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Spurious or Authentic?

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One of the things most of us will do in the morning is to look in the mirror even though that might not be the best we will look for the day. Despite whether our hair is askew, or our face ridged with lines from the pillow, it is who we are as we are. Without the benefit of grooming our hair, getting a shower, or any other of the things in our routine, we are more authentically who we are in those first moments before we have had our coffee.

During the pandemic and lockdowns many of us didn’t take as much time for makeup or special hair styling. We were at home and wearing a mask a great deal of the time. It’s been said that pajamas and sweatpants were purchased more often during the height of the pandemic when many were working from home. But how much time do we really examine who we see in the mirror? Are we authentic in our person?

One of the evidences of character is authenticity. Most of us recognize that quality early in a relationship because the person is genuine and consistent. Those things are not something the person needs to work on because they aren’t trying to hide who they are and that is not something we find in everyone. Far too many are trying to appear in a certain way, or present themselves in a specific way so we meet a spurious (false, fake) self.

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If we were fortunate to grow up in a family where we were nourished and accepted, it is more likely we will discover the truth of who we are including our strengths and weaknesses. In that process, we will know we are still loved, and we will tend to flourish and learn to strengthen areas of weakness and grow our strengths along the way. We will be able to see ourselves more accurately and be less impacted by what others think about us.

If our families were not quite that way, we may grow up trying to be what others would like and to please them to feel more accepted. It will be harder to identify our real strengths and even more difficult to be sure of what our weaknesses are because we fear to see them or have anyone else discover them, we will not be accepted.

Whatever you begin to believe about yourself gets reinforced by the conversations you have with that person in the mirror. You don’t recognize that that mirror might not be reflecting the truth and you might spend a lot of time repeating the lies you think might be better than the truth of who you might be.

How you begin to experience life, your relationships, and experiences has a great deal to do with how you view yourself.

“Your capacity to experience anything in life depends on how well you know your self and how much you are flourishing.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Getting to know ourselves takes time and can feel scary to some because it can be easy to fear the worst, but getting to truly know ourselves as we are is also the most freeing thing we can be and do. It will release us from all the energy we use up trying to remember who this or that person expects us to be and that makes us more available to just be with them.

The safest and most reliable way to take that journey of discovering our true selves happens when we choose our Creator as the guide in this process. After all, He made us and knows everything about us and what is especially important is that He knows what we do not see and loves us still.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)

And He will always tell us the truth because He is TRUTH, but that will not be with condemnation as we might expect. It will be with love and grace and a path to change what is not who He designed us to be and his gentle guidance to help us. As we get to know his voice and spend time listening to Him and the truth He tells us, it won’t create navel gazing and selfishness but rather authenticity and a genuine capacity to love others more as He has loved you.

Learning to listen to his voice is the very best choice we can make because He is always eager to spend time with us so we can get to know Him better and discover the truth about ourselves.

“How you speak to yourself is far more important than how anyone else speaks to you. One of the reasons is because we always believe the things we say to ourselves, even when they are wrong. Even when they are not true.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Learn to listen to that voice that is quieter and gentler than you thought. He, Jesus, will tell you the truth even if it is not always easy to hear. Tune out the voice, the father of lies, that whispers only wonderful things to you or shouts at you with condemnation. Make room in your day to hear that voice who is Truth.

“There is no substitute for a vibrant spiritual life. A rich inner life is essential to human flourishing. If we want to live life to the fullest, we need to give priority to the spiritual aspect of who we are.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Making that choice has never been more important than it is now when the world is shouting a cacophony of lies that we are tempted to believe that will either lead us to despair or denial and both will move us farther away from light, life, and truth.

From Pause App from John Eldredge

The Crux of Character

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Our tendency to pursue success and idealize those who achieve it can sometimes result in paying less attention to the character of the person. Sometimes that may come because the tangible evidence of success is more often material things like promotions, awards, and monetary gains. More and more evidence of that other less tangible issue of character have shown up in recent years as we see persons who have reached high levels of success in all areas experience public disgrace for issues related to lack of attention to development of good character. We see it in the lives of those who are in sports, performance related fields, politics, education, and ministry.

What happens along the way that brings a sudden downfall?

The answer may vary from person to person but if we are honest about it the seeds of the downfall were planted long before the problem is often exposed. Character is something that develops over time. Many small choices and decisions and our response to experiences we encounter daily are weaving character together. Without attending to those it can be easier than we realize to excuse or deny the little weeds growing in our character that can later result humiliating exposure of what has been growing underneath our outward self.

