5 Phrases for a Well Lived Life

The words we say shape the worlds we live in. Proverbs 18:21 vividly puts it this way: “The power of death and life are in the tongue.” As I dwell on this, I wonder sometimes how I have been intentional with the words I say.Our world is showered with the frantic on and on-ness of our ever present news feed. In the constant barrage of words upon words, our speech can become careless. I don’t want to let this happen. I want to consider…How am I bringing life, not death, to myself and the people around me?

In pondering, I came up with this list. These phrases are the ones I have found to shape my life for the better. What are yours?

  1. I admire ____ about you:

So often the true virtues of our lives are developed in quiet and sometimes lonely fortitude. I have often felt that I could carry on and be faithful for one more day if only I knew that someone saw and cared.

I think sometimes we assume we’ve said the kind words we think about others, or we assume that surely someone else must have. We don’t want to be redundant, and we certainly don’t want to flatter or be too vulnerable. Wouldn’t it be too pushy or personal to say something? Might as well save the complimenting for someone else.

But the truth is, no one else may do the complimenting, and we are all starved for affirmation.

To compliment someone is to see them. To acknowledge a part of their being or action. To affirm that who they are and what they do is good and seen and worth it. And we all desperately long to be seen. A gift we can give each other is to see and acknowledge the beauty, virtue, and talent in each other.

I see the gentleness you offer in response to harsh words. I see the hard work you have silently put in to accomplish your dreams and calling. I see the effort you put into presenting yourself with loveliness. I see the diligence with which you seek answers for the questions you have. I see your wit and humor and it is delightful.

You are seen, and you are loved.

Isn’t that what we all long to hear?

2. I shouldn’t have done that:

Regret is a terrible master to live under, but so is pretense. There have been times in my life where I made the wrong decision; the unwise, hurtful, or selfish decision. My temptation is always to try to gloss over it, and vindicate my choice as right. I’m just stubborn enough to carry on in a series of bad decisions I don’t want to make purely so I don’t have to admit I was wrong. Eek!

When we cannot admit we are wrong, we become a slave to our mistakes.

We must defend them, live by them, cover them up. We must make a long string of bad decisions to cover up the fact that the original decision was wrong.

We are never free from our mistakes until we can call them what they are. Relationships are torn apart by silent grievances. A heart is torn apart by hidden guilt.

Voice your regret so you can be free of it. What can be said can be moved past. Confess so you can taste the sweet fruit of forgiveness. Confess to yourself. Confess to someone. Confess to God. 

If we confess our sins to him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us (1 John 1:9).

3. I want/wish/hope:

I have often felt like I wanted to much out of life. I hunger after life and life to the full. I see in vivid colors the way life could be, and I hunger after it… love, adventure, faith, hope, excellence, taste, sound, color…!

Somewhere along the way, I think a Buddhist idea slipped into our Christian imaginations: that we really oughtn’t desire anything too much. We play a trick with our minds thinking if we don’t want something, say marriage, it will come upon us as a reward for our desire killing efforts.

This is not the gospel.

God does not call us to a bleaker, dimmer life, but too a fuller, more passionate, more human life. As Lewis says,

“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased” (Weight of Glory, 1965).

In not allowing ourselves to desire, we do not allow God to provide. Let your desires be spoken, and give them to God who does not give His children a stone when they ask for bread.

Want things. Want great and beautiful things. Want a glorious and redeemed life. And though your thirsts may not always be satisfied, they will remind you that you are meant for a life beyond this one. It may be a chance to trust and know God more deeply.

4. I feel …

Feelings are given a bad wrap. Explicitly, we are told not to live by them. Implicitly we are told not to express some of them (anger or sadness, for instance). But the funny thing that I have found is that feelings will be felt even if you don’t want them to be. You can try to press them down, but they’ll come gurgling out at the most inconvenient moments, or harden into a persistent grumpiness.

Just like regrets, if you can’t express emotions, they will rule you. We must own our feelings, not treating them like something foreign to us. We should listen to our emotions and talk to them: what do they tell us about the state of our lives?

Emotions are one of the things that make us human. We don’t just react to things instinctively, we react to them with rich, complex, pesky emotions.

Sharing emotions creates an inroad to closeness. Express your emotions so they don’t control you. Express your emotions because they are uniquely human. Express your emotions to someone you love to invite closeness.

5. I love you.

Love you, Joy! he said with a wave as I got in my car. I wouldn’t see him again for many months. My American reserve prickled. Is it too much to say “I love you” to a friend?

But I carried those words in my heart.

I have said goodbye many times in the last three years. The coming and going in my way of life has taught me the transience and uncontrollableness of life. I never want to be caught unawares, but to express my love to each person who matters to me in the only moment I am promised: now! If you love someone, if you cherish them and hope the best for their lives, tell them. Now. Don’t wait for the day that may never come. Words unsaid are a bitter poison.

