The Secret of Contentment

Did you know sharks need forward motion to survive? Without forcing water through their gills, they drown.

Anybody else feel like a drowning shark right now?

Currently, I have two nine-foot artificial Christmas trees lying in the living room under eight-foot ceilings, and the only reaction I can muster is, “Nice Clark.”  Also, I’m a writer not writing, a reader not reading, and a bible student not studying. I can’t figure out how to fit my square-peg self into a round Christmas hole, and lately I pray like a kid off her Ritalin.

I’m struggling with things I once did with ease, and it stresses me out. If I’m not those things who am I? Author Sarah Bessey talks about “the right now and not yet” Kingdom of God. Wherever that is, I’m there. I’m stuck in the becoming and I need forward motion.

Unfortunately, my Christian friends pray for me then say things like this:

“I feel like the Lord is saying you just need to pause.”

“Maybe just be a still for a little while and wait.”

Worse, that supports what I’ve heard in my own speedy-sleepy, look-there’s-a-squirrel, prayer time.

“Rest. Baby. Rest”

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. Isaiah 30:15

Are you kidding me? I’m like a dog chasing cars. I don’t know why I’m doing that but I’m loathe to stop because what beating will my identity and self-worth take if I’m not getting my book published, expanding my platform, rocking my job, and making my house look like the cover of Southern Living? I’m supposed to just sit still and like it?

fresh holiday decor

I know, gorgeous huh? Photo coco+kelley

Maybe that’s what the LORD meant by the “you would have none of it” part.

The Apostle Paul said, “For I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” Phil 4:11-13 NET

Paul didn’t say the secret of contentment fell on him like rice at a wedding, he LEARNED it, and probably while standing in a Roman prison in ankle deep sewage. What sort of encounter did Paul have with Jesus, either there or on his way to Damascus, to produce that kind of confidence?

Whatever it was, I seem to be taking the long way. Except for two, too tall Christmas trees, there’s not one thing wrong. No prison. No sewage. So what’s with the discontent? Why am I chasing cars?

Because I doubt who I am in Christ and I don’t know how to rest in his strength.

Ouch.

See chasing happiness is easier because it gives us something to do, like the dog. Resting at the feet of Jesus, requires attentive stillness, humility and surrender. It’s where I get ok with bringing nothing to the table.

Rest is the prerequisite for contentment.

Maybe the difference between happiness and contentment is like the Paris hotel in Vegas vs. Trocadero Square. At first, the mini Eiffel Tower jutting out of the Nevada desert with all the sparkly people partying beneath it, makes your heart race because it doesn’t yet look like the hopped up, expensive hoax it is.

But the first time you see the real thing, with the sparkly lights dancing all around it at midnight, it doesn’t make your heart race. It makes it stand still.

Eiffel Tower

 

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Notes From Zambia

Garbage smoke.

Garbage smoke.

Greetings from the land of contradiction, the lovely and tragic Lusaka, where no matter how you try to sort it into matching African piles, so you can avoid saying blithe and stupid things on your blog, you will still fall backward into the land of hopeless paradox, praying for mercy as you try to explain.

Here’s kind of what I mean by that:

Rickiey, our favorite team carpenter who speaks oddly prescient and accidentally hilarious things, spent an advance week with the orphans in Chongwe.

“These people don’t need us here,” he reported to the team. “They don’t. They’re happy, they’re content.”

He’s wrong of course, but he’s also deeply, inarguably right.

Charity and the water.

Charity and the water.

Hugh and Rickiey spent four frustrating days replumbing the orphanage before the rest of the team arrived. Through the miracle of southern engineering they managed to pipe water into it after three deep, expensive bore holes failed to yield new water.

When Charity, one of the three teachers for 150 kids, saw water running out the kitchen faucet, for the first time in three years, she cried.

Do they need us? Yes.

But on our third day in Zambia’s capital city, I asked our local friend Chase why, with four million people in Lusaka, the streets aren’t more crowded.

“They are mostly in the compounds,” he said. “Some people will never leave them, never walk on Lusaka’s pavement a mile or two away.” There’s no reason to, he said, they can’t afford it.

The compounds are massive urban ghettos, some with upwards of 40,000 people living in their dirt streets. Concrete huts that once housed two families, have been subdivided to house six. Pit toilets behind the houses and shacks are predictably too close to the shallow wells which makes dirty water and sick kids. Same old story.

