Crazed. Or Not. Finding Balance in the Midst of Extremes.

Digital display

There is a good kind of stress.

If you’ve always thought of stress as a four letter word in the plural, then this may come as a surprise. But it’s true. It’s even reasonable, once I stopped to consider it.

An environment with absolutely no stress is an environment void of stimulation or purpose. As human beings we need something to engage us. That something, to the scientists among us, is called “eustress” – a beneficial stress in just the right dosage to give a feeling of fulfillment.

Too little and we get bored. Too much and we get overwhelmed.

Balance is the key.

Unfortunately, life seems to try everything it can to send us in any direction except the one that leads to balance.

Take as an example of extremes these past 12-18 months. Not many people have been spared. You may be one who has had far too much to do: front line workers, parents juggling work and at-home schooling, caretakers trying to navigate a system that has been completely upended. Or you may be one who has not had enough to do: quarantined and alone with no visitors and limited chances to venture out. There has not been much middle ground.

I hope and pray along with everyone else that the slow return to a middle ground keeps progressing. And along the way, I am trying to learn what it means to find my own middle ground when the world around me is completely crazed, or completely not.

Either extreme can feel like a prison, and I’ve been in both. I’ve spent time strangling under the tangle of my to-do list and panicked over things left undone. I’ve also battled waves of crushing lethargy that come in the dark nights of an isolating depression. Once the scales start to tip one way or the other, it’s easy to keep spiraling in the same direction. Freedom comes only when I move back against the tide and seek balance. Recognizing where I am is the first step.

One of my favorite Bible verses is 2 Timothy 1:7: For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of self-control. This tells me that when I start to feel trapped, powerless, and afraid, those feelings are not from God. God has given me the self-control and the strength to make any necessary changes. I can do it, even when it doesn’t feel as if I can.

The amplified translation drills down into the meaning of that last word “self-control” even further, to say it includes a calm, well-balanced mind. Do you see that word in there again? Balanced. No matter what is going on around me, the Spirit within me has the capability of maintaining a calm, well-balanced mind. My mind in turn can direct the self-control needed to keep from leaping to extremes. Exercising myself in this way is freedom – freedom to think, be and act how I choose regardless of what swirls around me.

This past year has been a severe example, but much of life will tip us one way or the other. If we aren’t careful, we can feel trapped under the confines of our own days. It’s up to us to discover the freedom God has waiting for us, back in the balance, even in the midst of extremes.

How I Started Recycling: An analogy of our Father’s method for change

I recycle because I have a friend who recycles.

I mean, I have a friend who recycles.  She carries a bag with her when she goes on walks simply so she can pick up trash.  When she comes to visit, she brings me all the recyclables she can’t recycle in her own town, because my town has a broader recycling program.  “Maybe I’ll inspire someone else,” she says.  And by someone, she occasionally means me.

Any activist will tell you that the hardest thing to initiate is a change in someone’s behavior. This was certainly true for me.  I agreed 100% with everything my friend told me.  “Be the change you want to see in the world,” she’d quote.  “Absolutely!”  I’d agree.

But my behavior didn’t change.

Plastic bag in hand.

Now I should clarify.  I would occasionally pick up trash and pack it out of my favorite hiking haunts.  Or I might pick up something blown from a dumpster and return it.  I would recycle when it was convenient, but when it took a little more effort… not so much.

This same friend sent me an article about the impacts of plastics in our oceans.  It made me sad at what we are doing to our planet. It made me feel guilty over my part in it. But it still didn’t drive me to action.

So what was it that actually changed my behavior?  First, my friend’s persistence.  But more importantly, she didn’t drive me to it.  She led me to it.

Too often when we are trying to change someone’s behavior – or even when we are trying to change our own – we try to drive the change like a cowboy driving a herd of cattle.  We crack the whip of reason. We coerce. We plead.  But instead of a stampede toward the corral, the result is usually more like a baulking bull.  Even when we want to change, we find ourselves pushing back rather than embracing a new behavior.

The Bible gives us a different analogy of change.

Jesus didn’t ride herd with a whip.  He simply entered the pen through the gate.  “I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus told his followers. “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2-3,14).

