Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Real Treasure

Where was my gold chain?  There was the cross husband had given me years ago for an anniversary and the enamel ladybug that matched the Avon earrings and bracelet from my Grandmother, but the thin, gold chain I used for all my pendants was missing.

Hurriedly, I pushed around the clutter on the bathroom cabinet, then simply grabbed the gold-plated chain with the single pearl that my daddy had brought back from one of his business trips when I was a young girl.  There was no time for search and rescue, and besides, my treasure was likely hiding in one of the jewelry chest's cubbies or in the ring holder by the kitchen sink.

I exchanged the grungy painting clothes for the vibrant maxi dress before rushing with my daughter to a dainty little girl tea party a half hour away, me not giving another thought to the maybe crisis I had just discovered but hadn't realized as of yet.

The following morning was Sunday.  Again, I reached for the gold chain and remembered its absence.  Unconcerned, I went to the jewelry box and sifted through each compartment. Nothing.

I ran down to my office, remembering that I had taken earrings off at my desk one late night as I sat working on the computer. Not there either.

Then came the kitchen, the other bathroom, and the end tables in the living room.  Still nothing.

By this point, I could feel those first pinpricks of anxious concern at the back of my neck, but again, I couldn't imagine it was really missing since I'm so careful with my treasures, always putting them in their place.  I continued with the Sunday morning routine like normal--dressing children, feeding children, and teaching Sunday School.  It wasn't until the middle of the sermon that I remembered the missing necklace again.   

As I tried to mentally back track to the last time I'd worn it, I suddenly realized it wasn't just the chain that was missing.  That morning in my search, I also hadn't seen the heart husband had given me for Valentines' Day that year early in our marriage when he had to be away in Jackson.

And right there in the pew, I felt the blood drain from my face and the panic set in. 

As soon as the service ended and we reached the house, I began a frantic sprint from room to room.  Then came the confession that my daughter "might" have been playing with it but "didn't remember" where it was.

My heart sunk.  I'd never find it.   Still, I continued to search, all the while giving myself an internal pep talk: "It's just a necklace and pendant, no big deal.  It's just a 'thing.'" But in all honesty, my heart still felt tight; it wasn't the tangible object I was upset about losing.  It was the memory associated with it.

A half hour later when husband came up to see me, he found a crazy woman dismantling our bedroom. 

Then, just when I had given up all hope, I caught a thin glimmer of light at the bottom of a woven basket.  Sure enough, my daughter (or some other guilty party not confessing) had been playing with the necklace as it lay on top of the jewelry chest.  She had either accidentally knocked it off or had dropped it to the floor as she fled the scene of the crime where it settled invisible into a pile of pink and purple Hawaiian leis. 

Jubilant, I yelled down the good news to my husband.  My children ran up the stairs to rejoice with me, all of us happy with finding this one lost necklace among many.    Then, I called my mother, sharing my excitement even further away.

Even as I stood in the doorway of my bedroom, I remembered the woman in Scripture who lost a single coin and then turned her own house upside down to find it:

"Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:8-10).
Here I was, over two thousand years later, repeating much the same search for a necklace as valuable to me as the coin was to her.  What's more, I realized I had just run the gambit of emotions God feels each time a lost child enters His kingdom.

I had felt the the anxiety, the heart pains, the huge sense of loss, the determination that I would not give up,  the hope against hope even when there seemed to be no hope, and the overflowing, radiant joy that could not be contained or kept to myself.

It's those last few that struck me so deeply.   

I serve a God who hopes against hope even when there seems to be no hope...because there always IS hope in His Son.   

I serve a God who never gave up on me.  I serve a God still determined, persistent, the One who will not let me go.

I serve a God who couldn't keep His rejoicing to Himself on that day I gave my heart to Him.

That level of sorrow, of commitment, and of rejoicing--all for just me...all for just you.

All for JUST ONE.

