The secret to being content

Photo by Hannah Domsic on Unsplash

As I lean forward over the handlebars of my bike, tiny arrows of rain slant under my glasses and sting my lower eyelids, my upper cheeks. A laugh escapes as I savor the joy of this morning’s adventure, feeling a cool rivulet creep down the front of my jacket, and the puddles that have formed in the toes of my shoes sneak a little further back with each press of the pedal. I’m alive! For this half hour, I’m out in this beautiful world. And, most wonderful of all, Jesus and I are on this adventure together.

I can’t see the detail of the leaves beside the path today, but I know what I’d see if my vision wasn’t obscured by dozens of convex droplets, each their own little lens, changing the shape of the lenses I need to correct my vision. I’ve been watching the leaves on the thorny thimbleberry vines that creep along beside the path and climb into mounds of tangled vines. The berries are long gone, and since the cold snap a couple of weeks ago, the leaves have begun to change. But each leaf is dying differently. One still clings to its summer green except where tiny paths of gold creep along the veins and a rim of red tints the pinked edges.

Another is almost completely crimson, with hints of peach tracking each vein.

Another is turning from the tip, red creeping down into the center of the dark green leaf like a fire intent on consuming the whole.

Is it always in the dying, in the ceasing to cling to our lives, that we become most beautiful, most freely and fully ourselves?

This week I’ve been pondering Paul’s statement:

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12).

What was this secret that he knew? And why didn’t he share it with us? 

Or did he? 

I trace my way back through the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi and find that right at the heart of the letter Paul lays out the secret, and only at the end of the letter does he tell his readers that he has given them this treasure. 

Right there in the middle of the letter is this:

“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and may be found in him. . .” (Phil 3:8) 

The secret to being content no matter what life throws at you? Want Christ. 

Get to know Christ deeply enough that you learn to want, more than anything else, the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world, and that no one and nothing can take away from you.

We can’t make ourselves want something or someone by willpower. We can only get to know someone and let that Someone teach our hearts to love. It’s like a marriage, or the decision to have children, or to write a book or grow a business or pursue a vocation: you give up your independence in order to commit to something or someone. And, in the best cases, you do it not because you have to but because something is burning in you and you’ve discovered that you can’t live without that person, or you don’t want to, or that book just has to come out. In every choice, there is cost. But still we choose because we believe the gain is greater.

So get to know Christ, Paul says. Choose Him, and you’ll find that what used to feel like losses don’t bother you as much anymore because you’re in this together, you and the One in whose love you have made your home. 

But Paul offers his readers more than simply telling us the secret of contentment. He offers us behind-the-scenes steps to help us get to know Christ in that Christ-matters-to-me-more-than-anything-else kind of way.

Our part comes down to two simple steps: Focus, and enjoy. Keep looking for the fingerprints God leaves on our lives, and celebrate those signs of His love. Or, in Paul’s words, “Set your minds,” and “rejoice in the Lord.”

Focus:

 “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:1).

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 4:8).

And enjoy:

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).

For me, “focus” starts with a few sentences in a journal each evening. What am I most thankful for today? Where did I notice God’s presence and God’s good gifts, in my day? No matter what the day has held, there are always places I can rejoice in God’s goodness to me and his presence with me. And then I pause to enjoy resting quietly with God in that place of loving and being loved. And over time, the focusing creeps off my journal pages into my day and the enjoying follows even into rainy Sunday mornings.

And the moments and days I find it hard to keep my mind focussed on Jesus? There’s good news here too. First, from a neurological point of view, what creates new pathways in our brain is not the perfect maintenance of focus, but the turning again and again back to focus on God (Blanton, Contemplation and Counselling, p. 11). Refocussing helps retrain my mind to move naturally in that new direction.

Second, it’s not all up to me—thank God! As I keep choosing to turn my mind back to God, bringing my requests and my thanks to God, He’s right there protecting and helping me, surrounding me with his peace (Phil 4:6-7). As much as I want to keep growing in knowing Christ (a sure sign that God has already been deeply at work in me), He wants it more, and is right alongside, eager to help me notice His kindness and settle a little more deeply into His love.

God writes a better story

I sit in a classroom with ten other patients, learning together how to live better with chronic illness. I’m delighted to hear that the guiding principle for the course is the Serenity Prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

Our leader asks which we think is the most difficult—serenity, courage, or wisdom. All are difficult, and all are gifts, but he draws special attention to wisdom. It’s so easy to focus our efforts on all the wrong things, accepting things we could change while exhausting ourselves trying to change things that are out of our control. 

