The Beauty (and Sneakiness) of Ordinary

I’ve known for a long time that I’m kind of ordinary. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy wrestling through this depressing truth. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know all the “right” responses to this…”There’s only ever been one of me in all of history”, “God made me special”, “If I were the only photo-13person on earth, Jesus would have still come for me”, “No one shares my fingerprint or DNA, literally and metaphorically”, etc, etc etc.

It’s just that my culture of famous, notable ministers, of passionate coffee-drinking, creative/hipsters changing the world, and social media allowing me to see it all, have combined to give me a deeply entrenched inferiority complex, leading to some rather profound spiritual wounding. Those with intense and successful ministries, tell me that to really be a disciple of Jesus, my life must be radical. My deeds awesome. My sacrifice epic. In fact, they use their personal examples of how God has used them, to encourage me to pursue great things for my great God. And I agree with almost everything they say, even as I come up short by comparison. Then, there are creative/hipsters out there who live these amazingly interesting lives pursuing their dreams…and who inadvertently shame me for, ironically enough, financially supporting their creativity through my consumption and encouragement of their attempts to change the world.  Then, Facebook lets me see glimpses of other’s extraordinary lives that look so much more meaningful and, honestly, more fun, than mine… that my heart, immediately and without too much of a push, goes to some dark and self-condemning places.

It isn’t hard to see how I could begin to think, “Hmmm…this says something about how God feels about me… that His plan for me is so…ordinary.”

What bothers me most is not that I will never win a Nobel prize, or build an orphanage in Asia, or lead a movement-starting ministry. It is that God has called me to be ordinary. As far as I know, I am not living a disobedient life to my Savior. And as a result of my faithfulness to Him, I live in a rather nondescript suburb of a pretty average city. I am pursuing an important, but not a particularly world-shaking profession. I go to a healthy and loving local church, but we aren’t pumping out best-selling books, hosting large conference or creating paradigm shifting worship albums. My personal ministry is very fulfilling, but no one will look at my “numbers” and do anything but yawn. Most of my days are spent getting kids off to school, cooking and cleaning, driving, bed time routines, conversation and Parks And Rec reruns with my husband in between it all.

I am ordinary. By both providential calling and gifting. Sigh.

What I’m finding though, is that ordinary can be beautiful. And learning to find Jesus and His love in the ordinary parts of life is actually a most extraordinary pursuit. Because, while ordinary is where I live, it is where Jesus lives too.

In the naps, in the snuggles, in the casseroles, in the traffic jams, in the coffee, in the time spent pairing up socks.

He is enough. I am enough. 

There is beauty in the sacrifice required to be a parent to kids day in day out, in learning to put the needs of another in front of my own and learning to enjoy it even. There is beauty in being fully present at my church every Sunday…faithfully worshipping God, serving others, offering my gifts, and receiving the gifts of others. There is beauty in a marriage that is best represented by an open front door, a well-used kitchen table, a refrigerator with kids’ report cards and artwork stuck to it, and a bed that my beloved husband and I have decided will only, and ever be, just for the two us to share. There is beauty in following Jesus as best as I know how in the middle of all of this.

Most healing…most growth…most blessings…are found in the ordinary places of our lives. And the gift wrap they come in is the ordinary people and relationships that we often overlook. “Ordinary” can be sneaky that way.

Not everyone gets to change the world. But everyone can be changed.  Jesus extends the invitation to become more like Him, (which is indeed quite extraordinary) in the midst of our ordinariness. And it is a goal that everyone has the potential to reach. I can be a success in His eyes, in my eyes, by being exactly who He has created me to be, exactly where He has placed me, doing exactly what He has asked me to do.

Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.


 

The greatest love stories are those that play out all around us in the middle of ordinary.  An Ed Sheeran song, of all things, gives beautiful words to this in a wonderful married person’s love song. He sings, “We found love right where we are.” Most of us do, you know.

If you haven’t seen The Lego Movie yet, what are you waiting for? It is a celebration of how ordinary is often a sneaky cover for extraordinary. And, I totally could have given this speech.

 

“Make It Small.”

There is this scene in the movie Man Of Steel that deeply moves me.  It is where a young Clark Kent is in school and his powers of x-ray vision and super hearing are coming in.  He sees through people to their skeletons and hearts.  He not only hears what he is supposed to hear, but the things people whisper, that they meant to keep hidden.  And the sheer volume of it all is overwhelming to him.

