Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joy.

Last night, after running several errands in town, I stopped by one of our local nursing homes, loaded down with chocolate and some other pretty little things.

Over the months, our church has built a unique relationship with the residents there, through adoptions and visitations and caroling.  But I'd never had much of a chance to visit with anyone personally.

Last night changed that.  And now, I know I'm going to stop back there -- often.

After visiting with the two elderly men our family "adopted" and giving them some chocolate, I wandered into the room next door where two women were watching television.  The one lying on the bed by the far window was not coherent, but the one in the wheelchair by the door could string a few faltering words together. 

I crouched down by her chair and listened to stories of her childhood and all the myriad ways our town has changed since she was in school.  (She also gave me detailed directions on how to prepare chitlins, then when she learned I was from Pennsylvania, sniffed that I was a "northern girl" and "that explained it".  She made me smile.)

I asked everyone the same general questions, "How was your Christmas?  Did you do anything special?  Did you have any family come in and visit you?  What do you find to do around here?  Do you like the food?"

Most of the answers were the same, "I slept.  I watched TV.  I don't have any family left. I didn't do anything special.  There's nothing to do around here.  Sometimes the food's good; sometimes it's bad."  My heart cringed for many of them -- their boredom and hopelessness.  It was a dismal place.

Until I met Willy in room 217.  He was sociable and kind and lively.  When I walked into the room he shared with a gentleman who couldn't speak (but who had completed an impressive stack of daunting crossword puzzles) he immediately offered me a chair and asked me how my Christmas was.

I was a little taken off-guard.  "Oh, it was fabulous!  The first white Christmas we've had in a long time.  How was yours?"

"Oh, sweetie, it was great.  I had a good Christmas.  How are you doing?"

Every time I asked a new question, he either turned it right back to me or came up with questions of his own.  When I gave him a big handful of chocolate, he smiled and thanked me profusely and ate several them as I sat there across from him.  I asked him about the teddy bear on his bed and he told me that the bear's name was George and that he loved stuffed animals and if I ever felt like bringing any more, he'd love to have them.

Hanging on the wall over his bed, I saw a picture of a younger man and woman -- the man bearing a close resemblance to him.  "Is that a picture of you?" I asked.  I could tell his vision was poor, but he knew what I meant and smiled right away.  "That's me and my wife.  She passed away in 2003.  Best woman in the world."

"I bet you miss her terribly.  She looks really sweet."

"Oh, she was -- she was.  If she were still alive, I wouldn't be here in this place."

Then I asked him what he found to do all day, confined to one hall.  "Oh, you get to know people," he said.  "So many people and everybody has something to say.  Usually you can just joke around with people and sit in the cafeteria and watch a show or something.  There's always something if you're really looking."

Wow.  There, in that dark, decrepit, smelly room that was barely 10x10 and shared by two people, I saw a glimmer of true joy.  Willy knew something vital: that it is only in truly reaching out to others that your own troubles are diminished.

And then there were the others:

Beulah, who said she would keep the necklace I gave her as a special keepsake and asked if I could bring crossword puzzles the next time I came (she promised to teach me how to become proficient with them since I complained that they always confused me).

Rita, who, despite being in a wheelchair, was impeccably clothed in pale peach (with an added touch of unique jewelry) and deeply concerned about my travels home, alone, through the dark city.  She added a special caution to me, making me promise that I would be safe in Kenya.

Maryanne, with a surprisingly deep voice and a brightly-colored head scarf that coordinated with her purple sweatsuit, who told me how much she loved chocolate and how much it meant to her that I would sit and talk to all of them.

Joy, Patty, Mary, Bobby, and the little man with the big smile who never gave me his name, but informed me that he only ever ate cheese sandwiches....the list could go on.

I left with promises of magazines and story books, crossword puzzles, cookies, and stuffed toys upon my return.  Some of the elderly folks, I know, won't even remember me by next week -- but I won't forget them any time soon.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kenya.

So....I'm going to Kenya!!  I'm really going!!  If all runs according to plan, I'll leave in mid-February -- and not come back until the end of April.  I've been hesitant to blog about it before because there was a lot going on and I never felt a full release to go until Christmas.  The day after Christmas confirmed it even more.

It's a long story that began on Valentine's Day of this year -- when God first showed me the door and whispered to me about the possibility of opening it.  And now, I'm really going!  I got things finalized with my passport today and now the fun begins!  ....The whole trusting God that He'll make my paths straight thing.  You know, the fund raising.  He's faithful, though.  I'm not worried.  He's brought me this far already.

I'm going to work on writing another book while I'm there too.  I know I'm going to learn so much.

I'm kind of really, incredibly excited....

Kenya!!!!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Saving Face.

