Losing Control

On May 25, 2015 – Memorial Day – I took the first step. I admitted I had a problem. I was completely out of control in the most literal sense – that is, I was on a tube behind a ski boat in the middle of a busy lake, flying over wake and screaming my guts out.

While the “normal” version of myself would have found this enjoyable, the new, not-improved version of myself that has been displaying itself recently did not find it enjoyable. Instead of an internal monologue of “woooooohooooooo” or “yaaaaaaaaaas”, I was having more of a “this-is-definitely-how-we-are-dying-in-a-freak-accident-this-is-the-end-i-love-you-mom-and-dad” moment. When I was SURE my shoulder was about to come out of socket, I let go and went skidding across the water.

Spoiler alert: I did not die in a freak accident that day, but the panicky way I reacted to something that should have been fun made me realize that something larger was going on in my heart. We’ll call it anxiety.

Though I have been known to stress out from time to time, historically speaking, I am not a worrier. Then, on a sunny day last June, I married a man who likes to do gainers off 60 foot cliffs and things might’ve started changing for me around that time. Granted, I was the one who (accidentally) led us through python-infested mangroves on our honeymoon, but I am not one for danger.

I think my anxiety began with what we’ll call the Great Sunscreen Battle. The Great Sunscreen Battle was a long and circular battle, which can be summarized like this:

Me: Babe, can I put some sunscreen on your back?

Bryant: No, I don’t burn.

*Burns to a crispy lobster red*

Me: Bryant, you are burnt.

Bryant: No, I just tan red.

(Repeat)

At some point I started researching melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and things really started deteriorating from there. I became convinced that my life partner was surely dying of skin cancer, and probably right after we had 5 babies, so I’d be left alone with a brood of towheads that would never know their daddy. I did not think about this all the time, but I started to dread the sunscreen conversation every time we were headed to the lake or beach.

There was also the bike ramp, which I enjoy seeing happen on Nitro Circus, etc., but not really when no one’s wearing a helmet and launching themselves off of our dock over a precarious piece of plywood. I’d cringe every time Bryant went over that thing, imagining things going awry before he made it to the end of the dock and him hitting his head on one of the posts.

Then there’s the whole driving situation, which is that Bryant is a terrifying driver. And he’s always on the phone for work, answering a thousand calls and listening to a thousand voicemails, so I started thinking about that a lot and experiencing the impending doom of a traffic accident in Charlotte’s terrible rush-hour traffic.

I was sure that if I could just convince him to wear sunscreen, to wear a helmet, to not be so reckless, to keep his phone in his glove box when he drives – that I could keep him alive forever. That if he would just do what I said, then he wouldn’t have to die of preventable causes.

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…like cliff jumping…

This past week, it seems like tragedy after tragedy had occurred – not to my friends or family, but to friends of friends. A woman from Charlotte was hiking with her family on Crowder’s Mountain and stopped to pose for a picture with her husband when she slipped and fell 150 feet to her death. An entire family’s life forever changed in the blink of an eye. Two girls I went to school with have died over the past two weeks in tragic events. Last week, a family that attends my church was rear-ended at a red light and their 2-year old son and unborn child were killed in the accident.

I can’t explain the heaviness on my heart for the tragic deaths of these people I don’t really know. I can tell you one thing though – it made me terrified. Terrified because I may be able to convince my husband to wear sunscreen (we’ve turned a corner here, PTL) but I cannot keep someone from rear-ending him in traffic. I can’t keep him from contracting a disease. I can’t keep him from slipping and falling to his death in a freak accident. I am not in control. I don’t think I even realized I was trying to be in control.

I have really been wrestling with God about this for a few days. I thought I was pretty good about trusting God with my stuff and letting go of things I can’t control – but my hands were closed on this one. HOW CAN I LIVE when the people I love could just die at any time from a freak accident? How can I live knowing everything I love will slowly start dying off if I don’t die first?

I realize that the following is a reference to AA’s 12-step program, but I always hear people (sometimes jokingly) say that “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” I did that, and decided to look up step two…

“Come to believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.” 

Wow. I’ll restate it this way:

Step 2 – Have childlike faith.

