Thursday, April 26, 2012

Stepping Aside: How to Not Hoard the Blessing

There is a big push among the younger generations of Christians to get out of the nest, leave the comfort of a life where everything has its place to follow the uncertain, dusty road of pilgrimage, service, and sacrifice.

Over the past few years, books such as David Platt's Radical, Francis Chan's Crazy Love, and Katie Davis' Kisses From Katie have encouraged American Christians to abandon the secure life and take up the cross daily by intentionally engaging with God to impact His world.

These are lessons I have taken to heart but haven't merely left there.  Instead, for the past year, I have been seeking to sacrifice more of myself in practice through weekly ministry.But what do you do when God says step aside? And what's more, what if you don't really want to?

It was January of this year when I felt God's call to join with a sister church in teaching English as a second language to a group of Burmese refugees.  By March, I was madly in love with the group people I saw for two hours each week, those men, women, and children from Mexico, Yemen, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.

Teaching English to non-native speakers is not something I have ever been trained to do.  It's still not something I would say I  know how to do.  Each week before class, I felt totally incapable.

Yet, standing in front of the group, I would literally feel the Spirit empower me, an indwelling of strength and confidence that I had never before experienced in other ministries.  I finally understood Paul's statement about being naturally unskilled in speech but fully capable through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 11:6). In my inability came His ability.

One evening after an hour-long drive back home, I told husband I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life.  Towards the end of the first 8-week semester, I fully planned to just keep teaching.

Then, through a series of God-incidences, it became clear that I was to take off the next 8-weeks.  When new sisters and brothers in Christ stepped up to fill my role as teacher, I joined in helping them plan "what next," but did as I felt God was asking me to do and stepped aside.

Standing before the now-precious names and faces that last Thursday night in early April, I felt chest-pain grief at leaving, knowing that with immigrants' transient nature, I may never see any of them again.  The night ended with me kneeling to give a dark-skinned Cabbage Patch doll to a little girl I had grown to love like my own daughter.  Her smile lit up the night.

On Tuesday, classes started up again, this time without me as teacher.

I awoke early Wednesday morning to a note in my inbox telling me
how class had gone, who returned, how happy the students were to be back, and a surprise--another sister in Christ had come with one of the women I had drawn into the ministry with me.  And now, this new woman was as starry-eyed as we all have been, immediately hooked.

In that moment, I saw confirmation of why God had asked me to step back for the moment.  While I love to serve my God and to feel the blessings rain down on me as a gift for my obedient service, I am learning that holding too tightly to what I could easily label as "my job" would deny others the blessing they would receive in a chance to minister, too.

A ministry cannot be about me and you.  It cannot exist solely because of me and you.  True ministry seeks to deny self by involving others, submitting to glorify God versus glorifying self.

Had I not taken a turn on the sidelines, my disobedience would have denied others the blessing, would  have taken away someone else's opportunity to show her love for Christ in sacrifice. 

To serve Him in action is beautiful and much needed.  But, to serve Him by stepping aside is just as meaningful to a kingdom where all must work together for the glory of God.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learning & Worship: Beyond Physical Walls

That's a pleased look on his face.  Monday morning was kindergarten registration for my oldest son.

Wyatt skipped happily up the walk alongside this apprehensive but prepared mother.  While I have continued to feel burdened over making the right choices for his future, even sickeningly overwhelmed at my uncertainty at times, he is at least confident that finally, his time to be a big boy has arrived.

The biggest surprise that added even more bounce in his always light step was when he read the hand painted sign over the door directly down the hall from the welcome desk.  "Mommy!  Look!  They have a library!"  In a household where reading books is prized over most any other activity, this was the equivalent of finding an extra pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

Ask Wyatt, and he'll tell you he's been waiting "forever" to go to school, or at least since he turned four.  Ask Amelia and Emerson, and they'll tell you they're on that forever waiting list, too.  I've tried to make them understand that they have been attending school with me as their teacher, but they still don't believe me.  In their eyes, school is the brick and mortar structure they long to visit each time we pass by.