After avoiding most of the people I'm closest to, in a silly attempt to save my own face, I finally went back to the circle I know.  And you know what?  Turns out it wasn't a big deal to anyone but me.  I hadn't done anything wrong, so what did I really have to hide?

I lectured myself the entire past week. "You have no reason to avoid people, so you won't.  And you will tell everyone the truth if they ask."

So I did.  Every free moment I had, during fellowship time and after the sermon, I stood and talked to people.  I was honest with them.  I was open.  I was truly free for the first time in months.  I looked them right in the eye and, if they asked, told them all I needed to say.  It was brief, it was honest, and I was right -- it wasn't a big deal to anyone but me.

Before yesterday, I felt like I'd be straggling into church as half a person -- and everyone would instantly see how deceived and used I was -- and how I was unable to be real with anyone anymore -- and pity me.  Turns out, I was the same person to them.  Stronger, even.  And I could be real.  By magnifying a situation in my mind, I'd let it take control of me.

I wish I'd realized that that weeks ago.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Dirty Glass.

I'm a germophobe.  Not just your ordinary I-hate-being-sick-and-therefore-I-hate-germs germophobe, but I mean a die hard.  Like, really hard.  I'll catch myself holding my breath when I'm in public and I know something is going around.

The other day, I was walking through the grocery store and someone sneezed just as I turned into the aisle.  My response was completely instinctive.  I flung myself about two feet to the right, ducked way below head-level and hurried to the opposite end of the aisle.  Holding my breath, naturally.  Good thing their back was turned.

Hand sanitizer is my Star of Elendil -- my saving grace.  I'm never without a bottle (or two).  When I worked as a counselor at a summer camp, I kept a massive bottle of it on the dresser beside my bunk.  "Feel free to help yourselves anytime," I always told my kids.  And prayed that they would.

And public restrooms?  Don't get me started!  When I leave a public restroom, I feel like burning my shoes.  I'm not kidding.  My feet absolutely crawl; I can almost see the bacteria festering on the underside.  Public restrooms must be the equivalent of Purgatory or something.  Want to torture me?  Lock me in one some time.  And turn off the lights.  You'll get the information you need within five minutes.  (I promise.)

Even the soap feels contaminated.  I wash my hands in scalding hot water, use my jeans as a towel if there are only hot-air dryers available (bacteria breeding ground, much?) and then either wait until someone else leaves (or enters) the restroom and will open the door for me, or (if I don't have an amused crowd of onlookers) I'll perform one of my greatest acrobatic maneuvers of all time.  It's called something like the, "Jenn-strrrretches-and-opens-the-door-with-the-back-of-one-flip-flop-while-trying-to-maintain-her-equilibrium-by-hopping-erratically-about-on-the-other-foot" move.  (I think the Olympics has an official category for that.  Just saying.)

I worry about food poisoning too.  Not that I've ever had it, mind you.  I just worry about it.  So much, in fact, that when dishes come out of the dishwasher with residual crud on them, I feel sure that if I unwittingly eat something out of a contaminated bowl, I'll be among the unfortunate 9,000 or so people who die annually from food-related illnesses.  (Yes, I know these elusive facts.)

So, this evening, I was unloading the dishwasher in search of the perfect cereal bowl to use for my late-night Cheerios indulgence.  I tend to be a little particular about which bowls and spoons and plates and -- yeah, you get the idea.  So, when I did find the perfect bowl, I turned it over only to find some of the aforementioned residual crud.  FOODPOISONINGALERT!

I went over to the sink and began to diligently scrub away at it (it was a teensy, crusty spot along the rim, but hey....), using plenty of soap and hot water.  As I scrubbed, I reflected on how many times crusty or smudges dishes had sent me to the sink with soap and hot water.  And then I remembered drinking glasses.

I have this thing about drinking glasses.  Every time I pull one out of the cupboard, I never fill it immediately with water.  I first hold it up to the light and rotate it slowly, checking for residual crud.  As I washed my bowl, I realized that, without even thinking about it, when someone else asked me to grab a drink for them (except under very rare circumstances) I almost never checked their glasses for crud.

Not a huge deal, I suppose.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how little that makes sense.  Other people may not be as obsessed about food poisoning as I am, but that doesn't mean they want to drink out of dirty glasses either.  If we honored the preferences of others even half as much as we honored our own (little things: like, remembering which spoon is our favorite; washing our drinking glasses before filling them; leaving off the Cool-Whip or serving our steak well-done) we'd be living in a different world.

"Do to others as you would have them do to you."  The command seems so simple.  And yet, it's not! Big sacrifices are sometimes just easier to make.  Besides the fact that everybody notices and you get to feel generally heroic for giving up your rights, they're also pretty cut-and-dry!  Small sacrifices?  Not so much.  A life of "doing to others" demands a consistent, sometimes excruciating death to self.  And that's not easy!

