Declutter Your Soul

Declutter Your Soul

We’re drowning in clutter.

Does it feel like your life is filled with clutter? If it does, you’re not alone. In fact, according to recent statistics on clutter, our obsession with stuff is costing Americans time and money — resources that most of us would rather spend on other things.

  • We wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time
  • Twenty-five percent of two-car garages don’t have room to park cars in them
  • There is a direct correlation between cortisol (stress) levels and the density of objects in our houses
  • Approximately 10 percent of American households rent a storage unit for their overflow possessions, at a cost of $1,000 or more a year
  • Eliminating clutter would reduce the amount of time you spend cleaning your home by 40 percent
  • Nearly a third of Americans report that cleaning their closets is more satisfying than sex

You can probably identify at least a half dozen areas of your life that need decluttering right now. Like it or not, none of us are immune from clutter and the longer you ignore it, the more the stuff you own will feel like it’s starting to own you.

Decluttering is a spiritual necessity

Clutter is an unavoidable side effect of consumer culture. When we declutter, we make a conscious decision to turn over a new leaf and reject the misguided notion that things could ever lead to happiness or personal fulfillment.

But material things aren’t the only source of clutter in our lives. Non-material sources of clutter are often more spiritually damaging than the boxes of clothes stacked in your spare room or the piles of plastic toys taking up space in your garage. Donating or discarding unused possessions is a good start, but don’t stop there. Use it as a catalyst to begin the more difficult process of decluttering your soul.

  • Regrets — A lot of us go through life carrying a bag full of regrets. Whether it’s things we did or things we didn’t do, regrets weigh us down — just like the clutter in our houses. Worse yet, they hold us back from trying new things or becoming better versions of ourselves.
  • Unhealthy Goals — There’s nothing wrong with having goals. But sometimes our goals can become unhealthy, especially if our ambitions drive us to achieve things that don’t line up with our spiritual values. For example, when the desire to earn a living morphs into an obsession to become filthy rich, it’s time to clean house.
  • Relationships — Purging relationships from your life gets dicey. I’m not talking about cleaning up your friends list on Facebook. I’m talking about distancing yourself from friends or even family members that are no longer supportive or represent a positive influence in your life. Sometimes you have to walk away from those relationships to move forward, especially if the relationship has turned toxic.

How to declutter your soul

If it’s any consolation, Jesus was a big fan of decluttering. In Matthew 10, he sent the disciples out without any money or spare clothes; in Luke 14, he told his followers that taking up the Cross might require them to “declutter” their relationships and leave behind family members.

Although you probably won’t have to do anything that radical, there are several things you can do to declutter your soul and improve your spiritual health.

  1. Take inventory. Spend a few minutes each day in prayer and meditation, evaluating the material and non-material clutter in your life. If it isn’t useful anymore or if it’s weighing you down and holding you back, add it to the list of things that are ripe for removal.
  2. Create a plan. Create a plan to eliminate each area or piece of clutter from your life. If you can, donate material possessions to a local charity. For non-material clutter, consider practical steps you can take to change unhealthy behaviors, relationships or obsessions.
  3. Don’t replace old clutter with new clutter. Avoid replacing unhealthy goals or relationships with new ones, at least not right away. Over time, you may discover removing negative things from your life has created space for positive ones. But for now, focus on enjoying the freedom of living your life without unnecessary burdens or distractions.
You Will Never Find Happiness

You Will Never Find Happiness

You will never find happiness because happiness can’t be found. According to researchers, your brain is hardwired for generosity.  The idea that we can improve our sense of well-being through consumption or materialism is the happiness myth. Instead, happiness is the byproduct of empathy and compassion. God wants you to be happy. It’s just not the kind of happiness that you expect.

An Anglican priest and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar.

In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama met in Dharamsala, India, for a weeklong conversation about joy.

Joy is a slippery topic, even for spiritual heavyweights like Desmond Tutu and Tenzin Gyatso. Yet, despite their theological and cultural differences, the longtime friends agreed on a fundamental truth about happiness:

You can’t find happiness by looking for it.

Sounds like a Zen riddle, right? It’s not. You will never find happiness because happiness can’t be found.

Real happiness – deep-down joy that oozes from your pores – isn’t about chasing down your wants or crossing items off your wish list.

It’s about other people.

Neuroscience and the Key to Happiness

In The Book of Joy, Doug Abrams documents the conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and provides tons of supporting information about our shared search for joy. According to Abrams, happiness (joy) is a lasting sense of well-being. Citing research from neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Abrams describes the four brain circuits that determine our well being:

#1

Your Ability to Maintain Positive States

This relates to our ability to experience positive emotions on a consistent basis. According to Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama (and pretty much every faith tradition), this begins with love and compassion.

#2

Your Ability to Recover from Negative States

Happiness isn’t about avoiding suffering or difficult circumstances. Bad things happen to everyone. The trick is learning how to recover from bad things and avoid falling into a black hole of despair.

#3

Your Ability to Focus

You can’t experience happiness and lasting well being if your mind is racing in a dozen different directions. Prayer, meditation and other spiritual exercises help focus your thoughts and lay a foundation for happiness in your life.

#4

Your Ability to Be Generous

The other three circuits set the stage for happiness. Generosity is the main event. If you’ve ever had a good feeling when you volunteered at a nonprofit or did a good deed for a stranger you’ve already experienced this firsthand. Your brain is literally hardwired to care about the good of others.

Debunking the Happiness Myth

Some of life’s best moments happen when we step away from our personal dramas and invest in other people.

Teaching a kid to ride a bike. Spending time with a sick friend. Serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.

It feels good to help other people. But when it comes to our personal happiness, we forget about the adrenalin rush that comes from serving others.

Instead of looking outward, we look inward. We buy. We eat. We drink. We consume in the insane hope that it will satisfy our cravings for peace, contentment and meaning.

That’s not how happiness works. The emotional bump we get from consumption quickly fades. The first bowl of ice cream we eat is bliss. The second bowl is tolerable. The third is something we force ourselves to endure.

We keep looking for happiness in all the wrong places (Abrams calls it the “hedonic treadmill”) when the only thing capable of bringing us real joy is right in front of our eyes: generosity and the simple willingness to pursue good for others.

"(Happiness) is like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people."

“(If) you are setting out to be joyful, you are not going to end up being joyful. You’re going to find yourself turned in on yourself. It’s like a flower. You open, you blossom, really because of other people.

–ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU

Happiness Is the Byproduct of Empathy and Kindness

At a recent gathering of the Caritas community, someone asked whether happiness is a realistic expectation for our daily lives. After all, happiness is the result of generosity and although generous living looks good on paper, it loses its luster when you’re stuck in a crappy job or surrounded by sadness and people you can’t possibly help.

One of the group members works in the healthcare profession. He shared that it’s true — maintaining a sense of happiness when his job forces him to constantly interact with the suffering and smells of chronically ill people sometimes feels impossible. But he said that God speaks to him through their suffering. When he consciously practices empathy, he is filled with joy.

Other people remind us to be grateful. They provide opportunities for compassion. We experience happiness not as a goal, but as a byproduct of the empathy and kindness we practice in the lived moments of daily life, even when those moments are filled with suffering and negativity.

“People think about money or fame or power … One individual, no matter how powerful, how clever, cannot survive without other human beings. So the best way to fulfill your wishes, to achieve your goals, is to help others.” 

–The DALAI LAMA

Does God Want Us to Be Happy?

Does God want us to be happy? It’’s a fair question, given the amount of suffering in the world.

If your idea of happiness is a new car, a super-sexy spouse or an impressive bank account, then no. God could care less about your happiness.

But if you define happiness the way Jesus defines happiness, then your happiness is the only thing God cares about.

