An Understanding Heart

“Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” (1 Kings 3:9 NAB)

It Struck me the other day when this reading came up in church that I had been missing the real message here. In all the years I’ve heard some reference or other to Solomon’s unparalleled wisdom, it never occurred to me that wasn’t precisely what he was asking for. He was asking God to give him an understanding heart.

So wanting to delve deeper, I Googled the definition of “understanding” when used as an adjective and this is what I got: “sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings; tolerant and forgiving.” That’s somewhat different than being wise, don’t you think? Oh, I’m not putting down wisdom, don’t get me wrong. It’s something we should all seek to acquire as we experience whatever life throws our way. We certainly look for it (sometimes with the aid of a magnifying glass) in our leaders and those who counsel us. And we should.

But how different–and better–would our world be if we tried to understand how another person feels? And why. The why is really important, if we are going to understand that person; be tolerant (or better yet, accepting); and when necessary, forgiving. And the greater the difference between ourselves and others, the greater the challenge this becomes. And the more crucial the ability to succeed.

We are all much more similar on the inside that we are different on the outside. We all have insecurities, doubts, dreams, trials, weaknesses, and strengths. We all need affirmation, support, love, and forgiveness.

Sometime…somehow…someplace, it all comes full circle. What we send forward–what we put out there–always comes back. When we understand that, we will be truly wise.

Ashes to Ashes – And Beyond

Being raised a Christian, I’ve never doubted the existence of a divine creator behind the vastness of the universe, the complexity of the human body, or the majesty and order of our planet. Nor have I doubted the reality of life after death. Oh, not a re-incarnated life with all the pain and frailty we’ve already endured, but a life of perfect health, beauty and pure joy.

Honestly, I don’t know how those who believe otherwise can deal with the concept of death. Especially if their life has fallen short of what they had envisioned it would be. As they see the end approaching much too quickly, what thoughts and feelings would they have? I wonder. And how do they explain the permanence of death to their children? When a loved one dies, what words of comfort could they offer?

What’s my point, you may be asking? I guess it boils down to my belief that life is a transition into death. And death is a transition into life. From the supernatural (soul + body = conception); to the natural (life on earth); to the supernatural (glorified life after death).

Seen that way, life can be considered a preparation. Not for death, but for what comes after. A spiritual evolution, if you will. To quote a line from a very old TV show, “The secret of all success is preparation.” Laying the groundwork, then putting forth the effort–whatever it takes.

So how exactly do I do that? First, I think I need to look beyond the material, the superficial, to what really matters. Cultivating loving, healthy relationships; nourishing my mind and spirit as well as my body; forgiving myself and people who have hurt me. That’s just for starters. I’m sure you could come up with many more ways to prepare for the transition we all began the moment we came into this world.

What happens after that final transition? What lies beyond death? Of course none of us knows for sure. But I believe it will be glorious. Paradise–just like Jesus promised. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be dying to find out!

 

Bumping into Strangers

Just for a moment, let’s divide people into three categories: 1. Friends/loved ones; 2. Colleagues/bosses; 3. Strangers. Okay. From which category do people annoy you the most? I’d love to take an actual survey on this, so please, feel free (read encouraged) to respond.

For me the answer can vary on any given day, but mostly I’d have to answer  category 3, strangers. And usually they are steering something. Like a car or shopping cart. I’m getting better though. I don’t bump into strangers anymore. Those are the shopping cart offenders, of course. Or wish flat tires on drivers who cut me off. But yes, I’m still annoyed when simple courtesies are violated.

Our Lord told Peter, never known for his patience, to forgive 70 x 7. That’s quite a challenge, but I’ve done it often. Unfortunately it’s the same sin. And the same sinner. Forgiving is easy for me, you see. It’s the forgetting part I get hung up on. So I’m working on that right now. Really letting go of past frustrations, grudges, feelings of being hurt, dismissed, or not heard.

It’s not easy, but holding on to anger eats away at the soul. Letting go can give great peace. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to forgive ourselves. People who don’t like themselves, rarely find much to like about others. Look for the best in both. God always does.

 

The Garden of Good and Evil

Is there a person on the planet who hasn’t wondered why bad things happen to good people? Or why good things happen to bad people? I know I have. The bad news is there’s no good answer to that question. The good news is–we don’t need to come up with one.

