Why Do I Love You?

Why Do I Love You?

There’s a famous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning called “How Do I Love Thee?” You’ve probably read it. But if it’s been a while, here’s a quick refresher of this beautiful, short poem (which is in the public domain):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

You know what I love about this poem? That it doesn’t try to explain why she loves Robert. It doesn’t enumerate his good qualities or how she feels in his presence. It doesn’t talk about the way her heart goes pitter-patter when he smiles at her. It’s not about the why. It’s about the how.

And there’s something so very true about that approach to love, isn’t there? Because we rarely know why we love someone. We just know that we do. We know how it changes us, inspires us. We know how it creates life within our existence.

I am so incredibly blessed to have a husband who tells me many times a day that he loves me. Many times a day, he’ll just look over at me say, “You’re so pretty. How are you so pretty?” Or “I love just looking at you.” I mean, I’m no supermodel. And he usually says it when my hair’s still wet from the shower or a mess from bed. But when I get ready for the day and walk out–which I do most days even when I’m staying home to work, he’ll comment on that too. He’ll tell me how nice I look, how beautiful I am, how lucky he is.

And when I return the sentiments, this man I love so much will sometimes say, “I don’t know why. I mean, everyone should love you. I don’t know why you love me.” It’s become part of the dialogue, part of the script, part of the game. And over the years, my answer has changed. Sometimes it’s teasing, sometimes it’s ooey-gooey. But lately…lately I’ve settled on what I deem the truth. “I love you because you’re you. I love you because you’re my hunny.”

That’s what love is. We don’t just love the things someone does, the words they say, the way they look. We love them. And when we love the core of a person–the place from which all those other things flow–that’s when love roots deep. When it gets at the kind of love God has for us. Our Lord doesn’t love us because we pray or sing or come to church. He loves us. First. Because we are His. Because we are us. And then all those other things…those rise up and overflow from that love. Because He loves us, we learn how to love Him. And when we love Him–not for the things He does or the Words He says, or the way He appears, but for who He is…then our faith becomes unshakable too. Because our faith is just our love for Him.

I certainly didn’t love my babies because they’d done anything right or were great people the moment they were born. I loved them before they were ever even put in my arms because they were them. I didn’t know who that was yet. But I knew they were. And they were mine. Just like David. Just like the family I was born into. Just like my Lord.

On Valentine’s Day, we might give a gift to our special someone (or even many special someones, if you have kids!). We might plan a nice dinner or put on nice clothes. We might try to look our best for them. But if that doesn’t happen this year, you know what? It’s important to remember that those things aren’t part of the why. We don’t love people because they take us out to dinner. We don’t love them because they remember to buy cards. We love them because they’re them. We love them because we can trust them to love us for being us. All those outward things…yes, they can be an indicator of that soul-deep love. But they’re not always. They don’t have to be. People can take all the right actions and not have the right heart. People can have the right heart and not know the actions you want them to take.

Today, this month, this year, let’s not focus on the why. Not in our own lives, and not in other people’s. Let’s not ask why they love the people they do. Let’s praise God for the beauty of love that exists without reason. Love that exists because we do. Love that provides the strength, provides the goodness, provides the words and actions.

Let’s smile, because we know that the answer that may sound like a cop-out is actually the truest answer of all. Why do I love you? Because you are you.

Not Inspired

Not Inspired

I’ll be honest. Though 100% of my income comes from creative endeavors…I don’t always feel inspired.

I don’t always want to write.

I don’t always want to design book covers.

I don’t always want to typeset a book.

I don’t even always want to work on sprayed edges or create beautiful pages or pretty up my website.

There are days and weeks when I don’t want to do any of the things that I do. Days and weeks when I’m tired and burned out and just don’t feel creative. There are days and weeks when I do all the normal things to jump start that creativity–I read and watch favorite movies or shows or try something new or just get extra sleep–and still. Nope. Don’t wanna. Don’t care. Don’t feel it.