Jesus wasn’t driving the change; Jesus was leading the change.  And this is precisely what my friend did to change my recycling habits.  One time when she was visiting, she threw me and her recycling in the car and drove to the recycling center.  She never said: “I’m going to show you how to recycle so that you will start doing it.”  We simply went and recycled together.  And after I had done it once, there was no reason for me not to continue.

Sometimes in life, change is elicited simply because we have someone come alongside us and show us how. We have a Father in heaven who first demonstrated this principle for us, by sending Jesus to not just instruct us from afar, but to walk alongside us. Now we can do the same for others.

I wonder how many of us can say, “I am a Christian because I have a friend who is a Christian.”  And more importantly, how many of us have friends who can say about us, “I am a Christian, because I have a friend who is a Christian.”

A slightly different version of this post was shared in 2012 – can you believe I have been blogging that long? It was revamped to share recently at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

One Thing I Do: Forgiveness

Forgiveness brings hope

In her book on forgiveness, Lysa TerKeurst writes an analogy comparing forgiveness to having your legs broken in a car accident. You can forgive the initial incident, but there is also a process of forgiving just as there is a process of healing broken legs.

Reflecting on this, I had a thought that was revelatory to me: forgiveness brings healing; it does not undo what happened.

I’ve often wondered why, even after I have forgiven someone, I don’t feel like I have forgiven them. I have to remind myself dozens of times, “I’ve forgiven them. I’ve forgiven them. I’ve…”

If I’ve forgiven them, why can’t I move on?

Rainbow

I expected forgiveness to erase the pain, but it doesn’t. Forgiveness can’t undo what has happened. It can only point us forward toward the slow process of healing.

Here is what I am learning. I may be a new creation in Christ, but I have to remind myself of that. Paul said, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…”

I never noticed until recently that little word “do.” After all, forgetting has always been a passive action for me. Forgetfulness is something that happens to me unexpectedly, not something I actively strive for. Who in their right mind tries to be forgetful? Yet Paul is saying this is something he does. He actively forgets what lies behind.

Sometimes I need to actively forget, too. When the emotions come, when the thoughts come, when the feelings come, I can actively remind myself: “This has been forgiven. I have given up my right to think about this anymore.”

I can choose to think about something else instead.

This is the healing process. It doesn’t undo what has been done. The ramifications of that will always be with me. No matter how much healing I go through, I will always walk with a figurative limp. I am a different person because of what has happened to me.

I bet you are too.

Forgiveness is like healing a broken leg

But different is not always a bad thing. I am also more compassionate, more understanding, and more insightful because of what has happened to me. I am stronger in ways I never expected. I am weaker in ways I never wanted.

I remind myself that Christ shines through our weaknesses.

There will come a time when Jesus will wipe away every tear. We will be a new creation in the fullest sense of the word – body, soul, and spirit. We aren’t there yet, but we have been given the Holy Spirit as a deposit guarantee of what is to come. It is with His help that we navigate this tumultuous in-between time. We wrestle with anger, hurt, frustration, and longing. We forgive, and then we remind ourselves that we have forgiven. We forget what needs to be forgotten because this is something we can do. It does not change the past, but it can change our future.

A bone that has been broken and healed is not the same thing as a bone that has never been broken. A heart that has been broken and healed is not the same thing as a heart that has never been broken. We cannot undo the breaking, but we can forgive and begin the healing.

~ ~ ~

This post first appeared at www.inspireafire.com.

Oh Well

“Oh well,” I would say.

“That’s an old hole in the ground now, isn’t it?” My father would reply.

I would roll my eyes in that superior way that only teenagers can do. It was not a new joke. And it was not funny the first 400 times I heard it.

Then one day, years later, the unthinkable happened.

 “Oh well,” a friend sighed.

“That’s an old hole in the ground now, isn’t it?” I said.

“What?”

“An ol’ well? That’s an old hole in the ground.”

Blank stare.

Inside I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because apparently things that drove me batty as a teenager have become uproariously funny now that I’m older.

Heaven help the poor soul who accidentally says, “Well, well, well… What do we have here?”

