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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Get Real

I have been appointed a special kind of personality that allows me to see the bad first in everything.  At any given moment I call it pessimism, criticism, cynicism, or a stinging perception of reality.

I am quite the charmer, and clearly no Pollyanna.

To say that something is good is difficult for me.  I see the underside of things first, including my own issues (I’d be a better friend if I wasn’t so lazy to pick up the phone).  Failures define the accomplishments (I passed the test only because I didn’t fail).  When good things happen it is due to the lack of a mistake, the omission of the faulty part (We were on time because the car didn’t give us any trouble).  Somehow the negatives loom darker than the positives shine, and it is only in the absence of the darkness that I come around to see the light (I don’t hate my new haircut; I guess it’ll do).

Once in a while I see the good things first, but I’m rarely surprised when the shoe drops.  I’ve been waiting for it all along.  Unfairness rules.  Frustrations lurk in every corner.  It doesn’t do any good to do good, because something will come up right behind you and ruin it.

This sunny viewpoint has been known to cause personal and interpersonal problems.  Negativity affects mood; frowning causes lines and wrinkles.  Frequent pessimism can lead to anxiety and depression.  Criticism doesn’t stop when I turn away from the magnifying mirror.  It extends to those around me: I see your flaws too.  You really should fix that.

I am aware that no one likes to be around someone who highlights the bad, that nobody likes a sourpuss.  I accept that curmudgeonliness is not an attractive personality characteristic; unfortunately, it’s where I live.

On the clear other end of the spectrum, God created everything from nothing.  He created the light, and the sky, the earth and the water, the trees and the plants, the sun, moon, and stars, all the animals and people, and he did it in six days and then he rested.  He saw that it was good, excellent even, and he never looked back (Genesis 1:1-31).

I want a smidgen of this confident positivity.

What I try to remember in my Debbie Downer moments is that God says everything is for good, and this includes the bad stuff.  There is a silver lining to every cloud.  He promised that there would be troubles, but we can survive them with his help and power.

It’s this silver lining that I’d like to be able to recognize and hold onto, the assertion that good will come from bad every time, even if it’s not in my lifetime.  It may be that I’m not meant to see it, and it doesn’t do any good to set up camp on it.

I’ve learned how to handle myself when Negative Nancy threatens to take over:  I pray.  I meditate on an image of smiling Jesus.  I purposefully think about the wonderful world that God made us.  When I get desperate, I dive into the Bible.

I should do that first.  I hate that I don’t think of it right away.

And there I go again.
******* 
In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him. Ecclesiastes 7:14 (KJV)

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.  He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.  He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession. James 1:17-18 (NLT)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Peace


“She is so annoying, Mom!” whined my son from the first floor.  He was referring to his sister.  “She pretends to be good, and she just kicked me!”

It was a typical occurrence in my house.  One small annoyance and I am dragged into it.  My involvement in every conflict is important to my children, who are burdened with the weight of almost constant mutual animosity and rivalry.

I freeze like a deer that picks up the scent of a hunter in the woods.  Maybe if I sit perfectly still, and keep my breath shallow, they will work it out and leave me alone.  Maybe I can sneak away and lock myself in the bathroom.  Maybe I can jump out the window.  It’s not that far of a drop; the shrubbery below will cushion my fall.

The fight escalates until I feel the need to insert myself; someone is going to get hurt.  I don’t want to punish them.  I want them to work it out and use one of the many tactics I have taught them to work out conflict: walk away; take deep breaths; lower your voice; compromise; change your perspective.

I find them at the beginning of a brawl.  One child is chasing the other around the kitchen.  I use my mom voice: STOP IT.

They stop, take a breath, and simultaneously launch into their version of the story.  I close my eyes and try not to lose it as they yell over each other to get their words in first.

I wish that it was the last time I had to break up a fight between my two children.  I wish I could say that something clicked in them that made them look at each other as allies instead of competitors for everything they have or want.  I wish I could say that it ended with me taking them both by the hand and showing them one of my favorite Bible verses.  I wish I could say that they STOPPED.

But none of this happened.  I dole out consequences, which for this particular infraction was time apart from each other and time spent in their rooms to cool down.  When they were little I used to make them sit on the couch and hold hands, which is the ultimate anger neutralizer: giggling always ensued after this particular punishment.  The fight was about nothing.  They were annoyed and had no better way of dealing with it than by annoying each other more. 