This mental block is one I continue to personally strive to overcome and one I am seeking to remove from my children's heads, too.

"School" and "learning" are not bound by walls.  To be a lifelong learner in search of wisdom, a person must get past these man-made restrictions on who is to learn and where learning is to take place.

The same is true of the words "church" and "worship."  These cannot be bound by walls, either.  Leaving worship and learning confined at a certain street address leaves too much of life untouched, unexposed to truth, wisdom, and knowledge.

For true, lifelong learning, for true, intimate worship--both must occur outside the physical structures labelled "school" and "church" and be woven into the very fabric of daily living.

Structure does have its place, but learning and worship must be both structured and spontaneous, just as precious and worthwhile if they happen in a corner grocery store as if they happen in a million dollar building.

If we can convince our generation and the next to tear down these mental walls that mark the beginning and end of learning each "school  year," the beginning and end of worship each Lord's day--then maybe we can begin living the truth as awe-struck seekers, as it was meant to be lived--fluid, never ending, encompassing all.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Without Lifting a Finger

All winter long, the flurry of cardinal, blue jay, and yellow finch sent sunflower seeds pouring over the side of the rough-hewn bird feeder my dad made out of scrap lumber and screwed atop a landscape timber before sinking it in the red clay. 

I'd watch the congregation assemble each morning for breakfast, the smaller birds cycling in and out, one by one as they fought over the limited turf to plant their tiny three-pronged feet.  Each time a larger cardinal would come in for a landing, the smaller sparrows or finches would scatter all at once, seed flying amidst wings as they fled a creature merely because of its size. 

As the cardinal feasted, slowly, the smaller birds would return, join again in the meal alongside the bird twice their size, until he decided to fly away, again sending panic through the entire flock.  Only the doves on the ground below remained, their solemn pearl grey feathers unfluttered by the traffic overhead as they dug through the refuse to find the unopened fruit.

This scene played outside my kitchen window each morning and late afternoon like a video set on a loop.  Only the bravest (or stupidest) darted in for a quick meal on the run during the height of the day, the most inquisitive venturing out of the forest when those hidden in the treetops would spread bird gossip that I had just been spotted with a full Cool Whip container brimming with black oil seeds.  

Over the past few months, the early spring rains have turned the seeds at the foot of the feeder into a solid mass of black.  As always happens, a few took root.  As doesn't always happen, I never quite got around to weeding the flower bed and tossing aside the small plants. 

Life, raising children gets in the way of perfection.  But, it seems that sometimes, doing less is more.

This entire week, I have awakened each morning to a new scene outside my window--a cluster of yellow sunflowers tipping their faces in breathless anticipation as the sun rises above the trees. 

About the height of my preschoolers, they will never tower above my head, will never equal the majestic beauty of the dinner-plate variety the squirrels dug out of the earth and feasted on the last time I planted them.  Some have faces the size of dessert plates, some the size of silver dollars.
And yet the children and I have been giddy with delight over their unexpected presence.

Each time I see them, I can't help but think of how I did nothing for this blessing.  I did not plant, did not water, and likely will not harvest.  I simply have been blessed with being able to watch their heads follow the sun throughout each day, their leaves curl and droop in rest after each moon's rise.

Many times, it's these blessings--the ones that I can take absolutely no credit for--they're the ones that grip me the most, make me most humble and thankful. 

I point out the window and can say nothing but "God gave us this."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Finding Joy in the Valley

I know it's only a calm between the storms, from one fever's spike meltdown to the next.

But in that calm, we choose joy. It's what we as Easter people are called to do, rise above the temporary trials and tribulations that bend us low and, instead, reach up to claim the joy that is to be found if only we first seek it.

Clammy bodies break the huddle of multiple blankets and escape into the free to catch the last few rays of sunshine at day's end. Somber echoes of tears and tissue noses are replaced with the musical high-pitched lilt of children's giggles and happy laughter.

