Contagious Contentment

Several years ago, I did a little blog series about contentment. I had this idea that contentment is contagious… and I wanted to spread it around. I still believe that those building blocks are a good basis for contentment, but I wanted to come back to the topic to expand a little as my experience and understanding has grown.

For one thing, friends, in a couple of months a very significant milestone is going to occur. We will have lived in this home for five full years, marking the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my whole life.

Shocked baby with the caption "Oh my gosh!"

(Because of that Army brat thing, which I talked about here if you’re curious.)

This spring, I started to feel a simmering discontentment in my soul. It was honestly unlike anything I’ve ever felt before, and I wasn’t sure at first how to handle it.

Pandemic Blues

For one thing, we were all cooped up here in the house 24/7 with our state’s shutdown measures. Even though I’ve always thought of this house as PLENTY of space for us… once we were all here, nonstop, for months on end I started wishing we had a basement. And a pool in the backyard. And a bigger plot of land where the neighbors were so far away you could barely see them.

That might have been another factor. Our backyard neighbors were… well, not exactly neighborly during the first few months of the corona quarantine. Being able to see a big portion of their home and yard made my blood pressure skyrocket every time they violated the governor’s orders. (And I didn’t say anything or turn them in, because I didn’t want to be mean or nosy. I just thought my thoughts, and wished there was an extra acre between us so I couldn’t see what they were doing in ignorant bliss.)

Ticking Clock

When I started reflecting on what was driving my discontentment, I realized there’s another big milestone approaching. I’ll turn 40 in a few months. Maybe this was my mid-life crisis?

A close crop of an old oil painting. Words are superimposed so the man is saying, "I think I'm having a midlife crisis," The woman responds, "You're 24..." and the man replies, "I might die at 48."

Whatever the causes or motivations behind my discontent, here’s what resulted: I started browsing the MLS. And do you know what happens when a gal starts idly surfing real estate listings? Yup. Eventually she spots a property that catches her eye and keeps her awake at night.

Bored Mom ISO Bigger House

So when that happened, it was a lovely place with 1.25 acres in a tucked-away development of a only dozen homes. The house was older, but it had 150% of the square footage we have here. There was a basement! (No pool.)

Once I saw it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I made an appointment with our realtor to go see it by myself, then told Chris all about it. A few days later, he went to see it, too. We spent about 24 hours feeling worked up about making a decision regarding this property. Should we jump on it? Make an offer? Scurry to get this house ready to sell?

But after a restless night’s sleep and a morning spent in prayer and thought and journaling, we decided to stay put.

Does that sound like resignation to you? Does it sound like settling?

I promise, that’s not it.

Intentional, Not Complacent

Here’s what I felt the Lord leading me to: we have been working hard to become debt-free, and moving house would move that needle in the wrong direction. Furthermore, if my restless, angsty feelings about this house are based on my Army-brat itchy feet, there’s no cure for that but tincture of time. If the problem is my looming birthday and some sort of age-related crisis – there’s nothing to do but wait it out. And if the primary problem is my unhappiness with my neighbors, well: Scripture has a lot to say about loving our neighbor, and I probably have a spiritual lesson to learn there – which I wouldn’t learn if I run away.

Sometimes standing still is the most obedient thing to do.

Investment for Contentment

What’s more, we decided we wouldn’t just “stay put.” Rather, we decided to get serious about allllllll those little home projects that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. We started a list, and shopping online for new fixtures, and have made a few calls to pros to get quotes on the work we can’t do ourselves.

Will we need to spend money to invest in these projects? Yup.

But will it be less expensive than moving? OH, most definitely.

Baby at the beach makes a fist pump with caption "totally"

We want to be good stewards of our home, and right now that means investing both time and money. We have a few little projects to fix –I’ll post pictures of the woodworking I had to learn to do when our dog decided to eat a wall!—and some new paint and fixtures to pick out. There are a couple of furnishing upgrades that will make a big difference, and some new storage built into a closet should help that space be both more functional and more pleasant to the eye.

I started an Instagram @kentuckyhome.and.cabin to track our progress and share pictures, so be sure to go follow if home improvements and DIY is your jam.

Beyond Home Improvement

But even if home decor Insta isn’t your thing, don’t miss the bigger message (like I almost did).

There can be many different factors that contribute to an underlying sense of discontentment. It’s good and healthy for us to examine those, and it’s important for us to take all of those things to God. He’s the giver of every good gift, and the one who gives us wisdom and understanding.

Maybe you’re in a stage of life where you DO need more space, more land, an extra bedroom, a garage – and browsing the real estate listings and daydreaming about different houses and neighbordhoods is perfectly appropriate. I’m not at all trying to say that any of those things are wrong or sinful.

The lesson I’ve learned this week is that stewarding the material goods we have looks different in different seasons. For the last few years, we have regarded good stewardship as just saving money and paying down our debts.

But investing in our space is a different way to be a good steward – taking care of this house helps all of us to enjoy it more, helps us to make even more great memories within these walls, and goes a long way to ensuring this place will be a safe and beautiful home for our family for 30 more years.