Do you do unto others?

(There should be a bumper sticker that says that.)

(It's catchy.)

(Kind of.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas.

I remember this day a year ago.  I sat in almost the same spot, looking at the tree and at the wrapping paper strewn across the floor.  As I sat there, I remembered how quickly a year could come and go and wondered what I'd be thinking as I sat in the same place a year from then.  Well, now I know.  It's not what I expected to be thinking -- and I'm not who I expected I would be -- but the Lord is gracious.  And I am thankful.

A year has changed me.  How has this year changed you?  For the better?  Worse?  Are you more confused now than you were last year at this time?  Have you grown in your relationship with Christ?  Do you have a better understanding of the fruits of Spirit and how they apply in your life?  There's so much to learn and so little time in which to exercise it.  A year is gone so quickly.

This is my favorite passage to ponder at Christmastime.  From 1 Timothy 3:16.

"Beyond all question, 
the mystery of godliness is great:
   He appeared in a body,
      was vindicated by the Spirit,
   was seen by angels,
      was preached among the nations,
   was believed on in the world,
      was taken up in glory."


In a nutshell, this is why we celebrate.  Have a very Merry Christmas, you guys.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Broken.


Are you like me?  I often make impulsive decisions, based on emotions and the people around me.  Earlier today, I was thinking of that verse from the end of Galatians that says, "Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load."

I haven't always done that this year.  I've inflicted hurt on myself and others because because I failed to test my own actions.  Failed to carry my own load.  (In fact, often, I carried someone else's unnecessarily.)  It's left me broken.  But I suppose brokenness is a good place for new beginnings....

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oops.

I'm not even close to being done with my Christmas shopping.  And Christmas is in 1, 2, 3....4 days?  Not possible.  I remember feeling proud in September when I knocked the first few items off my list.  Obviously, that wasn't a trend.

Despite the snow, someone needs to take a shopping trip.  Soon.  I felt pro-active when I ordered something online a few days ago -- until I realized how long shipping takes.  Maybe it will be here before the new year?

A couple days ago, I heard myself starting into the, "Christmas isn't about gift-giving anyway" rant, but I think it was just to make myself feel better.  I think we all know the true meaning of Christmas, but the fact remains: gift-giving is a neat tradition -- and it's more blessed to give than to receive.  The gift doesn't need to be costly or phenomenal, but it should be thoughtful and individualized.  (Granted, it's fine to buy your coworkers the same soy candle, but maybe your family would prefer something more suited to their individual tastes.)

It's neat: the better you know someone, the more thoughtful you can be with the gift.  Just because all my shopping is going to be last-minute, doesn't mean I need to sacrifice the personal touch.

I don't know.  Am I alone?  Does anyone else have shopping left to do?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Not Finished Yet.

Last week, I got a phone call from a good friend of mine.  Her great aunt was in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. She was doing poorly—and she didn’t know Christ.

"I want to visit her and tell her about Jesus," Hannah told me.  I encouraged her and prayed with her, figuring that would be my only part in the matter.  I told her to call me back to let me know how the visit went, but instead, when I heard from her several days later, she asked  if I would also go along to help share the Lord with the family.

So, I just got back from Washington, DC.  It's a good thing the trip was last-minute and I didn’t know many of the details before we left.  Two and a half hours into the trip, Hannah told me the family was devoutly Buddhist.  And I was floored.  I didn't know anything about Buddhism—I was nervous enough about sharing the gospel with unbelievers....but Buddhists?

I watched the highway disappear under the car, mentally bracing myself for the fact that we were on our way—we weren't turning around—and we were going to share Christ with the family no matter what.  Buddhists.

Then, as if the Buddhism factor wasn’t enough, about 15 minutes from our destination, Hannah told me that her great aunt didn't speak or understand English. Her uncle and cousin (who were looking after her great aunt) spoke Vietnamese as well, but were also (thankfully) fluent in English.  "I'll translate for you if you need it," she promised.

Now I was really in a state of semi-panic.  Buddhists that only spoke Vietnamese?  What was I even here for?  I stared blankly through rain-streamed windows as the countryside fled past.  What am I going to do?

“One thing you’ll notice about my uncle and his family is that they’re so rich—they have everything they need—they don’t think they need Christ,” Hannah said as we pulled up to their brick and pillared mansion.

Her uncle came to the door and let us in without a smile.  We took off our shoes, dropped our luggage in a corner of the massive kitchen and looked around.  Her uncle pointed to the sofa in the livingroom—the one with its back to us.  Of course.  Her great aunt wanted to see us.  We greeted her enthusiastically and she immediately asked Hannah to help her take her medicine in the other room.

