Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.
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Unexpected Ways

Pretty-Church

Random church picture

My husband and I both grew up in pretty conservative churches where we sometimes both got the idea that we were required to do certain things to maintain our status as Christians: read the Bible every day, invite people to church, volunteer for or participate in every event the church had to name a few. As an adult, I see the value of these things and I realize that my thinking as a child may have been black and white and not allowed me to fully understand the church’s teaching on these topics. However, I also understand that they’re not essential to my faith. For example, reading the Bible every day can give me guidance and help me know Jesus better, but if I don’t do that I am not somehow condemning myself forever. I may be cheating myself out of a deeper relationship with and understanding of God, but I’m not less valuable to God because of that.

A few months ago, Hannah came home feeling guilty because she hadn’t asked all of her friends to church yet. She’d received instructions in Sunday school that every Christian should ask all of their friends and the people they come into contact with to church if they really cared about them (at least that was what she understood the lesson to mean). I told her that the Bible never tells anyone to ask someone to church. I can’t think of any instances of Jesus telling his followers to invite their friends to the synagogue. Sure, they invited them to him, but they did that because their lives were changed from being with him, and they wanted their friends to experience the same radical love that Jesus had shown them.

This is way more than just a perfunctory invitation to a church service. I told her that we show our friends Jesus by the way we act, the way we love others, the way we care about people who are in difficult situations. We talked for a long time about how our life makes a statement and can draw people in or push them away and how truly caring about a person is more important than inviting them to church. I told her I think that you only have probably one chance in our culture to invite a person to a church event, so you shouldn’t squander it at the very beginning by giving them the idea that you’re only being friends with them to add one more notch to your Bible belt. I also emphasized that when we do care about them this way, we earn the right to talk about things that are important to us, and we have natural opportunities to tell them about our faith.

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My lovely, happy girl, Hannah.

Not long after the Sunday school lesson and our discussion of it, her school let out early. In true junior high fashion, great swarms of students went down the street to our local Runza, a Nebraska fast food favorite. Of course, the place was packed with middle schoolers without parents. She and Alex waited a long time in line. When they finally got their food and sat down, Hannah noticed a group of kids causing a lot of trouble and making a mess of the place. After plenty of complaints, the manager came out and told them to leave. They mocked him and laughed at him, threw ice and food on the floor and tables. When they finally left, they stood outside the window and laughed at him as he cleaned up their mess. Hannah saw it happening and got up to help him. She picked up ice from the floor and wiped down the tables with a rag he gave her. When they finished, he thanked her and gave her two coupons for free meals. (Note: Alex says he didn’t notice any of this happening, and, while that seems hard to believe, knowing the boy’s capacity for living in his own bubble, I believe it!).

Right about the same time, Alex, who had an obsession with Rubik’s cubes, had one at church. That day, a woman we know told him her brother loved Rubik’s cubes when he was younger and had one that was left solved at their mom and dad’s house. Sadly, her brother passed away in a tragic and unexpected accident as a very young man, and her mom kept the Rubik’s cube on a shelf to remember him. Unfortunately, a visiting kid grabbed the Rubik’s cube and messed it up, and her mom felt sad now that the reminder of her son was gone.

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Alex, with a Rubik’s cube, of course.

Our friend from church asked if Alex would mind solving the cube if her mom brought it. He agreed, and a few days later we found ourselves at the store where the woman works, meeting her mother. As Alex started working on the Rubik’s cube, I watched him, 13 years old, just a hair taller than I am, at the very beginning of being a young man. I wondered how that mom felt when she looked at him. Did she remember her boy when he was that age? I wished I had told him to give her a hug when he finished because I thought how nice that would be if I were in her shoes. Within a minute or two, he had solved it and handed it back to her. And lo and behold, with no instruction from me, he hugged her.

Those two events, so close together, they hit me hard. I watched our two oldest children live out their faith right in front of me. They did what they could and used their talents and interests to right injustice and relieve suffering. Even though they didn’t invite anyone to church, offer to stop and pray with someone or quote Bible verses, they showed them what Jesus’ love means in action.

Living our faith can be more difficult and tricky than the traditional instructions for living that Sunday school taught us. Living God’s calling may be less about deciding at church camp to be a missionary and more about committing whatever we do to Christ, looking for ways in our everyday life to right injustice and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.

