Totally Out of Context

Today I tell my students we will work together to revise their essays.  

To revise means “to see again.” When we see our writing “again,” we gain a fresh look, from a new perspective, and recalibrate what’s not working.

One method of revision involves taking writing out of context and re-reading it in a completely different form.  Maybe the font has changed; maybe the paragraphs are separated by huge chunks of white space; maybe the text appears on a computer screen and not on a piece of paper.

We gain a new perspective by changing the context.  And we get somebody else to see it with us; new eyes add a new context.  Suddenly errors emerge so clearly we wonder why we could never see them ourselves. 

As I think about learning to revise my day–to find peace, beauty, happiness, and hope–I often need to find a new context.  I joke with my family (when I’m especially frazzled and moody) that there’s just got to be flair in this!  When I find a new context for interpreting what’s going on around me, I’m not as stuck as I think I am.  My circumstances don’t have to determine how I’m seeing this day.  Disappointment doesn’t own this day or my mood.

I’m going to take the disappointment, the fuss, the trouble out of context and see it all differently. 

What would my day look like from another person’s perspective–a person from another country, another economic situation, or a different political system?  Would they complain about what I complain about? Would they fret over what I fret about?  The error is exposed: I’m acting entitled, ungrateful, and self-centered. 

One person’s fuss is another person’s flair. 

If I’m dominated by negative emotions today, maybe I need to change the context, see with fresh eyes (with the help of God and others), and revise.  I pray that I can take my life out of its settled context and see clearly and honestly. 

Living with flair means I take my experiences totally out of context.

(photo by Jez’s flickr)

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The Pure and Simple Happiness We Can Afford

At 7:45 AM, I push my daughter (the one who has the bad day mantra) on her tree swing.  There’s a green chair next to me because the girls like to take a flying leap off of it, throw their legs around the swing, and see how high they can get. 

I can’t keep her off that swing.  Yesterday, I tried to bribe her (literally) with cake and television.  It was a steaming hot afternoon, and I feared she was dehydrating.

Nothing works.  She races in for dinner and then races out to swing.  At 7:45 PM, she will reluctantly enter the house for her bath and bedtime routine. This girl was made to swing.  I’ve tried to talk to her about this obsession.  

The joy this simple tree swing brings astounds me.  My daughter has begged for two years for one of those $2,000 swing sets.  She would look longingly into the backyard and imagine all the swinging she would do.  If only she had that deluxe edition!   We could never afford it–at least not now.  What if we saved and saved and worked and worked?  One day, that fabulous swing set could be in our backyard! 

On Saturday, as I sat under this very tree, I looked up into its branches and remembered the old wooded saucer swing my dad made for me when I was a child.  Why couldn’t I just get my daughter a tree swing?  Did she even need all the other bells and whistles?

She didn’t need deluxe anything.  She just needed to swing.  So that afternoon, I ordered this one.  Under $20, it came in 2 days, was in the tree in 10 minutes, and my daughter thinks she’s in swinging heaven. 

She just needed to swing. 

I thought about what it means to distill desire down.  Distill (a great verb!) means to purify, to remove impurities, and increase the concentration of something.  I could have looked my daughter in the eye years ago and said, “What is it you really want?” 

She just needed to swing.  I didn’t need to refinance the house to bring her happiness. 

What am I missing out on if I wait for that deluxe thing, when really, there’s a great big tree right next to me and a swing that will bring more joy than I can even imagine?  Living with flair means I purify my desires until I find out what I really want.  Forsaking the bells and whistles for that pure and simple thing might just be what makes me the happiest.

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How I Detangle My Life

Before church this morning, I participate in a daily morning ritual with my daughters:  I detangle their hair.

This is not fun ever.  We employ various products, special brushes, and gentle mother-strokes to get their hair orderly and smooth.  They used to cry and shout about this.  Now, they resign themselves to it, clenching their jaws, staring stoic into the mirror to endure the process. 

As I’m brushing and comforting, I wonder about this process. Tangle, as a verb, means to mix together in a confused mass.  The verb actually approximates “confuse” more than any other verb.  Confusion refers to “the state of being mixed or blended so as to produce indistinctness or error; indistinct combination; disorder; tumult.”

As I think more about tangles and confusion, I think about my own mind.  If confusion results from blending what shouldn’t be blended–of mixing up what doesn’t go together–then something about peace, order, and enlightenment involves separating out parts.

In the past, confusion always resulted when my emotions disagreed with the truth of what should be or should happen.  My feelings clouded a topic, tangled up the truth of a situation, and made a mess in my head.  I had to part my feelings from what was actually true. 

