When Your Heart Doesn’t Feel Glad

The focus of this blog is joy, gladness and thankfulness. The background is cheerful, the topics are often meant to leave you feeling a little bit better than when you started reading. But the fact is, sometimes life hurts. To be human is to experience pain. I see this everywhere, it seems. The sweet little baby suffering from an incurable, painful immune disease; the vibrant, lively school boy who is now in a rehab hospital recovering from being hit by a car while biking with friends; the young daughter of missionaries suddenly struck with a life-threatening disease that has caused her organs to shut down; the mother with painful joints that refuse to heal; the marriages that are barely hanging by a thread;  the newborn who underwent open heart surgery to repair a congenital defect at just 6 days old – my heart breaks for them. Why is there so much pain? Why are these good people suffering so much?

I find that I am wholly unsatisfied with the answer, “Because we live in a fallen world of sin.” My niece was not born with a heart condition because of sin. My friends did not lose their first child because of sin. Children don’t get hit by cars because the world is fallen. Fathers don’t lose their jobs because people are sinful. Don’t get me wrong – sin does cause pain. Always. But it is nonsense to say that all pain is simply the result of the fall of man. It’s just too simplistic. And it makes it cruel and meaningless. When we give sin in general as the cause of our common pain, we make God out to be unjust and unloving if he allows us to suffer simply because someone else made bad choices. Sin is cause, but it is not the cause.

Why, then, does God allow us to suffer? Even more, why does He sometimes seem to cause our suffering? Years ago in college I took a course on C. S. Lewis. While his Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia are perennial favorites, I often come back to one of his less-beloved works, The Problem of Pain.  I appreciate the way Lewis seems to think of every argument I’m going to raise, and addresses it before I can protest. While the book covers a lot of theological and philosophical ground, I find myself drawn to two specific sections, one on the goodness of God, and one on the problem of human suffering. While Lewis’ discussions on these topics can’t answer the specific why’s of each individual situation, they do provide a framework in which we can begin to answer the questions of our own pain. I want to share with you a selection of excerpts from The Problem of Pain, and offer a few of my own thoughts on them.

(All quotations taken from: Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (2001). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.)

The Goodness of God

“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people would formulate a theology in precisely those terms; but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds.” 

Do we not often find ourselves guilty of such thinking? Don’t we feel that if God loved us more, we would suffer less? The twin lie to this is that God gives greater blessings to those He loves more. I can’t think of anyone God loved more than Jesus Christ, but I also cannot think of anyone who suffered more pain than Christ.

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit…is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes.”

If you have been an artist, or a pet-owner, or a parent, or a spouse, you can begin to understand each of these kinds of love, perhaps even several. But you will never be able to understand what it is to have every one of those kinds of love directed toward the same object. God’s love for us is wholly incomprehensible.

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial menaing to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ [Revelation 4:11] We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. 

It is always good to be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, but how sweet a thought that we were created not just for God’s pleasure but so that He could love us. You and I were made to be loved. How amazing!

“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces…Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.”

God is not Santa, not a fairy-godfather, responsible for meeting our demands. His every action in our lives is enacted with the sole purpose of making us more like Him, more as He created us to be.

Human Pain

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

God doesn’t enjoy our pain, but He is well aware of its effectiveness in getting our attention.

“If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ ” 

This was made clearest to me when my dear friends lost their infant daughter. Though their pain was extensive and excruciating, from the moment they knew she was at risk they had held her with open hands and had kept their hands open once she was taken, fully trusting that God had something to give them and with which to bless them. You can read more about their story here.

“God, who has made us, knows what we are, and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us and take away the plausible source of false happiness. It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.”

“What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”

I have been truly amazed by the wonderful ways I have seen people, especially believers, rise to the occasion and support the suffering. Meals, transportation, listening, mourning with those who mourn, financial provision, childcare, taking over details, helping with daily living – so many go out of their way to ease others’ pain. God works to make us more like Him not only in our own pain, but in the pain of those around us.

“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God…Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” 

Oh, how we need this reminder that we are not home yet, that we have more waiting for us. Our present sufferings are nothing compared with the joy we will receive one day (Romans 8:18). I love what Lewis points out here: that though we have troubles now – real and painful trials – they are not the whole of our experience. God is so merciful to us, every moment of every day. Each flower blooming in spring, each leaf with its own autumn color, every kind word from friend or stranger, each moment of rest…They are like springs of water to our dry, weary souls.

