Saturday, November 7, 2009

Making a Difference

Sometimes I worry that I'm not really making a difference in the world. I often wish that I was better at helping people and that I had more time, money, and wisdom to contribute to solving the world's problems. I'm just an ordinary person with normal skills and a modest resources. I make a lot of mistakes, and they aren't exactly overwhelmed by a plethora of brilliant moments. Does it really matter what I do? Will anyone really notice my modest contributions?

Even though I ask myself these questions, deep down I already know the answers. My choices do matter, and my actions do make a difference. I just have to understand that while most of my efforts have a small impact, they can add up to a pretty big contribution over the span of my lifetime. I can slowly build a mountain with the tiny pebbles of love that I add to the pile each day. In fact, small contributions are the basis of a Christian life. It's great if we have the opportunity to do something big, but that still wouldn't excuse us from the small stuff. One big gift isn't worth more than my everyday efforts to love others. Everything is important, especially the small stuff.

Often it's our everyday conduct that makes the biggest impact on the people around us. Our neighbors will notice if we make a big contribution to the community, but they'll remember even more vividly whether we're inclined to smile at others or to support them in their daily lives. If we are generous but aloof, the impact of our generosity will be less than if it was combined with everyday love. Therefore our small efforts give our big achievements even more meaning. If I live a Christian life every day, then all of the good things I do, both small and great, will combine together for maximum impact on the world. I think consistency is more important than intensity when it comes to Christian living, and that means that small everyday acts of love are very important.

It's true that my contributions are sometimes smaller than I would like them to be. Still, every little act of love does make a difference. Even if my efforts go unnoticed by the people around me, God sees and appreciates everything I do. The opportunity to brighten up my Savior's day is nothing to scoff at. So when I get discouraged about my seeming smallness in the world, I hope I will remember this and be heartened. I do matter, and so do all of you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beauty Within

We all like beautiful things. We enjoy being in beautiful places, we want beautiful objects in our homes, and we even like to look at beautiful people. God made a wide variety of beautiful creations in this world for us to enjoy, and He's given us the creativity and artistry to make things of beauty ourselves. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My husband thinks I look beautiful, but a lot of people don't. Some people think desert landscapes are lovely and some people don't. Some people are touched by Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, and some people aren't. King Solomon compared his beloved's hair to a flock of goats (Song 4:1), and even though he was using that comparison to express her beauty, a lot of us don't find that appealing at all. There is no set definition of physical or artistic beauty. We all have different aesthetic tastes, and that is why it is marvelous that our world holds such variety.

Physical beauty is enjoyable, but we could enjoy a much deeper and profound kind of beauty if we're willing to seek it out. Every soul made by God is beautiful because He made it in His own image. While there are many different ideas about physical beauty, I think there is an easy way to define inner beauty: likeness to God. God is love, and love is the most beautiful thing there is. Every reflection of God inside our souls—every bit of kindness, generosity, justice, and righteousness—is beautiful. Seeing that kind of beauty in each other is like getting the chance to look at God, even if we only get to see a faint reflection. Inner beauty requires more of us—it's not as flashy or obvious, so we have to pay attention or we won't notice it. Still, I've realized that the beauty within is also much deeper and more powerful than the beauty on the surface. I can feast my eyes on a beautiful sight, but my joy at encountering a beautiful soul transcends my senses.

We can get so distracted by physical beauty that we let it rob us of the chance to enjoy the beauty within. When I meet someone, what am I paying attention to most? Am I looking at their face or their figure or the clothes they're wearing? Or am I listening to what they're saying and looking for their story and discerning their personality? I may find the most beautiful and amazing treasure inside people who repulse me a little on the outside. Am I willing to go search for that treasure, to see what's really there on the inside? As a person who's struggled with my weight my entire life, I've often felt that I couldn't get people to look past my body to see the real me. Now I want to challenge myself not to suffer from that limitation myself. There's so much beauty inside the people who are all around me, and I want to discover it. I really do enjoy being in the mountains and looking at amazing paintings and watching beautiful actresses and handsome actors onscreen, but none of those things can give me the incredible joy that I feel when I see a beautiful soul.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Just Do It

I have my moments of spontaneity, but I usually like to think things through (at least briefly) before I take action. I want to weigh the pros and cons and make sure I'm not doing something foolish. By and large, that's probably a good habit to have, but I've realized that when the Holy Spirit directs me, it's not usually through my head. God isn't presenting a long list of orderly, logical arguments to convince me to do what He wants me to do. Instead I feel a deep urging inside that says, "Just do it." No reasons, no explanation, no logic. Just do it.