In the cool of evening, the three that just a half hour before sought to layer all their bodies atop mine miraculously pull energy from some invisible reserve. With it, they run after air-filled glycerin orbs that rise and fall on the breeze.

It's just dish washing soap. But carried aloft on invisible currents, it's so much more. It is a chance for joy. Yes, joy in the simplicity of soap.

They leap, chase, dance after bubbles with faces stretched tight and arms held high.

And when daddy steps into the fray, joins our foursome, oh how much brighter the joy.Later, Amelia sees the photos on the computer screen and recognizes the same peculiarity that made me grab my camera in the first place.

"Look!" she says again and again, "I'm smiling. Emerson is smiling. We're happy, mommy."In a rough week of illness and likely another rough night ahead, I need to hold this moment, to remember that this is what is on either side of the valley He has me walking through.

I rub my hand on her slender shoulder and respond as I always do. "Of course we are happy. We're a family."

Unprompted, she repeats the memorized conclusion to my mini-lecture.

"And families love each other."

Yes, we do. In sickness and in health.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Invasive Surgery: Separating Church & State

If I were to ask you what comes to your mind when you think of Washington D.C., what would you say?

The White House. Politicians. History. Overspending. Division. Patriotism. Marble monuments. Dinosaurs. Cherry Blossoms.

On the one hand, the area symbolizes all that has made our nation throughout history, all the best of pomp and circumstance in formalized ceremony and tradition. On the other, it also symbolizes blue and red states bickering my tax dollars away, Senators being tripped up in affairs, and bills weighted down with costly, wasteful pet side-projects just to push through the vote.

Yet, in these thoughts, both reminiscent and cynical, never does God enter the picture. I simply don't think "God" when I think of our nation's capitol.

If anything, I think of the national map's largest yellow star as God"less," a place that intentionally walls-out God in its insistence that separation of church and state means God-silence, God-invisibility, a check-your-God-at-the-door type mentality.

As if taking a scalpel and surgically separating the secular from the sacred is a thing possible.

It's like that 2003 movie Stuck on You about conjoined twins. When one twin wants to be an actor, the producers work to keep the other twin always out of the camera frame or use a blue screen so the computer can literally paint him out of the picture. But even with all this maneuvering, even when it appears that one is separate from the other, the two men are still conjoined.
The same is true of our nation's capitol. Try as they might to pretend God is not there, He is.

On my trip last month to D.C., I found God in the most unexpected of places--the interior of a cold, stone memorial. In the midst of hushed chatter that bordered on almost reverence, the sacred and secular came crashing together.

The words "The Altar of God" circled my head while the walls rang with Jefferson's quotations.

God. God. God. God. God is the great elephant in the room--in Congress, in the White House. Even when His name is not permitted to be invoked because of political incorrectness, what is in a person's heart still drives every decision. One's heart belief in God, in Allah, in Buddha, or in nothing--the heart will always show itself in its legacy.

Call it what you want, but a person's actions, when analyzed and studied, reveal what is of true importance, where one's allegiances lie.

There is no Wife Jennifer, Mom Jennifer, Teacher Jennifer.

There is no Saint Jennifer, Sinner Jennifer. Angry Jennifer, Loving Jennifer.

There is only me--one woman.

Try as I might to divide my life into segments, I am not foolish enough to believe that my heart and mind are not affected by all parts of me.

After all, when that day comes, the Saint, the Sinner, the Wife, the Teacher, the Mother, the Sister--they will all be placed in one hole in the ground beneath the shadow of a single marble slab.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mixing Up A Meltdown

One thing I know all too well is that being out past my children's bedtime is a recipe for disaster.

Add to that recipe one daddy being away on business for the first time in over a year, and the scene was set for a meltdown right after the rubber penguins.

The problem was I didn't see it coming. I could have stopped it. But my shoulders sagged over-tired, too, from a long weekend with a sick daughter, and so I pushed when I should have bent.

