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.