“The most important thing you can do to reduce your fatigue is to log your activity and your energy,” he tells us. Log it, and learn from it. He shows a graph demonstrating that patients who continually push past their limits soon find their energy shrinking still further, while the energy of those who respect their limits may over time gradually increase.

Fears of being lazy or selfish or irresponsible move from their front-row seats to seats a little further back, watching the proceedings, sensing something bigger at stake.

As difficult as it feels to to say no to a request, or to stop when I could finish a task if I just pressed on for fifteen more minutes, living within my limits is not a casual choice but a matter of stewardship, of obedience, of honoring my Creator who has entrusted to me this body and and a Hand-chosen ministry to live out through it—a ministry that I will only be able to fulfil if I care for this body He has shaped for me. 

Some of those sitting in the classroom with me have lived with illness for decades. Others are reeling with the anxiety about how their recent diagnosis will unfold in their lives over time. In the faces of some, peace. In the voices of others, resentment and bitterness and defensiveness, each person at a particular stage of accepting or fearing or fighting their limits. 

What makes the difference? What determines whether the pain that our particular life holds makes us bitter or shapes us into the image of the One in whom suffering was transformed into vibrant, unending life?

A few days before I sat in that classroom, I was catching up on a summer sermon. “God writes a better story,” Bruce Main said. The hopes of his team for the at-risk youth with whom they work are tidy and predictable: a college education, a stable job. But God often writes in their lives a different story, a messier and more painful story, but one that glistens with redemption. A young man gets picked up for trafficking, spends six years in jail, and as soon as he gets out sets up a barber shop in someone’s living room, offering free haircuts for the drug dealers and their kids while he shares his experience of being transformed by Christ. That’s not just a different story, it’s a better one, if we measure “better” not by control and absence of suffering but by the creativity and presence and power of our transforming God.

Not all of us have chronic illness or will spend time in jail. But all of us have limitations, and every life holds its share of suffering. What determines whether we allow the suffering to make us bitter or to shape us more deeply into the image of Christ? Many things, probably. (I’d love to hear what you find most helpful!) This week, for me, it’s the reminder that “God writes a better story,” and the choice to let go of the too-small stories that I cling to and to trust the wisdom and love of the Author of my story long before I can see the ending.

______________________

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

When God builds you a house

I had to smile when the Scripture was read last Sunday. Sometimes God isn’t subtle.
I’ve been confronting my limitations again lately—not just physical, but in every area of life. And I’ve sensed God inviting me to accept them. I’ve found myself asking the question, “Can I be okay with it if all I am ever able to do consistently is write a weekly blog post and listen with the few people who come to sit in the stillness with me and listen together for God’s voice in their lives?” I’m not saying that’s what will happen, only that I’m being invited to accept still more deeply this body, this personality, this small, good work entrusted to me as a gift from the One who created me and delights in me as I am. This time, I find myself able to  say, with freedom and joy (at least for this day!), “Yes. If that’s what you have for me, I can be fine with that.” Maybe I’m finally receiving more fully the rich gifts of being small—of being significant not because of what I do, but simply because God has created me and, because He treasures me, I matter.
Back to last Sunday. The reader ascended to the pulpit and began to read from 2 Samuel 7 the story of David asking to building a temple for God. Surely, David thought, after all God had done for him, it was time David gave something back. Surely it wasn’t right that David live in a palace of expensive cedar wood while the ark of God, the focal point of God’s presence, continued to live in a tent. At first the prophet Nathan, hearing David’s suggestion, agreed. “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”
But it was only a few hours before God spoke to Nathan correcting his assumption and telling Nathan to return to David with these words from God: “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? . . .  The LORD himself will establish a house for you.” (v. 5, 11)
I’ll never be able to hear that passage again without my mind jumping back to a time in the tiny Afghan village I called home for four years. After my first year working as a doctor in the project, I was asked to take on the role of project leader. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that the weight of being project leader as well as doctor was too much for me. Three months into the project leader role, agonizing over the possibility of having to admit I couldn’t do it, I was journaling my prayer. Lunchtime came, and I left the prayer on pause, grabbing Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall to read while I ate. Peterson was speaking about David’s natural desire to build a temple for God who had done so much for him:

