Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Gets Me Out of Bed

quote by Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness)

I have little use for George Burns. He belonged to the prior generation and I never got his humor. However, he did say one thing I remember. When asked what advice he would give about what it takes to live a long, productive life, he simply replied “Don't stay in bed.” 

Today what got me out of bed was poetry. My dad’s. My own. A woman wrote from Maryland this week asking for music for one of my dad’s songs. She and her sisters had learned it from listening to one of our record albums and it would make a good theme song for an upcoming women’s retreat and would I be willing to allow them to have a copy of the printed music. Of course I said yes, and multiple copies were fine, and off I sent a PDF version I scanned out of my dad’s song book.

As I mused on it this morning, I realized the song was my father’s take on Psalm 23, which he named the Good Shepherd Psalm.  What’s more interesting is, the day before, I had written my own version of this psalm, in part, for my husband, who is drawn to the old westerns and grew up reading Louis L'Amour paperbacks.

A poem started to rise about all this, and what gets me out of bed, but now that I’ve posted both my dad’s poem and my own, the original poem I rose to write has gotten tired of waiting and left me sitting here stranded.

So, enjoy my Dad’s view of Psalm 23 here.

and my quirky take here.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

More Uncommon Prayers



"Oh, my Father, I have moments of deep unrest—moments when I know not what to ask by reason of the very excess of my wants. I have in these hours no words for Thee, no conscious prayers for Thee.

"My cry seems purely worldly; I want only the wings of a dove that I may flee away. Yet all the time, Thou hast accepted my unrest as a prayer. Thou hast interpreted its cry for a dove's wings as a cry for Thee, Thou hast received the nameless longings of my heart as the intercessions of Thy Spirit.

"They are not yet the intercessions of my spirit; I know not what I ask. But Thou knowest what I ask, oh my God. Thou knowest the name of that need which lies beneath my speechless groan. Thou knowest that, because I am made in Thine image, I can find rest only in what gives rest to Thee; therefore Thou hast counted my unrest unto me for righteousness, and hast called my groaning, Thy Spirit's prayer."


Rev. George Matheson, 1842-1906
in More Uncommon Prayers



Photo Credit: Depositphotos 26333899

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Shack - a book review of sorts



Originally released in 2007, this book created quite a stir in certain circles. I wasn’t ready to read it then, for the simple stated reason that I refused to read fiction (but that’s another blog post for another time). Not even when one of my closest friends begged me to read it because she was desperate to discuss it with me, I held firm in my resolve. The deeper, underlying reason was that I was in a dark period of doubt regarding God’s love and goodness. I didn’t need some off-the-wall view of a different sort of divine presentation to mess with my carefully constructed fort of self-protection. I avoided mystery. I wanted “Just the facts, ma’am!”

The protagonist in the book, Mack, was a black and white kind of guy. A pretty average husband and father with average nice kids. He’d had some pretty painful experiences though, like many of us, as he was growing up and they colored his view of God. This was only compounded when his youngest daughter was kidnapped and murdered. The character development and this part of the story takes about the first eighty pages. His heart snapped shut to grace. He considers suicide. At this point in the book, the story turns to how he encounters God in a completely different form than his perceptions had previously allowed.

So how did I come to finally pick up this book? I started in a cohort to become a Spiritual Director. I began to engage in Listening Prayer. What startles me most is the very clear experience of hearing, sensing, seeing, feeling and encountering God in ways far different than anything I had previously known. 

My most significant encounter with God to date (which turned me on my ear) was immediately following Brent’s suicide. It was trauma, similar to Mack losing his daughter. But God’s presence was immediate: an aura of light, consuming love and promised provision were clear and physically tangible, coming and going over the next few days and weeks. I was held. My doubt was gone. God is good and God is love. I don’t understand it, but I’m willing to embrace the mystery. I am carried and cared for.

Since then, I have come to hunger for a more intimate knowledge of and relationship with this God who has made known to me the reality of Presence.

So, I thought, why not read the book? Why not stretch my imagination to include a God that might possibly show up in all sorts of unusual ways? After all, God's “ways are high about our ways" and God's "thoughts are not our thoughts.” And as it says in the book of Hebrews, “God spoke in diverse ways at diverse times”.

If you have trouble grasping the idea of a God that could show up as an older, pleasant, loving, black woman, or you read the book and hate it, Mack says “Sorry…but it wasn’t primarily written for you.” Then again, maybe it was.

