The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

creation 5

Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

flowers

I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

wcws 2

I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.

Around the bend, a waterfall

Power. Beauty. Change, often slowly. Calm, eventually.

A meandering stream, gentle and pure. Strength and sound as the river transforms into a waterfall. Then, a peaceful near silence as the river continues on.

Each waterfall is different. Some are wider, some taller, some roar, some are gentle.

As different as we are as people.

A river follows the path of least resistance, heading downhill, away from its source. Sometimes over an unexpected waterfall.

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

The river of my life flowed smooth for many years. A great job, a healthy family with three growing boys, purpose in life, community involvement, some recreation and exercise … it seemed too good to be true. It was easy, too easy, to just coast through life, engaging but only to a point, then pulling back before wounds were exposed.

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

Losing a job I’d had for 24 years will do that.

I’ve written about that before, several times. We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that event this spring. It feels like a lifetime ago, with the river of my life twisting and turning repeatedly. Many of you experienced this as well, in varying degrees.

My life sometimes feels out of control, emotionally anyway, heading downstream to an eternal destination that features “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1). It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles of this world and lose sight of what it’s all about.

Shortly before we left Rockford, Ill., I visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens there. It was peaceful, with meandering streams and soothing water formations that the Japanese love. It provided a momentary calm in the months before we moved to Elyria, Ohio, during the last polar vortex five years ago.

In Elyria the stream of my life has taken a couple more abrupt turns. After my 24-year job ended, I never held a job more than 2.5 years (twice). One job lasted eight weeks. I’m now retired, although it still seems funny to say that because I’m “only” 58 years old. (My dad retired younger than that, actually, so maybe it’s not so unusual.)

Hard to see the future

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I took one waterfall photo through trees.  I should have known the camera would focus on the branches and leave the waterfall blurry. I thought about going back there and re-taking the photo, but decided not to.

Sometimes the storms of life are blurry, aren’t they? We don’t see them coming. We don’t know why. We feel the fall, then the hard splash of the river as it crashes into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

But we resurface in a new place, a different place. We are changed.

We didn’t ask for change, but it came anyway.

Some changes are exciting. Some are not. Some are big and powerful. Others are more languid.

Each of us experiences the wide range of powerful and calm, the river always moving, always going somewhere, never static, never staying in the same place.

Some of us travel farther than others do, but all of us travel.

That’s what rivers do.

Can any of us see where we are going? Really see?

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

Yes, we see heaven, for those of us headed that way. (It’s a destination worth pursuing for everyone.)

But on Earth, the journey to get there … we often can’t see around the next bend.

I hear sermons and speeches sometimes that say the Christian journey should be the most exciting path to travel.

It should be. Jesus offers adventure like no one else does. Serve orphans and widows. Take our faith to different lands, or to the next-door neighbor. Meet the needs of others. Pray. Worship. Don’t accumulate worldly possessions for their own sake, but to share with others. And so on.

So often the waterfalls in our lives aren’t those types of adventures. We tend to fall over them, rather than willingly jump into them. If we would jump into a waterfall of our own volition, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a tall one, with such a painful landing.

How prepared are we for life’s falls, twists and turns? They’re inevitable, so why does no one help us navigate them?

O but the Bible does. It’s all in there, really.

I still fall hard because my faith isn’t what it should be. Just because I read the Bible doesn’t mean I’m prepared for life’s waterfalls, big or small, clear or blurry. What do I do with the information I learn? In the words of a preacher, how do I apply it?

During this week’s polar vortex here in Ohio, a friend who has school-age children collected food for dozens of children who might otherwise go hungry because they get their best meal of the day in school. She organized that food collection in her kitchen spur-of-the-moment, and gave groceries to more than a dozen families as well. Not for her own self-satisfaction, but because she saw a need and decided to fill it.

That’s adventure. That’s faith in action.

If the world saw more Christians doing stuff like that, perhaps we’d be more likable, more believable, more like a river worth jumping into.

Even in the middle of winter.

Perspective with the wild ride

The stock market took a ride this week worthy of Cedar Point’s “Steel Vengeance,” its newest roller coaster opening this year.

For the week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 5.2 percent, marking its largest weekly decline since January 2016, reported Market Watch, a financial information website that is a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co.

