Saturday, January 31, 2015

Epic stories are super-food for the human heart.  Heroes and Heroines and dragons and beasts and overwhelming odds to overcome, with life or love hanging in the balance, are the things stirring in the chest seeking expression and opportunity.  Deep within us there is a desire for a quest, a journey unequalled against the hidden forces of darkness.  We want to make a difference, one that will be epic!
Most of us, however, must become so fixated on the fantasy epic that we miss an epic of a different sort, the kind that requires we overcome some inner voice that tells us to accept our mediocrity, our average-ness, our membership with the unspectacular masses.  We are not made for averageness, but far too many of us have given into the weight of our days and the burden of maintaining our dreams to rise. 

Our hearts yearn for adventure, while our minds talk us out of it because of the dangers and risks involved as well as an acceptance that we’re not hero or heroine material.  As a pale substitute we live other’s adventures—some true, many are made up and over the top.  They’re exciting, but far from real—even the true stories of soldiers and others are spiced up to keep us engaged.  The movies and the books are written for our weak and short attention span.  We can’t handle all the dull details of life that even go along with adventures.  There are tens of thousands of steps taken during adventurers that never make it onto the pages of a book or screen for a movie.  There are camps to be made, wood to be gathered, fires to be kindled, shelters to be raised, meals to be cooked, utensils to be cleaned, weapons to be polished and sharpened and cleaned, sentries who must watch through the long, dull night.  And with the morning dawn, all of it comes down and another long, eventless march through thickets or swamps or over mountains and across rivers.  A great deal of the time there’s not much to occupy one’s mind and so it wanders ahead to the trial that one knows will come.  The unleashed mind is powerfully creative and imaginative, especially when fear is it’s fuel. 

In the absence of epic adventures we accept goals to lose weight or go back to school or redesign a bathroom or prepare for a race or make a lot of money—some sort of personal or professional improvement or activity that presents a challenge of sorts, something to occupy our hearts hungry for adventure.  These may not be bad, but they should not be substitutes for what our hearts truly yearn to achieve.

Though most people acquiesce to living ordinary, adventure-less lives, there are still dragons to slay and shadowy, deceptive evil to defeat—think of all the children in homes of neglect or families facing eviction or youths who have been adopted into gangs.  Think of the prejudice and bigotry that is blatant and bold as well as subtle and yet systemically insidious.  Think of the hatred that rises in fear or from hurt, but then become dangerous ideologies that take form in terrorism.  Think of the corruption that grinds up the lives of so many people in the money-making machinery of business.  Think of the people who must accept hunger as a daily reality or putrid puddles and polluted streams as the only source of water to drink.  Think of the horrific damage done to ecosystems that are fragile—including the sphere we call earth.
There are dragons and evil systems that claim and recruit hearts and minds of people so that we become the mindless legion defending the destruction that is our own ruin.  These may not look sinister or strike fear in the heart when seen, but the persuasive power to seduce us to be apathetic or hypnotized by our own comforts is not to be ignored. 

Why are these societal problems any less of an adventure?  Why are these challenges any less defining of heroes and heroines?

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his epic stories (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings Trilogy) in the midst of World War 2.  His imagination transformed the bloody war into a remarkable story that has captured millions of people because it illustrates something we all know is real.  Hitler may be considered the central figure the allied forces sought to defeat, and Hitler certainly was consumed by the evil, but the evil that consumed him continues to capture hearts and minds today.  The epic challenges still exist today.  The wonder of Tolkien’s story is that it wasn’t a superhero or super-heroine who won the day—it was a small, unassuming, hardly-noteworthy Hobbit who faced his fears.  But he wasn’t alone.  His friends and a company of others were an incredible support system.  They, along with the masses of those who fought in their own ways against the darkness, are part of the epic story.  It takes everyone living purposefully for the liberating truth to overcome—indeed that may be a central goal in the conquest: to work together purposefully for a cause far greater than any one of us can achieve on our own.  The singled-out hero or heroine is able to accomplish great things only because everyone else is doing their part.  We all are necessary and we are all drafted into the epic story that require us to daily make the choices that will lead toward victory. 

We have been created to be passionate about something important, something meaningful, something that powerfully shapes our identity as we pursue making a difference.  We are not created to settle for well-insured and professionally designed pseudo-adventures—at least not as a substitute for the real adventures of being conquerors.  Claim your destiny!