I had given the warning of one book, not three, because of the late hour and early morning to come. Compromise. Compromise.

I might as well have been saying pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis for all the good my words did.

Waiting by the sofa, each boy stood stubbornly with one book in his hand, neither willing to give. In a season where the two of them have been exhibiting less than more kindness towards one another, this was the proverbial straw.

There amidst the scent of bubble gum toothpaste and freshly washed hair, I lost it, pronounced the sentence of "no books" tonight, growled to the boys that they could say their own prayers, and closed the door.

The seconds it took to walk my instant-saintly daughter to her room were almost unbearable. All I wanted was to get back to my boys and apologize. What was wrong with me!? They were just tired. I was just tired. Why couldn't I have just stopped being the one who always has to be the heavy, taken five minutes, read the extra book and been done with it--no harm, no hurt hearts, no forgiveness to seek.

I could hear both their tears even before I opened the door and flipped on the light again.

This flash-angry now sober-penitent mama sat softly on Wyatt's bed and beckoned him into my lap, asked why he was crying.

He readily buried his face in the crook of my elbow, sobbing as he squeaked out, "I don't know how to pray. Daddy always prays with me."

In the brain fog of sleepiness, a father's absence suddenly erased five years' worth of bedtime prayers until Wyatt didn't know what to ask God for, what to tell Him.

"Well, what would you like to tell God?" I asked, holding one son, watching the other one peek out at me from under Lightening McQueen.

As I continued prompting the two of them with "and what else," they rambled down the list of thankful gratitude praise and heart-changing requests that I've heard husband speak over them many times before.

My younger son's dimples deepened as I asked his forgiveness, kissed and stroked his three-year-old forehead. All is quickly forgiven with the young. But even forgiven hurts hold longer with age, even if it's only two years more.

And so, I turned out the lights again, this time in peace, and did something I've only done once before--lay beside my oldest until the hiccuping sobs stopped and his rhythmic breathing sang the familiar tune of sleep.

The image would have been complete with me quietly slipping out the door. But I'm not that graceful, two left feet loudly stumbling backwards over train track and a half dozen engines just as the door closed.

I turned off the hall lights anyway, loosened the tap for a bath, and stood just looking in the mirror, wondering if I will ever really learn how to be a good mother or if I'm doomed to a lifetime of heart-failures like this one.

And as I stood, behind me flashed a little boy, reawakened by my blundering, come to use my potty. He looked up at me and smiled that shy, sweet smile of a happy boy who knows despite her flaws and admitted failures, his mother loves him.

On nights when failure rips deep, this smile of forgiveness is all a mother can ask for.

Image: Wyatt at a tulip garden in Washington D.C.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Different Kind of Thorns

I've spent a week among the thorns, literal ones, the kind that leave long scrapes across tender legs and puffed red punctures down exposed hands and arms. Saturday, Tuesday, and today, I willingly offered my body as the sacrifice, an uneven exchange where I accepted the pain and imprint for the short-term to receive buckets overflowing with fruit in return.Working in the dewberry patch that stretches the front of our property is not as easy as picking from a well-tended bed of tame berries. This wild stretch growing beneath, through, and atop the rusted barbed wire fence already covered with other weeds requires the picker to sometimes insert an arm up to the shoulder for a single beaded globe or to stand on one leg while leaning in full-stretch against an older more-woody branch of the prickly vine.

Protecting myself from the thorns with gloves isn't an option. Many times reaching deep within the mass to a cluster, I must work based on how the berry feels within my thumb and forefinger to know if I've blindly selected the right one. If its shape gives beneath slight pressure, even if it clings firmly to the vine, it's the ripe one. If it is unyielding and firm, I move to the next one.