Because real happiness is the inevitable result of generosity, the unavoidable outcome of a life lived for other people.

11 Benefits of Brisk Walking

11 Benefits of Brisk Walking

Walking is good for you. But did you know that brisk walking is one of the simplest and most effective ways to maintain a healthy mind, body and soul?

What Is “Brisk Walking?”

Walking at any speed is good for you. But the real benefits kick in when you walk a brisk pace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines brisk walking as a pace of more than three miles per hour or about 20 minutes per mile.

It doesn’t matter where you walk: You can walk around your neighborhood, on the track at the local high school, the mall or even on a treadmill. The point of brisk walking is simply to move at a pace that gets you in the mid- to upper range of your target heart rate. (You can calculate your target heart rate here.)

Benefits of Brisk Walking

The great thing about brisk walking is that you don’t need crazy equipment or an expensive gym membership to do it. All it takes is a serviceable pair of Nikes and thirty minutes a day to tap into benefits that will significantly improve your quality (and quantity) of life.

1. Brisk walking improves your circulation.

Walking helps prevent heart disease by strengthening your heart and circulatory system. Studies show that women who walk just a few miles a day can reduce their blood pressure by more than 11 points in just six months.

2. Walking reduces back pain.

A whopping 70% of Americans report occasional to frequent back pain. According to physicians, brisk walking may be the best way to reduce and eliminate your aching back because it releases serotonins and endorphins. It may hurt a little at first, but start slow and work through the pain.

3. It strengthens your aging bones.

Your bones get brittle as you age. Walking helps prevent osteoporosis by building up the thickness of your bones, reducing the risk of hip fractures and other problems that happen as you get older.

4. You lose (a little) weight.

Diet continues to be the most significant factor in weight loss. But when combined with diet, walking can contribute to weight loss. Every little bit helps and brisk walking for 30 minutes can burn up to 200 calories.

5. It’s good for your immune system.

Tired of feeling sick and tired all the time? Walking may be the answer. A daily walking routine improves your immune system by generating T cells — the killer cells that attack infected cells in your body.

6. The risk of chronic diseases goes down.

Diabetes. Heart disease. Stroke. Brisk walking decreases your risk for acquiring a variety of chronic diseases. By simply putting one foot in front of the other few a few minutes each day, you’ll feel healthier and live longer.

7. You feel less stressed.

Walking releases endorphins and other chemicals that provide an emotional boost. It also gives you the opportunity to step away from the stack of work piled up on your desk. Your problems will still be there when you get back. But for a while, you’ll feel less stressed and more relaxed.

8. You meet people.

When you walk around your neighborhood or community, you meet people — and that’s a good thing, especially if you spend the majority of your day in front of a computer screen. To ramp up the social aspect of brisk walking and hold yourself accountable for a daily walk, you might even want to invite a friend or family member to join you.

9. It makes you more creative.

Some of the world’s most best thinkers and artists credit walking for helping them be more creative. Although the link between walking and creativity isn’t completely clear, it appears to stimulate neurological pathways associated with the early stages of the creative process.

10. You can pray or meditate.

A lot of us cite a lack of time as the main reason why we don’t pray or meditate. Walking creates space for prayer and meditation by removing the distractions of your work and personal life. With the right mindset, it’s possible to turn a daily walk into a spiritual discipline.

11. You experience the world.

One of the most important benefits of brisk walking is that it forces you to get out of the house and experience the world around you. Whether you’re walking in nature or on busy city streets, you’re growing as a person because you’re having up close and personal interactions with your surroundings.

 

Get Ahead by Being Nice

Get Ahead by Being Nice

In a dog-eat-dog world, being nice takes a back seat to looking out for number one. But do you really have to be a jerk to get ahead?

Not according to researchers. Believe it or not, being nice can set you on the fast track to success in business — and in life.

Being Nice Is Good for Business

Conventional wisdom paints successful business leaders as tough, unyielding autocrats who have no patience for their workers’ feelings or concerns. But a 2014 study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that the most effective leaders make a habit of being nice to their employees.

Mean leaders cause stress and stressed workers are crappy workers. 

Stressful workplaces have 46 percent higher healthcare expenditures than less stressful work environments. Sick workers take sick days and sick days disrupt normal workflows, resulting in lost productivity. The ironic thing? Workplace stress is usually caused by a leader who is trying to increase productivity by placing unrealistic demands on workers.

Fairness matters to employees and helps them become team players. 

Fairness makes a difference in workplace productivity. A study conducted by NYU’s Stern School of Business showed that when employees are treated fairly, they are more loyal, committed and productive — especially when their leaders prioritize teamwork and the needs of individual team members.

Happy employees are satisfied employees.

Companies spend big bucks to improve workplace satisfaction and reduce employee turnover. But it turns out that one of the best ways to make happier employees is by simply being nice. According to Gallup research, employees overwhelmingly prefer happiness to high pay, and a healthcare industry study demonstrated that a kind work culture improves employees’ well being, health outcomes and overall satisfaction.

There are limits to being nice in the workplace. Business leaders who let themselves be taken advantage of are ineffective because they lose the respect of their workers. But the big takeaway is that being nice is good business.

How to Get Ahead in Life by Being Nice

Being nice benefits your career by making you a better leader. But it can also help you get ahead in your personal life. It’s not rocket science — whether they’re in the workplace or kicking back a few beers at the neighborhood block party, people generally prefer to be treated with kindness rather than indifference or animosity.

  • Give respect to get respect. Reciprocity is an unwritten law of the universe. When push comes to shove, no one respects the guy who walks around town with a stick up his butt. If you want the respect of your friends and neighbors, you have to learn to show respect by being kind, compassionate and altruistic.
  • Play the long game. In the short term, nice guys sometimes finish last. Although it’s admirable to give your elderly neighbor the last of loaf of bread, you’ll have to live without turkey sandwiches for a while. But over time, kindness and compassion form character and create personality traits that make you more appealing to friends, family and even strangers.
  • Focus on the big picture. Maintain perspective and remember that in the scope of your life, minor irritants are just that – minor. Some of the nicest people I know are big picture thinkers who recognize that being kind is a lot more important than the annoyances of the moment.

 

The Wonderful Ickiness of Watching the Olympics

The Wonderful Ickiness of Watching the Olympics

I’m Addicted to Watching the Olympics

Every two years I tell myself that I won’t do it again, that I won’t spend the next ten days parked in front of a TV watching the Olympics.

And yet here I am. Cheering on swimmers and gymnasts and beach volleyball teams. Yesterday, I got sucked into a 45-minute fencing match and the blades were so thin that it was impossible to tell who scored. But it didn’t matter. I watched anyway.

There’s something exhilarating about watching elite American athletes compete on an international stage.

It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s patriotic. It’s addictive.

So why does watching the Olympics make me feel icky inside?

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

We love a good story. It’s human nature. And Olympic coverage is a story-telling machine.

Whether it’s the juggernaut of U.S. women’s gymnastics or Michael Phelps staring down the competition in the ready room, the Olympics deliver super-sized helpings of drama to our living rooms every single night.

As we watch these stories unfold in real time, we can’t help but feel like we’re a part of the narrative, especially when the narrative involves American athletes.

By the time the Olympics are over, we’re on a first-name basis with our favorite athletes. People like Simone and Michael aren’t strangers anymore. They’re our neighbors and friends.

The Stories We Don’t See When Watching the Olympics

Earlier this week, Gersh Kuntzman published a column in the New York Daily News about how the Olympics are the original freak show. According to Kuntzman:

“… Olympic champions are yet another reminder that if you want to be the best at anything, be prepared to focus on a single thing from age 5 at the expense of pretty much everything else.”

