As I prepare to send my only child to college, I am in reflection mode a lot this season. I feel strongly that we should all reflect and renew every now and then, and I’ve been advocating that in recent posts; however, I find that deep reflection often occurs when we don’t force it. Many times, it is the result of something that has occurred—a death in the family, a recent illness, the birth of a child, or a child heading off to school for the first time. Most of these happenings are out of our control somewhat. We can plan, in part, or prepare a little bit for the “what ifs” or the “going to happens,” but we don’t realize the gravity of the situation until it is upon us.
As I think about sending a child to college, I start to think about my own experiences in life. I also think about my own future, and, not in a selfish way, but more in a way that is in tune to what my college-age child will experience or what is in store for her in her very bright future. Many of us, when we change jobs or buy new homes, will look back on the activities and events that we’ve experienced over the years in these places. Even if they weren’t always happy occurrences or even if we associate challenging times in life with these places, they hold a place in our hearts. The job is where we spent many hours of angst and stress, but also where we made good friends and earned a respectable living. It’s where we spent hours of overtime, but also where our co-workers took us to lunch on our birthdays and where we celebrated each Christmas with friends, dancing the night away. Our house may be where we experienced family issues or personal problems, but many times, this is also where our kids were born and where they played in the yard, where we hosted many a cookout, where we answered the door when the kids were little for trick-or-treat, or where we talked to our neighbors in the side yard.
When others in our lives hit milestones, these milestones become our milestones too. When we see the progress that others make or the setbacks they endure, we think of our own, and we find ourselves reflecting on our lives. This is all part of my living strong philosophy. To know yourself and to automatically and routinely take stock of your life at certain points is definitely a show of strength. To bravely face the things you have done in life that don’t make you proud, or to do what you need to do in life to ensure the future that you want are difficult things to do. Tapping into what you have done right or what you are proud of also requires some strength. After all, it is only with intense introspection that we even know what we’ve done is truly successful or makes us deeply proud of ourselves or our accomplishments.
So, as we all take time to sit in the sun this season and think about what we’re going to do or reference those lists that I had you make previously, we need to celebrate our accomplishments and record in our memories the good times and the bad times that have shaped us. As we watch loved ones move away, change pathways in life, or even head off to college, we need to wish them well and feel that we can offer them something in the way of advice and experience. We may not have been exactly where they’re going, but we can certainly empathize and picture a future for all of us that includes continuous improvement, faith, and happiness.
In my most recent book, I discuss, at length, what wearing and living with the Armor of God entails. In my analysis, I try to communicate the fact that everyone does not understand this “armor” or know why he or she needs to be equipped with such armor in the face of everyday challenges.
Just like a boxer trains for his or her strongest opponent regardless of who the fight is scheduled with next, and just like Olympians train to beat the fastest, best, or most formidable competitor in their respective sports, so must we train and prepare for our biggest fights with whatever enemies may be waiting for us. Sure, we see some adversities coming, such as the temptation to use drugs or abuse alcohol or the temptations to quit school or stray from our families, children, or spouses to make ourselves happy first. Even in the group that I just mentioned, drug use is certainly a more visible threat than the latter, which is the idea of spiritually or emotionally drifting from loved ones. And this is what is at the core of my point; it is not always easy to spot the enemy and what the enemy has planned for us in terms of attack. Many times, it is in hindsight that we realize the mistakes we’ve made, simply because we had not educated ourselves OR armed ourselves against the initial attack.
Even more difficult to spot is the enemy that seeks to undermine our very sense of self. I talked a little about this in previous blog entries, particularly when we were suffering from news of the events in Baltimore in the shadow of the Freddy Gray funeral. I talked about how we might fall prey to people who will, ultimately, lead us completely astray during times when we feel vulnerable or are drawn to do something for the right reasons even though the action may be a deplorable one. None of us, in this world, is immune to this, friends; trust me on that. We can all fall prey to bad decisions and actions that take us down a path from which it is hard to return, despite noble attempts to do so.
Daily, when we’re at work or when we are talking with friends and neighbors over dinner or a barbeque in the backyard, we often forget that there are opportunities to share beyond the exchange of pleasantries and burgers and potato salad. There are opportunities to open up to one another as friends and share our stories of strength and triumph. I’m not talking about bragging; I’m talking about sincerely sharing the stories of struggle and emerging victorious over whatever challenged us. I’m talking about inspiring others with truth and advice on how to live as strong as possible, in your armor against the enemy, at all times.
