Saturday, October 29, 2011

09.12.2011 How Were Families Made?

I really appreciated all of the comments from my last post. Your words caused me to further reflect on the motivation behind the choices I make as a parent - so thank you!

Before I dive further into today's topic, I want to acknowledge that I have many dear friends who have used some of the methods that I reject and who downright disagree with my perspective. These women are excellent parents who I often turn to for advice! I know that their consciences are clear regarding the decisions that they have made. What I share, below, are the choices that I've needed to make in order to keep my conscience clear as well.

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When my husband and I were confronted with all of those first-time-parent questions, and when we couldn't see a clear reason to make one choice over another, we would always resort to the "What would have happened in the Garden?" answer.

Of course, Adam and Eve didn't have children in the Garden of Eden. And our home is nothing like that perfect paradise. What we were really asking was, "how did God design families to work?" In other words, so far as we can understand, how are we as humans made to relate to one another, especially as parents and children? If we really trust that God created this little person, and gave her to us, and remains sovereign over all of us, then what decisions are really important and which ones should be recognized as "little stuff"?

For example, consider the controversial issue of babies and sleep. Where should they sleep? When should they sleep? How much should they sleep? How do I make them sleep? Why can't I, as the mother, GET MORE SLEEP?!? When Maren was born, I felt like all the moms I knew were talking about their children's sleep "schedules". It seemed like their kids were as regular as a timeclock. So I spent the first six months of my daughter's life trying to figure out her sleep patterns and force her into a structure that I could regulate.

The problem is, I'm not a structured, regulated person. And my child hated every effort I made to make her into one. I remember breaking down in tears one day to my husband, frustrated that I never knew when Maren would need a nap so I couldn't plan anything because I didn't want to disrupt her sleep schedule. He calmly spoke into my meltdown - "honey, do you really think Eve spent her time worrying about when Cain and Abel would sleep? she probably just strapped them to her back, went about her business, and took care of them as things came up."

Translation: stop being someone you're not. stop trying to make your kid someone she's not. just pay attention to what your baby is saying to you, and act accordingly.

Thinking about the Garden, about the pure joy of walking in the presence of God and trusting him for every need, in every moment, changed the way I thought about parenting. I knew God had made me to be a Mama, and I was certain that I knew my baby better than anyone else. So I just started listening to them - to my perfect Father, and to my little child.

I know there are mothers of every shape and perspective, with different preferences and lifestyles. I know that life is no longer as simple and beautiful as it was designed to be and that we face a thousand complex issues related to parenting. But I believe that it is my sin, and the foolishness of the world, and the lies of our enemy, who keep me from fulfilling the Grand Purpose that God has for me as a mother.

I believe that it is only my weakness that ever causes me to ignore my crying child. I believe that it's my pride that says I deserve to have work outside of the home. And I believe that it's my selfishness that tries to make Maren do things my way, or in a way that would make it "easier" on me.

I want to live in the freedom that belongs to me in Christ, the freedom that allows me to delight in my child without worrying about what's going to happen next or how she compares to any other kid. I want to be so secure in my identity, which is hidden in Christ, that I refuse to manipulate my daughter or neglect my calling as her mother. I want to go back to the Garden and sing and dance as a child of God who knows that his hand is more than powerful enough to hold me up and provide for my every need.

So, that's how I try to make decisions about caring for Maren. I ask God to show me how he designed our family and to give me the courage to live like it.

What about you? What gives you freedom in your outlook on parenting?

09.05.2011 Parenting Philosophy #1:Multi-Tasking is a Myth

Women are generally regarded as great multi-taskers and this skill tends to improve as we become mothers. We bounce the baby on our hip while listening to our friend's sob story over the phone, make dinner, and clean the kitchen floor. We're probably checking Facebook and responding to an email in the same 5 minutes as well.

The problem is, while this may make us uber-efficient workhorses, it rarely results in genuine quality time with our children. And if there is one thing I am certain of as a parent, it is that children absolutely desire personal, face-to-face, focused attention. They instantly know if your time (and, by extension, your affection) is being divided. And they will do anything to get you to look at them rather than the [phone, computer, television, cleaning rag...]!

So, despite my internal tendency towards juggling seven responsibilities at once, I have made some very practical - and what I have deemed, necessary - choices about laying aside multi-tasking in order to prioritize my child.

Turn off techonology. When I'm with Maren, I make a concerted effort NOT to check email, Facebook, or text messages. I don't answer my phone unless it's my husband or I have the time to actually talk to the person calling. For me, I need to consciously avoid technology or else I begin to think that it's more important - in the moment - to deal with an email rather than dance in the living room with my daughter.

Avoid tasks. When Maren is awake, she gets my time. Which means that I usually save washing dishes, folding laundry, and other household chores until she's asleep. If we make a mess together, then we clean it up, and, as she gets older, I expect to involve her in general cleaning (such as after meals), but for the most part, I don't do tasks when we're together. I never want my kid to think that I'd rather deal with a pile of dirty dishes instead of get down on the floor and push trains around with her.

Listen attentively. As much as possible, I look straight at Maren when she talks. Which, right now, is almost constantly. If we're in different rooms and I hear her voice, I ask her to come speak to me directly (or I go in to her). Even though I can hear her while I'm typing, texting, or cooking, I am not giving her my full attention unless our eyes meet. Then she knows that I value what she's saying, neither of us gets frustrated with the conversation, and we can experience total joy in a shared moment. This works especially well when she is upset about something. If I pause, hold her, and listen to the emotions she is expressing, we can quickly overcome whiny, complaining outbursts. This makes for a happy mama and child.

Communicate directly. If I need to focus my attention on other things, I let Maren know first. I explain what I am doing and why I need to take care of it at that time. I ask her not to interrupt and expect her to wait patiently until I can return my focus to her. This helps her understand that I haven't forgotten her and that she will receive my attention soon. I think it also teaches her how to communicate to me what is important to her.

When in Doubt, Choose the Kid. My to-do list can get awfully long. There is never enough time in the day for everything I want to do. But there is no doubt in my mind that Maren is the absolute best use of my energy. She will only be in this moment, at this age, for a fleeting blink. She has the pure joy of childhood right now - the hopeful expectation of each new day, the wonder at every new discovery, the unconditional love of being with her Mama. Why would I ever choose a stinky toilet or an electronic message over HER?!?

What about you? Do you think multi-tasking as a parent actually works? Or what other tricks do you have to show your child(ren) that they have first priority on your time?

09.01.2011 Bringing Up Baby

This month, I am joining with 28 other parents who are praying daily for our kids. In light of that, I plan to write a series of posts throughout September related to my thoughts and philosophies on parenting.

Today's post will be brief, as it's more of a disclaimer...

First, I only have one child, who is not yet 3.
Translation: I don't know squat about parenting. I will do the best I can to speak only from my own experience but EVERYTHING I WRITE SHOULD BE TAKEN WITH A FULL SHAKE OF SALT and a healthy side of meat.

Second, if you are not already aware of this, I tend towards non-traditional methods of parenting. I don't actually know what I mean by the phrase "traditional" but it would certainly be accurate to state that I don't do anything just because it's the commonly accepted practice. Which is not to say that I actively seek out alternative parenting styles in order to rebel against the system; it is more a reflection on the fact that I am insanely confident in myself and don't feel any need to get the approval of our society to make the choices that I do.
IF YOU TEND TOWARDS CONFORMITY - you may be appalled by what you read here.

Third, due to said abnormal self-confidence, I don't have much research to back up my opinions. In cases where I felt I needed statistics/facts/"proof" in order to make an informed decision, I have loads of studies, books, and external references to back up my choice. But most of the time, I parent with common sense, my gut instinct, and a whole lot of faith.
IF YOU SECOND-GUESS MOST OF YOUR DECISIONS, you may not want to follow the methods you find here.

Fourth, I should make it clear upfront that I believe every child is unique and that the absolute best thing any parent can do is KNOW YOUR KID. I confess that I judge other parents all the time - in my head. [Thank God I've learned to stop some things from coming out of my mouth!] But ultimately, I don't know their children so I CANNOT know if their choices are any better or worse than my own (broadly speaking. If I catch you swinging a bat at your kid's head, you better believe I'm going to step in).

