Gratitude

It’s time to watch this again:

It seemed appropriate – not just because it is Thanksgiving – but because the last few weeks of school, papers and projects are piling up for me, work and internship are reminding me both how broken people are and how broken this world is, and I find myself losing sight of the beauty and wonder around me as I am drowning in books and journal articles and case notes and reports. 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.”  And on Black Friday, the high holy days of capitalism, we see this message over and over again.

This is the message we 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?

“Gratefulness can change our world in immensely important ways. If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful. If you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. The grateful act out of a sense of enough, not scarcity, so they are willing to share.  Being grateful does no less than change the power balance of life.  It’s a nonviolent revolution that even revolutionizes the concept of revolution.  Grateful people are joyful people; the more joyful people are, the more we’ll have a joyful world.” ~ Brother David Steindl-Rast

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…” ~ Frederick Buechner

(Reposted, because I needed to be reminded of this today…)

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

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…

Perú visits Peru

As an American (albeit one who was raised and has spent most of his life in a foreign country), this video makes me so happy…  What happens when the residents of Peru, Nebraska (population 569), are visited by a bus of Peruvians?

I love watching as people are transported outside of themselves to something new – something different – something (for me) familiar and beautiful and comforting.  I love watching as Peruvian idiosyncrasies, music, food, and laughter (and even the ice cream vendor selling lúcuma flavored ice cream) sweep away the residents of Peru, Nebraska.

I might have more thoughts on this later (cultures, “the other,” or random musings).  But for now, I leave you to enjoy “El Perú visita a Peru.”

Maundy Thursday & Endings

The other evening I was grabbing a quick sushi dinner at the local grocery store’s deli when I saw him.  An old man sitting alone, eating his roast beef and mashed potato dinner.  He wasn’t the only solitary diner that night, but for some reason I couldn’t look away.  There was an almost ineffable air of sadness emanating from him.  He wasn’t used to eating alone.  His hand quivered as he ate, and he stared off into the distance, lost in thought.  I watched him for a few minutes, wondering what he was thinking about.  Was he remembering meals shared with a wife who was no longer living?  Did he look back on home-cooked meals in a warm kitchen, the sound of laughter mingling with the comfort of belonging?  Was he still saying good-bye, day after day after day?  Does he still mourn?  What fills his days?  What keeps him hoping when so much of what he loves is gone?

——-

I just finished reading a book called “How it Ends: from You to the Universe.”  The main concept (which is pretty self-evident when you think about it) is that everything has an ending.  From may-flies to macaws, walruses to whales, hamsters to humans – we all will die.  Snails and sequoias alike will one day meet their end.  And as much as we may not be aware of it, everything has an expiration date: from the Sun’s impending (in 9-10 billion years or so) transition to white-dwarfdom, to the eventual cooling and heat death of the massive black-holes at the centers of galaxies (1098 years, or a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years into the future) – everything comes to an end.

11 years ago I spent four months studying in Jerusalem.  One of the highlights of our time there was participating in the drama and pageantry of Holy Week.  We dove into every experience, reading along with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, often in the place they were said to have taken place.  Many of us went to a Palm Sunday celebration and waved palm branches on the Mount of Olives.  We spent time on Thursday evening praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And then, a few of us gathered in a basement classroom at JUC and spent some time singing, praying, listening, and washing each other’s feet.  This intimate act of service drew us closer, and cemented in my mind the kind of life I wanted to be living – a life marked by acts of extravagant beauty, fierce kindness, and deep grace, even when the world is crumbling around you.  After all, this is what Jesus spent the last night of his life doing – sharing a meal with the friends he loved, teaching them, serving them, washing their feet, assuring them of his love and care, that in the end “all shall be well…”  A few short hours later, he was taken, arrested, and executed.

——-

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings recently.  They’ve been all around me, it seems.

The other day I drove by the cemetery where my mom is buried.  We talked about her and her death the other evening with some ladies who knew her, and remembered, and laughed, and then grew quiet.

A few weeks ago I sat in the cancer center of a local hospital and interpreted for a patient who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and only a few months to live.  I was the conduit for the flood of information and emotion between the doctor and this family who were informed that their husband and father was going to die soon.

I could have easily been killed in my car accident a few months ago, and in a hundred other situations throughout my life (well, at least 20 or so…  that I know of…)

The other day I interpreted for a family that had lost their newborn baby.  I sat in the hospital room as the priest baptized the dead body of this tiny infant that never really had a chance to live, as the mother and father wept, and as we mourned a life that was extinguished before it began.