Spending this week before Easter Sunday getting all scratched up was not my plan. This project's timing was more God-ordained, winter's early passing bringing forth all too soon the fruit of early, even mid-summer

The fruit sets its own time for the picking, rinsing, crushing, squeezing into pure seedless juice before boiling the froth to the top. The air in today's kitchen bled with the deep memory of mother's blackberry cobbler bubbling around squares of biscuit dough she dropped in the liquid.Five recipes worth of jelly and jam later, my counter tops runneth over in abundance and gratitude for the plentiful rain making this a good crop, such a striking contrast to last year when the green berries shriveled on the vine in the parching drought.

My skin literally burned this Good Friday evening as I sank into a hot soak, stinging heat raising the invisible whelps I knew to be there but hadn't viewed in their most raw state.I am not worthy to bear the marks of the thorns. I know that. But I will wear them anyway to Easter service, humbled by their ability to keep my focus tight on my Savior this week, humbled by the lessons their presence has continued teaching me of Christ and His sacrifice, of the pain He endured, of Him as our firstfruits.

The weatherman may say otherwise, but I know differently. God's timing is ever perfect.

Photos: Dewberries before and after the juicing, oldest son counting out the right number of canning rings, and my daughter's battle scars.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

To Your Health: Curling Up With a Good Book

It's been quite awhile since I've made time to enter the imaginary world of fiction. More than I'd admit to my students, whom I am constantly pestering to just crack a book, any book.

In the grand scheme of a friend's wife dying from cancer, a job market where too many close friends and family can't get a nibble, and a group of Burmese refugees recounting true stories of their family members being killed as they fled--in this world where truth is harsh, where reality is much more mind-absorbing than the inoculated, pre-packaged version that appears on the five o'clock news, I simply haven't felt the freedom to let go and immerse my mind in fantasy.

When people's real hurts consume, how do you give your mind permission to turn that blind eye, to take a rest and dwell in a realm you know to be false?

I found my permission this week in an article "The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction," which cites a 2006 study showing how the brain reacts to written narrative: "Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. "

For instance, reading an olfactory metaphor will stimulate the part of the brain dealing with smell while reading words describing motions result in activity "in the motor cortex."

Reading, though, goes beyond merely activating different parts of the brain (although I'm for anything to stave off plaque in my brain. Two other studies in '06 and '09 revealed that "individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."

In other words, to develop better social interaction skills, read a good narrative. Fiction fit the bill.

So, I followed the good doctors' orders, took a dose of medicine, and consumed Frank Peretti's first novel in seven years entitled Illusion.Consumed. No joke. One set of student papers still waits for my magical grading touch because I couldn't put the novel down.

This is a love story. Sure, it's a page-turner adventure novel, delving into the fantastic art of stage magic and science fiction with concepts like multiple timelines and alternate realities. But at its core, this is a love story.

On the surface, it is a story of the two main characters--Dane and Mandy--and their quest to find each other again when she dies but mysteriously reappears as a 19-year-old version of herself.

But deeper still is a nod to the mystery of love in marriage, which is merely an image of the ultimate love Christ showed for mankind with the church as His bride. It is a story depicting, as Peretti says, "our savior wooing us to Himself and that relentless, unutterable longing that makes us reach across our years and through our limitations to find Him."

This gospel where we are lost in this world and all its seductive glimmer until we are reunited with Christ is the novel at its core.

While I found it hard at times to keep up with the running list of bad guys, I was kept guessing till the end. My chief criticism (since I feel compelled to give one) is the same I experience with most Christian fiction--the interjection of God seems forced, like the author went back in and added the information versus making Christianity an integral part of the characters' lives.

The main characters' popcorn prayers out of the blue, token mention of blind reliance upon God when the going got rough, and mention of the local church only three times when it suited the plot (which spanned the course of a calendar year) versus making the characters have an actual relationship with the body--these seemed to depict God as more of a literary attachment than a lifestyle.

With that said, Peretti gives another page-turner for both adults and teens while sustaining the underlying metaphor for the lost sinner's relationship with Christ.

Well worthwhile.

See the novel's trailer: