Lessons from Falcons

High on a ledge on a building in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a pair of peregrine falcons have been raising a brood of young ones. They have been doing this for several years. As of today, there are four young birds in the nest. The birds are gangly and bumbling, spending their time between bobbing awkwardly from one end of the nest to the other, sleeping in weird sprawled-out positions, or very occasionally, gulping tasty morsels of flesh from freshly-caught birds.

The Department of Environmental Protection has installed cameras, giving any interested observers a front-row seat to the workings of raising a falcon family.

I am learning some lessons from these peregrines.

Patience – Most of the time, their life is boring. For weeks, the parents took turns sitting on the nest to keep the eggs warm. They would regularly turn the eggs with their claws. They would replace each other frequently, communicating with an odd series of screeches. And now that the babies have hatched, it is another long series of weeks and months consisting mostly of watching the babies sleep. Of course, the babies are incrementally growing, but there is nothing exciting about that. It’s like watching the pot, waiting for the water to boil.

The same is true for human parenting. We need patience. We give each other breaks. We communicate. We watch our babies sleep and, ever so slowly, grow.

Beauty – The babies are cute but also homely. The parents sit on the ledge, ever so sleek and beautiful. The wings are perfectly shaped to enable them to swoop and dive faster than any bird on earth. If you look closely, you can see that the baby wings have the same basic shape, but at this point those wings are down-covered, ugly, and basically useless. But the ugliness of the babies does not disturb the parents in the least. The babies are growing at just the right pace. And they will one day be mature, just like the parents, fully capable of everything that a falcon should be able to do. Just not yet…

The same is true for our children. The fact that they are not yet mature should not be considered to be a flaw. They will one day grow up, and do all of the things that strong healthy adults are capable of doing. Meanwhile, we love them for who they are, and we don’t get stressed because they aren’t grown up yet. They are perfect children (not adults).

Protection – One of the main jobs of a peregrine falcon is to protect the babies. Even before the eggs were hatched, any intruder was met with a furious assault from a fully grown, sharply-taloned peregrine falcon with nothing to lose! Woe be to any innocent bird that unknowingly strayed within the vicinity of the falcon nest. And now, it is rare for the babies to be unattended. The parents are nearby, monitoring the nest to be sure that the little ones do not bob out of the nest and fall to their deaths.

That is our job as parents also. We are called to protect our children from harm and death. Our children are not always aware of the dangers that the world poses to them. They have not seen what we’ve seen. And they are not capable of protecting themselves as well as a mature adult is able to. So our main goal, while our children progress through all the stages of childhood and youth, is to keep them alive and safe.

And that is just a few of the lessons from the peregrine falcons. Maybe you will enjoy watching them also. And maybe you will learn something different from what I have.

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A Hero of Faith (on a Slippery Slope)

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The packing was finally over!  Casting his eyes around the house, Abram’s eyes grew a bit misty.  So many memories!  He had been so comfortable here.  This was home!

The Great Beyond out there was unexplored, unknown, and, frankly, uncomfortable to think about.

Abram’s eyes came to rest on his favorite chair, well-worn from many years of use.  He walked over and settled in with a gentle sigh.  He closed his eyes as he reflected over the last few months.  “Leave your native country,” God had said. “Leave your relatives and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.”  God’s voice may not have been audible, but to Abram it had been clear.

Almost nobody in Abram’s family had supported the decision.

  • Some of them were simply puzzled“Your family is here.  And financially you have it made.  Why would you leave?” they asked.  They just didn’t get it, which in itself was a little bit disturbing.  Abram wished that even if they couldn’t understand, they would still say, “We respect your decision, and we love you no matter what.  Come back and visit if you can.  We want to hear what’s going on in your life.”
  • Others were reproachful“Remember all that your father Terah sacrificed when he moved from Ur to Haran.  He did that for YOU so that YOU could have a good life.  Why can’t you be grateful?”  Abram had heard that story many times.  Of course he was thankful for his happy childhood and comfortable home.  But what they always failed to mention is that Terah hadn’t finished the journey.  Instead of going on to Canaan as God had intended, Terah had decided to settle in Haran.  Abram wondered why he had done that.  And he wished that there was a way for him to follow God without hurting other people.
  • Other relatives uttered dark warnings.  “If you leave here, you are on a slippery slope because you will never stop traveling and you will lose everything.  Your children will marry heathens.  You and Sarah will likely get a divorce.  We’ve seen it happen.  Those who do not learn from history will repeat history.  A rolling stone gathers no moss.”  The list of catchy platitudes was long.  For quite some time, fear clutched at Abram’s heart.  What if they were right?  But over time he came to see these warnings for what they were; fear-mongering.  So he paid them no heed.

