Thursday, July 3, 2014

Freedom to ...what?

I recently posted a Facebook status about how hard it is to live within my means. Why on earth should that be so hard and feel so counter-cultural?  Shouldn't living within our means be a no-brainer?  And a friend suggested maybe I should blog about it, so here I go.  This is more a stream of thought than a well thought out post, so bear with me. Maybe it will come together in the end. 

We have what we have, right?  We earn whatever money we earn, and that is what we have to spend.  We are the age that we are, and we all pretty much maintain a steady activity level, whether it is very active or inactive.  So it follows that our bodies need a consistent amount of energy to function.  No?
Our bodies need nutrition and they need to be cared for in order to function properly.
We have 24 hours in a day.
We have a fairly consistent amount of energy.  It varies from person to person for a lot of reasons, by I have a fairly consistent amount of energy, even if it is different from yours.
We need 7-10 hours of sleep each night, experts tell us.  And when I get that amount, I can tell that they are right.
We need to rest.  We need to play.
We need to eat our veggies.
We need our significant relationships to be healthy and alive.

We all read these articles and nod our heads in agreement.  We experience these things to be true in both our own lives and in the lives of people we know. Often. 

So why does it feel like we are restricting or depriving ourselves when we live within our means? 

What is it about living this way: not spending more money than I have, not eating more fuel than my body needs, not burning the candle at both ends, not saying yes to more than I have the energy to do, investing time in my important relationships, and in resting, playing, exercising...

What is it about that that feels restrictive?  Do I really think I am, in truth, so much bigger than these external realities?  Or do I think I should be beyond these limits, or that I need to function outside of them?  Why do I want to?  What am I trying to say about myself or trying to be?  Super-human?  What do I want for myself when I try to live outside these realities? 

I say try to, because they are realities we cannot actually live beyond, not in any kind of sustainable way. 

Or maybe we can.  I can live outside my financial resources by borrowing.  As a result, I can live with less financial restrictions.  Or can I?  Even with borrowing, there are limits.  And I add to my life the weight of owing money to someone, some place.  That burden feels restrictive.

I can eat whatever I want whenever I want to.  Or can I?  When I don't get the nutrition I need, my body doesn't function well, the way I want and need it to.  The extra gets stored on my body as fat.  The fat and its effect on my health restricts me from doing certain things easily and freely.  (It also gives me an inner nag, a regular critical voice I have to listen to every single day: when I get dressed and take a mirror check to see how do I look? and when I go out the door each morning thinking how do I feel today?  Up to it, or not up to it? Living with that is depressing and restrictive too.)

I can choose to stay awake as long as I need to, to get things done or in order not to miss something, or in order to avoid the dark and the quiet and being with myself.  (Not to be confused with insomnia - which is not a choice)  Or can I?  The resulting fatigue is restrictive, on my well-being, my mood, my creativity, my energy level...

So why do I feel restricted and deprived when I decide to live within my means? 

It's not just me either.  Other people have said things to me like "don't you feel like you are depriving yourself?"  and "you deserve that doughnut", piece of cake, chips, new pair of boots, dress, expensive vacation, whatever.  And, very ironically, - "you should accept yourself the way you are!" (vs. losing my extra weight).  Most of us are not comfortable living within our means.  We don't want to, and we don't like it when other people do. 

Somehow we connect this stuff with our freedom and our worth. 


Being in debt feels anything but free. 
Being overweight doesn't feel free either.
Being tired and/or being unhealthy feels like the most limiting feeling ever.
Having no relational support feels lonely and horrible. 


Being out of debt feels like I am free. 
Being a healthy weight feels amazing - I feel good about myself both physically and otherwise. 
Being rested and having energy feels empowering and I feel much more cheerful and up to the task.  I feel free to do what is in front of me to do. 
Having good friends who are there for me and a spouse who loves and supports me empowers me and helps me keep moving forward.
Overall I actually feel less restricted and more free, not deprived but blessed and grateful, when I live within my means.


In our culture our 'freedom'  in the moment is more important to us than our overall freedom.  And feeling good about ourselves in this moment of time is what we want, more than feeling good about ourselves as a whole person in our whole life.  Even though the result is what we actually want, we struggle to live within our means.

Not only have we completely forgotten about eternity, but we have zoomed in on right now so much that we have forgotten about our lifetime as a whole. 

The truth is, there is incredible beauty, value and freedom in each moment of time...and that beauty, value and freedom exists because each single moment creates the whole story.  

