On Bargains…

I rode away with my new-to-me love seat stowed in the back of the minivan, crowing about my enormous good fortune to my son. Not only was it an exact match for my sofa I bought used a few years ago, it was a fraction of the cost I was willing to spend!

I almost felt guilty it was such a good deal. Almost.

That love seat pulled together my whole living room exactly how I wanted it and right before family arrived for Christmas. All fall I’d tried and missed in my efforts to source pieces (that’s decorator speak for find cool stuff) on online marketplaces.

My frustration had grown and given in to despair. I was settling and felt that was the best I could hope for, but then someone got tired of their love seat and wanted it gone. What a score!

Over the next week, and even now, I’m rather stunned at God’s timely provision for something so unnecessary to life as a well-arranged and beautiful living room set up. Food, clothing, shelter are the necessities…not nice food, nice clothing, and nice shelter.

God proved Himself, again, as a very personal God who is able to arrange some truly wonderful gifts when it seems good to do so. It seems that He cares for me and my wants along with my needs. He doesn’t always give me what I want, but He knows my wants as sure as He knows my thoughts from afar.

I got to reading Isaiah 9 and God likens the people’s joy at the coming of the Savior as to the joy when the harvest comes in and as when people divide the spoils. Literally, that is times when the profit comes in. Times when the warehouses are full from a year or season of hard work.

He’s talkin’ about payday, y’all. Dividing the spoils would be like finding valuable treasure or getting something for nothing. Or…a bargain?

I get this one. I love a bargain. How I love a bargain. I often check myself in conversation because I’m prone to bragging about the bargains I have made. I get this enormous joy from a good deal.

The paradox, though, is that I am not a bargain when I think about my life as a Christ-follower. This Light came into the world, His name is Jesus Christ, and He spent Himself completely–paid an enormous price–for me and people like me who are most definitely not perfect.

On the face of it, it stands out as an all-time bad deal. Why would He spend so much on me? And, why would He be so happy about it?

I rejoice over a good deal, but God rejoices over what appears to be a pretty bad deal. I  have nothing to offer. The moment I think I do, I’m like that person trying to sell some used earrings for what you can buy them for new. I’m a fraud who isn’t living in reality.

But this bad deal for Him is such a good deal for me that I can only accept and give thanks. Gratitude and love and obedience to such a God is about all I can respond with and its enough.

Oh! And with all good, truly great, bargains–I can tell everyone I know not to miss out. It’s not bragging on myself, because I did nothing!

If I can talk so extensively about my love seat deal, how much more I want to remember that it’s not the best deal ever. There is a better deal in life with Christ that is truly worthy of talking about any time there is a chance. Why wouldn’t I want to?

Haha…and answering that question is so important and has so much potential to change a life, it must be considered.

Why wouldn’t I want to tell someone about Jesus like I tell them about my sofa?

 

Slowing Down

The first few days of January is the time for me to slow down. Our town is relatively quiet. There are New Year’s events but mostly I stay home with some or all of my children while my husband works a conference.

Generally, I have longer times reading my Bible in the morning and I stay up late (way too late) reading good books. In the daytime I get a few things done while children play more than normal amounts of Xbox. I make some returns, pack up Christmas, think about Bible study plans for the spring, and generally slow down.

The phone chimes pretty rarely and just about absolutely nothing is on the calendar as far as appointments or meetings. I can wear the same thing multiple days if I want, as long as its clean, or I can wear all the things that are comfortable, even if they don’t match! Its divine…and uncomfortable at times.

I realize during this time how much I like to do things to feel worthwhile. Spending the time with myself is like looking someone in the face for just a little longer than is socially acceptable. It’s a bit uncomfortable and revealing.  And, I think it is absolutely necessary to slow down enough to look yourself in the face long and hard at least once a year.img_6469

When I slow down I relearn stuff about myself. I regain my affection for cooking. It actually occurs to me that I would like to try a new recipe that I wouldn’t enjoy tackling when school is in session and life is busy. I stack up scheduled posts on my blog.

Slowing down restores my spiritual health. Reading the Bible a little longer and without much of an agenda is like having a date with my husband where there’s nothing we have to get at the store or plan and there’s no time we have to be home. It’s just free time together.

