Saturday, November 14, 2009


Last weekend I hung out with a friend, her husband, and the 8-year old girl she mentors through a volunteer program. At the end of the day, we all went to get dinner at Panera Bread. My friend is on Weight Watchers and was calculating the points of the dinner entree she wanted to order. The little girl asked her if she had enough points left for it. "I'm not sure," my friend said. "But I get splurge points every week and I never use them, so I think it's OK for me to go ahead and have it." Then the little girl asked us what 'splurge' means. We tried to explain that splurging means indulging beyond your usual limit (calories, spending, etc.) and that it ought to be done sparingly.

The trick with splurging, as with so many other things, is self-control. Last week I decided to splurge on a treat, but before I knew it, one treat had turned into two days of eating unhealthy food. I've noticed that the danger of overindulging is particularly bad when I am dissatisfied with my regular life. If I'm not happy, then I'll want to do more than splurge--I'll want to divert myself as far from my regular routine as possible in order to distract myself from whatever's bothering me, even if it's completely unrelated to whatever I'm overindulging in. That's why stress eating and drinking alcohol when we're upset aren't good for us. They don't really help. We're not really hungry or trying to have a good time. Instead, we're trying to distract ourselves from other problems. So I need to make sure I'm not misusing my splurging. I was in a funk last week, so splurging on food was a bad idea. It's much better to allow myself a little indulgence when I'm already feeling happy, when I don't feel like I need it, but it's just a special little treat. When I want a cookie because I'm stressed, it's probably not a good idea to have one. But when I want a cookie because it's a beautiful day and it's been a while since I had a cookie, why not?

I think a little bit of splurging now and then can be healthy. If I'm mostly happy with the way things are, a little splurge is all I need. I won't go off the deep end because I'm not trying to escape from anything--I just want to enjoy a little taste. One new dress can be perfect all by itself, and a couple bites of dessert can make an entire day. Because I enjoy my life, I just want little diversions now and then, not to completely vacate my life. I don't need a weeklong trip to Rome to shake up my regular routine. A little weekend getaway on my anniversary can do the job just fine.

In fact, splurging can help us appreciate our regular life even more. I wouldn't want to buy new clothes or eat really tasty food or travel the world all the time. I also want to just relax and live my life. Those treats are exciting because they're the exception rather than the rule, and getting back to regular life after a fun splurge can be a treat in and of itself. As Frank Sinatra sang, "It's very nice to go trav'ling to Paris, London, and Rome. It's oh so nice to go trav'ling, but its so much nicer, yes it's so much nicer to come home." Sure, I like to buy new things sometimes, but I also really enjoy using the things I already have. I love chocolate, but I also love salad. I like to throw a little variety into the mix now and then, but I also really thrive in my routine. Splurging is a fun accent in my life, not the main attraction. Just like my friend doesn't need her splurge points every week, I'm also pretty happy with my regular life. Still, we both deserve that tasty treat once in a while.

Friday, November 13, 2009

We Draw the Lines

Recently a man at one of the Bible studies I attend told a story about his experience giving a presentation in a second grade classroom. His presentation was intended the help the kids get in the habit of thinking about the world around them. At one point he projected on the screen a picture of Earth taken from space. He asked the students to respond to the picture, and one little girl said, "We draw the lines." When he asked her to elaborate on that, she pointed at the globe in the classroom that was marked with the boundaries between countries. "Those black lines aren't really there," she said. "We draw the lines."

People draw all kinds of lines. We separate people into groups based on where they live, what they look like, what they believe, what they have, and the people with whom they associate. These divisions don't really exist for God. God created us with a wide variety of attributes, but He still sees us as equals in spite of our differences. Paul wrote that there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female when it comes to God and our salvation through Christ. God doesn't care all that much about our backgrounds, our social status, or even our race or gender. He cares about what's in our hearts, and all of us have the same potential to be faithful children of God.

Our world is full of racism, sexism, classism, discrimination, and elitist and exclusionary behavior. As a Christian, however, I need to challenge myself to purge those things from my life because they are not of God. I need to be able to understand that people are inherently equal and loved by God even as I make decisions about how to respond to their actions, both good and bad. I know that I live in a world where the lines we've drawn have a lot of power, and I can't just pretend they aren't there. Still, it's my responsibility to challenge these artificial divisions whenever I can and to try not to let them stop me from sharing love with the people around me. I have a very different life from most of the people on the planet, but how different are we really on the inside? Our common humanity is more important to me than the lines we draw.