Without the whole story, there is no significance to this moment.
Beauty, value and freedom do not exist outside of the whole story.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Letting Go

I spoke to two friends this week, both of whom really  need something from God.  Okay - we all qualify for that!  Problem is, both of them, although they are in quite different situations and with different needs, both of them are holding tightly to something else - something that has met or should be meeting their need.  But it isn't.  So there is grasping, frustration, longing, wishing, and sometimes anger directed at this thing they are holding so tightly to, while they simultaneous try to deal with their unmet need. 

It reminds me of a kid who climbs a tree or tries the monkey bars but runs out of strength, and ends up dangling from branch or bar.  When we are that kid, we shout for help because the ground is way too far down and we are not strong enough to either continue to the end or to pull ourselves up from our dangling position.  Our arms get tired and our hands hurt, and we know we are going to fall, so we yell for someone to come and save us. 

I have often been the adult to the rescue, for my own kids or for my students. What I have to do, because the branch is a couple of feet above my head, is grab their legs and try to help bear their weight a bit so that they feel like they will not fall.  This position is still quite unsatisfactory however, because their center of balance is still above me.  Their hands and arms feel some relief from the weight, but they still feel the precarious nature of their position.  In order to keep their balance and not fall, head first now because I have their legs, is to hold tight to the branch.  But I have to ask them to let go of the branch.  Often this requires a great deal of persuasion.  They, too strongly, can feel the unstable nature of legs-only support.  And so it takes much reassurance - many promises that they won't fall, but that they must let go.  And then when they do let go, there is a terrible moment or two of wobbly nothingness before they reach down and grab my head for dear life or, preferably, let me loosen my grip on them enough so that I can let their body drop down just enough for me to hold their torso, and carry their whole weight.  Then I can set them carefully on terra firma.

The whole thing is risky business.  But in order for me to hold them securely and stop them from falling, they have to let go first - even though there are a few terrible moments of feeling like falling when they do. 

I think often we do this with God too...we want and need terribly for him to rescue us, but we are terrified to let go of our branch...

I thank my friends for this reminder.  Sometimes things are easier to see first in someone else's life before I see it in my own. 


Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Gift of Time - the Value of the Contemplative Faith Tradition

A word that is about these days in my church and many other evangelical churches is 'contemplative'.  We kind of know what it means, since we know the word contemplate.  We think it means something about being deep and thinking a lot, pondering, ruminating; thinking and more thinking.  It is kind of a mysterious word, since we don't really know what it refers to, or what it even means in the context of faith. 

More and more, as I 'experiment' with exercises from the contemplative tradition, I am finding that often what I experience is the value of giving something time. 

Centering prayer, where I simply sit quietly and focus on God being present with me, gives me time to just be with God without looking for a lesson or bringing an agenda to our meeting, like a list of prayer requests.

The Welcome Prayer gives time and attention to how I am feeling vs. my preferred method of just sweeping that stuff under the carpet or applying a feel-good scripture to it to make it go away.

The exercise of Creating Sacred Space gives me time to just be 'how I really am' and to stay there until I am 'in the moment' and I realize God is in this moment with me. 

In Lectio Divina I surrender my impulse to read looking for something, and instead I read and listen for what God might be saying to me.  And then I take time to ponder what stands out to me.

Gospel contemplation - imagining myself in a gospel story - gives the story time to speak to me in my present day life, and the opportunity to experience Jesus in a different way than thinking about his life.

My spiritual director has advised me that when a passage or line of scripture impacts me, to stay with it day after day until it feels finished.  Even without spending more minutes of time, just the act of staying with something; maybe reading a Psalm or verse that moves me over and over again for days or weeks or even months - gives it more time to get inside me, vs. reading a different passage every day.

Often in spiritual direction sessions we give more time to a moment during my week that I thought was a gift from God - more time for me to receive it, think about it, talk about it, feel it...and more time for God to communicate with me.

Spending time journaling about why that movie or moment made me cry gives that emotion more time to teach me something about myself and to encounter God there. 

Even the exercise of giving something up for lent has given me time - time to see what I feel like I am missing, and time for that to teach me something about myself.  Forty days is a long time - long enough to feel whatever it is that thing I gave up lets me escape from; time to both feel that and unpack it, and maybe surrender it, if I dare. 

In the book Seeking God Together Alice Fryling quotes Parker Palmer who said "the soul is like a wild seeks safety in the dense underbrush..."  and she connects that to how Adam and Eve hid in the garden from God, and how God came looking for them then.  I think about how still I am while trying to lure a chipmunk out of the bushes to take a peanut out of my hand, or how quiet and slow I move while trying to creep up closer to a deer or a heron to get a better photo. 

I have to be very quiet, patient, and still.  In a lot of ways, this is my experience of the contemplative faith tradition: in the quiet, patient, stillness I coax my real self out of hiding and to where God is waiting to meet me. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Staying Loose

Recently in our weekly ballroom dance class, my husband and I could not get the move right.  Step, step, rock back, step forward and around...and then...
"You were supposed to turn!" 

