A High Stakes Game of “Would You Rather?”

Last weekend, we went tent camping with some extended family members. The lack of Wi-Fi and electricity forced our kids to put down their phones and video games to interact in real time. As we sat around the fire someone started a game of “Would You Rather.”

“Would You Rather” is a game where people ask you to make a difficult choice between two options. For example, someone asked the group, “Would you rather eat a bowl of cooked maggots or half a cup of raw hamburger?” But one of the cousins threw out a question that made us all reflect a little deeper on life:

Would you rather live to the age of thirty and live life to its fullest everyday … or live a long life that is just mediocre.

Given the fact that some of us around the fire passed thirty years ago, our answers naturally varied.  One older family member said that a lot of us would like to say that we would choose less time if it could be better quality time, but in practice, most of us would opt for more years. And that led to a discussion about how we actually define quality of life.

Would you rather more life in your years …

The young cousin who posed the original question said that “living life to its fullest” means spending every day doing exciting things, like hang gliding and travel — taking risks and living life with abandon.

There’s nothing wrong with his perspective. But as I thought about it, I realized that my quality of life isn’t just about my personal enjoyment. For me, living life to its fullest means living for other people.

Or would you rather more years in your life?

Age changes our perspectives. Quantity of life enhances quality of life because it gives us the time we need to develop meaningful and healthy relationships.

Quantity also gives us the time we need to care for those who love and need us. For instance, if I had died at age thirty, my two daughters would have grown up without a mother. I’d like to think that their quality of life has been enhanced by my quantity of life — even if my life is a little mediocre.

Likewise, quantity of years was necessary to develop a better quality marriage. My marriage is much better after twenty-four years than it was at just four years. We’ve had more time to experience life together. All of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Living Life for Others

Ultimately, the number of years we have isn’t ours to decide. So, what I “would rather” in terms of quantity of life is irrelevant. But I do know that at least part of the quality equation is within my control, and it includes living life for others.  

Philippians 2:3-4 tells us …

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

At the end of my life — however far away that is — my hope is that people will remember me as someone who cared for others and put the needs of others ahead of my own desires. As St. Francis said, “For it is in giving that we receive.”

And for most of us, it takes a lot longer than thirty years to learn that lesson.

The Spiritual Benefits of Daily Routines

There’s a sadness to August. I’m sure part of it has to do with the fact that summer’s laid-back daily routines are starting to fall apart. Like it or not, another cold Rochester winter will soon be knocking on my doorstep. Uggh.

From sports practices to work demands, autumn commitments are filling the empty spaces on our calendars and chipping away at the daily routines we’ve enjoyed for the past few months.

Christianity and Daily Routines

Nearly all religions incorporate daily routines into their devotional practices. Buddhism. Hinduism. Islam. Pick a religion and you’ll find followers adhering to rigid daily schedules.

But routines are especially important in Christianity. Historically, daily routines (e.g., daily prayer, Bible reading and the Divine Office) have been helpful for uniting believers in a common, Christian spirituality. Even today, routines that were developed centuries ago play a central role in the spiritual practices of Jesus followers around the world.

In Christianity, monastic life is the epicenter for daily routines.

Written in the 6th century, the Rule of St. Benedict continues to dictate a daily routine of work and prayer for thousands of monks and nuns in Benedictine, Cistercian, Trappist and other religious orders.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing glimpses of monastic life firsthand at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, NY. From the outside, it’s reasonable to think that cloistered monks live a boring life. But behind the scenes, monks’ lives are actually quite busy. Just like you and me, monks and nuns struggle to achieve the right balance in their lives.

And the way they achieve that balance is through daily routines.

(For a peek into the daily life of a cloistered monk, take a look at this piece on a day in the life of a monk at the Mount Angel Abbey.)

The Benefits of Daily Routines

Ask a monk or a nun why daily routines are important and they will probably tell you that routines make a contemplative life possible. Routines take the guesswork out of everyday living. They allow us to be more mindful and to focus our attention on the presence of God in the world.

Routines also provide several other benefits for our bodies and minds:

  • Lower stress
  • Increased productivity
  • Greater focus

According to some experts, the net result of daily routines is that they help us live longer, happier lives — especially if we incorporate positive habits like prayer , physical exercise and healthy eating into our daily routines.

Creating a Spiritual Daily Routine 

Daily routines provide a framework for a more spiritual life.

Even though some daily practices may not appear to be spiritual on the surface, they provide the structure you need to find God in the chaos of everyday living.

Don’t worry about filling up your to-do list with dozens of new daily habits. Instead, focus on developing a few practices that you can realistically incorporate into your life.

Here are few ideas to help you get started:

  • Wake up at the same time every day.
  • Schedule a time for prayer and meditation.
  • Make time for a daily walk.
  • Read for 30 to 60 minutes each day.
  • Exercise.
  • Develop a family dinner routine.
  • Stick to a set sleep schedule.

As you begin to create your own daily routines, it’s important to remember that habits and practices present the framework for a spiritual life — not the goal. If your daily routines become mechanical events that overshadow your relationship with God, it’s time to re-evaluate your practices.

On the other hand, the right daily routines might be the missing ingredient in your spiritual life and the key to being more mindful of God’s presence in your world.

 

The 800-Year-Old Secret to Being Free

Being free is the American dream. But it’s not easy.

Every day, millions of middle-class Americans feel trapped. Behind every McMansion and white picket fence, there’s someone who feels like a prisoner in their own life, desperate to remember what being free feels like.

I know, it sounds ridiculous. Compared to the 2.8 billion people (almost half the world’s population) that live on less than $2 a day, American suburbanites live like kings and queens. We have food, shelter, clean water, access to healthcare — everything we need to live happy, productive lives.

But a gilded cage is still a cage.

Mortgages, credit card payments, student loan debts and a hundred other expenses form the bars of our jail cells. Want to do something different with your life? Sounds great, but changing directions is next to impossible because there are too many bills to pay and leaving your job to try something new isn’t financially viable.

