Persistence – That Creeping Voice

Before I finish any major project, I try to take a step back and let it simmer a while. This could be for an hour or two, maybe even a few days; any break mentally will do. It’s something I’ve learned to apply over the years; not something I put into practice right away. In fact, I used to be the type that would do whole projects in a single night, waiting till the last moment to make my move. But, that was mostly because I could. I’ve always thrived under pressure and whenever I was in a pinch, my best work would seem to come forth. It was great for a while, but I had no idea I was building some terrible habits within myself.

At first glance, it’s a familiar story: putting off the important stuff, allowing one’s self to get distracted, and then following through when it’s almost too late to wait any longer. Welcome to Procrastination 101: learning to work under deadlines when you should have started weeks ago. It’s an affliction that can be reinforced over many years without even knowing it. But, when life experience meets your own limitations, it might be a signal you need to change something.

For me, it was recognizing that creeping voice. The one that said, “You can get to this later,” but somehow managed to change its tone moments before I was near completion by stating, “You know, this isn’t going to work.” Now, I’m not claiming to have had bouts with multiple personalities, I’m merely trying to point out that common enemy we all face in the midst of something important to us: ourselves.

When the stakes are high and there is much at risk, we don’t find a friend in ourselves very often. We fight to drown out the noise of failure, albeit struggling to do so. As a Christian, I find it easy to blame everything on the devil. “The devil is after me again”; “I know the devil was in that,” but honestly, applying that type of hyper-spiritualism to everything we face is foolish. Every person does have a real counterattack coming against them and it’s not just from the father of lies – it’s coming from inside our own heads.

It doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. Why would your own mind allow negative thoughts to take precedent over positive ones? Especially when it knows (yes, we are self-aware beings) that success means a need for laser focus? Shouldn’t our brain know better? Shouldn’t it know we need a filter for those things to achieve maximum results? Of course it does, but the question is how well you’ve trained your mind to be that filter. Therein lies the difference.

My encouragement to anyone reading this is to consider what areas you struggle to have confidence in or struggle to find the proper initiative. It could be work. It could be a relationship. Or, if you’re me, it could be fighting to churn out 3,000+ words a day for that next book; all the while remembering the passion you had when you first started the journey.

So be encouraged; stay persistent, but also stay focused.

 

A Few Things

Just a few things.

Although it’s been more like me to present some thoughts and opinions on here, I’ve decided to share some actual work I’ve been doing. Sometime later today, I’ll begin posting bits and parts of a short story I’ve recently finished. Considering the work I do now, I’ve been fortunate to be in what writers might call “hyper creative season” (many thanks to my friend, Immanuel, for crafting that phrase). It’s a fancy way of saying, “I’ve had more free time to write.” The extra time is great, but the discipline required to use that time effectively can be very hard.

Over the past few months, I’ve been experimenting with new ways to manage all my added time. Do I write in the morning? Do I write at night? Do I only read this week? Do I not read at all? These seem like simple questions – and let’s be honest, they are – but to someone who is bubbling with thoughts and ideas, it can be daunting. Focus and direction are key. And they’re concepts I’ve been studying, honing in on, and desperately trying to wrangle to the ground. That way I can stop living in the clouds and start running on solid ground.

Which is, coincidentally, a great image and part of what inspired me to write this short story, appropriately named Spirit Run. To preface this, Spirit Run is the tale of three angels who have been tasked with guarding a spark of life as it “runs” towards its human vessel. Their conversations, the enemies they face, and their interactions with other angelic beings are all weaved into this story; eventually culminating with the breach of the physical realm and an encounter with their intended destination.

This is a major break from what I’ve done in the past. The primary reason being that it’s fiction. I’m telling a story rather than presenting an essay. That is something I’ve really enjoyed, but have also found to be quite challenging.

And that’s all I’d like to give away at the moment. I look forward to sharing this soon and look forward to feedback and comments.

Till later,
J.C.L.

When you witness others fail

I’ll admit it. I’ve had times when I enjoyed watching another person fall short. It’s not that I am an evil person; I just feel like people should get what they deserve. And what they deserve, is a swift hand of punishment for their crimes. Crimes against me or someone else, of course. Like justice has been served, right? Who says that this person should have everything that he wants? Why not me? Those are the initial thoughts and feelings I may have, depending on the situation. Sound familiar to you? I’m sure it does.

And I’m also sure that in those fleeting moments, you find two very distinct voices crying out from the inside. The first one says something like this: “Yes, he finally got what was coming to him. Bout time too. Now I can get back to feeling better about myself.” While the other voice says something like this: “Why would you even think that? Imagine what he is going through or if that were you. How might others react if that had been your failure?”

Well, what we have here are two very different responses to a singular event. Let’s take a closer look.