"I know, but you didn't lead it! You have to lead it.  If you don't, I won't turn."   

In ballroom, when the leader wants the lady to turn or spin, he raises her arm up and then gives her hand a 'stir' to let her know and lead her into the turn.  She feels her arm go up, and around she goes.  Hand comes back down, and she comes out of the turn.  In this instance, our instructor suddenly appeared.  She has a knack for showing up and smiling sweetly and saying "How's it going guys?"  just when we start to argue.  We tried to explain what the other was doing wrong.  She smiled sweetly again and extended her hand to me. 

"May I?"  It is her invitation to try the move with her as the lead, and see how it goes.  Step, step, rock back, step forward and around...I focused on following her.  And then she stopped. 

I stopped too, and said "Wait, wasn't I supposed to turn there?"  She smiled. 

"Yes"  she said.  "You are. But I couldn't raise your arm."
"What?"  She reviewed.  And when we got to the turn part again, she pulled up on my arm.  It did not go. 

"Relax"  she said.  "Hold your frame, yes.  But you have to stay loose, so that when he wants to make a move, he can.  You have to loosen up."  Sigh...I was really hoping it was his fault, not mine.  And I was kind of shocked at how tightened up I was too.  Trying too hard I guess.

In ballroom dance, you have to hold your frame.  You have to hold your arms up, and keep your shoulders down.  You have to keep the shape of your frame, so that when your leader moves, you will naturally move too, and go with him.  You will dance together.  It will look and feel beautiful. If you are too loose and he moves, your arms will just bend and you will not move together.  If you are too tight, as I was that night, he won't be able to get you to move. 

I think this is just like my life with God.  I have to participate, to stay in the game, to do my part to pay attention. This is like holding my frame.  If I go all floppy, disengage, give up, check out, He won't be able to lead me.  He will move, and I'll just bend my arm and not even notice.  But on the other hand, like the other night, if I am too rigid, holding my arms just so, clenching my muscles with determination - he cannot lead me that way either.  I will not turn, because he won't be able to raise my arm and lead me into it. 

This year at lent time, I decided to actually give something up.  Normally I really dislike the idea of giving something up for lent, because to me it smacks of trying to make a sacrifice in order to be worthy of Jesus' sacrifice for us. Not. Going. To. Happen.  But this year, I felt like maybe, just maybe, there was something I was hanging on to, too tightly - and just like in our dance lesson, how can he lead me if I am too tight, too determined, too stiff, too unwilling to let go?  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Blind Spot!

We all know the feeling - driving along the highway, deep in thought or listening intently.  We absently notice our exit up ahead and mindlessly flick on the blinker and start to drift over - when suddenly we jump as a horn blares at us from a much closer location than is safe!  We hastily course correct fully back into our own lane, heart pounding, and if you are me, breathe a huge sigh of relief that someone was paying attention - knowing it should have been me! 

Last week when I was in my local grocery store parking lot loading my purchases into my car, a young man approached me and asked me if I had any spare change.  After our short interaction, I drove away thinking.  I always ponder the same things when I have these (infrequent for me) interactions.  Should I give him money?  What will he spend it on?  Maybe, in light of the possibilities, I shouldn't give money.  Will he just go straight to the liquor store or to his dealer? Should I have taken him to Tim's for a sandwich, to make sure he spent it on food and not on drugs or alcohol?  Why isn't he working?  He looked strong and healthy to me.  If I give him money am I encouraging him to stay in his unemployed state?  He's probably addicted to something.  If I give him money am I enabling him in his addiction? 

And then I heard the proverbial horn honk in my ear: "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

In the same will be judged.  Hmm...

Do I want to be judged for how I spend my money? 

Do I want someone to come with me everywhere, to make sure I make a good choice with my money?  How about a having a stranger along to do that for me? 

Do I want to be judged for how hard I work? 

Or for how much effort I have put into finding a job that works well for me?

Do I want to be judged for my addictions? 

Do I want to be judged for how I deal with my issues? 

Do I want to be judged for how I have processed my parents', my family's, and my community's sins against me? 

For how I let my past pain effect my life today and the lives of my loved ones?

Of course, upon hearing this very loud horn blast, I want to quickly course-correct and stay in my own lane.  Because I want the same as what he wants - mercy, grace, forgiveness, acceptance - no judging - please!   

And then it hit me; that when I don't judge him, I actually have no reason in the world left to stop me from giving to that guy, or from giving generously.  The only considerations I have left are my own resources and what God asks me to do. 

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.