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.

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.

Hope from the Father

clouds parting

I first shared this post at inspireafire.com.

I’ve heard it said that you can live several weeks without food, several days without water, and several minutes without oxygen; but you can’t live one second without hope.

If this is true, I want to know what it means to have hope.

I once had a friend describe to me a difficult time she had faced. She ended the account with these words: “But now, I have so much hope.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. I, too, had come through challenges, but hope had never entered into my retelling. I’ve thought a lot about this in the years since, as the cycles of life continued and I’ve faced even more challenging times. In those dark nights of despair, here is what I’m learning about hope.

Hope is believing that God will work all things together for good, even if it’s not in the way we would have chosen. And when we don’t feel like we believe that, hope is waiting to see if God will come through for us anyway. Hope, I have learned, has very little do to with feelings. Hope is not the same as peace. Hope is not the same as happiness. Hope is an expectation and a waiting and a holding on.

Three strands and cross

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “When you’ve reached the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” That, my friends, is hope. In fact, one of the original Hebrew words used for hope can also mean a cord used for attachment.

That cord is our hope in God.

Not in a person. Not in a certain outcome.

When the world plunges us into darkness, hope is hanging onto God.

Hope is waiting for God when there is nothing else to wait for. Hope is continuing to live for God when there is nothing else to live for.

Hope is also the baseline for faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.“ Faith is putting hope into action.

Think about the experience of driving on a dark road and needing to make a left turn. In that split second before your headlights swing around, you turn into pitch darkness. It can feel as though you are about to drive off a cliff. You cannot see anything, and you know the world outside is moving very fast.

In that moment, hope is believing that when you turn the car, the road will be there.

Faith is actually turning the car.

Lantern

And this, as Paul said, is not by our own doing, but as a gift from God.

Hope in the darkness is not something we do alone. On the other end of that cord is a loving Father, strong enough to defend us, loving enough to protect us, and gentle enough to hold us. When we have done all we can do, our only job is to stand firm. Hope is waiting to see what God will do next. (See Ephesians 6:13.)

Hope in the darkness may not be the blazing light I thought it was. But the darker it is, the less light we need to see by. And as I wrote once before, God will teach us how to hope in the dark. There are times when hope may feel like a thin thread between our hands, but do not let that fool you.

Hope is as strong and as long and as wide as the Father’s arms that hold us.

When God is all You Need

I recently shared this post at https://inspireafire.com/when-god-is-all-you-need/. I hope it speaks to you as much as it does to me!

It sounds a little too spiritual, if you ask me.

Like a white-bearded guru sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop basking in nothing but the company of God: You never know that God is all you need, until God is all you have.

Nice in principle, but down here in the real world, I need food. And friendship. And meaningful work.

I didn’t begin to understand this saying… until recently.

It happened when I began to rely too heavily on one individual to be my source of joy and inspiration and comfort. If you asked me, I would have told you that of course I understood that one person, no matter how special, can never meet all of our needs all of the time. I thought I knew this, but deep down I apparently did not. And eventually, that relationship shifted like sand beneath my feet.

Three strands and cross

Then I found out what you do when God is all you have.

You hurt. A lot. And you wonder what people mean when they say God is all you need. You think they must have never felt anything quite like this, because you’re gripping God with two fists and it still feels like half your soul has been ripped away. You’re gripping God with two fists and there is absolutely and undoubtedly something more that you still need.

But you keep hanging on. And then you begin to understand.

At least, that’s how it’s unfolding for me.

“God-is-all-you-need” does not mean that we can live long, productive lives without food, friendship and meaningful work. It doesn’t mean we can live without pain when those we love are no longer with us. In fact, God created us with physical needs and emotional desires. Our bodies are designed to require regular inputs of energy and rest, emotional connectivity, and mental stimulation. ”God knows that you need these things,” Jesus told His disciples.

The catch is in what Jesus said next:

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (See Matthew 6:31-33.)

