Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolution Fatigue

Right away, I should get this off my chest: this is not a classic New Years’ post.   It’s more of a confession:

Thinking about resolutions exhausts me.

It’s not that I don’t want to make positive changes in my life.  But there are just so many that need to be made.   When I think about them, it’s like positioning my face a few inches from the nozzle of a fully-engaged firehose.  There’s no way I can take a sip, or even a gulp.  Instead, I’m gasping to get any oxygen at all.
Whether it’s deciding how to spend a few free hours, or considering what I might give up for Lent, I have no shortage of ideas.  Quite the contrary.  I’ve been “blessed” with the ability (and never-ending-middle-of-the-night mental energy) to dream up countless “good” things to do.  Some might enjoy this version of “creativity.”  I am not one of them.

Perhaps an illustration will help.  I’m not trying to fall asleep yet (so this will be on the short side), but this here's the product of a brief brainstorming session on potential (and, in most cases, necessary) New Years’ resolutions:
* Give up caffeine.
* Give up multi-tasking.
* Improve at multi-tasking.
* Eat less sugar.
* Eat more vegetables.
* Grow my own vegetables.
* Try to get rid of this post-40 belly fat that is becoming harder to camouflage.
* Stop fussing so much over my silly appearance; no one cares, anyway.
* Start cutting coupons.
* Make my kitchen counter a “no paper” zone.
* Fix better family breakfasts.
* Walk my dog each day.
* Walk with a friend.
* Train for a 10k, or a triathlon (because I’m not getting any younger)
* Learn how to swim laps first.
* Give up exercising so I can use that time for something else.
* Submit an academic paper.
* Learn how to grade more efficiently.
* Do more research in my field.
* Get to know my colleagues better.
* Play board games with my kids more often.
* Spend less time online.
* Delete my facebook account.
* Blog more regularly.
* Blog less often.
* Give up blogging.
* Read more books.
* Find a Bible reading plan.
* Stick with it.
* Take my family on a mission trip.
* Make regular visits to a nearby nursing home with my children.
* Start a book club.
* Start a Bible study in the neighborhood, for working moms, at my job (why not all three?)
* Have my husband’s baseball players over, just to get to know them a little bit.
* Serve more in my children’s school.
* Iron my kids’ clothes more faithfully (if you’ve seen them at school, you understand)
* Offer to fix my daughter’s hair in the mornings (see previous parenthetical note).
* Start sewing my daughter’s clothes (this impulse, in particular, frightens me.  I’ll stop here).

Please, please . . . someone turn OFF the firehose!  I am drowning in ideas.  The problem is that there’s not a bad one in the bunch.  But since there’s no way I can do all of them, I end up resolving to do none of them.

Hey . . . maybe that’s not a bad idea.

Maybe the things on my impossible list are less about pleasing God and more about measuring up to someone else’s standards.  Or maybe I'm trying to prove something to myself about how strong, how accomplished, how self-disciplined, how devoted I am.  Silly, don't you think?

At the beginning of 2011, a friend of mine asked God to give her a single word for the year. “What a wonderful idea,” I thought.  “So manageable.  So concrete.”

So I prayed the same prayer.   And although there's always the chance that this was wishful thinking on my part, here's what I believe I heard: 


I haven’t done it often enough, but just saying that little word has the powerful ability to shut off the firehose.  Allow me to breathe.  Invite me to sip, even savor, the Living Water.

It also reminds me that fulfilling God’s plan is as much about what God does as it is about my frenzied, goofy, self-important busy-ness.  He is the One who promises to complete the work that He began in me.

I don’t know what my word-of-the-year will be for 2012.  I haven’t asked yet.   I’ve been too busy brainstorming my own ideas.  

I think I’ll put down my pen, close my computer, and listen for a day or two.  If I happen to hear something, I’ll likely report it here

I don’t really know who (if anyone) is reading, but should you be inclined to pray a similar prayer (or if you have a different approach entirely), it might be fun to share our responses here.  Not to add to one another’s lists.  But to see and celebrate the different ways God will accomplish His purposes in the days and weeks that will be 2012.

Write back if you like . . . . . 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Room to Grow

“Mom, I’m working on a gift for you, but is it okay if it’s a little late?”  My daughter’s eyes were mostly confident, but seeking one last ounce of reassurance.