“In this house, you always have permission to:
ask hard questions * read * play together * give hugs
learn * express all your emotions * worship * ask for help * pray
share something you’re proud of, even if someone is having a bad day
talk about the people who have passed away”

Having a heart of contentment may require investment. Do you struggle with discontentment? Do you think an approach of investment could help change that?

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The last few years, the Lord has used lessons about submission,
gratitude, and service to deepen and grow my sense of contentment. Those are the first three “building blocks” in this series.

A moving gif of blocks arranges itself into a smiling face.

The final block that completes the foundation for contentment is connection. What do I mean by that? Well, first of all: I mean real, honest, authentic relationships with other believers.I don’t mean the connections you make on social media (for the most part). Oh, I hope that my blog is a source of encouragement and reading it leaves you feeling bolstered. I hope that you have a sense of community in the feeds you follow on Twitter or Instagram. But in general, most of us get comparison —not connection— from our online worlds.

Comparison is a Thief

Comparison only serves to steal your joy and breed discontentment. Comparison leaves you feeling less-than. Comparison prompts you to narrow angry eyes at your stuff, your circumstances, your people, and your place.

Mrs. Potato Head packing Mr. Potato Head's "angry eyes" from Toy Story 2

Don’t pack your angry eyes, friends. Now if it’s true that comparison breeds discontentment, but connection fosters contentment… the question is, why?

Connection Halts Entitlement Thinking

I’d say it’s because living in a real community forces us to let go of pride and entitlement.I’d wager that in many of our lives, discontentment comes from a sense of entitlement. Your human nature tells you:

I deserve better than this.
I deserve better in my relationships – my husband, my kids, my friends… they just don’t appreciate me or treat me right.
I deserve better in my place – this house, this job, this town, this whole state – they aren’t up to my standards!
I deserve better from my stuff – I should really have a better car, fancier sunglasses, nicer shoes, a bigger TV.
I deserve better from my circumstances – I wasn’t made to live like this!

On the other hand, when you spend time and effort connecting with a group of believers, learning together and living out your callings together, you will grow in grace.


“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Small Groups beat Packed Arenas

There’s a lot to be said about small groups in the Christian life. What I’ve seen in my own experience is that two big things come from connection: accountability and vulnerability.

When you’re accountable to a group of friends, fellow travelers on the journey, you first of all learn to recognize your own shortcomings. You own up to your sins, and your people encourage you in repentance and starting fresh with your eyes back on Christ. Guess what that does for your sense of entitlement? It smashes it WAY down to proper size. Accountability reminds us that we aren’t deserving of any of the blessings in our life – that all we have & do is such a gift. That reorients our hearts away from discontentment.

And secondly, the shared vulnerability of group living helps you to take a turn being the one served by others. (Remember in that last building block, when I talked about how service blesses us and gives us a contentment mindset? Well, here’s where the coin flips sides. Being served by others is sometimes also necessary to help us return to contentment.) There will be times when your connection to others puts them in a position to bless you – with words of encouragement or reproof, with service, with time or resources that meet your needs. In my life, I have always –without exception—found this experience to be both humbling and deeply loving.

Known and Loved

You see, I think human beings have a deep heart cry to be fully known. We want to be seen, and heard, and valued and cherished.The truth is, only God fully knows us right now. The glorious truth is that He knows every bit of us – even the ugly, imperfect, shameful parts – and He loves us anyway.

“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”


1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT

Someday, the Bible promises us, we’ll have complete knowledge. Until then, I believe that connection with other believers is the closest we’ll get on this earth. Connection spurs us toward humility and love, it helps us avoid the comparison trap, and it puts our hearts in the right place.

And that’s the capstone of this little tower of contentment we’ve been building.

A pale blue sky with wisps of clouds is overlaid with text: #ContagiousContentment.

Which part of contentment is the biggest blessing or hardest struggle for you? Comment or tweet at me with #ContagiousContentment.

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We are not alone.

Dear friends, we are not the only ones wondering about how to shed the miasma of discontent. A venerable crew of bloggers have gone before us on this path. And since contentment can be so #contagious, let’s consider what others have learned & shared!

Start everyday by offering praise to the Lord.  Sometimes we can get focused on expressing our needs to God instead of just giving thanks. Find a way to include the entire family in a daily habit of gratitude and cultivating contenment. Use meals times or bedtimes to say and record your blessings as a family.”  ~Denise In Bloom

Sarah Sandel, at Sarah Writes, blogged a 31-day series about A Contented Heart. In her Day 5 post, these words brought me to tears:

“I do not wish to fling platitudes in your face or minimize your pain & weariness. I know this these things, I have felt these things, I have my own shares of not-enough more often than I like. So hear what is True and Good when I say: your feelings are not always accurate indicators of reality. There is a deep truth to contentment in Christ that does not change with your circumstances. “I have learned to be content” does not happen on the mountaintop, but in the low, low valley where Christ becomes all. He does not become all here in that He was not all before, but in the valley we begin to see what always ways, if we will allow Him to reveal it: that Christ Jesus is all, is sufficient, is enough for weary, aching heart and the wounds we are bandaging. He is enough.”