My life is a little peculiar in that it is very seasonal and shifts very quickly from a lot of people intensive time and scheduling then changes to working on more back burner stuff like planning and development. Then, we take the 6 week work related trip most summers! Not everyone has that kind of work.

So, how do you take time to face yourself? Consider wrestling with this question and figuring out some creative solutions like taking a day off for a long weekend spent without obligations. Or, wipe a week clear of anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be done. For a tax accountant, that won’t be April, but there’s probably a few days somewhere that the cycle of the job is at a low ebb.

It’s taken living in the U.S. for almost 5 years and our current home almost 4, to discover some rhythms. That’s one of the hard things about a move internationally, a change in jobs, or a significant life change like becoming a mother or kids going to school or leaving the nest. There are new rhythms and it takes at least 2 years to figure them out!

The first year, everything is new and I constantly adjusted. The second year, I remembered the first year and tried to figure out what was an every year thing, or an anomaly. The third year solidified some distinct patterns to life like this first week of the year slow down.

I’m glad I have it because next month our oldest kid gets her learner’s permit. Hopefully all these stored up reserves will be enough! She swears she is going to drive like a grandma and we need to worry about our middle kid who has some Michael Schumacher speed in him.

We will see. He’s 2 years away from a permit so I have 2 more slow downs before he drives.

 

Do You Confess?

One of my kids has “reactive airways”, doc talk for asthma. Not all the time and not that sudden type but the type that whenever he gets sick, it goes straight to the chest.

Then he starts this distinctive cough that lets me know my next few days will be spent hauling out nebulizers, inhalers, Vick’s, netipots, and on and on. The cough’s purpose was to force out trapped air so when the airways relax, the cough goes away.

Breathing is a pretty essential activity to human life so asthma attacks are stressful. We’ve always been able to turn the tide and get out of danger. In the middle of it, though, you don’t know the end.

Spiritually, the concept of breathing has been on my mind. I talk often in ministry about spiritual breathing- a cycle of confession (exhale) and filling (inhale). A few tough situations over this past season, namely the August Smackdown, brought me close to exhaustion…and my own need to breathe.

That tightness in my chest would come, that prompt to take a deep breath. A sigh. Like an old lady lament. I was feeling it, the old lady weariness.

So I sighed. Then, with each sigh, I reminded myself of the need to breathe spiritually as well as physically.

Exhaling. Recognizing I was trying to take control of the humanly uncontrollable. Fearing that God was not in control. Releasing the toxic build up of the thoughts and emotions and very real sin so I could take in more life-giving breath. This is confessing.

Breathing in. Each time asking God for more of His resources, His oxygen to extend farther into my soul and strengthen me for the situation. To have mercy and help me. Filling.

So what about asthma? Asthma, if left alone and not treated, slowly suffocates the victim as I understand it. With no room in the lungs to take in more oxygen, and CO2 trapped inside the lungs, the body is deprived of the oxygen that keeps it alive.IMG_0587-0.JPG

All the while the body is trying to breathe in unsuccessfully.

The body begins using almost every muscle it can in the torso to bring air into the lungs. Retractions, where the skin sucks in at the collar bones and around the ribs, notify us that our son is really, really struggling to breathe. The lungs work overtime trying to cough out trapped air. Lips begin turning pale. It’s terrifying and it would be time to go to urgent care.

In the physical world, there is albuterol and steroids to resolve the problems of asthma. Steroids control the tendency to flare up. Albuterol treats a flare up.

Spiritually, there is ordering our lives to God and His revealed truth in the Bible, the fellowship with the community of believers, the Spirit of God convicting and directing us…and regular confession. These all serve as the anti-inflammatory control to prevent serious flare ups of spiritual asthma.

But asthma strikes still. When spiritual asthma comes and we struggle to breathe because we know we are not right with God. Or we are working overtime to win favor and status with God by doing, doing, doing…there is, again, confession.

Exhaling by agreeing with God about our sin or our human efforts to earn forgiveness. Inhaling by receiving the resources He gives through His Spirit to live a life pleasing to Him. Sometimes over and over about the same old things.

Slowly, surely the toxic is released so the pure and fresh can roll in and bring life again.

 

 

 

The Table

Each takes their plate and begins their trek down the long buffet loading up their plate, unable to fit all that’s available. Smiles, talking, laughter abound as one by one they finish. Walking away more because they can’t fit any more on the plate than because they are finished.img_4712

Each takes a place next to another on a bench that seems to always have room for more. No one saves a place for anyone else, no one jockies for position closest to the Provider of All. Content and at peace, there is no need for all know they are loved deeply, abundantly.

