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.

Why—and what—to remember

I’d been looking for ten days and finally, on my way home from church yesterday, I spotted a couple of cadets, small and tidy in their uniforms, with pans of poppies hung around their necks. I picked a poppy from their tray, slipping a coin into the slotted box.

There was only one more day this year that I could wear the flower before slipping it into my drawer to save for next year, but still it seemed important to buy it.

On this Remembrance Day, I, along with the people of my own nation and those of many others, want to remember the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

I want to remember their hopes and dreams, their blood-sealed belief that freedom, justice, and peace are worth fighting for.

I want to remember, too, the many who have given their lives in another war and whose voices from under the altar cry for God’s justice (Rev 6:9-11).

I don’t talk often about this war. Mostly I think that’s because I find it more helpful to focus on my leader than on the enemy, listening for God’s voice, trusting his love, trying to obey his commands. 

But might it sometimes be because I don’t want to remember? Because I’d rather look away from the truth that war is not past tense, nor happening only on the other side of the world?

Whether I like it or not, I, along with every other person in this world, am smack in the middle of a cosmic war that will not end until Jesus returns, taking his rightful place and bringing the true and never-ending freedom, justice and peace for which we long.

“This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Eph 6:12, The Message).

Life and peace, justice and freedom, are at stake. Focus and obedience matter.

Remembering the reality of slavery and the costly path to freedom is not optional. It is a repeated command, a cornerstone of a well-lived life.

 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15).

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years. . .” (Deut. 8:2).

“Do this in remembrance of me” (I Cor 11:24).

God doesn’t command us to remember the reality of the war in order to make us afraid. He calls us to remember in order not to be afraid.

But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:18).

I look and remember—yes, there’s a war, and I’m in it—and then I look back at the One who has already won the battle at the heart of the war, guaranteeing the war’s final outcome. I don’t need to fear the already conquered enemy, just to do my part in the clean-up operation. The outcome of the war does not rest on my shoulders.

And so I look, not to tremble, but to remember that what I do matters.

I look, not to design my own battle strategy, but to recommit myself to my Leader who conquers death and destruction through love and calls me to join him. 

I look, not to gaze at the enemy, but to bow in worship of my loving, victorious King.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

How to find meaning in any suffering

I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again. 

The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.

Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.

And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving. 

And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.

So, the gifts: I’ve already shared a prayer slipped through my mail slot and how, as I prayed it, God has been reorienting my love back towards him, loosening my grip on comfort and control and security. That alone was worth this challenging time. There’s something about suffering that drives our roots deeper into God, if we let it.

But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church? 

Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:

“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ’s affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ’s sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it’s not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ’s. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.

Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world? 

“Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)

Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God’s life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.

“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.

When life goes up in flames

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God, sometimes there are no words.

What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?

Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.

Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.

They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”

Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.

I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.

They seem so small. 

But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again: 

You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.

You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission. 

And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.

You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.

As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.

For this is what the LORD says:

“. . . As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

What the trees are teaching me

The steps where I stretch my calves each morning are covered, now, with crimson and brown and gold. Fragments of life fallen, flung, surrendered for a season in the certainty that what is given up now will be given again in the delicate lace of springtime green after a few months’ rest.
The sunny flowers of the St. John’s wort have shrivelled and shrunk to a crisp brown casket, a temporary hiding place for tiny black seeds, the hope of  life to come.
To the north, a row of trees stands strong and tall, slowly releasing their leaves to drift into bright piles beneath them.

To the east a maple has left its crimson gifts on a blue car during the night, painting its small piece of the world bright with primary colours.

Southward, a poplar lifts its arms, each small fragment of the life it is releasing glowing like living gold in the sun’s rays. It almost seems a celebration—the tree holding up its arms to the sun, the sun revealing the preciousness of each bit of life released, touching it, delighting in it. Is this always how to release things well—to hold up our arms to the One who invites us to press our wounds into His, and as we do so, find ourselves not only comforted but celebrated by the One who gives us life and teaches us to lay it down and gives it all over again, us a little taller and stronger the next year, our arms reaching with even more longing toward Him?

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

I’ve read those verses often. I’ve memorized them. But as I delight in the fall colours and grieve the branches that now stand empty, as I rejoice like a child running through crispy leaf piles and feel sad as I see my favourite red maple now naked, I realize all over again, and more deeply: Freedom involves letting go. And a big part of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus “with ever-increasingly glory” is learning to let go gracefully, even, sometimes, with joy mixed in with the grief because as we let Jesus meet us in the letting go we are receiving the goal of our faith, greater closeness to Jesus.