Cheap Optimism

Last week, I heard a message about the hope of Christmas and how we look both forward and back to fully grasp it.

During that message, two words resounded and I have mulled them over all week:

cheap optimism

The truth is, I have, over a number of years changed from a self-proclaimed pessimist to an optimist. The reasons are varied and how I accomplished this is too much to discuss here. The simple fact is: I see beauty, potential, and grace in people or situations that were before only dismal, twisted and hopeless.

Still, something about the words “cheap” and “optimism” together stuck me because this is a concept that totally consumes our culture. We want cheap thrills, quick fixes, casual sex, instant gratification, likes and loves on social media, or hope in the form of some political, athletic or celebrity savior. In short, we want a watered down version of lasting optimism. We want hope that just might get us through the next 24 hours but not much beyond. We want the promise of sunny future without any present cost.

These words seem a juxtaposition since cheap connotes negative while optimism brims with positivity. Yet together, they convey a strong message: hope without longevity and a solid infrastructure will fade.

Optimism is possible. No, not even just possible; it is tangibly within each person’s grasp. Because at it’s core it begins with hoping in someone- a being so transcending time and space, so divine and yet strangely human, so outside the temporary, cheap thrills that tantalize- the person of Christmas, Jesus himself.

This optimism won’t dissolve like a vapor. It won’t disappoint like an ill-conceived gift. It won’t wear out like twenty something beauty or fade like yesterdays on trend fashion.

This optimism carries us till the end- in the darkest of seasons and the loveliest of times, in the ups and downs and in and outs of life. We can remain truly hopeful because this is no cheap optimism. It came at the cost of a human life, sacrificed some 2,000 years ago for us.

This is my foundational truth that allows me to see beauty in the broken, feel hope for tomorrow and see light, joy and potential in my dark, lurking doubts.

Tempest Quieted

Tranquil. A calm quiet envelops me. I wish I could be here forever, my heartbeat pulsing in my ears, my shoulder muscles totally slack, my breath counted in seconds, in, out, in, out, in, out.

Then, abruptly, a gust whips violently through my mind. In that second, all peace shatters, calm displaced like sand beneath a wave. An unpleasant memory, a constant worry, a fear creeps in, disperses, then prevails.

Noisy thunder clatters, a deafening muted hum resonates in my ears. All pleasant sounds are drowned out by the cacophony of this present concern. My own voice of reason is silenced.

Turmoil. The rain comes, heavy and cutting, its weight overwhelming my heart and stinging my skin. My insides are churning and heaving as if I’d just stepped off a cheap fair ride.

This storm comes without warning, without invitation, even without certain cognition. Wreaking havoc and leaving a trial of destruction, this tempest bears down. I’m undone under its influence. Drenched with “what ifs…” Submerged in its foreboding temptations, battered by its forceful anxiety.

All this and no one ever sees. No one feels a single gust, hears one clap of thunder or feels the driving rain, just me, deep down inside my heart and soul. But on the outside, all is well. That is how this tempest operates.

Then I remember these words: Peace. Be still. Spoken many centuries ago by a Man who experienced the worst possible storm ever.

I speak them to myself, like a mantra, over the splintering fright, over the soul-wrenching anguish.

They are no magical incantation. They do not even bring an immediate end to the storm. Their power simply over takes and assuages. I’m brought back to trust and faith, remembering the goodness and protection that has carried me many times before.

Renewed. The storm subsides. My soul is hushed. For now.

Disarmed

I used to pride myself in saying, “I’m a fighter, not a lover.”

To be a lover meant vulnerability and weakness- two things I didn’t want to classify myself as. To be a lover meant to be all squishy on the inside.

I thought if I displayed my crusty exterior, I’d be prepared for the worst when it inevitably came. With my proverbial sword strapped to my side, I could easily unsheathe it, hacking and hewing with my words or thoughts until I felt vanquished.