Because that’s a whole lot of holes in the ground now, isn’t it?

There’s just something about punny dad jokes that beg to be repeated from generation to generation. They drive us crazy, but then we are compelled to inflict them on others with a sense of wisdom from the ages: You may think this is a terrible joke now, but someday you will thank me.

The joke doesn’t change, but we do.

We grow and change into our own personality, but we pick up quirks from those in whose footsteps we follow. This is true of our earthly parents, siblings, and mentors, and it is also true for our heavenly ones. The bible tells us that just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49). At the end times, we will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye, but in the meantime, our transformation is happening much more slowly.

With Christ as our example and this world as our crucible, we learn obedience, self-control, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, and love. Our heavenly Father calls us to mimic His perfection, and the Holy Spirit within us prompts us toward right decisions.

The more time we spend learning God’s word, listening for the Spirit’s prompting, and communing through worship, the more our heavenly parentage will be reflected within us.

Christ’s light shines within each one of us as surely as the DNA of our physical heritage. It might be years before a spark within us now is parroted back to a subsequent generation, but there will come a time when we laugh uproariously with the knowledge that this word, this action, this punny dad joke was learned from our heavenly family.

This post was first shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed!

An Act in Due Season

Black lab puppy in leaves
Black lab puppy running

I’d like to introduce you to Izzie.

Yes, that fuzzy little black canine amongst all the leaves is Izzie. And so is this cute little blur. This is back in the day when your typical point and shoot camera had a hard time keeping up with something as rambunctious as a black lab puppy.

 But before you start thinking this is just another cute puppy story, let me stop you right there.

You see, Izzie was born in a special kennel outside New York City for a very special purpose. When I was a senior in high school he came to live with me. And then he left for something even greater.

I had always wanted a dog, but my parents did not. They let me run wild with smaller critters –  five breeds of rabbits and two breeds of ducks filled my expanding hobby yard – but they firmly declined my plea for a dog.

Until I hatched the perfect plan.

My answers were standard: He’s not actually my dog; I’m just caring for him right now. There is someone out there who needs him even more than me. Of course it will break my heart, but it’s for such a good cause.

I would raise a puppy for a year. When I left for college, the puppy would also leave for school. To become a guide dog for the blind. It was a service project with an outcome they couldn’t refuse.

Over my year of puppy raising, I heard variations of the same question: How could I possibly give up a puppy after loving it for a year?

Today, I know the answer is a little deeper. Today, I feel exactly how those people with the wide-eyed wonder looked. I couldn’t be a puppy raiser now. But then, I was given the grace to do the right thing at the right time.

This makes me even gladder that I did it when I could.

Izzie and trainer with his “in for training” class.

Proverbs 15:23 tells us that a word in due season is a good thing. I think the same is true for actions. There is a season for every activity under heaven. A time to raise puppies, and a time to do something else. (See Ecclesiastes 3)

During this valentine’s season when so much attention is placed on the emotion of love, let me suggest we place some attention on the practicality of love. There is something we can do right now, in this season, that we may not be in a position to do again.

Let’s do it.

Whatever our hand finds to do right now, we should do it with all our might. Chances are it won’t seem like a big thing. It will simply be something that we can do, wherever we are, with what we have. It may even be something we always wanted that ends up being a unique gift to someone else… and to us.

Izzie’s graduation photo.

That was certainly the case with Izzie. A year after we both left for separate schooling, Izzie went on to serve as a faithful guide alongside his partner in Tennessee. His graduation picture remains one of my most prized possessions.

It was an opportunity I could have missed. That realization encourages me to look around me now. In a different time and a different place, there is something here for me to do.

Take an action in due season.

Who Invented Dental Floss

I heard the comment once that conversations never end in ”I don’t know” anymore. Inevitably someone will whip out their cell phone and ask Siri, and the answer magically will appear.

This was certainly the case for me the other night when I was – you guessed it – flossing my teeth. Perhaps you’ve never wondered about the invention of dental floss before, but if you’re like me, you’re wondering now.

