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.

damage to the temporal

I took this picture standing in the neighbor’s yard, facing the west side of our house. The tree was pulled up by its roots (leaving a 6-foot crater underneath them–you can see just the edge of the roots in the bottom left of the photo). All three windows in this picture are fine. It’s the one on the back of the house that was smashed. And our back porch is under the tree. Kudos to the former owner who built the back porch. It would have been completely obliterated if he hadn’t done such a good job.

When we left for vacation in Montana a week and a half ago (the reason I haven’t posted in awhile), I was just at the point of feeling somewhat organized in our new home. “We’ll even come back to a clean kitchen,” I told Dave as we drove away from West Chicago. “But I didn’t get to the dining room. I really wanted to sweep under the table.”

This morning, as I swept the dining room, putting window glass broken by Sunday’s storm into a plastic bucket, I remembered saying that–and I laughed.

When I told Dave, he laughed, too. “And to think that I thought I HAD to mow the back lawn so the neighbors wouldn’t be appalled by the height of the grass.”

We were driving back home, still in the middle of Minnesota, when my friend Kristine called. “Jen, there’s been a bad storm. I’m going to check out your house in a few minutes. Mine’s fine, just no power.”

A few minutes later a neighbor called Dave and shared the news: several trees down in our yard; one window completely broken by a limb; the back porch roof smushed; maybe some roof damage; no power–and that was probably out for several days.

The good news: our kind neighbors had already pulled the tree limb from the window and tarped it in case more storms were coming.

We drove into West Chicago about eight that night. The park down the street from our house looked like someone had bombed the trees. Later we learned that about 80 trees were split or downed.

Our front yard didn’t look a whole lot different. “I was trying to imagine the worst,” said Dave, “but this is crazy!”

When we walked around the corner of the house, we saw the huge tree from our neighbor’s yard lying on our back porch roof–just a few feet from the corner of the house. If the wind had been from a slightly different direction or twisted the tree just a little differently… “This could have been so much worse,” we told each other.

We’ve had so many things to be thankful for during the past couple of days, and it’s a joy to share them:

-within two hours of being back in West Chicago, we were comfortably settled in our friends’ air-conditioned, lighted home. Thank you, Vishanoffs.

-we’ve met and talked with one neighbor after another in the past couple of days. We’re praying for genuine conversations, open doors, and deepening friendships.

-this morning 39 Wheaton Academy football players showed up and cleared amazing amounts of debris. I was inside sweeping glass from the dining room when Dave came in, choked up with tears. “Have you SEEN how much they’ve done, Jen? It’s amazing!” Not only were we blessed and encouraged, our neighbors noticed.

-and God has continued to provide joy and perspective: we have several people in our neighborhood who have tarps fastened over large holes in their roofs–and yesterday morning I happened to look at a National Geographic article about the perennially flooded people of Bangladesh, who accept what we consider tragedy as normal life. That puts our temporary inconvenience–to what is only temporal

Is there a truck under there? Yes! Dave’s 1994 Chevy (which we called “Big Whitey”) got smashed. Since he’s been hoping to get a newer truck anyway (one that gets more than 10 miles to the gallon), he wasn’t exactly upset.

anyway–in great perspective.

I’ll write more about the trip to Montana later this week.

Thanks for reading.



It’s the end of the train as we know it…

Just a random picture I took at Macy's downtown. The colors in the ceiling glow!

We live on the wrong side of the tracks in our town. Not figuratively—there’s nothing really different about the two “sides” of West Chicago—but literally. We have to cross two intersecting railroad tracks to get to schools, work, church, friends, grocery store, and library. The only thing on this side of the tracks are Walmart and the shopping mall, both of which I avoid as much as possible.

I have heard that, on average, a train crosses the tracks here in West Chicago eight times an hour. I believe it. In fact, I think that number may be low. I often have days when I wait for a train every single time I cross the tracks. One day two weeks ago, that was eight times.

Early on in our renting of this house, I was sitting at the train crossing, drumming my fingers and looking and listening for the big engine that powers the end of particularly long freight trains like that one, when I realized that, if I was willing, God could use the trains to teach me patience. Since then, I’ve tried to use that time well. I sing, talk with those in the car with me, pray if I’m alone, jot down thoughts in my journal, even knit (that only happens when I’m not the one driving).

A few weeks ago I was waiting at a train with the three youngest kids. We were chatting and goofing off, and they were looking for the rear engine. For no reason at all I began singing the song, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” I only know about two lines of that song, so I sang those phrases a few times and then slipped into another song I know better. Suddenly one of the kids shouted out, “There’s the engine.”

Sure enough, the heavy rumble announced its approach. As if on cue, the three kids, ranged across the back seat like a chorus, belted out, “It’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it, it’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it, it’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it,

“And we feel fine!” (And then they sang that funny line that sounds like the singer might be saying, “diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy.”)

All together, on key, like they had planned and practiced it (and as far as I know, they never had).

I laughed so hard.

