Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to Avoid Being Enslaved by Gift Giving

No matter how much we may romanticize about the simplicity of life in the past, for those first Americans moving westward across the plains, life out on the prairie was not at all an easy life to be coveted, especially in the winter.

Bone-chilling months spent in mud-chinked cabins stretching meager rations around a never warm enough wood stove? No snow plow to clear the roads for a horse ride through a blizzard to find help?

No. I'm not willing to transport myself back in time, leave behind the modern creature comforts of indoor plumbing, central heat, and food more plentiful than any generation before has seen.

But one thing I would like to keep from that by-gone era is their way of celebrating Christmas, the simplicity of it all compared to the mad sprint to New Year's that Americans seem to love and hate all at the same time.

The part of Laura Ingalls' Christmas I'd most like to transport into the twenty-first century is their concept of gifts. Ma and Pa didn't have much extra money, so most of the gifts were not store bought. In fact, the most treasured gifts came from the heart, from someone's investing time in another by hand crafting a gift.

I've often wondered what would happen if we just said no to the gift-giving madness at Christmas, the kind of madness where you make a list, check it twice, and then buy something, anything, just for the sake of not hurting someone's feelings.

My friend only tonight asked what I wanted for Christmas, but I don't want or need anything, not really. What I would love, though, is time with her, something we don't usually have because of raising two families a road hour apart.

Although I have yet to convince my entire family that a gift of time is what I really want to give and receive, I'm trying to break down their preconceived notions of Christmas by giving gifts that I invest myself in.

Last week, my children received part of their Christmas gift, simple crocheted hats that I made from a pattern by designer Elizabeth Alan who has adorable, easy patterns for sizes newborn through toddler (you'll be seeing more of her here!). Even if you're not a fantastic crocheter, her patterns are simple, include pictures for those "huh?" moments, and have helpful YouTube videos.While her pattern technically was intended to be this precious little holly leaf beanie for 3T and under, I have boys...dirt-pile, earth-mover, tree-climbing boys. Ribbons don't exactly fit the bill around here. After adding three stitches increase to make her pattern big enough for my five year old son, I created eyes and a beak, then called the braids "wings." Voila...birds.I thought I would add a flower on my daughter's hat, but no. Amelia wanted to be a bird, too. The mistake I made was in letting her wear the hat before I had added the eyes and beak. When she saw herself in the mirror, she had an absolute show-stopping meltdown in a public bathroom. When my mother could finally understand Amelia through the tears, her only words were, "Not a bird!!! Not a bird!!!"

Three precious little sparrows. (Or a bluebird, purple finch, and peacock if you ask them.)

Even if you don't know a crochet hook from a cake tester, maybe you could give the gift of your time in some other way. Perhaps it is offering to help with a project around the house that you've been ignoring, offering to spend the day with someone or maybe just do lunch. Or perhaps you could show your love by giving a homemade baked goodie, maybe these heart-shaped Christmas cakes like the ones Ma Ingalls put in stockings for her girls.

Whatever you choose. Choose to invest yourself in your friends, your family, your gifts this Christmas. Don't let gifts be a "just because" thing.

Let our heavenly Father be the example. For His Christmas gift to us, He invested Himself wholeheartedly, giving His only son, a Savior in a lowly manger.

(While there's something probably better out there, I'd be happy to send anyone my pattern for the eyes and beak if you're interested.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Canceling Thanksgiving…Twice

I had already said “no” to this trip.

Too soon after our last driving trip to D.C. Too close to the end of the semester. Too exhausting to live two full days in a metal box.

I hadn’t questioned my decision, not once. My only problem was feeling a bit sentimental over lost Thanksgiving traditions from years gone by. Still, I cured that by just cancelling the holiday. My children and I tucked autumn away in boxes and fast forwarded the house to Christmas with all its sparkly decorations and festive atmosphere.

Then everything changed. A week before my parents were to leave for Michigan, they asked to take my oldest son to visit Grandma Della. And at almost five, I knew Wyatt would do fine. It was Wyatt's mother I was worried about.