We had this conversation while driving home from her art lesson last week.  My daughter and her teacher have been working on a Christmas project for a few sessions now.  They expected to complete it earlier, but she needs to make some finishing touches at her next lesson, which will be after The Big Day. 

“Sweetie, it’s okay if you need extra time.  I know I’ll love it, no matter when it’s ready.”

I don’t have to see her work to know it’s a treasure.  So I am enjoying the wait, anticipating this gift that is the product of her hopeful efforts. 


Is this how the Jews felt when, generations before His arrival, they ached for Christ to come?  They didn’t know exactly what to expect.  But they knew it would be the fulfillment of a centuries-old desire.


Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. 
From our fears and sins release us.  Let us hide ourselves in Thee. 
Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art.
Dear desire of every nation.  Joy of every longing heart.


And when this Jesus arrived, it was in the form of a baby.  Delivered in a barn by a woman claiming to be a virgin, and a man whose inexplicable loyalty must have called into question his honor, if not his very sanity.

Joseph, along with his wife, would watch this baby enter the world.  Perhaps he would witness Jesus’ first smile, His first words, His first uncertain steps.  He was a surrogate father of sorts, providing food, shelter, and the kind of guidance that parents give their children.  And he was a carpenter, likely training his son in the trade for which he was known.

What was it like to teach the very Son of God how to take a log and craft it into a chair, or a dish?  Did Jesus already know how to level a table?  Was He instantaneously capable with a saw? 

Or (since carpenters often worked with metal as well as wood), did Jesus already know how to meld raw copper into something of practical use?  Did He need to be cautioned about the dangers of metal fresh from the white-hot flames? 

How did He fare with His very first project?  Perhaps his first piece of furniture called for a little fine-tuning from Dad.  Maybe His first attempt at a copper pot resulted in something that looked more like a turtle.  I wonder whether He melted and reworked the same piece until it turned out right.  

I can imagine Joseph encouraging Christ to try again.  To keep at it until the metal took on the shape He’d envisioned for it.  


Like most children, my son and daughter are still discovering what they enjoy.  My son is, perhaps, a bit more aware of what he loves to do:  baseball, Legos, and his Ipod touch (not necessarily in that order).  My daughter, however, is still in the “sample” mode.  She has, among other things, taken dance (which lasted until the charm of the pink leotard and tights wore off), basketball (which was strictly a one-season affair), and piano lessons (which, we suspect and hope, will be reinstated at some point). 

So, when she requested art lessons for her tenth birthday, we weren’t completely sure if she would stick with them.  When a gracious friend and former art teacher agreed to take her on as a student, her birthday wish was granted.

So far, the lessons haven’t lost their sparkle.  Each week without fail, she looks forward to them, even if it means missing playtime with friends.  And each week, our car-ride home involves her enthusiastically explaining the new things she has learned, and mentioning again how she can’t wait until she gets to paint.  This is the real reason she wanted to take art.  

Her teacher has insisted that she hone some foundational skills before painting.  So she has learned to distinguish between lines and shapes.  To practice contour drawing.   To view familiar objects in a new way.  To practice recreating them, first with her pencil.

A cat was one of her first subjects.  Her initial attempt wasn’t what she hoped for, which discouraged her.  She soon realized, though, that she couldn’t expect her first attempts to be flawless.  Learning to draw involves trying, making plenty of mistakes, and producing some less-than-perfect cat pictures.  As an artist, she has room to grow.  Slowly, she has come to accept that.


Born Thy people to deliver.  Born a child and yet a King.


Luke makes an interesting observation in his account of Christ’s life when he notes that Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with man.  I memorized that verse as a child and remember well the Sunday School lesson that accompanied it:  Because God calls each of us to be holy as He is holy, we should follow Christ’s example, striving to improve in every area of our life—intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social.  

Then and now, this exhortation simultaneously inspires and worries me.  As much as I know how, I’ve committed myself to following Christ and emulating His example.  Yet I still have so very far to go in my spiritual journey.  Shouldn’t I be a bit closer to arriving? Or at least have gained a little more distance from the starting point? 

How I wish someone would have explained that Jesus wasn’t born with the ability to walk, to build tables, to teach the multitudes, to heal the blind, or perhaps even to pray.   How I wish someone would have pointed out that, while Christ was indeed the King of Kings, He arrived as a child.  A baby who grew into a boy.   A boy who increased, not just in height and weight, but also in knowledge.  Not only in His ability to relate to people, and but even in His interaction with the Father.

