Contentment, gratitude, and wonder

I sat down last night after a long day of class and watched this:

It seemed appropriate – not just because it is Thanksgiving – but because it’s the last few weeks of school, papers and projects are piling up for me, and I find myself losing sight of the beauty and wonder around me as I am drowning in books and journal articles. So much in this culture and society is pulling us towards wanting more – desire – consumption. “If you just had this, you’d be happy. If only you weren’t so ____, people would love you more. If you could just own that new toy, that new pretty thing… All you need is just a little bit more – more stuff, more status, more accomplishment, more happiness… And you deserve it.”

This is the message I hear every day. And it is a lie. It will never be enough.

I know what is true. I see the things that push me towards life, towards abundance, towards joy: and among those things, three of the primary ones are contentment, gratitude, and wonder. So much in life is outside of our control. You can’t will yourself towards health when you’re sick. You can’t make someone love you. We all have limitations, barriers, and things that hinder us from accomplishing what we desire. And the tension that I wrestle with is how to balance that acceptance of my limitations and finiteness with the reality that there is much that I dream will come true – there are deep desires within me for beauty, for community, for redemption, for companionship, for love, for faithfulness, and those desires are there for a purpose. This battle between contentment and desire wages in my heart, but it is only be holding them in that tension that balance can be lived. Contentment reminds me that my desires are just that – desires. And while they point to something deeper, they should be held loosely. Yet those deep desires of my heart remind me that I was made for more, it keeps me moving God-ward, it guards me from complacency and passivity and laziness. Both are needed, in their appropriate place.

Gratitude and wonder work together to stop and remind me of how truly blessed I am – everything I have been given, and everything that gives color and laughter to my life. From the sun crawling up off the lake on my morning run, to the lights of the city as I drive home at night – the play of clouds, the sound of the breeze, the crisp cool air that burns and awakens and refreshes – these are gifts. The laughter of a friend’s daughter, the tears that spring from some unknown place when confronted by the beauty of friendship, of love, and of sacrifice – all are gifts. A glass of wine and a loaf of bread to welcome the Sabbath as an old friend, forgiveness growing slowly like a blade of grass in the sand, a heart that is melting, thawing, warming before the light of the son – this is gift and grace. When we truly stop and see, how can we not be grateful? When we truly stop and feel, how can our hearts not threaten to explode with wonder?

And in the midst of the tragedy, the brokenness, the unmet desires and unfulfilled dreams, and all that we don’t understand, we see glimmers of hope – catch the faintest whiff of grace – hear the whisper of peace and presence: it’s enough to make anyone thankful, if just for a moment… And sometimes, that moment is all we need to keep on.

“Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.  You pay your money and you take your choice.  Only never take your choice too easily, of course.  Never assume that because you have taken it one way today, you may not take it another way tomorrow.  One choice is this.  It is to choose to believe that the truth of our story is contained in Jesus’s story, which is a love story.  Jesus’s story is the truth about who we are and who the God is who Jesus says loves us.  It is the truth about where we are going and how we are going to get there, if we get there at all, and what we are going to find if we finally do.  Only for once let us not betray the richness and depth and mystery of that truth by trying to explain it…” ~ Buechner

Drink deeply…

Yesterday:

5 miles as the sun set on a warm, blustery, fall day with this as the setting…

Tonight: the Civil Wars & friends…

Tomorrow morning:  Mr. Tom Wright…

Later this week:

1 paper in Doctrine.
1 test in Marriage and Family.
1 presentation in Counseling Theories.

Life is good.  Busy.  Full.  Rich.

And I am thankful…  in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed…  there’s still so much to be grateful for.

New favorites

The last two months have felt like trying to ride a bike on a treadmill – fun, but you just know it’s going to end badly.  Lots of stuff on my plate as I transition slowly from and to: complicated (in good ways) by beginning school again, work, and the delightful visit of my favorite Korean speaking sister (which included bike rides through the woods, visits to the apple orchard, road trips to Indiana, Peruvian food in Chicago, and lots of laughter and good conversation.)  But in light of all that (plus a few other things here and there), I haven’t made time to write.  But here’s the deal…  I want to.  I need to practice gratitude – search for beauty in my daily life – and live intentionally – and writing here helps me do that.  So, in light of all that, here’s a few things I have been delighting in about this transition:

– fascinating classes, exploring family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and delving into theories of the mind…  challenging both my mind, heart, and spirit.  I’m loving it.

– four fun guys to share a home with – an oasis (and occasional place of celebration) in the middle of the city and the busyness.

– runs down by the lake, enjoying the play of colors on the water, the way the city looks like a different place depending on whether it’s a gray rainy morning, a blustery fall afternoon, a crystalline sunset, or the contrast of city lights shining in the darkness – the interplay of light and shadow…

– a cohort of solid, passionate, compassionate students who are learning with me.