Let’s face it, many times at work, things come up that are not pleasant. Maybe a co-worker has taken credit for someone else’s project. Maybe there are layoffs. Maybe the workload is just so great that friends and co-workers are having trouble getting it all done, are not sleeping, or are worried and upset most of the time. Maybe your neighbor discloses that he is having financial trouble. Maybe another neighbor down the street is going through a sad divorce. In these moments, and in these opportunities to counsel, listen, and to be a friend, we can also talk about what armor we use to offset the enemy when we are vulnerable or feeling down. During these times, it is imperative to acknowledge that, yes, it is OK to feel bad, but it is not OK to let those feelings dominate you, isolate you, or change who you are inside. This is the enemy’s most subtle and, often, most dangerous attack – making us feel like all is lost – that there is no hope – there are no friends to turn to.
Share your stories of faith and strength. Talk about the time you felt down and pumped yourself back up with your armor, whatever that may be. For some, the armor is relying on a healthy lifestyle full of good foods and exercise to keep the blues away. For others, daily prayer gets them through the rough patches. For others, simply interacting with friends of faith or family who notoriously support and encourage is the armor. We all have these coping skills and strength-acquiring mechanisms built into our daily routines. We have to remember to tap into them, share them, and give them the kudos they deserve – give ourselves the credit we deserve. After all, we never know when the opportunity to use these traits will present itself. It is best to be primed, trained, and waiting to use them.
As a new season approaches, we all have a tendency to re-evaluate our lives. We think more closely about what we eat, what we do, how hard we work, and how often we pray. In the fall, we are focused on back-to-school if we have kids, or getting the house ready for the cold months. In the winter, we get more spiritual because the colder weather forces introspection and time with ourselves. In the spring and summer, we worry about getting fit for the warm weather and making sure our work schedules are in order to allow for vacation or extra money as needed. The seasons are cyclical in many ways, and for us as Christians, they represent different things at different times in our spiritual year.
I’ve been talking and advocating a lot about my “living strong” in faith and spirituality lately. I’ve been firm in my directives to stay focused and to remain stronger than the enemy, and I’ve waxed a bit poetic in my suggestions to look inside and to get to know ourselves better. Of course, I mean it all, and, as I write this post, I feel a certain urgency to remind everyone to tap into our strengths as this season of warm weather and more relaxed schedules approaches. I urge us all to dig deep and vow to remain rooted in faith and discipline. With relaxed days approaching, we need to make sure that we still live strong in all that we do.
In the shadow of the Memorial Day celebration, we find ourselves feeling nostalgic and thankful. This is a good thing. These are feelings that we need to tap into for our continued strength in our faith journeys and in our journeys to success in life. It is important to understand that this type of rest and reflection is important and productive, whereas simple inaction and permanent movement from the path of the disciplines we readily impose on ourselves is not. Straying too far from our goals and from our daily initiatives is dangerous; such behavior can open the door to idleness and laziness. If we allow appropriate rest and reflection or applied introspection and restful analysis to our daily disciplines, we can see enhanced results as opposed to inaction.
Living strong, or keeping that reserve of fortitude and resilience close at hand, is imperative to staying the path regarding faith and discipline. God wants us to rest; even He rested on the 7th day. He does not want us to lose sight of our goals, however, nor does he want us to lose our drive to create lives that are constantly improving. Knowing ourselves and knowing what we need to replenish in this time of both reflection and preparation is key to maintaining what we need personally, emotionally, professionally, and spiritually, to succeed in our daily lives.
In our modern world, we hear the term “live strong” all the time. We often associate it with being committed to an athletic or fitness accomplishment. Sometimes, our mind will make the jump to living strong for our family or our kids—taking this “I can do this” mentality into our work environment or our personal lives. But, do we “live strong” all the time? Do we even know what that means? Certainly, one person’s definition of the term or phrase is different than another’s. In some worlds, living strong is being fit, eating right, rising up the corporate ladder, or getting your kids into the right school. In other worlds, living strong means just surviving—getting food on the table, avoiding illness, taking odd jobs to make some money, or getting back on track after a lifetime of mistakes or problems. All in all, we always have to be ready for when we are tested in any way and in any capacity. Life will show us many enemies, and we need to have the fortitude to stand up to them.
How do we live strong in our daily lives? Do we get up and go in for a morning workout everyday? Do we provide examples for our children daily by showing how to give back to the community in our actions and words? Do we pray daily? Do we make sure that the elderly in our lives eat right and are visited regularly by loved ones? Do we reach out to those who might be lonely or sick? Do we test ourselves in our faith and our disciplines in belief systems and values daily?
I’m guessing that, even if you all answered “yes” to working out, taking care of loved ones, and giving back to the community, you did not answer that way to the last one—testing yourself in faith and values daily. Not many of us do this, yet this is how we make ourselves vulnerable to attack and to weakness.