How I wish someone would have explained that even Jesus had room to grow.   


Today, we have celebrated the arrival of Emmanuel, the God-child who proclaims the amazing, undeserved reassurance that God is with us.   

That God is with me.   

That there is One who will continue working until I take on the shape He has envisioned.

That my obvious need for growth is less a reason for fear, and perhaps a cause to rejoice.  


Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. 
From our fears and sins release us.  Let us hide ourselves in Thee. 
Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art.
Dear desire of every nation.  Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver.  Born a child and yet a King.
Born to reign in us forever.  Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Losing my religion

 Just the other day, I found myself enjoying a rare delight--especially during the fast-encroaching holiday frenzy: I had an unexpected opportunity for an extended period of silence. 

I was driving, making an hour-long mama-taxi run to retrieve a child from one event before delivering this child to the next.  I spent a few minutes in quiet, then turned on the radio to find a prayerful song we’ve learned recently at church . . . one of those songs that speaks to a place deep within me.

It didn’t take long until I was having a moment.  A time when God was shining a little beam of light through a crack in the boundary between earth and heaven, allowing me to catch an unexpected but much-needed glimpse of peace.  Maybe even a little joy.  

I heard a funny noise over the music and realized my phone was ringing.  I answered to the sound of my child’s angry exclamations about our previously-agreed-upon plan.

And just like that, the moment ended.  The beam of light retracted back to heaven.  The crack through which it had shone, sealed shut.   Gone also was the sense of God’s nearness.  The peace.  The joy.   Instead, I was flooded with frustration--partly at my child, partly at my inability to “hold on” to the glimpse, and (truthfully) partly at a God who would so quickly snatch away a much-needed experience.  (He could have delayed that phone call, right?)

Prematurely endings like that aren’t uncommon for me.  Yet they cause me immense amounts of anxiety.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten the idea that my inability to “hold on” to such experiences mean something bad about my faith, and I start asking questions:   What happened to the peace that passes all understanding?  Why can’t I sustain the sense of His presence?   Where did God go, anyway?  Moments like that have the potential to make me feel like I’m losing my religion.  Or (worse), they cause me to wonder whether I had any in the first place.

A few days later, I re-visited the story of someone else—Jacob--who was also jolted back to reality after a sleeping vision of the famous ladder.  Upon opening his eyes, he said,  “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 

Jacob’s dream gave him a glimmering glimpse of heaven.  But he had to awaken, to return to a world that held difficult relationships and challenging realities.   And I have to wonder whether the peace and excitement he felt while looking at that ladder dissipated when his eyes returned to the earthly visions around him.

But Jacob's awakening didn’t cause him to doubt himself.  He didn’t anxiously wonder whether God had left him.  And he wasn’t resentful about leaving the dream.  Instead, He celebrated what God had done by building a memorial.  A tangible reminder, for all to see.  Including himself.

Most striking to me, though, is Jacob’s trust in God’s abiding presence.  Instead of wondering why He couldn’t perceive God all the time, he acknowledged a certainty that God was present, even in those moments when he was unable perceive him. 

During this season, I want to reflect on the meaning of our honoree's name, Emmanuel, God with us.  Instead, though, and ironically, I can get so caught up with the preparations that I forget to live that truth.  

My hope, though, is that I might be more like Jacob.  May I trust and rest in the knowledge that God is in this place.  Even when I’m not aware of it.  
Now it's your turn.  What sorts of things cause you to momentarily "lose your religion" or to shift from a place of wonder to a place of shadow?  And how do you respond to those experiences?  
Or, how do you retain the awareness of Emmanuel?
I'd love to know your thoughts and experiences, and I bet others would too.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

(Not) Afraid to be Thankful

Today I’m a little sad about saying goodbye to the wonderful “thankful” lists that have appeared on facebook during recent weeks.  I’ve loved reading about how my friends’ lives have been blessed in ways both big and small, and it’s been fun to join in with a few of my own posts.  Acknowledging the touches of God’s hand in my life has been a rich discipline, though perhaps for a slightly unexpected reason.  
To tell the truth, practicing gratitude this season has been the cure for a strange little ailment I’ve come to know as facebook angst.
It all started with a picture of my friend’s most recent culinary creation.  Pineapple mango salsa for her kids’ after school snack.  Homemade.  And (of course), organic.
My initial reaction was benign enough:  “How cool is it that she made salsa from scratch?  Bet it’s yummy.”  
Later, though, my admiration slid into envy:  “Wish I had time and energy to make something like that.”  
After that, self-doubt:  “I should be feeding my kids healthy after-school snacks instead of this store-bought cookie dough we just ate.”
And ultimately, recrimination:  “If I were a halfway decent mom, I’d be making homemade organic salsa too, not these lame-excuse-for-a-snack-break-and-bake-cookies we just ate.”  


