Full Plates and Starved Lives

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

For those of you who have ever resided with a teenager, you too may be intimately familiar with that particular declaration. It is, quite possibly, the phrase I hear spoken most often by my beloved son. I quickly came to recognize the challenges of satiating the hunger that comes with an active body, growing from a child into a man. Unless you love being in the kitchen – of which, I do not – one or two meals are all I am prepared to concoct. That leaves satisfying his hunger in-between meals entirely to him. The sequencing of events goes something like this: He declares his hunger. I offer several nutritious options; he opts for a bag of chips or other junk food, providing momentary satisfaction – but empty calories are not sustaining – leading him back to me a few hours later with further, “I’m hungry” utterances.

While I’m tempted to roll my eyes at his repeated folly, I would have to admit the landscape of my life can look much the same way. I feast on achievement. I snack on control, power, and security. I nibble on relationships, love, and praise.

If I could shed ten pounds. GULP!

If I could secure this raise.  SLURP!

If I could just get him/her to change. CHOMP!

If I could purchase….. GLUG!

I consume until my belly becomes distended. I dine until my plate is full. And then it’s God’s turn to lovingly raise His eyebrows at me when I turn towards Him and say, “I’m still hungry.” 

With each day, whether or not we are aware of it, we embark on a journey to crest the summit of abundant life. Since the creation of mankind, man has sought this zenith. What determines and defines abundant life is unique to each of us. For some, its roots are based in fulfilling relationships. Others seek to embrace the experiences and wonder this life and our world have to offer. Still, others pursue influence, in its various forms, to author and enable change. Our characterization of abundant life is as dynamic as it is distinctive. It evolves over time: as we age, obtain new experiences and knowledge, as we define and clarify our values, as our circumstances and external environment reshape our perspectives. By themselves, or in combination, these pursuits are worthy and good. So how is it that we can often feel bloated and famished at the same time?

Much like I stock our pantry, our world is filled with a bounty of tasty morsels intended for our enjoyment. When we partake without intentionality, what would have been sustenance can quickly morph into empty calories. As we stand before the storeroom of life, surveying its contents and considering our choices, our mindset will ultimately determine what we reach for; we will either be relief-focused or purpose-focused.

When we are relief-focused we are most concerned with a reprieve from pain, discomfort, and distress. We tend to reach for that which will quickly alleviate the gnawing sensation in the pit of our stomach. While we may immediately dull the ache, we fail to address and, or recognize the source of our need. In much the same way our brain triggers a hunger signal, not because we need food in our belly, but because we need nutrition in our system, our heart will alert us to aspects of life which are less than they were intended to be. When we neglect the root of our longings, our lives can become obese with broken relationships, overloaded schedules, and stretched finances.

Keep in mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing a relief-focused remedy. The nature of freedom is that it gives rise to choice; we can choose relief or purpose. At times, relief is exactly what we need. When relief becomes our default, either because we don’t recognize an alternative or because we don’t know how to pursue one, we become bound to a life that is less than; forfeiting the very freedom we long for.

When we are purpose-focused we put-off immediate gratification and withstand the ache while we do the work to achieve a greater aspiration. Being purpose-focused directs our sights towards that which is beyond our immediate craving; remedying the source of our longing rather than the symptom. In doing so, we not only pursue our objectives but along the way we discover we are stronger, more courageous, and more adaptable than we had previously believed. We endure loneliness while we seek deep connection. We go back to school to broaden our horizons. We invest in healing old wounds so present relationships may flourish. We curtail our spending on frivolous purchases to reinvest in meaningful consumption. When we nourish our souls in a purpose beyond the “now,” it lifts us from our present circumstances and engages our hearts in a greater calling. Then we can dine and be satisfied.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Unleash Life by Befriending a Dragon

As a child we dream without limits. Our hopes roam free. Our imagination constructs grand and courageous dreams. We become athletes and astronauts, magicians and physicians. We are damsel-saving knights who slay dragons. We are indestructible and fearless, and in our most imaginative moments the impossible becomes possible; our enemy becomes an ally and we befriend a dragon.