I wasn’t ready for it in 2007. I was ready for it this week.

There’s a little bit of story and a lot of dialogue. As far as writing goes, there’s a lot more “telling” than “showing” but there is very descriptive language. There are some terrifying scenes involving a serial killer, kidnapping and the resulting devastation on a family. There are impossible to believe encounters with the Trinity in bodily form (remember, it’s fiction), and yet those encounters seem not only plausible but they articulate complicated truths and make them accessible in a way that goes far beyond any theologian I’ve ever heard wax eloquent in a pulpit or on a blog. It’s written respectfully and lovingly and I closed the book in awe-struck wonder, fresh with child-like faith at the possibilities of how God can reach into our world, come as a baby, grow up as a human, setting aside the right to exercise the power of deity and become our redeemer and life-giver.

Some of the questions about God’s appearance are the first subject to be addressed when Mack encounters the Trinity: “…I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear…as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you… To reveal myself as a large, white grandfather with a flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce religious stereotypes.” (p. 94). Mack admits all his stereotypes of God were very white and very male, but because of his negative experience with his own father, he would have been resistant to God appearing as Father. That God appeared as a black female showed compassion and skirted Mack’s resistance to God’s love.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book to discover how God the Son and God the Holy Spirit take tangible form. Remember, this is the writer’s imagination and yet I found it intriguing and delightful to imagine along with him.

As I continue to read, I appreciate the dialogue and interactions between Mack and the members of the Trinity. Mack, of course, can’t believe what is happening. Yet, the author creates a warm and welcoming series of scenarios in which I found it quite easy to imagine myself in Mack’s place.

There are well-articulated explanations on all sorts of subjects. I began making notes, because I want to be able to go back and reference some of the quotes on these various subjects: the humanity of Jesus,  the concept of “being” vs. external appearance; how God’s sovereignty and human free will intertwine and happily co-exist; punishment vs. discipline; the problem of evil, pain and suffering; man’s independence from God exercised in creating power-based institutions like religion, politics and economics; true freedom, the appropriate place for judgment; the nature of heaven; and so much more.


I have learned long ago that God, the creator of the universe, the one who knows my name and numbers the hairs of my head is far beyond my understanding. I cannot create God in my image and no one on earth can conceive the expanse of God’s character, form and being.

What I do know is that God is a verb. Active, living, dynamic. And God is a noun. Three persons, distinct yet One. The trinity has invited me into fellowship. Christ has given me his life. The Holy Spirit is present in me, with me, around me, working through me to live the perfect life of Christ out of my humanity. God speaks and I want to tune in to hear; to surrender to this Love, this Goodness.

This gives me great confidence and I often sing and speak out of these truths. I am learning to rest and wait on the Lord, depending on the leading of the Spirit in both large and small ways. Do I have it figured out? Ha. No way! I still have bouts of fear, on occasion, in short bursts. Anxiety triggered by a current event that causes fixation on what should be a simple, uncomplicated issue which I cannot comprehend. I make choices or speak words that may hurt others, unintentionally, when I act out of my core issues of abandonment, insignificance, unworthiness. But I’m learning to tell myself the truth: that God is with always with me, God is especially fond of me (and of you), and considered me (and you) worthy of redemption. Most importantly, I am surrendering to God’s love, opening my heart and mind to God’s truth through the scriptures, through my pastors and counselors, through my spouse and friends, through nature, through circumstances (both satisfying and difficult) and through stories like The Shack.

But most intimate of all, in addition to all of these, God speaks to me in personal relationship, through listening prayer, through meditation, through impressions, through imagination, through reason, through feelings, and sometimes through dreams.

“I am come that you might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus said.

So, while I have breath, my prayer was, is and always will be, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth (in me, right now, here, today) as it is in heaven.”

The best way – the only way – to know God is to be in relationship.

If you are curious, read the book. Visit the website. Read what others think. Read what the author has to say.

As for me, I’m just a girl, standing here in front of you, asking you to believe God loves you and that God is not at all what or who you think. This book might just help you understand why.


But if you don't like it or don't get it, that's okay. God will go to any length down any road to find you. And when that happens, I kind of suspect you may just find everything you've been looking for.

Blessings,
Joyce






Tipping the Scale toward Health


A friend fell off the wagon regarding her diet. She said “I blew it,” and asked how people stay motivated. What follows are some of the thoughts I shared with her, since I’ve found some limited progress after carrying extra weight for many years.