So, in less than five minutes, I found myself alone in the livingroom with her rather-imposing, rather-Buddhist uncle.

First, “How do you know Hannah?” Easy enough. “Church,” I said.  We looked at each other awkwardly before the phone rang and he went to answer it.  I stared around at the 10-plus Buddhas I could see from my vantage point on the couch.  My heart sank.  This wasn’t going so well.

By the time he came back, I’d lectured myself sufficiently and the conversation wasn’t quite so stilted, but it was far from comfortable.  He still scared me to death.  I knew right then and there I’d never be able to share Christ with this rich man who was clearly self-satisfied with his life, his accomplishments and his beliefs.

After a grand tour of the house, Hannah suggested that we give her aunt a massage.  I could read the message in her eyes.  In the seclusion of her aunt’s bedroom, Hannah pulled out her Vietnamese Bible.  I prayed silently as Hannah read and shared Christ with her aunt.  Tears sprang into my eyes as I listened to Psalm 139 in another language.
  
Her great aunt fell asleep at some point.  Hannah and I looked at each other over her head, feeling defeated.  “How about your uncle?” I asked.  “Will he listen if I try to talk to him?”  She looked hesitant.  “I think so,” she finally said.  “I can’t be the one to do it, though.  In Vietnam, younger people never speak to their elders about things like that.  I don’t know if he’ll be angry or not.”

As her great aunt snored and we massaged her bony, wrinkled arms, we whispered about our plan of attack.  I had a massive list of questions about Buddhism, some of which Hannah knew the answers to, but most of which, we just guessed at.  Looking at the wall covered with her uncle’s awards and certificates, a lump formed in my throat.  To ignore a conviction was sin.  And I was convicted to speak to Uncle Hung—somehow.  Lord, give me strength, I prayed.  I still didn’t think I could do it.

I think that afternoon was the longest of my entire life.  When Hannah’s great aunt woke up, we helped her out to the livingroom sofa and massaged her back.  Hannah read the Bible again, keeping it tucked into her lap so as not to rouse her uncle’s anger.  I also held my Bible on my lap, partially covered by my prayer journal, and continued finding passages for Hannah between silently praying and journaling.

As I listened to the truth spoken in a tongue I didn’t understand, I desperately begged the Lord to open this poor woman’s ears and breathe hope into her hopeless soul.

Over and over her great aunt said, “I feel like such a burden.  I just want to die.  I wanted to get better, but now I know I won’t, so instead I want to die, then I won’t be a burden.”  It broke my heart.

After dinner, Hannah and I cleaned up the kitchen, then went back to sit with her great aunt.  Her uncle was again absorbed with work in his office—the French doors faced out into the livingroom and we felt like we were in a hostile fishbowl.  We’re leaving tomorrow, I thought.  I have to do something—tonight.  But how?

Finally, her uncle came in with a camera and snapped a picture of the three of us on the sofa together.  As he walked past me, back to his office, I said, “Um, excuse me.”  He said, “Yes?”  I said, “That picture—right there on the wall.  What do the words mean?”

He turned and studied it for a moment, then replied, “It says, ‘Breathe, my child’.”

“What does that mean?”

“Breathing is a big part of meditation—that’s what we have to do when we meditate: forget everything except for breathing in and breathing out.”

“Really?  What’s the purpose of that?” I asked.  “Like, what are you meditating for?”

He obliged and the conversation grew.  Eventually, he seated himself on the floor, beneath the picture and set the camera beside him.  The minutes ticked on.
  
“So,” I continued, “just saying there is a little Buddha inside of me and I never acknowledge it, what’s going to happen to me?  Do I go to hell?”

Uncle Hung winced slightly.  “Well, I think there are other options for you.  You will be reincarnated as something less desirable, for instance.  But you get nine chances.”

“And then what?” I asked.  “What if I still never acknowledge Buddha?  Or—what about all the people who never realize they have a little Buddha inside them: what’s going to happen to them?”
  
“I don’t think the past or future is worth discussing,” he replied.  “The present is the only thing that matters.  That and your personal happiness and peace.”

“But see, I guess I want to believe something that answers my big questions,” I said.  “I want to know where I came from, who put me here, what they want from me…and where I’m going.  It just seems like Buddhism isn’t answering those questions.  I don’t think I could have true peace and happiness unless I had more security.  I mean, you believe Buddha was a good man—well, so was Jesus, right?—so was Mohammed.  What sets Buddha apart?  What makes Buddhism more appealing to you?  Why choose it over the other religions?