With all this said, I'd love to ruminate on subjects that are of particular interest to you. So if you have any questions you're working through as a parent, specific areas you'd like to hear my opinion about, or want to challenge/criticize/judge anything you've seen me do as a parent, please leave me a comment!


08.27.2011 Bought and Paid For

LDI is an unpaid church internship, during which I take classes like biblical interpretation and theology, get some practice in ministry, am mentored, and am basically available for any and all tasks for which church leaders need assistance (we affectionately term these "grunt jobs"). I was the first married person to enter LDI, and since Michael was not working, I had to raise quite a bit more financial support (our only income for the year). Two weeks before my corporate job ended, we had only raised 20% of our salary. I was taking this disappointing news out on Michael in some very unpleasant and definitely ungodly ways. We were fighting daily, as I allowed the fear of what would happen when that meager financial amount quickly ran out to overpower my faith that God knew what he was doing. God was, after the all, the one who told me to quit my nice, normal well-paying job. In fact, in the five months that I had to prepare for leaving corporate America, God had actually reminded me, on more than one occasion, that he had all of this taken care of.

So where was the money?

In one week, I was supposed to purchase an $800 plane ticket to Nigeria. LDI participants often include a cross-cultural ministry experience during their internship, usually at the end of nine months, but I had the opportunity to share in our church's first missions partnership: a 3-year connection with an organization to train and encourage indigenous leaders in Nigeria. Every six months for the next 3 years, teams of men and women would host mini-conferences and follow-up visits with local Nigerian ministry leaders, and I was honored to join the very first team leaving that October. However, since my LDI income was so low, and had not actually even come in yet, I was unable to purchase my plane ticket. This was stressing me out.

Then, 5 days before I left my job, i received a phone call at work. Our church administrator informed me that an anonymous donor had bought my plane ticket. She said, "you have nothing to worry about. It has been bought and paid for."

BOUGHT AND PAID FOR. Kind of like my life. I was instantly humbled in that moment. Humbled that, in the midst of my wickedness towards my husband, God still reached out and handed me a gift. Humbled that despite my fear and doubts, God remained faithful to me.

So I went to Nigeria. And I served in LDI for a full nine months. We never raised - on paper - even 30% of our necessary salary. We came frighteningly close to not being able to pay bills, but the money always came in. We received anonymous gifts of money, food, and everything we needed. We learned to live day by day, trusting God to provide exactly what we needed, when we needed it.

I'm not saying that I have this down perfectly, but that year of daily dependence was thrilling for us. Like many of my other stories, it taught me how big God is. It reminded me that I am not in control of my life and that letting go of trying to control it is infinitely more freeing.  

08.23.2011 What I Waited For

For 6 days, I tried to forget that little voice I had heard. I said nothing to Michael or anyone else about the preposterous idea of me quitting my job. At this point, we had been married for just over 2 years, still fighting regularly; Michael was in seminary and I was our sole source of income. Walking away from a perfectly good job was just not a wise plan.

But the following Sunday, our little Mark Study group reconvened to check in and pray for one another. As we went around the table, each time I bowed my head to pray for someone, it was like the Holy Spirit was screaming in my ear: QUIT YOUR JOB!!!

So when my turn came to share, I was forced to blurt it out. I asked the group to pray for my imminent conversation with Michael and for clear direction regarding God's plan (because, if I'm no longer working, God must have something else in mind -- right?!?).

The next day, I confronted Michael. "Honey, remember how, like, eight months ago, I felt like the Lord was telling me to wait? But, um, how we haven't really known what we're waiting for? Well, um, I think he might be telling us now."

Michael: "Really? That's great! What do you think it is?"

Me: "Well, I'd really like to let you pray about it and ask him to tell you. Then, you know, we can come together and see if he told us the same thing." [I'm really trying to avoid being responsible for cutting out our income here]

Miraculously, Michael agrees. Huge sigh of relief. Now I just need to wait for God to tell Michael that I'm leaving my job. I waited a whole month - all of February 2002. Michael comes to me at the end of the month and says, "I've been praying. And -- God hasn't revealed anything to me. BUT - I think he has told you. So you need to tell me what God wants us to do."

ARE YOU KIDDING?!? Big gulp. We sit down on the couch. And I say, with about as much hesitation as I've ever spoken in my life, "Well, see, I'm pretty sure God wants me my job."

Michael's jaw didn't drop. His eyes got a little bigger, but, rationally, calmly, he asked me what I would be doing instead of earning a decent wage.

The cool thing was, back in January, when I first heard God's crazy call, I didn't have a clue what the next step was. But while Michael spent February seeking God's direction, I was also listening to his voice. And he showed me a path. "I think I'm supposed to do the Leadership Development Institute."

Michael quietly took in this information, then asked for another month to pray about it and get some counsel from others. March was another waiting month, but then in early April, Michael confidently approached me and confirmed that this was, indeed, God's plan for us. So I gave 5 months notice to my employer and began praying that God would raise up financial partners to support us while I spent 9 months as an intern at our church [yes, the same church that had hurt us just one year earlier].


That's how long I waited on God to tell me that I could leave my job and enter full-time ministry. It's the time I spent losing confidence in my role in the church, losing part of my husband while he grieved, losing income, losing my home, losing my father. People and things kept being taken from me during those ten months, but I kept on hoping in God.

I do not believe that I can do anything to earn God's favor or to secure my salvation. Jesus did everything for me on those accounts.
But I do believe that how I respond to God's voice in my life will affect the measure of [rewards, benefits, joys] that I will receive from him.

I don't honestly know if, during those ten months, I had stopped waiting on the Lord, he would have still sent me to LDI. But I do know that after intentionally waiting on him - the "answer" was well worth the wait. And my time in LDI - another miraculous story in itself - secured forever my ministry calling. Those ten months permanently changed my view of my life; they taught me how little [how not at all] it is about me, but how it is ALL about God. They encouraged me that trials are momentary and that Christ is my treasure.

Most of all, they reminded me of what I am ultimately waiting for - the joy of seeing Jesus face to face.

08.19.2011 Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

June 2002. My husband and I experienced the most difficult disappointment in our ministry up until that time. A dark cloud settled over his heart, in particular, as he questioned his talents and his role in the church. We felt very alone, hurt, and confused.

Because of Michael's part-time job, we were able to fly standby at that time, so he took the opportunity to get away and visit his dad over Father's Day weekend. While he was gone, and I labored in tearful prayer, God encouraged me with this passage from the prophet Jeremiah (a pretty depressed guy):

My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD.” Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.

It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the LORD.

It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone and be silent since God has laid it on him. For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.

Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?

In addition to being reminded that God was completely in control of our situation, I also clearly felt God telling me to wait on him. I didn't exactly know what I was waiting for, why we were going through this trial, or what would come out of it, but I felt commanded to WAIT.

And wait I did.

I waited through the summer, as we traveled to Norway, then to California. Plenty of time away from our church family, yet still suffering silently.

I waited through September, when Michael traveled to Alaska for what was supposed to be 3 days but what turned into almost 2 weeks. God gave him some peace, on that little island, in a little church recovering from its own recent pain, with some close friends. But when Michael returned to Minneapolis, he lost his job. And within a week of losing that income, we were also relieved of our caretaking responsibilities in our apartment building, which decreased still more income while adding a new expense.

So I waited through October, as God told us not to look for another place to live, even though we could no longer afford where we were. And, miraculously, some old friends contacted us in mid-October, letting us know that they were now caretakers of an apartment building, had a space to rent, and did we know anyone who needed a place at the exact price we had determined we could pay?

I waited through November, when, a week after we moved into our new home, I was awakened by a phone call from my mom, saying that my dad had had a heart attack in our kitchen that morning and was dead. We drove 12 hours to pick up my sister from her college dorm room, then I stayed two weeks in my mother's house to help with post-mortem details. I clung to my memories of a just and loving God who promised good things to me as I waited on him.

I waited in December, as we entertained the idea of moving to Alaska so that Michael could take a job leading worship at that little church he spent 2 Sundays in.

In January, I took a week off of work so that I could co-lead an inductive Bible study of the gospel of Mark. Those 5 days, with that small group of people, so intently studying the Bible, were exhilerating. I returned to work less-than-thrilled to be sitting back in my cubicle, but while I was replying to one of many emails, the Holy Spirit spoke right to my heart.


