Sunday, June 27, 2010

Red Stains, White Shirts

"I don't want you eating pomegranates.  They'll stain your shirt."

It seems I heard that all the time from my mother when I was in grade school.  Gotta love the Catholic school uniforms - white shirt and plaid skirts.  We didn't have many other restrictions about what we could eat or could not eat, as long as it would not mess up our braces.  But get caught eating a pomegranate ---

And then I dared.  A classmate offered to share her pomegranate with me, and I accepted.  Then suddenly it happened.  A red stain - a deep, deep red stain - tainted what was the cleanest of white.  I suddenly felt a familiar queasiness in my stomach.  I was caught not only red-handed from the seeds, but red-bloused as well.  I spent the rest of the day worrying. "Mom is going to kill me when she sees this!" 

It wasn't so much that the stain wouldn't come out, no matter how much of what product or laundry trick she would try.  And it wasn't that my uniform shirt would have to be replaced with a new one. No, much worse than that. I ate of the forbidden fruit.  I had deliberately committed an act of disobedience against a parent who loves me, somebody who I wanted to please above all else.  There was nothing I could do to undo it and make it right again.

There is a wonderful passage in the book of Isaiah that comes to mind:
"Come now, let's settle this,"
says the Lord.
"Though your sins are like scarlet,
I will make them white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
I will make them white as wool."
(Isaiah 1:18)
Just as there was nothing I could do to hide the pomegranate stain from my mother, there is nothing you or I can do to hide our sins from God.  On our own, we cannot remove the stain of our disobedience when we stand before God.  But through faith, when we confess our sins to God, He is faithful to forgive us and restore us to right standing with Him.  When this happens, God no longer sees us as soiled or ruined.  He sees us as pure, white, and brand new!

Pomegranates, anyone?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday Blues

The Monday Blues. We all go through it. We feel it when we return to the routine of the routine of our routine jobs that sustain the routine of the routine of our routine lives. Is there any relief to the futility, dread and drudgery of the Monday Blues, other than enduring until Tuesday?

In my opinion ...

"Monday Blues" is not limited to any one day of the week. The phenomenon stems from allowing ourselves to become jaded with life, viewing activity as just that: activity. Get up. Take the kids to school. Go to the office. Prepare reports. Meet with the boss or clients. Grab a fast-food lunch. Move forward with what was decided in the meetings. Pick up the kids from the sitter's. Dinner. Homework. Kids to bed. Get yourself to bed. Repeat the process tomorrow. Until Friday night, when the cycle breaks for a couple of days. And then Monday comes, and you get the blues all over again.

Is that all there is to life? Somebody shoot me, already! (No, don't. That would make a mess, and I'm not cleaning it up.) If life is lived from activity to activity like that, it's no wonder the Monday Blues is an affliction of pandemic proportion!

My day-job is one that is very routine. I work for a state agency that brings in a significant amount of money, and my job is to make sure that money is accounted for and deposited to the bank. The job has a set daily rhythm to it. In fact, a colleague once commented that someone in my job position could set his watch by the particular task I'm performing. There was once a time when I felt as though I could do parts of my job in my sleep.

It would be so easy for me to have the Monday Blues on my job on a daily basis. But I've learned how to not let the ordinary-ness take over. You see, ordinary tasks have a purpose. Preparing all those bank deposits has the purpose of funding programs associated with my particular agency that are designed to make the quality of life better for millions and millions of people. Waking up to take your children to school teaches them responsibility, and gets them to a venue where they can learn skills that will enable them to have a productive future. The day-job is a means of earning an income so that you can provide for yourself and your family. The purpose behind dinnertime is not for merly feeding your body, but also to connect with the famiy members, hopefully engaging in some sort of meaningful conversation.

Relief from the M.B. affliction will not happen by itself. It takes more than a gimmick or two, more than finding something to laugh at or an "executive toy" for your desk. While there is nothing wrong with those things, they don't make any lasting changes. True relief comes from a paradigm shift, a change in how you view your circumstances. When you see your role as part of a cause that is bigger than yourself, suddenly the mundane becomes a bit more exciting.

Breaking free from M.B. takes intentional effort, but the results are worth it. While you might not be completely cured, you will notice that you don't suffer nearly as much from this chronic disease as you once did. Others will notice a change in you, and may even want to know your "secret." That would really be worth looking forward to every week!