Indeed, a question of character is raised depending on which of these voices you hear first. Moreover, which of these voices is more audible to you is also of concern. Why? Well, think of it this way: what we feed, ultimately grows. And what grows, beckons more attention so it can continue to grow. So if you’re always indulging in voice number one, then you are continuously reinforcing a concept that people get what’s coming to them. And to take this one step further, that you alone are a proper judge as it pertains to proper punishment. Yikes. God complex, anyone? But, if you are feeding voice number two, then your immediate reaction is not so self-serving. And it’s not as cynical either. Heck, it may make life more manageable too. What a thought, eh?

So which sounds more appealing? I’m sure that most people would agree with the second option. It’s a “win-win” for all parties involved, but it’s also that much harder to do. Why? Because inwardly, we can hide our intentions towards others. We can witness someone falter and keep our hidden agendas to ourselves. We aren’t required to parade around with our inner thoughts plastered to our foreheads (what a thought though!) – so we can “fake” it, if you will. There is certainly a fear of being exposed, but that fear is discarded since we know that no one else can see what we see. And what we see are our truest of intentions. Kept for us, and only us.

This appears to be the safest route, but it’s actually the most treacherous. What we keep hidden remains close to our hearts and what remains close to our hearts eventually dictates all other facets of our life. In a way, we slowly destroy relationships with others just because of a little jealousy. If I’m really honest with myself, I can say that I feel that way at times. But wouldn’t it be such a relief to not have those secret agendas? To not be worried about who you gossiped to about who? I, for one, would love to experience that daily if I could. I know people who can’t wait to share the latest news on someone else’s problems. I’m sure you know of some yourself. And they burst like a flooded dam when they’ve got the “goods” on somebody. Why though? What did this other person do to deserve such ill favor from someone? The failure alone is usually harsh enough, isn’t it?

So why not kill that self-righteous monster before it rears its ugly head? Sounds idealistic, right? As in, “it can’t be done.” Sure, of course it sounds daunting, but it’s an idea that everyone would admit to wanting while few will admit to trying. So once again, why not try it? It’s something that warrants our collective attention. Internally, externally, and all the way through.

Keys and Love

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I’m taking a break from reporting on my recent publishing venture to speak on another topic close to my heart: love. I suppose it’s safe to say that love is close to everybody’s heart (with evidence of its existence being more visible on some than others). But if you hear anybody talk about love, they usually think of a heart or someone they know personally. An image of something, like a favorite memory, could come to mind as well. Whatever makes you smile, really – be it inside or out – is usually a safe bet to link with the emotion of love.

I’ve heard plenty of talks on this human feeling in my life. My parents told me it was meant to be unconditional (whatever that meant) and that it was a moment of great joy. I immediately pictured Christmas morning when I heard that. That got me excited as a kid, as it did any other child who had the pleasure of experiencing the birth of Jesus in December. A moment is all it was though. Singular and without sustaining power.

Getting older, I began to see love in action – relationships, the Salvation Army, etc. This was beginning to speak to me. What does it mean to truly serve another soul? And is that even a real concept? I wrestled with the notion for a while. The teenage years, especially, were mixed with wondering just what “love” was and stood for. Was it a cheap Disney movie? Or something else entirely? I was hoping it would be the former for some reason.

Making things worse, it was easy to get confused on the topic. For example, a friend of mine in high school came from an especially tough home. His parents were divorced so he lived with his mom during the week and his dad on the weekends. His mother didn’t have a good paying job and his father neglected to help him financially so he had to work from a very young age. But by the time we were 18, he probably had more money than some parents in our neighborhood. Unfortunately, he spent much of his earnings on frivolous things: lots of speakers, stereos, and nice cars – all in an effort to show the world that he was worth more than the hand he was given.

He was highly self-sufficient, walked among several circles, and didn’t take no crap from nobody. He was fun to be around and like so many others, I enjoyed his company too. But his money and political influence weren’t the important parts; no, far from it. You see, my buddy, for all the tough guy imagery and togetherness he put on, he was a sinking ship on the inside. And in the years after high school, he went from place to place, job to job, hoping to reclaim the days where merely putting on a mask was good enough to get by.

The world doesn’t treat people nicely when they wear a false face. Rather than be gentle, the world crushes the mask or it makes the wearer embrace his mask till he becomes a shell. My buddy couldn’t figure this out however and I still mourn for him everyday of my life. Not because he struggles with putting on a mask, but because he can’t find that one thing this post is all about: love. His world on the outside seemed great, but deep within, underneath the layers of self-created barriers and illusionary depictions, he was hollow. Absent. Devoid. Just empty.

Yikes. How did this happen? Blame Mom? Blame Dad?

Had I been more intentional (and more loving, let’s be honest), I would have taken more of an interest in my buddy’s life. I would have stood up for him, invited him over more, but most of all, I would have challenged him more. And when I say challenge, I mean it in the most loving way possible. Challenge him to look inside; challenge him to look at other avenues of life rather than those that are momentarily satisfying; and ultimately challenge him to be a better man. Is that such a hard thing to do? Why yes, it absolutely can be if you’re too scared yourself to know what it is you stand for.