And I can indulge that for a little while. I can give myself those times of refreshment and renewal for a few days or even a week, because I know they’re actually an important, crucial part of the creative process.

But here’s the thing…if you let a fallow time go on indefinitely, you know what you’re likely to stay? Fallow. Unproductive. Dormant.

At some point, you have to fire up the tractor and start plowing up those fields of creativity again. You have to start planting seeds. You have to get to work. And then…then the growth will follow. The flowers will bloom. The fruits will ripen. The harvest will come, eventually. But not until we get up and start moving.

So often, I have to get to work whether I want to or not–just like everyone else. And you know that saying about “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?” Yeah, that’s nonsense. Even when you love it, it still requires WORK. It requires EFFORT. It requires MAKING yourself do things even when you’re not in the mood.

It’s supposed to. Because nothing in life always comes easily, with no problems to solve or inertia to push through or attitudes to overcome. Even the things we love take work.

No, wait. Let me rephrase that: Especially the things we love take work.

Think about it. The best, healthiest relationships don’t just exist from sheer luck. They’re solid, healthy relationships because you’re always tending them. And while most of the time that might be easy and fun, it isn’t always. You know that. Every married couple has to have hard discussions. Every best friend needs to be there through the times they’d rather skip. Every parent has cried tears over their child at some point.

It’s the fact that we put in the effort, that we deem it worth working for and at and on, that makes those relationships strong and healthy.

The same is true for our creative pursuits. Inspiration is, in a lot of ways, like a person. It comes for a visit on its own now and then, yes. When the mood strikes. But quite often, you have to be the one to invite it. You have to open the door to it. You have to feed it and get it talking. And then…then it opens up.

But not always–or even often–on its own.

I don’t always feel like being creative at the start of a day. The creativity comes because I sit down and start creating. I don’t always feel inspired. But when I start creating, the inspiration comes.

Ironic case in point: this very article. It was time to write my blog. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Quite frankly, I rarely know what I’m going to write about when I sit down. I just sit down. And I silently whisper a prayer. And I get started. I open up a new post, I stare at the screen for a while, and I start casting about for ideas. What have I been thinking about this week? What’s coming up in the next little while? What have David and I been talking about? And then I write a title. And then I come up with the words to match it.

When I write a book, I don’t always feel a strong drive do unfold this story right now, when it’s time to write. But it’s time to write. So I sit down, and I open my document, and I silently whisper a prayer, and I dive in. And then the characters take hold of me, the story lures me onward, and the inspirations comes.

Professional creatives don’t wait to be inspired. Professional creatives chase the inspiration. We sometimes have to wrestle it into the seat beside us. We work for that creativity. We work at it. We work on it. And you know what? When you’ve invested that much time and effort into building a strong relationship with inspiration…inspiration shows up for you. Just like your best friend.

Don’t wait for the mood to strike, my friend. Sit down and get started anyway. Create something. The inspiration will follow. It doesn’t like to feel left out. 😉

Reach Farther

Reach Farther

This week, a new planner arrived in our house, for my husband. It’s called the Monk Manual, and it’s part planner, part spiritual journal, part training. (Also, just very cool!) One of the reasons we got it for him to try is because it doesn’t just have regular planner stuff…it also encourages you to think through your weekly theme, to reflect at the end of each day on your victories and your challenges…and to have a day set aside to test your own limits. To push hard and see how you do.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially this early in the year, when topics of productivity and efficiency and quarterly or yearly goals are talked about everywhere. And I’ll admit it. Often when I see things on how to be “more productive and efficient,” my hackles rise. Because I like to think I’m very productive. I like to think I’m constantly finding ways to be more efficient. And when I share what I’ve accomplished each week with my accountability partner, my P&P group, and my Write Here, Write Now Facebook group, the responses are always the same, and they always go something like this: “Wow, you amaze me. How do you get so much done?”

But there’s always room for improvement, and I know that. I know that because I’ve always thought I was good at managing my time well, and yet when I look back at where I was a decade ago, I see how far I’ve come.