It is beyond humbling, beyond gracious, beyond precious.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fiction Worth Reading

I don't read much fiction anymore.  It's not that I still don't drool over the brightly colored dust jackets and crave the time to transport myself into another time and place.  It's simply that for me, reading for pleasure can become a sin.  Yep, you heard me right--a sin.

I love reading historical fiction, suspense novels, and mysteries with such an intensity that I've been known to simply drop everything as I gobble up the pages like a half-starved animal.  Ask my mother.  She'll tell you about my days in middle school when she forbade me from reading more than one book per week because I wasn't getting anything else done around the house.

Even now as a grown up with oodles of adult responsibilities, I still struggle against ditching my priorities and choosing, instead, to escape into the pages of another book.  I turn down my children's requests for another game; I let the laundry remain unfolded; and I substitute my reading of fiction for the reading of God's Word. 

Knowing this, when I do bring a piece of fiction into my house, it's a big deal.  If it won't support my spiritual walk but draw me from the straight path, I might need to leave that temptation at the library.

This past month, though, I did just that--agreeing to review Lynn Austin's newest novel Return to Me, which begins her new series entitled The Restoration Chronicles.

Having never read Austin's other novels, I was hesitant to commit my time to reading 400+ pages of someone else's imagination, but the front cover's image of a Jewish priest blowing a shofar into the rising sun tipped the scales. 

In Return to Me, Austin follows a family living in Babylon at the time when King Cyrus takes over the nation and decrees the Jewish exiles can return to their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

After Cyrus' proclamation is issued, Iddo, his wife Dinah, and their young grandson Zechariah (who will grow to become the minor prophet of Scripture) must choose to return to Jerusalem, even when many of their family and most of the Jewish people refuse to return home.

The characters arrive in Jerusalem and immediately begin facing intense persecution at the hands of the Samaritans and others who remained in the land.  Austin really brings history to life as she paints vivid images of their struggles just to survive, of the constant danger they faced (even to simply go to the well for water!), and of their heart-wrenching discouragement when their efforts to rebuild the temple were stopped.  She also demonstrates quite well how the Babylonian beliefs from their exile followed the remnant back home to Jerusalem and how many of them accepted the pagan ways of their neighbors simply to accomplish peace.

My ladies Bible study group has studied this time period in depth.  We have spent months and years going through each of the prophets as well as the Kings and Chronicles, learning about Judah and Israel's sin leading up to the exile, the two waves of exiles being deported to Babylon, and the return after seventy years.  With this background, I know enough to say Austin's account does a good job of lining up with the historical details of Scripture.

What's interesting is I only thought I understood what happened in history after studying the Scriptures, but after reading this fictionalized account, I feel I can empathize with the returning exiles' struggles to remain pure and holy in the face of constant idol worship around them, to follow God's commands even in the face of such great opposition, to fear God instead of man, and to be broken hearted over the tearing in their families when some chose to follow God and others did not.  Sounds like the same struggles Christians encounter today, huh?

This book receives my wholehearted recommendation as a "must read."  I can hardly wait for the second book in the series, Keepers of the Covenant, scheduled to release Fall 2014.  As with most historical fiction books, expect this one to start out slow, but once you figure out the who's who and become invested in your characters' lives, it's a page turner that teaches without preaching about following God as it tells the story.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Motherhood: Being the Bad Guy

Sin has gripped our household this past week, blindsiding husband and me in its persistence and reminding us of how lost is the human state without saving grace.  He and I have been following Jesus for so many years that we forget what it is like to walk through this world without the Holy Spirit guiding our steps, holding back our hands from temptation, and convicting us to immediate repentance when we stray.

Yet, all we need do is look at our children to get a glimpse of the soul without the Spirit's indwelling.  In their young actions, I see a sincere desire to follow God's law in order to show Jesus their love for Him but an inability to control their sinful impulses.  I see attempts at purity but an inability to be righteous on their own.  In short, I get a front row seat to the war within their spirits, with the flesh repeatedly winning out in one area or another. 