I want to connect to all kinds of people without limiting myself to associations that society deems appropriate. I want to be friends with people who are different from me—with men, people of other races, people from other countries and cultures, people with more or less money than I have, people who don't work outside the home, people with children, and people whose political and religious beliefs differ from mine. I want to have people in my life who look, sound, and live differently from me. I don't want to draw a line to keep them out of my life—I want to invite them in so they can enrich my perspective on the world and challenge me to connect with them on a deeper level. I am so glad that God made such a wide variety of people and that He loves all of us. It's great news that we are the ones who draw the lines, because that means we can help erase them too.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It Takes a Village

The saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," is becoming increasingly popular. Experts on child development tell us how important it is for children to have a variety of positive influences and role models in their young lives. They need encouragement, support, and guidance from multiple sources. Having several caring adults in their lives will diversify their education and provide a stronger foundation for them as they grow up.

I don't think children are the only ones who benefit from the village, however. Growing up doesn't erase the need we have for other people in our lives. As an adult, I still need emotional support and guidance from a variety of caring sources. As a Christian, I need to be connected to other Christians who will help me on my faith journey. So many facets of our culture promote independence as part of growing up, but I sometimes think we take that idea too far. When we isolate ourselves, we only make our problems bigger and deprive ourselves of resources that could help us find and employ solutions. None of us can be expected to deal with everything in our lives completely on our own. I need people with knowledge and skills that differ from mine to help me when I'm out of my depth. I also need the strength of others when my strength alone is not sufficient. Where would I be without doctors, pastors, or family members?

All too often, the American macho standard for life seems to go something like this:
  1. Try to do everything you can completely on your own.
  2. Ask for help only if you're absolutely sure you can't do it on your own (often after several failed attempts).
  3. Only ask people for help if they are beholden to you for some reason or if you can repay them in some way. Make sure it's clear that the other person was either obligated to help you or will be repaid in full so you don't have to feel guilty for imposing on them.
  4. Don't tell anyone that you had to ask for help and pretend it never happened.
  5. Go back to trying to do everything on your own again. Try to make up for having had to accept help by being stronger in the future.
In our culture of "self-made men" it seems admirable to be able to take care of things ourselves. But none of those "self-made-men" are really completely self-made. They all had people who contributed to their success—investors, customers, colleagues, family members, friends, employees, etc. All of us need help sometimes, so it's time to stop being in denial about it. Humans are social creatures, and it's in our nature to interact with each other. We're supposed to connect and to empathize and to contribute. Community is part of who we are, and it's one of our greatest strengths, not a weakness. The more people we connect with, the larger the array of resources at our disposal. Using our resources to help others also helps us to grow and develop. The give and take of community is good for everyone involved.

As a Christian, I understand that I am part of the Body of Christ, a group made up of countless believers. Being part of such a huge group is an awesome gift. Yes, I do have responsibilities to the other members because I am part of the group, but they're also going to look out for me. When I have problems, there are people who are going to pray for me. When I am sick or mourning, there will be people to comfort me, visit me, and bring me meals. When I need professional advice, one of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ may be able to help me out. When I'm struggling in a relationship, a wise friend may be able to offer a useful perspective. I don't have to do my work or live a Christian life all on my own. It's OK for me to ask for help, even as an adult. It's OK for me to cry on someone's shoulder or to ask for guidance or to accept advice. God wants us to help each other, not to struggle through life on our own. There is no pride in standing alone, because doing so will only deprive us of the chance to grow from interacting with others.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to support a healthy Christian. I thank God every day for my village.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


This is a day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it! (Psalm 118:24)

Joy is supposed to be a part of my everyday life. It's not reserved for my best days or extraordinary circumstances. Joy is more than happiness and steadier than good times. For me, joy is a recognition of the light that permeates the darkness in this world. Even when times are tough, I know that good triumphs over evil, and that's something to celebrate. Nothing, no matter how evil or painful, can take away the fact that I will be loved and blessed every day of my life, so I will rejoice!