– the gift of being with people who know you and know you well, even if it’s unexpected and short.  Spent a weekend w/ Liz and Car – we’ve been present in each other’s lives for over 20 years, and sharing a plate of ceviche and lomo saltado while savoring a pisco sour just made it that much sweeter.

– glimmers of community, belonging, rootedness, worship, and a place of service that I’m VERY excited about.

– reminders of beauty, hope, adventure, laughter, community, creativity, and play, such as this video by Ben Howard:

 

 

– near daily reminders and challenges (both in class and out of class) to take risks, to engage, to move forward, to enter into relationship and life with others, and not simply be content with safety and comfort…

Today in class, we talked about C.S. Lewis (in The Four Loves), who says:

          “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung, and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Sobering words, as I ask myself, what do I really want?  Comfort?  Safety?  Normalcy?  Complacency?

Or do I want risk?  Adventure?  Movement?  Growth?  Discomfort?  Failure?  A life lived for others?  Giant slip-and-slides down mountains?

Yes.

I’m thankful for the big “Yes” that this transition has been so far.  And I’m excited and eager to see what unfolds as I continue to respond “Yes…”

 

Joy

In the midst of the craziness of life, when busy-ness threatens to overwhelm, one of my most useful disciplines is to slow down and name the things that are bringing me joy…  There are so many.

A few of them from the past month would include:

Tough Mudder (a 10 mile adventure race up and down a mud-covered hill, full of obstacles to climb over, jump off of, swim under, run through, slide down, and generally try to not hurt yourself too badly…  so much fun, and so glad to share the day w/ Josh.)

– The reminder that our world is bigger than I remember.  Wanna go explore somewhere?

– Rafting in Wisconsin w/ friends – laughing, swimming, telling stories, and enjoying being outside in the sun on the river (w/ my favorite part the waterfall at the end.  If you jump through the waterfall from the right spot, you end up behind it, feeling thousands of gallons of water pour down all around you, all noise drowned out by the roar of the rushing water…  and then you go under and it shoots you down the river so hard that you don’t pop up til you’re 30 feet downriver…)

– This, and what it represents about our world and the people in it…

– Celebrating life with family that I don’t get to see all that often.

– Freshness, newness, and continued hope as I step with eager anticipation into the next good things God has in store…

There is much to be thankful for.  And joy all around.  Even here, where you find yourself today, if you will only stop and look…

Alive

So I’m waiting in the restaurant area of a Flying J trucker’s stop.  The buzzing noise from the harsh fluorescent lighting competes with the sickly sweet ballads of love songs playing on the radio, the floor alternates sticky patches of spilled soda, brown slushy ice, and yellow “Slippery When Wet” signs to mark the areas that have been freshly mopped, while the smells of stale donuts, slowly roasting hot dogs, and burning french fries wrestle for dominance in my nostrils.  This is not the most beautiful place I have sat, yet the presence of God is here.

There is a beauty in colors and murals painted on the wall, the lyrics to the sappy love songs contain glimpses of transcendence, and the veil of the mundane that shields the faces of the cashiers working behind the register slips, showing glimpses of their true nature as the beloved daughters and sons of the King who created them in his image and loves them.  Beauty and glory are around, and gratitude and awe pour from my every pore.

I am so thankful for life – to be alive – to move, breathe, taste cool water on my lips, feel the soft warmth from my jacket, marvel at the chemical processes and electrical impulses that move my fingers on the keyboard, and seeing each and every moment as the precious gift that it is.  I am so thankful that words just don’t seem enough.

—–

The police officer who stopped on the side of the road and asked me what happened, shook his head, and told me I should buy a lottery ticket, because today was my lucky day.  Two hours ago, I was driving from Grand Rapids back to Rockford – my car full of practically every possession I own on this earth as I completed the move from Philadelphia back to Northern Illinois (for those of you whom this portion of the story catches you by surprise, just roll with it – I’ll explain more about that transition next time).

As I came around the corner on the highway going about 70 miles an hour, my phone rang – my eyes darted to see who it was, and when I glanced back up I saw the car ahead of me slam on the brakes.  I’m not sure what they were trying to avoid – I never saw it in any case.  I was able to swerve and miss hitting them, but as I cleared their car my tires hit a patch of ice and the car started fishtailing.  I was controlling the slide when the ice stopped, and my tires all of a sudden had traction again.  Unfortunately, they were no long pointing down the west bound lanes, but were at about a 45 degree angle to the road.  This managed to propel me across the lane of traffic to my left into the snow covered median, where I and my car were suddenly airborne and spinning.

I’m still not sure how many times we flipped as we bounced over the median: it could have only been once, or it could have been up to three or four.  Regardless, I managed to roll my way across the median, landed the car right-side up, then slid across three lanes of oncoming (eastbound) traffic before lightly coming to a stop on the guardrail at the far side of the highway.