© Stephen Carl

Friday, January 30, 2015

There's a show on TV that my boys have been watching lately called Stanley's Super Humans.  It has a man who is supposedly the most flexible human on earth going on a search for others with super human abilities.  So far, what I've overheard in the background, the show has highlighted a man who can withstand high electrical charges (his body is a conductor and he's not electrocuted), a man who can eat glass and other stuff people shouldn't, a blind kid who uses echolocation almost as well as the sighted can see, a man who can calculate in his head incredible math problems, another who has a amazing photographic memory, a fellow who isn't affected by black mamba venom (yikes!), and others.
All of my boys are fascinated by superpowers, but my youngest is the most interested.  He's regularly talking about superpowers he'd like to have.  The following poem I wrote was inspired by him.  It's a conversation with the dad's voice in italics and the son's voice in regular text.

My son asked me what super power I’d want the most
Would you like to be strong or invisible like a ghost?
What about fast, faster than a jet?
Or breathing underwater, that’s what you’d want, I bet

I already have super powers, I thought you knew
They’re more powerful than dynamite, you have them too
They’re stronger than the muscle man you saw on T.V.
And they’re better than x-ray vision, they change what you see

Can you cause tornadoes or tsunamis or terrible earthquakes?
Can you go back in time and change mistakes
Can you read someone’s mind, and tell what they’re thinking
Or teleport around the world faster than my eyes blinking?

Those powers are amazing, but none can I do
It’s probably a good thing I can’t do them too
Who knows what would happen if such super powers we had
I think things would go from worse to really very bad

Then what super powers do you have and which have you used?
It may not be a super power, but you have me confused!
Are you made of rubber and able to stretch out?
Tell me what super powers you’re talking about

They’re really amazing though few seem to know
Since they’re done quite quietly, without a big show
Though many think they’re not super or even a power
Since we like the cool and wow, these may seem dull and dour

So tell me, Dad!  What’s your secret gift?
I know you’re pretty strong since I’ve seen you lift
But I don’t think you’d win any muscle man prize
Since your muscles aren’t nearly the biggest size

The super powers I’m talking about aren’t anything like those
Instead they’re ordinary and common as plain as your own nose:
Here’s what I can do at any old time
Use super powers that change the worst paradigm

I can forgive the bullies, instead of hurt them back
I can share what I have with others, especially those who lack
I can help those in need, even pick up other’s trash
I can encourage the discouraged quicker than a flash
I can change my attitude when I’m disappointed or mad
I can still smile and be kind even when I feel bad
I can be appreciative, even though I don’t get what I want
And not join in the crowd when others tease and taunt
I can speak up for those unseen and unheard
And when others lie, I can always keep my word

These super powers may not be what you expected
But they’re overlooked and too often neglected
They may not melt a machine’s metal parts
But they melt the coldest of cold icy hearts
They may not see through walls and or other stuff
But they can see through hurt and anger enough
They help people whether desperate or cruel
And point the way to a far better rule

Think about how you feel when you’re treated wrong
You can let revenge become your discordant song
Or you can sing of forgiveness, mercy and grace
These are super powers most needed by the human race

You’re right, Dad, these are not what I was expecting
They’re common, but not what we’re often detecting
And I guess you’re right, I do possess these
But if I tell you something will you still love me, please?

Of course, I will, it’s something parents can’t swap
They love their children, and can never stop
It’s a super power we have to love when it hurts
And it’s the same all the time and never diverts

In that case I have one thing I’d like to confess
I’m glad for these super powers I know I possess
But as much as I see what you mean and understand why

I still would like to be able to stop bullets, run fast and fly!

© Stephen Carl

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The book of Proverbs is full of wonderful snippets of wisdom, nuggets of basic counsel, important messages of managing one’s life.  One of the verses that I’ve come to tether my life to, is Proverbs 4:23 which reads: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Other translations have “guard your heart” instead of “keep.”  The Hebrew word, like most Hebrew words is broad and expansive and rich with meaning and substance.  The same word is used when Cain defensively responds to God’s question about Abel, saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  In other words, am I responsible for him, the one who must guard him from harm?

The Book of Proverbs is full of wise counsel regarding the heart.  Chapter 4: 23 is succinct and to the point.  Guard/keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. 

Put yourself in a vast and spreading landscape that is arid and dry.  Within the borders of this landscape there are many sources of water, but all are putrid, stagnant and deadly.  Except one.  There is one source of water that sustains life.  As there are many who cross the borders, this source of water is beyond the value of gold or anything else.  If this source of water is poisoned or it becomes occupied and possessed by someone or something other than yourself then you become indebted to them or it. 

Such is the human heart.  Your heart.  My heart.  Each person’s heart.  And we are bombarded with threats to our heart constantly.  The world is full of snake-oil oinments and we’re promised they’ll heal what ails our hearts.  We are offered countless narratives that provide some explanation of life, but so many simply lead people into slavery, into selling their heart, their wellspring of life. 

