Woven with Thanks

Last night, somewhere between midnight and 4am, I spent a good portion of an hour lying awake for no good reason. This is par for my course as a pregnant mom of a toddler (who still wakes up at least once a night because he needs a graham cracker/there’s a moose in his room/he got lonely). I don’t think I’ve actually slept a whole night through since sometime in 2012. But that’s not the point.

During these midnight musings, I have learned that our parents lied to us as children. If you just close your eyes and lie there quietly, well, it will be quiet and dark. It will not help you fall asleep, and you mind will not suddenly think to itself, Oh, she’s trying to sleep; I’ll quit bothering her with the task list for next week and the panic about whether potty training is damaging her child’s psyche. Since I’m too lazy to be one of those people who say, “Well, I guess I’m not sleeping, I should probably clean out the garage,” and I’m too pregnant to take large doses of sleeping pills, I knew there had to be another way to quiet my mind. So I turned to prayer.

Not prayer that I would fall asleep quickly. I’ve tried that once or twice in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s not really in the Ambien business. No, I start praying through the needs of my friends and loved ones. (That’s where Facebook really comes in handy. You know exactly what kind of prayer your friends need, even when they haven’t asked for it, if you know what I mean.) I usually get through several before I start to drift off.  

I haven’t found anything that calms my spirit in the middle of the night like bringing the people I love before God. Not only does it bring peace, but in my intercessions for others, I find God speaking to me. Take last night, for example.

I was starting to run through my list of people and their needs, when that nagging voice of some Sunday school teacher from childhood piped up, “Always begin your prayers with thanksgiving,” (presumably so God doesn’t think you’re taking Him for granted and ignore you). For a moment, I thought, Well how am I supposed to thank Him for divorce or mental illness, Mrs. Holypants? Hmm? But then He showed me a picture of how we can thank Him in even the most joyless situations.

I suddenly imagined our prayers as a basket or cloth being woven. We go in and out, up and down as our lives and circumstances change. We weave the threads of supplication and intercession all through a framework of joy and thanksgiving. Lord, give strength and wisdom to my single-mom friend. Thank you for the ways you have provided for her and the people you have surrounded her with to support her. The struggles I am praying for on her behalf lead me to recall how faithfully God has upheld her even in the midst of a life-storm. Father, bring peace and healing to the one struggling with depression. Thank you that she is bringing awareness to her condition and that she is encouraging others. I want to see her mind and spirit healed, but in the meantime I rejoice in the courage and boldness she has found and in knowing that her transparency is going to bless others.

Thanksgiving is an absolutely integral part of our prayer life. It’s not a magic password to the throne (Thank you, God, that all of the past seasons of NCIS are on Netflix. Ok, I’m listening. Did you see Season 10, Epsiode 5? I mean, yes, go ahead with your request. Um, yeah, could you heal my friend’s sister’s cousin’s dog? I think he’s got mange or something yucky.) Prayer is about change. The more I pray, and the more I find ways to thank Him, the more I am changed, which I believe is the true purpose of prayer.

Prayer, in my personal opinion, is not meant by God as a means for us to manipulate the divine providence and sovereignty. If it were, no one would die from cancer, parents wouldn’t bury their children, and the innocent wouldn’t suffer. So Mrs. Holypants from 4th grade is right, we do need thanksgiving if we are going to have a meaningful prayer life.

Not because it gives us points towards answered prayers, but because as we thank God, we see where He has already answered our prayers and provided for us in ways we never thought to ask. In light of His faithfulness revealed by our thankfulness, we see how pain and tragedy really are part of God’s merciful plan to draw us into a deeper knowledge of Him. Our sufferings become less about how we feel or how we are affected in the immediate, and more about how God’s grace is weaving through a story that began long before us and will continue long after us.

Thanksgiving fills us with hope. It reframes our perspective. It reminds us of God’s promises and His faithfulness that never fails. It reassures us that His mercies are new each day, just as we need them.

 

How are you thankful?

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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!

 

Real Hearts, Real Joy #1

         Welcome back, friends! I am excited to introduce the first in a series on how God is working in the real lives of real people. Over the next several months, I will have the privilege of introducing you to people who have found God to be faithful in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Their situations may echo something in your own life, or they may not, but in either case, I hope that you will hear what they have to share and be encouraged.