By Wednesday night, I still hadn’t made up my mind and asked my husband to decide. No pondering, no agonizing—just a simple “yes.” (Obviously, he lacks the maternal gene.) For some reason, he asked, “Have you thought about going?”

I prayed about it.

By Thursday afternoon, the big red suitcase was packed with enough clothes for three children and me, and we woke before sunrise on Saturday to drive northward to a Grandma who might just outlive us all.

My belief that God said “yes” to me going with my son was confirmed when Saturday night, Wyatt came down with a short-lived stomach flu. Miles away, my church family prayed, and he was almost instantly better, eating a full meal just a few hours later.

Three days, we enjoyed visiting with Grandma. My daddy loved his mother. Wyatt climbed the chestnut tree. Amelia was enamored with the cozy fireplace. And Emerson fell in love with the five ever-whistling, squawking birds in cages just like his favorite pet store.

At the end of day three before bedtime, the rest of us caught the stomach flu. Whether God just delayed the bug’s usual 48 hour incubation period or whether we caught it from somewhere else on the trip up, I’ll never know. But I truly believe when we prayed, God stopped that initial illness in its tracks only to allow us to catch it later so we could finish our 1100 mile drive.

Today, with everyone well but not really prepared to be stuffed with a weighty meal of turkey and dressing, my Thanksgiving was cancelled a second time. So, we said our goodbyes a day early and started for home.

This wasn’t the Thanksgiving I intended...not even the Thanksgiving I’d “not” not planned. But for a chance to see family, I am always thankful.

Photo: Seed-flown milkweed pods in Grandma's lower garden.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tattered Wings for the Harvest

This year's harvest was bountiful. Our freezer is stocked full of the blessings, others' freezers, too, enjoying the fruits of God's supply.

The tomato vines in the garden have long since been plowed under, black soil turned over to the light, making way for the lettuces, carrots, kale, and strawberry plants.

Though long ago gone to seed, this year's basil crop still greets me each time I open the door. The late summer heat sent my basil plants soaring until they looked more like small shrubs than dainty herbs for making a dish come alive. More the once, the plant's pungent aroma overpowered our senses, densely filling the kitchen as we gathered it in mounds on trays of plenty.

I have pulled up a few of the miniature trees that were crowding the rosemary and thyme, but even though they're not really lovely in their present flowering state, I just haven't brought myself to rid my herb bed of them all. Yes, the first freeze is coming, overnight death for this warm weather plant.

But until then? These few "has been" plants are grand central station for all flying six legged creatures, trying to store up just a little more nectar, make a little more honey to help them survive the barren days ahead.Time is precious as the crew competes for the remaining flowers. Each creature is in perpetual, exhausting motion, face and legs frantic burrowing amongst the petals or wings carrying bodies aflight to the next course.

Where did they all come from? The children and I have spent an entire summer and early fall out of doors, and at no time did we share the land with this many neighbors--the fritillary, painted lady, checkered skipper, and buckeye butterflies; black quarter-sized bumble bees; the slender honey bees; and another few varieties I can't quite identify (a hairstreak? a blue?).

Somehow they know the coming season.

I take a step to get a closer look at one of the larger buckeye butterflies. With my movement, the bushes take wing, air filling with dozens of frightened patterned stripes and spots who swirl and swoop before going back to their intense labor.It's not hard to notice that these butterflies don't share the perfect beauty of the ones who frequented my roses in early summer. They are road-weary, colors faded in places where microscopic-sized scales have been brushed away. Each's wings are tattered, war wounds from battles won against hungry birds.

It is a somber thought to think I am looking at the ones who have overcome. These are the survivors.

This. Just this. This is what I want to be.

I want to run my race well, fight the good fight. Get too many wrinkles and lines from smiling too broadly, laughing too much, crying in real hurt with a friend. I want to put my heart out there to love, love, love as Christ loves, even though I know that loving means someone's going to take a big bite out of it and leave me with an ugly, broken, tattered heart...but one my Savior only sees as beautiful.