Working to separate tangles reminds me to do the work of parting my emotions from the truth regarding a situation.  Just because it’s appealing to my emotions doesn’t mean this or that action is right.  And just because I don’t want to do something or it’s painful doesn’t mean it’s wrong

As we leave for church, I’m thankful for a truth outside of my own perceptions and my own feelings.  I read the Bible and learn the commands of God because they tell me what is true and right about my life and my interactions with others.  I can make decisions, plan a course, leave a situation, or enter a new one based on ancient (but so current) wisdom. 

It’s the ultimate detangler.

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What’s Wrong with This Picture?

As someone who–for nearly a decade–was an expert in unhappiness, I’m learning what makes living with flair so important.  At our worst, we become deeply cynical and disillusioned with our own lives.  Everything’s wrong.  Nothing’s working.  We want to abandon ship and find new lives somewhere else.   We become desperate for change, desperate to feel alive, desperate for love. 

We need to catch each other in our descent and turn our faces back to the light.

We need to find the flair right here in the muck.  We need to rise above it.  Our happiness is at stake. 

It’s just too easy to find out what’s wrong.  We do it naturally.  My natural inclination is to figure out what’s not working, what’s out of place, what’s off kilter.  The brain seeks proportion and harmony, so we easily identify variation and error.

But we get stuck there in despair.  We can’t move forward.   Or else we take drastic measures to put things right.  We act out of fear and confusion. 

Maybe a better technique means I find out what’s right.

What might happen if I focus on those small nuggets of good in whatever wrongness or sorrow I’m experiencing?   Most days, the temptation to criticize and complain takes over the whole landscape of my soul like clouds moving over the sky.   My heart aches and I sink down into the mire.   God is neither good nor trustworthy in this particular landscape.  I let that lie fester and bleed out. 

But not today.  I commit to finding what’s right in any wrongness or sorrow or anything I’m missing or hating or dreading.  I turn that thing to face the light and find out what’s so right.  That one right thing might be the bright hot air balloon that keeps me alight so I can find perspective, hope, and joy in the midst of the dark cloud. 

I’m still in my life with all its drama.  But instead of sinking down, I’m rising above it in a glorious ascension. 

(Landscape photo courtesy of Ian Britton at freefoto.com and Hot Air Balloon by Beverly and Pack flickr)

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Google Street View and Happiness

Sometimes when I’m missing certain places, I’ll visit them using Google Street View.  I can walk down childhood roads, visit old neighborhoods, observe favorite restaurants or city streets, or spy on my own house–all thanks to Google’s Street View.

And sometimes, when I’m imagining what life must be like in a different city, I’ll visit University of Melbourne in Australia, cruise a street in Beijing, or explore Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood or 5th Avenue in New York.  Yesterday, I even drove down US 25 towards my favorite summer spot in the mountains of North Carolina–all clicking my mouse on Google’s arrows that lead in whatever direction I choose.    

It’s always tempting to believe that a better life exists in another location.

I want to believe that my location is what makes life good.  If only I were in this place or that place or here or there.  But the deeper into the life of faith I travel, the more I realize the truth behind the writer’s statement in Psalm 90 that “the Lord himself is our dwelling place.”  And this morning before church, I read in the book of John where God says that “he makes his home” within us. 

How curious:  I dwell in God, and God dwells in me. Sometimes I think God lets me leave certain places and arrive at others just to learn this truth.  If God is my dwelling place, it doesn’t matter where I am; I’m home.  It’s the Spirit of God that makes any location marvelous.  Can this be true?  I want it so badly to be. 

Visiting locations from my desk reminds me that my happiness isn’t found in a place.  It’s within me– where God dwells.

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What We’ve Known For a Long Time

I read an article on the bus yesterday that recounts the results of a number of happiness studies.  Researchers want to know if happiness is something we experience or something we think

I love reading articles like this.  Once again, research proves that when we think about our experiences we can put the day in a certain framework to create meaning and joy.   Not surprisingly, this meaning and joy rarely depend on circumstances.  

I’m thinking about that article, and I run into one of the most vibrant and enthusiastic moms in my town.  She’s waving at me as I make my way through the self check-out line in the grocery store.  Within 30 seconds, she’s inviting me to her “Alphabet Summer” where everyday at her home celebrates a different letter of the alphabet.

It’s “J” day, so there’s jam, jello, and jumping in the pool.  I’m imagining jugglers and jellyfish and jackals.  I smell jasmine.

Her two little boys smile, and one of them says to me, “I just loved ‘F’ day.  ‘F’ day was the coolest!”