I froze, my hands hovering above the keyboard. I whispered, "was that you, Lord? because -" and he interrupted me again: QUIT YOUR JOB AND GO INTO MINISTRY.

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In the spirit of this post, I'm going to stop the story here so that you will have to wait and check back to find out what happened. Realize that at this point in the story, I had been waiting nearly EIGHT MONTHS for God to reveal what was next. And while I waited, we were deeply hurt by our church, we traveled across the country and the world multiple times, we lost 2 jobs, moved, experienced my dad's death, and entertained a new out-of-state job offer. And that was just the beginning of what God had planned for us!

08.14.2011 How to Get a Job

I got a job right out of college. It was the first job I applied for, and it sounded good, so I didn't even talk to God about it, just went ahead and accepted the position.

A month later, I realized it was the worst job I had ever had, and I started praying about a new one. I asked God to clearly show me where I should work and close doors to any place that wasn't good for me. One time, I showed up for an interview and the company had completely forgotten about it so the employer wasn't even in the office. I walked out of there with a huge smile, confident that God had kept me from a second worst-job-in-the-world.

Another time, I had an interview at a print advertising agency. The man I met with asked me about 5-year goals and other typical long-term dreams. I told him that I didn't see myself staying in advertising very long and that I couldn't promise I would be with his company for 5 years, or even for 3 months.

He called me in for a second interview. And a third.

My third interview was with the president of the company, the day after I returned from my honeymoon. He only asked me one question, about a line on my resume related to a mission trip that I had taken that spring. I asked if he was comfortable with me talking about God, and he said I could share whatever I wanted. So I told him my story, how in the last year I had gone from being a passionate athiest to a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing follower of Christ.

I walked out of that office, got into my car, dropped my head onto the steering wheel, and said, "Lord, either you really want me to get this job or there is absolutely no way I'm getting hired!" I mean, seriously, who spends an entire interview talking about Jesus to the president of an advertising agency?!?

A week later, the man who had first interviewed me called to offer me the job with a typical starting salary for an inexperienced (my degree is in Political Science) fresh-out-of-college kid.

But the story doesn't end here. Because in the week between my Jesus-blaring interview and that exciting phone call, some things had changed. Michael and I had decided that God was telling us that Michael shouldn't work full-time [this was a month before he was called into seminary]. This meant that I would be fully supporting us and that the starting salary offered me would not be enough. So I regretfully turned down the job.

The next day, the man called me back and asked me what salary would change my mind.

I was rightfully stunned. Here was this company, whom I had told I couldn't even commit to for the next 3 months, for which I had absolutely no related experience, and to whom I had blatantly exposed my spiritual beliefs, asking me how much money I wanted in order to accept the position. Without thinking, I blurted out a number 15% higher than the original offer.

I have no idea how normal negotiating works. I don't like to play games; I'm a tell-it-straight kind of gal. So I truly did not expect this amazing organization to actually call me back, agree to my salary request, and hand me the job.

I'll be honest: I didn't like working in corporate America. But God richly blessed me with an unbelieveable workplace, incredible co-workers, and the kindest boss possible. He used this job to humble, challege, and mature me as a Christian, in more ways than I would want to admit. But it started with giving me the confidence to be completely honest and upfront in the workplace. I believe that one reason I have been so blessed in my jobs is that I have never been ashamed of the gospel or of my identity in Christ. I have never hesitated to speak the truth about what God is doing in my life and how I am following him.

Sure enough, almost exactly three years later, I moved on from that remarkable company. I gave them 5 months notice, as soon as I knew God was leading me elsewhere. And every job since then has been similarly God-led, so clearly marked out for me and blessed beyond measure. I give thanks that I have never had reason to question, even for a moment, that I was exactly where God wanted me to be, and that, with such knowledge, I can experience the spirit of power, of love, and of discipline that God has granted to me (2 Tim 1:7).

08.10.2011 Crash Course in Prayer

On July 21, 2000 - exactly one year after I had given my life to Jesus - I celebrated my "birth" day home alone. Michael was at our church building for band practice, my roommates were all out for the night, so I made the wise decision to get a little extra sleep.

But shortly after I had gone to bed, I was suddenly woken up. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit distinctly telling me to go to the church building. I was confused - why would I want to sit in on band practice? - but I obeyed. When I arrived at the building, the band, along with a few other people I sort of recognized, were all in prayer together. Someone glanced up at me and said, "Something happened to Graham. He's in the hospital and might not make it."

My first thought was, "Who is Graham?"

Our little group got into cars and headed over to a hospital in St. Paul where, quite quickly, a significant number of our church body was gathering to pray together and wait for news. We soon found out that Graham had had a brain aneurysm and was given less than 1% chance of survival, much less recovery. [according to this link, 10%-15% of these patients will die before reaching the hospital and over 50% will die within the first thirty days after rupture. Of those who survive, about half suffer some permanent neurological deficit.] Graham was 30 years old, married with 3 little boys. And I didn't know him at all.

But God told me to pray for this man. He had brought me to this hospital, and he kept bringing me back, as many of us held nightly vigils there. In fact, one night very shortly after Graham arrived in the hospital, when he hadn't even come out of his coma, the Holy Spirit woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to start praying that Graham would walk. I remember saying, "Lord, this is ridiculous. The man hasn't even regained consciousness yet, we don't even know if he will wake up - shouldn't I be praying for those things?" But the Spirit persisted, and I found myself asking, begging, pleading with Jesus that Graham would take some steps - literal, with-his-feet steps.

That was Tuesday night. The following Sunday, Graham's wife was in our church service and asked to give an update on her husband. She told us that Graham had woken up over the week and on Saturday, he had gotten out of bed and, with the help of a walker, had walked across his room.
The miracles just didn't stop, as Graham regained his ability to speak, to write, to see - and was actually able to return to his job. The man who science said had no chance to survive was given his entire life back. 

Now, the point of this story is not to share how great my prayers were. In fact, just the opposite should be clear. God directed me in every step of this story and invited me to witness his power in Graham's life. If I hadn't gone to the church building on July 21, if I hadn't prayed for Graham to walk in the middle of the night - Graham would still have his miraculous story to tell. God didn't need me to pray a single prayer in order to heal him.

But my story, my experience of God, would be different.

I was a very young Christian when Graham's brain bled, and I had every reason to doubt that I was actually hearing God's voice those nights. But I believe that because I obeyed - because I went to the building, and got down on my knees in prayer - I got more than I would have had I ignored his voice. The tiny mustard seed of faith that urged me to action was watered when I saw those prayers answered. It made me pray more, and listen more, and act more in faith.

It taught me that prayer is way more about me than it is about God. He knows every thought in my mind, he sees all of time spread out before him, he has power to create and take away life. He doesn't need my prayers. But I need my prayers. Prayer is a chance for me to admit that I need help. It's a time for me to crawl into my Daddy's lap, talk to him about what's on my heart, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's listening. Prayer helps me hear what he's saying back to me, to receive his strength to act on it, and to rest in peace knowing that he's taking care of it all.

Prayer is for my good, and I'M the one who misses out when I don't pray.

I truly believe that it is because God invited me to pray for Graham, and taught me so much about prayer during those weeks in the hospital, that I have a rich prayer life now. I pray for people whenever they come to my mind, whatever I am doing, whatever time it is. I pray for people whenever I feel even the slightest urge that it's needed, whether or not the person I'm with even believes in Jesus. I've never had anyone turn down prayer. :-)

Which leads me to ask - how can I be praying for you? What miracles do you want to ask God for? How would your life change if he answered those prayers?

08.06.2011 Stones of Remembrance

The people crossed the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month. Then they camped at Gilgal, just east of Jericho. It was there at Gilgal that Joshua piled up the twelve stones taken from the Jordan River.

Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.”

Stories are powerful. Stories remind us of our heritage, our purpose, and   our hope. And, in particular, God's stories proclaim his power and sustain our faith.

I have only known God for twelve years, not even half my life. But I LOVE sharing the stories that he has given me! I have set aside the month of August to seek God in some specific ways and as I have sat in his presence this week, I was freshly reminded of how good he is to me. I thought I would share, throughout this month, some of the "stones of remembrance" that I hope will be passed down through the generations of storytellers in our family.

