The Pursuit of Happiness

declaration of independenceAmericans are coming off of a weekend to celebrate. We celebrated the anniversary of our nation’s birth and we got an added bonus by celebrating the women’s soccer team winning the World Cup. As a friend of mine said on his newsfeed, “Finally, something that we can all agree on.” It was good to see everyone put away their differences for a while and celebrate with pride in something that pretty much everyone could get behind.

In thinking about July 4th, I thought about freedom and just what it means. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As many times as I’ve read the document before, that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness” jumped out at me.

There’s been a “rags to riches” movie with the same name starring Will Smith. We probably throw that phrase around all the time. Freedom, to most of us, means that anything that stands in the way of those three things (among many others) is an encroachment on our freedom. Should anyone keep us from enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they are keeping us from being free, right? We’re free to do what we want to do, however we want to do it, whenever we want to do it. That’s the pursuit of happiness, right?

The more that I thought about it, the more I began to mutter things under my breath about our founding fathers. The pursuit of happiness? Really? Happiness is such a suspicious word to me. When you look in the dictionary, one of the definitions given is, “good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.” I’m glad that the dictionary gives that definition, but I hardly believe that those last two words really describe happiness.

To me, happiness is different than contentment or joy. Happiness is based completely on our circumstances. If we’re happy and we know it, we’ll clap our hands, right? Happiness seems so experiential, so temporal, so fleeting. Happiness can be taken away with a moment.

Contentment and joy, on the other hand, are deeper, they’re based more on the long-term rather than the immediate. Contentment comes when we find satisfaction in what we have, who we are, where we are. Contentment is a place where we go or where we get to, a place that it’s hard for people to pull us from.

I wonder what we’re doing in our lives, whether we’re pursuing happiness or contentment. Are you happy or are you content?

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Among the Best

2015-02-27 10.22.3315 years ago today, I made one of the best decisions of my life. Well, technically, the decision was made before that day, but the culmination of that decision happened on that day. On March 3, 2000, I asked my wife to marry me. My life has never been the same since, and for that, I am grateful.

Now, granted, I’ve made a whole lot of bad decisions in my life, but I’d like to think that some of my better decisions might counteract those bad decisions, and this is certainly one of those decisions that I’d like to think that about.

She was still in school at the University of Connecticut at the time, so I had conspired with her roommates. Although there were a number of people present, it was only her roommates and me who were in on the plan. It was not uncommon for us to have game nights with our friends. She wasn’t into the party scene by the time that she got to college, so hanging out with friends was a perfectly acceptable way to spend a Friday night. So, we planned it out that her sister, who was at the same school, and her brother, and a few other close friends would come over to the apartment on that Friday night.

I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do it all so I was talking to one of her roommates who informed me that she was expecting that music would be involved, in other words, she thought that I might sing her a song.

No pressure, right?

Forcing creativity is a bit intimidating, but I concocted the whole plan assuming that it would come at some point. We would be playing a game where I would make up a question and then sing a song that I had written. No problem at all, as long as I could actually get the song written.

I’m generally a planner, so this was all in place about a month or more before the date actually came. I would set aside time every week to work on the song in hopes that it would be finally ready by the time the date came.

But time ticked on. 4 weeks……..3 weeks………2 weeks………1 week…….

It came down to days before this whole thing was to take place and the well continued to be dry…..I mean, BONE DRY! Nothing would come. I couldn’t get anything written, I mean, nothing. It seemed that the harder I tried, the harder it became. At that point, I knew that I needed some diving intervention.

I wasn’t going to settle for using somebody else’s song, it just wasn’t “me” to do something like that. It seems fitting, in retrospect, that the place where I would generally do most of my writing was in the sanctuary of the little Baptist church where my dad served as pastor for nearly 40 years. I would spend many a late night in there, playing the piano or guitar, hoping that the “muse” would find me. I had a key and would come and go as I needed to and I wasn’t afraid of disturbing anyone but the church mice.

So, I prayed and prayed for something that would be acceptable….

And it finally came, on February 29, 2000, just three days before the planned date. Talk about cutting it close. At some point, in the wee hours of the morning, ideas began to flow and they kept coming until I was finally finished.

Over the next few days, I did what I could to polish things up. I practiced until my fingers ached to get it just right. Everything was in place.

At the last minute, things always get even more hectic. This was no exception. M I practiced until my fingers ached to get it just right. Everything was in place.2015-03-02 08.14.43

At the last minute, things always get even more hectic. This was no exception. My wife’s sister decided she wasn’t so certain that she would be coming at the last minute. I told her that she really needed to be there, it was important, but I still never revealed the truth of what would be happening.