It’s a valid point. Behind every feel-good story at the Olympic games, there are countless tragedies playing out behind the scenes. Not tragedies like finishing fourth or suffering a career-ending injury before millions of spectators. But the kind of tragedies that happen when people devote their entire lives to a sport that ultimately abandons them when they get too slow, too weak, too old.

Some child athletes never recover from leaving their families during their formative years to live with strangers and train full-time for their sports. Others turn to drugs, alcohol and other vices when their sports careers evaporate. Even those who somehow manage to avoid the more serious pitfalls struggle to find their place in a world they are ill-equipped to navigate.

The networks don’t cover those stories. But if you’re paying attention, they’re not hard to find. And when the stadium explodes in celebration of the latest gold-medal-winning demigod, they’re the stories that leave a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Balance and the Life Well Lived

A well-lived life is a well-balanced life. That’s not rocket science. Balance is something we all learned as kids when our mothers warned that if we didn’t eat our meatloaf and peas, we wouldn’t get any ice cream for dessert.

Suppose you’re an average Joe who loves golf so much that you spend every available moment on the links. Before long, your relationships, your career and nearly every other important part of your life will suffer. The only people who will cheer you on will be other golfers who share your obsessions with the sport. Everyone else will recognize that you have a problem because a lack of balance is a recipe for personal disaster

So why do we celebrate Olympic athletes who live radically imbalanced lives in pursuit of success?

Some will argue that we’re not celebrating athletes’ lack of balance, we’re celebrating their achievements. But in today’s money-driven world of sport, athletic achievement and a lack of personal balance go hand in hand. If you want to be the best, you have to focus exclusively on Kuntzman’s single thing at the expense of pretty much everything else. Imbalance is just part of the game.

Watching the Olympics is fun. There’s nothing wrong with cheering on your favorite athletes and rooting for the home team to eke out a victory over the Chinese or the Russians or the Australians.

But for God’s sake, don’t envy the Olympians. If anything, feel sorry for them and recommit yourself to maintaining a healthy balance in your own life.

A Cure for Thinking Too Much

A Cure for Thinking Too Much

I think too much.

I admit it. I’m guilty of thinking too much. For example, right now I’m thinking about the list of things I have to do for my employer before I clock out for the day. But at the same time, I’m also thinking about buying fertilizer for the lawn, daydreaming about a cross-country bike trip and wondering why they put locks on the doors of convenience stores that are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Thinking is good. Thinking too much is insanity.

Don’t get me wrong. Thinking beats ignorance every time. But thinking becomes a problem when our inner narrative — the nonstop dialogue that takes place in our minds — goes unchecked. For most of us, life moves at a blistering pace. To keep up, our thoughts jump all over the place, going from here to there to there at lightning speed. We call it multitasking and tell ourselves it’s a good thing. But that’s a lie. Thinking too much is maddening. It’s exhausting. And it’s unsustainable — especially if we want to have any semblance of spiritually meaningful life.

It turns out that bliss is a 15-mile hike.

Recently, my two brothers and I embarked on a hiking expedition along the West Rim Trail of the Pine Creek Gorge in Pennsylvania. The three of us hadn’t set out on an adventure like this one since we were kids. Unfortunately, our bodies weren’t quite up to the challenge. Fifteen miles later, we had an impressive collection of blisters, aches and joint pains to show for our efforts. But at the end of the day, I realized that I had somehow silenced my inner narrative. Instead of thinking about to-do lists, daydreams and random thoughts, I spent a solid seven hours in the moment, thinking about the trail that was right in front of me. And it was bliss.

Hiking actually changes your brain.

The cure I found for thinking too much wasn’t a fluke. According to scientists, hiking in nature creates a calming effect because it prohibits rumination — the thing that happens when it feels like your mind is racing. In fact, a study by the National Academy of Sciences showed that:

“a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting, decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity.”

The study also found that hiking in nature helps combat depression and other mental illnesses — something that doesn’t happen when we walk or spend in time in urban/suburban settings.

Why does hiking in nature silence our inner narrative?

Researchers believe that one reason hiking in nature stops rumination is because it forces us to disconnect from technology. That makes sense. Unplugging from technology is an important part of a balanced spiritual life. But I also think that hiking in nature quiets our thoughts because the mental buffers that keep God at arms length are gone. It’s just you and the trees and the trail. It’s God’s creation in all its glory and you’re a part of it. Not an observer. Not a spectator. But an active participant in creation.

Hiking in nature won’t solve all of your problems. It won’t balance your bank account or fix your leaky roof. But if you’re like me and thinking too much is becoming too much to handle, a jaunt in the woods may be your best bet.

Trust and the Art of Being Fully Alive

Trust and the Art of Being Fully Alive

When We’re Afraid We’re Not Fully Alive

When I was five-years-old, I learned the hard way that you can’t be fully alive when you’re afraid.

It was the beginning of summer and I had recently discovered the joys of walking barefoot in grass. The sensation of soft blades of grass between my pudgy five-year-old toes turned to tragedy when  I stepped on a bee, causing my foot to swell to the size of a cantaloupe.

For the rest of the summer, I avoided going outside because I was afraid of being stung again. Four decades later, the small hairs on the nape of my neck still stand up when I hear bees buzzing.

That’s the power fear can have over us. It transformed a random encounter with a bee into something that kept a five-year-old boy from playing outside for an entire summer. It stopped me from living life, from being fully alive.

Fear Equals Control

Historically, fear has been used as a tool for achieving less-than-noble (and sometimes, outright evil) goals. And it’s not just the Hitlers and the Pol Pots of the world that use fear to influence the masses. Pay attention and you’ll see the fear factor at work in everything from advertising to the political process.

At its most basic level, fear equals control.

When we’re afraid, we change our behaviors and even our values to protect ourselves from the objects of our fear. If someone is selling a way to avoid the things that scare us, we’re buying — and that’s the moment they own us, the moment we relinquish control of the things we truly care about.

The Antidote for Fear Is Trust

Trust is the building block for a spiritual life. Although learning to trust is a lifelong process, you can’t lead a spiritually mature life without trusting God. It’s like trying to drive a car without gasoline — you can sit behind the wheel all day long, but you’re not really going anywhere.

Fear is real and it can be paralyzing. But by exercising trust in the face of fear mongering, our efforts to follow Jesus become more authentic. We become more fully alive because we’re free to experience life unencumbered.

Trust starts with love.

Trust always begins with love. But it’s not our love for God — it’s God’s love for us. In 1 John 4:18, we read:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …

Even when God feels remote, our imperfect belief in God’s perfect love enables us to move through life without fear, knowing that we are loved and cared for.

Trust acknowledges uncertainty.

Trust is not an absolute certainty that everything will be fine. In fact, it’s an acknowledgement that life is anything but certain and that sometimes, our worst fears become realities that turn our lives upside down.

When we trust God, we become more fully alive because we learn how to make peace with uncertainty. Although we never really know what the future holds, we embrace life because we know that we won’t have to walk through it alone.

Trust chooses hope.

Nothing good comes from fear. It’s a negative emotion, a soul-killer that slowly bleeds joy and compassion out of our lives. Over time, it makes it impossible for us to love unconditionally or in some cases, to love at all.

To trust in God is to choose hope. It’s a decision to remain positive even when fear mongers paint a bleak picture of the future. And by choosing hope, we also choose a life of love.

It’s ironic that those who push fear in the political marketplace usually sell it with the promise of a better life. But in reality, it’s not fear, but trust that allows us to be more fully alive and embrace the lives we’re actually meant to live.

 

Regrets? I Have More Than a Few

Regrets? I Have More Than a Few

Liars or fools. Call me callous, but I’ve always thought that people who say they have no regrets are either putting on a good show or completely out of touch with reality. Me? My regrets are piling up by the day. But I’m learning that regrets can be spiritually healthy things.