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Gratuitous picture of the third child, who was left out of this blog in every other way. Poor little thing 🙂

Still Here

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“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” –Willa Cather

I have a memory of Andrew that surfaces once in a while. It happened before we were married, when we were on a hiatus in our relationship. We had dated and broken up several times, and he had already broken my heart more than once. Still, despite the break ups that seemed to come out of nowhere, I could not escape him. No matter where I went, he eventually turned up. No matter how many times I decided not to love him, I always did again. So this particular memory happened after one of those times I’d decided not to let him back in my heart but to protect myself, to hold back. I had moved to Ukraine, and, of course, I ran into him there.

We started talking again, and I could tell there was still something between us. I went to a worship service at a Christian student fellowship of some sort. I sat near the back of the room, and he sat in the front row. I don’t even think he knew I was there. I saw him standing there. The room was dark, but lights on the stage lit the shadows enough that I could see his silhouette. He raised his arms and sang and praised God in such a pure and sweet way that I just thought, This man is someone I want in my life.

That one memory has stuck with me through some really difficult times. I’ve remembered his sincerity, his dedication. Knowing him better, knowing his struggles, his depression, his uncertainties, I still remember that man who praised God with such depth and innocence. At times when I’ve seen him question himself and his faith, seen him pull back from relationships and withdraw into depression, I’ve thought back to that silhouette and known that man is in there.

Today I went into chapel at the college, a dark room with lights shining on the stage. I scanned the audience, knowing that he usually sits at the back. This time, though, I saw him standing in the front row, praising God with that same stance and that same sincerity, and I instantly remembered that almost-20-years-younger version of him that has lived in my memory. I caught my breath. I know that man. I know the struggles and the pain those years have brought, and I know he stood there praising God with a lot less innocence and a lot more depth than he did the first time I saw him. I know that, despite his bouts with self-doubt and doubt in general and his bent towards depression, he is still here, still persevering.

We’ve struggled a lot in our life together. Some of it’s because of his issues, some because of mine, some because people just do struggle. I look at us and wonder why we can’t just be content. Why do we wallow in self-pity at times or argue or punish each other or whatever it is that we do? One of the students told me they hoped when they got married they’d have a relationship like ours, and my first reaction was to think, Oh my, I hope maybe yours will be smoother and easier. On second thought, though, I think she would be lucky to have a relationship like Andrew’s and mine because we do not give up. We might get to the end of our rope too often, but at least we tie a knot each time and hold on.

If there is one thing I’m proud of so far in my life, it’s that I haven’t given up. I may not have dealt with every situation in a healthy and productive way, but I haven’t thrown in the towel. We are committed , and when we get to the end of our lives we are going to be able to look back and see that it was worth it. We’ll see how the storms made us who we are. We’ll see how waiting out the hard times brought us to good times. We may not be able to point to our relationship as the most lovey dovey one, the most happily-ever-after one, but we’ll be able to say that we had grit, that we held onto what was important, and we’re proud of how far God has taken us.

 

At the Mosque

One of the benefits of marrying a missions professor is spending some of my days off going to cultural events and different places of worship. In other words, putting myself in situations that might be less-than-comfortable for me. I grew up with a passion for missions and spent the first five years of my adulthood overseas. Despite that, I feel reluctant to go to Chinese New Year’s celebrations or churches where everyone speaks a different language. According to personality tests, I’ve supposedly shed my previous introversion and become an extrovert over the years, but somehow the idea of stepping into a situation where I’m clearly not part of The In Crowd makes me uneasy.

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Islamic Center of Omaha

So yesterday morning when Andrew asked me if I’d like to go to the mosque for a lecture on Islamophobia in schools and colleges, I can’t say I felt joy in my heart. However, I like it when he expresses interest in the things that interest me. If I want him to put forth effort to participate in my things, I should participate in his, right? Plus, I admire his passion for creating relationships between Christians and Muslims. I can’t stand that a loud element in our society seems to have taken a turn for the medieval in rejecting out of hand anyone who differs from them. So I agreed to go.

When I lived in Ukraine, I could walk down the street and pick out Americans. Even when they managed to curb their talking and laughing in public, which was rare since we are a boisterous bunch, they often wore things they thought made them look Ukrainian but really served more as a big red flag identifying them as foreigners. More often than not, they picked up a big, furry hat with earflaps and donned that thing, thinking they looked Russian or Ukrainian when actually they looked ridiculous.

That’s how I felt when I wrapped a scarf around my head to go into the mosque yesterday. Muslim women look beautiful wearing a hijab. I felt like a matryoshka doll in my ill-fitted scarf. I felt sure I’d stand out and knew they’d take one look at me and think hmmm… that poor woman needs help putting on that scarf. Which they probably did.

me as matryoshka

Don’t deny it. You wouldn’t be surprised if you found little scarf-clad mini me’s running around; I look like like a Russian nesting doll!