I grew up on the cusp of the internet era. I still remember card catalogs and microfiche machines and giant reference books in the stacks. A question like “Who invented dental floss?” was not something that just anyone could know. You would need to do research. Find an expert who specialized in the history of dentistry, read a dental history textbook, or visit a museum of dental history.

Today, any question I can dream up has an answer sitting in my hip pocket.

Well, almost any question. Ask Siri what the meaning of life is, and she’ll give you one of several snarky answers ranging from “42” to “I don’t know, but I think there’s an app for that.”

Depending on your question, an internet search may not be the best way to find your answer.

Perhaps as this new year has its beginning, you are also looking for a fresh start. An internet search can point you to a lot of excellent resources, ranging from organizing your closets to inspirational guidance, but if you’re looking for a deeper new beginning, you need to access a deeper source.

The Bible tells the story of Nicodemus, a scholarly man who, as a member of the Jewish ruling council, would have had every resource of that day at his fingertips. Yet despite all that access, the knowledge equivalent of today’s internet search engines, he apparently still had a question that remained unanswered. He came at night, perhaps afraid of public ridicule or worse. But he came. To ask the deeper Source a question.

Jesus talked to Nicodemus about new birth, a more radical new beginning than Nicodemus could even fathom. But it was a new birth that was available to Nicodemus, and it is available to each one of us still today. God promises that when we seek Him earnestly, He will be found by us. (See John 3:1-21 and Deuteronomy 4:29)

What are you searching for?

We cannot talk to Jesus face to face, but I have found that when I have an earnest question on my heart and ask Him to guide me, then He brings resources across my path that point me to the truth. It could be a piece of scripture that jumps out at me, a sermon crafted just for me, a song lyric, even an internet search result. Wherever they come from, those words resonate around the question in my heart in such a way that I know that regardless of the source, there is a deeper Source responding to me.

The answers we seek are not reserved for the experts, for the elite, or for those who have been granted access. Answers are available to me. And to you. And to everyone who asks.

Whatever new beginning you may be seeking, whatever question you may be asking, hold it in your heart and ask God to guide you to the answer. He has a way of curating what you need more powerfully than any search engine I’ve ever seen. Go ahead and ask.

And while you’re waiting for your answer, you can read about the history of dental floss here. Or here. Or…

There is so much information at your fingertips, my friends. Keep searching.

This post was original written for inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed!

Shoveling Rain

The storm started as rain.

Cold and pelting. Then sluicing. Then softer.

The quality of the sound changed, the texture of the rain changed, and I knew it was time for action. By the time I bundled into winter gear and opened the door, giant white flakes were soaking into the wetness. Slush coated every surface in heavy crystals. I put the blade of my shovel to the pavement and shoved a path forward. The sound was a satisfying slop.

Anyone who has ever chipped ice from a driveway knows that those gentle drops can be deceiving. They are soft only until frozen.

As the white swirl intensified, I scraped as much wetness as I could. Beside me there was a loud crack, and a tree branch crashed to the ground. I felt the thud through the soles of my boots. I jumped; my dog barked. The snow was heavy and wet and covering the shimmer of rain-turned-ice. It was not the first, nor the last branch to fall.

I am grateful we had the trees around the house capped a few weeks ago in anticipation of storms like this. “See that tree,” our tree crew leader said, pointing. “The lower branches are dying but the tree is still healthy. All the growth is up top to get the sunlight. That’s nature’s way of pruning. ”

Pruning. I mull this over as I scrape slush amidst the sound of falling branches.

There’s the arborist who trims limbs and sculpts tree crowns so they don’t get too heavy and pull the whole tree over in a storm. There’s also the trimming of dead branches to devote more nutrients to the living, growing ends. Like the vinedresser coaxing more fruit from the vine.

At its simplest, pruning is the process of cutting back in one area to allow for more growth in another. And it happens one way or another. Either by the caretaker. Or by the storm.

Anyone else see an elephant here? Apparently pruning can also make some fun shapes!

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at the cutting back part. I take on more, and more, and even more, but I don’t like the pruning part. I spend much more time thinking about what I will do rather than what I will not do. But like the rain turning to ice or the tree cracking beneath its burden, the pruning needs to happen. And it might be better to take care of it early.

