Horn of Plenty

The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is a symbol of fertility, fortune, and abundance. As shown here, most depictions of this symbol show the cornucopia overflowing with the fruits (and vegetables) of harvest. It is not unlike the standard American table at Thanksgiving time.

As I thought about the Thanksgiving holiday this year, my thoughts turned naturally to the act of being thankful in prayer. All too often, my prayers are often focused on other things - most notably, asking for God's help in one fashion or another. While asking for help is something we should be doing, I find that I am often lacking in my thanks. Sure, I give God thanks when he answers my prayers, but what about sincere prayers of thanks on a regular basis? I'm afraid that my requests far outnumber my thanks. To me, it seems like prayer dyslexia...I'm doing it all backwards.

So as a reminder to myself, I reached back into the files of my memory for this verse:
"Give thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of Jesus Christ." Ephesians 5:20

Always (not just on Thanksgiving) for all things (not just the good stuff). It's what I'm supposed to do, but sometimes it's hard to remember, and it's especially hard to be thankful for trials and annoyances. This is definitely something I need work on, but remembering this verse will help point me in the right direction.

May you and yours have a wonderful time of thanks this holiday season.


Using What You Already Have

I have a subscription to the daily devotional magazine Men of Integrity. It's a great little booklet to remind me of the attributes I should be developing, and it often provides inspiration when I'm not feeling particularly pleased with the way my life is going. I don't use it every day, but I am always amazed that -- when I do use it -- God seems to be really speaking to me. Directly to me. It's as if the editors have put in a call to God and have printed the magazine just for me. I guess it's not that amazing when I stop to think that God is always speaking to me...it's just that sometimes I'm not a very good listener.

Today's message really struck a chord with me. It had to do with recognizing and using the gifts that God has given me. I know that I have the gift to teach, and I am using that gift in my profession. I also know that I have the gift of writing, which I often allow to atrophy. I know I'm supposed to write -- I just have this uncanny ability to find other things to do instead. It's the area where I know that I'm just not listening closely enough. Maybe this blog is what I'm supposed to be writing...maybe it's a book...maybe poetry...maybe...Whatever it is, I need to listen if I am to learn what it is I'm supposed to do.

For those of you who write, you know that there are some very real fears involved, most of which are related to the fear of failure. The devotional provided the following quote: "A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage." (Sydney Smith, British writer) The devotional then provided this reminder for me from Deuteronomy 33:27 -- "The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you."

When I'm feeling that familiar fear about my writing, I now have a verse and a quote to turn to in order to inspire me. Now I just need to work on that listening thing...Thanks, Men of Integrity!


Back to School

Tomorrow is our first day back to school here in Michigan, and I couldn't be happier. I love what I do. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is what God made me for, and I am always thankful that I am able to serve him in this way. Teaching is a large part of who I am as a person...keeping that in its proper perspective is what I find difficult.

Jim Lange -- author, speaker, and friend of mine -- was the speaker at this Sunday's service, and he highlighted two verses that stuck with me. In Colossians 3:23, it states: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men..." In Psalms 46:10, however, God tells us: "Be still and know that I am God..." So which is it? Jim asserted that this apparent paradox of working hard and being still is a reminder to keep balance in our lives...keep things in their proper perspective and keep our priorities where they should be.

I'm not a Bible scholar, and it would seem that these two verses have been kind of stripped from their context here, but I think Jim hit on an important point here: God wants us to work hard, to be as productive as possible...but He doesn't want us to forget that He should be the number one priority in our lives.

I am the first to admit that I can quickly become consumed with grading, planning, researching, and all those things I do to be the best teacher I can -- often at the expense of family time and God time. Sometimes I catch myself when I get in this mode, but more often, my wife and kids catch me and correct me -- which they should. God also raps on my mental window during these times -- though he should never have to.

So my hope and prayer is that I strike the proper balance and keep the proper focus during this school year. I need to be disciplined in my devotions and prayers, committed to my wife and children, and inspiring to my students. God first, family second, students third...the three top priorities in my life.



Yesterday, I had the pleasure of going to an all-day retreat at Oak Openings, a very lovely group of metroparks in our area. The group at the retreat was made up of group leaders for our various small groups, and since I will be co-leading our couples group this year, I decided to go.

