Saturday, May 31, 2008

A work in progress

Today I am remembering that life is a journey, and that the point of this blog is the journey, not necessarily the destination. Because, quite frankly, I've been knocked on my rear by my old pal depression again.

You would think that after all these years I would get it. You'd think I'd understand that having a string of good days does not mean I'm in the clear. But this week was such a GOOD week. I've been just humming along on the last week of our women's Bible study and it has been amazing, both the study and the prayer times I've had. I have felt the presence of God in a very tangible way. And yet, here I am again, wanting to just hole up in my cave, feeling the dark clouds looming over me. What's up with that?

Maybe the point is humility. Maybe the point is to remind me that I am a work in progress. I will never be what I was fully meant to be until the day that I step into Christ's presence. Without this struggle, I'm not sure that I would do a very good job of remembering that. I think I would rest on my successes and not on Christ. I think that I would take joy for granted instead of being grateful for each measure of it that he gives to me. Life would become less about gaining strength and purpose from Christ and more about how wonderfully I was managing my life. I'm pretty sure that at heart I've got my own little battle with pride going on.

So, as a work in progress, I press on. I will rejoice in the good days, and take comfort that on the days that are harder, I am not alone. God, friends, family, church...it's not just me trying to make this journey alone.

"Because you are my help,


I sing in the shadow of your wings.


My soul clings to you,


your right hand upholds me."


Psalm 63:7,8 (New International Version)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Perspective shift

Life changes; your perspective shifts. You blink, and when you open your eyes you find that the things that mattered, don't, and the impossible has become the thing you have to try.

My perspective shifted on October 23rd, 2006. Only it wasn't so much a blink as an utter knockout from anesthesia that I awoke from to hear the words, "It wasn't cancer. We'll get the final lab results back tomorrow, but so far everything looks good."

The saga really began less than a month earlier with a routine doctor visit. Annual check-up, every woman knows the drill, yada-yada. Not fun, but typically uneventful. Not this time. As she felt my neck the doctor (fresh out of medical school, looking all of twenty years old) said, "How long have you had this lump in your neck?" Lump? What lump? I don't know how it escaped my attention, further inspection in the mirror showed what to my eyes looked like a grossly misshapen neck, or at least a visible lump. Clearly I fail in the health self-awareness category.

"I'm sure it's nothing," the child doctor said. Still, she referred me to an ENT specialist, who fit me in the following week.

"Well, I'm a little stumped as to what the problem is, it doesn't seem to be your thyroid but I'm not sure what else it could be," the specialist said, "still, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about." So, off she sent me to an endocrinologist for an ultrasound of my neck.

Several days later I lay on the table in the ultrasound room. Now, although an excellent doctor, this man does not win points in bedside manner. He had barely touched the ultrasound to my neck when he jumped up, bolted from the room calling to his receptionist, "Get me Dr. X on the phone, NOW." Gulp. There I lay for what seemed like forever. Finally he came back in, having determined his next step. "There's a large mass in your neck, we're going to do a needle biopsy."

O-k. Needles poking into my neck. Fun. Let me reassure anyone who may need that done in the future, it's not so bad. Let me also offer this bit of advise: if you have longer hair, pull it back in a ponytail or make sure it is all tucked securely under your head, because having the nurse unintentionally leaning on it, making it feel like every strand is going to rip out of your head as she holds your head still and not being allowed to talk or move to tell her that? MUCH more painful than the needle.

Several days later. Phone call. Please come back in to talk with the doctor. "The biopsy came back showing signs of cells that can sometimes be cancerous; the only way to know for sure is to take it out." And just like that I was scheduled for surgery barely two weeks later to remove the mass along with half my thyroid.

And two weeks later I woke up to find that it WASN'T cancer. Reprieve. Suddenly life stretched out in front of me filled with endless possibilities and I knew that I was not content to continue on the path I was on. For years I had plugged away at a career I hated, I had dropped my children off at daycare and wished in the secret part of my heart that it could be me caring for them all day. And it was no longer good enough for me.

Quitting work seemed impossible; mine was the main income and my husband is a social worker (interpretation - overworked and underpaid). But I had to do it; I had to dare to live the life that I knew I was meant to live. It took several months of planning, months of questioning, "Is this really the right thing?" But my husband was supportive, and about eight months later I turned in my notice and I have never looked back.