Clare of Assisi and the Secret to Being Free

In the 13th century, an 18-year-old Italian noblewoman heard Francis of Assisi preach and made the decision to follow him in a life of prayer, humility and devotion to God. She called herself Clare and with the help of Francis, she founded a religious order called the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano.”

Clare and the other women in her order dedicated themselves to a lifestyle of joyous poverty, in imitation of Christ. But there was a problem: Clare’s radical commitment to a life of poverty went against the grain of society.

Why? Because at the time, those kinds of religious orders were subsidized by wealthy donors, bishops and other elites. And the subsidies came with strings attached:

By showering orders and convents with monetary gifts, wealthy and influential men exerted control over the female religious — financial leverage that kept women from making decisions for themselves and claiming ownership of their own destinies.

So, in her role as abbess, Clare petitioned the Pope to grant her order the “Privilege of Poverty,” — a decree saying that the order could never be forced to accept possessions or endowments.

After waiting years for a response, Pope Gregory IX finally granted Clare’s request, just two days before her death. But her order continued and today, it’s known as the Poor Clares.

What We Can Learn About Being Free from Clare of Assisi

Clare saw that freedom and finances are connected. On a practical level, she understood the frustration of the gilded cage and the incompatibility of affluence and truly being free. When it comes to freedom, Clare knew that less really is more:

The key to being free isn’t more money and possessions, it’s less.

More importantly, Clare realized that an abundance of possessions — and the economic systems that create them — can hold us back from living the life God intends for us. By simplifying and downsizing our lives, we regain our freedom one step at a time.

Instead of being controlled by other people, being free from possessions and payments allows us to experience the joy of placing control of our lives and our destinies in God’s hands.

Be warned: Reducing possessions isn’t a popular concept, especially in the suburbs — Ground Zero for consumer culture. Depending on how radical you get, your efforts could cause your friends and family members to wonder if you’ve lost your mind.

But that’s okay. They thought the same thing about Clare and Francis and even Jesus.

And they turned out just fine.

 

Longing for Greener Grass?

Maybe it’s because we just got back from vacation. Or maybe it’s because it’s almost August – my perennial hell month at work. This week has just been hard. It’s been one of those “I-wish-I-was-living-anywhere-else-doing-anything-else” kinds of weeks. I’ll admit it — I’m longing for greener grass.

I don’t know about you, but when things are going badly I find myself comparing my life to other people’s lives and wishing for greener grass. Maybe it’s a normal reaction to hardship, but it certainly isn’t healthy or helpful. I generally end up feeling worse about myself and my circumstances – not a good place to be.

Wishing for Greener Grass Is Covetousness

When we think of covetousness, we often limit our thinking to material things – houses, cars, etc. But what about coveting someone else’s circumstances? Wishing that you had a job like theirs, or that you didn’t have to work at all? Maybe you covet the freedom that someone else has because their kids are grown, or maybe you covet the fact that they even have kids.

When times are tough, there are any number of ways that we can compare our lives to other people’s lives and feel like there is greener grass in other pastures. But comparisons like these don’t help our situations and they don’t make us feel any better. So, where do we actually find greener grass?

Finding Greener Grass

I Corinthians 12  reminds us that there is great diversity in the lives that God has given us. That diversity – our gifts and personal circumstances – are uniquely our own. Just because our lives don’t look like our neighbors’ lives doesn’t mean that the grass is any greener for for them. Their pastures are just different.

Everyone has struggles – but not the same struggles. And everyone has gifts and blessings – but not the same gifts and blessings. By changing our perspective, we can see that our own grass may actually be pretty green,  just in different ways.

You may struggle with a difficult work situation, but your health is great. Another person may have the perfect job and plenty of money, but they struggle in their marriage. The fact is nobody has a perfect life. We all have parts of our pastures that aren’t so green.

I Corinthians 12 tells us not to covet another’s gifts or circumstances.  Instead, it ends with these words of encouragement:

But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Some translations say to “covet” the greater gifts – referring to spiritual gifts. Let’s put our covetousness to good use and if we have to yearn for anything, let’s yearn for the greener grass of greater spiritual gifts and maturity.

Making the Best of a Rainy Day

Making the Best of a Rainy Day

After driving over fourteen hours to North Carolina for a few days, we wanted to take in as much of the natural beauty as we could in our limited time. Day one was great and we played outside all day. But day two brought a rainy day and severe weather (think massive thunder and lightning storms),  putting a damper on our plans.

Rainy Day, Go Away

We watched the news and made an educated guess that the thunderstorms wouldn’t hit us until early afternoon. So, we headed out in the morning to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We figured we’d have time for a 2-3 mile hike and a picnic lunch in the park before the storms hit.

As we were driving to the park we saw some ominous clouds appear on the horizon, but we kept going hoping that we would still have a chance to hike before it started to rain.

No luck. Just as we entered the park a torrential downpour started. We waited in the car for 10 or 15 minutes hoping that it would pass. Again, no luck.

We were about 30 minutes from our campsite, so we decided to drive to some nearby shops and hope the rain would stop.

We looked at overpriced pottery and knickknacks in one store. Then we went to a small museum in town that highlighted local history. After hanging around for about an hour, we decided to drive back to the park again and hope that the rain would end by the time we got there.

Rainy Day, Went Hiking Anyway

Ultimately we decided that we went to North Carolina to experience the Smoky Mountains. The weather wasn’t anywhere near perfect. But we only had that day to hike and we would do it anyway. We weren’t likely to drive fourteen hours to the park again anytime in the near future and we didn’t want to miss out on this experience.

We put on some rain ponchos and headed out on a steep trail towards a waterfall. It thundered in the distance and the rain kept coming down. But we laughed at ourselves in our disposable ponchos and enjoyed every minute of our hike.

We only saw one other crazy family out on the trail. As we passed them, Tim said sarcastically, “Beautiful day for a hike!”  The other father responded with a smile and said, “It’s great! No bugs, not too hot, and the trails aren’t crowded at all.”

