Journaling a Legacy

Rebecca Waters and I met when she and my husband worked together at a university in Cincinnati. Andrew, the new guy on the faculty, had a tiny office/former closet in the basement of the girls’ dorm. Becky and some of the other professors, all women, had offices upstairs. I remember going to visit him and seeing them. They were always so sweet and friendly. We had just moved to back to the US and didn’t know anyone in Cincinnati, but they welcomed us. That’s the kind of women they were.

keysNot long after we moved to Cincinnati, I came home from work, threw my keys on the kitchen table and went out the back door to read the mail while the dog ran around and did her thing. When I closed the sliding glass door, I heard the safety bar fall into place. I was locked out! Andrew was 20 minutes away in class. I was six months pregnant, and it was 90 degrees out. Becky to the rescue! She brought his keys to me on her way home from work that day.

I remember taking our new baby Hannah, our firstborn, to visit Andrew at school. We walked past the classroom where Becky was teaching. She stopped class to look at our new baby, cooing over how sweet she was. I remember how happy she was to meet Hannah. If you’ve got kids, you know how much you love anyone who loves your children.

I also remember a Christmas party at her house. We somehow showed up an hour early. She met us at the door and let us hang out in her family room while she finished getting ready. And to think Andrew and I had been arguing about how we were running late on the way there!

Becky has gone her own way since those days, and so have I.  She’s written a book and has a blog about writing, and I live in a different state. We don’t see each other anymore, but we keep in touch on Facebook. A while back, she asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I readily agreed. That post happened today.

So here’s to Becky, and here’s to her inviting me to write. Thanks, Becky, for years of steady friendship and caring and for giving me a spot on your blog!

To read the post, click here.

 

Advertisements

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?

That Christmas Feeling

Nativity_tree2011

I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!

Witches and Salem and Halloween

IMG_9828

I wish I’d bought this t shirt!

If anyone has reason to remember Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts does. The approximate site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, which took place over 200 years ago in 1692-93, Salem has capitalized on its reputation as a center of the supernatural. People from all over the world converge on this small town during Haunted Happenings to dress up in costumes and parade through narrow streets lined with old buildings renovated to hold shops and restaurants.

In a way, I can’t believe I was there just a couple of weekends ago. Until a few weeks before, I had no idea the place even did this. Visiting the town famous for witchcraft wasn’t really on my bucket list. Halloween hasn’t ever been my favorite holiday. In fact, helping three kids plan and don costumes and carve pumpkins tires me out, and walking around in the cold and sometimes in the rain at night with three small children and without warm attire that might cover up their beloved costumes worries me.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate?

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Early on, though, Andrew and I decided to go ahead and celebrate the holiday, despite the fact that some Christians reject it because they fear its historic association with evil. We noticed when we moved to our first house that our neighbors, who almost never saw one another throughout the year, came out in droves at Halloween. They sat in chairs at the end of their driveways passing out candy to trick-or-treaters and visited one another, talking and laughing together. We decided that hiding in the house with the lights off would only alienate us from the people we were trying to build a sense of community with, so we dressed up the babies and took them out in the cold.

That being said, we never considered driving across the country to celebrate the day before. However, Andrew is working on a book about ministry to people who practice pagan religions like witchcraft, and he heard of an outreach that some believers have to the witch community in Salem. It takes place around Halloween, at the festival there. He wanted to see it firsthand, and since we’d be “close” for ICOM (if a ten hour drive counts as “close”!), he wanted to go. We left the kids at the grandparents’ in Virginia and made the longer-than-we-thought drive through New England.

Fearing the Unknown

IMG_9859

The lines for these touristy things were long. Everybody wants to take a ghost tour on Halloween.

