Resolutions

I typically do not make New Year’s Resolutions.  For years, I would choose a few only to break them after a couple of weeks.  I resolved to exercise.  I started well.  I would have a passion for awhile.  Then, I would stop.  Or, I would commit to eating better.  Less desserts I would tell myself.  If I was reasonable (light treat at night) then maybe I would be able to keep it.  Yet, eventually, the late night pull would draw me towards the refrigerator for not one or two but three or four scoops of ice cream.  When I failed in keeping my resolution, I would feel a sense of failure and defeat.  I don’t have the willpower.  I just can’t keep these commitments.  Then, I would start to wonder why I made them in the first place.  “What is wrong with a large snack at night?  I am healthy.  I don’t need to lose weight.  It tastes good so why not go for it.”  Or, I would tell myself “I exercise occasionally.  Once or twice a week is good enough.  I don’t need to be militant about it.”  Of course, these are rationalizations.  I know it is good to eat better and stay active.  In fact, the last year has proven to me that it is necessary.  However, this is why I gave up making resolutions.  The issue was not the “improvement” needed.  Rather, it was the mental wrestling over keeping the commitment or the sense of failure when I didn’t keep it.  Resolutions were simply too exhausting.

Rather than make New Year’s Resolutions, I have decided over the past couple of years to pursue some life commitments.  These are different than behavioral changes (exercise more, watch less TV, spend more time in prayer, and read the Bible consistently).  These are character and priority decisions.  They are based on deep values that I hope to foster and radiate in my life.  Am I perfect at them?  No.  Are there days and weeks where I fail miserably at them?  Yes.  However, I keep coming back to them for a couple of reasons.  First, they are decisions of character.  Since I desire to be a particular person and there is a deep motivation to be that person, it never fades from my mind.  It keeps coming back to me therefore prompting me to keep it.  Second, I give myself a degree of grace in them.  I embrace my human nature.  I realize that I will stumble and fall.  I don’t wallow in self-despair when I misstep or feel an urgency to be perfect at it.  The result is freedom from the mental gymnastics that plagued me with resolutions.  Third, I intentionally connect them to my relationship with Christ.  In the past I attempted to keep resolutions in my own strength.  Now, I strive to keep the following commitments by drawing strength from God.

So, here are a few of my life resolutions.

  1. Always do the right thing. When I don’t know what to do about a particular situation, I strive to choose what is right.  This way my conscience can be clean about the decision.  It might not be easy or free of consequences but I feel good.
  2. Choose joy. Oh, this is a hard one at times.    Frustration.  Fatigue.  These all fight against it.  Yet, in those moments, I take time to pray then ask God to help me choose joy.  Almost always He graciously grants it to me.  To be honest, life’s too short to be void of joy.
  3. Resolve issues prayerfully then immediately. Granted, I am a person that likes to deal with conflict straight up.  Therefore, the immediacy part is easy.  However, I have realized quick attempts at resolution oftentimes fail due to my emotions.  So, I am attempting to take time to pray even if only for a minute before dealing with a situation.
  4. Be thankful. At times, I forget how blessed I am in my life.  When my day is filled with moments of thankfulness, it is easier to remember God’s blessings.  (Plus it has the added bonus of squelching complaining).
  5. Go for it. I am always trying new experiences.  Life is too short to spend the evening watching TV when you can enjoy an adventure, park, or activity.  As this year closes, I am not sitting back saying “this was a good year because I watched every episode of NCIS.”  But, I do find great satisfaction in the family outings throughout this past year.

As the old year turns into a new year, I once again plan to make no resolutions.  However, I do intend to pursue things that matter for me – commitments that shape me and hopefully transform me more into the image of Christ.

Never Settle for a Knockoff

Lesson:  never settle for a knockoff

Last year, my daughter indicated she would love some winter boots for Christmas.  The boots she wanted were not rubber, plastic boots used for trudging through the snow.  These boots are brown leather with fur lining on the inside.  In essence, she was interested in something like the popular UGG boots.  Now, my daughter is fantastic as she would never ask for something so expensive.  I mean, UGG boots are like $1000 (ok, that is a slight exaggeration).  So, we looked around and around.  We finally found some boots that looked very similar.  Knowing that his sister really wanted some boots, my son bought some for her that were very inexpensive, in his price range.  They look great.  In fact, you might be hard pressed to see how they are different from an UGG boot.  They seemed to be well-constructed.  They were hip.  They were warm.  They were perfect.  She loved them.