I’m living in the same town as this woman.  I’m raising my children on the same streets and we are going to the same grocery stores.  I’m making breakfast, doing laundry, cleaning and cooking, and yes, even going to the pool.  We both probably worked-out, had coffee, and will feel tired after lunch. 

But it’s “J” day at her house.

They will jump into the pool instead of easing in.  With this alphabet framework, her whole summer radiates with hidden meaning and wonder.

“Do we have a special letter today, Mom?”

Quickly, I think about the curry chicken I’ve planned for dinner.

“It’s ‘I’ day,” I say.  “For India.”

They are quiet and thinking of exotic lands.  

Same old day.  Same old dinner.  But now, we’ve got ourselves a happiness framework.

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How to Live in Luxury

Luxurious or lavish things do not need to be expensive.  I’m learning that luxury can be sought in the right mindset.  There’s something biblical about luxury properly applied.  But, by definition, luxurious implies indulgent, excessively expensive, and unnecessary. 

Even the word seems excessive.  The way it sounds seems. . . luxurious

The word connotes an entire world of very fine and very unobtainable things.

But in my house, we use the word to mean anything rich in goodness and superior in quality.  We can make luxurious fruit tarts and paint our toenails with luxurious colors.  We can lay out in the grass, luxuriously, and watch the lightening bugs.  We can swim in the public pool with luxurious backstrokes.

We won’t be on boats or eating fine chocolates today.  We won’t be vacationing on a far off island. 

And that’s fine. 

There’s something so uncertain about wealth and luxury.  Today, as I was painting my daughter’s fingernails with the cheapest bottle of bright pink, I remembered one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of Timothy.  

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Does God really richly provide everything for our enjoyment?  Not for our needs, but for our enjoyment?  How lavish!  How luxurious! This means I only have to wait and see what luxurious experience God might send my way today.

Maybe it’s the gorgeous deep purple blossoms on the eggplant I’m growing outside.  I’ve never grown eggplant before, and I’m amazed by how beautiful it is.  And the fruit hasn’t even come yet.  Eggplant is excessive and probably unnecessary (although I did learn how to make Eggplant Parmesan), but my goodness, I love those blossoms.

Thank you, God, for the luxury of purple eggplant blossoms.  They have flair indeed. 

(photo courtesy of Dilling / flickr)

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The Secret Community You Might Want to Join

This morning, at 5:30 AM, I discovered the secret community of Those Who Rise Early.

I can’t believe this world exists.  There I am, alarm going off, pulling on work-out clothes and stumbling to the driveway, when all of a sudden, I look around.  At the unnatural hour of 5:30 AM, there are actual people walking about.  Happy people.  People with dogs and friends and strollers and. . . energy.

What coffee do these people drink?

I pass folks out in their yard and folks driving places.  I see three runners, several walkers, and some gardeners. Why in the world are they so happy?  Do they know it’s 5:30 AM?

It’s a secret community.  Those Who Rise Early do things like work out, drink a quiet cup of coffee, stroll in their gardens, take leisurely showers, fix their hair, empty the dishwasher, prepare breakfast, and then, they greet Those Who Rise Late with a smile, ready.   

I’ve been in the later group my whole life.  I’m the one in the bad mood, dragging myself around, begging for coffee, griping at everybody and wanting my soft bed back.  Let me sleep!  I need my sleep!  I’m fighting the DNA of generations upon generations of Those Who Sleep Late.  I need to sleep until that last possible minute.   So stop bothering me and hand me that cup of coffee.  I need to sleep late

Do I?  I decided to interview Those Who Rise Early.  This club chooses to greet the day differently, and it’s supremely amazing to join them.  They usually delight in 2 hours of solitude and productivity before children rise, before traffic surges, before the onslaught of the day.  Of the men and women I’ve talked to, this 5:30 wake up has changed their lives.  They wake that early for a variety of reasons:  personal prayer or meditation times, exercise, solitude, meal preparation and house organization, reading or writing.  Those people seem to live with with flair because their early rising prepares them for the day. 

My early morning wake up is part of living with flair.  I’ve taken a nose-dive off that plateau.  I’m hoping to change this part of my life and join the secret community of 5:30 AM.  Day by day, day by day.

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Why Bother with Christianity?

If you can be happy without Jesus, why bother?  I’ve been thinking about this lately.  I’ve been thinking about all the happiness blogs people have sent my way.  It seems that all over the world, folks find legitimate forms of happiness apart from knowing God.  I know what this feels like.  I know that when I exercise, eat right, blog about my flair, and do any other host of mood-modifying activities, I can be happy.

