Monthly Archives: December 2013

Take a Hike!

About ten years ago I went on a business trip to Anchorage, Alaska, with two colleagues. After our meetings, we had a few hours to kill and, because it was summer and the sun didn’t ever go down completely, there was lots of light left before our scheduled midnight flight. One man was familiar with the area and said he knew a really great hike we could take, so off we went. I couldn’t tell you where we ended up other than I remember that it was near Prince William Sound.

Hike-cropWe parked the car and started up what looked more like a deer track than an established hiking path. Whatever it was, it went straight up, and up, and up. I was in grad school at the time, and the extent of my daily workout was dashing across campus to get to class on time. Let’s just say I wasn’t in mountain-climbing shape. The higher we climbed, the more breathless I became. Just as I thought I would collapse, we turned a corner and there was a beautiful sight—a bench. I don’t remember if it was a wooden or a stone bench. It didn’t really matter. At that point I wouldn’t have cared if it were an ice berg—I just knew I needed to sit down and rest, NOW! So I did. After a few minutes, my better-in-shape colleagues suggested we finish the climb to the top of the . . . I don’t quite know what to call it. It was steeper and higher than a hill but not anywhere near what I would call a mountain. Let’s just say they suggested we climb to the end of the path where, according to our guide, the view from the top was to die for. As dying didn’t seem too far from the realm of possibility for me at the moment, I told them to go on without me; I simply didn’t have the umph to continue.

After about ten minutes, I heard the two of them calling to me. I found out later that they were just calling my name to say hello, but I didn’t know that at the time. If I had, I probably would have just yelled back at them—if I could have summoned up enough breath to do so, that is. As I couldn’t really tell what they were saying, I assumed they were encouraging me to join them at the top, which, as it turned out, was only about another five minutes of hiking from where I sat on my bench gulping air. I was pretty ticked off. After all, hadn’t they seen what a hard time I was having? Why, I thought, couldn’t they just leave me alone on my little pity party bench? The yelling went on, and I decided that they weren’t going to stop until they saw me at the top. So I stood up, put one foot in front of the other, and, grumbling and griping with every step, made my way up the rest of the incline. When I got to the top the complaints died on my lips; the view was indeed spectacular. In front of me was an incredible rounded valley with a glacier at one end of a bay of milky-blue water with green, flower-dotted expanses on either side. I had to admit that the pain and discomfort of my earlier breathlessness was more than worth the payoff in breathtaking beauty.

I have often thought about what I would have missed if I had not gotten off my . . . bench and struggled to the end of the trail. Not only would I have missed a stunning view that I likely will never see again (since I don’t really know where the trail was), but I also would have missed experiencing a valuable metaphor for living.

My life often seems like one continuous, overwhelming climb straight up a steep mountain trail to an unseen destination. There are times when the circumstances of my life seem to be more than I have strength to endure. All I want to do is find somewhere to rest. At these times, I don’t really care about what good things might be at the end of the trail—I just want a chance to emotionally, mentally, and spiritually catch my breath.

Sometimes all I need to do is give myself permission to take a do-nothing day to watch television, play computer games, do a jigsaw puzzle, read a fantasy book, or take part in any other mindless activity that seems inviting—anything to distract me from life and its challenges for a while. However, there have been times when these episodes of do-nothingism have gone on for days, weeks, or even months at a time. During these periods I tell myself that I really don’t care that I’m sitting by while others hike past me—but I know that’s a lie. I do care. I hate feeling stuck in one place. I hate feeling disengaged with life. I’m certainly not going back to the bottom of the path; I’ve worked too hard to get this far up the mountain. But the mere thought of leaving the familiarity of my bench paralyzes me. What if I slip and fall all the way to the bottom? What if I truly can’t make it to the top? What if I make it to the top only to find there is another mountain to climb before I see some positive results? What if there is never another place to rest?

Nonetheless, through all the clamor of fear and doubt, there is always God’s sweet whisper constantly pleading with me to trust the path; to trust that I can call upon His strength when my own is exhausted; to trust that I am never alone on this journey; to trust that whatever the cost, the end will be worth it; to trust that He wouldn’t have invited me to make the ascent without providing the means to reach the pinnacle.

I think God intends for us to take time to catch our breath from time to time. In fact, looking back over my life, I recognize that there have always been times of rest between trials. The important thing during these times is that, even though it seems like I am standing still for the moment, I continue to look upward and stay focused on where I am going and Who I am following. Then, when it is time, He calls to me to begin anew, reminding me of His promise that if I answer His call to start on the path, He will make sure I finish.