That is a good word, right there. Go read alllllll her entries. Soak it up.

Keri shares one of my favorite Psalms in her reflection on contentment over at Growing In His Glory and then remarks:

We must trust that the Lord will provide exactly what we need, when we need it. Like a baby, we may clamor for more “milk,” but as our souls are sanctified, that rooting will eventually cease. Then, we will become content with whatever the Lord supplies.”

 

And there are heavy hitters. Nancy Leigh DeMoss, from Revive Our Hearts Ministries has a whole “Cultivating A Contented Heart” series both in print & audio, which you can stream or download.  Ann Voskamp, as you might expect, contributes words of wisdom and grace. Carl Richards weighs in over at The New York Times, and Glennon Doyle Melton pens her insights at the Momastery.

Click a few links this morning and ponder. It’s my prayer that the words of one of these authors will touch your heart and help you catch the germ. Contentment is part of God’s plan for you, and gosh: it just feels really good. It’s delightful to be delighted in whatever life-stage you’re in… with whomever shares your life… at whatever work you are doing… with just the things you already possess.

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ContagiousContentment

Are you thinking and writing about contentment? Share your blog post in a comment so we can come and read, or tweet with @MichelleNebel or #contagiouscontentment so we can find each other.

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{Welcome back! Have you read the first few posts in this series? You can get caught up here. Go ahead: I’ll be right here when you get back.}

When I was in 9th grade, I attended a Christian summer camp. It was a formative life experience – not only because I met my dearest friend, Sean (remind me to tell y’all that story sometime) or because I learned awesome songs with killer motions– but because of a camp counselor named Thea.

After I’d gone back home, Thea and I wrote letters for a few months. At some point, I must have been complaining about my miserable, difficult, terrible (no it wasn’t, not at all) life… as 14 year old girls are wont to do. In her return missive, Thea sent me this gem, scrawled in bubbly script with blue ink on college-ruled notebook paper:

Thea Message

Her words have floated before my eyes over and over again throughout the last twenty years. God bless her; she likely didn’t know how deeply she would impact me! It’s just such a valuable truth. We are all, as Christians, told to serve others with love.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”
~Galatians 5:13

As Thea pointed out, when we are actively engaged in helping someone else, our hands and minds are too busy to “feel sorry for ourselves.” In other words, we shrug off the shroud of discontentment when we dig in to do good for another person.

Why might this be? Well, I certainly believe there’s a spiritual component. I believe that God blesses us when we keep His commands, and service is one of the things Jesus taught his followers about more than once. I believe that God desires for His children to be at peace – to be content – and He wants to give us unshakeable peace that isn’t dependent on our circumstances.

”Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
~Philippians 4:6-7

In His wisdom, God built these physical bodies for us, too. Last year, researchers published a neat study demonstrating the link between service and good health. Okay, now, I realize that there are no guarantees in this world – you may volunteer, serving with all your heart, and still get hit by a bus. But I think it’s beautiful that when we help others, the benefit to us isn’t just mental or spiritual; our physical bodies are rejuvenated, too. It’s “good for you” in every sense of the phrase to put your hands to work on behalf of someone else.

I understand WHY I should serve… what I don’t understand is HOW I can serve.
Fair enough, you say. There are lots of good reasons to get involved with service, Michelle, but how exactly am I supposed to do that?

March-12_heart

It’s become a bit of a cliché in Christian circles, but this is one overused phrase that really IS A THING. There are seasons in your life when getting involved with service would be the straw that breaks your back. You’re pregnant with a toddler at home? You’re caring for an ill parent or grieving a death in the family? You have little kids and a spouse who works 80-hour weeks? I understand. Oh, sister. I’ve been there. During those times of my life, I wasn’t serving in any recognized, organized way. And y’know what? That is okay. It is alright to make your extended family or your babies or your own sanity your “service” for a little while. Just remember this, friend: seasons change, and when season you currently inhabit begins to wane, take care to stretch your muscles and get back into the swing of service. You will be SO glad, I promise.

In my early 20s, I was a married elementary-school teacher. No kids; medical school husband. We were poor as church-mice, but I had time on my hands. My service in those years was so much fun! I joined United Methodist Women at my church and formed a new “circle” for women my age. I helped with every mission project my Sunday School class and ladies’ Bible study groups dreamed up.

In my later 20s, life shifted. I was a stay-at-home mom to one baby, and my husband was an intern at Vanderbilt. We were new to a very big city, and no lie: that was hard. I attended a little church near our apartment, but I never got involved. No Sunday School, small group, Bible study, or women’s circles. No ways to serve and feel useful. I was barely keeping my head above water that year, and it took me a long time to give myself grace. I eventually remembered that God loved me no matter what – and if all I could manage was to sit in the “cry room” at the back with my baby crawling around eating Goldfish crackers, then He wasn’t up in heaven giving me demerits for lack of service hours. He was LOVING ME right where I was. Same goes for you, sister.