Middle Age: Counting the Things I’ll Never Be

A little while ago, I realized that I think more about the past than the future. I have no idea when it happened, but it’s like someone flipped a switch and instead of dreaming about all of the places life might take me, I spend ridiculous amounts of time dwelling on the places I’ve already been and the decisions that got me there.

For the most part, I’m content with the choices I’ve made. It’s the choices I didn’t make that bother me. For example, the other day I watched a movie about a guy who was a collector and auctioneer of high-end art pieces. The character’s life looked pretty interesting and I started wondering what my life would have been like if I had followed a similar path. Before I knew it, I’d done the mental math and figured out that I don’t have enough time left to learn about art, build a collection and hone my skills as a fine art auctioneer.

To be honest, a career in the art world was probably never in the cards for me. But I think you get the picture. Day after day, I wrestle with the regrets I have about actual possibilities that I didn’t explore, life paths that I didn’t go down for one reason or another.

It’s too late. I’m too old. There are too many things I’ll never be.

Maybe that sounds familiar. Maybe you’re starting to count the things you’ll never be, too. It’s small comfort, but you’re not alone.

Regrets Are Part of the Human Experience

It’s a shame that regret is usually seen as unspiritual — evidence of a lack of faith or trust in God’s guiding hand in our lives. But I don’t think that’s how God works. I think God sets us on a path, points us in a direction and leaves the details up to us. That’s what free will is all about. Regrets aren’t evidence that we lack faith …

Regrets are symbols of our humanity.

The real irony? Many Christians see regret as a sign of spiritual weakness, even though it’s front and center in Christianity’s defining event: the crucifixion. In Matthew’s gospel, we read that after three hours on the cross,

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

If you think Jesus didn’t consider the paths he didn’t go down in life, the possibilities he never explored while he was hanging there on the cross, then you really are a fool. As God-made-flesh, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions.

And regrets are an inescapable part of the human experience.

The trick is learning how to channel our regrets into something that is healthy, constructive and spiritually enriching.

Regrets Aren’t Failures. They’re Blessings

Failure isn’t such a big deal when we’re young. It’s discouraging, but we tell ourselves that there’s still a lot of time left on the clock. Plenty of chances to explore new possibilities and finally get it right.

In middle age, the illusion starts to fall apart. The “what could have beens” begin to feel like failures. That’s the moment when our regrets become spiritually fatal. Instead of launching points for spiritual growth and maturity, our regrets become black holes that suck the meaning out of our pasts,our presents and our futures.

In her book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, Joan Chittister describes the difference between healthy and unhealthy regret:

The burden of regret is that, unless we come to understand the value of the choices we made in the past, we may fail to see the gifts they have brought us.

The blessing of regret is clear — it brings us, if we are willing to face it head on, to the point of being present to this new time of life in an entirely new way. It urges us on to continue becoming.

Denying our regrets is pointless. By acknowledging and naming them, we can better appreciate how the choices we made (not the choices we didn’t make) have formed us into the people we are today. And by understanding the blessing of those choices, we become more available to whatever God has for us in whatever time we have left. In other words,

Our regrets aren’t failures. They’re sign posts that point us toward the people we are and the people we’re becoming.

Like it or not, you and I only have ourselves to blame for the choices we’ve made in life. But I’m learning that regrets aren’t really about blame or failure. Regrets are about being grateful for the blessings those choices have produced and the people they are enabling us to become.

 

5 Things You’ve Got All Wrong About Simple Living

5 Things You’ve Got All Wrong About Simple Living

Over the past few years, Melissa and I have been experimenting with simple living. No, we’re not growing wheatgrass in our basement or surfing dumpsters for freegan meal ingredients. But we have started taking baby steps toward a more simple lifestyle. And along the way, we’ve discovered that a lot of the perceptions we had about simple living were all wrong.

What Is Simple Living?

One of the first things we learned is that “simple living” means different things to different people. For some people (like us), simplicity has a spiritual component; for others, it’s a way to reassert control over a life that has become increasingly fragmented and complex.

But regardless of the motivation for pursuing it, simple living boils down to a more intentional way of life that rejects materialism, consumerism and other idols that we take for granted in a “culture of waste.”

The Top 5 Myths About Simple Living

Starting out, the concept of simple living looked good on paper. But to be honest, we were skeptical about whether it was a realistic option for our busy lives. Then, when we researched how other people were practicing simplicity (and doing it successfully), we realized that maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all because many of the things we thought we knew about simple living were flat out wrong.

Myth #1: Simple living is about seclusion.

The phrase “simple living” conjures up images of a broken-down shack in the middle of the woods. While it can mean living off the grid in the middle of nowhere, a simple life doesn’t require seclusion — it can happen anywhere, even in an urban or suburban setting. For example, we live in a fairly populated suburb and last winter we made maple syrup using sap from the maple trees in our yard.

Myth #2: A simple lifestyle is a cheaper lifestyle.

Since people who pursue simple lifestyles try to reduce their consumption, other people wrongly assume that the purpose of simple living is to save money. But even though some costs go down, a simple lifestyle isn’t necessarily a cheaper lifestyle. It’s about buying more intentionally and reducing waste. Sometimes that means investing in environmentally sustainable products or buying higher quality products that don’t need to be replaced as often as cheaper, disposable alternatives.

Myth #3: Simple living is anti-technology.

Clutter and disorganization are the enemies of a simpler life. When it’s used properly, technology can be a powerful ally in your quest for simplicity. The key is to focus on technologies that make your life easier rather than the ones that create more distractions. For example, when we buy a book or (better yet) borrow one from the local library, we almost always opt for the electronic version. It’s more convenient, requires fewer natural resources (i.e., trees) and reduces the amount of clutter in our house.

Myth #4: Simplicity is too rigid and demanding.

There’s no escaping the fact that simplicity does require a certain amount of discipline to pull off. If you’re looking for the fastest and easiest path through life, then simple living probably isn’t for you. But if you think that simplicity requires an extremely rigid lifestyle, you couldn’t be more wrong. Although we have embraced the spiritual benefits of daily routines, we’ve also found that the more simply we live, the more options we have about the way we live our lives.

Myth #5: A simple lifestyle is unrealistic.

One of the criticisms of simple living is that it isn’t realistic for people with hectic schedules. In some ways, that’s a fair criticism. After all, if you’re racing between work, school and extracurricular activities, it’s difficult to find time to shop for fresh ingredients or repurpose old household items. But simple living is a process that starts with just a few small changes. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find that your hectic schedule is one of the first things that needs to be changed.

 

7 Simple Tips for a Better Life

7 Simple Tips for a Better Life

We all want a better life. A new job. A new body. A new bank account. Yet no matter what we do, the life we hope to live never seems to materialize. Maybe the problem is that we’re looking in the wrong places.

Stepping Stones to a Better Life

Every year, Americans spend $70.15 on lottery tickets. That’s more than we spend on sporting events, books, movies, video games and music — combined.

Why do we do it? Because we’re obsessed, possibly even desperate, to find a better life. But at the end of the day, you can’t buy the kind of life most of us are really looking for – a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Like it or not, you have to build a better life. Here’s how:

1. Be grateful.

Gratitude is one of the most underrated spiritual disciplines out there. By practicing gratitude on a daily basis, you become more aware of the presence of God in your life and more appreciative of the life you’re already living.

2. Take care of your body.

Healthy people are usually happy people. You’re not getting any younger, so maybe it’s time to start making a few changes. Eat healthier food. Get more sleep. Hydrate. The road to a better life begins by taking better care of yourself.

3. Declutter.

Chances are your life is filled with clutter, and I’m not just talking about the stuff you’ve stashed away in your spare bedroom. From your schedule to your relationships, every corner of your life is filled with a hodgepodge of unnecessary things. Declutter those corners to simplify your life and refocus on the most important things.