The family meal is diverse beyond imagination because everyone is adopted. Everyone came from a different table. Some use chopsticks, some use forks, some use bread, some use their hands, and some use only their right hand. All languages are spoken yet everyone seems to understand each other.

Love abounds and the conversation around the table celebrates the days events. Successes are shared without one upmanship. Failures are shared without smug looks. All is met with compassion, affection, and correction. No one is ashamed or embarrassed.

Before adoption, all came from other tables, more uncomfortable tables. Food at their former houses was sometimes locked up or there wasn’t any at all. Crusts dropped on the floor from the table and that was all there was. All devised a strategy to get a seat.

It was always better to be a certain color or have a certain ability in the former families.  Attention from the stewards in charge meant more provisions so it was sought at all cost, even the cost of another. Highlights of the day were shared at the expense of others. Praise for one was at the cost of praise for another. There was terrible fighting which never got resolved.

Even in the best families, there was lack of something. There was more order, more smiles, more peace which made it almost harder to recognize how much better the Provider’s offer of adoption was for them. Where things were smooth in their families compared to others, it seemed unnecessary to make a change and receive adoption.

For others, adoption was unbelievably good news. How could it be so easy? Just say yes? What was the catch? There must be a catch so they waited and prepared, trying to learn all the ways of the Provider’s family. They stood at the windows dressed up and ready but feeling too bad or unworthy to walk through the front door. They operated under what they had learned on the street–earn it, steal it, buy it.

There’s no free lunch.

Until a knock came from inside the front door, oddly. Usually, knocking came from the outside, but this one came from the inside, and someone was calling their name. Could it be that the door would open for them?

And then it did! The choice came to walk through…or not.

Most heard about the Invitation from the Father’s kids who couldn’t seem to stop talking about their new family. It could be really annoying to some. They talked about what their adoption was like, what it was like to learn a new family, to get used to new siblings with all their quirks and hurts, to blend into the Ultimate Blended Family.

It wasn’t perfect, yet, they said, but it would be one day. They were all excited about that day and it made a difference in today. There was always enough for today.

They shared how at some points, it was only the love of the Father that kept them from running away. The table wasn’t always like it was supposed to be yet.

Sometimes there was sibling rivalry. Sometimes siblings did jockey for a seat right next to the Provider only to have Him firmly correct them. There is a seat for anyone who accepts the invitation, He would almost roar. The correction was always right and fair and true. Instead of slinking off in shame, it was possible to receive it and know there was absolutely no love lost from the Father.

And no ridicule from the siblings…on a good day. Ridicule was met by just rebuke from the Father, another roar. Frightening like thunder, yet it also lit up the sky in a revealing sort of way. Noise and light, illumination, then order again.

Ones who had been at the table longer than others sometimes forgot about their first days in the family and had to be reminded. The reminders somehow freed them from a darkening that would slowly take place. It was easy to get used to the new family and forget how much better it was than the old. To forget the adoption. When reminded, they remembered and their lips loosened up and smiled again.

They began looking around again, and inviting again.

They remembered how wonderful it was to be part of the Family.

 

 

 

 

Spiral v. Mastery

I read an article on how Shanghai schools teach math differently from western schools. They mentioned that Shanghai teachers taught mastery before moving on to the next concept. I remember this well. My daughter spent her 1st grade year in an Asian school. They spent a couple of months on number bonds. It seemed so basic but they drove it home over and over again. She became a master at number bonds and it laid the foundation for mental math. She still loves math.

Then, I homeschooled for a while and our math curriculum used the spiral method. Teaching a concept, then another, and another, and then coming back around and going a little deeper. Revisiting each concept a little deeper each time. My daughter is now in the spiral method in her current school. She’s not a fan yet. “We’ve already done this!” she tells me often.

My heart resists relearning things I thought I knew, too. It can be a book of the Bible I’ve read quite a few times and know. Or a concept like forgiveness…yeah, I know those verses. I hear it in time with others and in my own journey of spiritual growth. I’ve already been here! Are we really talking about this again? I know this!