How exactly are we supposed to test ourselves in this way? I think that answer would be different for each of us. I do know this, however: establishing ourselves solidly in values, beliefs, and disciplines is the first step in any faith journey. We must know what we want to accomplish, generally in life, and we must understand our own strengths and weaknesses. If we have a tendency to spend too much money, we need to apply more discipline to that area in our lives. If we are good at school, we need to tap into that ability and make it work for us and our future goals. Above all of this, we need to understand that we are not invincible and that we are the products of our family, friends, community, and environment. We need to give thanks when appropriate, and we need to re-evaluate and change when appropriate.
It isn’t always easy to scrutinize ourselves and our lives objectively. In order to even approach doing this, we need to remain humble and without erroneous ego. We need to think of others and treat them as we would want to be treated ourselves. And, we need to trust in God’s plan for us and show Him daily how we can live up to His expectations for us. Is this always easy? No. In fact, it can be very trying to constantly think of how God would want us to act. When we are faced with challenges, work, difficult people, and dishonesty, it is easy to fall back on complaining or developing bad attitudes. When we are blind-sided by illness or financial trouble, it is easy to blame God or to forsake Him. In these trying times, we need to look inside and find that inner strength that we all have. We need to question why we want to reach certain goals, and we need to remember how we got to where we are in life in the first place. Sometimes, it is the love of family—pies from grandma, a warm home provided by parents, and love from lifetime friends. Other times, it is hardship—absent parents, siblings in trouble with the law, or the uncertainty of a financially distraught family life. Either way, it shapes us, and our experiences can help shape our responses in life. Using the fortitude born of a difficult life can help us achieve success as can the calm approach of someone who has lived a comfortable life. At the core of our journey to success and offsetting the enemy is our sense of self and our sense of God. We need to tap into both.
I’ve said before that the enemy’s strategy is to cloud our thinking in our everyday lives. How many of you know what I mean when I say “the enemy”? Do you think of what you learned in church as a kid? Do you picture the devil coming to get you if you lie to your parents or push someone on the playground? Do you picture demons that come after you in the night or demons in the form of drugs, alcohol, depression or other hard to overcome issues? I think we all have our own picture or image of what we think is the “enemy,”the dark side of human nature, the opposite of God.
Do we ever think of the enemy as people we know? Do we even let our minds wander to the fact that the enemy can be deep within ourselves as well? Maybe the enemy comes out when we feel challenged or when a friend of ours is feeling jealous or even when a seemingly benign stranger sees us doing something on the road and “road rage” kicks in. All of these scenarios can be pretty uneventful, passing issues that hardly affect us. They can, however, escalate, and, suddenly the road rage incident causes someone to get hurt – or the jealous friend acts in a way that causes irreparable damage or we convince ourselves to behave in a way that changes the course of our lives.
I’ve said before that the enemy’s strategy in your life is to cloud your judgment or corrupt your thinking. I said in a previous blog post and in my book that in our lives, we’ve all fallen prey to friends who coerce us to do something against our better judgment. I also need to point out that maybe we’ve been involved in relationships and, suddenly, find that our lifestyle is one we no longer recognize or maybe we replay our actions and behaviors in a certain situation and find that we are not proud of what we did and that, further, we are worried about the repercussions of what we’ve done.
Once the enemy – in whatever form – gets inside our heads or the threat of the enemy allows us to weaken at all, we can start down dangerous paths. The enemy will make us question our own judgments, will injure us so badly that we can’t trust our own emotions, and will use guilt to chip away at our defenses and tap into our vulnerabilities. This is how the enemy permeates the minds of otherwise intelligent and secure people and moves through groups of friends, families, or communities, coercing and moving people to behave in ways that they normally would not. Sometimes, good intentions go horribly wrong, as we’ve seen in recent events in our own society. Peaceful protests and vigils turn to rioting and violence. Emotions are corrupted by selfish motivations. The root of the issue is clouded with vulnerabilities, hurt feelings, and fear.
We all have different goals in life; some are big, and some are small. We all share the same goal to move forward in life in a positive way; However, this may be interpreted in different ways. The family man may want success in his career. The single mother may want a more fulfilling personal life and a good relationship with her kids. The college age boy may want to do well in school and pursue a sport of some kind. None of us can move forward if we let the enemy decide for us what direction we take. We have to be stronger than that. We have to be prepared for whatever life sends us. We need to secure our “Armor of God” and offset the attacks that the enemy – again, however we perceive it – will, most certainly, unleash on us.