He was right. It was a good day for a hike after all. We just had to set aside our preconceived expectations and enjoy the day the rainy day as it was.

Scripture encourages us to have this kind of attitude when we encounter unexpected circumstances:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

It may not always be easy to relinquish expectations and make the best of a rainy day. But remaining positive and hopeful in the face of less-than-desirable circumstances is a spiritual discipline. It benefits your relationships and creates some unexpected memories along the way!

Learning to Go With the Flow

Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that remind us that we need to get out of the way, go with the flow and trust God with the course of our life.

Our family just got back from a relaxing vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains where we spent a day tubing in a rushing mountain creek filled with rocks. Deep Creek was fun, but not as lazy and relaxing as the tube ride at your local amusement park.

In order to really have a fun ride and continue moving downstream, we had to to make sure that we stayed in the natural current. Seems simple, but if you got caught up on a rock it was difficult to get unstuck and back into the current again.

We would watch family members pass us by and hope that we could get unstuck in time to catch up.

Learning to Go with the Flow of Deep Creek

I started to find myself looking downstream like it was some kind of video game. If I got too close to a rock I would kick off to propel myself away from getting stuck on it. It seemed like a logical tactic. But it was tiring and actually prevented me from getting back into the natural current. Instead of getting back in the flow, I just ricocheted back to another rock on the other side of the creek and got stuck there instead.

After a couple of trips down the creek I figured out that my tactic was seriously flawed. Rather than being proactive and trying to take control of my path, I really needed to relax and go with the flow. It was easier and a lot more fun when I let the current take me where it naturally flowed. I got stuck much less often when I learned to relax and let the current do the work.

Learning to Go with the Flow of God’s Plan

The lesson I learned in Deep Creek is a good metaphor for life. How often do we try to control every aspect of our lives? I know I do it too much.

I look as far ahead as I can see and try to control outcomes based on my limited wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes I get it right. But more often than not I spend far too much time worrying about outcomes and trying to control situations before they happen.

Deep Creek reminded me that I need to stop worrying so much and learn to go with the flow of God’s plan for my life.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that God

“…made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

God is the true Master of our destinies. It’s good to be reminded of that. We don’t need to navigate our lives all on our own, trying to anticipate and avoid every pitfall.

God has a plan for our lives. Sometimes we need to stop struggling against that plan and learn how to just go with the flow.

 

When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed with Life

Don’t worry? Yeah, right.

Feeling overwhelmed with life? Life is complicated. From your work life to your home life, you have to manage a mind-numbing series of challenges and stressors on any given day. Some of those challenges are serious, even life-changing. Others are minor irritations that grind away at your patience — and your sanity.

Whether you’re facing big challenges or small ones, sometimes you just find yourself feeling overwhelmed with life.

In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to worry. He says to seek the kingdom of heaven and let God worry about the details because God knows everything you need. There’s a lot of truth and comfort in Jesus’ words. But it’s not that easy when you’re in it up to your elbows and feeling overwhelmed with life.

Trusting God is one thing. Living through the anxious feelings you experience when you’re overwhelmed is something else entirely.

How to Cope When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed with Life

When you’re feeling overwhelmed with life, it’s important to use a combination of common sense strategies and spiritual tools to work through your anxiety and get back on your feet.

  • Breathe. Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed with life, the first thing you need to do is breathe — figuratively and literally. Take a step back, take a deep breathe and know that a day/week/year from now, the problems you’re facing right now will be a distant memory.
  • Tackle one problem. Maybe the reason you’re feeling overwhelmed with life is because you’re trying to solve several problems or challenges at the same time. Instead of trying to do it all, start with one problem that you know you can solve and move on from there.
  • Stop worrying about outcomes. You’re not responsible for outcomes — outcomes are God’s job. Your responsibility is to make yourself available and take life one step at a time. When you give up control and let go of outcomes, you create space to enjoy the present moment rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.
  • Find your center. One of the most important things you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed with life is to find your center and remember the things that are most important to you. Pray. Meditate. Reflect. Do whatever it takes to bring your problems and your life back into right perspective.
  •  Do something fun. Dwelling on your problems only makes a bad situation worse. So, rather than wallowing in self-pity, go out and do something fun. Your problems will be waiting for you when you get home, but you may find that you’re better equipped to deal with them.

There’s no failure in feeling overwhelmed with life. It happens to the best of us. The only failure is when we use our challenges as excuses to behave badly or treat the people around us poorly.

So when life gets you down (and sooner or later it will), hit the pause button, look for God and put one foot in front of the other — knowing that you will get through these challenges and anything else life throws your way.

 

Our Stuff Is Making Us Stressed

Americans have more possessions per household than any other society in history. While some may feel that abundance is a blessing, a lot of us feel like our stuff is making us stressed.

Welcome to the age of clutter.

We live in an age of not just consumerism, but “hyperconsumerism.” Americans are able to buy more than any other generation before us — and we do.

Our growing piles of stuff are evident in corners of rooms, garages, attics and basements. Twenty-five percent of people with two-car garages can’t even park their cars inside. And 10% of households rent a storage unit to stash the things that won’t fit in their garages.

Essentially, our possessions are taking over our lives and spilling out of the spaces that were designed to hold them. This is especially true for homes that were built in the 50’s or 60’s. But even the modern “McMansions” average a full 1000 sq. ft. larger than homes built in 1982.

Our large refrigerators, pantries and freezers are overflowing as we flock to big-box stores like Costco and B.J.’s. Why buy just one tube of toothpaste when you can buy ten? Even this type of hyperconsumerism — under the guise of a “good deal” — contributes to our cluttered lives because we have to find a place to store the goods we stockpile.

So what’s the big deal? We have a lot of stuff.

Finding a place to store possessions can be stressful.  Research shows that people who complain about clutter in their homes experience increased cortisol levels (the stress hormone).  At the end of the day, the burden of managing all of our stuff is making us stressed.

