Sunday, September 23, 2012

Choose Joy

I was sitting in the waiting room of our local clinic recently, biding time until I was called in for an immunization. It was the middle of a hot summer afternoon and fairly quiet except for a handful of folks in the chairs around me. A nurse came out from behind the door to the exam rooms and called a name from the clipboard she was holding. An elderly woman rose stiffly from her chair and used a walker to hobble along behind the nurse to be admitted into a room. Her snowy-haired husband glanced up as she left and then returned his gaze to the television that was rambling to no one in particular. From across the room, another woman recognized the man and came over to sit next to him to chat. They seemed like little more than vague acquaintances, to my eavesdropping ear, but I was pleased they'd be providing me with entertainment while I waited my turn.

"What did your wife do to her leg?" the woman asked the man. 

He shifted in his seat and slapped his cap against his own leg. "Aw, she was painting some trim up in the dining room and stepped off the ladder wrong."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," the woman replied, tsk-tsk-ing her disapproval over such atrocities of fate. She explained that she was at the clinic waiting for her husband who had macular degeneration. "He can't see a thing, you know. He used to get out in his pickup every day and drive down for coffee, get the mail. Now I have to drive him everywhere--do everything for him. He just sits in his chair and listens to the TV he can't see. Life is no fun."

The man nodded. "Yep. It seems like there's more sick people now than there's ever been."

I lifted my eyes from the magazine I wasn't reading to see both of them staring, not at each other, but off at distant corners of the ceiling. The old man rubbed a gnarled hand over the stubble on his face. With lowered eyes he muttered,"There's nothing good any more."

The smiling nurse called my name from the doorway and I rose to follow her, the old man's words echoing in my head as I left.

'Nothing good anymore...nothing good? Nothing? What a tragic summary at the end of a long life! His dismal commentary reminded me of Solomon, the wisest man that ever lived, who declared at the close of his days, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Someone who had experienced the richest of earthly blessings, endowed with all the wisdom man could attain, was basically saying the same thing, "There's nothing good, nothing worthwhile. Everything in this life is like chasing the wind."                                                                       

I am part of a mom's group this fall called Exhale. We have committed to focus on the following Bible passage as our theme:

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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." Philippians 4:4-8

Verse four caught my attention lately as it's something I've been working on in my own life:"Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say REJOICE." Paul is not making a plea for positive thinking, cute yellow smiley-faces, or dopey songs--"Don't Worry/Be Happy." When I think of the word "happy" I think of the similar word "happen." I happen to be happy because of good things that have happened. One dictionary definition of "happy" is: Feeling satisfied that something is right or has been done right. We must take note that when Paul wrote this letter to the believers at Philippi he was a prisoner awaiting trial for his life. So when he tells them, "REJOICE," he is not saying, "Have a good feeling about how great everything is in your life right now."

It is good for us to distinguish between joy and happiness. Paul is talking about rejoicing that is not dependent on temporary current conditions. Anybody can feel happy when the bills are paid, the kids are healthy, and the sun is shining. He's directing us toward something that runs far deeper in our souls--a knowing that, while my circumstances will and certainly do change, God will never change. God has promised his grace is always sufficient for whatever trials I face. His blood will cover any stain from my past, his salvation is certain, his righteousness is forever. If every earthly well of good things in my life would shrivel up, still he remains The Constant Font of Every Blessing.

Why is it important to understand and express joy? How many of you, like me, feel weary and need more stamina in your daily lives? Do you find there is too much day and too little time, too many people with too many demands? What if someone told us the secret to living the abundant life that Jesus promised us? The Bible does that! It says that the joy of the Lord is our strength. There is nothing more draining than sitting around thinking about how awful everything is. It doesn't matter if we consider ourselves by nature optimists, pessimists, or realists. The fact is: We may be accurate in our assessments of what is happening around us. Things may not have been done right. They may not currently be right. The natural, human inclination is to see any glass as half full. (And probably filled with something we don't even like to drink: Prune juice, maybe. Or milk of magnesia. Or a barium milkshake.) But rehearsing what's wrong over and over in our heads does not minimize problems. It makes them grow. Joy must be intentional because it most certainly will never be accidental. We must purpose in our hearts that we are going to pursue joy and strength will be added to our lives.

Joy isn't a solo act. Joy and Thankfulness are inseparable twins. They go everywhere together. You show me a thankful person and I'll show you someone who is filled with joy. Start counting your blessings. Grit your teeth if you must. Do it. Start small, look within: Say, "I am thankful I have breath in my lungs today. I'm thankful my heart is beating." Then look around: Are you thankful your children have energy to spare and that's why there are blanket tents all over the living room? Are you thankful you have plenty to eat and that's why there are stacks of dirty dishes cascading in your sink? Are you thankful you have work, shelter, people who love you?