But the bad part is, I fought everything, even the good things. I fought grace and forgiveness. I fought joy and freedom. To allow those things to soften me would be to relinquish my self-efficacy. That would not do.

Our pastor used to say: “Behind God’s frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” This angered me. I conjured a rather cosmic joker image; behind the sugary smile was a benevolent dictator of sorts waiting to pounce with His agenda. I did not understand. I fought this idea with a vengeance. To acquiesce to someone calling the shots, especially bad ones, unsettled me in the worst of ways.

Then my mom died. Then we lost lots of money. Then we lost a house. Then I was diagnosed with a hip disease. Then we lost jobs (plural). Then I had to go to counseling. Then we moved 12 times. Then my son chose a lifestyle of self destruction. Then lots more things happened that I won’t bore you with.

Sometime during all that, something changed. Not all at once or in totality but it happened yet I could never pinpoint the date or time.

 I saw God’s smiling face, behind the frowning providence.

I tasted the goodness. I witnessed the mercy. I felt the love. I heard the assuring words. I was washed with the peace. I was girded up with a strength not my own. I soaked in the grace that flowed like a fountain, free and unconditional. I was awed by the miracles. I was overcome by the provision. I was forgiven.

You might think I laid down my arms and became a lover. Not exactly. (Although I tap into that side of me much more frequently these days.) I still have a strong spirit and a tongue that can be venomous; a hard head and a willful way, but now I (mostly) fight for the good – for joy and peace, for strength and beauty, for making each day count. I fight to accept the frowns of God, knowing His kindness and love are far greater.

Does this make me weak? No, I don’t think so. Vulnerable? Yes, in a sense. Yet it is the very softening that enlarges my faith, causing me lean into the arms of a benevolent Father and say: “Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”

This Brick Road

The great unknown lay before me, like Dorothy and the yellow brick road. My foot instinctively touched the first brick then I quickly pulled it back, like something unseen had coerced me.

The trepidation was strong, not because I was actually scared though. I was beyond that point. Life had taken me down so many other unexpected, labored and shrouded paths, I was confident yet not without a dutiful sense of caution. To be anything else would be foolish.

Could it be that I was wiser? That I had learned things that forever changed my approach to the great unknown? I think so. Yet I am still a cautious traveler because two things I recognized whole heartedly- always expect the unexpected and pride will lead to falling and falling hard.

I took a deep breath and exhaled out my inhibitions (well, as much as I could muster anyways). I knew there would be demons ahead, no, not the scary impish creatures with long claw-like nails and horns. These would be unseen demons, the kind that attack you from the inside. These come at you with their proverbial pitchfork, digging at your insides with the lurking evil of doubt, telling you that you’re a worthless loser and that your past mistakes define you.

Then, there would be inclement weather- storms of epic proportions that would obscure visibility to the point of stopping you dead in your tracks. They would dump a heaping helping of guilt, sickness, fear, financial insecurity, job loss, marital strife and other sludge, making the road unsafe and moving forward temporarily impossible. Those seasons brought life to a standstill and I would have to regain my footing to confidently carry on.

I knew too that some other traveler might give me a crushing blow and try to knock me completely off the path- and that person might be someone I love. Or an attack might come from a totally unfamiliar source, injuring me to the point of profound helplessness and almost beyond hope. I’d heard it said: “Time heals all wounds.” That is a lie. Time only changes wounds. The scars remain. I knew that resuming my journey after that, would be a slow, tedious process.

But just as I was certain of all these things, I was just as certain of others.

Just as there would be demons, there would be angels, ministering to me after the demons had done their work. They would come to me in the smile of a stranger, the prayers of a fellow traveler, the comforting, assuring words of a friend. They would be the confidantes who could look into my soul and know just the balm to apply to my wound.

Just as there would be storms, there would be warmth, sunshine, rainbows, pleasant breezes and the inexplicably sweet aroma of freshly watered earth. From the moisture would come new life- tiny shoots of promise that bigger, better and more beautiful things would soon spring up- the colorful delicate flower or vibrant verdant would bring delight after the darkness.