This is one of those lessons I never learned personally. Jesus says this in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

To quote my wise little brother – “Childlike faith” is a great term because it emphasizes our ignorance and impotence compared to God as well as his provisory love. Children can trust because they understand that they know little about the world they’re in, and they know they can’t provide for or protect themselves, but they know for sure that their parents can and will because of their love for the child.

My friends Laura and Jason recently had an adoption fall through a week before the baby was due. The birth mother just changed her mind. There was no good explanation for this – why had God prepared them for this child and led them down this path, only for things to fall apart at the last minute? We talked about childlike faith – Laura and Jason could trust God’s goodness in a situation that they don’t understand, or they couldn’t. Thousands of questions really came down to that. They can trust that God has a better or different plan, or they can be angry and bitter. Those seem like the only two options.

If the gospel is true, the ultimate reality that is yet to be realized is hope, not despair. I really believe that Jesus is going to make all things new. I really believe that we are a tiny dot somewhere in the arc of a long, redemptive story. But it’s so easy to forget that – to get so wrapped up in our own story and our own needs and wants that we lose perspective. But because I don’t know what God is up to, ever really, except for writing this long story of redemption, it does take FAITH – real faith – to trust in God’s goodness. Most of the time when we talk about faith we’re struggling to have it, rather than actually exercising it.

So choosing joy in the midst of tragedy and courage in the midst of fear sometimes takes this childlike faith – Yes, God. I will trust that you are in control and I am not. I will trust that you have a plan for the Earth, and recognize that the Earth does not revolve around me. Yes, God, I will trust you, because you see everything eternity past and future, and I see the slightest wedge of my individual reality in my individual lifetime.

I get why religious skeptics think faith and the message of the cross is foolishness. If faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” I’m not sure I can win any argument, much less one about matters of faith that have come from years of study, reading, experiencing God, and living in Christian community. Childhood is a state in which people seem so helpless, so impractically optimistic, so immature and unaware of the world. Yet I’ve realized that no amount of intellectual knowledge or striving has brought any real peace to my troubled heart, so I cling to the redemptive truth of Jesus’ promises.

The older I get, the more I admire this kind of simplicity. Not just materially, but also in patterns of thinking. What I’m not commending is ignorance, but rather a thoughtful choice amidst the chaos to avoid overcomplicating matters of life. I have a coworker named Marge who is my hero. Her husband died suddenly two years ago, and she is one of the most lively, social, joyful, lovely and bright people I’ve ever known. One day I asked her how she had coped with the loss of her husband, and how she continued to live such a full life without her life partner of 50+ years. I remember being struck by the simplicity of her answer: “You have to believe that there is still life to be lived.”

There are times in my life when I’ve been bogged down by big questions – existential questions, self doubt, questions about my beliefs and their role in society, IS MY HUSBAND GOING TO DIE? I enjoy being thoughtful about these things, except the husband dying thing, but sometimes I get so deep in my own head that I can’t see simple realities, simple truths, accept and act on what IS instead of my idea of what should be.

There is courage and maturity in admitting you’re not in control. And once you work through the fear, there’s also peace.

“You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14)

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The Secret of Contentment

The Secret of Contentment – a state of mind, not a matter of circumstance.

The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.
The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.

I am three months into my marriage, three months into a new job, and have lived three months in a new city. I am already restless. This is a large part of who I am, a part of my struggle. My entire life has been a series of phases – when I was a kid, I played every sport available to me, took tumbling classes, tae kwon doe, piano, guitar, rode horses, had a paintball phase, loved camping, had a stint where I was obsessed with Star Wars, the Chicago Bulls, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and NBA Street Ball 2k4. I was involved in at least five different extracurricular groups in High School and was all over the place.

College was no different – I was involved in a lot, traveled a lot, did a lot. Many of the absolute best memories of my life so far occurred in the midst of the freedom and adrenaline that comes with the adventure of “new”.

I was an overachiever and a bit of a flake – changing my mind and my interests at the drop of a hat and burning through the “next best thing” like it was my entitled right to do so. It was really fun, actually – I did so many awesome things, traveled to a lot of amazing places, went to great concerts, and made friends all around the world. I don’t think I would change many things about my past. But I had – still have –  some lessons to learn from it.

The danger of a life like that is this: discontentment. Because at some point, you have to reel in your wanderlust and think about your roots, your legacy, your loved ones, the life you want to lead. You have to realize that the things you’re chasing satisfy you temporarily, then bore you, and the addiction continues – you need another fix.

