What Did You Promise Yourself?

Driving home down that same highway
Sun in my eyes this time
Trying to find a song on the radio
A tune I haven’t heard a million times before
Something that resonates with my mood today
Reliving today’s missed opportunities
What’s at home for dinner?
This life is still strange to me
I don’t have the right rhythm yet for this new dance
I promise I’m going to figure this out
And continue to become who I’m supposed to be

“Sometimes people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them. But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.” ― John Green,

Twice over the past six months I’ve heard different people say that the promise of a marriage was worth breaking if happiness was at stake. This was hard for me to hear. My wife and I were married for 35 years and spent the last five of those years fighting cancer together. She was so strong and valiant. While I wasn’t always a very nice caregiver (think Nurse Ratchet), I never thought about jumping ship. We weren’t very happy during this battle. But leaving our marriage never crossed my mind. Now, over those 35 years we had many ups and downs. I honestly don’t think either of us spent much time tossing around the idea that abandoning our marriage was one of the choices we could consider. Regardless of how happy we were at any given moment.

“A good marriage is supposed to be one where each spouse secretly thinks he or she got the better deal.” ― Anne Lamott

The more I think about it, I wonder if it’s the promise to someone else that’s easier to back out of?  Don’t you think we live in a world where commitment is never certain in anything anymore? People back out of contracts, loans, friendships, etc. every day. Maybe it’s always been like that?

Are most people living together rather than getting married today because they area afraid to make promises they can’t keep?

cohabitation 1

My subject is marriage but the promise that I think is essential here is the one we make to ourselves first.  I believe it’s the promise we make to ourselves that makes the promises to others possible. Relationships work – even when it’s terrible – because we’ve first made a deep internal promise that affirms who we are and what we actually believe. People who can’t make that kind of promise or at least start the process, don’t make it very well in the relationship journey.

“We make promises to live, not to keep.” ― Marty Rubin

In order to start a relationship on the right foot and keep it heading in a healthy direction – each partner must be able to make a promise and keep it. The first thing to understand about making promises to other people is that they never work if you can’t hold on to promises you’ve made to yourself. I don’t think my wife and I would have made it for 35 years if we hadn’t, prior to marrying, each carried within us the promise that marriage was permanent. Then we could make the same promise to one another. I think keeping a promise with each other depended, in a large part, on our promises to our selves.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ― Ernest Hemingway

You already know that you can’t change someone else. You can’t make other people keep their promises to you. What you can do is make certain you keep your own promises. The place to start is to be certain you are true to the promises you’ve made to yourself. Most of these promises center around who we believe we are (and are becoming).

What kinds of promises do you make to yourself?

  • to live up to your roles (parent, spouse, friend, employee, etc.)
  • to put others first
  • to keep changing , growing and learning

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

 

How Not To Pray

That was the night I learned how not to pray
God does what God wants to any way
And I never did tell my mother, I kept it from my sisters and all my brothers
That was the night I learned how not to pray

Chorus to song by Iris Dement

When I heard this song I took a different meaning than when my wife heard it. I’m  not sure what meaning she took away – she was always more of a concrete literalist. When I heard the song (it’s about a little girl praying for her younger brother who has fallen down the stairs and is rushed to the hospital – he doesn’t make it) I understand the lyrics to be about someone growing up and deciding that prayer isn’t about trying to tell God what to do. I think my wife thought the song was about getting mad at God and giving up on prayer. There are a lot of people I know who have gotten mad at God. Many more who have given up on praying. I’m not sure why I haven’t.

As I’ve grown up, praying has changed in many ways for me. It has become a much larger territory to explore. It has kept me alive and kicking during times when I was ready to lie down and never get up again.