Why Me?

I don’t know what your pain is right now. I don’t know exactly what it is that God wants to say to you or give to you. I have a hard enough time understanding what He is doing in my own trials and sufferings. But I am sure of this, friends, that every trial, every pain is purposed to make you more Christ-like, more obedient, and more sure of God’s love for you. It is not calculated destroy you, or to separate you from your Heavenly Father. Even though He may be allowing or even causing your suffering (for His own perfect and good purposes in you) He is ready and waiting to comfort you, to reassure you of His unwavering love for you. Even in your deepest sorrow or most searing pain, you are not alone or abandoned.

How has God used pain to get your attention? How has He blessed you in your suffering? Feel free to make this a place to share your sorrows and your joys!

 

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MASH

Hello friends! I’d like you to go down memory lane with me a bit. Come with me back to the days of middle school and high school. Depending on your age, it may be a longer trip, so if you’re over 30, I’ll give you a head start. 10, 9, 8…okay, here we all are. If you are of the feminine persuasion, as I am, you’ll probably remember a game called MASH. For all you guys out there who didn’t know girls existed when you were 15, and if you did, you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when they were together, you’re just going to have to follow along.

If you didn’t play MASH as a teenage girl, I’ll clue you in. No, it is not a game about army hospitals during the Korean war. That wouldn’t be very fun. MASH is an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. Basically, the game was like a huge fortune teller that would predict who you were going to marry, where you would live, how many children you would have, etc. Sometimes the MASH gods were smiling, and you would get paired with your (for that week) crush, and you would live in a mansion with your 3 adorable children. Other times you would know that the MASH gods were angry and needing some small sacrifice because you would be paired with the most odious male in your acquaintance, and you would be doomed to live in a shack with him and your 47 children.  No one ever took it seriously, but it was a great way to pass some idle time on a bus or at a sleep-over.

Well, today as I was sorting through some mementos of my high school days (read: throwing out junk that mattered a lot 10 years ago, but now I have no idea why I kept it), I found a paper napkin covered in my best friend’s handwriting. Turned out that it was a game of MASH. I suppose the only reason I had stuffed it in my box of mementos back then was because it paired me with the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, talented, romantic guy in the world (read: the guy I had a crush on because he wasn’t already taken by one of my friends) That had to be it, since the rest of the game prophesied that I would be an auto mechanic on welfare with 13 children. I had a good laugh reminiscing about the crazy high school days, and then I wadded it up to throw out like the rest of the trash.

But then it got me to thinking. I can still clearly remember my 17-year-old self thinking that I couldn’t possibly be happy in life if I didn’t end up with that guy. I hoped and prayed that somehow God would work it out so that my whole like could revolve around the process of winning his heart. I knew that one day he would wake up, so to speak, and realize that I was a beautiful, alluring, talented, extremely desirable girl, rather than the awkward, overly loud, intimidating, somewhat bearable she-beast that he had heretofore seen me as. (Note: Me at 17 was a lot more like description 2 than I would like to admit). I’ll let you skip to the end of the book here: we didn’t end up together. He ended up with a string of several girls that were the complete opposite of me, even on my best day. I ended up with a man who saw me as beautiful, alluring, talented and desirable without having a revelation from on high. I am incredibly happy, and do not regret that my “dreams” didn’t come true.

I would imagine that we can each think of at least one situation from our past where we desperately wanted things to go one way, but in the end they went in a totally different direction. And for most of us, we don’t even need to think back to high school. It might be something from last year, last month, or last week. We often don’t have the final say in the situations of our life. And all too often, we accuse God of making the wrong decisions for us. He really shouldn’t have let our husband get laid off, or our wife get cancer, or our car get totaled, or our child get accepted into a college 2,000 miles away. Those things weren’t in the plan that we so carefully drew up for God. Apparently He wasn’t paying close enough attention when we told Him how our life was supposed to go.

Silly little human. 