Just as there would be injuries, there would be also be countless joys, splendid accomplishments, moments of pure bliss. Others would sprinkle hidden gems waiting for me to discover. These would be the moments when a deep sigh was heaved, not out of anguish, but from the contented feeling of satisfied love.

Best of all, I knew that my journey was watched over, not by some dreaded cosmic force or unseen great and powerful keeper of fates. Quite the opposite, my journey is watched over by the Divine, the One who holds my world together, the One who guides my footing when it was slippery and vaporous.

I choose to trust Him for the here and now and the hereafter. I am not going to The Emerald City. I am journeying to a place far lovelier, where all are happy and whole. And my brick road is in His jurisdiction.

Shattered Illusion

This is not your typical Mother’s Day blog post, but hang with me.

 The illusion of control…

It’s a concept I have been battling with for several years now. Sometimes the illusion has been broken and I accept it. Most other times though, I’ve fought it with both fists drawn. This invisible force seemed to be working against me at every turn- cruel fate was dealing me a crappy hand and I was not having it.

Recently, I watched a video that compared the safety of driving an automobile to riding in an airplane. By a long shot, riding in the airplane is much safer than driving your car anywhere, BUT why do we feel safer driving and more apprehensive flying? The illusion of control. Behind the wheel, we control our every move. When we fly, we are continuously at the mercy and trust of the pilot. We do not like this, not one little bit.

You see, we fancy ourselves masters of our universe, holding our puppet strings. If we are mothers, we think we are holding our children’s destiny in our very capable mother hands. In marriage, we balk against feeling like our partner controls us (thus why many marriages where men are controlling or women are strong willed, fail.) It chaffs against our very nature. And so, we accept the illusion that we surround ourselves with, convince ourselves with really- that we control us and if we are mothers, we are pretty darn comfortable controlling our kids too.

As of late, I am more and more comfortable outside the illusion. I’ve tried being the one who spins all the plates without dropping them. I’ve tried being the strong, hard ass type who doesn’t let my guard down or ever be vulnerable. I’ve tried controlling my kids’ every move in hopes of churning out successful, motivated, educated, people (who happen to think just like me). Guess what? I failed at everything. And maybe that was the intention; the magician revealed the trickery and spoiled the show. I was undeceived at my ability to be god of my destiny and though at first it unsettled me, slowly, I began to accept it.

This left a void and then I was forced to acquiesce to what I knew deep down all along: faith was the essence of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Try as I might, I let me down. My illusion to control myself, those I loved, and my circumstances broke indefinitely.

Only one thing was left- faith in One greater, wiser, better, more loving, more kind, more fulfilling. God knows the secrets I could never begin to understand. He knows me before and behind. He loves me totally and more importantly, He loves those I love even more than I could ever love them.

The shattered illusion has left me happier and more at peace than I could have ever imagined because what was never intended to be mine in the first place was “put back” into the hands of the God more capable than I ever could be anyways.

Don’t Forget

So many people are profoundly affected by the death of an actor or actress. This week, we lost both- Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall- one by choice, the other by natural cause. We react. We recoil. Then, depending on perspective, we respond to the reaction. CrAzY!

I never cease to be amazed at both sides that get their shorts in knots over these things:

“Why do we care so much about an actor committing suicide when there is practical genocide happening in the Middle East?” “How could such a talented actor, who has inspired and entertained millions, just up and kill himself? There must be some cause- financial problems, a life threatening disease, an unhappy marriage, etc.”

We analyze and pontificate and postulate. We read articles, trying to figure it out, somehow hoping it weren’t true.

Two things are true:

  1. The world and its crises are not on the same playing field as the loss of a talented actor to which millions of people relate with- i.e.- they are not comparable issues.
  2. Somewhere in the midst of it all, loss of life gets sensationalized and “social media-ized” and then we’ve missed the whole point.