Twice during the week, the stock market dropped more than 1,000 points in a single day.

According to the Washington Post, investors lost $3 trillion – with a “T” – in stock market value in one week.

A little bit of that lost value belongs to me.

It’s happened before

I’m one of the fortunate people who has a 401(k) from 24 years working at one company. It’s still 100 percent vested in stock mutual funds, a very aggressive plan, especially for someone my age (57). My wife and I have other, more conservative, investments as well, so I’m OK with a risk-taking 401(k).

In 2017, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 25 percent for the year, its best showing since 2013, said cnn.com.

Neither this week’s big decline nor last year’s big gains were unique. Both scenarios have happened before, and relatively recently, too.

Investors, who set a monthly record for sinking money into the stock market in January, pulled their money out at a record pace in the week ended Feb. 7, reported EPFR, a Cambridge, Mass., data firm.

Yikes. Too many investors bought high and sold low.

Take a deep breath, everyone. We’ve been here before, and survived.

Investing for the long term

I opened my 401(k) in the mid-1980s when I was in my mid-20s, and contributed to it for more than two decades. A small company match certainly helped. So did a wonderful stock run-up throughout the 1990s. Easy money, I thought.

I can live only in the moment, but if I live only for the moment I will miss so much.

Then the stock market crashed in September 2008, losing more than half its value by March 2009. My 401(k) lost about 40 percent of its value.

It took several years, but my 401(k) did recover, and his since grown much higher.

It’s a retirement account. I’m in it for the long term. In 2008, I knew I wasn’t going to start cashing it in for another 15 years or so, at least. So, the losses were only on paper.

That $3 trillion in value lost this week is on paper also. If you’re living off of that money, you probably should be preserving capital in more conservative investments. The stock market is for long-term growth, in general. (Some stocks are more volatile than others, of course, which is why every financial adviser will say we should diversify our portfolios.)

I haven’t checked my 401(k) balance recently. Neither has my wife (she’s more on top of it than I am). I’m sure it lost value this week.

But I’m not ready to start cashing it in yet. So I’ll just ride the wave.

Risk tolerance

Part of this equation is risk tolerance. Did I lose sleep this week when the stock market got volatile? No. I have a fairly high risk tolerance.

If you’re an investor and you did lose sleep – or you pulled a lot of money out of the market this week – then you probably are investing too aggressively. There’s nothing wrong with being a conservative investor. You won’t make the big gains in a boom market, but you won’t lose big during a correction or recession, either.

Each of us needs to determine our own risk tolerance. And also determine what the money we’re investing is for. Retirement? A nice vacation? Christmas gifts? Something else? It’s all good.

With the stock market, we need to take the long-term view.

Bigger rewards later

That goes against today’s instant gratification mindset.

We’d rather spend the money we make, all of it, rather than save some for a rainy day. We buy the latest technology – does every child, much less adult, need the latest smartphone every time a new one comes out? And I know people who buy lunch at a fast-food restaurant every day. A brown bag lunch is much more nutritious and costs a lot less. Eating out every so often is great – we do need to treat ourselves – but every day is an extravagance many of us can’t really afford.

Of course, if everyone acted like this, the economy would slow down because we wouldn’t be spending so much money. But we’d have more savings to spend on more meaningful, and possibly bigger, things. Saving money for a nice vacation or a new vehicle takes time and effort, but the rewards are so worth it.

Not going into debt for those things is one of the biggest benefits.

The future will come

Life in general is a lot like the stock market. It has its ups and downs, successes and failures. I’ve had great jobs and been fired. I’ve had emotional highs and lows (although I don’t often show them publicly). I’ve had great health, but I know I won’t live forever.

How do we handle the “life is not fair” moments, as well as the good times?

My retirement is much closer now than it was 30 years ago when I began investing. Starting to plan for my retirement when I was in my 20s will have a huge payoff very soon.

A big-picture outlook on life is so worth it. I can live only in the moment, but if I live only for the moment I will miss so much.

Take a deep breath. Plan ahead. Think long-term.

On average, Americans can expect to live 78.6 years, according to 2016 data published by the National Center for Health Statistics. Women can expect to live five years longer than men: 81.1 years vs. 76.1 years.

People who die young make the news, but chances are good that you and I both will reach retirement age. We should plan for it.