Would you let your son play in the street just because he said that’s what he wanted? Would you let your daughter eat only jelly beans for a month because she just doesn’t like carrots? No, you know what is best for your child, and you will make that best happen, whether your child would like you to or not. So often we forget that God is our Father in every sense, not just in some master-overlord-originator way. He loves us in a way we can’t understand. He is constantly nurturing and protecting us, even when we don’t notice it.  He knows what is best for us, and sometimes, just like the three-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t subsist on jelly beans, we don’t understand why we can’t have it our way. God does not work for Burger King. He doesn’t take orders. Yes, He absolutely hears our prayers, our requests. He knows our desires. And what’s more, He wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. In fact, He knows what we really want, going far beyond what we say we want. He understood that my desire as a teenage girl was to be loved completely, far more than my desire was for the attention of a certain boy. And He was faithful to fulfill the real desire of my heart. He did it in His way, in His timing, and for His purpose for me.

You may be looking at something in your life right now that is not at all the way you planned or expected. You may be praying for God to change your circumstance, to make it all better, as it were. There is nothing wrong with that. Tell Him you’re hurting. Tell Him you didn’t see this coming, and that you don’t know what to do next. Ask Him to help you find your feet again. Admit that you need His help. I can guarantee that He is not sitting on His throne in Heaven whipping the rugs out from under people just for the fun of seeing them scramble. Remember that we only see the immediate effects of the changes in our life; we cannot see where the changes will lead in a year, ten years, or a hundred years. God’s plan for you is good. His plan is for you to know Him intimately, to trust Him deeply, and to enjoy Him fully. To achieve that plan, there may be bumps (or even mountain ranges) along the way. The path may diverge greatly from the plan you mapped out for yourself. Sometimes you may be completely bewildered and feel lost. Take heart, dear friends, for just as your own children do not always see how closely you watch over them, you may not feel that the Father is protecting you or guiding you, but you can be certain, without a doubt, that He is indeed watching you, ready to pick you up if you stumble, to soothe and heal when you are hurt. He has never abandoned you, even in your darkest moments, and He never will.

May He make your heart glad!

Year in Review

Wow. A year. How can it be so long and so short at the same time? And why am I bringing up the passing of a year in the middle of one? Well, this month marks one year since we began our great westward journey. One year ago, we left our home, our church, our jobs, our friends, much of our family – basically everything that was familiar – and moved ourselves to a new place. A place where we only knew two people, only knew the town from a few brief visits, a place where we had no idea where we would live. I had a job working for and with people that I had only met once, on Skype, working at a school that was as different from my previous school as it could possibly be.

To be honest, this could have been a disaster of epic proportions.  To be brutally honest, there were several times, in the first few months, that I asked myself what we had done, and what we had gotten ourselves into. Back East we had great friends, a church we loved, good jobs, and familiar home territory. Out here, we were modern-day castaways, wondering when we were going to make any real connections with the people and the place around us. We went from church to church to church, meeting lots of sweet people, but not finding any place that felt just right. We looked at several cute houses, but struggled with getting a deal in place because the cost of real estate was twice what it was back East, and because of flaky sellers and feisty bankers. The Titanic was looking like it might have been a safer bet.

And then, little by little, it all began clicking into place. We finally found a house to call home. We were finally able to stop living out of suitcases and boxes. On move-in day, we “chanced” to meet a trio of precious older ladies having breakfast at McDonald’s. They struck up a conversation with us, and invited us to visit their church. Since one of our biggest difficulties in finding a church had been the fact that the median age in every church we visited seemed to be about 65 (sweet, but way out of our phase of life), we were a little hesitant, but when we finally visited, we instantly knew that we had found our home and our family. It was exactly the loving, vibrant, diverse community that we had been longing for. At this church we have made so many valuable friendships and have found a support structure that has been critical to our happiness and satisfaction with our new home town. We found our groove and our routine, and soon we were asking ourselves not What have we done? but What if we hadn’t done this? 

Fairly quickly, I started to see the many wonderful ways that God was working through the changes in our location and situation. I tried so many new things, either by necessity or because I had already done so many difficult things that I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. I tried doing things I would have never thought to try before because I never would have believed I could do it, especially not well. What I discovered, though, was that I was able to do so much more than I ever thought possible. As my confidence grew, so did my joy and satisfaction. Similarly, my health instantly began to improve in many ways. This was the result of a healthier culture, access to amazing local produce and meats, and the endless availability of outdoor sports which made exercise natural and fun. I biked to work and the grocery story, and skied for hours on end during the winter. I also found a doctor who put together some puzzle pieces in a way that none of my past doctors ever had, and within weeks of beginning a new treatment regimen, I was feeling like a new person.  And of course, I can’t imagine a life without the friendships that we have made here. Though there is no way that they could ever replace the precious friends that we left back East (in fact, we have learned a thing or two about maintaining long-distance friendships), we are continually blessed by our new friends.