Yet, the Spirit speaks again in a small, soft, ever deeper way and I discover there’s another thing or two or a million I need to learn about forgiveness, grace, or obedience. The spiral concept of learning. I see it play out.

I am beginning to realize the freedom it brings. The desire for spiritual mastery is strong. To know a truth inside out and always know it, like your math multiplication facts or the ABC’s feels good. Who doesn’t want mastery? It feels so good to know something.

But, from the stories shared in the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Acts, and Paul’s letters, I see a different method at play. Disciples felt they mastered concepts and then were shown how far they were from mastery. Learning, relearning, re-relearning. The spiral method.

I find freedom as I accept the spiral method over the mastery method in growing in my walk with Jesus. It also brings freedom as I endeavor to shepherd others too. Releasing mastery gives us all a breath of fresh air as we abandon the expectation that we can be done learning at some point because we somehow mastered the Christian life.

Letting go of the disappointment of failed mastery allows me to embrace the wonder that I can always, always learn new things about an old thing from God. My lessons are never over, He always keep coming back to make sure I’m getting it. It can be pretty painful and definitely humbling.

The spiral method. May I not act like a brat when presented with a lesson I thought I mastered!

In what ways do you see the spiral method at work in your relationship with Jesus? 

 

Steward of Suffering

When my father got sick, I wrote about it in real-time. A few of those blog posts were widely shared and read due to the circumstances of his sickness and death.

Did I exploit his situation? I knew he did not think so. He was more than happy for many more to hear about his life in Christ, even while his body was dying. But, the thought lingered.

Recently, I listened to a podcast by Michael Hyatt titled Keys to Writing a Killer Blogpost. I highly recommend it. At one point, Hyatt mentions the concept of stewarding our lives. Stewarding our stories. Stewarding our suffering. It resonated with me.

Hyatt’s podcast fleshed out in words what I hoped for and still hope for through my writing. In some way, I wanted to steward my dad’s suffering. Beyond that, I want to grow in stewarding my own.

So, what is a steward?

A steward is by definition in Merriam-Webster’s: one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts). Or, one appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution.

A steward is a manager. At best, they are fair and look after those affairs given to them in honesty. At worst, they are insubordinate, embezzling and neglecting their responsibilities causing people to suffer so they can gain. I imagine a mediocre steward fails to recognize the importance of their job.

Hmm.

I’ve failed miserably at stewarding other hard things in my life to the hurt of some very dear to me. Lately, I sense that every day I am faced with the invitation to be a steward. Sometimes its my own situation I must steward. At times, it is someone else’s.

When life gives you lemons, squeeze the heck out of them. It feels good and channels the emotion. It’s a lot of work. It stings the eyes. It bites the wounds we already have. The juice is so sour. At some point, sometimes just in heaven, He provides the sugar.

 

What does it take to be a good manager of what God entrusts to me? It starts with turning away from some common lies about our master.

God doesn’t care about my suffering…

Sometimes I feel like I am working at a distance from God. I’m in a cubicle, one of many. I’m an ill prepared employee blaming my boss. He’s not around to know how hard it is and He didn’t send me to that training. I grow resentful.

I see the opposite of a distant and uncaring God in the Bible when Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ death. When the Israelites’ cries came before God in heaven while they were in Egypt. He was merciful to them in the desert, knowing their weakness and giving them time to heal. He saw Haggar. Saul persecuted the early church. Jesus asked him at his conversion, why are you persecuting Me? Not, why are you persecuting them but why are you persecuting Me.

God is not unfeeling. He does care. Because He is omnipresent, He is never absent.

My suffering is mine to bear alone, not burden others with…

No one wants to be needy. Problem is, we are all needy. To not be needy is to be God, completely self-sufficient, which makes Him the best provider for our needs. Our suffering is close to God’s heart and we must bring it there first.

But, we must also bring it to others in the family. Paul writes that when one member suffers, we all suffer with them. We comfort with the comfort we receive from God, and are called to give and receive comfort.

Sadly, not all will suffer with you. I have not always suffered with others. Those failures still grieve me. They also teach me in many painfully good ways what it is to stand alongside others better in their suffering now. I can never take back the salt I poured on wounds, but Jesus paid for that too and He can heal that in my friend’s life as well.

As I learn to share my suffering with God and others, I learn to carry others as well. I expect it to make churches and communities warmer places as we carry suffering, because we all suffer.

