I would have despaired had I not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for and confidently expect the Lord...
-Psalm 37:13-14 (AMP)
Late February in the Mid-Atlantic can be a hard time to be thankful. The weather is neurotic and lacking sound judgment. The holiday season is firmly in the rearview, but the cold and dark lingers. Teachers feel the slog of the long stretch toward the end of the year, kids get antsy from being indoors too much, and social connection can be hard to get motivated for. And now, add two years of pandemic living that feels like it may finally be receding -- but if it is, it's hard to know what emerging from it even looks like.
Oh, and then Christians be all like, "You know what? We should start the season of lent right about now! It'll be all about constantly reminding ourselves of our frailty and neediness, and emphasizing the self-denial element of our discipleship with Jesus."
So while you're trying to just hang on through the last month of winter, you're supposed to stop eating chocolate, too. Come. On.
But today isn't about Lent starting next week. It's about leaning into gratitude. Despite how familiar the concept is, learning to recognize and receive God's goodness all around is a profound way to alter one's perspective. And interestingly, our life circumstances are not the deciding factor for whether we can learn this practice or not. It isn't about our situations nearly as much as our trust that God's goodness is within reach.
Sometimes gratitude emerges when we shift expectations, like St. Francis of Assisi encouraged:
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall enjoy everything."
Our expectations can become unrealistic and unattainable. If we expect that life should be perfect or pain free, we aren't able to enjoy the little gifts of God's goodness that change our perspective in hard moments. We breeze right over the refreshing gift of clean water, or the fact that a friend is only a text away, or how God offers us the beauty of a blinding white sycamore trunk in the winter woods to enjoy without paying a cent. Expecting nothing, enjoying everything. Sounds good.
Yet I can't help but think the opposite attitude is really what many of us need these days (no offense, Francis. I love your work).
Perhaps for many of us, our low expectations are exactly why we struggle to live with gratitude and notice the gifts around us. Perhaps we expect that life will be painful and depressing and isolating these days, or that people will be disconnected or finances will be tight, or that our world will just continue to be messed up. Perhaps the last two years, combined with the late winter, have made hopefulness and joy feel foolish. They've made beauty feel irrelevant or indulgent. Pain and disappointment has dulled our sensitivity to God's goodness and our memories of God's faithfulness through the years. What if we started expecting once again?
I've tried to reclaim how beautiful life is this winter, and one of the ways is by raising my expectations. I've tried to expect that Jesus is active in my life and the world around around me, and that beauty is always available to receive and to share. I've witnessed some great art that has brought me to tears. I've had conversations that reminded me that God's design for community is really extraordinary. I've made mistakes and experienced such grace from God and people. I've sat in wonder watching birds, reading a poem, looking out the window with Jesus, and sharing coffee with friends. God's goodness is not simply available once we leave this world. I'm convinced we will see it "in the land of the living"... even if we feel pre-conditioned to despair or cynicism. When I'm expecting God's goodness to be seen, I can't go an hour without noticing it in some way.
Of course, there are plenty of the other days, too (Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). But I'm trying to lean toward Jesus, expecting goodness to pop up. And it's making me thankful today. Join me?
Jesus, tune my heart, eyes, and ears to see your goodness all around me today.
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
-1 John 3:19-20
Snowboarder Nick Baumgartner has been to four Olympic Games, a truly incredible feat. In his final games, he has been shooting for his first medal. But near the end of his quarterfinal snowboard cross race last week, he took the last turn a little wide, causing him to get passed and knocking him out of the competition.
In the immediate post race interview, you could see the emotion welling up in his eyes. "I put so much time and effort and then one little mistake and it's gone," Baumgartner shares. "I got so much support back home and I feel like I let them down. This one stings. This one hurts."
What an extraordinary load to bear! The reporter stands there silently, uncomfortable. But when you interview someone in that moment, this is pretty much what you're looking for, isn't it? To show the world the pain of not living up to expectations?
She finally makes a little statement about how she's sure his family is proud of him. It's nice. But he has the last word, and it's to his son as his voice breaks. "Landon, I love you. I'm so sorry, buddy."
Wow, I'm impressed with such honest on television. What a glimpse of raw humanity. But it was also beyond heartbreaking to hear a father apologize to his son for letting him down by not winning a gold medal. That was almost too much for me to handle, as I considered this heavy link between external performance and disappointing loved ones. And even if he succeeded, then it's just someone else who would be dealing with that sinking feeling of letting everybody down. It’s brutal.
For years we’ve seen this on the highest level of athletic competitions. Brilliant athletes experience so much external pressure that some have even withdrawn from their competition before it started because their mental health was deteriorating so rapidly.
So much pressure. Value and performance, forever linked.
I’m a competitor, and I understand (to a small extent) feeling pressure and expectations. It’s natural. But we see this linkage of accomplishment and value as a recurring theme in everyday life as well.
Maybe that’s why the recent Disney movie Encanto has struck a cord with millions of people recently. The main character’s sister, Luisa, sings a brutally honest song about feeling like her worth is tied to holding the family together by meeting every need and fixing every problem. She is terrified and overwhelmed by the pressure to live up to expectations, yet she knows no way out. It’s an arrestingly honest song that gives voice to what millions of people are feeling “under the surface” every day. The pressure is just too much.
Views about humanity often flow from views about God. If there’s a sense that we have to live up to God’s expectations in order to be worthy of love, we will transmit that understanding to our relationships, expecting perfection and accomplishment for ourselves and those around us, whether we would ever say it that way or not.
