On the Road to Success

We were on the road to Success.

Literally, I mean. We were driving along route 62 East across Arkansas when we crossed a junction with a township sign pointing to Success. This prompted the conjecture you might expect: How many people do you suppose live in Success? How long does it take to get there, and is Success hard to find?

Before long, we had pulled a U-turn (legally, of course) and were on the road to Success.

Road Sign to Success
Turn here for Success! (Photo by Janet Beagle)

This prompted a great deal of conversation on – you guessed it – success.

“What’s your definition of success?” my friend asked.

“Well, my interview answer is to be in a position where I can constantly learn new things.”

“And your non-interview answer?”

“Probably the same thing,” I admitted.

“I don’t think we can ever really be successful. Success is like this perfect ideal we strive for but never really achieve,” my friend commented.

We talked about work and whether work-in-progress could be deemed successful or whether an event needed to be completed before it could be labelled. We talked about relationships and successful people. We talked about the difference between success and contentment or success and happiness. We concluded that success was not an easy word to define. Apart from being a very small town in Arkansas.

Despite our meandering conversation, it turned out Success was only a few minutes from where we had started. (And to think we almost missed it!) Very few people live in Success – only 180 according to the population sign. It seemed like a nice enough place, but for us, Success was fleeting. We had miles to go before we slept, so we captured a few photos on the edge of town, and then continued on our way. I wonder how often the Successians look out their windows to see crazy tourists snapping pictures of their population sign?

In the weeks since I’ve returned from our detour, I’ve often pondered the term. So often “success” is associated with fame, monetary wealth, prestige, or power. In today’s culture, it seems to be obtained in a winner-take-all rush for the top with little regard to the methods used to get there. Yet the Bible gives us a very different definition. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8) In God’s design, we become successful when we follow His commandments, not the whims of the world. Again and again the history of Israel shows us how generations who were obedient to God thrived, and how those who turned away from God were overthrown. In God’s design, success is not a location to drive through and snap pictures; it is a way of life walking in obedience with Him. It is a journey we take with Him securely at our side.

Town of Success Sign
You never know when God might take you on a detour through Success. (Photo by Janet Beagle)

I encountered my favorite definition of success just the other day embedded in one of those email forwards I usually delete. In it, a little girl asked her grandmother for her definition.

“Success,” she replied, “is when you look back at your life and the memories make you smile.”

What kind of memories are you building? Are they the kind that will bring a smile to both your and God’s face? It is a new day and a new opportunity to start your journey. Take the time to reach out to others, to work hard, to spend time with those you love. Listen to God’s guiding voice. He may just send you on a little detour through Success.

This blog was originally posted May 10, 2016 at http://www.inspireafire.com/on-the-road-to-success/. 

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Green Blessings

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day I had the brilliant idea of taking a picture of every green thing I saw today. I quickly learned 2 things:

  1. I apparently really like the color green, because there are a lot of green things in my apartment, and
  2. God has blessed me with many wonderful things that happen to be green.

Here are some examples:

daffodils

Daffodils! It was still dark on our morning walk, but I know even in the dark that these brave flowers have some green beneath that yellow blossom. Like the birds that sing before sunrise, this early flower lets us know that good things are coming soon!

 

SewagePipe

Okay, so I’ll admit I wasn’t quite as excited to see this sewage pipe as I was the daffodils, but let’s face it. I do like indoor plumbing. (And for that matter, I like heat and hot water and electricity, too.) I’m also grateful for all the utility workers that recently put this in. That’s certainly outside my skill set.

 

doingwellsticker

This sticker greets me every time I enter my apartment. It reminds me of friends, and that no matter what I might be facing, I’m doing okay!

 

Leash

Even my dog’s leash is green. And what can I say about that? I love long walks and soft fur and the friends I have made through various canine activities. This green leash has connected more than me and my dog all these years – it has connected me to many wonderful friends and adventures!

 

dish soap

I also have a green dishtowel and green mop and green toilet brush. I can’t say that I particularly enjoy using these items, but I do always appreciate the result!

 

ovenmitts

Ahh, oven mitts. We may not live on bread alone, but a nice warm loaf that’s still fresh and crusty from the oven is a blessing I’m not going to pass up. That scent that lingers in the air… I think I can smell it…

 

addressbook

For those of you in the electronic generation, this is a paper version of your smartphone’s contact list. It comes in handy when your battery dies. I’m grateful for a handy way to organize important addresses, and most of all for all the people that fill this book.

 

safetyshower

I pass by several labs on the way to my office, and I couldn’t help but pause today at these brilliant green signs. May God shower us all with the safety of his presence today and always.