I should share my hard times when I’m over them…

Sharing struggles against temptations, failures, and doubts in real-time is challenging. It feels like what’s better is to share how I used to struggle. And, some hard times do need to resolve a little with limited counsel to steward them well before crowds.

What happens when I share my temptations, failures, and sin in real-time is that it often takes the power of secrecy and darkness away. Just like many of my hardest moments mentally seem to be in the dark of literal night, so struggles and failures against sin rage when they fester out of the light of the One readily available and able to fight them.

Bring them into the light with a trusted and mature person well versed in the Word and life, and it is like turning on a light in the middle of the night. Things are clearer, brighter, and usually a bit more hopeful. I thank God for the many women and men, too, who have turned on the light in the dark room of my soul.

On the Job Training

There is no way a blog post could exhaust this topic. I know I haven’t grown fully into my job description as a wise manager. I envision a painting (by an old master of course) of a steward depicting this aspect of my life in Christ more fully. I picture a person sitting at a table with provisions, a line of people in front of them, but also a kind master behind them whispering in the steward’s ear instructions regarding what is to be dispensed.

Listening to the master while facing the people strikes me as a good position to steward well. Maturity in Christ comes through on the job training.

How have you stewarded suffering well? Where do you stumble as a steward?

 

Frozen Green Tomatoes

A woman thrust the tomato plant into my hands when I displayed a mild level of interest. The pastors set up a garden behind the children’s wing and these were the leftover tomato plants, a bit bedraggled and needing a good home.

I couldn’t promise them the good home, but we have dirt in our backyard. I came home and put them in a large planter on a lark. Growing things is new for me.

We left a few weeks later for a 6 week trip during which a turtle died but our tomato plant flourished. It was a stunning discovery. It was large and hanging over the edge of the planter!

In adjusting back to the U.S. after so long in our former familiar culture, I needed a project to focus my attentions on. I would see this tomato plant through until it produced tomatoes. Picture a woman making a solemn vow.

I bought a cage, plant friendly insecticide, tomato fertilizer. Every day I checked on the plant which continued to grow. I read blogs and did weird things like shake the tomato plant vigorously so it would pollinate itself. Bees are scarce and I began feeling mildly panicked about our loss of the bee population in respect to my tomato plant’s chance of success.

Imagine my joy when I discovered small yellow flowers! Flowers lead to fruit. Tomatoes are a fruit! Tomatoes should soon come.

They did not. The flowers wilted and died without fruit. I got mad at the plant that failed to grow under my helicopter gardening. I stopped watering it and left it to itself in the 90+ degree September heat.

It sprang a tomato. Then another. What a tease! Fine, I thought. You’re doing so well on your own, I’ll let you continue that way. So I did.

The tomatoes kept growing bigger and still green. I began checking on them again, these very expensive tomatoes.

Then it froze this week. 2 nights in a row of a bitter cold. I neglected the tomato plant. It lay out there cold and bare with no blanket to cover it. With Christmas and busyness beyond the norm, the tomato plant got the shaft.

I don’t expect any ripe tomatoes now. Just frozen green tomatoes turning to mush. May it yet surprise me.

About halfway through this tomato story, I began to wonder why I was writing this up? What does a tomato plant have to do with anything? Probably not much but its served as a visual reminder of principles my heart needs to know. A kind of wrap up on a fall of life and ministry.

So, here is what my tomato plant taught me…

  • Only so much is really under my control, and its a very little much.
  • Faithfulness in what is my part of God’s will is not promised to yield
  • Expectation of fruit is highly motivating, yet faithfulness is more steady a motivation
  • When fruit fails to come, its easy to get discouraged, resentful, and unfaithful to my task
  • God often chooses to remind me to trust Him for fruit by bringing it in unexpectedly and unrelated to the proportion of my efforts
  • Fruit purposely left on the vine and untended in harsh conditions is evidence of neglect and unfaithfulness
  • Yet, God can surprise and often uses harsh conditions to temper His children and make them hardier. He doesn’t waste anything.

Who knows, maybe I will get more than I deserve, more than frozen green tomatoes. It is supposed to reach back up near 70 this week.

But even if I don’t, my tomato plant experience revealed quite a bit about my spiritual life. I plan on trying again.

Gardening seems to be a God-given method to teach me His ways.