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.

The roots that help us stand

Many summers, as I’ve walked with camera in hand, I’ve ended up with hundreds of sunrise and sunset photos. This summer, different things caught my attention: spiderwebs pearled with morning dew, bright red mushrooms and white bracket fungi, children learning to balance.

And roots, roots, and more roots.

I saw them knuckled and gnarled, poking up through the carpet of spruce needles. I watched them lifting slabs of concrete sidewalk into uneven planks. And I noticed them hanging free where waves had worn away the soil in which they’d first settled and grown.

Perhaps I noticed them more than usual because at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Tacklind’s book, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility. It had arrived in the mail a month or so before my August vacation, and after I’d read the first few pages, I set it aside to take with me. I could tell from those first few pages that it was a book I wanted to linger with, reading slowly and letting it question me as much as I questioned it. I was not disappointed.

Near the beginning of the book, Tacklind tells how he sensed God saying to him, “This is who you are.” 

“I looked up and in front of me was this thin, white tree, standing alone in the midst of the creek bed. A white alder. It caught me off guard.

This tree? This unimpressive, wan, frail-looking specimen?

My heart pushed back, resisting the image and the calling that came with it. It wasn’t just the tree itself that made me withdraw, but where it grew, this rocky middle place. . .” (p. 15)

It’s not easy living in the middle places of life. And yet it’s in the middle places, the uncomfortable, lonely places where we recognize our lack of control and our desperate need for God, that our faith deepens. 

“. . .[T]he white alder alone remains in this barren space. This is because of several unique strengths the tree possesses that allow it to endure where other trees are uprooted and perish. It is incredibly flexible. When the floods come, it concedes. It bends. . . 

But it is not simply the pliability of the alder wood that allows it to remain. Its root system also is distinct. It possesses what is called a taproot: essentially the trunk of the tree continues to grow down and down, digging deeper and deeper in its thirst for more of the water it needs to survive. Not only does the taproot allow the alder to endure the floods, it also allows the tree to survive when the creek’s water level is at its lowest. Oak and pine trees have breadth but not necessarily depth. Their shallower root systems cannot endure the barrenness of the middle place when the soil and nourishment they need have been leached away.” (p. 16)

Everyone I’ve met who is wise and grace-filled has suffered deeply. Those who shine with Christ’s beauty have allowed suffering to press them deep into Christ, pushing down to find the water that they need in that barren place. 

Wise men and women throughout the ages agree: suffering is a necessary part of becoming truly alive and holy and whole:

“Wisdom comes only through suffering.”—Aeschylus

“To be most fertile, the soil must first be torn up; and shall not thy soul accept suffering for the sake of better growth?” —Ivan Panin

“The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust – not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.” —Brennan Manning

It’s not suffering itself that brings about transformation. It’s grace. And it’s choice. Will I put my energy into fighting the suffering, or will I let it press me into Christ? Will my roots spread wide as I seek relief in things around me, or will they go deep as I turn again and again to God, pouring out the honest emotions and lingering in God’s presence long enough to let him meet me there as the One who is both the slain Lamb, suffering with and for me, and the Lion of Judah seated on the throne?

I’ve been pondering all this again in the midst of the worst flare of my chronic illness that I’ve had for years. For me, both the greatest pain and the greatest gift comes not in the physical limitations, but in what those limitations show me about the strength and location of my roots. Sure, it’s unpleasant feeling exhausted and light-headed and finding my eyes unable to focus. But it’s more painful to discover, as I need to back out of commitments and accept help with shopping and cleaning and cooking, how much I still care about what people think of me. (Will they think I’m lazy? Selfish? Irresponsible?)

I see how my roots spread wide, seeking affirmation from those around me. The seeing is painful, and yet it’s a gift. Seeing makes sense of the struggle within me. It calls me to keep opening this part of myself to God’s healing love, to choose again and again to follow him and not let my fears of what others might think guide my decisions. In other words, it invites me to pray and act in ways that let my taproot grow deeper and deeper into the spring of Life rather than relying on my superficial root systems for runoff.