The next change was easier on my heart and my mind. Our move to Northern Kentucky and adding our second baby weren’t as jarring, and the four years of residency gave Chris slightly more family time than intern year had. We joined a church, we met couples and families, we found ways to become a part of the community. I was able to serve as a teacher in Vacation Bible School and help with mission projects once again. And for the first time, I realized that I could teach adults, too. I’ll share more about the group I started there in my next #ContagiousContentment post, but for now I just want to say that if you’ve never explored your spiritual gifts, it’s a great way to figure out what type of service is right for you.

“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”
~1 Peter 4:10

At this stage (I’m in my early 30s, if you’re keeping track) of life, my service opportunities have blossomed again. With kids who are old enough to be involved in children’s ministry activities (and who don’t go to bed at 6:00 pm anymore!) I’m able to participate in more of the things my church offers. I love helping with the children – filling in as a Sunday School or choir substitute teacher – and I’ve started facilitating our adult Sunday School class, too. We’re in the midst of overhauling our church website and social media presence, so I’ve been able to pitch in and help with photography, copy editing, and Facebook posts.

Whaddaya mean, that’s not service? Sure it is. There’s a need… which lines up with some of my skills and talents… and I said yes.

It really is that simple. Service might mean joining a team at your church (serving meals at a soup kitchen or shelter; driving the bus to pick up kids who need a ride to your location; visiting prisoners in your local jail) but it doesn’t have to look like that. Your service will be unique to you – your “season” in life, your gifts, your personality, your community and its needs.

The challenge for today, then, folks, is to spend some time in prayer. Ask God to help you see where your natural gifts and abilities lie. Where can you put yourself to work? Where can you ease a burden, where can you offer love? Give of yourself – whatever is strong or abundant or unique or awesome about YOU – put that on the table.

I sort of feel like I’m being Captain Obvious again, but I’m going to make sure I state this really plainly. When you find your niche, your special place to serve where you know you’re making a difference, you will find your contentment growing. Thea knew what she was talking about twenty years ago: it’s less likely you’ll be discontented when you’re paying attention to filling the needs of someone else.

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How are you serving right now? Or is this “building block” the one you need to add to your tower? I’d love to hear your thoughts! You can also read ahead to building block #4 right here.

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ContagiousContentment

My friend Carla is such a blessing. She’s the first Owensboroan I ever met, and the way we were introduced was such a fun little hug from God. She was the smiling, friendly reassurance that I would “find my tribe” here!  Not only do I love hanging out with her at playdates and small group, but I also love, love, LOVE her online presence. She has “caught” the contentment contagion, and today I’m pleased to have her guest posting here with her thoughts on encouraging our children to have contented hearts!

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Michelle challenged me to write a post about contentment to link up to the wonderful series she has going on contentment.  She said she thought it would go well with my year of Embrace as well as my 2,014 Items in 2014 posts.  I heartily accepted the challenge right away knowing exactly which direction I would go with the post.   We’ve been struggling for a few months now with helping Katie feel content with what she has and I’ve sorta been cranky about it lately.  There’s nothing like a blog post to help you sort through your thoughts and help you see a situation from multiple angles.  But before I begin to pick the age appropriate splinter from my daughter’s 4 year old eye, let me work on digging that old plank out of my own!

I held onto a lot of things as a child. I saved every card, letter, school paper, etc.  My closet was piled high with memento tubs.  Surely my children would love to see the “A” I got on a vocabulary quiz in second grade!  I also held very sentimental attachments to certain toys.  I had a pet net and a pet chain decorating my room.  If I ever put one of my favorite dolls on either rather than in my bed with me, I felt the weight of their eyes staring at me in sadness.  I literally couldn’t sleep until I rescued them from their cages.  I identified quite well with sweet Andy at the end of Toy Story 3 and I may or may not have cried when Woody and Buzz watched their owner drive off into the sunset.  To be completely honest, several of the toys we have in the playroom today were mine as a child.  I’m even guilty of gifting vintage Barbies to Katie for Christmas last year!

How appropriate it is, indeed, that my little Katie loves all things Toy Story.  Here we are years later and a new generation is finding all those sweet pieces of childhood difficult to part with.  I’m sure Katie senses pressure to let go of things because I haven’t always been as gentle as I should be about suggesting we let go of a few toys.  I suppose in many ways I’m hoping that we can guide our daughters to be less attached and sentimental to objects than we were as kids.

In an effort to meet Katie where she is and establish some foundation for learning delayed gratification and contentment, we’ve implemented the following strategies (the credit for all of these ideas belongs to people much more creative than me) :

 

1. Set up a toy rotation

Toy rotations can work in many different ways.  Some people get very creative and have different boxes with different themes of toys to engage their child on different days of the week.  I haven’t put nearly as much effort into it.  We have a red paper box at the top of the play room closet affectionately referred to as the “red box.”  In this box, I will secretly slip toys that I am either annoyed by or notice aren’t being played with as much anymore.  If Katie notices an item is missing she will ask if I can “look for it in the red box.”  If toys are in the red box for several months, I will ask Katie if she’s ready to part ways.  Most of the time the answer is no and the item is suddenly very important again.  But that’s a win-win for inspiring creativity and for giving her something to play with that sorta feels new all over.