And when flesh does prevail, husband and I must do what we abhor--create consequences that hurt us to enforce simply because there is nothing good parents want more than to give their children everything in this life.  Withholding mercy and open-handed benevolence simply doesn't come naturally to us who have drunk so freely from Christ's endless ocean of mercy and grace.

As I pen these words, one son is angry with me for the chosen punishment--our withdrawing family fellowship from him for a set period.  As he spends the day alone in his room, he draws on the yellow legal pad an image of lightening bolts aimed at my head and grumbles to anyone who'll listen, blaming me (not his father) for catching him in the act, then enforcing the punishment.

He doesn't see me, but I cry when I hear that.

Until he grows tall, sees himself reflected in the eyes of his own children, and realizes how much this God-given task of being a parent requires, there is no way he can understand how much I would rather love than give punishment, hold tight versus push away.  He has no idea how hard it is to say "no" when he asks for cuddles, "no" when he asks me to come play a game with him.
The rubber ball bounces hard against the wood planks over my head again, another attempt at drawing attention to self.  At meals together, he can't stop the chatter about nothing, anything, and everything--it's really just white noise filled with nonsense questions meant to engage me. 

Husband said last night, "He's scared of the silence."   Yes...because if you stop playing, talking, explaining, blaming...you might have to admit you screwed up big time; you might have to take responsibility for your actions; you may experience heart-breaking sorrow over your sin rather than the self-righteous anger that you've coated yourself with as tough as steel-plated armor.

One crack in the facade, and all you'll be left with is that sinking feeling you'd do most anything to avoid.  This I know too well.

Last night while he slept, I crept in his room and lay down beside this tow-headed child who snored loudly in the dark.  Instinctively, he rolled towards me, snuggling tight under my chin as I put my arm around him, holding him close and praying for this child whom I love more than life, itself.

I prayed against the self-reliance, the self-righteousness and the lack of repentance that I fear may blossom in his heart and bear fruit of eternal self-destruction.  I prayed for his heart to grow tender to God's Word and for My Savior to become his Savior.

Then, I smoothed back his hair, kissed his brow, and silently slipped from the room. 

A mother's love is boundless--in kindness, in mercy, and in strength as she teaches through consequences.

Image: A sad little boy writing a note of apology (over a month ago.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Value of the True Friend

It's hard to believe that one week ago today, the world fell away beneath my feet as I discovered I would lose most of my part-time employment come January 1.  Since then, life has been a slow-motion sprint to line up a replacement job for the spring. 

Husband and I have done this sort of free fall before, back when we didn't have three extra mouths to feed, when surviving on my retirement-benefits-and-insurance-blessed salary alone was relatively easy.  I would go out to work each day while husband stayed home faxing resumes, making cold calls, and cooking dinner.

Three months' worth of new recipes later, he finally found a job.  I look back on that time period as both miserable and blessed--blessed because we had time together and miserable because of the circumstances we were going through made it impossible to enjoy that time since we had no inkling of where this rabbit hole might take us or when we might reach the other side.

What I remember most about this season, though, was the sudden silence.  Friends and colleagues whom we regularly interacted with socially vanished without a trace, virtually overnight.  Even the "friends" my husband had faithfully mowed the lawn for after they moved away months before their house sold suddenly stopped calling, stopped sending Christmas cards, stopped responding to emails.

Overnight, the doors shut, the backs turned.  We were modern-day lepers.

Today, the circumstances aren't the same, but still, when I learned of my job loss, all those memories and feelings of abandonment came flooding back to the forefront.  I re-lived when friends proved false and close friends proved more so, when our expanding network shrank back to just our two families supporting us with prayer and love.

Back then, I had sworn I would never be that invested in someone outside my family again so if it came back down to just husband and me in the end, it wouldn't matter.  And here I was, not even a decade later, realizing how invested I had allowed myself to become since then.  I was both fearful and grieving at the thought of our inner circle being reduced to just us for a second time.

Then, the emails, texts, and phone calls started.