Please note: I'm not telling you what to do or whether any of this will work for your particular body, personality or metabolism. I'm just sharing some of the things that make a difference when I do them. I don't always do them but I do them more often than I used to. Every effort I make increases my quality of life. I am healthier now physically, emotionally and spiritually than I have been in decades and I live with an overall sense of well-being far beyond anything I've ever known. Try what you like, discard the rest. Listen to your own body. Perhaps you’ll find something in this that twigs for you.

A few years ago, I realized I needed to get healthy. I wrote about the entire process in my last post but didn’t elaborate on detail regarding the physical side: fitness, weight reduction, nutrition. In the past year I’ve dropped 30 pounds, slow and steady, without really “trying”.

What finally made the difference?

I decided to focus on feeling good and becoming healthy, rather than weighing a certain weight or wearing a specific clothing size. Being healthy and fit brings lasting satisfaction. Clothing and image are only temporary ego boosters and don’t meet the deeper need of self-respect.

I began to practice self-kindness. My friend didn't "blow" it. One day off track does not signal failure. Watch the language you use when you talk to yourself. Would you talk that way to a colleague? A friend? A spouse? Encourage yourself the way you encourage them. Be respectful of yourself and your own emotions. Think of one thing you've accomplished and express gratitude for it. Treat yourself to non-food rewards. 

Examine nutritional choices. Proven methods bring predictable results. Eat a broad spectrum of food from all food groups but just in smaller portions. Eat balanced meals at regular intervals made from whole foods (anything that doesn’t require an “Ingredients” label), drink lots of water or non-caffeinated teas. Certain foods bring physical cravings and can cause emotional crash. Be careful with the carbs and sugar. They mess up my head and my emotions when taken apart from protein. Like drinking liquor on an empty stomach, eating carbs or sugar without protein gives your system a sucker punch. And speaking of liquor, most alcoholic drinks are high in calories and serve little to no nutritional value. They also remove inhibitions and make self-control more difficult.

Be aware of your body’s monthly cycles. Weight and bloating increase during certain days. Your body is affected by something you can't control, but you can learn to be aware and manage it more effectively by soldiering through the few days when your mood swings are worst.

The bottom line is, you must spend more calories than you consume. Get your body moving, even if it's just a short walk and do short bursts of exertion. Even ten minutes a day or taking the stairs instead of the escalator all add up over time.

Learn to calm or energize yourself to break the habit of emotional eating or eating out of boredom. When you eat, sit down and savor every bite rather than absentmindedly chewing while watching a show or working or surfing online. Try to sleep at least 8 hours per night. Our bodies rebuild and reset themselves in sleep. Watch a movie, write a poem, listen to quiet music, sing, have a long bath or hot pounding shower, meditate, draw a picture, call a friend, take a walk, read a novel, whatever engages your mind and relaxes your body so you are able to focus on something other than your diet.


Get professional help, if needed. 1) See a naturopath to test food sensitivities and nutritional deficiencies. Our bodies crave what we aren’t getting in our diet. I dropped wheat and soft drinks and lost 18 pounds. 2) Engage a trainer to help you find the most effective exercises for your body type and problem areas. I didn’t lose much weight from this but it built muscle mass and increased heart health while sculpting and toning my shape. I still have a long way to go but I'm much more able to move, bend and exert myself now than before. 3) Find a psychologist who can help you work through things that cause emotional eating or binge eating. Many compulsive habits have their roots in old wounds. You can't heal what you don't acknowledge. This was a big one for me. I try not to "emotional eat" any longer. And here's a thought: If you intentionally eat alone or hide what you're eating from those around you, that's a red flag. When you do this, you're only hurting yourself.

Allow for cravings. Denying myself doesn't work. If I crave a Snickers bar, I have one. Just one. Or even just a bite or two. Not often. But I have found when I drink a glass of water and/or eat a healthy item first (apple, orange, banana, small piece of cheese, a few nuts and/or raisins) and I rarely still crave the high sugar option. I ask myself, "Am I really hungry or am I eating out of boredom, habit, compulsion?" Occasionally, I still eat the sweet treat. I savor it but I don't reach for the second or the third like I used to. If you eat absentmindedly, measure out a portion and put the rest away. One naturopath suggests being strict six days per week and eating whatever you want on day seven. I’ve not done this, but she swears by it. Perhaps it would work for you.