I see the same behavior all over the place: between my husband and I, friends arguing over petty things, road rage, work disagreements, differing political views.

There is no specific solution to each of our everyday battles.  No one situation has one pretty answer that makes everyone happy.  It’s maddening.  We all want nice, tidy resolutions, every time.  But the world is messy, and it never works out that way.  However, there is something that each of us can tap into to make the load lighter when conflict threatens us.

Peace.

Romans 12:18 says “Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible” (NLT).  Another translation reads:  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably among all men” (NKJV).  And: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV). 

I love this.  It says do your part.  May I add, be friendly.  Pray.  Accept that we are all different.  Stop annoying each other.  Stop fighting.  Live in peace with each other.  Turn the other cheek.  Take it easy.  See the other person’s perspective.  Be cool.

 
As far as it depends on you.

 
We all have a choice to live in peace with everyone.  We may have disagreements, but we don’t have to call each other names.  I may not like your behavior, but I have the choice to walk away and pray, or gently teach a better way.

And if you need a giggle, let's sit on the couch and hold hands.  It just might work.

Monday, October 22, 2012

C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N

If you don’t recognize this song, don’t worry.  I never heard it before my kids started singing it in Sunday School.   Basically, children scream out I AM A C and then gradually add the rest of the letters one at a time to the word Christian until they get to I AM A C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N, then spell/yell about having C-H-R-I-S-T in my H-E-A-R-T and that I will L-I-V-E  E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y.  It repeats over and over, ramping up in speed and volume until your head explodes. 

Obnoxious.

I am a Christian.  The title is one that I don’t announce when introducing myself to others, mainly because I find it a little weird to give a personal ad at first meeting (Hi, I’m Andrea.  I’m a Christian brunette Taurus who prefers soft jazz and spending time indoors), but also to avoid being stereotyped by a religious label, stereotyping which I fully endorsed in the past.  I used to judge people who labeled themselves “Christian” as weaklings who need a cane of righteousness to bolster themselves because of their failures.  If someone said “Jesus is my Savior,” I changed the subject.  My motto was Keep Your Religion to Yourself. 

Because of my past attitudes toward religion, I know that associating yourself with Jesus who died to save the world’s sins can cause people to view you as judgmental, elitist, the sense that you will be looking down your nose at them at any misstep or imperfection.  When I identify myself as such, I know that when some people know that I am a Christian, they may think that I silently file them under the heathen list I keep in my head.  In fact, I try not to pass judgment, because I am imperfect. 

However, we all love to label things, figuratively and literally.  I do not own a literal labeler because everything in my house would have a white label on it spelling out what it is, and no one needs that nonsense.  Labeling figuratively serves little purpose other than to put people into neat little boxes, and we are more complex than that.

So I am a Christian who at times uses immature language, eats and drinks too much, yells at my kids, is less than gracious with my husband, gossips, likes crude jokes… the list of human behavior goes on.  I’m just like everyone else.  I am a sinner.  I need Jesus in my life to heal my soul and direct my life.

When people who don’t understand what being a Christian is, they say to me, “I don’t go to church; they wouldn’t want me there” or “I’m not good enough for church” or “The church would burn to the ground if I went in.”  I say, “Well, I’m there every week, and it still seems to be standing” or “If everyone who goes to church is perfect, we wouldn’t need church.”  I don’t know if they get it.

It is my experience that we are all the same here: human.  The more you talk to and relate to others, the more you realize that we are all so similar.  Sure, some people seem “better” or “more holy” than others.  But the truth is that they aren’t.  No one measures up to the level of holiness that God is.  They sin, just like me, and just like you, and the pope, all clergy people, and even Mother Teresa.  We all need God’s grace to make us right despite our sins.

Eventually, we will be made perfect, but not on this earth, and certainly not because of anything we do or say or are while we are here.  It’s who God is and what he has done which makes us C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.

And that is not obnoxious.
 
 

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.  For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death.  The law of Moses cannot save us, because of our sinful nature.  But God put into effect a different plan to save us.  He sent his own son in a human body like ours, except that ours are sinful.  God destroyed sin’s control over us by giving his son as a sacrifice for our sins.  Romans 8: 1-3 (NLT)

 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inappropriate

It’s happened more than a few times, and I’m always afraid for it to happen again, for then it might be considered approaching a problem.  There is no resolution, except maybe maturity and controlling myself a little bit more.

I sometimes laugh uncontrollably during reverent times in church.