We ended up being only the second ones there. A woman waited with her children in the foyer, and she took me on a little tour. She showed me the bathroom where the women perform ceremonial washing before prayers. She took me into the room where the women stay during the prayer service. She was friendly and nice, just as I would be to a newcomer to my church. When she dropped me off back with my husband, we went on into the main hall, where women can go when it’s not an official prayer service.

Stepping out of my comfort zone and into something different pointed out some things about myself that I think I’ve denied for a long time. I’ve been to a mosque several times before, so I’m not sure why this one was different. Maybe I am just ready to think about those things now. Whatever the case, here’s what I learned.

I have a big hang up with gender inequality. That’s not news. This is something that has been coming up regularly in my life in the last few years. Andrew has acquaintances at the mosque since he’s made an effort to get to know them. When he introduced us, I noticed the lack of eye contact with me. Since I am a woman, Muslim men don’t make eye contact, shake hands, or speak much to me. They indicated that I should sit at the back of the room. As children filtered into the program and took their seats, the girls sat in the rows around me. Boys sat in the front. Later I asked my youngest daughter how she’d feel if she and the other girls had to sit in the back and the boys in the front of the classroom, and she said, “I’d feel like I wasn’t important.”

When Andrew and I discussed it on the way home, he said that they avoid eye contact because speaking much to me or looking at me would be considered flirtatious and would be disrespectful to me and to him as my husband. The woman who showed me the women’s area explained, “This is the area where women sit. It’s much more comfortable this way because we can sit however we want and not worry about what the men think.” To them, this is respectful.  To me, it feels disrespectful. That’s just one example of how people from different cultures can misunderstand one another’s good intentions.

Watching how the speaker presented his material and how the audience responded, I realized how people outside the church see Christians. Hearing his explanations for why Muslim women wear a hijab or why muslim men grow beards, I couldn’t help but think that’s how non-Christian people see Christians when they try to explain how to dress modestly or how to ask someone to church. It was so similar, a fact that leads me to my next point.

While we do have many differences in our beliefs and religions, we have a lot of similarities. He spoke about Mohammed and stories from the Qu’ran that I’ve never heard (since I have spent no time at all studying Islam), but he also talked about Abraham and Moses, David and Jesus. He urged the children to be good students and to be kind and helpful to the teachers and other students at school. He talked about living a life devoted to God, respecting our elders, caring for those who experience social injustices or poverty. All of these things are things we have in common.

Most of all what stood out to me is a sense of intense shame that these children had to learn how to deal with people in their schools who treat them badly because of their religion or the color of their skin or their accents. No children should ever have to learn how to deal with people bullying them for those things. That lecture should have been irrelevant, but when the speaker asked for examples of times the children in the audience have been mistreated or shamed because of their faith, many of them raised their hands and shared their experiences of others teasing them for their religion or saying violent things about Muslims. This isn’t something one weird kid has lived through. This is a regular occurrence for some of them.

As a parent, this appalls me. When have my innocent children ever had to sit in a class teaching them what to do when they’re persecuted for their faith? Never. And add to that shame the fact that many of the people who perpetrate these bullying acts do so in the name of Christ. This is something that makes my discomfort over wearing a head covering or sitting in the back row seem petty and irrelevant.

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The Islamic Center after a vandal sprayed graffiti on the wall last fall after the bombing in Paris. For more info on this, click here.

When I stepped outside after this experience, I pulled the scarf off my head and headed to the car. The spring air felt cool and fresh. I looked forward to getting home and getting into my normal Saturday routine. I couldn’t help but think about how I could slide that scarf off my head and slip right back into being one of the crowd, but the kids in that audience, the woman I spoke with, the man presenting the lecture cannot do that. They stand out no matter what because of the color of their skin, their accents, their clothing. They don’t have the luxury of fading into the background. They must learn to live with the feeling of otherness.

I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was uncomfortable. I wish we could all feel uncomfortable once in a while on a Saturday morning so we could develop compassion for those who live their lives in that tension.

Broken Arms and Changed Plans

FullSizeRenderYesterday I complained before leaving work because I had to take my youngest to open gym at the gymnastics place last night and would have to sit there for an hour and a half waiting on her to do her thing. Later that evening during open gym, my girl asked me to come in the gym and play with her. Apparently other parents were in there showing me up, so I dropped my book and went in to watch her balance on the balance beam and practice her moves (and she was super cute and surprisingly athletic, if I can brag on her for a minute). While I watched and “helped” her, I snuck a few texts to a friend, commenting on how much lessons cost and how could we ever afford this? And I dreamed about what I’d do after all of the kids went to bed and the evening stretched out before me, free and open for Netflix or knitting or writing or whatever.