This morning I thought about that story as I crossed the train tracks—without a wait. It made me think of my current favorite song: “This is not the End” by Gungor (if you haven’t heard of them, check them out—thought-provoking music). Here are a few of the lyrics:

“This is not the end of this.

We will open our eyes wide, wider.

This is not our last breath.

We will open our mouths wide, wider.

This is not the end of us.

We will shine like the stars, bright, brighter.”

I feel like crying and laughing at the same time when I sing that song—which I shout out as loud as I can if I’m alone. It’s full of so much hope! THIS, a life that often feels a lot like waiting for a train, is NOT the end of it all. One day it will pass, and that ending will be a huge beginning! I will be able to see with wide-open eyes. I will be able to praise with wide-open lips. I will fulfill that beautiful image of Philippians 2:15: I will shine like a star in my complete revelry in God.

But there is hope for this time, too, this train-waiting time; I can rest in the promise of Philippians 1:6: that until THAT end, God will open my eyes, bit by bit, wider and wider, so I can see less of my frustrations and more of Him. He will open my lips (and my pen/keyboard) so that testimony flows from them rather than selfish, hurtful things. He will turn up, degree by degree, my dimmer switch (or in this case, my brightening switch) so I shine His love brighter into the darkness that surrounds me.

In a few months we will move to the house we’re purchasing on the “right” side of the tracks, and my regular train-waiting times will be over. They’ve become almost enjoyable as necessary stopping points, worthwhile reminders that there is much good in waiting, listening, trusting, reflecting. It’s so easy to forget my true purposes when I’m incessantly running around. Good waiting (both for trains and in life) helps me remember.

Leash Lessons

Chai running at the dog park

Our dog Chai was found a year and a half ago running around the farmlands surrounding our then-hometown Sterling, Kansas. We knew this when we got her from the animal shelter, and this knowledge of a wild side helped us in choosing her name.

“Pumpkin?” (the name given to her by the folks at the shelter.) Nah, too orange.

“Penny?” Right color, cute name—like her—but, too… tame. Her golden eyes have a James Dean look. She’s spunky and a bit…

“Spicy,” said Em.

“Like chai,” said one of us (probably me, since it’s my all-time favorite drink, but I don’t remember, so I can’t claim it.)

“Yeah, she’s a mix of sweet and spicy.”

She seemed to leave all the spice behind after we adopted her, but when we left on a trip and asked two neighbor boys to take care of the dogs while we were gone, we found out that without the constant activity of our family, Chai’s spice was alive and well.

“She found every possible hole in your fence,” one of the boys told us when we returned. He’d ”fixed” them with bungee cords he found in the garage. “Then she realized that with a running start, she could jump the fence. I finally had to tie her in the middle of the yard, and even then she figured out she could wiggle backwards out of her collar.”

For a week after we returned, neighbors would tell us how Chai had come visiting. They’d all just taken her back inside the fence—only to have her visit again.

The wild side had returned, and it didn’t want to leave. She began jumping the fence at every opportunity, running through town, then discovering the forest on the west side of it. She had a couple of all-nighters, not returning till the next morning, trailing a leash on one of those occasions. Finally we gave up training her—and worked on the kids: don’t let her out except on a leash. Don’t put the leash DOWN. Know that if she sees a squirrel or rabbit, you hold on tight.

Then we moved back to West Chicago. We joked about taking Chai—and PJ, for good measure—to the local police station that first week. “See this little boy and this dog,” we would say. “If you see either of them running around, they should be at ____________. Please bring them home.”

But after a few “excursions” (fortunately PJ’s was just around the block—though I scolded him like he’d crossed a major highway), they both seemed to settle in. We could even let Chai wander free around the back yard—as long as we were out there with her.

But lately the wild streak has come back. I blame the squirrels, who seem to be holding a tribal reunion in our town.

But maybe it’s the crisp weather.

Or the moon, as one of my Sterling neighbors used to say. “Full moons bring out the wild in dogs.” She said it happened with her dog, another rescue found running in the wild.

Regardless of the cause, Chai’s back on the leash whenever we set foot outside the house. I’m thankful for the local dog park.

I just came back in from taking her out to do her duty—on the leash.

And it made me think of myself.

I’m on a leash, and I’m really, really thankful God has the other end of it.

I’m not saying there isn’t freedom in following Christ—oh, there is—so much abundance, so much joy—but ironically, the abundance and joy and freedom are only found when I’m close to Him, the leash slack and easy, my closeness born of my desire to be with Him, born of my understanding that being with HIM is not “better,” it’s BEST, BEST, BEST.

But I’m like Chai, constantly pulling to the end of the leash (though my temptations are mirages of “orderliness” [legalism, guilt, self-righteousness, martyrdom) rather than the lures of entertainment and adventure).

And He pulls me back.

He lets me stick my nose in poop or step on a thorn or get briars in my coat, but He pulls me back, even while He knows that this is my bent, this is what is natural for my humanity. He knows that I will do it again and again and again. And every time He pulls me close, pulls me near.

He never lets go. Never gets so tired with my tugging that He says, “Ok, go, leave, if that’s what you want.”

Never. Not ever.

He HOLDS ON to me.