The day finally came, after coaxing and convincing, everyone was there, a few showed up a little late, but we were all there. We finally got around to the game and as we were going around playing, my brother-in-law nearly won the game right before my turn. Hadn’t thought of that possibility. My turn came and in the form of a question in the game, I asked my wife to marry me and told her that she needed to listen to a song that I had written.

When all was said and done, she said, “Yes.” We celebrated with our families the next day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The other day, I found the notebook in which I had written the song. It’s always fascinating to watch the genesis of a song, especially one like this that meant so much to me. Good memories and I am grateful that I have a record of it all.

All along the way during the evening of the engagement, I had her roommates taking pictures to document the moment. I was so glad that we did that. Not long after we were engaged, my mom put together a collage of the pictures surrounding the words of the song that I had written for my wife. This is a picture of it. And in case you can’t read the words, here they are:

 

Your Love Makes Me by Jon Gibson

Chorus

Your love makes me more than I dreamed of

More than I wished for or ever thought I could be.

Your love makes me more than I could ever imagine

Your love is setting me free.

I always knew that God’s promise was true

When He said He’d provide all that I need.

But I never dreamed I could find such a love

That come straight from a story you’d read.

There was a day when I looked at you

And I saw a girl, no more than a friend.

Then something changed, how I looked, how I felt,

And I knew I’d found a love with no end.

Repeat Chorus

In your eyes lie the answers to questions

I ask of myself about who I should be.

You’re always there with the words

That can show me all of the things I can’t see.

A gentle touch or a warm embrace

Can change stormy skies from gray to bright blue.

Nothing could replace or compare to the love

That I am sharing with you.

Repeat Chorus

Bridge

When the seasons grow cold

And the storms cloud our way

When we can’t find the words

Or the right things to say

I will be there for you

I’ll show you my love by the things that I do

‘Cause your love is making me into all I can be.

When I open my eyes to the sunset

And see all the beauty of God’s mighty hand

I realize that the gift I’ve been giv’n

Is a woman intended to complete this man.

I see in you the true reflection of the One

Who once died to make us His own.

I stop and think what the world might be like

If I had to face it alone.

Repeat Chorus

 

Funny to look back at those words 15 years later. Some of them make me cringe at the “cheesy” factor while others seem as appropriate today as they were back then.

Today I am grateful for that day and the outcome of it. I’m glad that it turned out the way that it did and I’m looking forward to celebrating this day again and again, along with all of the other days that we can share together.

I love you, Carrie!

Waiting and Watching

Waiting-while-siting-on-roadThis past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. That might not really mean much to some of you, so let me explain…….no, no, it’s too much, let me sum up.

Advent means “arrival” and the season is all about preparation and waiting for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. We enter into a season where we can focus our hearts on what we are truly celebrating.

In today’s culture, it’s harder and harder to find that space to do this. Everything bleeds into our lives and begins to take over, much in the way that Black Friday has bled into Thanksgiving Thursday. Everything is vying for our time and attention, screaming to us that whatever it is is the most important thing and demands us to focus only on it.

I always remember Jesus’ words about the need to become like a child in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We can overcomplicate our lives and shift our focus to unimportant things, but it’s always a good reminder during this season for me to watch my children. What makes them excited? What do they talk about? What kind of imagination and wonder are they experiencing as they sometimes experience for the first time the things that I have taken for granted?

Hope. Joy. Love. Peace. These are the staples of the season. Happiness is purposefully missing there, and it’s the very thing that drives so many of us. We just want to be happy, to be content and have everything that we want. But hope, joy, love, and peace don’t come to us through our own conjuring. We don’t work harder and find that those things magically appear in our lives like a reward at the end of a video game level. In finding them, we need to lose ourselves.

I work on getting prepared for Advent way before Thanksgiving weekend. I know myself and the need to slow down, to take inventory, to assess where I am and where I’m going. If I don’t intentionally slow down and even stop, December 25th will be behind me and I will be shaking my head in astonishment that I missed the moment.

So, I come upon another year, another opportunity, to wait and watch, to capture the wonder of what I am celebrating this year. So much has changed over the past few years, but these things should not be the ones where I find my hope, my joy, or my peace. Love, yes, but the other three are not things which can be provided for me by stuff, possessions, or even people.

Already a few days in and I can feel myself grabbing for the paper bag to breathe into as I begin to hyperventilate over all the things that need to get done. I need to slow down, make my list, check it twice if I must, and then move along at a pace that is less than harried, less than focused.

I’m waiting and watching, looking for hope, joy, and peace. Where do I find it? I find it not so much in the manger but in the One who I find in that manger, God incarnate, come to enter into life with us.

