My Vessel, My Life

By Michael W. Raley

I lie adrift in the Ocean of Perpetual Darkness.

Overcast clouds cover the moon.

The North Star has long since burned out.

This compass no longer gives me direction.

The waves bounce me back and forth,

As I try to hold it all down.

All I see is water,

No rescue ships,

No land,

No horizon.

This cannot and will not be my life’s voyage!

I then decide to stage a mutiny

Against the oppression, the passivity, and circumstance.

I am now the Captain.

This is my vessel,

This is my life.

I will set the course.

I will follow my map.

Load the cannons

Because I’m bringing the fight!

Unfocused

By Michael W. Raley

I try to focus on the task at hand,

Yet it feels like trying to count grains of sand.

If I could think solely on the present moment,

I know that I would own it.

I fail once again to gain traction

As I have become weighed down by obligations and distractions.

This, that, and the other-

Time and energy are limited, I must choose one at the expense of another.

Hurry up and wait, they say,

As the clock continues to move forward on this day.

 

 

Embrace Today’s Second Chance

By Michael W. Raley

O how the body aches,

O how the heart breaks,

When you realize

That the dream has died.

All of the work, love, faith, and hope you planted as seeds

Has become a harvest of drought and weeds.

We shrug it off as not meant to be or not part of a plan,

Neither of which bring us comfort nor understanding.

Time will go on and somehow so will we,

Keeping our distance and remaining skeptical and leery.

The sacrifice and pain came at such a high cost

That it will take time to get over this loss.

However, some wounds will never heal

As we may become bitter about our raw deal.

Some things we will never get over, with the burden on our shoulders.

We perceive ourselves to be destined like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder,

Only to have it roll down the hill again.

Or consider Job, who sought an audience with God and an explanation,

Only to be pelted with unanswerable question after unanswerable question.

Yes, Job’s family and fortunes were restored,

But why did he have to go through all of that before?

We must hold on to the loved ones and days which remain,

In spite of the sorrow and pain.

We must embrace today’s second chance,

For as Aurelius said, we are meant to wrestle with this life and not dance.

Of Snakes and Spiritual Growth

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark  

Few creatures on earth can induce such a terror-stricken state of panic as snakes. No matter the size or species of the snake, people can be absolutely terrified of them. I have no particular fear of snakes, but I can understand people who have a fear of snakes, as many, many species are venomous and can kill with a single bite, while others constrict the breath out of their prey.  That sounds like something out of a nightmare.

Snakes have been portrayed in a negative light since time immortal. The Bible describes how the serpent mislead Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Book of Revelation, John refers to Satan as “that old serpent” (Revelation 12:9 and 20:2).  God sent snakes to bite and kill rebellious Israelites. After the surviving Israelites repented, God instructed Moses to make a serpent statue for people to look up at and be healed (Numbers 21).

In Greek mythology, Medusa had a head full of snakes and anyone who looked at her turned to stone. Snakes have also been portrayed as hypnotizing and deceitful, such as Kaa in The Jungle Book.  Snakes have also been portrayed as wise, which gives background to Jesus’ statement of being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16).

Unlike humans and other animals, snakes grow throughout their entire lives. So, it is conceivable in the right environment, a snake can grow to be in excess of twenty-to-thirty feet long. However, a snake’s skin does not grow along with its body and it becomes necessary for the snake to shed its skin (which also helps it remove parasites from its skin). If a snake does not shed its skin properly, it could die.

I know this seems like a rather odd topic, but there is a spiritual principle involved. As snakes are always growing, so should we always be growing in our spiritual lives. As we go about our lives and our relationship with God, we too develop some parasites on ourselves- sin, bad habits, false doctrine, a religious spirit, bitterness, unresolved anger, the traumatic experiences we cannot shake off- whatever it is.  Anything that is not helping us grow is hindering our development and possibly suffocating the life out of us.

From time to time, we have to shed some of our “skin” in order to grow into God has called us to be- bad relationships, forgiving others, asking for forgiveness, etc.   We may have been comfortable in our old skin, i.e. our old life, but we cannot stay there. That clothes no longer fit. Could you imagine a thirty-year-old person trying to fit into pants they wore when they were three? You are not the same person you were yesterday, last year, or twenty years ago- you have come along way and you have a long way to go. Keep growing and God bless you.

Negative Visualization and Faith

What’s the worst that can happen?” If you ever asked this question, you have been greeted more than likely with being shushed, glares, or heard, “Don’t say that.”

As humans, we do not like to contemplate the worst-case scenario. In fact, we develop a kind of superstition about such questions as “What’s the worst that could happen?” because we have tendency to think that asking such a question is going to invite some heartache or tragedy into our lives.

Although we do not like to mention it, we do take precautions against the worst-case scenario. If we are worried someone would break into our home, we lock our doors and windows, we install a security system, or we may purchase a weapon to protect ourselves in the event of a home invasion. We also purchase homeowner’s or renter’s insurance in the event our home is burglarized or damaged by a fire or disaster. We have health insurance in the event we get sick. We have car insurance in the event our car is wrecked or stolen. We buy life insurance to make sure our family is taken care of in the event of our death.

It is only right and commendable that we take precautions to protect our families and everything we have worked for in our lives. However, what if we were able to contemplate the worst case scenario without living a life crippled by fear and anxiety?

The Stoics practiced what is called negative visualization.

Negative visualization does not mean that we live as a “Gloomy Gus” or “Debbie Downer,” finding the negative in everything, but it teaches us to have peace of mind in the midst of challenging circumstances. Thus, negative visualization can mentally prepare us and lessen the impact of the worst case scenario. This in turn will increase the joy in our lives as we embrace our loved ones and this present moment even more.

According to William B. Irvine, “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it. This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we can not only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances.”[1]

Someone right now may be raising the objection, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to have faith that God will protect us?” Yes, we are supposed to have faith, but our faith does not prevent us from experiencing hardships in this life.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b, NIV).

“Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV).

“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Thus, by practicing negative visualization, we can still have faith and joy in the midst of circumstances.

Going back to the example of protecting our homes. Let us imagine someone breaks-in to your house and steals your new TV. Naturally, we would be upset about our TV being stolen, but we can take stock of what’s around us. If we were to step back, we could be thankful that we were not physically harmed, our family is safe, our pets are safe, the house is still standing, and the insurance will replace the TV. We have reason to praise God although our TV was stolen.

We can examine terrible situations and still find a reason to rejoice. I have discussed in several posts about my battles with anemia and celiac disease. I was very ill and could have had a fatal heart attack due to the strain the anemia placed on my body. While going through the anemia was difficult, the doctors found out that I have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Patients with celiac disease also experience anemia. I had to make sudden dietary changes, but it worked out for the best because I am no longer anemic. I have my energy back and was blessed with a second chance at life.

I came close to death, but I did not die. I know that one day I will die, but I do not let that stop me from living life. In fact, going through this trial with my health has given the opportunity to be more mindful of the life that is all around me. My faith has been deepened through my experiences because I know that God has allowed me to endure and to overcome these obstacles. If I were to contemplate what would come next, I know I would be able to handle that as well. Maybe you have already experienced a worst-case scenario- whatever that is. You are still standing. You are still here. You have lived through that experience, even though it may be the lowest point of your life. You have the training and strength to get through the next trial. We must not take anyone or anything for granted. Let us be grateful for the present moment. God bless you all.

[1] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009:83.

It’s Not Too Late- You’re Right on Time

We live our lives in reverse. When we are seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-years-old, we are faced with the monumental decision of “what do we want to be when we grow up?” We often feel backed into a corner and forced to make life-altering decisions before we even start living our lives.

The truth is that most of us do not know what we truly want in our teenage years. We are in a continuous state of change and have not yet matured emotionally, rationally, or spiritually. So we go in search of a career- most go to college, a university, or a trade school. Some go into the military, and some may just go directly into the work force upon graduation- all of which are very good and viable options.

However, what happens when the ideal meets the reality? We grow frustrated, we may go through an existential crisis, or we may change our majors like some people change their socks. Maybe out of fear, a false sense of obligation, or a perceived lack of better options, we stick with the path we are on and stay frustrated, resentful, depressed, bitter, angry, and fearful. We may even feel like we have failed and have to spend the rest of our lives working toward a material success which will elude us.

