Practicing Love

Growing up, the weight of deep obligation haunted me every week following Christmas and my birthday. My mom would provide the small cards, the envelopes, the stamps, even the pen. But what would I say? A lack of words left me with a lack of motivation.

This was the dread of writing thank you notes. I knew I needed to do it, but the only reason I had been given was that I wouldn’t get presents again in the future if a thank you note wasn’t written. Those kind of threats work for a period, but eventually it made me hate the task more. How dare you hold my presents for ransom? What kind of person does that?? Good, solid kid logic there.

I always imagined I would reach adulthood and burn all the thank you notes, refusing to do any more.

The practice is too deeply rooted though. It still is not something I enjoy or look forward to, but once I’m in the middle of it I am reminded of the value of the practice itself.

Thank You Notes

By writing thank you notes, I learned how to express gratitude. It conditioned me to find the good in something, even if it wasn’t what I asked for. Each note grafted writing on to my heart, teaching me how to use words and express myself with the diligent effort of putting pen to paper. As my writing ability improved, the notes themselves became a way to say the words I was too shy to say aloud. Thanks. I love you. You are important.

Now, when I write a thank you note, I try to intentionally do two things:
  1. Show my sincere appreciation.
  2. Affirm that person’s value.
We don’t do these things enough. Whether it be verbally, through text, or by physically writing it out, it can seem awkward to tell someone how you feel and praise them for what they have done. I know not everyone gives or receives love in this way, but perhaps that is because we haven’t practiced it enough.

Imagine a world where we practiced different ways of loving people and learned how to feel love in all those different ways. It requires understanding someone else’s needs, showing concern for their perspective, and being open to a different point of view. The world would be a much lovelier place.

Love, like gratitude, is something that needs to be practiced. It can feel like a burden at first, something you don’t know how to start and resent any obligation to. But those are excuses that create a distance of heart, guarding ourselves to the point that no love can get in and no love can get out.

The world is already dark enough, let us practice living a life that brings more light.

I dare you to do something out of the ordinary to express your gratitude and love for someone else this week. Write a thank you note, do the dishes, give a hug, buy a present. You may not know where to start, but by the act of beginning has a magical way of giving us the momentum to continue.

Practicing love intentionally grows love that then becomes unintentionally easier. Even when the effects aren’t seen immediately, it is always worth the effort.

How do you feel about writing thank you notes?
In what ways do you practice love?
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Lessons From Dad

“Don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t smoke marijuana, and don’t drink alcohol till you are 21.”
That was the phrase my dad threw at me almost every day of middle school and high school. He told the people in our carpool, my friends who came over, and eventually my boyfriends as well. My mom insisted he said those things because he did them all when he was my age. I insist that he brainwashed me brilliantly by seeming to make something serious into a joke.

Fathers come in all shapes and sizes, but I have noticed a trend among them as well—they teach you more through actions than words. Many dads I know don’t give you specific life advice unless asked, nor will they lay out their lessons in plain English. They teach you through experience and example, whether they mean to or not.

Most of my friends knew him as the funny dad. He has some go-to jokes, like telling our 30 lb. furball dog to “attack!” and “sic ‘em!” or saying “I’m leaving now, if there is an emergency call 411.”

In this way, I learned to not take life too seriously. I also learned how to make excellent puns.

My dad isn’t the type to get overly emotional or expressive about telling you his feelings, but I always knew that he loved me and was proud of me. How? Because of his wardrobe. He owns a baseball cap and t-shirt for every school my brother and I have been to, and he wears them constantly, especially when we would go out somewhere public. I would also hear from his clients or friends about how my dad would tell them stories about his children and the things they were doing that made him proud. He embarrassed me many times growing up, but it was an embarrassing form of love that I always secretly appreciated.

Dad - thanks for teaching me how to be goofy and awkward and smart and fun all at once. And thanks for always taking me to Disneyland.

Dad – thanks for teaching me how to be goofy and awkward and smart and fun all at once. And thanks for always taking me to Disneyland.

There is also a deeper side to my dad that he does not show to the world, and I noticed it only through years of observation.

He has an amazing ability to do complicated math problems in his head. Before a GPS could tell you your estimated arrival time, my dad could multiply the mileage and speed of travel to estimate time and also tell you how often the tank will need to be filled up. Sure, he is an accountant for a living, but math is more than second nature to him.

