America – Love It, Don’t Leave It

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.                   John 15:13

Many years ago- 1968 in fact- there was a popular bumper sticker that read “America, Love It or Leave It!” This was at the height of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Back in those days, President Johnson liked to call it a “conflict”, since war had never been declared.

The country was highly divided on that and many other issues. In fact, such divisions also exist today, of course. I was struck by that 1968 concept that one would possibly need to make a choice of leaving their country just because they disagreed with flawed policies.

Our country has been plagued with flawed policies ever since its inception. Our laws and attitudes about slavery, our treatment of Native Americans, our arbitrary and racist immigration laws (just check out the Chinese Exclusion Act), 19th century child labor standards- the list goes on and on- attest to our failures in so many areas.

But the point of this blog is not to simply point out America’s flaws on this Memorial Day weekend. In fact, the point is that many died to protect my right to say those very things. When we love something, we get honest, and we speak the truth about it to make it better. Indeed, I love my country, flawed as it is. I am also grateful that I can express that love in a truthful way so that change can happen.

If I were to write this in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I could expect a call from the local thugs he employs to shut me down- or worse. However, if we love America, we should rally to her defense by being completely honest. We speak the truth in love. We are allowed to do that here. Praise God!

Our America needs help. We are becoming a self-absorbed, entitled culture. We have many who fail to act responsibly or to take personal responsibility when things do not work out their way. Their response is to lash out at perceived threats to their worldview. They lash out in murderous ways, at times, against the most innocent among us. Wouldn’t it be refreshing and healthy if each of us looked to ourselves to see our own faults first, then took action to improve our own thoughts and attitudes before blaming others for our problems?  

I worry about our “blame culture” which looks for the cause of our own problems outside of ourselves. Collectively, we can see that America is far from perfect. But this weekend, we celebrate the best our country has to offer- those who gave their lives for our freedom, so that we can look at our country in all its glory and its pain.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for the sacrifice of so many who gave their lives for our freedom, Amen

First, the Positives…

And now, brothers, as I close this letter, let me say this one more thing: Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.                                             Philippians 4:8 (Living Bible)

I was talking recently with a client about our tendency to look for the flaws in a situation rather than first looking for the positives in it. It becomes a habit for us to look for what is wrong in a situation versus what is right in a situation. My client stated that the first thing her husband notices when he gets home is the things she might have missed, or failed to do during the day. Their first interaction upon his arrival home is tainted with a negative flavor. This colors the rest of the evening.

When a Broadway critic reviews a play, they often look first for flaws in acting, writing, musical score, etc. Perhaps they feel that it makes them look smarter to find mistakes, errors and problems rather than to first appreciate the positives of the performance.

In social media, people often look first for mistakes in facts, or judgment problems in the content of the posts. Again, to disagree and point out flaws seems to make the critic look smart or savvy- or maybe they just want to make a statement and stand out from the crowd.

I think we should view statements with an eye toward facts, and we should give honest feedback. Yet, in relationships, we know that finding the positive aspects of our partner or friend, and lifting that up, goes a long way in making strong bonds.   

Whenever possible, as Paul says, “Whatever things are good… think on those things”

Prayer: Lord, give us the insight and discipline to first look for what we can praise before we look to criticize, Amen

Daily Bread

After this manner therefore pray ye, Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done even in earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen                            Matthew 6:9-13

I used the very old translation of this venerable prayer, because there is a poetry to it in this form. We memorized the prayer as children, and it was typically in old verse like this. There is some comfort in reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the old style, but we need to remember that there is no magic in the words. It gives us comfort to recite, but what do the words really mean?

As I was thinking about this, I saw that this was the model for how we should pray every day. Each morning back in the day that Jesus taught this prayer, people had to find and make their bread for the day. They would go to the community oven to bake bread, or they would daily lay a flat matza (or matzah) on a hot stone to bake it. Bread was a daily staple, but there were no preservatives (not much shelf life), and daily bread was just the way of life.

Just like the bread needed to be daily, so did forgiveness, fleeing from temptation, and deliverance from evil.