There are so many small yet profound moments in my daily life that foster my joy. I don't need a momentous occasion in order to have something to celebrate. For example:
  • I can see healing and hope in the lives of some loved ones who have been suffering. I will rejoice!
  • I look in the mirror and have a reasonably positive self-image these days. I will rejoice!
  • This weekend I got to hang out with friends and enjoy some lovely weather. I will rejoice!
  • I am in the best shape of my life, and consequently I can do physical tasks that I had trouble with only a year ago. I will rejoice!
  • This morning I woke up knowing that God was with me. I will rejoice!
  • I get to sing some really beautiful music with my choir for our upcoming Christmas concert, and it moves me to really appreciate the wonder of the season. I will rejoice!
  • My husband missed some work and lost some pay because he had the flu for a week, but he's recovered and we still have more than enough money to get by. I will rejoice!
  • Even when I don't get to eat all of the foods I want (because I'm trying to watch what I eat) the food I do eat still tastes really good to me. I will rejoice!
  • Every time I smile at someone, I get a chance to brighten that person's day. I will rejoice!
This is just a small sampling that I rattled off in a few minutes. I have hundreds of reasons to rejoice every day. Through the ups and downs, I know that I am loved and blessed, and that's so wonderful. How can I not rejoice? There is a lot of darkness in this world. I know that. But that doesn't diminish the beauty and the wonder of the light. Praise be to God!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pastor Appreciation

I have an interesting history with priests and pastors. My earliest memory of interacting with clergy members dates back to when I was about three years old. I used to tag along with my mom to Bible studies and craft circles. One of her groups used to have little prayer services, and the priest would invite me to help him ring the bell. He also helped me put out the candles after the service with a little child-sized candle snuffer. I didn't understand a lot of what was going on in the service, but I loved being able to participate. The next minister I remember was a cheerful man we all called "Father Pete" who used to give me a hug every Sunday on my way out of church. I was eight or nine years old, and I loved his warm smile.

My relationships with clergy members got a little more complex as I grew older. I spent years with a couple of priests that I respected only to be disappointed when they drifted away towards questionable theology and developed a tendency to target parishioners who didn't agree with them. When I was in middle school my family even had to leave a church because we got a new priest who was downright rude to us (and to plenty of other people, too). Later in college I attended a service in a local church during which the priest delivered a highly politicized sermon that made me so angry that I gave up on trying to go to church for several months afterward. Then I started dating a man from a different denomination and learned what it felt like to have pastors tell me they didn't want to serve me communion.

For a while I treated the clergy with suspicion. I supposed that they were all well-intentioned, but it seemed like they thought they were a little smarter and a little better than the rest of us. I worried that they would pass judgment on me if I got too close. Finally I found my way to a wonderful church with three excellent pastors who gently erased that stereotype and taught me how to trust clergy members again. Throughout my years at this church I have watched the ways that these pastors shepherd our congregation and the important contributions they make to our community, and I have new admiration for how noble the calling to the clergy can be.

I know that my pastors aren't perfect. They're people, just like me. But I can also see how devoted they are to sharing God's love and to meeting the needs around them, and I have so much respect for them because of that. They work long hours and willingly take on burdens, and their efforts make a huge difference. I personally benefit enormously from every sermon, every Bible study session, every conversation, and even every chance encounter that I share with these special people. I used to think that I didn't need a pastor to guide me in my spiritual journey, but now I really understand what a difference it makes to have such kind, wise, and devoted people to help me along the way. Even though there are minor irritations and disagreements in these relationships, the problems are far outweighed by the love and mutual respect.

I really value my relationships with my pastors, so I don't view these people as 'service providers'. We have a two-way connection that requires me to invest in them even as I enjoy the benefits of their commitment to me. I endeavor to be a blessing to my pastors because they have blessed my life so richly. I look for ways to pitch in because I know how busy they are working on behalf of so many people. I am ready to forgive them when there are bumps in the road because I love them. I am so glad that God has taught me to appreciate the difference caring pastors can make in my life. They have taught me important lessons about patience, generosity, gentleness, and humility, and I want to honor them by applying those lessons to my life.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Successes of Others

I really do love to see other people succeed. Sometimes it can be as wonderful to be a supporter in the crowd as it is to be the person being cheered on. Just as a whole city will celebrate when its team wins a big game, sometimes someone else's success can seem like a broader victory for lots of people. Loving people means wanting good things for them, so I feel joy when I see the people I love being blessed.