I’m finding that there are people out there who have something of these abilities too.   It is like they have a spiritual/emotional type of x-ray vision and super hearing.  They see and hear pain in others.  They are aware that there are deeper layers underneath almost everything we say and do, and they are tuned into this spiritual/emotional wavelength.  It plays under the actual words of most conversations.  It reveals itself in body language.  It can hide in subtle facial expressions that are gone almost as quickly as they appear.  It is cloaked in what isn’t said, in pauses, in deep breaths and in misty eyes that glance away.  And they notice what others often miss.  These are the people who pay attention to others in a way that isn’t always common.

I think Jesus was speaking about these “tuned-in” people when He said in Matthew 13:16, ” But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.”  Because people whose ears are acutely tuned into and aware of the pain of others, are often acutely tuned in to the voice of God as well.  They understand that He is ever-present, always working, constantly speaking and deeply invested in our goings-on.  They know how to look for Him and His handiwork in both their and in other’s lives.  They know how to listen for His voice and leading, both in their and in other’s lives.  They recognize that pain is often a door He walks through on His way into someone’s heart.

And in response, they are willing to step up and enter in and help.

I am also finding that this ability and heart posture, while a blessing, can be weight to carry as well.

It is a wonderful thing, to know your life has more meaning than just self-gratification, consumption and the pursuit of fun.  It is a gift to be a helper – and to know people and situations are better after your participation than before.

And it can be absolutely exhausting at the same time.  How is it possible to see just how dark the world can be… to know that most every person you encounter is managing some level of pain… to hear words in conversation that point to brokenness… to want to change, if not the world, then at least your corner of it…and not be overwhelmed by it all?

In his pain with seeing and hearing too much, Clark’s mom came to his side and taught him a most valuable skill.  When he, through tears said, “The world is too big, mom,’ she replied, “Then make it small.”  She helped him learn to focus.

The way our world works, sometimes it is too big.   With technology,  we are connected to too many people and their stories.  We have too much access to news, to statistics, to pictures.  The level of pain we are able to witness and touch – we were never meant to carry all this.   Not that we should run away and hide from the world we live in.  I am convinced that followers of Jesus should be more aware than most of what is going on in the world, let our hearts be broken by it and moved into action to bring the redemption of Jesus’ kingdom into people’s lives.

But we must learn to how to focus…on what we can carry…on what we should carry…on what is closest to us and where we should invest our emotional and spiritual capital.    Because if we don’t, we can get overwhelmed and crushed by the weight of a burden we were not designed for and never meant to hold.  Therefore, I am attempting to learn the spiritual practices of making my world a little smaller.  Not because I don’t want to engage the world – but because I so desperately WANT TO engage the world.  I’ve got to find a way to do it…and be able to survive at the same time. 

These include:

Limits on my use of technology …so that I don’t give away to others, the emotional energy that belongs to those in my immediate circle of affection and influence…so that I don’t allow the volume of information coming in to overwhelm me to the point of numbing.  Too much online time acts like spiritual Novocaine for me.  While not isolating myself, making sure that those with the most intimate access to me and my heart are healthy – so that my personal time is restful and not draining.  The embrace of regular silence and solitude.  Sometimes for long periods of time.   Allowing my heart to rest and recover…allowing me to assess where damage has been done…allowing Jesus to have full access to my heart so He can grow and strengthen it to hold some of the darkness I encounter.  Learning that some days, it is totally ok to turn my eyes and ears off and just focus on what is in front of me – like play time with my kids, a good meal or enjoying a walk in the gentle spring sunshine.  Learning that I don’t have to be super-serious and intense all the time.  Play is ok.  Small talk is ok.  Realizing that, while Jesus has called me to be aware, involved and compassionate, He has also called me to be human.

Learning to make things small, while not running away from big…I’m pretty sure these are skills of those who are able to live sustainable and beautiful lives, with healthy rhythms of both engagement and rest.   Lives not just of vision, but of focus.  Lives that are able to change their corner of the world…sometimes much more than that…and thrive in such away that they can then teach others to do the same.

Matthew 13:15 -16  For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.

Healthy Rhythms pt. 4 – Solitude

(Part 4 in a series on a few healthy rhythms of life. The other posts in this series are…rhythms, conversation and intellectual depth.)