Live a life without unsaid I love you’s.

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Am I only a speck?

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I watch as a speck of dust floats and settles in the afternoon sunshine.

Do specks mind their meaninglessness?

Do specks of dust bewail the brevity of their earthly dance? Do they weep from time to time about the vanity of their journey to resting on the arm of a sweet heart’s couch? Do they moan and say…

“Thus go I! A speck floating across a cruel and indifferent universe, with no destiny but to adorn antique furniture?”

But then, I’m told I am only a speck.

A smattering of matter, not mattering a smatter. Born to struggle and die and decay. To become nothing more than Fertilizer for daffodils. A floating speck of dust in the afternoon sun.  Destined only to frustrate the housewife by coating her house in dust.

I am not very good at being a speck. Nor at submitting to a speckish destiny, or non destiny as it were. 

I am possessed of the persistent imagination that this all means something. Something more than I can say.

I write poems.

I ponder lofty things.

I find myself praying and falling in love.

I am not a good speck. I make too much of things.

I cry when they tell me all this means nothing — the dancing leaves, returning spring, compassion — I grieve. LIke I’ve lost something. But how can you lose something that never was to being with?

But I have lost something.

We have lost something.

There is a fathomless ache, a chasm meant for something filled with nothing, a spasm towards creating and loving and meaning things.

We writhe and weep and rail against the darkness. We are not satisfied. We are not certain. But we are not resigned.

And, I ask again: Do specks mind their meaninglessness?

Because, I think, perhaps, I am not a speck.

 

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

 

Sensible and Human Things

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A typical summer scene for me these days. Darcy dog is my mostly companion.

To me, Summer is…

Sunshine, freedom, and iced tea.

Freckles and mosquito bites.

Sitting on the porch for hours with your favorite people.

Unbridled afternoons of gratuitous time for creativity.

Puppy dogs, grass stains, and laughter.

Relief that winter always ends, and triumph that we’re rewarded with summer.

Watermelon.

Sweet, warm aromas from the finally flourishing garden.

Dirt under your fingernails, and blooming lilacs.

Picnics and using the rusty grill.

Time to pull out the old favorite books.

Trains, planes, and automobiles, visiting those we love and miss.

Space for quiet, and thoughts, and halting prayers.

Preparation for what may come.

Freer schedules, clearer roads, and something about the green, green world says “come delight in me!”

And I am happy to comply.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like its okay to celebrate life when there is so much darkness in the world. 

There is much to grieve in the world. A great, great deal.

But, let me confess something: I can’t grieve it all. I simply don’t have the capacity. Faced with tragedy after tragedy, my heart begins to become numb, and I can no longer respond to sad things with true sadness.

And I can no longer respond to joy with true Joy.

In Communications, they call it Compassion Fatigue. The weariness that comes with trying to respond to every tragedy presented to us. I am surely weary; three tragedies enough to fill my eyes with weary weeping happened in the last 7 days. When my eyes are only turned to dark screens with dark stories, I find myself haunted by a nameless, faceless, placeless fear that lurks around every good moment.

I think the only way to fight the ugliness of our world, is to reject the nameless, faceless, placeless fear, and live by named, faced, and placed love. 

Yes, the world at large is sad, but what of the world in front of us? How are we speaking order from chaos, rest from weariness, love from hate, comfort to grief into our gardens?

We have to learn to live well in this world, and I don’t think it will be accomplished by withering with fear and grief every time we open our newsfeeds. I believe our souls are meant to respond to such injustice and tragedy with grief, but we have more access to the sad things of the world than ever before. How do we live redeemed lives in a tattered world?

CS Lewis articulated this thought well when writing an essay in response to the question “How do we live in the age of the atomic bomb? When at any moment life might come to an end?” Here are the last words of his essay:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (Lewis, On Living in an Atomic Age, 1948). 

This summer I want to limit my attachment to the internet, so I can pour myself into the world around me.

I want to invest in real life this summer. The life in front of me. In people I can hug. Foods I can taste. A garden I can weed, and sew, and water. Even my little corner of the world is not free of its horrors and griefs, but these are mine. They have names, faces, and places. And I will care for them. I won’t be crushed by the griefs of the world I was never meant to carry. Don’t get me wrong, we should be informed. We should be upset. we should want things to change. Things in the world need to be changed. But I think real change doesn’t come from vague fear, but clear conviction. To be a force for good we must be deeply connected with the realities in front of us, rather than only the void, clamour of the internet.

And that’s why I’ll look less at my newsfeed and more at my family.

I won’t stick my head in the sand, but I will stick my plow in the earth.