Of course, the kind of joy I feel over others' good fortune is a pure kind of feeling, and it can sometimes be sullied by the darker side of my personality. When pride and jealousy kick in, I can start thinking about whether I deserve success or recognition more than someone else. I may feel bitter, questioning why the people I love struggle so much when some other people seem to find so much more success. I may even despair, feeling that I am trapped in an unfair and random world where I just have to watch some people succeed with no power to bring good things to myself or others. All of these feelings are comparative, however, and by setting myself up in opposition to other people who are enjoying success, I am missing a big truth: good gifts are meant to be shared.

When I feel joy because someone else has been blessed with good fortune, I'm being blessed too. Likewise, when I am joyful or at peace, I can pass those gifts on to the loved ones in my life. After all, we don't usually celebrate our successes all alone. We gather together our family and loved ones and celebrate together, spreading our joy to others and sharing some of our good fortune with them. I don't want to let my sinful, selfish nature stop me from receiving a share of the joy. I want to receive it and then continue passing it on to others.

The Bible speaks of Christians as one body. What is good for one of us benefits all of us in some way. This idea can really be expanded to all of humanity. God made all of us and calls us all his children, so we are all related in a special way. We are sharing this world together, and so the health of each person contributes to the health of the entire populace. We are surrounded by all kinds of different connections with the people around us, and each of those connections are conduits through which we can share blessings and joy. When peace comes to some far off corner of the world, we can all celebrate because we live in a more peaceful world. When my friends have success, I will be glad because their joy will make our relationship richer and more beautiful. When others come to Christ, I will rejoice gladly because they will make the body of Christ to which I belong stronger and more diverse.

When God promised Israel that He would bless them, He also promised to make them a blessing to all the nations. That is the wonderful thing about God's gifts—they benefit more than the direct recipient. So I wish each of you great joy and success, and I hope that you're able to share your good fortune with many, many people. When I hear about good things happening in your life, I'll be rejoicing for you and for the world that will share in  your happiness.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


We all know that we're not really supposed to play favorites. That's because secretly all of us want to be the favorite. When favorites are chosen, that sets up a system where there are winners and losers, and all of us long to be chosen and dread being left out. That's why God doesn't play favorites. He loves all of us and wants us all to be included in His wonderful kingdom. We're so used to comparing ourselves to others, however, that we can have trouble dealing with God's lack of favoritism. If we don't feel favored, then we worry that we're unfavored, that others have been chosen over us. We sometimes even create a false notion of being more beloved than our neighbors. Jesus had a lot to say about that kind of hypocrisy when he came down to Earth, but we still haven't entirely learned the lesson.

We often have trouble differentiating favoritism from uniqueness in personal relationships. If we notice that we are being treated differently from another person, then we assume that there must be a value judgment implicit in that. Humans are not a 'one size fits all' race, however. I can't treat all of my friends the same because they have different needs and interests. If I choose to take one friend with me to an event, it will be because I think that friend will enjoy this particular experience the most, not because I like that friend better than my other friends. I will also choose different friends to help me with different tasks based upon their own individual strengths.

Likewise, God treats us all a little differently because His relationship with each of us is unique. God may need to be firm with one person and gentle with another depending on their emotional states. God calls some people to high-profile missions because they have the skills necessary to do the job, not because they are His favorites. God has a mission for each of us, and that mission is custom-fit to us. When God encourages or disciplines us, He uses the method that will work best on each of us. It's truly marvelous that God knows us all well enough to customize His relationship with each of us. If God responds to us differently from others sometimes, we should see that as a sign of God's great love for us and for others, not as favoritism.

Of course, we're not as fair and impartial as God, so sometimes we do have favorites. What's important is for us to keep favoritism from obscuring the ways we can meet the unique needs of the people in our lives. I can't devote all of my time to my husband just because he has a special place in my life. I also need to meet the needs of the other people I love. Likewise, I can't try to treat all of my friends the same out of a fear that they might think I'm playing favorites if I don't. I need to challenge myself to evaluate each person's needs on an individual basis so that I can love everyone in my life to the best of my ability. Even if I do have favorites, I should remember how important the other people in my life are too. I don't want to get by with just a best friend—all of my friends are precious to me. So I will invest in all of them, because they are all special.
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