Saturday, July 18, 2015

Wintering Others' Discontent

Dusk is falling all around me, silently painting green leaves a crisp black silhouette against a living grey sky. A planet blinks open its eye, peering at me sitting here in the gathering darkness—alone. Winding down the day with a London Fog, staring at the sky all by one's self may not be ideal for many; yet for me, this is my favourite part of the day. It is cool and quiet, a time of reflection and being.

In the comforting twilight, hiding me from prying eyes—save that of the aforementioned planet—I have time to mull over the conversation I had with a friend recently. He had asked if I was happy where I am, as so many of my friends are transitioning into relationships, moving away from the ministry where I work, or going on adventures. Owl-like, I blinked at the question. Had I given the impression that I was unhappy or dissatisfied with life? No, he simply thought it must get wearing to always be the one plugging along while things happened to everyone else. What did I want more than this 'provincial life?' he questioned.

Should I want something more than enjoying the work of my hands, the leisure I have, the family and friends I have been given, or the home in which I live? Spiritually I want so much more—more holiness, more discipline, more love, more of Jesus. Yet physically and emotionally I am content. Content, not complacent, mind you. My relationships have their ups and downs, there are days I want to run away and get lost in the woods not to find my way out again until starlight—but I still love my life.

Why are people so constantly nagging me to move on, move forward, or to move away? On to what? Away where? What do they think I should be chasing, if not a contented life? What if I like to listen to the footfalls of rain on the leaves or to sit in silence on my front porch? What if I don't want to have someone waiting for me when I get home from my day? I am thankful to come home to a dark, quiet house, ready for me to fill it with soft lights and stillness, or sometimes my friends and family.

Curiosity that must restrain itself from becoming bitterness wells up in me, why do others want to foist their discontentment upon me? I struggle to maintain balance and to have enough solitude in my days and weeks, but my frustration at my lack of discipline does not mean I don't like my job. I might not like how much time it takes away from my mornings, but I like the work that I do. It lies on me to rise earlier so I have more morning to enjoy before tromping to my little mail room. Sometimes I overcommit my evenings, then feel drained or harried because I have not recharged in quiet thanksgiving to the Maker of the stars—but that doesn't mean I need to run off to a new place. I am my own worst enemy—my lack of managing the time I am given frustrates me deeply—but finding a new position at work, moving, or getting married will not fix that. Any of those things would simply sap my time and provide me with a score of more stressful considerations. I must learn discipline and rhythm here and now before I can implement it at any other point in the future.

When I see the source of my frustration—my own failing at discipline—I puzzle over the discontent others have for me. Why hasn't someone snatched you up and married you? they want to know. Maybe because I haven't let them. I enjoy being single, why do I need to pursue something I don't have if I am content with what I do have?

Why don't you try to move up into a different position at work or find a different job? I hear often. Why should I seek a job I'm not suited for—or wouldn't like—when I enjoy the one I have now? More money and benefits are not always worth the mental or emotional strain certain positions bring. I can leave work at work—I can come home without it weighing on my soul. Peace of mind and a flexible schedule that allows me to spend time with those I love are more valuable than the prestige of a bigger title (and the stress such a title brings).

What are you going to do next? someone is always wondering. Live life each day. What are you doing now? I wonder internally.

Don't you want to change the world or go on adventures? That, at least, is a sensible question. I want to influence my sphere of friends and acquaintances with the love and light of Jesus. I want to be hospitable and gracious. I seek to be faithful with the gifts I have been given, whether it is my home, time, words, or material goods. I may not be serving meals to the homeless, but I try to open my front door to my neighbours. Who defines adventures? Does hiking in uncharted snow for miles and seeing an avalanche count? Does scaling a fourteener make the list? How about travelling all over the country because I have friends to visit? And what about the adventures that happen on my front porch? From chasing away black bears to chatting with skunks and squirrels, or watching magnificent lightning storms. I think I have a pretty interesting life.

