Word For 2018: Read

The new year has begun, so it’s time to elect a new word to guide me through it. In the past, I’ve used ‘joy’ and ‘now’ as the focus, which fit well with my goals for that particular year. For 2018, I’ve chosen the word ‘read’ as my theme.

I’ve always been a streaky reader. I’ll get on a tear, reading books at a fast clip for a few weeks. Then I won’t touch a book for months. I used to think that I must be too distracted by life, just or didn’t know what to read next. But now I think that the reason is a lot simpler than that. Reading just wasn’t a priority.

I want 2018 to be different. I want to turn over a new leaf. (See what I did there?)

There’s just something inside me that’s crying out to learn – to gain an understanding of different perspectives on faith, life, love and even history. For example, my husband and I just saw the movie “The Darkest Hour”. I came away from that film wanting to read more about Winston Churchill. Have I made time to do that? Nope. Now really, that needs to change.

Reading is fundamental to a robust spiritual life too. I have my own ideas about God and how he influences my life. But there are two good reasons to open myself up and seek more knowledge.

Cultivating a Deeper Spirituality

Experts in their fields don’t get there by living in a world of their own. Scientists, medical doctors and car mechanics know if they are going to advance in their practice, they have to read the latest research. If they want to serve well, their knowledge base has to keep advancing.

I want to be the best follower of Christ that I can be. In order to do that, I can’t stay locked in a little box of my own ideas. I have been given the bible, and wonderful books and articles by theologians, writers, and bloggers. They are a priceless source of wisdom, nudging me to create an ever evolving, deeper relationship with Jesus.

Others Will See What I Believe

No man is an island. What I believe and how I life that faith affects other people around me.

If I want to be a positive influence not only to myself, but to the community too, I’m going to need support and encouragement. Reading uplifting and inspirational spiritual literature will give me the boost I need. It’s a reliable way to fill up my soul’s gas tank, giving me the strength to be a peaceful presence. A person who can then support and encourage others.

 

I’m looking forward to this year of reading, both on my own, and in group studies too.

To kick off the “group study” part of the year, I have joined with Linda on her blog to discuss the book “Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence.” You can get the particulars here. Anyone can join in, so check out the link if you’d like to do some reading this year too!

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Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think

A few months ago, I was looking for a unique way to celebrate my birthday. As I cruised around the internet, checking out different ideas, I came across a class entitled: Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think. Hmm.

I chose the word ‘Now’ to be my guide in 2017. Instead of living in the past, or worrying about the future, I wanted to be fully aware, in each moment, right now. The class that I found on-line sounded like a perfect way to learn more about my theme. What is mindfulness, but paying attention to what’s happening right now? And I was intrigued. And what did ‘it’s not what you think’ mean?

The instructor opened the class by saying that many think of mindfulness as ‘living in the moment’, but that’s not entirely true. (So that’s where the ‘it’s not what you think’ comes in.)

Imagine you are sitting on a bench by a river lined with trees and a nature path. As you watch the river slowly flow by, you may find yourself focusing on a lone leaf as its pushed along by the current. In narrowing in on that leaf; the trees, path, birds and breeze that also lived in that ‘now moment’, were effectively blocked out and unnoticed.

Seeing and following the leaf wasn’t wrong, it just proves a point: It’s impossible to grab hold of ‘now’ because it’s too wide and too densely packed a place to completely absorb. Isn’t that interesting?

He suggested that instead of trying to constantly grab at an event, while missing everything else (think Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory), we should try to step back and observe as much of life as we can without judgement. There’s a constant flow of events that meets us in each hour, and the goal is to be truly present and aware of as much as possible.

The biggest block to being mindful is overreaction.

As soon as powerful emotions take over, we become frozen in that moment. For example, wrestling with anger over a pushy driver, I’m unable to appreciate all the other courteous drivers or the music in the car, because I’m held hostage by irritation and disappointment. Immersed in negative feelings, beautiful and intricately knit gifts of the day continue to silently glide past me unseen and unheard.

This new way of living mindfully was a revelation to me. It makes sense that it’s impossible to take in everything happening right now, just based on the volume of input. I like the idea of being open to moments instead of trying to to attach myself to them, and trying not to be carried away by emotion. That way, I can lovingly accept every circumstance and give thanks, ready to accept the next experience planned for me.

“Mindfulness” allows me to receive, while “living in the moment” demands that I reach, grab and try to possess each event. Mindfulness certainly sounds like a more peaceful way to negotiate life.

