Thinking Inside the Box

“You can stand in the box and wave your arms if you want to, but I need you to stay inside the box.” That’s the advice that my daughter, the communications czar, gives to the people who send her copy.

For years now, “thinking outside the box” has been such a cliché, especially in business circles, to be pretty much meaningless. I’ve heard it enough times to suggest that we start looking back inside the box. Who knows? There might be something useful in there, and nobody has paid it any attention for ages!

While I’m often in favor of paradigm shifting and useful innovation, I’ve found that the human fascination with “thinking outside the box” is often an excuse to ignore the stuff that is inside the box. In other words, it is a way to jettison traditions and rules and the wisdom of the ages without giving it much thought.

I mention that today because before running off and leaving Psalm 118:24, I wanted to revisit one of the words, one that I gave very little attention to on our first run through. The word is the next-to-last in the verse, “in.”

When we say, with the Psalmist

This is the day the LORD has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.

that “in,” while small, is important beyond its letter count. For us to rejoice and be glad in this day, that little preposition indicates the relationship between our actions (rejoice and be glad) and the day (it). Where will we rejoice and be glad? In the day the Lord made.

You cannot simultaneously operate within and without the day God made, so that little word excludes our attempts to make ourselves happy outside God’s day.  How much human effort is spent in trying to make the day the Lord has made into a day that He hasn’t made? When we do that, we’re essentially saying that God’s day is inadequate.

When I woke up this morning, I could have looked to my left and thought of the faults of my wonderful wife. But this is the day that the Lord has made, and He made that day with her as my partner. Whatever flaws she might have, I’m supposed to rejoice and be glad in this day and with her.

One of the first things I said this morning after rising was “brrr,” as the temperature dipped into the low 30s last night. I could grouse about the weather, but it’s the weather in God’s day. My job and my face, my bank account and my family–all of these things could lead me to complain and then try to make myself happy outside of the day God made. But that’s not what the verse says.

I’m not calling here for complacency. There’s nothing to stop me from seeking a new job, trying to earn more money, or turning up the thermostat. I can attempt to help my wife and other family become stronger, better people. I’m not sure what I can do about my face. But regardless that’s tomorrow. Today, I’m called to rejoice and be glad in the day God gave me, a day that isn’t just a date but an entire set of situations.

The Magic Word

I love you. Frank loves you. I love Frank. I despise you.

In that little sentence, “I love you,” the change of any of the three words drastically changes the sentence. Were I to ask, “Which word in that sentence is the most important?” You’d be hard-pressed to answer, opting perhaps for “All of them.”

That’s the question that I’d like to ask about Psalm 118:24. After plodding through, word-by-word almost, that verse, let’s consider which word is the most significant. Certainly as is always the case in language, the change of any word alters the meaning of the sentence. For example, if I go from “She ate dinner” to “She gobbled dinner,” the change of the verb is significant even while the action being described is precisely the same. I would argue that changing “dinner” to “supper” would create a smaller change. “Dinner” is less important.

But what about with our verse:

This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

What’s the most important word there? I have a nomination that came out of my understanding of how this verse hasn’t been acting on my life. The word is “LORD.”

I have encountered people having good days that the Lord gave them recently.

  • Alyson got a new car.
  • Emily bought a fine house.
  • Dan received a new kidney.
  • Jim finished that huge project.
  • Tom got to eat at Fogo de Chao.

At the close of day, those people probably all thanked God for the good day, the day He’d made. But what if the car was wrecked, the house sale fell through, the kidney was rejected, the big project failed, or the meat was overcooked? What if the weather on this day the Lord has made is crummy? What if I have to pay a ton of money to replace my car’s clutch? What if I go to work every day to do a job that I can’t quit but that I’m tired of? I could go on. Can I still rejoice and be glad?

When my rejoicing and gladness depend on the meals that I eat, on the income I make, on the convenience of my life, of health or friends or some other variable of mortal life, then I’m not always going to enjoy the day. When I take my delight from those things rather than from the Lord, then I sound a lot like the whiney Israelites in Exodus 16:3:

 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate all the bread we wanted. Instead, you brought us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of hunger!”

The problem with that gang was that they put something, namely their food, before God. Their modern-day counterparts are the people who say, “Yes, I love Jesus, but I wish the preacher didn’t talk so long.” They’re–we’re–not putting God first.