Maybe I am too easily satisfied. Perhaps the discontentment I hear in the comments others make ought to spur me toward bigger goals, but it does not. I am not inclined to be discontented with life. So many persons have been conditioned by culture to think there is only one way to be content or successful—whether that is always manoeuvring one's way up in the working world, or getting married, or doing new things, or being constantly busy. If those are the things that make one content, why is it that the friends I know who are chasing those goals are so often miserable and dissatisfied?  

I take risks, have friends, go on adventures, enjoy coming home to quiet, and get to sit under a starry sky alone with the night and its Creator. And I like it. The hardest parts of my life are things I inflict upon myself—namely, lack of discipline and love—and the pall of malcontentedness others seem to cast on me in their search for a good and meaningful life. The winter of others' discontent is made glorious by the Son of God—in realising that He does not leave us in the squalor of our sin; in giving thanks for that which is good, even if it is hard. These things bring us to Jesus, shaving off our selves and allowing His likeness to be seen in us.

It can be difficult to meet the discontentment others pour on us with the warmth of the Son's joy. Yet joy is a choice—often in the face of hard, unpleasant, or uncontrollable circumstances. Joy is a choice—even when our fellow Christians are not choosing it, we should. We are free in Jesus to choose to be content in the good we have, rather than to be discontented over what we have not.

Are you a person who freezes others with your discontentment about their life's progress? How can you choose to encourage them where they are instead? Perhaps you are like me, prone to get bitter when someone asks me yet again why I have not moved up the corporate ladder or why I am not married. What do we need to do in order to halt frosty replies with genuinely warm contentment? Most often the answer for me is very simple—though hard to practise: to choose to hold my tongue, to pray for kindness, and to enjoy where I am, even if it confuses others. Now then, this evening, I’m going to enjoy nightfall, cricket songs, and the blesséd silence the slower-by-choice single life permits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tosha-the-Brave and the Flying Vampires

(Photo courtesy of Tosha Payne, aka Tosha-the-Brave)

There was once a time that Tosha-the-Brave decided to go on an adventure, high above the fruited plains. As a matter of course, Tosha thrived upon daring deeds, witty comments, and hiking through remote, wild tundra. She was also wise enough to seek a companion in her wanderlust. Or perhaps I should say, kind enough, as she allowed Jody-the-Tenacious to join her in adventuring. 

On this occasion, many were invited, but only two emerged through the haze of July days to pack a little white car with sleeping bags, a tent, water, and foodstuffs. Three hours, two mountain passes, and one stop later, the two young women found themselves slowly bumping up a gravel road that looked much like an alpine mogul course. The end of this road was the beginning of the trail to Willow Lake. Having meant to go straight to the campground, the girls were momentarily puzzled, but decided to take a look around the trailhead to prepare for the next days' trek.

Upon walking up the river, a small cloud of wingéd terrors sprang up, and Tosha-the-Brave warned her fair-skinned friend to retreat from the thirsty mosquitoes. Both girls headed off to scout out a camping spot in the area, away from the pesky bloodsuckers. But however fast they walked, ever and anon, a haze of needle-nosed critters swarmed their arms and legs, plunging through their skin. Welts, heat, and frustration sent the girls back to the car, determined to rid themselves of the awful bugs. 

After procuring bug spray and mosquito repellant buttons (and applying both), they continued their journey toward the campground. It was full—not a spot to be had. After eating dinner at a cluster of picnic tables, Tosha and Jody took a stroll through camp to see what they could see. Two different groups of campers willingly offered to share campsites, much to the relief of both girls. Profusely thanking both parties, they pulled in and set up the tent at one of the spots. Preparing to settle in for the evening, both girls snagged their toothbrushes from their packs, whereupon, Tosha-the-Brave cried out jubilantly, "I'm going to brush my teeth on a stage!" and jumped up on a large rock. Indeed, she did brush her teeth on a platform, dancing a jig and performing pilates all the while. The girls then climbed into the tent, sharing camping stories and laughter over the neighbour who dressed up like a bear to scare his friends. 

Morning broke and so did camp. Soon, the two companions were bouncing over mogul-ruts and past a large trailer labelled 'USDA Forest Service Pack String.' It was soon evident that the pack string was going to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of their venture. There at the trailhead stood nearly a dozen horses and mules, patiently being packed with coolers, large tent poles, and sundry other baggage. The pack was broken into two segments of mules with a horse-mounted rider leading each section. The hikers felt they had stepped back in time in this magical place, as they watched those equine beauties start up the trail.

