Close Your Eyes and Breathe

By Michael W. Raley

Before the coffee begins to brew,

The thoughts come rushing in:

“You need to do this today.”

“You have to do this too.”

“Don’t forget about this.”

“You have to do this on Friday.”

“You’ve been putting this off.”

“You’re out of this, you need to get it today.”

“You should have started the day earlier.”

The list grows well beyond what I planned.

Stop!

Close your eyes and breathe.

Come back to this moment.

Close the mental browsers that don’t need to be open.

Step back and reason through this.

Focus on one and only one task,

Then move on to the next task.

Gradual momentum and gradual goals,

Just as you would read a book:

Words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, then pages, then chapters,

Then the book will be finished and will be on the shelf with the other finished books.

 

 

 

 

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Be a Force for Love

By Michael W. Raley

Evil exists in the world.

However, that is not an excuse

For it to dwell in you.

Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated

Into following the aimless herd.

You have been gifted with logic and reason.

Therefore, open up the gifts and put them to use.

Don’t join the angry mob,

But be a force for love.

Bitterness and hate are the caustic acids

Which will eat away at even the most docile soul,

Only to leave you in the pit of despair and regret.

Your time is limited and may run out any day,

So why choose to live in constant anger and seething rage?

Be a force for love.

We are all God’s children

And we must embrace every brother and every sister

Who comes our way each and every day.

The earth will remain,

But we will soon be gone.

Keep this thought in mind

In all you say, do, and think.

Go and live in peace.

Be a force for love.

 

 

The First Step

By Michael W. Raley

The first step is the hardest one to take

As the anxiety and fear make your body shake.

Your journey cannot and will not begin

If you are consumed with how it will end.

The greatest heartbreak

Is regretting the chance you didn’t take.

Life can be different, even grand

If you would pull your head out of the sand.

You alone have the power to choose.

You have nothing to lose.

So what if the venture doesn’t work out?

There are still options and new routes.

Shake off the naysayers, the fear, and the past-

Choose this day to live as if it were your last.

Live deliberately and give thought to your ways

As you begin the new journey called today.

 

Stuck

By Michael W. Raley

I have gone too far to turn back,

But I am too paralyzed to go forward.

I’m stuck.

Stuck in the mud that feels like wet, drying concrete.

As I try to lift my legs,

The burdens on my shoulders are making me sink further down.

My chest tightens from anxiety,

But I refuse to be broken.

I see it! A fallen branch.

If I could just get there.

This is not how it will end.

I muster the strength to pull up my left leg.

There goes a shoe.

I pull up my right leg,

There goes the other shoe.

I drudge forward with all I have,

Willing my way through the muck and mire

Until I grab a hold of the branch

And pull myself up out of the mud.

I use the branch as a balance beam and slowly

Make my way over my former prison.

I am covered in filth but free and unstuck.

 

Psalm 13: How Long, Lord?

Albert Einstein theorized that time is a relative concept. Whether time moves fast or slow is a matter of perception. Children cannot wait to become adults in order to achieve independence.  The eighteen years in between our birth and adulthood may as well be a 1000 years for as slow as time moves. However, as we age, time seems to speed up. You hear a classic song or re-watch a favorite movie and you remember how old you were when you first heard it or watched it. You shake your head in disbelief at how fast time has come and gone.

Perhaps nothing slows down time like a severe trial or test of our faith. No matter the trial- the unexpected death of a loved one, a broken relationship, sickness, job loss, an avalanche of debt- life can sneak up on us or just walk up to us and punch us in the stomach. Once we are in the trial, we in essence become frozen in time, as the trial and pain slowly consume our lives and thoughts. The discouragement gives way to the depression; the depression makes way for the despair; the despair evicts the last tenants of hope and faith.

HOW LONG, LORD?

How long, Lord? If you have ever asked God this question, did you get a response? Probably not. Believe it or not, you are not alone in asking this question. David was many things in his life- giant killer, warrior, king, prophet, shepherd, poet, musician, and a man like us who had his character flaws.

Although Psalm 13 gives us no context of the trial David was facing, it is clear David begins the Psalm in utter despair and is accepting defeat:

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

And my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.”

(Psalm 13:1-4, NIV).

David’s words are of a desperate man in a desperate situation. David is essentially saying, “God, if you don’t do something, I might as well lay down and die.” It seems that God is silent in the midst of our trials. When we seek God for answers and He does not respond, we are left alone in our thoughts. Our thoughts will run wild like a caged animal who has escaped its pen. We begin to question everything we believe about God and we begin to feel as if our flaws are beyond redemption and we sink into the depths of despair.

However, between verses 4 and 5, David experiences a turning point and the Psalm pivots back to hope and praise.

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:5-6, NIV).

It is difficult for us to see past the pain of our current situation. We look at the immediate failures and forget the past victories. We forget that we have the proper tools to demolish our obstacle and rebuild the foundations stronger than ever.

Faith, like our bodies, must be exercised to reach our full potential. When we lift weights, our muscles become sore because we have broken them down. However, our bodies are designed to rebuild itself after injury. When we go back to the weight room, our muscles will be better equipped to handle more weight than before. Trials, in the same way, can strengthen our spirits and make us stronger.

Psalm 13 does not give us an indication of how long it took David to come back to himself, but it probably took time. How long will it take you? Are you willing to allow this giant trial to mock you night and day as Goliath taunted the Israelite army? Are you willing to look back at what worked and what you have overcame to get to this point? Are you willing to accept the fact that the length of your trial is completely out of your control? Are you willing to look at your faith and trial in a realistic and pragmatic manner? Remember, David took down a giant with a slingshot and a well-placed rock. You got this.God bless you all.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.