And as a result, no one feels good enough. Ever.
We have a worldwide deficit of grace.
I don’t know how many times it needs repeating in our lives before we grasp the good news that God has bestowed worth and value and love on us, regardless of what we accomplish or how good we are. Yes, we want to be better people all the time and accomplish meaningful things, and of course we don't want to fail. But in healthy discipleship, the desires to do and be better flow out of a foundation of belovedness, not an attempt to gain beloved status. And that’s a game changer.
By the way— a couple of days ago Baumgartner got a final chance in the mixed snowboard cross event, and won a dramatic gold with his female partner. It was amazing to hear him screaming for her as she slid down the course. She won, but I couldn’t help but believe that if she had stumbled in her final meters, he would eagerly have extended grace to her. Maybe more easily than himself?
As we progress in our experience and relationship with Jesus, may we be as gentle on ourselves as we desire to be toward others. Because Jesus has gone before us, and God has promised to set our hearts at rest, even when we don’t feel good enough. Let’s be people of faith who believe that truth for ourselves and for our neighbors, today. The pressure is off. The tomb is empty. Live at peace, and love well.
Jesus, you set my heart and soul at rest. Help me live deeply out of that grace.
God, examine me and know my mind.
Test me and know all my worries.
Make sure that I am not going the wrong way.
Lead me on the path that has always been right.
-Psalm 139:23-24 (ERV)
Early this morning I finished reading 127 Hours Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It's a 400 page autobiographical retelling of Aron Ralston's harrowing survival experience 20 years ago in Blue John Canyon, Utah. Aron was hiking alone down a technical canyon when a rock he was climbing down dislodged, trapping his wrist against the narrow canyon wall for 6 days with almost no food and water. It was later turned into a film called 127 Hours, starring James Franco.
It's an incredible story, and *spoiler alert* Ralston leaves a piece of himself in the canyon in order to finally break free. The self-amputation description lasted for about 12 pages last night as I lay in bed gasping and nearly dry heaving beside my wife, who had absolutely no interest in hearing me offer excerpts (which I willingly shared anyway). But hey, now I know what to do to if I ever find myself trapped in the woods behind our house.
Throughout the book, Ralston would tell stories of his other adventures. Countless times he tempted death while summiting the high peaks of Colorado in the dead of winter, alone. He was trapped in an avalanche once. He nearly fell off an ice shelf on another occasion. Story after story revealed that he had lived his life on the edge while chasing adventure. And while his freak accident in Blue John Canyon was not intended to be a high risk experience, this one ended up being the one that truly brought him to the liminal space of his mortality.
As Ralston begins to lose hope and his body shuts down, he turns on his camera to record final words to his family. He tries to communicate how much he cares about them and wishes he had spent more time with them, but it also comes with a confession:
"I chose this. I chose all of this — this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. I’ve been moving towards it my whole life."
As he looked over the trajectory of where he had been heading, it moved undoubtedly toward where he landed. Higher and higher risk, more individual self-reliance, and more risky endeavors created a trail that ended in catastrophe. He hadn't even told anyone which canyon he was hiking on that fateful weekend. The story that happened to him there could have been written before it even occurred. And he now admitted that he could see it coming as clear as day. He had been setting himself up for this.
That's a worthwhile lens through which we can look at our own spiritual formation. As we follow the Jesus way in a world that moves us toward many norms that look nothing like Jesus, we need to regularly pause and reflect. Where is it that my life is heading? What's the story that could already be written because of the direction that I'm moving? Is Jesus shaping me to become more caring, more attentive, and more humble? Is my phone causing me to become more disconnected from my family and what really matters to me? Am I developing rhythms that isolate me from others, or bring me into relationships? Are the things that occupy my time and energy and heart moving toward God's kingdom as Jesus reveals it? Or do they involve my own comfort, my own financial security, and my own self-protection or self-advancement? Where are the destinations of my current paths?
We are always on a trajectory. And if we learn to be still, we can discern it. And if we bring it before Jesus, we can alter it, with his help. And it can save our marriages, our friendships, our hearts and minds... and our very souls.
This sort of reflection requires honesty and humility from us. And it also requires trust that Jesus has grace and power to lead us in new directions when we need it, free of condemnation or guilt. And finally, courage to move.
Discipleship is about a lifelong re-orientation towards Jesus. We don't have to reach crisis before we shift course. What's your direction today?
Jesus, orient my path today toward the things that are truly significant in your eyes.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.
-Jesus, Mark 4:7
I'm away for a prayer retreat for a few days, so today's offering is simple and quiet. I'm quite aware that many people don't have the luxury of spending a few days in silence and prayer. Yet even in my own life, there have been so many times that I have neglected God's gift of stillness. Of limits. Of silence. But it is available to us all, throughout each day, if we choose it.
Our hearts are filled with many things, like a busy train station of distractions, worries, expectations, insecurities, and hopes. Yet Jesus peacefully fills the quiet spaces of our lives when we empty out the competing voices. He sets our hearts at rest. So I invite you today, to find space to stop and pray this prayer. Do it is slowly, with your phone off and your spirit attentive, and receive the gift of God.
It was written by Thomas Merton.
Uncrowd my heart, oh God
Until Silence speaks
in your still small voice;
turn me from the hearing of words,
and the making of words,
and the confusion of much speaking,