How to Stay Calm in the Midst of Big Projects

“Instead of trying to accomplish it all — and all at once — and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

If you’ve ever been guilty of biting off more than you can chew or of expecting too much too soon, then perhaps you will resonate with Greg McKewon’s encouragement to start small and celebrate progress.

In recent years I’ve come to value and even cherish the art of the small start in my work, my friendships, and even in cleaning the house.

But it’s a fairly new practice for me to begin to celebrate the progress that comes as a result, especially when that progress is unimpressive.

What does celebrating progress look like?

progress

Today for me, it looks like this round rug in my sunroom office.

I’ve wanted a round rug in there for, oh a few years maybe? I’ve waited because I didn’t know exactly where to shop, wasn’t sure what style I wanted, and I didn’t have the room the way I wanted it anyway. Besides, I already had a rug that kind of worked and I was convinced a different rug wouldn’t make much difference.

But I’ve been dedicated to making small changes in this sunroom over the past few weeks and the small changes are adding up to nice progress. I took some time looking online and found this simple jute round rug, ordered it, and it arrived on my doorstep this week.

Now, my tendency is to continue to look for the next small change I need to make or obsess over lists of what has yet to be done.

Instead, several times since that rug arrived, I’ve sat in my sunroom and looked around, snapped a few photos, and spent some extra time reading in my favorite corner. In short, I’ve celebrated progress by actually enjoying the room. And this simple act of appreciating the progress on purpose has brought a lightness and calm to my soul.

celebrate progress

These have been ways I’ve celebrated progress rather than looked in disdain at the still unfinished room. I moved my desk! I picked out a rug! Is it finished? Not yet. But I celebrate progress anyway.

This week at (in)courage, I’m sharing what starting small and celebrating progress has looked like for me in the area of personal health, both for my body and for my soul.

I also have a conversation with my dad and my sister on this month’s episode of The Hope*ologie Podcast about what celebrating looks like in our own lives and how we think it’s important to mark progress even if it’s small and even if it’s silly.

There are 3 ways for you to listen to the podcast: At Hope*ologie (including show notes!), on iTunes, or here on Soundcloud.

Today I hope you’ll save yourself from overwhelm in the midst of big projects by embracing the days of small beginnings and celebrating the progress that comes as a result.

Bread is the New Hustle

I invited you to procrastinate together with me on Tuesday and you did that so beautifully! You’ll be glad to know I finally got serious about the work and turned in the edits yesterday with a great hoot and holler and a frozen lemonade from Chick-fil-a. And the thing is I don’t even like lemon-y things but the photo made it look so lovely and delicious and celebratory.

So I bought it and drank half and then voxed Holley Gerth and Kendra because they are both people you want to high five when you finish something.

dinner making

Next, I promptly made dinner for the family, convinced the kids that “it’s fun to clean the kitchen!” and sat with John to talk through our weekend plans. Then, I made this list to clear my head.

Master Spring Due

What is actually wrong with me? I couldn’t even enjoy meeting a deadline for 24 hours before I was making a list of all my next deadlines. And it’s one thing if that list was just a list, but it actually kept me up last night, thinking through the timing of things.

This morning I read in Mark 8, about Jesus teaching to the crowd but feeling compassion for the people because “they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a great distance” (Mark 8:2-3).

As if I couldn’t love him any more, reading this reminds me how he pays attention to the particularities of our needs, notices how some of the people were a long way from home and would need to eat before the journey.

How thoughtful and kind.

And then he does his Jesus thing, takes seven loaves and a handful of fish and serves them up like a feast, like a bounty, like a celebration. They eat and are satisfied with baskets left over, men and women laying back on the hillside, bellies full, needs met.

But then Jesus leaves with his disciples, gets into the boat and they realize as he’s talking that they forgot to bring enough bread for the trip. They only have one measly loaf so while Jesus is using bread as a metaphor to remind them to “beware the leaven of Herod” they aren’t paying attention because they are busy mumbling together about how there isn’t enough bread.

We forgot bread! There’s just the one loaf of bread and several of us and we need bread and where is our food going to come from and whatever shall we do because BREAD!

Never mind that Jesus has the power to look at a crumb and feed a nation. Never mind that they had just seen him do that with their very own eyes. Never mind that they didn’t only watch him work that miracle, didn’t merely hand out the bread to the people, but we can only assume they had taken the bread themselves, chewed on the grain, tasted the miracle.