Even before we went to Salem, when we told people we were planning on going, we got a variety of reactions from our Christian friends. I think there’s a pervasive idea that inherent evil surrounds Halloween in general and the practice of witchcraft or any kind of pagan religion in particular. Many Christians think that believers should stay away from pagan religions or risk being somehow influenced by evil in ways that they don’t realize until it’s “too late.” It’s as if people think that just because they interact with someone who practices witchcraft or another pagan religion they will be possessed, haunted or pursued by demons.

The more I’ve learned about different religious practices, the less I fear them. There are a couple of reasons going to a place like Salem doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel that it’s pretty important.

1) People confuse today’s witchcraft practices with what is actually superstition. They read about the Salem Witch Trials and to some extent believe the things the community in Salem believed about the women accused of witchcraft—that they had a special communion with the devil, that they held evil power over the people in the community. If we study the Salem incidents, we find that those were superstitious, bored people participating in mass hysteria. Their belief that the women accused of witchcraft had some communication with the devil or demons actually stemmed more from superstitious beliefs about evil than biblical teaching about it.

2) Even if I did think there was inherent evil in today’s practice of witchcraft, I believe the Bible. Throughout it I see that God has more power than any evil spirits. The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus and his disciples taking control of evil spirits, and they don’t seem intimidated in the least by them.

3) I’m not afraid of other religions somehow corrupting my faith. I don’t mind hosting a Muslim for dinner or talking to Hindus. Witchcraft is another religion, and I don’t feel more threatened by that than other world religions. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to change that because I’m with a person who doesn’t believe the same as I do.

IMG_9853

In front of a shop full of witchy stuff. If you look very closely, you can see Andrew in his blue hoodie inside the shop talking to the owner, a self-described shaman who responded enthusiastically to Andrew’s request for information about his beliefs.

4) Signs and symbols and the interpretation of natural events are things Christians see as part of Witchcraft. They shy away with fear that learning what they mean to other people will somehow give them power in their own lives. However, those things only mean what we let them mean to us. For example, when we lived in Ukraine people told me over and over not to sit on concrete. They said the cool concrete would give me a “cold” that I didn’t even know I had until years later when I couldn’t conceive a child. Then I’d know I probably had sat on concrete once and gotten that mysterious cold in my reproductive organs and, well, I had to pay the consequences. I told them if that’s the case I’m surprised the US is populated at all since everyone sits on the concrete! My friend, a highly educated young woman, told me once, “I know it’s not true, that it’s just an old wives’ tale, but I still just can’t do it. It’s still in the back of my head.” The old fiction meant something to her because she gave that meaning to it. She gave it power over her thinking and her actions.

5) If believers don’t reach out to people of other faiths, even witches, who will? This should probably be #1 in the list. Are we just waiting for them to come to us for some reason. Put a church on the corner and surely witches will want to go there? I don’t see that happening.

What We Saw

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people.

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people. In fact, this picture doesn’t show well how big the crowds were.

When we finally found a parking space in the small town of Salem, which was flooded with more people than it was ever meant to hold, and made our way to the middle of the town, we saw a huge crowd of people, many dressed in anything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein and lighted jellyfish. Music and laughter filled the air. People stopped for selfies with scary zombies and ducked into souvenir shops full of witch-themed memorabilia. Tourists lined up to take tours of the important historical spots in town and museums dedicated to the history of the area and the witch trials.

Andrew was hunting the pastor he’d corresponded with who leads an outreach to witches during the festival. We didn’t know what to expect and only had a basic idea of what they do, but he wanted to see their outreach firsthand. We never managed to meet up with that pastor, but we did meet people working with him. One of them had a tent with signs advertising free spiritual readings, free hugs and dream interpretation. This ministry rents space around a small square in the heart of the festival. A great band singing pop music played at one end, and people sat around the square eating or talking.

Andrew started a conversation with one guy standing in front of the tent. He led us into the tent to a woman who sat in the corner. Andrew introduced himself and said he was doing research on outreach to the Wiccan community. The woman, Kelly, was friendly and open. She offered to interpret a dream for him. Now this is where I know I’m losing you because in our branch of the Church there’s not a lot of dream interpreting going on. Most people I know don’t put much stock in it or in God communicating with us through dreams. Hang in here with me, though, and give it a chance!