There are times when I feel anxiety rising in my heart. I’m not always aware of it right away. I

My daughter has some kind of app that tells you how you are doing...and it wasn't far off.

My daughter has some kind of app on her iPod that tells you how you are doing…and it wasn’t far off this particular day.

just begin to notice that I am shorter with the kids or less patient with Jeff. I may find myself staring off into space for longer periods of time or wrestling with thoughts that won’t stop having their way with me. Sometimes, I can be knee-deep into such an experience before I realize I’m knee-deep into such an experience. It creeps up on me. And as I begin the process of thinking, “Where is this coming from?”, I realize I need to get away for a bit. My present life is often too busy and loud for me to clearly hear what is going on in my heart.

Or…sometimes my ears…it isn’t that they hurt, but the background noise of a modern life can be so…relentless. So numbing. It can feel like I’m in an audio marathon, being bombarded with music, advertisements, demands on my time, traffic signs, internet stuff – all competing for a slice of my relatively small attention span. And it can feel like the part of me that manages my sensory intake is about to hit the wall at mile 20. When I get to the place where my nerves are about done and there is no more room for anything else to make its way into my life and heart, I realize I need to get away for a bit. That my external life is too loud for me to give my internal life the attention it needs.

When I come upon places like this on my journey, I realize the importance of creating rhythms of solitude. When hiking a trail, pulling off every once in a while is just part of it. Enjoying the view. Eating a snack. Putting moleskin on an emerging blister. Drinking some cool water and wiping sweat from my brow. My life is similar.

There are times where I just need to get off the trail for a bit. Maybe to rest. Maybe to reflect on where I’ve been and what just happened. Maybe to listen in quietness of soul in a way I just can’t when I’m moving so fast. Maybe to address a critical issue in my heart or life that requires more than drive-by attention. There is an African proverb that says, “Sometimes one must stop and sit by the roadside, and wait for the soul to catch up.” Yes, this captures it quite nicely.

Solitude isn’t time alone. It is time alone with Jesus. It is a voluntary retreat away from stimuli and input and a time to get quiet. Solitude and silence go hand in hand. But it isn’t really silence. It is a time to listen to Jesus. To ask questions instead of talking. It is a time to really focus in on my internal monologue, to listen to what my heart is saying, because it can get so drowned out in the volume of the very loud world I live in.

Whenever I go to the beach, time alone is ALWAYS on the agenda.

Whenever I go to the beach, time alone is ALWAYS on the agenda.

And as I’ve stated repeatedly in this series, it seems like a smart move to proactively plan these rhythms and get ahead of crisis and stress rather than react and try to recover, possibly after significant damage has been done.

In my own life, this looks like…getting up early (sometimes, not all the time) and allowing myself to enjoy the only truly quiet time in our house. Taking whole days on my calendar and intentionally not scheduling anything on it so I can do…whatever I want. Usually part of that day, actually a lot of that day, involves me being somewhere where my phone and computer aren’t, with my journal and Bible, and listening. To God. To my heart. And I write what I hear so that I can slow down my thoughts and fully engage. Sometimes it looks like taking a weekend and going somewhere alone – and doing what I do in the morning or on the day off, but for a longer period of time.

Sometimes, the things in my heart that I am looking for will only emerge with a long time to warm up. With the welcome that not rushing and my full attention can give. Sort of like how conversations work. You may talk with a friend for 5 minutes every day. It is a daily relationship. But it will never get deeper than you can go in 5 minutes time. And that isn’t very deep. However, there are some conversations that can take hours, days even to unfold to their richest point. It takes a while to get through the introductory/mandatory small talk that warms up our hearts. It takes time to progressively build trust, to relax, to move through the lead-up issues that lead up to THE ISSUE you both really want/need to talk about. A rhythm of solitude should include all three time cycles. Daily or several times a week, maybe monthly and then occasionally those longer stretches of time that show up on a calendar once or maybe twice a year if you are lucky -and don’t have young kids.

In fact, I often look at my calendar from 10,000 feet, from the monthly and yearly perspective, and think, “Where are the breaks? The rest pauses to get alone, to do my heart work, to really listen to what my Jesus might want to say to me?” And if I go too long without it in my schedule, I notice it. Because I’m anxious. Short with the kids or with Jeff. I sense that something isn’t right within me. So, I move some things on my calendar around till the time is there. I’m never too busy to eat. Never too busy to sleep. So why on earth would I ever be too busy to take care of my soul?