As a child, I loved watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I marveled at the men and women who swam, biked, and ran 140 miles of glory in the Ironman. Though undersized and asthmatic, I hoped to one day complete that race. My body had real limitations, but my heart, filled with childhood wonder, would not let that stop me. My limitations were just a piece of the puzzle to be figured out. If you have ever listened to an adolescent describe their future, it’s wide open and filled with limitless possibilities. They dream unconstrained by time, finances, or physical parameters. As adults we marvel at their high-hopes and in our skepticism, we temper their aspirations with feasibly, reasonableness, and realism.

Is it any wonder? Our own child-like dreams became bound in a world filled with limits as life progressed. We yielded to that which was safe and secure. We resigned ourselves to the practical and realistic. Some of us surrendered our journey to the opinions of authority figures such as parents, teachers, and coaches. Over time our dreams became unattainable, a waste of time, or that which wouldn’t pay the bills. Real adversaries: stereotyping, bullying, and discrimination – the side effects of a broken world – eroded our self-esteem, diminished our self-confidence, and tapered our passion. At times we became our own prison warden, relinquishing our dreams out of fear and past failures. Even when these external forces were not restrictive, the demands of maintaining a job, caring for children, or health limitations became too difficult an obstacle to overcome.

With both real and perceived barriers our world got smaller. Our focus became living within limits rather than pressing against them to experience life to its fullest. Our once cherished dreams were discarded as lost relics in dusty boxes. Now we trudge forward on what feels like a predestined path, rather than carving out our own path. The light which once sparked our imagination is snuffed out.

By the time I was 40 years old, my Ironman dream was locked in a box. While my asthma was long gone it had been replaced by a new diagnosis: Type 1 Diabetic. Diagnosed at twenty-six, the Ironman would not be the only dream I would allow to wither away. After a decade and a half of living in the shadows, I began to realize that person I had become and the person I wanted to be were not one and the same. I determined that to move forward, out of the shadows and into life, I had to look back.

To live a no-limits life we must recapture the dreams of our youth and breathe new life into them. Adults spend a lot of time in the past recollecting the good-ole-days; holding them dear as our last great moments. A child instead looks to the future with anticipation and with a vision of what could be. Authentic life demands we do the same. Ironically as adults, we actually have much greater means and ability to execute our dreams than we did as a child, but our imagination muscle has atrophied. Fortunately, as with all muscles, it can be strengthened and exercised until it can once again envision a vast future.

Relying on my inner child, the obstacles of life once again became a puzzle to be solved. I unpacked my old dreams; discarding those which no longer held their splendor and claiming those which did.  My heart leaped most at returning to athletic pursuits and the outdoors. Rather than keeping these moments in the past I started placing them in my future. Instead of defaulting to “I can’t,” I began to ask “How can I?” The latter opens a door for action, whereas the former shuts it down. The question “How can I?” looks at fear, norms, and discrimination and begins to question their hold. Rather than remaining bound we begin to examine that which binds us. Our ropes become a puzzle, not a prison. 

Faced with a puzzle, the question becomes do you want to stay bound or do you want to pursue the joy beyond. The questions of “how” must graduate to “when?” A hypothetical is turned into a timeline for action. There is joy to be found in this moment alone, having broken through your internal barrier. As our joy spills into conversations surrounding our new discovery and plans we often face another external barrier. We are told we are crazy, too old, or given practical reasons why something cannot or must not be done. Many dreams die here. However, with our child-like spirit, we can shrug off the naysayers. We can look at the practical problems as puzzles. Solving the puzzles then gives us even more confidence in stepping forward towards our dream. 