 

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The Secret To Success = Move Forward

Five children, ages seven to ten, were lined up side-by-side on the cement pool deck. My sister and I were among them. The diving coach stood about ten feet in front of us, as he barked out the same rhythm, “Let’s move! Step 1 -2- 3, JUMP.”

Five new divers took three steps forward as counted, and then jumped as high as we could. After jumping, we’d scramble back to the starting point on the deck to do it again. And again. And again. After a while, we added throwing our arms up in the air, while kicking up our left knee to the jumping. Step by repetitive step, we learned how to perform a dive approach.

“If you don’t have a strong bounce off the board, you’ll never have a successful dive. Your approach has to be solid, and your bounce has to be high. Do it again!”

I remember practicing that darn three-step approach for days. Finally, we were allowed to move to the diving board. Step 1 – 2 – 3, knee and arms up, pushing down on the flexible board, bouncing up high, sailing up into the air and landing in the water.

Now, one of my favorite sports to watch is diving. The movements in the air are amazing, as are the perfect entries. But those dives start on the board. Fancy dives don’t just happen without a strong approach and a high bounce.

The instructions barked out to me when I was seven are useful in a lot of places in life, not just on a diving board. Preparation is key for any success. Any good coach will tell you that excellence doesn’t just happen. It’s a result of grasping the fundamentals, making an effort and doing the best you can.

Just ask Moses. He told the fleeing Israelites: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only keep still.” (Exodus 14:14). Um… Really?? That sounds amazing! Pardon me while I take a load off and watch that happen.

Well, Moses was right, but he forgot a step. Fortunately, he had a great Coach. In the next verse, God said to him, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward! And you, raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water…” (Exodus 14:15) Yes, God will give them the victory, but not without their participation.

The Israelites had to go forward, Moses had to raise his arm. Then, and only then, could God bless their efforts abundantly.

In every part of life, we are called to take action. Getting a good test grade, hitting a home run, or landing a perfect dive, it all depends on us. After all, God can’t bless our efforts if we don’t make any.

Our ultimate Coach wants us to practice, to try, to move forward. So if you want to succeed, don’t just grab a chair and a soda, and watch the show.

Instead, do the work to set it up. Bounce high. Then you’ll see what God can do for you.

 

 

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Learning to Celebrate Everyday Victories

I slid into the water between the lane lines at the pool, ready to start my workout. In the lane next to me, a woman was taking a lesson from a private instructor.

When I swim laps, I only go four lengths at a time. After that, I pop up for a fifteen second breather before pushing off the wall to start the next set. So I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of the exchanges between instructor and student. It was obvious that the swim lesson was very difficult for the middle aged student. I heard the instructor calmly encouraging her, giving her lots of praise for her short strokes and flailing kicks.

 

What really impressed me was something the instructor said to boost her student’s confidence. “You’ve come such a long way. You used to be afraid to get into the water. Now you can float and swim a little on your own too. That’s great progress! That should be celebrated!”

I couldn’t help but chime in after hearing that wonderful bit of wisdom. I said, (a little breathlessly), “You’re impressing me, that’s for sure.”

The instructor gave me an appreciative smile, and the student let out a shy, little laugh. I could tell she was proud of herself, and I was proud of her too. But even more, I was struck by the instructor’s words.

We really should celebrate our victories, no matter how small they may seem. This new swimmer was doing great things, but she thought she wasn’t doing well at all. How sad is that? I wanted to tell her that every time she overcame her fears, or got even a step further toward her goal, she was victorious.

Why is it so hard to accept that we are capable of doing good things?

As I continued swimming, I wondered about that question. I had to admit, I often fail to recognize or celebrate my own achievements too. Instead, I’ll think, “Yes, I did that. But I could have done it better. Or faster. Or thought of it sooner.” It’s like I repeatedly light the candle of victory in my mind, and then turn around and blow it out with self-defeating criticism.

That little swimming lesson really helped me realize how important it is to recognize personal growth, no matter the size. We all need to experience the encouragement and joy of our personal achievements. A little happy dance, or a small giggle of delight doesn’t mean that you’re prideful or refuse to see that you could do better. It just means that you appreciate the grace and goodness of a work that’s been well done.

In this season of Advent, the weeks before the celebration of the birth of Christ, let’s make a pact. Every day, let’s promise to catch ourselves doing something well, and then stop for a minute to soak that in.

For these next few weeks, let’s claim our daily successes, without exception. All those victories are joyful, encouraging gifts from the Lord, who loves to make his children happy.

Let’s honor our personal daily victories with a little happy dance…or maybe pie?

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I will be taking the month of December off to prepare for Christmas in my home and in my heart. I wish you all a blessed Advent and Christmas celebration, and I look forward to seeing in January. May God bless you and yours with his peace and joy!