During my whole life of faith has involved prayer. Here’s what prayer has never accomplished for me:

  • I never had all my problems solved (not even most of them!)
  • Financial problems always remained – although I did often get mysterious money in the mail – but it was never more than just enough for that moment
  • My difficulties and situations at the different jobs I had were never easy or solved just like that
  • My wife eventually died from cancer that had moved into her brain – countless people prayed for her to be healed

“The wise man in the storm prays God not for safety from danger but for deliverance from fear.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Prayer has always been a method of survival for me. It’s a practice that keeps my center, my sanity, a longer perspective. Praying keeps my feet on the floor and my head above the waves. Quick fixes, even long solutions are external and eventually pass away. Instead, prayer is the path I take through each obstacle. Sometimes things get fixed, sometimes they don’t. Prayer is the method of transformation that is taking place in my eternal life.

I have prayed in all kinds of ways:

  • laying on the ground with my face to the floor
  • holding hands with others
  • out loud in front of a group
  • when hearing a great song (usually in the car, alone)
  • nowadays, each time I walk out of Starbucks
  • alone on a long walk
  • in writing
  • with someone on the phone
  • while writing on the wall of a room
  • when worshiping with the church
  • laying hands on someone
  • joining with others to compose a single prayer out loud

“When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person.”  ― Philip Yancey

Praying is a private activity. There is also a very public dimension. I pray with others all the time. I pray on behalf of others out loud. Sometimes just one or two come together and pray about personal matters. Praying is a social activity as well as an intimate relationship with God.

I know that prayer isn’t a

  • private internal meditative practice
  • a religious ritual
  • some way that I have to earn God’s love and favor

Instead, for me, prayer has always been centered around relationship. One that I have been building with God and a way I can help people I know and love. Praying for other people (intercession) is wonderful way to build relationships and to keep myself from being too stuck in my own problems.

“We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in His plan for the answer. If we are true intercessors, we must be ready to take part in God’s work on behalf of the people for whom we pray.” ― Corrie ten Boom

Why have I never stopped praying?

  • I have always heard words of comfort, guidance, correction and assurance when I pray
  • Because I have grown up with a lonely soul and needed someone to talk to
  • It seems the only way for me to maintain this essential relationship in my life
  • When I pray, I receive answers – I know that God is listening and responding to me

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of  the one who prays.”  ― Soren Kierkegaard

In an American society that has taught us all to want results now and to take charge of our own lives – prayer is usually a last resort. It’s not a habit that reflects how we’ve been raised to approach life. The practice of prayer demonstrates dependence, waiting, and following. Praying shapes our self into another direction, a different way of thinking.

Each crisis I have faced in life – betrayals by closest friends, the bottom falling out of my life’s work, cancer destroying the only person who loved me – so far, I have survived these only because I was able to pray. I was never alone in any of these terrors. I didn’t know how to escape, but I knew I wasn’t alone. God keeps walking me through the darkness.

“No one can believe how powerful prayer is and what it can effect, except those who have learned it by experience. Whenever I have prayed earnestly, I have been heard and have obtained more than I prayed for. God sometimes delays, but He always comes.”   ― Martin Luther

What Do You Do When You’re Alone?

“If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.” ― Paulo Coelho

As I thought about it the other day, living alone for the first time in my life has created all kinds of new options and realizations:

  1. Extra time to think about lists of what you can now do while living alone!
  2. It’s okay to walk around without your pants on
  3. You don’t have to make dinner, you can actually eat meals whenever you want, or not at all
  4. Every mess in the house has only one culprit
  5. The TV is okay company, I leave it on, but usually have to watch a program several times to understand what’s going on – I’m not paying enough attention the first time
  6. You never run out of hot water – although I did, had to have the water heater replaced
  7. It’s okay to leave the door open when going to the bathroom
  8. When you’re alone you (with no pets) you do more out loud talking to yourself, at least I do – even in parking lots, at the store and while waiting in line. I have to be more careful though. You can imagine.
  9. There isn’t anyone else who’s going to pick that up
  10. I’m not always certain that what I’m wearing matches

“There is a wilderness we walk alone
However well-companioned”
― Stephen Vincent Benét

When the internet and cell phone were introduced into our society, the boundaries between work and home began to fall. We are busier because of technology. It has not liberated us as was promised.