In Summer

Summer. Long days full of all kinds of activities. Running through the sprinkler, swimming in the pool, riding bikes all over town. Nights spent catching fireflies or playing flashlight tag throughout the neighborhood. It seems that so much of the spirit of youth can be captured in memories and thoughts of summertime.

I remember summer days when I felt that the world was completely open in front of me, waiting for me to wrangle it and make out of it whatever I wanted. I remember days spent collecting cans and bottles to redeem for a nickel a piece. That was my first unofficial part-time job.

While some people can’t stand the heat and humidity, I’ll take it over the cold any day. There’s nothing like sweating so much that your clothes soak through. Then, you step into the oasis of an air conditioned room, covered by cool, refreshing air that restores and rejuvenates, preparing you to once again face what once seemed oppressive as you walk through the door into the outside world.

When I was young, the summer seemed to be a “pause” for me, a time to stop moving forward in rat-like fashion and collect my thoughts, regroup, pull myself together. It almost felt like a “timeout” from life while I had a little fun. Somehow, I’ve managed to maintain a little bit of that feeling as I’ve gotten older.

Obviously, things change. It’s not like one can just stop showing up to work in the summer months and expect to remain gainfully employed. But it’s not so much about the time as it is about the attitude as you go through the summer. Work goes on, but it doesn’t seem to feel quite as hectic and urgent as it does from the months of September through May. Responsibilities are still there, as are deadlines and goals, but somehow the urgency of certain things doesn’t feel quite as…….well, urgent.

Laying with my 7 year old the other night, he hugged me and I told him that there would be a day when he wouldn’t want to do that any longer. He just kind of smiled at me with that look that said, “Whatever you say, Daddy!” I hugged and kissed my father until the moment that he breathed his last breath. I can only hope that I can instill in my children the same affection that my mom and dad instilled in me.

But lying there with my son was a reminder to me of how fast time goes. I don’t expect that he’ll want me to lay with him as he drifts off to sleep when he’s fifteen years old……and if he does, there might be a some people who just think that’s weird. The moments that are before me are unique, ready and waiting to be seized. After all, those moments won’t be there forever.

Yet, somehow on summer days, especially when we are young, we feel that those days will last forever. Although they don’t, we can seize every moment and make a memory out of as many of them as we can. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my summers. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that my kids can make the best memories possible with their summers as well.

So, while I can’t play hooky from work for the next two and a half months, I can breathe a little bit while I go about my day. I can start a little earlier and leave a little earlier, seizing those moments that will melt away like the popsicles in the summer heat. I can kick back and watch my children drink in the innocence and joy of the summer. Sure, you can call it living vicariously through them, but if I’m ever going to live vicariously through my children, I think the summertime’s a good time to do it!

Celebration Time

celebrationI don’t think we celebrate enough. I mean, I know that every time there’s a holiday or special occasion, we tend to party it up, but I think we close down the festivities all too soon. Not only that, but I think we sometimes celebrate the wrong things. We can easily impersonalize any situation, taking away the real meaning in the celebration.

It’s interesting to read the Old Testament and realize how long certain things would last. Feasts and festivals would sometimes last for a week. Forget about the 24 hour party, we’re talking a full week here. I often wonder what that would look like for us, here in the 21st century. Are we capable of stopping and slowing down for long enough to be able to party for THAT long? Would we be able to step away from our phones, our laptops, our tablets, our TVs for that long without getting bored, without getting completely nuts over our utter “lack of information” for a full week?

Lately, I’ve really been focusing on embracing moments which need to be celebrated. In those moments, it’s really easy for others to come in and steal your joy. People can easily push you out of those places of celebration. Maybe it’s because they’re jealous, maybe it’s because they’re impatient, maybe it’s because they’re just not happy. Regardless of the “why” of it, it’s important not to lose your joy in those moments.

A friend of mine had a birthday the other day and we spent some time talking and shooting pool. It reminded me of how simple celebrations can go a long way. We don’t need all kinds of fanfare and decor in order to celebrate, we can do it in simplicity, but do we really do it? Do we stop long enough to enjoy the moments of celebration?

I’m growing tired of focusing on all of the things that are not so easily changed. There’s a place for that in our lives, to improve our areas of growth, but how about celebrating our strengths and celebrating the victories and milestones that we achieve……for more than a minute? Imagine what that would look like if we actually focused on the positives more than the negatives. Imagine how different we would be as people. Imagine how much more pleasant we would be to be around.