An Unexpected Connection

It’s Thanksgiving time, and my house is full of relatives. Naturally, the cable service started acting up. My daughter and SIL were all tucked in and ready to watch their favorite show. The TV picture looms into view: Good! No sound: Bad! Connection issues yet again.

We just had the cable tech out for service. He swapped out our box for a new one, new remote too. The cable wires were rerouted through a bright and shiny new metal coupler, indoors and out. And now this? I am definitely thinking bad thoughts in my head.

Well, couldn’t do much about it. Board games to the rescue! We abandoned the television set for a rousing game or two our family’s ‘go to’ game, Sorry.

The next morning, I called tech support. After successfully getting through to an agent, I described our issue.

“Oh!”, the agent said. “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems. Sometimes after you have a fix done, all we have to do is reset your box from here.”

Great news I guess. Except why didn’t the tech do that two days ago? I am not a happy person.

“And I see that you’ve been a subscriber for…wow! I hope you don’t mind me saying that…well…you don’t sound that old to me.”

Well, that was an awkward thing to say, right? I don’t know if it was the mood I was in, or her southern drawl, but either way, I burst out laughing. “Oh yes”, I replied. “I’m that old. I’m a grandmother.”

“You are?”, she answered in a surprised voice. “I am too! Hold on for a few minutes, I’m still resetting your box.”

“Congratulations!” I replied. This woman has completely disarmed me.

She was quiet for a time, waiting for the equipment to reset. Finally breaking the silence, she said, “Well, thank you…but it’s kind of a challenge really. My son is seventeen. I mean, it’s not like my grandchild isn’t a blessing. It’s just really hard.”

I sat there in my living room in front of that television set, silently willing my heart to stretch and push through the telephone to connect with the heart of a woman I’d never seen or met before, and yet felt so connected.

After we talked for a little while about her family, she said, “I’m all done from this end Mrs. Cecilia. Is the sound back on?”

It sure was. I gave her that happy news, and then told her that I’d be praying for her.

After we hung up, I needed a few minutes to think over what just happened. I began that connection irritated and exasperated, moved on to laughter, and then to prayer. That phone agent might not have been a person open to prayer, or even felt she needed it. But there was a reason we were so randomly paired that day.

She lifted me out of my rotten mood and made my situation more bearable. My hope is that, in my own way, I was there to do the same for her.

 

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“How Did I Get Here?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve collapsed into the sofa after a crazy day, and thought with a tired sigh, “How did I get here?”

That question is certainly a great lead-in to some introspection isn’t it? It creates a perfect opportunity to silently count the days blessings, but…that’s not usually what I do. Instead, I stare at the ceiling and think back on that crazy, unexpected curveball that started my day, mentally watching it whack into the first domino of my carefully stacked, neatly planned next 12 hours. One after the other, my efforts fell into mindless oblivion as I worked to put out fires and juggle appointments.

Looking back, I know I was working hard, but I just can’t remember specifics.

Memory fog was especially strong when I was raising my two children. I quit work when they were about four and two years old, so I had the great fun of being present to them and for them for many years. But the same syndrome I experienced while working would happen at home too.

The kids loved to wake up early, and seemed to have limitless supplies of energy. (What four and two-year-olds don’t?) PreSchool, gymnastics, swim lessons, trips to the park, laundry, cooking, art projects, books – it was a busy time. My husband would come home from work and ask “How was your day?.  I’d turn to answer and freeze. Um, I don’t know. What did I do all day? It seemed like all I did was keep up. I struggled many days to answer that question, often just settling with “Fine. How was yours?”

Honestly, I’d love to tell him everything we did and how wonderful it all was. But that would mean taking a little break to quietly look back at the passing hours, so I could see, really see, all the joy, sorrow, love and challenge that swirled around us. But who has time for that?

This week, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, a day that gently draws us all into self-reflection. No matter how busy or brain-fogged we are by daily responsibilities, we gather together with family and friends to celebrate all the ways we have been blessed. And make a conscious effort to answer the question, “How did I get here?”

The gifts and blessings of each hour, in each day of this past year have shaped and directed us to where we are right now. What a great thing it is to take time this week to look back at all the miracles, seen and unseen, that have allowed us to be…here. Right here. Here in this blessed space with our families, friends and those we serve.

What if “How did I get here?” became the focus of every evening prayer?  I mean, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the week. Instead of sitting on the sofa feeling confused, we’d silently review the day instead, giving thanks for each grace that carried us through.

That way, every day would be Thanksgiving Day.