You blink. Life changes. Perspective shifts. When you feel yourself being called to something new, don't hold back in fear; don't cling to the way things have always been. Step out, take that risk. The way isn't always easy, but it IS where the greatest blessings wait.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Singing your part

Last night my friend Amy gave an awesome presentation to the women of our church. Amy is an incredible singer and voice teacher and she pulled illustrations from teaching someone to sing and related them to the Christian life. Not only did it make me miss my years of singing, but it made sense, I really got what she was trying to say.

This morning, as I was thinking back on her presentation I thought of a few parallels of my own.

When I was in seventh grade I sang in choir. At the beginning of the year the music teacher listened to us all and then assigned us our parts; he put me in the alto section. I HATED being an alto. Being an alto was no fun; we never got the beautiful melodies that the sopranos got, we just plodded along with our supporting lines. I thought it was so dull. I wanted to shine like the sopranos, the stars of the songs.

In my eighth grade year I somehow convinced him to put me in the soprano section. Finally! I was one of the ones who got to carry the song, the IMPORTANT part. I had a hard time hitting some of those high notes, but so what? I was important! I sat in the back row with the rest of the first sopranos and let me tell you, we were the most self-superior bunch of eighth grade sopranos you ever laid eyes on.

Fortunately I did some growing up between then and my junior year in high school when I qualified to sing in the concert choir. I learned that I am not a soprano after all, I am an alto through and through. No amount of singing Sandy Patty songs and straining to hit those high C notes was going to turn me into a soprano. I could train my voice to broaden my range a bit, but I couldn't change the God-given range I had. Now granted, as you move beyond eighth grade choir you get to sing music in which each part has its chance to shine, but the other parts are still needed to serve as a base for the ones carrying the melody. Even when my part isn't particularly exciting (there's a hymn in which the altos get to sing a grand total of 2 notes through the entire song), it's still necessary.

How many times in church do we wish that we were the 'sopranos'? The musicians up on stage, the gifted leaders and teachers, the people who do the stuff that seems important to us? We aren't all sopranos. Many of us are needed to play the supporting roles. To type the bulletins, pick up the trash, wipe the noses in the nursery, or just be there offering support and encouragement to those doing the tough jobs. When we are all singing in the part God intended for us, the church is alive with the music of Christ.

Listen. Close your eyes and just listen to how each part supports the whole. Imagine what it would sound like with just the soprano line. And be thankful for the part that you've been created to sing.





Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dancing in the rain

Once upon a time, so long ago that all remains of the memory is the fact that it happened, there was a little girl who danced in the rain. Summer showers pouring down, she turned her face to the sky and she spun and she danced.

I don't know why I have carried that scrap of memory with me for so many years, but there it is. Once I danced in the rain. Once, before life had its way. Once, before a deluge of 'don't do that' overwhelmed me. Once, before depression tightened its grip on my life. Once upon a time. But through the years, always in the farthest corner of my mind something kept whispering, "Once, you danced in the rain. One day, you will dance in the rain again."

Today it rained. I hid in the house as long as I could, but a family has to eat and I hate paying overdue fines at the library so off on my errands I went. First stop, the library, where I pulled my coat around me, hunched my shoulders and scurried into the building. Just like every other grown up was doing. But when I left, suddenly there was that memory again. Once, there was a little girl who danced in the rain. My shoulders straightened. My steps slowed. And as I walked to my car I lifted my face to the rain falling down on it, and I smiled. Not quite a dance, but a start.

What is your 'dancing in the rain'? What joys are held only as distant memories? Does it seem as if the time for joy has passed you by? Lift your face; feel the rain. The time to dance is coming again.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ultimatums

(Disclaimer, no criticism is intended towards anyone with facial hair. I bear no facial hair prejudices. Furthermore, you are hereby placed on notice that any topic not of a confidential nature uttered within my hearing has the potential to start the wheels turning and end up inspiring a blog post.)

Before I married my husband I gave him two ultimatums. Don't ever ask me to move to South Dakota and don't ever grow facial hair. No beard, no mustache, no goatee, nada. I felt that these were entirely reasonable ultimatums to issue. After all, South Dakota is a barren wasteland whipped by unending blizzards in the winter, tornados in the spring, and dust in the summer. And facial hair is itchy. Acceptable on other men, just not on the one I'm kissing.