What’s more, I hear so many creatives talking about the challenges of making time and space for their creativity, and I hear familiar refrains over and over. Refrains I myself have chanted time and again. There’s just not enough time

Sometimes, it’s simply true. Sometimes, we manage everything perfectly well, but there’s just no more space. I know that feeling. I have days and weeks and even months where I know I’m using my minutes and hours wisely, but there still aren’t enough of them to do all the things on the list.

And yet…just as often, or even more often, we are simply content to stay within our limits. But what happens if we reach father? If we stretch? If we push?

I mean, the short answer is that the limits change places, of course. Much like physical exercise, we can push ourselves a little harder and a little harder, and we get stronger, faster, more flexible. The same is true in our work, our creativity, and our general goals.

Last Friday, my husband had an “establish your limits” day in his planner, and at the end of the day, he said, “You know, I really think I did it. I really think I pushed to my limits.” It was a challenge he set for himself, and one that left him feeling accomplished, even though he didn’t actually check off all the boxes of things he wanted to get done. He still knew he’d done a great job at what he did work on, and he hadn’t wasted time or energy. He established his natural limit for where he is at this point in his life.

Now that he knows that benchmark, he’ll strive to hit it regularly. Maybe not every day (because let’s face it, we all have off days!), but most days. It will become the norm. His routine. His standard.

And then he’ll add one more thing. Stretch a little farther. Work a little faster, perhaps. Tackle something that had seemed too big.

There are a lot of ways to stretch our limits. If stamina is our issue, we work a little longer, just by a few minutes. If we work the “right” number of hours but aren’t accomplishing what we want to in them, then maybe we focus on speed instead and try to find ways to make that hour-long task only take 50 minutes. Then 45. Then, maybe 30. If it’s the quality that needs work, then it may be wise to set aside time for learning and practicing.

The important thing, I truly believe, is that we reach. Higher, farther, wider, longer. Strain your muscles–your physical ones, your emotional ones, your spiritual ones, your mental ones. Don’t be content to stagnate where you are, even if you’re in a happy place. Try something new. Learn something more. Chase that dream you’ve always thought was beyond you.

What limits do you need to test and stretch this year?

Complicated, Imperfect Grief

Complicated, Imperfect Grief

Last Thursday, my grandmother died.

I’d just sent out the newsletter with a “Let Me Tell You a Story” segment that reflected on how God’s perfect love welcomes us amidst our own, so very imperfect love. That even though we’re a mess, He came down from heaven for us, and because of that, we can lead a redeemed life, even when we don’t lead a picture-perfect life–reflections from my visit to my grandmother’s bedside at the nursing home, as she lay there in stage 4 renal failure.

When I posted on social media about her passing, the messages of prayers and condolences soon poured in, of course. Along with the usual sentiments about how much we’ll no doubt miss her and how our memories will comfort us, and how much we all must have loved her. And all those things, all of those sentiments…they’re true. But they are so very far from the complete picture.

Because Grandma Helen lived a messy, complicated, broken life. And mourning her is going to require a messy, complicated, broken grief. And you know what? I think that’s not just okay…I think that’s right.

We live in a culture that doesn’t understand mourning anymore, that doesn’t always make room for grief. Especially in Christian circles, we’re often told to just cling to the fact that our loved ones aren’t suffering anymore, that they’re in a better place, and that if we truly believe that, we ought to be rejoicing instead of mourning.

But you know what? Jesus wept when His friend died, even though He knew He was about to resurrect him. He mourned over Jerusalem, even though He knew it would someday be redeemed. Those emotions are part of being human, and they don’t have to be neat and tidy. They often can’t be neat and tidy, because WE aren’t. And because the people we’ve lost weren’t either.

