Saturday, November 21, 2009

Care Packages

I've seen lots of comments on Facebook from parents about the care packages they're sending to their college-aged children. It's that time in the term when students are getting very busy and longing for a taste of home and/or some sustenance to fuel them through late-night study sessions. In this midst of this flurry of care package posts, a friend of mine wrote, "I have discovered that you're never too old to appreciate a care package from your mom." For some reason, reading this sentence morphed the ideas "never too old" and "mom" into the conviction that I ought to send a care package to my mom. College students aren't the only ones who enjoy receiving tasty food and "thinking of you" cards in the mail, after all.

It might seem kind of silly to pay a significant sum to ship a normal batch of cookies across several states just because. It's not her birthday or a holiday or anything. Still, it seemed like a really good idea, and the satisfying feeling I got handing the box over to the shipping guy was worth every penny I paid. It's like I was in one of those Master Card commercials. "Batch of gingerbread cookies: $x. 2-day shipping to Tennessee: $x. Letting Mom know you care: Priceless." We all know that the care packages aren't about the food, after all. Showing that we care is worth so much more than the present we use to send that message.

The retail industry has already started marketing to Christmas shoppers, so I am well aware that we live in a materialistic society. Nevertheless, as a Christian I still think there is a benefit to giving people gifts, even for no particular reason. It's (relatively) easy to say, "I love you," but taking the initiative to give someone a gift, even a small batch of cookies, shows that we care enough to take that special action. I don't just want to tell Mom I love her—I want to show her. This is just one little way that I can do that. Although buying and making things for people can be nice, I don't necessarily need money to give someone I love a special treat. I can babysit their kids or do yard or house work for them. I can make gifts of quality items I have that I no longer use. I can take time to pay a special visit or to call someone I haven't talked to in a while. All of these things are like little care packages.

I still have very strong memories of some of the unexpected presents I've received. I remember how I almost cried when my college friends surprised me with a fleece pullover when I was high on stress and low on cold weather clothes and cash. I remember the cute little stuffed animal that one of my roommates gave me for no particular reason. I'm still touched by the time my dad sent me flowers because he was out of town on a special day in my life. I appreciate all the recipes that my coworker has shared with me because she thought I'd be interested in them, and I'm still warm and fuzzy over the time I came home and my husband had done a bunch of my chores for me. I cherish mix CDs given to me by friends and special outings with loved ones.

Because I have these special memories, I can get positively giddy at the chance to provide my loved ones with comparable experiences. I love giving gifts. I enjoy seeking out items that will please my loved ones, and I relish the chance to see their eyes light up when I surprise them with a gift they like. It's wonderful to have a chance to remind others that I think they're special, that they're worth the effort I put into surprising them with gifts. It's true that I can't afford to give all of my loved ones really nice presents all the time. Still, there are so many ways I can make special efforts to show them I care. I hope that I stay motivated to look for special chances to show others that I care in everyday life. It's never a bad time to send a care package.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pep Talk

Sometimes I get a little discouraged in my Christian life. I may feel worried or afraid when faced with challenges or uncertain circumstances. Luckily, the Bible is full of encouraging passages that I can use to give myself a pep talk in hard times.

When I feel scared about what could happen to me, I can reflect on these passages:
  • "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1)
  •  "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9)
  •  "The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (2 Timothy 4:18)
  • "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)
When I worry about my own limitations and my ability to do the work God has given me to do, these verses encourage me:
  • "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you." (Psalm 32:8)
  • "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way." (Psalm 25:9)
  • "For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice, and He preserves the way of His godly ones. Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course." (Proverbs 2:6–9)
  • "Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know." (Jeremiah 33:3)
  • "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Luke 11:9–10)
  •  "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory." (Psalm 73:24)
There are so many verses beyond these that encourage me to stay positive and to embrace God's peace in my life, even if circumstances are tumultuous. God is taking care of me, and He's helping me on my walk through life. He's going to rescue me when I get into trouble, going so far as to give me eternal life when I die. God will give me guidance when I don't know what to do and strengthen me as I deal with difficult tasks. I'm never alone. God is with me, and He's my biggest cheerleader. So here are a few final notes to wrap up this spiritual pep talk:
  • "The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him." (Psalm 126:3,6)
  • "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you." (Isaiah 26:3)
  • "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12–13)
  • "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
  • "Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10)