I used to think that people went to church and read their Bible because they were unhappy.  They become Christians because of the promise of happiness.  While I do think that going to church and reading the Bible dramatically increase the likelihood of happiness, I don’t think that Christianity is a religion that promises happiness.  Happy Christians tend to do other things that boost their mood like, for example, engaging in vibrant church communities.  But happiness, in this case, is a byproduct of lifestyle.  Jesus doesn’t promise happiness. 

However, Jesus does promise one very important thing.

He promises. . . peace. 

Jesus said this:  “In me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  Jesus says that he leaves us “peace.”  I thought back to the blessing God commanded to be spoken over the nation of Israel.  Simply this:  that God would turn his face towards them and give them peace.  Later, Jesus is prophetically described in the book of Isaiah as our “Prince of Peace.” 

This morning I skimmed my Bible for passages that describe the peace of Jesus.  Romans 5, it turns out, defines the peace of a believer.  Here, the writer tells us 3 reasons Christians have peace:

1.  They find favor with God by faith alone, not by anything they do or fail to do.  They are completely reconciled to a Holy God because of faith in Jesus.  This point alone astounds me.  I can talk to the God of the Universe, and He loves me.  Unbelievable! 
2.  Because of Jesus, they have hope in the glory of God (his power and presence) in every situation.
3.  They can rejoice in suffering because of what it produces in them (perseverance, character, hope).  When God directs a person’s life, suffering has meaning and will produce good

Curiously, New Testament writers claim that Jesus himself is our peace.  Paul writes:   “He himself is our peace” since in his very body he reconciles sinful mankind with the holiness of God.  By his very body, he grants access to God.  Christianity, after all, is a religion about God’s body:   the incarnation–that little baby come to earth as a God-man– the crucifixion–God hanging on a cross to die, and the resurrection–the literal body of Jesus conquering death.  And in the ascension, Jesus returns to the Father but leaves the promised Holy Spirit who indwells believers at the moment they believe.

Is peace better than happiness?  Absolutely.  The assurance of God’s peace which, according to scripture, transcends understanding, is deeper and more profound than mere mood.  So while happiness is something I can moderate, my peace comes from Jesus alone.

Living with flair means I depend upon the sure peace of God even when flair fluctuates.

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A Stranger Tells Me His Secret

Many of my flair moments in the past 90 days occurred during conversations with strangers: the tired woman at the grocery store,  the neighborhood boy,  the hard-working Amish man, the precious waitress who gave my daughter a bad day mantra, the mean people at the drive-thru, that wonderful unknown woman who gave me the complement that changed my life, the curious woman and her service dog, the man at Starbucks, the man chasing trash in the parking lot, or the little boy explaining why he loves the rain because it makes the worms come out.

Remembering these conversations–and the flair they brought forth–reminds me to challenge myself to engage more with people who cross my path.

There’s flair there, I just know it.

I am leaving a restaurant, and a man whose job it is to hold open the door greets me with a big smile.  He proudly holds open the door with such gusto I have to stop.

“Thank you!”  I say happily.  And then again:  “Thank you so much.”

He smiles bigger (if that were even possible).  This employee is happier than he should be in this heat with this on-your-feet job.   I have to find out why. 

I say, “When you hold the door like that, it makes us all feel like celebrities.”

He frowns and shakes his head.  He says, “You should feel like that all the time, not just when somebody is holding a door.”

“All the time?  How is that possible?”  I say, my arms crossed.  The rest of my party is already in the parking lot, and I’m hanging around to talk to a strangely happy man.

“Above ground,” he says softly.

“Huh?”

“Above ground,” he repeats.

I lean in and whisper, “What in the world does that mean?”  People stream past us, a whole crowd of them, and I’m ducking my head back and forth to try and maintain eye contact.

He waves his hands like he’s shooing me away.  I stand my ground.

“I’d have to explain it and it takes too long,” he said.

“Well,” I say, raising my eyebrows.  This was flair, and I wasn’t about to leave it.

“OK,” he says, the crowd thinning so he can give me some time.

“You just say to yourself that you’re above ground.  You aren’t stuck where you are, on this ground.   It’s not about where your feet are or where you are hanging out.  You can be above it–above it all.   You are above ground.  Do you get it?  It’s not about where you are or what you are doing.  That’s why you can be the celebrity every day.”

He’s already on to other parties.  He’s like a rock star that bothered to take a moment to talk to the little people.  He’s big stuff, the real deal, and he’s happy.  

And I’m writing down his words, learning from a stranger, because he was there, above ground, holding the door for me.

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