The Wonders of Christmas

Christmas is Jesus' birthday

Merry Christmas!

>>Merry Christmas!  Here is a devotion I delivered at Trinity’s Ladies Christmas Brunch, December 7, 2013.  My indentations are lost but I’ve left the spacing which I used in my delivery copy.<<

Our theme for our brunch today is The Wonders of Christmas.

And Christmas is certainly a wonderful time!

Snowflakes, parties, twinkling lights, brunches with beautiful decorations.

Cookies and presents and carols.

And lots of things to wonder about.

 

We wonder what size our nephews are,

and whether they’ve outgrown Pokemon.

We wonder what to buy an elderly aunt who needs nothing

and won’t eat anything we cook.

We wonder what size turkey to buy,

and whether anyone will care if we use Stove Top instead of homemade.

We wonder if we can lose eight pounds before Christmas

in spite of all the cookies, and pies, and parties…

 

Did we buy too much? Too little? Do they like green?

Does he have this one already? Did we forget someone?

How on earth do those people pay their electric bill?

How are we going to pay for all this?

 

We wonder if you’re supposed to give a gift to the paper boy

if the paper is usually in the bushes and often soaking wet.

We wonder if we should try to include that family member

—you know the one—

or somehow try to arrange things to minimize our contact with them.

We wonder, too, if our daughter’s friends are a bad influence.

If our son has started smoking.

If there’s something we can do to help them,

and what that might be,

and how we go about it?

 

We wonder if he’ll drink too much at the office party.

If we yelled too much at the kids yesterday.

If it’s normal to be treated this way.

If the test results will be negative.

If anyone will visit us this year.

If we should call Hospice.

 

We are puzzled and struggling and wonder about many things.

Mary wondered,

when the angel told her of her impending pregnancy,

“how can this be, as I am a virgin?”

The answer… the Holy Spirit will come.

 

And while I don’t expect the Holy Spirit to come upon me

and produce a child

(at least, I certainly hope not!)

I do need the Holy Spirit to come

and give me guidance and strength.

 

To get through the holidays and accomplish our lists we need strength

—lots of it!

But even more,

we need the Holy Spirit’s grace and presence

to be able to look hard at our lists,

and know what needs done,

and what is ambitious,

and what is a total pipe dream.

We need His peace, too,

to accept our limitations

and prioritize what needs done,

and let the rest go.

 

But wonder is not only puzzlement.

Wonder is also amazement and joy,

like the face of a child seeing the Christmas tree lit up,

or the sight of that one house simply covered with lights,

or the sound of Silent Night

in a church filled with hundreds of candles.

 

Elizabeth was in awe that the mother of her savior

would come to her.

The shepherds were amazed

to see the angels

and hear the news that a savior had been born.

And we,

amidst the wonder and amazement of twinkling lights

and beautiful decorations

and concerts and pageants,

let us not forgot to be amazed

that the God who created the universe,

the Holy Three-in-One,

outside of time,

far beyond the scope of our understanding

—God himself—

became human.

A baby in a diaper,

in the barn,

with the animals.

That’s amazing—

it borders on the bizarre.

Why on earth would God do that?

 

The answer, of course, is His love for us—

which is the truly amazing thing.

He loves us far more than we love our family,

our friends,

our kids

(and I know we’re just as difficult as they are!).

 

Yet He loves us enough to stoop down,

to step into time,

to accept our limitations as His own,

to become like us,

and with us,

and die in our place.

How amazing is that?

 

I wonder

if you’ll join me in trying to keep our focus on Christ this year?

School starts,

we get into a decent routine,

and then, BAM,

the holidays hit and we’re up late and early,

missing our devotions,

chasing our to do lists,

forgetting to seek the One we celebrate.

 

In the midst of our wondering

—how do they get those lights on that house?—

let us not forget to wonder about His love for us.

To find time to seek His face,

and His grace,

and His presence in our lives.

 

To spend time with Him,

reading His word,

seeking His presence,

learning His will,

and walking in the path He sets before us each day.

 

Let us pray…

 

Father, thank you that you love us with a love that is so wonderful,

so amazing.

Help us to remember that You

are the reason that we celebrate,

to include you in all our activities,

to seek you and your strength during this holiday season

and in the year to come.

Thank you for the opportunity to gather together as women,

and have a morning celebrating your gift

and enjoying the fellowship we have with one another.

Thank you for the food we are about to enjoy,

and bring many blessings to the people who prepared it.

Thank you that,

for this morning,

we’re not the ones cooking!

 

Amen.

Angel Voices

This devotion and table prayer were delivered at the Trinity Women’s Christmas Brunch, December 6, 2014.  The tables were each decorated differently by various groups and individuals, and the theme was selected by the committee.

 

Angel brunch table

The table I decorated for the Brunch

Good morning!

Aren’t these tables fabulous? It’s so wonderful to walk around and see all the beautiful and creative ideas. Last year I was involved with three tables, but I wasn’t in charge of any of them, so it was fun and easy. This year, however, I agreed to do one on my own.

It didn’t seem like it would be that hard to do. After all, I have a house full of decorations and could surely pull something together. I found some wonderful white and gold ribbons to use as napkin rings, and gold and white crackers to use as favors, so I had a foundation of white and gold.

But what to put in the middle? I have a great collection of musical instruments and musical ornaments, including a trumpet and some angels. And our theme this morning is Angel Voices. But when I went to the Bible I found that most of the verses which have angels blowing trumpets are from Revelation, where seven angels blow seven trumpets, and each trumpet blast is followed by a horrible plague such as fire mixed with blood. Perhaps not the best theme for my table.

The angels in the Bible do a lot of praising God, especially the ones in Revelation, where they join a multitude shouting, “Hallelujah!” It’s kind of one of the angels’ main duties, praising God. In Psalms, chapter 103, verses 20 and 21 the Bible says, “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.”

Those verses really sum up what angels are all about. They are mighty ones who obey His word, and do His will. Which is why I know I’m not much of an angel. I really don’t like being obedient very much! But angels are.