A Dream’s Meaning

tent2

The tent we visited.

What Kelly did was no different from what I’d do if someone came to me for advice or asked me why I thought they dreamed something. While I don’t know if I really believe God usually talks to me through dreams, I believe that our dreams can tell us something about ourselves and can lead us to seek God in certain areas of our lives. So it makes sense that someone intuitive who listens to God and seeks him in her own life could ask the right questions to help a person understand why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming.

Kelly did just that. She asked Andrew to describe a dream. She told him what she thought it meant. She asked how God could use his dreams to show him areas he wanted Andrew to turn over to him.

That’s pretty straightforward, I think, but she did something else with it that neither Andrew nor I had thought about. She said that sometimes the things we worry about, when turned over to God, become strengths to us. The things he worries about and sometimes dreams about could become areas where God could use him more powerfully. That makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Since Andrew told her about the research he’s doing, he asked some questions about her work. She told us a little about the outreach she’s involved with, how it aims to connect with people at the festival by meeting them on their own turf and communicating in ways they could connect with. Obviously, dream interpretation appeals to the people there. Her kind demeanor, her care for the people who come into her tent attract people who are in need of that acceptance. She spoke to me as well, and I felt so drawn to her that I could completely see how effective she is in her ministry. I left that tent feeling positive and with a renewed sense that people are doing some great things for Jesus in the world.

It is possible to minister to people very different from us. I think God prepares each of us through our life experiences, our personalities, our giftedness and even our family histories to do what it takes to reach out and share Jesus with those who need him. We don’t need to fear contamination by the world but can step boldly forward into the work set in front of us!

I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

IMG_9574

This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

A Calling to Sacrifice

Last week I sat in a meeting where an evangelism professor from the Christian college where I work called on a student to give an impromptu testimony in front of a group of incoming freshmen. I initially felt sorry for the poor girl put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, but I then thought what if he calls on someone else after her? I began planning what my testimony would be, in case he called on me. By the time she finished her speech, I had just two thoughts ready: calling and sacrifice.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

When I was the age of those hopeful students, I had all kinds of plans. I thought I would do what I had planned to do since I was nine years old: be a missionary. I was sure of this. I knew God wanted me to go, and I wanted to go. I had figured out God’s plan for my life, and I would do what he wanted, and it would work out.

Fast forward a few years, and I was living the dream I thought God had for me, teaching missionary kids in Ukraine.The ministry fit the exact combination of skills, education, and interests I had, and I loved almost every minute of it. I remember feeling so settled and content, sure that God had put me exactly where he wanted me. Four years into it, I even married another missionary who shared my passion for cross-cultural work.

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I often heard Americans say to me, “I don’t know how you can live there. I couldn’t do it.” I always responded, “I couldn’t not do it.” I felt compelled to go, compelled to do this hard thing for God. It was at the very core of who I thought I was. But along the way things changed. I found out that God doesn’t leave us in those comfortable places forever. It seems that sometimes he requires some things we don’t really understand.

Our last year in Ukraine was complicated, and it eventually became evident to both my husband and me that we needed to move back to the U.S. He got a great opportunity to teach at a Christian college, something he had always dreamed of, and we packed up and moved. Before I knew it, I lived in a house in the suburbs, doing nothing I had planned to do. We had children, a mortgage, some pets, and I worked hard not to think about how my dreams of being a missionary lay broken somewhere in a dark room in the back of my mind.

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute!

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute in this photo!

I wish I could say that being a mom became my unexpectedly fulfilling calling. In all practical ways it did, of course, because I had three children to care for. They were there, they were mine, so I apparently was called to mother them. However, I haven’t ever really had the passionate, I-love-motherhood thing that some moms have going on. I love my children; I just always wondered if maybe I had missed something else I was supposed to do. I thought if I were a better woman, a better wife, a better mom, I could have handled motherhood and some sort of vibrant ministry, and the fact that I did nothing but change diapers for the better part of a decade proved that I couldn’t handle more. I pushed that thought into that dark room in the back of my mind as well.