I say these things because of an experience I had this past weekend. Myself and five other colleagues – a mentor and four other young men growing in faith – took a trip to Colorado for a men’s retreat. It wasn’t just a “getaway” though; it was a Christian men’s conference called Ransomed Heart. The author of the popular book, Wild at Heart sponsors a yearly “boot camp” of sorts, where men of all ages can come for a weekend and delve into what it means to be masculine. If you’re thinking this was a lot of “hoo-rah” and burping and farting and talking about sports then you are sorely mistaken. It’s a weekend meant to connect men with something we do a good job of shying away from our whole lives: love and validation. Aside from my five compatriots, there were about 450 other men at this conference in Colorado. Imagine a camp, on the edge of a mountain, high above sea level, overlooking a valley of hills and endless trees and you have a good idea of what it was like. Yes, it was isolating but it was meant to be like that; if God had a backyard big enough for you to get lost in, but still have fun, then this place would be it.

We were told to carry water bottles with us wherever we went. This was due to the fact that one can get dehydrated quickly at such high altitudes. And after walking just a few short yards after getting off the bus, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I was short of breath and desperately in need of a ventilator. This trip was certainly going to test all areas of my manhood – how stubborn I could be, and just how proud I could act without taking a sip of my water bottle. Believe me when I say that I broke down after just a few hours, guzzling h2o down like I’d been stranded at sea. Sad, but true.

But the elements we were presented with was not the most interesting, or the most memorable part, of our trip. For at one of our dinners, serviced in the main hall of the lodge, a young man was brought to our table of six. He was dressed in baggy sweat pants, a black North Face jacket and white sneakers that were too big for his feet. Judging by his facial hair, I guessed him to be around 25-30 years of age. This was about the average age of our troop, minus our fearless leader. Another man stood next to him who then introduced this young buck to us as “Gabriel”. Seeing as how we had an extra seat, this other man (Rick, we’ll say) saw an opportunity to integrate Gabriel with the rest of us.

The group I traveled with consisted of individuals from all walks of life – married, single, engaged, black, white, black mixed with white, and a single leader, Bruce; a man who is just a hair past the half century mark in age. All of us have different works or trades – filmmaking, project management, writing (that’s me, of course), pastoring and even bartending. We were diverse, to say the very least, so the addition of one more equally diverse and compelling soul was no tall order for our table of six.

So when Gabriel joined us, one would think the energy in the room wouldn’t change. Now, if you’ve ever been in a junior high lunch room, then you know how awkward it can be when the “new kid” comes and sits at your table. The most common of reactions is to stick with light conversation. Don’t bring up anything that only the guys in the clique would know and so on. But this wasn’t a junior high lunch table – this was six adult men greeting another adult man at their table. So no problem, right?

Well, we all knew that Gabriel wasn’t like many of the other men at the retreat. His clothing was one tell-tale sign to tip us off, but it was his eyes that carried a very heavy burden with him. Though I had just met this man for the first time, it was not difficult to discern that his young body and mind had been, and seen, some very horrible things in its relatively short time here on Earth. And when it was disclosed that he had spent some prison time somewhere, you can’t help but shudder at what exactly that can mean.

Regardless of what some may think, the news of this revelation certainly shook a few of us at the table, if not just me. It’s a Christian conference, yes, but it’s not a fairy dust with angel wings kind of weekend. These are real people, here among the masses, with real lives and real problems to work through. I’d just like to squash that notion before I go any further. So keeping that in mind, the questions certainly circulated: What had he done? What was he convicted of? And is it safe for him to sit here with us? The judgments and curious eyes moved around the table, but all fears were silenced when our seasoned leader spoke up and simply asked, “How was your trip getting here?” And with that, Gabriel was beginning his initiation.

Gabriel answered, “It was fine” and went about his business. He kept his head low as he spoke, making certain to not break any social boundaries or norms, and he dared not ask anyone to pass something at the table – he just reached his hands out to what was near to him and took what was available. A couple of us asked him a few other questions – where he was from, how he liked the mountains, and what he thought of the food. You know, the really dumb questions that people ask when they’re uncertain how to really get to know somebody new.

But God willing, Bruce, our savvy veteran of the crew, didn’t budge on that front. Call it years of experience, or just plain knowing when to be direct, Bruce asked Gabriel if the group of us could pray for him once the meal was over. Gabriel accepted openly and for the next five minutes, the six of us gathered around Gabriel to pray. Later on, Bruce talked with young Gabriel about his life, where he’d been, and what he’d been through to get where he was.

Many of his responses would shock the naïve of heart and for the sake of keeping Gabriel anonymous in that regard, I won’t go into too much detail. However I will say that it was more than apparent how he’d been dealt a very bad hand for much of his life. An abusive family, abusive relationships, and an abusive lifestyle had left him figuratively and literally scarred – a gash above his left eye was brutal evidence of an untold story that I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear even if he wanted to tell me. But even so, Bruce charged onward – asking questions, investing time, and advising young Gabriel of what steps he needed to take if he were to move forward from the mess he’d been through.