But magic can be black as well as white, and the two friends soon found themselves in a pitched battle with bloodthirsty, flying vampires as they began the ascent to Willow Lake. The vampires had disguised themselves as those winged creatures commonly called mosquitoes. Their ruse was soon penetrated by the astute girls, however, as the mosquito clouds were thick and seemed to follow their every step. In spite of showering in bug repellant before leaving camp, small hypodermic needles pricked the girls again and again. The vampires would swarm close, land, choke on the repellant, and be forced to fly away—but some would count the cost of repellant low, those cavalier creatures bit. 

Stopping for breath or to rest one's muscles was impossible in the the black swarm of flying vampires. Tosha-the-Brave boldly tromped on, in spite of hard breathing causing her to inhale more than one mosquito. Jody-the-Tenacious, though determined to reach the end, began to question her sanity; began, in fact, to doubt the vile creatures could be vanquished, and secretly thought of turning 'round and hiding in the car. But always, always Tosha-the-Brave forged ahead through the vampire clouds, slowing her pace to help her friend have the strength to go forward. 

Morale was at its lowest when the intrepid hikers ascended a switchback that brought them out of the close, humid forest and into open air above a vibrant green meadow. Still their enemies would not give them peace, but the air was good, and directly ahead of them they had caught up to the pack string. Talking with the folks in the string distracted the girls from feeling discouraged. Hope began slowly to leak into their hearts and minds. Tosha applied a dose of bug spray to Jody's head and the crowding pack of vampire-mosquitoes veered away from her nose and eyes. Courage! Jody-the-Tenacious said in her heart. On they trekked, ever upward, over stones and streams, until they reached a windy height where an immense valley opened on their right, sheer cliffs towered ahead, and the vampires were scattered (true to form) by the strong sunlight. There the girls stood—panting—drinking in the verdure, the blue haze of a distant mountain range, and a much needed break from the vicious blood slurping mosquitoes.

Onward, ever onward, climbed the hikers, though they encountered thick, black mud and the path became a stream of snowmelt. Tosha-the-Brave managed to keep her feet dry, and thus was very pleased. After much effort, the girls clambered over some large rocks and came to the edge of a high mountain lake, aquamarine and sparkling in the noontide sunshine. Close at hand, a mountain goat looked up and skittered away, jumping the outlet of the lake in his hurry to gain the safety of the cliffs. 

After a rejuvenating lunch, Tosha and Jody were tired, but determined to climb further up to reach the top of the cliffs, from which poured a thin curtain of rain-like water drops and a tremendous, foaming waterfall. The path was fairly easy to climb, wending constantly toward a bowl of mountains, a flower-sprinkled greensward, and the rocky cliff-tops dropping tons of icy water into the rippling lake far below. It was here that Jody-the-Tenacious managed to soak one shoe in a chilly river-crossing. Not long after, however, she met a curious little marmot who seemed happy enough to make her acquaintance, whereupon, she forgot her wet foot entirely in the pleasure of their chat. 

Meanwhile, Tosha-the-Brave scaled several large boulders in her [successful] efforts to catch the waterfall on film from various angles. Jody sat upon a large rock, propping her feet on another to watch the clouds race o'erhead in the rich azure sky. She felt the breeze tickle her ears and caught the shimmer of the fairy-footed wind dancing its way across Willow Lake. All too soon, dark clouds gathered over Kit Carson mountain and the two adventurers knew they should return to the low lands in order to drive home. Reluctant feet bore them away from the high alpine valley; their lungs breathing in sweet air and their eyes trying to drink in the vistas chiseled out and softened by the Great Maker of all things. 

Lower and lower they went, meeting fewer mosquito hoards on their downward journey. The final mile was clouded by flying vampires, still full of bloodlust and stinging bites... But the wonder of the lake and mountain-meadow-bowl was still so fragrant and deep that the girls were more prepared to battled the dark host. Besides, after rumbling down the rutted dirt road, they stopped for ice cream bars, a great delight to the happily worn-out hikers. But far sweeter than the ice cream was the triumph of making their way out of the land of the flying vampires, of seeing the beauty hidden in the mountains, and not giving up in the face of deterring enemies. Thus, Tosha-the-Brave and Jody-the-Tenacious drove off into the sunset, accomplished and happy to be headed home.