Death comes to all and it is never pretty.

I can’t eradicate Ebola. I can’t find homes for all the refugees. I can’t stop every person who is suicidal. I can’t ease the ever-present racial tensions.

But don’t forget these are people. Loss of a human life is always devastating – for any cause and in every situation. We have to recognize that. Robin Williams was a father, husband, brother, friend, uncle, son- and yes, he was a talented guy whose screen presence will be remembered. The countless images of sickly patients waiting to die on gurneys- they belong to a family somewhere. The images of waif like children sitting homeless on the dirt- that is someone’s hungry three year old. The images of a grieving African American mother- she lost her son to violence this week.

Life matters. What we say, do and think matters. Love matters. I might not be able to change the world, but I can make the small world I live in a better place. I can spread love, have joy, offer hope, give help, and promote peace. I can grieve with humanity at the loss of life and offer hope for eternity. I can remember that these are people and not simply news stories.

Not-So-Manic Monday #2

Emotions are funny things.

The Grammy Awards reminded me that we can be caught up in a moment, overcome with elation or sadness. We can be swayed towards happiness or towards depression. But thankfully, God is unmovable, unchangeable and unwavering. He loves. Always. Even when we don’t.

Richard Sibbes says this:

 “Measure not God’s love and favor by your own feeling. The sun shines as clearly in the darkest day as it does in the brightest. The difference is not in the sun, but in some clouds which hinder the manifestation of the light thereof.”

So Over That

Agonizingly, I put my pencil in the journal’s spine. Was I missing something? Did I overlook an important goal or area of needed improvement? Were the resolutions I made realistic and attainable? I fretted. Reviewing them, I felt the list complete yet already there was this sense of weight, expectation, pressure.

This was me, the first week or so of every new year, dutifully listing out what I truly believed would head me in the right direction towards accomplishment. I had catagories with sub-points (which often included goals for OTHER family members inadvertently).  Little did I know how it would eat away at me, undetected, because breaching my own personal “contract” was a blow of momentous proportions. I would, by mid-year, slunk away from rereading my resolutions, defeated.

You see, this fit in so nicely with my type-A, “get ‘er done” mentality. I couldn’t IMAGINE life without my yearly list! I mean, just creating it gave me a sense of security- I knew where I was headed and why I was headed there. Then about five years ago, through my own series of unfortunate events and the wise counsel of someone, I stopped. January, two thousand something came, and my resolve was NOT to make that list.

I WAS FREE- free at last- from the torment of my own expectations. I could breathe and just live life, come what may. New Year’s Resolutions = bosh and poppycock!! Jane was unshackled!

In the spirit of this same freedom, I embark on the unknown journey of this year. Yes, I have some personal benchmarks in mind. Yes, I will endeavor to become a better version of myself. Yes, I expect growth, change, and accomplishment; all the while knowing full well that divine plans DO prevail, that often I let myself down and other people I love disappoint me.

I accept that, no actually, I embrace that- happily.

Nowadays, come January, I ruminate on a theme for my year; a phrase that I hope will embody the 52 weeks to come (should I be blessed to live that long). I discovered this song the other day. It spoke the words of Psalm 100 to me and I decided that my theme for 2014 is: I shall not want.

http://youtu.be/LjGExaRTCvA

white flag

I threw in my little “corner of a napkin on a toothpick” white flag, yet deep down I knew it wasn’t enough. That was a paltry excuse for surrender but it was all I could muster.

I had to be broken and emptied of all my own efforts before I would give in. Or was it give up? Yes, that was the word I was frightened of; the word that would convey that I had somehow lost my control or even {gulp} been overcome. In my mind the words surrender and defeat seemed synonymous. And I don’t go down easily- never without a fight.