The first time it happened I was ten or eleven, at the funeral of a great aunt, my grandfather’s sister.  I remember my cousin and I, dressed in 80s plaid skirts and frilly blouses, hair pulled back with beaded barrettes, sitting in the pews of an old country church as the preacher recited the twenty-third Psalm. I was sure that our seriously religious family members would not approve of my mirth as I smiled through the horror – the reality that my great aunt’s coffin was right in front of me and all I could do was stifle the giggles and desperately try to avoid eye contact with my similarly affected cousin. 

It’s happened at weddings and other funerals, during church services and when I was supposed to be singing in the choir but ended up lip-synching, my nostrils flaring and face turning red.

Recently, it came on so quickly and so noticeably at church that a friend turned around in her seat and jokingly whispered that she was going to separate me and my husband, who was trying to calm me while I almost fell out of my seat laughing through my nose.  I needed tissues for the tears.  Another time my husband got in on the action, and the two of us sat in our seats with our heads down, snickering and shoulders shaking, as our pastors and prayer leaders got on their knees to pray for the afflicted, the needy, the hurting souls who populate our world and the local area our church services.

Clearly I need some lessons in church etiquette.

I’m not good at much, but I happen to be exemplary at inappropriate behavior and/or conversations.  I’ve done so many stupid things and inserted my foot into my mouth so many times that I can’t even be embarrassed about it anymore – my self-regard can’t handle it.  How one person came to be so challenged in public situations, I have no idea.

I know I’m not alone, but it is my deal, my sin, my own cross to bear.  It’s challenging because in the moment I don’t want it to end.  Laughing so hard that your stomach hurts and tears stream down your face is fun.  Some weeks life goes by so fast that the only belly laughter I get are those few minutes when all is quiet in church and I get the giggles, and I don’t want to give that up.

But the timing is not great.  I find myself thinking that maybe I’m not the best witness for Christ.  I may be keeping another person from fully experiencing and listening to the Holy Spirit speak to them in those minutes of uncontrollable hilarity.  Maybe I could better heed Paul when he said “Do not cause a brother or sister with a weaker conscience to stumble.” 1 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)

I won’t pretend to know what use God has for my inappropriateness.  Everyone and the Bible says that God uses everything for good, and I trust that he will.  Until then, if you see me doubled over in church, please try to ignore my ridiculousness and pray for me to grow up already.
 ******* 

Oh, what a wonderful God we have!  How great are his riches and wisdom and knowledge!  How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods!  For who can know what the Lord is thinking?  Who knows enough to be his counselor?  And who could ever give him so much that he would have to pay it back? For everything comes from him; everything exists by his power and is intended for his glory.  To him be glory evermore.  Amen.  Romans 11: 33-36 (NLT)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Marriage.  It’s poetic and flowery and simplistic: two people meet, fall deeply in love, pledge undying devotion to each other, and live happily ever after until they die in their sleep in each other’s elderly arms.

Hold on a minute while I dab at my eyes.  It’s just so beautiful.  But let’s be real here.

Like childbirth, which I think was orchestrated so that amnesia sets in at key moments just so the population can continue, because who would go through that kind of excruciating pain more than once in their lives if they were in their right minds to begin with, marriage is one of those life events that you have to be crazy to become involved in and blissfully ignorant of its realities.

Being married is by far the most difficult state I have ever gotten myself into.  I won’t even qualify that it’s also rewarding or that I’d never want to be anything else at this point in my life, because that goes without saying, and there.  I said it.

But it is hard.  And my husband isn’t even that difficult of a person to live with.  He definitely got the short end of the stick in this game.

It’s hard because we are all so complex, and we may have a knack for being attracted to people who are our complete opposites, which just makes it more difficult.  We try to understand each other through the filter of our own perspectives, which at times can be pretty opaque.  We want those who are close to us to align themselves perfectly with our thoughts and needs and habits, so life will flow smoothly.  It’s the quest for peace with a stipulation: why can’t we all get along (by doing things my way all of the time)?

I find myself on more than one occasion wishing that my husband would know what I am thinking, or that he would instantly know what I need at the moment I need it, or that he would stop breathing in the way that annoys me.  His inability to immediately assess and care for my needs in a manner that would totally and completely satisfy me grates my nerves to no end. 

What’s more, I don’t think expecting him to do that is asking for too much.