Focus on something other than food. Avoid calorie counting or detailed tracking systems – it just keeps you fixated on food. Only weigh once per week and use it as an indicator, not an alarm or measure of success. If you're always thinking about your diet, it's self-defeating.

Hang out with people who are where you want to be, who have proven success, rather than people who are struggling with the same issues or people who don’t respect your restrictions and try to get you to indulge. Keep in mind, everyone is unique and what works for one may not work for everyone. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s a “best” way to do something. Listen to your body.

Remember that every day is a new beginning. New mercy. New beauty. New start. You can do this. One day at a time.



Blessings,
Joyce



Stock photos purchased under standard license from depositphotos.com

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

January Inventory



So much of what I'm reading online these days sounds like many of you are experiencing post-Christmas crash and crush from looking at all the coming challenges of the new year. A few stave off January darkness by snowbirding south or snowboarding north. Those who can't escape bear down to work harder or smarter, resolve to declutter, lose weight, exercise more, make a life plan, do this, do that - all good things - but the undercurrent carries the despairing sense that we've been here before and nothing is ever good enough to exact lasting change.

Some are obsessed with "doing", goal setting and comparing (10 ways to Declutter, Four Steps to Improving, 7 Habits, The Best Way to Do the Right Stuff for the Wrong Reasons). Or learned apathy drives others to refuse, rebel, or mock the "resolutioners" with cynical humour or outright Debbie Downer criticism.

The depth, cold and darkness of winter, creeping age, fatigue, chronic pain all take their toll. Yet we seek to do, be, act, live better because our very nature is imprinted with the creative drive to do so.

I write this because I recognize the cycle in myself. The bleak midwinter wants to bury me emotionally under the long nights and piled snow. I have found some specific actions have made a lasting change for me. These are habits of which I still must remind myself daily. There are apps available to help track and/or remind me of activities and goals. Change does not happen overnight and even after good progress is made, change in circumstances or relationships (job, death, birth, marriage, etc.) unearth areas that have not previously been addressed. I'll list the order in which I began to tackle my own problem areas, but I don't think there is a particular formula. This is not a "how to" but rather a "what helped me" blog post. Start where you are, where you feel you are ready (or completely desperate) for change.

A. Emotional Health

I started here about five years ago. There is no easy button, no quick fix. I just knew I was a mess. Angry, overweight, depressed, and in deep need of healing.
We cannot heal what we don’t acknowledge. I addressed this in a two-pronged approach: support groups and professional counseling. I realized I was powerless over compulsive behavior and the tendency to do the wrong thing. I would often lose my temper with family and others. I saw the toll this was taking on everyone. My life had become unmanageable and I realized I needed help. I attended Freedom Session, http://freedomsession.org/  a modified 12-Step group based on emotional healing and the power of God. It provided tools that helped move me forward from where I was stuck in my hurts, habits and hang-ups. I learned to get out of denial, stop lying to myself, stop the blame game and identify the original wound being triggered by current events. It helped me learn how to heal.

In addition, I had been seeing a clinical psychologist for a number of years, since my son was born. When I started in 1994, I was suffering from post-partum depression but it was undiagnosed for three years. Later on, I met with her on occasion when life got overwhelming. I continue this practice. A professional is trained to support you in ways your friends and pastor cannot.

B. Mental Health.

Professional clinical counseling is also a great aid in mental health and intellectual processing, and I also cannot emphasize too strongly the need for many to have medication which helps resolve the chemical imbalance of the brain which often leads to irrational thought. Just as we take medication to keep our blood pressure stable or insulin to help diabetic conditions or other medicines which replace functions of organs that may have been damaged, we also must see there is NO stigma to taking medication to help the most important organ, our brain, to function as it is designed.

If our brains are working as they should, then we can reason and learn and absorb and make effective, healthy decisions. One way is through reading experts or inspirational writing which educates and encourages us and helps us to understand and act differently, in ways that will help us rather than harm us.

I read two significant books which assisted me in understanding two key areas in which I was stuck: perfectionism and discontent. Brene Brown's book "The Gifts of Imperfection" helped me stop beating myself up for always falling short of my ridiculously high expectations. And Ann Voskamp's "1000 Gifts" was a dare to live fully by opening my eyes to the beauty right in front of me, large and small, every day. To see it all as a gift. “Nothing is a given. Everything is a gift.”