I wrote once that playing the saxophone (or loving apple cake) reminds us of our distinctive humanness; the real grief is when we lose our humanity and our ability to think of each other as human. I still think that’s true. I think one of the best things we can do in response to the dreadfulness of the world, is to celebrate and fearlessly defend the beauty of life. Do not bend to the fear and terror; celebrate and love. To proclaim the fact that lost life is a grief, because life is a beautiful gift.

Live a radical life, railing against the darkness, by doing, as Lewis so aptly put it, “Sensible and human things.”

Perhaps only then we will truly be making a difference.

When we…

Have our neighbors over to dinner.

Feel the sprinkler wet grass squish between our toes.

Marvel at the pink sunset.

Write a poem.

Pray at midnight.

Laugh.

That is summer to me.

That is a battle cry.

This is life.

 

I cannot change the world

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I cannot change the world.

This realization came to me at the age when my eye line met the level of the new stand. I remember ambling behind my mother in a line at the grocery store. Having recently mastered reading, I used my new found skills to decipher the bold headlines. Wars, rumors of wars, Jessica Simpson, kidnappings and killings, something I didn’t quite understand about Michael Jackson.

My stomach hurt.

The world was so large, its wounds so gaping, and I was so small.

I still feel this way sometimes. The bane of my existence (Am I exaggerating here? Even I don’t know) is the “news” feature on Facebook. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have suddenly found myself caring about someone who lost a leg to an alligator in Florida.

Poor person. I can’t imagine what life would be like with only one leg. Why do these strange and violent things always happen in Florida? Where are all these alligators coming from to attack people? Should I be worried about alligators? Wait, are alligators even indigenous to Florida?!?!?

My annoyance with the internet is that it makes us responsible for information we can do nothing about. We sit as idle receivers to the great griefs of the planet. The mass exodus of oppressed peoples from violent territories. Political dramas marked by demagoguery, duplicity, and moral debility. Murder. Foolishness. Great sweeping natural disasters. 

The world was so large, it’s wounds so gaping, and I am so small.

In a way, I think this feeling of helplessness is a true response to the world. We are limited, and we cannot fix every problem. We cannot grieve every loss. Exposure to excessive evil is incapacitating because we simply do not know where to begin.

And yet, we are made to feel guilty if we are not “aware” of what is happening in the world. We develop spectator syndrome. As if, by some enchantment, my being distraught over politicians might make them lie less. And so we sit in front of screens, horrified by the world we live in. As if, by chiming in on that facebook argument, I am really changing the hearts and minds of America, even if I do nothing to shape my actual, local community or even my own family.

And so just like when I was young, I turn away from my screen and my stomach hurts.

While training to be a Resident Advisor, my leader gave us a small sheet with this prayer on it.

I am limited. If I do not sleep, I will die. If I do not eat, I will die. I cannot meet everyone’s needs. I am not God.

How completely obvious, and yet how necessary.

Wisely, our leaders realized that the foundation of caring for others, leading, and, if you’ll have it, changing the world is knowing what you can and cannot do. If you try to do and be more than you are, you will eventually explode like a canary cage trying to hold a Rottweiler.

David prayed this:

Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great
or too awesome for me to grasp. 

Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself,
like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk.
Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord—
now and always.

(Psalm 131, NLT).

I think sometimes it makes us feel important to know every issue and have an opinion about everything. But I don’t believe this helps us love or change the world. While we look to “matters too great for ourselves” we forget to look to the day in front of us, and the people to our right and left, and we forget that before we can do any earthly good, our hearts must be rested like a weaned child against its mother’s breast. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens called this “telescopic charity”; trying to save the world we see through our telescope, forgetting faithfulness to the one right in front of us. Because we are small. Limited. Imperfect.

In my mind, the people who have done the most good in this world were driven not by a vague sense of obligation to humanity, but by a specific need they gave their all to address. An illness that needed to be cured. An injustice they wanted to see righted. A skill they could hone to give beauty and truth to the world.

The truth is, our world is bleeding, and it needs brave heroes to bind it up with the love and compassion of Christ. But we will never be effective or healthy if we do not live in the confines of our human limitations; if we do not know what we can and cannot do. And while the alligator victim certainly deserves compassion, I cannot plausibly help them.

There are needs enough in front of you. Why begin with the difficult task of changing the big, wide world when you ought to begin with your own world? Your own heart? 

It is my firm conviction that I am not called to change the world. When I live in the terror of the general in-troubleness of the world, I am good to no one. If instead I turned the news off, listened to God, loved my family, did my job with excellence, invited my neighbor over for dinner, volunteered at a homeless shelter, called my grieving friend, and wrote my little old blogs, I hope I could be of some use to the world. That through loving Jesus and following him, my life would be a testament to the Kingdom. And perhaps as my faithfulness grows, so will my arena. But that is not my business. 

My business is to turn my eyes from the screaming headlines, trust God, be faithful, and love my neighbor.