My husband taught me that when he asked me to marry him. I ran from him for years, terrified of commitment and that love would tie me down from experiencing whatever “next best thing” I craved next. Then God began to teach me the value of commitment, the divinity of promise, and the need for His children to invest themselves in things for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Not just use up experiences for our own fulfillment, and move on to the next best thing, the next “temporary high”. How does this bring value to our lives, and more importantly, how does this benefit the good of all?

If you’re like me, you’re afraid of living an un-extraordinary life. You are afraid of getting to the end of your days and realizing you didn’t live a wide and full life like you always dreamed you would. I used to think the way to prevent a disappointment like this was to live harder. Do more. Be better.

Now I think it’s about letting go.

There is a big difference in seeking fulfillment and finding contentment. When we seek fulfillment, we put the burden on ourselves to give our life meaning and purpose. We try to do admirable things so that the story we write with our lives is one worth reading. We want to do something worth remembering, something to make an impact. So we strive to do that, we push aside everything else – commitments, relationships, roots –  to try and make that happen.

Finding contentment is about being passionate about one thing – loving God and loving people – and trusting God with the rest. It is about ceasing to find your identity in your work output, your social media clout, and your influence. It is about being faithful and finding joy in what God has put before you, instead of wishing for something else. It is about loving what you have, instead of obsessing over what you want.

When I was freaking out about marriage, my friend Andrew gave me the most useful and practical analogy. It went something like this:

“It’s like your at a fancy buffet, Madisson. You are looking at all the delicious things you could choose to eat, and God walks up to you with a plate full of food saying, ‘Take this! You’ll like it – it’s good for you. It has everything you need. I know it!’ But you’re looking over his shoulder at all the things you didn’t get to try, only thinking about the things you’re missing out on.”

I often struggle to find the line where our efforts meet God’s will, so I keep trying to balance dreaming and doing with patience and practicality.  For example, I have a dream of living overseas. But what a fool I’d be to rip up the roots we already have here – to leave family and work and community and ministry – just to move to Europe or Africa for a year because I want to and think it would be adventurous and fun. Adversely, what a joy it would be to move abroad for a year if God placed an opportunity in front of us and gave it purpose.

Contentment is something firm to stand on. It’s not letting praise get to your head nor failure to your heart. It’s a laser-focus on what matters, walking a path that winds through deserts and gardens and stormy weather and sickness and health and ultimately knowing where the path leads, even if at times you can barely walk it.

There is a desire for contentment that often eludes us. “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.” ― Spurgeon

We seem surprised when then rich and famous struggle, take their own lives, deal with addiction, citing that they had, “everything they could want.” Likewise, we seem surprised when we see poor families who are rich in joy and happiness, saying something like “they have nothing, but they’re so happy anyway!” But it is a lie to believe that contentment has anything to do with having plenty or being in want. Perhaps that’s why the rich and famous seem to be involved in scandal after scandal – when your dreams are realized and you’re still unhappy, what do you do with that? And to use Andrew’s analogy again, perhaps the blessing of the poor is that they aren’t tempted to look over God’s shoulder at what they don’t have, but instead are thankful for each gift.

It’s easy to talk about theories of contentment, harder to actually put them into practice.

I am making a commitment this week. A list of things I will and will not do – simple things – a list of ways to be present and thankful. Maybe you can make your own list.

1. I will not go ok Kayak.com or look at Groupon Getaways, Travelzoo, or Cheap Caribbean this week. Because I just went to Mexico on my honeymoon and am an entitled idiot for thinking I have to go on another big trip this year.

2. In the time I will save by not looking at every budget travel site known to man, I will read a book this week. I will underline my favorite passages and enjoy the warmth that comes with relating to an author.

3. I will wear a scarf and boots and go on a walk down our long, wooded road with my husband to celebrate Fall weather and Fall things.

4. I will cook a healthy and delicious meal – or at least try to – light some candles, turn off my phone, and sit down at the dining room table with Bryant to eat it.

5. I will go meet all the neighbors on our point that I haven’t met yet and leave them with baked goods – so domestic. (This is actually a bribe so they’ll think fondly of us even when we don’t mow the yard regularly.)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

(1 Timothy 6:6-12)