I want to celebrate, and not just for one day. Next week, Christians will celebrate Easter, the day that Christ rose from the dead. If we can wade through the bunnies and baskets, eggs and candy, we might actually find Jesus in the midst of it all. We’ll take him out, sing some songs, and celebrate for just one day, and when it’s all over, will it have made a difference to us? How will Easter Sunday translate on the Monday after? Will we still be celebrating then?

If our celebrations don’t make a difference in who we are, what value did they hold? If they don’t afford us time to be reenergized or rejuvenated, if they don’t afford us some amount of meaning other than a few hours off, is it really worth celebrating?

Make your celebrations count. Remember why you’re celebrating whatever it is that you’re celebrating. Remember past the cakes and the parties, the gifts and the gatherings. Remember the joy that’s supposed to come from celebration, and let it last for more than just one day.

Merry Christmas

MerrHappy-Birthday-31y Christmas!

There is so much to be thankful for this year.  It’s hard to be spending this Christmas without my parents, but as I watched my children unwrap presents and saw the joy in their faces, I got the sense that Mom and Dad were there in spirit.  The legacy of who they are lives on in me and my children and I could imagine their smiles as they saw the joy in my children that they had probably observed on the faces of me and my brother so many times in years gone by.

As difficult as holidays can be even years after loss, I was reminded of the fragility of life again as on the eve of Christmas Eve, a friend of my wife’s and many other women in my church lost her husband after his own battle with cancer.  While it’s difficult to face holidays after a loss, to have that loss occur during the holidays has to be incredibly difficult.  Every year is marked by the celebration of the holiday and the pangs of loss that never quite go away.

I heard the story of a mother who had to return Christmas presents in order to pay for her gas to get to work.  Somewhere in parts of the world where I have never been, little children are opening up shoeboxes prepared for people and delivered by Samaritan’s Purse.  These are probably the only gifts that these children have.  These realities are good reminders to what I have and am blessed with, not the things that are rights, but privileges for me and my family.  It helps me to remember that thankfulness needs to start with the smallest things…..everything else is just a bonus.

As old as I get, I never grow tired of watching the joy on someone’s face when they receive a gift.  When someone knows that you thought of them enough to give them something, it’s a feeling that cannot be compared.

Today is the day that we celebrate the greatest gift that has ever been given to us.  Sure, Jesus was probably born in the Spring.  Away In A Manger is most likely wrong, because what baby doesn’t cry?  The wise men weren’t at the manger.  And Jesus wasn’t blonde haired and blue eyed, looking like he walked out of an Abercrombie ad.  He was much darker than Caucasians think he was and he was probably not much to look at, at least according to Isaiah’s prophecies.

But he came….

He lived…..

He died…..

And he rose…..

He gave us the gift of life that we could never give ourselves.  That’s the one thing that I have tried hard to let my kids understand this year, and I think they can see it….at least the two older ones.

Merry Christmas.  I hope that today you feel the love of family and friends.  I hope that today you can find thankfulness amidst the gifts that you have been given, regardless of whether or not they were wrapped and under a tree.  I pray that you might know the greatest gift that you could ever receive.

Merry Christmas…….and Happy Birthday, Jesus!

What’s In A Name?

peaceIn the Old Testament, there was a method to naming children.  If you look back, nearly every name that was mentioned had a specific meaning.  The names were given with purpose and meaning, representing something so much more than simply a name.  Today, we still use names to signify something, sometimes more often than others.

When my oldest son was born, my wife and I agreed on a first name that we both liked.  There was no real meaning attached to it for us, it was more that we could actually agree on a name.  His middle name was the name of my wife’s paternal grandfather though.  We wanted to make sure that when we had kids, part of their name was a legacy, somehow connecting them to the generations gone by.

When my second son came along, we took a similar approach.  Instead of simply picking a name that we liked, we found a family name that was meaningful to us.  We borrowed his first name from an uncle of my father who was instrumental in his spiritual life.  He preached the sermon at my father’s ordination service and acted as a spiritual mentor for him.  He was the spiritual father that my dad had been missing all during his years of growing up.  My second son’s middle name was also a family name.

My wife and I thought that we might be done having children after the second one, but God had other plans.  While we weren’t planning, we weren’t preventing either.  It turned out that my daughter came during an incredibly tumultuous time in our lives.  Within months of my parents moving closer to us, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we found out that we were having a third child.  It was an incredibly emotional few weeks which became months and even years.  Over the course of 2 years, I watched my mom decline and finally succumb to the horrible disease of cancer.  Then, I watched my father die from a broken heart, both physically and emotionally.