Avoid comparison: It is a killjoy. It literally kills JOY. We need to stop looking at our friends and family as competition. Nobody wins a prize if they wear their pre-pregnancy jeans home from the hospital. The neighbor isn't a better person because he drives a nicer car. Your sister's baby is not smarter because he crawled before yours did. If Facebook makes you crazy, close your account. If certain people continually make you feel bad about yourself, find new friends who will help you focus on things that really matter. Don't fall into the trap of looking at what others are doing. You work on you.

Not long ago I posted a Facebook status that said, " choosing joy." A young friend of mine Liked my status and that evening informed her husband, "I'm choosing joy."

"You can DO that?!" he asked.

She responded, "If I can choose to be crabby, I can sure as heck can choose JOY!"

Am I saying that we should all skip around in flower beds, grinning, and singing in a high falsetto because everything is just so dang wonderful? What about when everything is not coming up roses? What if we can't find the silver lining in the clouds and everything in life seems to be swirling down the toilet? Choosing joy is never more important than when hardship comes. James 1:2-4 tells us:"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Jesus guaranteed us that in this life, we will have trouble. (How come nobody writes songs about that precious promise or displays it on signs outside of churches?) My paraphrase of that passage in James is this: "Tests build us up and make our faith TOUGH. This causes us to GROW UP in God and become useful for something in his kingdom." God didn't call us to stay children toddling around the church nursery begging for animal crackers. Sometimes, even as adults, we can be so delicate. When the least challenge comes along our knees buckle and we fall to the floor weeping, "Why me, Lord?" as if we are some unique person on the planet that should be singled out for special exemption from difficulty. God is calling us to maturity, he is calling us to bear fruit. So when trials of all kinds come--EXPECTED and NECESSARY--choose JOY as your response.

I enjoyed watching the Olympic games this past summer. I am amazed by the athletes' commitment to train for years for one moment. Theirs is an indisputably admirable endeavor. Yet, 1 Timothy 4:8 tells us: "Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come." Referring back to the passage from Philippians I see a challenge--a commitment to TRAINING. I need to rewire the way I think about daily life in general and trials in particular and it's going to take work. I'm asking God to help me condition my mind to find Him in every circumstance. I'm making the pursuit of JOY my goal, a discipline I exercise every day. Having begun this race of life, I want to run with endurance (strength) and finish well. I don't want to park myself on the sidelines, grumbling and complaining that nothing in life is any good. I'm choosing JOY. And I'm cheering for you to run with me.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Who's Gonna Win, Gonna Win, Gonna Win?

I am counting the days until the election is over the way some count down the days 'til Christmas. I am weary of the debate and the commercials and the mud-slinging. Fact: All parties are corrupt.

Ever since the dawn of time people have looked for leaders to lead. Face it, the majority of people on the planet are followers and are desperate for someone to follow. The first book of Samuel chapter eight tells of the nation of Israel's debate with Samuel over appointing a king. Up until this point, Israel had been ruled by judges but the people became dissatisfied with theocracy and demanded a king so they would "look like everyone else." Samuel tried to tell them what having a king would entail: A king would take their sons and bring them to war. He would take the best of all their land and flocks and belongings, making them his own slaves. "Yeah, whatever--GIVE US A KING," they insisted. And God responded, "Give them their king."

These days, in this country, we get to elect our leaders. Whenever one party is in power, people of a different persuasion tend to think a new ruler/president/government will make things better. We look back on the successes and mistakes in the history of our young nation with either glowing nostalgia for The Good Ol' Days or disdain for the ignorance of our forefathers who weren't necessarily that upright in their methods or ideology. Some feel "If only we could go back in time." Others, "If we knew then what we know now, we'd do it right." Neither is true.

Mankind, as a species, is not improving with each generation as some seem to believe. You need just to watch the world news to see endemic corruption, violence, and terrorism common fare. Civilized people love brutality as much as the audiences of the gladiators of old. We pay money to be entertained by graphic bloodshed in theaters and act out the same in the form of popular video games. We insulate ourselves from the horrors that occur every day where the innocent are slaughtered and starved and ignored. Yet we firmly believe if our party was in power...if the government was run by Christians...why, we could make for ourselves a veritable Heaven on Earth. Or could we?

Things could not have been more perfect in the garden of Eden. And wasn't quite enough. The two first people on the planet wanted more. They wanted power. It wasn't enough to be made in the very image of God, they wanted his ability to discern--for themselves--what was good and what was evil. That thirst for power has infected mankind ever since. And regardless of what motives a leader begins with, you can be sure that by the end there will be an exposing of feet of clay. We are terrible at choosing our own leaders because even the best among us is incurably flawed, selfish to the core. And we are too blind to notice.