My grandmother had bipolar disorder. It didn’t make itself known until she had kids, but then it struck…and its impact could be felt for generations. It meant a tumultuous childhood for my dad and aunt. It meant periods of institutionalization throughout their youth and my own. It meant that, even when they found meds that worked for her and which kept her stable, she may at any moment decide she was fine and didn’t need them anymore and stop taking them…which would send the family’s world into a tailspin again. It meant manic phases where she’d buy and buy and buy, and depressive phases where she’d say the cruelest things. It meant five failed marriages. It meant behavior that threatened lives with recklessness. It meant countless tears shed countless times.

She wasn’t a perfect mother, wasn’t a perfect grandmother, and we can’t just ignore that as we mourn her loss. Because our love for her, while so very real and so very big, is wrapped up in so many other feelings. Frustrations and disappointments and maybe tinges of resentment.

But that isn’t the whole story either.

Because there are so many amazing bright spots too, which shine all the brighter because it shows the way she loved through her own brokenness–the way she would stop by with gifts out of the blue. Part of a manic phase? Maybe. But even so, she thought of us. The way she served others for decades with her work in the nursing homes, and how she would help her patients with single-minded care and love that left me slack-jawed when I witnessed it. She wasn’t just a nursing aid, she was a champion. Because, I think, she knew what it was to need help. She could make friends so easily and would corral them to church so often. She would take in stray cats because she couldn’t bear to think of them alone and cold and hungry outside. And her laugh! Oh my gracious. My grandmother didn’t just laugh or chuckle. She cackled. You couldn’t help but grin when you heard it.

Anyone with mental illness in their family knows that it makes life…complicated. But they also know that in most ways, depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or OCD don’t create symptoms outside the normal experience–they just amplify them. We all experience highs and lows, compulsions, anxious times, and times where we’re down. The “disorder” is when it’s just more than normal, to varying degrees.

And as I feel my way through this new loss in my life, I realize this anew. Because we are all, in some ways, like my grandmother. We all love our families and God imperfectly. We all have moments of generosity and moments of harshness. We’re all a mess–I know I am.

And we’re all redeemed, if we choose to put our hands in our Savior’s, like Grandma Helen did. We’re all loved so perfectly by Him, even as what we offer to him is broken and weak and twisted by our own biases and understandings. But still, He came down from heaven for us. He became man for us. He suffered for us.

We’re all going to suffer in this world, too. Maybe from physical ailments, maybe from mental ones. Maybe from loss of fortunes or loss of loved ones. We’re all going to suffer…and we can know He suffers with us. We can know that, if we let it, that suffering can draw us closer to Him. Show us the depths of His love. And then He can use it to help us reach others who suffer too.

Remembering my grandmother can’t be just remembering the good times, though we certainly will remember those. Why? Because that’s not the full picture, and we lose the beauty of the redemption if we ignore the broken people that needed redeemed to begin with. We are not just our strengths–we are our weaknesses too. Jesus loves us in those weaknesses. We need to love each other in those weaknesses. And so mourning and grief need to make room for them as well.

Grief doesn’t have to be simple. How can it be, when people aren’t? Grief shouldn’t be simple. It shouldn’t be ignoring so much of a person because we’re afraid of how it might look. Instead, I think it should be acknowledging those faults and flaws…and marveling at how they still loved, how God still used them, how those faults and flaws are always paired with graces and strengths.

I do take immense comfort in knowing that in heaven, there’s no more brokenness. No more imbalance. No more disorder. I know that when united with Christ, all those imperfections get lost in His perfection, that she stands before Him now as the person she was always meant to be, the person she was beneath the illness. And that does bring me joy, not just for her, but because it reminds me that we are all shackled by chains of weakness and sin, but they’ll fall away someday. We’ll all be as free as she is now.

Some day, I’ll hear her cackling in heaven, I know. And I’ll grin, and I’ll embrace her. There will be only joy then. But for now, I’ll give room to the sorrow. To the complication. I’ll think through who she really was and how she’s shaped our lives. And I’ll thank God for the 41 years I knew her.

Because You Ask Not

Because You Ask Not

You do not have because you do not ask.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives,
so that you may spend what you request on your pleasures.

