A Letter to Myself, Age 23

Tomorrow marks another trip around the sun for me. This time I’ll be twenty-four years old. That’s kind of a cool number: 24 hours in a day, 24 elders before Christ’s throne (Rev. 4:4)—and growing up, Jeff Gordon was my favorite NASCAR driver in his #24 DuPont Chevrolet.

As I thought back on the past year, I realized how much I’ve experienced, how much I’ve learned, and how far I’ve come. I’ll be honest: Age 23 was a tough, trying year. I asked myself questions I never thought I’d ask because I felt things I never thought I’d feel. (Welcome to the real world.)

But I came through the darkness back into the light. I am in a much better state of mind as the meter rolls over once again. And I’d like to think I learned some things along the way.

As a way of recollecting, I decided to write my 23-year-old self a letter. It’s the letter I probably wouldn’t have expected at the time, yet it contains everything I would need to know to get through this rough patch of life.

And instead of journaling it and tucking it away to get musty on a shelf, I am writing it publicly in the hopes that perhaps it will help you, too.

Without further ado, here it is.

Dear Matthew,

Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are today, and now you’re starting to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years. Having a job and a stable income, with some spending money to boot, is a birthday present all on its own!

For your birthday, I want to give you something more important than money, and that is wisdom. Not just any wisdom, but some lessons I’ve learned that you’ll do well to keep in mind as you go through this next year.

You see, for better or for worse, you’re about to enter what is going to be the darkest time of your life so far. I don’t mean to scare you, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it, either. I know you’d rather have someone tell it to you straight. I know—I do, too.

But you’re not going to go into this blindly. I’m not going to tell you everything that you’re going to experience, but I am going to tell you what I’ve learned after coming out on the other side. This is by no means the ultimate guide to life, but I think it’s the guide you’re going to need for this season that God’s about to allow you to be in.

The first thing you’re going to feel is a sense of helplessness. Even though you’re well-off financially, you’re going to feel that your life—your career, your future—is out of your control. You’re going to feel like someone else—a man, The Man—is running your life. You’re going to feel trapped in a job you don’t want to be in, doing things you don’t want to be doing. And being the independent-minded individual you are, you’re not going to like that feeling. You’re not going to like it at all.

As a result of this helplessness, you’re going to start feeling that God has abandoned you. You’re going to call out to Him—cry out to Him on many an occasion—and you’re not going to hear an answer. It’s going to make you question your life and your faith up to this point. You’re going to start to wonder whether He led you to a stream of water that’s suddenly dried up—and now He’s nowhere to be found.

To quote a Styx song, you are going to feel like a man in the wilderness.

The good news is, there’s hope—both in this life and in the next. You confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that guarantees you eternal life with him. Just remember that one day, all this pain is going to be washed away, and he will dry every tear from every eye.

“That’s great to know,” you’re going to say, “but I’m still living in my earthly body! I’m dealing with problems in this life, not the afterlife!”

And you’re right. So let me offer you what I’ve learned from the wilderness so that you can survive it, too.

First, the question is not whether God has abandoned you, but whether you have abandoned Him. I’m not going to speculate—you know where you need some work. Start by getting on your knees and rededicating yourself to Him. Do this daily, every morning right when you get out of bed. He wants to be number one in your life, so put Him first—and don’t even have anything else on the list.

Second, understand that life is full of pain and suffering. You don’t need to look very far to see this. It’s a result of The Fall, of sin entering the world and corrupting God’s very good creation. Until Christ returns and sets things right, this is a fact of life.

Along that line, don’t try to find some deep meaning in life except for God. Nothing else will satisfy. It might fill you up for a bit and make you feel good inside, but before long it will leave you feeling empty and depressed—longing for more, for something else. The wisest man in the world said so himself: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But that same wisest man also said that to fear God and keep His commandments is the end of all things. In other words, that’s the meaning of life—of every life, including yours. Fear God and keep His commandments. This is the duty of all mankind.

Outside of that—listen to your emotions. If you feel strongly about something in your heart, pay attention to whatever it is. Especially if you feel it in your solar plexus—what one might call your “heart of hearts”.

But be sure to use some logic and reason before you go off and make a decision based on emotions alone. You could make a serious mistake and derail your life—your job, your career, your future—for years to come.

The exception is a “gut feeling”. If you feel something deep in the pit of your stomach, regardless of what it is, follow that instinct. It’s the strangest thing, but you’ve got to do it.

Now, aside from that, you need to strive for optimization in all four aspects of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Being sick or out-of-shape in one will start to affect the others, and your whole well-being will deteriorate.

Exercise consistently. You don’t have to work out every day; two or three times a week will do. But be sure to push yourself so you can become stronger. Don’t stagnate—that’s a great way to become mediocre in any aspect of your life. And the neat thing about working out is that it stimulates the other aspects of your life. It’s also a natural stress-reliever!

Do things that mentally stimulate you. Read books—you enjoy doing that anyway, so carve out time to read. But be sure to read books that you enjoy, or that edify you in some way. If you don’t like book, stop reading it! There’s no law that says you have to finish it!

Oh, and keep your German skills sharp. You never know when they may come in handy. In fact, consider working on another language in your spare time. You’ve wanted to pick up some French—maybe even Koine Greek or Ancient Hebrew—so why not start now? There’s no better time than today.