Today we will be hearing from Sarah, who has recently had the opportunity to prove God’s faithfulness. In February 2011, Sarah and her husband found out that they were expecting their first child, a little girl, whom they named Elliana, meaning “God has heard”. Certainly it seemed that God had heard their prayers for an addition to their family. Sadly, at 26 weeks into Sarah’s pregnancy, they discovered that Elliana had a very serious heart condition. Elliana was born on October 22, 2011, and underwent surgery to begin repairing her heart within a few days. After 7 weeks, it became apparent that though Elliana’s spirit was very strong, her heart simply could not keep up. After a couple of very difficult days, she passed away on December 13. In the midst of all these struggles, the question on many minds was, Where is God in this? We all wanted to find some reason why God would take such a beautiful little girl away after such a short time with her family. Colt, Sarah’s husband, answered the question very well when he said that the answer was not to be found in Elliana’s healing or death, but in the way that God sustained them through all of the ups and downs of her short life. I can attest to the fact that though she was with us for such a short time, Elliana made a big impact on my life, and the lives of many others. It is Sarah’s hope, as well as mine, that by sharing the things learned through this difficult time, others will be encourage to look for and find God’s faithfulness to them, no matter what the circumstances.

CL: Thank you for being willing to share with us, Sarah. To start off, can you tell us, in just a few words, your understanding of who God is?

Sarah: God to me is someone that wants to be involved in every aspect of my life, whether large or small.  I believe that He is worthy of our praise, affection, love, and devotion.  I believe that who He is should always be at the very center of who I am.

 CL: You have recently experienced some significant trials in your life. Prior to entering this time, how would you have described your trust in God?

Sarah: I trusted God to do what He saw fit in my life, but I never expected it to bring pain.  So, in a way I trusted Him to bring blessing because I was serving Him.  I knew it wasn’t Biblical, but it was easy to think that if I just lived my life the right way, only good would come.

CL: You found out midway through your pregnancy that your daughter, Elliana, would be born with a serious heart condition. What were your first thoughts?

Sarah:  My first thoughts were, “There is no way”, “They must have made some mistake” and “How could this be happening to us?” You hear about other peoples’ stories of difficulty, but you never think it will happen to you.

CL: How did God sustain you during your months of waiting?

Sarah: The first few weeks were by far the hardest.  My world seemed tossed into turmoil with trying to not fear, thinking maybe I had done something wrong, and trying to find some sort of normalcy.  God worked on me a lot during that time, challenging me with His word and beginning to show me what it meant to cling to His truth and believe it for myself.  Up until this point I had believed the Bible, but I had never had a situation like this in which I had to cling to His promises with every ounce of my being. 

CL: Was it difficult to make the choice to open your heart to your daughter even though her future was so uncertain?

Sarah: Truthfully, that was not hard for me.  From the beginning I loved our baby.  By the time we found out about her heart I had already enjoyed almost 2 months of feeling her kick, and each movement allowed me to dream about what she was like.  Her uncertain future brought fear, yes, but it never remotely changed how much I cherished her.

I think when we first realized she would have a difficult start I looked at Colt and there was this kind of knowing that this changed nothing.  We knew that no matter what it took, we would be with her every step of the way.  I wholeheartedly believe that if she were still with us, we would be doing that now.  It never would have stopped. 

We both also loved her from the moment we heard a baby was coming.  None of that ever changed just because her heart didn’t form the way most do.  Through the course of her life, God granted us the ability to see, even for a short season, all the unique attributes that were clearly hers.  I look back and see every moment we cherished with her as an absolute gift. 

 CL: What were some ways that God made your heart glad during Elliana’s time with you?

Sarah: There really were many times God brought joy in our weeks with Elliana, and even before she was born. It had been a couple months that we had known about her heart condition, the three surgeries that would be required, and the extra care that would be needed, and the bigger she got the more I looked forward to meeting her, no matter what the days ahead entailed.  I will never forget the joy and yet nervousness I felt about what lay before us when I went into labor and Colt rushed me to the hospital (an hour away).  Ten hours after we got to the hospital she was born, and I cannot express the indescribable joy and pride that I felt looking at our daughter and hearing her first cry.  When I got to hold her for 2 minutes before they had to whisk her away, it was incredible.  It was in that moment that I knew I had been created to be her mother.  This was what I was made for.  She just stared back at me content and curious. I will never forget that moment, filled with awe, joy, and a peace that no matter what would come, God would be with us and we would get through it.   

Elliana holding Sarah’s hand in the NICU

CL: Did Elliana’s life teach you anything new about God?

Sarah: Her life taught me that no matter what you face, God will be there.  I had an idea of this concept before, but more than ever I cherish my walk with God.  He is my delight and my joy. Even though I hope and pray there is not further pain in the days ahead, such as we have gone through, I know without a doubt that God will get me through. 