It is my prayer that these stories will encourage those of you who know Jesus to love him more and will challenge those of you who are undecided about the Christ to give him a second look.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One Sunday morning, in the fall of 2000 - just months after Michael and I were married - I was sitting in a back stairwell of our church building, praying with a good friend. Our church had two Sunday morning services, and we had both attended the first one, but our husbands had obligations during the second, so we used that time to pray together. While our congregation was worshipping together, right above us, we prayed for them in a dark stairwell, hidden from view.

Just as we were closing our time of prayer, I suddenly saw a distinct headline flash through my mind. As if the Holy Spirit were practically shouting in my ear, I heard "Michael should go to seminary." I was taken aback by this statement, as my friend and I had not been praying anything remotely related to this idea, and, save for a very casual comment months before we were married, Michael had not mentioned any intentions of pursuing seminary (especially this early in our marriage).

In the moment that I hesitated to respond to this word, I clearly heard it again, pressing into my heart with great power. So I spoke it aloud: "God, I have no idea if this is from you, but I have a very strange sense right now that you are telling me that Michael should go to seminary."

My friend instantly grasped my hand tightly and said, "I'm feeling the exact same thing."
So I made a deal with God. I said, "Lord, if this is from you, then have Michael ask me if he should go to seminary. Because we have never talked about this, then I will know when he asks me that you have also told him."

My friend and I ended our prayer time, looked at each other with wide eyes, and then giggled nervously about this weird thought we just had. We had no idea how long I would have to wait before Michael might bring up seminary. What if he didn't say anything for months? Then could I really trust that it was from God and not just in our heads?

About an hour later, the church service ended, Michael and I had pulled out of the parking lot and were talking about where to go for lunch. In the middle of discussing the merits of Chipotle vs Arby's, Michael glanced over at me and said, "Honey, what would you think about me applying to go to seminary?" 

My heart stopped.

Michael, understandably, interpreted my shocked look in light of our lack of prior conversation on the subject. "I know we haven't really talked about this before, so I'm not saying I should go to seminary. But today, during the second service, I just really got the impression - maybe it was from God, I don't know - that I should ask you about it. So, what do you think?"

Needless to say, I had my own version of what God was telling me during the second service and the rest, of course, is history. Our history. Of God leading us, together, in the wonderful path that he set before us. Can't wait to share more with you!

08.02.2011 - 2011 Challenge Check-In: FINANCES

I remember how it started. At the end of last year, a little voice in the back of my head suggested that I take time off from performing in 2011 so that I could work more and pay down debt. I had an easy plan, I said, to work 6 more hours per week, 6 hours that would hardly go noticed in our daily routine but would quickly add up to bigger bill payments. My husband agreed, but he (WE) had no idea what we were in for.

By Valentine's Day, we were halfway through Dave Ramsey's book, The Total Money Makeover. I was creating spreadsheets of budgets and debt repayment plans, and suddenly, our financial future had drastically changed. By the end of April, I had switched jobs, was making more per hour and working 9 more hours per week, and we had paid off three credit cards. For the first time in our marriage, we had an emergency fund ($1,000), a savings account for our taxes (we owe about $3,000 each year), and we were aggressively eliminating debt. And that was only THREE MONTHS after we started our plan!

Now, six months into our plan, we are still amazed at our financial situation. In the first place, we are more on the same page with our financial goals and outlook than we have EVER been in 11 years. Honestly, this has been the most important blessing. Finances are one of the top three reasons that marriages end in divorce, and though we were far from that, it has certainly been a hot button issue for us. It is so precious to start each month in agreement about how we are going to use our money and to be able to look at the big picture with hope!

Second, it is SO EXCITING to see our debt keep shrinking. Unfortunately, we have a ton of it and we will be working on this repayment plan for at least the next 3-5 years. But before this, we didn't have a plan (other than paying the minimum amounts). We were living paycheck to paycheck, getting discouraged any time an unexpected expense (usually cars!) came up that was put on a credit card, and feeling overwhelmed with our level of debt. Now, we have a solid cash-only budget that allows us to live simply each month, a $1,000 safety net to take care of unplanned emergencies, and we keep finding more money to throw at debt. By the end of 2011, we hope to be able to say that we've paid off almost $13,000 just this year! [that is ALOT for us, on our salary, at our level of debt]

One thing that has been (delightfully) surprising this year is the discovery that Murphy's Law works in reverse. If you are unfamiliar, Murphy's Law declares that "if anything can go wrong, it will." So, when one car breaks down, the other one will, too. This is one excuse for how our debt piled up in the first place. But low and behold, once we created an emergency fund that would prevent us from dipping into credit cards - this year has been surprisingly free of large, unexpected expenses. Once we started redirecting our money towards bigger debt payments, we were suddenly blessed with large amounts of unexpected money. Examples: we were given $6,000 this year. I got a second job working from home with extremely flexible hours. I got paid for some administrative work with my theatre company. ALL of that extra money has gone towards debt.

As I said, we still have a very long way to go. But now, we are going at the same speed, with the same mind, towards the same goal. We have peace and hope in this area of our marriage. And we are getting out of debt, freeing ourselves to give more and to control our money, rather than having it control us.

Our financial health improves every day!

07.13.2011 32!

In honor of my 32nd birthday, I'm going to share 32 things that I'm grateful for! Happy happy birthday to me.

1. I'm grateful that, by the grace of God, I am a better person than I was last year.
2. I am grateful for an adoring and supportive husband who, every single day for the last 11 years, has said sincerely and without prompting, "I love you" and "you're beautiful."
3. I am grateful for SUNSHINE.
4. I am grateful for my oven that I got for free 5 years ago and which doesn't ever read the correct temperature but is still working.
5. I am grateful for my hilarious, joyful, and amazing daughter.
6. I am grateful for fresh fruit at farmers' markets.
7. I am grateful for a healthy body that can dance at whim.
8. I am grateful for my crazy wild first-time garden.
9. I am grateful for my artistic home.
10. I am grateful that my hair grows so quickly that I can donate it at least 15 times in my life.
11. I am grateful for the Total Money Makeover that is changing our financial future!
12. I am grateful for working cars.
13. I am grateful for hot showers.
14. I am grateful for loving relationships with my in-laws.
15. I am grateful for all the people who forgave my big mouth and harsh words - and confronted me on it.
16. I am grateful for sunrises.
17. I am grateful that people invite me into their lives (and ask for my opinion!).
18. I am grateful that I've switched jobs so frequently.
19. I am grateful that I've traveled so much.
20. I am grateful for a church family that truly cares about me. 
21. I am grateful that Maren wakes me up with big smiles, silly songs, and gentle kisses.
22. I am grateful that Jesus made me his bride.
23. I am grateful for Dairy Queen ice cream cakes.
24. I am grateful that I can take moments of stillness each day.
25. I am grateful for warm towels fresh from the dryer.
26. I am grateful for challenges.
27. I am grateful for the person who gave me $800 the day before bills were due that I could not pay.
28. I am grateful for home-cooked meals shared over hours around a table with friends.
29. I am grateful for all the saints who went before me.
30. I am grateful for handwritten letters.
31. I am grateful to be a woman.
32. I am grateful that God is still hard at work in me.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

06.14.11 2011 Challenge Check-In: FOOD!

It is almost exactly the middle of 2011. Despite the fact that I made no real New Year's Resolutions, I find the mid-year mark an apropos time to check in with some of the ideas I thought I'd be developing by now. This is also an opportunity for me to confess how true-to-self I am actually living. So let's take a peek into my kitchen--

Four months ago, I mentioned that I wanted to simplify my food life this year. I think I'm about halfway to fully realizing this goal. On the one hand, we've joined our local co-op [which we LOVE. LOVE. LOVE. I could write a whole separate post just about my love affair with our co-op]. The Farmer's Market is starting to pick up, and I planted my very first backyard vegetable garden. About once per week, I challenge myself to make something new or useful and have found a very handy supply of homemade bread, cereal, granola, yogurt, and snack recipes. I am still obsessed with the More with Less Cookbook and consult it every week for at least half our meals.

Because of my commitment to eating more locally grown and seasonal food, our meals tend to be more vegetarian, very fresh, and contain minimal ingredients. I splurge once a week on a more complicated and hearty meat-based dish but honestly, I've found that I don't necessarily prefer those. And I'm pretty blessed to have a freezer full of fresh-caught deep-sea fish from my father-in-law's Baja fishing trips [we enjoy Wahoo almost weekly - an amazing fish that cannot be caught commercially] I still haven't taken the plunge to join a meat CSA  but now that the weather is nice, I definitely need to make time to take our family out to a local farm. I'm asking all my experienced friends about the tricks and trades of drying herbs, dehydrating fruits, freezing and canning vegetables in preparation for my own harvest and my expected bulk purchases from the farmers' markets. My goal is to buy or grow food - and as much of it as possible! - when it's in season and store it. Which makes for an expensive summer - but hopefully a very cheap winter!

Our financial limitations have taught me to stretch what we have in-stock. At least a few times every month, we run out of cash for groceries and have to create meals with only what is in the cupboards. But I'm learning to keep a regular stock of eggs, grains, legumes, and beans, any combination of which makes quite the satisfying meal!

Money is definitely an issue in all of this. It is discouraging that enjoying a more local, organic, fresh meal costs more than the packaged and processed options. We are on a very tight budget and I do have to make compromises regularly in order to stick to it (this is partly why I'm only halfway to my simple food goal). 

But the difference - the benefits - are tangible to me.

First of all, my conscience is clear with regard to the treatment of all the animal products I consume. I tried to remain ignorant about inhumane animal practices but now it is unavoidable. As a Christian who believes in a Creator, a Master Designer who delights in all his created works, I am so thankful to have the ability to purchase food that was treated well before it got to my table.

I am also super excited about supporting the local economy. It is humbling and inspiring, as I try my immature hand at gardening, to meet the literal hands that feed me and to speak with local farmers who have years of experience and insight. This is a small slice of nostalgia, when neighbors plowed their fields together and you only ate what your community could produce. An added bonus of supporting local farms is reducing the carbon footprint of trucks (trains and planes) that haul food across the country or world. It's depressing to think about how much energy was spent sustaining a bunch of bananas on its trip from Colombia to Minnesota. We talk about people going hungry around the world and yet we in the United States easily enjoy the privilege of abnormally acquiring non-native foods without considering the economic and environmental cost of such demands. One (sustainable) way to feed hungry people is to teach them how to feed themselves - locally. Yet we ourselves cannot practice what we teach.

And on top of these (BIG) benefits, I have found by experience that fresh, seasonal, and (mostly) organic food tastes better. It really does. When I only ate organic food sporadically, I barely noticed a difference. But now that I've had four months of consistency, I can taste the difference in an instant, especially in dairy products. MMMMMMMM, locally produced, non-hormonal, organic cheese.....

Ok, so 6 months into the year, I've definitely become a food snob. Yet, I have a LONG way to go in terms of providing more homegrown, homemade, well-stocked cupboards. My husband isn't totally sold on all my hippie ideas but he's been a great support and sense of humor along the way. So I can safely say that this is one "New Year's Resolution" that is well on its way to success.

What about you? Any revolutionary food decisions this year? or other updates on your new year's resolutions?

06.09.11 Make Me Happy!

I once attended a gathering of women who were discussing the issue of contentment. Many women were struggling to find contentment in their current situations and, instead, felt discouraged or disappointed about their lot at the time. Themes like "I deserve more than this" and "God made me to fit a role different than this" quickly arose. One friend, a graduate of a very prestigious university, shared her frustration (and shock) at not being able to get a job worthy of her degree; instead, she was making minimum wage in a bakery. Another young woman expressed dismay at still being single, when her heart's desire was to be a wife and mother.

As I was listening to these stories, I felt the Holy Spirit whisper a truth to me: I know you are worth more than what you are currently receiving in life. I know how I designed you and what you are made for. But if I gave you everything your heart desired, and fulfilled your every dream, then you wouldn't depend on me. You wouldn't desire ME. And, more than anything else, your worth is found in me. I designed you to be satisfied in me.
Sadly, I have discovered that it is our tendency, as privileged Christians in the West, to simply believe that God wants us to be happy. We quickly claim the rights we [feel we] have, based on "God's design" or our own wants and preferences. If we are unhappy, dissatisfied, or discontent, then it is because we aren't doing or receiving what is our rightful due.

But is this the biblical testimony to God's intentions for us? I recall that Moses didn't think he was designed for the job that God gave him, for he had "never been eloquent" but was "slow of speech and slow of tongue." God didn't appreciate that excuse, replying "Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say." (Exodus 4:10-12) Even after Moses was roped into his calling, he was pretty unhappy about it, often complaining to God about his situation. Yet God never relieved him of his duties. Moses spent his entire life leading a massive group of rebellious, ungrateful people, and he died without entering the Promised Land. Do we not think that Moses felt, once or twice, that he "deserved more"?

Can we imagine the apostle Paul, who endured 39 lashes (5 separate times), was three times beaten with rods, once was stoned, three times was shipwrecked, who faced dangers from all sides, who experienced many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often went without food, suffered in the cold and exposed to the elements (see his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11 for a fuller list of his trials) - can we imagine Paul declaring, "I am an exceptionally well educated, respected teacher of the Hebrew Law and an upstanding Roman citizen. I am a righteous and gifted man in the sight of God. God didn't make me so great only to make me undergo such hardship."

Oh, friends, we have forgotten that God's ultimate plan is not to secure our happiness but rather to make us holy.*

I'm not saying that God doesn't want us to be happy. But our happiness should not - it cannot - rest on what we get or what we do. Because those things are merely gifts, the extra benefits of adoption into God's family, the above and beyond icing on the completely satisfying cake of God's unmerited grace. We too easily forget that we already possess every spiritual blessing in Christ and that our identity has been fully recreated and redeemed and belongs to him. We have no right to anything and yet God, through Jesus, has given us everything.

If you are currently unhappy, dissatisfied, or discontent with your situation, it is NOT because God put you in the wrong place, has forgotten his design of you, or wishes you ill. In fact, quite the opposite is true. God knows exactly what you need and how to accomplish his good purpose in you.

The question is - will you resist him, confident in your opinion of what should be, or surrender to him, in faith? If you actually want to be happy, then the choice should be clear.

*I owe Gary Thomas credit for this idea - more fully explored in his book Sacred Marriage

06.01.11 Which Way?

I used to have a really bad temper. There are only a very few people who have actually witnessed this, but trust me, each and every one would not hesitate to affirm that I can really frighten you to death.

I can't blame my temper on anyone but myself. Long before I read and worked through the excellent book Anger is a Choice, I could identify the fact that I was intentionally and rationally deciding to succumb to fits of rage. This became particularly clear to me during an early fight with my husband in which all I wanted to do, all I could think about doing, was smash his guitar. I mean, I really really really wanted to pick up that instrument and slam it against the wall.

But I didn't. I didn't savor the sound of wood splintering into a thousand pieces or delight in my husband's predictable cries of despair because, even though in that moment I wanted it, I knew that a busted old guitar meant spending money on a nice new one. And I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of getting a brand-new guitar out of our fight!

The fact that I was able, at the height of my fury, to make a (semi-) logical decision was a turning point in how I dealt with my anger. It was a stark realization that if I could choose not to act destructively, then I could also choose to avoid detrimental speech. The problem is - even though I know the right thing to do, I do not do it.

This is the summary statement on sin, folks. The proof that we are all inherently evil. (unless, of course, you either don't usually know the 'right' thing to do or else you always choose it)

Every day, I fight a hundred urges to do something [terrible, mean, selfish, rude, illegal, harmful]. I confess that I use a lot of energy just to keep myself from screaming at people. I know all the healthy means of communication. I know that listening is wiser than running off my mouth. I know that the a**hole in front of me is not intentionally trying to ruin my day with his inanely slow driving. But still - every day, it's a battle to speak gently, show kindness, and put others before myself. And ultimately, I fail to restrain my vicious self, in some way, every day. Because, while my spirit desires the good, my flesh finds it all too easy to do bad.

Here is the problem: I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I knowingly choose to do what is wrong. But by saying that I know that what I am doing is wrong, I'm agreeing that there is some 'absolute good' that exists, apart from myself. Since I acknowledge this good but am unable to adhere to it, I prove that the ability to do good is not present in me. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, then something about my nature must continue to hold me in this repetitive trap of wrongdoing.