And when that was over, something really intriguing happened. The next day, our group of six gathered for breakfast, much like always, and waited to see who would fill our final seat. Bruce advised that we save it specifically for our new friend, Gabriel, and to our delight, he did not disappoint in showing up. Still sporting the baggy clothes and rough apparel, Gabriel strode in and stood in the back. We waved him down though and brought him back to sit with us.

I was positioned next to Bruce when Gabriel came over to take his seat. He looked tired, much like yesterday, and I’m rather confident that he had slept for about 15 hours straight the day before. Even so, he was visibly weary but seemed more eager to sit with us than yesterday. This was a good sign, but I didn’t know how he’d be after a day of hanging out with us. But my question had to wait for before Gabriel could take a seat, Bruce asked Gabriel to grab a plate from the other table next to him. It had become apparent that we didn’t have enough at ours so we needed one more. It wasn’t a harsh request; just a simple “hey, could you please do me a favor while you’re up?” And to my surprise, Gabriel responded like he had springs in his legs. He turned quickly, picked up the plate and set it on the table. And he did so with a smile. He then sat down next to a few of my other friends, who quickly inquired how he had slept the night before. And conversation ensued from there; warming up, getting more familiar, and not being as closed off.

In that instant, Bruce turned to me, a teary-eyed expression in his face, and said, “Isn’t it amazing how people respond for just a inkling of love and acceptance?”
His comment sank deep within me and stretched itself across my very heart. What Bruce said was absolutely true – we do just about anything to be accepted, to be validated, but most of all, to feel loved. Shortly after breakfast, I was standing next to Bruce once more when he referenced the experience again. He was clearly elated, as were the rest of us, that Gabriel appeared to be in better spirits. When one of the other gentlemen in our group asked Bruce again, he mentioned the quote once more: “we all want to feel loved, even if it seems small.” A thought came to me so I decided to write it down later before I lost it.

If we are all searching for love and validation, then we are all looking for the slightest hint that it’s real so that we may latch onto it. Like a key that is made for a large door, our heart does not always require exuberant displays of affection or immense adoration; we need only a simple act that will open our heart to something much greater.

This experience, I feel, resonates with those words. Sometimes all it takes is a small sign of love, a fraction of selfless caring, to open the doors of one’s heart to a larger universe. In Gabriel’s case, it only required someone to ask, “Hey, how was your drive?” and then go from there. Not belittling him for his past, not disciplining him for wrongs he’s committed or even asking that he reconcile before us if he is to be allowed among us – it was none of these things. Instead, to have an invitation that says, “yes, you are welcome here” is powerful enough to change everything. I believe this gesture, strange as it may sound, means more than people may ever realize. And just as quickly, these same people will dismiss its power just as swiftly as it offers itself. That’s how fast the invite can arrive and then vanish, but its power to affect the heart is immense.

Gabriel was a living example of the invitation at work and his story made me think of my friend, all those years ago, who probably had a similar story now. Why didn’t anyone give him the invitation? Did no one care enough? Was I just too passive a friend to help him when we were younger? A thousand and one questions can leave a person paralyzed with thought but those kinds of questions aren’t important anymore. I saw what Gabriel needed now so dwelling on the past was of no help to him, me, or anybody else sitting at the table that day. The key had been found, the lock was undone and the door was being opened. That’s all that mattered. And that’s all that really matters. Because from then on, there is hope, which is a far better alternative than the alternative itself.

Why I will gladly be in your wedding party

Two friends of mine took the plunge last weekend. They got hitched; they exchanged vows; they received their license to wed; in essence, they got married, folks. That’s cool stuff all the way around.

Weddings have historically been a great experience for me. Granted, I’ve never been a groom, but I have been one of the groomsmen on several occasions. And I’ve also had the honor of being the best man for my best friend. The entire experience that a wedding brings is really phenomenal. At no other event (save funerals) do friends and family gather in such large masses. People will fly halfway across the country for a wedding if they are able and even if they aren’t, someone will usually shell out a few extra dollars to help pay for plane fare just so they can get there. Heck, decades-old grudges step aside for weddings. Uncles, aunts, cousins – anyone who has a beef with someone else will still find a way to get to the wedding for the sake of being there.

They may be only be going because they want to see if their adversary gained weight or lost hair, but hey, they are coming all the same.

But what is it about weddings that are so attractive? Why do so many people attend them? Well, there’s lots of reasons, but if you ask me, it comes down to one simple thing (and I promise not to be sarcastic here) – the beauty of the moment. That’s my honest opinion and belief.

Never again will we see a shimmering bride, walking down the aisle to her groom, in the same way, at the same time, in the same fashion. Yes, people do get divorced and remarry, I am not oblivious to this fact, but never again will it be like this time. The bride and groom may take vows again in future years, but I’ve said already – it won’t be the same twice. For in the moment the bride reveals herself to the groom – who is standing at the front, next to the men he has chosen to share his day with – nothing will ever be exactly like this time, this place, this experience.