This, my friends, is classic facebook angst.  It also occurs in face-to-face encounters with our friends and acquaintances.  And if you're experienced it--regardless of whether it was via cyberspace or the real world, you know:  it ain’t fun.
It all starts when I compare my life with someone else’s (or, in the case of facebook, a whole lot of someone else’s, all of whom are pretty amazing).  I may not even realize I’m thinking this way, but when their lives look so great, so well-lived, I begin wondering why I don’t have similar things to talk about.   Then, sometimes, I get a little scared.  Maybe I’ve somehow overlooked the journey God has for me.  Perhaps I’ve missed the boat, ignored a turn signal a few miles back.  Before I know it, I’ve gone from contented to fear-full in a split-second.   
Most significantly, though, I’ve let myself get distracted from something really important:  God’s call to live the life that He gave me, to walk the path that looks a little (or a lot) different than the roads He has my friends traveling.  
In reading my friends’ thankful lists, I’ve sensed God inviting me to “sink in” to the life He’s given me.  To remember and trust that He has plans for me.   That He began a good work in me.  That He will be faithful to complete it.  That, for His name’s sake, He is leading me in a path of righteousness.  
This season, I’m learning to rest in the truth that God is making the path of my crazy life straight.  Sometimes I’m going to recognize how He is working, and sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes the path will shimmer, and sometimes it will be nothing short of gnarly. 
And that path is uniquely designed for me. It includes a hard-working, loyal husband who knows how to make me laugh; kids who are both delightful and challenging; summers free with my family; school-nights spent grading essays after everyone’s in bed; pre-dawn workouts that leave me craving an afternoon nap; cereal for breakfast instead of scrambled eggs and homemade biscuits; a less-than-perfectly coifed house.   
And, yes, cookies made from store-bought dough.  We all love ‘em.  In fact, my family wouldn’t eat homemade pineapple mango salsa if their lives depended on it.  I can be thankful for that, too.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Power and Its (Seeming) Absence

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  Phil 3:10-11


Believers love to celebrate those experiences where God’s power is undeniably tangible:  the mysterious arrival of much needed funds; the unexpected conception of a long-desired child; the healing of a seemingly incurable illness; the salvation of a long-doubting friend.  

Perhaps such occasions are what Paul had in mind as he expressed his desire to know the same power that was present at Christ’s resurrection—those moments where the God reaches into our earthbound existence and provides supernatural transformation.  

As Christ-followers, we seek after these experiences, value them, testify about them.  And rightly so.  For in those moments where his power is visible, tangible, palpable, he feels closer to us.  And we feel closer to him.  I may never experience being raised from the dead, but Paul suggests that it is possible to  experiences give us a taste of the power that was present when Christ arose from the grave.

Yet life also brings events where Christ’s power seems less evident:  struggling unsuccessfully to meet insurmountable financial need; fighting and eventually succumbing to an incurable illness; grieving the heartwrenching loss of a treasured relationship.  

I'm often troubled in the face of such experiences:   If Christ’s power is “real” when he transforms difficult circumstances, what am I to make of those times when that power appears to be absent?  Has he left me alone?  Have I somehow earned his distance?  Was I mistaken to see those more “victorious” moments as evidence of his power in my life?

Though I don’t often view suffering and success as compatible, Paul seems to do just that.  In a single breath, he mentions both the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings—as if these two seemingly incongruent ideas are vital parts of a single, unified experience: knowing Christ.

While I often feel far from God during hardships, Paul’s writing suggests that I'm close to him when that power is seemingly absent—indeed, that in those instances where I may not be able to perceive his power, I am actually tasting a tiny drop from the ocean of suffering he endured on my behalf.  Through these fleeting brushes with suffering, I am experiencing fellowship with him.

