How observant are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anger Management

Philippians 4:8 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible.  Someday I am going to write an eloquent post elucidating my reasons why.

But not today.

Today, I am irrationally angry.  I have no idea why, but I find when I stop to consider it that I can come up with a whole host of reasons.  And this makes me even angrier.

Have you ever done this?  Have you ever felt a sudden surge of anger and tried to figure out why and then gotten angrier and angrier as you began listing all the things that make you angry?  Or had a day when you’re feeling rather blue, and asked yourself why, and found yourself feeling sadder and sadder as you pondered all the possible reasons you could be feeling sad?

Okay, maybe it’s just me.  But as I was working myself into a fire-spitting fury for no definitive reason that I could deduce, I suddenly remembered Philippians 4:8:  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

So I decided to think about fuzzy clean socks.

I’ll admit it, this didn’t help much.  So I tried actually putting on fuzzy clean socks.  This did help.  So did eating dinner.  But you know what helped even more?  Writing this post.  Because it got me thinking not about my own thinking, but about Biblical thinking.  And even thinking about Biblical thinking got me thinking more Biblically.

It’s easy to let emotions dictate our thoughts, but this is not what the Bible commands.  The Bible does not tell us to think about whatever we feel like thinking about.  We are to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).  We are to direct our thoughts towards things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  This means we do not let our emotions dictate our thoughts; rather, our thoughts are to dictate our emotions.

It’s amazing what thinking about these good things can do for one’s attitude.  Such thoughts are so powerful that apparently even if you can’t come up with something good to think about, just thinking about good thinking can help.  If nothing else, it apparently distracted me enough that I’ve forgotten how angry I was.

Try it next time your emotions start heading in a non-Biblical direction.  Don’t think about what you feel, think about what you think.  Then, take your thoughts captive.

If that fails, try the fuzzy socks.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

Today’s Quote

Most of the time when I read stats about the condition of our world, the numbers are so incomprehensibly large that my eyes merely glaze over.  These stats, however, convicted me:

The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children, and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases, and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions, and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children.  And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians.

The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.

~Katie Davis, Kisses from Katie (2011, p. 91-92)

Only 8 percent.  Eight percent!!  Suddenly, that is a number I can understand.  That is a number that even seems possible.

Here in the U.S. we’ve heard a lot in the past year about the wealthiest 1% versus the 99% of “ordinary Americans”.  Protestors rally carrying signs that proclaim “We are the 99.”  I’d like to propose a new question.  Not, are we part of the 99, but are we part of the 92?

Or are we part of that 8% that is following Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves?

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”  The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.  (John 21:15-17)

Clean T-Shirt

There are some who do not understand the appeal of camping.  “How is that a vacation?”  They want to know.  Cooking in primitive conditions, swatting mosquitos, trudging through the elements… “Doesn’t sound like a vacation to me,” they say.

Their logic is hard to argue, but I just can’t help it.  I love to camp.  I love everything about it.  I love walking someplace to lug back drinking water.  I love the first rays of sun after a cold and rainy night.  I love wielding an axe to split wood, and cooking over a fire, and… well, I don’t exactly love washing dishes, but somehow even that seems more fun when I’m doing it under a giant pine tree.

Most of all, I love how camping causes me to appreciate things I normally take for granted.  Like clean, dry clothes.  Or, as the week wears on, moderately clean and only slightly damp clothes.  On that fateful day when I reach into my duffel bag and extract my very last clean t-shirt, I experience something akin to euphoria.  If you are not a camper, it may be hard to appreciate the joy of holding something in your hand that actually smells like soap.  No other day of the year do I appreciate clean clothes as much as in that moment.

But that is just the beginning.  Days later, when dirty clothes have started evolving into their own ecosystem, an even greater miracle occurs.  The Laundromat.

The Bible tells us that God’s mercies are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-23).  Anyone who ever doubts this needs only to witness the miracle of week old hiking socks emerging fresh and warm from a laundromat dryer.   The sight is enough to renew both my soul and my soles.  Indeed, nothing puts a spring back into my tattered hiking boots like a pair of fuzzy clean socks.  The joys of camping are so… simple.

Unfortunately, most of my days are not as simple as the ones I enjoy while camping in the mountains.  Back amongst the “real world” I quickly forget the miracle of a clean t-shirt and fuzzy socks.  The “dirty laundry” I accumulate is even more harrowing than a sack full of dirty socks.  I get tired and grouchy.  I fail to stay in touch with friends.  I speak carelessly; I act selfishly.  I try, and fail miserably, to follow Christ’s example.

This is why I camp.  Because I need those reminders.  I need just one clean t-shirt in a bag of increasingly dirty clothes.  I need the rejuvenation of my well-worn hiking socks.  I need the reminder that God’s simple, everyday mercies should not be taken for granted.  And most of all, I need the reminder that no matter how busy and messy and downright stinky my days may be, God’s mercies will be new in the morning.

God is more powerful than any laundry detergent; He can refresh far more than just my dirty laundry.  He sent His Son so that even my sins may be washed away.  “Purge me with hyssop,” the psalmist cried, “and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

This, truly, is the greatest mercy which God offers to us anew every morning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Every day, even amidst the crazy, stress-filled ones, God gives us the opportunity to return to Him.  To be washed by Him.  To be renewed by Him.  To be strengthened by Him.  It is an open invitation He extends to every one of us, new every morning.  A fresh, clean, new life… starting now.

And here I thought a clean t-shirt was cool.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-24).