When it comes to human beings, we like to be there for the “big moments”. The times where we can say “I was there, were you?” There’s an element of awe that we take great delight in with one another. And if we aren’t there for this big to-do, we have a sense that we missed out on something really spectacular. Getting to watch a video recording just isn’t the same. We have to be there in order to enjoy the wedding in all its splendor. That’s how I perceive weddings at least. A fleeting beauty that forever etches itsleef in the minds and memories of all who attend.

As I stood next to my five comrades (aka the other groomsmen) this past weekend, I couldn’t help but get the sense that this wedding was truly beautiful. As were so many others that I’ve been a part of. That level of emotion really stays with a person. And when it’s all said and done, you find yourself wanting more of that feeling if you can manage it.

Which is precisely why I try to make as many friends as possible. It may be selfish of me (you can say it is if you want though), but I want to be in more weddings than I can count. What better way to enjoy life than to be present at one of the happiest moments in another person’s life?! That’s how I like to look at things. So far, I’m up to 5 apperances (four in a groomsmen outfit and 1 as a reader). I figure I’ll squeak into another one or two in the near future, but consider this as an open invitation to any/all who need groomsmen. I don’t charge anything but I will require that my date be allowed a seat close to the bridal party. That’s all I ask in return. And hey, since I’m a writer, I may just share that experience in a book someday too.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel slighted, so expect an invite to my own wedding if I’m in yours. It’s only natural to return the favor, is it not? I won’t claim my wedding to be the most spectacular you’ll ever behold. But can you imagine a lineup of about 30 groomsmen and bridesmaids on either side?

Yeah, that’d be a once in a lifetime experience you wouldn’t want to miss.

What Makes People “Fired Up”?!

This is a generic question that warrants all manner of specific answers, but honestly, what does get a person fired up? Why do they get fired up? And heck, why do we even refer to this state as being all fired up?!

Well, I discovered that the phrase alone has origins beyond the scope of a mere Google search. In other words, I couldn’t find where it came from. However, I do know (and feel) what its meaning is: to ignite a response from deep within our core beings. When you think of a fire burning, you picture sparks of orange and yellow rising up from a central location. The fire was lit by something (a hand perhaps) and now that fire is engulfing any object it can in order to stay burning; be it wood, coal, or some other flammable substance. If fire were a living thing, we’d probably put it in the predatory category. In order for the fire to sustain itself, it must devour other things to survive. Not just eat either; devour. Because that’s what a fire does, it removes all evidence of the object it was lit upon. And whatever that object was before, it’s been changed forever from its original state.

So how does this apply to a person?

I like to think of those who get fired up as being people who are passionate about something. This passion could be a cause like, cancer research or volunteer work or even mentoring; matters that are linked directly to the heart of a person. These are core feelings boiling beneath the surface, just waiting to be “lit” into action. Once that fire is alive though, it has two potential paths: devour or multiply. The fire consumes all traces of what was there, spreading out amongst those who are close enough to the flame. Some may remain unaffected, like a hard stone sitting on the ground, but others may have a kindling that’s just waiting to be ignited. Once theirs is burning, they can’t help but feel alive now that the torch has been passed into them. On another part of the spectrum, you may find those who are burned by the flame of another. A person who gets “fired up” has a greater propensity to burn others; leaving a trail full of bitter and angry peers.

This is the great debacle of “getting fired up”. We are told to be passionate with what we do but we are also urged to have direction with our passions; a trait that fire doesn’t necessarily abide by. A wildfire does not stop until it has consumed all possible things in its path, stopping only once it has exhausted every available resource. Conversely, a fire that’s contained can provide warmth to any and all who gather around it. Those looking for light or guidance are led to the fire like a lost traveler in the night. And when they get there, they find others who at one time shared a cold or dark view of the world around them. This is the dual nature of a powerful flame; a purpose that’s designed for expansion, be it external or internal.

Obviously, we see these fires in people. There are those among us who shine brightly, drawing others near so as to give them warmth or protection. But there are those who are like wildfires, devouring everything (and everyone) in their path as they seek to expand their passion upon all those in their immediate vicinity (and beyond). If you ask someone who they’d rather befriend, I’m sure all of us would say the former. We’d prefer to be in the presence of a person who gives without the thought of receiving; someone who presents a warmly glow; someone who is passionate yet contained and directed in their endeavors so as to not burn those who huddle close by.

Ironically though, I feel like we have a hard time discerning between these two types of people.

We are quick to believe a loud mouth or a firm hand because it’s dynamic and obstructs our own views. We are taken with the pressure of others telling who to follow and what to listen to rather than looking inward at our own fire; and how it is yearning to be lit. We like the comfort of being told what to do, but criticize those in power for not understanding our own needs or desires; even if we have never voiced them openly. This is the inward cry of someone caught in a wildfire, I feel. To be powerless and without warmth because his own fire inside was never lit of his own accord; it was trampled on by another whose desires impeded the needs of his own heart. And so, he is now left to wander aimlessly; the fire gone, replaced with a charred space where the kindling used to be.