4. Move more.

No one sets out to become a couch potato. It just happens. You already know that a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy. But it’s boring and depressing, too. Make an effort to exercise, take a walk in nature or find some other way to move a little more each day.

5. Pray and meditate.

Many of the world’s happiest and most satisfied people practice daily prayer and mediation. Think it’s impossible to incorporate daily prayer into your busy schedule? It’s not. You can develop a vibrant prayer life in just fifteen minutes a day.

6. Learn new things.

Continuous learning is one of the secrets of staying young. Learn a language. Take a cooking class. Read. What you learn isn’t important as long as constantly discovering new things about yourself and the world around you.

7. Serve others. 

Service to others is a shortcut to a better life. The uncomfortable truth is that many of the issues we struggle with disappear when we dedicate ourselves to serving other people through volunteer opportunities or even by becoming more selfless about the way we treat the people we encounter in our everyday lives.

 

 

How to Make Peace With Your Past

How to Make Peace With Your Past

Fresh starts aren’t cheap.

Ready for a fresh start? That’s great. It’s never too late to make a change in your life. But here’s the tricky part: Our personal histories aren’t always pretty and to move forward, you’ll have to learn how to make peace with your past.

Making peace with the past is never easy. Sometimes it can be downright painful. But lasting change is worth the effort — and it starts with a spiritual strategy for coming to terms with the disappointments, hardships and losses you’ve experienced in the recent (or not-so-recent) past.

You can’t deny your past.

If you think previous generations had it easier than you do, guess again. The Bible is filled with examples of people who struggled to overcome their personal histories. In many cases, these people offer nuggets of advice for those of us who are tired of letting our pasts cripple our present and future lives.

The apostle Paul was a bonafide bad boy of the New Testament world. In Philippians 3:13-14, the persecutor-turned-preacher describes how he reconciled his checkered past with the call of God in his life:

… This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

On the surface, it sounds like Paul took the easy way out. Instead of facing his past, Paul appears to be in denial about the ugly reality of his life before the Damascus Road experience.

Frankly, it’s a tempting mindset. Why make peace with your past when you can just forget about it. Push it out of your mind. Choose to ignore the pain you inflicted on others as well as the hurt that has been inflicted on you.

But I think it’s more complicated than that. The approach Paul described is a theme that occurs over and over in scripture. Far from a denial of the past, I think it points toward a more spiritually authentic way to make peace with your past.

It’s time to make peace with your past. Here’s how …

A fresh start isn’t a mental exercise. It’s a lived experience that requires spiritual discipline — a choice to move away from what is behind and move toward what lies ahead. Is it simple, neat and tidy? No way. In fact, it might require you to completely change the way you view God, yourself and other people.

1. Your past shapes you, but it doesn’t define you.

There’s no avoiding the fact that past events influence the people we are today. The pain and heartaches you have experienced have inevitably shaped your character and altered your outlook on life. Like Nietzsche said: If it didn’t kill you, it probably made you stronger.

But sometimes our past experiences become a box that limits our perspectives about the world and the people we can become. Left unchecked, that box becomes a cage — a prison that keeps us in a perpetual state of despair and hopelessness.

When you choose to leave the past in the past, you make a conscious decision to go beyond the boundaries of the box, to step out of the cage and allow God to do more with your life than you ever thought possible.

You can’t escape the reality of your past. But you can’t let it define you, either.

2. It’s pointless to focus on regrets and what-ifs.

Ever wondered how much time you spend dwelling on your regrets and failures? According to a 2010 study, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. And a sizable portion of that time is spent dwelling on the past.

Anyone who says they don’t have any regrets is flat out lying. We all have regrets. If given the chance, we all have things we would have done differently. Different actions. Different choices. Different directions in life.

But focusing on regrets is a recipe for spiritual disaster. When we spend our present moments thinking about mistakes and missed opportunities, we force ourselves to relive past pain and heartbreaks — again and again and again.

To make peace with your past, you need to exercise a certain amount of mental discipline. By replacing thoughts about regrets and failures with thoughts about hopes and possibilities, it becomes much easier to see God at work in your life in the here and now.

3. Your future really is a blank page.

Remember when you were a kid and anything seemed possible? Somewhere along the way you lost that sense of wonder and excitement about the future. Through no fault of your own, dashed hopes, broken promises and hard knocks robbed you of the ability to dream new dreams.

It’s time to start dreaming again. In John 10:10, Jesus says:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they (a.k.a. you) may have life, and have it abundantly.

Life is hard. But hopes and dreams are gifts from God. Even during your darkest moments, the future is a blank page waiting to be written. By trusting God and mustering up the courage to dream again, you can begin to recapture the sense that anything is possible.

And isn’t that what the gospel is about? An alternative way of life that invites us to transform our past into a future without limits, a future where anything — even our most impossible dreams — suddenly seem possible.

I hope it is. For your sake, for my sake, for the world’s sake. I really hope it is.

 

The Top 3 Myths About Gratitude

The Top 3 Myths About Gratitude

I love Thanksgiving. But if we’re not careful, it’s easy to buy into the myths about gratitude and  lose sight of the fact that — at its core — gratitude is a spiritual discipline.

The Top Three Myths About Gratitude

As a spiritual discipline, gratitude is far more than an annual appreciation for family, food and friends. It’s about deliberately practicing thankfulness every single day of the year and avoiding these 3 myths about gratitude.

Myth #1: Gratitude is a feeling.

Gratitude is a state of being, not a feeling. Practicing gratitude requires active commitment to an attitude of thankfulness.

Scripture tell us to be thankful, not feel thankful. In fact, 1 Thessalonians tells us to give thanks in all circumstances. The practice of gratitude isn’t just a response to good things or something you do when you receive a gift. Gratitude is a state of being that transcends circumstances – good or bad.

Regardless of our circumstances, we can give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his love endures forever (Psalm 106:1)Since God’s goodness doesn’t change, there is always a reason to be thankful. It’s that kind of commitment to gratitude that requires practice and spiritual discipline.

Myth #2: Gratitude deserves a reward.

Sometimes we express gratitude with the expectation of receiving something on the back end. That’s called false gratitude and it’s counterproductive.

Maybe we try to please God by recounting a long list of all the people and things for which we are thankful. Then we tack on a few requests, expecting a cosmic payout in the end because we are just so darn thankful.

Genuine gratitude is selfless and doesn’t seek to curry favor from God or other people. Gratitude is its own reward. Simply being a grateful person benefits you mentally, spiritually and even physically. (It’s been scientifically proven that people who practice gratitude have fewer aches and pains!)

Myth #3: Gratitude is about luck or hard work.

When we see our own hard work — or even the work of other people — as the sole reason for the blessings in our lives, then our gratitude misses the point. This kind of gratitude sets us above other people who clearly aren’t as blessed as we are (tongue in cheek). We become like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who is “thankful” that he isn’ t like all the other sinners and evildoers, and “thankful” that he fasts and tithes.

When God is the center of our lives, our gratitude is directed toward him. It recognizes the role he plays in our lives and keeps our lives — and our efforts — in proper perspective. We recognize that every good and perfect gift comes from God, not from our ourselves or our own good works.

Celebrate this Thanksgiving. Enjoy time with family and friends. Feast on turkey and pie. But move beyond the myths about gratitude, and practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline all year long.

Finding Your Present Moment During the Holidays

Finding Your Present Moment During the Holidays

Your life is about to change. A week from today, your schedule will suddenly be overwhelmed with Christmas shopping, tree decorating, cookie making and about a hundred other tasks that need to be done before the guy in the red suit squeezes his chunky butt down your chimney.

If you’re not careful, you’ll miss the joy and beauty of the Christmas season. For the next thirty or so days, you’ll need to work extra hard to find the present moment and live in it.

How to Find Your Present Moment During the Holiday Season

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Caity, wrote a great piece about how to stay focused on “right now.” She’s a really talented writer and her blog (Morral of the Story) serves up great reads about finding beauty and inspiration in the little (and not-so-little) things in life.

I’m a proud dad. But as a guy who makes his living from the written word, I can honestly say that if you’re not reading her stuff, you should be.

Caity’s point about staying focused on “right now” is simple: Although the past and the future are important, we have to learn how to be happy in the present moment — to be fully invested in the things that are happening here and now.

It’s great advice year round. But it’s especially relevant during the holiday season. Instead of worrying about your long holiday to-do list or dwelling on memories of Christmases past, take the opportunity to pause and experience the rich nuggets the Christmas season has to offer.

Slow down.

Your holiday season doesn’t have to be hectic and chaotic. If you really want to, you can make an conscious decision to slow down and simplify your life during the holidays. Maybe there are a few things on your to-do list that don’t get done. But in the end, you’ll have a more meaningful and more spiritually satisfying Christmas season.

Make time for prayer and reflection.

Advent is a season of anticipation. It’s the spiritual season during which we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child. By setting aside present moments for prayer, reflection and meditation, you create opportunities to encounter Jesus in new and exciting ways.

Serve others.

The most rewarding holiday experiences happen when you serve other people. From giving small unexpected gifts to volunteering at a local charity to doing little acts of service for friends and strangers, there are plenty of ways to dedicate yourself to the service of other people during the Christmas season.

Your life is crazy, but the holidays don’t have to be. Make a decision to find your present moment during the holidays and rediscover what Christmas is really about.

Image CreditMindfulness by Darragh O Connor, on Flickr

 

Does God Want Us to Be Happy?

Does God Want Us to Be Happy?

Does God want us to be happy? It’s a legitimate question. In the U.S., happiness (or the pursuit of it) is hardwired into our founding documents. From the beginning, happiness has been up there with values like life and liberty. Pretty lofty stuff.

But have you ever thought about all of the dumb things you’ve done in pursuit of happiness? When Melissa and I were newlyweds, I convinced myself that a $100 telescope would ramp up my happiness quotient. At that point in our marriage, a hundred bucks was a lot of money and dropping a Benjamin on a telescope wasn’t exactly a wise investment.

No surprise, the telescope didn’t make me any happier. In fact, based on Melissa’s reaction and the arguments it created, the telescope actually made my life measurably less happy.

The Problem with Happiness

Most of us define happiness according to our own, personal set of criteria, and then wallow in a mentality of “if-only.” If only I had a different spouse. If only I had a more money. If only I had a telescope. But when we pursue our “if-onlys”, we usually end up creating more problems for ourselves.

When we relate to God, we bring our underlying dissatisfaction and our long list of “if onlys” with us. After all, if God really does love us as much as he says he does, then he wants us to be happy. And since my happiness depends on a better job or a better relationship or a better bank account (or a telescope), then God should give me the things I want.

We place the burden for this thing we call happiness on God’s shoulders, and when he doesn’t deliver the way we want him to deliver, we get frustrated.

Happiness and the Beatitudes

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes what God’s version of happiness looks like. It’s a familiar passage that’s commonly called the Beatitudes.

In most translations, the Beatitudes begin with the word “blessed.” But some versions translate the word as “happy” — and that’s appropriate, because the word “beatitude” is derived from the Latin word for “happiness.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus turns everything we think we know about life upside down. He says you should be happy:

  • When you’re at the end of your rope.
  • When you’re struggling with a loss.
  • When you feel powerless or insignificant.
  • When people turn against you.

Jesus challenges us to understand that we won’t find happiness in the things we think will make us happy. We won’t find it at the mall. We won’t find it in an affair. When we’re disgruntled, dissatisfied and discontent, we find happiness when we recognize that we’ve reached the end of ourselves.

So, Does God Want Us to Be Happy or Not?

Does God want us to be happy? Absolutely. But for God, happiness comes from an awareness of our own spiritual poverty. A sampling of Beatitudes shows that when we recognize our insufficiency, we allow God and his gifts to take center stage:

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

When we embrace the spiritual poverty described in the Beatitudes, we free ourselves from the burden of carrying around the illusion of happiness — an illusion constructed of telescopes and all of the other misguided things we do because they think will improve our lives.

By shedding the illusion of happiness, we find true happiness and the freedom we need to live fully in the moment. In some ways, it’s the freedom to feel like a child again. Footloose and fancy-free, without a care in the world because we have nothing left to lose and nothing left to prove.

The seeds of happiness are inside you. Embrace your spiritual poverty and watch them grow.

 

Lessons from a Pothole

Lessons from a Pothole

I’m a planner. Schedules are my friend, and I’ll admit that I might drive a little faster than I should so I can meet all the demands on my calendar. Last Friday was one of those days when I was trying to make up for lost time.

I was on my way to retrieve our daughter from college for mid-term break. Even though a downpour slowed me down, I exited the highway on time and was just minutes from my daughter’s college. Proud of my accomplishment, I took a quick turn and drove through a deep puddle that hid a deeper pothole — sending a huge jolt through my tiny Toyota.

Two hours from home, I hoped that nothing had been damaged. But by the time I got to the next stoplight the tire pressure sensor light was on and I heard the sickening sound of a flat tire. Time to panic.

Amazingly, there was a tire center just ahead on the left. I pulled in, got out to inspect the damage, and before I could even enter the building, a mechanic came out to help me.

He checked the tire to see if it could be repaired. It couldn’t. So, he checked his inventory for the right sized tire. They didn’t have one. However, he did put my spare tire on for free and referred me to another tire store in town. Fifteen minutes after I pulled into the parking lot worried and distraught, I was back on my way to pick up my daughter.

Pothole Lessons for Life

That pothole may have slowed me down, but it didn’t keep me from my destination. As I reflected on the event, I discovered a few lessons that can be applied to the potholes in life.

1. Potholes can’t always be avoided.

My vision was obscured by rain and the pothole was hidden in a puddle.  As much as we like to think that careful planning will help us prevent hitting life’s potholes, we can’t always see what’s right in front of us. When we hit a pothole, our natural reaction is often to look for someone to blame — ourselves or someone else. We try to think through how we could have avoided the pothole that we didn’t see coming.

The problem with this type of thinking is that blaming others or beating yourself up won’t help you fix the damage. It’s time to move on, get help if it is needed and learn not to hit that pothole again.

2. When you hit a pothole, help may be closer than you think.

One of the spiritual disciplines that I’ve engaged in over the years is the Ignatian practice of “examen.” Essentially it’s the prayerful reflection on your daily experiences to find where God is present and at work in your life. While the help that I received changing my tire came from the kindness of a stranger, I also believe that God was at work through that person. It was a moment of knowing that God was looking out for me and caring for me when I couldn’t see what was coming.

So, before you throw your hands up in the air and give in to anger or depression over hitting a pothole, look for help. You may find that God’s help or encouragement can be found in unexpected places.

3. Attitude is everything when you are dealing with pothole damage.

As potholes and flat tires go, my situation really wasn’t as stressful as it could have been. The right people were in the right place at the right time to help me out. I came away feeling pretty positive and peaceful about the “hole” situation. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) But feeling positive had a lot to do with my attitude.

Despite my frustration, I was grateful for so many things. I was grateful for the timing of the flat. (What are the chances that a tire store would be right there?) I was grateful for the help of strangers. And I was grateful that I had the ability to pay for a new tire.

The same can be said when we’re dealing with life’s potholes. Attitude is everything. You can always find something to complain about. But if your attitude is optimistic and grateful, you’ll feel much better than when you are complaining.

We all encounter potholes in life. But if we look for God’s presence and help, even when things are difficult, we find that God’s words are true. God is our helper. The One who will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). And that is something for which we can be thankful.

 

 

4 Spiritual Lessons You Can Learn From Your Dog

4 Spiritual Lessons You Can Learn From Your Dog

“You know, you and Baxter are a lot alike.”

Looking back, I probably should have been offended when Melissa suggested that our bichon frise, Baxter, and I shared more than her affections. Instead, her offhand comment pointed me toward some important spiritual lessons.

As dogs go, Baxter has always been a bit of a mess. But he’s our mess and we love him. He was eight weeks old when we brought him home, an energetic ball of white fur with an adorable black nose and a slightly neurotic outlook on life. Cars, people, leaves, squirrels, car rides, grooming visits, the mailman (especially the mailman) — everything Baxter saw, heard or smelled sent him into a fit of spinning and jumping that rivaled the most agile Olympic gymnasts.

At some point we decided to accept Baxter’s eccentric behavior as a fact of life. Although we still corrected him when he misbehaved, even he knew our efforts were half-hearted and we resigned ourselves to the idea that our fuzzy little lapdog was just wired a little too tightly.

. . . which was exactly the way people used to describe me. Wired a little too tightly.

No, I didn’t bark at squirrels or chase the mailman. But like Baxter, I had a tendency to sweat the small stuff. And the big stuff. And most of the stuff in between.

So, when Melissa casually painted Baxter and I with the same dysfunctional brush, I had a pet epiphany — it was like a bell went off in my mind, alerting me to an uncomfortable question that would ultimately change my life for the better:

Was it possible that my dog was really just a slightly furrier version of me?

How Can a Dog Teach You Spiritual Lessons?

For better or worse, kids usually reflect at least some of their parents’ personalities and character traits. For example, in my family my oldest daughter is kind of introverted (like me) and my youngest daughter is a flurry of activity (like her mom).

Yet for some reason, transferring that concept to a dog is out of the question. Granted, you and your dog share no genetic connections. But not all personality traits are inherited. A large percentage of personal characteristics are actually learned behaviors.

Take shyness. Psychologists believe that although shyness may have a genetic component, it is primarily a learned behavior. So, even though it’s possible that a timid personality may be genetic, it’s more likely that shyness is acquired. We learn to be shy by watching others.

Animals – and dogs in particular – are shaped by learned behaviors, too. Like kids, they are highly intuitive creatures with a unique ability to pick up on their “parents” personalities, character traits, even moods. If you don’t believe me pay attention to your dog the next time you’re running late and frantically tearing your house apart looking for your car keys. There is a good chance your dog will be just as excited as you are, simply because he’s mirroring your energy level.

The growing possibility that Baxter was just reflecting some of my own character and personality traits was more than a little humbling. For the first time I was forced to face personal flaws that I had worked hard to ignore most of life.

Spiritual Lessons You Can Learn from Your Dog

The recognition that Baxter and I shared certain flaws opened the door to the discovery of several spiritual lessons — some of which came from the lessons we use to help our dogs lead more productive lives.

1. Your life needs structure.

Dogs thrive when they have structure. Without it, they can become neurotic or even aggressive. Whether we want to admit it or not, you and I require structure, too. Although too much structure can be a bad thing, we need regular and consistent spiritual routines to stay centered, balanced and connected to God.

2. Respect for others is lesson number one.

One of the first things puppies learn is the importance of respecting human beings as well as other dogs. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson many of us haven’t mastered. But by respecting other people — regardless of whether or not we agree with them — we learn how to live peacefully in a world filled with divisions and animosity. We also learn how to love and respect God by respecting his other children.

3. Obedience and service bring balance.

Dogs want to follow a leader. In fact, they need to follow a leader to feel balanced and secure. Ironically, canines have a far more advanced concept of obedience than human beings — they realize that obedience isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and a resource for their own well being. Let’s me be clear: Blind obedience is dangerous. But by learning how to obey God and serve other people, we become more balanced and better equipped to lead others.

4. You’re happiest when you have a purpose. 

Every dog has a purpose. From basset hounds to retrievers to poodles, every breed has been genetically designed to excel at certain things. And individual dogs do best when they are serving a purpose, even if it’s an imaginary one like guarding the front lawn from an invasion of squirrels. You and I have a purpose, too. God created us with talents, interests and passions — and we’re happiest when we’re using those gifts to identify and fulfill our purpose in life.

These days, Baxter doesn’t move nearly as quickly as he used to. He’s almost completely blind and if he’s awake for more than three or four hours in a 24-hour time period, it’s a big day.

The simple truth is that he’s getting old and when I look in the mirror, the strands of gray in my beard remind me that he and I still share a few similarities. Maybe he has a few more spiritual lessons to teach me in his — and our — old age.

 

Changing Seasons: Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

Changing Seasons: Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

Labor Day has come and gone marking the unofficial end of summer. The changing seasons means saying hello to the school year, busier schedules and less time for play. Just writing about it is making me wish it was June again! But here are a few simple ideas that are helping me get back into the swing of things.

Changing Seasons Idea #1: Re-establish Routines

Summertime seemed to upset the normal Morral house routine.  Our daughter was home from college — which we loved — but it added another driver with an entirely different work schedule to the demands on our car. Meals with the whole family were hit-and-miss, and it seemed like MTV was playing all day long.

Vacation and weekends out of town made our normally healthy diet a little less healthy, and the heat was a good excuse not to exercise. Even church attendance was not as regular — not because we didn’t want to be there — but because we were frequently on the road on weekends.

So, from diet to exercise to spiritual discipline we slacked off a bit.

With the start of the school year, our schedules become more routine. We wake up at the same time everyday and eat meals together in the evening. We’re eating better (because we’re planning our meals better), exercising more routinely and falling into more regular church routines.

Changing Seasons Idea #2: Be with Family and Friends

With vacations and irregular schedules, you may have fallen out of sync with family and friends. Fall is the season to be intentional about getting together with others and investing in your relationships.

We’ve made plans to visit our daughter for a day at college and we’ll start having people over for dinner more frequently. Think about the people that you enjoy being with the most and set a date to get together. Capitalize on the changing season to do something new together. For instance, we’re planning to join friends at an upcoming Oktoberfest.

Changing Seasons Idea #3: Try Something New

Predictable routines are good for healthy living. But monotony isn’t good for the soul. Use this new season to try something new. Take a course. Join a club. Volunteer. The possibilities are endless.

The Morrals have set a date to hike our first “high peak” in the Adirondacks. It’s a few weeks away, but it’s something to look forward to when things get stressful at work or the weather starts to look grim. Not a big time or money investment, just a day with family, hiking to the top of a mountain (or two).

Changing Seasons Idea #4: Plan Some Time to Play

We don’t need to stop playing just because summer is over. There will be less time outdoors as temperatures cool, but fall is the season of harvest. Make time for activities that can only be done in this harvest season. Pick apples. Carve pumpkins. Go leaf peeping. Celebrate the harvest season with a “farm-to-table” dinner with friends.

Changing Seasons Idea #5: Remember the God of All Seasons

Don’t forget the God of all seasons as you re-establish routines in your diet, exercise and relationships. The Psalmist reminds us of God’s authority over all creation in Psalm 74:16-17:

Yours is the day, yours also the night;
    you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
    you made summer and winter. 

Take time to wonder at God’s creation. Spend time in silent prayer and meditation. Just be with God, and don’t allow this season’s busyness prevent you from the spiritual disciplines and routines that bring you health and wholeness.

How to Turn a Daily Walk Into a Spiritual Discipline

How to Turn a Daily Walk Into a Spiritual Discipline

Ten thousand. That’s the number of steps that many health gurus say we should walk every day to manage our weight and improve our overall physical health. But the average American takes just 5,000 steps a day – about half the amount of steps we need to get in shape and stay that way through a daily walk.