Well, as you may have surmised from prior posts, I now live in South Dakota. My husband is a man of his word though and never asked me to move here; the idea was all mine. I am, however, happy to report that there are far fewer blizzards, tornados and dust storms than previously imagined. In fact, South Dakota is a very lovely state most of the time. A bit windy, and it could use a few more mountain ranges sprinkled about the state, but it has a beauty all its own, a beauty that can be alternately quiet and wild. (I still remember my first South Dakota thunderstorm and how I sat by the window for almost half an hour that night watching the lightning turn the sky into a giant strobe light.)

The facial hair ultimatum, however, has remained unchanged and is likely to remain that way.

Ultimatums. Those uncompromising demands that carry the threat of severing relations if they are rejected. Life on OUR terms. Now obviously I love my husband, and I would have married him, South Dakota, facial hair and all. But am I guilty of issuing ultimatums in other areas of my life? Am I guilty of issuing ultimatums to God?

I grieved deeply when some close friends had a daughter born with a congenital heart defect that meant she would live for only a matter of days. I drove up into the mountains and I hiked and climbed and prayed. And I tried to strike a deal. "God, heal Keslie and I PROMISE that the first thing I write that sells, all the proceeds are yours." Yes, I was trying to get God to do two things for me at once.

Ultimatums, deals, call it what you like; often I want God to operate on my schedule, to conform to my fears, my likes and dislikes. I want God on MY terms. I hold back from turning over my whole self to him because what if he wants me to do something I don't like? So I hand over little bits and pieces, with ultimatums and deals attached. "Ok, God, you can have this part of me if you will PROMISE never to make me go to Africa or any other place with bugs. OK, God, I will be faithful to say what I sense you want me to say, as long as its on my blog and NOT in front of the church. OK, God, I'll give up this, but don't take that, ok?"

We miss the point. God is God. He can do whatever he wants. He doesn't need our petty little deals and he doesn't have to abide by our ultimatums.

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made,


their starry host by the breath of his mouth.


He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;


he puts the deep into storehouses.


Let all the earth fear the Lord;


let all the people of the world revere him.


For he spoke, and it came to be;


he commanded, and it stood firm.


The Lord foils the plans of the nations;


he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.


But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,


the purposes of his heart through all generations.


(Psalm 33: 6-11 from the NIV)


 


I'm issuing ultimatums to the one who was before all, is in all and rules all? I think I'm going to strike a deal with the one who is able to foil the plans of nations? A few days ago I questioned "Is God good?". I'm still working on the answer to that, reconciling tragedy with a loving God. But this I do know. God is God. He doesn't become less God in my mind if I question him, but he does if I start to think I can control him.


 


Lord, today, let my honest prayer be to listen for your purpose and your plans. No ultimatums, no deals, just every area of my life open to your will.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

God is good?

When I was fresh out of college I got involved in the campus ministry that our church sponsored on the various campuses in the area. I suppose I got involved more out of friendship with the leader than any direct giftings in that area; I'm not sure that my involvement did anyone much good. It was also a time of a lot of personal upheaval in my life and I was questioning my path and questioning God.

I remember sitting at one meeting next to one of the leaders of the campus ministry. I don't remember the topic of the meeting, but at one point I believe we were supposed to turn to each other and say "God is good all the time, all the time God is good." I couldn't say it. I'm not in the habit of blithely repeating platitudes if I don't really believe them in the core of my being. It's one of those things that bug me in church services, when we are supposed to turn to our neighbor and say something pious, something that underscores the pastor's point. If I don't believe it I feel like I'm lying or being hypocritical, and repeating it isn't going to make me suddenly say "Oh, I get it!" (If there is some theological point I'm missing here, please do enlighten me.) At any rate, I did not feel like saying that God was good because I was not certain that he was. The leader seated next to me kept repeating it to me, kept insisting that I say it. News flash, I'm stubborn. Push me to do something and I will dig my heels in and push back with all my might.