If we do that well, the roller-coaster ride of the stock market won’t cause us to lose sleep.

Not too much, anyway.

 

2016 wasn’t all bad

There’s so much focus on what went wrong in 2016 – celebrities who died, the political landscape, escalating (so it seems) death and destruction in the Middle East, just for starters – I think we need to focus on what went right this year.

Speaking of sports …

Here in the Cleveland area, there’s a couple of easy success stories to begin this essay. The Cavaliers won their first NBA championship, ending a major sports drought of 52 years in this city since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964. LeBron James is the star. His decision to return to Cleveland after four years in Miami sparked the championship.

In the fall, the Indians took the Chicago Cubs to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series before coming up short. Still, the Indians won the American League pennant with a group of young players who have us Indians fans excited for the future.

And for my Chicago-area friends: The Cubs ended more than a century of misery by winning their first World Series since 1908. Good things happen to those who wait. And wait. And wait …

Across the country …

The National Park Service turned 100 years old in August. There’s a good New Year’s resolution: Let’s get outside more.

Thanks to vaccinations, measles was eliminated from the Americas in 2016, and global malaria deaths have dropped 60 percent since 2000.

The United States had a successful summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Let us count them one by one …

Personally, it’s easy to be pessimistic, to think about what I don’t have instead of counting my blessings. So, let’s count a few.

  • I started a new job in January. As a driver for REM Ohio, I work with people who have “developmental disabilities,” adults who need assistance with their daily lives. It’s not an office job. I’m on the road a lot, picking them up at their homes and bringing them to our day program center, then taking them home late afternoon. It’s rewarding and fulfilling on many levels.
  • My health remains very good, something I hope never to take for granted. I walk/jog a couple of times a week. I donated blood several times this year (although I passed out twice, so I’m not sure I can continue – and those were the only sick days I took this year).
  • Because of my full-time job, I don’t volunteer as much as I’d like, but I find time to assist at American Red Cross blood drives on the occasional Saturday and with special projects through our church. I’ve been volunteering with Destination Imagination, an after-school creative problem-solving activity, for 10 years and will lead one of the activities in our region this winter.
  • My wife’s part-time job evolved into a full-time position this summer.
  • My mom celebrated her 80th birthday this fall. We took her and Dad to a show at Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland and dinner afterward. Mom and Dad have been married 57 years.
  • I reconnected with some of my high school classmates in the Pittsburgh area at a picnic this summer. I hadn’t seen them since we graduated in 1978.
  • We are blessed with a wonderful landlord. We’ve been in this house three years. We eventually plan to buy our own, but we’re in a great situation right now.
  • Our three sons are healthy and have good jobs. We are blessed to see them often, including our middle son who moved to Denver in the spring. Closer to home, we’re grateful for our two cats, healthy and as affectionate as cats can be.
  • We live in the United States, where we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We have money in the bank, and two dependable vehicles (even if one of them is 20 years old). So often we overlook such things. We shouldn’t.
  • Most of all, we have our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus gives life meaning.

I’m glad there’s something better than this earth when we die. Especially in 2016, I don’t see many “year in review” stories like I usually do. We aren’t thankful for much these days, especially how the year is ending. So, I look beyond 2016, beyond the day-to-day struggles of life, to a time when all the bad stuff will disappear and life will be perfect. Literally.

That day is coming. Possibly in 2017, possibly much later.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hassles of our lives, but there is a bigger picture.

In 2017 …

In 2017, I plan to focus more on things I can control.

So much of what we argue and complain about belongs to others: celebrity news, Washington politics (if they didn’t take such a big bite out of my paycheck, I’d ignore them completely), professional sports. How much influence do you and I have over those issues, really? That’s why we argue so vociferously without any resolution. There is no resolution. At least, not one that belongs to you and me.

So, what can I control?

How I relate to my family.

What I do with my time.

How I approach my job, and how well I do it.

What extracurricular stuff I do.

How I treat people, both friends and strangers.

The music I listen to, the TV shows I watch and the books I read.

How I treat my body – the food I eat, how much I exercise. How I respond to illness/injury should that happen.

The way I drive. The way I react to the way other people drive. (I nearly caused a collision yesterday, lest I think I’m a perfect driver. Lord, give me patience.)

Happy New Year. Hope it’s a special one for you.