contentment

Valley of the Shadow: Living Life in the Now and in the Not Yet

It’s been six months since we left Korea and even as life here becomes more and more familiar, the loss of our life there still feels fresh and raw. Every day I experience some level of emotional tension between genuine contentment with our lives here and a deep longing for the lives we left behind.

As the months have passed I’ve become more and more certain of one thing – it’s hard for me to imagine a life where we never live abroad again. Living in Korea was hard in many ways –especially when it came to being so far from our families and friends—but it was also the greatest thing we’ve ever done and it changed our lives forever. The takeaway was overwhelmingly positive and I only regret that we didn’t do it sooner.

I’ve written about my struggle with FOBO (fear of being ordinary), but along with that (or maybe the source of that) is a somewhat crippling fear of Time. Sometimes I can’t help but look at my life as a clock that’s always ticking down. I know that I am young, but I can see the process of aging already beginning in my body. There are wrinkles on my forehead and bags under my eyes and my back hurts when I sleep on a bed with a soft mattress.

I don’t want to be young forever for vanity’s sake, but often Time feels like a cruel restraint on my dreams. For several years I’ve been intrigued by the idea of getting a working holiday visa in a place like Australia or New Zealand or the UK and spending a season or so living in one of these places while earning a small income to support (or somewhat support) living there. Just yesterday, I was reminded that these types of visas are only available to people who are 18 – 30 years old and have no children. When Jonathan graduates from his program he will be one month shy of his 31st birthday and the clock will have run out on this dream.

Not to mention the whole having children thing –a decision that is constantly hovering in the background as each year passes and we collect more and more unsolicited advice on decreasing fertility rates and the problem with being old parents.

I wonder if this is my version of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I live and love and move and be here in this valley and much of the time I’m even quite happy here, but all the while this shadow of death hangs over me and over us all. In the Psalm, David says he fears no evil as he walks through this place, but I am not like him. I don’t fear death itself as an eventuality, but I do fear that it will come too quickly and that I will have too little to show for my life.

You might say this fear of death and of missed opportunities is sinful and that a person of faith shouldn’t cling so tightly to life. That I should have confidence in eternity and be expectant of the life to come. All of this is probably true, but the fact remains that I can’t always change my feelings or what’s in my heart. Only God molds hearts and I am not God.

I hope and pray that my heart does change, but until then I have a choice to make. It is easy for me to get so caught up in not wasting my future that I end up wasting my present.I am here in Columbia, South Carolina for at least 2 ½ more years and I can either live here pining away in fear that I won’t make it to the next, more exciting thing, or I can live here fully and accept that THIS is my next exciting thing.

Because in the end, what would be more of a waste – living well for 3 years in a place that doesn’t feel sexy and exciting to me, or getting to the end of our time here and realizing that I’ve wasted 3 whole years of my life thinking about where else I might be?

There is always tension between living fully where we are and planning for where we are going. I need the grace to live in the now while I hold onto hope for the not yet.

Image credit: HealingHeartsofIndy.com
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Saving Up Questions for Heaven – Learning to Live Questions Without Answers

I am starting my fourth week as a nanny (again!) and so far it’s been a breath of fresh air. I’ll admit, these kids lead a pretty privileged life – beautiful home that’s been professionally decorated, closets full of clothes that are much nicer than mine, tennis lessons, karate, gymnastics and dance. They are not believers and they certainly have their bratty moments (as most kids do), but they also have plenty of moments when they are sweet and fun and overall I am glad I get to hang out with them instead of sitting at a computer all day.  It’s true that I have been going to sleep at like 9:30 every night, because running around with the kids is much more physically demanding than my desk job was, but I am much less emotionally and mentally exhausted. I just can’t get over the contrast between what I do now and what I was doing at my old job.

Office job: Spend 3 hrs changing the amount of square footage available in a set of buildings in every print and electronic marketing piece in existence.

Nanny job: Spend 3 hrs swimming at a pool with a pretty cool water slide and getting tanned.

Office job: Rainy mornings mean a lot of yawning and extra coffee while editing lease proposals.

Nanny job: Rainy mornings mean going to the movies and getting paid to watch Madagascar 3.

Office job: Working with boys means putting up with crude humor and bad language.

Nanny job: Working with a boy means learning how to play Pokemon battle (yes, apparently that’s still around.)

I think there’s a clear winner and a clear loser here! This week is the last official week of summer for the kiddos. After school starts, I will only be with working in the afternoons to early evenings and will be able to devote my mornings to increasingly long runs (yuck!), reading, writing, baking, and, when my semester starts at the end of September, online classes.

I am genuinely happy about the job change, even if nannying again isn’t the impressive career-path I think I should be on. I am mindful of my own tendency towards discontentment and have been asking God to help me keep my willfull heart in check by practicing gratitude in the midst of many still-unanswered questions. And I think the kids sort of help me with that in some ways.

Kids ask a million questions – if they can do things, have things, go places – as well as constant questions about the world around them. In just the past few weeks I have been asked all of the following:

Which is better for you, wine or beer? (I said neither was good for you, but maybe wine was a little better because you usually drink less of it?)