In many places the word angel is interchangeable with messenger. God sends them as messengers throughout history to a long list of characters in the Bible. He sent angels to future parents, including Hagar in the desert (who actually met an angel twice!), and to Samson’s mother (who isn’t named, but met an angel!), to John the Baptist’s dad Zechariah (who couldn’t speak afterward), and of course, to Mary.

He sent angels to announce and proclaim, such as the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, and the angels who met Mary at the tomb.

He sent angels to give very specific directions, such as the ones who appeared to Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Balaam (who didn’t even see the angel at first, but his donkey did!), Gideon, Gad (one of David’s prophets), Joseph, Philip, and Cornelius (who was very specifically told to send for Peter).

Other angels were sent to help or comfort people, such as those that fed Elijah, protected Daniel in the lion’s den, broke Peter out of prison, and even ministered to Jesus after his 40 days of tempting in the desert.

Still other angels God sent to conquer or destroy, including the one who traveled in front of the Israelites as they fled Egypt, the ones who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, the one in David’s time that began to destroy Jerusalem, and the one that destroyed the Assyrian army during the reign of King Hezekiah. Angels are powerful!

In Revelation, the angels are very busy. In addition to worshipping God, they’re sounding trumpets that release destruction and woe, delivering scrolls, harvesting mankind, pouring out bowls of plagues, and locking Satan into the Abyss.

They are so awe inspiring and impressive that the writer of Revelation falls down to worship the angel he’s speaking with, only to be told, “Don’t do it! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!”

Angels are impressive, but they are not God. They spend their time worshipping God and doing what He tells them to do. Can you imagine them doing otherwise? God says to an angel, “Go down there and tell Mary that she’s going to have a baby,” and the angel replies, “OK, sure, just as soon as I finish reading my email.” Or, to another, “Go down there and stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians until they get through the divided Red Sea,” and the angel replying, “But I don’t want to go there. It’s hot in Egypt.” It’s ludicrous to imagine them being anything other than obedient to God’s will.

But God made us different. As the writer of Hebrews says in Chapter 1 verse 11, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”

Hebrews begins with the idea that Jesus is above the angels, the exact representation of God, to be worshipped by the angels. It goes on to say that Jesus made himself like the rest of us, suffered death to take on our sin and make atonement for us, so that he can call us his brothers and sisters. He becomes our High Priest. He, who is himself God, stands before God on our behalf, so that through faith, we can become sons and daughters of God. Hebrews Chapter 12 verse 2 says “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” It goes on to say that if Jesus can do all that, then at least we ought to do our best not to give up, and to [quote] “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.”

Yuck! Discipline? Really? But we all know that parents who love their children discipline them. (Although I sure wish I didn’t have to!) In fact, Hebrews says, if we’re not disciplined then we’re not true sons and daughters at all.

With my own children, I wouldn’t have to discipline them if they’d just do what I tell them to do! They say, “Oh, mom, I love you,” and I want to say, “that’s great, but I told you to go practice piano!” Then I remember Jesus saying, “If you love me, keep my commands.” We get the amazing privilege of becoming sons and daughters of God, but with it comes the responsibility to do what He wants us to do, and not do what He wants us not to do.

Angels are messengers, faithful obedient messengers, and sometimes we get to be God’s messengers, too. Sometimes instead of sending a full-blown angel he sends one of us to be the help and comfort in someone’s life. I’m sure we can all think of people who have come into our lives, who have been a comfort, or a help, or a blessing, and who were the hands or voice of God for us.

It’s amazing that God uses us, since our obedience (or at least mine) can be pretty iffy at times. But what a privilege to be a part of God’s work in the lives of the people around us, our families, our friends, our church, our community. How awesome that He shares the work with us. It’s like a four year old that “helps” bake a cake. Our input is far less than His, but we get to share in the joy of blessing others.

This Advent season, I hope that we will each one of us be a help, or a comfort, or a blessing to the people God has placed in our lives. And that we will also recognize the “angels” that God has put in our lives, the friends who bless us, help us, comfort us, and proclaim God’s word to us, in a dark and difficult world.

In the end my table just has the one white and gold angel, representing the angel who proclaimed Jesus’ birth. In addition to being a help and comfort to the people in our lives, let us also be proclaimers this Advent season, proclaiming that God himself has entered into our world, taken on human form, taken our sins on himself, and made it possible for us, through faith, to become His sons and daughters. Because that is good news!

 

Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you’ve taken on human form, entered into our dark and difficult world, died for our sins, and made it possible for us to become your sons and daughters with a hope of eternity with You. Help us to be good daughters, obedient to your will, and keeping your commands. Help us to be a blessing and a help, and a comfort to those you’ve placed in our lives, as well as to accept the blessing, help, and comfort from them in our turn.

Help us also to proclaim Your coming to a dark and struggling world, and to join the hosts of heaven in saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory! Honor and power unto the Lord our God.”

Thank You for this opportunity to gather with other women, to enjoy a meal and fellowship, to take a break for a morning. Thank you especially for all the women who brought this morning together, the many volunteers who worked together to produce such a beautiful setting, delicious food, and relaxing time of fellowship. Bless everyone here and help each one to follow you more and more closely this Advent season.

Amen.

 

Good Days and Bad Days

My Sunday School class's table.

My Sunday School class’s table.

Yesterday I had a really, really great day. I mean, it started off on what appeared to be the wrong foot, but actually wasn’t, and what appeared to be going awry went fine. Better than fine, really. And then things just seemed to go better and better.

OK, so what I mean by that… I gave a little devotional and prayer at a Women’s Christmas Brunch yesterday. I tend to run late, so I planned to be there super early. Then if I was a little late I’d still be early. Well, I overslept, woke up after I’d planned to arrive, frantically got dressed and prettified and arrived right as the event was to start. This did not seem an auspicious beginning to the day.

But.