We love our small town, knowing the shopkeepers and restaurant owners, being able to get anywhere in town in 5 minutes, often by bike. We love the area we live in, with rivers, lakes, mountains and deserts and all the sports and activities that go along with the beautiful natural environment. We can’t imagine anywhere else being Home. We are so excited and proud when friends and family come to visit so that we can show off “our town”. Just as God led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land, He has led us to a good land.

If I’m honest, though, it hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine (though we do get a good deal of both of those here). There have been some deep valleys in our little mountain adventure. Aside from two very short visits, I wasn’t able to be physically there for my dearest friends as they walked through one of the most difficult situations imaginable. I haven’t been able to help my sister-in-law prepare for her first baby. We’ve had to learn how to stay connected through the internet and to plan our vacations around family time, not exotic locales. We’ve learned to do without a lot of the things we took for granted when we were city dwellers. Some of the sacrifices and inconveniences were large, though many have been small. But each of them has stretched us, helped us grow, and changed us for the better.

So there you have it: the Year in Review. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the things I have learned and the ways that I have been changed because we embarked on this journey. What will the next year be like? How will God continue to stretch us and change us? I honestly have no idea. I know that there are more changes ahead, some we have planned, and some we know nothing about. I know without a doubt, though, that it will be exciting, and completely in God’s hands.

What about you? How has God stretched you and taught you over the last year? What big changes have you encountered? Most importantly, how has God made your heart glad in all of life’s changes?

 

Biker Chick, or If At First You Don’t Succeed, You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

Still a little dark...glad I don't have to leave any earlier

I rode my bike to work this morning. It was lovely. It takes about the same amount of time as driving my car – though the fact that going to work is downhill means I get a nice little workout on my way home- and it allows me to turn my focus more toward appreciating the beauty of God’s creation around me (rather than trying to avoid hitting said creation, especially the meandering “we own the road” deer that seem to outnumber the human residents of this town). If you had known me as a child, this would be a shocking revelation. Me? On a bike? Without needing medical attention? Not possible.

The Bike and I, a play in 3 acts

Who doesn't want handlebar streamers?

You see, I have always had a love-hate relationship with that two-wheeled monster, the bicycle. My first bike was a fantastic creation with purple wheels, neon stickers and colorful handlebar streamers. But it was not the pink bike I had clearly specified on my list for Santa. Eventually we made up, and I learned to like my bike, especially when I discovered that I could leave purple skid marks on the sidewalk. It seemed like the bike and me might be a match made in heaven after all. We did have our little squabbles, like the time I tried to go all Evel Knievel and ride my down the hill from the front yard to the back. The boys next door did it all the time, and it looked so cool. My first grade understanding of physics wasn’t all that great, and I neglected to notice the fact that our side of the hill was signifcantly steeper than the neighbors’. Needless to say, It was a good thing my mom insisted on me wearing my very uncool helmet, because otherwise I would have several nifty scars on my forehead, and probably some serious brain damage. But in general, the bike and I got along well, and I even got to ditch the training wheels. I was well on my way to the Tour de France. Or at least the Tour de Block.

It didn't look exactly like this, but it seemed about this intimidating

A couple of years later, I got a “big-girl” bike. A purple and hot pink mountain bike. It was totally rad, to use a phrase of the times. I rode it a grand total of about 10 times before it tried to kill me. I was trying to steer, really I was, but there was an irresistible magnetic force to the rolls of discarded carpet in the church parking lot where I practiced my fancy riding. I had always dreamed of flying, but that wasn’t quite how I imagined it. Mercifully, the bike was stolen during a move later that year. And there, with my narrow escape from death-by-demon-bike, my riding career was apparently over. Once in a while I would be at a friend’s house, and would end up borrowing their brother’s bike to try to ride to the 7-11 for a slurpee, but I pretty much thought I was going to die each time. I developed a type of sour grapes philosophy about biking, deciding that it was a dumb way to get around, only slightly better than running (both of which I knew should never be done for fun).

