Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Secret of Being Content

This morning is the first morning in quite a while where 2 things haven't happened:
1) I don't have hours of work to do.
2) I don't feel really sick.

To celebrate my free time, I've been indulging my habit of clicking around the internet. I love to sit at my computer in the quietness of the morning, to hear the wind blowing outside, a cup of hot cocoa (and marshmallows) next to me, and to poke around at news stories, blogs, and anything else that satisfies my never ending curiosity.

On my typical trip to the AOL homepage, I clicked on a Today Show story which eventually led me to other Today Show stories. I learned about research in life after death, a woman who claims she got pregnant again while currently being pregnant (!), and then this story...

"What Makes Women Happy?"

Interesting question.

The economists on the segment had polled women in America and Europe and gained a sense of declining happiness from women over the last 30 years or so. It's interesting to me that as women have started to do more in society - to take on more responsibilities and roles, that stress has increased and happiness has decreased. One panelist on the segment suggested a few differences between women who were happy and those who weren't. He said that women who were unhappy tended to "juggle" their responsibilities in life. The main aspect of juggling? He said it's throwing. There is never enough time to savor the moments in life that invigorate us and make us really happy. It's interesting to me because he also said that trying to maintain "balance" was an enemy of happiness. He said the truly happy women find things that satisfy them and lean into doing those things.

When I heard this, I immediately thought of my pastor's blog entry from a while back about how we should live unbalanced lives. Shocking? It was for me. Since high school, I had been trying to find "balance" in my life, which I defined as "doing it all." I scheduled art classes along with chemistry. After school tennis and early morning Bible study. Band instead of lunch. Foreign language as well as tutoring English. If there was a time slot to slide something else in, I filled it. I felt it was my job as a follower of Christ to maximize my time by doing everything I was capable of doing...

That myth of needing to be the woman who "does it all" (and does it well) continued to grow in me as I went through college. I tried to maintain social commitments, extracurriculars, volunteering, work, and school, while commuting daily and also remaining committed to God and my family. The result? I was always running on empty, not able to do anything with my full strength and joy. My health was failing at the time. I was being spread too thin. I thought my genuine heart to do right by everyone would miraculously give me the health and strength to keep going forever, but I was wrong. I burned out.

At the height of my quest to do everything, I remember being asked to go to a movie with someone, and I didn't want to go. It was a late movie, and it was far away. I needed to just go home and relax. However, because I had no prior commitment, I felt that I had to say yes. It was an open time slot. I was worried I would make the person feel bad if I opted for staying home instead of going out with them. It was a turning point for me when I said "no" to that invitation. I remember it clearly. It was just the beginning of learning to set boundaries and to toss this idea of "doing it all" out the window.

The thing that I've learned since then is: I can't do it all. No one can. Not a single person can do everything they want, along with everything expected of them, and do it all well. It just doesn't work. Something has to give, whether its the quality of your work, the enjoyment of your social life, the intimacy of your closest relationships, the amount of sleep each night, or (in my case) your health. There are sacrifices for striving for balance. I think satisfaction in life is the first to go. The stress of added commitments can be like a python, slowly squeezing the joy out of life.

Illness is a quick way to identify priorities. If you've never heard of The Spoon Theory, I recommend you read it. It basically says that illness limits the amount of energy in any given day (represented by a fist full of spoons). Each activity we do in a day requires we give up a spoon (showering, driving, talking, preparing a meal). There comes a point with chronic illness where I run out of spoons for the day, and if I "push" to do an important activity, I may end up borrowing all my spoons for the next day, or even the next week, leaving me sick and unable to function after the event is over. (I did this over a week ago, and I'm just now starting to feel more like myself.) My point is that I have learned only to put my valuable energy (my spoons) into things that really matter: relationships that are quality, a hobby or two that I really enjoy, work I feel God has given me to do, and even resting purposefully.

What I've learned from my pastor, from trials, and from illness is a whole new perspective and appreciation for "unbalance." (If you only knew what a 180 it is for me to write this!) I've found that I serve God better and have more joy when I focus on pouring myself passionately into only what He has called me to do. Not what society tells me I should do. Not what my inner expectations tell me. Not even what seems "good." Even "good" things like service projects can snag me into being spread too thin. Just like I can't send money to every worthwhile charity, I can't spend my energy on every worthwhile activity. I need to listen for the voice of God, and when I hear him speak, I need to do what he's asked, as long as he asks, with everything I have. Sometimes, God asks me to go through things I don't feel strong enough to endure. Sometimes, God asks me to completely rest, which can be just as hard (if not harder) to obey.