I had everything ready to go the night before. Aside from giving the event organizer a minor heart attack (for which I’m truly sorry), it was fine. In fact, it was (on my end) actually good, for at least two reasons. First, I didn’t have long to be nervous about speaking before 250 women, and second, as I was driving the two blocks to church I was desperately praying. “Lord, you made me strong, and articulate, and gave me a voice and a message, but I’ve got nothing. I’ve screwed up. I’m at the bottom. I need you. Come Lord Jesus and be my strength and let the words I speak be Your words.” If I hadn’t been in a lateness-induced panic would I have prayed so fervently?

Well, my talk went well and seem well received. I had a lovely breakfast with friends. I met a lady who explained how some local things have changed, which explains why my bookings are down. (It’s a bummer they’re down, but nice to know why.) One of my friends sang one of my favorite Christmas songs.

After the lovely brunch I got a text from my sister. Would I like to join her for a mani/pedi, her treat? Oh, yes! While I was getting the pedicure a friend called… she came with hot drinks, picked a fabulous color for me, and generally had a great visit with us. I was beginning to think, could this day get any better? But then my sister said she could sew the 14 patches I need on new Boy Scout uniforms in about 15 minutes (a tedious task I was dreading!). Wow!

After popping home and determining my outfit for my concert last night (my size is a moving target), I went to my sister’s and all of the patches got sewn on. It turns out she has a project I’ll be able to help her with, so I’ll be able to do her a favor, too. (It seems so little, but like my project was to her, it’s something I’ll be happy and able to do.)

On the way home I discovered my favorite grocery store now has whole wheat flour, which saves me a trip. Groceries in the fridge, I was on time to rehearsal. Unlike in the past, I had friends who came to the concert. (It’s hard to explain how nice it is to have people in the crowd, which I often haven’t had.) The concert went well and afterward another girlfriend and I went out for Mexican food, and I don’t mean Taco Bell. I was still pretty wired, so when I got home I had a fabulous two hour talk with my dear friend who lives across the country.

Wow! What a fun, fabulous day! It was like a gift from God, a treat from my Father, my Provider. As an extrovert I thrive on interaction with lots of people. As a relatively poor person (I’m poor by choice, so I’m not allowed to complain, but let’s face it, being tight on funds is wearying) the mani/pedi was a special treat. As a single mom, I sometimes get a little overwhelmed and my sister’s help was simply huge for me. And the concert and dinner after were just plain fun.

But before yesterday I’d already been pondering this topic. What makes a day “good?” When I walk with my girlfriend in the morning we tell each other how our days went, and what we’ve got planned. We pray for each other to have a good day, to get done what needs to get done, to do well at our jobs, to do God’s will. We vent when our days didn’t go as planned (as so very many of mine seem not to). We process problems and issues.

In the process of talking about our days, it’s become clear that some days (most days!) aren’t like yesterday. I get overwhelmed and frustrated. My kids have bad attitudes, the store is out of the item, the money isn’t flowing. Things just refuse to go my way. But does that mean the day is bad?

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says our aim is to do His will. We want to be useful and reach people, but our aim is not the usefulness or the reaching, it’s the doing of God’s will. He says that Jesus was the embodiment of following the will of his Father. He didn’t rush through villages where He was persecuted, or linger in villages where He was blessed, He steadfastly continued on toward Jerusalem and crucifixion, because He was determined to do His Father’s will.

Like most people, I tend to define as a “good day” as a day where things go my way, I am blessed, and I receive good things. But it’s humbling to think how far off that is from how God defines a “good” day—one where I follow Him and do His will. Granted, following Him and doing His will does generally lead to blessings and good things. But not always. Am I willing to embrace the hard days as “good?” Am I willing to accept the frustration that comes with the blessing of being a mom? Am I willing to choose to be disciplined when what I really want to do is be lazy?

It’s like asking, should we take the good and not the bad? And of course I’d love to have all the good and none of the bad. But I’m in this for better or for worse, whatever may come. As much as I hate discipline and trials and difficulties, those things have brought blessings I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and have been far more educational than the good times have been.

But those days are so very hard. Being frustrated and overwhelmed is no fun, and sucks all the energy out of me. It’s easy to be pleasant to others when things are going well. It’s fun to be happy and enthusiastic. And people like us better when we are. When things go poorly, I feel like I become this giant drag, a total downer that no one will want to be around.

I like the idea of doing God’s will, until God’s will takes me down difficult paths. But I’ve followed enough of those paths to know that the hard paths lead to good places. And when things go really badly, I turn to God. I cling to Him so desperately that sometimes I think He sends the tough times just because it will turn me back toward Him. Did I praise God for yesterday? I felt no need to cling to Him once my talk was done. Should I have?

If what makes a day “good” is to do God’s will, then yesterday was an OK day. I generally did what I was supposed to be doing, all of which happened to be a privilege and a joy. Today, when doing God’s will be much more tedious will I still find enjoyment in it? I hope today will be a “good” day. I want to have fun, have great interactions with others, and receive blessings. But above that I want to obey God, do His will, and follow His path, wherever it may lead.

I hope you do, too.

And if they ever ask me to speak again, I’ll have a friend call and make sure I’m up!

Bread and Butter

2014-09-23 23.27.54

I have a sweet friend who raves about my cooking. And in truth, I am a very good cook. I struggle to lose weight because no matter what style of eating I attempt—vegan, nutritarian, whole foods—I can concoct very yummy things to eat!

But in the end, most of my recipes are pretty basic. My “fabulous” baked pears are simply pears that have been halved and cored, with a spoon of brown sugar, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a pat of butter, baked until soft and fabulous. That’s it. Another friend loves my soups. Again, simple. Onion and garlic. Celery, carrots, and whatever I find in the fridge.

Salt and pepper. Bread and butter. Oil and vinegar. Even when expanded into Trinitarian flavor combinations, the best flavors are the basic ones. Garlic, onion, and celery. Brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter. I have a six foot spice cabinet, containing all kinds of spices, including mace, fenugreek, and saffron, and spice mixtures including Old Bay, Herbes de Provence, and Garam Masala. But the basics, like salt and vanilla, are in the cupboard over the stove where I can reach them quickly. It’s great to make internationally themed dishes with exotic spices, but in the end the foods my family and guests prefer are the basic ones.