I had a lot of jobs over the years. I took most of them only because they fit conveniently into our lifestyle and did not require us to get a babysitter. I discovered that I liked some of the jobs, though. In fact, I really liked them. Still I could never quite reconcile the Bible college, church camp, calling-from-God idea with those jobs. Working in a store in the mall, for example, didn’t require a calling. If God called all of us to something, did he call me to work in a store?  Sometimes I felt weird for loving these jobs as much as I did. I mean, selling stuff? Why was that important in the big scheme of things? I felt like I had to justify my enjoyment of my work. And how had I become one of those people who just works a dead end job and tries to find joy in the little things in life while ignoring the big, world-changing things I heard so much about in Bible college?

I still feel that way sometimes, even though I work in a Christian organization and can placate myself by saying that my work contributes to the school’s mission of creating the next generation of church leaders. I never saw myself in this type of job, although I do really love it.

It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve begun unpacking some of the junk I pushed in that dark back room of my mind and maybe I’ve started understanding some of it.

Maybe God’s calling is less about what we do and more about who we are. This relieves the pressure to somehow find God’s perfect will. In American culture, we are all indoctrinated to believe that we are great people, capable of doing great things, and therefore should search diligently for those great things we should do. For American Christians, this gets translated into being told we are great because God made us great and that he has planned great things for us. We spend our lives searching for a specific calling from God, and if we don’t find that we start to feel frustrated and disillusioned in our run-of-the-mill lives. Sometimes we push our way into something that we think is great in an attempt to prove our worth to God and other Christians. Sometimes we fall into the habit of expecting God to choose us to rise above the crowd and become superhero Christians: missionaries, preachers, worship leaders, charismatic speakers with huge followings.

In reality, we don’t find much in the Bible about us each having a great big calling, but we do see that God clearly tells us throughout the Scriptures that our calling is to love him. Love him and live with him and show him to those around us by the way that we love them. A few years into my job in the mall, I realized that I came into contact with more non-believers in a day there than I had in months of ministry. I had the opportunity to live out my faith every day in that menial job that I initially took just because I could work when my husband was home to care for the kids.

Maybe I needed to sacrifice what I once thought God wanted from me. I thought God wanted me to be a missionary. It appears that he doesn’t have that in the plans for me at this point. Thinking about my testimony distilled my thoughts into those two ideas: calling and sacrifice. Do I stubbornly sit myself in a corner and refuse to do anything because it’s not what I originally thought I’d be doing? (I admit, I have done that…) Or do I stand up and do what’s at hand and give it to God with the confidence that he will use it? Maybe my true calling actually involves sacrificing the calling I once thought I had. I find over and over that I must sacrifice the dreams I thought God had for me or the dreams I had for myself and enjoy what God is really doing around me.

superman-clipart-9i4E9jeiEMaybe God knew when I chose the superhero path that part of my motivation involved showing off the big red S on my shirt. Maybe the rest of my life’s challenge and calling is to live a regular life, a quiet life, not caring if anyone remembers my name at all when I’m gone.

I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on these student’s ideas of what God has planned. They’re young and energetic and idealistic, and maybe he really is planning on using them in great ways. I know a lot of professors and college staff rooting for them along the way. But maybe he’s got more menial jobs in store. Jobs where they can sacrifice the flashy, superheroes-of-the-faith dreams they have and live a day-to-day life of being his in a world that doesn’t know him.

Maybe that’s the calling.

How an Introvert Survives a Party

My name is Laura, and I’m an introvert.

You may think because I talk a lot that I’m an extrovert, but that just means I’m an introvert in recovery. Or something. I admit that despite my introvert qualities I like being with people. I search them out and tell them stories, and some people might just run the other way when they see me coming, especially after I drink a cup of coffee because caffeine makes me extra talkative.