Instead of silence and an empty inbox, I would awaken each day to find someone praying for me, a boss going above and beyond to help explore other options, an old friend offering to have her contact hand deliver my resume, and still another two writing a recommendation for me within hours of the asking.

I wasn't being abandoned.  I was being loved.  I was learning the value of true friendship in spades.

No, my circumstances have still not changed, although I'm still seeking and praying, ever-believing that He will provide.  Even so, it feels like they have changed, simply because I've been blessed with so many who have chosen to reach out to me versus to turn and walk away.

It's a not so subtle reminder of just how important it is for me to continue doing the same, reaching out to others so they, too, can know they're not alone, no matter what they're going through.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Twelve Weeks Notice

I've always known my employment was uncertain.   My title, itself--adjunct--just screams dispensable, insignificant. 

In academia, adjuncts are the third world sweat shop employees toiling away invisible in the dark corners of every college and university basement.  This part-time employee is offered no health benefits, no retirement, and no promise of future employment beyond the present term.  What's more, full time professors look down their nose at adjuncts as second rate educators not sold out to the craft.  Consciously or not, in the eyes of the full timer, quantity of courses taught determines an educator's quality.

I know this...because I once sat on the mighty throne of the full time instructor.  I, too, discarded the opinions of most adjuncts because they were less impacted by departmental decisions and didn't understand what a real teaching load required.

Then after the birth of my son in 2006, I turned in my throne to join the ranks of the lowly and downtrodden.  And there?  In all honesty? Despite the hours I have to work while others sleep and the hats I must juggle as a stay at home mother, here, I have continued to thrive.

My decision to leave full time employment was one I'd always known I would make.  Even before husband and I married, I communicated that God had called me to stay home with my children.  When I was hired at my first secure full-time position, my boss knew I was 101% dedicated to him, the college, and my students...until I had a child, and then, I was a goner.

Yet, by the time our first son was born, husband had already lost his career, so my decision to be a stay at home mom was more an act of love for my child and of obedience to God than a preferred choice.  I was giving up a fulfilling job I truly loved, a fabulous camaraderie with my peers, a retirement plan, insurance, and a steady paycheck complete with merit raises and the possibility for advancement.

It was a giant leap of faith, but I squeezed my eyes tight shut and stepped off the cliff into the waiting hands of my God.  Since 2006, I have watched His finger tracing a seemingly insane path for me to follow as He has opened doors for me.  The result is that I've been able to earn a good living as a part time adjunct for three community colleges around the state--all online, all at night while staying home with my young children during the daylight hours.

Sure, my employment has always been contingent upon student enrollment, which is dependent upon the economy.  Some semesters have made me feel like Jack Sprat's wife.  Others have been lean. In fact, just this past Spring saw the door close on one of my three jobs.  Even with that river dammed up for two semesters, God made way for a stream of other smaller opportunities to flow towards me...and taught me how I could survive with much less.

Yesterday, though, I found my faith being tested once again.  A two minute phone call left me without two of my part time jobs, effective January 1.  In short, I was receiving my twelve weeks' notice.  And this time, I couldn't just wait for the system's new rule to change, couldn't just find ways to squeeze that much money from the family budget.  I would need to find a new job.

I sobbed with my husband, prayed, planned, questioned, and sobbed some more.

Twenty four hours later, I see shadows that God's hand is not idle, even if when I look a second time, there's nothing there yet to fill the void.  When applying last night to a job posting at a Christian online university, I suddenly found myself faced with an empty java box and a simple request for me to write my statement of faith, no fewer than two paragraphs, please.

I couldn't help but smile at the irony.   My statement of faith.

I've learned to not have faith in my connections, my education, and my experience; they simply aren't enough.  Here I am with nothing but faith, knowing no one who can provide for my family's needs except God, Himself.  All I can do at this point is walk by faith for if I walk by sight, the oppressive despair of the situation will keep me firmly sunk into my sofa. 

