love in your hands, Lord, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.

Godstrong (post from 7/29/17)

A few years ago yellow wristbands adorned the young and old alike reminding them to “Livestrong”. A product of a media effort to prop up a now defamed sportsman who was unceremoniously dethroned during his sole act of contrition while speaking to Oprah. While the story behind the meteoric rise to fame and subsequent fall are well known, the subtext is what I find so interesting. Lance Armstrong was by many measures heroic and if not for some poor choices by way of augmenting reality, would go down as an American legend. But in my mind the real story is the pervasiveness of human frailty and the reality that Livestrong ultimately failed because it was rooted in human weakness, not God strength.

The idea was simple and inspiring, you can overcome anything if you choose to be strong and courageous. Lance Armstrong of course had beaten cancer to achieve glory in cycling. Others used that example to achieve their own various levels of success and endurance. But where Lance failed is where God succeeds. Livestrong was a success because of the exploits of someone all too human. Capable of pride, greed, dishonesty and ultimately (hopefully) remorse. God’s strength is so much more powerful because God has no pride, greed, or inherent failing conditions. God does not and cannot fail, humans can.

So it is that when someone is Godstrong, they approach life in a way that is truly inspiring and powerful. The process of choosing to cast off your way of life and risk everything you “own” is frightening. I’ll admit a daily dose of misgivings and fear as we approach d-day, as it were. When you do things one way for 40 years, as in my case, suddenly changing course is not really ingrained in the human psyche. I have found to this point that no amount of human strength is sufficient. I cannot reason my way through this and most of my emotions are pointed away from this endeavor, not towards it. The times that I find myself truly excited and ready to go are when I sit calmly, breath deeply, and ask God for strength. I find comfort and resolve when I do this and this sense of peace is what I see every day in Sara. Just like lifting weights or training for a marathon Godstrong comes from practice and repetition. Sara is a pro at this constantly reminding herself, and me, that God is there for us. This doesn’t mean that she assumes that our path will be easy or laid out with confetti and roses. Instead she believes that God will provide for us what we need and that what we need may not look like what we want. That’s the trick, what we have been conditioned to want and see as good is really just that which makes us feel safe and comfortable. That does not make it bad by any stretch, but comfortable does not always challenge you to be better. Just like exercising, the only way to improve your body is through some modicum of pain. Godstrong requires challenging ourselves, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and almost always mentally. I appreciate the message of Livestrong but part of the failure of that concept was that there was no challenge inherently there. Think of it from this perspective, Livestrong is a call to essentially survive and do your best. What exactly is the challenge there? Which members of the target audience didn’t want to live? Who is actively trying to fail? Godstrong on there converse compels you to do things out of the ordinary. Put yourself in harms way to help others doesn’t sound as appealing in a television advertisement as believe in yourself and overcome adversity. God asks you to encounter adversity, embrace it, and if you don’t have it in your life now then go find it and face it head on and to believe that you don’t need to be the one to overcome it on your own but rather to channel the grace of God.

I am not strong enough to face these challenges on my own. No amount of self encouragement or belief will permit me to accomplish those things that I am called to do. But that’s the point, I don’t need to be. God asks us all to be a reflection of God’s grace on Earth. God doesn’t ask us to be God but rather reflect God’s good will and love. If you think of this reflection in terms of a mirror you get the perfect analogy. A mirror is fragile and finite. They can get fogged up easily, can be scratched and chipped. But despite those weaknesses a mirror, even when broken and shattered, can still reflect that image. God’s strength is there for us in all times of our life, when we feel perfect and when we feel broken. We don’t need to carry this weight ourselves, we just need to reflect God’s strength and love and the way will be found, the doors will open, and the grace of God will flow.