 Daily disciplines strengthen us. I have found that I take comfort in the predictability of my daily disciplines, especially as we are living in a world that is so far from predictable every day. So, take control of your daily disciplines- prayer, reading, exercise- whatever things you do daily to make sense of the world in order to keep your body and mind healthy.

We still need Daily Bread.

Prayer: Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done even in earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen                          

How Do You Spend Your Time?

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, …                                                                                                                                                           Ecclesiastes 3

I was listening to a podcast this morning on my walk, and I got thinking about how we spend our time. “Spend” is an interesting verb when we think about time, because time is a resource- a precious one- and how we spend it, or perhaps waste it, is an extremely important consideration.

I then began to think about how we actually do keep track of how we spend time. My belief is that if we actually logged each day how we spent our time, we might be a bit embarrassed, maybe guilty. Who knows, we may even feel really good about it. I hope so.

You see, this whole consideration was based upon listening to a discussion of social media and its role in our life. How much time do we truly spend on social media? If we had to keep track of it, would it actually change the amount of time we spend on social media?

My guess is that if we had to actually write down the amount of time we spend on our activities of each day, it would change our behavior. It is one of those instances when, if we are actually mindful of something, it literally changes the way we behave. Do we really want to accept that we spend that much time looking at Twitter or Tik Tok, or whatever? Do we really want to become aware that we spent so little time in meaningful interaction with those we love?

These are just a few examples, but I think you get the idea. If we really become aware that we are giving much of our limited precious time to activities that do not give richer meaning to our life, don’t you think that might produce a behavior change?

Prayer: Lord, help us to be mindful of the amount of time we spend with others, and with you, Amen     

Certainty

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.                             Hebrews 11:1

Recently I have been thinking about our notions of certainty and how that affects our world view. What are the things of which we are certain?  For example, I am a person of faith, and as such, I have my own notions of security, my own certainty, based upon a relationship with God who loves me. I also think that the world God created is amazing, and to think it randomly evolved to this level of exquisite complexity would, in my mind, be ludicrous.

At the same time, I do not think that the world was created in 7 days about 7,000 years ago, although there are some Christians who do. I do not know the processes that God used to bring   this world, this universe, into existence- that is a mystery to me. I am perfectly comfortable stating that position. I can live in some ambiguity quite nicely, without a need to have precise explanation of how the world came into being. There is a level of uncertainty in that.

For centuries the organized Church had “certainty” about how the universe works. The sun and other planets revolved around the earth. It must be that way. It was certainty. Anyone who taught otherwise faced the considerable wrath of the Church. Gradually, science facts became irresistible, and the Church finally acknowledged the scientific certainty of a heliocentric universe.

Unfortunately, the Church’s need for certainty about the universe led to a wholesale departure from the Church as a source of truth, as science became the accepted standard for determining truth.

The Age of Enlightenment came to be and gradually, the spiritual truths of which the Church was guardian, became hopelessly entangled in science, politics and governance. The role of faith was now labeled as an anachronism, an old remnant of a long-abandoned way of seeing the world.

Fast forward to the 20th century where the theoretical physicists of the age were the new guides to the universe. Werner Heisenberg was one of those brilliant physicists in the early 20th century. In his study of quantum physics, he came up with his “uncertainty principle” which states that one cannot measure with certainty both the location and the momentum of a particle. Further, the act of measuring actually changes the result. This causes us to make “good educated guesses” about the movement of particles which make up all matter.

For some, this accelerated the movement away from all certainty, and it spilled over into all areas of life. It was as if some portions of society were saying, “We can be certain of nothing, so let’s simply take down all the old barriers and beliefs”.

In terms of faith, I think the idea of mystery is not only acceptable, but important. How can we force an almighty God into the limited box of our understanding? If we know that God loves us, and sent His son to die for us, isn’t that enough to understand?  

Prayer: Lord, thank you for the certainty of your love for us, Amen

Love or Fear?

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.                                                                                                                            I John 4:18

We are soon coming up on May 18th. That day happens to be my brother’s birthday (Happy Birthday Ed!), and it is also the anniversary of an infamous Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson. I am currently reading a book titled The Great Dissenter, which tells of the life of John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenting Supreme Court voter on that fateful decision.

