Yes

The other night some friends invited me to an improv show.  Improv creates comedy by taking random audience suggestions and throwing them at the players (and sometimes audience members) on stage.  The players act out improbable scenarios, make up songs, and create comedic sketches completely on the spot. Improv shows are high energy, high audience participation.  In other words, improv is specially designed to entertain extroverts and terrify introverts. I, in case you missed it before, am an introvert.

But I’m fascinated by improv, so I said yes.

The thing that’s so fascinating about improv is how they do it.  How can a group of people spontaneously make up nearly two hours of dialogue, song, and dance and have it be anything but a train wreck?

Probably the same way you and I do.

When you come right down to it, improv is not so different from a day in the life.  We never know what’s coming, but there’s not much we can do once it does except jump in and make the most of it.  Sometimes things click and we race through laughter and camaraderie.  Sometimes things don’t, and we struggle just to make it through this scene.  (Please emcee, blow the whistle and make it stop.)

There’s actually a secret I read once.  The secret to improv is that the players must always say “yes.”  When you’re in the middle of an improv, you must always build off what another player does or says.  Even if you don’t like it, you have to grab hold of it and make something of it.  That’s what keeps the momentum and the story line going.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

We have an Emcee who not only controls the scene changes in our lives, He also orchestrates the audience suggestions and dictates the other players who are on stage with us.  Our job is to keep saying yes.  No matter what.

Think of how many heroes of the Bible are recorded because they said “yes” to a scenario God presented:

  • Abram was directed to a new and unknown land (Genesis 12:1-7).
  • Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus).
  • Elijah witnessed powerfully before the people (1 Kings 18:16-39).
  • Esther used her circumstances to save the Jewish people from massacre (Esther).
  • The disciples dropped their fishing nets and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22).

I also think of Joseph dragged to Egypt against his will (Genesis 37-45). For years he kept his focus on God even though he did not like the scenes that kept getting thrown his way.  If Joseph had shut down, if he had turned his back on God, if he had said “no” at any point, then he never could have burst onto the stage at that pivotal time to save both the Egyptians and his own family from famine.

Most important of all, Jesus Himself said “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing…”(John 5:19).  And the night before his crucifixion, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).Ultimately, we are saved because Jesus said “yes” to His Father.

We will never experience a casting call quite like our Biblical heroes or our Savior. But we are called to look for God’s presence right here, right now. All around us are opportunities that God is presenting.  He is bringing people onto our stage. He is setting a scene. He is cueing us to begin.  Who has God brought into your life recently that you can reach out to?  What need is on your doorstep that you can respond to? What whisper is in your heart that you can listen to?

Do you remember how this story started?  Some friends asked if I wanted to go to an improv show.

I said yes.

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

Part of the Picture

Not too long ago I attended a retreat for work.  An hour of the day was designated for “Team Building Exercises.” (Everybody groan.)

Actually, I’m one of those rare people who likes team building exercises. Such exercises lack the benefits of organic conversation, but the larger and more segmented an office becomes, the more helpful forced interaction can be.  Otherwise you can go months and barely know more than the name of the person two cubicles down. (Sad, but true.)

I had my concerns about this particular team building exercise when I saw hoola hoops and a rope and a small stuffed pig.  But my concerns were quickly laid to rest.  The rope was merely placed in a pile in the middle of the hoola hoop and we had to discuss, without reaching beyond the edge of the ring, whether pulling an end of the rope would produce a knot.  I never did see what the pig was used for.

At the conclusion of some introductory exercises, we embarked on the grand finale.  Each person was given a picture that was part of a larger story board.  Without showing our picture to anyone, we had to identify where in the larger story we fit and line up in order.  With close to 50 people in the room, this was no small task. Conversations erupted as we began grouping ourselves into related clumps and growing our line.  The story began to take shape until we were all in order and did our “big reveal,” turning the pictures around to see the whole story.

There are several lessons that can be taken from this exercise.  The importance of communication, the idea that we are all part of a larger story, the understanding that we all had to work together in order to see the big picture.  But perhaps one of the strongest lessons for me was one of trust.  We each had to trust that others in the line were doing their part.  I could not be everyplace at once.  I could not be filling in some other part of the story; I had to focus on my own part.