In terms of emotions, one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose to be a glass-half-full person. Yes, you can choose to be positive. The lenses that you wear determine how you perceive the world. And you live in a vibrant, colorful, bountiful world that God has given mankind dominion over! Celebrate that! Celebrate life every day! Celebrate all the possibilities that you have!

Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. That’s not to say that you should cut negative people out of your life completely—sometimes that’s not feasible, and even if it is, it’d be pretty rude to do so. But you have to look out for your own emotional well-being, and if that means spending less time with people who drag you down, then so be it.

On the flip-side, always be an encourager. Listen to those who, like you, are walking through the wilderness. Remember that each of us is fighting our own battle of survival every day. Have mercy and compassion, and show the love of Christ to everyone you encounter.

And I’ve already addressed the spiritual aspect somewhat. Pray every day, read the Bible every day, and obey the Lord’s commands. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

In all things, strive for balance. Strike a balance between work and play. Strike a balance between producing and consuming. Strike a balance between order and chaos. (Have one foot firmly planted on the shore of order while you dip your toes into the sea of chaos!)

Take things one day at a time. Live for the day while keeping an eye on the future. Again, strike a balance—between today and tomorrow.

Remember that you have only one life, and that there’s a unique place for you in the grand scheme of things. So, while I don’t advise you to make rash decisions, if you feel like you’re the square peg trying to fit into the round hole—make a change! Do something different! Take a step, even a small one, towards what you think you were made to do.

I’ll wind this long-winded letter up by saying that you’ve always navigated through life by finding out what you don’t like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. On the cusp of age twenty-four, I still haven’t found that “one thing” I love to do above all else. You may never. And that’s okay. As long as you can find pleasure in your work, your play, and your people, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. In fact, if you can manage that, you’re already a wealthy man!

Oh, one last thing: Never let go of your dreams. They are what drive you when you’re down. I happen to believe that they’re uniquely yours, given to you by God Himself. Keep that boyish gleam in your eye, that roguish smile on your face, and don’t chastise yourself if you catch yourself looking out the window and thinking about what could be. Do what you can to make those dreams reality. Follow them, even if it will take years to get to the end of the trail. It’s better to wonder “What if I hadn’t?” (which you won’t) than to wonder “What if I had?”

That’s all I’ve got for now. I think this is enough for you to chew on and digest over the coming year. You’re young and you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you. (Look at all that you’ve accomplished already!) Just don’t let a few black clouds obscure those silver linings.

Stand firm,

Matthew

Don’t Judge People by Their Titles

Back in high school, I was a member of my school’s Christian organization. Every Tuesday at lunch, we met in Gym B to hear a local pastor or church leader give a mini-sermon or devotional. Usually these sessions focused on a topic relevant to high-schoolers, but sometimes we had studies in other areas (such as other religions and apologetics).

I was one of a small handful of guys who volunteered to be “sound guy.” Every other Tuesday, I had the privilege of leaving class ten minutes before lunch to set up the small soundboard, microphones, and dual PA speakers for our little worship band and the speaker du jour. This also meant that I got to meet a lot of the speakers as I was setting up or taking down the equipment.

One Tuesday meeting in my sophomore year drew a larger-than-normal crowd. A prominent religious leader was coming to our humble campus to speak about the Book of Revelation. Everyone was excited. I was excited, not so much because of the gentleman’s prestige, but because I looked forward to hearing what such a studied, esteemed man had to say about one of my favorite books in the Bible to study. And I was running sound that day, so I’d get to meet him—and maybe even discuss Revelation with him a bit!

I remember him being escorted from the front office into the gym by a couple students on the leadership team. He stood around and talked to our group president and some of the other officers as I sound-checked the praise band. Once I finished setting up, I excused myself for a minute so I could introduce myself to our honored guest.

“Hi, my name is Matthew,” I said, extending my hand. “It’s great to meet you!”

He shook my hand and said likewise. I then asked him a question about prophecy being fulfilled in Revelation—something I had heard that linked the popes to the seven kings (cf. Revelation 17), and admittedly I can’t quite remember what the question was.

What I do remember was his answer.

This esteemed leader smirked, scoffed, and used an ad hominem against the man who purported the theory I asked about. “Most of us scholars don’t regard him as reliable because he gets drunk.” And that was that.

I sat through the meeting and listened to his talk on Revelation, elementary as it was, but at that point most of what he said was lost on me. I didn’t feel much respect for him based on the way he’d dismantled my question without even answering it.

I may have asked a dumb question, but he treated it like one. Instead of enlightening my ignorance, he widened the gap between his knowledge and mine. And in doing so, he not only espoused his pride—he lost a potential fan.

Remember, this is a distinguished man in the Baptist denomination. This is a man revered both by Christian academics and by laypeople. And I’m in no way trying to denigrate him wrongly.

But I feel like a got a glimpse into that man’s true soul that day, when I asked him that question. That may be a glimpse that few people have had—I don’t know. But that glimpse told me, despite all his titles and accomplishments, that he was inauthentic.

Imagine my surprise when, last year, evidence emerged stating that this faith leader may have defended sexual abusers in the church. And even this week, more evidence—that he very likely swept sexual abuse claims against a specific pastor under the rug and tried to dumb down the accusations—came to light.