~ James 4:2-3

Have you ever felt like you stand at the door and knock…and no one answers? Or perhaps that someone comes to the door and promises to help you, but minutes and hours go by and you’re still standing out in the cold, waiting? Have you ever looked around, and seen other people seemingly skipping through life, bumbling along from success to success, and you just can’t quite squelch that feeling of Why not me?

Most of us as believers have a kind of strange relationship with money. We see those who eschew it, who use every penny for ministry, and we admire them. The monks and the missionaries, right? I read the stories of George Muller or St. John of the Cross and just think, Wow. Their trust was so complete! But at the same time, we recognize that we have families with needs that must be met. Or we have dreams that need funding. We take it all before God and ask Him to provide…or maybe we do the traditional thing and get a job that pays well, to fund not only our lives but what we view as our callings.

Is there are a right or wrong way to approach these things? For that matter, are we dreaming the right things? Asking for the right reasons? Taking the right steps?

I’m not going to come to you today with any answers at all, LOL. But as the new year stretches out before us and my husband and I try to figure our what we will do and chase and dream in the year to come, we wanted to pause to ask these questions too, especially in light of a podcast we listened to together.

The podcast is called The Art of Accomplishment, and this episode was “Much Ado about Money,” in which one of the hosts told his story about having a love-hate relationship with money all through his early life, born of a resentment of how his father pursued financial success above his family. Joe told the tale about how, as an adult, he would vacillate between “job that raked it in” and then “rejection of it and being broke and in debt.” For him, what changed it was when he and his wife started a daily practice of gratitude.

This grabbed our attention as we listened. Though this host was raised in the church at least nominally, he doesn’t currently identify as Christian…and he certainly wasn’t offering a “prosperity gospel” approach. There was no, “Be a good Christian and God will reward you with money.” No, he had a very interesting, intriguing take. And it is this:

The more he and his wife appreciated what they had, the less they focused on what they didn’t have. The more they saw how blessed they already were, the less they felt the lack. And after a few months of retraining their spiritual and emotional eyes to see the abundance, the more potential for abundance they began to see. Simple, small opportunities that before they wouldn’t even have noticed began popping up. People they previously would have either resented or sneered at became friends, and those friendships opened doors. They didn’t then return to those jobs that had written a good paycheck. They chased dreams they just hadn’t seen before, when they were blinded by the “don’t have enough” outlook.

The podcast talks about a whole lot more than that, but this was the part that struck me and stuck with me. Because it fits so well with that passage from James quote above. We don’t have because we don’t ask. We ask and don’t get it because we’re not asking for the right reasons. We just want things selfishly, to bring us pleasure or happiness. But we need to ask for what HE wants for us, for the good of HIS kingdom.

And what’s more, we need to have eyes to see what’s around us. The opportunities and the needs. The people who so desperately need to hear the hope we can offer them, and the ones so desperate to help us if we’re humble enough to invite them in.

I’ve written before about how I hear (including in my own head!) so much complaining in this world today. I hear so often how people who have everything “don’t have enough” to chase their dreams. We’ve said it too! “We’d love to create this, but we just don’t have the funding.” Okay, sure. That’s simply true. But…what am I missing? First, am I pursuing things that will glorify God, and seeking them because they glorify God? If so, then what have I looked past that could have helped me? Am I trying to do it all on my own might…or just sitting back lazily waiting for God to drop something from the sky? Neither approach is right, I think.

Jesus talks to us about “having eyes to see” when He speaks of “healthy eyes” and “bad eyes.” Those “eyes” weren’t talking about our actual vision, but about the ability to see those in need around us. That fits here, too, I think.

Do we have eyes to see where He is already moving? Do we have eyes to see the answers and opportunities waiting all around us? Do we have eyes to see His footprints in our world and follow them?

In the coming months, my husband and I are going to be doing this daily practice of gratitude. We’re going to be examining each aspect of our lives and thanking God for all the good things He’s blessed us with in them. And then we’re going to pray that He opens our eyes. Not to what will benefit us…but to what will equip us to chase after Him.