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I've learned that discipline is an important part of my life as a Christian. I don't get to just do whatever I want whenever I want. I have goals and priorities, and I need discipline to help me achieve them. Discipline gives me a plan, a direction, and a structure for my life that helps give it meaning.

I've learned that discipline is about being held accountable, not being punished. For example, I'm currently trying to lose weight. In order to do that, I need to be disciplined about my diet and my exercise. I have to go work out a certain number of times per week even if I'm feeling lazy, and I have to deny myself some of the food I crave. If I don't have that discipline, I won't achieve my goal of losing weight. Still, I'm not perfect, and sometimes I cheat on my diet or blow off a workout. Then I need to discipline myself by getting back on track. It wouldn't make any sense for me to just punish myself for my failure and then give up on the weight loss entirely. The whole point of discipline is to keep me working toward the goal, not to make me feel bad for the times when I mess up. Punishment isn't the same thing as discipline, and punishing myself won't help me lose weight. Instead, I remind myself of the importance of my goal and spur myself onwards instead of wallowing in regret for past mistakes. I need to be able to have the same type of accountability built into every goal that's important to me.

Self-discipline is really important. I can't just depend on other people to hold me accountable—I need to be able to do it myself. But self-discipline is about more than warning myself not to do bad things and committing myself to change when I do mess up. Self-discipline is also a positive thing. It means being my own cheerleader, encouraging myself to stay the course when I'm making progress and reminding myself how worthy my goals are when the going gets tough. I have to say, "Keep it up!" to myself just as often as I think, "Don't do that!". I need to be in touch with my own needs and make sure I'm giving myself what's necessary to do the things I want to do. Self discipline can mean making sure I get enough sleep so that I can wake up and be productive the next day. It can mean spending quality time with my loved ones and having a little fun sometimes so that I can stay emotionally healthy and retain a positive attitude that will help me accomplish my goals. Taking good care of myself is part of being disciplined. Being healthy and emotionally stable make it a easier to reach my goals and live a Christian life.

I've also discovered that discipline is about more than just willpower. Sometimes I need a little help keeping myself on track, and that's OK. I don't just will myself to eat healthy food and exercise regularly. I make sure that my favorite snack foods are never in my house, I usually avoid restaurants, and I pay a personal trainer to hold me accountable to a regular workout schedule and push me through challenging exercises. Likewise, I can't just will myself to be a good Christian—I need to develop strategies to help me and I need to bring in allies who will support me. My Christian life doesn't exist in a vacuum any more than my weight loss program does. There are distractions all around me that can draw me away from my goals, but there are also tools and networks that can help me. Discipline doesn't mean being strong enough to do everything myself. I need to marshal my own strength and abilities, but I also need to be smart enough to use any assistance at my disposal to help me reach my goals.

Sometimes discipline is tough. It can involve listening to people who are telling me I've got to do better, and I may need to face the consequences of my actions. It can be really painful to face my failings, but that's worth it if I have a chance to learn something that will help me achieve a cherished goal. If sin is standing between me and those I love, I need to face it so that I can repent and be free of its negative influence. Improvement is the point, not guilt. The pain of discipline will bring joy in the end, so it's worth it to me. The people who help discipline me are providing me a great service because they are helping me to grow. I may not fully appreciate that at the time, but once the painful part is over I can see what I've gained. Discipline is nothing to be afraid of, and I embrace it as part of my Christian life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