 —The End

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I Went to the Woods Angry...

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”1
—Henry David Thoreau

I went to the woods because I was angry. Hot tears threatened to spill over long-lashed rims and I did not quite know why. When I began throwing kitchen utensils, however, I knew one thing: it was time to hammer the ground with the soles of my feet in hopes of calming my soul. The two young men I passed in the Summer dusk of late-o’clock did not even attempt saying hello. I’m sure my face was stony, or at least, set like flint toward the direction I was steadily aiming.

My frustrations were many small things from recent days, weeks, and relationships that all came to roost after a particularly trying day at work. I came home looking for a relaxing long shower, only to find that without warning, my shower did not work. I snapped. I told myself that my anger was unwarranted—unreasonable, even. I spent some on-the-edge minutes at home thinking of all the good things about the day and week—and there were many good things. But no, the monster that changed all I could see into wave after wave of red tide swelled in my head, depleting oxygen from my brain and gratitude from my heart. On went my running shoes. Off I stalked in the late twilight.

Rain had beaten the tall, tender grasses into gentled submission, leaving plump droplets lying on those green beds. The rush and roar of the swift-racing stream pounded in my ears, faster than my feet could pound time on the earth. The pulse and throb of the world shifted as I stepped onto the dirt trail, smelling green summery smells, catching glints of fairy flickers along the path. Long I stood by a small stream laughing and chattering in the darkness, running to meet that swollen rush below. Long I listened to a solitary bird, echoing in the night. Ragged breath after breath was filled with the tang of the spicy firs. After some time of pouring out my heart to the Creator, those breaths came more slowly.

My feet found a rhythm in the evening dance. A slower, steadier pace, yet one often stopped. Once, by a host of white fairy-flowers, swaying with a gentle breeze. Again I was arrested by the change of smells as I rounded a bend or rose to a level mountain meadow. Scuffling and crunching on the hillside halted me—I caught three dim shapes, mule deer, putting a safe distance between us. The moon rose above the piney brow of the nearest foothill, shrouded in a veil of lingering clouds from an earlier storm. The diffused light rested on the clinging drops of rain, burnishing them to silver beads on grey-green strands. The Father of lights was arraying the world about me in all her glory and evening splendour.

Dark clouds engulfed the moon, the deer moved into further shade, the smells of the field sweetened and deepened. I turned back along the path, homeward bound, with a stillness inside that blossomed like those delicate, dancing flowerlets. I don’t know where I left my anger, but somewhere in that ramble it rushed away, like the stream after a storm. All that was left was Beauty and stillness, seeping into my senses through every pore. All along the path I was thankful for night flowers, fairy rings, the incense of the woods, and bird’s hymns.

I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life. I thought of that line as I padded home—having long loved the idea. But unlike Thoreau, the woods themselves are not my life-source sort of sustenance. My Light and Life lie in their Maker. He is the One who quiets my soul from things outside, his Spirit from within. He is the One who replaces anger with Shalom—perfect, peaceful well-being. He reminds me how small I am under the dome of stars or the great, dark boughs of the majestic pine. He shows me that just by doing bird things and signing bird-songs, the birds praise him because they are being what he made them. I am still learning to be human—a good and glorious thing—trying to know the uncracked, unfallen Son of Man in all of his glorious humanity.

I want to live deliberately, fully. I want to put away wrath. To do so, sometimes I have to  head for the woods; walking hard, breathing rough, and seeking the One who made both the forest and myself. He is in all places, of course, but I can’t always hear Him—my ears get deaf in the roaring whirlwind of everyday life-cares. I am thankful for the much needed evensong of wilderness and wet—let them live long, as Hopkins once said:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.2


1. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: Penguin Group), 72

2. Hopkins, Gerard Manley, Poems and Prose "Inversnaid" (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd) 51