Stepping off the Littered Path

By Michael W. Raley

He looks down at his feet and sees the path before him.

This path is paved with self-pity,

Littered with dashed hopes, broken dreams, and loss.

He looks behind him and realizes that he just came from there.

Convention and tradition tell him the road is bound to get better,

“If you have more faith, work harder, and have the best of intentions,

Things will work out for the best.”

However, years of honed instinct and wisdom tell him to expect much of the same.

“Who says that I have to stay on this road?” He thinks to himself.

Deep down he knows to stay on this current path

Is a one way trip into a soul crushing abyss

From which he may never recover.

He decides to step off the littered path for his own trail,

Not to be rebellious, but for his own peace of mind.

No matter which path he chooses,

He knows there will be a price to pay.

“I must temper my expectations,” He thinks to himself,

“And be realistic and pragmatic, as the path to peace is fraught with conflict.”

The only question left to answer is “Which way? Right or left?”

Let’s go….left.

 

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The Mountains

By Michael W. Raley

I close my eyes and retreat into my mind.

I can see the mountains as if I am there.

The majesty, the beauty, the only place

Where my spirit, mind, and body are at peace.

The winding roads,

The gorgeous blue skies

Seemingly untouched by industry.

The snow-capped peaks at the height of summer.

Nature’s grandeur of wildlife-

Elk, big-horned sheep, and marmots

Living out their existence.

How my soul longs for the mountains!

The mountains are not obstacles,

But a point of perspective.

For when viewed from the mountain top,

Our problems become small and insignificant.

The Biblical Significance of 40

Numbers. Data. Statistics. The Bottom Line. Whatever you want to call it, information plays a significant role in our lives. From this information, trends can be identified and used in an attempt to predict patterns, spending habits, the state of the global economy and so on and so forth. However, when we delve deeper into a biblical study of numbers, there are interesting patterns which develop as the same numbers emerge in different texts.

A well-known biblical number to believers and non-believers alike is 666. Jesus had twelve disciples. There were twelve tribes of Israel. The Gospel of John records seven “I am” statements of Jesus, which confirm His divinity. God rested on the seventh day. Bible prophecy discusses seven-headed beasts, and numerous other creatures. Another interesting biblical number is the number forty.

As of this posting, I am celebrating my fortieth birthday. I took a look earlier this week at the significance of forty in the Bible.

*The rain of the Flood lasted forty days and forty nights.

*Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah.

*Israel had forty years of peace after Gideon conquered the Midianites.

*Eli judged Israel for forty years.

*Goliath challenged the Israelites for forty days until he was defeated by David.

*David and Solomon each ruled Israel for forty years.

*Elijah spent forty days traveling and fasting before encountering God on Mount Horeb.

*The twelve spies sent out by Moses returned after forty days.

*Jesus fasted and was tempted by Satan for forty days.

*Jesus appeared with His disciples for forty days after His resurrection.

Moses

The life of Moses serves as an interesting side note to our study of the number forty. The Bible tells us that Moses lived to be 120 years old. In fact, we can break down Moses’ story into three distinct forty-year increments.

*Moses spent his first forty years as a Prince of Egypt.

*Moses lived the next forty years in Midian, where he married, had children, and was a shepherd.

*Moses was 80 when he encountered God at the burning bush and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

*Moses spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.

*Moses led the Israelites forty years in the wilderness, where they ate manna the whole time.

From this brief study, we can see that forty typically represents a number of trial and breakthrough. Moses emerged as a deliverer forty years of exile. David was victorious over the giant who taunted Israel’s army. The corruption of Eli and his sons led to God speaking to the young Samuel, who would become the last Judge of Israel. Jesus overcame temptation, Satan, and death. We will certainly have our rough stretches during our forty day and forty year periods, but we must not lose heart. In one form of another, victory will come. Whenever a trial comes, it is an opportunity to learn. Just as one meal from an angel gave Elijah the strength to go on for forty days, so to can our wisdom and strength carry us through whatever we are facing. You can be delivered. You can overcome. You defeat your giant. God bless you all.

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.

 

Embracing Our Experiences

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” – Eleanor Roosevelt[1]

Experience is rarely gained in a comfortable temperature-controlled environment. A simulation can give a soldier an idea of what to expect during combat, but it is the actual battlefield where the soldier applies his or her training. It is the same with our lives- our trials are opportunities to apply the wisdom we have learned.

 “The only source of knowledge is experience.” -Albert Einstein[2]

Another Christmas season has come and gone and the focus turns to 2017. I know for myself and the people I know and love, 2016 has been a traumatic year- full of pain, grief, loss, sorrow, despair, depression, and heartache. Sometimes in war there are no victors, only survivors. The dark storm clouds gathered around you, but by the grace of God you have made it this far. You will find your way back.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius[3]

In matters of faith and philosophy, it is our experience that truly shapes us. How we apply our spiritual and philosophical wisdom is influenced more by our trials and tribulations than any sermon, book, or essay. Our experiences serve as a mirror reflection of not only who we are, but of the world around us. There are people out there who are hurting just like we are and they are looking for something authentic. If we are to share our faith and experience with someone, it is okay to admit you do not have the answers. The last thing people want to hear is common tropes, clichés, and talking points.

Our experiences give us that unique personal testimony about how we walked through our personal hell and back. Our life is a culmination of all of our experiences- good and bad. We cannot change what happened. We must also face the possibility of not getting answers as to why something did or did not happen. Life gives us no choice but to soldier on, not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones. We must embrace all of this life we live and the experiences which shape us into who we are.

Experience is an opportunity for us to examine what we believe and why we believe it. Our belief system must be able to stand up to our scrutiny. It is okay to question the nature of God, the Bible, life, death, and faith. Our beliefs serve as a foundation for our lives and we must examine the foundation for cracks. If there is a weakness, we can fix the damage or rebuild the foundation, which will require deep digging and a lot of labor. The reward of confidence comes after we have done the hard, soul-searching work.

“For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12, NKJV).

 

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who ask you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15, NKJV).

I pray that the Lord will comfort each of your hearts in this coming year. I pray that 2017 will be a year of joy and rejoicing for each of you. God bless you.

 

 

[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/eleanorroo121157.html Accessed 26 December 2016.

[2] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins148778.html Accessed 26 December 2016.

[3] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/confucius131984.html Accessed 26 December 2016.

Book Review- The Art of Living

In a continuing series, I am reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

Epictetus’ book, The Art of Living, is an incredible philosophical book that gives the reader practical insight on how to live a virtuous life of inner peace, no matter the circumstances we face in life.

Epictetus (55AD-135AD) was a slave who took an interest in philosophy. Epictetus later gained his freedom and became a teacher of Stoicism. Epictetus today is regarded as one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism, along with Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca. The essence of Stoicism is that it is not what happens to you, but how you respond that counts. The Stoics, especially Epictetus, write that we should focus solely on what is in our control and not worry about what is not in our control. You do not have to be a philosophy major to understand Epictetus, as he presents his philosophy in a practical and straightforward manner.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”[1]

Epictetus then distinguishes what is and is not in our control:

“Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are direct subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.”[2]

“Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”[3]

Epictetus also stresses the importance of not getting caught up in other peoples’ business and stick with what is our concern because we will not be forced to do anything we do not want to do. Another aspect Epictetus emphasizes is the importance of managing our perceptions, or how we see and interpret events. It is important to gauge these perceptions by what is within our control and what is not in our control.

“From now own, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself not to worry about it.”[4]

Other Brilliant Quotes from Epictetus

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”[5]

“It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise- for they are part of the divine order too- inner peace will still be possible.”[6]

“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source.”[7]

“Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.”[8]

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”[9]

“Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.”[10]

The Art of Living has been a very influential book for me as I have journeyed through the last eighteen months of my life. I have learned and applied many aspects of Epictetus’ wisdom to my own life, which has enhanced my faith and navigated me through difficult choices. I have also found parallels in Scripture, which makes this book compatible for Christians as well.

If you truly want to live a happy life, it all starts with you. Be content in all circumstances and realize that everything happens for a reason. We may not know the reason, but we have been assigned this season of our lives. Make the most of it. Focus internally and do not worry about the externals. God bless you.

[1] Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. A New Intrepretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 3.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 12.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 17.

[10] Ibid, 24.