 

2. Start a wish list

Another tool in our kiddie contentment toolbox is the Wish List.  A parenting guru I follow suggests that we acknowledge our children’s desires that cannot be granted through wishes.  Katie interprets that as, let’s add what I want to a literal wish list.  So I have a running Katie Wish List on my phone and she asks me to add items to that list.  It’s really cool that she trusts that I’m keeping a legitimate list considering that she can’t read and basically takes my word for it.  But it also serves to remind me of what to suggest to family when they ask for gift ideas as well as reminding Katie of her outstanding wishes.  Although, she is pretty darn accurate at remembering wishes she’s had on the list for months.

 

3. Give an allowance

I must give Katie credit for the self-discipline she has shown with the wish list.  She has been content to wait for a highly anticipated item for months as long as it’s on the list.  But over the past couple of months, the wish list began falling out of favor.  So it hit me, or perhaps the Spirit impressed upon me, that Katie could be ready for an allowance.  And let me tell you, this has been A.MA.ZING!!!

Steve and I agreed years ago that we did not want to give our children a performance based allowance, whether chore based or academic based.  We want to give our children a set amount of money (for now $1 a week feels right) and then teach them the fundamentals of financial responsibility.  As the girls get older, I’m sure the amount will increase and the rules may change or even be different for each child.  We already foresee that we may provide additional income opportunities.  For example, Katie has been a big help in babysitting Levi so I’ve been giving her a dollar of my income.  And we may give extra money for non-routine chores such as vacuuming out a vehicle or weeding the flower bed.

Katie for PP Post
Katie proudly showing off a collection of dolls, one of which she purchased with her first saving up of allowance. She has also purchased a basic $3 yoyo which she added princess stickers to so that it could be as fancy as an expensive yoyo. Future plans include saving up for a “soft Elsa” to take on vacation with us this fall.

 

4. Model contentment

A huge part of parenting in general is modeling the behavior you desire out of your child.  Modeling contentment is no exception.  How can I suggest that they give away their things or resist the urge to own new things if I am not willing to do the same?  This also makes me realize that I should have an open dialogue with my daughters about why I’m taking a load of items to Goodwill or how giving a bag of clothes we no longer need to someone else is an important task.  Of course, this must be explained with a sense of humility.  Other ways I can model contentment is to not choose window shopping as a regular form of entertainment, not sign up for retail catalogs, nor use internet shopping as a distraction from spending time with my children.  Not that shopping has to be a chore or can’t be enjoyed, but frequently placing ourselves in a situation that tempts us to go against things we stand for is not a positive model.

 

5. Have an attitude of gratitude

Lately, I’ve been feeling a calling from the Holy Spirit to view life through a lens of gratitude.  If we are grateful for what we have, who we are, and Whose we are, there’s no excuse to be discontent.  I’m realizing this is also something I need to model and discuss with Katie and eventually with Karis.  If they hear me verbalize how grateful I am for the hand me down clothes, the gently used baby equipment (thanks, Michelle, for both!), or the bargain price on an item, they learn that we can be content with what’s placed in front of us.  We don’t always have to go looking for the latest and greatest just because it exists.

 

Thank you for allowing me to share my ideas on how we can teach contentment to our children.  If you are interested in perusing any of my past or future musings about living out my dream, join me over at Pursuing Prairie!

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Carla joins her cousin in blogging about their “journey toward a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle” at Pursuing Prairie.  Carla is a stay at home mom to 2 precious girls, 4 and 1 years of age, Wifey to an amazing husband, and all around jack of all homemaking trades.

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{Welcome! I’m in the midst of a series of posts about contentment. It all started here, and I wrote about the first building block here.}

IMG_4161

Have you ever watched a toddler build with wooden blocks?  Left to her own devices, a toddler will probably start by grabbing a couple of blocks, licking them, and banging them together.  When a big person gets involved, he demonstrates this magical property blocks have: stackability! The toddler is amazed! She watches as her sibling or daddy or babysitter stacks one after another, that tower rising further and further into the air… and then she gleefully knocks it over, and starts trying to build her own tower.

Hopefully, friends, this series will work that ‘magic’ for you. Maybe you have one or two of these building blocks laying around already, and you’ve begun to see how they feel in your life. Maybe you haven’t tried stacking them up the way I did. Since you’re not a toddler, I don’t expect that you’re going to come try to kick down MY tower of blocks; but perhaps you’ll consider building your own!

Not long after those lessons in submission, God started showing me how ungrateful I could be sometimes. This wasn’t anything new in my life, I suppose I should admit. As far back as I can remember, say 10 or 11 years old, my daddy used to jokingly call me a Serpent-Toothed Child:

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth
it is to have a thankless child!”
~Shakespeare, King Lear

(You know, for years and years, I thought that was in the Bible? Turns out it’s from the Bard instead.) Nevertheless, when my lack of gratitude reared its ugly head from time to time, showing up as entitlement here and disrespect there, Dad would let me know I was being an “STC.”