I want to live like these creatures before me with kind of energized passion, an intensity for His harvest.

The seeding, planting, watering, and harvest are almost over. We must be diligent. Winter is coming soon.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves" (Lk. 10:2-3).

"And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Through the Looking Glass--a World with No Christ

Is Christianity no longer relevant? New Atheist Christopher Hitchens thinks so. His and other new atheists' stance that religion is at the root of all the world's ills begs a very serious question--what would the world look like without "deluded" Christians who still believe in the person of Jesus? Who believe in the God of grace, mercy, and judgment?

This is the question historian and Christian apologist Larry Alex Taunton poses in The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief. In a friendly round table debate at a local diner among Taunton, Hitchens, and Oxford Math Professor John Lennox, Hitchens asks, "What does Christianity give us now?...Yes, it has given us science and universities. Yes, it has given us great art and literature. But that was a long time ago, and we can get along very well without it" (12).

It is here where the author initially wonders what society would look like without "common grace...the idea that when there is a significant Christian presence in a given society, it brings tangible benefits not just to the Christian, but to the society as a whole" (10-11).

The remainder of the novel takes the reader through the looking glass to the world of the former European Bloc where atheistic unbelief enforced on an entire society from the top down has resulted in, literally, a world without Christianity...a world without the concept of "hope" and "common grace."

A combination of autobiography and history of socialism/communism in that area of the globe, Taunton takes the reader through his family's personal quest to adopt a ten year old girl, Sasha, from a Ukranian orphanage. One critic has said this is a "must read for anyone pondering adoption from the former Eastern European Bloc." I'd say that is an fair statement, as Taunton details the frustrations that await those seeking to maneuver through the labyrinth of government corruption in a country seemingly devoid of Christian morals.

While I found myself skimming through the yawn-worthy history chapters of how socialism destroyed a society with its rejection of belief, Christian morality, and grace, the bulk of the book gripped me with the personal story of one little Ukranian orphan girl's first glimpse of Christian grace.

The struggles Taunton presents may make a reader ask why anyone would put themselves through the chaos of even trying to adopt from former Russia. Yet, the answer becomes obvious when reviewing the Russian Interior Ministry's own data, which show that "30 percent [of orphanage 'graduates'] will enter a life of crime, 40 percent will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, 60 percent of girls will become prostitutes, and 10 percent of these children will commit suicide." Of those who with severe disabilities who don't "graduate"? "In Ukraine, 30 percent...will be dead by the age of eighteen." (99-100).

Does Christianity make a difference? Definitely. As Taunton summarizes, "common grace does much more than negate the evil impulses of mankind; it is a positive force for good. As one experiences grace in his own life, he extends grace to others. Through the inward transformation of the individual, there is a corresponding outward transformation of society...the 'grace effect'" (22).

Christianity's common grace is strong enough to reach around the globe and provide the healing power of God's grace, one individual at a time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Guilt of Being An Inadequate Parent

Some people spend their lives in knots of worry. Me? I feel guilty. All the time. And then I feel guilty about feeling guilty. It's a vicious cycle, an almost daily soul-wrestling for almost five years now.

It all started when I took on the title “mother” and a baby boy was given to this untried woman to raise (what was God thinking!?). Oldest son wasn't but a few weeks old when the guilt kicked in. Guilt when I screamed in his little face to STOP, STOP, STOP the hours of night time colic crying when I should have whispered calm words that didn’t work either but that would have been more motherly. Guilt when I learned part of his crying was because I had made him go hungry the first month of his life, all because no one told me my medical condition would likely make me not produce enough milk.

Somehow after all my screw-ups with the one, God gave me two more. Now as a stay at home mom of three toddlers, I still feel those pangs of guilt, only now triple-fold, for telling a little face "No, I can't do that right now" because…, for choosing cooking/cleaning/washing over playing/reading/rocking, for typing an email or taking a student's phone call.