High-Risk Investments

Would you invest your money in a business that was losing money or team up with a partner who's declared bankruptcy in the past? Would you bail out someone who you thought was unlikely to repay you? Would you hire an employee with no work experience for an important job in your company? Any of these things could put our hard-earned money at serious risk, and we would probably be very cautious about all of them. This post isn't about money,  however. It's about people. We often apply the same kind of risk analysis to relationships that we apply to business propositions. If we invest in another person, will we be rewarded or will we be hurt? Will the people we love love us back? If we're there for them, will they be there for us? If we try to help them, will they break our hearts by going back to their old ways? The answers to these questions often shape how we treat other people. We don't want to risk our time or our hearts any more than our money, so we shy away from people who look like high-risk investments.

Jesus didn't balk at risky relationships, however. He invested large amounts of his time and love in a motley collection of fisherman, tax collectors, and all-around nobodies who became his disciples and his friends. He spent time with social outcasts and degenerates, and he invested a lot of effort in trying to explain the truth to people who were very prejudiced against him. Jesus shared much of his ministry with Judas, who would go on to betray him, and he bestowed the leadership of his church on Peter, who would deny and abandon Jesus after his arrest. He devoted himself entirely to saving a world full of sinners who would never be able to give him anything comparable in return. Jesus invested in lost causes, and I think He would like me and my fellow Christians to do the same.

I think that love is sometimes the only remedy for people whose lives have gone horribly wrong. You can give them money and jobs and rehab or you can lock them away in prisons or mental facilities where they can't hurt anyone, but if you want to truly change their lives, you have to love them. You have to invest. That's why I think things like mentoring programs for at-risk youth and prison ministry groups are so important. If we really want to turn a murderer into a good and loving Christian, we have to be willing to look that murderer in the eye and love him, even though he's a murderer. After all, Christ saves us by loving us in spite of our sin. That kind of love is very difficult, but I think it can also be all the more powerful because of that.

On the whole, I think that people have happier and better lives when they know they are truly loved. When love dominates our lives we're healthy and happy. When something else does (money, power, fear, etc.) we're not. In order to make a real difference in someone's life, I need to be able to invest in trying to make love a more central part of that person's life. That can mean putting up with the rough edges as the change takes place. If I wait for someone to be healthy and productive and able to reciprocate before I invest, then I am depriving myself of an opportunity to make a huge difference in that person's life. The friends that I just hang out and have fun with enjoy my company well enough, but I have a much deeper bond with the friends that I've fought for and stood by through thick and thin. These friends have taught me more about life, and my struggles during our relationship have made me a stronger and more loving person. I think I need the challenge of a few risky investments to keep me growing as a Christian, and I relish the chance to help those risky investments become solid investments.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Intrinsic Worth

Several days ago I was having a conversation with a trusted friend and mentor, and I mentioned the struggles that I have trying to 'measure up'. I was telling him that I sometimes worry about whether I am a good enough, faithful enough, or productive enough servant of God. He asked me how my status as a child of God fit into what I was telling him. "Well, I know God is going to love me no matter what I do," I replied. "I have intrinsic worth."

I do know in my heart that I have innate value that exists independently of my actions simply because I am created in the image of a God that loves me unconditionally. Still, my mind struggles with questions about whether I'm performing up to a high enough standard, especially considering all the good gifts I've been given. Am I using my talents wisely, or am I squandering them? As I tried to explain these feelings to my friend, I said, "I just don't want God to be ashamed of me." His reply went straight to my soul. "Oh Kayla," he said, "He could  never be ashamed of you." I know that my friend is right. God will be happy about my triumphs and sad about my struggles, and He may even be disappointed by my choices sometimes, but God will never be sorry He made me. God will continue to love me and want me even as I blunder through life making mistakes.