As Christians, we can invite Jesus to show us what needs to be scraped away. He is our caretaker, and His Spirit within us will prompt what needs to be pruned. Sometimes it’s an attitude not reflective of the fruits of the spirit. Sometimes it’s a relationship or an activity or a ready-or-not life transition. Sometimes it’s a message to simply wait on Him.

Our caretaker will prune excesses and scrape lifelessness so that our living end can grow toward the Son.

Our job is to follow His lead. Attend to His promptings early, while it is still slush. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s far better to shovel rain.

This post was originally written and shared for inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

Like a Shower of Leaves

I had forgotten the sound, but I remember it now.

Standing in a New England woods, watching the autumn leaves drift through the canopy, I flash back. I remember tumbling through giant piles of leaves, the scratch of rakes against the lawn, the smell of old work gloves and leafy tannins. I remember the sunlight, how it glowed gold and orange until it felt I was somehow walking through the inner glow of a jack-o-lantern.

If you asked me about my favorite autumn memories, these are the ones that would stir. But I had forgotten, until just now, this one:

A sound that is softer than raindrops but more alive than snowflakes. Like a hundred incandescent butterflies sifting through the branches and settling like whispers on the wind.

I had forgotten what it was like to spin in a circle with my face turned upward to watch so many leaves tumble out of the trees that they bounce off my hat and brush my outstretched hands. They flow like a curtain. Their tiny applause is like a chortle of gratitude. But soft. So soft I have to close my eyes and simply listen.

I had forgotten what it was like to be caught inside a shower of leaves. Not the handful that I see every year and run laughing to play catch with the sky. But a golden whirl that makes me catch my breath, and hold out my arms to be filled.

In that moment, more than my arms are filled. My own spirit lifts and swirls as though also touched by the light. It’s like the word God gave to Ezekiel when He promised “showers of blessing” to His people. There is something in the shower that fills me with hope and wonder and gratitude. Far too often I run after stray blessings, trying to snatch one from the sky. In the whisper of the leaves, I hear God whisper, “Stop. Hold out your arms to be filled.”

God will send showers in their season. Not just showers of rain or showers of leaves, but showers to bless us, sustain us, protect us, deliver us. He will meet our needs in the darkness, in the emptiness, and in the loneliness. When God’s showers come, nothing will make us afraid. We will know the most beautiful certitude of all: that the Lord our God is with us, and that we are His people. (See Ezekiel 34:25-31.)

It is easy to remember this when the golden showers come. But I am so thankful that God’s promise is just as true when the wind seems to blow across empty skies.

The empty-sky times are when we learn to listen harder, dig deeper, and trust further.

If God can do this with leaves, just imagine what else he can do.

Close your eyes. There is a whisper as soft as a butterfly wing. Do you hear it?

Hold our your arms to be filled.

This post was first written for inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

Leadership Lessons in a Blade of Grass

I once gave a speech likening our personal development to grass. I am reminded of this speech today as I try to enjoy a late afternoon nap. You’ll understand the connection in a moment.

I was a senior in college and president of a student organization that was welcoming its next class of inductees. The room was filled with students and friends, faculty and administrators. Even the college president and his wife.

It was a big deal.

I talked about growth, about perseverance over time, about coming back when our dreams have been mowed down. The speech was inspired by the cantankerous lawn mowers that always revved outside my dorm window the moment I tried to sneak in a late afternoon nap. It never failed that right then is when they decided the grass needed trimming.

My fellow students could relate.

“But no matter how often life cuts you down, you must continue to grow,” I exhorted.

The audience laughed at the right moments and listened at the serious points. I was in my element. When it was over, the president stopped by and shook my hand.

“That was one of the best student speeches I’ve heard,” he said.

Now let me put this in its proper context. It was a small college. The type of place where the president might pass you on the sidewalk on the way to class and say hello. Even if he didn’t quite know your name, he’d certainly know your face. He had no doubt paid similar compliments to dozens of student leaders. I hadn’t done anything extra special, and he hadn’t said anything extraordinary. But 20 years later, I still remember the compliment.