You also have to question whether we can justify using so much of the world’s resources. For example, even though the U.S. is home to 3.1% of the world’s children, American kids consume 40% of the world’s toys.  If you’ve raised a child in last 30 years, you’re familiar with the mountains of plastic that clutter our homes.

We’ve done a great job training the next generation of hyperconsumers.

Finally, our focus on stuff is making us stressed and cluttering our minds. At any given moment, we’re either planning our next purchase, stressing about how to pay for it, coveting what we can’t afford or feeling overwhelmed about what to do with what we already have.

With so much attention focused on material goods, how can we find space in our minds to be quiet and find God?

 How can we start to declutter?

Our stuff is making us stressed, so there are tons of websites and “organizing professionals” who are ready to offer advice about decluttering. We don’t do it perfectly in the Morral house — cosmetic and nail polish clutter have replaced our daughters’ toys.

But here are just a few of the steps we have taken to live more simply and limit the clutter.

  • Limit bulk purchases and take inventory before you shop. Sure it might be nice to have a backup bottle of ketchup, but do you  really need three?
  • Sort through your mail every day as soon as it comes in the house. Recycle the junk mail and put the bills in a designated place.
  • Limit newspaper and magazine subscriptions. We get most of our news online and generally don’t have time to read magazines, so we’ve stopped those subscriptions. I used to get the paper just for the coupons. But I found that the coupons seldom got used and just created more clutter.
  • Use an e-reader and/or your local library. We are a family of readers, but we all know how quickly books can take over our living spaces.  We’ve dramatically downsized our hard-copy library by donating books we’ll never read again and by buying any new books electronically.
  • Manage your closets. We have a 1960’s home, so our closets aren’t that large. Tim and I each get 50% of the closet. If our wardrobe starts to exceed that space we get rid of items that we haven’t worn in over a year.
  • Make your souvenirs meaningful. When Tim went to Africa he brought back a basket that was woven out of U.N. food bags in a refugee camp.  It’s meaningful because it reminds us of the poor and what they are able to do with very little. Skip the kitschy shot glasses from Vegas, and choose things that will enhance your life instead.

Stuff is making us stressed. How can we declutter our minds?

Again, we aren’t totally decluttered ourselves. Our stuff is making us stressed, too. But here are a few tips to get started on making space and decluttering your mind:

  • Do one thing at a time. Despite all the bragging people do about multi-tasking, psychologists tell us that we are more productive when we focus on one thing at a time. Focus is good for productivity, but it’s also good for our relationships — including our relationship with God.
  • Take time out from technology. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone when they are constantly checking a cell phone. Don’t be that guy. Give your family and friends the attention that they deserve.
  • Meditate. Meditation is a discipline — one that I haven’t mastered. It’s a quieting of your mind so that you can be fully present in the moment. Set aside the planning, the worry about tomorrow (or guilt about yesterday) and just be. Focusing on breathing is helpful because it is rhythmic and reminds us that we are embodied souls.
  • Pray. Meditation is good for quieting your mind, but prayer enhances your relationship with God. Scripture tells us to cast all of our cares on God because God cares for us. When we find ourselves stressed and at the end of ourselves, it is comforting to know that there is someone greater than us who has things under control.

How do we get beyond the fact that our stuff is making us stressed? In the end, we need to be able to possess our stuff instead of allowing our stuff possess us. Living more simply means reducing and reusing more often, rather than consuming and buying whenever we feel like it.

 

3 Lessons I’ve Learned About Living More Simply

Living more simply has benefits far beyond your bank account. There are practical everyday choices that can positively impact your family. Here are just a few lessons I’ve learned.

Simple Celebration

Yesterday was our 24th anniversary. Not quite silver, but it’s a respectable number.

Did we go out to dinner or spend a weekend at a bed & breakfast to celebrate? Nope. We kept it simple.

We exchanged cards and our daughter made us dinner and a cake. We spent some time on the porch drinking coffee while we watched the neighbors play with their kids. It was a rare sunny evening in Rochester, so we just sat and talked about life.

Lessons in Living More Simply

Would I have liked to do something more elaborate for our anniversary? Yes and no. I love to travel and eat gourmet meals. But my daughter’s thoughtfulness was special, and I appreciate her efforts.

We’re in a stage of life where time and money are stretched thin.  Like it or not, we’re being forced to live more simply, and we’re learning some lessons along the way.

1.  Living more simply strengthens relationships.

Our daughters are teenagers, so we don’t have that many years left before they will both be in college or out of the house. Maybe it sounds strange that we shared our anniversary dinner with our daughter. But she enjoyed the planning and preparation to make our night special. It gave her a sense of accomplishment and showed us how much she cares for us.

We might not have that many more opportunities for simple celebrations together like this. All the more reason to relish the time while we can.

2.  Living more simply sparks creativity.

Whether it’s celebrating a special day or planning what we will do this weekend, living more simply encourages creative thinking. We hardly ever go to the mall or head to the movie theater. Instead, we dream up inexpensive or free activities that are ultimately much more rewarding.

Our kids use their time to play instruments, paint, take walks and garden. The wonders of YouTube have “taught” them how to knit and crochet. (I don’t have any interest in doing either one of those things, so thank God for YouTube!)

3.  Living more simply restores souls.

The familiar words of Psalm 23 remind us that simple living — with radical trust in God — restores our souls.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

The pastoral imagery of “green pastures” and “still waters” reminds us that God’s creation has healing properties.

The frugality of living simply means that we frequently look to nature for entertainment. Even in winter we take hikes in local parks and escape the cacophany of modern life. There is something very freeing about being away from electronics and focusing on the sounds of the forest or beach instead.

There are times when more elaborate celebrations and extravagance are warranted — that’s what makes them special. But Americans have a tendency to make everyday activities a cause for celebration and an excuse for overspending.

In the end, living more simply may actually provide us with the freedom we need to live richer and fuller lives.

 

It’s Time to Be Still

America is changing. When the world moves at lightning speed, it’s more important than ever to be still and find God in the silence.