This, then, is a principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This is sin, plain and simple. Left to my own devices, I am an awful person. How can I be free from this empty selfish life? 

Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
   {see Paul's letter to the church in Rome, chapter seven}

God makes a way for me to experience - and to give - life differently. It's not the easy or the popular way. But it is the most satisfying, and it is full of true life. So, every day, I can rely on a strength more powerful than my flesh. Every day, I can receive a grace more forgiving than this world. Every day, my choice must be: Jesus.   

05.26.11 To Be Just - or Show Mercy?

Now that I am responsible for the outreach component of Tapestry Resource Center, I am immersing myself in biblical and academic study on the issues surrounding healthy and effective humanitarian ministry.

It's no small task.

I began my research with the concern that I'm not made for this kind of job. Words like sympathetic, generous, empathic, merciful, or compassionate are rarely associated with me. I once spent a year volunteering at an amazing crisis relief organization in downtown Minneapolis, and it was quite possibly the most joyless and least effective work I've ever done in my life. 

But God clearly put me in this position, and though I don't yet come close to grasping his vision for it, I have learned something kind of wonderful. As I have meditated on the ways of God, and in particular, his heart for the poor and the vulnerable, I have realized that the attributes of justice and mercy are not as disconnected as we often interpret them to be.

First of all, I believe that all humans innately desire the world to be both just and merciful, even though the existence of one can belie the effectiveness of the other. For example, when we are wronged - when someone has committed an act that violates our sense of privilege - we instinctively want a sort of retribution, or punishment, to be inflicted on the offender. We want the guilty party to both acknowledge and 'pay for' his wrong, whether it was our partner's harsh words or a criminal's misdeed. Yet, when we are the culprit, when we ignore the speed limit or drop the ball at work, we quickly hope (often beg) to be let off the hook. We count on receiving mercy from the one who has power to punish us.

The fact is, none of us could operate in a 100% justice- or mercy-oriented world. We would always find exceptions that we felt demanded a different outcome. The problem is, as selfish and self-interested people, we can't accurately judge when, how, and to whom to show mercy or administer justice, so we tend to fall more in line with one side or the other. And both sides find biblical support for their method of choice.

I have always thought of myself as a justice-oriented person. I'm not swayed by emotional pleas, I believe in personal responsibility, and I generally distrust people's motives. In effect, I judge people.

But I am also the person who will talk to anyone, especially the smelly, neglected, outcast in the corner. I am the person who gets a visceral, emotional reaction when I stand in a shopping mall because I think of all the people who went hungry that day. I can't stand to think of someone being ignored, alone, or oppressed.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is showing me that the justice of God demands acts of mercyOr, you could say, the mercy of God executes his justice. I am beginning to understand that while I am, indeed, designed to operate more on the side of justice, I respond to injustice with with mercy. And that both the motivation and the action find its source in Christ.

Because God's justice - his rightful authority to punish sin - led him to deal mercifully with me, his image-bearing creation. And his mercy - in forgiving my rebellion - was fully realized on the cross where Jesus took MY just punishment. Rather than contradict one another, justice and mercy are the twin pillars of God's righteousness, for neither can stand alone in his work of redemption.

As the prophet declared, God has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

05.19.11 Wanted: Sick People!

In the month since I last wrote, I've transitioned to a new job, organized a weekend retreat for our church, performed at the Ritz Theater, and dug up 150 square feet of soil for my garden. So - I have a few excuses for my absence.

But during my time away, I also recalled a conversation I had, nearly 10 years ago, with a woman who was investigating Christianity but hadn't yet decided to worship Jesus. She was struggling with the idea of being a sinner because she felt like a pretty decent person, by any moral standard. I understood where she was coming from because, before I became a Christian, I really felt no need for God. Even on the very night I surrendered my life to Christ, I did it from a purely intellectual perspective.

To be honest, I didn't really have a concept of *sin* until I got married, which was a year after I started following Jesus!

These past few weeks, the Holy Spirit has given me plenty of reasons to consider my sin. He's shown me some pretty ugly stuff about myself and, believe me, I had alot of nastiness to begin with. I felt a little stunned at first, not because my junk was surprising, but more because I had deceived myself into believing that it wasn't an issue anymore. To see it spread out before me like last week's trash was disheartening (and stinky).

At the same time, I felt extremely hopeful. Which brought up the memory I mentioned above. In that conversation a decade ago, I explained to the young woman that we really only understand our sin as we get close to Christ. It's similar to learning to play an instrument. As we practice and improve our skill, we begin to feel pretty good about our 'accomplishment.' But the moment you are in the room with a master, you suddenly see how very incompetent you truly are.

So, too, with Jesus. Before I knew him, I was satisfied, arrogant, and self-assured about my abilities. When I turned my life over to him, I shifted my focus to what he had accomplished on my behalf and the benefits I received from him. But now, as I spend more time with him, I realize how far he had to come to get me and how utterly depraved I am without him. The more I know him, the more I recognize my need for him.

The most beautiful part of this, though, is that Jesus has always known how gross I am. My knowledge of him changes, but he has always and fully known me. I have no reason to despair or obsess over the yucky things that I learn about myself because Jesus isn't judging me. Instead, he's waiting, ready to transform me. He's the Master of All Perfection and he wants me to learn his secrets! Jesus loves my mess and wants to clean it up. As he said,

"Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."
(recorded in the gospel of Mark, chapter 2)

So, as I grieve over my *sickness*, I rejoice that I know the best doctor around!

04.22.22 Memento Mori

I confess: when I'm interested in a new book, I read the last chapter first. I regularly predict the entire plot of what is supposed to be a suspenseful movie, often based on the trailer alone. I almost always ruin the ending. I collect opinions about all sorts of art before I view it myself.   

It's because I value my time, and I want to make sure that whatever time I'm investing is worth it in the end. I can safely say that I start (books, movies, projects, friendships, jobs) with the end in mind. After I've finished this ______, will I consider my time well spent? 

But more than these relatively small decisions is the question of how I've spent my life - the sum total of it. And not just the how but also the why - the what for. You see, I'm pretty sure I already know the end of the story of life, at least the way the Bible tells it. 

One day, all the stuff we have experienced, all the messy junk (like war, pollution, hunger, poverty, disease, disasters, cruelty, brokenness) will all pass away; earth itself will be recreated, there will be a New Start, so much more unimaginably greater than the first one (the one we're enduring right now). There will be a new nation, with the holiest and most glorious city, adorned like a bride in her wedding dress, ready to meet her husband. And God will no longer be hidden from us, far away. Instead, God's home will be among the people - his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. Everything sucky will be gone forever. The One who made everything in the beginning and finishes everything in the end will pour out life-giving water to everyone who thirsts for it. 

But there will be many who never enjoy this free-flowing drink of new life. Some don't recognize that they're parched, so they never ask to be quenched. Some think they will be satisfied with muddy Old-Earth water, not realizing that it will one day dry up. And some just don't think about The End, resolved to "live freely" now and take their chances with what happens later.  All of these, instead of One Day experiencing True Peace, instead of celebrating at the Great Feast, instead of discovering the Greatest Love, will remain trapped in a struggle, a perpetual affliction, heartbroken, lonely, and full of fear.   
(this is my paraphrase from the book of Revelation, especially chapter 20)

These are two very different endings, but the fact that God reveals this to us now, while we still have time to prepare for the end, is incredibly merciful. God offers us a choice while we are yet living our stories - we get to determine our ending. I believe that there is a lot of mystery surrounding how this happens but regardless, by telling us the end at the beginning, God gives us responsibility for where our story goes.

If you knew that this life - the one that often makes it difficult to get out of bed, that sometimes barely trudges along, that shares depressing tales of misery on every news station - if this life is not the end, not even close to what is Meant-To-Be, then you have reason to hope. You even have something to look forward to, which gives weight and meaning to what you are doing now, because, if you let the "now" be led by the "what-is-coming-then", you start to bring the marvelous ending into existence, just a tiny bit.

This weekend, while some of us meditate on the excruciating Death of the Giver of Life, may we also reflect - Memento moriRemember that you will die. What will be the meaning of your life on that day?

04.14.11 Postscript to Remembering How Awesome God Is

Two weeks ago, I spoke with my dear friend and current boss.  I told her that I felt I needed to step down from my management position in her company and to look for another job so that I could take the "business" out of our relationship and just invest in our friendship.
That day, I went home and asked God for a new job.  I prayed for 4 specific things -
  1. a job within walking distance of my home
  2. the same number of hours per week that I currently work
  3. a meaningful job
  4. that the job would come to me - I didn't want to look for a new job
Four days after that, Michael and I attended an open house for Tapestry Pregnancy & Family Resource Center.  Michael had recently joined the Board, and they had just acquired a new space next door to their current center, so he wanted to show me around.
When we pulled up to the Center (2 miles from our home), I off-handedly asked him if Tapestry was hiring any PT employees.  He said he thought so but wasn't sure if it was a good fit for me.
Inside, I met Kimberly, the Executive Director, and received a tour of the center.  [total side note, the Spirit of God is heavy in this place! I almost broke into tears during the tour because it is so amazing] Michael asked Kimberly about the PT position and mentioned that I was looking for a new job, and she got super excited.  She immediately introduced me to Maureen, the Outreach Coordinator, who was responsible for hiring this position (and would be supervising the new employee).
So I spent about 15 minutes chatting with Maureen, and these are the words she used to describe the kind of person she wanted to hire - someone who:
  • creates order out of chaos
  • can supervise many volunteers
  • can quickly adapt and lead through constantly changing situations
  • is outgoing and welcoming to all people
  • takes initiative to improve and create new systems
Well, it took Michael and me all of 5 minutes to decide that this job would be a great fit for me.  It met all of my specified prayer criteria, with the small downside of being $2 per hour less than what I was currently making.  But we were trusting God.
One week later (last Friday), I was one of five people that Maureen interviewed for the position.
This past Monday, Maureen asked me to come in and have a second interview with Kimberly (the Exec Dir).
And that's when I was told that I was not being offered the job that I interviewed for.  Instead, I was being offered Maureen's job.
Apparently, when Maureen was interviewing me last week, she kept hearing the Spirit of God whisper in her ear, "Nicole could do your job better than you.  Step aside and give her your job."  She prayed and spoke with Kimberly throughout the weekend and felt completely confirmed that I should now become the Outreach Coordinator for Tapestry.  Which, incidentally, is $1 more per hour than I currently make [total side bonus].
So, friends, I have a new job!  But it is so much more than that, because God is truly arranging the parts of the body of Tapestry in amazing ways.  First of all, I am overwhelmingly humbled by Maureen's obedience to God! How humbling to have the woman who was supposed to be your boss move out of the way and hand you her job! More than that, though, it seems that everyone who works at Tapestry has an awesome God-sized story of how they got there.  So, God has big things in store for this place -- and he is inviting me to be part of it.  Praise him with me!!!

04.10.11 Remember!

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
Seek the LORD and his strength;seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!

Psalm 105

Do you often remember what God has done for you - and then share his wonderful work with the people around you?  I love hearing God-sized stories, and I can't wait to tell all of mine to Maren.  Here are just the briefest remembrances of some of God's gifts over the years --
  • when, in one month, we lost 2 sources of income and gained an expense...we knew we needed to move out of our now too-expensive apartment but felt like we should wait on God rather than look for a new place.  just weeks later, we received a phone call from friends we hadn't seen in years, who were now caretakers in an apartment building and needed new renters for a space that was exactly the price we had determined we could pay
  • during my last week in my corporate job, I had only raised 25% of the financial support that I needed to enter into a ministry internship and didn't have the funds to purchase a plane ticket to go to Nigeria...then received a call that someone had anonymously purchased the ticket for me
  • when I was pregnant and needed a job and again felt that I wasn't supposed to look, but rather, wait - and God laid the perfect one in my lap
  • when Maren wanted to ride her tricycle outside a couple weeks ago, but couldn't pedal so I had to bend over and push her for blocks...and I was thinking about how nice it would be to have one of those tricycles with the push-bar for parents.  and a couple days later, a woman from our church emailed me to ask if we'd like her daughter's push-trike
  • after Maren was born and I thought I would never perform again, but then it seemed like God wanted me to.  So I told him that I wasn't going to audition anymore and that I wanted to work with a core group of artists so that I could really love on them...and then Sandbox Theatre asked me to become an ensemble member
  • all the times that I've been on a bus, train, or plane and asked God to give me opportunities to talk with people about Jesus - every single time he has answered that prayer
Jesus told us that our Father knows what we need before we even ask (recorded by Matthew, ch 6).  Yet I am no less amazed, humbled, and thankful when he gives me such good gifts!

What about you?  Will you share a work that God has done for you?

04.05.11 I Will Not Be Silent

Sometimes, it is extremely difficult to be part of the church.  We all know that people are messy; we all know that we are messy.  And Jesus plainly said that he came for the messiest, ugliest, suckiest people.  But for some reason, once we become part of the church, we start to hide our mess.  And we start to expect, or assume, that the other church people around us aren't messy, either.  Which makes it tough, sometimes, to address our real issues (the ones we all still have) and even tougher to accept, or forgive, those other church people when their issues affect us.

One of the most dangerous enemies of the church is silence.  All too often, we are silent in our suffering.  Silent in our loneliness, our hurt, or our disappointment.  Silent about our fears, failures, temptations, doubts, and struggles.  We don't ask questions.  Or we don't challenge the answers.  We let our anger burn against one another rather than confront someone who has wronged us.  And in addition to all these things, we are silent when we see a brother or sister falling into sin.

This last offense is my particular concern here.  For some reason, I've been blessed (?) to have many personal confrontations with people who are obviously in sin but failing to do anything about it.  All of these conversations had different results, but, by God's grace, none of the people I have confronted have ended up hating me (as far as I know).  So I thought I should share a few thoughts on how I generally approach this issue, in the hope that I can encourage you to not be silent about sin, so that none of us will fall away.

First, I accept responsibility for my part in their journey.  When I plan to dig into a potentially sensitive or controversial area of a person's life, I like to start by acknowledging the role that I've played in the situation. Sometimes, I simply reiterate our relationship and give the person freedom to not hide the truth from me.  But more often, I apologize about some way that I've failed them.  I've found that if I know someone well enough to be having a conversation about her sin, then I am also close enough to her to have made a mistake somewhere along the way.

Honestly, confronting people forces me to confront myself.  It is extremely humbling to see someone making bad choices and to look back and realize that I have some level of influence in that.  Some things I've apologized for:

  • not speaking up sooner when I had previous, but smaller, concerns
  • not listening enough or being available when she expressed some area of disappointment or hurt
  • making assumptions about her, her walk with Christ, or any other area of her life
After I've asked for forgiveness, I ask specific, direct questions related to my concern.  I want to fully understand the person's perspective on the situation, so I give her the opportunity to tell her story. But I don't beat around the bush.  Here are some questions I've posed:
  • would you say that you are moving closer to Jesus or further away from him?  how long have you been going in that direction?
  • do you believe that the Bible is authored by God?  if so, why does it not have full authority over your life?   
  • why are you choosing to do something that you know displeases God?  what is going on at the heart of these choices?
Questions like this force people to define their beliefs and contextualize their decisions.  It is easy to make a poor choice when we compartmentalize our faith and allow ourselves to be short-sighted about the consequences of sin.  So I find it helpful to speak in terms of the big picture reality. 

Once the issue has been clearly framed, I tell the truth.  The Bible calls Christians to admonish and exhort one another, and this means that we must continually call each other back to Christ. Sometimes, we sin because we feel defeated, discouraged, or afraid. Sometimes, we don't believe we are sinning because we no longer have the mind of Christ.  And sometimes, I discover that the person I've confronted is not actually following Jesus.  In all these circumstances, I end the conversation by reminding the person who Christ is and what our hope and calling is in him.  And then I pray.

Because in the end, each person is responsible for how she will respond to the gospel.  And that is a Holy Spirit work, not mine.           

04.01.11 Honestly!

I have been thinking lately of the insufficiency of words to accurately describe our characters.  The problem with words is that they are definite - exacting in their intention and meaning.  Yet, humans can never fully live up to the fullness of a definition; or, rather, we do not behave according to our adjectives 100% of the time.  For example, no one is always kind or unceasingly funny.  We intuitively understand this, even as we freely assign descriptions to one another, but it made me wonder about how we come to trust each other.

In particular, I wonder how we determine if someone is an honest person.  Typically, we associate honesty with telling the truth, as in, an honest person will not steal, cheat, or provide misleading information.  But, let's be (ha ha) honest, and admit that none of us tells the truth all the time.  Aren't we all guilty of hiding (or not sharing) some of the facts, some of the time?  Tweaking the story just a bit?  Bending the rules to get our way?

So the question is: if I lie some of the time, then why should you trust me at any time?  Do you judge my honesty based on the quantity of untruths I tell, or the quality (big or little issues) of them? 

These are important questions within our interpersonal relationships but of course the issue exists on a macro level as well.  How do we determine if we trust our teachers?  Our policy makers?  The clerk at the grocery store?  It's rather incredible to realize that we function, as a society, based on the hope that everyone around us is telling the truth, at least most of the time.  To point the finger more directly - I have a responsibility to be honest, not only with my community, but first and foremost with myself. 

Which leads me to a slightly different definition of honesty.  The apostle Paul, in response to his deep knowledge of (experience with) God, urges Christians to think of ourselves with sober judgment.  Rather than considering ourselves better than others, or idolizing our way of doing things, or even obsessing over our own selves, we are, instead, to think soberly [seriously, sensibly, solemnly] about ourselves.  When we do this, we acknowledge that we are not God; i.e., we are not in control of anything or over anyone.  We admit our flaws, our finiteness, and our fallibility, yet we push forward in the power provided by Christ.  In this sense, honesty is more closely associated with humility.

And I think it makes sense that you would instinctively trust a humble person.  A person who refused to puff herself up or gloss over the messy parts but instead, admitted her mistakes and turned to Christ for help to change. A person who didn't show off but served; who didn't take but generously gave.  An honest person who could -

Let Christ be her example in humility - think of herself the way that Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Even though he could have, h
e didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death.  It was an incredibly humbling process.

Yeah, that's a guy worth trusting.  I want to be like him!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

03.30.11 An Ode to Death

Death, I ever seek thee, yet
when you arrive, I forget thy purpose
I want to dress you up and show you off, but
you prefer silence; you are patient and slow
You see no reason to be polished or shined
Your business takes you to unsavory places
     unkempt, dirty, and hidden corners
     rooms whose doors have long since been locked
Undeterred, you set to work.  Hard labor is nothing to fear.
Eagerly you take the treasures, idols, handcuffs
     off the gilded shelves of souls that whimper,
     pained to suffer freedom
With every cry of "mine!" defeated by you, Death
I think it prudent to follow instead of fight
Save my energy, for after the
     tearing down, ripping out, burning up -
there's still a lot of heavy lifting to do.
You are nothing if not thorough


03.26.11 A Confession: The Series Ends

From the beginning of the series, I knew this day was coming.  What terrible awful secret would I confess to you, my unknown, unseen, readers?

Well, I'm not going to go there.  I've now considered the nature and purpose of confession.  Generally, we associate a confession with an admittance of guilt or wrongdoing; in this sense, the reason to confess would either be to accept the punishment due or to ask for forgiveness.  If I had some misdeed that needed to be confessed, then, I should bring it to the offended party, which, in this case, is probably not you.  Unless you are offended by Christians in general, in which case I refer you here.

A confession can also represent my principles, e.g., a statement of faith or beliefs.  But if you follow my blog at all, you probably have a good idea of what principles govern my life.

So, unfortunately, you are left with only some potentially humorous and maybe self-deprecating confessions that I can share here.  And I'm going to be honest, this is the first confession that popped into my head: I confess that I really want to see the Justin Bieber movie.

I also confess that I now feel compelled to justify and explain myself but I fear that, if I do so, I will not really be taking full advantage of the purpose of confession - which is most certainly not to defend myself.  So, I remain silent....until next time, friends!

03.17.11 My Life in Images

Two images that describe my life right now:

This moderately cheesy picture was the closest I could find to the image that God gave me during a 24 hour retreat in January.  As I've mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit told me to expect DEATH in 2011, and I entered my retreat expecting to delve more into this calling.  During a concentrated time of meditation on the first evening, I asked the Lord to give me a vision of himself.  Immediately, I pictured Jim Caveziel carrying the heavy burden of the cross.  Slowly, he approached me, and I instinctively knelt down with my head to the ground, understanding that he was going to place the cross on my shoulders.  Of course.  Death is painful and involves suffering, even if it's just the pain of denying my own selfishness. Death this year would be a difficult journey. 

Then something amazing happened.  Jesus laid the cross on my back - but instead of the terrific weight that it should have been, it was unbelievably light.  I had spent the first few weeks of January asking God for the strength and the courage to choose death, for the desire to cling to the cross, and for his help to persevere in the long road ahead of me.  But when he put that cross on my shoulders, all I felt was freedom.  I instantly and completely knew that I'd run this race to the finish because Jesus was running it with me.  And he gives victory!

The other major theme of my life right now is simplicity.  It's fascinating how, once you have committed to a course of action, the speed at which it suddenly engulfs your entire life.  What I mean is this: I constantly find myself, in every situation, having an inner dialogue about the wasteful choices and inessential material goods surrounding me.  Each day it becomes easier and easier to buy one less item at the grocery store, take the time to experiment with one more homemade recipe rather than rely on processed convenience, and to sacrifice something I want in order to give towards a bigger (and better) cause.  I see the obvious connection between choosing to live simply and dying to my self, and I suppose that both of these images represent the same goal - freedom.  

Believe it or not, it is actually freeing to not always go where your impulses lead.  It is liberating to not feel attached to food, possessions, or problems (especially the problems that you've created!).  And it helps to recognize that I'm not making these choices to feel better about myself or make our world a better place or any of those lofty moralistic ideals.  My entire purpose is to fall more in love with Jesus and to more fully represent his love in every way.

Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless.
Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow I also may be raised to life. I have not yet reached my goal, and I am not perfect. But Christ has taken hold of me. So I keep on running and struggling to take hold of the prize. My friends, I don't feel that I have already arrived. But I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead. I run toward the goal, so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven. This is the prize that God offers because of what Christ Jesus has done.
- the apostle Paul's letter to the church at Philippi

03.13.11 A Few of My Favorite Things

I'm not much of a possessions person.  When asked what I would grab, in case of a fire in my home, there is not a single thing that pops immediately to my mind.  When I loan out my stuff, I don't actually expect to get it back. 

But after I took inventory of my household, I did find three items that hold some emotional value to me -
  1. The christening gown that was handmade by my great-grandmother for my grandfather's baptism in 1915 (then worn by my mother at hers).  I love the history involved in this simple, beautiful gown, and I am so thankful that Maren could wear it on Mother's Day two years ago when we dedicated her to God.  
  2. An equally historic lavaliere.  Maren's great-great-grandmother, Louise Lee, received this lavaliere as an engagement present in 1914.  Louise then gave it to her daughter Margaret Lee, who allowed her daughter Carol Lee to wear it as a teenager.  At my grandmother (Margaret)'s 90th birthday last month, she gave it me, Nicole Lee, so that I can pass it on to my daughter, Maren Lee.  So this is not only a historic piece of jewelry in my family, but it also represents the 5 generations of women with the middle name "Lee".
  3. My genuine leather, wide-margin Bible that Michael gave me for Christmas in 2001.  I LOVE everything about this Bible - the soft leather cover makes it soothing to hold, the large spaces in the margins give me plenty of room to write, and the lack of cross-references and study notes allow me to choose what information I want to record.  This Bible will last me a long time, and I cherish reading through it and coming across thoughts and prayers over the years.  A runner-up to my Bible is the wide-margin genuine leather notetaking Bible that I bought when Maren was born.  I use this Bible to record my prayers for Maren and to encourage her through scripture.  I plan to give it to her as a gift sometime in her young adult life, and I hope she will cherish it as much as I cherish writing to her in it.       
Only 2 posts left in the series!
  • Day Nine: Two images that describe my life or myself right now.
  • Day Ten: One confession.