I could go on, but I think it’s your turn. What green things are all around you? You may be surprised just how many green blessings God gives you today… and every day.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside waters of rest (Psalm 23:2).

Think Light

I was reminded the other morning of a time when I was little and hiking through a meadow of snow with my mother. The snow was deep – at least a couple feet – but had formed a top crust hard enough to sometimes stay afloat. Especially for someone as little and quick as me.

“Think light!” I called as I ran ahead, giggling.

I didn’t stop to consider that my mother was twice my height, or that my boot print barely filled half of hers. I knew only that if I imagined I was as light as the wind and stretched my mittens far out from my sides then I could run across the top of the snow. But if I stamped my feet and hung my head and concentrated on being heavy, then I broke through with a satisfying crunch. The powdery snow underneath would swallow my legs until I was practically sitting in the snow, even though I was also still standing. I repeated my light and heavy game all the way across the meadow, calling to my mother who seemed, no matter how hard she tried, to repeatedly be sinking to her knees.

“Think light!” I encouraged her again.

And then (to my now adult amazement), she did. She rose up out of the snow with a giant leap and came running across the top. Two, three, four steps before the crust gave way and she sank back down, both of us laughing.

I was reminded of that time just recently as my dog and I made our way across the snow covered yard on our morning walk. The crust was just thick enough for her to bound along on top, while every one of my footfalls cracked through. She bowed and pirouetted and bounced back and forth, not understanding why I labored so slowly. She knew nothing of the fact that she was less than half my size. Or that her paw print barely filled half of my boot print. More importantly, she knew nothing of how weighed down I was with sleepiness, with the pile of work that awaited me, with the thoughts that ran incessantly through my head.  She knew only that the stars were still out and the air was crisp and quiet. She knew that if she jumped hard enough she could crash through the snow in a pillowy poof. Most importantly, she knew if she was light and quick on her feet, she could dance spinning circles around me, tongue hanging out and laughing eyes clearly coaxing me on. I could almost hear her say, “Think light!”

How easy it is for our foot steps to feel so heavy. And how much I needed the reminder that it is possible to raise up out of the wallow and run lightly on the surface. If I just start thinking a little lighter.

“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus said. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

God promises that his burden is light, which means when it starts to feel heavy, I’m focusing in the wrong direction. Just like that crusty snow, as soon as I start looking down, I feel myself struggling through knee-deep mire. The good news is that it is possible to shift my attention outward and upward. Like the mittened hands of that little girl of my memories, I can feel myself being lifted up. I need only to remember to lift my head and my hands. To focus my attention outward. To call out to help another. And to think light.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

The Great Cheese Inquisition

Every once in a while when I am studying something in my Bible, I get distracted and go off on an interesting tangent. (Actually, this happens frequently.) The other day as I was looking up references to the Ten Commandments (more on that later, maybe), I came across 1 Samuel 17:18, which in the English Standard Version (ESV) states: Also take these ten cheeses to the commander…

And it suddenly struck me that I had never noticed the word cheese before. (As you may recall, I am a big fan of cheese, so this was a significant discovery for me.) This led me to wonder, how often is cheese mentioned in the Bible?

A simple enough question, though not so simple an answer. There is, for example, the fact that different translations may not always translate the original languages the same way. And even within the same translation, original languages that may be translated as “cheese” in one instance may in fact be translated differently in another instance. Thus began a rather serious tangent. Also known as The Great Cheese Inquisition. (With thanks to BlueLetterBible.com for their handy online tools of interrogation.)

First stop, the Cheese of First Samuel.

The Hebrew word used for cheese in 1 Samuel 17:18 is “chalab.” This word is most commonly translated as milk (44 times in mot versions). But it is only translated as cheese this one time in the whole Bible.

Further investigation shows why this translation is different. It’s not only that translators decided that taking ten cheeses made more sense than taking ten milks. There is another word in the original Hebrew that gets lost in translation. The full phrase is “chariyts chalab” – cuts of milk. Hence the interpretation that what David carried to the commanding officers was cheese. It would, after all, be rather difficult to cut milk in its liquid form. (As an aside, the word “chariyts” only appears two other times with the word iron instead of milk and is commonly translated as “harrows of iron.”)

This explained the mysterious 10 cheeses of 1 Samuel, and I learned that this particular usage exists no place else in the Bible, but were there other references to cheese using different Hebrew words? Yes!

The Cheese of Second Samuel.

In 2 Samuel 17:29, when David is fleeing from Absalom, some supporters brought “honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat, for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.”