How do you get money?

Why don’t you have any children?

S, when her mom asked if she wanted to have all of her initials monogrammed on her first day of school dress or just an S – “Can it say something different? Could it say Party Time?”

I wonder what God looks like? (S told me she thinks He is green like broccoli. No idea why.)

As funny and sometimes annoying as kids are with all of the questions they want answers to, I can’t help but find it endearing because I see so much of myself in that. I think God must also look at me sometimes and think, “Stop asking me questions! Why do you need to know? It’s not important, I can take care of it.” Or “Why would you even ask that?”

There are still a lot of things I don’t understand about what God’s plan for J and I—why neither of us seems to be able to figure out what we really want to do or should be doing and where God’s hand is in what feels like random wandering. And then the questions of whether it’s more important to do something that makes you a bit happier on a day-to-day basis but doesn’t pay very well (giving you fewer opportunities to pursue the things you care about) or to do something you don’t really care about but that makes enough money to enable you to pursue the things you do care about? Not to mention my own questions about God – who he is and how he is good and why when I read the Exodus story I feel sorry for the Egyptians instead of feeling amazed at God’s deliverance.

There is a quote from a poet I love that I was reminded of recently and have taken a lot of comfort from. Rilke was a German poet who wrote during the beginning of the 20th century. This passage comes from Letters to a Young Poet.

“I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

So, here I am – attempting to live everything – to live today fully, whether it brings joy and laughter, or frustration and more unanswered questions—and to strive to see all these things as threads of a tapestry whose pattern I cannot see yet because I won’t be able to understand it until it’s completed. And to believe with hope that one day, without even noticing it, I will have lived my way into the answers, so that those questions won’t seem to matter anymore.

The Wrong Person: Sometimes the Source of All my Problems is Me

Fall in North Carolina is glorious. For nearly three months if I sat up tall in my chair and looked through the pane of glass that makes up one wall of my cube, and through the open door of the executive’s office across from me and out through his window, I could see the rolling ribbons of saffron and rust and candy apple red trees running over the hills below us. And then, suddenly, in what felt like one afternoon, all of those precious jewels of leaves gave up and fell, leaving behind skeleton trees with their lonely, brittle branches.

This past weekend I celebrated my 24th birthday. Or rather, I observed it. It didn’t feel like much of a celebration. This was the first birthday I haven’t looked forward to. The first one I’ve secretly wished wouldn’t come. I know that in the grand scheme of things I am still very young, but to me, this birthday, this day when I pause to note the passage of time, to acknowledge the days of my life slipping away, I felt disappointed and somewhat afraid. Disappointed that life isn’t what I hoped it would be. Afraid that it never will be.

I live a small life. A life I could step out of at any moment leaving very little behind me. It often feels like a life lived on a stationary bike where I peddle myself into a sweaty exhaustion without having actually gone anywhere. If my 18-year-old self saw me now, she would think I was a complete loser.

Several months ago, my mom sent me this book:

When I first started reading it, I found it so difficult to digest I had to put it down for several weeks. This book is written by a woman whose words speak to my brokenness and to my discontentment and offer another way. I see the beauty of her ideas, and the transformation God brought about in her life. She speaks about being thankful, something I blogged about myself in my last post several months ago. And yet, I often hate this woman. If I were to write her a letter, it would probably look something like this:

Dear Ann Voskamp, you write about seizing the gifts of everyday life in spite of the monotony with such beauty and power. And you have had your share of hardships, so I appreciate your struggle. But you live on a farm with the wonderful sweet earth under your feet and you cook your meals out of food your family has grown themselves. You have the miracle of six beautiful children you spend your days raising and teaching and loving. And yet you’ve managed to maintain your career as a writer. You have an incredibly successful book and a blog that thousands of people read and you do pieces for several major publishers. You also advocate for Compassion International which means you both help the poor and get to travel to amazingly beautiful exotic locations to do so. Dear Ann Voskamp, you live the literal exact life I dream for myself on a daily basis. This is the life you chose. What do you really have to be so discontent with?!

Perhaps, somehow, as incomprehensible as it is to me, this isn’t the life Ann dreamed of. Or perhaps her message speaks more to the ways we in our sinfulness make ourselves miserable no matter how ideal our situation is. The ways in which, truthfully, even when we have everything we could ever wish for, we can still dare to be discontented.

I love North Carolina. I love the beauty of our surroundings. I love our colorful little apartment. I love our church and the friends we have made. I feel so good about this place we are in. I don’t think this is the wrong place. I think perhaps I am the wrong person.

Many of my blogs have to do with being discontent, with searching for contentment and recognizing that I must learn to be content where I am and to see the gifts God has for me each day, but right now that doesn’t seem like it will ever be enough.  Because honestly, I want to be joyful where I am, but I don’t really want to be content where I am. Because I don’t want to stay here. And I’m afraid I will grow content in being purposeless. I don’t want to embrace a directionless life. I don’t want to turn 25 in a year still working a soulless job because I need the money, unable to get out of the rut.