Having had two boys, my wife and I decided that we wanted to find out whether we were having a boy or a girl.   We hadn’t done that with either of our sons, but this time around, we wanted to find out what we were having.  We were used to boys and wanted to know whether we were going to have to learn something new.  It was with mixed emotions that I found out that we would be having a daughter.

Mom always wanted a daughter.  She embraced both of her daughters-in-law with open arms and treated them just like her own.  She loved them and was grateful for the care that they took of her sons.  I hesitated to tell Mom that we were having a girl because we knew that her time was short and that she most likely wouldn’t meet her granddaughter, a girl that was her own flesh and blood through her son.

Once we found out that we were having a girl, we began the arduous task of coming up with a name.  Funny, we had chosen girls names when we were expecting our first two children, but this time seemed so much harder, at least to me.  We weren’t crazy about too many of the family girls’ names, so we tried hard to think through the process.  We wanted to honor my mom in some way but the female names from that side of the family were just not ones that we fell in love with.

As we continued searching and seeking, we thought about first names and middle names again.  My mom’s name was Irene, which means “peace.”  We had both liked the name Chloe, which we came to find out meant “blooming.”  We decided to take a non-traditional approach towards things and give our daughter three names.  Together, the names would mean, “blooming peace and joy.”

How important that name came to be for us.  The months after we chose that name were difficult.  My mom died just two months before her granddaughter was born.  My father’s health declined rapidly and we needed to find peace and joy in the midst of the tumult that had become our lives.  Our little bundle of joy helped to provide just that.

While I wouldn’t say that she is a peaceful little girl, her name has come to mean so much to us.  Over these two years, she has provided levity to our lives, reminding us of what’s important and how valuable our families are to us.  She has made us laugh and she has summoned the mischievousness of my mom, who I tend to think is looking down and smiling every time that she does something which resembles her grandmother.

I will never forget the circumstances into which my daughter was born, her name will always help me with that.  She has helped us to see life in the midst of death, peace in the midst of chaos, and joy in the midst of mourning.  She’s helped us to realize the gift that she is to us, over and over again.  I am so grateful that my wife and I took the time to think through her name, and the names of all of our children, for that matter.  Each of them is unique in their own special way and the meaning in their names will always stand as a reminder to us of how special they really are.

A Sweet Look

My mom used to tell me the story of a time when I was fairly young and she and I were at the grocery store together.  I was old enough to be able to speak and converse with my mom, but the memory is foggy in my memory, at best.  According to Mom, there was a baby in the cart in front of us that I apparently thought was cute.  I just stared and stared at that baby and finally said to my mom, “Mommy, when I lookanne_geddes_preview_21 at that baby it just makes my eyes want to cry.”

So many times over the years, I’ve encountered babies or children that had that “cuteness” factor that evoked a similar sentiment to what my 3 or 4 year old self verbalized to my mom so many years ago.  None of those even held a candle to the feeling that I get when I look at my own children.

Every parent thinks that their kids are cute, I think it’s a requirement of parenting.  Even in the awkward stages of the teen years, parents can probably still find something about their kids about which to dote (especially moms).  I am no exception to the doting, especially as all of my kids are under the age of 10.

Since my first child was born, I have made it a point to go into my children’s rooms and just look at them.  I will often whisper endearments in their ears or quietly pray over them.  Often, I will just stand there and stare, marveling at God’s creation and the humility of being a part of it, even to the point of helping in the re-creation of life.

So many times over the last few years, my children have provided therapy for me without even knowing it.  I have laughed.  I have cried.  I’ve been frustrated.  I’ve been afraid.  They always managed to find themselves at the center of so many of those emotions, but the ones that are the most memorable to me are the ones in which I’ve experienced joy, even being overcome with tears of joy.

In those quiet moments in their rooms at night, after they have fallen asleep, there is something peaceful about listening to their breaths. In and out.  In and out.  Sometimes the breaths get louder…..even to a snore, but it’s always so peaceful.

I recount the day and all that took place within it.  I think about their smiles.  I think about their achievements.  I think about the pride I have in calling them my sons and daughter.  I think about the humility and responsibility required for parenting.  I thank God for the gift that he’s given me and entrusted me with.

I would love to have a conversation with my 3 or 4 year old self to find out just what it was that I saw in that baby so many years ago.  I imagine that if we talked, I would tell my older self that the sheer beauty, innocence, peace, and joy that I found in that baby’s face was enough to overwhelm me with emotion.  My older self would probably tell my younger self to just wait until I had kids of my own…….

Taking those moments at the end of the day to look in on my kids adds joy to my life but it also helps me to regain perspective.  What a blessing that they are, in their wild or crazy or happy or sad moments.  I think I will always look at them and just the beauty that I see in them will make my eyes want to cry.