Obviously I’m kidding.  My husband is smart and a good man, but he’s not that smart and he’s not that good.  Marriage is difficult because we have tendencies to do things our way and to expect others to do the same.  Conflict also happens because we are different and imperfect and expectations aren’t always made perfectly clear.  Our love can’t cover all sins, and sometimes we have to love the other more than we love ourselves to manage those conflicts.

That’s what God says in the Bible.  He commands us to love him first, then love each other.  He doesn’t say to expect others to fulfill our every need.  He definitely doesn’t tell us to be annoyed when others fail to satisfy us.  God wants us to be satisfied by him only.

Further, God tells us that he knows us.  He knew us before we were born.  He knows every hair on our head.  He knows what we do, where we’ve been, where we’ll be.  He knows when we will die.  He knows what we need to hear and to learn.  He knows our heart before we can even describe it.  He knows us better than we know ourselves, and definitely better than our spouses do.

When my marriage frustrates me, I think about this.  Of course, old habits surface easily, and it might take some time while I try to take matters into my own hands before I go to God.  But when I come around and remember what God wants for my marriage and for my husband and for me, I ask for help, and God never lets me down. 

In his infinite creativity, God gives me way more solutions than I could ever come up with on my own, which admittedly aren’t much more creative than losing my mind in the form of crying or lashing out.  Sometimes I calm down and ask for the words to say in a conflict.  Sometimes I ask for a change of heart.  Sometimes I ask for a change in my husband.  It doesn’t matter what the vehicle; with any solution that comes from God, I go on, bolstered and strengthened to deal with the issues. 

Like that breathing thing.  Man, it’s annoying.  You have no idea.

They have no idea what's they're getting into.
Suckers.

Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)

What is the price of five sparrows – two copper coins?  Yet God does not forget a single one of them.  And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.  Luke 12:6-8 (NLT)

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.  Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.  Ephesians 1:11 (The Message)

House and land are handed down from parents, but a congenial spouse comes straight from God.  Proverbs 19:14 (The Message)

We don’t naturally grow together and love each other more.  We tend to grow apart, to grow distant.  So we have to work hard at marriage.  It’s the most fun work in the world, but it’s still work. –Anne Ortlund

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Good Times. Good Times.

Everybody hurts.  It’s such a cliché, a song was written about it.  We all share a common element in our lives: pain.  It’s no fun, and some of us seem to have more than others. 

Christians are taught to have faith when our world is rocked.  When a loved one dies, or we lose something dear, or we are threatened by illness, we are taught to believe that God will carry us through.  In these times, if we succeed in clinging to God’s promises and love, we find that our faith is strengthened and we grow closer to God. 

But what about when things are going just as they should, happy times and good things abounding?  When life is marked by a lack of worry, good health rules, and things go our way?  Does our faith inevitably falter or stall?  Are we less likely to grow with God by our side when things are humming merrily along - is it harder to acknowledge God’s presence?  Are we more likely to grow close to God after we've been rescued from the bottom of the pit by our Holy Savior? 

It is painful to hear about a sadness which seemingly has no good outcome.  Despair is the law of the land for some, having experienced tragedy after tragedy in their lives.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Why do some people seem to suffer over and over?  There are no answers, no resolutions to their pain.
Sometimes at the end of those sad stories are triumphs and unexplained events that right the wrongs.  These miracles could only have been done by God, Creator, Omnipotent King.  People are saved and blessed.  They move on, stronger than ever before.  They share their stories and implore others to have faith.  They quote Scripture:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV);  "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For you are with me" (Psalm 23:4, NKJV); “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1, NLT).  We rejoice with them and celebrate their victories, inspired to build our own relationships with God.
But there are also no explanations why others are not shot down with misery.  Why are they spared from tragedy?  What have I done that separates me from my neighbor’s trouble?  On the outside we look the same.  There is no reason why my life appears to be untouched while my friend always seems to struggle. 

The reality is that we do not get to know why some people seem to have more troubles than others.  In addition, we don’t always know what others are dealing with in their lives.  A seemingly charmed person’s struggle may be no big deal for me, though it knocks her to the ground on a daily basis.  Or maybe it is that he has had his share of pain and has suffered silently for years, and is now learning to trust God.  Or maybe a person really has been spared tragedy and is walking daily with the Lord, growing closer to him every day.   The reality is that none of these scenarios are more or less important to God.  Even though we might weight a sad story more for its dramatic value, the relationship is what God wants, no matter what we’ve been through. 