A regular rhythm of solitude, of pulling back from the busyness of the world can be a life saving discipline.

Mk 1:35  Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

An Unexpected Ache

The picture made me so unexpectedly sad that I just sighed. And my shoulders slouched. Then my heart got heavy. It was such a surprising reaction on my part to what was actually quite a happy photo that I knew I needed to pay attention to it. To what it was revealing in my heart.Older, younger woman hands

It was a photo of a not-too-old-but-older woman and a not-too young-but younger one, together on an outing. The photo showed the two standing side by side with the younger’s arm resting on the older’s shoulder. And the older woman was tenderly and affectionately grasping the hand of the younger. I know a little bit of their back story. The older came alongside the younger when she needed some help. A soft place to land. A safe relationship to sort some things out. A season passed. The two became friends. Then the younger one figured things out and launched out on a new trajectory – one that will lead to an intertwined and sweet continued relationship with the older.

My emotional response had nothing to do with who the women are, but from what the picture represented. And what it surfaced in me came from such a deep heart desire on my part I almost feel a bit too vulnerable writing about it here. I am confident however that the desire is a very common one among women, so I’ll take a chance and share.

I read Titus 2:3-5 (below) and it describes something so beautiful, so natural and life-giving, that it should be a part of every woman’s life. It talks about how older women – those who have walked with God well, who have learned through the years how to love their husbands and children without bitterness and resentment, who have managed to end up closer to Jesus and more healthy in all sorts of ways than when they started – are to come alongside younger women. And love them. Share life with them. Teach them the things that we are supposed to know how to do, but that we have no clue how to do. To become spiritual friends. Sisters. Moms where the role is unfilled. Mentors. Wise counsel. And older women are supposed to initiate.

I long for this. Greatly. In fact, it almost aches within me. To have a godly older woman see something in me. To want to invest in my growth. To see a future me that I may not be able to see just yet and to say to me with her life, “I want to be a part of the unveiling of who God has made you to be. Of helping you figure things out. And I’d like to spend time with you, to be the place you can come when you feel like it is all falling apart. I can help you sort through the pieces. And then help you put it all back together. And I might even make cookies for us to share while we do it.”

I have spent the better part of my adulthood learning to be the older woman for others. It has been a source of great joy and unless the Lord has some unexpected twist upcoming in my future, will always be a part of what I do. But there is still something in me that feels like the younger woman. Like the one who really doesn’t know what she is doing and just wants an older woman to hold my hand for a bit and help me figure things out.

While there have been those in my life over the years who crossed my path at pivotal times and filled parts of this role to some extent,…this relational void in my life feels huge.

To be honest, Jesus and I wrestle about this. I worry that I am unlovable and not worthy. He assures me that He loves me and that He is enough. And so I work through the tension of wanting/needing something and Him saying either no or not now and trust Me.

The photo pushed this bruise on my heart. And it hurt a bit.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children,  to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. (Titus 2:3-5)

The Dilemma of Saddling A Horse


While I am not a regular horse rider, I have on occasion over the years found myself on a horse’s back. And I’ve learned something that I think even horses know.

A horse reaches its true potential only when it is saddled properly – when it is capable of carrying someone – who knows, loves and wants to go places with him/her.

Getting a horse to wear his saddle properly can be a bit of a challenge, however. I know this because one time I rode a horse whose saddle was too loose. Let’s just say, it didn’t end well for me. I began tilting to the side till I was almost parallel to the ground and then…well, at least the ground stopped the tilting.

I’ve seen a number of folks attempt to saddle a horse and evidently this is a common problem. Most horses don’t want a saddle to fit as tightly as it needs to in order to support the rider. And who can blame them? It squeezes. Evidently, the smart ones  (which, I’ve found, is most of them…) will hold their breath to spread their gut. Then, as they walk away and can relax, the saddle fits looser.

How to solve this dilemma? I’ve seen two strategies. A saddler can repeatedly ram his knee into the horse’s side, forcing them to exhale, while they tighten the straps. The first time I saw this done, it looked exactly like it sounds – harsh. The horse and the person did not appear to have a very personal relationship. It was definitely a working one.

There is another way though.