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (Colossians 3:23-24)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Keeping it real

Have you ever heard what to most people would seem like a random comment, but the words stuck with you as something profound? I remember one such comment that my pastor said at a Christmas Eve service a few years ago. He and the choir director had just finished singing a duet of “Mary Did You Know.” Since they did not have much opportunity to rehearse ahead of time, there were a couple of noticeable blunders in the performance. At the end of the song, the pastor made this unscripted throw-away comment that went past everyone else except me:

“It is better to be real than to pretend you have it all together.”

Being real. I think the ones who know how to do that better than anybody are children, especially the preschool and kindergarten set. Yes, kids are masters at pretending. When they play they often imagine to be grown-ups. Girls pretend to be mommies to their dolls and have tea parties with their stuffed animals. Some children pretend to be firemen or soldiers, astronauts, or doctors. Groups of kids play cops and robbers, school, pirates, and other such games. As they take on their pretend role they actually believe they are that person. But when it comes to interacting with adults, children do not feel the need to have to pretend to be adults. They will be honest with you, coming to you as they really are. I remember when my niece was five and I gave her a complicated grown-up expectation. I can still see her looking up and reminding me, “Aunt Mary, I'm just a kid!” She instinctively knew that what I was asking of her would be in conflict with what God was calling her to be: to live as a child, free to be who God created her to be, and not have to pretend in real life to be someone she is not.

Even as we matured into adults we never forgot how to pretend. “You never have a second chance to make a first impression.” We are taught to “put our best foot forward.” and to “never let them see you sweat.” That means that what we want others see of us is the self that is our “all-together” self. We don't want that first impression to expose our weaknesses, our failings, our fears. “How are you?” is routinely answered with the reply, “I'm fine. How are you?” Yes, we still have our five-year-old skill of pretending. We just forgot how to be real while doing it. And in forgetting to be real, we lose the freedom that comes with being our authentic selves. We lose the freedom of being the child of God that we are created to be.

Can we get our freedom back? Can we be that child that God created us to be? The apostle John wrote, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God” (1John 5:1). Being a child of God allows us the freedom to come to our heavenly Father just as a child approaches a loving parent. We do not have to put our best foot forward. We don't have to pretend we have life flawlessly put together. God already knows our weaknesses, our failings, our fears. We can be real. We are free to come before Him just as we are, knowing that we are accepted and safe in His love. We are free to be completely honest telling Him how we feel or what we need, trusting that He will meet our needs. We can openly confess our sin to Him, assured that we will receive forgiveness and He will remember our sins no more. That, my friends, is good news!

Yes, it really is better to be real than to pretend you have it all together!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Favorite Book

“I'm going to start calling you Belle (from Disney's Beauty and the Beast) because you go through books like nobody else I know!”  

That's what my husband tells me when he sees me reading for what seems like hours at a time.  Although I haven't dedicated as much time to reading in recent weeks as much as I would have liked, I do like to read quite a bit.  Like most readers, I have my list of favorite authors that I go back to more than others:  Ted Dekker, Max Lucado, Mark Batterson, and A.A. Milne, to name just a few.  But the series of books that tops the list of favorites (other than the Bible) is a set of one-of-a-kind hand-written books:  my Journals.  This collection of wire-bound books chronicles my passions, frustrations, disappointments and joys for the past nine years, from the summer of 2001 to the present day. 

Why would someone nowadays keep a hand-written journal?  Isn't keeping it on a disc or online good enough? 
It seems technology changes every day.  I was in our church library with over 1,000 books recently, many of which are over 50 years old.  Among the shelves was a set of  vinyl records – 78 RPM speed.  Unfortunately, I cannot enjoy them because technology has advanced to where the media on which they are recorded is obsolete – not many people still have record players in this age of iPods.  The electronic storage media of choice changes every couple of years (remember the 5 1/2" floppy disc?  Or Super-8 projectors?). The technology of ink-on-paper has evolved much more slowly.  Documents that were written by hand or printing press hundreds of years ago are still readable today, and will likely be readable in the future. 

What makes my journal my favorite book?
It's not just a “dear diary” kind of book. Other than a record of my personal history, these volumes are my prayers and conversations with God.  I frequently gain insights that help me to make decisions because it forces me to slow down and listen to how God is trying to lead me.  Other times, I sit down with my journal and pen, and start to write.  Next thing I know, God takes control of the pen because I don't know where these words being written down are coming from.

