Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to Deal

Right now I am struggling with a few issues. A couple of my relationships are not as strong as I would like them be. I'm not sure whether my life is going the direction it should, and I sometimes feel lost and confused. I find myself unable to change many of the problems I see in the world around me and in the lives of the people I love. Sometimes these issues can pile up in my heart and my mind until they become difficult to handle. Occasionally I feel depressed or hopeless when I think of the problems I face and the hardships that plague those around me. I have some coping strategies in place for when the hard times come, and now seems like an excellent time to review them.
  • Don't bottle it up. If I try to keep my negative feelings inside, I can never really get rid of them. I have to allow myself to be sad and to be angry so that I can get those feelings out of my system. I need to find a safe environment where I'm allowed to cry, and I need to be able to go off by myself and yell if I need to. If I don't want these feelings to leak out all over my everyday life, I need to be sure that I'm providing myself with opportunities to vent.
  • Calm down before deciding what to do. I need to let my feelings out and then allow myself to recover before I can make a calm and rational decision about how to deal with my problems. Sometimes I need to sleep on it. Sometimes I need to distract myself by doing something else for a while so that I can approach the issue from a fresh perspective. Sometimes I need to go immerse myself in a part of my life that's going well so that I feel strong and calm enough to deal with my problems afterward. If I'm still sunk in anger or despair, I won't be able to make a very level-headed decision.
  • Remember what to do when lost. Being emotionally lost can sometimes be like being lost in the woods. I don't want to just start running around making blind choices, because then I might get even more lost. Panic won't help me, and just doing something might make things worse. Instead, I need to try to find a point of reference. In the woods I would look for landmarks, and in my spiritual life I look at the Bible. I try to see if Scripture can teach me anything about what I should do. Then I need to listen for searchers and respond to them. That means I need to listen for God and try to discern what the Holy Spirit wants me to do. I need to pay attention to the wise people in my life and see if they have lessons to teach me that apply to my current struggles. Rescuing oneself from the woods is a long shot, and I know that I will also probably need God to come and find me when I get myself emotionally lost.
  • Don't judge feelings. When I get down, I often feel even more depressed because it seems wrong for me to be sad. I feel ungrateful for ever feeling disappointed or stressed when I have so many blessings in my life. Why should I feel so hurt about a couple of strained relationships when I have so many good ones? Why should I worry about problems when there is so much right in my life right now? Still, I understand that negative feelings are a part of life, so I shouldn't punish myself for them. Being sad about things that are wrong doesn't negate the joy I feel for the things that are right. It would be wrong for me to let sadness or anger consume me, but feeling them in moderate amounts is a normal part of life. Having negative feelings helps me to identify the problems I need to address, so it's not completely wrong for me to feel this way.
  • Remember the good while dealing with the bad. I know that it's OK to feel sad or frustrated about my problems, but I don't want to get completely sucked in. Just because a few things are going wrong doesn't mean my entire life is a disaster. There are plenty of things going right for me too, and I shouldn't forget those while I deal with the things that aren't so great. Problems are a part of life, but they aren't my whole life. I shouldn't despair because there is good along with the bad.
  • Nothing can separate me from the love of God. No matter how bad things get, it's never hopeless. I may be lost, but not to God. I may feel useless, but God still loves me. I may find myself in a desperate situation, but God will be with me. In the end, God will save me and carry me home to Heaven, and nothing that goes wrong in my life has the power to change that.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trust Me

Aladdin and Jasmine are running away from the scary palace guards. They head for the edge of the roof. "Do you trust me?" Aladdin asks breathlessly. "W-what?" Jasmine stammers. "Do you trust me?" he repeats, reaching for her hand. "Yes...," she says a bit uncertainly, placing her hand in his. "Then jump!" Aladdin cries as the guards close in, and he pulls Jasmine off the roof with him. (Aladdin, 1992)

Ben, Riley, Abigail, and Patrick are close to the treasure, but they've been taken hostage by the ruthless Ian. As they make their way down into the mysterious pit where they believe the treasure may be waiting for them, the centuries-old infrastructure begins to crumble. As everyone scrambles for safety, Abigail is left dangling from a damaged lift, swinging precariously over the abyss. "Do you trust me?" Ben asks her urgently. "Yes!" she replies. "Then let go!" says Ben. Abigail doesn't hesitate. She lets go and lands safely on a strong piece of scaffolding below. (National Treasure, 2004)

