Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Morning exercise

It's still dark outside. But instead of watching the morning unfold from my usual perch behind the counter at work, I'm propped up against a pillow on a window bench at my favorite cafe in Ballard, observing the quietness of the usually bustling street as it wakes up. The rain falls steadily outside, painting drizzly streaks of polka dots down the window. Rap music fills the cozy, hip French cafe, an odd juxtaposition to a dark and drizzly morning. I don't work until later this morning, and tempting as it was to stay curled up in bed, I wanted to seize a rare opportunity to enjoy the morning from the other side of the coffee counter. I figured I could use the reflection time to set the course for this day, something that's gotten lost in my early morning work schedule. It's much harder to be intentional about starting the day out right when very little stands between waking up and starting work.

Hmm, intentionality, it seems I have lost you at some little juncture on the road. And I wonder why, when I hit the ground running each day, it becomes harder and harder to live out of a full reservoir. The "fruit of the Spirit", which I memorized long ago in Sunday school, may not be as evident in my life as I'd like to believe they are. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Just reading this list is an exercise in humility for me. If these qualities are hallmarks of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, then friends, I confess I'm sorely lacking. And it comes back to that weighty little word, intentionality.

I've been thinking a lot lately about gratitude. About how easy it is not to notice God throughout the day, and in that lack of intentionality, that lack of seeing and hearing and touching and tasting and sensing, how hard it is to cultivate a daily perspective of gratitude. I hate to oversimplify life, to reduce things to a formula or a "key" to unlocking something profound. I'm not going to do that. But I've been thinking, if there were a key to living each day fully, what if it began with gratitude? Gratitude, like love, is a continual choice. I make the choice every day to live from a place of gratitude, even some days in spite of the challenges that are present, whether physically or in circumstance or emotion. I can choose to respond out of gratitude or react out of my unrestrained self. I can make the choice to speak kindly and gently, to be quick to listen and slow to anger, every bit as much as I can make the choice to speak quickly and sharply out of irritation.

I'm beginning to appreciate that gratitude and the fruit of the Spirit are exercises, developing spiritual muscles that don't just show up without intentionality and hard work. I may not like that, but I've got to admit, it appears to be true. Like physical fitness and toned muscles, these desired qualities and attitudes do not magically appear on their own. I've got to go after them, every day, relentlessly cultivating them in my life. No, actually, relentlessly coming to God and admitting that I cannot cultivate them on my own. I need the help of the Spirit. And herein lies the difference between self-help and God-help. Living out of gratitude and the fruit of the Spirit is not ultimately something I can achieve by simply having the right strategies, reading the right books and trying hard enough. It takes commitment on my part, but God does a lot of the work if I can be humble enough to admit I need his help. Every day.

The question is, if all I can ever be certain of is that I have been given this moment, what will I choose to live out of - gratitude or forgetfulness?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


What opening line could I begin my new chapter with? What would set the tone of the story to unfold? Today God clearly penned the first sentence on my heart: Thankfulness. It's too common to lose sight of God during the activities of the day, of the week, to take for granted that some things just happen because they should and to get frustrated or disappointed when things don't happen as (I think) they should. I take the gifts that God has given me and think, perhaps not deliberately but in my heart, that they are expected of Him. Such pride, softly disguised, seeping in, when everything is actually a gift graciously given. Even my very life is a gift sustained by the will of God as long as He chooses.

So I ask myself the question the pastor posed today at church: How much feast does God have to spread for us before we think, "Wow!" ? What has happened to the wonder, to my capacity to be thankful for both the pleasant and the unpleasant, because at the very least, I still have Christ? And I dare say I would never utter that He is not enough; yet that is how I tend to live.

I'm at a point in my story where it calls for the development of a new kind of faith. My "old" faith, the one I lived with up until my Papa died, was real and served me well through many things. But it all but crumbled in the wake of that disaster. It has taken me quite a while to see that my old faith was based on the principle of, "Live as if my dreams must come true and my fears not come near me." After nearly a decade of those dreams not coming true and my fears pounding down my door, I withdrew from God, as if He were suddenly a stranger, no longer safe.