In light of the recent racially motivated shootings in Buffalo, New York, we note once again that racial strife is still very present in our society. The Buffalo shooter evidently was obsessed with a racist trope called “The Great Replacement”. This theory has had many iterations over the years, but it has gained a more recent hold in the United States by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis. The theory plays on fear and hatred, the lifeblood of racist groups.

Many people believe that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision opened the door for legally sanctioned Jim Crow laws, which for decades eroded the American character. It affirmed a belief that White people and African-Americans could not, indeed should not, have truly equal access to the amenities of the country. When the law sanctions poor behavior, such behavior flourishes. It took 58 years for Plessy v. Ferguson to be essentially struck down by the equally auspicious decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That decision affirmed that “separate but equal” is not a valid argument concerning the education rights of citizens in the United States. Rather, it explained that Plessy v. Ferguson was an excuse to be racially divisive.

While legislation is important, it does not change the hearts of people who live by fear. Christians are called to have the love of one another as the signal tenet to live by. If one believes that people of different color, different faith, or different culture constitute a threat, then they will be doomed to a small and painful life of clinging onto a belief that never will work- one that is ultimately destructive. They will be ruled by fear, not love.

So, May 18th might be a good day to reflect on the beliefs which guide us. Do we live by fear, or are we guided by love?

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength and wisdom to be guided by love, not fear, Amen

Acceptance

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”                                                  II Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV)

I recently spoke with a client who has a chronic physical problem, and she has been frustrated for years regarding its effects on her life. It is not a life- threatening problem, but it is certainly a “life-limiting” one.

We discussed her frustrations about living with this condition, and then she asked me, “Will I ever get over these feelings of anger and resentment? Will I ever get to the place of acceptance?”

It made me think about what acceptance really is. Paul in the Bible struggled with a “thorn in the flesh”, a phrase that has worked itself into our culture as an example of chronic suffering for which there may never be a complete remedy.   

Paul took the occasions of such reminders of suffering not to curse the condition, but to have it be a reminder to him of God’s ability to be sufficient even in our suffering- that God’s power is displayed when we are at our weakest.

I told my client that acceptance is “honest ownership of what we are feeling”. The question is not  “Will I ever stop feeling this way”, but rather, “what will I do when I recognize that I am feeling this way?”

My client has the tendency to condemn herself when she gets angry or frustrated about her situation. I suggested to her that frustration is a pretty normal response to her suffering, but honest appraisal of the unwanted feeling is the freedom she needs. Acceptance is not becoming complacent with how we feel, or ignoring how we feel, or even liking what we feel. Acceptance is honest ownership of that feeling. It is only then that we can be aware of the power that God can give us to transform the suffering into something that can enhance our human experience.

No one likes pain, and we try very hard to avoid it, naturally. But when we respond honestly to our feelings about it, we can start to redeem the pain into something of benefit to ourselves or to others.  

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength to honestly look at our responses to suffering, and to look to you for redemption of it, Amen

“Thinking Our Way Out?”

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.                                                                                                                                      Matthew 6:33-34

I had occasion recently to talk with a client who had a traumatic event in her family which triggered an anxiety reaction in her. In speaking with her about developing her “anxiety tool kit”,  I explained that making a list of behaviors she could employ in times of anxiety was the way to deal with her anxiety. I told her that she would not be able to “think her way out” of anxiety. This struck her, because she was used to having a “wrestling match” in her head when anxiety struck. When I challenged her idea of thinking her way out of a thinking problem, she paused and said, “I never though of that- that makes sense!”

We typically do the same things over and over in order to deal with our problems. Novel approaches are seen as risky, often times. The truth is, anxiety is a travelling partner -an unwanted one to be sure- and we need to accept the fact that anxiety will rise up at various times. The approach we need to take is that, when anxiety strikes (not if, but when), we have the tools to deal with it. We can pause, pray, then employ our behavioral strategies which can break the hold of anxious thoughts.