The truth is, the best we can do, is do our best. Love ourselves, love our neighbor (friend or foe), and love God. Then act like it. When bad things come our way, we can find support from family, friends, and faith to help us get through them. And then look for what good might come from it. What good fruit might we reap from a rotten situation? Maybe not right away, during the pain, but down the line a bit.

I challenged myself to examine my past and identify one good thing that resulted from something evil, painful, or when I’d felt wronged. I came up with more instances than I thought I would.

Good can come out of evil. As long as the human race inhabits the earth, the devil will always have his say in the matter. But he will never have the last word.

The Kaleidoscope

Growing up, I remember being fascinated by kaleidoscopes. I still am. Often on vacation I come across some very unique  and exquisite ones. Far more complex and ornate than the cardboard version I twisted this way and that as a child. It always amazes me how one slight adjustment totally transforms what I see.

There is a proverb: “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” The meaning, of course, is that if you look into a person’s eyes, you can see the truth of what they’re feeling, e.g., compassion, pain, deception, etc. Whether or not this is true, windows work two ways. You can look in, but you can look out as well.

So taking that old adage one step further, the condition of our soul colors the way we view the world and people around us. I don’t think anyone would disagree that everyone’s soul needs a little tweaking. So, I’m challenging myself this month to take a deep look inside my own window. What do I see that could use a little adjustment? If I had a magic wand, what wave of the hand, what turn of the kaleidoscope would I make?

Is there some pain I can’t shake; some resentment I’m still clinging to; some scar that won’t heal; some anger buried, but burning? Even if nothing comes to mind, God knows what it is, and He’ll tell me. I just have to listen. And then do the work–whatever it is. It’ll take daily attention. And practice. And prayer. But in the end, when I view the world through my own personal kaleidoscope, I’m confident I’ll be amazed at the difference in what I see.

His Legacy

As we approach the end of this Lenten season, it’s a good time to reflect on the legacy Christ left us. Before He sacrificed His life on the altar of the cross to purchase our salvation, He walked, talked, and lived among us. Before He died for us, He lived  for us–and showed us how to live. For me, three attributes exemplified in the way He lived stand out the most.

First, His unsurpassable love for the human race. So often in the gospels, He refers to Himself as the Son of Man. He was one of us, completely human, in all ways but sin. He understood us as no one else could. He created us and then became one of the created. His love was perfect, complete, and unconditional. No one loved us, loves us still, as He does.

Then there was His mercy. No matter the severity of the sin or the recidivism of the sinner, He forgave, even to the point of asking His Father in heaven to forgive the Jews who cried out for His Crucifixion and the Romans who nailed Him to a cross. He commands us to do likewise, and often, “Jesus  answered, ‘I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matthew 18:22 NIV). His mercy to those who seek it and accept it is boundless.

Finally, His unparalleled service. He traveled constantly. “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'” (Luke 9:58 NIV).He often went without sleep or food to preach to His growing band of followers, constantly healing the blind, the lame, and the diseased. He got down on His knees and washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper, a task delegated to the lowliest of servants, saying, “…I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:27 NAB).

So this Easter, as we look to celebrate His joyous victory over death–His and ours–let us remember the legacy of His life. Love. Mercy. Service. The New Covenant given to us…to embrace and to follow.

 

 

The Finish Line

This Lenten season I decided to delve more deeply into the four gospels. For some reason the following scripture passage really drew my attention: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Matthew 16:24)

An appropriate thought to dwell on during lent, right? So I asked myself what can I, a lay person leading a perfectly ordinary life, take away from it? First of all, what does Jesus mean “deny themselves”? Deny myself what? My family? Things and activities that give me pleasure? My family was given to me by God, entrusted to me. So, no. It is my duty to care for them, guide them, and be a Christian role model.

Pleasures? Yes, if they are sinful. But certainly not enjoying a chocolate sundae, or a good dinner, or a nice vacation. But anything that leads me away from God is something He is asking me to deny myself. He wants me to move closer to Him, not away from Him. And, the truth is, I can’t just plant my feet and stand still.