In the same way, it’s great to understand all manner of theological concepts, and to occasionally spice up our reading and conversations with a pinch of antinomianism, a dash of eschatology, or a spicy debate about reformed theology. But these are spices, not nourishment. They don’t take the place of the basics, of common workaday Christianity. Prayer and fasting. Praise and thanksgiving. Sharing and serving. They don’t sound glamorous. They don’t seem spicy. But in the end they create a sustaining, refreshing Christianity that nourishes our souls.

In the summer I am busier and it is more difficult to get my daily quiet time or read the book for my weekly Bible study. And by the end of the summer I can feel it. I’m behind in my devotions, and less in touch with God’s leading. But now it’s fall and my business is slower and, and, and…

No, it’s not that. I am doing much better lately. But it’s not because my business is slower. It’s because I’ve consciously chosen discipline. I’ve begun getting up at Oh-Dark-Hundred and walking two miles with a friend. I hate getting up early. And I don’t like exercise all that much. But I love talking with my friend each morning. And because it’s so early I have to time read my devotions and Bible. Sometimes I journal and pray. And these disciplines are the ingredients for a strong, sustaining faith that will nourish me through this season and the seasons to come.

“Doing the basics” isn’t glamorous or sensational or even all that interesting. Day in and day out simply doing what we’ve been commanded to do doesn’t seem very attractive or compelling. Yet in the end, the best walks with God, like the tastiest dishes, rely on the basics for their success.

I hope I’ll remember that tomorrow at Oh-Dark-Hundred!

Waiting

Waiting sucks.

There, I’ve said it.

And really, I don’t think I know anyone who disagrees. Waiting is tough. Boring. Uncomfortable. Full of uncertainty. Tedious.

And sometimes, the loneliness, or fear, or even the excitement can be crushing.

Waiting for a wayward child to find Jesus. Waiting for a husband to materialize. Waiting for death in the nursing home. Waiting can be hard, hard stuff.

And most of us are terrible at it. At least, I know I am. I absolutely detest waiting. Abhor it. Sure, I’m a product of modern culture. I like microwaves and text messages and fast cars. But I suspect that waiting has always been tough. That if I asked my 98-year-old aunt about waiting to hear from her husband in Korea, or having to wait for the vacation she took to Yellowstone as a child, that waiting back then was just as hard as waiting for a message from Afghanistan, or for my kids to wait for Cedar Point.

Are there people for whom waiting is easy? If so, they must be amazingly at peace with themselves and God. Or have a life so presently full that the future can take its time arriving. But then, are those people truly waiting?

I remember being pregnant, hugely pregnant. I’m not a small person, and when I was pregnant with twins I was really impressively huge. I would walk into stores a month or two before my due date and overhear people say, “Did you see that pregnant lady?” The cashier would ask when I was due… over a month to go? Wow! I’d explain that it was twins. They’d invariably say they bet I couldn’t wait to get them out. Actually, I was thrilled to be pregnant and I figured a few months of discomfort were worth healthy, full-term babies.

But now I’m waiting, and it’s not so easy. For one thing, with babies there was a definite ending point, after which I knew what I’d have: babies. But waiting for a husband, that’s completely different. What if God calls me to be single the rest of my life? There is no guarantee that there’s ever an end date. And, there’s no set thing that I end up with. Maybe a husband, maybe none. Maybe tall, dark, and handsome; maybe short, pale, and hysterically funny. Could be next year. Could be fifteen years. Could be never. Ugh. That’s hard to consider.

It’s the unknowing, of course, that gets me. It’s what’s hard for all of us. A friend’s teenager is making poor choices. Will she go off the deep end? Make choices she’ll regret? Have unintended consequences with lifelong ramifications? Or will she struggle and strive, and come to a place of peace with God?

Friends (far too many) living in dead marriages, sleeping in separate bedrooms… will they divorce? Reconcile? Limp along? What should they do? How will divorcing affect their children? How can I help them? It’s so very hard. There’s so very little I can do beyond listening to them, and praying for them, and trusting that God has a plan for them, too.

Friends struggling with infertility, as I did. It’s a gut wrenching wait. Will children ever come? Should they invest big dollars on a long shot? Should they adopt? Or should they get a dog and accept heart breaking reality?

When I think of these friends, I think waiting for a husband doesn’t seem so bad. Waiting for the Infertility Specialist to call is far tougher. Worrying about my child’s future, far more gut wrenching. Wishing I wasn’t alone seems to pale in comparison.

Yet, in the end, waiting is waiting. And waiting still sucks. We have to be alone with our fears, and they’re no fun. We have to let the process play out, in its own time, and that’s tedious at best, and often painful.

And of course there are all kinds of analogies… you don’t play all the notes of a symphony at once. You can’t eat all of the meal in one bite. Life unfolds at its own pace. God’s plan unfolds in His own perfect timing.

But none of those analogies or clichés address that often it’s a long, lonely wait. Yes, God’s plan unfolds in its perfect time, but sometimes that time comes after walking through some very deep, dark, painful valleys. And sometimes those walks are alone, or nearly alone.

And God calls us to keep walking, one step in front of the other. Even when it’s not pretty. Even when we can’t figure out what to make for dinner, let alone what to do about our marriage, or our daughter, or whatever difficulty faces us.

Like Dory in Finding Nemo, we have to “just keep swimming.” Just keep moving forward, through peaks and valleys, enjoying what good things come, trusting that God has a plan, even though He hasn’t seen fit to share the details with us.

Because I know if God showed me a set of stairs and said to go up them, I’d leap on them so quickly that I’d completely skip the first step or two, bang my shins hard, and it would hurt like crazy.

So, as I stand here in the middle of my staircase, wishing I knew what was at the top, I have to trust that the God who brought me this far isn’t going to drop me halfway, that He’ll keep illuminating one step at a time. That the future is too much to know at once, like trying to eat an entire meal at once.

I pray that I, that we all, continue taking life one bite at a time, one heartbreak at a time, one joy at a time.