So many people do not only fall prey to the endless and often subtle attacks on their heart, but they also participate in the damage done to their own heart.  When the “worthless, stupid, no good, ugly, [fill-in-the-blank criticism]” voices become one’s own inner voice, then guarding one’s heart actually becomes the opposite.  We may think we are guarding our heart, but we are shutting it off from what keeps it alive.  Our defensiveness often becomes a net that captures us and enslaves us in anger and fear. 

There are so many, many hurting and frightened hearts that require incredible healing and care.  Proverbs and so many other passages in the Bible offer the only way to guard one’s heart, by letting God guard it, letting God keep it with vigilance.  God is the One who creates the heart and knows it intimately.  Even we do not fully understand the nature of our own heart—what it needs, how it works—which is why we muck things up so often.  We are given a toolbox of ways to care for it, to be a steward of it, to manage it.  These tools are given by God and we are trained as technicians.  We read the Bible, we pray, we avoid the dangers, we engage with others who are their own heart technicians, we recognize those whose hearts are hurting and we offer support, we step into the web of deceit that captures others in order to make a difference. 

In the midst of all our many, many activities and relationships and daily practices and habits and requirements it is easy to forget that a primary task is to guard and keep our heart with all vigilance.  It is easy to let our guard down and wander away from the wellspring of life, neglecting this vital gift and exposing it to dangers.  We need not build a fortress around the wellspring of life for this would not guard it as it needs to be guarded.  Neither should we let it be a doormat for the world or even one other person.  The only way I know to truly guard our hearts, the wellspring of life, is to be guided by the One who creates the heart.  And if Solomon, who had the responsibility of ruling a nation, knew this, think how much it will help the rest of us.

© Stephen Carl

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is a story I wrote about fifteen years ago.

There once was a woman who had shackles around her legs and chains around her wrists.  She also had a ball and chain attached to each of her legs.  Furthermore, she lived in a jail cell.  The odd thing about this woman was not that she was so utterly restricted and confined, no indeed, the odd thing about this woman is that she didn’t seem to notice her predicament.  You see, she went on in life as if all this was ordinary and acceptable.  Which, as odd as it may seem to us, it was.  Ordinary in that this woman was surrounded by men and women who were similarly chained and confined.  Acceptable in that no one seemed to do much about getting out of the shackles, chains and jail cells.  In fact, they did just the opposite, instead of trying to get free, they heaped more chains upon themselves. 
In truth these people were trying to get free, but in fact they simply enslaved themselves more and more.  They tried to get free by having more money, but they simply became more enslaved by the need to have more money.  They tried to get free by buying more things with the money they were enslaved by, but they simply became more enslaved by the things they bought.  After all, they had to protect their money and possessions. 

A man came to their town one day and asked the woman why she had so many chains attached to her limbs.  She laughed and turned and walked away.  That night, however, she heard the rattle of chains when she turned on the security system in her house and again when she listened to the stock market report and again when she flipped through the new catalogue that came in the mail.

The next day she saw the man again and he just smiled at her.  She went home and listened again for the rattling of chains and heard them even louder that night as she looked in her closet and again when she read an online article about age wrinkles and again as she posted a comment on Facebook in response to a political article.  

The next day, she made a decision to simplify her life, to get rid of some of the things she didn’t really need.  She decided to give some of her clothes that she didn’t wear anymore to the local clothes closet and while she was at it she took some of the food in her extra pantry to a local soup kitchen.  Each place she went to and left she felt as if she were walking more freely.  The next week she dropped her family’s membership at the club they never went to and she traded in her car for one with fewer gadgets.  She decided to maintain her Facebook and Twitter accounts, but limit her use to only a few times a week.  

This continued for quite some time until one day she was walking down the street with a spring in her step and she turned the corner and came face to face with the man who had asked her about the chains on her limbs.  She smiled and he smiled back at her.  He said, “I see you’re getting rid of your chains.”  She smiled again, thinking she knew what he was talking about now.  “Are you happier?”  Yes, she said.  “Are you freer?”  Yes, she said.  “I imagine so, but are you free?”  This made her pause and think.  "I don’t know," she said.  That night she couldn’t sleep, the question kept going through her head “but are you free?”  In the morning, when she looked into the mirror in her bathroom, she knew she wasn’t.