The Hebrew word translated here as cheese is “shaphah.” This is the only time this Hebrew word appears in the Bible. The meaning is somewhat dubious, but it comes from a root meaning “to scrape off” or “to cleanse.” According to the Targum, which I don’t know too much about except that it is an Aramaic translation and commentary of the Hebrew Bible written a long time ago, the meaning of cheese comes about from the idea of filtering and cleansing from dregs during the process of making the cheese and separating it from the whey.

So that’s two cheeses down, both single appearances.

The Cheese of Job.

Our third and final cheese appears in Job 10:10, “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” Here the word translated as cheese is “gĕbinah,” and this, too, is the only place in the Bible this Hebrew word is used. The word is more literally curdled milk. Cottage cheese, anyone?

The Quasi-Cheese: Curds & Butter

A more common word than “cheese” is “curds” or “butter” – both of which are translations of the Hebrew word “chem’ah.” Curds is the more common ESV translation, while the KJV always translates this word as butter. This word appears 10 times in the original Hebrew texts. Another word (machama’ah) is commonly translated as “butter” and used negatively in Psalm 55: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart.”

Interestingly, cheese, curds, nor butter appear in the New Testament.

Closing Cheese Statements

So in summary, the word “cheese” appears just three times in the Old Testament, each time represented by a different Hebrew word. A more common word can be translated as curds. This suggests there was something different about each of these cheeses. To determine exactly what is different, you probably need to be an ancient languages scholar or a master cheesemaker (or both), but that doesn’t prevent me from speculating.

First, David was a shepherd, which probably means that his cheese came from the sheep he tended. Our second cheese expressly states it is a “cheese from the herd,” which is a reference to cattle (and yes, I checked that assumption against the original language). So the second cheese would have been made from the milk of cows or oxen. Our third cheese is more literally curdled milk, and while there is no indication of animal, the picture for me at least is of a softer, moldable cheese. Finally, the curds are the most popular cheese-like item mentioned. This suggests a more common and raw form of cheese, similar to the cheese curds of today.

So there you have it. A blogful of three cheeses and some potential cheese curds. The Great Cheese Inquisition rests its case.

Only Writing

Only writing is writing.

I don’t recall now whether I read that in a book or heard it during a presentation. Either way, its truth is brilliant.

They went on to say, “Reading is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Researching what you’re going to write… that’s still not writing. Only writing is writing.

“Until your butt is in the chair and words are coming out your finger tips, you’re not actually writing.”

I don’t know if they actually said that last part, but if not, they definitely should have. Because that’s the part that finally inspired me to put my butt in a chair. This exact chair I’m typing from right now, in fact. Let me tell you how I found this chair.

I had 75 minutes before I needed to be across campus to a class I’m taking just for kicks (during the time, I might add, that I’m supposed to be writing.) And so, I was going to seize that time and write! But first, I needed to find The Place.

As every good (current or former) graduate student knows, there is no point in even trying to get productive work done if you are not in The Place. (Entire books, by the way, have been written on the power of graduate student procrastination tactics – comic books, but still.)

It could be the third study corral from the right on the 14th floor by the stacks. Or the beat up couch by the whining vending machine down some back staircase under the lab. The point is, you know it when you see it. And until it’s perfect, well there’s no point in even trying. Until it’s perfect, or you really, really have run out of time. Like its 4 a.m. and the paper is due TODAY and you really should have started it sooner and you don’t think the professor will understand that you just couldn’t get it done because someone was in YOUR place.

That’s when every good current or former graduate student switches to plan B. And actually starts to write.

So I came to the most logical nearby location to find The Place. It’s quiet and filled with so many books that I was sure their presence would ooze intelligible insights into my weary finger tips. I tiptoed past students already huddled into their places. I ventured down hallways that ended in emergency exits. I trekked up flight after flight of stairs. I discovered oversized picture books for when standing in front of classrooms of students. I brushed past volumes I am quite certain have not been opened in 50 years. I even strolled casually past an entire glassed-in area dedicated to special collections and manned by a guard who eyed me curiously when I accidentally had to pass back through again.

In all that wandering, I could not find The Place. My 75 minutes were dwindling. And so I retreated. Back down flights of stairs, through the stacks, and to Plan B: the first empty study corral near the door. And, coincidentally, near giant volumes of bound papers of Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Jefferson. There are 41 volumes for Thomas Jefferson alone. Each one at least 2 inches thick and ranging in dates from 1760 – 1803. Plus several special editions. In case you were curious.

And that is how I came to be positioned in this particular chair.

I’ve had to stop several times because people strolled buy, sometimes wheeling carts, sometimes lugging books or backpacks, sometimes quietly, sometime talking. It’s not the noise that distract me; I just can’t write with someone looming over my shoulders. But that’s okay. Better to have something interrupted then to have never even started.