Learning to live unbalanced and focus solely on those things that please God can be a tricky business. I still feel the pressure of "doing" and "accomplishing" when I rest. I fight guilt when I say no. I worry when I can't get emails and phone calls returned quickly. I struggle to block responsibilities and distractions out of my mind when I pray or read the Bible. But it also brings a miraculous sense of peace when I finally let go of trying to do everything. Resting in the grace of Christ while passionately devoting myself to his work is the key to gaining the joy that Christ died to give me. Jesus said:

The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows).
John 10:10

This enjoyment that he talks about is not transient happiness from the good seasons in our life. It's a sustainable joy that resides deep in our hearts no matter the storms that may rage all around. When Paul says in Philippians 4 that he has learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, it's because he had this special brand of enjoyment in Christ. If we look at Paul's life, he didn't have everything in balance. He was a man of extreme passion, to the point of persecuting Christians before he met Christ. But then, after his encounter with Jesus, his passion was for telling others the truth of the gospel no matter the obstacles, danger, jail time, or harm he faced. He wrote:

"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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

When he said he can do "everything," it didn't mean he could do all activities he wanted with moderation - it meant he could face any extreme circumstance through Christ's strength. When I face extreme circumstances, as I do currently, asking Christ for strength has been my secret weapon. When I keep my focus not on living a balanced life, but on loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind, he gives me peace that passes understanding and the strength to press on.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trusting While Not Understanding

My grandmother is a beautiful woman, inside and out.

She has the smoothest skin of any 88-year-old I've ever seen. Her voice is a precious sound. As a child, I remember its melodies echoing through her house as the smell of fresh-baked cookies would fill the air. She was a sharp dresser, had a big laugh, and always had a hug and a kiss for me.

When I was a child, I remember tea parties in the bathtub, having her put pretty ribbons in my hair, and always planning new projects that we could make for Mom and Dad. She taught me how to knit, sew a pair of shorts, and quilt. I would watch her in amazement as she put together stunning flower arrangements from her own garden and twist ribbon to wrap packages in a way Santa's elves would envy.

She was full of wisdom, generosity, creativity, and love.

My grandma had a stroke 2 years ago and has had several more since then (we recently found out). She had always been very independent and lived on her own until her first stroke, but since that time, she has had to live with us. My mom is her full-time caregiver, and I help when I can too.

Strokes can affect different parts of the brain to cause disability. The part of my grandma's brain that was affected was her ability to process speech and her personality. Communicating with her can be very difficult, complicated by the fact that she is also hard of hearing. Only some words get in, and those words can often be easily mixed up. An example:

Me: "I need a vacation."
Grammy: "You need a big table? I'll clear this one off."

Misunderstandings like that can be amusing and harmless, but they can also cause a lot of problems.

Just like anyone else, Grammy values her independence fiercely. She is reluctant to accept help now when she needs it the most. For instance, when it comes to bathing, she is unsteady, weak, and needs help ordering and completing the tasks required to wash. For her own safety, we have to be there to assist her. Unfortunately, she does not agree and can become quite agitated when we try to help her ("GET OUT!"). It can escalate into a full blown war if not handled delicately. Bath time is not always a very happy time.

After many encounters with washing Grammy, some good, some not-so-good-at-all (accusing my Mom, who was bent down washing her feet, of being "not Christian!"), I've realized 2 primary things that make it hard for her:

1) She feels out of control.
2) She doesn't understand why she needs to do what we ask.

I can relate so well to these feelings, personally, and when I keep reassuring her that she needs to trust me and that I'm trying to help her, I become suddenly aware of the spiritual parallel.

I don't always understand what God is doing. It isn't always easy or comfortable. And it certainly doesn't always make sense. But God is working on washing me clean on the inside, promising that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6) This process is an incredible gift from God by his Spirit. The Bible promises that through faith in Christ, we "are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18) Another Bible translation says our inner change is "from one degree of glory to another." I like the King James version best that says we are changed into his image "from glory to glory." Each trial with God is an opportunity for him to make us one degree of glory more like Him. The choice is up to us if we plan to resist Him or to trust Him in faith.

So often I am suspicious of God. I don't say it like that in my head, but when things get too difficult in life, I feel doubts that he really has good plans for me. Scripture clearly says that he has my very best interest in his heart, but I think to myself, "This surely isn't good for me." My view, narrowed by the frail human mind, is all that I can see, and when I start to feel out of control, I instantly bristle and resist as my first line of defense. Though my grandma's resistance is due to physical illness, my resistance is based in the spiritual illness of sin. I like to think that I'm an expert in what is right for me and when it is right, and, to quote my grandma, "This is NOT RIGHT for me!"

It's been very eye opening for me to see how willfulness, lack of understanding, and failing to trust can cause harm and consequences in the future. My grandma doesn't want to make life harder for my mom or for me, but due to her illness, she can sure bring consequences for all of us when she doesn't trust our guidance. Spiritually, I can suffer consequences by not trusting God's guidance.

How much must I hurt God and make life more difficult when I resist him and say, "I know better than you what should be happening here."?

Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'
Isaiah 45:9

How much better instead to say: "Father, I know you want what's best for me. Even though I don't understand and wish I felt more in control, I will submit and trust you."

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is God Fair and Just?

I was just browsing through an online discussion entitled, "What attribute of God is hardest for you to grasp?" Attributes such as: Holy, Eternal, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Fair & Just.

After reading through 3 pages of responses, it seemed to me that most people struggled with God being fair and just. It's not hard to see why.