Years later, when I was a sophomore in college, my mother sent me a VHS tape of “Madame Blueberry: A Lesson in Thankfulness.” If you haven’t seen it, you can watch a clip at the link, but in short: it’s the tale of a blue (sad) blueberry who is dismayed when she sees all the STUFF she doesn’t have. When she meets a child who is thankful for the simple things in life, Madame B realizes how wrong her priorities were.

My mom knew that, even at 18, I loved those singing vegetables. And she was concerned that I wasn’t always grateful for the life I led. I certainly did have so much for which to be thankful. Her care package was a gentle reminder to take my focus off my {real or imagined} “have-nots” and put my focus back where it belonged.

Gratitude is life-changing. Focus-shifting. Re-centering.

Gratitude Contentment

If you are in the midst of the hardest circumstance of your life, I know that this sounds bonkers. Giving thanks isn’t always easy and sometimes it’s downright counter-intuitive. Trust me, I know. I’ve been given lots of chances to put this one into practice. Cancer battles. Miscarriages. Scary job decisions. Relocations. Losing everything in a fire. Marital trouble. Death of a beloved family member.

So don’t imagine that I’m telling you to “find your gratitude” from inside a pink fairy bubble that floats above the rabble. I’m telling you that it’s possible to find your gratitude – from right here, beside you, with my voice  in the mess.

I’m telling you that if you take the ridiculous, crazy, leap of faith to DECLARE YOUR GRATITUDE in spite of the hubbub around you, then you will discover the deepest, most real, most concrete thankfulness you have ever experienced.

Have you ever experienced a sense of gratitude and contentment that transcended the everyday and felt positively holy?

The birth of a child.
The first declaration of love from your spouse.
The sight of an awe-inspiring view of the creation.

As breath-taking and inspiring as that can be, I’m here to bear witness to you that gratitude borne of sorrow or hardship is even more impactful.

But perhaps you’re reading this from a relatively pain-free place. No illnesses or grief stand in the way, and yet, something about this post resonates with you. Gratefulness, yes. This is what I need. My friend, I hear that too. Your challenge is to find thankfulness in the midst of the mundane.

Your average house and your average car.
Your normal children with their constant needs.
Your tedious jobs and good ol’ familiar spouse.

The temptation in front of so many of us is to allow the daily grind to rub away our sensitivity to the gift and beauty all around us. Not every moment has the grandeur of an ocean sunrise or your child’s first breath, and it’s an easy thing to fall into a trap of lacking in thanks until the Big Things Come Along. We ought to celebrate the big things, certainly – but we also ought to search for gratitude for the little moments – interactions – people – that work together to create our everyday existence.

There are so many resources to help you develop a habit of gratitude. There are books and there are pins; you could write yourself a note on your mirror or stick a Post-It on your coffeepot. You could be mindful of the ACTS acronym during your prayer time (to remember elements of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication when you talk to God). You could institute a time of Thankful Things over the dinner table, or challenge yourself to post things for which you are thankful on Facebook.

And as your gratitude habit grows, so will your sense of contentment.

This one is easier to understand, isn’t it? I know that my thoughts on submission might have sounded crazy in relation to contentment, but I have a feeling we can all agree on this one. It is HARD to feel disgruntled and discontent when you are telling your family members, every contact in your digital universe, and the King of all Creation how much you are already thankful for.

Think of gratitude as a daily vitamin. Thankfulness works as a natural prevention treatment for discontentment.  It’s like an antioxidant – but instead of blocking the oxidation & breakdown of your molecules, it inhibits the decay of your “contentment molecules.” The more you protect them with daily doses of gratitude, the larger and stronger they will grow.

Or to put it another way – the taller you’ll be able to stack that tower of blocks.

Click here for the next block in this series!

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BuildingBlocks
{Note: I’m kind of bemoaning the fact that I made this the first building block. I do heartily believe it’s of utmost importance, but this is a loaded word even in Christian circles, and I’m a little bit afraid to post my thoughts out where everyone can see them. I’m pressing “publish” with prayers that you’ll read with an open mind – and if you disagree, please share your heart. Tell me where you see it differently.}

So. This came as a bit of a shock to me, but: apparently, I’m more of a traditionalist than I thought.

I didn’t start out that way! I was 21 when I got married, and even though I could probably have given a well-thought-out speech defining submission within the context of Christian marriage, the truth is that I wasn’t living it out. It took me years – close to ten YEARS – to see where my error lay.

My old pattern was to talk (and talk and talk and talk) my way into convincing my husband that what WE wanted to do was what I wanted to do. If we had a big decision to make, I could debate and argue until I was blue in the face. My strong verbal skills coupled with my innate stubbornness created a monster. His typically-male need for more time to mentally gear up for an argument coupled with his laid-back personality created a conflict-avoidant tendency to agree with whatever I was arguing for simply to end the conversation. And so I gave myself the comforting delusion that the way I approached him WAS a valid expression of submission.

I’m entitled to express my opinion! I told myself. He gets to make the final decision. The buck stops with him. I’m not going around spending money or making time commitments behind his back. It’s just that I’m usually on the “right side” of the decision…  so once I present my case, he just can’t help but see the light and agree with my brilliant insight into the situation. I’m not only a great example of ‘submission,’ but DUDE, I’m the help-meet-iest wife ever!