C. Physical Health

I saw my doctor on a regular basis, yet I often did not disclose to him the true nature of how I was feeling until I was in crisis. My late husband struggled with depression and anxiety and this greatly impacted our relationship. While I could not help him, I had to help myself. Like the airlines caution you about the oxygen masks, you need to put your own on before you help others, I needed to get better myself so I could be of any use to him. Sadlly, he refused to see a counselor, a medical doctor or to consider medication for his condition, and this ultimately resulted in his suicide.

I put depression and anxiety under the “physical health” column because I believe the majority of these conditions start from physical causes, not “wrong thinking” or “spiritual failure”.

I decided to see a Naturopath who specialized in food sensitivities. She identified my intolerance for wheat in all forms and I eliminated it from my diet. I experienced an immediate lift in my physical health. The chronic heartburn almost immediately disappeared. My hiatal hernia stopped acting up, except in high stress situations. The Naturopath also put me on a regimine of vitamins, supplements and natural remedies for stress and anxiety. I began to feel better than I had for decades. I also significantly reduced my intake of soft drinks like Coke, stimulants like coffee and replaced them with unsweetened juices, herbal teas, water or club soda. I also reduced my sugar intake, which reduces inflammation and cravings.

After eight months I was finally ready to tackle my body shape and fitness. I set before me the goal of health, not just a certain body shape or a target weight. Exercise to feel good, not to feed your ego. Physical exertion in safe ways releases reward endorphins in your brain which help you feel good. I jump-started my program by signing up with a personal trainer.  I would arrive at our session feeling down, tired, discouraged and invariably I would leave rejuvenated and happy. On Nov. 27, 2012, I posted: “Amazing, how being pushed past my own perceived physical limits by my skilled trainer helps me see how strong I really am. Feels good. Taking nothing for granted. So grateful for this new period of health.”

There are also direct links between my nutritional intake and my emotional and mental health. I must drink at least two litres of water per day and eat balanced, whole foods, minimizing prepared foods high in salt and sugar (hint: choose foods that don’t have an ingredient label). Don’t be obsessed by tracking any one thing or denying yourself. Any extreme is unhelpful. To eliminate or emphasize any one food group (i.e. low carb diet, vegan, high-protein, and so on) is to put ourselves at risk to physical, emotional and mental disease, not getting the holistic natural nutrition our body and mind need to live in optimal health.

D. Spiritual Health

I have always believed in the power of the scriptures, as the Living Word of God, to be spiritual food, a truth anchor in the midst of mood swings, or a thermostat that controls the emotional temperature of my life, a fertile garden where I can grow and gain wisdom. Two other significant books I read during this time were Brennan Manning’s “The Furious Longing of God” that helped me understand how much God pursues me, is crazy about me, and loves me completely. As you can understand, this goes a long way toward emotional healing as well as spiritual. The other book was “The Inner Voice of Love”. This is Henri Nouwen's journal from the most difficult period of his life, when he suddenly lost his self-esteem,  his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God. Although he experienced excruciating anguish and despair, he was still able to keep a journal in which he wrote a spiritual imperative to himself each day that emerged from his conversations with friends and supporters. I found it not only resonated but encouraged me – a spiritual leader who was also depressed yet learned to see God and hear God’s voice in the darkness.

On Nov. 27 I also posted, “Some have lost faith because of terrible circumstances. Isn't that the time when you would most want to rely on God's strength, comfort, healing and love?” Please know that a few years before, I had nearly despaired and seriously questioned God’s love and goodness, due to very difficult circumstances of my life, but this statement shows the distance I had come in healing from that wounded place to the present moment of wanting to rely on God.

Little did I know that one week later my husband of 31 years would die by suicide. The presence of God in the moments and days following was so tangible, I could physically feel myself being held, covered, carried, by Love.

I don’t know where I would have been or how I would have survived if I had still been in the days of pain and denial. Sometimes these traumatic situations force us to a life change or a break down. I began reading the scripture again with renewed vigor, for all the strength I felt draining away in the crush of preparations needed to be restored. For months afterward I soaked in the trilogy of books written by Dr. David Benner: “Surrender to Love” which helped me discover the heart of Christian Spirituality, “The Gift of Being Yourself”, the sacred call to self-discovery, and “Desiring God’s Will”, which is all about aligning my heart with the heart of God.