Even when I drop everything and give the little ones my full attention, go on nature walks, push swings, sing nursery rhymes, dance in the kitchen, and read books to them, those feelings of guilt still well up like an underwater volcano. This time, it's because I didn't read them enough books. I didn't color long enough. I forgot to do the ABC puzzle with the twins. I didn't provide enough structured learning time for my oldest. I didn't go over the books of the Bible again today.

Last week, the sense of my worthlessness as a mother was so overwhelming, I called my husband and spilled over with liquid guilt that I wasn't preparing my children well enough to survive in kindergarten, that I was cocooning them too much in an unstructured environment of independent playful inquiry versus a rigid inside-the-box mentality necessary for survival in this world where learning is judged by how well you fill in a bubble, by whether your letters stay between the lines.

Then Saturday, Wyatt came to me, leaping, radiant with excitement. “Get the caterpillar book!” he screamed. And so we tromped out to the swamp to identify a plump hawk moth ready to cocoon for the winter. Later, I watched as he and Emerson built a wild animal “trap” with every yard object light enough to carry or drag to the playground.

This morning, I listened to Emerson mumble prayers along with me on our prayer walk. I overheard Wyatt sounding out words in a book I had read to him earlier in the week. I caught Amelia telling her kitty, “Shh. Shh. It’s okay. Mommy’s here.” This evening, I even strapped roller skates on my 34-year-old feet and gave my three a lesson in how not to fall down.

My children may not be the quietest or stillest. They may never be the best at taking tests, the fastest at learning a new concept. They may have difficulty using inside voices and learning to walk versus bounce. But their compassion for each other overflows even when mommy isn’t watching. Their creativity, imagination is wide and deep.

Besides, how can I expect them to fit the mold when I don't. To be social butterflies when I have to work hard at not being a recluse. To be normal when everything I am shouts different? To focus on the cares of this world when my passion for Jesus defines my every action and marginalizes me as a freak, a radical?

This living in the uber-competitive world but not of this world--it's tough. This "different" mother is not sure how to navigate my children through it, to seek my God's definition of success and not be at all concerned about the world's version, wondering if the two versions must necessarily go in opposite directions or if their paths can cross, even parallel.

It's a question that keeps me knocking on His door at all hours of the day and night.

Photo: Mommy letting Wyatt be Wyatt--pink wig, sword, and all.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Growing More Imperfect

It's dusk when I finally leave the eye doctor's office, the children asleep before I exit the city limits and aim the van due north towards home.

Praise music plays in the background, a slight mist on my windshield to warn of blessed storms moving in for the night. This is the quietest moment I've had all day, but I don't really hear the words I know by heart. Instead, the words glorifying "Jesus" are overpowered by the scrawny young doctor's smile and his rapid-fire chair-side manner probably the result more of his tardiness than nervousness.

"So, have you noticed a change in your distance vision?"

Uh...not until you dilated my eyes so I can't even tell time on my watch if I wanted to. I'm the one who still stands across the room and reads the scrolling news at the bottom of the TV screen. Really? Me?

My confusion is evident.

"It's just two clicks," he reassures, pointing to the machine that looks more like some medieval torture device than something used for good, to perfect my no longer perfect vision. "I'm going to give you the prescription, but it's optional. Maybe for when you drive at night."

Then, he drives his positive message home: "You're just one step away from perfect."

I can't help but laughing out loud. If only he knew how many steps away from perfect I really am. It seems my vision might be finally starting to catch up with who I really am, the windows to my soul finally coming to grips with my sinfulness and taking a step back from the holy bar of perfection it knows it has no legal claim to.

I continue my path towards home, this twinge of my mortality weighing heavy in my running conversation with God. What else is there to do in traffic with sleeping children but pray?

My pupils the size of peanut M&Ms, every headlight looks like the star over Bethlehem with their icicle-like points radiating outward, each traffic signal aglow with red and green halos. "Why my distance vision, God? If anything, I'd expect my close up vision to deteriorate with age. Not this."