 

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The Sad Truth About Being Too Busy

It’s hard to keep up with life sometimes. Commitments to our families, communities, schools, not to mention volunteer activities; pile up on calendars and spin car odometers. The morning alarm ring starts to resemble the flag drop at the Indianapolis 500.

“And their off!”

At first, having a full plate is exciting. Getting so much accomplished is like winning the premiere race of the day…every day. But after a while, it all just gets overwhelming. And there’s a reason for that: In all the work and movement that’s been scheduled, something got left behind.

In the midst of all the planning, protecting yourself through having strong personal boundaries, somehow didn’t make the list. So on the day goes. There’s so much to do, the day never seems to end. From flag to finish line, there’s simply no time to just take a deep breath. Or be silent. Or meet with a friend. The sad truth is: being too busy, which used to be exciting, now becomes a burden.

But there is a way back. The best way to fight against an energy sapping, over-busy life, is to define some personal boundaries.

Physically, boundaries are easy to see, easy to set up. Things like fences and hedges are all built to do the same thing. They announce “This is where my property begins. This is mine.” Personally and spiritually, it’s a little harder to identify boundaries because you can’t physically see them, or erect them. But they’re just as important as any fence in your backyard.

When you set up personal boundaries, deciding what to do and what to avoid, you are protecting both your time and your heart. When you have healthy limits, your daily burden lightens.

Keeping boundaries in place does take constant vigilance. People will always ask for something, hoping for your time, talent, or advice. It’s so tempting to say yes to everyone, because saying ‘no’ sounds so…unhelpful. But if you say yes every time, the resulting responsibilities will drain your energy. Soon your happy attitude will disappear too, as you begin resenting the work you do, even it’s for a good cause, because you’re tired and over-scheduled. That’s no way to go through life.

The ability to confidently define your boundaries, to decide how much time you have to give, and how much you have to keep, is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Being at peace with your day and with yourself is is a great grace, and it is also a great desire of our hearts.

Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy and balanced way of life, they are also a sign that you respect yourself, and honor your hearts desire.

You have the power to make balanced, life-giving choices in the course of your day. Use that power to lead you to a well-rested, healthy lifestyle, serving your family and community in the best way you can.

And don’t forget that serving the ‘community’ includes you too.

 

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Diving Lessons

Five children, ages seven to ten, were lined up side-by-side on the cement pool deck, my sister and I among them. Our diving coach stood about ten feet in front of us, clapping out the same rhythm, “Step: 1 -2- 3, JUMP!”

Five new divers took three steps forward as counted, and then jumped as high as we could. After jumping, we’d scramble back to the starting point on the deck to do it again. And again. And again. After a while, we added throwing our arms up in the air, while kicking up our left knee before jumping. Step by repetitive step, we learned a dive approach.

I remember practicing that darn three-step approach for days. Finally, we were allowed to move to the diving board. Step: 1 – 2 – 3, knee and arms up, pushing down on the flexible board, bouncing up high, sailing up into the air and landing in the water.

Now, as an adult, diving is one of my favorite sports to watch. The movements in the air are amazing, as are the perfect entries. But those dives start on the board. Fancy dives just don’t happen without a strong approach and a high bounce.

We’ve all had the experience of crawling before walking, and babbling before we speak. These are necessary beginning steps to a new skill. We don’t usually question why these steps are needed, because it makes sense that it’s ‘practice, practice, practice’ that shapes and prepares us for growth.

Not that it’s easy. Diving into a new skill, or branching out into a new job or volunteer position can be very daunting. How am I supposed to know if I can do it? If God called me here, shouldn’t I see success quickly?

I often struggle with these questions. I have hope that I’ll be successful, but doubt comes in with expectations. I want mastery of new skills to come fast and easy. But if I’d just look back on my diving experience, I’d certainly be comforted.

Not everything comes quickly, and really, it rarely happens that way. Having to work hard to make the most of our opportunities is truly a universal truth.

 

If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.

~Mark Spitz, Winner of 7 Gold Medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games

 

Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.  ~Serena Williams, Winner of 2 Gold Medals at 2000 and 2008 Olympic Games

 

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

~Malcolm Gladwell

 

If you’re feeling called to something new, don’t decide that it’s not for you if you’re not immediately successful. Just take a deep breath and try to enjoy the season of learning. It can be as much fun as finally mastering the new skill.

Be kind and gentle with yourself, knowing that good things eventually come with open eyes, open ears and a willingness to practice.

Step: 1 – 2 – 3. You begin at the beginning. But with work and practice, who knows how high you’ll soar?