Last year while cleaning out a room in my parent’s house, I found his sash of patches from boy scouts. Turns out, my dad was an Eagle Scout! In his words: “My father told me I couldn’t get my driver’s license till I became an Eagle Scout. Most people accomplish that by age 17, I did it by 16.” He nonchalantly dismissed the achievement and said I could throw out the badge, but of course I didn’t.

My dad is also what I would call an undercover introvert. He needs large amounts of alone time and dreads large social gatherings, but if put in that situation he transforms into an affable, entertaining people-person. It isn’t false or artificial, but rather a skill of pushing beyond one’s comfort zone for the benefit of relationships. I definitely picked up this skill, which is why many people I know insist that I’m extroverted even though I’m a die-hard introvert. Like father like daughter.

Most of all, my dad has demonstrated what perseverance looks like. He might not admit it himself, but I saw it weekly growing up when he took out the recyclables and trash, maintained the pool in our backyard, and took care of the day-to-day elements no one else wants to do. (Of course, my mom deserves a lot of credit in these things too.)

There have been a lot of moments over the years where I thought the emotional stress of personal issues or family struggles would break his perseverance. I marveled at his ability to soldier on, keeping a smile on his face. I picked up that ability to smile from him too, without ever realizing it.

My dad never sat me down to teach me how to tell a good joke, how to make complicated math problems easy, how to be social even when you are an introvert, or how to smile and persevere. I learned these things simply because of the way he lived and the example he set.

It is a good reminder for us all, to consider what we teach those around us by the way we live. But for fathers especially, your silent leadership is noticed more than you realize.  

Fatherhood, and masculinity in general, does not depend on one’s ability to grill or throw a football or coach a soccer team. My dad did all of those things, but they aren’t what make him a good dad or a good man. Courage, strength, and love to provide for us in every way—those are what count.

To all the dads out there, thank you for all that you do. To the men who have been a father figure to someone else, thank you. To the men who stand up for others and provide care or support for those they love, thank you. No one is perfect, but you teach us valuable lessons in your everyday actions. Take the time to acknowledge these men in your life, not just today but every chance you get.

What did your dad teach you?

Half Way There, Already Good

Yesterday marked the half way mark for my month-long challenge to write every day. So, of course, I didn’t feel like writing today.

I was tired, grumpy after a long weekend of travel, and altogether uninspired. The words I wrote about motivation two days ago had slipped away and seemed irrelevant. Why was I doing this again?

So I took some time to look through the journal I’m using for my year-long challenge to write more days than less. At least once each month there is an entry where I blubber about my lack of success and dissatisfaction with my progress.

Here is one from March 30:
“Once again I was not successful in writing more days than less this month. I can think of plenty of excuses, but the only judge listening is myself—and I don’t think I’m a fair judge.”

This is especially funny when I’m looking at a journal that already contains more entries than my journal from last year. I am definitely not an impartial judge, I am far too close to the subject.

After scanning through pages of self-criticism, I realized how it is possible to be over-concerned with self-improvement. I am never content with myself where I am, and I have a constant list of things I would like to work on. I want to do more sewing projects, cook more creative meals, exercise more often, spend more time outside, try to learn another language, read the giant pile of books next to my bed, and then read the ones I have on a separate list on my phone. More more more. This is the American Dream. And it is exhausting.

Some people don’t ever self-evaluate and actually need to, but I over-evaluate and need to cut back. This mindset causes other common problems like desperation for affirmation, deep fear of rejection, and perfectionism. If I’m being kind to myself I will admit that I’m less of a perfectionist than I was five years ago, because my confidence grew and my need to prove myself declined.

For those of you who can relate—we shouldn’t blindly accept perfectionism as part of our personalities. Being a perfectionist is not who I am, and that is a radical realization of God’s presence in my life. Perfectionism is a learned quality, not innate or natural.

I believe God loves us as we are, Christ died on the cross for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), and we are freely given grace and forgiveness (Ephesians 1:3-14). Those things inspire us to pursue a life that is a better reflection of Christ, but they do not require us to prove that we deserve Christ’s love.

Nature's imperfections

Nature always reminds me of the beauty in imperfection

While reading through my journal entries, I also found days where I managed to defend myself and accept this kind of radical grace. I found this bit of inspiration from an entry in February:

“I can’t do everything I would like. The attempt is noble, and we should never give up on growth. However, there is a difference between seeking success as a necessity and seeking growth in opportunities. It is a balance between trying to prove or improve oneself. One is done out of pressure-filled expectation, the other is forgiving and accepting of any result.”