We can spend so much time wishing and worrying about tomorrow that we forget to live right here, right now. I know this isn’t new. But it’s something I need to practice. Why should I be worried about a husband when I have work to do, kids to love, people to serve?

The answer, again, is because it’s hard. The clichés do not address the loneliness, the longing. A childless couple can enjoy each other, serve God, work hard, take trips, but that unfulfilled longing remains.

The mom whose wayward child seems to get farther away each day can choose to trust God has a plan and eventually their son or daughter will find Him, but the worry and fear of what might happen, what will probably happen, and that there are no guarantees…children do make horrible decisions that take years to recover from, if ever… that mom’s heartache is no less real, no less painful.

I can love my kids and my life and serve God, but still have to go to bed alone at night.

The heartaches are real. The pain is real.

And I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling. The more I meet people, the more I hear their stories, the more I hear tragedy and heartache and unresolved pain. If someone is immune, I haven’t met them. Yes, not everyone is going through something gut wrenching all the time. But so many people are that I’m coming to think it’s more the rule than the exception.

Am I kind? Compassionate? Do I consider that so many of the people I meet have a struggle of some sort? Usually I’m so caught up in my own issues that I’m oblivious to the pain of the people around me, although I hope I’m getting better.

Even so, it’s frustrating that there is so little I can do for others beyond having sensitivity and compassion. And perhaps that’s enough. Perhaps we all just want and need sensitivity and compassion from others.

It’s mind blowing that God, the source of all compassion and love, watches His plan unfold, and knows the pain we have. Even as His plan seems horrible, or at least, horribly slow, He has love and compassion and cares about our struggles. He sees the tears, and hears the cries, and knows our hearts so much better than we even know them ourselves. And whether we are Christian or not, whether we seek Him or not, His plan continues, and His mercy continues.

And He wants us to bring our tears and pain to Him. He knows them already, but He still wants us to share them with Him, trust Him with them. And He brings comfort and grace and strength to those who do. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.” Comfort is wonderful, but I wish we didn’t have to mourn to get it! Yet if we do not do the brave work of mourning, we do not receive the deep comfort that comes with healing.

In the end, waiting is hard, because waiting hurts. And pain is hard. Waiting exposes our fears and hopes and longings. Waiting forces us to see who we are, and aren’t, and what we hope for. And sometimes we don’t want to know those things about ourselves.

We all know that things take time. Children grow at their own pace. People come to God on their own schedule. Relationships get started and grow over a period of time. But waiting is still hard. It always has been.  

And we can stay busy and distract ourselves and try to pretend it doesn’t hurt, or we can be honest, look realistically at our wants and longings and desires and accept them, and ourselves. We can face the pain and allow ourselves to experience it (which I hate doing) and grow stronger. Or we can shunt it aside and bury it deep (my go-to method, to my regret).

I still hate waiting. And I still abhor pain. And I still prefer to eat cookies than face my loneliness. But I know God has a plan, and both His plan and timing are perfect. I hope that I can be brave and face the pain that comes with waiting and grow during this time, to make the most of the opportunity, rather than find myself two years down the road and not any wiser or more mature than I am now.

I’m not sure I’m that brave, but I hope I am.

 

Frustration and Compassion

Last night I went to a lecture sponsored by our local seminary university.  It was supposed to be about how theology impacts our views on immigration.

What a disappointment!

I was looking forward to something deep, or detailed, or challenging, or… something!  There was little substance, no detail, no meat.

It didn’t help that the presenter was a young man working on his doctoral thesis.  His presentation was full of ums… as many as three or four in a sentence!  And he would often repeat an entire sentence verbatim, as though he were trying to convince himself, and us, of its veracity by sheer repetition.

He mentioned research, but gave no details.  He raised many sticky questions and didn’t answer any of them.  During the question and answer session, when a somewhat belligerent man asked, “How much does each illegal alien cost taxpayers?” the speaker had only a long, vague answer, because he simply didn’t know.

I left the session extraordinarily frustrated and disappointed.  Now, the next morning, I’m still upset about it.  Aside from the two hours of my life I’ll never get back, I think there’s more to my frustration.

For one thing, he never expressed his opinion.  He raised many thorny issues.  He mentioned he’s interested in very difficult, controversial topics.  But he never said, “here are various views about these topics.”  And he never said, “here’s what I’m finding, think, or believe.”

He totally failed at vulnerability, such as Brené Brown discusses in her fabulous book, Daring Greatly, where she talks about the importance of showing up and letting ourselves be seen.

Standing up and speaking takes chutzpah, and I don’t want to belittle this young man who got up there and spoke.  Yet I still want to complain. 

I tried to forgive his style, or lack thereof.  I tried to be patient with his raising tough questions without giving any kind of answers.  But I’m still frustrated.  Why should the university waste their money bringing a speaker who has nothing to say?  I’m sure it will be discussed in classes today (many students attended for extra credit).  But is that sufficient reason to bring someone from another state?  One of their own professors could have done a better job.

But perhaps my disappointment stems from something larger.  Why did I even go to this?  I went in part because it was free and something to do, and both immigration and theology are interesting topics.  On that level, it was completely unfulfilling.  The presenter appeared to know less theology than I do, and aside from having traveled more, seems to know less about immigration, and know fewer immigrants, than I do. 

On a deeper level, I went because I had the sense that God was calling me to.  I didn’t know why.  Perhaps a single guy would be there, also into theology and immigration and interesting discussions.  I totally struck out in that area. 

Yet, I still have the sense that God called me to be there.  I may never know why.  I got disappointed and frustrated, emotions I’m still learning how to process, so I got to practice those.  And I got a blog post out of it, although that’s small consolation.

But I believe it’s important to be obedient to whatever God is calling us to.  The speaker avoided the topics that would have made his presentation interesting.  But he did get up there and do it.  I got disappointed and frustrated, but I did go and listen. 

And there was something to consider embedded in the presentation.  Are there ways that we, as Christians, can practice compassion and extend healing to those around us who are different in race, status (illegal), and culture?  The answer, of course there are.  And while he didn’t answer this question either, it’s the best question he raised, and one we can all ask ourselves. 