“I know all religions require a certain degree of faith since there’s no way to prove everything, but Christianity at least answers more of my questions than Islam or Buddhism.  Such as the question of where I came from.  I mean, it makes more sense to me to know that an all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful God created this world and placed me in it for His glory—than that I’m just floating around, trying to do good things and hoping that the little Buddha inside me will think it’s good enough to let me achieve humanity again.”  Can Buddhism answer those four questions?”

I could see the thoughts swimming behind his eyes.  I tucked my shaking hands further under the pillow that I clutched to my stomach.

“Well,” he said.  “Maybe not those questions necessarily.  But they’re not the important questions.  “Are you a good person?” is the most important question.”

“But who gets to say what’s right and what’s wrong?”

“The Buddha inside you will tell you.”

“Who gives him permission to say what is right and what is wrong?  Wasn’t he a human just like us?”

“But he was the person who did the most good.”

“So if I do a lot of good, does that mean I can be like Buddha some day?  Will I get to say what’s right and what’s wrong then?”

“Well, perhaps it is possible, but the only people who really have enough time to become so good are the priests, I think.”

It went back and forth.  But at one point, I had the perfect and unforeseen opportunity to present the gospel—from a completely objective standpoint: “I….guess it just makes sense to me that I was given the will to disobey God, and that when I did, I faced the fatal consequences of my sin (because the cost of sin is death).  I brought it on myself. But God gave me a second chance: He had mercy and sent His only Son to be the sacrifice for my sin—to pay the penalty for me—so that I don’t have to die—you know, I don’t have to go to hell—and I can have eternal life.

“He died so that I don’t have to.  In the Bible, God tells us that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We all fall short, but He has promised salvation if we repent of our sins and confess Him as Lord.  I guess it just seems like Christianity has a good answer for those hard questions.”

When I finished, Uncle Hung studied my face carefully for several seconds before finally replying, “All I can say is that right now, all that matters is your own peace and happiness.  If you are happy by living a good life, you don’t have to worry about the future.”

“But….what if you’re wrong?” I asked.  “What if you’re wrong and you die?”

He was silent for a long time, reflecting.  “I don’t know if that’s something I can think about right now,” he finally said.

That night, as I lay awake beside the bed of Hannah’s great aunt, listening to her talk and moan in Vietnamese, I thanked the Lord for taking my weakness and inability and fear, and using it—despite me— for His glory.  I thanked Him for Hannah’s heart and for the burden she’d been given for her extended family.  I prayed that the seed would continue to grow in their hearts—and that it might eventually yield a good harvest.

The next afternoon, as we packed our suitcases and made our last round of farewells, Uncle Hung approached me and said, “Thank you for the discussion.  It was very interesting.  It gave me a lot to think about it, so thank you.”

“No, thank you,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Come back anytime,” he added.

When Hannah and I pulled out of their driveway and drove four hours home through the streaming rain, the dread was gone.  Only hope remained.  The Lord wasn’t through with this family.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snow.

I remember the last time it really snowed.  It was almost an entire year ago.  And I slept outside on the porch.  It was after 5 AM by the time I finally turned in -- I called one friend to say "goodnight" and another, to say "good morning".  Those simple phone calls marked the end of an era -- and the beginning of a new one.  I don't really like to think about it.  So much has changed in one year.

It wasn't just a blizzard that night -- it was an ice storm, too.  There is nothing like turning out all the lights in the house while it's still dark, and snuggling down into a sleeping bag on an upstairs porch....seeing the light reflect through ice all over the trees -- and have sleet and snow sifting down as you're falling asleep.

I woke up with my sleeping bag crusted with ice....and little icicles in any exposed part of my hair.  I don't think  there's any replacement for that experience.  The wind was blowing: full of fog and mist and freezing rain....and the ice was rattling down out of the trees and crashing on the gravel driveway and the frozen grass.  Even my cell phone screen was fogged up with condensation.

It was beautiful.

And now, that year is over -- so quickly.  So tragically.  The snow began falling yesterday afternoon -- and it's been falling steadily ever since.  But I don't think I'm going to sleep out on the porch tonight.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pro-Life.

I've always considered myself to be pro-life.  I mean, I'm pretty sure I am.  If you followed me through my week, you'd probably agree.  I spend several days a week counseling young women in crisis pregnancy situations.  I believe in the sanctity of life -- that anything created in the image of God is worth defending.  And, as much as is possible, I speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves.  Pro-life, right?

But a few days ago, I realized I wasn't very pro-life at all.

What on earth am I talking about?  Well first, what exactly does it mean to be pro-life anyway?  In my limited estimation, "pro-life" meant, "Any stand taken against abortion (and abortion only)".  The term used to evoke images of special interest groups, campaigns, protests against abortion, and crisis counseling for young, unwed mothers.  Ultimately, I thought it meant making a commitment to help others choose the gift of life.