Truth be told, Abram preferred security.  But he still planned to leave.

Why?

Because deep inside he felt the inexorable drawing of God.  It set every muscle and fiber to tingling.  To follow God meant to choose LIFE.

Abram inhaled deeply and then pulled himself to his feet.  Comfortable or not it wasn’t going to be his chair anymore.  From now on the chair, and everything that it represented, would be in the past.

Abram walked to the door and went out, closing it firmly behind him.  And “Abram departed as the Lord had instructed.”

When Abram walked out that door, he didn’t even know where he was going!  “It was by faith that Abram obeyed when God called him to leave home.”  God had promised him a land and a divine inheritance.  That was all.

God didn’t say where, how, or when.  But to Abram, it was enough.Vector set of decorative elements, border and page rules frame

And really, it turned out to be quite a messy way to live.  On the surface Abram’s life was turbulent.  While his relatives stayed in the peaceful homeostasis of the safety bubble, Abram was immediately cast into the chaos of tent living, wandering, and even war.

Sometimes the external uncertainty seeped into Abram’s soul and caused him to make some serious mistakes.  When a foreign king claimed Sarah for his wife, Abram feared for his life and lied, calling her his sister.  And another time, Abram grew tired of waiting for his promised son and heir, and had a child with his servant.  It was by no means a perfect record.

In spite of all of this, Abram is still listed in the Bible as a hero of faith.  A superficial analysis might have branded Abram’s life a failure. If Abram’s relatives could have seen him, they could have told everyone how Abram “lost his way”.  They were right in one thing at least; Abram never DID stop traveling.  But he always traveled with God.  On that lifelong journey he learned a lot about following God.  Perhaps the relatives didn’t give Abram credit for walking by faith, but God did.

Abram can inspire us to also follow God. Yes, we naturally prefer to be comfortable. And yes, we might earn only disrespect and disregard from people that we love. But when YOU sense that inexorable call of God on your life that sets every fiber within you to tingling, what will you do? When you feel that call, will you suppress it, or will you follow it?

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How to Live a Diminished Life

Hopeless

Do you believe that your life is such a treacherous journey that you will only get into heaven by the skin of your teeth?  As a result, do you daily assume a cautious, hunkered-down stance?

It is true that life is often hard. Unfortunately, we often make it more difficult than it would have to be.  We can do a lot to help ourselves, simply by using our God-given abilities.

But if you insist on a dismal world view, let me help you to truly excel at living the sad life that you feel that you deserve.

Here’s how to live a life of diminished possibilities:

  1. Don’t make a game plan. Always wait for your ship to come in.  Spend lots of money on lottery tickets.  Take the first job that you are offered and then stay there unless someone calls you with a new job offer. Assume that your parents’ religion needs to be yours and if you just follow their formula, it will work out for you and your kids too.
  2. Believe that fighting for what you want is out-dated.  Always be predisposed to believe that you have over-performed and that your current state of affairs is in spite of you, not because of you.  Definitely don’t become an entrepreneur.
  3. Always ask for permission.  Wait to proceed down any given path until someone has patted you on the back and said something nice.  Post incessantly on social media and let the comments dictate your mood.  When making decisions, always dismiss out-of-hand any option that will likely result in someone’s disapproval (or temper tantrum, or rejection).
  4. Don’t stand out.  If everyone else is doing it, believe without question that it is the most reasonable and healthy choice for you also.  Study the lemmings and aspire to be one.  If you end up in a pile at the bottom of the cliff, at least you weren’t the only one.
  5. Emphasize unimportant things.  Never have a memorable evening with friends unless your house is in perfect order (which it never is).  Make decisions on that basis consistently.  Never stop to consider what are actually the most important things to you.  And if you do, definitely don’t act on it.
  6. Feel trapped.  Accept that life isn’t fair (which it isn’t) but extrapolate that to mean that you really can’t do anything about the hand that you have been dealt.  Continue to incrementally gain weight, accrue debt, and attend a church that you hate (or fundamentally disagree with) because there don’t seem to be any easy solutions.
  7. Discount your own abilities.  Recollect every personal slam that you ever received, and conjure up a present-day self-image that matches. Never focus on your successes, only your failures, to the point that getting out of bed (late) in the morning feels like enough of an accomplishment.
  8. Think about death all the time.  Your feelings when thinking about your ultimate demise should range from depression to panic.  Bemoan all your lost opportunities.  View the future as a canvass upon which to sketch a life of continuing disappointment.

