The seasons of life and passage of time, marked and measured by the divinely orchestrated movements of the moon and sun, are a relentless reminder of how fleeting our days upon earth are.
The ability to be content, serve the Lord and others with gladness, eat our daily bread with love in our hearts toward all, and see the fruit of our labors, is as this verse states – a “gift of God!”
There is a classic Yiddish folktale of a poor man living in a crowded one room hut with his wife and five children. Against his will his mother-in-law comes to live with them. He tries to cope but the noise and cramped conditions wear him down to the point where he goes to the local rabbi seeking counsel. The rabbi, upon listening intently and pausing to reflect for a moment asks “Do you have a rooster?” “Yes,” replies man. “Then bring the rooster into the hut with you and come and see me in a week.”
A week later after enduring even worse conditions, the man returns complaining to the rabbi. “Do you have a cow?” the rabbi asks.”Yes” the man replies hesitantly. “Then take your cow into the hut as well, and come see me in a week.”
Over the next several weeks, the man, on the discomfiting advice of the rabbi, adds into his increasingly chaotic little hut his goat, pig, two dogs and his brother’s children. Finally, at wits end, when he can take it no longer, he goes to the rabbi. “This is crazy! It’s not working, things are only getting worse!” “Good then,” said the rabbi. “Now kick all the animals out and send the guests home – come back and see me in a week.”
Upon doing this the man reported back to the rabbi. “It’s wonderful, Rabbi, my home is so spacious and quiet – why I don’t even mind having my mother-in-law live with us now. I can’t believe it.”
I was first introduced to this delightful story as retold by Margot Zemach in her beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled “It Could Always Be Worse” when my children were little. It became one of my favorite books and I loved reading it over and over to them. The tale’s message about contentment is so simple and yet so profound.
Contentment is basically a matter of perspective and therefore something that can be learned.
Not surprisingly this is exactly what the Apostle Paul says about his quest for contentment in the midst of difficult circumstances in his own life. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” he says. (Philippians 4:11)
Have you ever been more in love with the idea of something more than its reality? You probably have. It’s just a different spin on the old familiar “the grass is always greener” theme. You buy that dream item only to suffer from buyer’s remorse and find yourself now dreaming of how wonderful it would be if you didn’t have it.
It is well illustrated by the boat owner’s confession. “The happiest day of my life was when I bought a boat and an even happier day was when I sold it.” I’ve known people like that and I’ve been there myself. One glorious dream I had was to have a backyard swimming pool. After my kids grew up and left home that dream morphed into a nightmare when I finally realized that no one but the birds were using it and it was costing me tons of my time, energy and money to keep it running.
Why is that such a familiar story? An ideal becomes an ordeal and we find ourselves looking for a new deal. The Apostle Paul knew all about the battle for contentment. The chronicle of the unsettling circumstances of his life with its imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks and survival from all manner of dangers is material for a doctoral thesis on contentment. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28) What better person to give us critical insight into dealing with discontent?
Writing more on contentment than any other New Testament writer, Paul reveals three things that can help us be triumphant when our ideal becomes an ordeal.
My wife has a poster framed and hanging in our dining room. It is a watercolor by artist Mary Engelbreit of two little girls gazing out a window on a beautiful summer day. Just outside that window we see flowers in bloom, the branch of a fruit laden tree and several bees and butterflies flitting about.
The girls are a study in contrast. On girl is very happy as she sports a big smile and her arms enfold two pots of flowers. The other girl is decidedly unhappy as she rests both elbows on the window sill with one hand to her face. She has a frown and her eyes are darting away from the little girl next too her. Underneath their picture is this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Like so many things we carefully frame and position throughout our homes, it isn’t long before we fail to notice them. To be honest, if I were pressed, I doubt if I could recall half of what hangs on our walls. But recently I have found the poster of the two little girls staring out at me, repeatedly drawing my attention. And here is the reason. The message is a joyful reminder for me of what God has done in my life.
In years past, all too often I was more prone to frown than smile. Even on sunny summer days I had my share of bouts with depressive views of life. Those like me, who have battled that dark cloud of the soul, know that beautiful surroundings alone do not alleviate unhappiness with its accompanying heaviness and hopelessness. At best, a person copes like the little girl in the poster, by diverting ones focus to other things.