If what I mean when I repeat Psalm 118:24 is “This is the day the Lord has made (because He put such great stuff in it to make me happy),” then I’m altering the verse beyond recognition. This is the day the Lord has made, and I’m going to rejoice not because of what He did for me in it but because He made it. If I’m broke, sick, bored, tired, or persecuted, it doesn’t matter if the Lord made the day. Regardless of the bad, if the Lord is in the day, then we should rejoice and be glad.

Dogs and Cats Living Together

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!” That’s how Ghostbuster Peter Venkman described the bad things about to happen to New York. While the whole premise of Ghostbusters was pretty ridiculous, I have to shudder at the idea of dogs and cats cohabiting. It seems to run against the nature of things.

My name is Mark, and I am an unapologetic dog person. During my adult life, I’ve been head over heels for a Brittany Spaniel, a Great Pyrenees, and, currently, a Standard Poodle. I’d swim across a piranha-infested river and battle ostrich-sized mosquitos for my dog. A cat? I usually wouldn’t mind feeding it.

I will confess that at times in my life, I have been the possessor of both a dog and a cat, but that was always when we lived in the country. The cat (or cats) always stayed outside and served rodent-control duty. When my youngest daughter procured two cats in her new home, I nearly disowned her.

My dedication to dogs over cats explains the giddiness that I feel when I read that among pet owners, dog people are happier than cat people. I’m not making this up. A genuine study came up with the conclusion, so it has to be true.

Dog people, in other words, are slightly happier than those without any pets. Those in the cat camp, on the other hand, are significantly less happy than the pet-less. And having both appears to cancel each other out happiness-wise.

As a dog person, these words make me even happier. My proclivities are vindicated.

But as I’ve thought this over, something strange occurred to me. While I very much prefer the company of a dog to that of a cat, I personally probably behave more like a cat than a dog. I’m not naturally social, preferring solitude a good deal of the time. Is it strange that a dog person has the personality of a cat?

My wife, also a dog person, is much more of a dog personality. Although she rarely barks at people when they approach the house, she’s very happy to spend time with them when they arrive–just like our dog. And not surprisingly, people tend to enjoy her company much more than they do mine.

There’s no giant spiritual point that I can draw from all of this. I am who I am. My personality will probably not shift dramatically as I age, although I have been getting more sociable in the last several years. Still, it would probably be good for me to continue moving in that direction.

The sociable dog might fight now and again, but it will typically stay in its pack. It will be loyal and enthusiastic. It will sniff out all newcomers rather than ignoring them. Dogs are dependable.

It’s hard to imagine the Kingdom of God being dramatically enlarged by a bunch of cats.

If You’re Happy and You Know It

Dane Iorg looped a single to right field, driving in the tying run. Then Jim Sundberg slid into home, just beating the tag to win game six of the 1985 World Series. (St. Louis Cardinals fans are even now muttering the name of Don Denkinger, to which I say, “Get over it!”)

The next day, the day of game seven, local Kansas City TV promoted the decisive game’s broadcast by showing that replay as the Isley Brothers sang, “It makes me want to shout!” And here’s the reason I mention this. Every time I saw that little ad, I had a physical and an emotional reaction. I had watched the game live, almost jumping out of my skin. But then, all day the next day, I relived it and felt something powerful each time.

In our examination of Psalm 118:24, we’ve discovered that we’re supposed to do two things as we live in the day the Lord has made. We’re supposed to rejoice, and we’re supposed to be glad. Looking at those individually, we saw that they, while overlapping, are distinct ideas, but now I’d like to take a moment and consider them together.

The distinguishing factor in the verb translated “rejoice” seems to be movement. You may recall that this word can indicate strong positive or negative responses–although it’s usually positive. The key is that those responses involve movement. If you sit in your chair and politely clap in response to God’s day, then I don’t think you’re truly rejoicing.

On the other hand, the word translated “be glad” focuses mostly on a look on the face. This gladness cannot be contained inside the head. Instead it busts out onto the face. You can’t help but show it to the world. If you can glower straight ahead while “being glad” about God’s day, then you probably don’t get it.