Cell phone addiction strikes at a very young age and even begins to alter your brain. Many of the leading innovators in technology, people who invent Apps for example, won’t let their own children have cell phones!

As we get older, we will spend more of our time alone. But what will we do with this time alone?

I don’t think you’re ever going to make much progress if you don’t consistently spend time alone. But not just in seclusion. Alone and thoughtful about yourself, others and the situation. It’s going to take a long time. Your whole life. But in the noisy chaos that invades each moment, you’ll never find who you really are and what needs to happen until you (1) put down that phone, (2) walk out on the routines that trap you, and (3) unpack all the fear, frustration and dreams that are crammed into your soul.

Come close to God, and God will come close to you.  – James 4:8

What Do You Remember?

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.” ― Steven Wright

If I look at my phone while on the way to the kitchen I will invariably forget my mission.

I’ve got post-it notes all over the house now – there are several important tasks that I need to keep in front of me.

I’m going to do a better job of trying to learn the names of all 75 of my students this semester, and all 44 of my advisees.

I went to see one of my students last week. She was in the hospital. I live so close, it didn’t take me long to quickly make the decision and get going. She had sent me an email and it sounded like she needed a visit. I learned a long time ago that going to see someone who’s in the hospital can be a big deal and is always worth the effort.

But there was another nagging pull at my emotions as I was getting ready and on my way. Over the past five years, my wife and I had made many trips to the hospital while she fought a hard battle with cancer. Going to the hospital again today hurt as the door to a great room full of feelings was opened up.

Life is made up of choices that we navigate. Decisions that at times we are unconscious about even making. So many of our turns and jolts along the way are shaped by memory. Some of these memories can be painful and still filled with emotions.

“We are our choices.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

I teach a course in Social Psychology. We cover content related to cognitive biases, the many ways that our thinking can be foggy. Our memories are often distorted in a number of ways. Here are some examples (I’ve shared some of these before):

Hindsight Bias: when we think about past events, we believe that we were able to predict them, we knew it all along

Confirmation Bias: when thinking about the past, we tend to only see pieces that corroborate what we believe – we find what we are looking for (disregarding disconfirming information)

Rosy Retrospective: we tend to remember events the past better than they really were

Self-Serving Bias: we believe we were responsible for the good things that happened but not for the bad things

Reminiscence Bump: it’s often easier to recall personal details from adolescence and early adulthood than from other periods of our life

These are just of few of the problems we can experience. Memory really can play tricks on us. Despite these known problems, I don’t think this is the real worry about our memory. I think we often end up letting our memory use us rather than visa versa.

Instead, I suggest that you:

  1.  Use your memories of the past in deliberate ways to shape your steps today
  2. Let the memories of people from your past help you to get through the troubles of today – and make plans about tomorrow. Let examples inspire you.
  3. Look backwards and make deliberate choices about your memories. Keep those that you can learn from, that give you strength, that you can pass on to others. Let the rest fade away. Set them down, like a heavy suitcase, and walk away.

All of this means you are going to have to spend some time being reflective. Think about your life right now – how did you get here and where are you going?

“I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

As I drove to the hospital last week, there were heartbreaking memories flooding back. But what became more important to me was remembering all of the wonderful people who came to the hospital and took care of us, whose presence, even for a few minutes, was like a cup of hope. What beloved memories that keep me going every single day…and took me down the road that day to the hospital to see someone else.

Do You Really Need God Anymore?

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis

I got to teach a course on religion this past year. That’s one of my specialties that I enjoy digging into and helping students understand. It’s an especially exciting experience for me because working at a Christian university, there are a number of misconceptions that we have to address right away. The first is that the course is about religion, not just about Christianity. That opens up our study to all of history and all of the many ways that human society has gone about creating explanations for the unknown.

It’s a great class that I think everyone needs to take. Can I sign you up?

“Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Our society right now is so advanced and has enabled most individuals to thrive so well that I often wonder if we need God anymore?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Do you need God today? What about tomorrow?

Sociologist Christian Smith writes that people (as members of a society) are religious because:

…they hope for superhuman powers to help them realize human goods and avoid bads, especially to grant them blessings, prevent misfortunes and aid them in crises; and because they wish to enjoy the various forms of identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control and legitimacy that practicing religions offer.

We studied his definition in class this past year. It still has me thinking about the practice of religion in my own life and among the groups to which I belong. I don’t think ANYONE that I know would ever say or believe that they didn’t need God anymore. But how do we know that people need God? What behaviors would we find?

  1. Attending religious services and studies, to express and grow in faith
  2. Praying, alone and in groups, seeking answers to problems
  3. Sharing their faith story in prayer requests and testimonies
  4. Seeking answers to larger (and smaller) questions about the application of faith to daily life

This is just the start of a list. You could probably brainstorm other additions.

When I look at Smith’s definition of religion (it has be very global so it fits all religions throughout the world and history), it makes me wonder if people in my circles are less religious just because we don’t think we need God for much. As long as we have good health insurance, a retirement plan, a steady job, a warm and loving family – why do we need to bother God?

Again, I don’t think we are actually aware that we’ve fallen out of our relationship with God. Because we’ve become so self-sufficient (or so we think), he’s just become like a distant uncle who we visit on the holidays.

I’m probably being way too cynical.

You take a look at your own life and decide.

  1. What and who are on your prayer list? Do you keep one?
  2. What are your conversations about when you’re with other Christians? The weather?
  3. How often do you attend your church and small group? Are you spectating or participating?
  4. Are you and God on speaking terms right now?

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” ― C.S. Lewis

Why not start to journal this year about your spiritual life, about your need for God? Writing each day will help you to refocus and realign, just in case you’ve accidently wandered off into that place where you think you’ve got it all under control.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”   ― A.W. Tozer

 

Time For A Resolution Or Two

It’s 2020, the future seems right around the corner. What did people in the past predict about the world we now live in?

  • In a lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1911, a surgeon by the name of Richard Clement Lucas made a curious prediction: that the “useless outer toes” will become used less and less, so that “man might become a one-toed race.” “This Little Piggy” would get a whole lot shorter!
  • The RAND Corporation predicted that by the year 2020 it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labor.
  • Robots are the typical prediction for the future—and technically, we do sort of have robots now. But global trends expert Ariane Van de Ven had some bigger ideas for 2020. She explained “there will be more robots used as therapists, companions, assistants, and even friends to help people in their everyday,” according to The Next Web.

“Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately.” ― Charles M. Sheldon

Have you given up making New Year resolutions? This seems like a significant year. What should be on your list (if you were to make one?)

I read on the bottle that V8 has three servings of vegetables. I’m going to drink a can each day. Maybe the spicy variety tastes better?

It wasn’t very sturdy upholstery to start with, but when you’ve worn out your chair in front of the TV it’s time to get up off your rear and move more!

I’ve already started getting rid of possessions that I don’t need or use.

Wonder if I can stick with just one of these three months from now?

Your resolutions for 2020 may not work if:

  1. You make them too big – start with smaller bites (eat that elephant one bite at a time)
  2. Your resolutions are too vague, “2020 is the year of getting healthier” – what does that mean or look like? Think of something specific that you change, start there and then soon after, pick something else.
  3. Sometimes we let other people make our resolutions for us, we try to keep them happy, but our own heart/will isn’t really in it. Only goals and changes that you desire stand a chance of actually coming about.

Let me suggest a wonderful resolution that I’ve been working on the past several months. Not so much to fix my life so that I live problem free, but to stop worry so much about all the problems I do face. I’m not living my life alone. I’m never going to live problem free. But maybe I can reduce the worry and stress. Think about this as a resolution for 2020:

Stop Worrying So Much

Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well. So don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:31-34)

What I’ve been learning is not how to avoid the cares of life or to make them go away. Instead how to stop worrying about them. They are inevitable. I think that’s why in this teaching from Jesus he uses examples that everyone has to face every single day; eating, drinking and putting on your pants. I think what he’s teaching me is that my worrying about the cares of life doesn’t really accomplish anything but making me more miserable.