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_7944152_sport-shoes-on-trail-walking-in-mountains.html’>blasbike / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Through the Eyes of The Child

Two years ago, in 2011, we spent Christmas visiting our son and his family in Lima, Peru. We spent Christmas morning watching with delight as our grandchildren opened presents, then later that day we attended worship services. The next day, December 26, found us flying to the city of Cuzco, the jumping off point for our trip to Machu Picchu. After we got settled in our hotel room, we walked down to the Plaza de Armas, the heart of historic Cuzco. Surrounded by two majestic cathedrals and numerous shops and restaurants, the plaza is beautifully landscaped with trees and flowers. There are numerous stone benches where people can sit and visit or juCusco crechest bask in the wonderful surroundings. As we explored the plaza, we came upon a nativity scene just across the street from one of the cathedrals. Standing in front of the nativity was a little boy. I knew by his dress and wind-burned cheeks that he likely lived in one of the high villages of the Andes Mountains. As I watched him gaze upon the baby Jesus with a look of pure, innocent reverence, I wondered what his thoughts were. I don’t know if he received presents Christmas morning; if so, I’m sure it would have been something very simple. I don’t know if he understood the story of Jesus’ birth, but it was obvious that something about this simple representation of the Christ Child in the manger spoke to his soul in a language that needed no interpretation.

As I reflected upon this little boy and considered what he thought about Christ and Christmas, I found myself pondering about the thoughts of another Child, he who is the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh. What, I wondered, does Christ think about Christmas? And, more important, what does Christ think about me and my celebration of his birth?

I’ve often read stories where Christ is characterized as being saddened by the materialistic and secular ways in which we celebrate his birth, but I’m not convinced that this season is one that brings sorrow to his heart. Without question, the supernal nature of the Christmas celebration is often overshadowed by the commercial trappings of the holiday. But there are also many things about the way we honor his birth that must bring happiness to his heart.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Christmas is its identification with families. I think that our efforts to come together as families must be pleasing to him. Undoubtedly, many family gatherings are not what might be considered spiritual highlights. But even when family circumstances are strained or dysfunctional, there is still a focus on those unique relationships and an effort to acknowledge their importance. For some, there is gratitude for the loving relationships surrounding them. For others, there is a desperate yearning for those kinds of relationships. Either way, the season’s focus on family reminds us that we are all part of a heavenly family, one that is characterized by perfect love and harmony. Attending to this eternal relationship can draw us closer to our Father and His Son and bring them happiness.

Another thing that I think must be pleasing to Christ is the emphasis on giving. Certainly, the joy of giving often gets lost in the commotion of commercialism. We worry that what we give isn’t enough or won’t be well-received. Sometimes the giving becomes burdensome financially or emotionally. However, in spite of the problems, just the fact that we are devoting even a small part of our thoughts to what we can give rather than what we can get makes us just a little more like Christ. Though the giving may be vastly imperfect, it plants a seed which, though perhaps dormant for the moment, has the potential for growth. Again, I think Christ must find satisfaction in our efforts to give, inadequate though they might be.

And then there’s the season’s spotlight on charity and the opportunity for anonymous giving. Knowing that there are others less fortunate than one’s self, and there is always someone less fortunate, can lead us to gratitude and a willingness to share whatever we have, be it abundant or limited. If we can’t give monetarily, we can find ways to give of ourselves through small acts of service. Most important is that this kind of giving expects nothing in return. It is perhaps the most pure form of giving—and the most Christ-like. Surely, he is pleased when we emulate his example in even the minutest measure.

I truly believe Christ’s is a glass-half-full perspective. He knows exactly how imperfect, incomplete, and insufficient we are. But I don’t think he measures us against what we should be; instead, I think he sees what we can be and measures us by how far we have come, not how far we have to go. Surely, Christ celebrates every choice we make that brings us closer to realizing our full potential as children of God. It seems reasonable to me, then, that he rejoices in our extra efforts to give and to love as we celebrate his miraculous birth during this Christmas season.

Perhaps this Christmas we can follow Christ’s example and, rather than focusing on how far we have to go, we can begin to applaud our own and others’ small successes as we strive to become more like him. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the best gift I could give myself or someone else on Christmas or any other day of the year.

 

A Doable Life

Doable LifeI was reading the paper yesterday morning and saw that It’s a Wonderful Life was going to be on television. The movie’s plot description caught my attention: “A guardian angel strengthens a man ruined by a miser.” While the summary was succinctly accurate, I had never thought about the movie in quite this way. I would have expected something about an angel earning his wings or a man learning how his life influences others for good. I have never characterized Clarence, the angel mentioned, as being a strengthening influence. And, I guess because I know how the movie ends, I have never really thought that the life of George Bailey, the man in the movie, was ruined. I think the synopsis in the listing struck me because my thoughts have been drawn recently to both of these ideas—seemingly ruined lives and divine strengthening.