And here we come, two van loads of Muzungas to check it all out – something that feels condescending and necessary and horrifying because I really want a bottle of water but I can’t yell out the window for one, saying, “Does anyone have change for a hundred kwacha?” That’s twenty bucks.

Do they need that? No.

And I know those people would trade places with the rich Muzingus in a minute, they would take hot showers, eat more than just shima – the local cornmeal staple – and not watch their kids die of malaria.

And what? So they can die of loneliness and depression like we do?

Are our lives better because we have the money to fix diarrhea and sleep safely in our homes? Yes.
Are contentment and gratitude our natural response? No.
Is kindness to strangers a national priority in America like it is in Zambia?

Lima Compound

Lima Compound

As the van inches down the dusty alley with open pits on each side, from which kids fill water bottles for reasons we hope don’t include hydration, they check us out shyly. If any of us waves first, they erupt in smiles, big white, bright eyed smiles. The adults do too. This happens all day every day, everywhere we go.

One kid even yelled, “Look, Chinese!”

Chinese?

So are we helping? Yes.
Is a large portion of Zambia’s GDP fueled by the Christian Industrial Complex? Yes.
Are a lot of those Christians doing thankless and spectacular work? Yes.
Is our work a meaningful response to systemic, global economic injustice? I doubt it.
Does Jesus require it of his followers regardless? Yes.

In an hour, we leave for Chongwe where a troupe of orphans have prepared songs in our honor. We will set up the clinic, build school benches and chicken coops and maybe welcome a baby into this fearsome, magnificent place.

And as we sleep under the stars of the Southern hemisphere, maybe The Lord will call us out of our huts, and dare us to count them.

What Do You Do With Suffering?

With all my recent chatter about contentment, it seems wise to tiptoe up to that bloated, hateful beast called suffering.

calla lillies in the window light

(Photo credit: shannylynne)

Because I can hear you saying, “Oh yes following Jesus is all hearts and rainbows for you, but I have cancer, or the bank just repossessed my house or my country is beset by civil war. I mean, would a good God really allow all this suffering?”

First of all, I am so sorry. I am. Suffering sucks. However, the question of suffering has vexed religious scholars forever, so my answer to why God allows it is:

I DON’T KNOW.

But I’ve got a few hunches gleaned from The Bible and some bathroom mirror posts to help you through it. If you don’t happen to be suffering right now, read on anyway. It’s good to be prepared.

1. The Bible says the world’s rent is paid by the father of sin and death, and he roams like a lion seeking people to destroy. A lot of people are following that lion, by choice or default, therefore we ought to expect destruction. Why doesn’t God step in? He did. He sent Jesus who demonstrated how we are to live here – forgive your enemies, take care of the poor, love and obey God – then he died for our inability to do it.

2. There is an epic misunderstanding about the price of following Christ. Jesus told his disciples it would cost them everything, but it would be worth it. I don’t know who started the Christianity = hearts and rainbows rumor, maybe that’s just American zeitgeist, but take a note from the Apostle Paul.

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once…I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by the desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers…And that’s not the half of it. II Corinthians 11:23-27 MSG

Paul suffered mightily but he believed Jesus won, so he could handle it. I believe the same thing so, when the lion attacks me, I can appropriate this promise in Psalm 91.

He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall remain stable and fixed under the shadow of the Almighty (Whose power no foe can withstand). I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress, my God; on Him I lean and rely on and in Him I (confidently) trust.

3. Sometimes God doesn’t remove our suffering because he’s using it to make us stronger and more compassionate. We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, Paul said in Romans 5:3-5. So while we’re groaning under the weight of that process, here’s another for the  mirror.

…be satisfied with your present; for He (God) Himself has said, he will not in any way fail you, nor give you up, nor leave you without support. I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down. Hebrews 13:5

I struggled hard with that scripture because for many people, like women and children sold into sexual slavery, it seems patently untrue. But faith only works if you know God’s word and trust it. So when I posted Hebrews 13:5 and read it every day, I began seeing evidence of it in places I had overlooked. That made me trust it more. The more I trusted it, the more active I became in fighting those ____fill in the blank____ who buy and sell helpless women. I only cared about that theoretically before. Now, it inflames me so much I financially support those on the front lines; and from time to time my unholy, potty mouth runs away with me – sorry.

Do you see? God works through people who trust Him with their own lives first – especially in the suffering.

We are assured and know that all things work together and are (fitting into a plan) for good to and for those who love God and are called according to His design and purpose. Romans 8:28.

You are not alone. Hang in there.