Open gym was almost over, a fact I knew because I kept a watchful eye on the clock on the wall, when she lugged out a springboard thingy. Running down the lane leading to it, she jumped on it and sailed a few feet into the air in an attempt to do a cartwheel. She is actually pretty good at gymnastics and cartwheels, so I didn’t expect what happened next. She landed wonky on her arm, and I knew the night wasn’t going to end for a loong time.

I ran over to her, all thoughts of time and clocks and what I’d do that night after she went to sleep already vanishing. All I could see was that arm hitting the ground. I had flashbacks of another time I watched that little arm, a lot smaller that time, as she jumped from playground equipment at the age of four and landed on it the same way. That time she broke it, and I believed she had this time too. She looked up at me stunned and said, “It got black and I saw stars for a second.” And it hurt a lot.

My little girl’s pretty brave, but by the time she got to the car she was crying, and I headed toward the emergency room. She held up well. She put ice on it. She looked at the aquarium in the waiting room and exclaimed about how much it looked like Finding Nemo, which it did. In triage, the nurse asked her how much it hurt on a scale of one to ten with ten being “I just got hit by a semi truck.” She said seven. I was surprised. She didn’t seem to be at seven pain level, but maybe she hid it well. She asked about shots. Would she have to get a shot? The nurse said, “You won’t have to get a shot unless you need surgery, and then they’ll give you an IV.” All fear of shots left her as she looked at me in panic and said, “I might have to have surgery?!”

A couple of hours and some x-rays later, and it turned out to be a pretty bad sprain. No IMG_0969surgery. No shots or IVs, a fact that relieved her greatly. She did get a splint and instructions to follow up with an orthopedist in five days just in case they missed a break. Today she proudly showed her arm to her brother and sister and explained what happened. They were in bed at the time and didn’t know we even went to the ER. She secretly told me that even though surgery would have been horrible, it would have been a good way to get some extra attention. My response: “Girl, if you need attention, I’ll take you out to ice cream! You don’t have to get surgery!”

As I lay down in bed last night at 1:00 am, I realized I’d done none of the things I’d planned. I’d had no free time. I’d watched no Netflix and knitted no scarves. I thought of how fast things had changed. In that one 30-second time span, I stopped caring about how much I accomplished and whether I had any time alone. All thoughts focused on my daughter, with a few stray thoughts thinking how much will this cost? (I know, I know, I’m materialistic and petty.) But as I drifted off to sleep, I also thanked God that it was only a sprain. Not a break. As Emma said, “I could have landed on my head!” How quickly things can change. Thank God it was only a small change!

Turn It Off; Turn It On Again

Having fun with my mom

Having fun with my mom and the kids during Christmas break.

This year I had a Christmas break for the first time in years. I worked retail for eight years, so Christmas was never, ever a break for me. When we moved to Nebraska, I began working at a college. The offices are closed during Christmas, but I always still went to work at least half of the days while the rest of the staff was off because I was hourly and needed the hours. This year, I got put on salary, which includes some paid time off, including the week between Christmas and New Year’s!

Counting weekends, that’s eleven days of glorious sleeping in, eating Christmas food, catching up on all the stuff I don’t do during the work week. During this break, I began to see the value of rest. These eleven days were sorta like what happens when you call IT for help with your computer and they say, “Well, did you turn it off and turn it back on again?” And you sheepishly say, “Hmmm…what a novel idea. I’ll try that.” And that works.

Finishing Tasks

One thing I noticed about being off for this long was the ability to finish tasks. I  finished a writing project. My laundry basket was actually empty for a day or so. I cleaned the house more than once. I cooked enough food to feed us for just about the entire time on leftovers. These are things that often only get half done because I just don’t have time to do them. I do them in bits and pieces because two hours an evening isn’t enough to complete all the stuff I need to do.

Free Time

When I’m working every day, a weekend is spent catching up on things I didn’t get to do. Saturday and Sunday aren’t days off. They’re days doing other work. OK, so I’m not going into an office and sitting at a desk. Instead, I’m running around doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, doing errands. I feel very accomplished when these things are done, but often they’re done only in time to begin the next week. If I want free time to do any hobbies or even just read a book, I have to stay up and sacrifice sleep. With eleven days off, I got done with the tasks I thought were so important and even got to have free time! I spent hours crocheting and watching Netflix, and when my mom visited I got to spend time with her instead of going to work while she was here. After two or three days, I completely lost track of what day it was, and, while a bit disorienting, that feeling was so freeing! Not to have to remember whether today Hannah had piano or Emma had gymnastics felt so great. I had a vast series of minutes, hours and even days spreading out in front of me, free and unencumbered by the things that usually bind my time.