I think, though, that I like being with people on my own terms. I like them in small groups. I like them when I approach them. I like them when I’m ready for them. I like them when I know them. I like them when they like me.

This weekend, I found myself in a situation that put me waaay outside of my introvert bubble. My youngest daughter, probably not an introvert herself and probably the only extrovert in our family, got invited to a Christmas open house at her friend’s grandma’s house. I remembered that this friend of hers invited her last year, too, and she could not go for some forgotten reason. This time I told her she could go before I actually inspected the invitation closely. Her friend is moving far away soon, and she is pretty sad about that, so how could I tell her no?

After I read the invite Saturday afternoon, I remembered why I told her she couldn’t go last year. It said “All children under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult who stays with them.”  What?! When I saw that, I knew it must be me who went. While I am an introvert on the introvert/extrovert chart, I’m also much closer to extroversion than my husband, who falls solidly in the very introverted category. In our family, that means that if there’s a social gathering that requires only one of us to go, I’m probably the one, and I’m OK with that most of the time.

This time I headed to the house with not a little bit of trepidation. Apparently this family holds a huge Christmas party every year, and all of the family members invite friends. That includes Grandma and Grandpa, who actually organize the thing, Mom and Dad, and all four kids, so there are a lot of people there. We arrived at the house. I walked in, and my daughter disappeared upstairs with her friend. I looked around. I knew no one. I mean not one person looked even remotely familiar. An older and very friendly lady hugged me and said how happy she was that I could come, and I had no idea who she was or who she thought I was for that matter!

I went straight to the bathroom and stayed there while I adjusted to the idea that I was about to be surrounded by strangers and expected to party without knowing anyone, but a person can only stay in the bathroom for so long when the house is chock full of people. I left the bathroom and tried to look nonchalant while furtively scanning the rooms for someone who looked familiar and might be the boy’s mom, whom I’d only met once or so. I feared that when I saw her she would remember me and I wouldn’t remember her, and how embarrassing would that be?

In the process, I ended up finding another woman with a face that registered the full range of confusion, alarm and false cheer that mine probably did. I made my way toward her, and, careful not to scare her off, I introduced myself. We chatted for a moment, and I could tell she was holding onto me as much as I was holding onto her, so we had each other. After a while of hiding in a corner, talking to her, and observing the party together with her, I noticed that, while some of the men did have on suits, my jeans fit in with many of the other people. I noticed that the woman/lifesaver I was talking to and I weren’t the only ones who did not know anyone. I also noticed that quite a few people had gravitated toward the front room, were singing 60’s and 70’s songs and appeared to be antique hippies, and for some reason that disarmed me a little. I guess I figured if the hippies were having fun, I could too. In addition to that, I noticed that there was one group who felt much more intimidated by the crowd and even found their lives in danger in such a house full of people. The homeowners had these tiny chihuahuas who scurried around, nervously shivering in their little Christmas coats, dodging people’s feet. I tell you, if all of them are still alive today, I’m surprised, since I was sure all evening that they would either be smashed by the crowd, fallen on by an unsteady toddler, or just die of sheer terror.

Since I know a lot of introverts, I bet a bunch of the people reading this understand completely where I’m coming from. Here are some tips for introverts who want to enjoy the party scene:

  1. Take something to distract yourself. If you’re messing with your phone, you’ve got a reason to be solitary. If you’re trapped by someone you prefer not to be trapped by, you’ve got an out. You can make the excuse that someone is texting/calling you, and you don’t even have to worry that the other person will notice that the phone didn’t ring or vibrate since it’s so ridiculously loud in that room.
  2. Take a baby or a toddler with you. I can’t believe that I’m saying this after my angst at having had to leave many a social gathering because one or more of my children had a meltdown or a nap or a blowout, but if you really don’t want to be there or don’t want to socialize, a tiny human will give you a reason not to interact with adults. Plus they will inevitably cry, and you will leave. For probably the first time ever, I envied the woman chasing a toddler around the house at that party.
  3. Find someone else uncomfortable and team up. Misery loves company, and finding someone who doesn’t know anyone or feels left out can help.
  4. Eat. Or drink. Find the food and eat it. This one is self-explanatory.
  5. Help the hostess. Hey, I wish I had thought of this Saturday! If you’re helping, you forget that you’re a dork without a friend in the world and stop feeling like you’re just bouncing around helplessly.
  6. Play with (or in this case protect) the dog. This will bring you around other people who also like dogs and then you’ll have allies.
  7. Watch tv. I was about to get into football big time because there was a tv playing some game. I mean, I think it was football. There were guys and a ball on a field.
  8. Snoop around. Hey, why not? They’re all partying in the kitchen and dining room. It’s the perfect time to look around the rest of their house. (I promise I did not do this–except the bathroom. Remember, I spent quite a bit of time in there at first. Interestingly enough, there was a vacuum cleaner in the bathtub!)
  9. Just stand there. How bad can it be just to stand there and watch everyone? If you smile a little, you look pleasant enough. I bet you can find out lots of stuff just by watching and listening to the people around you.
  10. Make it a game to talk to as many people as possible. Wait. Games are supposed to be fun, and that doesn’t sound fun whatsoever. Forget that one!

I survived Saturday night and the work party on the previous night and the work friend’s open house on the next night, and guess what! I actually enjoyed all of the parties. I am also happy that I got most of the Christmas partying done in just one weekend. If you’re an introvert faced with a slew of Christmas parties, buckle on your elf shoes and dive in. But remember my ten suggestions in case you feel overwhelmed at the open house!

The Best Way to Travel with Kids

 

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

I’ve been a mom for almost thirteen years. All of that time, we’ve lived far away from family. That means that most “vacations” have been trips to the grandparents’ houses and have involved driving long distances with very small and very squirrely people. We’ve tried all kinds of methods to get from point A to point B without a murder/suicide pact, but I discovered the best one yet last week: travel with coworkers.

It sounds crazy, I know. In fact, before we left for our 14-hour road trip to ICOM (International Conference on Missions) in Columbus, Ohio, I dreaded the idea of packing my husband, my three children and myself into a mini van with my boss and another professor from the college where we work. I imagined hours of monotony infused with severe whining and me maybe doing something horrible like yelling at the kids while simultaneously trying to hold an adult conversation with a Ph.D.

My boy is the cutest boy.

My boy is the cutest boy.

As it turned out, though, I was very wrong about the whole thing. In fact, I hadn’t even considered the idea that the presence of outsiders might make our family nicer to each other. My children, being preteens and old enough to entertain themselves for longer stretches than 3.2 seconds, brought books, notebooks, homework (!), DS games, and they actually kept themselves busy about 70% of the time.

Of course, kids their ages are decent at being nice to each other, but sometimes they get tired and feel cramped and bored. When that happened on this trip, the children did something wonderful. Instead of yelling at each other and pushing each other around, they calmly (most of the time) expressed themselves and guess what! Having two extra adults in the vehicle proved wonderfully handy. Instead of Andrew and me shouldering the entire burden for entertaining and refereeing, whenever the boredom started setting in, one of the other grown-ups came up with something interesting for them to talk about or listen to or do. Imagine that! We brought a village in the van with us, and they helped us raise our kids for a few days.

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving...

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving…

One of the professors regaled us all with stories from his doctoral dissertation in literature, and that proved interesting and informative.  During the long ride home, in what felt like the middle of the dark night but really was only about 6 pm, the other one broke out in a narrative poem/story he recited from memory. Very impressive, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss.

The best parts, though, were not related entirely to the children’s behavior. I watched us all together and I realized a few things.

1.  I enjoyed seeing my coworkers in a different and unusual setting. I see them at work, interacting with students and other faculty and staff, but I never see them on a ridiculously long road trip with children. They both have grandchildren of their own, though, and I got to see the grandfather come out in them. I like them better now, having seen how gently they treated my children. Like I said above, my children don’t get to see family very often, and this trip reiterated for me how God provides families for us when he leads us far from our biological families.

2.  Children spend more time with their parents than anyone, and I think that sometimes can get oppressive. They need other people’s input in their lives. Seeing other adults, listening to them talk, hearing the way they spoke to each other and to their own children on the phone during the trip gave my kids a different perspective, little glimpses of other ways to view the world. Not to mention that they listened to us converse about things other than what was for dinner and whether the cats and dogs will ever get along in our house. They got to hear about theology and literature and ministry and all sorts of important things that I know very little about and rarely discuss with them.

3.  My own behavior improved drastically on this trip because nothing will make you nicer and more patient with your children than having your boss sit there and listen to you talk to them. I realized how much my attitude affects the children’s behavior. The old saying holds some truth: “If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” That can go for Dad, as well, of course. One person can bring down a carload, and one person can build up a carload as well. I need to remember that in everyday life!

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year's ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year’s ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

So now that we have made it home and have managed not to do anything horribly embarrassing, we can be thankful for the experience. I think my kids will remember the time they travelled with the faculty! Now if we can just convince them to go with us on our next family vacation…!

What’s Your Goliath?

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

The Story

I left my father early that morning, carrying a load of grain, bread, and cheese for my brothers. My stomach fluttered with excitement at the prospect of being among all of those fighting men, armed and ready for battle. All of my life, I’d dreamed of fighting the Philistines, of being part of our great army blessed by God! I arrived at the camp just in time–just as the soldiers were lining up for battle.  Finding the keeper of the supplies, I left my donkey and his burden and hurried to find my brothers in the ranks.

I had barely greeted them when I heard the voice. It boomed out over the ranks, echoed off the hillsides. I craned my neck to see him. Anyone with a voice like that had to be big! I was not disappointed. He stood in front of his army, covered with bronze from head to toe and carrying a spear as big as a weaver’s rod. Its iron point alone weighed as much as a young sheep, yet he handled it with ease.

“Why are you lining up for battle? Choose a man to come and fight me…if you have any men that is!” His laugh rang out. “If he kills me, we will all be your subjects.” I heard his mocking tone.

“Why are you all just standing there?” I turned to my brothers. “Someone go and fight him!”

My oldest brother furrowed his brow. “Boy, go home to Dad. You don’t understand this situation. We can’t fight that giant of a man!”

“What are you talking about? I’ve killed bears almost as big as him. God is on our side. What’s an arrogant man compared to the Creator of everything?”

He shook his head. “Go back to your sheep,” he scorned. “You just came down here to poke your nose in our business and watch a battle!” He spun on his heel and walked away.

I turned to the other men, but they all averted their eyes, angry and embarrassed. One man put his hand on my shoulder.

“Come with me,” he said. I hurried after him to a tent in the back of the encampment. Guards surrounded it. Strong hands pushed me through the opening. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I heard a man talking in low tones to the one who had brought me. He turned toward me, and I saw that it was the king himself!

“You think you can defeat that giant?” he demanded. I swallowed hard, cleared my throat.

“I have been tending my father’s sheep most of my life. Sometimes a bear or a lion comes and carries away one of them. I pursue it, fight it with my hands, and kill it to rescue the sheep. If God can save me from a bear or a lion, he will save me from this Philistine!” At that moment, I knew it would be true. I knew God would save me, would save his people.

To my surprise, Saul agreed to let me try, even gave me his weapons and armor, but I felt heavy and uncomfortable. I chose to go out to face the giant as myself, not pretending to be a grown warrior. As we walked toward the field where I knew the giant waited, we crossed a stream. I stopped and chose my weapons: five stones. I put them in my pouch, rubbing my fingers across their smooth surfaces. In my other hand I held my sling.

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

The giant and his shield bearer approached as we stepped forward. I saw him stop, and a look of derision crossed his face. He threw back his great, bronze-covered head and laughed.

“Have they sent a little puppy to fight me?” He cursed me by his gods. “Come on over so I can feed you to the birds today!”

“You come at me with a sword and spear and javelin,” I called out. My voice sounded loud and strong. That man was no match for my God. “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today the birds will eat your flesh!” I felt the stones in my pouch. “Today all the world will know there is a God in Israel. Everyone here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves. The battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hands!”

His face turned dark, and he rushed toward me. I ran toward him as well, pulling a stone from my pouch. As I had done hundreds of times, practicing in the fields with the sheep and even protecting them from bears and lions, I placed the stone in the sling. With one fluid motion, I swung it, released the stone, and watched as it sailed through the air and sank into the giant’s forehead. He toppled forward, falling face down onto the ground. His shield bearer dropped his shield and ran. I hurried forward. Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed Goliath’s own sword, pulled it from its scabbard, and cut off his head with it!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

My fellow Israelites flooded around me, yelling at the victory, and chased the fleeing Philistines. That day the dead Philistines were strewn all along the road to Gath and Ekron.

The king’s man found me again in the crowd and brought me to Saul’s tent once more.

“Whose son are you, young man?” he asked me.

“I am the son of your servant, Jesse of Bethlehem,” I answered. I saw a man approach from behind the king, carrying something heavy and bulky. Saul turned to him, motioning him to come closer.

“I believe these are yours,” he smiled, presenting the Philistine’s weapons. “I will remember you, son of Jesse.”

The Application

I wrote that for the class I’m taking, and I had so much fun imagining the scene, wondering about what David must have thought. I can still close my eyes and see that dusty field, a hill on each end, with fighting men assembled and a loud and scary voice paralyzing the army with fear.

I have always liked to write. As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued with words and stories and how people put words together in specific ways that make their stories come to life. Even as a child, before I could read, I made picture books with scrap paper my grandpa brought home from work, binding them together with bright red yarn. Words make sense to me. I love telling stories, either in written form or aloud, and I work hard every day in the office to shut my mouth so I won’t drive my coworkers insane with the funny things I think of to tell them (If you work with me, just allow the rest of the world to think I am successful at this endeavor, ok?!).

Today I listened to a speaker talk about how we need to find our core identity and let God work in that, using us in the way that he’s made us to be used. He said a lot of great stuff that I hope I remember, but one of the things that stuck in my mind dealt with how people resist changing. They resist stepping into the unpredictable to become awesome and instead stay with what is predictable, where they are just ok. They like the security of the predictable, even when they have a nagging feeling that it’s not really what they were created for, not where God can use them in great ways.

I think that’s a little like David and Goliath. David had a choice that day on the battlefield. He was young, untrained. Absolutely nobody expected anything from him. They definitely did not expect him to step forward and fight the giant that had seasoned warriors shaking in their sandals! He had the choice to stand in the safe predictable-ness of the crowd and be just ok or to step forward into the unpredictable awesomeness that God had planned for him. One little stone stood between him and God’s will, and he chose to step out.

What is your Goliath today? What’s blocking the road to what God has in store for you? I ask only because I’m willing to share my own roadblocks. My Goliath comes in fear of letting go and forgiving people who have hurt me in the past. My Goliath comes in fear that I won’t be good enough, that my writing, which I think may be part of what God wants to use in some way, will stink, that people will read it and think, “Whoa! Better stick with your day job, honey!” My Goliath comes in fear of not measuring up, of stepping out on faith and trying to forgive or trying to love more or trying something that leaves me vulnerable and then falling flat on my face and making a mess of it all.

What Goliath is standing on your battlefield today? Are you ready to reach down and pick up that smooth stone God put just within your reach?

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.