It’s counterintuitive, but when we seek God first, we allow Him to meet our needs in any way He chooses.

When we need physical affection, God can send someone to give us a hug.

When we need money to cover expenses, God can send someone to offer us a job or provide what we need.

When we need wise counsel, God can send His word through what we read or hear.

He may not use the person we expect, or even the person we want. God doesn’t provide us everything we need from the same person – or the same activity or the same source – all the time. The longer we think we may be the exception to this rule, the more shocking the collapse will be.

We have an amazing capacity for more. It is in the seed of eternity that God has planted in our hearts. It points to our eternal glory with Him. But when that drive for more shifts off its intended focus – God – and onto anything else, then we are blocking God’s intended provision.

“Your Heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things,” Jesus said.

Trust Him to provide for all your needs in His way and in His timing. Actively receive His gifts in whatever way He chooses to send them.

God is all you need, because ultimately, God is all you have. Everything else is simply a gift from Him.

I’m Not Looking for a Dog

This post first appeared at inspireafire.com

Crate Bars

So what am I doing here?

The first time my answer was simple. I carried in a nearly new bag of dog food. Some flea and tick prevention. A bag of dental chews with just two missing.

“Do you take donations?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

“Of course we do,” she replied. “Thanks so much for thinking of us.”

And since I was already there, I signed the waiver holding the animal shelter harmless, and wandered back through the kennels.

Crate

That was the first time.

Three days later, my answer is much more complicated. I’m still not looking for a dog, but I cannot stay away from this place. With its noise and smell and sense of desperation, it is an unlikely place to find what I am looking for. And yet I know, instinctively, that here I am looking for the same thing each of these dogs is looking for.

Hope.

It is a terrible place to look. Amidst fear. Amidst rejection and abandonment. And yet isn’t that the very place to look?

Who hopes for what he already has? Paul asked. Hope that is seen is no hope at all. But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24)

Hope is found in the most unexpected places. Because it is pain that begets hope.

I know this, as I look at the bars separating me from the inside. The spilled dog food, the soiled toys, the little touches that cannot hide the dismal nature of these holding pens.

Hope is not found in the sunshine; it is not needed there. Hope is found in the shadows.

The staff here know that I am just looking. Looking at cages. Looking at the lives inside of them. And looking at freedom.

Cartoon Dog & Hearts

Tags appear even as I wait: “On hold for someone special – adoption pending.” One staff member tells me he started just over a month ago, and already most of the dogs that were here when he started have been adopted.

This is both unbelievable and wonderful to me.

This place – this frightening and confusing and horrible place – can be the start of a beautiful new beginning.

If that is true for these cast-off canines, could it not also be true for me? And for you?

We have a Heavenly Father who is not only our supreme caretaker, but who can break off chains and knock down prison walls. When Israel was at one of the lowest points in their history and held captive in Babylon, God sent a word to them through the prophet Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

While this particular proclamation was to Israel, the premise is true for us today. Our Heavenly Father has told us that he has good plans for us, and they are still unfolding. Because of His great love for us we are not consumed. He will teach us in the darkness how to hope. He will prod us in the present toward our future.

Hope can be found even in a cage. Do not forget this.

Love Springs

Toy groundhog in plants

I posted this earlier this week at www.inspireafire.com/love-springs. Enjoy this re-post, and Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

I heard that Punxsutawney Phil is predicting an early spring this year. Legend has it that this Pennsylvanian groundhog can predict the approach of spring when he sticks his head out of his den on February 2nd. If he sees a shadow, he flees back down into his hole to slumber for another 6 weeks. This year, no shadow means spring is on its way.

clouds parting

Regardless of how much trust you have in this furry, four-legged prediction, the real question we should be asking is: What season follows spring?

I often picture spring as a gradual transition from winter into summer. The days get longer and warmer; little buds appear and then begin to pop. Color flows seamlessly from winter greys to joyful hues.

But that’s not how it happens.