Rest

We hear all the time how good rest is for us, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I don’t think I really have a grasp on how important it can be and how not getting it can affect my relationships and my attitude. I don’t think most of us know that. We fill our time so we don’t have to spend that time reflecting. We don’t like to face ourselves in silence and think about things we’d rather forget. In some weird way, we like to give up free time because being busy makes us feel important and needed. I know that I feel guilty if I’m not filling up every moment with work, but I keep reminding myself that doing the things that help me feel rested is good work too. It’s important. It’s like hitting the reset button, turning my head and my heart off and turning it back on again. Sometimes that goes a long way toward fixing the things I don’t like in my life.

So here’s to resting, to taking time off work, to thinking about nothing! If this is an indication of 2016, it looks pretty good so far!

The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

Take a Stand

IMG_9591This week in Kentucky we saw it play out one more time. Kim Davis, a county clerk in a small town stood on her conviction that homosexuality violates God’s ideal for marriage and refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples who applied for them. This isn’t a new story. It’s a different version of the same old story about Christians refusing to bake cakes for gay couples and Christians clamoring to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and Christians claiming religious persecution because people want to replace the greeting “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

This is a special breed of American Christianity that, as I’ve said in earlier posts, teaches us to stand up for what we believe and be aggressive about it. Don’t just sit back and take this “persecution” because the non-believing government no longer has our best interest at heart but instead tries to annihilate our freedom to express our beliefs. Isn’t that what Americans are about? Freedom?

In regard to the Kim Davis situation, I can’t really answer the question of the legality of the decision or whether it is a binding one. I don’t have any knowledge about the law, and, frankly, at this point, I’m not too concerned about that. Here’s what I am concerned about: in all of this taking a stand for our rights and our freedom, we Christians are losing sight of the goal.

Focus on the Goal

From the opening pages of the Old Testament to the closing pages of the New, the Bible teaches us that a savior would and did come for all of us. All people are included in the promises of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets a free pass and we can do whatever we want, but the Bible emphasizes over and over and over that those who believe have a responsibility to reach out to those who don’t yet.

Here’s where I think we get caught up. Many Christians get a Sunday school version of the Bible and don’t see the big picture all that well. I have gone to church my whole life, and I remember reading the Bible through from start to finish when I was a teenager and discovering that all of the stories I’d been taught from birth were linked in some way. I mean, I’d heard about Abraham and Moses and Noah and all of these people, but I had only heard the Sunday school version where they were portrayed as separate characters in separate stories. I was absolutely shocked to find out that the characters were all related, and that the Old Testament was basically the story of one huge dysfunctional family! I had a very basic understanding of the Bible until I later went to Bible college and began really studying it as a whole.

Sure, there are lots of stories of people standing up for their faith, and if we learn about the Bible in that Sunday school way we may learn the surface lessons they appear to teach. Daniel refused to pray to the king and instead prayed to God. God rescued him from his punishment, being thrown to the lions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow to the statue of a false god and received a fiery punishment. God also saved them. This must mean we should stand up for our faith and God will save us. Right?

God Includes All People

IMG_6780Throughout the Bible, though, are passages pointing to the inclusion of all nations. In the Old Testament, we see God calling out a group of people, the Israelites, and instructing them on how to separate themselves from the culture around them. This was to set the scene for the entrance of the main character, Jesus, and God instructed the early Israelite people how to remain pure and separate so that they’d be focused on Jesus when he made his entrance. God’s rules for separating from the cultures around them were to protect them from the temptation to stray from him and to show them how impossible it was to keep all the rules and be perfect.

Keep in mind, and this is key: they didn’t have the Holy Spirit yet. Everything they were doing was done on their own power, so they needed to keep as far away from temptation as possible. However, even in those times of separation from the cultures around them, the people were given instructions on how to welcome “outsiders” who wanted to become part of their culture. These outsiders were required to change everything and become like the Hebrews to do so. But God didn’t exclude the non-Israelites from his promise. He repeatedly instructed his people on how to include them, how to welcome them into their midst, and how to treat them well when they were there.

Outward Focus Replaces Inward Focus

EJerusalem1

In our current arrangement of the Bible, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi. The Hebrew scriptures, though, originally placed 2 Chronicles at the end of the Old Testament. This is relevant because of the last passage of 2 Chronicles. In that passage, the Israelites have been captured and taken away to Babylon by the king of Persia. After a long and complicated exile, they are allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem, and, surprisingly enough, the king of Persia even tells them in the very last verse of their scriptures to go back to Jerusalem and build a temple. He encourages the inward focus of the people, basically telling them to go home, regroup, focus inward again.