Now, I don’t harbor ill will towards this man for what he said to me that Tuesday in Gym B. Nor do I wish that he be accused of covering up sexual abuse and dragged through the mud as part of the ongoing #MeToo movement. But the sad fact is, judging him by the thirty-second interaction we had, I feel like these accusations fall in line with his character.

This taught me an important life lesson: We should not judge by titles and “reputations,” but by actions and words.

Diplomas and lofty titles look great in an email signature, but what about the soul of the man behind the desk? It’s great that everyone else esteems so-and-so—but does that mean you should, too?

I can give another example, one I can smile and laugh at in retrospect.

I took my first business class in college with a tenured professor—I’ll call her Dr. Brisk. Dr. Brisk not only had her Ph.D, but a long list of managerial jobs at some big-name companies in the Metroplex.

She seemed like a decent lady, fairly approachable after class if I had questions, but something didn’t quite sit right with me about her. I started getting the same feeling of inauthenticity that I got from the faith leader years before.

All went well in Dr. Brisk’s class until the final exam, which she decided would be online since it was the end of the semester, she was busy, we students were busy, et cetera. Admittedly, I did not study as hard for her exam as I did for others, because I had tougher classes to deal with an I already had an A in hers. But study I did, and I sat down at the library computer feeling reasonably confident in my ability to maintain that A.

At the end of the test, I was very surprised to see that I had scored a low B. Being that it was an online test (and perhaps Dr. Brisk did not configure it the way she wanted to), I got to see my answers contrasted against the correct answers. Some I could tell I legitimately missed, but there were others I was sure I answered correctly.

I realized that some of the questions (about 10%) had wrong answers listed as right ones. I knew that because many of the questions came right out of the study guides in the textbook. I took screenshots of the answers in question (no pun intended), attached them to an email, and sent them off to Dr. Brisk.

Imagine my surprise when Dr. Brisk wrote back and asked how I had been able to see the correct answers at the end of the exam. (“Because you set the test up that way, lady!”) I asked if I could have the points for the questions I missed. She said no, because the questions were programmed correctly.

I then sent an email to the head of the department and explained the situation. He wrote me a polite email explaining that the three of us (me, Dr. Brisk, and himself) would have to sit down together to discuss remediation, if any could be done. By this point, she had given out our final grades (my A downgraded to a B), and it would apparently take more effort to reverse that B to an A once the final grade posted.

I could tell from the email chain that neither Dr. Brisk nor her boss wanted to deal with me, a freshman with a cause. And frankly, I didn’t want to deal with them either. I just wanted credit for the erroneous questions so I could have my A.

In the end, I dropped it. Maybe it could have gone somewhere had I stuck to my guns. But no one else in the class complained (did they review their answers?) and this lady had tenure. It felt like it would be me against the network of good ol’ boys (and girls).

To contrast these experiences, I’ve had many great professors with Ph.Ds who genuinely cared about their students and listened to their concerns. I’ve run into the same situation before, where questions aren’t entered correctly in online tests, and the professor promptly fixed them or awarded credit when I brought it up.

I’ve also had the pleasure of knowing some really great pastors and youth leaders, many of whom I met during my time as “sound guy,” and later as group co-president. These men (yes, they are mostly, if not all, men) genuinely cared about the high-schoolers they came to speak to, and it was evident. They answered questions and prayed with students. They came back multiple times to shepherd the flock or water the seeds.

So I don’t have a jaded view of every big-wig with lots of titles, accomplishments, and work experience. I just have the ability to look past that and into their soul to see who they really are.

Jesus taught that we should not judge by appearances, but by right judgment (John 7:24). There are a lot of people these days who, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, strut their sophistication and lord it over other people. They act like nothing can touch them.

Many “plebeians” look up to these people as celebrities (or as celebrities in their respective fields) and place them on pedestals. “He’s my hero!” they might say. “I want to be like him!”

But do you really? Do you want your soul to become like theirs? Do you want to have status and success at the cost of truth and authenticity?

That’s why we all need to start judging rightly. If there’s one thing that the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s that people our society lauds are quickly cast down from grace. If people had rightly judged these wicked men and women years and years ago, we wouldn’t be in this ongoing mess.

And it doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment. Look at things in the business world like Enron and Bernie Madoff. Look at things in the realm of politics like the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s or, more recently, Operation Fast and Furious.

Once you start looking past titles and stop putting people on pedestals, your eyes open. And they open very wide. You start seeing into a person’s true self rather than the façade he wears. You start to see whether she really cares.

And you start to think for yourself by taking a solid step away from the powers of mass media and groupthink.

So, my petition to you, my rallying cry to us all, is this: “Let us judge rightly.” Not by prestige, not by empty words, not by virtue-signaling actions. Let us judge by testing integrity, by examining things said or done in private, and by not idolizing anyone.

And may truth and justice prevail.

Stop Just Reading The Bible

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119:11, English Standard Version

For the past three years, I’d held to a “year through the Bible” approach to my personal Bible time. I’d wake up and get my three or four chapters in, faithfully, day after day. For a couple years, I kept a notebook at my side and wrote down questions that I had about what I read.

Last year, I started the Bible marathon again. I made it through the Old Testament well enough, but by the time I made it to Acts I was losing steam. I had a sort of Bible burnout.