The only problem is that they did not hold up.  They started to break down immediately, like in two weeks.  I called the company to explain the problem.  I asked for a replacement pair as I thought this particular defective pair was an anomaly.  Graciously, they sent out another pair.  In fact, they made a mistake with the order and accidently sent out two pair, mailed separately.  It was quite funny when we had two boxes sitting outside our door on the same day.  We opened the first box:  brand new boots.  We opened the second box which was mailed separately:  a second pair of brand new boots.  Fantastic, I thought.  If another one fails, we got a back up pair.  Yet, as you can guess, they both began to break down.  Oh, it was so disappointing.  I mean we had three pairs of boots that did not last.  So, I learned my lesson:  do not buy a knockoff.  They look like the real deal; however, the true quality showed itself almost immediately.

Christmas reminds me of this struggle.  People are looking for joy in so many places.  This time of year lends itself for a lot of knockoffs when it comes to joy.  We get that perfect present that we have wanted forever.  We open up the box.  We see the gift.  We squeal with delight (for the record I don’t squeal).  Our Christmas day is perfect because we received the gift we wanted.  Yet, after a few months, the joy over that gift wears off and it just becomes another item we own.  Or, we can’t wait to go to the party that we have looked forward to since we received the invitation.  We have counted the days.  We have the perfect outfit (no, I am not a clothes horse).  We attend.  We have a good time.  It was joyous.  Yet, a few days later stress has consumed us and the joy from that evening is gone.  Possibly, it is time off.  Life is busy.  Work is stressful.  You can’t wait to get a few days off to do absolutely nothing.  You had dreamed of waking up at 8:00 instead of 5:30.  To be honest, it was nice.  You woke up refreshed.  You had a cup of coffee not because you needed it but you wanted it.  Joy…until you get that email reminding you of some family issue that is frustrating you.  We have all been there.  We are chasing after joy knockoffs.  Presents, parties, and rest that will magically give you joy yet it never lasts.  It is good for a day or two but then life sucks it out.

Matthew 1:23 states, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).  God shows himself to us in Christ.  God is present with us in Christ.  All that is good and perfect can be found in the person of Christ including joy.  Jesus states in John 15:11, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  His joy may be in us and that joy may be complete!   What Jesus is talking about is not a knockoff but legitimate, transforming joy that can only be found in the one who created it, God.  He makes available to us the real deal.  Which is why I find it sad to think about how so many people will pursue a knockoff form of joy this week when the real deal is right in front of them, a Savior lying in a manger, available to all, open to all yet passed over too often.  Enjoy this week with all the presents, parties, and time off. For me, I am excited to have a blast, giving presents and receiving them.  I can’t wait to eat until my body cries uncle.  I am looking forward to a few days where I don’t have to think about responsibilities.  However, more so, I am simply grateful that I can enjoy the joy that surpasses them all through redemption in Christ.

Perspective

It has been one year since my life changed.

I have been nostalgic as of late thinking about how things have changed over the past year.  The Christmas season has prompted some of this reflection as we were shopping at the mall when I heard the news.  In fact, my mind races back to that moment when I pass the store where I received the phone call.  You know the phone call no one wants to hear.  The one where your doctor personally calls you after you had routine blood word done.  I still remember his voice when he stated, “How are you feeling?  Are you experiencing fatigue?”  Oh no, I thought this can’t be good news.  “I feel great.  Why do you ask?”  He responds, “Your blood work came back and it strongly indicates you have leukemia.”  My mind immediately explodes with a thousand questions.  What exactly is leukemia?  Is it serious?  What does this mean for me?  My immediate response was absolute silence.  I mean what is a person to say when you hear this news.  Penny knew something was wrong based on the expression on my face.  Immediately she mouthed, “What is it?  Are you ok?”  I mouthed back they think I have leukemia.  She immediately pulls our son closer to her as she mouths “what” with an expression of shock and confusion.  The next hour is a blur as we talked as a family, shed tears together, called my mom, contacted a specialist, and weakly attempted to process this news.  The entire weekend was filled with anxiety, sleepless nights, and fear.  Even though life went on, I felt like I was standing still.  I remember getting up to preach 36 hours later on hope.  I smiled and tried to inspire the congregation while inside I was crumbling.