Shade is definitely a good thing when riding in the East

Fast forward about 15 years. While living out East, we discovered a beautiful trail through the woods not far from our house. It was great for walking or jogging (for others to jog, not me!). On a trip back to our hometown, we retrieved our bikes from our respective parents, and came home to ride the trail. It seemed like a good way to spend time together and get some much needed exercise as well. My first time on the bike, I managed to get about 100 yards before I realized that I needed about 30 feet to go around other people on the trail, and that trying to ride over the bridge across the river was like trying to ride through a herd of longhorns in a cattle chute. But my sweet husband was encouraging, and I kept practicing. Later that weekend, we decided we would ride our bikes down to the cute little island in the middle of the river. We got about a quarter of the way there when my bike went off the edge of the pavement, and in trying to correct my path, I ended up flipping my bike over and landing in a mangled mess. No permanent damage was done to the bike or to me, but I had a sore ankle and a nice bruise on my knee for several days. And yet, I didn’t give up. It’s sad to say as a grown woman, but I was really excited the first time I made a 5 mile roundtrip without a) falling over or b) having a heart attack.

In Which I Move to Hippie-land and Become a Biker

My beautiful trail

Not too long after that, we decided to move ourselves West, to a beautiful small town that is incredibly bike-friendly. There are trails all over the place, and in spite of being in the mountains, the town is really pretty level. Actually, bike-friendly is an understatement. Every shop downtown has a bike rack out front, it’s not surprising to see several children or small dogs in trailers behind bikes, and even tiny children are seen riding their bikes to school each day. Bike-crazed is a more appropriate term.  I started researching commuting and grocery shopping by bike, and got really, really excited. When we were house-hunting, one of the requirements was that it be close enough to ride our bikes downtown for events and shopping. When we finally found a house, it was not only close enough to downtown to bike everywhere, but it was also only about 100 yards from the entrance to the main bike/hike path through town. It was just over a mile from work, and a mile and a half from the grocery store or the main drag downtown. As they extend the trail system, I’ll also be able to ride my bike to Wal-Mart. I love the idea of the bicycle trifecta – green transportation, money saved on gas, and exercise without adding much time to my schedule.

Pride Goeth Before a Fall…

All ready to go...

And so, just days into the school year, I decided I would ride my bike to work for the very first time. I had my brand new basket on the front holding my lunch and purse so charmingly. I left plenty early so that I would have time to enjoy the scenery. I kissed my sweetie goodbye and pedaled off down the street, so proud of myself. I turned onto the bike trail, reached up to adjust my helmet, and then everything went wrong. Apparently the adorableness of my basket had thrown the balance off, and when I tried to single-hand it, I sent myself skidding off the edge of the trail. As any physicist will tell you, inertia is an absolute bear. The bike went sideways, and I went down and forward. I landed in the gravel and prickly grass at the edge of the trail, immensely thankful that there was no one around to witness my divinely appointed comeuppance.

One of two crash sites

I picked the gravel out of my palms, dusted off my khakis and beige sweater as best I could, and got back on the horse…er, bike.  “I can do this,” I thought, with only the slightest of tears of pain and embarrassment welling in my eyes. I continued on bravely. “Woohoo! I have conquered the bike…yeah!” went through my mind as I turned the corner to the street my school is on, followed shortly by, “Uh-oh…you’ve got to be kidding me!” as the gravel shoulder of the road reduced the coefficient of friction that had been holding my bike upright to nil and I crashed, yet again. I picked myself up quickly, lest a passing motorist (heaven forbid a parent or student) see me in my shame. Now feeling summarily reduced from my normal 5-foot-11 stature to about 3-foot-6, I pedaled very, very carefully the last tenth of a mile to school. Somehow I managed to make it on time and without severely noticeable injuries to my person or my wardrobe.

Safely parked at school

I was left with a healthy fear of the road and a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my leg, which lasted for a good few weeks. My shiny new basket still fit on the front of my bike, but had acquired a peculiar crooked tilt. I also had the pleasure of going back over the entire trail searching for my cell phone which had made a McQueen-esque escape from said basket. In all, though, there was no lasting damage, if you don’t count the basket’s re-alignment.