So, over the past several months, as my life has been in a kind of collapse I’ve been learning to not worry. Here’s what I think has helped:

  1. Knowing and experiencing the fact that I’m not alone. The cares of life haven’t gone away, but I’m surrounded by lots of people who love me, pray for me and bear me up when needed. Just knowing this removes so much of the constant anxiety that eats away at the spirit.
  2. What always helps is to honestly look back at my past. When I see that my life lived near to God has always been a time of far less worry, it helps manage today’s fears. I’ve been here before. I’ve lived to tell a story of success. I’ve not avoided the dark days, but I’ve gotten through them with God’s help.
  3. The need to have complete control over my life is an illusion and a waste of energy. There’s too much out there that just can’t be controlled. Ever find it necessary get somewhere in a hurry on a late Friday afternoon in Houston?  The better plan is to control yourself – love God, love others. Control what you can as best you can – you.

“What is the New Year but the perfect place to live out what we learned in the old year?” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

What did you learn in 2019? What do you need to learn in 2020?

 

 

The Ghosts of Christmas

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”  ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We live out each day surrounded by memories and in so many ways these mark out the pathway toward each one of our tomorrows.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

I’ve been in my house alone for four months. The TV going just so there’s background sounds on while I’m doing my chores. But there are other sounds in the house that seem to be haunting my days and nights. Some I can explain, others…

  1. I’ve written before about my haunted refrigerator that moans and groans. It causes my grandson to stop and look around when we are here together. He wonders who else is hiding in the house. It’s just our marked down appliance painfully making ice all day and night.
  2. Early this fall the derelict hot water heater in the attic had a spigot dripping. It could only be heard late at night by the rare overnight visitor in the guest bedroom underneath. It’s very old and I’m certain it’s going to go any minute. I’m just glad it’s not over my bed!
  3. There’s been a history of varmints in my attic. They are back for winter. This year the squirrels (above my bedroom) go in and out each morning and the opossum makes his exit at night. Lots of traffic to try and corral. They get noisy at times, late at night especially.

As Christmas decorations have gone up there are other haunting spirits that speak, sometimes softly and at other times very loud. My house is now even more bathed in memory. Christmas was my wife’s favorite time of year. It’s a season filled with treasures of memory to take me with joy into days, weeks and months ahead.

This time of year can bog any of us down with urgent tasks that must get done. There are events, festivities and family gatherings crowding the calendar. Extra meals, gifts and decorations must all be purchased and prepared. Despite online, curbside and next day, our days remain fraught with increased activity. Year after year, nothing seems to change.

This year, stop and sit down for a few minutes each day and collect your memories. Write something down in a journal. Make a list in your phone. Like treasures, arrange them in your heart so that you don’t miss any part of this holiday and new year. Don’t let your busyness steal away those moments so important to remember.

Researchers have long known that (1) your current mood influences what you file away about your experiences into your memory. If you are in a perpetual bad mood, you will tend to only remember your negative experiences.  And (2) your current mood tends to determine what kinds of memories you retrieve. If you’re in a general good mood, you will tend to pull up only positive memories from the past.

This means our memory making and retrieving are influenced by our emotional feelings and attitudes. 

“He was consious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

What is it that’s always floating in the air about you? What treasured memories are worth holding onto? That bad mood is going to poison not just today but your future as well.

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” ― Guy de Maupassant

You will of course create new memories this holiday. I am only urging you to stop with those you love and be more intentional about remembering bits and pieces of your past. Share a laugh, get the details right, and cry a little. Use these to hang on to all that really matters from days gone by. This will keep you in a happy mood, and it will lock away the good stuff for a rich future (for you and everyone else).

“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol