Abundant Living Vol. XX, Issue 9

 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  – Romans 12:21 

It was the first really stupid thing I ever remember doing, not that there were not many others prior to that, I was just too young to remember.  Even then I was only four, but I still remember every detail vividly.  My mother was heating some canned soup on her white enamel Frigidaire electric stove – Campbell’s Chicken and Rice, I remember distinctly – while I stood by and watched.  When the soup was hot and she turned off the burner I watched with fascination as its red glow faded away until it was grayish-black again.  That must mean it’s cool, I thought, so I touched it with my fingertips, despite being warned many times to never touch a hot stove.  I’m pretty sure the entire neighborhood could hear my screaming.  It was a painful way to learn a hard lesson.

There are many ways we can learn about dangers.  We can read about them in books or articles.  We can learn from the sad experience of someone else.  We can listen to wise counsel from someone who knows better, like my mom warning me about the hot stove.  Or we can put our hand on the hot burner, like I did.  Each provides the information; the only difference is the amount of pain involved in learning the lesson.

I wish I could say the hot stove incident was the last stupid thing I ever did that caused great pain, either at the time I committed it, or suffering the pain of regret later on.  Yet, and not to justify any of my past misdeeds, I do sometimes wonder what an arrogant, judgmental jerk I might have become had I been perfect and never messed up.  Instead, maybe it has made me a little more understanding toward others in their own failings, and even able to reach out and help someone from time to time.

The Apostle Paul says, “Do not be overcome be evil, but overcome evil with good.”  I think he may be referring not just to the evil others impose on us, but also our own mess-ups and the pain and regret we suffer as a consequence.  The way to overcome that, as Paul might advise, is not by wallowing in it, but using it for good.  Twelve-step programs around the world have proven this for decades through the action of one addict using his own brokenness to help another addict recover.  For Paul also tells us, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” even our mess-ups, like when we ignore the warnings and put our hand on a hot stove, by overcoming those mess-ups with good.

Abundant Living Vol. XX, Issue 8

“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’. . .   – Matthew 5:37 

Despite my carefully planned exit strategy from the corporate world a number of years ago, I was nevertheless left with some unexpected challenges.  Among them were: “What will be my next profession or career?” “How will I reclaim an identity now that I am no longer associated with my previous company and profession?”  “How will I fill up the abundance of newly acquired discretionary time I have on my hands?”  In an attempt to deal with these challenges, I found myself saying yes to everything.  Anytime someone asked me to serve on a board or committee or in some other voluntary capacity I said yes without hesitation.

That season of saying yes served me well for a time, helping me work through some of the challenges.  I discovered things about myself, gifts and talents I never knew I had, as well as identifying some things I am not so good at.  That time of deeper self-awareness is what eventually helped me identify a new profession to pursue, along with a fresh identity.  And as for all that abundance of discretionary time I had on my hands?  By that time it was filled to capacity.  That’s when I had to start learning to say no.

But for most of us saying no is difficult.  We perceive it as weakness, failure and letting people down.  And why is that?  Barbara Brown Taylor explains in her book An Altar in the World, that “in a ‘can do’ culture where the ability to do many things at a high speed is not only an adaptive trait but also the mark of a successful human being . . . [and] we harbor pride that we are in such high demand.”  Thus, when we don’t live up to the culture’s expectations, we feel guilty that we failed and let someone down.  Taylor, however, views it otherwise, that the ability to say no is in fact a discipline to be developed rather than avoided, what she refers to as “the practice of saying no.”

It occurred to me in reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book that there is a time to say yes and a time to say no, and unless we engage in “the practice of saying no” we’ll never reach our full potential when we answer yes.  In my case, that season of saying yes to everything gave me a better sense about those things to which I should say no, as well as those to which I should say yes.  At that point, the decision became much less difficult.  “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’”.

Abundant Living Vol. XX, Issue 7

“. . . let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  – Matthew 5:16 

Regardless whether we are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, brilliant or simple, young or old, we all influence the lives of those with whom we come in contact in some way.  Influence is perhaps the most powerful of all human social characteristics in that anything we say or do may shape the life of someone else, often without our being aware.

Once, many years ago, while attending a large gathering I overheard a man telling someone else that he was in the process of changing careers, one that on the one hand would limit his income but on the other would allow him the freedom to do those things that are more meaningful and significant.  I’m quite sure that gentleman never knew there was someone eavesdropping, nor did he realize that what he said would powerfully influence the life of a bystander.  But it was in that moment that a seed was planted in my mind that began the process of my own career change some years later.

Who’s listening when we speak?  Who’s watching what we do?  Who’s observing our everyday lives?  Who’s overhearing our conversations?  For better or worse, who are we influencing and in what way?  It is sobering to realize the power we have to influence good or evil, success or failure, hope or despair, inspiration or disappointment.

Like the man whose conversation I inadvertently overheard at a party we seldom realize the far-reaching impact of our influence.  Perhaps that is even more reason to be conscious of the awesome responsibility we have in what we say and how we behave, for every word we speak and every action we take inevitably shapes the life of another.

There’s a quote I once read attributed to John Quincy Adams.  “The influence of each human being on others in this life is a kind of immortality,” he said.  Jesus put it another way, “. . . let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Abundant Living Vol. XX, Issue 6

“Now choose life, so that your children may live . . .”  – Deuteronomy 30:19 

I am of an age, I’m afraid, where attending funerals has become all too frequent, as has reading the obituary columns become part of my daily routine, not only in search of people I might know, but as the old joke goes, to check and see if my own name happens to appear there.  It is all part of the life cycle I suppose.

As it may seem like a morbid topic to write about, obituaries and funerals, allow me to be a little more specific.  The ones I am referring to are people who have lived full, rich lives, not those tragic instances that seem to occur way too often among the young and innocent.  Like everyone else, I can’t get my arms around those events either, and often find myself railing at God about why such things happen.

Rather, I’m speaking about people like Shirley, the mother of one of our good friends, and a beloved friend of ours as well, and distinctively one of the funniest human beings I have ever known, with a sense of humor that, though laced with sarcasm, would have you rolling with laughter.  Few were those who escaped her taunts and gibes, nor were many quick enough to respond with a clever comeback.  In fact, I would list among my best days those rare occasions when I was able to get one over on Shirley.  Touché!

Yet, Shirley was also one of the kindest, most caring, hospitable, and loving people I have ever known, and a person of deep faith.  As a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother she was second to none, loving her family deeply, including her late husband of whom she adoringly spoke frequently. When she passed away a few years ago a large crowd gathered at the church for her funeral service.  And while it was certainly a reverent occasion as it should have been, neither was it solemn.  In fact, laughter filled that church like I had never witnessed at any funeral service, as one Shirley story was told after another.  And believe me, there were plenty to go around.

“I have set before you life and death,” Moses instructed the Israelites toward the end of his life, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God.”  Shirley chose life and lived it to the full, a gift to all of us who had the good fortune of crossing paths with her – taunts and gibes and all.

Abundant Living Vol. XX, Issue 5

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  – Luke 23:34 

I must confess that I have succumbed to being a bit of a Jack Reacher junkie in recent months, Jack Reacher, in case you are not familiar, being the main character in a series of popular crime thrillers by British novelist Lee Child.  A giant of a man – six-five, two-fifty, and former major in the army’s military police – Reacher’s post-military life consists of roaming from place to place, yet no place in particular, mostly by Greyhound bus, where he inevitably crosses paths with someone who needs help against some bad characters.  Not one to shy away from trouble, Reacher comes to the victims’ rescue where he employs his brawn, martial arts skills, street smarts, and law enforcement savvy to save the day.

Besides being classic good versus evil stories, what is so addictive about Reacher is that while he is never one to start a fight, neither does he back away, nor does he ever lose one – ever! – often taking on as many as eight or ten at a time.  (Not someone you want to encounter in a dark alley, unless he is on your side.)  And in the end, you can be assured that Reacher is going make things right for the victims he is defending.

I must confess, the real reason I am such a Reacher junkie is because I am entertained by the violence, a big guy beating up a bunch of thugs who deserve everything they get.  I suppose that is why good versus evil stories have always been so popular.

We love to cheer for people like Reacher, and all the other heroic cops and soldiers in the TV shows and movies we watch.  But what about those like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., also valiant warriors against evil, but whose methods were insistently nonviolent?  And what about Jesus who refused to resist his executioners despite his innocence?  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” he prayed from the cross.  Yet, did not Jesus, Ghandi, and King defeat evil as surely as Reacher?

But we are entertained by the violence because it is easier and seems more fair, the bad guys getting their due.  Except for one difference.  In one instance violence eradicates the evildoers, but in the other nonviolence might actually win them over.  The first method is classic win-lose.  But Jesus’ method is win-win, and that is a radically different outcome.