Read that verse in conjunction with the last words of Jesus in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus knows something that the Old Testament people didn’t know. He has left his people with help to resist the temptation that the people before them did not have. He has given them the Holy Spirit, and they are now free to mingle with the non-believers. They are actually encouraged to do so. Now that they have the power of the Holy Spirit, they can interact with those who are different from them without requiring that those people completely change everything first. Before he left his people to return to Heaven, Jesus reversed the proclamation of the Old Testament. Instead of focusing inward on themselves and on keeping themselves pure, his followers were instructed to focus outward, to get down in the dirt with the people Jesus loved in order to show that love to them. Now that we have the Holy Spirit living inside us, we can confidently live in the world without the fear that we’re somehow going to be corrupted by them.

Our American Old Testament Jerusalem

IMG_9590So what does this have to do with Kim Davis and gay marriage and Christmas? I think that today’s Christians must fight the urge to believe we live in an American Old Testament Jerusalem. We must give up our fear that we will be corrupted or that somehow our freedom of religion will be taken away. No government can take faith away from us or cause us to sin. The power of God in us is strong enough to keep us faithful. We are living in a time when we can not only accept differences but reach out to those who are different from us.

When we live in an American version of Old Testament Jerusalem, we do things like point out the faults in others while ignoring our own sins. Let’s not forget that Kim Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth husband. Or that she’s a woman in a place of leadership and doesn’t the Bible say something about that? As Christians, we can’t hold to an Old Testament view of standing up for our faith or we’ll be forced to put her down for her sins. We can’t pick and choose which sins we accept and which ones we condemn. If we’re living the Old Testament way, it’s all or nothing. But we live under the New Testament, under grace that forgives the Christian who sins by divorcing repeatedly and the grace that welcomes the sinner before he even changes in hope that he will grow closer to Jesus in the process of being cared for by his followers.

All of this “taking a stand” we’re doing? It’s doing nothing to advance the Gospel. Instead, it throws up obstacle after obstacle in the way of those who might believe. We spend so much time focusing on what we’re against, on preaching against it, on pushing our opinions that we forget about what’s truly important. We expect the non-believing world to behave like the believing world, and let’s face it: they are. Because we’re acting an awful lot like them. If we want them to drop their protest signs and stop insisting on their way, maybe we need to do the same. Instead of stubbornly saying, “We won’t budge until they do,” maybe we could decide our faith is strong enough to live with some differences of opinion. As a friend of mine once said, “Love opens the door for truth to walk through.” Open the door with love. Truth will be welcomed then.

The Choice

cropped-1918-2.jpgIf you’re on social media at all, I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs in opinions: opinions about racial issues, opinions about abortion, opinions about Donald Trump. I scroll through my newsfeeds and see all sorts of opinions. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, attended a conservative Christian church as a child, and I work in a pretty conservative Christian environment. Among all of the opinions I hear and read on a daily basis, one theme winds itself around through most of them: many American Christians today claim that the government and cultural agents are slowly but surely eroding their freedom of religion.

I hear people say they think they’ll have to compromise their convictions because of laws regarding things like gay marriage and abortion. I hear them wishing that life would go back to the way it was when Christians were the majority and, even when people did not adhere to the Christian faith, they usually outwardly appeared to go along with it. The people I hear talking about this want America to be “a Christian nation again.”

US flagThe Challenge We Face

My husband said something profound about this topic this week. I knew when I married him he was super-smart, smarter than I can dream of being. But sometimes he says something that makes so much sense that I think to myself, “Man! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Then I remember: it’s because he’s super-smart.

We were driving down the street on our way to the library, where super-smarties like him go, and he said, “I think that American Christians are facing a huge challenge, and it’s not what we think it is.” He went on to explain himself by saying that Christians in America are used to feeling like America is a Christian nation. We’ve mixed Christianity and patriotism so well that we can’t tell the difference between what is Christian and what is American. We so badly want the government to uphold traditional Christian values that when the government acts like a secular force and not a Christian element we feel betrayed and angry. The challenge facing Christians in America in the coming years isn’t winning a culture war or standing up for our faith or our freedom.

