The Top of the Fence Post

Alex Haley, author of Roots, had a picture on his office wall of a turtle sitting on a fence post.

He said the picture was there to remind him of an important lesson: If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help getting there.

Haley said, “Every time I’m tempted to think, ‘Aren’t I marvelous? Look at all I’ve accomplished!’ I look at that picture and remember how this turtle — me — got up on that post.”

(By the way, the turtle-on-the-post illustration has been spun countless ways; I like Haley’s the best.)

This is a good time of the year to take the time to say thank you to the ones — and, specifically, the One — who helped you make it to the top of the post.

Obviously, we begin by giving thanks to the Father for all that he has done.

But let’s not forget also to say thanks to those who play a part in bringing his goodness our way.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… (Philippians 1:3-5)

Is there someone to whom you can say ‘thank you’ today?

The Science of Happiness

Good morning, friends. In the past few weeks I have posted a few memos about happiness, for a good reason: There are many who think that their happiness in life — especially now — is determined by elements beyond their control.

This isn’t the case. An individual’s level of happiness is almost entirely up to them.

True, some factors can make happiness a bit of a challenge at times, but it’s never beyond our reach.

According to a recent CNET article, the idea that happiness is built in and can’t be changed is a misconception. It really is up to you, and your willingness to tend to five key areas:

• Build meaningful relationships with friends and family.
• Demonstrate kindness toward others.
• Show compassion for yourself and others.
• Express gratitude.
• Focus on the present moment, rather than obsessing about the past or fretting over the future.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who teaches a course called The Science of Happiness at UC Berkeley, says that happiness doesn’t mean you feel pure joy and cheerfulness every hour of every day.

She says, “People who pursue happiness in that sort of belief system end up being less happy than people who define happiness in a more overarching, quality-of-life way.”

Happiness means accepting negative experiences and having the skills to deal with them as you continue moving forward.

What some might call happiness, the Bible calls joy. It’s more than a good feeling caused by a good moment. It’s deep enough to endure difficult days.

It’s a choice that we make, again and again.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

The Secret to Happiness

What is the secret to happiness? 

The list of nominees is the same for almost everyone: income, health, family, success.

Results of a Harvard study, however, indicate that the answer is none of the above.

What is it, then?

Volunteering to help others. Another way to say it: Serving.

Research conducted by Dr. Eric Kim concludes that people over the age of 50 who volunteer to help others for at least 2 hours a week have a higher sense of well-being than those who don’t.

And it goes beyond a sense of well-being. Helping others is a catalyst toward other lifestyle benefits, such as lower risk of death, a lesser chance of health-related complications, and increased physical activity.

Dr. Kim says that serving others doesn’t just strengthen communities, it also “enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.”

Maybe this is one reason why Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than receive: Your gift of service to others come back your way, in full measure, even running over. [Acts 20:35, Luke 6:38]

In the words of King Solomon…

Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed. (Proverbs 11:25)

Ideas Waiting to be Recognized

In last week’s memo I talked about the “gratitude ball” that Duke University used for motivation during their NCAA championship run in 2015.

The idea was implemented by head coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

It’s important to note, however, that the idea didn’t start with him. It came from the associate head coach, Jeff Capel.

Krzyzewski realized right away it would be an effective motivational strategy, so he grabbed hold of the suggestion and made the most of it.

I like everything about the way Krzyzewski handled this.

First, he fostered a leadership environment where assistants and associates felt free to share their ideas.

Second, he recognized a good idea when he heard it, and he was willing to put it to work — even though it wasn’t his idea.

Third, he made it a point to give Capel the credit he deserved.

This is how effective leaders do it.

The simple truth is, if every workable idea has to come from you and you alone, your leadership efforts will always want for workable ideas.

But if you’re willing to listen, and willing to take a risk on someone else’s suggestion, and wiling to give credit when it credit is due, the team you lead will reap the rewards.

There are brilliant ideas all around you, ready to be recognized, waiting to be acted upon. Could there be one nearby that you have overlooked?

When Second Place Wins the Race

On December 2, 2012, in a cross country competition held in Burlada Spain, Ivan Fernandez was about to finish a distant second behind Oympic Bronze medalist Abel Mutai, from Kenya.