The Moral of the Story

Lesson learned, I was very cautious as I biked to work over the next several days. I felt quite accomplished when I was able to ride home from Safeway with a full basket and a bag of groceries to boot. My dear and I began making a habit of biking to the farmer’s market each Saturday morning, and quickly realized that we were going to need more baskets and racks if we were going to continue bringing nature’s bounty home each week. Just as I had planned, we were spending time together, getting things done and moving our bodies into a much greater state of health.

Who wouldn't want to ride here?

One day, I realized that I didn’t think biking for fun or for transportation was so dumb, like I had when I was a kid. Not only was it acceptable, it was something I really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those die-hards that I see here biking up mountain passes in the snow. I still hold on to my vestigial laziness and comfort-seeking behaviors. I’ll ride to work as long as it’s not actively snowing or raining, the temperature is above 20 degrees and the wind is under 30 mph (which can sometimes be an issue here!). I feel stronger and healthier each day that I ride, and I also feel something else – a sense of accomplishment. I had failed and failed, and finally I had succeeded.

When we fail at something, especially early on in the process, it is easy to convince ourselves that we just don’t have what it takes. We deceive ourselves and give up because we don’t want to fail again. Isn’t that the worst kind of pride? We can’t bear the thought of being a failure, so we refuse to fail. If only someone could show us all the wonderful things we are missing by not adjusting our methods and trying again. I imagine that seeing those possibilities laid out before us would revolutionize our way of thinking about life. Proverbs 24:16 tells us, “A righteous person falls seven times, and rises again…” If we give up the first time we fall, we are not exploring the full potential that God has created us for. Will the falling still hurt? Well, sure it will. Will we run up against things that are really difficult? Definitely – that’s a part of life. But if God calls us to do something, then nothing can stop us. Please don’t think that this means that anyone can do anything just because he or she wants to. Not everything is good for us, or part of God’s plan for us. Sometimes we will reach a point where we are right to give up and try something else. But that point is never after the first fall. God is reaching out His hand to help you back up. Will you take it, and try again?

May your heart be glad!

A Serious Heart Condition

Welcome back. I hope that you have had a restful (or at least joyful) weekend. We’ve been fighting several dread diseases around here, so it was good to take a break, though I have missed you all.

Alright, I have a bit of a confession to make. My heart was not particularly glad for much of this past week. I could make some excuses: sick students, lack of sleep, lots to do, blah, blah, blah. Or it could be the time of the year. We’re a couple of weeks out from spring break at school, which means we are in a time of meltdowns for everyone, teachers and students alike. It’s like lap 402 at Daytona, week 37 in a pregnancy, or mile 24 of a marathon; you’re bored, tired and ready to be done, but you can’t give up now because it would make all the struggle thus far absolutely worthless. It can be hard to find joy when you’re in one of those seasons. The weariness can cast a shadow over all the great things that are in your life.

If I am honest as I look back on my week, there were several heart-gladdening things – the afternoon bike ride with my husband, the 2 nights of fabulous sleep, the evening spent enjoying the company of friends – and yet, I woke up Friday with clouds forming right over my head. I was like a walking thunderstorm. Husband not paying enough attention to me? Bang! Lightning bolt! A 6-year-old not displaying as much sense and maturity as I would like? Pow! Another bolt! Stubborn student? Crash! The storm is in full force now! One mildly critical comment? Crack! Another day destroyed.

But then, in a completely unexpected way, which I didn’t quite grasp at the moment, God taught me a really important lesson. What was the means of this great teaching moment? A playground merry-go-round and a handful of squealing little kids. Usually, I’m just an observer at recess. Especially on days when I’m not in the best of moods. But for some reason, I decided to give into the kiddos’ pleas for me to push the merry-go-round.  And then, in a real moment of spontaneity, I jumped on and joined them in the dizzy-fest. They were thrilled and giggling, and I laughed like I had not laughed in a long time. it was the silliest thing I had done in weeks. I was also incredibly joyful.

And here is what that ride on a merry-go-round taught me: If you are going to have a glad heart, you simply cannot take yourself too seriously. I realized that those moments when I was the most cranky or downright angry were the moments when I was so sure of my own importance, wrongly believing that I was the most important person in my world, that it was only me who could be counted on to make my students who they need to be, that I was too good to be worthy of any suggestions for improvement. The times over the whole week when I was happiest were when I was focused on others, when I completely abandoned any thought of my own image or importance.