It’s not that I didn’t want to keep reading God’s Word. I realized the problem was that, deep inside, I wanted and needed to slow down. Just like traveling, you can blaze from place to place and see a lot of things, but you really won’t appreciate what you see unless you stop in one place for a few days and take it all in.

I started the year by camping out in Ecclesiastes and letting Solomon’s profound, divinely-inspired wisdom soak in. I supplemented daily chapter and section readings with a devotional called 31 Days to Happiness by Dr. David Jeremiah that Amazon Kindle coincidentally recommended to me.

I will note that, while the devotional is good, it is no replacement for reading Ecclesiastes yourself, just like any devotional is no replacement for reading the Bible yourself. And as a side note, if anyone tries to put words into God’s mouth (ahem, Sarah Young, ahem, ahem), be on your guard. Of course, we Christians should always be on guard anyway (1 Cor. 16:13).

After camping out with Solomon for a couple months, I felt that I should start memorizing some Scripture. When I was in junior high, I learned at a church retreat that young Israelite boys, particularly those preparing for the priesthood, would memorize whole books of the Bible. I figured that if a thirteen-year-old kid from two-thousand-plus years ago could memorize whole books, I could at least memorize some verses and psalms.

Last week, I memorized all of Psalm 1, which makes two psalms I know by heart (the other being Psalm 23, which seems perpetually burned into my memory from childhood). In doing so, I reflected on what I felt were the benefits of memorizing a passage of Scripture, and I concluded three things.

1. Memorizing Scripture is not hard. Like any task, breaking it into manageable chunks makes it easier and more fulfilling. For Psalm 1, I focused on one or two verses a day, reading them from my Bible in the morning, reciting them aloud or in my head throughout the day as best I could, and referencing my Blue Letter Bible app as needed for a refresher. I felt very accomplished when I concluded the day by thinking, “I now know one more verse by heart than I did when I woke up this morning.”

2. The momentum builds. Once you start memorizing Scripture, it gets easier to memorize more. I find that this is especially true with passages such as Psalms and Proverbs. You’ll find that, in many cases, each verse ties into the next, and so you’re not just memorizing words, but whole, coherent thoughts. Getting the ball rolling can be difficult, but once it’s rolling, it’ll keep going.

3. You gain a deeper understanding of the passage. It’s one thing to read verses on a page, like you’d read words in a novel. It’s another to slow down and dissect them for meaning, like you might a classic text. It’s a completely different thing to commit them to memory, because then your mind starts to sift them and process them and your understanding and appreciation of them will increase.

Let’s take Psalm 1:3 for instance.

He [the righteous man] is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1:3, English Standard Version

Pause for a moment and think about that imagery. A tree planted by streams of water might initially conjure up an image of an idyllic, sylvan scene: a tree in a grassy forest by a riverbank. When you consider that the psalmists lived in the Middle East, where water is often a luxury and there is plenty of desert and wilderness to go around, that mental picture might change to one of a Joshua Tree with little other life around (at least for someone like me who’s never been to the Holy Land!).

Let that last sentence sink in: “In all that he does, he prospers.” Isn’t that something you want to commit to memory and meditate on as you go about your day? It might be something you want to think about when life gives you lemons, a Biblical truth you can cling to when the chips are down. It might be something you can turn back to praise when things go well: “Lord, thank you that you have allowed me to succeed in my work!”

To continue this example, let’s take a quick look at the following verse.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Psalm 1:4, English Standard Version
This is some sorghum chaff. If it weren’t piled high like this, imagine how easy it would be for a strong wind to blow it away. Photo by sarangib on Pixabay.

Here we see the contrast. In the previous verse, the psalmist talks about the vitality of a righteous man (or woman) and compares him to another living thing, a tree. In this verse, the psalmist compares wicked people to the remnants of harvesting grain: useless and left behind. Note also that the wind doesn’t just blow them away, it drives them away. They are not wafted along in the breeze but are gusted out of existence.

I don’t think there’s anything really profound in what I just wrote above, but these are things that I would have (and actually have) overlooked in daily Bible readings. Even though I believe every Christian should read through the whole Bible (it is God’s Word, all of it!), I also believe every Christian should slow down and smell the roses that God has planted along the way.

As for memorization, I believe there are two things it will do to your spiritual life. Firstly, it will draw you closer to God (James 4:8) as you put a larger focus on His Word. Secondly, it will aid you in times of need. I know there have been times when a verse that I memorized a long time ago pops into the forefront of my mind and sustains me through a time of distress or guides me in making a critical decision. I don’t know that God would bring them to mind if I hadn’t read and remembered them.

If you’d like to start memorizing more Scripture, the best thing to do is to just start today. Start with the Psalms, because they’re poetic and are fairly easy to recite. Start with Psalm 1, even. Do one verse a day until you’ve memorized a whole passage or chapter. Write your verse on a sticky note or notecard or even create a reminder in your phone so you can work on it throughout the day.

And just think: If you memorize one verse a day, you’ll have memorized three-hundred-sixty-five verses in a year. If you memorize one passage a week, you’ll have memorized fifty-two passages in a year. The best part is, you’ll have drawn closer to God and hidden His Word in your heart in the process.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.