God loved me the moment He imagined me—before I had done a single thing good or bad, before I had even drawn my first breath. While I was still growing in my mother's womb, my relationship with God was already a beautiful love story. In fact, every single person is part of a love story with God. Some of those love stories have tragic elements. Some people may even choose to reject God forever, and their love stories may end with tears and regret. But throughout all of our lives, God's love for us remains constant. When we are estranged from God, we may even try to cover up or ignore the beauty that God put inside each of us, but our sins, no matter how heinous, are not strong enough to completely eradicate that intrinsic worth. We do have a say in how the plot unfolds, but our lives will always be love stories, because God will always love us.

I make mistakes, but God is not ashamed of me. God wants me to use the gifts He's given me well, but He doesn't despise me when I fall short. I do want to be the best Christian I can, but that desire should be based on joy for God's love, not fear of His rejection. I cannot make myself worthy of God's love, but I also can't get myself expelled from God's family for poor performance. That kind of takes the pressure off, doesn't it? God knows I'm going to succeed sometimes and fail sometimes, and He's OK with that. He's going to keep encouraging me through both triumphs and failures. That makes me free to just go out and do the best I can. I don't have to be afraid of my failures. I can approach life joyfully, being glad when I serve God well and rejoicing when my mistakes teach me how to grow into a better servant.

It's time for me to stop worrying about being good enough. God has already made me good enough Himself, and there's just no arguing with that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pay Attention

I've spent a lot of time thinking and learning about love over the past couple of years. I've studied what the Bible has to say about it, and I've tried to look for the lessons that the Holy Spirit is teaching me each day. I think that all the time I've spent actively thinking about love has made a huge difference in my life. Because I've been thinking so much about things like patience and kindness and humility, ways to apply them to my life often just pop into my head as situations arise. Writing this daily blog is part of my attempt to keep thinking about love so that these things stay at the forefront of my mind where they are easily accessible as I go through my day and make decisions. I also hope, however, that reading this blog will help all of you readers keep thinking about love as well.

Deliberately thinking about love has trained me to have different responses to some situations in life. Here are a few ways that my life has recently been shaped by my new awareness of love:
  • I was trying to get home after an appointment last week in time to watch a TV show. I'd gotten lost and was later than I expected to be. I was hurrying and trying to make it home on time, but I realized that I was driving aggressively when I found myself yelling at a driver who was going under the speed limit. "It's not worth it," I said to myself. "It's more important for me to be a safe and courteous driver than to satisfy some scheduling whim." So I slowed down and took my time going home, and I gave up on getting home at a specific time.
  • A few days ago, I got irritated with someone for failing to meet an expectation I had. Just as I was starting to get really annoyed, however, I remembered how much I love that person, and the irritation just evaporated. I realized that this problem really wasn't a big deal. 
  • I was trying to find a parking spot behind the building where I work. I found a really excellent one right by the door, but I needed to turn around at the top of the lot in order to get it. As I was turning around, another car appeared from the other direction. He was waiting to see if I was going to take the spot, but I decided to wave him around and let him have it.
  • When I go walking on the sidewalk, I try to make a conscious effort to look up and smile at the people I pass. I didn't always pay as much attention to them before. Whenever I go through a door I try to notice whether someone else is behind me so I can hold the door for that person. 
  • Someone at work approached me with an issue that really was not my problem. I felt the urge to blow that person off, but then I thought, if I can help, shouldn't I? It doesn't really hurt me to go out of my way to help with something that isn't technically my responsibility. 
  • I try really hard not to get snippy with my husband, but when I do, these days I usually notice and I almost always apologize very soon afterward. Then I make sure to tell him how much I love and appreciate him so that he realizes my behavior was just an isolated incident and not a sign that I'm unhappy in our relationship. Since I've been paying more attention to how I behave towards him, our bond has felt closer and more comfortable than ever.
I think that behaving in a loving fashion is a lot easier when we pay attention. We all know that we're supposed to be nice to people, and we know we're supposed to be patient, kind, humble, selfless, etc., but we don't always recognize the ways that we can apply those things in our everyday lives. I think we often get caught up on the big lessons (don't kill people) and sometimes don't notice the little things (don't yell at people). Thinking about love seriously allows me to realize the implications of my actions. I never used to give much thought to the implications of giving up a parking space, dealing with a problem that isn't my responsibility, or apologizing every time I'm a little rude. Now I try to pay attention to these types of everyday things as much as possible. I still make a lot of mistakes, of course, but I think I'm more aware now of the things that I'm doing, both good and bad, than I was before I started to actively think about love and how I incorporate it in my life.