So what about you? Have you been taking yourself too seriously lately? How has it affected the joy level of your spirit? Let me challenge you this week to make a point of taking yourself less seriously. If you want extra credit, here is your assignment: Do something this week that is completely silly and lacking in dignity. If you need some help, I would suggest you find your nearest and dearest 5- or 6-year-old; I am sure they can give you a few good pointers!

May your heart be glad (and just a little silly)

Spring is a Cruel Mistress

I’ve always liked Spring. My birthday is in Spring, Easter is in Spring, there are flowers and baby animals that come out in Spring. Spring is charming, beautiful, smells of clean breezes and flowers, and is warm and delightful. Spring is also fickle, teasing, volatile and unpredictable. Basically, Spring is the woman that every mother warns her son about. Spring is the cruelest mistress of all.

I am learning that principle like never before. When we lived on the East coast, Spring came around each March and wreaked her havoc until mid-May. She blossomed and bellowed in cycles, brought sunshine and rain alternately and generally made lives glorious and miserable as she saw fit. We’ve all met that woman, right? Now that we are in the West, I’ve discovered that Spring, Western-style, has adapted to fit her environment. Just as everything out here is a little more wild, a little rougher around the edges, so is cruel Lady Spring.
I usually enjoy Winter. I like pulling out my sweaters, drinking hot chocolate, waiting for Santa (or my husband, whichever brings more goodies), baking cookies and playing in the snow. But as any of you from high latitudes or high elevations will doubtless agree, there comes a day, about mid-way through February, when Winter suddenly gets old. You can’t bear to look at another pot of soup, you scream, “Whyyyyyyyy?!?!?” when there is snow in the forecast, and you get excited if the mercury rises above 40. Other than wanting to ski once or twice more this season, I am so over winter. So over it, in fact, that I would even stoop to breaking up on Facebook just so I don’t have to actually see Winter again.
 
You see, I’ve got my eye on this pretty young thing called Spring. I think the attraction is mutual. She’s been quite a flirt lately. The temperatures have been in the 50’s and 60’s since Sunday, I’ve been riding my bike each day (without donning my ski gear!), there are birds singing as the sun rises, and little buds are adorning each tree. The only problem is, she’s playing hard to get like a champion. Just today, the skies clouded over, and the weather stations predicted a combination of snow and rain. There will be another cold snap, I’ll have to put the bike away for several days, the flowers will take for—ev—er to bloom, and Winter will stick around like an ex who just doesn’t get the message. But Spring has caught my fancy, and now I’m hooked. People keep warning me not to get to excited, that Spring is just going to break my heart. I know she’s no good, but I keep hoping that she’ll change for me, that it will be different this time. Those people can be disparaging all they want, but I know Spring is going to come around and settle down. And when she does, I’ll be here.
As I thought about my new obsession with the arrival of Spring, I realized that it is such a metaphor for the way most of us view life. We are continually in a cycle of longing for something, receiving it, and then becoming bored with it. Speaking from a female perspective here, we break our life up into milestones that we think will make life complete when we reach them. We tell ourselves, “I’ll be really happy and content when…” When I get a boyfriend…When I graduate…When I get another degree…When I get a husband…When I get a house of my own…When I have a baby…When the kids go to school…When the kids all get married…When we get to retire…When we finally have grandkids…the list keeps going, until your at the end of your life. Perhaps it is okay at the last to say to yourself, “I will finally be truly happy and content when I reach Heaven,” for that is the only one of these “When I…” statements that is true. I’ve made it through about half the list, and indeed, each milestone has brought joy, but I am still not completely content. I still wish for the next thing in the list. I’ve been convicted though, that I need to stop putting so much emphasis on next. 