So no, I never said it. And this is still one of the big questions of spirituality that I struggle with. I know that it requires a good God to make the kind of sacrifice required to bring us salvation. I know that Matthew 7:11 says "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"  And then there is the infamous Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (I can promise you, if I ever suffer a devastating loss and someone quotes that to me while the loss is still fresh, I will probably smack them.)

So, we have God, who gives good gifts and works for the good of those who love him.

And then we have 22,000 (and counting) dead in Myanmar. Up to a million homeless. Am I supposed to believe that none of those loved God? How is it good to take away the little that someone has left? I know that we live in a broken world, and disasters both natural and manmade are a consequence of that. But still I question, is God good?

I know that it makes my petty problems pale in comparison, but surely 22,000 people weren't wiped off the face of the earth just so I could feel better about myself. A better question maybe is, is God FAIR? Are fair and good part of the same package? Can God be one and not the other?

Today I don't have any answers. Just questions.

Lord, give me the grace to trust you even when I question you.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

More than enough

The weather forecast today is calling for 'abundant sun'. After days of rain, some late season snow, and a lot of wind I suppose the good people at the Weather Channel figured we needed a glorious adjective like abundant to describe such a beautiful day.

Dictionary.com defines abundant as 'present in great quantity, more than adequate, richly supplied'. And abundance is used throughout the Bible. God doesn't hold back and just let a trickle of grace through; it's abundant!

If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  (Romans 5:17 (RSV))



Grace. More than adequate, richly supplied. Sometimes I think I'm operating under the assumption that God is going to run out of grace. "Well, if you've got enough to go around, God, I'll take some. If not, I'll understand." Nope, his grace is abundant!

I think I'm going to go soak up some of that abundant sunshine while I think about the incredible gift of God's abundant grace. There's more than enough for us all!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Part of the family

The other night, with my husband out of town, I allowed the boys to come spend the night in our bed. (OK, really I was just afraid that they'd need me and I wouldn't hear them.) Getting two small boys to fall asleep in the same bed is no small feat; it's like they are some unstoppable energy machine that has to keep on making noise and wiggling until 'boom' the battery runs out and silence and cessation of motion ensue instantly. There were repeated cries of "Mom, he's bothering me," and "Mom, he's poking me." And finally there was the ultimatum. "Mom, I don't want Indy to be a part of our family any more."

Oh dear. What is a parent supposed to do with THAT statement? I'm not even sure what heinous crime Indy committed in order to deserve banishment from the family, something about scrubbing that was keeping Gates awake. I gently told Gates that we are all part of this family and I would be very sad if anyone was missing because I love them both so much.

I suppose it isn't that uncommon to hear from our children. I can recall wishing every now and then that my brothers belonged to a different family (or that I did). What made me sad as I thought about it today is that sometimes we carry that attitude with us into adulthood and into the church. Are there people in your church that make you think "Boy, I wish they weren't part of the family; I wish they'd go someplace else?" I'm not talking about the people who are making things difficult for the church, I'm talking about the people that we just don't like. Maybe their personality irritates you. Maybe they have a disability that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe they don't dress 'right'. Maybe they challenge your faith in areas you don't want to be challenged in. Somehow they 'scrub' us the wrong way.

When I was a young single I was part of a small group made up of mostly other young singles and a few newlyweds. Most of us were the 'cool' or at least in my case 'semi-cool' singles in the church. And then there were two girls I'll call Vicki and Kim. Or, as our small group leaders dubbed them, Speedy and Needy. Ouch. It was no secret to anyone in the group except these girls that they weren't wanted. We don't want you in the family, you talk too much. We don't want you in the family, you need too much. Your personality is scrubbing up against me and it irritates me. God, forgive me for not wanting people in my church family that you had placed there. When we stop seeing people as part of our family, we lose the ability to BE family to them. We forget that God put them there, just as surely as he placed each of our children in our earthly families.

Who don't you want in your family? Are there still people I wish weren't a part of mine?

I like what I heard someone say recently, if someone irritates you, pray for them. Continue to pray for them. You may not like their behavior any better, but you will find yourself being filled with love for them. You will begin to see them as part of your family.

Colossians 3:12-15 is one of many passages that talks about the church as one body:

12Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.



One body. One family. We strive to cultivate things like compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience in our own families. Can we humble ourselves enough to try to cultivate them in our church family as well?