The memory returned to me this afternoon when a lawn mower jamboree broke out in my neighborhood the moment I tried to sneak a little nap. (It still never fails.) The longer I laid there counting grass blades and trying to sleep, the stronger the lesson became. That moment, out of all the moments, was significant enough for me to recall it so many years later.

The price of leadership is often high: High stress, high pressure, high stakes. But some of the longest lasting impacts of leadership happen in between all the important stuff.

You take time out of your schedule to attend an inconsequential event. You look someone in the eye. You shake their hand. You tell them, “That was a fine job.”

And 20 years later, that still means something. Those words are still pouring fertilizer on a blade of grass that has been mowed down and mowed down and mowed down – but is still continuing to grow.

How many contracts expire within a few years? How many business dealings degrade within a decade? Do you even recall what was discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting?

There is an opportunity in between all of that to have a real impact.

Every one of us can take time out of our schedule to attend to an inconsequential moment. We can look someone in the eye. We can shake their hand. We can tell them, “That was a fine job.”

We may never know what those words mean. But all around us, lives could be growing. Not because of some big, sweeping contribution we made. No, quite the opposite.

We simply need to implement the leadership lessons contained in a blade of grass.

This post originally was shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

Hope in the Sticky Middle

Picnic Table
This post was first shared at inspireafire.com.

A previous picnicker must have left a smudge of something sweet along the table edge. A drop of jelly or a splash of lemonade. The source didn’t really matter, but I watched as an exploring ant raced toward the smudge and then slowed, step by step, minuscule antennae wiggling. I couldn’t tell if he was gorging on this tremendous find or becoming mired in the stickiness, but his path across the table quickly slowed. Which made me reflect on my own sticky struggles.

Perhaps you can relate.

When a personal trial or the loss of a loved one first hits, there is a period of free-fall into blackness that leaves me scrambling for any hand or foothold I can find. There aren’t many. I wonder when I will ever land, or if I will ever land, and how I will ever move on from this.

It is a period of questions. Like why, and how, and what if. And a period of such immense blackness that any spark, no matter how fleeting, is a reason to hope. It is during these times that I learn how pain begets hope and what it means to hope in the darkness.

Like the ant running headlong across the table, I do everything in my power to get out of there.

An unexpected thing happens next. The pain is not so intense, but neither is the spark of hope. Like a star fading out in a lightening sky, the hope that I clung to in the dark, while still present, does not seem nearly as bright.

I did not expect this. After all, as things stop spiraling out of control, and as life, though forever altered, begins to resume its cycle of days and weeks and years, I expected even greater reason to hope. As I see God delivering on His promises to care for me in a hundred tiny miracles, how could I not feel more hopeful for the future?

Winter

Yet instead of feeling my hope increase, I feel mired in what can best be described as grey.

I have moved far enough from my starting point that I can no longer look back upon it. Going back is no longer an option, a frightening proposition in itself. Yet, I am still so far from where I am going that I see no clear path forward. Behind me is darkness, around me is greyness, and I haven’t got a clue what is ahead of me.

I am someplace in the sticky middle.

Which is how I came to relate to this journeying ant. Rushing from where I came from only to slow at the first hint of anything sweet.

I don’t want to settle for greyness when God is calling me fully into the light. And what the slogging ant can’t see but I can, is that something even better is waiting up ahead. Not simply a smear of something sticky, but a veritable feast of crumbs. But only if he doesn’t get distracted and lose heart along the way.

The same may be true for me. And for you.

I don’t know if the ant ever makes it. I leave him to his journey and I continue mine.

It’s easy to settle when traversing the sticky middle. But God invites us not to crumbs; He invites us to the feast of the lamb. He offers us not just “enough,” but more than we can ever ask or imagine. Having hope while in the sticky middle means having gratitude for the gifts of today while we still reach and push and pursue a brighter tomorrow.

Even when we don’t know what that looks like. Even when hope feels amorphous and fading.

Don’t ever forget, my friends: the stars are still there, even when we cannot see them. And so is our hope.