That day she went to a local park and sat on the park bench and watched children playing.  She knew there was one last chain that she couldn’t seem to get free of.  It was around her heart.  She thought she was doing so well, but with her futile efforts to remove the final chain she wept.  Suddenly, the man was sitting on the bench with her.  He asked her why she was weeping.  And she said “You showed me that I had all these chains and at first I didn’t believe you.  But I began noticing them and slowly I was able to take them off, remove them.  But this last chain, I can’t seem to remove, so what’s the use?  Why be free from all the others and still be a slave to this one?" 
"Good question," said the man, "but a lot of people come this far and don’t get free of this last chain.  See those children?  Even they aren’t free of this last chain, but they know much better how to have it removed."
"How can I?  How can I get free of this one?"
"Just ask and I’ll take it off of you."
"That’s it?  That’s all I have to do?"
"Yes, that’s all you have to do.  But…"
There’s always a “but” isn’t there?
"But," said the man, "you’ll never be the same.  You can’t go back and you’ll have to help others get rid of their chains.  Can you do that?"
"Yes," she said firmly after hesitating, "but how?"
"With all these things you've given up--use them purposefully now instead of ways to make yourself feel happy."
"You mean all the stuff I was getting rid of or limiting aren't the chains?"
"Nope, just how you use them."  He paused and then said "One other thing."
"All of the chains, you’ve got to melt them down and make bells for the churches."
"The churches?"
"Yes, where else do you think church bells come from?  They’re made from the chains the people were freed from and now those chains ring glory and praise and thanksgiving, now those chains call people to worship the God who frees them from their chains."

"Christ has set us free to live a free live. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you."   Galatians 5:1  The Message

© Stephen Carl
Let’s be honest: Life is full of disappointments, trials, challenges and disillusionment.  There are incredible joys and moments of bliss, but the self-help, pull-yourself-up-by-the-britches, see-the-silver-lining, glass-is-half-full attitude adjustment is just that, an attitude adjustment.  It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Okay, so we’re not necessarily on the Titanic.  But my point is that optimism is to life as spray-on-tan is to soaking up the rays on a tropical beach.  We may appear, even to ourselves, happy, but beneath the surface there’s still a blindingly non-tan, semi-stressed and mildly unhappy person.  Feeling good is a lot of work!  Exercise, eat healthy, don’t over-indulge on sweets or alcohol, don’t smoke, exercise, meditate or pray or do something that soothes your soul, eat healthy, avoid negative people, reduce the drama, find fulfilling work, exercise, be authentic and honest, but also kind and considerate, and exercise.  Don’t forget to breath too.  In with the good, out with the bad. Repeat.  Everything, not just the breathing. 
Yes, I realize some of  those things are in there more than once.  I was making a point.
Trying to balance everything and keep it in perspective and manage priorities as well as pay the bills, get the kids fed and to their sports and help them with homework and deal with the messes and handle the crisis at work and nurture your marriage or relationship with a significant other.  Houdini would probably prefer to stay wrapped in chains, locked in a steel trunk and buried under concrete than to escape to the lives most people have. 
Scott Peck’s best-seller of the 80’s The Road Less Traveled starts with the words: Life is difficult.  Thanks, Scott (may you rest in peace).  I paid money to read that life is difficult?  Which makes me wonder why you might still be reading this.  You are, aren’t you?  Please be.  Okay, since you are, I’ll make a point. 
So we’re on this ship with masts and sails and we’re at sea with no land in sight and the waves are beginning to be frighteningly big and the clouds look menacing—which is really scary, since being a menace implies consciousness.  We’re a part of a crew and we’re doing our job, whether it’s battening hatches or hoisting something or lashing something down or whatever it is.  It’s not a cruise ship we’re on, though the seas can be calm at times and the sunsets unimaginably beautiful.  We have to make do with the gruel, but at least we have gruel.  We have to put up with our shipmates, but we’re not alone and we’re clearly sharing the experience with others.  It could be worse, after all there are sharks in the water and it’s a long way to swim to shore. 
If you need the self-help stuff to make the journey seem less stressful or difficult, then fine, use the stuff.  The best news for me in the midst of all the challenges and trials and the wounds I receive—usually because of myself—is that into all of it (and I mean ALL OF IT) is stitched love.  And that love makes putting up with all the other stuff worthwhile.  It even motivates me to help out my crewmates—some who are even real jerks.  Some may have a way of explaining the love as an evolutionary necessity for survival—otherwise we’d all probably find the nearest cliff and just take a walk over it.  Love, for some is a chemical event in the nervous system, which it most likely is.  But I choose to believe it’s something more than that too.  I know for sure that I choose to act in love at times when there’s no chemistry compelling me to do so.  I’m pretty certain that many people who are mistreated, yet forgive, are doing so because of something more than chemistry. 
Life is hard, it is difficult, it takes courage and effort and a willingness to keep getting up when you’ve been knocked down.  Thank God, there’s love to make it all worth it.   
Sometimes we have to wait for it to show itself, sometimes we have to dig to find it, sometimes we have to trust that is real, because the alternative is not something any of us want.  Thankfully, it’s not something we have to settle for, if we don’t let the hassles overwhelm us—so find a way, ask for help, find something worth getting up for every day.  Don’t give up-ever.  And keep breathing: in with the good, out with the bad.  Repeat.

© Stephen Carl