One foot in front of the other (even if sometimes, those steps look more like tear-laden stumbles) I walk. Waiting. Anticipating. All the while believing my help comes from the Lord.

There is no other choice but to believe and wait...even when the road looks so very dark ahead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Modern Mother's Scarlet Letter

Last week found this mother approaching a nervous breakdown of sorts, you know, the kind all mothers entertain on those days when everything needs a do-over yet there's no time for such frivolous things.

It started when my oldest, Wyatt, left one of his two homework folders at school for the umpteenth time this year, then confessed that his reading textbook was also "missing."  This fact was confirmed not an hour later when I received an email from the teacher.  Did I have the book at home?  Uh...no. And yes...I was sure.

Then came that son's continued inability to remember to practice his typing each afternoon, even when I reminded him.  Since school started, he'd gone from 17 word per minute back down to 13, all because he kept "forgetting."

But the straw that broke the camel's back was yet another pair of stinky socks left on the living room floor.  These were the white tube socks with the emerald green writing on the toe, identical to the pair I'd found earlier that day in his bedroom...along with the other pair in the Egyptian bathroom...and the third pair on the washroom floor.

Socks, it seems, had a mind of their own and a deep desire to avoid the dark recesses of the clothes hamper so they could, instead, frolic in freedom around my house.

And in that moment of pure insanity when I would have gone screaming out the backdoor had I only been able to muster the energy, the daily activity chart was born.  X's were bad.  Check marks were good.  Peer pressure from siblings was golden.

Yet, days later, here I was again, marking another "X" on Wyatt's chart.  I sighed deep, knowing it wasn't that he intended to be disobedient.  He is just my absentminded child, so much like his father in that regard.

Still, with a lost textbook, homework unable to be completed, and a chart full of X's, I felt like sewing a scarlet "F" for "failure" on my maternal chest.  Add to that a twin sister who wanted to whine or lie about everything and a twin brother who kept being intentionally mean to his sister, and I closed my eyes to a vision of myself standing on the scaffold of shame like a modern-day Hester Prynne as other mothers averted their eyes and shook their heads at my bad mothering skills.

This mother was obviously doing everything wrong.

My scarlet failure blazed brighter at suppertime when, as usual, two out of three children were less than thrilled with what I had cooked.  The evening conversation whirled around me in tones better suited for outside than the gathering table.  The children and husband were happy, completely oblivious to the strain that had tugged at my temples all week and that even now threatened to spill over in tears.

Then, Emerson began reciting his Bible verse that sat in the center of our table.  Not be outdone, Amelia did the same.  Somewhere along the way, Wyatt spoke up, saying we needed to pray for his friend at school whose grandmother was in the hospital.  He described how she had broken her arms when she had fallen.  We could pray for her tonight, right?

My breath caught, remembering my friend telling me a similar tale about Wyatt just a few weeks prior.  After her middle daughter had requested prayer for both my friend and a younger sister's "attitude," Wyatt had offered to pray, then apparently prayed heaven down in a mighty way, unconcerned about what others might think as he spoke aloud.

This boy so oblivious and absentminded at times showed a deep concern for others, a commitment to remembering their needs, and a willingness to call upon the Lord in prayer for them.

Maybe my pinning on that scarlet "F" was a bit premature.  Perhaps I'd  tuck it in my drawer for another day.  This wasn't the progress I'd been looking for, but perhaps I'd just been looking in the wrong place. 
A week later, Wyatt's textbook has reappeared in his school desk (see this mom rolling her eyes), his typing speed is approaching what it was before, and we're starting to have more checks than X's on everyone's activity chart, even without this mother's constant pestering.

There are no sudden miracles with raising children.  Nothing is overnight.  Everything is a process.  Some moments are joyful.  Some send me to my knees.  Others send me to my bed to pull the covers over my head.

But even if I can't bring my children up to always be the brightest, the most responsible, or the least absentminded--if I can just raise them up to live for the Lord, to love Him with their whole heart, and to love others in return, I will have done my job.