That’s too bad because a daily walk can do a lot more than lower your blood pressure or help shed a few pounds. For centuries, walking has played a role in Christian spirituality — and when you approach it from the right perspective, a daily walk can become an important spiritual discipline.

The Spiritual Discipline of a Daily Walk

Walking is part of Christianity’s DNA. In the New Testament period, walking was the only method of transportation for Jesus, his followers and anyone else who couldn’t afford to keep a horse or donkey.

In the centuries that followed, the itinerant ministries of the Franciscans, the Methodist circuit riders and other clergy were influenced by the pedestrian meanderings of the earliest Jesus followers.

Historically, walking has also been used as a metaphor to describe the Christian life. Even today, Jesus followers from a wide range of denominations and spiritual backgrounds commonly refer to their spiritual practice as a “daily walk.”

I think one of the reasons why walking and Christianity enjoy such an easy relationship is because both require progress:

Both walking and Christianity are about movement. If we aren’t moving forward spiritually, we’re stagnating and falling short of a Spirit-inspired life.

By committing to the routine of a daily walk, 30 minutes of exercise can be transformed into a tangible reminder of our walk with God. More importantly, a brisk, daily walk can even become a spiritual discipline that yields benefits not only for ourselves, but for other people. Here’s how …

A daily walk creates a rhythm for everyday life.

Routines are important for our spiritual well-being. But routines have a tendency to get lost in the chaos of our work, school and social schedules. And when routines evaporate, our lives lack rhythm, i.e., a metered pace of activities through which we connect with God, other people and our inner selves.

In our footsteps and our stride, we experience the rhythm of life in a practical way. Even more, by setting aside a half hour or an hour each day for a daily walk, we anchor our daily schedule around a block of time that we can use to collect our thoughts, quiet our minds and nourish our souls.

A daily walk can be a little pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage has been a part of Christianity since the 4th century, when Jesus followers began making spiritual journeys to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Although pilgrimages sometimes involve walking long distances, the purpose isn’t really about the destination. It’s about encountering God on the journey.

A daily walk provides the perfect opportunity for encountering God through prayer, meditation or nature. Like a pilgrimage, a daily walk can become an act of devotion — but only if we intentionally and consistently use it as a touch point for our relationship with God.

A daily walk is an opportunity for grace.

Grace is the free and undeserved favor of God. We can experience grace in many different ways, including those moments in which the light of God breaks through the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life.

In my experience, daily walks almost always present opportunities to receive and share the grace of God. I’ve experienced grace through things as small as the song of a chickadee or the way the pale, winter sun shines through the clouds on a January afternoon. And I’ve shared grace through simple acts like sharing a kind word with a stranger or (most recently) helping a lady chase down her runaway dog.

The Bottom Line

Grace is everywhere if you know what to look for. And every daily walk is a chance to experience grace in new and unexpected ways.

By making a daily walk part of your normal routine, you make space in your life for a more constant encounter with God. You create opportunities for your soul to breathe and grow. And you’ll probably lose a few pounds along the way.

 

Goodbye, Summer: Navigating Life’s Seasons

Goodbye, Summer? 

It’s the same every year. When the last two weeks of August roll around, the elephant in the middle of my family’s living room is that there’s a new school year bearing down on us like a tropical storm and it’s time to say goodbye summer.

When summer’s over, I’ll miss the sunshine and the warm breezes that blow through my office window. But most of all, I’ll miss the campfires and the last-minute adventures and the dozens of other things that we only seem to do in the days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Saying goodbye to summer doesn’t get any easier.

I used to tell myself that life would get easier when my daughters were teenagers. It didn’t. In fact, it’s becoming even more difficult because I’m coming face to face with an unfortunate reality:

The passage of time doesn’t just change seasons on the calendar — it changes the seasons of my life.

Whether I like it or not (and I don’t), it’s getting trickier to spend time together as a family. With one daughter in college, every “goodbye, summer” has become a goodbye to mornings when all four of us wake up under the same roof.

And I’m painfully aware that we don’t have too many of these mornings left before my kids start waking up under their own roofs. (At least that’s the theory.)

Spiritual Resources for Surviving the Seasons of Life

Navigating “goodbye, summer” and the seasons of life takes more than a family photo album and a box of Kleenex. To survive with your sanity intact, you need to find your spiritual footing and walk through each season in dialogue with God.

Life is seasonal.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that life is seasonal:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … (Eccles. 3:1)

Life is seasonal by design. We can’t change the seasons and we can’t stop them. The best we can do is to learn from the season we’re in. And we do that by actively listening for the whisper of God’s voice in the midst of everyday living.

Present moments are enough.

We waste a lot of time and energy worrying about the future. Don’t get me wrong — planning is a good thing. But when we become obsessed about what might happen tomorrow, we miss the things that are happening today.

Living in present moments means being present for the things that matter most. You can’t experience life in the future — you can only experience it in the here and now. And incidentally, the present moment is the only place you’ll find God.

Every season has its own challenges.

You and I suffer from selective memory. We remember the past through rose-colored glasses, focusing on the good memories and editing out the bad ones. For example, although I like to saturate myself in memories of my daughters on their first day of kindergarten, I conveniently ignore how difficult it was to raise rambunctious five-year-olds.

Every season of your life, including the one you’re in now, brings its own unique set of challenges. By recognizing those challenges and facing them head on (rather than dwelling on a utopian vision of the past), you make yourself available to God, allowing him to guide you through a process of personal transformation and real spiritual growth.

The seasons are changing, and there’s nothing you and I can do to stop it. But “goodbye, summer” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When we slow down and experience life’s seasons through a spiritual lens, we gain a new perspective and make space for the things that are most important.

 

No Time to Be Angry

Anger is a common response to everyday irritations. Someone cuts you off in traffic or fails to meet your expectations and suddenly you get mad. There must be a better way because most of us have no time to be angry.

Today was one of those days when things just didn’t go as expected. I had an important meeting that I had carefully planned. All the logistics were in place. Until they weren’t — and 30 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, I was rushing to correct a problem that I didn’t create.

When other people heard about the problem they said things like, “I just can’t believe that” or “you must be livid.” Was I irritated? Sure. But, my honest answer to them was “I have no time to be angry.” I had a job to do and pointing fingers or blowing my top would just make me feel worse and prevent the work from getting done.

Anger Takes Energy 

Maybe it’s because I’m forty-something, but lately I find that I want to conserve my energy for the things that are most important to me. I don’t have as much desire to dwell on offenses or patience to listen to others explain all the ways that they have been wronged and are justified in their anger. I just have no time to be angry.

The truth is that life can be tiring enough without dwelling on offenses and things we cannot change. When people mess up and make mistakes I’d rather extend grace.

The person who cut me off in traffic might be late to pick up a child. Or maybe someone makes a mistake at work because they are dealing with the death of a loved one. None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes. I think it’s much healthier to consider what mitigating factors might cause someone to fall short of my expectations before I become angry.

Be Slow to Anger Because There’s No Time to Be Angry

The Psalms tell us that anger isn’t healthy.

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
    Do not fret—it leads only to evil. (Psalm 37:8)

My own busyness and weariness prevented me from becoming angry today. But by the time my work day had ended and I had time to reflect on the situation, I still wasn’t angry.

There is enough negativity in the world that we don’t need to nourish it in our souls. For the sake of our relationships and the sake of our own spiritual well being, we have to accept the fact that there’s simply no time to be angry.

Leo Buscaglia wrote, “Don’t hold to anger, hurt or pain. They steal your energy and keep you from love.” This kind of response to irritations and injustices is a spiritual discipline. But it’s a discipline that brings greater peace, greater joy, and greater love into our lives.