And before you know it, you will have succeeded at one thing at least!

Living a diminished life.

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The More Important Things

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Jesus denounced the religious leaders (in Matthew 23) because they emphasized things at the expense of more important things.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”

A very common mistake among religious people like me is to emphasize certain things at the expense of more important things.

What are the “more important” things?

Kindness and empathy are more important than scrupulous attention to detail.  The Pharisees in their official capacity as experts insisted that everyone must obey everything in the law (vv. 1-4).  But they forgot that the accumulated weight of these demands was unbearable.

Humility is more important than performing deeds of Christian service.  The Pharisees focused on praying frequently and teaching the law (vv. 5-12).  But they were proud of the title of “teacher” and forgot that they were equal as brothers and sisters under only one Father.

Giving sincere offerings and experiencing God’s presence are more important than exact religious form.  The Pharisees made a great point of respecting God’s altar and temple (vv. 16-22). But they forgot what made the altar and the temple holy.

Justice, mercy, and faith are more important than precise obedience.  The Pharisees were careful to tithe 10% of all income, even down to the tiniest income from their herb gardens (vv. 23-24).  But they forgot the more important gifts.

Inner purity is more important than outward appearance.  The Pharisees carefully washed their hands and gave great attention to their outward appearance (vv. 25-28).  But they forgot what makes a person truly acceptable.

Complete openness to God’s truth for you today is more important than your historic, religious ancestry.  The Pharisees honored the prophets that their ancestors had killed (vv. 29-36).  But they forgot that it was very possible to make the same mistake by killing Jesus.


So I want to remember that:

  1. warmly greeting a visitor at church and making them as comfortable as possible is more important than wearing the right church clothes.
  2. graciously supplying a warm meal to a guest is more important than displaying good housekeeping skills.
  3. paying attention to my family’s limitations is more important than attending every religious function.
  4. building strong family bonds with my wife and children is more important than trying to please my extended family and church associates.
  5. honesty and openness to God today is more important than adhering to historic Anabaptist norms.
  6. advocating for orphans and visiting my widowed mother is more important than keeping all the lifestyle rules in the church covenant.
  7. private, fervent prayer is more important than leading songs and Bible studies at church.
  8. graciously granting the benefit of the doubt (to myself and others) is more important than validating the authenticity of the position.
  9. sharing peaceful, relaxed and loving family moments is more important than insisting that my son cleans his room.
  10. earning an honest and ample income for my family is more important than blogging or hobbies.
  11. attending to my personal spiritual and emotional health is more important than fine-tuning the collective spiritual awareness of my local congregation.

Note: this list of things that I want to remember is MY list, not YOUR list.  I expect my list to evolve over time, shaped by life and by the Holy Spirit. What is on your list?

 

Good exercise: identify something that you have strong feelings about and ask yourself if there is something more important.

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Trusting God in Times of Transition

prison to palace

In the squalor of an Egyptian prison, an innocent man lived for many years.  But one day the king summoned him to the palace.  So he washed and shaved.  When he arrived at the palace, the king told him about some puzzling dreams that he had had and requested that the prisoner tell him the meaning of the dreams.

“It is beyond my power to do this,” the prisoner replied. “But God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.”

So the king told the dream about seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows, but the seven skinny cows stayed skinny.  And the prisoner told him that there were going to be seven years of bumper crops followed by seven years of terrible famine.  And he advised the king to hire an intelligent and wise man and set him over the whole land of Egypt to manage the process of storing up grain during the first seven years so that they would have enough to eat during the next seven years.

The king appreciated and accepted his advice and said, “Since God has revealed the meaning of the dreams to you, clearly no one else is as intelligent or wise as you are. You will be in charge of my court, and all my people will take orders from you. Only I, sitting on my throne, will have a rank higher than yours.”

And the overnight transition had begun!

The prisoner suddenly became the national grain manager.  And not only this, but the king arranged for him to get married too.

  • From rags to riches
  • From prison to palace
  • From poverty to power
  • From single to married

He succeeded!  He did the job!  He had no previous experience, and yet there is no record that he struggled in his new-found role.

Where is the fear?  Where is the stammering refusal to accept the job?

What an astounding transformation!  What a testimony to God’s ability to empower people!

Do you believe that God could empower you to do the same sort of thing?  Joseph’s story tells us that God’s power is limitless.  It tells us that we too can thrive even during times of sudden or difficult transition.

So what is limiting the power of God in your life?  