I know the things that I love: words, reading and writing them, making people feel good about themselves, baking delicious things and giving them to people and that moment when they take a first bite and smile. Going to new countries and experiencing new cultures. Cuddling babies and the imaginations of small children.  Making my home lovely, and sharing it with my sweet husband.

These are all of the things I dream of, and to me, they don’t seem like such outrageous things to want. And yet, just this weekend my computer got a virus and died forever and one of the cars broke and needed hundreds of dollars of repairs. And these things feel like something heavy is pressing down on me, making it difficult for my lungs to take in enough precious oxygen, let alone give life to dreams. So I push the dreams aside. I become responsible. I do the things that must be done to make ends meet. And I wait and I pray that one day I will become the right person. Because until then, I think I will always be discontent, even if I suddenly got everything I ever wanted.

Living Fully and Fully Living: Sorry, This is Not a How-to Guide

This past weekend was a difficult one in some ways. We were playing catch-up with laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping, so the activities themselves were not the most fun. But on top of that, this weekend was one of those times when Jonathan and I just didn’t click the way we usually do and we had conversations that were painful and difficult and exhausting.

I admit that there are moments when I wonder what I would be doing right now if Jonathan and I hadn’t gotten married. If my life wasn’t so intertwined with someone else’s that my decisions are no longer my own. These are not moments of regret for the choice I made or wish I wasn’t married, they are just moments when I marvel at how a small choice here or there leads to a life-changing one like getting married and how the life-changing ones shape who you are and who you become. When I’ve considered it, I’ve always assumed that if Jonathan and I hadn’t gotten married, if he hadn’t been in the picture, I would have ended up in Africa or England or Indonesia—somewhere distant and new and full of new experiences.

But on weekends like this past one, I am reminded of why the path I am on is right. Why God has asked me to walk this one instead of the one where I walk alone under a scorching African sun. It is in the moments that Jonathan lets me see his brokenness, in the moments that he looks and fully sees the harsh reality of my own, in the moments when we together are forced to confront the brokenness of us, our marriage, our hearts, our lives, that I know I couldn’t do without him. It is this brokenness that reminds us of our need, for each other and most of all, for Christ.  I am not saying that single people cannot do great things on their own or that God’s plan for everyone is to get married. I am saying that God has chosen to shape me and mold me and lavish his grace on me through this man. And he has (wonder of wonders) chosen to shape and to mold and to lavish grace on this man through me. So as much some days I sit in my cube and wish I was somewhere far away holding orphans or writing novels or watching the ocean swallowing up the shore, I know that I could never do these things without Jonathan. Whatever God’s great plan is for me, it is intimately connected to God’s plan for Jonathan. And that is a beautiful thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot since my last post about what it means to live with the tension between the realities of everyday life and the dreams that crowd my mind and heart. How do I live a full life with all of the experiences I want to have and also fully live where I am right now? Jonathan suggested to me that perhaps it’s unhealthy for me to lay awake at night, craving adventures. I’ve thought this over and I have to say, I disagree. In a world oppressed by apathy, I think it’s a tremendous gift to want something so incredibly much. I think these desires are something God has placed in me. But I do understand what Jonathan is trying to tell me. That it isn’t right to focus so much on my dreams that I am miserable with the present. That when I am so intent on where I want to be, I miss where God has placed me right now. And he’s right. (Sigh.)

Striking a balance between being content with and fully present where I am and still holding onto and pursuing the dreams God has placed in my heart seems like an impossible battle some days. Some days it doesn’t even feel like something I want to do. What I want is for God to go ahead and give me the desires of my heart RIGHT NOW! But since God’s not on my timetable, I know that I still need both of those things. I confess that I am a woman of extremes and I don’t know how to do balance. But how better to learn balance than from the Center of the universe (or multiverse, whichever you prefer.) The one who impossibly manages to oversee the constant expansion project of the cosmos and at the same time notices the three hairs that fell from my head in the shower this morning.

There are two ways that I am actively pursuing this balance in my life. One is by setting achievable goals for myself here and now. Things I can work towards that will ground me in the present. That will help my day-to-day life look more like a journey with a destination than a run on the treadmill. I have set goals, small goals, for loving my co-workers. For developing relationships with our neighbors. For getting involved in our new church. For taking a step of faith and applying to grad school. Even for training to run the Disney Princess half-marathon in February.  Because taking small steps towards a goal reminds me to live life on purpose and that I can do that even when I’m not in a position to pursue my long-term goals.

The other way I am pursuing balance is by asking God to help me recognize the gifts that saturate each day.  By opening my eyes to the miracles of sunshine in the morning, the fresh air filling my lungs with each inhalation, the job that pays me enough that I never have to worry about being hungry. And also for the gifts that are unique to each day: the gift of my husband making coffee this morning, the gift of the smell of damp earth this morning after a violent storm last night, the gift of an email from my youngest sister, just wanting to share life with me.

For all of you reading this, I would love to hear about your gifts in this day. I would love to be thankful with you for the tiny ways God whispers love and purpose and approval over you.