I have to be careful with all these challenges I give myself, remembering they are not efforts to prove myself or chores that I must do begrudgingly. Growth is important and necessary in our lives, but it shouldn’t be surrounded by a fear of failure or pressure to measure up. I love God, and I want to commit to pursuing a life that is a reflection of God’s grace. I love writing, and I want to commit to give it my best even when I don’t feel like it. The effort of trying counts more than the results. We can never be perfect, and we don’t have to be.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Perfectionism and over-concern with self-improvement are aspects of this world. God gives us the opportunity to redefine our efforts and renew our mindset to one of grace. Only in that way do we realize that God is the only kind of good, acceptable, perfection we need.

Do you struggle with constantly wanting to improve?
How do you handle it?

Be Still and Believe

You might have noticed that it’s been a good long while since I last posted. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I’m going to halt my incessant need to apologize and be honest: I needed this break, and I’m not going to be sorry about taking it. Truthfully I’m probably speaking to myself right now more than you, because you are probably much more forgiving of my not blogging than I am of myself.

 

Either way it has been a good month for me – one filled with lots of reflection and purposefully less doing.

I read this article today on Relevant Magazine’s website titled “The Question We Should Never Let Make or Break Us,” and it spurred me back to a courage I had temporarily lost, or maybe never even had. The article centers on the issue of how we let our jobs or what we do define who we are. This is incredibly common in our culture, and it is contrary to the radical idea of letting who we are simply be a definition in itself.

The writer, Rachel Dymski, said this:
         “I find myself fighting the battle, with others and within myself, to be something. We all do. But I’m learning that the way to this being is not by constant, distracted doing. And so, one by one, I let go of these trophies of doing, and find my heart is lighter than it was when I gripped to them so tightly.  My worth, it seems, was completely independent of these trophies all along.”
 

 
My whole life has been filled with this kind of identity, where my trophies of doing defined who I was. First, I was a dancer, because for thirteen years that’s what I did day in and day out. Next, I was a leader in our student government, doing all I could to be someone who made a difference. Then, I was a college student, who was thus defined by what I did in terms of study: English and Communications major. Now, I have faced all of these things, and have still found my identity incomplete. Why?

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

We all have to believe in something, it is the life blood that colors our character and outlines our lives as individuals, a crowning glory for most Americans. We define ourselves by these opinions, whether it is believing in a higher power, in freedom, in the American dream, in anger, in sex, or in money. Even those who say they don’t believe in anything, well their denial is actually a belief in denial, a belief in believing nothing.

I believe in love.

Some people call my kind “romantics.” For me, I think it developed out of a childhood watching Disney movies. Despite all the critics of Disney, I think it taught me more good than bad, especially since that’s where I learned to dream big and wish bigger. That quality also taught me to believe in a love so pure and unrealistic we can only find it in fairy tales. It wasn’t until I was many years older that I realized this love could also be found in God.

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The Single Syndrome and Trusting God

The other day I had an inspiring conversation with a close friend of mine about the challenges of being single in her life. I know I am not personally single, which might make me completely unqualified to speak about it, but I was single once upon a time.

Actually, I have found over the years that although being in a relationship can be a wonderful thing, it also has its challenges and limitations. It seems to be a disease of our society that people no longer think being single is ok – instead you should always be dating or looking because otherwise you won’t find Mr. Right and then you have no chance at a happily ever after. Seriously?

Culture defines relationships and our lives in this way, but that is where Christians can take the chance to speak out against that lie. Unfortunately though, sometimes we are even worse at supporting singleness and avoiding the hysteria of believing marriage is the ultimate end-all be-all. We seem to think that relationships are good, and singleness is bad, but we forget to even consider what God might have to say about it. Maybe He is right in making us wait, or maybe He knows that this challenge will help us grow closer to Him.

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A Love like Cory and Topanga’s

Lately I have been watching Boy Meets World each morning when I wake up. There is something so enjoyable about stealing an hour before the start of the day to simply relive old memories, it makes it feel as if time isn’t always slipping away so quickly.

Boy Meets World was one of my favorite shows way back when. There isn’t too much unnecessary drama, just realistic scenarios and challenges faced by a host of uniquely likable characters. It was one of those shows that actually taught you something about life, not a bad life filled with pretty liars, but a life filled with joy and love. The last few days though, the episodes chronicled a rough patch for main character Cory and his childhood girlfriend Topanga.

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