A year has now passed.  This weekend was quite different.  We went to see a holiday light presentation called “Illumination” at the Morton Arboretum.  It was a quiet, cold night.  It has been busy so we decided to get tickets.  We bundled up with multiple layers (think stay puft marshmallow man).  We made some hot cocoa and threw it in a thermos.  We grabbed a few Christmas CDs.  As we drove to the light show we laughed and joked as we listened to Veggie Tales “The 8 Polish Foods of Christmas.“  For the next two hours, we walked together watching trees light up when you hug them, chandeliers hanging from tall trees that give them the appearance of an outside ballroom, and strings of light seemingly hanging from the sky changing colors every few seconds (we attempted to recreate this in one of our trees the next day but it failed epically).  It was peaceful.  After we finished, we hopped in the car, drank some hot cocoa, and returned to our home for pizza and a movie.  Oh, it was a fantastic night.  I was surrounded by a family that loves me unconditionally.  I was in a warm home with every possession a person needs.  I was happy.  I was content.  I was at rest.

A lot has changed in the past year and a lot has stayed the same.  I still have stress.  I still experience difficulties at work.  I still have the occasional fight with my spouse (I know this is just shocking for some of you to imagine).  I still get angry over small things.  I still get tempted.  I experience anxiety and doubts.  Yet, there is one thing that has dramatically changed:  my perspective.   This is the biggest difference over the past 365 days.

Perspective is an amazing gift.  It is a blessing to stroll through a path of lights knowing that you have everything you need in the world – family, friends, basic needs, identity in Christ.  Oh, what joy to have perspective that stupid things don’t have to dictate your mood for that day – someone honking behind you in order to get home two seconds earlier, a person gossiping about you because they are frustrated at life, or the disappointment over plans not working out as you wanted.  They are just small things when compared with love and laughter.  It is truly freeing to have perspective on what is significant in life.  It is a joy to know that Christ has never abandoned me.  He strengthens me and sustains me.  In each moment of concern about the future, He fills me with grace.

Yet, honestly, it was the weekend of shock and despair that gave way to the weekend of joy and contentment.  Truly, God has brought good from the emotional ashes of unexpected and undesired news.  This is what is so marvelous about Christ.  From death comes life.  From pain comes joy.  From paralyzing fear comes perspective.  And for this, I am thankful!

Letting go of racism

I am biracial.

My father was Japanese (he passed away in 2005).  My mom is Caucasian.  Growing up I had very little awareness that I was biracial.  I was simply Kevin.  It was not until years later when I began to study race and ethnicity in school that I realized the significance of my upbringing.  Yes, I heard the stories of my parents being the first biracial couple to get married at Ft. Wayne Bible College.  Yes, I enjoyed hearing how they had to request permission to get married from the college trustees, primarily because couples did not intermarry in the 60’s.  On occasion, my father would even share how being Japanese impacted their family growing up in Hawaii, particularly during World War II.  Japanese were scrutinized for obvious reasons.  In some respects, I understand.  The country was at war.  There was natural suspicion.  I am appalled by the treatment of Japanese during the war:  uprooted and placed in internment camps.  Honestly, there is no excuse for such action.  But for me, these opinions were formed outside the home.  My father never once lashed out at such treatment.

After my parents got married, they settled in Indiana then Michigan.  Most of my childhood was raised in a small town that was predominantly white.  For me, I look more white than Japanese.  However, my father clearly was not white.  He stood out in such a town.  Once in awhile, I would hear comments from my parents about experiencing some discrimination.  Yet, it never became the subject of our home.  It was simply realities of living in a sinful world.  What I applaud most is that my parents never stirred frustration over such acts in our home.  I never once heard my father express resentment towards how the Japanese were treated during the war.  He never lashed out politically at the injustice of citizens being imprisoned simply for the color of their skin.  There was never a day where he came home and vented about a neighbor, co-worker, or just some person on the street because he was looked down upon because his skin was darker.

Did it bother him?  I am sure it did.  But, why did he not vomit his anger to his family?  It is because he did not want to be defined by things in the past or the ignorance of other people.  To foster resentment over things that happened years or decades prior would simply suffocate his joy for today.  If he became frustrated every time someone scorned him for the color of his skin, he would have become a bitter person hateful towards the world.  Furthermore, he would have infected his boys with the disease of counter-racism (hatred towards those who discriminate against you).  He did not want that for his children.  So, I grew up free from a legacy of hate because he chose to let the past go.

Every time I turn on the news I am confronted with the deep resentment and bitterness that continues to plague our country over the issue of race.  Do I think that racism occurs?  Yes!  Do I think it is wrong?  Absolutely!  Should there be consequences for those that discriminate or abuse another person simply because the color of their skin is different.  Without a doubt!  Should we ignore past offences and simply brush them aside.  No!

However, as I watch the news, I am surprised at the venom that is being displayed.  It makes me wonder if the emotional response is being enflamed because of past incidences, even those that occurred decades if not centuries early.  Has anger over past events been stirred to the point where a violent reaction was bound to occur?  How can that be good for future generations?  Is there a time and place for justice?  Yes.  But I think that one needs to be careful that passion for justice does not suffocate joy today.

