Practicing contentment


Here are the WA football players standing in front of the “hedge” they “built” in front of our house with all the tree debris they gathered from our yard on Tuesday. They were SUCH a blessing and encouragement to us.

After nearly five days without power, our street’s electricity was restored Thursday evening, so we moved out of the home of our very generous friends and back into our own. When we got there, the kids walked around and examined the house. Finally Jake said, “Well, it doesn’t look THAT different.”

Em and Maddie were shocked. “Jake, look at the yard. Half the trees are gone. There’s a hole where the pear tree used to be.”

“Yeah,” said Jake. “But look at the house without all the trees on it. It’s not that different. It’s good.”

What a great reminder. Because on the first day of this “experience,” it was pretty easy to realize that it could be a lot worse and not too difficult to focus on and pray for others’ needs and difficulties—but in the following days, when the power lines stayed down in the yard and the 6 ft. “hedge” of cleared brush grew brown and the insurance guy still hadn’t come out to give a quote so we could finally get the tree cleared off the back porch and I couldn’t get anything done…

I began to get a little grumpy.

Paul said he had to “learn” contentment. Well, it certainly doesn’t come naturally for me either!

I tried urging myself to “just be content,” but that didn’t work very well, and then I remembered Ann Voskamp’s words in One Thousand Gifts about voids. Paraphrase: You can’t replace sin with NOTHING. You can’t just try NOT to sin. Instead you have to “put off-put on,” a Biblical pattern (Voskamp does a beautiful job with this—and goes far deeper; I highly recommend her book.) My frustration/lack of contentment cannot be countered or replaced with nothing. Instead I have to fight it and replace it with its opposite (more accurately, I have to cry out for help to do this).

So what is the opposite of “discontent”? Voskamp suggests that “gratitude” is.

Ah, that evasive friend, gratitude!

When I practice gratitude, in all situations, I learn contentment.

I’ve prayed a lot about this (I’ve written about it a lot, too. “Looking for poop” is an earlier blog entry about this same topic), and I’ve discovered that the practice of consistent gratitude is linked to my focus. Contentment doesn’t happen when I go through life primarily noticing the negative. Contentment actually happens when I practice looking at all things, “good” and “bad,” as blessings from God.

THEN, my gratitude builds and my contentment grows.

This past week I had to practice a lot. I’d had plans to finish getting the house settled after we got back from vacation in Montana this past Sunday. I wanted to go through all my e-mails and lesson plans before heading off to teach at a month-long international student camp on July 7. But my to-do list had to be set aside. And I don’t handle that very well.

But God kept reminding me to practice this different way of looking that transforms frustrations into blessings.

I tried to see “days getting ‘nothing’ accomplished” as “unhurried hours building relationship with my children and my friend.” And when we moved back into our house on Thursday night, I refused to look at the box of still-packed “stuff” in Em’s room or the unhung pictures leaned up against walls—or even at the things completely out of my control, like the green tarp covering the empty dining room window frame.

Instead I focused on the organized kitchen and the naturally cool basement. I enjoyed turning lights ON and listening to the steady hum of the window air conditioners.

I read to my children before bedtime and then watched their peaceful sleep.

I had to practice again the next day, and I will have to tomorrow as well. And then again the day after.

Perhaps, someday, I will be able to say, with Paul, that “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Based on my track record, though, that probably won’t happen till I’m 95.

And here are our kids standing on the street side of “the hedge” on Thursday night. Kudos to the town of West Chicago and all the people who worked (and are still working) on the clean-up. Our hedge is gone now, and everyone has power restored.

Gray or Glory?

Em and cousin Grace enjoying each other's company last week in Philly

“There’s one! See the purple!”

I followed Em’s pointng finger. Flowers sprouted straight from winter-dark branches, like they’d split the bark and sprung out full-blossomed. The tree literally erupted with spring.

It was yet another drive to-from school, and we needed some magic. “Let’s look for beauty,” I’d told Em, and spotting brilliant yellows, pinks, and lavenders transformed the trip.

Yesterday morning, as I drove home from work, I didn’t have beauty on the mind. I was weighed down with decisions, the busyness of the day ahead, and struggles I knew others were experiencing. Suddenly purple caught my eye.

Here I am.

Holy Spirit whisper.

I resisted, focused on the gray of the leafless trees, the asphalt, the cloud-scudded sky.

But more, more, more, one spot of color after another.

How long will you resist me? And why? What good will your focus on the gray accomplish? Look at ME.

“Your Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who ask him.” Matt. 7:11

I wasn’t asking for any gifts (how ungrateful, since it’s ALL, honestly, gifts)—and I was trying to stay in my funk, in my “gray,” despite His offers and gifts of beauty, of delight—of Himself!

As I looked at a spring-budding world, a world being transformed from gray to color, wakened magically to new life, I realized how strange, silly even, it was to assume that the God creative and powerful enough to do THAT would be unable to fix me! To fix all the problems I saw.

The focal point of my gaze was magnifying the gray, overwhelming all the God-color.

Today PJ and I walked at the dog park.

Though most owners do pretty well at cleaning up after their pets, it’s still a poop minefield. Above was a blue sky and fluffy clouds, pines standing straight like guards, flowering trees spreading branches wide like they were trying to hold hands.

Lots and lots of beauty. But me…well, I was too busy looking down, watching out for poop, to notice it much.

In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim above the throne of God say, over and over, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The WHOLE earth is full of His glory.

So the problem, again, isn’t His absence, it’s my focus.

Am I going to focus on the gray? The poop?

Or am I going to walk ahead with confidence, trusting that God will “lead me in the path of righteousness,” that He will “make all paths straight,” not just mine.

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes, “…I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early June… The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world.”

Two years ago, on a trip to Kenya, we had the amazing opportunity to go INTO the Kibera slum, the second largest slum in the world. A giant man who grew up in it and who still lives and ministers there, took us in, leading the way through the maze of shacks. I watched out for more than poop as I placed each foot, but at one corner my eyes were drawn up to a barred window that had a bright, cheerful curtain. A small jar of wildflowers sat on its sill. Tears came to my eyes and I thought, “You’re here, Lord, even here!”

If I focus on the gray, the poop, I will be overwhelmed, but if I focus on His beauty, the glory of God pinpointing its way through the gray, I have hope: I can pull the gray TO the glory. It’s there; it’s available.

George Washington Carver, who certainly had plenty of gray in his against-the-odds life, said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

If we will only tune in.

Look for the Glory!

Extra quote (just ’cause I love it): “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” Martin Luther

Maddie, thoroughly enjoying some of the glory in Philly last week