Since those days two years ago, I have studied to become a spiritual director but found I am not yet emotionally strong enough to bear the deep burdens of others who are still in a very wounded place. I hope, one day, to delve more fully into this field.

E. Relational Health

Life is best lived in community. We clearly see what happens to those kept in solitary confinement. A supportive group of family and friends who encourage us, have the courage to care enough to confront us when needed, keep us accountable and point out where we might need to practice more healthy habits and behaviors.

I had two small groups: one of just a few women and a mixed group of six couples I/we met with on a weekly basis, some more often on a social basis: one on one for coffee and/or Bible study or just social time. They were my confidants, my soul-sisters, my brothers in Christ. I could tell them just about anything and know they would keep it in confidence, pray for me, help me work through it, even give wise advice if I asked. Several times, especially after my first husband’s death, I felt a great restlessness and was tempted to do something impulsive like quit my job or sell the house or run away. I would call one of those small group members and meet with them and they helped keep me steady. I am deeply indebted to each one who held me and helped me in my weak times.

So, there you have it. A long list of things I have done and continue to do. Through it all, I learned if I want to be different I have to BE different. Don’t continue doing the same things. Make the hard choice to do something more effective and keep it up, one day at a time, one step at a time.

F. Recreational Health

Finally, creative and recreational outlets are also important to having fun and getting moving in fun and enjoyable ways. I took up photography, glass fusion, swimming, hiking, camping, singing and renewed my writing, blogging and poetry. I even dabble in art and sketching and took a turn at scuba and parasailing. Others quilt, knit, crochet, cross-stitch, ride horses or motorcycles, snowshoe, ski, skydive, and the list is endless. These are the things that bring zest to life, the reason we want to be healthy – to enjoy all the good gifts in God’s beautiful creation.

I’m still in process, but I’m healthier now than I have ever been in every area I have discussed. I don’t take this for granted – I have to choose this every single day. I still battle areas where I haven’t yet had healing but I am so grateful for the life I have, the friends and family who support me and the God who created me to live in this kind of freedom.

I hope you might be helped by something here. If you have other books or practices that have helped you get unstuck and you would like to post about it in the comments, feel free.

Now go live and laugh and love.

Blessings,
Joyce


Friday, January 02, 2015

Retro Prospective



This morning my son and I shared the last pot of Kona coffee from a package I saved since our Hawaii trip last Christmas. One year ago, on the day I bought this luscious coffee, I never would have imagined how differently life would unfold in 2014.

It was a year of saying goodbye to…
  • my 16 year old dog
  • my roommate of eight months
  • my son calling this his permanent residence
  • singleness
  • serving the unrealistic agendas of others
  • my tightly held grasp on specific outcomes
  • denial
It was a year of saying hello to...
  • a full night’s sleep, almost every night
  • what I truly wanted in a relationship
  • a completely empty nest
  • joy and peace and contentment and gratitude
  • listening
  • satisfaction
  • marriage
  • who I really want to be
  • forgiveness
  • acceptance
  • laughter
I realize, in looking at this list, that most of these things said hello to me before I received them as gifts. And most have come within the context of relationship: with my new husband, with friends, with family, with the Lord.

None of these hellos or goodbyes were actually easy. I pondered long and hard about many, wrestled furiously (and repeatedly) with a few, some were forced on me, but most I had to choose. With intention, determination and/or surrender.

Few of these are a once-for-all, one-time event. Some take repetition, reminders, remembering that I’ve made the agreement to say yes or no. A few must be affirmed each morning, each evening.

We look at decluttering our homes. We understand getting rid of old habits. We think less often about decluttering our thinking and behavior or welcoming new scenarios and accepting joy without foreboding. It all shapes our lives into the most beautiful of realities: 

Living present in this moment, today.

Don’t make a future list of what needs to go away or come to your life. Promise yourself only one thing this year: be present. Speak it only to yourself. Promises spoken out loud trick the brain into thinking we've already accomplished what we've spoken and it releases the reward endorphin so we get the sense of accomplishment before the promise is actually fulfilled. Thus, we neglect to do the work necessary to actually keep our promise. Just whisper it to yourself: "Be present". In every moment, in every situation, in every joy, with every difficult person: be present, focused, attentive, fully engaged. Make this agreement with yourself. Honour yourself enough to keep your own solemn vow.

Release what you must.

Receive all that comes.