“Every good choice strengthens one’s inner resolve to make another good choice next time, while every bad choice leaves one inclined to further bad choices down the road.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe
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Not unlike a garden, weeds in our character need to be attended to regularly or they will develop such a tenacious and broad root system that it will be difficult to remove them and may well damage the good growth in the process of trying to remove all of them. The most avid gardener will tell you keeping the garden weed free means vigilance daily. A garden free of weeds by the end of a morning can show the beginning of new weeds here and there by the next morning. Left to itself a garden will be overrun by weeds and destroy tender new seeds and plants in a very short time. Weeds in a garden are visible if we are looking for them but weeds in our character can be harder for us to see at times and far easier to ignore or discount as something that just happened because we were tired or had a “bad day.”

Do we even have a clear understanding of what character is?

“So, what is character? It’s moral excellence. But we don’t talk about morality anymore.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Too often we look at the word “moral” and associate it with only the areas of sexual transgressions of some sort, but morality extends to a much broader definition than that. In our digital fast-paced lives we lost track of some of those key words that were central to the lives of those we admire from past decades or centuries. Morality is just one of those words seldom used or attended to. Another is the word “virtue.”

“Virtues are the building blocks of character. Think about this short list of virtues: patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, perseverance, truthfulness, courage, temperance, justice, faithfulness, and goodwill. Would your life improve if you had more of these virtues, in both number and degree?”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

The answer to that question should be obvious. We would be a better spouse, child, friend, employee, believer, neighbor – better in every area if it were true. It’s evident that Paul understood what could bring that about in his letter to the Romans:

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)
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We don’t start climbing in the mountains without strengthening our bodies or learning how to handle higher elevations. There are skill sets we need to develop to climb mountains safely with endurance and enjoyment. Practicing those skill sets can produce a set of skills that give us a lifetime of adventure and pleasure.

And it isn’t going to work to simply read about these things or talk about them. They need to be put into action for them to become a part of us for the climbs we dream of taking.

If small choices and decisions are building blocks to develop virtue and character, what are some tips we can use to help us in our quest for character?

Reading Matthew Kelly’s newest book, Life is Messy, gives us some ideas on that as he describes a set of tools developed in the early 1900’s. They are called “The Four Absolutes” and Kelly describes their use and outlines them as follows:

“They have been described as: a way to keep in tune with God’s will for your life; moral standards; ideals to live by; yardsticks to measure actions against; a guide for anyone trying to live a good life; and a tool for anyone trying to live intentionally.

The Four Absolutes are:

1. Honesty. Is it true or false?

2. Unselfishness. How will this affect other people?

3. Purity. Is it right or wrong?

4. Love. Is it ugly or is it beautiful?”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

I think most of us would agree that these questions and this list would help us keep more weeds out of our character and move toward greater morality and a higher degree of virtue.

It could be that beyond pursuing the latest and greatest inventions, technologies, methods, and ideas, we need to consider moral standards and a pursuit of higher virtues. Because you see the very things we enjoy about “now” were created and developed by men and women who came before us whose center was founded on character and the higher virtues what built that character. The future will be brighter for each of us and all of us if we do.

Are You Grappling?

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Life has been full of twists and turns as well as more than a few upheavals in recent months (even years). Most of us have tried to grapple with it as best we can but it has not been easy. Living in the “Information Age” gives us a deluge of data to help us and yet no certainty that the data is accurate or truth that can guide our decisions. Perhaps it is harder for us because we no longer believe or accept the principle of absolute truth, so doubts assail us on every point. Maybe it is more difficult because of our own tendency to avoid or deny hard realities.

Mankind has a long history of struggling with the truth since we yielded to temptation at the very beginning and considered a lie to possibly be true. The creature who tempted us then passed his image onto us and ever since then our quest for knowledge and discernible truth has been at odds. It so marks our DNA as mortals that even as believers in Christ it is hard to totally defeat it.

The battle can rage because the truth (when accurately discerned) is often not pretty or easy and we would much prefer the denial or the fantasy we or someone else creates for us. Our moral fiber stretches this way and that so that we can grow weary of the struggle and seek to ignore it and accept what is presented without even considering its veracity. Added to that is discovering the someone we believe has not been truthful.

This quote by Aldous Huxley should give us pause. Repeatedly mankind has tried that without good results. Is it because we lost a more perfect world when Eden was marred by mankind’s choice that we keep trying to get back some of what we lost? Do we demonstrate that when we flock to fantasy movies? Is it why most of us (no matter what our age) love visiting Disney World that allows us a few hours or days in a fun-filled place and then feel the letdown of returning to the life we really are living when we return home? Do our dreams of unlimited success have its origins in that as well? Is the struggle more significant because we find so few real-life heroes to look up to?

How much do we value truth as a foundation for decision-making and living?

“Genuine moral and mental health consists not only in telling the truth to others but also in telling the truth to oneself about one’s true interests and motives.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

And there it is – the pithy reality we are reluctant to admit – do we tell the truth to ourselves with an uncompromising look at our motives and interests as we interact with others, decisions, and every moment of our daily life?