Trust can be really scary. I don't know if I'd be willing to jump just because someone told me to—especially if I'd only met that person a few hours before. Still, Aladdin knew that jumping was the only way to escape, and Ben could see that Abigail would fall to safety if she let go at the right time. If Jasmine and Abigail hadn't been so trusting, they might have ended up in a lot more trouble. Of course, I could also have cited movie scenes where a character convinced someone to trust him or her and then everything went to shambles. Trusting other people is sometimes essential, but it's also risky because we can't guarantee the outcome. We don't know for sure that others are trustworthy or that their ideas will work.

A certain amount of trust is necessary in any loving relationship, but it's absolutely essential when it comes to God. Our loved ones will come through for us sometimes, but God is the only one we can trust 100% of the time. It's a good thing God has such a good track record, because He asks us to do some pretty crazy things sometimes. God can lead us to places we never imagined, and sometimes He may even ask us to completely uproot our lives. As Christians, though, we understand that it's actually much riskier to ignore God than it is to trust Him when He asks us to do something that seems insane. Frankly, it's safer to go with God on a wild adventure than to stay home by myself. I am reminded of the necessity of trusting God when I consider some poignant examples from the Bible.

Moses is standing before the burning bush. The voice of God is telling him to go free the Israelites from Pharaoh, but Moses is freaked out. How could he do such a thing? He tries to explain his concerns about this plan to God, but God insists that He will make sure everything turns out all right. "I will be with you," God tells Moses. "Just trust me."

Jesus is going around Galilee calling his disciples. He is asking them to leave everything—their jobs, their families, and their homes—to follow him. If they go with Jesus, who will provide for their needs? Will they become destitute? Jesus doesn't address these unspoken concerns. All he says is, "Come follow me." In their minds they hear him saying, "Trust me," and they do.

God comes to Ananias in a vision and tells him to go find Saul and put his hands on him so that Saul can regain his sight. Ananias tells God that he has heard that this Saul is a pretty dangerous fellow who has a reputation for persecuting Christians such as himself. He wonders if it's safe for him to approach Saul, and he worries that he might be abetting Saul in persecuting other Christians if he helps him. God convinces Ananias that He has a plan and that everything's under control. "Trust me."

Consider the enormity of what God is asking these people to do. Confront a powerful ruler and command him to give up his labor force. Leave everything you know and devote yourself to someone you've just met. Go help the guy who's been arresting and beating up your friends for no good reason. It all sounds pretty crazy, doesn't it? If a loved one asked us to do these things, who knows if we would actually do them? Luckily for Moses, the disciples, and Ananias, it was God asking. They knew that they could trust God not to let them down. Even the people we love will fail us sometimes, but God never does.

I hope that I am wise enough to recognize what is at stake when my trust in God is challenged. Every once in a while, I feel like Indiana Jones staring out into the gulf in disbelief as he realizes that the 'leap from the lion's head' is a true leap of faith. Still, Indy knows what's at stake. His father is dying and the grail, if it exists, is the only thing that can save him now. So he closes his eyes and takes that step—out onto a perfectly camouflaged bridge he couldn't see before. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) Indy knew that trust was essential, and because of that his story ended happily, as all such Hollywood adventures should. And yet I have something even better than a screenwriter in which to place my trust—I have an all-powerful God who will make certain that my story ends well.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Being Satisfied

Always wanting more seems to be an inescapable part of the human condition. No matter how much we have, how happy we are, or how many blessings are showered upon us, we always want more. Selfishness creeps stealthily inside our hearts until we're more focused on getting more than we are on loving one another. Our savings account becomes more important than our gifts to charity and and the time we guard for our own personal use is more precious to us than the time we devote to others. We think more about what we lack than what we have, and we become ambitious and calculating. We structure our lives around how to get what we want instead of how to serve others. Each of us has a little glutton inside of us tempting us to overindulge and to do whatever it takes to gratify our desires.