I've let those deep impulses lead me to do all sorts of things. Some were seemingly insignificant and others major. Sometimes I was moved to take immediate action, and sometimes a seed was planted in me that grew over time. Still, all of the gut feelings that I attribute to the Holy Spirit encourage me to move beyond myself, to connect to someone or something else in a way that often puts me a little outside my comfort zone. They might not be downright foolhardy, but these urges often defy logic. There's no good reason why I should take these actions except that there is a very compelling voice deep inside me telling me to do it. That sounds a little crazy, but I think I have to be willing to be a little crazy in order to effectively submit to the Spirit's guidance.

My husband and I were friends for about two years before we started dating each other. Our attraction to each other was so subtle at first that I sometimes think it's amazing that we even got together. As soon as the connection was made, though, everything fell into place. We had agreed to take it slow, but one week into our romantic relationship we were head over heels and I already knew deep down that we would end up married. We didn't tie the knot right away, of course, and I did have my doubts from time to time during our relationship, but my gut was insisting the whole time that we were meant for each other. I still don't necessarily understand why, but I am certain that God intended for the two of us to be together. I've been willing to follow that instinct, even when my brain gets freaked out by some of the challenges in our relationship.

Not all of my divinely inspired moments have been such a big deal. Once I felt led to go and see someone at a particular time. I had something to tell him, but I didn't think he'd be available at that particular time, and it seemed silly to just show up when he wasn't expecting me. Still, a voice inside me urged, "Just do it." Maybe I would be making a trip for nothing, and maybe he would think I was weird for just showing up like that. But I decided to do it. I bumped into him just as he was finishing with something and about to go somewhere else. It was the perfect moment to catch him, a case of perfect serendipity. It wasn't a momentous occasion, but it left a deep mark of joy on me.

On another occasion I was coming home from an appointment and I saw a pair of hitch hikers by the side of the road. As a rule, I never pick up hitch hikers, especially when I'm alone. I continued on my way, but something inside me told me to go back and try to help them. I ended up taking them about an hour out of my way (and then an hour to get me back home). I still wouldn't make it a general practice to pick up hitch hikers, but I just knew deep inside that I was being called to help them. So I just did it. Again, it wasn't that big of deal, but it sure made me feel good to listen to that little voice inside me.

One of the biggest struggles I have with following the Spirit is dealing with money. How much do I spend? How much do I save? How much do I give? Am I being a reckless steward if I don't save for tomorrow and make sure my needs are taken care of? Am I being stingy if I save instead of giving? I do all the math and try to justify my decisions, and I forget to listen to that little voice in my gut. I pray but I don't listen attentively to the Spirit's response. Right now my husband and I are about to pledge to our church for 2010 and to consider our donations to other worthy causes that we support. I've been listening to my head and not my heart, but it's not too late. I want to challenge myself to pray together with my husband and to block out our own worries, fears, and justifications so that we can listen to what the Spirit is calling us to do. Then, I want to just do it. After all, that's worked out for me pretty well so far.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't Be Afraid

We spend more time than we would like to admit being afraid. Fear isn't very useful for a Christian because it often turns us away from love. When we are afraid, we often become the most limited or the most self-centered versions of ourselves. We can find ourselves unable to see the bigger picture or to react to the other needs around us. But God tells us that we don't have to be paralyzed by fear. We can trust in His love instead.

Sometimes we fear for our personal safety. Right now, worries about swine flu are high in the United States. Some people are trying to jostle their way to the top of the vaccination list and others are completely shunning anyone who might be the least bit under the weather. This is only one small example of the survival instinct that makes us shove others out of the way if we think they're between us and safety. Our fear convinces us that our bodily health is the most important thing, but from a Christian standpoint love should be more important. We can't allow ourselves to put fear above the love we feel for God and our neighbors whenever we feel threatened. What's the worst thing that can happen to me if disease, violence, or natural disasters strike? If I die, I will find myself in the arms of a loving and eternal God. What is there to be so afraid of?

I think that on a deeper level, death and injury aren't really what scare me most. What I'm really afraid of is pain. There are so many ways that we can get hurt, and that leaves us with so many things to be afraid of. Although I know that pain is temporary, I still fear it. I'm afraid of unknown physical experiences like surgery and childbirth because I worry they could be very painful experiences. I'm even more afraid of emotional pain. Sometimes I'm afraid to take risks in relationships in case the other person doesn't respond well. I may be unwilling to make an overture out of fear of rejection or afraid to address a problem because an argument might ensue. Some risks may not be worth it, but I need to be able to overcome fear of pain if it's stopping me from reaching out in love. I wasn't created to live alone in a safe little shell. I was designed to be with others, to get hurt but also to heal and to grow.