But I've come to realize that being "pro-life" is more than merely acting as an advocate for the unborn.  It's a worldview.  It's a lifestyle.  Jesus told us that He came to give life -- more abundantly.  He demonstrated that very fact when He gave Himself up for us on the cross and took the death penalty for our sins upon Himself -- so that we could live forever.  Has there ever been a greater pro-life act in the history of the world?

Because of God's ultimate sacrifice, we are also called to be pro-life in every area of life, not just in the most obvious sense of defending the rights of the unborn. 

How does that work?  It means building people up by speaking life-giving words instead of tearing them down with discouragement, anger, and manipulation -- all life-taking actions.

Gail Dillinger of LIFE International says, "How can we deliver a life-giving message to a [young woman in need] and at the same time express a life-taking message towards [others]?"  She continues, "Whether we realize it or not, when we wake every morning, we decide which side to be on in the cosmic battle between life-givers and life-takers.  We reveal our choice through our language and actions, beginning with the first person we speak to and proceeding through the rest of the day.  When we interact with our family members, friends, co-workers, and enemies, do our words and actions increase life or diminish life?"

When I leave the center, my work is over.  I've made my contribution to the pro-life movement.  But my family? I live with them every day -- and they get all the leftover yuckiness: criticism, complaints, and my largely divided attention.  Life-taking.  I'm tearing them down.  De-valuing them.  And something's wrong with that picture.

James 3:9-10 says, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be."

Sin is death.  Are your words and actions life-giving or life-taking?

Maybe we're not as pro-life as we think.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Enforced.

The other day, I was driving home from work when I saw flashing lights in the oncoming lane.  Instinctively, I checked my speedometer. Nope, couldn't be me.  Whew.  As I watched in my rear view mirror, a truck in the opposite lane made its way onto the shoulder, an unmarked car sliding in behind it.

Ooh, I hate those unmarked cars.  As a rule, I'm pretty strict about following the speed limit, but that doesn't keep my heart from skipping a beat when I see those lights (especially because those few times I've been late....yeah).  To be on the safe side, I employ the use of cruise whenever possible, but traffic around here is unpredictable -- it's not always an option.

I love getting stuck behind a car that's going the speed limit.  Really.  Once I've followed them for a while to ensure that they're being careful and consistent, I only need to maintain the proper amount of distance between my car and theirs, before zoning off into my own thoughts.  My only responsibility is to make sure that I don't end up tailgating them.  Simple, really.  Kind of like an external version of cruise.

But then I have a problem.  When I'm not behind a car that's dutifully traveling along at the speed limit (and I can't use cruise), I have to be on my guard.  Which means watching for speed limit signs, those flashing school zone lights, and those annoying things that switch between red and green and yellow at intersections.  Stuff that I just might be out of practice for.

How about you?  Are you a good driver -- or do you depend on the conformity of others to ensure your own adherence to the law?

As with driving under controlled circumstances, growing up as a "good Christian kid" in a "good Christian family" has its own special insurance policy.  It's likely that you won't end up in a variety of messes, just by default.  But when the big test comes -- when those familiar safeguards are removed -- how do you respond?

That's when you figure out if your convictions are your own, or if they were merely gained by assimilation.  I posted earlier about "accidental virginity" -- a few thoughts by Gabriel and Becka Anast.  I think Becka's comment in particular, applies here.

Becka says, "A few weeks after I married Gabe, he told me something funny. He said one of the things he most valued about me was that I wasn’t an “accidental” virgin. He said he had met conservative home schooled youth from a dozen families who were virgins just by happenstance. They hadn't personally made a choice to be pure. The parents had made that choice for them - which is good - but the kids had never made that choice for themselves.  He said there was no telling how many of them would have given away their virginity if they had been placed in new circumstances and allowed to do whatever they pleased.

"Have you made a choice yet? Are you doing as much as you can get away with in the confines of your parents' ruling, or are you personally walking after the Spirit of God? Do your convictions change with the crowd you're in, or do you know who you are?"

Have you made a commitment to do the right thing, regardless of the people around you?  Or are you hanging around hoping the safeguards won't be removed, that you won't eventually be forced to compromise?  Life is too short to hope or make guesses.

Driving is more than just avoiding a ticket.  It's about making a conscious decision to be safe and obey the law -- on your own -- regardless of the circumstances, people, pressure, convenience, feelings.  Then, when you see flashing lights, there'll be no reason for your heart to ever skip a beat.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Marriage: A Business Transaction.

Are you in love?  Unfortunately, heightened emotions can cloud your better judgment and lead to poor decision-making and lots of heartache on the flip side of things.  Is your guy really who he says he is?  How can you be sure?