Never mind they were sitting with the Bread of Life in the boat.

bread of life

But instead of rolling his eyes and pushing them all overboard so he could be alone with his sanity, he asks them an interesting question. He reminds them of that one time when he fed 5000 people with five loaves, then asks them how many basket full of broken pieces of bread they had leftover.

They answer, “Twelve.”

Then he reminds them of the meal they just had, when he fed the 4000 people with seven loaves, and asks them how many large baskets full of broken pieces did they pick up.

They answer, “Seven.”

I would have probably said, “Remember how many people I fed!?”

Instead he says, “Remember how much we had leftover?”

He reminds them of the excess.

He reminds them that he didn’t only provide enough, he provided more than enough.

I don’t pretend to know or understand why Jesus did or said many of the things he did and said. I can speculate and guess and use my good Bible exegesis skills I learned from two small years at Bible College.

But I can’t deny here that Jesus was specific about the numbers, about how little they started with and how much they had leftover.

It seems to me his desire was always to move his disciples on to kingdom conversations, but he always had to keep coming back to provision. Are we going to be okay? they seem to always be asking. So he reminds them of the numbers.

Then he answers their question with a question, “Do you not yet understand?”

He’s inviting me into living differently, y’all. He’s inviting and knocking and wooing and I keep looking around distracted for more bread. He’s pointing out the leaven of the Herods of the world, the ones telling me to hurry up and produce and ship, and he’s warning me of how something as small as selfish ambition could ruin the whole batch.

But I can’t hear it because I’m all, Where is the bread! I need me some bread! There isn’t enough. I’m not going to be okay.

But this is the Jesus who had compassion on the crowd because he knew they had a long distance to walk, the Jesus who fed them and then had bread leftover.

Bread was his idea!

Yet, I still feel like it’s my responsibility to remind him that I need to eat. To worry over where the next meal will come from. To point out the lack rather than have faith for the plenty.

I say, “What if You forget I’m hungry, Lord?”

He says, “Why have you forgotten I’m bread?”

And now it begins to come together, why he doesn’t just point out the number of pieces but also points out they were broken pieces.

The excess, the leftovers were baskets filled, not with whole loaves of bread, but with broken pieces. Because the miracle comes at a cost. Why am I always forgetting the point?

He invites broken people to come and feast on broken bread and the excess is a reminder of the miracle.

I won’t stop making lists, I won’t. But I’m desperate to stop shaking them in God’s face, to stop reminding him to meet my need in my way and in my timing, with whole loaves of bread.

This morning, I hear it, the invitation to hold the bread in my hands, to see my day with kingdom eyes, to feast on him, to move forward with the energy that comes from eating the broken pieces. This is My body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.

When Your Heartbeat Feels Like a Drumbeat

Last week I bit into an apple that tasted precisely like one bottle of men’s cologne. Well that’s curious. I reasoned it cannot be possible that this fruit from God’s green earth tasted like it had actually been fed Drakkar Noir from the moment it first broke seed as if the farmer was some kind of deranged Abercrombie & Fitch model with something to prove. I had to take a second bite to be sure.

apples

When the second bite confirmed it, I turned slow-motion style to the table where the kids sat with homework and a plate of sliced apples and, just before I could launch myself toward them and remove all the poison from their reach, my daughter looked up at me mid-chew: “Mommy, this apple tastes like perfume.”

In the end, we were all okay but isn’t it true that sometimes what should be simply isn’t? It’s hard to allow yourself to long for something because what if it only ends in disappointment? What if you admit your deepest longing and then you get an apple that tastes like perfume?

I’m on a journey – and I bet you are too – of learning what it really means to live with Jesus in the midst of the desire and disappointment of everyday life. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, I’m discovering one key element to walking with him is all wrapped up in admitting what I most long for.

When my daily rhythm feels more like a drumbeat than a heartbeat, it’s time for me to pay attention to three simple realities:

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1. It’s time to admit my longings.

When I feel more like a robot with a to-do list in my hand rather than an artist with wonder in my eyes, I stop, close my eyes, open one hand in my lap and put the other on my heart and ask myself, what am I longing for in this moment?

If you do this, you might be surprised what you discover but don’t be surprised by the tears. Those tiny messengers are your kind companions, sent from the deepest part of who you are to remind you of what makes you come alive.

Listen to them and wake up to your heartbeat.

“Jesus himself routinely asked people questions that helped them to get in touch with their desires and name it in his presence. He often brought focus and clarity to his interactions with those who were spiritually hungry by asking them, What do you want? What do you want me to do for you? Such questions had the power to elicit deeply honest reflection in the person to whom they were addressed, and opened the way for Christ to lead them into deeper levels of spiritual truth and healing.”

- Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation

Desire is a gift when we open it in the presence of God. Longing is key to my spiritual formation.

The reason why it’s terrifying to admit our deepest longing, the reason why I seldom allow myself to do it, is because too often it seems longing leads to disappointment in the form of a glaring life-limitation I have little control to change.

limit

2. It’s time to embrace my limits.

We hear all the time about the importance of having boundaries. In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown wisely says this:

“If you don’t set boundaries there won’t be any. Or even worse, there will be boundaries, but they’ll be set by default – or by another person – instead of by design.”

I appreciate people who can say no with confidence, who establish healthy boundaries in their lives.

But my perspective changes when it comes to the boundaries I don’t choose that come in the form of lack of time, lack of energy, lack of money or influence or control. I don’t call those boundaries, I call those problems. 

And I tend to push against those limitations and forget these are the very places where Jesus wants to meet with me.

Perhaps these limits are actually gifts, pointing me forward rather than holding me back. For example, if I’m not good at that particular skill or don’t have time for this particular event, then it forces me to pay attention to what I am good at and what I do have time for. When I’m willing to see my limits as a gift rather than a liability, I begin to live my real life instead of wishing for the life I want instead.

at the intersection of longing and limits

3. It’s time to pay attention when they intersect.

When I avoid confessing my longings and embracing my limits, I live in the lifeless middle where I have no need for redemption. Sometimes it feels easier this way. When I keep those two roads running parallel in my heart, I miss out on the opportunity to meet Jesus at the intersection.

But when I embrace them both, I am able to experience life with Christ in deeply personal ways. I become more aware of myself and others, feel more alive to Christ’s life in me, and open up to his presence with me.

I imagine Jesus standing at the crossroad of my longing and my limits. And while it’s true he doesn’t always satisfy my longing in ways I expect, he does always offer to be enough where before there wasn’t enough. At the intersection of longing and limitation is where the miracle happens, both the water from wine kind and the joy in the midst of suffering kind.

I’m learning a big part of living a redeemed life now, in this moment, is to pay attention to those moments where my longing and my limits intersect, to stand there with my friend Jesus, and together wait for the seed to grow.

“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows – how? he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-28

May we walk in this newness of life in our ordinary moments. May we wake up to our longings and hold them out to you. May we confess our limitations trusting you with outcomes. May we keep company with you as we wait for seeds to grow.

If you were at the Beautiful Life conference last weekend, you’ll recognize a lot of these words as I shared these thoughts with the women who came. At the end, I shared a prayer I wrote, some of those lines included here at the end. If you would like the complete prayer to print out, you can download A Prayer as We Wait for Seeds to Grow here.

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On Learning to Leave Things Behind

Sometimes you need a lot more margin than you plan for and last week was one of those times for me. I went dark online as I prepared to serve at a conference here in my hometown.

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I fight this inability to multi-task better. I mean, I had two babies at once! I could make grocery lists and nurse babies and breathe all at the same time. I am a professional multi-tasker. But when it comes to writing a talk to deliver to local women I know and love, the preparation took on a life of it’s own. And that life was bigger and heavier and more all-consuming than I expected.

Part of it was that I was hopeful and the other part was that I felt afraid. Before I could embrace the hope part, Jesus and I needed to work through my fearful obsession with myself.

There have been some things I’ve been holding on to for many years, hurts and expectations of myself that, though I’m not sure exactly where they have come from, I definitely know they need to go.

One catalyst for this letting go came several weeks ago as I watched the live-stream, along with many of you, of Christine Caine speaking at the IF Gathering in Austin. Something she said poked  me awake.

“If the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount.”

I have many dead horses I’ve been trying to ride and when I heard these words, I sensed a quiet whisper – or, more accurately, the voice of a tiny Australian woman – inviting me to let some things fall gently away. Like the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey said to Edith, “You must learn to leave some things behind.”

The last several weeks have been for me a tangible practice of learning to leave some things behind.

Now that the conference is past, I’m looking back thankful for the opportunity to speak, but more I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the kind, talented, prayerful women who I’m a privileged to call friends here in Greensboro. I’m thankful for the lessons they have taught and are teaching me, about love, support, prayer, and friendship.

Beautiful Life with Angela Thomas

I hope to settle back into a rhythm of writing and yoga and hanging my clothes up instead of flinging them all over my room like Nellie Olsen. And hopefully the movement will be a little lighter this week as I’ve decided to leave some heavy burdens behind.