Years ago, when I earned by doctorate, I drove from Lawrence, Kansas to my home in Independence, Missouri, a trip of about an hour. My giddiness, my joy, my sense of relief was so strong that I found myself crying out in joy at various points along highway 10. My face probably would have had passing drivers thinking me insane. It was a marvelous feeling.

More than likely, you have that memory of a time when you simply could not contain your joy. Perhaps it attended one of these statements:

  • Yes, I’ll marry you.
  • We’re going to have a baby.
  • It’s benign.
  • We’d like to offer you the job.
  • You’ve been selected to receive this year’s Nobel Prize.

Life, hopefully, has presented you with a handful of such moments, but how often do you feel that sort of joy, how often do you respond uncontrollably in body and face (and probably words) to something God has done? How often do you find yourself overcome by God’s amazing goodness, so overcome that anyone around you can see it?

We used to sing a song:

If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

That’s a kid’s song, but the implication for adults is serious. If you’re happy and you don’t show it, then maybe you’re not really that happy.


Turn that Frown Upside Down!

“Smile and the world smiles with you. Frown and you frown alone.” In my grumpy teen years, my dad used to unctuously quote this old proverb to me, annoying me greatly. I think that might have been his intention.

Is there actually truth in the saying? When you smile, does the world actually smile with you? Dale Carnegie instructed his students to go out and smile at people to see what sort of results they got. His idea was that if you became known as the sort of person who was constantly smiling and happy, then you’d be the sort of person who could succeed in business and in life.

As I walk through my life, I consider smiling. Does the world smile with me when I smile? Not necessarily. They might think me loony!

My mother’s saying along these lines was “It takes more muscles to frown than to smile.” So what? I don’t find myself tired after frowning. Am I desperately attempting to conserve energy? Plus, it turns out that this saying isn’t true. Imagine that.

I bring all this up today because of the second verb in the second half of Psalm 118:24.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Look up the Hebrew verb that is translated, pretty steadily, as “be glad,” and you’ll find that it means something slightly surprising: “rejoice.” Does that mean that the verse enjoins us to “rejoice and rejoice”? Sort of, but not exactly.

Read a bit more in the Hebrew dictionary and you’ll find this. “The primary idea appears to be that of a joyful and cheerful countenance.” So basically it could say “let us rejoice and smile.”

Funny-Smile-Meme-I-Just-Like-To-Smillings-my-Favorite-PictureWe’ve all seen people who go around with a completely unnatural and inappropriate grin on their faces. The wrong smile can make a person look fairly strange. Smile for the wrong reasons and you’ll seem evil. Smile for no reason and people will take you for crazy or dishonest. The politician who can go around for weeks and months on end, smiling at a bunch of complete strangers without looking unnatural, can probably achieve something.

Of course this Psalm does not call on us to smile for no reason and it does not suggest we smile for a bad reason. The first half of the verse has set up the reason for our rejoicing and our happy expression.

How can I not be cheerful, how can I not smile when I am inhabiting the day that the Lord has made? I ask that rhetorically, because, perhaps like you, I am entirely capable of wearing that frown as my habitual expression. I suppose that’s why my parents shared their little sayings with me.

So why, if I’m living in the eternal day that the Lord made, do I not walk around smiling? The reason, of course, is that, living in the flesh, I find it far too easy to allow that knowledge of God’s control to fade out of my mind. That’s why the Psalmist brought it to his own and to our mind.

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Doesn’t that make you smile?

The Incredible Hack

easyNerd Fitness takes a turn at life hacks in a recent article. I recently expressed my contempt for the shortcut mentality of life hacks, but I have no problem with things that actually make sense. In the article linked here, the ultimate nerd, Steve Kamb, offers some really common-sense, cut-the-garbage advice on happiness and related matters. For example, consider what he says about money and time:

What’s more important than money? Time. Time to spend time with people you love or doing things you love. You can never get it back.

At times we all need a smack up side the head with the obvious advice. Jesus did this sort of thing. Do you think Jesus was completely kind and gentle when He predicted that Peter would disown Him three times on the night of His arrest? I’m pretty sure that Jesus had a full range of tones in His voice, including one that was straight-forward and challenging.

I’m not comparing Steve Kamb with Jesus here, but they both seem capable of using that tool of directness.