I could write much more on that, and likely will as I go, but for now I will capture what is to be central to the foundation of my new faith. Simply put, if I cannot learn to be thankful for Christ through whatever comes along in the plot of my life, I cannot be thankful for anything. I've said it before, and it is time to remind myself again, that God owes me nothing. It is time for a faith that learns to truly hold my life and everything in it with open hands, an open heart.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chapter one

I remember hating to lose as a kid. Not always because I couldn't stand the thought of someone else being better than me, as much as I couldn't stand the thought of my best effort not being good enough. Falling short was failure, and failure was bad; I obviously wasn't trying hard enough. So, I grew up being very competitive - with myself mostly. And it appears this mindset, threaded throughout my story, has prevailed throughout my life.

Maybe that's how I ended up sitting in a counselor's office recently, complaining of feeling stuck in life. My story seemed to come to a grinding halt over two years ago, when my Papa died, and the only story that I continue to tell is one of loss, marked by that tragic moment when my world as I knew it collided. My faith, my identity, my sense of purpose and direction in life, all seemed to crash and burn, and I haven't known how to pick up those pieces again. So miserable as it can be, I have continued to live and relive in that story, reading and writing the same page over and over again, hoping to make some sense of it enough to turn the page. I wrote months ago of being in a place of needing to turn the page and not knowing how. Even then, I finally admitted it was likely due to fear, but I still fought taking complete ownership of it.

Like a little girl losing at a card game, I decided I didn't like this losing business and set my cards down, walking away. I don't want to play this game anymore, I suck at it. In other words, this story isn't working out for me, not the way I planned. I began to sink into a funk, a bit of a depression, looking alright on the outside but full of anxiety, fear and failing hope on the inside. Funny how clearly this screams "control freak" and I thought I'd dealt with that already. As my counselor described, I've been frustrated that God isn't driving my car like I've asked him to, and yet I won't get out of the driver's seat. Last time I checked, two people can't drive a car. Oops, there's that "C" word again.

And then, the epitome moment came. That "aha" moment in the counseling office when I realized what needs to change. Not my circumstances per se, but me. Beginning with my beliefs. How easy, and yes, sometimes convenient, it can be to hide behind pain. To call myself a failure, to believe nothing good lies ahead for me in life, that my story has failed and now I'm stuck with what I've got, oddly enough there's something I benefit from with these beliefs. A false sense of security. If I'm a failure and I can't do much about it, I'm exempt from taking a risk that might lead to more failure. The familiarity of my failed story, painful as it is, can feel more comfortable than turning the page and beginning to write a new story. A new story whose ending I don't know, let alone what unfolds in the first chapter.

It requires laying down my illusion of control, as I like to call it (since, let's face it, none of us really have control), and deeper, choosing to believe God's character. There's a difference I'm well aware of between believing in God and believing God. One is more an intellectual acknowledgement, and the other, comprised completely of faith. And I'm thankful right now for my counselor, who having read some of my writings, is strong and wise enough to hold them up in front of my face and ask me, essentially, are these just words? Or do you intend to act on them?

It can be deceptively easy to put words on paper (or on a screen), sending theological and philosophical questions out into the stratosphere, and call that good enough. Sure, the questions in life seem to far outnumber the answers, but that doesn't mean there aren't answers. It's easy to ask questions, to feel helpless in the silence, but it's a hell of a lot harder to say, I may not know why my story is turning out this way and I certainly didn't choose all of this, but I can choose how I will respond to it and what I will believe about God, myself and life. I can choose to believe that a different story is not necessarily a bad story. And what I've deemed as failure isn't necessarily a failure at all, as much as a change of plot.

I've never wanted to be someone who writes what they cannot live out, so here I am, committing to the drafting of a new chapter with the true Author. Let the pages turn, I'm ready to be unstuck.