Living With Tension

“Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. 
Each day has enough trouble of its own.\”
Matthew 6:34 (Common English Bible)
     A more promising title for this meditation might be: Living Without Tension. Yet, that is a promise that is neither realistic nor supported by the Bible. Mark’s Gospel declares that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus “began to feel despair and was anxious” (Mark 14:33). Amanda Enayati, writing for Success magazine asserts, “The greatest myth is that stress-free living exists at all. In reality the only time you are truly stress-free is when you are dead.”i Yet, here in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mountain, he seems to suggest that we have the capacity to “stop worrying.”
     Except, Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus teaches that we are to “stop worrying about tomorrow.” There is a considerable difference. It is unlikely that any one of us can simply shut-off any concern or worry. What Jesus offers is the possibility of limiting our worry to one day at a time. As Jesus points out, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
     What has been observed over and over again by psychologists is that women and men become tired, run-down and discouraged not by the challenges that confront them today. What drains our energy is our frightened concern over what waits for us on the horizon – what we have to do tomorrow, and the day after that. This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for tomorrow. It simply means that we don’t work ourselves up into an anxious knot and fever of apprehension worrying about tomorrow. Today, teaches Jesus, is enough to be concerned about.
     What are we to do? All that Jesus had to say about living is fixed firmly on belief and trust in God. God is in our future – we are not left to it alone. The night of Jesus’ arrest was filled with tension and worry. But do not fail to notice what Jesus does with it all. Jesus prays. Jesus claims the presence and concern of a living God that restored his energy and brought healing. What Jesus asks is that we do the same. Do our best today and leave the rest to God. This is a truth that we can accept because it comes from Christ. It is first and last the secret of victorious living.
iAmanda Enayati, “Dissection Stress.” Success.  December 2015, pages 48-51.


When God Says No

“Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However – not what I want but what you want.’”
Mark 14:35, 36 (Common English Bible)
            I remember it well. It was two days before Christmas. All the gifts for our children had been purchased, wrapped, and placed under the family Christmas tree. I had the day off and invited my four year-old daughter, Rachael, to join me for enjoying the holiday decorations at the local mall and lunch in the food court. In one brief moment she was no longer by my side – something in the mall bookstore caught her eye and she was gone. As I entered the bookstore, Rachael presented to me a Barbie Doll calendar. She saw it from the mall. “Please, daddy, will you buy this for me?” Two thoughts swiftly took residence in my mind: First, I could hear my wife making fun of me, “Christmas is two days away, and you bought her a gift?” My defense would be simple and honest, “You were not there looking into those four year-old, imploring eyes.” The second thought was more profound. It shook me. And it caused me considerable pain. For the next fourteen years, until she was an adult, I would have to look into those same eyes and, on many occasions, answer, “No.” This one moment became an easy “Yes.”
            Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. Certainly it is filled with considerable joy, warmth and love. But there is also pain. Some of that pain is from looking into the eyes of a child, deeply loved, and answering, “No.” Children can’t see what parents see. They do not have the deeper understanding of life that parents possess. Consequences to a poorly chosen, “Yes” are not understood. Responsible parenting sometimes demands, looking into the eyes of your child, and answering, “No.” Children will not always understand. They will be disappointed. Occasionally, they may express both anger and sadness. The flood of emotions, experienced and expressed, is unpleasant for both child and parent. But love, on occasion, demands, “No.”
            Jesus teaches us to pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, to pray to our spiritual parent, “Our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:9).” Here, on the night that Jesus would be arrested, Jesus prays. In the shadows of the night, alone in a garden, Jesus addresses his father, “Abba, Father,” which literally means, “Daddy.” Jesus, the son of God, is frightened, on his knees in a garden, and begins his “ask” of his father, “Please, daddy.”  What is God to do? As Christians, we know well that an answer of “Yes” would prevent Jesus’ suffering and death. It would also mean our destruction. For without the cross, each of us would be held accountable for our sins. There would be no forgiveness. Jesus is pleading. What is God to do? God answers his son, “No.”
            Someone has taught Christians a lie. Someone taught Christians that fervent, deeply felt and faithful prayers to God would always be answered with a, “Yes.” That promise is never made in the Bible. What is promised is that God hears every prayer. What is promised is that God draws near to us in prayer. And, additionally, what is promised is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which will ever separate us from God’s love. But God sees what we cannot see. God understands more deeply what we cannot understand. And it is precisely because of that love that God has for us that, sometimes, God’s answer is “No.”


Don\’t Complain!

“The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2, 8b
            Lowell Russell, formerly Executive Secretary and Director of the National Presbyterian Church and Center, Washington, D.C., once shared a lesson he learned from an attorney – a series of propositions that the attorney had written down on paper and kept with him at all times. There were three: “Never tell anyone how much you have to do. Never speak of your problems, your difficulties. Never talk about your disappointments.” In other words, he was saying to himself, “Don’t complain!”[i]
            My friend and mentor, Arthur Caliandro, who followed Norman Vincent Peale as the senior pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, once shared with me his conviction that every pastor would be wise to preach on forgiveness at least three times a year. Caliandro believed that the single greatest obstacle to obtaining full Christian maturity was our difficulty with forgiveness. Any failure to forgive results in a weight that must be carried – by both the injured and the one who caused the injury. For Caliandro, the greatest burden was carried by the one who failed to forgive. Over time, the accumulation of “transgressions” that remain unforgiven results in stagnation of our spiritual growth. Christian growth isn’t possible without the extravagant practice of forgiveness as Christ forgives us.
            Perhaps my friend is correct. Yet, I contend that another hindrance to our growth as Christians is our propensity to complain. Here, in the Book of Exodus, the whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. Food was scarce, the days in the desert were hot and the journey through the desert seemed as though it would never end. Life back in Egypt as slaves seemed to present a better quality of life than a trek through the desert! So, the whole Israelite community complained.
            Moses and Aaron’s response seems to suggest the uselessness of negative thinking and speaking. Yes, the days in the desert were difficult. Discouragement is to be expected. But time and energy “moaning and groaning” provided no relief. So Moses and Aaron deflected the complaints; redirected the complaints made against them to God. It was the exercise of extraordinary leadership. That is because it forced upon the Israelite people the absolute necessity to pay attention to God, to “make their complaint” before God and then “to listen” for how God would respond. It is then that Moses and Aaron fulfilled their primary call to spiritual leadership – beginning the conversation between God’s people and God. That is where spiritual growth occurs.