When I finally looked at my habit with clear eyes and an open heart, I saw that I was manipulating many situations. I was exactly the opposite of submissive – I was being controlling, and what’s worse, I was being passive-aggressive about it.

We had to learn a better way to communicate so that we could put God’s plan for relationships into effect. For my side, I had to learn to share my opinion {just} once. And then I have to stop talking. That part is REALLY, really hard for me! But it’s crucial. My husband is the kind of guy who prefers to gather all his information (which is usually my opinion, some research or data pertinent to the decision at hand, possibly the opinion of others involved like our kids, and sometimes a “gut check” with a man he respects) and he needs a little time to let that all marinate. At some point, it clicks into place for him and he’s ready to talk about it again.

On his side of things, he had to un-learn his habits of “go along to get along.” Instead of suffering in silence if I talk to much, he now says {something like}, “Okay, babe. Give me a minute.” He has started speaking up when he disagrees with me – sometimes on the first pass, and sometimes at the end of his process when he has looked at a decision from many angles. This was the hard part for him, because I had spent so many years reacting VERY poorly when he disagreed with me.

If you have fewer married-lady years under your belt, I hope you’ll take my story as an encouragement to identify your own patterns now, in your early days. Sometimes, it takes the help of a third party to clearly see the messages you may have picked up in your childhood or the way your two personalities are intersecting in good (or not-so-good) ways. We’ve been in short-term therapy several times during our married life, and it has been worth every minute and every penny we invested.

Okay, then, Michelle, so what does “submission” look like at your house now that you’ve got it all figured out?

Ha! Haha ha! Hang on a second while I chortle and chuckle and perhaps emit a ladylike snort.

I told you from the beginning that I really, really DON’T have it all figured out. I’ve just made progress through the years. But, tell you what, I’ll share a couple of stories of what it looks like for me to submit lovingly to my husband of going-on-13-years.

In 2010, my bright young surgery resident was faced with a choice: pick a fellowship or become a board-certified general surgeon. From the outset, this was clearly HIS decision to make; my role was never going to be to tell him “what to be when he grew up.” He did ask me, once or twice, what I thought about it, and I told him (I was really feeling tired of residency life and ready to settle down in a practice, but I knew that if fellowship was the right thing for him that I could make it work for me and the kids).  He decided that general surgery was the best fit for him, and signed up with recruiters.

Physician recruiters, similar to headhunters and recruiters in other fields, have this crazy job: they have lists of openings and they have lists of people. They try to match everyone up like some sort of professional eHarmony. As the calls and emails began to flood Chris’ inbox, I felt a very strong conviction that I could NOT let myself fall into my old habits of talking him in to something I thought I wanted. Chris asked for my input in building his “profile” with the recruiters – together we decided that we’d rather not relocate out west, but anywhere in the South would be preferable. I didn’t veto any major metro area or suggest any state-by-state limits. I was involved in a great ladies’ Bible study group, and I asked my friends there to pray for me to be level-headed and have peace during the job hunt. It was a period of incredible growth for my spirit – and when certain job opportunities came by, it was clear to me that God had been teaching me this principle for “such a time as this.”

One opportunity was for a tiny town in south Georgia. Most people might have glossed right over it. But it wasn’t just any town – it was my paternal grandmother’s town. (If you didn’t know, Thomasville is the closest thing to Heaven on Earth. My Grandmama’s garden is basically Eden, her voice is like an angel, and I’ve never felt more at “home” anywhere I’ve ever lived or traveled. She and my Granddaddy Leo were “home base” when I was a kid – no matter where the Army sent us, I could wing my way back to them.) I was intruiged and hopeful about that job, to say the least. It would have put us 4 hours west of my parents and 5 hours south of his parents. I could imagine raising my kids in the same spots I had spent so much time as a child, myself. But there were aspects of the deal that didn’t appeal to Chris, and so it wasn’t to be.

Another opportunity came along from a small town in western Kentucky. A place we had no ties, no family or history. As Chris gathered information about the job, he expressed excitement – but he was worried that I wouldn’t like the idea. Thank God for the work He has done! I was able to honestly tell the man I love that I would follow him to the end of the earth if that’s what he needed from me. “I can make a home and make a life anywhere,” I told him. “If you are sure it’s the place we need to be, if it’s a practice you can be happy working in for a lifetime, then I’m behind you 100%.” We went to visit, and it was actually a charming place. (You know the end of this story: Chris accepted the job offer, we moved to Owensboro in July 2011, and we’re still living here happily ever after.)

There are more stories – times when Chris’ feeling on a matter differed from mine. Choosing a home when we moved to Owensboro is a biggie (we visited 10; I loved one and he loved another; we bought his favorite. Turns out he was right – if we had bought my preference, in six months I’d have been lamenting how far I was from my new friends. The place he preferred is right around the corner and over the way from my closest girlfriends in town.)

Choosing our next home is an example, too (that story is all laid out here. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but at this point I have faith that when I follow my husband’s lead, things really do unfold and work out in ways I could not have foreseen).