In the past few months, dreams and relationships have changed, ended, and are no longer what they once were.  Every one is a little death to be mourned.

The week of the Passion is upon us, as we remember Jesus’ final week of life and ministry here on earth before his death and resurrection.  All these things seem to be pointing me towards something that I’d rather not think about.  They remind me that even though we live in a culture that denies the reality of death, that values youth, beauty, and vitality – even so, we are all going to die.

All things come to an end.

Our only choice is how we will live our life in light of the fact that one day, it will come to an end.  When relationships fall crashing to the ground, will we retreat into a shell to avoid being hurt, or continue to step out in authenticity and vulnerability, risking and giving our self to others?  When loss seems to haunt our every step, does our faith in God’s goodness grind to a halt?  When questions and doubt overwhelm, where do we turn?  And can knowing that all things come to an end actually enable us to live a little more wisely?  Love a little more lavishly?  Forgive a little more extravagantly?  Trust implicitly?  Dream a little larger?

What does it look like to live as Jesus did, fully aware of the endings, and the questions?

These are the questions that are bouncing around in my head and my heart as I seek to enter into the mystery of these next few days – trying to, as Rilke would say, “live the questions…  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

What are your questions this Maundy Thursday?  What are the things ending in your life that need to be mourned?  What are the choices you need to make in light of endings?

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.

Happiness

Now this just made me smile…  and might have made me want to dance too…  Enjoy.  And if you feel like dancing during or after, go right ahead.  I might even join you…

 

Bleeding daylight

Something about Tuesday nights makes me want to sit down and write… (that’s not entirely true. I may not want to write, but it’s times like that I need to sit down and make myself tell stories and share life, thoughts, and ideas.)

That said, I manage to put it off to super-late, and am falling asleep… so, in light of that, quick vignette for the day…

Dang it. No vignettes for now… I think my problem is that lately I have been seeing connections everywhere – I haven’t been able to take things in isolation – and the individual instances of the day to day aren’t representative of the whole – of what moves my heart, excites me, challenges me, relaxes me, makes me angry…

I was reading recently that writing is about making choices – beginning with a blank page (or screen) and filling it – choosing which words go where, what stories to tell or not tell, what details to fill in or leave blank… and my choices have been paralyzing me lately.

—–

I’ve been re-reading Gary Haugen’s “The Good News about Injustice” with this Servant Team who’s now here – this morning we say down and discussed the first part – I forget how good it is, and the hunger for justice that it wakes in me… Since then, a couple of songs by different Bruces have been resonating with me…

Bruce Springsteen singing a classic from the great depression – sung again shortly after Hurricane Katrina… the chorus is simple, poignant, and true “How can a poor man stand such times and live…” – and at the end the Boss sings “gonna be a judgement that’s a fact, a righteous train rolling down this track…”

Bruce Cockburn (a favorite, and proof that good things can come from Canada) has some great songs – two in particular have played over and over in my head today. In one (called “If I had a rocket launcher“), he sings “I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate. I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states… I wanna raise every voice. At least I’ve go to try. Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes. Situation desperate, echoes of the victim’s cry…”

“Water rises to my eyes…” When I walk the streets of the favelas, and truly see what is going on like I did tonight, water rises to my eyes. Longing for hope, longing for change. And we do what we can. It is so little, and the need is so great. Many refuse what we do offer – an evening off the street, some food, talking, medical care, prayer… and yet, we keep offering.

Ran into a young boy named Tiago* who used to be on the streets downtown. I hadn’t seen him for almost a year – he’d graduated from the downtown streets to the favela streets. That means more drug abuse, more violence, closer ties to traffickers… I stopped and talked to him this evening amidst the smells, smoke wafting, crack, coke, and marijuana mingling as pushers yell out and offer free samples to 10-year olds… My heart burns. When I call him by name, he smiles, and is shocked. “You remember me. You remember…” it’s not enough to pull him away from the crack, but for a second, he is touched.

Bruce Cockburn has another song (“Lovers in a dangerous time…”) – in it, perhaps my favorite line in any song, ever…

– “When you’re lovers in a dangerous time, sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime. But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” –

That’s what I’m still doing here in Brazil. Kicking at the darkness…