This is a wonderful exercise for the office, and an even better one for the Church.  Our lives are like those individual pictures, each part of a larger story.  We will never see all the pieces in our lifetime, but our job is not to worry about all the pieces; it is to worry about our own.  God has given each one of us a place in the body of Christ and a specific job to do (1 Corinthians 12).

There may be things we don’t understand, but we have to remember that our perspective is only one tiny slice of the larger picture.  We need to trust that God is orchestrating the big picture, even when we don’t see how our piece – or someone else’s – fits in.

There are plenty of times things just plain don’t make sense from our perspective.  That’s okay.  Remember, it didn’t make sense to the disciples that Jesus was crucified.  That didn’t fit into their picture of Israel’s Messiah at all.  And yet Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection have made it possible for all of us to be brought back into fellowship with God.  God knew what He was doing, even if his disciples didn’t.

All around us there are pieces of the larger picture that do not make sense to us, but we have God’s promise that He is still in control.  Someday Jesus will return, and when we are joined with Him in heaven, there will be a “Big Reveal” unlike anything we can imagine now.  We will suddenly see how God used our tiny little sliver as part of the larger picture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:18-19).

Anyplace

I am practicing being able to write anyplace.

I admire those people who can write anyplace.  People like that often say, “If I needed peace and quiet to write I would never get anything written!”  I agree.  The difference is that they fall into the “manage to get it done” category and I fall into the “nothing gets written category.”  So tonight I gave myself a challenge: take my laptop to my town’s weekly outdoor concert and write a post before the music stops.

So here I am.

I found a spot, after much deliberation, on the grass in a partially shady spot behind the band.  This means that when I look up, 90% of the crowd is facing me.  (Nothing like having an audience while you try to write deep thoughts.)  The cymbals are about 20 yards away. As are the drums (five different kinds that I can see) and the xylophone (cool, a xylophone!)  The trumpets are even closer.  Beneath them are – excuse me for a moment while I clap – beneath them are the saxophones, and bassoons and oboes and tubas and clarinets and probably some others… there’s a white pillar blocking part of my view so I can’t see it all for sure.  But I can hear them, and while I’m no musician, I’m impressed.  These folks sound good!  (Apparently there is at least one other lady who is equally enthused.  She yells “Woo-hoo!” after every song.)

But back to me.  I decided that this would be a good place to practice writing anyplace.  It’s more interesting than my kitchen table, that’s for sure.  And much more distracting.  I’m half listening to the conductor introduce the songs, I’m definitely listening to the music, and I’m interrupted every few sentences to clap.  Oh, and there’s a train.  (For a minute I thought that sound was part of the band!) There’s also a little girl turning cartwheels and plucking grass stems and spinning in circles until she falls down giggling.  If I stretched out my arm I could touch her.  And yet, I have managed to write.  Nothing insightful, but still… I consider this progress.

The real test is whether I can make that leap. (The little girl is now marching and waving a bunch of leaves in each hand.  She also just declared that there is broccoli in the grass.  I’m not sure whether there is actually broccoli in the grass, or a plant that just looks like broccoli.)  But as I was saying, the real test is whether I can make that leap.  Can I actually make a point and close this out before the music stops?  A couple lessons come to mind that I could potentially draw from this little exercise.  Here’s one of them: it’s easy to establish our habits, whether it’s a writing routine, a route to work, or a daily schedule.  We can begin living so inside our own pattern that we never even try to step outside.  We say, “I must have peace and quiet in order to write!”  “I can’t do that,” we say.  Or, “That won’t work.”  But our God is not a God of the can’t.  Our God is a God of the can.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, Paul wrote (Philippians 4:13).  Sometimes that means the little everyday things we don’t have time for.  Like going to a concert when we should be writing.

It doesn’t matter what we can’t do.  If we give God the opening, He can.  It is Christ who strengthens us.  It is the Holy Spirit who guides us.  Sometimes all we need to do is try something a little different.

Our final song is underway, the early-leavers are folding their lawn chairs, which means it’s time to wrap this post up. If you’ve never checked out a small town citizen’s band, go find one.  Not into music?  Go find something else.  You might be surprised at what God can accomplish through you along the way.

His work is something worth clapping about. (Woo-hoo!)

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours will be thwarted (Job 42:2)

Blog by Friday

Earlier this week I had the startling realization that I have not posted a blog in a month.  I pledged that I would write a blog by Friday.

At the beginning of the week, that seemed so doable.