To be sure, the movement of life is exciting and rewarding. The possibilities that lie before us are part of what keeps us going when the here and now is discouraging. However, when we put the greater balance of our mental and spiritual energies into focusing on that which has not yet come, we harm ourselves in a variety of ways.
  1. We harm ourselves by diverting our attention from those things in our current life which do bring joy and blessing. It is as if we are being given birthday presents, and we only care about the one we will open last. How foolish! We need to be focused on being grateful for the gifts and gladness that we have been given in the present (insert your pun or cliche of choice here).
  2. We harm ourselves by trying to escape from the refining and perfecting effects of our present troubles. James 1:2-4 tells us that we should count or consider our troubles as joy because of the strength and endurance they can produce in us if we allow God to use them in our lives. Just as a marathoner has to run miles 1-25 to get to mile 26, we have to experience all the parts of life to experience any of them.
  3. We harm ourselves when our attention is distracted from the present because we are likely to miss opportunities for joy. We sometimes are unaware of a chance to take advantage of our current circumstances in a way that will bless either ourselves or others because we are only thinking about the future.
  4. We harm ourselves by setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched.” When we spend our mental energies dreaming and planning for the future, we run the risk of creating a fantasy for ourselves that can overtake our reality. When, as is often the case, real life does not live up to our fantasy world, we find ourselves depressed, discouraged and in despair. This is not to say we should have no hopes for the future. But we must be careful to avoid letting our hopes become driving, consuming fantasies.
The future is a wonderful thing, full of hope, and possibilities, and potential. We should all look forward to the future with joy and anticipation. Let us not be caught in the trap of living only for the future, though. We have been given the incredible gift of time, in that we can hold on to parts of the past through memories, we can enjoy the present moment, and we can hope for the future. Keep in mind that the only one of those times that we can actually live in is the present, and as such, it should be our main focus. Enjoy the present, for it is indeed a gift.

It’s The Little Things…

Specifically 10 “Little Things”. The ones I spend 8 hours a day with,  5 days a week. In this current chapter of my life, I teach in an elementary school. Anyone who spends all day with any number of young people can tell you, children have a 6th sense for raising blood pressure. Can I get an “Amen” from my fellow teachers and stay-at-home moms? Only children can ask the same question 8 times, get the same answer each time, and still feel the need to ask a 9th time. They can be completely convinced that it is a reasonably good idea to put goldfish crackers in strawberry yogurt. They can make a hangnail seem like an injury on par with having your spleen removed with stone-age surgical tools. I have named knots in my back and shoulders after particularly trying precious students. And yet, they can bring joy to my spirit and a smile to my face in so many unexpected ways. Care for some examples?

  • When you’re faking your death because the classroom is so messy, and 9 kids are laughing at you, but one says, “I don’t ever want you to die; you are the nicest teacher.” I’m glad at least one of my students doesn’t want me dead.
  • When a little boy chooses a princess pony out of the Friday Treasure Box instead of choosing a Nerf football, just so he can give it to his little sister.

  • When someone is complaining about their schoolwork, and you hear a little voice say, “You should be happy to be at school. Education is great!” And they mean it!
  • When you find the one or two 8 year-olds that you can actually discuss classic movies and literature with. More than you could with your friends in college.
  • When a little someone hands you a whole bouquet of dandelions, and it is more precious to you than a thousand roses.

  • When you get letters in the mail from past students and they make the same spelling mistakes that you nagged them so much about when they were in your class, but this time you’re glad they made them. It feels familiar.
  • When you read a story by a 2nd grader that manages to combine aliens, fruit and God along with at least 3 instances of the word “awesome”.
  • When a 2nd grader suddenly can explain the properties of multiplication…even though she can’t spell “multiplication”

  • When you’re standing outside the library and you hear your whole class singing a song about the Bible, and you didn’t even suggest it to them.
  • When you read Anne of Green Gables to your class, and the little red-haired, freckle-face boy in your class can’t get enough of it.
  • When the boy who could barely read at the beginning of the year is now the last one in line – every time – because he can’t put his book down.

  • When you get to explain that there is no “Specific” Ocean, and that “cinnamons” are not words that mean the same thing. And then you start using those words because they’re just so funny.
  • When you get that one kid that everyone thinks is just too much trouble to do something really great, and you see the pride on their face.
  • When you get invited to an 8 year-old’s American Girl themed birthday party, and she really does want you to come. And then you show up, together with Samantha, whom you’ve had since you were 8. And Little Miss thinks it’s the greatest thing ever.

I could go on and on. No matter how rough a day at school has been, it’s very rare that a whole day goes by without some ray of sunshine.  And even if I can’t think of anything else that has gone right that day, there’s always the fact that they are going to home, sleep it off, and start over again the next day.

May your heart be glad!