The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

Psalm 37:30-31, English Standard Version

Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy

We all probably know at least one person who has a glass-half-empty perspective. Some of us may even know someone who always think the glass is completely empty. These people are often tough to be around because they can be more depressing than Eeyore!

If you deal with people like this on a frequent basis, no matter who they are and what your relationship with them is, it is taxing in many ways. I believe that a person’s overall health can be quantized to four components that make up a greater whole: physical health, mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health. Being around negative people, or being negative yourself, adversely affects all four.

I’ve noticed the effects of other people’s negativity on my own health. Instead of getting out of bed ready to carpe diem, I find myself dreading the day because I have to deal with that person. Or, an otherwise great day is upended by that person’s comment. At the end of a day dealing with that person, I feel emotionally drained or on-edge (emotional health), am unable to get my mind off of what they said or did (mental health), can feel physically weak from the stress (physical health), and often don’t feel much like talking to God (spiritual health).

I’ve decided that, to the best of my ability, there will be no more of this.

While I can’t be “master of my feelings” (can anyone?), I can make an active choice every day to be joyful. And I can choose to remain joyful even when people around me are walking around with rain clouds hanging over their heads. Even when life taxes me to the limit, I will choose joy.

I will always associate the phrase “choose joy” with a girl I went to high school with named Taylor. I didn’t know her very well, and I only spoke to her a handful of times, but I thought she was a happy person. I remember that she smiled and laughed a lot.

Taylor battled cancer throughout high school before eventually succumbing to it not long after graduating. Through it all, she kept smiling and laughing. She could have become a very pessimistic individual (and I’m sure she felt that way many times), but ultimately she chose joy instead. Now she is experiencing the eternal joy of our Lord, free from the pain and anguish of our limited time on the earth.

In Nehemiah 8, the scribe Ezra is reading the Mosaic Law (the Torah) to the Israelites in Jerusalem, the first time it has been read in years after it was lost during the Game of Thrones-style drama between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. (Read all about it in I and II Kings.) The Israelites at this time had never heard the Law read to them before, even though the Law was, to them, what the Bible is to Christians today.

Think of what it would be like for your great-great-grandchildren to only have knowledge of Jesus Christ through word of mouth because the Bible had been lost to the sands of time. Then imagine that, one day, someone uncovers a pristine copy of the Bible, calls everyone into a great assembly, and begins reading it aloud. That’s approximately what’s happening in Nehemiah 8.

The people begin weeping as they hear the words of the Law (8:9), and that’s when Nehemiah, the governor, steps in and makes what I think is a profound statement. He commands the people to stop crying, to go eat good food and drink good wine, and to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).

Think about that. The joy of the Lord is our strength. God is joyful, and He takes pleasure in His creation, which includes us lowly humans. Even despite our screwups, He loves us so much that He sent His own son, Jesus, to pay the price once and for all that we would each have to pay for our screwups (John 3:16, Galatians 3:13-14). All we have to do is believe in Jesus and follow him.

Photo by Edgar Chomba on Pexels.com

And if we accept that truth, that God is joyful, we will be strengthened by it in all four aspects of our health. We will renew our strength and “mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31, physical health). We will not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2, mental health). We will cast our anxieties on Him instead of bearing the burden ourselves (1 Peter 5:7). And we will

It’s very easy to get mired into the drama of everyday life, to be like a ship blown about by the waves of circumstance. Life might really be pitiful for you right now. Just remember that there is a God whose joy is your strength, who walks with you and guides you even when you “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). And ultimately, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit (John 14:16) and equipped to endure the spiritual warfare that we all face (Ephesians 6:10-20).

Joy is strength, and joy is vitality. The Lord’s joy is even more so. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to let anyone take my joy away from me. I’m not going to let the Sally Sobstorys of the world bring me down to their level, because if I do, they win, and it gives them license to keep acting that way.

If I lose my joy, it will be on my own terms, not someone else’s. The Lord’s joy will be mine and will give me strength in all aspects.

Choose joy because, even though life is full of pain and hardship, we serve a risen Savior and have hope for an eternity spent with Him in true joy. Choose joy because so many people aren’t joyful in this world, and someone out there needs your joy to give them hope as they struggle. Choose joy because you’re alive and you can start working to make things better today, for yourself and for others.

As for me, I will choose joy. And I won’t let you steal it from me.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, consider following my site so you can be notified whenever I write something new.

Also, if you’ve ever thought that computers are too difficult for you to understand, or you’ve ever been frustrated when faced with a technical issue (we’ve all been!), check out my new book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1548894625.jpg

It explains, in simple English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections. When computer woes happen, you’ll never have to worry again.

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on all Amazon sites for Kindle and in paperback. You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!

Reading is Dangerous

“What’s so dangerous about sitting down and reading a book?” you ask. “That’s probably one of the safest things you can do!”

Well, that depends on what you’re reading.

And no, I don’t mean that thrillers are somehow more dangerous to read than romance novels are. In fact, both those genres are relatively innocuous and predictable. Barring all plot twists, the hero will somehow prevail at the end, and the guy will get the girl (or vice versa).

Some books are inherently dangerous, though. You read them and run the risk of your whole worldview being thrown on its ear. Some are as startling as a splash of cold water in your face. Others feel more like a punch to the gut. And still others will slowly tug on your heartstrings until the tension is unbearable.