The challenge facing American Christians is deciding whether to follow American patriotism or Jesus’ teachings. When the American government diverges from biblical teaching, what do we do? Do we rail against the government and demand that it return to biblical principles? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been fighting this “culture war,” arguing and debating until we’re blue in the face, and yet we haven’t turned the tide of secularism in America. We seem to feel that if the American government doesn’t uphold Christian values, those values will no longer continue to exist. However, the government has never been called upon to promote Christian values. From what I read in the New Testament, I see Jesus tells us many times that as believers we will live in a way that is not culturally popular. This is not something to fear but something to expect. Despite the fact that throughout history much of the world has not been Christian, Christianity has continued to thrive.

According to Andrew, “We are facing a series of tests that cause us to choose between a political position and something that actually is a Christian value. For example, it’s legitimate to think that a country has to have reasonable control over its borders and its immigration policy, but when that turns into a blanket rejection of immigrants and we say racist and hateful things about a group of people, we’re choosing nationalism over Christian values. What is revealed in that situation is that our primary allegiance is to our country more than it is to the principles of Christ.”

cross and flagLove Your Enemies

In a political debate, we often express contempt for people who do not agree with us, although they are made in the image of God. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, that God would guide them and bless them. Instead we call down curses on our leaders, criticizing them in ways we would never criticize someone for whom we were praying a blessing. When we do this we show that our political party or our nationalism is where our allegiance really lies.

There are Christian principles on each side of any issue. If we see a person on the opposite side of an issue as an enemy, as Christians we should react the way that Jesus told us to and love that enemy. When we gossip about him, turn others against him, work to divide ourselves from him, we show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

An Example

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. The issue of abortion has taken center stage in the last few weeks. As a Christian, I am convinced that abortion is morally wrong. However, I know Christians who campaign fervently against abortion but refuse to accept and help young unwed mothers because they obviously sinned by having sex outside of marriage. These same Christians campaign just as passionately against government assistance, claiming that the people who need it should “just go out and work like the rest of us.” Now, tell me how a young mother who chooses to keep her baby instead of aborting it is supposed to afford to raise that child on her own. My husband and I have eight college degrees between us and two incomes, and we still need financial help from our parents from time to time just to make ends meet for us and our three children. What is the Christian response to abortion laws and welfare laws then? Can we just sit back and spew rhetoric about the precious life of a child while at the same time refuse to support that life once it has entered the world?

Christians today live at a crucial moment in history. We typically hear that statement followed by a stand-up-for-your-faith-by-fighting-against-the-culture kind of statement, but, just as Andrew said, that’s not really the crux of the decision. God is presenting us with a choice these days. Will we as Christian people choose nationalism and patriotism or will we follow his directives and choose Christian values?

All’s Quiet on the Western Front

stormI’m sitting in my dining room, at the table. The kids are in bed asleep. Andrew is in bed asleep. All I can hear is the gurgling of the fish tank, the occasional stirring of the dog in the corner, and my neighbors fighting outside the window. It’s 10 pm this time. The last time it was closer to midnight, and the talk sounded a lot more dangerous. In fact, the last time I’m pretty sure they threw some garbage cans around the yard at each other.

I listen to their voices but can’t really hear much more than the occasional curse word. I listen because I’m curious and because I feel for them. I understand the frustration that brings a person to the point of yelling and not caring who hears. Or yelling and wanting someone else to notice and care. Or even worse, the frustration of just being quiet and either not knowing what to yell or not caring enough to say anything at all.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Relationships are hard, and the ones that matter most tend to bring the most hardship. If I don’t like a coworker, I can avoid the person and keep things superficial. If I don’t like someone who lives in my house, there’s not much I can do but dive in and face the discomfort. I can quote the Bible verse, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:7) until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t ignore the fact that when iron sharpens iron, sometimes sparks fly!

I tell my kids all the time if people live in a house together they will sometimes have conflict. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. It’s conflict that gives us the chance to learn how to face disagreements in ways that don’t hurt others. I tell them when they grow up and have families of their own they will know how to deal with conflict in ways that build up instead of destroy. That’s what I say, but I’m not sure I’m teaching them how to do it. I’m still learning it myself, and I have to admit I’m not all that good at it.

wedding picWhen Andrew and I got married, I knew that God planned us for each other. I felt certain of it. I never was one of those girls who thought there was one person for everyone, and I’m still not. If that were the case, I for sure would have messed up and married Mr. Wrong and then what? Would my whole life have been a mistake from then on? I have always believed that God’s will for me is flexible and fluid and that if I know him I’ll follow him and I’ll look for ways to do what he wants. If I miss some things he’s pointing out to me, he will still use me in other ways.

That being said, though, I knew Andrew was for me almost the moment I met him. Now I thank God for giving me that assurance! Now I can rest in the belief that God put Andrew in my life for a reason. When life gets hard and we get frustrated with each other, I can look back at the time I felt sure God put us together and know that he still wants to use us in each other’s lives.