A certain amount of caution is prudent in some circumstances, but I don't want that fear to stop me from fully living the life God gave me. For example, I'm afraid of falling. I decided that I needed to try to combat this fear so that it didn't become too strong, so I signed myself up for ice skating lessons. The first day I got out on the ice, I could barely move. I had to hold on to someone's hands while I practiced picking up my feet, and my muscles were trembling they were so tense. Slowly I gained confidence, and even though I had to take the basic adult class twice, I am now reasonably comfortable on ice skates. I've fallen a couple of times while skating, and it wasn't too bad. I feel a little more relaxed every time I skate, and I'm slowly becoming willing to try more advanced maneuvers. I don't want to become paralyzed when things come along that scare me. I want to be able to respond as calmly as possible, and challenging my fears in reasonable ways helps make me more able to do that.

I am going to get hurt, and that's a fact. My fear can't protect me from everything. It's true that a little healthy caution keeps me from doing foolhardy or reckless things, but getting carried away with fear is foolhardy in and of itself. I don't want to let fear interfere with my ability to love others or to live a full and rewarding life. God's love changes everything. The things that scare me just aren't as real as I may be tempted to think they are, so I don't have to be afraid.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Just Roll With It

Yesterday I forgot to change the clock in my office to reflect the time change. As a result, I showed up for my personal trainer appointment an hour early. I didn't figure out my mistake until my trainer arrived and asked me what I was doing there so early. He thought the whole thing was quite funny, but he very kindly offered to let me join the workout class that meets just before my regular appointment instead of making me wait around.

"Do I get to tell everyone why you're joining our class today?" he asked.

I felt a little stupid about my mistake, but I just laughed. "Sure," I replied. "I can work on my humility today."

I am an intelligent, organized, and capable adult with a degree from a prestigious college, but I'm not immune from stupid mistakes. People at work are used to me being very reliable, but sometimes I drop the ball. I'm very organized, but occasionally I misplace something or miss an appointment. I even do silly things like forgetting to change my clock at work. But when these things happen, I've learned that the best thing I can do is just roll with it.

I have been singing in public since I was in the fourth grade. I had sung before a crowd of more than 1,000 people before I even entered middle school. I made my first mistake in a public performance when I was a freshman in college. I had joined a women's choir that performed pieces that were more technically advanced than any music I'd sung before. Our most challenging selection, a 12-minute marathon of a piece, featured a trio section in the middle. I auditioned for the top part, but it went to a good friend of mine instead. Another friend got the bottom part, so I used to sing the middle part with them when we were just fooling around outside of choir practice. The girl who was supposed to sing the middle part quit the choir a week or two before the performance. The director gave her part to me because I was the only one who'd been practicing it and felt comfortable stepping up at such a late date. In the concert, the director gave an ambiguous cue and the trio came in early. In the panic of that moment when things went wrong, I unwittingly hopped up to the top part because it was the musical line I had auditioned for and therefore knew better. I couldn't find my way back to the middle part, and I ended up doubling the top part the rest of the way through. The crowd didn't really notice what we had done, but I was devastated. After the concert, I didn't want to talk about what happened because the other two girls also felt bad about our botched entrance. I was all freaked out and jittery, and I spent the rest of the night stress-eating. (This was the night I met the man whom I eventually married—it's a good thing he was able to get over this unflattering first impression!)

Luckily my first mistake was rather mild. The more spectacular mess-ups didn't happen until later in my singing career when I was better able to handle them. The year I joined the church that I attend now, I sang "The Lord's Prayer" (a signature piece for me) at services one Sunday. Midway through the piece, the accompanist (a tried and true veteran organist) accidentally turned two pages instead of one and started playing something completely different from what I was singing. I shakily finished the phrase as best I could, and by the next phrase she had figured out what had happened and was back in the right place. We managed to finish with a flourish, and after the service, both the organist and I were nonchalant about the whole thing. I had grown enough as an artist that I realized that these things just happen sometimes. I'm glad I learned that lesson. It helped me get through an experience this year when I was singing a new piece in church and ended up starting it in the wrong key because I was mentally stuck in the key of the song we had just sung. The accompanist had to go through the introduction two more times (adding in the notes I was supposed to sing) before I could get it right. After I got started, I was able to give a beautiful performance. A few years ago, that kind of mistake might have paralyzed me.

So what does coping with mistakes have to do with love? I think that my ability to adapt after things go wrong prevents me from making more mistakes. If I had let my pride get hurt yesterday, I probably would have gotten angry with my personal trainer for laughing about my clock mistake. If I had gotten worked up when my accompanist made a mistake, I probably would have said some things to her that weren't very nice. I don't need to beat myself or others up over mistakes. They're just mistakes. This year when I completely blew the entrance to my piece, I didn't go home and gorge myself or punish myself emotionally like I did when I was 18. I know better now. I don't want to let mistakes (or fear of them) stop me from using the talents that God has given me. Things are going to go wrong sometimes, but that's OK. I can just roll with it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Enjoying the Little Things

Lately I've been noticing a lot of the everyday blessings in my life. Sometimes the little things make a big difference to me, and seemingly trivial moments can bring me joy. If I really pay attention, I can receive dozens of tiny little surprise presents from the people I love every single day. Even God is giving me little blessings all the time, tiny reminders of all He has done for me and how much He loves me. This world can be a dark and difficult place sometimes, but the little things can really go a long way in making it seem warmer and brighter.