This selfish tendency to betray love in order to get more for ourselves is the most primal of sins. In fact, it is the original sin. Imagine the scene in Eden. Adam and Eve are together in the garden. They have lots of tasty food to eat, and they don't have to labor to produce it. They spend their days exploring the garden and enjoying its delights. God Himself is their best friend and spends time with them every day. They have a charmed life under the watch of a caring Creator who provides for their needs. They have no idea what new wonders God might have in store for them, but they decide to take matters into their own hands in order to ensure they're getting everything they can get. Sure, hanging out with God is pretty nice, but wouldn't it be better to be God's equal? God has given Adam and Eve His love and attention, a beautiful home, and even their very lives, but they are still willing to betray Him in order to get more. They're about to learn the hard way that love is worth much more than the power and wisdom they seek.

Only two weeks ago we celebrated Thanksgiving and remembered all of the good gifts in our lives. Yet those feelings of gratitude can fade so quickly into the background. Perhaps we haven't turned into greedy Scrooges yet, but some part of each of us is looking longingly at shiny items in store windows and wishing we had more money to spend on treats and gadgets this holiday season. Perhaps we're wishing that we weren't stuck in dead-end jobs or that we lived in nicer houses. Maybe we're feeling grumpy about having to waste so much of our time, energy, and money on other people and wishing we had more for ourselves. When we get carried away with these feelings we may even start thinking about what (or who) we'd be willing to sacrifice to get what we want. We forget the wonderful acts of love that others have done for us as our thoughts focus on how those others stand between us and what we want. Like Adam and Eve we criticize God for not making us like Him instead of being satisfied with all the good gifts He has given us.

One of the opening scenes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone features Harry's cousin Dudley inspecting his birthday presents. Dudley throws a fit because there are only 36 presents, and last year he had 37. J.K. Rowling paints this scene as an absurdity, making the ridiculous Dudley a foil to Harry's more practical and good-hearted nature. Yet we are not always so different from little Dudley Dursley, screaming about a present we thought we deserved instead of bubbling with delight over the 36 presents heaped before us. Even those of us who live comfortable lives frequently spend a lot of time complaining. Why hasn't God done more for us? Why don't we have more? We suspect that God is holding out of us, and we forget how amazing His love for us is. Like Adam, Eve, and Dudley, we find ourselves dismissing what we have in the face of what we don't have.

My prayer for myself and for the people in my life today is that we can learn to be satisfied. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, but His love is constant. Having more or less is inconsequential compared to the absoluteness of God's love for me and my love for Him. As Solomon wrote, "Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred." (Proverbs 15:17) By trying to get more, Adam and Eve risked the most precious thing they had—their relationship with God. The gain they sought turned out to be an illusion. Our quest for more separates us from the one thing we really need, so I pray that we can learn to be satisfied so that we do not stray from the one who gives us our very lives.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wasted Effort?

Recently I attended a professional development seminar about college and university alumni magazines. The presenters quoted the editor of an award-winning magazine as saying, "If people aren't reading your magazine, then every dollar you spend is wasted." This editor was making a point about the importance of good content and an attractive layout to pull in readers. The whole point of an alumni magazine is to generate interest in the school and help the alumni feel connected, and all the effort put into the magazine would be for nothing if it couldn't achieve those goals.

We value many of our efforts based on their results. At an early age many of us learned that the grades on our report cards were often considered more important than how hard we tried, and the results of the athletic and extracurricular contests in which we participated began to seem much more important than what we had learned through those experiences. As we grew up, we learned the importance of things like transcripts and GPAs and honor societies. Our resumés were only as good as the jobs they could get us. Our work was valued by its ability to provide us with job security and pay raises. Even our efforts for the good of others are often valued by their results. It only seems to be worth doing something nice for someone if we can see the impact it made on their lives. We don't want to work to better the world unless we can see the results of our efforts.

Still, I've come to realize that not everything is about concrete results. Sometimes it's important to do the right thing even if it doesn't seem to make a difference. If our efforts to live with righteousness and love don't produce the results we hope for, these efforts are still good for us. When we stand up for what is right, we bring ourselves closer to God and reaffirm the importance of love in our lives, and even if that doesn't change anyone or anything else, it will still keep us spiritually strong and healthy. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Garth Brooks recorded a song called "The Change" that addresses the criticisms of those who think that small acts of kindness are pointless because they cannot make a substantial difference in the world. He sings, "I hear them saying, 'You'll never change things, and no matter what you do it's still the same thing.' But it's not the world that I am changing. I do this so this world will know that it will not change me."

