Who am I?

ImageWho am I?

Is this not, at times, one of life’s hardest questions to answer? Naively I thought that by the time I was in my thirties I wouldn’t wrestle with it anymore.

But occasionally I do.

Thankfully I have come to realize that I am not alone. The other night I was reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. Apparently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer  wrestled with the same question.   In prison, at age 39, he wrote the following poem, just one month before his execution.

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

I take great comfort in his words.

What’s something that speaks to your identity?

Five Practices that Lead to Happiness

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I hear what you’re saying.  You want to succeed in life, you want to feel significant and you want to be happy. But often you feel tired, unsure, and a little depressed. You want to know how to break that cycle without spending massive amounts of money for motivation that won’t last, or investing massive amounts of time for change that won’t stick. You want life to be different but you’re not sure what to do. You’re not looking for a quick fix but neither do you want to start something that will feel like a burden for the rest of your life.

Here is my humble attempt to help with five practices that, when I choose to apply them, help lead me to happiness.

Celebrate– For me I’m currently celebrating that I have been created by God, and that God never stops pursuing me. I’m celebrating that this God of infinite knowledge and power wants to be with me, to teach me, to lead me, and to care for me.  I’m celebrating that He has given me a wonderful wife and the best kids ever. I am celebrating that He has given me a job where I get to use my gifts and talents.  And I am celebrating that I have friends and extended family that really love me. Starting my day with celebration changes everything.

Create– I am learning more and more that I am made to create. When I create I am reflecting God, my Creator. Therefore to create is an act of worship.  The creations can be small- a blog post, a lesson plan, or lyrics to a song.  The size and scope does not matter. What does matter is only that I am using my gifts, skills, or imagination to make something. Anything. When I create I feel significant, and when I feel significant, I feel happy.

Connect– There is almost nothing more valuable than taking time to connect with others. To be honest, this is often the hardest one for me. To pursue others truly, like God pursues me, takes real work and involves constantly fighting my fear of rejection. But God is continually reminding me that we are made for relationships. People want to be connected with.  And happiness comes when I take the initiative to pursue people, even just one person each day.

Challenge-I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for my mind to dwell on negative thoughts, and there are great consequences for this. My negative thoughts lead to negative attitudes which in turn lead to negative practices. It has been said many times before, but it is so true: change starts with the thoughts in our head. I need to take time each day to challenge (and defeat) these thoughts. Scripture calls us to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), so I challenge my negative thoughts by spending time with God and letting Him fill my mind with His Word.  I also like to find time to be inspired by others. Just the other day I read a quote by the legendary motivational speaker Zig Ziglar: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”  I need motivation every day, because I need to daily challenge my negative thoughts, negative attitudes, and negative practices. When I do, I am happy.

Be Consistent – Ok so I lied. Connecting with others is not the hardest practice for me– consistency is. Practicing the same things over and over again is incredibly difficult for me. There is a massive part of me that hates (with a capital “H”) routine. But I am learning that some routines are good.  When I get up early each morning to spend time with God, exercise, and shower before my kids wake up, I am happier. Each morning that I choose to reorder my world in a small way by taking the time to make my bed, I am happier. Consistency is hard, but it is also the most essential because it fosters the continual enjoyment of the fruits of the other practices, so it too leads me to happiness.

Celebrate, Create, Connect, Challenge and Consistency. I pray that these practices would lead you to a little more happiness each day.

What other practices have helped you find happiness?

God’s not so big plans for your life…

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I remember the chapel like it was yesterday.  In a college gymnasium, surrounded by thousands of students, I sat on what was usually an uncomfortably hard wooden bench.  But on that day, my body did not squirm for comfort, because on that day my complete attention was on the charismatic Christian speaker in front of me.  His sermon was well-crafted, his stories were funny, and all his applications of scripture were convincing.  And with the Bible in his hand and deep conviction in his heart, he proclaimed with prophetic boldness words that spoke to my soul….”God,” he said, “has big plans for your life!”  But his sermon did not end there.  No, he then went on to give us the really good news: “God has bigger plans for your life than you could ever imagine.”

And thus began my season of despair…

Looking back, the problem was two-fold. One, at the time I could imagine some pretty big plans for my life. Once, when reading an article about a Billy Graham crusade, I saw a black and white photo of Dr. Graham preaching to a crowd of a million people.  At the time it was the largest evangelistic crusade in history.  With complete seriousness, I looked at that picture and prayed, “God would you use me to preach to two million people?”  And, truth be told, at that time I could have imagined myself preaching to three million— if God needed me to.

Of course some will respond that I misinterpreted the speaker’s use of the phrase “big plans”.   And I could not agree more.  But this only illuminates the second of the two problems. Often, when well-meaning Christian teachers and preachers say these kinds of things, they never think to define what they mean by the term “big”.   And so students, or chapel listeners (and, let’s be honest, even pastors) are left to define the term on their own. The problem is when most American Christians begin to imagine and dream about what it could mean for God to have “big plans” for their lives, their dreams often start to look like a Christian version of the American Dream.  Tell a college student today that God has “big plans” for their life, and they’ll think God is going to use them to save the world, or at least “their” world—whatever that might be.

There was another chapel speaker that year who talked about God’s plans for your life. His sermon was also well-crafted, his jokes funny, and his scriptural applications convincing.  But there, before a gymnasium full of college students, referencing Tolkien’s famous “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, he spoke (what I now consider to be) truly prophetic words: “You are not the hero of the story. You are not Frodo. Rather, in the great battle of life, you are more like elf #351. But that is significant, because you are in the story.”

I have come to believe that God’s pleasure is often not in creating “big plans” for our lives (at least not the American kind), but rather in giving significance to the sometimes seemingly small plans He has for us.

Often there is nothing glamorous, nothing inspirational, and nothing “news-worthy” about the work Christ calls us to. Often we are simply called to be obedient and to follow wherever Christ leads.  Most of the time these actions do not seem big at all— but they are significant.  In Christ we are free to give up fantasies of American grandeur and instead rest in the knowledge that our lives are significant, no matter what we do, because it is Christ who gives significance to all of our life. The good news is that our stories are forever intertwined with His story.  And so whatever we do, whether it seems big or small, it is a part of His grand eternal story, and that is significant.

In heaven I imagine we will meet missionaries who gave their lives to the work of the gospel while living in total obscurity.  We will meet pastors who never published a book, never spoke at a conference, and never started a network, but did quietly and faithfully fulfill their calling to shepherd a flock. We will meet businessmen and women who never climbed the corporate ladder, but did live simple lives of kindness, and integrity.  And there in heaven, I imagine we will see for the first time how Christ used every one of these lives and their actions to magnify His presence on earth.  And there, before the throne of God, I imagine we will stand in awe of those once obscure and un-glorious people, and together with all the saints, we will praise God for their significant lives.

Have you ever heard someone tell you God has big plans for your life? What did you think when you heard that? Does the difference between “significant plans” vs. “big plans” resonate with you at all?