““[David] quite naturally wanted to do something for God, who had done so much for him. He decided to build God a sanctuary. . . . God had blessed him with a place of honor and repose; he would bless God with a place of honor and repose. . .
But there are times when our grand human plans to do something for God are. . . a huge human distraction from what God is doing for us. . .
God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: ‘You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. . . .
‘Then King David went in and sat before the LORD . . .’ (2 Sam 7:18) David sat. This may be the single most critical act that David ever did, the action that put him out of action . . .
What we don’t do for God is often far more critical than what we in fact do. God is the beginning, center, and end of the world’s life—of existence itself. But we’re often unaware of God’s action except dimly and peripherally. Especially when we’re in full possession of our power—our education complete, our careers in full swing, people admiring us and prodding us onward . . . At these moments, we need prophetic interference. We need Nathan. We need to quit whatever we’re doing and sit down . . .” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 157-164, bold mine.)

My body was my prophetic interference. Like Nathan it was confronting me. Like Balaam’s donkey, it was lying down in the road and refusing to go on, seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the path where I was trying to drive myself onward, too blind or too stubborn or proud to see him.

“When David sat down before God, it was the farthest thing from passivity or resignation; it was prayer. It was entering into the presence of God, becoming aware of God’s word, trading in his plans for God’s plans, letting his enthusiasm for being a king with the authority and strength to do something for God be replaced with the willingness to become a king who would represent truly the sovereignty of God the high King.” (164)

And then, a page later, Peterson writes these words about David’s response to God. I’ve underlined them in my journal.

“And courage it does take, immense courage, to relinquish control, to resign our so recently acquired prestigious positions, to ‘quit our jobs’ and simply to sit at Jesus’ feet.” (165)

God was guiding me as I’d asked, and affirming me at the same time, assuring me that once again he was calling, and that the willingness to let the role go was not failure but courage and obedience. He was turning things right-side-up again, reminding me, as he would remind me many more times, that he was God and I was not—and that he loved me.

“David sat down;” Peterson writes, and “the real action started: not David making God a house but God making David a house.” (165)

We are given small parts to play. We get to hammer in a few nails, a four-year-old working alongside his father. Peter takes the metaphor in a different direction, going so far as to say that we get to be part of the house—and the stones that make up the walls are clearly not able or responsible to put themselves in their right places to make a sound and solid house (1 Peter 2:4-10).
God is the one who builds us a home. It was God who created the world and placed us in it, our home for time, and it is Jesus who is preparing a place for us, our home for eternity (John 14:1-3). We can’t build God’s kingdom; that’s why we pray for Him to do it (Matt 6:9-10). And He is building it, and welcoming us into it—and will even someday hand it over to us, a rich gift of a safe and beautiful home forever and ever (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27; Luke 12:32).
But the news is better still. Since before God brought us into being, He has been making a home for us not just out there somewhere, in earth or in heaven, but in Himself, in that truest and safest of places, that loving heart at the centre of reality for which we were made and where we will always belong. Here our small, loved selves can rest.

“Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3)

The truth that can bring joy to every moment

I step out the back door. I can’t see him, but a robin is singing somewhere under the clouded sky. This moment is a gift from the One who loves me.
The wind pushes and presses against me as I run face-first into it. This moment is a gift from the One who loves me.
The reminder has been echoing through my days, inviting me to slow and savor the reality beneath the surface. This moment is a gift from the One who loves me.
As I drift off to sleep, this moment is a gift, a good gift from the One who delights to refresh me.
As I lie awake in the wee hours, this moment is a gift, a good gift from the One who is inviting me to snuggle closer, to know myself held, to share with him and let him lift whatever is weighing on me.
When the sun glints on crushed shells, flinging sparkles across the beach, this moment is a gift from the One who loves me.
When drips drop from the purple rim of my umbrella, soaking the knees of my jeans, this moment too is a gift from the One who loves me.
A grief—an invitation to let myself be held.
A joy—a call to laugh together.
A long, wondering wait for a response to an email—one more gift from the One who loves me and desires to bring me into his joy so is nudging me gently to turn again to him, to let go of fears, of outcomes, of control and savor his love in this moment.

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,

for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;

Therefore I will wait for him.”

— Lamentations 3:22-23

Let grace be grace: Learning to see


I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?
Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)
But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”
And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.
Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.
Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.
I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”
Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.
“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”
Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.