The process isn’t comfortable, but I’m grateful for the dryness of this place that is pushing me to dig deep for water. And in the moments I don’t know how to proceed, how to let my struggles press me into God? Here I’m encouraged by the promises that accompany the challenge:

“Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing.  If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.”

—James 1:2-5, The Voice (bold mine)

God of the details

In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year when coloured pencils and binders are on sale, the nights are starting to cool, and the picnic basket has been traded in for school bags or briefcases. There’s excitement in the air—the goodness of beginning fresh—and sometimes also a bit of heaviness as we leave summer behind and enter the season ahead.

When change is in the air, I need to pause and look back before moving forward. What do I want to take with me? What will I choose to leave behind?

As we begin this season, I’m holding close the memory of a day last week, turning it over and exploring what it tells me about the God who is going before me and with me into the fall.

I was staying with friends for a few days. I’ve never considered myself a visual artist (particularly since the teacher in our mandatory grade ten art class informed me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.”) But I’m drawn to beauty and color, and my friend, Linda, a watercolor artist, was helping me learn to play with paint. Together we gathered leaves and ferns and grasses and arranged them in wet paint, allowing the beauty of their forms to pattern the page and delighting in the surprise of how the colors merged and mingled. 

One afternoon, we set aside the paint and went to walk a nearby trail.

Dragonflies hummed by, and I tried repeatedly to catch their image with my camera, eventually whispering the longing in my heart, “Oh, God, even from a distance they’re so beautiful. Could you bring one close enough that I can really look at it?” 

But they were too quick and eventually I had to stop trying to grasp a gift that wasn’t being given and get on with receiving the gifts that were being given that day.

The following morning, Linda went out to get the mail. There, by her feet, was a perfectly formed dragonfly. His brief lifespan had ended, and the God who knows each sparrow that falls evidently keeps track of dragonflies too, letting this one bring Him glory even in his death.

As I sat and looked and worshiped the Creator, turning his tiny creature around and around in the light of the new day, I pictured God smiling as he’d received my prayer the previous day and planned the surprise for the following day, whispering, “That gift is for tomorrow.” 

I can be tempted to feel like the gifts of vacation are for a few days or weeks only, and to feel sad or heavy as I leave vacation behind. It is true, particular gifts are for particular days. But the heart from which they come does not change, and each day holds new gifts.

“The faithful love of the Lord never ends!

His mercies never cease.

Great is his faithfulness;

his mercies begin afresh each morning.”

Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT

We move into this new season preceded and accompanied by the God who has created us and the world around us—the dragonfly’s compound eyes, the fine hairs on its back, the lace of its wings—and who delights to show us his love in the details of our daily lives.

May we be given eyes wide to see God’s goodness, and hearts open to delight in Him as we begin this new season with Him.

God’s Heartbeat

Photo collage courtesy of Karen Webber.

A week or so ago, I received an invitation to speak. The topic I was given was “God’s heartbeat.” My first breathless thought was, “What a huge topic! How could I dare to address that?” 

Then I remembered I write a blog called Hearing The Heartbeat. 

Somehow it feels different. The blog is part of my attempt to pay attention, a weekly glimpse into some tiny corner of the way Mystery and Grace and Love intersect with my small life. It’s an aid to listening, not a presumption that I am an expert on the beat of God’s heart. And it’s an offering to you in the prayerful hope that it will also help you glimpse places God’s heartbeat echoes through your own life.

But as I sit with the topic I was given and my awe around it, I am brought face to face once again with the incredible truth: The God who created neutrons and black holes, bacteria and butterflies and elephants, the gentle curve of our ears and the intricate electrical system that keeps our own hearts beating wants us to hear His heartbeat!

He has designed each of our senses not only to help us know and communicate with each other, but to know and communicate with Him.

Without the eye’s rods and cones, the optic nerve and the visual cortex of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to see the way God’s love overflows far beyond necessary sustenance into the extravagance of turquoise water and cotton-ball clouds and variegated impatiens.

Without the cochlea and the hammer and anvil of the ear, we wouldn’t hear God’s limitless creativity and kindness in birdsong or a Mozart concerto or a baby’s belly laugh.