When Doing Leads to Undoing

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I’m learning to crochet. Is that dorky? I have a feeling what the hipsters do with yarn these days is knitting. But I’ve heard that takes two needles which is completely intimidating. So for now, it’s crochet.

The girls and I took a class at a local craft store, and after three hours we learned one stitch — if that’s even what you call it. We make rows over and over again in a line, turn, and make another line.

It’s too narrow for a blanket, too wide for a scarf, and it doesn’t matter anyway because I don’t know how to read a pattern or do anything, really. So far I’ve worked the yarn through Mr. Bean’s Holiday, one episode of American Pickers, and lots of conversation.

I want it to be relaxing, but so far I mainly work tense. I hear that shows up in the yarn. Of course it does.

Of all the things on my to do list, crochet doesn’t show up once. But maybe it should, as I’m learning sometimes I need to engage in an activity for the single purpose of disengaging from productivity. Today I’m writing about the importance of making an undo list over at (in)courage. Join me there?

Learning to Walk Without an Agenda

Most of the time we walk in order to get somewhere. But sometimes we need to walk in order to remember where we are.

I’ve come to recognize when my soul needs a little more space than I’ve been giving her, a little more room to think and consider. This morning as I sat in the corner of my sunroom sofa, holding warm coffee and reading in Matthew 6, I felt it like a switch – You have to get outside. Go now.

Like much of the east coast today, our town is covered in a snowy, icy mix. I walk out into morning, frozen yard crunches beneath my feet, mismatched gloves uneven on my hands.

how to walk without an agenda

I’m mostly concerned about falling. Slipping is only funny when it happens to someone else and only rarely when it happens to you as long as you don’t fall all the way down and are with a group of people who love you.

But walking through the neighborhood alone, knowing every single person is most likely in their houses and at any given moment can glance out and see you, slipping is not an option.

I am more aware of this than I would like to admit. But I just did so now you know.

I’m mean, it’s fine, it’s whatever.

Walking Without an Agenda

It’s a discipline to walk without an agenda, to let yourself carry concerns with an open hand rather than trying to untangle them.

Because of the ice, my rhythm was broken a bit today, but maybe that’s just as well. The world is broken and the rhythm fits, doesn’t it?

I downloaded the Caring Bridge app to my phone a few weeks ago, two friends fighting their way through cancer. They’re both too young. Sunday, one went home. We’ll go to her funeral this week.

I try to untangle it, but no. Carry it.

From what feels like one end of a long tunnel, I’ve had my eye on the news this week, unsure and timid as to what to think or how to pray about 21 Christians beheaded in Libya. I want to drop it, if I’m being honest. But no. Carry it.

The long list of to-dos pile up in my mind, an unwelcome tally that always seems to be in the background of everything. You don’t belong here with cancer and beheadings. Go away now.

I want to shame the daily task from interrupting these serious concerns. But no. Carry these, too.

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And so the walking continues in a kaleidoscope of tragedy, grocery lists, dreaming, longing, and disappointment. In the uneven, careful rhythm of my steps, I recognize something of what it means to be human. Our bodies work in repetition – heartbeat, circulation, respiration, chew, chew swallow.

But the soul isn’t so easily measured. I think that’s why walking helps her to breathe, to release some of the tension she holds onto. Our bodies teach our souls when it’s safe to come out.

Walking without an agenda offers the soul room to emerge.

I know the directive be still and know that I am God is good for me. But I have to be honest and say sometimes the best way to still my soul is to move my body. He comes more fully alive in me as I walk.

It’s the first day of Lent, a time to make space for God.

“During Lent we are called to stop (or at least modify) whatever we are doing, no matter how important it might be, in order to enter more intentionally into disciplines of prayer, self-examination and repentance. Hopefully, as we kneel and receive the ashes today, we will come with some sense of how God is inviting us to enter into the Lenten season—the more concrete the better.

As we enter into this wilderness time, may we recognize a sense of anticipation about how God will meet us in the space we are creating for him.”

Ruth Haley Barton

As I hear the uneven rhythm of my shoes on icy ground, walking helps me remember the brokenness in the world and my role in it.

As I expose the concerns of the day and the world into the presence of Jesus, walking helps me remember we are moving forward even in our sorrow.

As I remember the comforting words to be still and know God, walking helps to quiet my mind and in turn, comfort my soul.

Arriving home, I have no answers except knowing in all of this, Jesus is present. For all of this, he is enough.