But I don't just write for the sake of filling up pages and leave it at that.  I go back and read my journals from time to time.  When I do, I can see how God answered a prayer, or see in retrospect that if God had answered a particular request the way I wanted, it would have turned out disastrous and I am thankful that He said “no.”  I see how my life has changed over the past months and years.  And I can also go back and see that if I was complaining about a circumstance that I'm still complaining about today, I'm stuck in it and not moving forward.  It enables me to see that I need help to take steps  in changing those circumstances and move forward in my life.

How to start your own journal
Keeping a journal is not a complicated process.  The key is to make it something that is enjoyable and user-friendly. 

Choose a book that you will be comfortable writing in.  You don't have to spend a lot of money on a leather-bound book.  You can use a spiral notebook from your local dollar store if you like.  And choose a pen that doesn't cramp your fingers.  Sometimes you find yourself writing more than you thought you would be. 

Many people like to have a set time and place to journal.  You can write anywhere, any time, as long as your circumstances allow.  (I don't recommend writing while operating a vehicle or heavy machinery.  I'm just saying ...)  As for me, for journaling about more serious issues, I like to go to a local cemetery.  Some people might consider it creepy or weird.  But think about it – you're in a private park, where it's OK to do some things that might not be accepted in other places.  You can become emotional or talk out loud with no living soul in hearing distance, and no one will think you're crazy.

As for what to write in your journal, there is only one rule: It's YOUR journal.  YOU are the writer.  You, and you alone, decide what goes in it and how often.  You decide who you are writing it for.  It can be a Gratitude journal, where you write down five things you are thankful for each night before you go to bed.  It may be a prayer journal, where you write down names of people and their needs that you pray for.  I know one woman who keeps two series of journals that I am aware of:  a personal journal, and  a journal from her to her son, in which she has recorded things she wants to share with her son when he is older – thoughts and events beginning from when they decided to adopt a child, continuing to today.

As for what I write in my journal – ANYTHING GOES!  After all, I am the author – I decide what goes in!  I sometimes use a Bible study method called “SOAP” and apply it to my journal writing.  Here's how you do SOAP journaling:

S = Scripture.  Read a passage of Scripture.  Write down a verse or two that stand out.
O = Observation.  What is the meaning of this passage?
A = Application.  How can I apply this to my life?
P = Prayer.  Write a brief prayer, thanking God for what you have learned.

Don't let the words just sit idly on the pages!
There are many times in the Bible where God tells His people to remember the things He has done for them.  Reviewing your journal periodically will help you to recall how God has worked in and through your life, and help you to see that, even though He seemed distant at the time, He was walking right there along side of you. 

And share the inspired stuff!  God also wants us to tell others what He has done for us.  If you feel comfortable sharing something that you might feel is too good to keep confined to your journal, share it.  You don't necessarily have to hand your journal to a total stranger to have him read it. Email your insights  to a select group of people you think would appreciate it. Or, be bold and post it to your Facebook notes. By sharing you can allow God to use you to touch someone else's life, maybe even make their day.  For example, it might be something you learned while SOAP journaling.  If you had not written it down, chances are you might not have remembered it, and the other person's blessing would be lost.

Unfinished business
Allow journaling to become an ongoing process.  Before you get to the end of one volume, make sure you have a spare blank book on hand.  Just because you run out of blank pages your journal, it doesn't mean that your life is over!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

money, money, money, money ... MONEY!

Back in the 80's there was a movie called "The Money Pit".  In this movie, Tom Hanks and Shelley Long play a young couple who buy what they believe is the "perfect" house at the "perfect" price.  It's not long before they find their new home is really a fixer-upper, and not much longer before they realize how much fixin' this old house really needs.  Every time they'd fix something, another thing would go wrong, or the thing they just fixed would need re-fixing, requiring more and more money to be spent just to make the house habitable.

Don't you sometimes feel that way about life?  I know I do.  Things seem to be going pretty good, and BAM!  The washer and dryer quit working.  Then you receive a photo package in the mail of you running a red light.  Not only do you have to pay the ticket, but your insurance rates go up ridiculously as well.  Then the dog gets sick, requiring long-term medication and periodic blood tests at the vet, to the tune of $150 per visit.  And to top it off, your job implements cutbacks, which cuts your income down to 90% of what you were barely making it on before all this other stuff happened.

Your life just morphed into a money pit!

When financial circumstances seem like a bottomless abyss, it can be easy to focus on how little we have, and our desire to have more.  There is a statement in the Bible.  It's in Paul's first letter to Timothy (1Timothy 6:10).  (It's to the right-hand side of the Bible, almost - but not quite - to the end.)  It says, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

What?  Money is evil?  But we need it to pay the bills, feed the kids, for everything!