There are certain things in life that get us angry or upset, but this is not necessarily a sign of passion. If you’re “fired up” about something, then I would perceive this as being enthusiastic. Many online dictionaries describe “fired up” as being “aggravated” or even “aggressive” towards something so there can also be a negative connotation here. This, in my eyes, best describes the balance between a well-tended fire and a fire that is out of control. One type is indicative of passion and love; the other is a representation of spite, remorse, or anger. Is it good to be angry? Sure, but it is also easy to remain that way. Stay wound up too tight your whole life and you may eventually explode. Obviously that anger must get redirected. How does that emotion get channeled into creating light rather than expanding upon a burned landscape?

Well, I don’t have all the answers on that one, but it certainly must start with a look inward, not outward. What we see outwardly can be deceptive, but what’s inside tells us more of who we are and what we’re passionate for. Am I saying to not trust everything you hear? No, not exactly. I’m not big on overthinking or extreme analytics for the pursuit of more knowledge (even if I am the researching type) as this can get in the way of finding real truth. Yes, you should seek accurate information so as to be better informed, but that pursuit can be in itself like a wildfire of your own doings, crushing a straight and purposeful path in favor of one that is muddled with uncertainty. I am, however, in the thinking that if we recognize real warmth, deep to our core, then we know in our bones that a fire is lit there. One that is not meant to overtake us, but is meant for helping to light our own passions and eventually those of others. People crave community, yet the individual desires identity and individuality. Is there a way to receive both?

I get fired up about this topic more so than most other subjects. I find my continuing relationship with God to be a determining factor in my quest to be “on fire” (figuratively speaking). What does God want me to get fired up about? Am I conducting myself more like a light to others? Or am I merely just making my own agenda more important than theirs? I would hope this thought doesn’t make you lose sleep at night, but when you consider the reality of your everyday life, you must recognize the impact you have each and every moment you are breathing.

And that’s worth getting fired up about, is it not?

Are angels real?

I really like this question. Have you ever just stopped and asked this to yourself? Or asked anybody you commonly engage with? Try it in casual conversation and see what happens. You may get a whole slew of different responses:

1. “Yes, I saw one when I was younger. Watched over me when I was in a car wreck.”
2. “You know, I’m not so sure. I think they are out there but it’s hard to believe sometimes. I mean, isn’t it God’s job to test you and stuff?”
3. “Well, I saw this movie once and something similar happened to me, so yeah, I’d say they’re out there.”
4. “Dude, are you talking about Ouija boards or something?”
5. “You know, I’ve had experiences I cannot explain and others had told me similar stories so I can’t deny their existence.”

Each of the above quotes have been paraphrased based upon actual testimony. And they were all from the same person, no less. How does that grab you? And what’s more, the person who said each of those was me.

The seasons of one’s life can change in an instant and when they do, it’s dynamic. When the chips are up, you feel like you’re making it, but when they’re down, you feel isolated and alone. And when you’re alone, you doubt just about everything that ever meant anything to you.

Sometimes the grandest of experiences, like the apperance of an angel, can easily be discarded as we move about our daily lives. Such was the case with my story.

Many years ago, I was involved in a car wreck. I fishtailed on a road and careened into a ditch. I was lying on my side after the ordeal, still in my car and still in my seat belt. Windows were shattered and the sides of my ’93 jeep were crumpled inward. When everything around me stopped moving, I realized that yes, I had been in a car accident. A quick check-up and I determined that nothing on me was broken or punctured. I crawled up the side of my jeep and opened the passenger side door. When I emerged, I felt like an alien visitor who had just landed on a foreign planet. I had been driving by myself but I was not alone where I was for about 20 or so yards from me, standing at the edge of a barren road in the middle of the countryside, was an older woman. She called out to me and asked, “Are you alright?” to which I replied, “Yes! I am!” and then told her to “hold on one moment” as I retreated back inside my car to check my things. When I returned to the opening, just a few moments later, she was gone. And not just gone as in “left the scene” gone, she was gone in the sense that she flat out vanished. IF I saw her again later in life, I would not have recognized her. That’s how brief the encounter was.

When you live in Western Pennsylvania, the nearest house can be a football field away. I was in such an area at the time of the accident. And since it was the early spring, all manner of crops were dead; you could see out across the landscape as though you were looking upon a desert. That being said, if I were to sit here and tell you that I have absolutely, positively, no idea where this woman went to, then I am telling you that this was my reality. She was nowhere to be seen.

This event, and the mysteriuos woman who appeared that day, slowly dissipated from my mind. I was only a teenager at the time so it was easy to take a brief brush with death as “no big deal”. If you had asked me then if I believed in angels, I would have answered with quotes 1 or 3 above. The experience was relatively fresh but I was inwardly skeptical; if anything, I felt slighted by the fact that she left me all alone.