Our love, faith, integrity, and dedication are the most precious things we have. Using them is never a waste, no matter what the results may be. If I am kind to an ungrateful person, my kindness still wasn't a waste. If I dedicate myself to a worthy cause but am unable to make the impact that I wanted to make, that doesn't mean I've wasted my time. Even now as I write this blog, I have no idea whether more than a couple of people will ever read this post, but I believe that it is worth it to write it even if no one reads it. Because I invested in this post and put a little bit of my heart into it, it has value for me no matter what. Every time I try to live as a Christian and make efforts to spread love in the world, I get an internal boost that exists independently of the results of my actions. I am constantly recharging myself just by being true to God and to myself.

No effort to live as Jesus taught us to live is ever wasted, no matter what anyone else might think.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In the Meantime

It's easy to fixate on countdowns. How many days until Christmas? How long until that exciting vacation? How many weeks until that event I can't wait to attend? I am the kind of person who can get really excited about the things I'm looking forward to. Sometimes the days in between me and the next special thing on my calendar can seem like annoying waiting that must simply be endured. Those days become less important to me than the day I'm looking forward to, and I feel like I'm just killing time until I reach a particular point in time. It can be hard to make myself realize that my life is about more than the high points I have planned. I've realized that when I rush through each day in a hurry to get to the next, I miss all kinds of small opportunities to make the most of my life. Today may be just an ordinary day, but I have a chance to enjoy it and to make it productive. To me, patience is about more than just waiting for things that I want to happen—it also means living life to the fullest in the meantime. 

Right now I'm really looking forward to seeing my family again. I get to travel down to Tennessee this Christmas to visit with my mom, my sister, and my extended family. My dad lives abroad and will be coming to visit me in February, and I am hoping that I will get to go visit him sometime in the next year or two. In the meantime, though, I can still connect with my family in a meaningful way. I need to make sure I'm communicating with them regularly and that I'm involved in their lives to the greatest extent possible. It's always best when we're in the same place, but we can still have a special relationship even when we're not. I need to make sure I'm investing in my family now even while I'm waiting for the time when we'll be together again.

On a more long-term note, I'm impatient for the day when my husband finishes his grad school program and gets a regular job. That has to happen before we can do things like traveling, having children, or aggressively paying down our debt. I can't really switch jobs or focus on my own career until he gets established in his, so sometimes it feels like my life is in a holding pattern right now. In the meantime, I need to focus on the things I can do today instead of the things I have to wait for. Right now I can challenge myself to improve my marriage, develop new professional skills, work on personal projects, and learn new life lessons. I can concentrate on becoming a more disciplined Christian and a stronger, more mature person. Maybe I can't make a very big dent in my mortgage, but I can work on paying off my car early. Perhaps I can't travel the world, but I can discover new and exciting places and experiences in my own neighborhood.

I've realized that the future is most tantalizing when I'm dissatisfied with the present. Waiting for that special event or milestone isn't so terrible when I have enjoyable and fulfilling things to do in the meantime. I like having exciting things to look forward to in my life, but I also enjoy the everyday parts of my life too. It's really easy to daydream about the future (and I think it's OK to do that now and then), but it's much more productive to brainstorm about the present. What can I do to make today a day worth being excited about? There are a lot of wonderful things in my future, but there's also a lot to learn, experience, and enjoy in the meantime.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Administrative Note

I wanted to let you all know that because this blog has received a lot of spam comments lately, I'm going to have to start moderating the comments. There might be a delay between when your comment is submitted and when it appears, but I will try to approve them as quickly as possible. I assure you that I will not censor any legitimate comments. Thank you for understanding.