We receive and share something of God’s protective, compassionate love through the sensors in our skin as a newborn curls her tiny fingers around our larger ones.

All of that is built right into us, our whole selves woven together that we might hear God’s heartbeat.

You’d think blue layered mountains and the wings of a hummingbird would send a pretty clear message of power and creativity and of love—He placed us here to live!—but even eyes that score 20/20 can be sightless when it comes to Love. And so God sent prophets to speak and poets to sing and finally came himself in human form, placing Himself still more directly within the reach of all of our senses (1 John 1:1).

He met his disciples not only through their eyes and ears but also, as he baked bread for them over hot coals, drew on that sense that has the strongest link to emotion and memory—smell. And he met the leper with the sense that best says, “You are accepted”—touch.

He wants us to know His heartbeat!

And He promises we will.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.”

John 10:27, NIV

“No eye has seen,

no ear has heard,

no mind has conceived

what God has prepared for those who love him—

but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

1 Corinthians 2:9-10

The promise that we’ll hear God’s voice and his heartbeat is not a promise for an exclusive few, but for all who are His (1 John 2:20-21, 27).

As we look and listen and touch and sniff the beauty around us through which God speaks, as we read the stories of Jesus and listen to His whispers within us, what do we discover? What is God’s heartbeat that he is so eager for us to hear? Well, of course, it’s as rich and full of harmonies and harmonics as one might expect of a God like this, but if one had to describe its core in a single word, what might that word be? Here’s a hint, or three:

“God told them, ‘I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!'”

Jer 31:3 The Message

“I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Romans 8:39-39 The Message

“And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Ephesians 3:17-19 The Message

I’m off to enjoy some time resting and celebrating and soaking with my family in God’s love over these next few weeks. (Talking about love, we’ll be celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary!)

I’ll see you back here in September. Until then, may we all be given eyes and ears and hearts open to God’s love, and may God help us to settle a little deeper into his love.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.” 

John 15:9, The Message

For the ordinary moments

The Saint John’s Wort is blooming again, a feast for bees and for the eyes of passersby. In living its ordinary life, faithfully being itself, it becomes a gift to many.

______________________

We need each other. Often enough, the way someone else says or writes something awakens me to a new understanding of something going on in me that I wasn’t aware of or couldn’t articulate until they said it. This week was someone’s simple statement of a misbelief in their earlier life—“Ordinary: BAD!”

I get it. Maybe that’s part of why I became a doctor and worked in Afghanistan until I couldn’t anymore. I thought I had to be extraordinary to be acceptable. 

Ordinary can feel to me like failure.

Let me pause here to say this: For the most part, I like doing things well. I want to be the best me I can be, empowered by Christ, for him and for others. I want to follow the command in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. . .” I think that’s healthy.

In my better moments, I also recognize that trying to be extraordinary can actually keep me from working “with all my heart, as working for the Lord”—because I’m pretty sure that “with all my heart” means fully present, engaged, loving, which I’m not when I’m striving to be extraordinary. (In the original Greek, the phrase translated “with all your heart” is “from the soul.”)  

“Ordinary: BAD!” As I read that simple misbelief that has been unknowingly twined through my understanding of life and work and also faith, I see a baby in a manger. 

Could God have chosen a more ordinary way to come among us, stepping right into our ordinary flesh, our ordinary time, our ordinary cycles of reproduction and growth, limits and dependency and relationships?

In doing so, did he not make the ordinary holy, declaring it a place where God shows up?

“Ordinary: BAD”? 

No. 

“Ordinary: GOOD!” Very good, even.

“Ordinary: BEAUTIFUL.”

“Ordinary: HOLY.”

Since God entered the ordinary, is anything ordinary anymore?

I need this reminder. 

I need it in the moments when I’m cleaning the bathroom and buying groceries.

And in the moments I’m sad or lonely or disappointed, or slowing to savour the taste of an orange.

I need it when I’m editing a paragraph and I need it as we begin summer and I want to sit outside and relax with a novel.

God is with us—in us!—right in the middle of the not-so-ordinary ordinary.

“It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us.”

(2 Cor 4:6-7 The Message)

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” 

(Rom 12:1 The Message)