It’s good to ask, “how can I extend compassion to all the people I encounter?”  We need to practice compassion, whether the person is a family member or a total stranger.  Whether that person is like us or seems weird.  Even whether that person is law abiding or law breaking.

The other nugget, extracted from a sea of vagueness, is the idea that we need to champion compassion for those we never actually encounter.  As we talk about immigration, or racism, or drug addicts, or cancer victims, or any topic that involves “those people,” can we practice compassion toward those who aren’t even present to us?

Sometimes it’s a struggle to be compassionate toward my own children.  As I blog about how we all face difficulties and struggle through life, I hope I can learn and practice compassion toward everyone I encounter. 

And everyone I don’t encounter.

Margin

My father loved trains.

He never had a model train, but he loved those, too.  He loved steam trains, diesel trains, freight trains, passenger trains.  He would drive out of his way to go past a train yard, and was delighted if he had to stop and wait at a train crossing.

Once on a trip to town when I was a kid, dad saw a train idling right next to a parking area and stopped to check it out.  Naturally, all three of us kids jumped out, too.  My mother decided to wait in the car.

My sociable father was soon chatting with the engineer, who invited us up for a tour.  He asked if we’d like a ride.  Of course!  I have no idea how my mom felt as she watched the train move out of sight around a curve.  I was fascinated as we passed railroad cars holding dozens of automobiles smashed into cubes.

After about a mile, the engineer returned us.  He explained he could operate only so many hours, after which he must stop, no matter where he was, and he was waiting for a new engineer from 45 minutes away.  He told my dad, “you don’t know my name, you don’t know my train’s number, you don’t know what day this was, this never happened.”  Apparently it’s illegal for non-employees to be in a locomotive, let alone take a ride!  But my dad was so engaging, and so in love with trains, that it seemed the most natural thing in the world to give him and his kids a ride.

My dad was friendly and loved trains, but this story epitomizes a quality he had, one I want to practice and pass on to my kids.  My father had margin.  He rarely was so tightly scheduled that there wasn’t time to stop and check out something interesting.  One time we followed a fire engine, just to see where it was going.  Another time we stopped and cut a stalk of sugar cane on our way to Florida

Now it’s my turn.  When we travel I keep our itineraries loose and flexible.  My kids remember when we picked cotton in Kansas, stood in the ruts of the Santa Fe trail, waded in the Tongue River in Wyoming, climbed a hill in the Saguaro Desert, stood next to a cotton bale in Georgia, watched an anhinga dry its wings in Florida, found a fossil in The Badlands, watched ships traverse the locks in the Welland Canal in Ontario, ate at a farmer’s market in Vermont, found a Japanese internment camp in Kansas, followed dinosaur tracks in Arizona, and found the World’s Largest Pecan in Seguin, Texas.

All of these were side trips, serendipitous finds, spur of the moment stops and detours.  And they are some of my kids’ favorite memories.

My kids also remember things actually on our itineraries which, because flexible, we could take the time to enjoy.  Like taking the tiny forest road in the Bighorn Mountains, climbing the hill in Petroglyph National Monument, walking the boardwalk at Everglades National Park, and following the band at Fort Ticonderoga.

I take this gift for granted, this ability to take our time, until we encounter public school kids.  Like at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, where my then 6-year-olds spent over two hours in the first room…which was alternately full and empty as class after class of kids swarmed in, played frantically for ten minutes, spent five minutes lining up, then marched on to the next room.  Or more recently at a School Day Concert with our local symphony, where we spent a leisurely 15 minutes learning about Mars at the NASA table before strolling into the concert hall.  We even went onstage to check out the space suit worn by Ben Affleck, while the public school kids filed past the NASA table, picked up a sticker, then sat in orderly rows.

But I need to take this to the next level.  I am not what my father was.  I get too busy and there is no margin.  I have a long list and a short amount of time.  It’s my natural tendency to stay crazy busy.  Margin is scary.  It means being along with myself.  It means waiting because I’m the first to arrive.  It means getting up and dressed and out the door at a reasonable hour.

Before I had children, my modus operandi was sleep as late as possible, drive as fast as possible, get to work as close to on time as possible.  Yet even then, I knew I needed more margin.  The one time I got up and going and beat the traffic, that’s the morning I saw the broken car, and the lady walking along the interstate.  I had time.  I could stop, offer a safe ride, offer my cell phone, and offer a ride back to her car to wait for the tow.  It only happened once.  Not because only once someone needed help, but because only once did I have margin.

Really, to become like my father, to chase fire trucks and hot air balloons and get free train rides, my whole life needs to have margin.  Lots of it.  I need to be ready for serendipity not only on vacation, but daily.

Being a mom with very young twins forced me to have margin.  Just getting in and out of the car was time consuming.  Each night I’d wonder why more didn’t get done, and remind myself that holding a crying child counts as getting something done.  Stopping and looking at the butterfly, or throwing sticks in the creek, or looking under rocks in the back yard are valuable, important things to be doing.  It’s hard to remember that sometimes.  It’s not just the dishes that need done, cuddles need done, too.  It’s not just lunches that need made, conversations need made, too.

Some days I have flexibility, and I can stop and give my kids the attention they need.  Other days, I fail miserably.  I’m behind schedule and I blame the piles of laundry and paperwork on the time I spent playing.  There’s a fine line between attending to children and procrastination.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  Jesus was there, simply available, and moms brought their kids to him.  He didn’t check his schedule and tell them to come next Tuesday.  He said simply, “let them come.”  On his way to help a dying child, he was touched by an bleeding woman in the crowd, and he stopped completely.  There was time to stop.  Even when Lazarus was ill and died, he didn’t hurry.  He took the time needed for each.