This past week, I started reading a classic called Propaganda by Edward Bernays. In it, Bernays breaks down how a very few select people can determine how the majority thinks. He uses the fashion industry as an example.

Business offers graphic examples of the effect that may be produced upon the public by interested groups, such as textile manufacturers losing their markets. This problem arose, not long ago, when the velvet manufacturers were facing ruin because their product had long been out of fashion. Analysis showed that it was impossible to revive a velvet fashion within America. Anatomical hunt for the vital spot! Paris! Obviously! But yes and no. Paris is the home of fashion. Lyons is the home of silk. The attack had to be made at the source. It was determined to substitute purpose for chance and to utilize the regular sources for fashion distribution and to influence the public from these sources. A velvet fashion service, openly supported by the manufacturers, was organized. Its first function was to establish contact with the Lyons manufactories and the Paris couturiers to discover what they were doing, to encourage them to act on behalf of velvet, and to help in the proper exploitation of their wares. An intelligent Parisian was enlisted in the work. He visited Lanvin and Worth, Agnes and Patou, and others and induced them to use velvet in their gowns and hats. It was he who arranged for the distinguished Countess This or Duchess That to wear the hat or the gown. And as for the presentation of the idea to the public, the American buyer or the American woman of fashion was simply shown the velvet creations in the atelier of the dressmaker or the milliner. She bought the velvet because she liked it and because it was in fashion. 
      The editors of the American magazines and fashion reporters of the American newspapers, likewise subjected to the actual (although created) circumstance, reflected it in their news, which, in turn, subjected the buyer and the consumer here to the same influences. The result was that what was at first a trickle of velvet became a flood. A demand was slowly, but deliberately, created in Paris and America. A big department store, aiming to be a style leader, advertised velvet gowns and hats on the authority of the French couturiers, and quoted original cables received from them. The echo of the new style note was heard from hundreds of department stores throughout the country which wanted to be style leaders too. Bulletins followed despatches. The mail followed the cables. And the American woman traveler appeared before the ship news photographers in velvet gown and hat. 
      The created circumstances had their effect. “Fickle fashion has veered to velvet,” was one newspaper comment. And the industry in the United States again kept thousands busy. 

Edward Bernays, Propaganda

Most would agree that this is a fairly harmless example. The scary realization is that people can (and have, and do) use these same tactics to manipulate public opinion in more serious areas such as politics, economics, and religion.

This begs the question: Are your opinions really your own? If not, who has dictated them to you?

This is what I call a “red pill” book.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Matrix, you’ll recall that there is a scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) is offered a choice between two pills by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus holds a red pill and a blue pill out to Neo. If Neo takes the red pill, he will be whisked away to the real reality and see things for what they actually are (and they aren’t that great). If he takes the blue pill, he will go back to “ordinary” life inside The Matrix, the computer simulation he lives within, where ignorance is bliss.

(Side note: The concept of The Matrix originates in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which you can read in his work The Republic. You owe it to yourself to at least brush up on the Allegory of the Cave.)

We have access to so much information, now more than ever before, thanks to the Internet. More and more books are published every year. And yet, so much of what’s online and in bookstores is merely meant to coddle us, reinforce our beliefs, or—at worst—blatantly deceive us.

The worst part is that most people continue to buy into this. They don’t bother to ask the “what if…” or “why…” questions. They don’t actively seek out information that could change the way they think. Ignorance truly is bliss.

When I was visiting the University of Texas at Austin campus during a high-school trip, I saw a striking inscription on the main building: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The quote comes from John 8:32, when Jesus is talking to Jews who have believed in him. (Though as you read the full chapter, it will become clear how much the Jews actually “believe.”) In the broader context, Jesus says that people are either enslaved to sin or freed by the Son (John 8:34-36).

While the last thing I want to do is take Christ’s words—or any Bible passage—out of context, I took those words quoted on that building to mean that all truth sets us free. We are freed from the shackles of sin by Christ; we are also freed from the fetters of falsehood by truth.

Or, to put it another way: Christ is truth, and anything that is true is allied with him. All else is falsehood.

Paul has an interesting admonition in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8, English Standard Version (emphasis added)

Paul tells the Philippians that they should think about, among other things, whatever is true. How do we know what is true?

Pilate asked Jesus a similar question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). While it’s impossible to know whether he was being honest or sarcastic, it’s ironic that he asks this while putting Truth on trial.

Do we put truth on trial? We should. I believe we owe it to ourselves and certainly to God to do so.

We should honestly and objectively examine what we hold to be true lest we spend our days living a lie.

We’re blessed to live in an era where information abounds. Truth is out there, and I believe it’s even easier to find now than it ever was before, even despite the misinformation and disinformation (propaganda?) that pervades these days.

It’s not politically correct to question. Many times it’s not even “socially acceptable.” But it is necessary.

So read dangerously. Read the Bible. Read guys like Plato and Bernays. Read about science, economics, and history. Read things that will challenge what you hold to be true. Think about these truth claims and test them for veracity.

God gave you a mind for thinking; use it! Don’t let others think for you. Don’t let long-held beliefs and assumptions hold you captive if they aren’t valid. Take the red pill.

Seek the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Seek the Truth, and He shall set you free.


Find Propaganda by Edward Bernays here on Amazon or free to read online here.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, consider following my site so you can be notified whenever I write something new.

