Monday, May 16, 2011

The secret

These words have always held such mystery to me. And the author, the apostle Paul, spoke of his discovery as a secret. Probably one of those "obvious but not" secrets. Obvious, that is, if you have eyes to see. Obvious, if your fingers are uncurled and you lay them, palms up, to the heavens. When I hear these words, they are in a hushed voice, imploring my soul to hunger:

"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little." (Philippians 4:11-12, emphasis mine).

Paul didn't discover the secret. He didn't read about the secret. No one told him the secret, not even God booming his voice down from heaven. Paul said he learned the secret.

I like to think of myself as a quick learner. In part, I imagine, because I'm a recovering perfectionist. I want to get it "right" and I don't want it to take very long. Some things, however, just take time to learn, no matter how quick a learner you are. Learning Spanish fluently, for instance, cannot happen in a week or three months or even a year. It takes time. If learning a new language takes a lot of time, I think a secret of this magnitude - for what he's claiming is no small feat - must also take a great deal of time, discipline and commitment.

But what is this secret he's referring to? In a word, contentment. But contentment stems from some deeper source, flows from a deeper well. It flows from a well of thankfulness. It flows from a heart that possesses the ability to receive whatever God pours down from the heavens, whether good or painful, much or little, empty stomach or full stomach, open-handed "yes" to God's gifts.

It's not for many months of the year that my sunglasses get much use here in Seattle. Just as often, I'll pull them out on mostly cloudy days as days spilling over with sunshine. The sunglasses I have now are the normal tinted kind, the kind that make everything a bit darker and more saturated in color, but my favorite sunglasses have been the kind that color my vision of the world with a different hue. When I wear those kinds of glasses, I see the world differently. I appreciate ordinary things with a different eye.

I think that's another part of the secret Paul's referring to. Living the fullest kind of overflowing-with-thankfulness life that teaches contentment and abounds in joy requires a new kind of eyesight.

I haven't read much of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry, but I have felt a depth of connection with one of his famous statements since I first happened upon it several years ago: "Did I tell you? I'm learning to see." The eyesight of gratitude is a learned trait. I must be willing to put aside my old vision, my ingratitude, my fears and anxieties and lack of trust in God's goodness, and take up a new pair of sunglasses. Not just for one day or for a week, but day after day after day, for year after year after year, until my eyes actually adapt a different sort of vision, as natural as breathing the air that fills my lungs thousands of times each day.

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