In the final moments, however, Ivan saw something that didn’t make sense.

Just a few steps short of the finish line, Mutai stopped running. He had misread a sign and thought the race was over, but there were still 10 meters to go.

Ivan called out to Abel, encouraging him to continue forward, but since the two athletes don’t speak a common language, Abel couldn’t understand what Ivan was saying.

What should Ivan have done next, given the circumstances?

He could have passed his competitor by, easily taking first place for himself.

Instead, when he caught up with Mutai, he remained a step behind as he motioned him toward the proper finish line. The race ended as it should have: Abel Mutai was awarded first place; Ivan Fernandez came in second.

What an inspiring, heartwarming example of sportsmanship. No wonder this story is still making the rounds, eight years later.

Running to win…

Recently I mentioned this story to a friend, who said with a laugh, “Clearly, Ivan’s life verse is not ‘run in such a way as to win the prize.’” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

But, then again, maybe it is.

Maybe Ivan Fernandez understands, better than most, where the race is really taking place.

Maybe he understands, better than most, what winning really looks like.

When asked why he would make such a choice to surrender an easy prize, Ivan was quoted as saying…

“My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life where we push and help each other to win.”

In this race we’ve been called to run, winning the prize means that we make it our objective never to cross the finish line alone.

There may be someone running the race near you — to the left or to the right; slightly ahead or slightly behind — and today you’ll have the chance to nudge them onward.

Winning the prize, in this part of the race, means that we win it together.

A Quiet Soul

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, said, “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Practicing silence effectively requires … well… practice. It takes effort on your part.

In his book Noise Reduction Leonard Koren writes, “Like an unbroken horse or a spoiled child, your mind will resist any attempts to discipline it.”

We are addicted to noise. All day we are besieged with sound, from the time we wake up to the sound of the alarm until we drop off to sleep at night, often with the TV in the background to “keep us company.”

I encourage you to try a few moments of silence each day.

Beginning today.

Just a few minutes with no music, no radio, no TV, no conversation.

Just a few moments of absolute quiet in the presence of God.

These moments will be like nourishment to your soul.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Paganini and One String

Paganini and One String

Niccolo PaganiniHere’s a great story that has certainly made the rounds. (I first heard it from Chuck Swindoll.)

The violinist virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was performing one evening before a packed concert hall, surrounded by a full orchestra.

As he began the final piece, one of the strings on his violin snapped. A minor inconvenience; with seemingly effortless improvisation, Paganini continued to play on the remaining three strings.

A moment later, a second string snapped. Undeterred, Paganini continued the concerto on the remaining two strings.

Then a third string snapped. Still Paganini continued to play. He finished the piece with one string on his violin.

When the performance was over, the crowd rose in thunderous applause.

Paganini, ever the humble musician, raised his violin and boldly proclaimed, “Paganini and one string!”

He cued the conductor, the orchestra began to play, and he performed his encore, note for note, with one string on his violin.

WHEN SO LITTLE REMAINS.

The time may come when you feel like you’re down to one string — when there’s next to nothing left of your marriage, your finances, your future, your health, or your hope … and you know that you’re no Paganini.

Here’s the good news.

One string is enough. God’s grace is that amazing. His power is that invincible. His love, that unstoppable.

If you feel like one string is all you have left — and maybe it, too, is about to snap — you can stop trying to make everything happen on your own. Let God do in your life what only he can do.

As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. (Psalm 55:16)

A Blank Page

Doug MarletteDoug Marlette was an editorial artist / cartoonist (creator of Kudzu) whose job, for decades, was to draw a new cartoon every day. He didn’t consider it pressure; he enjoyed it.

He said, “I have learned to love a blank sheet of paper. It braces me with its endless potential.”

Every morning you are given a blank sheet of paper: the new day that lies before you. You can fill the page with whatever you want: holiness, love, praise, service — or criticism, hostility, and bitterness. It’s your choice.

You’re not limited today by what you put on the page yesterday. It’s a new morning — a blank page — filled with new opportunity.

Even if you blew it yesterday, and ten thousand yesterdays before, you still have today. You can fill this day’s page with God’s presence.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:23)

Outlasting the Blues

During a dark period of Abraham Lincoln’s life, at the young age of 32, he wrote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.

“Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

It’s hard to believe these words were written by one of our nation’s most significant leaders. And it’s hard to believe that years later this same despairing man was able to write:

“The year that is drawing toward the close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. These bounties are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.”

Abraham Lincoln’s early years were filled with failure. Yet, the final years of life, though certainly not free from struggle, were years of happiness, fulfillment, achievement, and success.

Because of his capacity to outlast the blues, Lincoln experienced — in this life — the enormity of God’s blessing. He didn’t give up hope, even when it seemed he had no reason to hope.

The same could be said for King David. As you read through the Psalms, you get a glimpse of his struggles and heartaches. (Psalm 10, 38, 102 come to mind; there are many, many more.) And though his life was not without tragedy, David ended his days enjoying the benefits of God’s blessing in his life.

In a phrase, David outlasted the blues. His final words, recorded in 2 Samuel 23, were:

Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire? (2 Samuel 23:5)

It’s almost as if the reward for tenacity is that our problems eventually give up and leave us alone. We certainly see in scripture that clinging steadfastly to hope in God’s mercy ultimately pays off far beyond our greatest hopes.

Today, you may be facing an anguish that borders on despair. But there’s more to your story than just what you are experiencing today. God will bring to fruition your salvation, full and complete. And he will grant your heart’s desires.

This gives us a reason to keep on … to outlast the blues.

The Past is a Foreign Country

I recently began a sermon with a reference to opening lines in great books. While doing detailed research on the topic (ie, googling with my phone), one in particular caught my eye.

The title is The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley. The opening line is:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I’m not sure how that phrase plays out in the remainder of the story, but it’s a message we should consider: The past is a foreign country.

Think of how it applies to every area of your life, in light of God’s mercy and transformational grace.

“In the past I was defeated and discouraged. But the past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I choose to be in a different place today.”

“In the past I often spoke harshly to my spouse. But the past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I do things differently now.”

“In the past I put my wants ahead of everyone else’s needs. But the past is a foreign country…”

“In the past I was overcome with resentment…”

“In the past I felt like my life was going nowhere…”

“In the past my prayer life was non-existent…”

Think of how empowering it would be to learn to say: The past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I do things differently now.

The Helmet of Salvation

When a gunman opened fire on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on June 12 2016, dozens of SWAT Team members responded.

One of them was Michael Napolitano, who soon found himself in the line of fire.

In fact, he took a bullet to the head — and survived.

How?

The helmet he was wearing.

It’s called a Kevlar Helmet. It’s made to be bullet proof, and in Napolitano’s case, it was.

Days after the shooting, images surfaced of Michael and his helmet.

The helmet had been damaged, but not destroyed. Michael had an abrasion on his forehead, but no serious wound.

The obvious comparison is to the helmet of salvation that Paul refers to in Ephesians 6:17.

It protects us from the enemy’s attack. In the midst of spiritual warfare, we may experience bumps and bruises along the way.

But spiritually fatal wounds? Never.

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17)

A Work of Restoration

In the four year period between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo lay on his back on a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, creating one of the greatest artistic triumphs in history.

Unfortunately, the magnificent work of art soon began to fade. Less than a century later, no one could remember what the original frescoes had looked like.

One person described it this way: “We see the colors of the Sistine ceiling as if through smoked glass.”

In 1981 a project began to clean the frescoes that adorn the chapel. After two art-restorers carefully cleaned a small corner of the painting with a special solution, they invited experts to examine the work.

The result was breathtaking. No one had imagined that such vibrant colors lay beneath the centuries of accumulated dust and dirt.

This was not the Michelangelo known by art critics, the one whose frescoes resembled sculpture more than painting. This showed the artist was also the master of color and nuance.

The success of this partial project prompted the restoration of the entire ceiling.

The task was completed on December 31, 1989. It took twice as long to clean the ceiling as it had taken the artist to paint it.

But the result was breathtaking. For the first time in 5 centuries, people were able to view this masterpiece the way it was intended, in all of its color and beauty.

Today, God is doing a work of restoration in your life.

It may take longer than you expect, but the end result will be the same: Your life will be filled with the vibrant colors that he has planned for you from the very beginning.

Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again. From the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. (Psalm 71:20)