Too often we allow ourselves to be bound from pursuing the amazing things for which our hearts long. Playing it safe or staying where we are can appear alluring in its simplicity, after all, our prison is familiar. Breaking the bonds can seem so hard to do, but you will quickly find that it is not unlike unraveling a rope. It is difficult at first, but once you have released some slack, the rest of the knots fall away quickly. The impossible becomes possible. Are you ready to befriend a dragon? 

Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

Embrace The Ick

It’s dinnertime and my then-seven-year-old is running around the kitchen, gleefully keeping a bouncing ball away from his younger sister. “Cade, put the ball away and get ready for dinner, please.” It was simple request; one sentence with two fairly direct instructions. I had forgotten however, that when their little pleasure receptors are in high gear, children lose their ability to understand grown-up talk. You didn’t think the adults in Charlie Brown spoke in unintelligible wah-wah-wahs just for comedic effect, did you? Silly rabbit – it’s all about the neuroscience. My words, lost in translation, don’t make it to his language pathways and the game ensues.

I try shortening the command, hoping to slip it into the width of his attention span. “Cade, put the ball away.” Translation: wah-wah-wah. Ugh! “Cade. Ball. Away. NOW.”

Then the inevitable happens, Cade trips and falls flat on his face at my feet. In my best mommy voice, I peer down at him and say “See, if you had put the ball away when I asked that wouldn’t have happened.” Feeling a sense of superiority of having been right, I awaited his apology for his failure to attend.

Cade, collecting himself from the floor, dusts himself off and in a respectful, but firm, tone says, “YOU should be more concerned about whether I am okay, and less about whether or not I listened to you in the first place.” From the mouth of babes! He was right! But, not willing to give him the satisfaction, I sent him off with a parental glare. Another great mommy moment for the history books.

I love God and my children fiercely! Ironically, I seem to fail them frequently. I don’t intend to, but seemingly out of nowhere, my unsightly side leaks out. God in His kindness has seen fit to use my children to show me my heart. EEEEK!  It’s not always a pleasant sight, and occasionally leaves me and my kiddos looking at the mess thinking, “Wow, that’s……gross.”

Relational blunders are par for course. In God’s sovereignty, He allows everything first for His heavenly purposes, and secondly for our benefit. What else can teach us most about His heart, and our own, then our most intimate of relationships; our spouses and our children. God’s teachable moments, those everyday interactions with those to whom we have pledged ourselves, can reveal our heart’s messiest of places. Confronted with those messy places we can run from them, conceal them, pretend they don’t exist, or we can hold them under a microscope, dissect them, and ask, “Eeeew! What was that?”

Every mess, every less than glorious interaction with those whom we fail to love well, reveals something about our heart that God longs to redeem! His intention is not to shame us into obedience or burden us with guilt, but to invite us towards greater rest, love, and freedom.

Love would have extended a hand and asked Cade if he were okay, without the admonishment.

Rest would have cast-off the timetable and relentless evening schedule to enter his joy. 

Freedom would have summoned me to join the game and embrace all-too-fleeting childhood moments.

That evening’s incident said far more about my heart than it did about Cade’s. I had intended to impart the lesson that there is wisdom in obedience. Instead, my ego took over and taught him that I valued being right over his well-being; a lesson which took far longer to uproot from his heart than it did to plant. Each glimpse of our heart comes with an invitation to enter the ick and consider what we find there. We can dismiss the ick because its unpleasant, or we can embrace it and allow it to lead us towards a greater understanding of that which prevents us from offering ourselves fully. Why did my ego need to feel powerful over a seven-year-old? Ick! Those are hard questions, but stepping towards it, is how we find our way through it.

Cade and I both fell on our face that night. Much like his ball, my own brokenness can distract me from His voice. In fact, I frequently find myself tripping and falling face-down at the feet of my Savior, but I am endlessly in awe of how well He loves me there. Thankfully, God is a perfect Father. When we fall down, He cares outrageously more about whether we are okay than whether we listened to Him in the first place.

Photo by Andre Guerra on Unsplash