It’s been a busy week in America.

Change happens slowly. Except when it doesn’t. Last week was one of those weeks when everything seemed to happen at once:

  • In the wake of the Charleston shooting, legislatures appear poised to act on calls to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols and public spaces throughout the South.
  • The Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality overturned same-sex marriage bans and opened the door for same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
  • The court ruled that the federal government can legally subsidize health insurance, cementing  Obamacare as a permanent part of the American landscape.

For some, these developments are a cause for celebration; for others, not so much. But the one thing we can all agree on is that America is changing. And when change happens — even good change — staying centered can be tricky.

Be still and know …

Finding God isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be. Just ask Elijah.

In 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah standing on a mountain, looking for God. A gale force wind blew against the mountain, but God wasn’t in the wind. The wind was followed by an earthquake and then a fire. But God wasn’t in those either.

Finally, a deep silence engulfed the mountain. And that’s where God was. In the silence.

When big, dramatic changes happen (in society or our personal lives), it’s tempting to look for God in the midst of either the celebration or the dirge. But too often, we confuse the spectacle of the whirlwind or the flash of the flames with God’s presence.

By learning how to be still, we make space for several critical things to occur:

1. We gain perspective.

Emotions (positive and negative) are super-sized in the midst of change. In stillness, we begin to see change in context. We gain perspective about its importance in our lives and in the lives of others.

2. We grow.

Sometimes the change that’s really needed is a change in us. But personal growth doesn’t happen in the chaos of current events — it happens when we decide to be still and engage in silent contemplation, allowing God to change our hearts and expand our understanding about other points of view.

3. We find solid ground.

Although change is good, constant change is unsustainable. Human beings need a certain amount of stability in our lives. A home base, a new normal, a solid foundation — you can call it whatever you want. But when we choose to be still with God, we discover the footing we need to take the next steps in our journey with God and each other.

Many of my friends are ecstatic about the changes that happened in America last week. Others feel like it’s the end of the world.

But no matter where you stand on same-sex marriage or Obamacare or even the Confederate flag, be still and listen to God in the silence. You might be surprised by what you hear.

 

How to Become Happy

Wondering how to become happy? According to the world’s happiest man, the problem might be that you’re focused on the wrong things.

How to Become Happy in One Simple Step

Happiness. We all want it. In the U.S., we’ve even built the right to pursue it into our founding documents.

Yet despite all of our talk about happiness, very few of us seem to know how to become happy. Sure, we have moments of happiness or even bliss. But when the rubber meets the road, most of us would be hard-pressed to say that we are consistently happy with our lives.

Unless we’re Matthieu Ricard.

Ricard is a French biologist who abandoned his career in the early ’70s to live in Nepal as a Buddhist monk. Several years ago, the University of Wisconsin–Madison performed a happiness study. Researchers scanned the brains of hundreds of volunteers and discovered that Ricard’s brain activity was “happier” than everyone else in the study.

In fact, Ricard currently holds the world record for having the highest documented activity in areas of the brain that are associated with positive emotions.

Matthieu Ricard is officially the happiest person on earth.

According to Ricard, the reason most of us struggle with learning how to become happy because we’re looking for happiness in the wrong places. Instead of searching for happiness in personal pleasure, Ricard says the key to figuring out how to become happy is found in altruism.

Happiness Really Is Living for Others

From Ricard’s point of view, pleasure and self-satisfaction are exhausting. Although selfish people may appear happy on the surface, on the inside they’re slaves to their egos and their fears.

“Selfishness makes everyone lose,” Ricard says. “It makes us unhappy and we, in turn, pass that unhappiness on to those around us.”

Ricard’s happiness brain waves peaked when he was meditating on compassion for other people. From a scientific standpoint, love for other people unlocks parts of our brains that we can’t access when we focus on ourselves.

Not coincidentally, the concept of prioritizing compassion over self-interest is also a very Christian concept — a concept that’s at the heart of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And it’s not just our friends that we’re called to love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, too. It’s a lesson that we’re being retaught this week by the parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who are putting love and forgiveness ahead of hate and retribution.

Laying down our lives for others — prioritizing service and compassion over self-satisfaction — is literally a lifelong struggle. We could live 20 lifetimes and still not get it completely right.

But by consciously reminding ourselves that our lives are not our own, we can reshape our priorities and change the way we live our lives.

And in the process, we might even learn how to become happy after all.

 

The 4 Best Reasons to Eat at Home More

It’s no secret that Americans love to eat. Even when we aren’t eating we’re bombarded with all kinds of messages encouraging us to dine out rather than choosing to eat at home. And the statistics show that those messages are very effective.

The USDA reports  that in 1970, 25.9% of all food spending was on food that was prepared away from home. By 2012 that number had risen to 43.1%. Not surprisingly, the increase in dining out also corresponds with an increase in caloric intake and weight gain.

4 Reasons to Eat at Home

Fast food meals at the end of hectic workdays may seem like a simple way to feed the family. But there are some good reasons to skip the drive-thru, eat at home and live more simply.

1. It costs less.

For a family of four, a cheap meal out can easily run $35-40. And to keep the bill that low, you’ll probably have to tell the kids to drink water and skip dessert.

The USDA food plans suggest that a family of four can eat at home for as little as $150-300 a week, depending on how thrifty your food choices are. Do the math … eating at home is good for your wallet.

2. It’s better for your health.

It’s harder to make good food choices when you dine out. It’s too tempting to choose french fries over the side salad, or the 10 oz. steak when you should really only have 4 oz.

Cooking and eating at home puts you in control.  You control how much salt, sugar and fat go into your cooking. You also control the portion sizes, which is better for your waistline.

3. It’s better for your relationships.

Study after study shows that eating with your kids is good for them. The time spent talking with them and sharing a meal has been shown to improve everything from grades to resistance to tobacco and drugs.

In the quiet of our home it’s easier to take time to pray before we eat. We can truly relax together at the end of a busy day without interruption.