Our morning speaker, Pastor Bryan Hochhalter (Grace Community Church, Detroit) had an excellent message for us, focusing on the weaknesses of gender. He gave us astonishing statistics, showing that a majority of women in churches have extremely low levels of self-worth. His second session focused on men. The results of his survey with men (the same he had used with women), were not as clear, but when stepping back and looking more carefully, he found that men were mired in fear. This fear manifested itself in a wide variety of ways, but it was clear that fear was the main reason men did not want to get more involved in church (or small groups, for that matter).

He then challenged us to think about what we could do with this information. In my mind, the key to meeting both the needs of men and women in the group is by being transparent. One way to be transparent is to open up and offer authentic positive feedback on a regular basis. People need to hear the positive things others think about them. Personally, I need work on this, both in my group and in my life. I am not very free with my compliments, even though I generally think very positively about people. I am much more free with criticism. I am not sure why this is, but that's the way I've been most of my life. I recognize it, though, so I need to continue to work on this area of my life. The key, though, is to offer authentic praise, not empty praise. People are usually pretty good at discerning when they are having smoke blown their way, and they are more acutely aware of this when they have low self-worth. I learned long ago that a simple word of encouragement or a simple, honest compliment can go a long way towards helping another person feel important.

We also need to be transparent about our own missteps and falterings. Those men who fear feeling stupid or less than manly need to hear that others feel the same way at some time in their lives. No one is perfect, and as a leader, openly sharing my own inadequacies can help others feel more accepted in the group. We all struggle in life, but many keep their struggles close to the vest.

Small groups are meant to foster and build deep and meaningful relationships, and the only way to forge this type of friendship is by becoming exponentially transparent to those around us. It's dangerous to open yourself up like this, but the benefits far outweigh the dangers. I hope that I can grow in this area and use these ideas to facilitate our group in a loving, productive way.


Real Men Don't Cry

This is a photo of my grandpap. He was a blacksmith by trade. He was what many consider to be a man's man. Besides the requisite metalworking tools, his shop contained a variety of hard liquors and beer, spent pouches of plug tobacco surrounding a spittoon, and ragged copies of old Playboy magazines. I can't remember a time when I visited his shop that there wasn't a gathering of several men just shooting the breeze with him.

One of my strongest memories of him takes me back to my grandmother's funeral. I was five at the time, and I asked if I could ride with him to the cemetery after the service. He obliged, and we rode in complete silence until we got there. After he put the car in park, he pulled out his plug of tobacco and bit off a small chunk, gnawing on it in the silence of the cemetery. I watched him carefully as he surveyed the line of cars coming to a stop. Finally, I spoke.
"Grandpap, are you sad?"
He gnawed for a bit, then sighed.
"I suppose I am a bit sad. What about you?"
Tears welled up in my eyes. Grandpap looked at me, then looked away when he saw the tears that had started to roll down my cheek.
"Now we won't have any of that," he said. Reaching back into his pocket, he pulled the plug of tobacco out and tore a small chunk off, offering it to me.
"Here. This will help make you a man."

Our world has rendered men emotionless. Men don't cry. Men shouldn't show anger. Men shouldn't show mushy displays of love. Men shouldn't grieve. Who came up with these rules? Certainly it wasn't God. In Genesis 6:6, God was "grieved" and "filled with pain." In Mark 3:5, Jesus was "in anger, and deeply distressed." God is also shown displaying his pleasure, and Jesus was documented showing compassion. There are many, many places in the Bible where God or Jesus display emotions, both negative feelings and positive feelings. They certainly didn't hide or squelch these emotions, as they were evident enough to include in the Bible.

Our culture teaches men to stifle emotions, to be in control of their emotions. This is a warped version of what the Bible teaches. We should experience our emotions, not control them. Control should be aligned with the actions we take when feeling emotions. We can and should be angry at times, but that doesn't mean we should punch someone in the throat when we're angry. We should grieve, but when we are done properly grieving, we can take solace in God's promise of everlasting life for those who are His.

"Real men don't cry."

While that may be true in the eyes of our culture, real Christian men do cry, and they ask God to help them control the actions that arise from their emotions.

God, help me to express all of my emotions with earnestness, and guide me as I strive to honor You in all of my actions.