I got out, shaken but otherwise completely unhurt, pulled my car completely onto the shoulder (it still runs, even though it is completely missing the back windshield – lost somewhere in the flipping and bouncing), and was greeted by an off-duty police officer who called it in.  Within a few minutes, I had three officers there who all expressed amazement  that I was unscathed (from the aforementioned “lottery ticket” comment to another officer exclaiming that my car should be in a Honda commercial for protecting me that well and coming out of it still running.)

The rest of the story is strangely anticlimactic – tow trucks, figuring out the logistics of getting the car looked at and deciding if it’s drivable, Abby driving down from Grand Rapids (over an hour) to pick me up, along with her mom (which made me tear up with gratitude when I heard it), to sitting in truck stop writing this.  My family is currently in Korea (except for Jon, who hasn’t picked up his phone yet), and the adrenaline is wearing off.  And above all, I needed to get it down and process my gratitude once more.  As he drove away, the police officer called me over and said, “Seriously, if I were you, I would buy a lottery ticket.  You are one lucky man.  I’m surprised that you’re still alive.  I’ve seen people MUCH worse off from much less serious accidents.  Count your blessings.”

So this is my attempt to stop and express my thanks.  Thanks to God for protection.  I am ok.  Thanks to people for picking up and driving 90 minutes each way to be with me.  Thanks, thanks, and more thanks.  Gratitude overflows.  Grace abounds.  And if you’re reading this, you too are alive.

Know I’m thankful for each of you – the family, the friends, those whose lives have touched mine and who have been touched by me.  So humbled.  And so, so, so thankful.

 

———-

 

A Post-Script – So I am under the impression that my car (Eustace) has been trying to kill me.  On Monday night, en route from Philadelphia to Upland, I spun out on a slushy, snow-covered highway in Ohio going 50 and did at least one full rotation (it might have been two – I’m a little hazy and all I really remember is spinning) before stopping on the side of the road, facing the direction I was originally headed.  A few days later, after clearing off almost an inch of ice frozen to the car, I was driving from Indiana up to Michigan when the last of the ice melted.  My hood flew open as I pulled onto the highway from a rest stop, cracking the windshield, bending the hood in a few places, and generally scaring me half to death.  I was able to pull off the highway, bend the hood back down, and keep driving the rest of the way.  And then today, this happened.  Seriously Eustace, what is your problem with me, and why is it that you’ve decided I should no longer be among the living?  I think I may preemptively get rid of you in order to avoid any further attempts on my life…

A Post-Post-Script – I hesitate to admit this on a public forum such as the internet, but I will confess to you that as I walked, watched, and waited by the side of the road for the tow-truck to come, the song that kept running through my head was Amy Grant’s “Angels watching over me…”  Check it out.  It is amazing.

Time-outs

In some ways, I feel like the last week and a half has been a “time-out” of sorts. Spending time w/ family and friends, not working, no school projects or deadlines hanging over me… And while I head back to Philadelphia today – with projects and deadlines to finish, I’m so thankful for the Sabbath rest I’ve experienced, laughter and sharing and deep conversations and being reminded over and over again how richly I am blessed and deeply I am loved.

Because I am. And you are.

The sun still shines. The rain still falls. Our bodies metabolize the food we eat. Breath fills our lungs.  We are not alone.  And God is good.

Thankful


I’m sitting here on the balcony of my grandparent’s home in Redondo Beach, barefoot and t-shirted, watching the sunset, and suffused with a sense of contentment and rest.  “Why?”, you might ask…  Let me tell you just a few reasons:

– the oranges, golds, pinks, and infinite shades of blue reflecting off the clouds as palm trees are silhouetted in the fading light.

– celebrating and feeling the weight of the Advent and birth of Emmanuel, the God who is with us.

– enjoying rich time with family (immediate and extended, except for Carly and Erik).

– much laughter, games, stories, home movies, and crazy cousin antics (our cousin Nick putting Kenny G’s “Silent Night” on repeat, slowly increasing the volume while we had family Christmas for almost 45 minutes until Josiah finally snapped and switched it off, or wrapping items in Grandma’s home and giving them to her for Christmas)

– walks on the beach, flips and cartwheels and acrobatics with the pounding surf in the background, feeling gloriously alive.

– getting sand everywhere.

– chips and salsa, hot showers, and having sand nowhere.

– being with people who know you deeply, and still love you anyway.

– family chess tournaments.

– a day out on the ocean paddle-boarding.

– reconnecting with old friends.

– cross-country skiing, falling in Lake Michigan, and chopping down a Christmas tree in a Michigan winter.

– pink birthday parties with the laughter of children.

– good friends (might as well be family, really) who you can call up on Christmas Eve and they will have you over for Christmas cookies, dinner, and home.

– truth, honesty, grace, and wholeness that pursue me and will not let me go.

– my wounds, scars, and other evidence of growth (as painful and challenging as it is).

I am richly, richly blessed, and the words of Julian of Norwich echo through my mind and my heart:

And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…  our wounds shall be as worships!

It is well with my soul.

So what are you are thankful for right now?