We see unfair things happen around us every day. We, ourselves, experience unfairness to various degrees. Loved ones die. We get cut off in traffic. Friends suddenly betray us. Dreams are shattered. And of course, the list goes on and on. Each of us instinctively recognizes when life is not fair. It's not a thought you think, it's a feeling you get - deep down in your gut - like a fire. That outrage burns and rises up inside, testifying to the brutal mismatch of right versus wrong. "This is not how it SHOULD be," we think. Why doesn't God change this circumstance to make it RIGHT?

Just to be clear, I recognize that occasionally my sense of unfairness is just a fancy excuse for selfishness. There are times I need to share the bathroom, to do the dishes even though I'm not in the mood, and to deal with not getting my own way all the time. But what I'm talking about here is not selfishness or a demand for God to grant my every wish. I'm talking about the truly WRONG things that happen to people - the things that make others cry out in unison on behalf of the offended party - the drunk driver whose car hits a family, a woman neglected in a nursing home and receiving no basic care for days, a man who feels it's his right to abuse his wife, an orphan dying of HIV/AIDS. Those are some things that unite us in wondering, "Is God really just and fair?"

Judging simply by our experience on earth, it's intelligent to say that life is not fair. From birth to death, if we saw nothing else, it would be easy to conclude that an all-powerful God is not bringing consistent justice to anyone - even his followers.

Granted, some people seem to get justice here and there, but that kind of justice is incomplete and not always what it seems. Just because a criminal gets prison time, a cheater gets caught, or a charitable person gets a promotion, that is not always God enacting his justice - no more than we could claim a natural disaster was a judgment on all of those wounded or killed. It's easy to look for patterns in life to try to eek out a semblance of justice wherever we can, but we are like children looking for flowers in a bed of weeds and settling for dandelions. It doesn't quench our desire for fairness because this world was never meant to do so.

My personal journey over the last 10 years has been fraught with what I would call unfair circumstances, not just for me, but for my loved ones as well. Seeing old photos or videos of better times (like I did today) just drives home the tremendous losses and victimization we have had to sustain, for seemingly no purpose, no obvious reason. I can ask why? why? why? about the losses and about the persecution, but the sense of unfairness lingers. I can push it deep down. I can cover it up with Christian language, saying it's all working for good. And I can tell people that God has grown me as a person because of it. And all those may be true things, but it does not change the inherent unfairness. I still cry out inside for God to make things RIGHT!

I think it's really freeing to call out unjust circumstances for what they are. It's sometimes scary to tell God that something is unjust or unfair - as if we are talking back to Him and being disrespectful. But God built my sense of right and wrong into my soul, and I firmly believe that I can humbly tell him how strongly I feel about injustice. Job sure did. The psalmists did. In fact, God will often agree with our laments and feel our same sense of anguish and pain. It's God himself who says, "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity." (Isaiah 61:8) So the logical question that comes to my mind next is:

If God loves justice so much, and he is all-powerful, then why don't we see him righting all the wrongs?

It comes down to the title of my blog. Qavah. Waiting.

Wait for the LORD
and keep his way.
He will exalt you to inherit the land;
when the wicked are cut off, you will see it.
Psalm 37:34

All of Psalm 37 is about waiting on the Lord for justice and not losing hope when evil appears to succeed. The Bible is very clear that wickedness will appear to succeed for a while. But we who believe in God are to qavah for the LORD. The Strong's translation of the Hebrew word qavah is: "to wait" and adds, "This word stresses the straining of the mind in a certain direction with an expectant attitude - a forward look with assurance."

To me, that idea of qavah in Psalm 37 is the key to seeing God as he is - completely just and fair. When I am unfairly hurt, God sees it. God knows it's wrong. God has a plan and is doing something about it on my behalf. I will someday see the results of his work. It's just that the waiting is often so hard to bear. Ultimately, I must wait for the day when God will right all of the wrongs, when justice will truly be like flowers in a garden, and when I will see the Lord face-to-face in THE place designed to quench our thirst for what is right - Heaven.

But why does the Lord delay justice? Is that harsh or unfair in itself? Why does he make us wait?

I can't claim to understand why God delays justice, but in a fallen world where humans have free will and can choose to sin, God has chosen not to reverse our decisions. Instead, he prepares a place for us that is not fallen or sick with sin - He will give us comfort, reward us, and heal us completely in Heaven. And as we endure here on earth, he has enabled us, through faith, to suffer trials without bitterness (in fact, even with joy) because we have the goal and purpose to share the message of Heaven with those who are searching for the same kind of fairness.

If you believe in Jesus, as I do, we can continue to run the race marked out for us - sharing with others about what Jesus has done and pressing on toward the finish line of reward, restoration, and recompense in Heaven.

If you don't yet believe, consider the mercy of God's patience as he continues to reach out to you the true lifeline of relationship with Jesus Christ and the priceless gift of complete forgiveness. Jesus willingly suffered incomprehensible injustice on earth so that we could have this gift. By simply believing, we are promised eternity in a world where all that was wrong will finally be made fully and completely right.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reminder of Our Refuge

See anything?What about now?
What's that?
There's a turkey in that tree!
With something under its wing...
A closer look...

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4