A few years later, in the midst of college and a time where one can really lose his faith, my younger brother had a similar car wreck (and within a mile of where mine had been). I was home for the weekend so when I got news that my brother had wrecked, I got my things and went to go pick him up. It was late at night, so it was dark, and from what I had been told, he had swerved to miss a raccoon but somehow he was fine. When I arrived where he was, I was in mild disbelief that he was somehow uninjured. The jeep he’d been driving had apparently rolled and in some regard, “flipped” when he sped off the road and landed in the front yard of another person’s house. The car was totaled, of course, but that’s not the peculiar part. Since it had been snowing that night, the stranger’s yard where he landed was covered in a white blanket. You could not see the grass beneath the white veil. As such, the tire marks from my brother’s car should have been somewhere in the yard; they were not. Somehow, some way, my brother had flown into the yard and landed on his side. No one could explain how this happened; even my brother who told me later that he didn’t remember much other than the fact that he tried desperately to miss a raccoon (the boy’s a pacifist, what can I say?). Bumps and bruises were missing, as was the explanation.

What does something like this mean then? Anyone who surveyed the wreck thought it was a miracle he was ok. I, too, was baffled by the result; relieved first and foremost, but baffled nonetheless. Our parents were more relieved than anything and glad that their deja’vu experience yielded a similar conclusion. My brother lost his car, but not his life that night. The tradeoff was more than fair in anybody’s eyes.

The moment passed, we went back to our lives, but this event, now several years later, holds resonance with me. On that same road, with the same type vehicle, at about the same time in our young lives, my brother had a near identical accident that left him unscathed. Is it mere coincidence? Dumb luck? Bad driving? Or is there somebody, somewhere looking out for my brother and I? A cynic may say that we’re poor drivers and we should have been more careful, but that doesn’t give all the answers. It just points out a generic observation, but doesn’t nearly explain the why or the how.

Such an event may turn you to several outlets for an answer. You may rush to a local psychic for a palm reading or you may read tarot cards to see what “past life” caused you to be in danger more than once, but all of that mumbo jumbo won’t give you what you’re looking for: truth. Many times the unexplainable gives very little to alleviate our angst and lack of understanding. It can make you feel like I did when I neglected my own wreck and make you say things like, “I guess they (angels) are out there.” I never got palm readings or turned to Ouija boards, but I never once just asked: are angels even real? The question seemed silly. As an adult, you don’t like fairy tales; you prefer hard facts to support wild claims of supernatural intervention. But what happens when the experience is so real and so close to the vest that you can’t possibly turn away in denial? I cannot believe that the random events of competing molecules randomly hitting one another can mathematically create scenarios that are meant for creating purpose and meaning (that’s a mouthful, is it not?). This scientific exchange simply does not explain the human condition: a burning desire for meaning and purpose. So if that’s what I feel in my very bones, then it must be something else.

It must have been an angel then, right? I feel like God has a way of knowing how hard our hearts are. He’s battling for them (our hearts) daily so He knows what it takes for us to finally see what He wants us to see and He knows just how to prepare us for what’s next. Do I understand the entirety of His plan? No, absolutely not; nor do I wish to. Sure, a part of me may want to have all those answers but the labor involved with gaining that knowledge would be futile. Still, I must remind myself of this daily – I can’t always have all the answers.

So are angels real or are they not? If you asked me now, I would say ‘yes’. No fluff, no sales pitch; just an honest answer. But this is also my experience, which will be different than anyone else’s and specific to me. So if there’s one thing I do understand, it’s that our story is always unique to us and it’s a story that God wants us to tell as we come to know Him. There’s a certain power in storytelling that reveals other-worldly places. We may hear a great tale about someone surviving a car crash or barely missing a runaway train, but to be up close and personal with a moment can change our perspective forever. Gentle nudges are more than just mere nudges; they are calls to make us more aware as to what is going on around us everyday. Did an angel save my brother that night? It’s quite possible that one did so I won’t disregard that possibility. In a time where I told God I didn’t need Him any longer, something rather amazing happened to snap me back to the real reality: that there is somebody watching out for us.

With that, I just wish I knew what God had against jeeps in our family, but hey, if I’m not supposed to know why, then I’m just not supposed to know why.

Downright Good Thought: Idol worship … why it will let you down.

In the fallout of Lance Armstrong’s confession, I felt the need to say something on the matter. Not that he’s a washed up liar or he’s “just like all the other pro athletes”; no that’s too easy. While many will rush to throw blame on him for being a horrible human being, we forget that in the grand scheme of things – we are all human. We are fallible; we make mistakes.

Unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Armstrong, his was on a very public and grand stage. His betrayal is enormous due to his Livestrong message. A message which encompassed a honing of one’s own strength to overcome all adversity. This message of Lance’s, albeit touching and uplifting, was eventually faulted for one reason: Lance Armstrong represented Livestrong; he was the brand of his own brand. He represented courage; he represented determination; but most of all, he represented hope. And hope is not a commodity to be thrown around when you have the weight of so many others upon you. Hope tugs at the hearts of those who are touched by it so to betray hope is to break the heart to pieces.