I remember husband's eyes improving over the past year; eyes are always changing shape. I haven't been to the eye doctor since I was ten. Perhaps this is just another one of those lurking post-twin-pregnancy changes like going up another shoe size.

The dialogue continues. I give voice to the fears this simple diagnosis reveals lurking in my heart. And He responds, reminding me that sight is not merely of the eyes. Although I have to look up the verses later to see them in their entirety, He speaks the Words of Jeremiah over me, saying, "Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, Who have eyes but do not see" (v.21), the Words of Jesus saying of the masses that "while seeing they do not see" (Matt. 13:13).

There is peace in the reminder that sometimes the blind are the ones who see best, that physical sight imperfections such as this are easily remedied and temporal. It's the soul sight that is a miracle and of eternal value.

As I finally take off the sun glasses, I do smile at the irony in all this. Over the past seven years of in-depth Bible study, my soul's distance vision has only grown more perfect. With each passing season, I glean a less cloudy picture of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The old hymn speaks wisdom here.

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace."

The important thing is not that my distance vision is no longer perfect, but that my soul's distance vision continues shifting its sight from this dim world that is fading fast to what awaits for me beyond.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

When Hearing God's Voice is Foolishness

The world can make you feel like a fool. It's not unexpected, what with Christ's economy turning everything on its head--the last becoming first, weakness becoming strength, slavery to Him becoming freedom, going down in submission becoming the way up.

It's the unexpected dismissals from other Christians that make me pull the covers up over my head in defeat, feel like the fool the world already tells me that I am.

Cluck your tongue in a what-did-she-expect tone; shake your head in disbelief. No, I still haven't learned.

I'm still foolish enough to believe one person can make a difference. Still foolish enough to believe if God reveals to me a vision that I can rally fellow soldiers to action, that others will be convicted as well if only I will offer up myself in sacrifice to do my part.

I'm still foolish enough to believe I was saved by grace not to warm a pew and merely enjoy the fruits of warm fellowship but to serve Him with my everything, even if that everything takes me into the ripe fields of labor and away from the comfort of fellowship.

Foolish. Me.

Sure, my rational mind tries to wave its hands to disperse the gloom, to say it's really not foolishness, that the only other option is to have a heart seared and unresponsive to God. But my hurt heart speaks otherwise.

* * *

This morning began with the trumpet blast of my alarm piercing through the lulling background rhythm of gentle rain dripping from the eaves. My heart fell in disappointment. There would be no prayer walking this morning.

Bleary eyed and yesterday evening's discouragement swallowing me again, I spoke aloud in sighs. "I'm thankful for the rain, Father. Please know I'm thankful. I just really needed this time with you today."

The cloudy darkness wasn't just outside. It quilted my head and shoulders, heavier than the fleece blanket I pulled back over my head. God had sent the rain at this exact time, knowing my prayers for others would have been out of obedience only and of a divided heart that was not focused solely on the salvation of my neighbors. He's wise like that and just took me out of the equation.

Here on this blog, I might have seemed a bit distant lately, but it's not because God and I have been having a long distance relationship. For the past several months, my heart has been heavy over three major decisions, the kind of agonizing choices that consume my thoughts from sunup to sundown, that lead me to seek His will in earnest because I want to do what He wants, not what I want.

I don't want to screw up when I only get one shot at this life.

In only one area of the three did I feel He was providing a clear answer. Others came to me unprompted, reiterating concerns God had already lay on my heart. It got to where it seemed God had lined up an entire parade of gentle and not-so-gentle nudges, all just for me as a reminder I had heard His voice correctly and that He wasn't going to let this go until I made a move to obey.

I've prayed about it, waiting patiently, and seeking to put into practice what I've learned from the prophet Nehemiah who waited four months from the time God put a mission on his heart to when he first had the opportunity to share that mission with the king. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he waited some more, surveying the situation before speaking it aloud to enlist help.