How good it would be if we could learn this truth spoken by Theodore Roosevelt early in our lives and then have it become a habit. Instead, we are more prone to avoid or deny an unpleasant truth with excuses and long explanations about why we made that choice.

What characters in the stories we read are we most attracted to? The ones who are better than we are or the ones that remind us of ourselves? (Be careful to consider that answer.)

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, which characters are you cheering for, and which ones are less likable? Many of you would choose Lucy as a favorite and Edmund as less so. Lucy seems to get it right and lives life more honestly and openly than Edmund from the very outset. Lewis’s skill as a writer gives us much to chew on within his characters.

“Throughout the chronicles, characters cannot experience genuine moral growth until they learn to hear the still, small voice of truth within them, ignoring the inner clamor of evasions and rationalizations.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

If we keep tuning out that still, small voice we risk losing the ability to hear it as it grows quieter and quieter. And perhaps that is what has brought us to the messes we face in life on every side now. We may point to others and see this deficit while failing to recognize our own and how our own choices have given power to perpetuating false narratives and advancing darkness and evil. And now we look at the mess and chaos and feel it is overwhelming to consider we can affect any light into it all.

George Washington was not a perfect man, but his words remind us that to gain truth will always require us to take the pains to bring it to light. Since he spoke such words, our task has become more challenging because there are so many layers of shadow and denial, lies and delusions. Our own resolve to make honest choices based on truth has been weakened by not always owning the truth about ourselves and excusing our diminishing values. Our laziness results in us gobbling up data from more sources than ever existed even 10 years ago while not being determined to mine out the truth from the fabrications trying to hide it.

“Every good choice strengthens one’s inner resolve to make another good choice next time, while every bad choice leaves one inclined to further bad choices down the road.”

David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe

Our character is not shaped in a moment but painstakingly sculpted moment by moment through one choice at a time.

What choice will we make today? Will we be guided by the still small voice within or our own view or version of what is right?

Our answer is significant. We are living in unprecedented times and accountability for our choices will not be avoided indefinitely.

Blind Spots

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Most of us are familiar with the old adage, ‘things aren’t always what they seem.’  It’s a reminder to us of an important truth − we can be deceived. The problem for us can be that we forget that is somewhat of an Achilles heel in us all since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent in the garden that twisted God’s words.

You may well remember that the serpent (Lucifer) was once an angel in the court of heaven, but he lusted after the power of God. He wanted to usurp that power and he was clever enough to take a third of the angels with him and then God reminded him of his place when he fell from heaven. Deception was woven into the very fabric of his being.

Before that day Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, mankind was made in the image of God and was meant to reflect Him and his character. After the serpent’s seduction of the happy couple, God’s image in them was marred and their character reflected the serpent’s instead of God’s. They were the serpent’s ‘image bearers’ and that cosmic DNA got knit into what God had intended to be unmarred and reflect Him. That cosmic combination got passed down to every generation after them to those of us who live today.

Because our nature is not God’s original intent, we struggle with the same character flaws that the serpent (a former beautiful angel) dealt with and still deals with. That includes a desire for power. We may not always recognize that in ourselves because it isn’t always something we feel. We will see it most easily when we are confined in some way and feel more powerless.

We have a paradoxical connection to power.

We know it can be bad if used and abused, but we also respect it and sometimes want at least some of it.  When we submit to power whether it is to parents, teachers, clergy, or others, we might assume because of their authority, skill, beauty, knowledge, status, position, etc. that they have integrity. It’s not a big leap to look at this list, compare ourselves to it and decide that person or organization that has these things knows more than we do and will seek to serve us in ways that benefit us. And sometimes that is true, but not always.

Power can blind us to the truth about ourselves and deceive us. A powerful example of that is evident in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The ring has power and even the simplest of hobbits, Frodo Baggins, discovers it can tempt him.

In one scene in the film, Galadriel gives warning about the ring and man’s susceptibility to it:

“In the gathering dark, the will of the ring grows strong. It works hard now to find its way back into the hands of men. Men, who are so easily seduced by its power.”

Once power deceives us, we are ensnared and may not realize how much so until it is too late.

In Tolkien’s epic work, time and again good men, elves, dwarves, or hobbits are drawn to the power of the ring and miss that once they take the ring, it takes them and reshapes them completely.

The strongest example is when we watch Sméagol transformed by the ring into the creature Gollum. His lust for the ring of power (“My Precious”) causes him to destroy himself in molten fire rather than to allow the ring to be destroyed.

When power is misused and abused, the one using it falls prey to deception.

That would be bad enough, but it doesn’t stop there. Often the person doesn’t even recognize he or she is deceived, nor do they see how they move to deceive others. When that step of deceiving others occurs and their goals are thwarted, they then try to use their power to coerce others into giving them what they want.