I must confess that I am one of the great “What if . . . ?” game players of all time. I look at my own trials, as well as those of loved ones and friends around me, and start projecting into the future, which, when I’m in this game-playing frame of mind, almost always looks bad. In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,* Dr. David Burns points out that this kind of future predicting is a distorted way of thinking. But even though I know these thoughts are twisted and inaccurate, I still all too frequently fall into the trap of expecting that the only outcome of trials and adversities can be despair and ruined lives. Putting these thoughts into words reveals to me how melodramatic and unrealistic that thinking is, but in the dark, unexamined corners of my mind, it all seems very real and certain.

As I have struggled recently with fears that loved ones’ lives will be full of suffering and devoid of satisfaction, my thoughts have been drawn to Matthew 11: 28-30: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

These are verses I have often pondered, especially during times like these when I have felt that my soul was heavily laden. How, I have wondered, can I claim this promised rest, this lightening of my burdens? I endeavor to take his yoke upon me by striving to follow his example. I have certainly learned of Christ—I believe that he is the Only Begotten Son of God, that he suffered and atoned for my sins in Gethsemane, and that because he was resurrected, I will be as well. Of these things I have no doubt. So what is it that I am missing?

To be truthful, there have been times when I felt that promised rest. When my dad fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury, I felt incongruously at peace. He didn’t remember me most of the time; he couldn’t walk; he couldn’t even swallow for the first couple of weeks. (Strangely, he never lost his ability to read, although I don’t think he comprehended what he was reading). There were times when he became very combative and had to be tied to his bed. Everything that was my dad, excepting his physical body, had disappeared. And yet, there was an underlying serenity during that time. In many ways, that calmness remained with me throughout the three years he lived after the fall. Those years weren’t easy by any means; he improved for about 18 months but then began a decline into dementia which ended with our having to place him in a care facility. It was incredibly difficult to see this once vibrant, independent, brilliant man reduced to paddling around in his wheelchair, not even knowing how to get himself moving again when he got stuck in a corner. Visiting him was difficult and usually ended with my stopping somewhere to buy the richest chocolate I could find. But as trying as it was, there was always a feeling of love and, in some inexplicable way, soulful rest. I never did see my dad’s accident as a tragedy, nor did I consider his life ruined. Rather, I believe this was a necessary experience for his eternal progression, as trials and adversities often are.

I also felt that “peace that passeth understanding” during my husband’s fight with cancer. The first week after we received the diagnosis, I cried almost non-stop. But once I got used to including this new, unanticipated, and unasked-for aspect into the definition of our lives, a tranquility of mind and soul enveloped me. I still didn’t know if I was going to be a cancer widow or not, but I knew that whatever happened, life would be ok and doable.

In spite of these experiences, I still sometimes feel anxiously uncertain about the future. My great fear is that I will be overwhelmed and incapable of coping with whatever problems arise. I fear being swallowed up by the difficulty I am imagining. I fear that I won’t be able to do whatever it is that I am required to do. I forget that Christ has strengthened me in my adversities in the past. While experience tells me that he usually doesn’t remove the struggle, he has given me the capacity to endure what must be endured, the capability to accept what must be accepted, and the power to do what must be done. I also forget that the dark hours are just that—hours, not eternities. And because every hour has an end, there are, of necessity, interludes of light—some filled with brilliant sunlight, others with the mere flickering of a candle. Most often, it is somewhere in between. Whatever its magnitude, there is always enough light to see one more step into the unknown.

Sometimes I think I am writing this blog mainly for my own benefit. Putting these feelings and fears into words has enabled me to answer my own question and identify that missing component. This is what I have come to understand—although I have faith in the atonement that Christ wrought for me in the past and the resurrection that awaits me in the future, the weak link in my chain of faith lies in trusting that he is, and always will be, with me in the present, guiding each faltering footstep along my presently unseen, to me at least, life’s path.

Although I regularly petition God for faith, it is usually a plea for that gift in a general sense. Tonight my supplication will be more specific. Father, I will ask, please bless me with faith that life, both mine and that of those I love, will be ok—and doable.

 

* Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy* by Dr. David Burns is the layman’s Bible of cognitive behavior therapy. I highly recommend it to everyone, not just those suffering from depression and/or anxiety.

 

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_20852775_evening-forest-with-sun-and-volume-light.html’>megastocker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>