It’s not that I don’t have any ideas.  I have lots of ideas.  The problem, as I told a friend the other night, is that I need a 10 minute idea, because that seems to be about all the time I have these days.

“So write about the value of having ten minutes,” she said.

“I could do that,” I answered.  But when I hung up the phone, I washed dishes and walked the dog and went to bed.

So I told myself I would shelve my ideas that needed more time, and just pick any old idea that I could jot down quick.  Someone once said that a mediocre idea that is implemented is better than a brilliant idea that is never manifested.  “I will put this theory to the test!” I said.  I will write about the value of taking action.

Ironically, I never did.

Tonight I came home and went to turn on my kitchen sink. I had no faucet.  At least, not where I expected.   Apparently the maintenance guys have been here and given me a new kitchen faucet.  It’s been so long since I put the request in, I had forgotten about it.  (I had, in fact, requested an entirely new kitchen sink, but apparently they decided I only needed a new faucet.)

I spent a disconcerting moment with my hand flailing in midair before my brain registered what my eyes were seeing.  Have you ever had that jolting feeling when something is unexpectedly unfamiliar?  It’s amazing how automatically we maneuver in familiar spaces.  My hand expected a single handle in the middle; my new faucet presented separate hot and cold, small and to the sides.  I preferred my previous style, but at least this one doesn’t spray water out the side, so I won’t complain.  Maintenance to me is kind of like cooking – If I don’t have to do it myself, I try not to complain about the outcome.

As I stood there rinsing dishes I thought, maybe I can blog about my new faucet!  I’m not sure what spiritual lesson I would have drawn, but I’m quite sure God could have written something.

And that, my friends, is the point.

Yes, there was a point.  Read it again.

Sometimes life is a bit like this blog post.  Rambling and circuitous and just plain a struggle.  We have ideas that never come to fruition.  We don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough energy.  We’re in a situation and we don’t see the point – we may even doubt there is any point at all – but we keep trudging along.

Until God writes us something.

God does, in fact, write each one of us something.

He has written our days in his book (Psalm 139:16).  He has written His Spirit on the tablets of our hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3).  He is the original author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

God does not write random and rambling blog posts.  He writes the very book of life.

Thank God He writes better than me.

You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3).

The Ending of the Easter Story

Jesus the Christ was put to death on Good Friday, but that is not the end of the story.

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back – it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; He is not here” (Mark 16:2,4-6).

That is the Easter story.  But that, too, is not the end of the story.

He [Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me [Paul], as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 14-15).

Even after His death and resurrection, Jesus continued to teach his followers.  He ate with them, He met with them, and when he ascended into heaven, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide them (e.g., Luke 24:36-53).  For forty days after his death and resurrection, Jesus continued to lead His followers.  Then He ascended into heaven.

But even that is not the end of the story.  While they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

In other words, this story isn’t over yet.

Easter is not just an event we commemorate; it is an event we continue to live.  The miracles of Easter are as real and present today as they were 2000 years ago.  Jesus is as alive today as He was that first Easter morning.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angel asked the women at the tomb.  “He is not here, but has risen…” (Luke 24:5-6)

“Christ is risen!” We say on Easter morning.  “He is risen, indeed!”

Sometimes I hear people wonder what it would have been like to live during the time of Jesus.  Sometimes I even say it myself.  Perhaps we should stop wondering and look around.  Because this is still the time of Jesus.  True, we cannot see Jesus, but until His physical return, God is guiding us through the Holy Spirit. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus told His disciples.  “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:7,13).  Just because we do not see Him, does not mean He isn’t here.  We don’t exclaim on Easter morning that He was risen; we exclaim that He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Jesus’ commission to His followers is as applicable to us today as it was the day He ascended into heaven:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This Easter season, are we merely celebrating a story we think is over?  Or have we considered the possibility that Christ is calling us to partner with Him (right now!) as He writes the rest of the story?

The Easter story, my friends, has not ended yet. 

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

The Beginning of the Easter Story

Jesus the Christ was born on Christmas Day, but that is not the beginning of the story.

The coming of Jesus was foretold throughout the Old Testament.  The prophets announced throughout Israel’s history that a Messiah would come.  But even that is not the beginning of the story.

We could argue that the Easter Story begins with us.  After all, our sins are the reason Jesus came.  We are the ones being connecting back to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are the reason for the Easter Story.  But I don’t think that is the beginning of the story either.

