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: 

LESS.

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.