Here is a sampling of the little things that I have enjoyed lately:
  • You readers have begun to leave comments on this blog. I am so happy to know that there are people who are reading and enjoying this site. I encourage all of you to feel free to leave comments whenever you feel moved to do so. 
  • After cold days and clouds and rain, the sun finally came out! The weather finally felt like fall instead of winter, and I even got to take a walk outside. Even when it's cold out, sunshine always feels like a personal promise from God that the seasons will turn and that good things are always just around the corner. 
  • Sometimes when my husband looks at me, it's as though he's looking at the most beautiful person he could imagine, the kind of companion he's always wanted to spend his life with. I know that I'm far from the perfect wife, but seeing that kind of adoration on his face makes me feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who enjoys being with me so much. Sometimes just holding hands with my husband can be the most beautiful and personal part of my entire day.
  • It's fun to go out with friends and have a good time, but sometimes it's even nicer to just veg out. It can be wonderful just to be together sometimes, to stop running around and doing stuff long enough to really look at the other person and enjoy his or her company. I like to go out, but I also like to just hang out sometimes.
  • Several people have given me compliments lately. They're little compliments, like "You look really nice today," or "I really appreciated your contributions on this project," but they're important all the same. It takes a couple of seconds for someone to give me a compliment, but it can put a smile in my heart that lasts for hours, sometimes even days.
  • Friends called me. One little phone call can make such a big difference! It's so nice to know that others are thinking of me and that they want to invite me to spend time with them. I love catching up and getting together with friends, and I know I need to be the one to call sometimes. Still, every time a friend or family member calls, I feel a warm little surge in my heart.
So, here's to enjoying the little things. I know that the next time I make this list, it will be entirely different, and that's wonderful! There are so many little blessings in my life that I will never run out.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Being a Saint

In honor of All Saint's Day, I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on what it means to be a saint. Christians don't really agree on what the qualifications of sainthood are. In order for someone to be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church, for example, that person must be recognized as having been "heroic in virtue" and have at least one miracle attributed to him or her. Some Christians use the term 'saint' to refer to anyone whose faith they deem exemplary, and others use it as a blanket term for all believers. Colloquially, many people call people of uncommon kindness, patience, or generosity saints.

In the absence of a universal definition of sainthood, I've decided to make my own short list of some of the qualities that I think a saint should have. (Maybe if you have a few minutes today, you'd like to try the same exercise yourself.)
  • Kindness. I think that saints should be nice people. They should be eager to help others and slow to get angry. I think that a saint would be the kind of person it feels good to be around, someone you can trust. Saints will be gentle when they criticize others, offering constructive tips instead of condemning judgments. Even when they're dealing with difficult problems, saints are still able to focus on the love they have for others, even troublemakers and sinners.
  • Humility. I think that saints are probably people who really want to be saints but don't think that they measure up. They want to do good and to serve God, but they are vividly aware of their own shortcomings. They know that it is through God's grace and not their own merit that they are able to make a difference in the lives of others, and they aren't self-righteous or holier-than-thou. They stand up for what they believe in, but they do it as a loving friend and peer, not as an overbearing authority.
  • Self-Sacrifice. I think that many of us picture saints as people who live cloistered lives dedicated to the church and separate from the rest of the world. That idea is a bit extreme, but I do think that saints have to be willing to give up many things of the world in order to focus on the things of God. Self-sacrifice is a recognition that something else is just as important (maybe even more important) that the self, and saints understand how essential it is to focus on God's work even if it costs them a lot to do it.
  • Enduring faith. We may look at the people that we call saints and think that they never have any moments of doubt or struggles of conscience, but they do. Everyone does. What makes saints special is that they don't give up when their faith lives are hard. When God feels distant, they reach out the best way they can. When they are faced with painful situations, they tell God how hurt they are and pray that He will somehow make it right. When they are angry with God, they let Him know how they feel but they don't give up on the relationship. When they do wrong, they ask for forgiveness and try to move forward in God's grace. Saints aren't perfect, but they struggle on even in the midst of their imperfections.
I don't really care if anyone ever calls me a saint, but I do want to grow in the qualities I've listed here because I want to be a good and faithful servant of God. I want to make a positive difference in the lives of others, and I want to have a close relationship with God. I don't need accolades because I know that righteousness is its own reward. Every stride I take towards being the kind of person I've described above (even though I'm far from the goal) makes me feel more joyful inside. Everyone may not have the same idea of what a saint is, but I still think we all have the potential to be one. With God's help, all of us are capable of doing great things. Just knowing that I have the potential to be a saint is an incredible blessing.
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