While on the cross, Jesus stated in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  He was mistreated yet he forgave.  He was beaten yet he extended grace.  He was spit upon yet he invited them to know everlasting life.  He did not harbor bitterness.  He did not scorn his accusers.  He maintained joy by living a life of mercy and grace.  He did not carry bitterness forward but left it buried in the cloak of forgiveness.  He did not rally his disciples in response to his abuses but encouraged them to turn the other cheek.  He taught a legacy of love.  And, as a result, he preserved joy.  Oh, I am thankful that we have a Savior who can free us from past offenses so that we can live freely today.

Is it possible I am oversimplifying it?  Perhaps.  However, I do know that joy is not found by looking in the rearview mirror.  It is nurtured when we let go of the past and begin living in the freedom that Christ provides for today.

Thrill Seeking

I am a thrill seeker.

I enjoy pushing the envelope when it comes to a normal hobby.  If the word “extreme” is in front of the activity, I am there!  My family knows this about me which has caused some interesting conversations about safety such as the night I returned home from sailing in 14 foot waves on Lake Michigan.  Some call it insane. I call it fun!

Due to this interest, my wife oftentimes builds my birthday present around something extreme:  flight lesson, rock climbing, and recently skydiving.  I always wanted to experience what it would be like to free fall out of a plane.  It was an interesting desire considering I am afraid of heights.  Did I mention that my thrill seeking is not always rational?

So, for my 40th birthday, my wife surprised me with a skydiving lesson from 14,000 feet.  She chose the highest altitude permissible before you need an oxygen mask.  Oh, she know me so well!  On the day I jumped I was surprisingly calm.  It was the next day when I woke up thinking “what did I do?  Why would I jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”  Many are shaking your head thinking, “That is very good question.”

Since it was my first time jumping, I was required to go tandem.  My instructor was fantastic.  He explained how the chute is packed.  He got me hooked up.  We took some photos.  I told my family I loved them.  Then, we boarded the plane.  As we prepared to get on, they reminded the jumpers that once we step on the plane, you will be coming down in a parachute.  They will not bring you back down.  Ok, I thought, it is now or never.  As we climbed higher in the sky, the view was beautiful.  As we flattened out, the door opened and people began to jump.  As each person in front of me jumped, I started to get nervous.  I wanted to ask, “How many back up chutes does this thing have?”  Before I realized it, I was staring down at the ground barely able to make out a car.  He told me to smile for the camera.  Then, without warning he pushed me and we were falling!

It was a fantastic moment!  Freefalling for 90 seconds!  Before we jumped he asked if I wanted to just drop or do some spins.  What did I say?  You got it, “spin away.”  Here we are, thousands of feet up spinning around and around.  I loved it!  It was exhilarating!  The view was breathtaking.  It was an amazing experience!

A few minutes later I landed safely on the ground.  I ran to my wife who had just gotten up after kissing the ground.  She saw me beaming from ear to ear.  She asked if I had a good time.  I said, “oh yeah!’

As I think about this experience, I am reminded of a quote I read from Joe Queenan, writer for the New York Times.  He states that our culture has an “inability to accept the ordinary.”  He states that we want “every experience to be a watershed, every meal extraordinary, every friendship epochal, every concert superb, every sunset meta-celestial…nothing can ever again be exactly what it was in the first place… ordinary.”

He makes an interesting observation.  I think he is exactly right.  It probably explains some of my thrill-seeking tendencies.

As I think about his statement, I wonder if this carries over to our pursuit for joy in the Christian life.  We don’t want a steady joy but a mind-blowing one.  We want to feel happy rather than resting content.  I think we want our joy to be extraordinary.  So, we pray to God to give us joy.  And quite possibly what we mean by this is “God give me an emotional, upbeat high each day and every day.”  We want to be smiling and skipping regardless of the circumstances.

Hebrews 12:2 states, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Wow!  Joy is used in the context of enduring the cross.

Joy is not an emotional high; it is a state of resting in God’s will.  Joy is not the absence of difficulties; it is the confidence that God will bring all things to a good ending.  Joy is not always a smile; it is trusting in God when life is hard.  Yes, it also involves delight and laughter but it is so much more.  See, joy is not an experience.  It is a state of fully knowing that we are accepted, forgiven, and loved by Christ.  It is realizing God entered our world for the purpose of dying so that we can have this joy – a joy that an extreme sport cannot give.  However, it is also not ordinary.   God incarnate is anything but ordinary.  It is life-changing.  It is extraordinary.