            Her life also taught me more clearly that His ways are not necessarily our ways.  Though I would love to tell a success story of how she got better and is alive today, she isn’t.  God sometimes doesn’t do what we want Him to do and it doesn’t mean that He isn’t just as good and just as faithful.  I have learned that God sometimes uses our pain and our weakness to show His power.  Though the pain we have walked through has been unimaginable, He still brings hope.  How is that? you may ask. The God who can perform miracles, yet sometimes chooses not to, still decided to perform a miracle in the healing of my heart.  So even though God didn’t give me what I asked for, and chose to ask us to give up our only child, I am honored that He felt that with Him, we could make it through this.  Even though He said no to what we asked, He did say that His grace is sufficient.  It truly has been. Though I hope and pray no one goes through anything like what we have been through, I do hope others will see that through our pain and weakness He will be strong and give us His grace if only we will let Him.

CL: Elliana passed away after just seven weeks with you. Do you feel that your trust in God has changed since then?

Sarah: Yes, trust to me is not trusting God to do what I want or even what I prefer.  Trust is literally giving up the reins and saying “God, have your way, even if I don’t understand it.”  I don’t think that kind of trust comes from living life when everything goes the way you hope.  It is a different way of living life and a different way of seeing that which He has given you. Even now, choosing to trust God is a choice I have to make daily.  My faith isn’t something I “feel,” at least not very frequently; it has become what I must have each day to make it through.   He has to be my source, or I fall apart.

CL: In what ways does God make your heart glad now, even as you are still grieving for your daughter?

Sarah: Probably the biggest way has been through our joy in expecting our second child.  Just 2 ½ months after Elliana passed away we found out we were pregnant again.  Now, 27 weeks along, we recently found out we are expecting a little boy and that he is healthy and strong!  What joyful news for us! We have found that after all we have walked through, we cannot take a day for granted.  Expecting and giving birth to a healthy child is a huge gift that many parents take for granted, and I can say for us it is one of the biggest blessings we will ever be given.  I still struggle with trusting our child’s life into God’s hands, knowing that only He knows the future of this little one. and of all our lives as well.  But, His grace truly is sufficient for each and every day.  So, no matter what comes, He is faithful and full of goodness.

            Another way that God has made my heart glad is in memories of Elliana. It may sound odd, but God has helped me remember her with joy and hope.  I loved being her mother and it was one of the greatest joys of my life.  I can look back, and even though she died, I would never change any of it.  Yes, I wish she were here, but even knowing what would happen in advance, I would go through it all again because of the joys of loving her.

        Another huge blessing God has given that I am able to rejoice in is my husband.  God has brought us together in ways I never thought He could do through the grief of losing our child.  Because of the pain we have faced together, we can look at life and be thankful for all we have been given.  Even in the midst of the pain, God has given us times of such deep joy, laughter, and a love for life that I can only attribute to Him. 

 CL: Is there any advice you can offer to those of us who want to help a friend or family member through a difficult loss?

Sarah: The biggest blessing for me has been those people who are willing to sit and listen.  They don’t try and solve the problem or the pain of grief; they simply are there with me to hear whatever I have currently been working through.  A mother who lost her 18 year old son shared with me the most helpful, compassionate words she heard in her process of grieving, given by a friend: “I will never tire of hearing stories about him.  Even if they’re the same ones over and over again.  I’ll always be here to listen.”  That to me is one of the greatest things a person can do.  No matter if the day is full of joy or sorrow; they are there to help by simply being there. 

              Our pastor also said something to us that has been so true for my husband and I.   He explained that in the body of Christ our sorrows are halved and our joys are doubled.  I believe that is what the body of Christ is meant to be, caring and loving even in the midst of hurt that is unspeakable. 

CL: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Sarah: Sometimes we strive to live a life of comfort and ease without pain.  However, I am reminded that if pain is not in our life at all, we really aren’t living.  We live in a fallen world, and to experience no pain is really not possible.  It is through our pain that God can pour indescribable joy into us, and a hope unlike any other.  Still, God leaves the choice to us, will we let trials create distance between us and our relationship with Him, or will we cling to Him, allowing Him to transform us and make us more like Him?  Somehow through the pain of losing a child, God has brought an even greater understanding of who He is and through this heartache; I have learned even more clearly how good He is.  How awesome that we serve a God who is not only faithful, but brings hope in the midst of despair, joy for sorrow and complete restoration to our hurting hearts.