If I believe this, I trust God will use him to change me into the person He wants me to be. I trust that God will use me to mold him into the person He wants Andrew to be. Even in times when living with another person is hard and I feel frustrated by our differences, I have to admit that when I look back at the people we were when we started this marriage, I like who we are now better. I might think at times that my life would have been easier had I just gone it alone, and I might be right. It almost definitely would have been easier in a lot of ways. However, what would I have become if left to my own devices, without the smoothing influence of my husband? I’m not sure I would have liked that person.

Peace in the War Zone

Let me give an example. One of the struggles we’ve had in our marriage revolves around the way that we talk. I come from a tell-it-like-it-is kind of family. I remember my grandma telling me men can’t read your mind so if you want something you’d better go ahead and just tell them what you want, not to expect that they’ll figure it out on their own. I took that to heart. I saw too many girls hinting, wishing that some guy would figure out they wanted something and then getting disappointed and even angry when the guys didn’t catch the hint. That seemed foolish to me, so I decided I wouldn’t hide how I felt or what I was thinking from my husband.

Andrew’s family is different. They’re waaay more subtle than mine. Their idea of telling-it-like-it is…well, my family would never even know there was any telling going on if they heard it. His family does this out of respect, I think. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so they present themselves more subtly. And guess what. The other family members figure out what they mean without the loud, in-your-face telling that my family does. It works for them.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

However, put these two together, and it’s not always so easy. When we were dating, I went home from college with him to visit his family one weekend. On Saturday night, I asked him to wake me up the next morning in time to get ready for church because I didn’t have an alarm clock. The time to get up came and went, and he didn’t even knock on my door. I finally woke up and asked him why he didn’t wake me up. His answer? “I was making noise so you’d hear it and wake up.” To him, this seemed like a perfectly polite method of waking me up. To me, it seemed like he didn’t care enough to make sure I was awake.

These different styles have led to a lot of “interesting” conversations over the years, but early on we both realized the value of being married to someone with a very different style of self-expression. Over the years, I have become less abrasive, more thoughtful in my approach. I’ve learned to think before I talk, to consider people’s feelings and not just blast everyone away with my opinion. I’ve learned that if the tone of my voice sounds angry, it doesn’t matter what I say because he will only hear anger. I’ve learned it’s not up to me to save the world and to point out everyone’s flaws and shortcomings. He’s learned to stand up for himself more, to be more aggressive in conversation. He’s learned to say what he thinks because people might not pick up on the subtle cues. Somehow in the mix of the two of us we’ve both found a decent middle ground that enables us to say what we think without hurting each other much of the time. This has translated into our other relationships at work and with friends as well.

Nothing Worth Doing is Ever All That Easy

The most recent picture of us. We've changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

The most recent picture of us. We’ve changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

In that case, iron has sharpened iron, but, oh my, that sharpening process has been long and difficult, and it will probably continue until the day one of us dies. It has involved deep issues, things from both our pasts that aren’t easily dealt with, things that neither of us ever wanted anyone else to know about, things that we can’t hide from the one we live with day in and day out, especially not if we want a healthy marriage. When those kinds of things come out in the open, they have the potential to destroy us, but they also have the potential to grow us into  stronger, more stable, more understanding people. People who are more Christlike.

I began writing this post over seven months ago. I have hesitated about posting it because I’ve got friends who know some of the realities of my marriage and might read it and think what a hypocrite I sound like, coming from a less-than-perfect marriage and writing about how God uses it. I hesitated because it’s easy enough to gloss over the difficulties publicly and present our marriage as this model relationship when it most definitely is not. We’ve had our share of destruction and pain over the years. I can’t help but think, though, that it’s worth it. It’s worth the arguments, the silence, the hurt that we’ve both sometimes felt because now that we have been married long enough to look back we can see some progress. We can see the positive changes that have resulted. We’re learning to see each other as people who are still growing and changing instead of as final products, solidly stuck in our ways and unable to change.

Not that we’ve perfected it! Not at all! There are still so many things that we need to work on, some that I’m sure we don’t even know about yet. There are still so many mistakes and blunders. We still struggle quite a bit. Sometimes I still look at him and think, “Who is that?!” and at times I wonder if he even knows me at all. Then he says something that summarizes my personality in one sentence and I think maybe I was wrong. Maybe he knows me better than I thought. No matter what our differences might be, our sixteenth anniversary is just around the corner, and I can happily say that we are not throwing garbage cans at each other. At least there’s that!