It’s the present.

Friday, December 26, 2014

So This is Christmas



I rise early, the scent of balsam strong draws me to turn on the Christmas tree lights in the still silent house. My first real Christmas tree will have a shorter display time than the artificial ones of my past 56 Christmases and I want to absorb it all while I can. I sit down where I can see the reflection of lights on my window out to a just-waking city.

We’ll take a cup of kindness, yet, and look back on the past few sparkling days.

We have been simply having a wonderful Christmastime. My love and I enjoy Christmas Eve services, along with my son, from the front row of a packed sanctuary at our home church where we met and fell in love. Next, his sons and other extended family join us at home for a pre-ordered take-home meal of Ginger Beef, Almond Gai Ding, Lemon Chicken and nine other dishes. A wonderful selection to grace our Table for Ten. We make history in our home with a new family union: his, mine and ours. After, we all gather round O Tannenbaum and exchange kindness and laughter, giving and receiving, blessing and absorbing. We laugh through memories of favorite Christmas movie moments from Home Alone 1 & 2, Elf, Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, The Grinch (animated and Jim Carey version), It’s a Wonderful Life, and more. We debate which seasonal games to play but there is not a jigsaw puzzle in sight.

A Pirate gift exchange could get out of hand but everyone laughs at the gifts and very little actual stealing happens. The air-inflatable Homer Simpson Santa is informally voted best gift for future practical jokes on certain roommates who will remain unnamed to protect the perpetrators. Some wild rounds of Crokinole ensue, insuring that re-matches will be necessary for years to come. Gluten-free white chocolate cheesecake and Christmas baking (from Tina, my sister-in-love) plus a little homemade chocolate (from me) tops off the night.


Christmas morning we all rise slow, and brother Brad presides over the making of Norwegian pancakes in our third almost annual Christmas brunch. Toppings include Summerland Sweets fruit syrups or good old Aunt Jemima; selections of peaches, raspberries, strawberries with whipped cream, or brown sugar and cinnamon. Some lazy day visiting, Crokinole and learning new card games (Five Crowns, Wizard, Quiddler, Things) and lovely music from the recently-tuned piano. A little reading, a couple video games, some NFL highlights and an afternoon catnap in the sun for the patriarch and everyone is prepped for turkey dinner.



The evening meal is crowned by a perfectly browned Butterball turkey with cranberry sauce and stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and fabulous mashed potatoes with turkey gravy. Chocolates, candies, pecan tarts and mints top off the feast.



We laugh ourselves hysterical Christmas night watching Home Alone 2, a standing tradition in Henry’s Christmases past. We go to sleep giggling and chortling over the various reactions to movie silliness even more than the ridiculous theatrical antics.

As we put on our nightcap and crawl into bed with visions of happiness all in our head, I find my Christmas card from my love on the pillow – words of affirmation, the best gift of all.


We sleep in heavenly peace.

Friday, November 28, 2014

You Deserve It




“I’m so happy for you. You deserve this!”

My friend Susan and I were talking yesterday and rejoicing in the beautiful love I’m experiencing in my marriage.

It’s a lovely sentiment expressed by a caring friend. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something similar to this. Yet, every time, I recoil at the word, “deserve”.

“I don’t feel like I deserve anything,” I said.

Why is that?

My friend means it as an encouragement but somehow I hear it with foreboding, unworthiness, even guilt. It seems inherent in the phrase is the suggestion that “deserve” smacks of entitlement. Like I’ve somehow earned the right to be happy.

Deserve? What do I deserve? Sure I’ve had my share of sadness. Even in that phrase, there is a comparative term: “my share”. As if, somehow, I have “paid my dues” and now I have “earned” the right to be happy.

Life is not a competition, although many might view it that way. Some even find it motivating to “work hard, apply myself, so I can reap the benefits and earn what I’m worth.”

“It’s endemic in our religious upbringing,” Susan quickly points out. I know immediately what she means. We know we can’t earn salvation, that because of sin we deserve the punishment of death, therefore we don’t deserve the grace that God lavishes upon us. It’s unmerited favor. That’s why it’s grace. It’s a free gift.

Rather than take this blog into a long, heated discussion of differing theological points of view – like some of my early family holiday dinner conversations (shudder – can you say “indigestion”?) think about how much of life is competitive.