Also, if you’ve ever thought that computers are too difficult for you to understand, or you’ve ever been frustrated when faced with a technical issue (we’ve all been!), check out my new book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1548894625.jpg

It explains, in simple English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections. When computer woes happen, you’ll never have to worry again.

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on all Amazon sites for Kindle and in paperback. You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!

On Mathoms

This past week I finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Hobbit and launched myself full-steam-ahead into The Lord of the Rings. In rereading Tolkien’s works, I was reminded of why hobbits are some of my favorite fictional beings. For one, they all know how to have a good time and throw great parties (as Bilbo did when he turned eleventy-one). For another, they give presents on their birthdays, rather than receive them. And, of course, while their diets may not be very conducive to low cholesterol and slim waistlines, I don’t know too many people who scoff at the idea of a second breakfast every day, or dinner followed by supper a couple hours later.

In reading the Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, something Tolkien wrote about hobbits struck me. They have a name for something they don’t need but don’t want to get rid of: a mathom.

…for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.

All my life I’ve been searching for that word, mathom. Formerly, I called mathoms stuff or junk, whether they were my own or someone else’s. The words stuff and junk make the possessions in question sound like they are completely useless. Now I realize that mathoms are neither stuff nor junk; instead, they are things that serve a useful purpose and were once needed, but are needed no more.

In the context of Tolkien’s epic, long before the days of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins the hobbits had needed armor and sword for repelling Orc invasions. As time wore on, the Orcs stopped invading, and the hobbits lived comfortable lives free of danger. They no longer needed their arms, so they kept them as trophies or gave them to a museum called the Mathom-house. It was not that the weapons and shields were useless, but that they were no longer needed by everyday hobbits in everyday life.

When you think about it, many of the things we own are mathoms. We buy things and use them for a while because we really do need them, and then we hold on to them long after they have served their purposes. They’re not useless, but they have become useless to us. Regardless, we still hold on to them for any number of reasons, from sentimentality to the reasoning that we’ll need them again someday.

While I don’t have any formal resolutions for the new year, I aim to do two things this year: One, I will not accumulate any more mathoms, and two, I will start getting rid of the mathoms I already have.

It doesn’t take long for me to start identifying some of my mathoms: shirts and jackets hanging in my closet that I haven’t worn in over a year, a broken guitar amplifier serving primarily as a footstool, books on my shelf I’ll never read again. I identified these in about two minutes.

It’s tough to get rid of some of these things. I believe one of man’s wonts is to not let things go, whether material or otherwise. We humans may not be hoarders, but we’re not easily unattached from things that we own.

Nevertheless, there’s a good feeling when one lets go. Last week alone, I gave the unused shirts and jackets to Mission Arlington (a local charity), the guitar amp to a friend, and sold the books to Half-Price Books. It feels good knowing that some young man in need will have black dress clothes to wear, that my friend will have an electrical project and potentially a great amp, and that someone else might read the books I’ve already enjoyed. No use keeping those things around just to collect dust.

I know firsthand that giving a mathom a new home makes me happier than I would be if I held on to it. I believe that when you have less, you have more. Less matter, more of what matters.

From a biblical perspective, we should all remember the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return” (Job 1:21a, ESV). Solomon, the wisest man the world has ever known, reiterates this as he nears the end of his life: “As [a man] came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Ecclesiastes 5:15, ESV).

In the end, we will leave behind the mathoms we’ve held on to for all our lives. Someone else will inherit them, for better or worse. We Westerners tend to accumulate but tend not to let go while we’re living. Though we don’t like to think about it, we should face reality and remember that we’ll have to let our mathoms and everything else go at some point.

I intend to rid myself of as many mathoms as possible this year. It’s not going to be easy in some cases, but I know I’ll be better off for it and be helping other people by giving away what I no longer need. It’s my hope that this inspires you to start identifying mathoms in your own life and find ways to make them mathoms no more.

2018: The Year in Review

Today is the last day of the year, a day I usually spend taking stock of what I did over the duration of the year. 2018 was a year of transition, discovery, and personal development for me: transition, because I finished college and am now living in “the real world” to some extent; discovery, because I’ve realized more about myself and what I want (and most importantly, don’t want) out of life; and personal development, because I’ve learned a lot about a wide variety of things and am starting to make changes in how I live.

I’m not a statistician, but I like statistics. I use them to look back on the year and see how far I’ve come and what I’ve done. Here are some stats to summarize my 2018:

  • Where I started the year: Kansas City, Missouri
  • Where I will end the year: Arlington, Texas
  • Approximately 6,000 miles traveled on trips
  • 29 full days spent away from home
  • 48 books read
  • 360 podcast episodes listened to
  • Approximately 100,000 words written
  • 1 musical instrument built (a fretless bass guitar)
  • 1 vehicle purchased (a Ford F-150)
  • Estimated 949,000 calories consumed (assuming average of 2,600 calories/day)
  • Estimated 3,000 push-ups performed (of different varieties)
  • Estimated 2,000 pull-ups performed
  • Approximately 15 miles hiked
  • 365 days seized

A few weeks ago, I looked back and thought 2018 was a less-than-stellar year, especially in contrast to 2017, which I believe to be the best year of my life thus far. However, looking back now, and in light of these numbers, 2018 was a pretty good year. By good, I mean it was productive, enlightening, and somewhat adventurous.