 We can take control of the situation by preparing behavioral responses to it. Our “anxiety tool kit” includes those activities, such as controlled breathing to start the list, which we can actively employ to deal with the irrational thoughts we call anxiety.   

We can remind ourselves that avoidance of anxiety is not the key, but rather when anxiety rises up, we can employ effective tools to deal with it. We can exercise control over anxiety as long as we don’t start to assess self-blame which just compounds the problem.

The list of small practical behaviors we can employ when feeling stressed or anxious allows us to take an active, controlled behavioral approach to dealing with anxiety.

We are not going to “think our way out of anxiety”. However, we can be effective in dealing with anxious thoughts by using good, practical behaviors which give us control of a situation which feels out of control.

Prayer: Lord, give us the pause to be able to reach out to you when we are anxious, and to see that you have made provision for us, Amen

Go Toward the Good

Candidates for public office are littering the airwaves with blistering attacks on their opponents during this primary election season. For my readers from around the world, election ads in the United States are opportunities to have candidates lie more and more about their opponents rather than talk about their own record. Lies about their own record come much later when they try to justify their own seat.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, and I’m sure that you have, I am pretty jaded about campaigns for elected office. You see, when I observe vicious attacks on an opponent by a politician, I assume that they do not have enough positive things to say about themselves. Negativity does not move the needle for me on candidates. I look for their own accomplishments, abilities and plans for improving things for their constituency. If all they have to offer is poison about their opponent, I assume that they are incompetent, and that they believe the voters are also incompetent.

If you have been a reader of my blog over these years, you know that I have a principle of “It is better to go toward the good than avoid the bad”. This holds true in mental attitude, business and leadership decisions, and with how people are motivated in general. We get energized in seeking the higher good. We get worn out running from the negative and hurtful.

This is true in all dimensions of life, so in political races it also holds true. Don’t try to get me to vote for you if all you have is poison, negativity and even lies about your opponent. Tell me what good you bring to the table, and I might listen. Otherwise, save your advertising dollars.

I am not naïve either. Research seems to bear out that negative advertising works. Yet, just because the tactic works does not make it right. After all, one of the candidates is going to win, and our opinion of them is already tainted with months of attacks and often falsehoods about them. How does that help us to gain respect for our elected officials?

So, consider this when you are trying to size up the candidate for whom you will cast your vote. Consider those candidates (if you can find them) who promote their own ideas and their own qualifications for the office- not those whose only plan is to poison the well on your opinion of the opponent.

Feeling Good

You’re addicted to thrills? What an empty life! The pursuit of pleasure is never satisfied.

Proverbs 21:17 (The Message)

Early in the days of laboratory exploration of the brain, there was an experiment with rats. The experimenters hooked up these rats with electrodes that were connected to a machine that would give a very mild stimulation to the area of the brain we call the “pleasure center”. When the rats pressed a lever, they were given a mild brain stimulation which resulted in an experience of pleasure. The rats would press this lever endlessly, foregoing food for the stimulation. Later, in other experiments, intravenous cocaine was offered at the same time as food was presented, again based on pressing the lever, and the rats consistently pressed for the shot of cocaine over eating the food.  

The point here is that anything that produces immediate pleasure is addictive. Think of those potato chips, or those Hershey Kisses, or maybe those peanut M&Ms. You name your addiction (I just named mine with those peanut M&Ms). If it gives immediate results, that is, makes you feel good right away, it has the potential to be addictive.

That is the thing with those immediate “feel goods”. We end up paying a heavy price if we are not aware of the potential that lies therein. Food, sex, gambling, alcohol, drugs, etc. make us feel good right away, as soon as we “use”. The key is awareness of what we are actually doing. Denial says that “I can handle it”, or “just one more time”, “I’m not like them”, or whatever particular line works for you.

Again, moderation in things that give us pleasure is important. God gives us good gifts, receptive senses, and a host of things that are available to give us pleasure. Our job is to be aware of what we are doing, and honestly look at our behaviors over time. That is one of the truths that set us free- literally.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for good gifts you provide for us. Help us see them as gifts and use them wisely, Amen.