I live in a world of hurry, with smart phones, fast food, and fast cars.  Moving to a slower paced country is not the solution.  At least, not for me.  Instead, I need to choose daily to have margin, to be careful about commitments.  To really consider whether an activity is going to benefit my kids, or be a time suck and pressure on all of us.  To say no to some things.  Not everything.  My kids are still plenty involved.  They’re in cub scouts and 4-H and do golf in the summer.  They play hand bells and sing at church.  But the day they had science fair, and bells, and church supper, and choir, and shooting sports was tough on all of us.  Not everything needs to be fun all the time, but I am glad those margin-less days are uncommon.

Our days become our lives.  Activities are fun, educational, and beneficial, but if all we’re doing is running, running, running, then our lives become a blur of running.  There is no time, or energy, for sunsets and snow forts and helping ladies with broken cars.  There is no margin for visiting friends, or serving at church, or cuddling stinky boys and making silly jokes.

I’ve come a long way.  I’ve developed some margin.  But I want to do better.  It’s not about spending less time on Facebook.  It’s more important I continually add buffer time into my schedule.  To get my work done before the last minute.  To leave earlier so I’m not rushing so much, or running so late, that we can’t take that interesting detour, or stop to chat with friends in the hall, or stop to see the train parked beside the road.

Not just while on vacation, but every single day.

Boxes

Small.  Innocuous.  Simple.

Little boxes.  On forms.  In life.

So little.  So much.  Race.  Gender.  Age.  Marital status.  Take a complex and multi-faceted person, put them in a little box.

So simple on the form.  And sometimes, so painful.  An innocuous little box representing so much.  Single: check.  Divorced: check.  Kids: no kids.  Widowed: check. 

What the forms don’t say…  Ache:  check.  Longing:  check.  Frustration, disappointment, betrayal, sorrow:  check.  Joy, accomplishment, blessings:  check.

The boxes leave out so much.  We are so much more than our boxes, so much more complex.

We put people in boxes so we know what to expect.  What they’re supposed to be like.  Tell me who you are, then I know what I’m dealing with.  Give me a structured world.

Then we find ourselves in a box.  A stereotype.  Or a dismissal.  Limitations assigned by others.

Yet complex people don’t fit in boxes.  I know I don’t.

My brand new blog comes with an About page.  A blank canvas.  Who am I? What am I? What is this blog?

What box am I in?

It’s like dating.  Single Divorced Christian Female seeks blog readers…

On the About page, I can put whatever I want.  But forms insist on check marks.  Confining boxes.  Limiting our complexity into oversimplified categories.

And often, our conversations with others amount to verbal forms.  Although we grow more subtle with age, we try to surmise job, marital status, kids.  Sometimes with compassion.  Often blithely oblivious to the pain our chitchat causes to the recently divorced, the laid off, the widowed, the bereaved, those with cancer, those struggling with infertility.

We put people in boxes, put labels on them, and forget that the boxes are full of pain, and sorrow, and joy, and so much more.

We put people in boxes, then think we know what to expect.  Stereotypes and labels, subtle or overt, racism, sexism, ageism…  Now I know what you are.  What you can do, and what you can’t.  How you’re going to think and feel and respond.

Except, of course, we don’t have a clue.

We use the boxes because they seem to work.  People of that sort have always behaved that way.  Therefore, they always will.

Except, of course, they don’t.

And sometimes we put others in boxes because we struggle with the box we’re in.  Your box is worse than mine, therefore I’m OK.  My box is glamorous, or cool, or at least socially acceptable, therefore I’m OK.  Sometimes the limitations come from ourselves.  If we stay in our safe little box then no one sees, no one knows, no one can hurt us.

Except, of course, it’s very lonely in that box. 

And the day comes when it’s time to escape from our boxes, to free ourselves from the limitations.  To stand up and stretch and reach our full potential.  To encounter the world and engage with life and make a difference. 

We can be free of the boxes.

And those still ensconced in their boxes struggle with admiration and fear.  Admiration for the pioneers, the Rosa Parks of life, who stop accepting the boxes, for the ones who come alive, apply for that job, write that book, take that dare.  They struggle, too, with envy and jealousy, and the self-loathing that keeps them small, contained, confined.

That box is not on the form.

And the struggle is painful and messy.  So we are caught between the fear of busting out and the pain of staying where we are.  The fear is terrible and the pain is horrible, so we eat, or drink, or stay crazy busy.  Which seems to work, at least for a while.  Sometimes it even lets us check off some new boxes.  Productive.  Efficient.  Successful.

Those boxes are not on the form, either. 

In the end we are back where we started.  Complex creatures in a world of simplistic boxes.  Given labels that don’t describe the richness of our experience or the complexity of our selves.

“Christian” is one of those labels.  And for people who “know” how all Christians are, it’s a box.  My atheist friend labels me Christian, and puts me in a very confining box of how I’m supposed to think and behave.  But I’m not at all like his idea of Christianity.  Very few Christians are.

You wouldn’t think it would be a confusing term.  Christian.  Christ-person.  Follower of Christ. 

But from the beginning of Christianity, there has been this dilemma.  There are Christians, and then there are Christians.  There are sincere, you-can-shoot-me-but-I’ll-never-deny-Christ, follow him daily, obedient Christians.  And Christians who aren’t sure they’d survive that test, but are trying their best. 

Then there are others who say, “I like the music, the child care, the free donuts, I’m with those people, therefore, I’m a Christian.”  And with them are the intolerant “Christians” who say, “since I do x-y-z, I’m going to heaven.  Since you’re not doing x-y-z, you’re going to hell.”  (These are those who give Christianity a bad rep.)

The sincere, authentic Christians have, through the ages, tried to find a way to distinguish themselves.  To say, “what we have here is real, and special, and worth dying for, and you really ought to be a part of it.” 

But it’s an internal thing, between people and God.  A relationship.  As soon as you try to describe that relationship, and distinguish who’s got it and who doesn’t, the second sort of Christian says, “oh, ok, if I have my quiet time and go to church, I’m good, right?”

And the true faithful are stuck.  What to call themselves?  How can they make that distinction and not sound presumptuous?  But once you find a good label, everyone wants it.  The inauthentic move in and appropriate it for themselves.