I think it is possible to grow closer to God in the absence of misery.  I know some people who have been doing it for years, and they have taught me that God is worthy of our most extravagant praise, no matter what.

Give thanks to God—he is good and his love never quits.  Say, "Save us, Savior God, round us up and get us out of these godless places, so we can give thanks to your holy name, and bask in your life of praise."  Blessed be God, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.  Then everybody said , "Yes!  Amen!" and "Praise God!"  1 Chronicles 16:34-36 (MSG) 

Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.  Psalm 106:1 (NLT) 

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.  Isaiah 12:5 (NIV) 

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.  Ephesians 1:3 (NLT)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

No Exclusions

One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling of being left out of something important.

The other night my daughter had dance class after school.  When she came home, I fixed her something to eat  and we talked.  Between bites, she described new dance moves she was learning and that she liked her classes.   At once she rattled off a list of classes that a couple of her dance friends are taking.  They were in addition to the ones that my daughter is taking.

Because she really isn’t a kid who looks around to see what everyone else has, and because I can’t ever leave well enough alone, I asked her some questions about her friends’ other classes, including what they were learning, when the classes met, how the subject came up, and the last and most important question, how did that make her feel?

She hesitated and softly said, “I feel like I wish I could take those classes too, but I guess I can’t.”

I knew where she was coming from.  She adores these girls, and wants to be the same as them.  Up to now it hasn’t made too much of a difference to my daughter that she is different than other kids; we don’t celebrate our differences too loudly, because frankly, we are not really that much different from people around us.  But I get what she’s saying.  Sometimes, you just want to do what your friends are doing.  Sometimes, you just want to belong.

I wish that this was a feeling that we grew out of.  I wish that I could tell my daughter that someday she won’t ever feel left out, that those pangs of loneliness and wanting to fit in would go away forever.  They may not come on as strong and may fade more quickly, but as an adult I still get those feelings, and they aren’t too much fun.

In those difficult moments, like any other, I have learned to think about Christ and what he might be thinking about this situation.  I imagine Jesus shaking his bearded head at me, tsk-tsking, “Andrea, really.  You fit in.  You’re in my family.  My father chose you.  You belong to me.”

Maybe the details of my vision are incorrect, but the words are comforting because they are true.  We all fit in God’s family.  There are no exclusions, and it doesn’t matter what we look like, or how many friends we have, or what kinds of dance classes we take.  All we need is to accept God’s gift of Christ, and we belong.
 *******

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. John 1:12-13 (NLT)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Choices

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is helping your kids choose how to fill their time.

Just reading that sentence reminds me how over-involved we parents are in our children’s choices.

Anyway, there are so many activities for kids to do today.  Gone are the days of doing homework and then jumping on a bike and riding around the neighborhood after school, or *gasp* being expected to entertain themselves or *gasp gasp* actually doing chores and helping out around the house.

Today, swimming lessons start at birth, they enter preschool at two years old, soccer starts at 3, and there’s Gymboree and KinderMusik and Mommy and Me yoga, exercise, and infinite variations of playgroups, all offered before they even start regular school.

My kids, by kindergarten, had done organized swimming, karate, dance, soccer and tee ball.

Now they are onto instrument lessons, basketball, baseball, golf, dance, and academic groups like reading competitions and enrichment classes.   Plus homework and extra credit, suggested at-home reading, church activities, and time with family and friends. 

All that and school seven hours a day, five days a week.

The number of choices is overwhelming.  I have a low threshold for a cluttered life, so I tend to get the crazies when we have too much going on.  I have passed this trait onto our kids.  They melt down when there’s too little free time.  At that point we all take a step back to see what is important and vital and what can be let go.  We try to  keep some time open to relax, and maybe even to complete some work that we’ve let slide. 

I am not raising Olympic athletes or billionaire software developers; I am raising children.  My job as a parent is not to fill up my children’s lives with every activity offered; I need to teach and encourage them to choose wisely and do their best at whatever they choose.  Sometimes I do better at this than other times.  I try not to compete with other parents on whose children do more activities.  I believe that if we teach our children to plan every minute of every day, they will miss living the lives that God intends for them.  If they don’t learn how to stop living for themselves, they may miss why they are here in the first place.

I hope they realize this as they mature.  For now, trusting that I am guiding them down God’s intended path for them is enough; I know that he will take care of the rest.
 
 
 

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!  You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the Lord, you will live long in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)