This is why Lance’s betrayal is so great. The hope that someone stood for and what they endorsed has been tarnished and thus, we must add another name to the list of dirty, little liars and cheats who tried to beat the system. It’s a disgrace to all parties involved (the fans included of course), but the experience should teach us a valuable life lesson. You shouldn’t place all your hope in one person: they will always, in some fashion, let you down. Yes, it is important to have role models, to look up to our mentors and be comforted by their strength, but never should we reserve our last hope in that of another human being. Our true strength, trust, and hope should reside in a much greater source: God.

If you are shaky on this statement or feel like I’m speaking in fluff, I ask that you to consider this for a moment. Do you or do you not believe that human beings are meant to bear the burdens of others? That we somehow, in some way, are meant to carry around the hope and strength of other people? We can encourage, yes; and we can support, lift up, even praise, yes; but we can’t expect ourselves to bring all the support necessary to help and change people’s lives. A changed life is experienced by the one who is transformed, not the journeyman who accompanied the lost traveler. But in addition to that, we should not idolize others to the point that we place our very livelihood and ideals in their image. A person’s image is breakable; like glass and when it is strained, it cracks. So when that glass shatters, its shards will cut all who gathered around it.

The message and hope that God brings is unbreakable and his image is always pure. There are no broken shards to shield yourself from. I feel badly for Lance and how this all went down – I really do and perhaps we as witnesses had something to contribute to his fall from grace. Somewhere along the line, he may have felt too much pressure to perform, like he had no way out; he may have forgotten what he stood for and what he was bringing to the people who believed in him. If he were able to “walk the walk” of his brand, then this never would have happened. So there is another lesson to be learned from this: if you are going to speak it, then you must also walk it. Plain and simple. Easier said than done? Well, of course.

Now, are all pro athletes who promote better behaviors or inspirational merchandise terrible human beings? No, absolutely not, but we must be weary of our “idol worship” as it pertains to these individuals. Even if he did cheat and lie about his PED use, he may have still touched the lives of millions, encouraging them to live better, healthier lives. And that idea alone is worth something more. It’s an ideal greater than any man or sports hero, most of all Lance Armstrong. Lance’s image may be broken, but the Livestrong message should not be. Will Livestrong survive this debacle though? I suppose only time will tell.

Epiphany: The phenomenon that is Christmas Day.

If you are celebrating the birth of our Lord, then you are doing one of two things by now: sitting at a relative’s house reminiscing on good times or you are sitting at a relative’s house enduring awkward conversation till it’s time to leave. Over the years, I’ve been through both of these scenarios to some extent. Inevitably people will fight or quarrel over something; thus turning quality time into want-to-leave-immediately time. All people go through seasons of their life in which they feel isolated; wishful that someone will help them even if they are knowingly being distant.

It’s human nature, which guess what – ain’t exactly perfect.

But year-in and year-out, we still gather with family for some much needed group therapy. And that’s exactly how I see it these days – group therapy. But it’s group therapy in the grandest way possible. We commune with one another because we celebrate the birth of the Light of the world. And that’s something that never changes,despite the changing seasons of our lives and the inherent nature of our very beings.

So enjoy 2012’s “group therapy” session as best you are able. Uplift the one who needs it most and be open to this subtle healing opportunity if you need it too.Because next year things will be different once more, but the celebration of God’s gift stays the same.

My hope for you is to spend this time with those who aren’t just family, but fellow members of a much larger family that’s in need of some comfort and support. But hey, remember to have some fun while you’re at it.

Blessings,

– J.C.L.

Why what the President asked … is so important

This post is not meant for speaking on any of the following: recognizing the shooter, his actions, or the reason for why he did what he did in Newtown, Connecticut. This is an extremely hard topic to talk about, seeing as how I’m tucked away in another state and not a member of the community that’s been affected by this. The truth is that I don’t completey understand what has transpired and though I’ll read news stories for the next few days or so, I’ll still be left at a loss for how to react.

I feel saddened more than anything else. Saddened that this has become a familiar pattern in the heart of the U.S. A disturbing event takes place, the media explodes with up-to-date coverage, experts weigh in on what “went wrong” and then after two weeks of honoring those who committed heroic acts, the world goes back to apparent normalcy. It’s fast-becoming a reality that what’s normal was once considered to be a once in a lifetime occurence. And through it all, we focus on the past rather than focusing on the future. We wish to explain the past in order to establish a better future. The fact of the matter is that the past is over and it’s a new day. And that is where we should be headed.

After watching President Obama’s address at the Interfaith Vigil tonight, I felt compelled to reiterate some of his words. Rather than criticize the man, I wanted to touch on what he spoke of towards the end of his speech. It was the question he asked to all who were in attendance or listening at home: “why are we here?” It’s probably the crucial question to be asking these days. Not just as a nation, but for every individual residing within.

Why are we here?

Are we here to spread darkness? Or are we here to perpetuate life? Are we here to create confusion? Or are we here to spread the good news? The core of every human heart is asking these questions. But instead of asking these of ourselves when the terrible strikes, why not ask this question every day? And if we continue to do this, we can recognize what is important. And in doing so, we’ll be able to prevent the terribly impossible long before it even has a chance to occur.