One friend calls herself a “Jesus follower.”  It seems an apt and functional title, generic enough to cross denominations, descriptive of authenticity.  Yet I’m already hearing it applied more generally.

Christianity is a line, not a box.  It’s not, “I prayed that prayer, I check off that box.”  It’s a point-of-no-return relationship.  A place where Jesus is real and you want him really present in your life, every day, all the time.

Like any other relationship, it develops, deepening and growing, becoming a more integral part of who you are.  One day we take a step, and we’re there.  Perhaps as a child, barely understanding.  Or as an adult who’s attended church for years, but one day truly trusts.  Or as one who’s fought God, and exhausted finally collapses over that line to find a forgiving savior. 

Crossing that line does not confine me to a box but frees me.  I don’t have to be perfect.  I don’t have to understand eschatology.  I don’t have to grasp the doctrine of the Trinity.  I only need to let Him be present, with me and in me, through my life and all eternity.  Comforting, guiding, sustaining, and strengthening me as I navigate life and grow in Him.

Actually, it’s coming out of the boxes and into ourselves!

The Long Version (or, Resurrecting my Darlings)

Here is the longer version of my rebuttal to Matt Timmon’s blog post and Times-Gazette article:

The title for Matt Timmons’ article, “The Idea of Submission for wives not degrading,” could not be more inaccurate.  Submission for wives, in the form Matt presents, is degrading indeed.

Matt’s article is a classic case of “Yes, but.”  Women are equal, but… called to submit to bring glory to their husbands, limited to the callings of wife and mother, causing an epidemic of divorce by their lack of submission, and required to put aside their individuality for the good of their marriage.

Matt begins that women are co-equal with men, with merely a different shape and role, paralleling the Trinity.  Actually, the Bible says the parallel is Christ and His church. (Col 1:18, Eph 5:23)  Unlike the Trinity where “Christ voluntarily submits to the father to bring glory to his name,” we parallel Christ and His Church, where we respond and follow as he lays down his life for us.  The purpose of wives’ submission is not to bring glory to their husbands’ names!

Continue reading

A Rebuttal

On Wednesday of last week (2/5/14) Matt Timmons posted a blog post of an article which he submitted to the Ashland Times-Gazette. It was published on Friday (2/6/14).

Meanwhile, I fought and fought against having to write a rebuttal. In the end I felt compelled.  There was no avoiding it.  A friend asked, “By God?  By justice?” Yes, yes, and probably more. But I was afraid, too.  I didn’t want to be vindictive or sound like a bitter divorcee.

My initial draft was 2000 words, but Letters to the Editor are limited to 600 words. I had to “kill all my darlings” as William Faulkner said. (On the other hand, the Pastors’ Column is limited to 500 words, so I guess I can’t complain.)  Below is what I submitted to the paper… the version they printed today (2/13/14) contained a number of edits. At first I felt the grievance all edited authors feel. But mostly they made it conform to the AP style book, including changing “Matt” to “Timmons” and really, they didn’t change it very much.

Submitted version (without T-G edits):

            The title of Matt Timmons’ article, “The idea of submission for wives not degrading,” is inaccurate.  It’s a “Yes, but.”  Women are equal, but… called to bring glory to their husbands, limited to wives and mothers, causing divorces, and required to disregard their individuality.

Matt begins that women are co-equal, like the Trinity, where “Christ voluntarily submits to the father to bring glory to his name.” Actually, the Bible says the parallel is Christ and His church.  He lays down his life for her.

If a girl wants to be a wife and mother, fine.  But maybe she could cure cancer. Are only men permitted a variety of callings? What no husband appears? Or she’s denied motherhood?  Have women no other contribution?

Women have embraced this box with sad results.  Like my friend who got married, had five kids, practiced meek submission… then found her husband addicted to pornography and seeking encounters with men.  Now she’s divorced, with no job, no skills, no alimony, and five kids.  Wife and mother are fine, but the vagaries of real life give no guarantees.

Matt places the divorce epidemic on the lack of submission.  Humans are sinful, and when sinners get married there are divorces.

Many women practice Matt’s style of submission, trying anything whatsoever to hold their marriage together.  They get abused, neglected, and abandoned.  At the end of their rope they go for counsel saying their husband is [hooked on porn, drinks, calls me names, beats me, comes home late…].  They are told to [submit more, dress more modestly/attractively, lose weight, have more sex…].  Colossians 3:19 says men are to love their wives.  Where are the sermons calling men to lay down their lives? When will we demand as much effort from men as from women?

Matt says women’s individuality causes “divorce to loom …because the two are never really bonded” and “biblical womanhood promotes lifelong marriages.”

Choosing to submit does not mean giving up my individuality. That leads to codependency. If so, Matt could marry anyone, so long as she’s Christian and submissive. She could be mathematical, creative, athletic, musical… but since she’ll give up her individuality, none of that matters.  It’s blatantly illogical. It’s also anti-Biblical.  In marriage, two become one.  Both give up some individuality.  Both move from “I” to “we.”  But neither husband nor wife lose themselves completely. We are called to find our true identities in Christ, not each other.

Matt’s ideal is a milksop whose destiny is her husband and his calling, who is “incomplete without him… to glory in him…”  So a single woman remains incomplete?  We are all incomplete.  It’s not husbands, but God himself that completes us.  And it is to God alone that we give glory!  Our worth is not in husband or children, but in our humanity.

We are called to submit… called by God, not commanded by men.  Our choice to submit is our own, just as we choose not to lie, cheat, or steal.  We are called to live righteous lives of service to others, including our husbands.  We follow Jesus, as best as we are able. Our choice. Our walk. Our path before the Lord.

The Bible tells everyone to submit to one another. It calls all of us to lay down our lives. Not our individuality, our lives.  Not for our marriages, but for our Lord, the savior who gave His life for ours.  When we choose to lay down our lives, we find an amazing paradox.  We do not lose our lives, but gain them. We will not lose ourselves, but find ourselves in Him.

So, welcome to my brand new blog. I have no idea where it’s headed, but I don’t think this will be the only post!