There's no real litmus test for determining whether your suitor is really all he appears to be.  I find it humorous (and vaguely disturbing) the number of Google searches that are made by anxious girlfriends, in an attempt to discover if their boyfriend is the Antichrist.  I mean, really.  If you think you're dating the Antichrist, that just might be a red flag.  Run -- okay?

In all seriousness, however, you need to know who your guy is.  And you can't just figure that out by asking the people who love him most.  However nice their complements, they're biased.  Bear in mind that if you meet him at school or college or work, he's out of context.  If at all possible, view his behavior around the people he's most familiar with.  Is he demanding?  Lazy?  Disrespectful?  Manipulative?  How do these people respond to him (and his behavior) in return?  Are they guarded?  Stressed?  Surprised (that he's so nice)?  Sarcastic?  Foul-mouthed?  It could be that he easily accepts these things (or returns the favor) when he's not in your presence.

What kinds of things does he rationalize?  His choice of reading materials?  Recreation?  Distasteful humor?  Friends?  Use of money?  Language?  Time management?  If he's rationalizing the grey areas now, it's only bound to get worse.

Committing to a lasting relationship is a big decision -- even for the best of us.  And you deserve to be informed.  Like a good friend of mine said, "Marriage is a business transaction.  All the mushy-gushy stuff is nice, but it's not important.  It's a business deal, plain and simple.  You need to know if you want to buy what they're selling and live with it, 'cause it's not going to change.  In fact, it's only going to get worse!"
   
When you buy a used car, one of the first questions you want to ask is if it's been in a wreck -- but why?  Because it's going to affect your life as its driver!  It might cause you a lot of grief and stress in the future.  So find out: what are they trying to hide and why?  Is there serious damage?  Baggage?  I'm not saying whether these things can be dealt with and reconciled or not (that's for another post).  I'm just saying, don't be afraid to ask questions.  Don't be afraid to poke around.  It's your life -- and you should know who you're going to have to spend it with.

Still, it's all very confusing.  What can be done?  A few things, maybe.  But two things, for sure:
  • First, hear the advice of those who love you (and who are also emotionally detached from the situation).  I think there's a quote about that.  "Hear the advice of those who love you, though you may not like it at present."  Or something like that.  It's a valuable tip.  There's a lot you can't see in the haze of feel-good-iness.  Trust the ones who love you most.

  • Second, pray every single day that the Lord will only let you be attracted to evidence of His Spirit in your guy's heart.  It's a prayer I've not forgotten to pray -- and it's a prayer I'll continue to pray.  If your guy is a true and Godly man, the attraction will follow.  In the meantime, don't be swayed by appearances or by smooth words.  Those things aren't going to last.  Character will.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Number My Days.


Hard to believe it's December already.  I had high hopes for this year -- I really did.  I wanted to start running consistently.  (I've been out here and there, but mostly in the warm weather.)  I wanted to go without sugar, wheat, red meats, and dairy for an entire year.  (I only made it for three months.)  I wanted to finish writing another book.  (I barely scraped together a few chapters.)  I wanted to study my Bible for at least an hour every morning.  (There are still some days I don't study at all.)

The worst of all these things?  I could have succeeded in doing those things.  I wasted a lot of time on fruitless pursuits this year.  I had no eternal perspective, whatsoever.  And I made a lot of excuses.

Running:  I had a million reasons to stop -- and happily accepted them all.  Shin splints, foot problems, bad running shoes, no decent track to run on.  Basically, it was hard.  And I wanted out.  Quickly.

The diet excuses weren't as obvious -- or as plentiful.  But do you know how boring it is to eat only steamed vegetables and brown rice and oatmeal day after day after day?  When my starved taste buds begged for the once-yucky taste of liquid chlorophyll, I knew things had gone too far.

Oh -- and I had another really good reason to end the diet: weekend company around the 3-month mark.  I didn't want to make them feel uncomfortable at mealtime.  (How thoughtful and self-sacrificing of me.  I mean, really.  Wouldn't you feel bad to be eating lasagna when your table-mate is eating almonds and spinach?)  So, for their sake (naturally) I ate "people food" for four days and promised myself that when the visit ended, I'd get back on track.

Trust me when I say that after eating pepperoni pizza -- and salad with feta cheese and dried cranberries -- you don't want to eat plain brown rice with broccoli anymore.  So, I didn't.

The writing problem.  For some reason, it's been a struggle to even update my blog this year -- let alone work on another book.  I realized the other day that I spend way more time reading about writing and studying the art of writing than actually writing.  No, really.  You know those writers who get in sloughs of unproductivity?  The ones who read and read and read and then get discouraged because someone else already said it better (first)?  Me.  I'm one of them.  Somehow morphed overnight (or so I'd like to think).