The mission God gave him was miraculously fulfilled in 52 days because others believed in it, too, and literally put their necks on the line to fulfill it. Perhaps my discouragement is that I foolishly expected a smooth path, a quick path, for my vision to be as contagious as was Nehemiah's instead of it being stuck on the back burner for another nine months like in politics when something is sent to "committee" so it can wither and die there.

This is why Christians don't bother in the first place. This is why Christians church hop.

Both are wrong responses, I'm certain. But in this moment, I do understand these reactions. They're easier than silently sitting by in frustration when you can't just do it all yourself, when you know that you know that you know God spoke to you but aren't the Holy Spirit to convict others' souls towards action.

I can't give you a well-considered, insightful conclusion to leave you tapping your chin.

I just don't know the answer.

And so I sit, pray, and wait again.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I am afraid of Amerika...They will rape me

I am reminded of the rather odd librarian I grew up with, the one who seemed to know about every book on the five foot tall shelves that divided the closet-sized room in half and lined the walls from floor to ceiling. With her prompting, I read more missionary biographies than I would have otherwise chosen--those about Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, William Carey, David Livingstone.

These biographies, though, seemed to be more dead words on wood pulp than a real life captured in print. There was so much first person insight missing that I wanted to know, the little details that turned a two dimensional paper doll into a living, breathing human with flaws and failures. I wondered about the person's struggles with faith, with difficulty, with not making a huge difference within their lifetime. Sure, these names are set on pedestals now, but not back then when the person answered to it.

* * *

As you might imagine, I don't read many page turners. Most sentences that cross my desk are either written by green college freshmen struggling to communicate clearly in non-texting English or by serious, soul-searching PhDs that send me Scripture-scampering to contemplate theology in practical application.

And yet, I've spent the past week with two such page-turners on my night stand, their glossy covers tempting me to sacrifice sleep and devour their as of yet unknown wisdom.

Audra Grace Shelby's Behind the Veils of Yemen: How an American Woman Risked Her Life, Family and Faith to Bring Jesus to Muslim Women is an account of an average family who stuffed everything into a crate and moved to the conservative Islamic country of Yemen to be missionaries.

Shelby describes her family's struggle with health issues, with family who thought they were crazy, a foreign language, loneliness, Yemen men's treatment of females, and the inability to break through barriers the Islamic community keeps in place between foreign "infidels" and themselves. As she says of one woman she became guarded friends with, "She wanted my prayers, my strength and my hope, but she wanted to get them her way" (163).

Unlike some of the biographies of my childhood, Shelby's text gives the living breath of autobiography. She's a living testament who shares honestly, sincerely, those personal struggles with her own wavering faith in Christ, a concept I tend to forget when I hear the almost hallowed term "missionary."

Shelby shows the power of prayer, the difficulties of giving people to God when all you've done is planted seeds that seem to fall on hard earth, and most of all, how even being in the center of God's will does not exempt Christians from experiencing difficulties that try our faith.

More than anything, Shelby's book is a call for other Christians to pick up the gauntlet and search their own souls for whether God would have them serve in any way within oppressive Islamic countries like Yemen. She directly addresses the fear Western Christians have about working in such countries, describing a scene where she told her Yemeni friend she should visit America:

"'Oh no!' Amal's eyes grew wide. 'I am afraid of Amerika. They will rob me on the street or shoot me there!' Her voice trailed to a whisper. 'They will rape me...My friend tells me. She watches the news from Amrika on the television. Every day there are killings and robberies and raping of women!'"...
"I paused and cleared my throat. 'Amal, do you know that my friends are afraid to come to Yemen?'
She was astonished. 'But why?' she asked.
'They are afraid they will be killed by terrorists.'
"Oh! But we are not like that, Audra. Only a few!' she exclaimed.
I smiled. 'Aywa [Yes]. And Amrika is not like all the bad news you hear. Only a few.'" (213)

It makes me wonder what joy Satan gets from spreads the contagion of fear across the airways, fear that binds Christians, keeping them from sharing the gospel on hard soil that needs someone to help till it.

**For my review, I receive no compensation from Bethany House Publishers other than a complementary copy of the text.