This is certainly true of writing, as my rather dismal blog-posting record these last 12 months might indicate. It’s easy to put it off until I actually have time. Until I’m ready. Until I’m in the perfect place. It’s much easier to think about it then to actually do it.

I bet writing is not the only thing. How easy is it to postpone a phone call to a friend because I’ve only got a few minutes? Or wait to send a card until I have time to write a full letter? Or to skip quiet time with God because I’d prefer uninterrupted time to little snatches?

Eventually there comes a time when we need to retreat to Plan B.

Just do it.

Dear children, let us not love with word or speech but in actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

 

 

 

Stalking Time

computers

Ever wish you had more time? After a 6 month lapse in blog posts, this seems like an appropriate one to share! This was originally posted on Inspire A Fire and you can view the original post at http://www.inspireafire.com/stalking-time. 

I wish I had more time.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t lament the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. There are so many things I’d like to do, so many things I can never quite get to. And the days, the weeks, the years, flit by.

Some people say that time is money, but that just isn’t true. The richest people in the world still have 24 hours in a day.

I don’t deny a certain level of financial stability can purchase amenities that make our lives easier and purpose to give us more free time. But just as likely, those fancy amenities begin a spiral of dependence that seems to take rather than make time. How many of us truly feel we have more time because of our televisions, cell phones, computers, automobiles? Don’t we instead just drive further, work longer, stare at screens more? The answer to more time is not found in increasingly fancy gadgets. The answer to more time is far more basic than that. Here’s what I have discovered.

Stop looking for more time. It doesn’t exist. Sometimes I find myself spending my time trying to figure out a way to squeeze more time into my schedule so that I can finally get started on The Project. It has never worked. It never will, because God – not us – created time. God created the earth and the sun and the daily and yearly cycles. God has also set our days. Moses noted in Psalm 90:10, “The length of our days is seventy years, or eighty if we have the strength.” Even with all the advancements we have made as a society, the average life span is still in line with that of the ancient Israelites. Spending our time looking for more time is not the answer.

clocks

Use the time you have. Remember the man who stockpiled all his grain, even building bigger barns to hold it all in the hopes that once he had enough he could take life easy? “God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” (Luke 12) We can do the same thing with our time – trying to stockpile it so that once we have enough we can do X or Y or Z. Don’t wait for “enough.” Start doing X or Y or Z right now, just a little bit, with whatever time you have.

There’s always time for what you do first. If I’m completely honest with myself, my lament for not enough time is often nothing more than a handy personal excuse. There is something I wanted to do and I did not do it… not because I tried extremely hard and was repeatedly thwarted, but because I never got around to actually starting it. I had time. I spent it on something else. Jesus chided his followers not to worry about life, food, drink, clothing. Worry is a waste of time. “Your heavenly father knows that you need them. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33). How are you spending your time, really? What’s the first thing you do when you get up, when you get to work, when you get home?

Don’t confuse difficult with impossible. If God has laid something on your heart to accomplish, He will give you the means to succeed. “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:36).

Time is an elusive quarry, and the secret to catching it is counterintuitive: Give up the chase. Focus your pursuit not on stalking time, but on stalking those things that you most want to fill your time with. You will find that God has indeed given you enough time to accomplish what he has purposed for you to do.

Ashes

Last night I went to church and had ashes painted on my hand.

It’s tradition in some churches on Ash Wednesday to have ashes placed on the forehead or back of the hand. It’s a sign of repentance hearkening back to the sackcloth and ashes described in the Old Testament. And it’s a symbolic start to the Lenten season of personal reflection.

In the past I have had ashes placed on my forehead. Less humble, perhaps, but – I quickly realized – also less messy. As careful as I tried to be with my marked hand, it was not long before ashes made their way to the sleeve of my shirt, my jacket, my pants, the grocery store aisle, my dog’s head, my own head, my shoes… And even when it came time to wash my hands, the ashes bled and smudged and stained. Still today there is a faint cross-shaped shadow on the back of my hand.

Every time I look at that smudge, I am reminded. I am reminded of the less-physical but equally dark stains in my life. I am reminded how sin spreads so easily and so quickly, like ashes trailing from my hand. Some days it seems everything I touch turns dark. Some days nothing I say is right. Some days everything seems to be falling apart – flaking into smaller and smaller dark smudges.

But I am also reminded of another hand. A hand that is stained not with ashes, but with blood. And how this hand, too, leaves traces. Not of darkness. Not of ashes. But of life-giving blood.

For all the ashes I leave in my wake, there is Someone who comes along and deposits something else. Peace. Hope. Love. The blood of Jesus cleanses in a way that water on my physical ashes never could. The red hand of Jesus covers the black hand of me. And in His wounds, I am healed.

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).