 

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What Do You Have Faith In?

When you sit down in a chair, do you sit there holding on for dear life, praying that the chair won’t break? Or do you have faith that it won’t crumble under your weight and drop you to the floor?

Well. That’s silly. Of course you believe the chair will hold you. The faith we have in furniture is so great that we never even think about it really. Our trust is complete.

When my son got his driver’s license, we had faith in him. We trusted that he would not be harmed, and that he would drive defensively. Then he had an accident. His fault. The car had to have thousands of dollars of work, while we became a one-car family.

After the car was repaired, we had faith that this wouldn’t happen again. We handed over the keys, and told him that we trusted that he would be safe. Then he had another accident. His fault. The car had thousands of dollars of work, while we became a one-car family once again. Oh, and just to top it all off, our insurance company dropped us. Sigh. Who could blame them really.

Now you would think that after two expensive accidents, this child’s driving career would be toast, but you’d be wrong. We had faith, and we handed those keys over once again.

It’s fascinating how we have so much faith in furniture, isn’t it? And how we have rock-solid faith in our children, and in people in general, even though they will eventually fail us. That’s just how people are, we’re all well-meaning mistake machines, and that’s just how it is. But still, we have faith.

Faith is a gift, we all have it. But like all gifts that we’ve been given, it’s up to us to decide how and where to activate it. We almost universally apply it to things like cars starting, doors opening and chairs not collapsing, but almost universally struggle when applying it to God.

The boy with two accidents? “Here’s the keys!” The God who made me and supports my life? “Um…I don’t know…”

Jesus said if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we’ll be calling mountains to move, but I’ve never seen that happen, have you? So faith truly is a difficult gift to activate when it comes to God, and Jesus surely knew it.

But he also knew it wasn’t impossible. If we already know how to trust created things, then certainly there’s hope in placing our trust in the Creator. Maybe our faith starts small, but it can grow if we’ll only hang in there and practice it.

We make it a habit to exercise and build up our muscle strength so we’ll be ready to face the day. If we don’t, our muscles will be weak and useless. If we don’t continually practice faith and trust in our Creator, it won’t be there when we need it most either.

It’s okay to start small, even smaller than a mustard seed. I’m not really interested in moving a mountain anyway. Trusting God like I trust my desk chair? That’ll be a great start.

 

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Called? Yes! Gifted? Not So Sure…

Have you ever felt called to do something that you’ve never done? Somehow you know in the stillness of your heart it’s the right thing to do, but have no idea where to start?

I think it happens all the time. I also think that it results in so much confusion that many dismiss the call or even quit before reaching the starting line.

When my dad retired, he and my mom began spending their winters in Florida. Over time, the stay in Florida got longer, so they decided to become Florida residents.

They had an easy transition to the new state, new home, new everything really. They were full of life and loved to socialize, so it didn’t take long before they had a wide circle of friends.

One of the activities my dad got involved in, much to my surprise, was Habitat for Humanity. A new friend of his worked with the charity, building houses for underprivileged families. My dad loved that idea.

Diving right in, he started up on the roofs, pounding nails into roofing shingles in the Florida sun. It couldn’t have been very comfortable or very stimulating work, but he really enjoyed it. When he hit his 70’s, the crew boss invited him to come down from the roof and never return. My dad saw the wisdom in that, so it was goodbye to roofs, and hello to drywall. He didn’t care, he just wanted to be a part of something good.

I mentioned that I was surprised. It’s not that I doubted his desire, or the worthiness of the charity. I just thought it was an odd choice. He never was the “handyman type.” He told me once that his dad (who could fix anything) didn’t want children around when he made repairs, so he never learned how to work with plumbing, electricity, or redecorating.

So I asked him why he thought he was able to help with constructing a house, because It sure didn’t sound like a perfect match of skill and purpose to me.

Let me tell you, his answer was priceless. “You can do anything if a professional shows you how.”

I love that. It’s such a great mantra for anyone who doubts their call in life.

His reasoning was so clear, simple and true. Never laid a roof? Have a roofer show you, and you’re on your way. Never hung drywall? Take the time to show up, listen and practice. You’ll get it done.

You may have heard that God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. That means you don’t have to begin your new adventure unprepared and alone. Instead, like my dad, seek out others with experience in the field. Take classes, read books, find out how the professionals did it.

My dad never thought he’d be a tradesman. He just wanted to do his best. Isn’t that all that we can hope for too?

The key is to show up. Listen. Practice. With a little help, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll accomplish.

 

 

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Photo credits:

Photo by Ray Hennessy, Lance Asper, Janko Ferlic