[i] Lowell Russell, “The Hard Rut of Complaining,” Best Sermons, Volume X. (New York: Trident Press, 1968), 79.

What Makes People Good?

“But examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21 (Common English Bible)
This year (2017) celebrates the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau. In a splendid new biography published to mark this occasion, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls, a professor of English literature at the University of Notre Dame, offers an account of one evening, after young Henry had been sent to bed by his mother, he was found awake long after, staring out the bedroom window. She asked her son, “Why, Henry dear, why don’t you go to sleep?” “Mother” said he, “I have been looking through the stars to see if I couldn’t see God behind them.”[i]Thoreau reminds us that a journey of faith begins by “looking.” For Christians, we look for God by paying attention to the person of Jesus Christ.
In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul offers instruction for a journey of faith. Paul’s beginning point is an invitation to “goodness.” Though goodness is difficult to define – and Paul makes no attempt to do so here – it is wonderfully easy to recognize. Often, simple goodness is observable on first contact with another. Paul asks that followers of Jesus “examine everything” and take notice of goodness wherever it may be found. If we believe that goodness is of paramount importance, as does Paul, it is obvious that we should do all we can to learn how it is achieved. That begins, suggests Paul, when one takes notice of everyone and everything that is good and placing ourselves in contact with it wherever it is found. The disciples became “good” men chiefly as a result of their acquaintance with Christ. That is because the soul grows by what it touches.
After bringing ourselves into steady contact with those of good character, Paul instructs the church to, “hang on to what is good.” What Paul speaks of here is the discipline to identify and break down any barrier that hinders the soul from being positively influenced by those of good character. When people fail to respond to goodness it is because they are not sufficiently aware of impediments that block personal transformation or they fail to discipline their own behavior in the manner of good people. Behind any positive change is a period of “practice” and “self-mastery” over a period of time. “Hang on to what is good,” says Paul. Grip it until the moment arrives that it grips you.
Some years ago, on a Celebrity cruise with my wife, I watched in wonder at a demonstration of glassblowing – through Celebrity’s collaboration with The Corning Museum of Glass. Artists, with what seemed to be little effort, created beautiful colored glass pieces, one after another. After dazzling the passengers with their craft, they shared that “mastery” in their craft took 10,000 hours of practice. Each piece of glassware they produced took an incredibly brief period of time to produce. But, what could not be seen was the long, disciplined time of practice and mastery that made that speed possible. We tend to not notice, or we forget, what preceded anything done successfully. In the same manner, goodness is difficult. But Paul shows us the way. Place ourselves in direct contact with what is good and hang onto it until we profit by it.

[i]Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 43.

Conch Shell

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. 
He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them.”
Matthew 25:14 (Common English Bible)
     Since I was a child I have collected – and adored – conch shells, more specifically, the queen conch variety. I grew-up in Atlanta, Georgia. But once every two years my family vacationed in the Florida Keys. A family tradition that developed was a stop at Shell World located in the first key, Key Largo. It is a tradition I have now resumed with my wife each time we travel to the Keys. Whether for the day or a weekend, each trip to the Florida Keys includes a stop a Shell World. And, on most of those stops, I select and purchase a queen conch. It is a meaningful tradition and I now own dozens of these beautiful shells – six of them in my office! Each purchase connects me to a cherished childhood memory.
     The queen conch is found off the coast of Florida and throughout the Caribbean. The shell is valued as a decorative souvenir and – historically – by Native Americans and indigenous Caribbean peoples to create various tools. The animal that lives within the shell, a marine mollusk, is enjoyed in a variety of seafood preparations. Though not an endangered species as a whole, the queen conch is now protected in Florida waters due to extreme overfishing. The queen conch shell sold by Shell World is responsibly sourced from various Caribbean islands where the conch populations are healthy.
     As a child, I chose to collect the queen conch over other varieties of beautiful shells because of their affordably. There are other varieties of shells that many would consider more striking in their complexity and beauty than the queen conch. And they are much more expensive to purchase. But today, as an adult, I have found a deeper and richer appreciation for surrounding myself with this beautiful shell, in both my home and office. In some South Pacific cultures, a speaker holds a conch shell as a symbol of a temporary position of authority.[i]“Leaders must understand who holds the conch – that is, who should be listened to and when” writes Max De Pree. As a follower of Jesus Christ I also have been given temporary authority to declare God’s love for a hurting world.
     In this rich passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches this spiritual principal in a parable, commonly called the Parable of the Talents. In the story – or parable – a man is leaving on a trip. He calls his servants and distributes his possessions to them. What becomes clear in the larger story is that these possessions are not transferred property. The man who is leaving retains ownership. The possessions are simply entrusted for a period of time to the management of the servants. And upon the man’s return, the servants will be held accountable for their temporary responsibly with his possessions. The queen conch shells in my home and office remind me each day of the tremendous privilege – and responsibly – that has been entrusted to me to declare the depth of God’s love until the day Jesus returns.

[i] Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Crown Business, 2004), 20.