Finally, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What does He mean by that? We all have our crosses to bear, often many throughout the span of our lifetime. Loss of loved ones, illnesses, financial struggles, abuse…just to name a few. Jesus isn’t asking us to pick up a cross, literally, as He did, or even suffer the betrayal, humiliation, and torture He did. Nor hang on a cross for three hours in unbearable pain while onlookers taunted and mocked Him.

I think what He is asking us to do is endure the trials over which we have no control, our crosses, and follow Him–to the finish line. Because at the end of that journey for Christ was not death, but life eternal. No pain, no lack, no loss. He’s asking us to carry our cross, just as He did…to glory.

What Do You Think?

I always know when I’m starting to get into the Christmas spirit when I feel the urge to purge. Every year I kick off the holidays, around mid-October, by cleaning out my closets and cabinets. Getting rid of the dust and dirt, and anything that is just plain clutter. Oh, I know that nobody who comes into my house notices the difference, but I do. And it makes me feel good–like my house is truly in order.

In thinking about what I could do this lent to put my spiritual house in order, I realized I could do some purging of the part of myself nobody sees: my thoughts. It didn’t start out that way though. It started when I decided not to speak one word of criticism about any other person. Not one! I don’t go in for gossip, and I don’t consider myself a judgmental person (although I’m sure there are those who would disagree), but not one critical word about anybody? Well, I’ll admit that’s going to be tough.

Then I realized what I really needed to do was change my way of thinking. That’s where everything begins, isn’t it?–with thought. Nice words, hurtful words, right actions, wrong actions–all take root in the mind, in what and how we think. There’s an old saying, “You are what you eat.” I believe in a very real sense, we are what we think. Our thoughts, our minds, control our actions. So our first job is to take control of our thoughts. It’s not easy, and it takes effort and practice. If you want to see how you do, monitor how you react to others driving home in rush hour traffic, or try to resolve an issue with a bank, or an insurance company. Yeah, it’s no piece of cake. Am I up to the challenge? I’ll let you know after Easter.

It’s News to Me

Have you ever noticed how everyone’s handwriting–righties or lefties–slants one way or the other? Some more than others. It occurred to me that the same “slant” can be applied to writing or reporting the news. Often the same way: to the right of center or the left of center. It’s called spin.

It’s dangerous, and it can be addictive Rudyard Kipling said it best, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Broadcast news is a necessity. I know that. I once aspired to a career in journalism myself. But there is a distinction between true journalism and broadcasting. Too often the latter focuses on sensationalistic headlines, many of which involve acts of violence, the perpetrators, and the men and women who deal with them. Hate crimes, racial bias, and mass killings, particularly, are grist for the paper (or online) mills.

The truth of the matter is, we as individuals and groups of individuals, are influenced by what we hear and read. We respond on an emotional level. We are stimulated, sometimes even incited, to actions that may be extreme. At the very least, it can alter the way we think and what we talk about. It an change the way we view people–individuals or even entire ethnicities or professions.

Words, written and spoken, are powerful tools. We should all be watchful how we react to what we hear and what we read. More important, it is increasingly essential that we are prudent in what we say, text, post, or tweet.

Words Matter

The Giving Tree

Every year after Thanksgiving, our church puts up several Christmas trees in the vestibule. Each tree is laden with tags bearing the name of someone in need of a real life Santa Claus. On the tag is written the age, gender, and wish list of what that particular person would like for Christmas. Members of our parish are invited to take one or more tags and play “Santa”.

You  don’t see requests like smart phones, or iPads, or jewelry. What you  commonly see are coats, boots, pajamas, hats and mittens. The necessities of life, not luxuries. We call this outreach program the Giving Tree.

I believe what hangs on these trees are not just tags, but opportunities. Opportunities to live our faith. Think about it. In the gospels, Jesus instructs us to share whatever we have with those less fortunate. Not once, but many times, this message is given to those who would follow Him. Not a choice  but a command…a condition of being a true follower. One example can be found in Matthew 26:40, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” For Him.

We can all use a reminder from time to time of what it takes to be a true follower of Christ. Let our generosity of treasure and spirit to those in need be our gift to Jesus this Christmas. After all, it is His birthday…and that is what He asked for.