If something in Sarah’s story connected with you, we would love to hear about it.  Are you struggling with a loss right now? Let us know so we can be there with you.

As always, may your heart be glad!

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.

Spread a Little Hope, Part 2: Orphans and Widows

Greetings, Reader! We are going to talk today about a specific area in which you can spread hope to the world around you. If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, go check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you… Alright, got it? Good, now we can move on.

So, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot lately. Even if you don’t, stick with me, because I think you will agree with what it has to say here. The specific book I’ve been focused on is the book of James, which is historically accepted as being written by the brother of Jesus. I mention that to point out that he would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, who is recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as having quite a bit to say regarding the right way to treat other people (He was pretty big on caring for “the least” among us). Here’s what James has to say: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles.” Other translators have used the words “undefiled” and “unblemished” instead of “lasting”. Let’s focus in on what the author is saying here. He’s assuming that there are kinds of religion, and a multitude of ways that people express their religion. James makes the unequivocal statement that none of those things matter if they don’t put a high priority on caring for the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I think we can all agree that a lot of religion has historically been defiled and blemished by its adherents. Crusades, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, forced conversions…the list could go on and on.

Why do religious people get caught up in defiling their religion? Because they have lost the focus of what “pure and lasting religion” is really about. It is not about power, it is not about mandating any form of belief or behavior, it is not about earning a better place in heaven. It’s about love. Jesus, that famous brother of James, put it pretty clearly: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. And I can’t think of a single religion or a belief system that would disagree, except for perhaps Utilitarianism, which is not real popular… Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a universal moral imperative. We innately know that it is the right thing. And yet, we often do a pretty abysmal job of following this imperative.

Not that we don’t want to do it. Organizations and movements which at the very least claim to help the “orphan and widow” abound. Many of us are content to let them do the actual work, while we send them some money. Isn’t it nice that we can help out these “poor folks” without ever having to interact with them? (Note the sarcasm.) Our governments are also have a finger in the pie. With this being an election year, we are going to continue hearing a lot of very strong opinions as to how much the government can and should be doing to help the “least of these” in our society. There are some valid reasons to be having that debate, but that’s really not what I’m concerned with. Because the imperative we’re talking about today didn’t say anything about pure and undefiled government (as if!) being characterized by caring for the financially and socially downcast. It was about religion, and religion is about people. James (and Jesus) mean us. I see you there, looking at the person next to you. Cut it out. I mean you. You need to be caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure, it’s not what you were planning on when you got up this morning, but it’s where we’re headed now.

Still with me? Good. Let’s make this practical. So you don’t have an orphanage right down the street from you?No streetchildren wandering in front of the bus stop on your way to work today? Sorry, you’re not off the hook just like that. The fact is, there are orphans and widows in your town, and there are lots of ways to find them. Community services centers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and a whole variety of non-profits in your community can all direct you to those in need.

But even more than just looking for the actual orphans and widows around us, let’s think about what James really meant by calling our attention to those two specific groups of people. In the first century, your position in society was tied to the position of the men in your family. Your father, your husband – they determined where you stood in the eyes of the community. So to be without that father or husband practically meant that you had no place in society. You were totally at the mercy of others. Often, those others didn’t feel very compelled to care for you. They had enough to do to take care of themselves, or so they thought. James said this wasn’t the case. Not only did people have the ability to care for others, they had no choice – he says we “must” care for the orphans and widows.

In our society today, there is a much wider variety of people who are what we might call financially disadvantaged or socially oppressed. Race, geography, education, religion and politics are all contributing factors. All of those factors need to be addressed. But that’s not the imperative we are talking about here. What did James say? He said we much care for the oppressed “in their troubles”. Not in the socio-historical background of their troubles. Not in the generational cycle of their troubles. He said in their troubles. Where they are right now. The care we are to give is immediate, obvious, and effective.

What does this mean for us? It means giving up our free evening and babysitting to give a single parent a night off to have fun or pursue a hobby or work on his or her degree. It means mentoring children who do not have adequate parental involvement. It means sitting and listening to a friend who has just lost her husband for hours even if you have other things that “should” be done.  It means welcoming a refugee or immigrant and making them feel like a part of the community. It means visiting the elderly lady on your block that hardly ever gets out of her house. It means loving and helping those around you without expecting to get anything in return.

Trust me, Reader, in writing this I was just as challenged as you are right now. I know I’m not anywhere near close to perfect. But I’m trying. Because when I come to my last days, I want to have been part of something pure and lasting.

Peace Be With You