Stop. Take three deep breaths. Quit beating yourself up. Quit comparing yourself to other people.

Not everybody will be a billionaire by age thirty like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Not everyone is athletically gifted to play professional basketball right out of high school like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett. Very few people achieve worldwide fame by the age of twenty-five.

The problem lies with our perception of age and success. We spent the vast majority of our lives pursuing what the Stoics called “externals”- fame, possession, wealth, the approval of others, etc., all of which are fleeting and out of our control. We also feel that we have to figure out the mysteries of life before we attain our first bit of wisdom or spiritual insight. When we compare ourselves to others, we will feel inadequate, and think of ourselves as inferior. You are not inferior, you are who God created you to be. Your best years are today and ahead of you.

Maybe you do not have one particular path- maybe you have several paths because you have multiple gifts and talents. Draw on all of your talents, skills, and experiences. Be the best you that you can be and do not worry about what others think.

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11, NIV).

Albert Einstein was not the greatest student in school. Winston Churchill had to repeat the fourth grade. Oprah Winfrey was fired in her early 20s. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Joe Montana was a third round draft pick. Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick.

As I write this post, I am two weeks away from turning forty. I do not feel forty. I am not looking at the calendar with dread, but optimism.  In fact, the difficult and painful events of the last year-and-a-half, have only invigorated my spirit and I believe my best years are still ahead of me. I have re-enrolled in school and I am pursuing a new career. If you are reading this and you are under forty, relax, enjoy life where you are at. If you are over forty and reading this, you are entering the prime season of your life.

No matter your age or place in life, you still have time to achieve your goals and pursue your dreams.

*Ronald Reagan was in his 50s when he found a second career in politics.

*Harland Sanders was sixty-five when he opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken.

*Sam Walton was forty-four when he opened his first Wal-Mart store.

*Anna “Grandma” Moses started painting at age seventy-eight.

*Henry Ford was forty when he founded the Ford Motor Company and was forty-five when the Model T came along.

*Abraham Lincoln found a second chance in politics at forty-seven.[1]

While you have today, make it count. All of the events and experiences of your life have converged and brought you to this point for a reason, for this season. God bless you all.

[1] http://www.lifehack.org/370180/20-people-who-only-achieved-success-after-age-40. Accessed 8 January 2017.

Rebooting Our Spiritual Lives

For millions of people around the world, the hours leading up to midnight on New Year’s Eve represent a time of collective optimism and hope. We see a calendar change as a clean slate, a way to wipe out the pain and struggle of the last year. Though going into a different year does not change what happened, we see the New Year as a way to put it behind us.

However, we must be careful not to drag the same old emotions, feelings, and thoughts with us into the New Year because we will be caught up by the same old bitterness, frustration, and anger. Our lives will become frozen in the past, regardless of what year the calendar says it is.

When our computers and/or phones freeze up, a hard reboot becomes necessary. In other cases, we may have to back-up the device to a certain date in order for it to work. (Ironically, I was having problems with my Wi-Fi connection as I wrote this post).  As we come into the New Year, it is important that we do “a hard reboot” in our spiritual lives. We must look at what happened, how we responded, and how best to go forward. We must “reset” our relationship with God and ask Him for His forgiveness and grace anywhere we have fallen short.

Although we can look back on the past year’s events with sorrow and disdain (as I have at times), we can instead be thankful for God’s grace to endure the trials. Romans 8:28 does not say all things are good, but says that all things work together for our good. God in the mystery of His sovereignty can work out the most tragic of circumstances for our greater spiritual well-being. If God brought us through 2016’s trying times, He will certainly guide us through any and all of 2017’s difficulties.

As we go into this New Year, let us be hopeful, but realistic. Let us be mindful and prepared for the difficulties that will arise. Being prepared does not mean being overly pessimistic, but it allows us to embrace the moment and be thankful for the loved ones in our lives. Let us view each day as if it were our last and carry on with faithfulness and love. God bless you all.