4. It’s better for the earth.

Restaurant portion sizes are often more than we can eat (or should eat). When we eat at home, we can adjust the recipes to the number of people eating. And when there are leftovers we always use those for lunches the next day. A little organization and planning can go a long way toward preventing food waste.

A Few Tips to Simplify Eating at Home

You want to eat at home more. But maybe you’re skeptical because you’re afraid that cooking every day will make your complicated life even more complex.

I’m not going to lie. Dining in does require some organization and planning. But a little time invested upfront saves time and money later.

Create a meal plan.

Start by making a menu for the week. I ask for ideas from the family so that they all have some input in what we eat. Choose simple meals for weeknights — meals that can be made in 30 minutes or less.

Having a plan reduces the stress of answering “What’s for dinner tonight?” after you’re brain dead from a long day at the office.  I save the more complex meals for the weekends when I have a few hours to let things bake or simmer.

Make one trip to the grocery store.

One trip a week to the grocery store saves time and money. It’s less time traveling and fewer opportunities for impulse buying. Make a list based on your meal plan and stick to it.

Need some more inspiration? Check out this website  from Iowa State University.  It has some great tools to help you live more simply by spending smart and eating smart.

 

The Key to Being a Better Fortysomething

Growing older is no picnic. But the lessons we learn in our 30s and 40s shape the rest of our lives. And as a fortysomething, I’ve discovered one lesson I can’t live without.

The Reality of Life as a Fortysomething

Fortysomething isn’t nearly as fun as you think it will be.

There are no more diapers to change and your living room floor is no longer blanketed with thousands of sharp, tiny toy parts (yeah!). But at some point in your forties, you will wake up and realize that there are things you are never going to do in life:

You’ll never be president. Or a professional athlete.

Unless you’re already in the field, it’s unlikely that you will ever be a doctor or a lawyer.

When the jackpot gets big enough, you buy a lottery ticket. But in the back of your mind you know that if you haven’t made a bazillion bucks yet, it probably isn’t going to happen.

The Viagra commercials make middle age look like a lot of fun, but life as a fortysomething really boils down to this:

Your options are limited. 

Does that sound depressing? Maybe it is. But I suppose that’s where the cliche of the midlife crisis enters the picture.

To cope with the things they can’t change, fortysomethings go nuts about the things they can change.

Some people exchange their houses or cars for newer, flashier models.

Other middle-aged people change their spouses (sometimes for the same reasons they change their houses and cars).

Still other mid-lifers  trade in one mediocre job for another just to make a little extra cash or to land a slightly better title.

The sad truth is that the changes we make in middle age can be spiritually and personally destructive. In a desperate and misguided attempt to exert control over something, we try to upgrade our lives and end up doing tremendous damage to ourselves and the people we love in the process.

Downsizing: The Key to Becoming a Better Fortysomething 

What if the limited options you experience as a fortysomething aren’t a curse, but a blessing?

I like to think that my dwindling list of dreams is a sort of message from God. Trust me: it helps to frame the twinge of emptiness you feel in middle age as God’s way of saying that the key to happiness now — and for the rest of your life — is downsizing.

Downsizing is a good idea for everyone, regardless of age. But I think it’s especially important for us fortysomethings to take a hard look in the mirror and downsize several areas of our lives:

1. Downsize your REGRETS.

Anyone who says they don’t have any regrets is fooling themselves. We all have regrets. But at this stage of your life, it’s not worth dwelling on the careers you didn’t pursue or the things you never found time to do when you were younger. Save your regrets for big stuff like the people you’ve hurt or the relationships you’ve screwed up — and then do your best to set things right as soon as possible.

2. Downsize your POSSESSIONS.

As a fortysomething, you should have learned by now that more stuff won’t make you any happier. In fact, the desire to buy bigger, better and newer stuff may be the reason you’re stuck in a job you hate. Don’t wait until you retire to reduce and declutter. Start downsizing your possessions now and start untethering yourself from things that may be holding you back from living the life you really want to live.

3. Downsize your SCHEDULE.

The idea of downsizing your schedule sounds difficult. But admit it: a lot of your commitments have very little value.  They’re duties, activities and events that feed your ego and meet social expectations. As a fortysomething, you know that life’s too short for those kinds of games. Downsize your schedule and focus more on the people and things you really care about.

In the early ’70s, Janis Joplin sang that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Let’s hope she’s right. Let’s hope that by downsizing our lives now, we can experience a level of freedom that makes the second half of our lives even better than the first.

 

Life Is Hard

Life is hard. I don’t have to tell you that. Every life comes with a healthy dose of suffering. It’s universal, one of the few things you can count on in an uncertain world.

When life is hard, we try to escape.

Who wants to suffer? No one. We try to control every aspect of our lives to escape suffering.

Philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman describes our efforts to escape suffering this way:

[People] have tried to build all kinds of immunities against it. Much of the meaning of human striving is to be found in the desperate effort of the spirit of man to build effective windbreaks against the storm of pain that sweeps across the human path.

The image of a storm is a good one. Despite all our efforts, we won’t escape suffering. It’s just part of life. But God’s Spirit bears witness to our suffering and gives us hope that we can get through it.

Life is hard. But there is hope.

Romans 8:12-27 has always been an inspiring passage for me. Paul acknowledges our suffering, but reminds us that God’s Spirit is at work, even in our suffering.

First, Paul tells us that there is hope.

Although the sufferings of this life are real, they pale in comparison to what comes next (v. 18). There will come a day when suffering will end, when the sons and daughters of Eden will return to the garden and unashamedly celebrate their freedom. A day of peace, a day of joy, a day we await with patience and with hope.

Second, Paul reminds us that in the midst of our suffering, we are not alone.

Along with the community of the faithful, the Spirit of God walks beside us in our suffering (v.26), interceding for us when we lack the words or ability to articulate our pain. Full of mystery and awe, the Spirit searches hearts and penetrates life’s suffering interceding on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.”

Life is hard. But we’re not alone.