I’ll let you know how it goes, LOL.

A Soft Answer

A Soft Answer

“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
~ Proverbs 15:1

I’ll admit it. I sometimes have trouble reading through the book of Proverbs. Not because I don’t love the wisdom in there…but because I don’t honestly know how to read it in a way that lets me absorb it. These chapters don’t tell a story. They’re not even a single poem or song, like in Psalms. Instead, through much of the book, each verse or couplet is its own thing. It’s own wisdom. Only occasionally do you get a chapter that’s one cohesive thought.

On the one hand, I love these bite-sized bits of musing and thoughtful pondering. On the other…reading through a whole chapter of them usually leaves me without a clue as to what all I just read. And yet, some certainly stick in our hearts and minds, especially when they’ve been oft-quoted. And the opening wisdom of Proverbs 15 is certainly one of those.

As a generally soft-spoken person who rarely gets angry (frustrated, but not angry very often), this is a verse I always thought I understood. And one I also always appreciated. Because it’s true, right? If you yell at someone, it’s only going to make them angrier. Wrath begets wrath. Or as Dale Carnegie observes in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the moment you lose an argument is the moment you START an argument. Which is to say, you never win anything by arguing. Definitely a philosophy that aligns with that proverb.

A proverb that today’s outrage culture could stand to take more seriously, right? When something gets us angry, offends us, or makes us want to rant (on social media or otherwise), we could certainly stand this reminder: harsh words will only make everyone more angry. To turn it away, to seek healing instead of rifts, we need a different approach.

And last week in the Marco Polo group for Patrons & Peers, one of our members, Lee Anne Womack, pointed out something I’d never considered before about this verse: That it doesn’t necessarily speak to how others react. It speaks to what happens in our own hearts.

Cue the mind-blown emoji. Let that sink in a for a moment.

We can’t actually determine how others react to us. Sometimes if we give a soft answer instead of an angry one, it will diffuse a situation…but let’s be honest. Sometimes if we stay calm, that makes the other person even angrier. It will lead them to shout, “You don’t even care!” Or they’ll call us smug or cold or stupid.

But what does a soft answer do to our own hearts? That’s the thing that Lee Anne’s insight made me ponder. Because a true soft answer doesn’t mean saying one thing but meaning another, right? It means answering from love instead of frustration…which means seeing them through the lens of love. It means that even when we speak hard things, we do it in a gentle and loving way. And when we do that, when we view people we’re in opposition to at that moment through love’s eyes–through God’s eyes–what happens to us?

The anger melts away. Sometimes it allows us to see that we shouldn’t be angry at the offense but sorrowful at the sin. Sometimes it lets us see that their point of view is perfectly legitimate. Sometimes it enables us to see that they’re acting from pain, not from hatred.

Our soft answer turns away our own wrath and makes room for compassion. For empathy. For love.

But what if we give a harsh word instead? Certainly–without question–it will make the others angrier. That goes without saying. But reflect on what it does to our own hearts too.

The more we grumble, complain, and speak of offense, the more negative, outraged, and angry we become–not just with a particular person, but with the world. With generations. With whole groups of people. Harsh words breed disdain, condescension, bias, prejudice, bitterness, and hatred.

And those harsh words don’t even have to be spoken to that person. They can just be mumbled and grumbled under our breath, or spoken to friends and family about those people. In those cases, the person in question can’t respond to us, because they don’t know what we’re saying. They aren’t being “stirred up.” But WE are. We are stirring up ourselves, our own anger, all the dark things that pull us down, away from God, away from loving our neighbors as He calls us to love them.

There’s a strange, seductive allure to holding onto anger. To finding reasons to be frustrated and outraged and offended by people. But ultimately, it’s only our own hearts that suffer. So how can we instead practice giving that “soft answer”…not just to and for them, but in order to keep our own hearts soft?