Try as I might, I was unable to manipulate circumstances to my liking. I came at it from the guilt angle. I came at it from the fear angle. I came at it from the “learn form me and my mistakes” angle. Nothing worked.  The longer the battle drug on, I found the one thing that made me feel better- anger. I would shun him. I would stand in my corner with my guns drawn- my words were weapons and I used them unrelentingly. If I could injure enough, would he come back- hurt, defeated, humiliated? Would I conquer and overcome?

No. Just the opposite. Right before my very eyes there was withdrawal and disengagement- but not the kind you want. He was sauntering away from the battle lines with a self- satisfied kind of grin on his face. He was through with my antics and was about to walk away victorious- the one that was happier, more satisfied with life and in cool headed control. (Or so it would seem.)

That is when I did it. I picked up the white surrender flag and waved it furiously and unabashedly. My agenda was smashed. My will was turned. My battle plan- to control the situation, to have things turn out MY way, to put up my dukes and fight like I meant it- failed. He didn’t win though. God won. God had his way with my heart- finally.

Maybe this is your response in a trial or life situation. You are, like I did for so long, flicking in the itty-bitty white flag, thinking that’ll suffice; that all God needs is that little corner of your heart and will, not the WHOLE thing. To wholly surrender would be to lose: to lose your identity, your own dignity or self-satisfying sense of accomplishment. It would change everything and leave you feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, open to something that is scary and unknown.

Yes, that was me. That has been me so many times in life and for certain, I will be there again; grasping for control, asserting myself over something, someone or a situation. I will have to surrender to a holy plan, one that may not suit me or seem to make sense. But I know deep down that only wholly surrender will be the place of true solace, the place where the battle is not mine, but God’s, the place where giving in does not mean defeat, but true soul quenching rest.White Flag

To Need or Not To Need (that is the question)

I am just going to come out and say it:

Women are needy folks. (So are men, btw, just in totally different ways).

Lately, with all the hubbub surrounding my own life, I have seen a pattern emerge. It’s something I have remarked on for years to my husband: Women often look for someone to commiserate with, to share all their nitty-gritty-down-and-dirty details, when what they should be doing is leaning into the arms of Jesus.

Before you tune me out, throw your hands up in the air and think, “Humph, I need my BFF’s like plants need water. Without them I’d feel lost, alone, and have that ‘stranded on a desert island’ kind of feeling.”

I get it. I am a woman. I am needy just like you.

In fact, these past few months in particular have solidified that fact. My few closest friends have proven to be more precious than ever, like cool refreshing water for my parched dry soul. I have been wading through some serious excrement over here and they have been right there plodding with me, holding my hand at times, listening to me cry, pointing me to the way of the “crap-free” path! For that, I am truly thankful!

Yet sometimes, in our effort to unload our dump truck of feelings, spill the beans on every juicy detail or even (yes, I am going to say the “g” word) gossip about the ones who’ve hurt, offended or just plain bugged us, we are missing our greater need.

What we should do is to run like a child, vulnerable, hurt, broken, empty, into the arms of our Father God and our God-Man Jesus Himself, who has been tempted in every way, just like us and yet did not sin.

He waits and beckons us. Arms open. Comfort promised. Fears assuaging. Mercy abounding. Help offering. Unconditional-love giving.

But we are busy running to someone or something else: our husband, our friends, our children, our books, our blogs, our Facebook, our Twitter feed, our retail therapy, or our local Starbucks even 🙂 .

I have run to all these things. And they never quite satisfy. It is like putting a band- aid on something that really required a cast. What we want is full envelopment of our weary beaten down souls. We need Jesus to wrap us in the beauty of His perfect love. We need to cry out, “Abba, Father!” , pouring out our details to the ONE who can actually fix what’s broken.

Yes, we need each other. We need friends whose arms can wrap around us in a hug or a husband who will listen to us blubber. Outlets for emotions are good, necessary, helpful, tangible, keeping us from the unpleasant alternative of bottling it up (only one day to come uncorked completely). But let’s never forego the life giving water our thirsty souls must drink in order to find the truest comfort from our Perfect Friend.