More often than not, spring approaches like last year’s rusty tractor. It roars to life only to sputter and fade. It coughs and wheezes and jerks into motion only to stall half-way across the yard. It promises summer only to retreat back into winter.  You may need three different weight coats just to make it through one day, and the next day you may need to wear the same three coats in reverse.

Welcome to spring.

Winter

Ah, spring! Not only is it the precursor to summer, it is also the season of love. I think of that when I see my daffodils shoot out of the ground one day only to be blanketed with snow the next. Or weeks later when  they raise their yellow blooms toward glorious sunshine only to be whacked across the face with a deluge of ice pellets. Anyone who thinks that spring is gentle has never really paid attention.  And anyone who thinks that love is gentle has never really been in love.

What season are you walking through in your relationships right now? Equally important, what season is coming next?

Perhaps you’re in the thrall of romance. Absorb it like rays of sunshine, and let it grow deep roots to sustain you.

Perhaps you’re in a season of dark desperation, not sure how much more battering you can take. Hold onto the truth that the Son will never leave you. Seek Him harder than you have ever sought Him before.

Or perhaps you’re in a season of turmoil as chaotic as spring itself – blown about by life’s demands and twirling in confusion. Identify just one small thing that you can put in order, and start there. Sometimes changes to the smallest tributaries can divert the most raging torrent.

Desert flower

Love is not always easy, but we know that love is always worth it, because God Himself is love. No matter what season of love you’re in, pursue God with open arms. Through rain and snow and sleet and sunshine, seek God. He can bring order. He can bring healing. He can bring joy. One day, you will find that your arms are no longer empty. You are holding onto Love.

Because here’s something else about spring: it never gives up. No matter how many times winter throws another punch, spring always gets back up. In the end, spring always wins.

And so does love. Even when it hurts.

That Still Small Voice

Fire

Happy Father’s Day! This post originally appeared at http://www.inspireafire.com/still-small-voice/. I’m re-posting it here in honor of my dad!

“Let your conscience be your guide,” my father used to say.

Compass

Let your conscience by your guide.

I don’t remember him ever telling me what my conscience was, but somehow I knew. It was that still, small voice that stopped me when I was tempted to go along with the wrong crowd. It was that slight, uncomfortable prodding when I was tempted to take the easy way out. It was the seed of something beautiful that would grow with me and become at times the clear, almost audible voice of God.

Sometimes that voice needs to work through a lot of tangle before I can hear it. I am reminded of this when I read the story of Elijah in the cave (1 Kings 19). There was a great and powerful wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by fire, but the Lord was not in any of those things. Instead, these cataclysmic events were contrasted with the gentle whisper of the Lord.

The thing that struck me recently about this story was not the contrast of catastrophic power with gentle instruction, but the fact that the catastrophic power came first.

We read this story in a few lines and it seems like Elijah waited only moments before he could walk to the opening of the cave and talk with the Lord. When my life is in cataclysmic upheaval I wish that I, too, could wait for just a moment and then walk out of the devastation and into gentle instruction. I yearn for God to say to me: “You are not the only one left. Come out of there. Let me tell you what to do.”

But we don’t know how long the winds blew as they tore apart everything that once seemed secure. Or how long the earthquake rooted everything into upheaval. Or how long the fire burned to rubble even what little remained. What we know is that even after all of that, the still small voice was still there for Elijah.

And that still small voice is still there for us.

Footsteps

He is guiding our steps.

Sometimes we have to go through wind and fire before we are in a place where we can hear His voice, but we have a promise from God that even when we cannot hear Him over the tumult, He is still by our side, guiding our steps. He is still stopping us, prodding us, growing us, until we come to a place where we can hear Him more clearly again.

I recently asked my father what lessons he hopes he passed on to his children.

“Integrity,” he answered. And in that one word he summed up a multitude.

Integrity is how you treat people. Integrity is how you do your work. Integrity is when you listen to that still small voice…  and let your conscience be your guide.

I have more than one Father teaching me that lesson.