You would think, with such a view of humanity, I would be discouraged with people altogether. What is the point then? Why even vote? Why pray for our country at all? I am able to get up every morning with joy in my heart because my trust is not in the fickle decisions of foolish man--he is like King Midas who ruins and poisons everything he touches with his selfish ambition and greed. My hope is in God. He is the one who holds the rulers of the nations accountable. Nothing takes place without his notice. God himself sits on the throne and surveys all the work of his hands. Nothing is hidden from him--no motive, no secrets, no intent of the heart. It is all bare before him. Rulers, drunk with delusions of their own authority, have no power but that which is allowed them. There is a much bigger picture waiting to be assembled than this jagged, current-events piece we hold in our sweaty little hands.

My hope is not in the Democratic Party, nor the Republicans, neither any off-shoot thereof. It is not in Barak Obama that I trust, nor Mitt Romney, nor any of their running mates. My hope is in the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe. He will reign over that which he has created and his will be the final word. Come November, I will not be disappointed regardless of what the voters decide. I'll be glad we can move on to better commercials.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Go Play Outside

I'm currently reading a book called, "Last Child in the Woods," by Richard Louv which addresses what the author is calling a "nature deficit" plaguing today's children who spend far more time in front of electronic screens than they do in unstructured time outdoors. Growing up, I was outside eating toast at the crack of dawn and stayed out until dark--coming inside ONLY to eat and use the bathroom. But our world is changing. This marks the first generation of children who will grow up with few familial ties to the land, meaning, that most of them do not have parents or grandparents who farmed or lived in rural areas. Even children's time is at a premium and what little of it is spent outside is usually in some type of organized sports program, not in exploring or random play. The Great Outdoors is being choked out by Wii and IPads and Netflix.

I spent this afternoon outside with 18 children exploring and documenting our discoveries on One Mile Prairie. We identified lavender wild asters, burgundy-stemmed turkey-foot grass, and white wild yarrow. We climbed a hill and measured temperatures and wind speeds high on the trail, and counted mallards and flocks of teal on the marsh below. Kids took out their journals and sketched goldenrod, milkweed, and cattails. They shaded in colors of the sky and pointed out various cloud forms. We purposely listened and recognized the sounds of crows, chickadees, killdeer, and simply enjoyed the rustle the wind made as it passed through the tall grass we were sitting in. Bees and dragonflies with iridescent wings zipped around us while franklin gulls wheeled in aerial patterns high over our heads. In the air was a hint of wild sage, the light musty scent of the waning marsh, and the sun warming dry foliage. We poked in the dirt with our fingers and pencils to expose small spiders, crickets, and grasshoppers. We loaded the bus 90 minutes later hot, sweaty, and thirsty. Was this time well spent? Yes. Educational? Absolutely. We need to reawaken a sense of WONDER in our children and erase the word "boring" from their vocabularies. Everything around us does not have to exude flashing lights, bells, and whistles to be interesting and appealing to our innate longing for the natural world. But we need to be taught, perhaps retaught, to pay attention to nature's subtleties in spite of our sensory-overloaded urban environment.

As Christians, this speaks to us on an even deeper level. "Be still," we are exhorted by our Creator. "And know that I Am God." He calls us away to quietness where we can appreciate the miracles of life all around us, a place where we can hear His soft, small voice.

What ideas do you have for getting kids to spend more time outside in unstructured play? How is your children's relationship to the outdoors different from what you experienced as a child?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fall Daze

I am sitting out on the front porch swing in my swishy skirt sipping iced tea and enjoying the comfort of the sun on my face. The wind is blasting leaves off the trees and making the flowers whip against the pickets of the fence. Squirrels dart back and forth across the street. I wonder what's so pressing on the other side that they risk life and limb every ten minutes? The dog stretches out beneath me, eyes half-mast against the late afternoon brightness. I can smell the squash that is baking in my oven through the open window.

I am thinking about my sweet students, how different they all are from each other--sort of like the flowers in my garden. I appreciate the diversity of the youngsters I see every day and find them endearing in a thousand separate ways. There are the gregarious charmers who have a hard time containing their social inclinations--ones who like to catch my eye at odd moments in the day, and never miss the nuances of subtle humor. There are the shy ones, who just like to stand by me and wait to be noticed. Sometimes they'll be overcome with boldness and reach for my hand. I never let go first. I love their gap-toothed smiles, sprinklings of freckles on sunburned cheeks, fuzzy new crew cuts, shining braces. Best of all are their eyes: Green eyes, gray eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes, eyes that vary based on what they are wearing, eyes fringed with lavish lashes, eyes filled with wonder and innocence. They stand close to show me their drawings, their owies, painted fingernails, and loose teeth. I get to read with them, help them with number patterns, untie knots in their shoelaces, listen to them recite memory work. Every Monday morning our school has chapel and I find myself towering over them--like a sunflower in a wheat field--worshiping among the little guys and gals. There is nothing like being surrounded by a hundred children belting out praises to God. He must smile. I know I do.

I'm so thankful for the color and the texture children bring to my life.