It isn’t always easy. Sometimes, I need to submit even when I really don’t understand his point of view. Want a recent example? Back in the spring, I bought an electric keyboard. It’s been over 20 years since I took piano lessons, and I have dreams of reviving my musical abilities (such as they were). I started working my way through a book for adult beginners, happily plunking out “Happy Birthday” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” While I’m goofily making my version of ‘music,’  our church’s worship band is on-stage every Sunday truly rocking the house. The keyboardist is a sweet young lady who is heading off to college, and our worship leader saw my post on Facebook the day I bought my keys. He suggested that I could brush up on my chords and join the band! At first I thought he was kidding, but he was serious. When Mary started playing with the band, she had never played that style of music before either, and he figured he could teach me enough basics to get up there and play with the band. When I relayed the idea to Chris, his first reaction was to laugh it off. But a few weeks later, when our worship leader asked again, Chris got serious. He laid out a list of reasons that he didn’t think it was a good idea for me to join the worship team.

I’ll be honest: some of his reasons hurt my feelings.  Some of his reasons made me feel defensive. Some of his reasons made me grumpy. But none of those feelings of mine made his reasons wrong.

This is a pretty simple scenario, actually. There’s a commitment available and I’d like to consider it. My husband prefers that I not take on this commitment. What’s a modern married lady to do?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

~Ephesians 5:22-33

I’ll tell you what I did. The next time the worship leader asked if I was ready to fill in on keyboard, I told him that I wouldn’t be able to join the band because my husband had asked me to say no. “Not a fan?” the leader joked. “It’s not that,” I explained, “he loves the music you lead! But he has his reasons he’d rather I not get up there with y’all.” Now I confess: I hate to tell people no, and I felt terrible saying no to such an opportunity. I worried that the guy would think Chris was an ogre for “making me” turn it down, and I let myself fret about it for two or three whole minutes until I remembered: I know the truth of this principle. This house is my Ebenezer. I know that I can follow my husband, I can submit to his leadership, even if I’m not sure why I have to – in that moment.

The peace I found in that moment of remembering? THAT is the reason submission is Building Block #1. A submitted heart is able to be at peace with her circumstances, even if she doesn’t like them or love them or understand them – when she is sitting beside that big old Ebenezer rock, she knows that she can trust her husband and her Lord.  YES – I had a little while feeling discontent (I told you: I was hurt and sad and grumpy! I didn’t want to hear a “no.”) but having a history of submission and the blessing that follows when I’m where I’m supposed to be yielded PEACE and CONTENTMENT once more.

If you’re reading this post and you’re still not sure the dots really connect from submission in marriage to a heart of contentment, trust me. Come back tomorrow for the next piece of the puzzle. I promise it all goes together, and it actually creates a work of beauty.

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ContagiousContentment

I have realized recently how much deeper my state of contentment has grown over the past few years. Some of that is due, I’m sure, to the fact that our life has gotten easier (by many measures) since the end of Chris’ residency. I struggled more with finding contentment when I was worried about paying our bills all the time. So in that regard, feel free to ignore everything I say on this matter. Maybe, a little voice in the back of my head nags, I’m only content because our finances have improved. Maybe I don’t have a right to speak on this matter at all, it says, because I’ve certainly not mastered it!

But then, on the other hand: I know there are people whose income dwarfs ours, who do not feel content. And my inner sense of satisfaction and happiness is so much broader than only being content with the stuff we have. So I think it would be unwise and unfair to say that’s the only thing which impacted my level of contentment. A different little voice – this one from somewhere deeper inside than just the back of my head – tells me that I can speak from where I stand. So from the very start, let me be plain: I know I’m not at the end of this long road! But I’m further down the path than I used to be, so I want to share what I’ve learned so far and encourage you if you’re walking this way.

Here’s what I know for sure. I’m full of hope that one day, I can state with Paul:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11b-13

I think that most Christians, if we’re honest with ourselves, feel a little intimidated by this passage. The Apostle Paul has been arrested, jailed, and mistreated and can still proclaim that he has learned to be content in all circumstances? Jeepers, mister, I get uncomfortable when I notice the neighbor’s new car (or grill, or playset, or well-behaved children). It’s easy to think that if we don’t have that unassailable level of smooth contentment now… we never will.

Throughout God’s Word, we hear the message of sanctifying and redeeming grace. As with other aspects of our character and inner life, contentment is a product of the Holy Spirit working within your heart and mind; it is not something we can force ourselves to have by the power of the will. A vague, simple wanting (I wish I could just be happy!) won’t generate deep contentment. You might be able to produce complacency all on your own! But for true and lasting contentment, you need the Help of your Savior.

So, what has been at work in my heart? Over the past four years, God has taught me so much about four vital principles:

BuildingBlocks

submission
gratitude
service
connection

As I have reflected on contentment the last few days, I realize that each of these attitudes had a direct impact on my feelings of being content. Initially, I thought I could put everything I wanted to say in one post. But you know me: I’ve always got words to spare. Watch for upcoming posts on the four building blocks, and join the conversation by commenting or tweeting #contagiouscontentment.

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