This imagery of the Spirit breathing life into our pain is a beautiful vision of God’s comfort and care. Despite our strivings and short-sightedness, the Spirit of God envelops us in wordless prayers, drawing us deeper into God’s will and closer to God’s heart.

Life is hard. But we can allow the Spirit to breathe silently into our darkness, drawing us deeper into the mystery of Christ, reminding us that there will always be hope and that we will never ever be alone.

The Spiritual Practice of Family Dinner

A lot has been written about the benefits of eating dinner with our kids. But breaking bread with our parents and grandparents has benefits, too. It’s time to reclaim the tradition of intergenerational family dinner.

The Tradition of Family Dinner

My mother grew up in a duplex that her parents shared with her grandparents.  She enjoyed and benefited from the experience of having grandparents and a great aunt who lived right next door.

I never met my great-grandparents, but one of the many stories I remember was that Great-Grandma Brehm always cooked Sunday dinner for the whole family. Up until the day she died, she cooked dinner and shared a meal with her family.

While big family dinners are a lost art for most people, my mother has continued the tradition of an intergenerational family dinner every Sunday.

Family Dinner Is a Team Effort

I’m the oldest of five siblings. So, as we’ve grown up, we’ve experienced exponential growth at the Sunday dinner. When siblings and spouses and kids all get together, there are 22 of us — and there’s another one on the way.

Cooking dinner for that many people every week would be overwhelming for some.

But my parents seem to enjoy it. We all pitch in to help cook, set the table, and clean up. It’s a team effort.

Preparing family dinner each Sunday is also time to reconnect, tell stories, and just relax. The cousins run around and play. It’s loud and busy. It’s just fun.

Family Dinner Is Good for People of All Ages

We know that eating with our kids is good for their health, their grades, and their connection to parents. But eating with our parents and grandparents is good, too.

Sadly, a recent senior care industry survey showed that 75% of people only eat with their senior parents at holidays. Not only is that isolating for senior citizens, but it prevents their grandchildren from hearing the thoughts and recollections of a different generation.

We all have a heritage and family narrative that extends beyond our nuclear family. It’s healthy for us to understand who we are in the intergenerational context of family. Eating a healthy meal may have less to do with our food choices and more to do with whom we choose to eat.

So, why don’t family dinners happen more often?

Making time for family dinner requires better stewardship of our time. Is it really necessary to pack the weekend so full of activities that there’s no time to relax with loved ones?

It’s time to get off the soccer field on Sundays and observe some Sabbath rest. It’s good for your soul, good for your body and good for your family.

The Spiritual Practice of Family Dinner

Family dinner reminds us of God’s goodness. It’s a time of feasting on food and strengthening relationships. When it’s done well, it can be a spiritual practice:

  • It’s a time to offer hospitality, welcoming all that can come.
  • It’s a time to offer thankfulness for God’s provision.
  • It’s a time to offer grace and forgiveness. (Not all family conversations are smooth sailing!)
  • It’s a time to offer stories – or the testimony – of God’s faithfulness through the generations.

I am grateful to my parents for continuing the tradition of family dinner. It has enriched my life, my children’s lives and my parent’s lives, too. Thanks Mom and Dad!

 

5 Life Lessons We Learned From Mad Men

As Don Draper’s story draws to a close, it’s time to look back on the life lessons we learned from Mad Men and the era that spawned the series.

The Lessons We Learned from Mad Men

After seven seasons, Mad Men airs its final episode this Sunday.

Set in the 1960s, Mad Men shined a spotlight on the decadence, greed and questionable decision-making that characterized  the early advertising industry and the lives of the people who worked at the fictional ad agency, Sterling Cooper.

But look beyond the characters’ personal flaws and the groovy sixties zeitgeist, and there are lessons we learned from Mad Men  that remind us about the spiritual virtues of simple living and what a life well-lived actually looks like.

1. Your job won’t make you happy.

There were very few things the people at Sterling Cooper wouldn’t do to advance their careers or land the next big client.

But as the awards and accolades piled up, their personal lives crumbled. Eventually, many of the characters experienced an aha! moment:

They realized that their jobs didn’t — and couldn’t — make them happy.

Let’s face it: some jobs are better than others. But we learned from Mad Men is that if you’re looking to achieve ultimate fulfillment and happiness from your career, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.

2. Money doesn’t solve your problems.

Sterling Cooper made people rich. And not just a little rich. It made them Cadillac-driving, bespoke-suit-wearing, penthouse-on-Park-Avenue kind of rich.

But the size of their problems seemed to increase proportionate to the size of their net worth.

We like to think that money can solve our problems. We learned from Mad Men that it can’t.

If your bank account is big enough, you can send your kids to boarding school or smooth over the rough spots of a loveless marriage with expensive jewelry.

But when the smoke clears, money won’t save you. To solve your problems, you need to be spiritually grounded and willing to put in the hard work it takes to build and maintain healthy relationships.

3. Smoking really is bad for you.

Poor Betty. [SPOILER ALERT!] In last week’s penultimate episode, we discovered that Don’s ex-wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer after decades of smoking. A tragedy? You bet. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising.

After all, it was the sixties, and cigarettes and cocktails were around the clock accessories for the people of the Mad Men universe.

A lot of us take our physical health for granted. But you’re not invincible and unhealthy habits eventually take their toll. At Betty’s expense, we learned from Mad Men that caring for your body is an important part of living a well-rounded life.

4. You can’t hide who you are.

One of Mad Men’s series-long story arcs revolved around Don Draper’s fluid identity. If you’re a fan of the show, you know that Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper. Born Dick Whitman, he assumed Don Draper’s identity during the Korean War.

Strip away the drama, and the story of Don Draper is the story of a man struggling to come terms with who he is.

Spiritual simplicity begins with the search for who we really are. Rampant consumerism, wastefulness, environmental irresponsibility — these are the inevitable byproducts of our attempts to re-create our identities around shallow and profane things.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus warned us that divided kingdoms and cities and households ultimately fail. You can’t live two lives at the same time. To live simply, you need to search for your true identity and when you find it, allow it to change the way you live your life.