The need for a savior is first manifested in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve go against God’s only command.  “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die… Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 2:16-17,3:1).  We know from the passages that follow and from the intent of this serpent that this is no ordinary serpent.  This is not one of God’s good creations.  This is the Great Deceiver and the Great Tempter, masquerading as a lowly serpent.  No one but Satan would prod God’s good creation to question God’s authority, wisdom, guidance, and love.

Eve and then Adam made humankind’s biggest mistake – they listened to Satan’s whispering and went against God’s command.  Indeed, as Satan had suggested, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to good and evil, but at a terrible cost.  Sin was unleashed into the world, and they were powerless to escape it.  They hid.  They covered themselves with leaves.  But the release of sin was not something they could erase.  It would be passed down, generation to generation.  Every generation would be just as powerless as the last to staunch the rush of sin.

Except that God made a promise – even then.  Although Satan would wield sin, it would not overcome us.  Somewhere down through the generations, an offspring would crush Satan’s head.  “You shall bruise His heel,” God told Satan.  “But He will bruise your head (Genesis 3:15b).  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).

So we see that God’s promise came first in the Garden of Eden.  But even that is not the beginning of the story.

It is John who tells us where the Easter Story truly begins.  In the beginning, John wrote, was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God… the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-2,14).

Jesus was in the beginning with God!  Jesus was God!  God is the beginning of the Easter Story.  Consider for a moment what that means.

We can feel our need for the Easter Story in our own failures.  We can hear the promise of the Easter Story in the Garden of Eden and in the prophets’ proclamations.  We can witness the Easter Story in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  But we can trace the beginning of the Easter Story to only one place.  The beginning of the Easter Story is God.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

The Easter Story does not begin with us reaching out to God, or even with God becoming one of us.  It begins with God himself.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

Thanks be to God.  For He is the beginning of the Easter Story.

In the beginning, God… (Genesis 1:1)

If Life Were Like the Super Bowl

This week at a Bible study, my pastor lead us through an interesting discussion beginning with the question, “If life were like the Super Bowl, what would our role be?”  I liked his analogy so much, I decided to share it.  Credit for this analogy goes to my pastor; any misrepresentations in my embellishments are my own!

If life were like the Super Bowl…

SuperBowl

We would not be the spectators.  It is not our role to simply sit back and watch.  We are not called to idleness, but to action.  We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good (2 Thessalonians 3:11-13).

We would not be the referees.  We do not make the rules, nor do we enforce them.  It is not our place to judge the thoughts and actions of others.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12)

We would not be the coaches on the sidelines.  We do not get to call the plays. A person’s steps are directed by the Lord (Proverbs 20:24a).

We would not be up in the press box.  We are not a neutral observer, hovering over the game.  It is not our job to analyze the stats and interpret the plays of the game for others.  No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).

So what would our role be?

We would be the players, out on the field, getting muddy.  Each one of us would have a specialized job to do for the benefit of the whole team.  For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us (Romans 12:4-6a).

This does not mean we can’t do things outside our primary skill.  Only a fool would say, “Well, I could have intercepted that pass, but that’s not really my primary job so I left if for someone else to do.”  No.  There are times when we are called to do the work that is at hand, regardless of our comfort or skill. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).

If we were players in the Super Bowl of life, there would be both challenges and victories.  Sometimes we would perform a spectacular block that saves someone else from harm.  Sometimes we would catch the touchdown pass.  Sometimes we would take a blow to the head and be carried off the field.  But no matter what was happening around us or to us, we would play with a foreknowledge that no one in the Super Bowl has:  We know who wins the game.  The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

We have to play hard until the clock runs out.  That is our job.  But we can also play with the knowledge that when the final whistle blows, we are not left muddy on the field.  We are invited to the victory party of our Lord.  And if you thought the Super Bowl party was fun, you haven’t seen anything yet.

SuperBowl-Celebration

 Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

The Five Things I’m Thankful For

Is it possible to be thankful without feeling thankful?

The answer, I think, is: Of course.

The Bible tells us that we should give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  I’ve heard more than one sermon on this passage that suggests God doesn’t tell us to be thankful for everything; He tells us to be thankful in everything.  I have to contest this theory with Ephesians 5:20 which says we should be always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.  God, I think, wants us to be thankful both in everything and for everything.  God is in control, which means everything will ultimately be used for His glory.  Even when we don’t like something, we are to give thanks recognizing 1) there is always something to be thankful for, and 2) even the very thing we don’t want to give thanks for can be used for God’s good purposes.  Even if others mean it for harm, even if the Devil himself is after us, God can use it for good.  We know that for those who love God all things work together for good (Romans 8:28).  Even the things we’re a little less than thankful for.

