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.
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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.”  

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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

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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.