For as I encounter moments that are difficult, undesirable, insurmountable, scripture suggests that such occurrences may be a way that God is providing the opportunity--the privilege--of sharing in Christ’s very suffering.  And as I experience—maybe even embrace—those moments, I can know something even more powerful than the force of Christ’s resurrection power, something truly transforming: a deep, abiding fellowship with the person of Jesus Christ.

Downloading the Day

“Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village.  Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. . . .  They went out and preached that people should repent.  They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. . . .  The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.    Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” Mark 5:6b-7, 12-13; 6:30-31.

At 8 p.m., I review the day’s events:  I’ve prepared, served and cleaned 3 meals and 2 snacks; washed, dried, and folded 4 loads of laundry; read Go Dog, Go! 7 times; paid 6 bills; and scheduled 5 appointments—all while fielding countless questions from my endlessly inquisitive 4- and 6-year-old children.  

Such a day with my preschoolers mixes the joys of childlike giggles and Playdough-scented hugs with the physical, emotional, even spiritual challenges that accompany motherhood.  Navigating this season of life—with all its interruptions, late-night hours, and petty irritations—regularly reacquaints me with my shortcomings, especially my need for greater patience.  On days that demand more than what I possess, I grow hungry to talk about it.  And when I find someone who welcomes my conversation—usually my husband—I am blessed.  Often after hearing me out, he encourages me to take a break—go for a run, soak in a bubble-bath, head to my favorite coffee shop with a good book.  Many times I accept his invitation, not having realized I needed refreshment.

Scripture doesn’t reveal why the disciples told Jesus about their activities, but we can logically conclude that their recent days had been both challenging and invigorating:  traveling, preaching, healing, even driving out demons (5:13). Perhaps they, too, felt the need to talk about their experiences.  That they felt comfortable “gathering around Jesus” himself to “report to him all they had done and taught”—despite the fact that God’s omniscient Son already knew every detail—reveals something important about Christ.  Not only did he listen to them; but he also saw their need for rest . . . a need they themselves may not have recognized.

As you desire to talk about the challenges and joys of your day, be mindful of Christ’s willingness to hear all you want to share.  And take time to listen for his caring response.

Engraved On His Hand

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”  “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!  See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands . . . .”  Isaiah 49: 14b-16a.

A few years ago, I received an unusual charm bracelet—not with trinkets commemorating special events, but with charms each holding a tiny, silver-framed photo of one of my children.  I treasure this gift not just for its beauty but because it keeps the images of those most precious to me close at hand.  On difficult days, or when a child’s behavior is less than what I wish for, I glance at those giggling faces, freshly reminded of how blessed I am.

My children are not the only ones who struggle with obedience, though.  My own actions often disappoint me and, I am sure, God as well.  Especially when I seem unable to act in a Christlike way, I wonder whether my Father might want to forget about me, or even leave me altogether.  My fears echo those of the Israelites who—having been continually rebellious—believe that “’The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’”  

God’s response to such fears is deeply reassuring: “‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’”  Our Father never stops thinking about His children.  Indeed, scripture suggests He thinks of us with every glimpse at His hands:  “‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands . . . .’”  God is reminded of His love for us, not by a bracelet that can easily be taken off, but because He has permanently carved each of His children—even the less-than-perfectly-obedient ones like me—into His very flesh.  

Stay With Me . . . Pray With Me

Before Jesus walked the road to the cross, scripture portrays Him clearly struggling with the challenge that lay ahead. The gospel writers' ability to see that He was "sorrowful and troubled" suggests that He didn’t attempt to disguise His emotions.

Some might believe "truly strong” believers don't "give in" to such feelings, but His friends' descriptions of Him, and even His own actions, contradict such a view. Instead, Christ expressed His sadness to John and Peter, saying, "My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death," then asking them to stay with Him and pray with Him. Even the Son of God wasn’t too divine to speak out His feelings to His friends—to express His need for their presence with Him, as well as their prayers.

Something in me finds it both ironic and comforting that God’s own Son needs humans to lift up prayers on His behalf. If He asked this of His friends, then we can accept our own need to have others pray for us. What comfort comes from simply being with believers, from talking through our struggles, from allowing others to pray with and for us.

When my own feelings of sorrow or being overwhelmed return from time to time—often when I least expect it--I am comforted by Christ’s example in Gethsemane, by the thought that I can follow it. Giving voice to my feelings, rather than disguising them; allowing others the privilege of praying for and with me; knowing the comfort that comes with the simple presence of others . . . . all of those are steps Christ Himself took.