With all these verses on thankfulness, I got to thinking how I’ve never seen one that says we are to feel thankful.  Which got me thinking some more.  Sometimes I go about this all wrong.  I act as though thankfulness is something I should be receiving, when in actuality, thankfulness is something I should be giving.  I shouldn’t be sitting here waiting for God to give me that full-to-bursting feeling.  I should be saying, “God, even though I don’t feel very thankful today, I am still glad you’re in control.  Thank you.”

It’s not easy to say thank you – and mean it – when you don’t feel it.  It’s a bit like walking a familiar path in the dark.  The “sunny” days I dash off thanksgivings without a second thought.  I love everything!  I am thankful for everything!  But when the dark days come even the major gifts don’t seem quite so bright and shiny.  I may have the exact same things to be thankful for – everything I loved in the daylight is still there – but I no longer see it.  Outwardly, nothing has changed.  It’s the same path.  But in the dark, my feeling is different.  And this is where we hear Paul say: In everything give thanks.  For everything give thanks.

I am blessed to have a friend with whom I randomly exchange thankful lists.  Sometimes by phone; sometime by email.  One of us will say, “Today I am thankful for…” and we will each list five things.  The other day I dashed off an email that said, in essence, “I am in need of an attitude adjustment, so today I am thankful for…”  and I am sad to say that out of the millions of blessings I should have been able to dash off, it took me several minutes to type out five.  You might say I was in the dark and even though I knew the blessings were there, I just couldn’t feel them.  But it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel them.  I can still give thanks in the dark.

We were talking about that tonight, this friend and I, and she was laughing that she had been thinking about all kinds of things for me to be thankful for.  “Just think of that email transaction,” she said.  “You could be thankful for the computer and email and internet and your eyes to see it and your fingers to type it…”

“I know.  I know,” I interrupted.  And then: “I’m glad at least one of us is thankful!”  But as I hung up the phone I thought, Carry one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).  Sometimes that means helping each other to be thankful.

Tonight I not only am thankful, I feel thankful.  For a friend who called and talked to me about being thankful.  And also for pillows, breakfast, carpets on cold tile, and indoor plumbing.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night (Psalm 92:1-2).

History Class

Don’t worry.  This post isn’t really about history.  I wouldn’t have much to say in that regard anyway.  Partially for a reason which you are about to see.

As a student, I rarely slept in class.  But by the end of my undergraduate years, after consistently burning through more than one box of proverbial candles, I was struggling.  It was World Cultures, and the professor had one of those wonderfully soothing voices that could knock me from attentive to comatose in under five minutes.  It wasn’t that I didn’t find the class interesting; I did.  But I could not, for the life of me, keep my eyes open for a solid 50 minutes under this professor’s spell.  For years afterwards, I kept the notebook for that class for the sheer novelty of the story that it told.  Each class period began with fresh looking penmanship that slanted quickly down the side of the page and ended with a single fading line.  You could almost pinpoint the exact point at which my eyes must have fully closed.  And then the jagged line when the pen jerked back alive at my friend’s whispered, “Beagle, wake up!”

Needless to say, I have not carried forward a wealth of World Cultures knowledge from that class.  But I have carried forward an interesting lesson that I have only now come to realize was being demonstrated to me even then by my more attentive friend.  You see, one of the more fascinating aspects of our exchange was that she sat in the seat directly in front of me.  So unless my head actually hit the desk with a bang – which I thankfully don’t recall it ever doing – she had no way of knowing when I was falling asleep.  I remember asking her once, “How do you always know when I’m falling asleep??”

“Easy,” she said.  “Whenever I feel myself falling asleep, I figure you must be, too.”

Brilliant, isn’t it?  She too was suffering under the soporific charms of our professor, but unlike me, she chose to do something about it, single-handedly keeping us both in at least a semi-conscious state.

This is the lesson which God instructs us to follow outside of the classroom as well.  Am I feeling lonely?  I should be reaching out to someone else who may be feeling lonely.  Am I feeling tired and discouraged?  I should be speaking words of encouragement to those around me who are probably also feeling tired and discouraged.  It is easy when things are going well to get wrapped up into my own daily schedule and pay no attention to those around me.  Sometimes it takes a bad day for God to remind me to pay attention.  Sometimes it takes feeling lonely to remember those who are lonely.  Sometimes it takes feeling discouraged to remember those who are discouraged.  In fact, my moodiest days may actually be God whispering: “Beagle, wake up!  Take note of this.  I have something for you to do.”

There is, of course, a trap in this.  I could, as I was prone to do in World Cultures, simply sink deeper into whatever I am feeling.  I could ignore God’s wake-up call and think instead only about how I am feeling.  It could never occur to me – as it never did back then (leave me alone, I’m sleeping!) – that God can use this feeling to encourage me to reach out to others.

On the other hand, I could reach out for the wrong reasons.  I could reach out with the coercive expectation that my actions will be reciprocated.  “I am going to help you and therefore you are going to help me.”  But this is acting from wrong motives.  This is not me listening to God’s call and responding; it’s trying to manipulate others with the sole purpose of making myself feel better.  God does not call us to be manipulators; God calls us to be blessings.

Both of these – not acting at all or not acting for the right reasons – are easy emotional traps.  True, reaching out to others often is the quickest road back to where we want to be.  After all, by keeping me awake, my friend also kept herself awake.  By encouraging others, I often find myself encouraged.  But the motivation needs to come not from an expectation that other people will return the favor, but from the recognition that God has given me an opportunity.

Whatever I am feeling right now, whatever I am experiencing right now, God can use to bless someone else if I am simply willing to find them.  They probably aren’t far away.  In fact, they may be right behind me.

And I call learning that lesson a good day in any class.

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24

How observant are you?

I had lived in my apartment two years when I decided it was time to invest in some renter’s insurance.  I had slowly accumulated enough stuff that the cost of replacement was making the cost of renter’s insurance look downright appealing.  Plus, the apartment building directly behind mine burned down.  I guess you could say I was feeling the heat a little bit.

So I began price shopping for renter’s insurance, and was seated at the local friendly insurance agent’s desk answering questions.  “Is your apartment building wood frame, brick, stone, or a combination?”  she asked.

I froze, trying vainly to picture the front of my building.  I was pretty sure the second story was wood, but was the bottom wood too?  Brick, stone?  Now mind you, I had lived there two years, and could not tell the agent with any real confidence whether my building was made out of wood, brick, or stone.  (I still wouldn’t, except that while I was writing this I took a stroll outside to look.  Just for the record, it’s brick on the bottom level, then wood frame.)

When I was younger we used to play observation games during family road trips.  We did the usual “I spy” and things that begin with letters of the alphabet, and after restroom breaks we’d drive away arguing over what color the floor tile was, how many stalls there were, what color shirt the lady standing at the next sink was wearing…  I always said I was going to be more observant the next time.  Clearly, I never was.

Our brains have an amazing capacity to sift through information.  If we could remember every sensory perception coming at us at any given moment we would be paralyzed with information overload.  With advances in technology we have at our finger tips more and more complex computer systems with larger and larger memory storage, but still, they do not compare to the instantaneous ability for the brain to filter through the colors, sounds, feelings, and smells and identify, without us even consciously pondering the situation, the all-important conclusion that the second stall on the left is empty.  And really, as long as you can tell that, who cares what color the tile is?

I’ve heard it said that Einstein always had to look up his number in the phone book because he didn’t want to waste valuable brain cells storing information that could easily be obtained elsewhere.  Whether true or not, the anecdote does make me feel better for having to walk outside to see what kind of material my apartment building is made of.  It also raises an interesting point.  While I clearly have no problem ignoring the finer nuances of my immediate environment, it’s not always so easy to sift through the sensory overload of life in order to remain focused on what is truly important.  Too often I find myself like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), carried away by an infinite string of details that would be better left alone.  I spend hours adjusting the color palette on a PowerPoint presentation when what really matters is the message.  I fret over menu items when what really matters is spending time with friends.  I carefully wrap presents when what really matters is something that can never be wrapped and ribboned.  It is times like these I must consciously step back and ask myself, “In this situation, what really matters?”  And then ask God for the focus to go and do that one important thing.

Sometimes being observant is less about noticing the details and more about noticing what is most important.  Then pursuing it with all the urgency of a road trip rest stop.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).