The saddler can tighten up the saddle as much as it will go…and then stay close and wait. When they hear and see the horse exhale, they pull the straps a bit. Then they repeat this until the saddle fits properly. This method takes a bit more time. It requires the person to be attentive, patient…compassionate. In touch with the horse’s natural rhythms. To be willing to wait till the time is right and not force the issue. And the horse must learn to trust the saddler, that he has her best interests at heart.

Of course I’m painting a picture here of something of how God works in our lives. We, like horses, are created beings with great potential. And that potential must be harnessed. Saddled. For us to go places, we need a rider. And the rider needs a place to sit, a place to be close and in sync with us.

Discipleship is the process where we learn to wear our saddle properly. The spiritual disciplines are ways in which we give God a place to ‘sit’ in our lives. To lead us, to speak to us, to be present with us, to empower us to go places and do things we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own. When done well, it enables us to become who we were created to be. It brings joy and relationship.

And yet, our first response to the process is usually resistance. We spread our gut and stubbornly refuse to cooperate. We don’t naturally like the squeezing that is required.

Which presents two options to God and the spiritual leaders in our lives, whose responsibility it is to help us learn to wear our saddle. A swift kick in the gut…or a relationship based on proximity, trust, affection and common purpose. In my experience, God almost always uses the gentle method. He even assures us that His yoke is easy and that He is gentle.

I’ve worked in discipleship ministries for a number of years and I’ve seen His people use both strategies. I’ve been the recipient of both. In my experience, banging on people may work for a little while, but it only breeds more resistance. Distrust. And this usually prefaces some sliding and an eventual crash of some sort.

And I’ve had a number of older women come alongside me for a season and love me. Encouraged me to trust them. Our relationship wasn’t always easy, but it always had an element of affection to it. I knew they had my best interest at heart and I was willing to go along with them because of that. They have been some of the most profound influences in my life – they are the reason God sits in my life like He does today.

Discipleship works best from a place of relationship, proximity, trust, affection, gentleness. For both the disciples and the disciple. 

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt. 11:29

Dangerous Times

Proverbs 15:22 Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 27:12 The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.

My dad, who was both a fixed wing and helicopter pilot in the army, once told me something very interesting about pilots. He told me that the most dangerous time for a pilot, that season of their professional lives when they are most likely to have a flight accident is not during the first few years out of flight school, when they are young and inexperienced. And it isn’t during the last few years of their careers, when they are old and perhaps tired or overconfident. The most dangerous time for a pilot is the years in between those two extremes.

My father explained that new pilots are hyper-vigilant, constantly aware of the weight of the responsibility they bear. Younger pilots tend to go to extremes of caution to make up for their lack of experience. They checklist everything, ask for help and keep their eyes wide open for potential mistakes. On the other hand, older pilots have years of flying under their belt. They know the dangers of their field and have probably known pilots who have had accidents. They know how to solve most problems they will face, know when to ask for help and aren’t too proud to do so. They, like their young counterparts, are also statistically safe.

New pilots are cautious. Old pilots are experienced.

The most dangerous pilots are those in between new and old, who are neither cautious nor experienced. These are the pilots who have been flying long enough for the initial fear to wear off, but not long enough to realize they don’t know everything. Lack of caution plus arrogance equals mistakes. And in an airplane, that can be disastrous.

Married people follow the same pattern. Couples are never more aware of the health of their marriage and willing to learn and change than during that first year. And couples who have survived and thrived after decades of marriage obviously understand what it takes to successfully live with and love another person.

It’s those couples in the in-between years who are most often in danger. They have been together long enough to become  comfortable. Over the years, blind spots and tolerance for unhealthy habits form. The edge of fear and newness wears off. At the same time, they’ve been married long enough to feel like they know more about marriage than they actually do. They might even be afraid to ask for help as it would be a sign of weakness.

It appears to me that the same is true of those in the Christian faith. New believers are so passionate, so teachable and so energetic, dying to make their faith work. They ask questions and listen to counsel. And older believers have collected wisdom and experience that both protects and yields fruit in their lives. The ones most in danger are those who have walked with God long enough to think they know something about walking with God, but not long enough to realize that they don’t know much at all. When crises come, they leave too soon, choose poorly and don’t ask for help until it is too late.

The application? Humility and help! Awareness of the reality of my situation and internal condition. Asking people to look at areas of my life, where they might have clearer vision and offer constructive comments. And endurance. Keeping on, doing wise things and being open to learning more, in both my marriage and my faith. I want to make it to those years where I might actually know something about what I’m doing.