“Faster, Higher, Stronger”
“Auditions will be held…”
“Job competition”
“Performance bonus”
“The Top 40” (this week)
“You get out of this what you put into it”
“I must be living right” or “I can’t do anything right”
“I really worked hard for this”

We track games, races, sports scores and team records, tracking stats and doing analysis at the micro level to find yet one more way to give comparative status to the value of each player or athlete. If we take Second Place by one-hundredth of a second, the only title given is “Loser”.

We have regular performance evaluations in our workplace and annual salary reviews, which determine our compensation for services rendered. There are salary grids for different job classes and corporate guidelines about how quickly one can move up in their range. Bonuses, commissions, profit-sharing are all based on “What have you done for me lately?” There are companies that specialize in quantifying the value of a role and creating quantifiable measures for individual experience and skill.

Profit is good, loss is bad. We strive to choose the best financial products to achieve the highest possible return on investment (ROI). We seek out the “most reputable” advice and “most comprehensive” research and investment advisors with the best track record in financial markets.
Ultimately, the assumed truism is: “You earn what you deserve” or “You deserve what you earn”.

On the other hand, there are other voices using terms like:

“It’s God’s will/sovereignty/plan/judgment/punishment.”
“Karma!”
“How lucky can you get?”
“How fortunate!”
“Just my luck!”
“The odds were against me.”
“The tide is turning in my favor.”
“The whole universe just waits for me to get cocky, then slams me down.”
“We lost because I attended the game, I’m bad luck.”
“You must have a horseshoe up your a**.”
“It just wasn’t in the stars.”
“It’s destined to fail.”
“That was a fluke.”
“It’s like magic.”

This second list reflects an opposite extreme to the first list. I’m sure philosophers, psychologists, social scientists and theologians all have their own terminology for these two opposing world views regarding our “deservedness” for blessings and benefits. I’m not going to research specific terms or cite scholarly sources (although the OCD side of me really wants to).

I want to get back to “You deserve this”. It seems this phrase could be used with equal convictions on both sides of the pendulum: grace or works. In my case, I fault on the “I didn’t earn it” side. (Please don’t comment on how worthy I am. I don’t write this to solicit any reassurances of my deservedness. In fact, I tend to dismiss that kind of sentiment).

I know when I’m giving my best and when I’m not. I know that many sad things have happened in my life and I spent more of the last couple decades grieving than celebrating. Yet I also crave affirmation when I have done a good job at something that mattered ANYTHING. In fact, I’ve spent my life measuring my worth by the applause of people. More recently, I’ve fought back against this compulsion and begun to understand the true measure of my worth is found in who I am, not what I do (but that’s another blog for another day).

I’m coming to the conclusion here that the key factor in any of this “deservedness” is not how I come to receive blessing or bounty, but rather, “Am I thankful?” Do I have a heart of gratitude? Do I have eyes to see the myriad of gifts that I have received?

When I am in a hard or dark place, I often think about the scripture’s instruction in the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: “Don’t worry about anything. Tell God what you need. Thank Him for everything he’s already done and peace will follow” (my paraphrase of Phil. 4:6).

I believe “every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17) and so God is the direct person to whom I offer thanks. But I don’t, not for one moment, believe that God gives these gifts because I deserve them. He gives them out of his rich generosity. Because God is love and all goodness, and thus, cannot give anything other than what is ultimately good for those who love him. He is a father who delights in giving good gifts to his children. Just like you.

So, whether I deserve it or not, I am grateful. And as I was looking for a proper conclusion to this musing, I thought of the phrase “after you have suffered a little while…”

It’s from 1 Peter 5:5-11
“… Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”  (ESV, emphasis mine)
Yes, I have suffered. Just like every person on earth suffers. Perhaps more, perhaps less. Some of my suffering has been by my own hand, poor choices or sinful decisions. These have been and continue to be confessed, forsaken and forgiven because Jesus died and rose again to pay the price for that 2,000 years ago. Thanks be to God!

Other suffering I’ve endured (sometimes not so patiently) has come by the hands of others who put me down, rejected, abused or abandoned me. All of this is in process of being healed, as I release it and extend forgiveness where needed. I am being restored. I am, through this process, being confirmed in my thoughts and attitudes. I am being strengthened and established not only in my faith but in the safe, caring harbor of a loving marriage.

Thanks be to God, who daily loads us with benefits. (Psalm 68:19, paraphrase)

Undeserved favor.

Grace.

I am SO grateful.