5. There’s always hope.

No matter how it ends for Don Draper, it’s important to remember that Mad Men was often a hopeful show. Time after time, when the odds were stacked against them, the people of Sterling Cooper believed they could beat the odds and they did.

One of the most valuable lessons we learned from Mad Men was that hope is a powerful spiritual resource. We all experience hardships and struggles and challenges. Without hope, life’s obstacles can feel overwhelming. But with just a little hope in your corner, the sky is the limit.

We learned from Mad Men that there’s always hope for Don Draper. And if there’s hope for Don, there’s hope for you, too.

Fix It or Throw It Away?

Things break around our house. And when they do, we almost always struggle to decide whether we should fix it or just buy a new one.

I enjoy cooking. Even though I’m busy, I make a homemade meal almost every night. On the weekend  I like to cook something a little more elaborate. So last weekend, I popped some potatoes and spring vegetables in the oven and went about making the rest of the meal. An hour later, the potatoes were still hard, the vegetables were still crunchy and my oven was cool as a cucumber.

Should we fix it or buy a new one?

It happens. Ovens break. Not a big deal, right?

At my house, things break in groups. Within the past year, we’ve replaced a furnace, a hot water heater and a roof. Three big ticket items in the year that our oldest daughter started college. The last thing we needed was another expensive replacement project.

The oven was here when we bought the house, so it has to be at least 15 years old. Probably more like 20. Would I like a shiny, new oven? Absolutely. But in the back of my mind, I knew that we might be able to fix it instead.

For me, “fix it” is the spiritually responsible choice.

In the end, I put my new oven fantasy on hold and we decided to fix it.

As silly as it sounds, I view the decision to fix it as part of our commitment to live a spiritually disciplined life. Here’s why:

1. It’s better stewardship of the resources God has given us.

Although we don’t have a ton of cash sitting around, we could probably afford to buy a new $500 oven if we had to. But the cost of replacing the broken part turned out to be $18.95 plus shipping. In my mind, that’s a big enough difference to fix it rather than replace it. It’s not about being cheap–it’s about being good stewards of the money God has given us.

2. It’s better stewardship of the earth.

We live in a throw away culture that is obsessed with buying bigger and better, and throwing the old one away. Don’t believe it? Check out these EPA statistics about municipal solid waste and U.S. landfills. Unfortunately, our throwaway culture is a far cry from the days when my grandmother (who lived through the Depression) saved buttons, candy tins and odds & ends to repurpose for other uses.

3. It’s better stewardship of my soul.

Like most people, I struggle with coveting things that other people have. The bigger house. The newer car. The gourmet kitchen with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and cabinets newer than 1968. (You can tell I struggle more with covetousness when it comes to kitchens.)

The antidote for covetousness is contentment.

The opposite of covetousness is contentment. It’s healthy to be content with what we have.

It really is true. Material possessions can’t make us happy and the exhilaration we get from buying stuff is short-lived. Being content with the things God has given us is a spiritual discipline and an antidote to the covetousness that characterizes our throwaway culture.

So, we ordered a new part for the oven, researched how to fix it ourselves and saved over $400. Tim and I worked on it together, and pretty much agreed on the best way to fix it. (That’s kind of a rarity for us.)

In the end, I’m content and I’m happy keeping my old oven. It’s the right thing to do for the planet, my wallet and my spiritual growth.

 

Finding a Work-Life Balance

Statistically, three-quarters of women in the U.S. struggle to find a work-life balance. We live jam-packed days that include family, career, housework, and a fair amount of stress. But no matter how hard we work or how carefully we plan, it can be tricky to live a life that fulfills responsibilities, honors our relationships, and still finds time to rest and play.

Is a work-life balance even possible?

Most parents – heck most people – can relate to trying to find the right work-life balance to manage stress and generally feel like life is worth living. Most days I can strike a good balance by segmenting my life and leaving work at work and home at home.

It isn’t always that neat and tidy.

This week was a tough one. At the end of the week, I had every intention of leaving work at work. But while everyone else was asleep, I was lying in bed on Friday night, panicked about a situation at work. The fight-flight response had kicked into overdrive and I wondered whether I should try a new strategy or just clean up my résumé.

Eventually, I managed to fall asleep. But I still felt agitated the following morning and I didn’t want work to rob me of time I could be spending with my family. Sure, there was plenty of work to do around the house. But sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to slack off and try something new. And so that’s what I did.

Nature helps me remember what’s most important.

Our younger daughter is a flurry of ideas. As a budding horticulturalist, she suggested we visit the conservatory – not a bad idea since we’ve had a delayed spring and snow flurries as recently as a few days ago.

For a small donation, the conservatory allowed us  to experience a room full of spring flowers and the smell of Easter lilies, a hot dry “desert” featuring cacti and agave, and a tropical paradise with hanging moss and colorful hibiscus.

We enjoyed the peace and beauty of the conservatory so much that we went through the whole complex twice. We spent time sitting on wooden benches, taking silly selfies, and being filled with the wonder of botanical diversity.

The time spent in this special place gave me the space I needed to talk and laugh with my daughter, learn new facts from a friendly docent, and relax in the glory of God’s creation. Although it didn’t guarantee a work-life balance over the long-term, it was a good start.

Creation makes us better people.

We’re all stressed and overworked and distracted. Every day, we struggle to achieve a work-life balance. But when the worries of the world close in, Matthew 6.28 reminds us to look to the natural world: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow …”

Nature is an overlooked and simple treatment for stress. Research shows that people who live in areas with more green space have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And spending just 5 minutes of activity in natural areas has been shown to improve moods and self-esteem.

I know that I feel far better when I’m taking a walk than when I’m sitting in front of the TV. If a better work-life balance is what you’re looking for, put down your phone, push away the laptop and leave the virtual world behind.

There is a real world full of wonder just outside your door, a world that promises to bring a breath of fresh air and – with any luck – a ray of sunshine.