Flourishing & Free

Isn’t it nice to have free time? Time when nothing is scheduled, no one expects you to be anywhere, there’s nothing you absolutely have to do. It’s all your choice. Paint a picture, repot a plant, take a nap, watch a show, you get to decide what to do with the free moments stretching out before you. I imagine that for most of us, having free time is a lovely, peaceful feeling.

I remember the days when my kids were small and I was trying to run a household and a keep business going and it felt like none of the time in my day was really mine. I had a long to-do list that always seemed to be getting longer, and everybody else “out there” needed something—my publishers, my kids, my colleagues, my projects—and as a result, they were the ones who owned my time. And there never seemed to be enough of it.

This week I went to visit one of my hospice patients at an assisted living facility and as I was leaving, I noticed a small sign outside her neighbor’s door that said, I don’t want to, I don’t have to, you can’t make me, I’m RETIRED. The sign made me smile but it also occurred to me that it was a kind of statement of freedom: now, at this time in my life, the sign was telling the world, I’ll choose what I want to do and who I choose to do it with, and I’ll do it on my own time, thank you very much.

Except in our world right now, it often doesn’t feel like we’re the ones doing the choosing. Like we don’t really have the freedom to choose what we think about, as one crisis after another grabs our attention. The temptation is that we feel like we’re simply along for the ride, without a way to put our feet down, change things, make a different choice. And depending on how much we listen to—and how likely we are to turn it all off when it gets to be too much—a bad news diet can sour our hopefulness, deplete our optimism, and drain away some of the sweetness in our lives. It’s not that our blessings are gone; but that our minds aren’t free to notice them. Instead we are fenced in by discouragement as the troubles of the day fill our thoughts.

One way to change that is to bring our attention back from all the big and threatening things out there on the horizon—all outside our control—and focus very closely on moments of our lives as we live them. We can start very small with whatever is closest. For example, just now, looking around in this beautiful old meetinghouse, our attention invites us to notice

  • The quiet of the morning
  • The lovely colors of the stained, glass windows
  • How good it feels to be together
  • A sense of belonging and peace
  • The feeling of rest that comes over us when nothing else is more important than waiting on and worshiping God

Doesn’t it feel a little freer just letting our minds be focused on “now” and “here” for a minute? Not one of those things I listed has anything to do with crisis or chaos or conflict in the world beyond our present experience. What is raging out in the world is likely to continue, but what is here, now, within our ability to choose, is all about the small stuff, the tiny blessings that truly surround us all day, every day, if we have the eyes and hearts to notice.

In our Old Testament reading today, the psalmist offers a beautiful poem, telling his listeners his secret to living his life with ease and safety:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

The psalmist isn’t saying here that bad things don’t happen or that he never again expects to face challenges or uncertainty or heartbreak in his life. The most important point seems to be that, come what may, his first and most important question is, “Where does my help come from?” The answer to that question is the source of his unshakable certainty: the One watching over him is the maker of all that is; the One who cares for him, who never sleeps. The psalmist is free to focus on the good in his life, gratefully enjoying it, while God does the rest—providing shade, protecting him from harm, and guarding and guiding him as he goes about the normal tasks of his day. It sounds like a recipe for peace, doesn’t it? Our first thought can also be, where does my help comes from? And that simple question can remind us of our confidence in God and free our attention so we can notice and enjoy—truly enjoy—the blessings God continually pours our way.

In the late 1990s, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term positive psychology when he became the new president of the American Psychological Association. During his term he wanted to focus not on illness but on wellness. He wanted to know what creates healthy minds and emotions, what helps them grow, and what we can do to incorporate healthy ideas into our lives so that we, our families, and our whole world can flourish. Flourishing is more than simply existing or coping or getting by; it is living with vitality, thriving, enjoying abundant life and all the blessings it brings. When we truly flourish, we feel mentally and emotionally balanced, so we can enjoy our time; we’re ready to take on new challenges, and we enjoy learning something new; we believe that good change is possible and even likely, which means we can look toward the future with hope in our eyes.