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Healthy Self-Confidence

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I met a young US Marine this past weekend.  He exuded an appealing level of self-confidence.  He stood erect, he spoke courteously, and he had a bearing that said that here is a person who is capable of leading.  He was self-assured but not cocky, and soft-hearted but not maudlin.

Not just Marines, but all people should be appropriately confident.

SELF-CONFIDENCE IS NECESSARY FOR HUMAN FLOURISHING.

Self-confidence is rooted in our intrinsic value as God’s children.  Some people think that when a man stands upright, lifts his chin, and smiles, he is proud and full of himself.  But what if he’s only being the man that God created him to be?  What if God desires us to embrace the goodness and strength within us, rather than to focus on our weakness and sinful depravity?  All good things within us come from Him. To be self-confident is to recognize that fact and to live accordingly.

Self-confidence provides the power to accomplish our goals.  Some people think that the biggest danger in life is to bite off too much, and to fail.  But nothing is so paralyzing as fear.  Self-confidence provides the impetus to stare a challenge in the face and to push through difficulties to the bitter end.  Self-confident people know that even failure becomes a success if we learn from it.  More often than not, we will succeed and NOT fail.  But if we lack the confidence to even try, we will never know.

Self-confidence comes from reaching our goals and living up to our ideals.  Some people accuse self-confident people of thinking that they are better than others.  But maybe these accusers are simply resentful towards the upbeat attitude and successful track record.  It is true that self-confident people aren’t satisfied with the mediocrity of the status quo. But they aren’t intent on diminishing others.  In fact, they aren’t really focused on other people at all, but on their goals.  They are looking within, determining what their values really are, and then setting out to live in accordance with those values.  In reaching their goals, self-confident people make the world and themselves better.

Self-confidence results when our sense of worth is tied to what we can control.  Some people believe that they must allow others to dictate their own worth to them.  They make their choices based upon what others will think of them.  They distrust their own choices and their own value.  As soon as someone criticizes them, they wither, surrender, and feel terrible about themselves.  They give their power away.  They believe that they can never thrive unless until someone gives them something.  Many times this full approval never comes, and so their lives stall.  And even if the powerful people in their lives do condescend to compliment or promote them, it is a hollow victory and doesn’t lead to true flourishing anyway.

A Marine takes control of his life.  Even within the command hierarchy his dignity and value is affirmed because of his accomplishments and status as a US Marine.  He endures boot camp, not because it feels good, but because he chose it.  He joined the ranks and he is proud of it.  His initial and ongoing training shows himself what he is really capable of.  If someone calls him weak, he knows that he is strong.  If someone calls him scum, he knows that he stands for honor.  His confidence in his own ability only grows as he succeeds.  A self-confident person realizes that to wait to take action until he receives the approval of others is to wait for a ship that might never come in.

Self-confidence is God’s gift.  Some people are never secure as Christians because they constantly fear that they will grow cold and fall away.  Or they question their performance record and feel that they must be a disappointment to God and are barely Christian.   These people haven’t fully accepted God’s gift.  God says that NOTHING will be able to separate us from Him!  God says that you are MORE than a conqueror!  You have the power to determine whether you are good or bad.  When you surrender to God alone and begin to live in Him, He says that you are valuable.  He makes you strong.  You have the only stamp of approval that you ultimately need.  Who cares if others try to tear you down?  Godly self-confidence is built on the foundation of who God says that you are.  What a gift!

Self-confidence is necessary for human flourishing.  This truth applies not just to US Marines, but to everyone.  Accept who you actually are!  Utilize the power that God entrusted to you.  Identify your values and live them!  You are not a victim, but a conqueror!

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You Are Stronger Than You Think You Are

fortitude

“You are stronger than you give yourself credit for.” Some people who know me well have told me variations of this same thing. I’ve been returning to that thought repeatedly recently. In a Bible study at church yesterday a man described a horse tied to a plastic lawn chair in the middle of the road as an example of how bondage is sometimes more imagined than real.

That reminded me of the Israelites cowering for days before the giant Goliath and the Ted talk by Malcolm Gladwell that explored the possibility that Goliath may have had significant health conditions and poor eyesight, and that before the skilled slinger David, he was basically a sitting duck. His presentation turns the traditional reading of that story totally on its head, and I don’t know if it all is factually accurate.

But it does illustrate how we can be reduced to a quivering mass of fear, frustration and discomfiture before things that we could easily conquer if we just would. Some people might be overconfident, in which case this point is less relevant. But for me, it most certainly applies. Over and over again as I accomplish something that initially seems to be just too hard, I find that I can do it after all.

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