Smile, Smile, Smile

Life is better when I smile. Here are a few reasons why:
  • When I smile at other people, they smile back at me. I get the good feeling of knowing that my smile impacted them in some way, and I also get the positive energy of seeing someone else smile at me. Smiling is contagious, and it spreads positivity.
  • Sometimes my smile is kind of fake at the beginning, but then I start thinking of the reasons I have to really smile, and my mood slowly lifts until the smile is genuine. Making an effort to smile actually gives me the power to improve my mood. In fact, some studies suggest that smiling releases endorphins and actually chemically stimulates us to feel happier.
  • Smiling encourages others to respond more positively to me. When people see me smile, they assume that I am a happy, confident, and successful person. My interactions with others become easier when I smile at them. In fact, others are more likely to approach me or to engage in a conversation with me if I'm smiling.
  • Research shows that smiling may actually carry health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system.
  • Often when I smile, I start thinking about God. That little surge of happiness I feel when I smile reminds me of how near God is and how His blessings are a constant part of my life. In a hectic day, a smile can remind me not to forget about God and His love.
  • Smiling makes me feel more beautiful. I know that people are looking at my smiling face and not scrutinizing my body for imperfections, and I feel that others can see my true self better when I am allowing it to shine through my smile. (I don't have to worry about this at my age, but someday I will care that smiling makes us look younger.)
  • When I smile at someone, I get a chance to communicate something to that person. Through my smile, I can encourage others to relax and let go of whatever pressures are causing them stress. I can tell them that it's a lovely day, that I'm happy to see them, that I wish their day will be blessed. I can affirm our common humanity and remind them that they are someone special, someone worth acknowledging. And I can do all of that in just a second or two, even if we can't stop and chat.
There are so many reasons for me to smile throughout the day. Sometimes I can get caught up in the stress and list of tasks I have to deal with and my face starts to droop, but I try to remember to perk myself up with a smile as often as possible. Smiling makes nearly everything I do easier and more enjoyable. So this is my little reminder to smile today!

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Becoming Spectacular

    I'm a reasonably good person. I try to make good decisions, and I usually manage to get through each day without doing anything heinous. I'm generally polite and frequently cheerful. I look OK and have decent clothes and acceptable hygiene. I'm a pretty intelligent person, and I have a variety of talents and skills that help me accomplish tasks and contribute positively to my community. I'm kind of like a really serviceable used car—one that's not too flashy but is dependable and gets good gas mileage. I'm not a clunker, but I'm no Porsche either.

    Most of the time I'm fine with being a more or less ordinary person who makes a modest impact in the lives of those around me. I don't waste a lot of time yearning to be a superstar or a genius. I have reasonable expectations of who I can be and what I can accomplish, and I'm generally at peace with that. Still, there is a part of me that dreams about bigger and better things and squirms with glee at the thought of the person I could become. I realize that I'm going to be an average person for quite a while, but I also know that eventually I'm going to become something spectacular, and that's pretty exciting. Through the saving grace of Jesus, I am going to become a new creation. God is already working in my life, and when He's finished I will be perfected. I will, in essence, become the best possible version of myself.

    I know that this transition is going to take a long time. I don't expect to reach my full potential until I join God in heaven. That's (probably) a long time away, but it's still an exciting promise. Whenever I feel frustrated by my limitations and imperfections, I can remember that I won't always have those problems. Someday God will completely erase the stain of sin from my life and will infuse me with holiness so that I can be what He always meant for me to be. I'm just the prototype right now, the working model. Improvements are coming.

    As I go through my daily life, I work to better myself. I learn new skills and try to train myself to be a better Christian. I exercise and watch my diet and get nice haircuts and the occasional pedicure. Still, I can only work with what I've got. I can try to make my body look its best, but I can't give myself an entirely different body. I can develop my singing talent, but I can't just give myself a natural aptitude for mathematics. I make little adjustments and take small steps to make myself the best little economy model that I can be, but God has the power to rebuild me from the ground up and turn me into something different. God can make sweeping changes in my life and give me power and attributes that I never had before. He can make me glorious where once I was plain and wise where once I was foolish. In my ordinary life, I can make myself pretty good, but God has the power to make me spectacular.

    What's amazing is that God actually wants to make me spectacular. He doesn't look at me and see a dinged-up little Christian—He sees a saint in the making. God is constantly aware of all of the incredible potential that he instilled in my soul when I was born. As I go through life putting dents in the beautiful creation God made in me, He does more than just beat out those dents—He cheerfully goes about making improvements and upgrades, shaping me to be something so incredible that only He can imagine it. God loves me as both the imperfect person that I am now and the gorgeous creation that I will someday become. As I go through life dealing with my struggles and weaknesses, I can find peace in the knowledge that I will someday be made perfect by the hand of my loving Creator.

    Right now, I'm normal. But someday, I will be spectacular.
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