In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman identifies three things that people who live with this free and optimistic energy have in common:

  • First, they have positive emotions, pleasant feelings like contentment, pleasure, warmth, comfort, and belonging.
  • Second, they pay attention to their interests. Maybe you’ve felt this: When you’re doing something you really enjoy, something that’s had your whole attention, there’s a feeling that time slipped by without your even noticing. Musicians report feeling that sense of “flow” when they’re in concert; artists feel that “time outside of time” feeling when they create; but it comes to us in simple, everyday things too: we might feel it watching a sunset or weeding a flower bed or having tea with a friend. The happy movement of time flows on and we flow with it, swept along by pleasurable experience, whatever it may be. What a blessing that is. The freedom of joy, as God intended it.
  • And third is a sense of meaning, a feeling that what we do—large or small—makes a difference. This adds purpose to our lives and gives us the opportunity to serve something bigger than ourselves, caring about the needs of others, doing what we can to add something positive to someone else’s life, trying to leave the world better than we found it.

In our New Testament reading today, Jesus is addressing the townspeople, his disciples, and the Pharisees in the crowd. He uses the example of the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice to say that those who care about truth—who trust the goodness and care and faithfulness of God—recognize deeply the voice of the one who comes to help and protect and lead them. He tells those listening that the shepherd who comes in by the gate—open and honest and in the daylight—is the one who is the true leader; the one who sneaks over the fence has no intention to protect and care for the sheep; in fact, just the opposite—he intends to “steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. But the real shepherd—the one who loves his sheep as part of his devotion to God—knows his sheep by name and when he calls to them, they follow along happily to good pasture. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus said.

This is the picture of a flourishing life, a life characterized by well-being and blessing. A life that knows where its help comes from and overflows with goodness into the lives of others. That can be our story right now, even with our world exactly as it is. But our minds have to be free enough to follow the right shepherd.

This week a friend at work told me that his wife had recently found a new feeling of purpose in her work as an elementary school teacher. After a harrowing and difficult year dealing with COVID, she was back in the classroom again, feeling exhausted and not quite up to the task. But at their church on a recent Sunday, their pastor had talked about “doing small things with great love.” He told the story of a homeless man at a shelter who had asked, “Pastor, would you toast my bread?” And he said he would. “And would you butter it?” the man asked. The pastor smiled and said of course. And then he made the man the best piece of buttered toast love could prepare.

In the classroom, my friend’s wife thought of that simple story and started doing little things with great love. She quickly found that love transformed even the most common and repetitive tasks—sharpening pencils, passing out papers, listening to her students’ stories. She could tell her students felt cared for and listened to. Love—in her and through her—had become the shepherd. The tension in her classroom evaporated and her love of teaching came back—and continues to grow and thrive, and flourish. How many lives will be blessed as a result? Many. And in uncountable and lasting ways.

No matter how caught up we sometimes get in the needs and demands and concerns of our world, it is always our free choice—moment by moment—to remember God and look for the good in our lives. It shifts our focus from dark to light, from discouragement to hope, and it sets our minds and hearts free to notice the blessings God is providing. Because they are truly there.

When we begin to feel grateful for the God’s care and protection, our connection to God deepens, our hope grows, and our lives begin to calm down and show signs of blossoming. The sense of well-being, which starts so small, gives us freedom from the triggering events that would steal our hope. We no longer just automatically follow those thoughts that bring fear or upset or uncertainty into our awareness. Now we are sure of where our Help comes from and we intentionally keep listening to the voice of the true Shepherd who loves and leads us. And that leads us not away from caring about the world but toward it, doing what we can in love to make a difference, in touch with the source of our help. Following the right shepherd.

Yesterday a mom shared a bit of conversation she’d had with her young son earlier in the day. She asked him how his cross-country event had gone and he said, “I came in last!” “Well, you tried at least,” she answered. The boy responded, “Oh, I wasn’t going to come in last, but Peter was last and seemed really sad, so I went back and walked with him.”

So sweet. And good, too. And hopeful. It tells me her son’s mind was free enough to listen to his heart, to choose what was most important to him in that moment. Which mattered more, his own success or the well-being of his friend? He chose to do a small thing with great love—for the good of another. That’s flourishing. That’s a tiny, postage-stamp-sized picture of a better world. And it’s happening out there a million times a day, if we have eyes and hearts free enough to see it.

I leave you with the words of Rumi:

“But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.”

RESOURCES

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