Dr. Diane Langberg has worked with many persons and organizations about issues of trauma and abuse and the role of power and deception. Hear her wisdom in this:

“Those who abuse power are deceived. Abuse of power requires deadening our ability to discern good and evil.

When self-deception works with temptation, they convince us that something wrong is okay. Then we blame external circumstances for our choices.

As time goes on self-deception functions as a narcotic numbing us to the danger and damage of our choices.

Deadness of our soul will cause us to lose the power to hate evil and remove our taste for good.”

Is all hope lost?  Are we doomed?

As Gandalf would say in The Lord of the Rings,

“All we have to do decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The first decision is to yield to the One whose image we were meant to reflect and then allow Him to reshape us and fight with and for us.

And with that decision, we must recognize the One who is all-powerful, to humble ourselves before Him, and learn from the evidence that came from the lust for power by the serpent that sought to usurp God’s power.

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How Many Minutes Did You Say?

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Each of us seems to be more and more time conscious these days. I think it relates to the fast-paced overly busy schedules we keep where we struggle to arrive on time and get home before midnight too many days.

We can all thank Thomas Edison for some of that. Before he created the filament for incandescent light bulbs in the late 1800’s, our ancestors’ days were much more related to the rhythm of sunlight and darkness as it changed through the seasons. After his invention, we stretched our working and playing farther into the night until we now seem to no longer recognize the sleep and wake cycles had a purpose for our good and health.

When we are young we tend to feel as if time is passing slowly and we are eager to push it forward for all we want to do or be, but as we get older and see how quickly we are using it up we are more likely to want it to move forward at a slower pace.

With those as a backdrop I have been reflecting on the statement of a pastor from Mexico a few weeks ago who spoke of the Lord coming soon. Yes, I have heard that many times over the years and if we are reading the New Testament carefully, we see Paul’s letters speaking of it. That can leave us quite uncertain about the meaning of the word “soon” in relation to His return.

It was when the pastor used a soccer game analogy and said we are in the last three minutes of the game that my attention was arrested. I have little knowledge of soccer so it was likely not as clear an illustration for me as it might be for others, but it still left a definite impression about the possible meaning of “soon”. If I broaden the idea out to cover other sports I know less well, it becomes clear it means near the end. I know the final minutes of a game often determine the outcome.

I went to a high school where football was king. High school students there first played it in 1891. Prior to the current playoff system that began in 1972, the team won the state championship 23 times. The teams were also recognized as the AP National Champions 9 times between 1935 and 1961 (the most in the nation). Since 1891, more than 10.5 million fans have watched the games of this team.

Every Friday night during football season the whole town would show up at the stadium decked in team colors with lots of enthusiasm to cheer on the team to victory. As a student on such a day, the excitement began with a parade downtown at lunchtime led by our marching swing band and cheerleaders. The idea of losing was not an option in anyone’s mind. We went to games at home and away cheering on the team and I saw more than a few games that came down to the final minute or two of the game to determine the winner.

I loved every minute of it! I first learned the game of football as a grade schooler sitting beside my dad for each game. When I was finally able to sit in the student cheering section, it was an electric experience! I knew every cheer and song and most of the plays happening on the field.

The analogy the pastor was talking about was far more significant and one that often seems to get less attention and fanfare in most of our lives than our favorite sports team. Yes, we know Jesus will return and as we see the world unraveling in every corner of the globe we perhaps think of it a bit more often, but is it a truth that spurs us to respond to the time we have differently?

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The truth about Friday night football in my town was not just about watching or playing the game. It was also about preparing for the season as well as each game itself. It affected nearly every choice that was made so we would be in the optimal condition to play and win. It was the spirit and the traditions handed down generation after generation that included a certainty about what we believed about the game and ourselves. We knew we were winners, but nothing was taken for granted or left to chance. It was something that everyone felt a part of and prepared for, not just the players on the field. We all got ready.

As I reflect on those exciting fun times over what could seem like a silly game to most, I wonder where I am (where we all are) if we are in the last three minutes of the game before the Lord returns. Am I living each day with the end in mind as Stephen Covey might ask?

So often I have felt the reminder as I read about the story of the wise and foolish virgins Jesus tells us in Matthew 25. The parable clearly speaks of preparation for a sure end that has an unknown time stamped on it.

Maybe we handle the anticipation about the last three minutes of the game differently because there is no specific time stamp we know and because we have heard “soon” for a long time. Perhaps that has dulled our senses and lulled us to sleep. Sure, we think of it when we face the death of someone close to us or hear a diagnosis of our own that suggests our own days are numbered, but what about the big picture? What about the unseen world we are living in the midst of that has an eternal reality stamped on it?

One thing seems certain. It is closer today than yesterday.

Even though we do not know the exact time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s words spoken by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring reverberate in my heart, mind, and spirit:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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