What would have made the year better? It’s hard to say. A transitionary year such as this one sets me up for a new year that hopefully provides new and better opportunities for career and travel. I’ve learned from some mistakes and misfires of 2018 and don’t plan to repeat them in 2019. I’ve got a few new hobbies I’m hoping to explore, and some books I plan to write and publish. My brother and I may also (finally) release some music for the world to hear.

Spiritually-speaking, one goal in 2018 was to read through the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation by year’s end. That didn’t quite happen. I’m in the middle of Acts right now and slowly working my way through. I plan to finish the CSB up in the early part of 2019 and then spend the rest of the year doing book or topical studies that I’ve shirked in favor of plowing (ploughing?) through the Bible once per year for the last couple of years. I want to sit and savor God’s Word more than I want to breeze through it.

I won’t be staying up ’til midnight to ring in the new year. Instead, I’ll toast to 2018 with a Boddingtons Pub Ale at dinner, go to bed at my regular time, and enter 2019 feeling well-rested and refreshed.

So long, 2018, and thanks for the memories.

Standing at an overlook in Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. Photo credit: Drummer Dan.

Weihnachten: The German Word for Christmas

If you can’t visit a German Christmas market in Germany, you can at least look at pictures and sip some Glühwein at home.

As a beginner-level German speaker in high school, some of the first phrases I learned were greetings and salutations, such as “Alles gute zum Geburtstag!” (“Happy birthday!”), “Frohe Erntedankfest!” (“Happy Thanksgiving!”, even though Germans don’t celebrate the same holiday we Americans do), and “Frohe Weihnachten!” (“Merry Christmas!”). The cool thing about German is that if you know a few nouns, it’s pretty easy to figure out the longer compound ones. In the examples above, Geburtstag is a combination of the words “birth” and “day” (as is our English equivalent), and Erntedankfest would translate to something like “thankful celebration of the harvest.”

Weihnachten is a little more interesting. The first part of the word comes from the verb weihen, meaning to consecrate, anoint, or sanctify. The second part of the word is similar to the German word for night, die Nacht. So, using some logic and very rudimentary translation skills, we get a translation of Weihnachten as “sacred night.” Or, maybe, just maybe, “holy night.”

But wait, there’s more. The German prefix Weih- means “votive,” which is defined as “offered or consecrated in fulfillment of a vow.”

So, why is the night sacred or holy? Because something was offered to fulfill a vow. What (or who) was offered?

God promised to send the world that rejected Him a savior so that mankind could be reconciled with Him (Isaiah 53). One night, one holy night in a little Judean town called Bethlehem, that savior came. He was Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14): God incarnated in human flesh, born to a virgin. His name is Jesus.

This is not my attempt to preach or theologize, but merely a small exposition of the meaning behind a German word I learned in tenth grade. May we keep the Christ in Christmas and remember that holy night, the night of the fulfilled vow.

I wish you a merry Christmas und ein frohe Weihnachten.

Ten Things to be Thankful For

We’ve all heard the old saying to “count your blessings.” To many of us, that saying sounds corny and overused, and we go about our merry ways. We start to take things for granted.

Thanksgiving, for me at least, is a time to step back and reflect on those blessings that I take for granted. There are the usual things like family, friends, and food; there are also everyday things that, when I think about them, realize how different my life would be without them. Here are ten.

  1. Books — without them I would not be exposed to the ideas and information of great thinkers before me.
  2. The Internet — without it I would not be able to hunt down information nearly as quickly, or build and maintain relationships with people around the world.
  3. Running (purified) water — without it I might be dead, or at least very thirsty.
  4. Music — without it I would not appreciate art and beauty.
  5. Cars — without one I might not have been able to work through college and graduate debt-free.
  6. The Constitution — without it I would not have the freedoms I have today.
  7. Glasses — without them I could not see, and could never have scored my first (and only) goal in YMCA soccer as a boy.
  8. Education — without it I would not know what I know (and what I do not know), and would not have the job I have now.
  9. Dreams — without them I would not have entertainment while I sleep and burning ambitions for tomorrow.
  10. Salvation through Jesus Christ — without it I would be hopeless and dead in my sins.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, ESV)

Five Philosophies Followed for Everyday Living

This post is prompted by a question I saw (and answered) on Quora, asking for five philosophies followed for everyday living. On the spur of the moment, I came up with my five, five which I think accurately represent the lens through which I view the world and are unlikely if ever to change.

  1. “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.” — The prophet Micah, inspired by God (Micah 6:8)
  2. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” — Jesus (Luke 10:27)
  3. “The high concept [of travel] is, ‘What is the most excellent thing I can do today?’, but it must sometimes yield to realities like time and distance, weather and traffic, or even just getting to work on time. Because sometimes work is the most excellent thing I can do today, and I can only try to embellish the work with some recreation and exploration.” — Neil Peart (I apply this to more than just travel; every day I ask myself this question.)
  4. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt
  5. “Time is the universal equalizer. Rich or poor, famous or nameless, we are all given the same allowance of twenty-four hours per day that we are forced to spend. How we spend that allowance is up to us.” — Me, inspired by Arthur Bennett’s excellent How to Live on 24 Hours a Day