No, in and of itself, money is neither good nor evil, just as a chainsaw is neither good nor evil.  Both are merely tools.  It all depends on what you want to use it for (remember the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies?).

We all want money because of what we can do with it.  We can use it to fix the house, pay for college for the kids, save it to sustain us through lean times, and invest it for retirement.  Or we can choose to spend money on what entertains our momentary whims, to fill our bellies - sometimes to excess, or to help us mask our pain that we don't want to feel.  It's when we use our money without sound purpose and planning that we seem to contribute to our own money-pit syndrome.

Giving Up
One of the only shows I will go out of my way to watch is The Celebrity Apprentice.  In the show, two teams of celebrities are given various business endeavors to perform.  It may be anything from which team can raise the most money selling cupcakes, to designing a 3-page magazine ad for deodorant, to a launch-party event for a new product for a major electronics company, such as Kodak.  Each team selects a "project manager" who is responsible for making sure the task is completed on time and to the specifications set forth at the beginning of each episode.  While somebody from the losing team is "fired" (eliminated from the game), the project manager for the winning team receives anywhere from $10,000 to over $300,000, depending on the amount set for the task, for executing the project better than their opponent.  I don't know the exact figure, but I would venture to guess that during the season that just concluded, around $2 million was handed out to the winning celebrities.

The celebrities players come from all walks of life:  athletes, actors, politicians, comics (yes, there is a very subtle difference between politicians and comics), business entrepreneurs, rock stars, Victoria's Secret models, chefs, and more.  Each one starts the game with the hopes of winning as much money as they can.

What a greedy bunch of (insert epithet here)!

If the money were for him/herself, maybe.  But these men and women were not playing for personal gain - they were playing for charity. The outlook toward winning is different when it's for a cause bigger than themselves. The attitude was not "Look at me - See how much money I won!" but rather, "I won $20,000 for my charity.  That's x-number of people who will have early screening for cancer!" or "This win means that fewer Americans will go to bed hungry." or "This will bring us closer to a cure for this disease.  Someday no kid will have to go through what my daughter goes through every day."   They view the money not as something to be amassed for personal gain, but rather as a tool to be used to bring about change, comfort the afflicted, heal the sick, promote social justice.  Things that Jesus calls us to do.

There is nothing wrong with being financially prosperous.  But why do you want the money?  Is it to have the big house, the fancy car, the most toys on the block?  If so, at what cost?  I know a guy who bought a boat so that he could spend more leisure time with the wife and kids.  As it turns out, the family is spending even less time together than they did before because this guy has to spend more time working to pay for this boat that sees water only when it rains (and in Southern California, that ain't often)!

One sound principle of financial prosperity is to give 10% of what you earn and live on the other 90%.  That means if I earn $40,000 a year and gave 10% ($4,000), I'd have $36,000 a year to live on.  When budgeted properly, you can still have a comfortable life.  But then there are people at the other end of the giving spectrum.  People like R. G. LeTourneau.  He invented earth mover machines (think "bulldozer" and you get the idea).  You might think Mr. LeTourneau might have been financially dyslexic or something.  He gave 90% of what he earned and lived on the remaining 10%.  I don't know what his annual income was, but let's make the math easy and say it was $1 million a  year.  That would mean that he kept only $100,000 and gave away $900,000!  Because of this one man's priority of generous giving, countless lives were made better each year.  Plus, I'd venture to say, if he had a boat, he and the family would have spent lots of time together on the lake!

Most of us will never be in the 90% giving bracket.  But even if you have not been a consistent giver all your life it is not too late to start.  Begin with a goal of a giving a certain percentage of your income every payday, and work your way up to 10% or more. 
Start with giving to your local church.  Don't worry about not having enough left to make ends meet.  God sees to it that you will have what you need.  It may come in the form of receiving unexpected money.  People may unexpectedly invite you to dinner.  It may be as subtle as becoming more aware of how you spend what money you do have.  Participating in the office's morning Starbuck's run might not be as important any more.  Or, this new way of giving might be the extra incentive you need to finally quit smoking.

I admit, I do not give as much as I would like to.  But because I do give financially on a consistent basis, I am proud to say that I am part of a ministry that feeds the hungry, comforts the afflicted, works against social injustice, provides disaster relief, and brings the love of Jesus to those who might not know Him.

If you're a regular giver, I'd like to know how your giving makes a difference in the world.