I want next year to be different.  I want to stop being blown about by whims and excuses.  I want to wake up every morning and ask the Lord to teach me to number my days so I can gain a heart of wisdom.

Do you know what that verse really means?  (I think it just hit me in one of those vulnerable "Ah-ha, I-might-have-known-this-all-along-but-didn't-think-it-applied-to-me-yet-for-some-reason" moments.)  "To number your days" means realizing the brevity of life -- the purpose of life -- and living like you believe it.  Living because you believe it.  When you apply your knowledge and abilities for God's ultimate glory, you gain a heart of wisdom.

It's that not-simple.  Because, for one thing, it means no more excuses.

But, sitting here at the end of 2009, I realized how very much I need to pray those words every day of 2010.  And maybe, if I can wrap my heart and head around it, with the Spirit's help, I won't chase after so many vain (and time-consuming) pursuits.  I won't make excuses to avoid self-discipline.  And I'll focus more on bringing glory to God and less on what I want or what I feel.

Being disciplined is rough.  It's discouraging.  Sometimes boring.  Often painful.   But we're called to run as if for the prize -- not run as if we'd take the first excuse to cower back into the sidelines.  Our reward is in Heaven -- not on earth.  So run like you believe it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Makin' a List, Checkin' it Twice


I don't think it's too early to make a list of New Year's resolutions.  I know there's a lot of hype surrounding these lists, which easily warrants the just-tone-it-down-already-would-you comments: ("Oh, you're going to discourage yourself; just do the best you can.").  But I don't buy any of it.  I've always been a big goal-setter and contract-writer.  Many of these said contracts have come close to saving my life.  (Well, slight exaggeration, maybe.  But hey....)

Is it only the choleric perfectionist who falls for these lists?  Perhaps.  (Or maybe it's a sweeping generalization and all the naysayers (i.e., phlegmatics) should come apologize.  Handwritten notes, please.)

I know I tend towards extreme perfectionism in all things--except for the organization of my bedroom.  I refuse to even think about the best way to store my bountiful collection of clothing.  And shoes.  And books.  In fact, my messy room is probably the one area of my life I'm not quite ready to become obsessive-compulsive about.  But I know that this coming year, I must, because ignored conviction is a dangerous thing.  (It's at this point I begin playing, "Painting Pictures of Egypt" by Sara Groves.  Listen to it.  You'll understand.)

So, for now, I have two items on my Resolutions List:

1. Clean my room.
2. Keep it clean.

Sounds like 2010 is going to be a good year.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hurt.

A few days ago, I sat across from a girl with a hurting heart. Her life was in shambles—her innocence, left amidst the wreckage—her spirit, without the strength or motivation to do the next thing.  She’d made some poor choices and found herself violated, rejected, and filled with despair.

After sharing her story, she looked up at me, waiting to hear the verdict—the prescription.  What could I say?

At first, I wanted to take her by the shoulders, look directly into her eyes and say, “How did you not see?  How could you have missed it like that?  How could you have messed up so badly?”

But I’ve made mistakes in my life too.  I’ve lied to myself—covered my eyes with both hands, and blundered off the edge of cliffs that I knew (but didn’t want to believe) existed.  I’ve hurt myself and other people: I’ve failed to forgive both.  I’ve walked into walls that looked like doors.  There are scars on my heart; there are choices that I can no longer live down (I don’t even try—they belong to God now; I gave them to Him).  But the memories are mine for the rest of my life.

I used to be intimidated by the mere thought of sharing my testimony with girls in crisis situations.  (Especially when I worked as a counselor for inner-city youth two summers ago.  So many needy girls: I couldn’t even begin to understand the hurt in some of their hearts—so how could the story of a “good, Christian girl” possibly help them?)  As a kid, I’d been blessed with a Godly heritage, wise and involved parents who nurtured and encouraged me to grow in the knowledge of Christ—and I’d never been saved from such drastic things as drug or alcohol addictions, illicit relationships, or abuse.

Or had I?

As I journaled one evening, I realized that I had, in fact, been saved from all those things.  Before I’d ever endured the pain of living through them.  I haven’t been spared all scars in life, but I’ve been spared most.  My testimony is a glorious one: a true picture of God’s grace.

Sure, I’ve struggled here and there, but there are those who have struggled more.  I’ve been hurt, but others have endured torture.  I’ve encountered heartbreak, but some girls gave everything to men who changed their minds.  For today, I have been spared these things.

A few days ago, I sat across from a girl with a hurting heart.  And instead of condemnation, I took a deep breath and told her the story of grace.  For without it, I’d be in the exact same place.