A friend recently asked me what advice I would give to new Christians about how to make use of the power of love in their lives. This is how I answered:
Think about the kind of person you want to be. Think about it all the time. Pray about it. See what Scripture can teach you about it. The more you think about it, the more your actions will conform to your thoughts. At least, that's been my experience so far (not that I'm an expert, of course). I would add that thinking about things honestly doesn't mean beating yourself up for your mistakes. I have to be able to admit when I did something that wasn't ideal, but then I should use that knowledge to figure out how to move forward, not to punish myself. I'm frequently very aware of my shortcomings, but as long as I don't despair because of them that can be a big blessing. When I recognize them, my mistakes help me learn and grow.

I try to deliberately think about love every day, and I believe that those efforts are changing my life. I encourage you to give it a try yourself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quality Time

I think it's very important to spend quality time with my loved ones. In fact, I think quality time is one of the best gifts I can give the people I love. It's important for me to do things to help my loved ones, to provide guidance for them when they need it, and to give them gifts on special occasions or in their times of need, but quality time is the glue that holds our whole relationship together.

I don't consider all the time I spend with loved ones to be the 'quality time' to which I'm referring here. For me, 'quality time' has a few characteristics that make it a very special part of my relationships:
  • The point is to be together, not to accomplish a specific task. Quality time spent with loved ones often involves fun but unimportant activities. Maybe we're going out to dinner, playing a game, or taking a walk. While we may be doing something, what we're doing isn't really all that important. What we care about most is that we're together. We may choose to do something in order to help us to have a good time together, but the company is more important than the activity.
  • We're relaxed and enjoying each other's company. Serious conversations are an important part of most close relationships, but I don't want to have to be serious all the time. There shouldn't be something important at stake in every conversation I have with my loved ones. I do want the people in my life to challenge me to be a better person and to help me find my way, but I also want them to just be with me sometimes. Quality time allows me to connect to my loved ones in a relaxed way, and that will help prepare me for the next time we need to tackle something serious in our relationship.
  • We're focused on each other and not just on ourselves. If I get together with some friends for a game of Monopoly and then turn into a gloating poor sport as I gleefully take them all out of the game, I'm not really fostering quality time. I'm focused more on my enjoyment in winning the game than on my friends' enjoyment in playing it with me. Likewise, I'm not really focused on having quality time if I drag my husband to a movie that I want to see but he doesn't or if I go out with a group of friends and dominate the conversation all evening. I need to be able to make sure that the people who are with me are having a good time along with me. The point is for us to all enjoy our time together, not for me to take enjoyment at someone else's expense.
Some people think that getting a drink with friends or playing a board game with family members is a waste of time. After all, it doesn't really look like we're accomplishing anything by doing these things. I've come to realize, however, that sometimes doing 'nothing much' with the people I love can be one of the most important things I do. Quality time doesn't accomplish tasks, but it solidifies relationships, and that's a big deal. I prioritize people above accomplishments, and that's why I'm willing to spend my time with loved ones even at the expense of getting some things done.

Every Friday night, my husband and I spend quality time together. Sometimes we watch a movie. Sometimes we play a game or go out with friends. Sometimes we just relax and talk. He could be using that time to do homework for his grad classes, but we've realized that it's more important for us to spend that time together. Likewise, I spend most Monday evenings hanging out with some friends. We mostly just chat and watch TV together, but that weekly connection makes a huge difference in our relationship. That's why I choose to spend my Monday evenings watching TV with friends instead of doing more 'important' tasks, and I feel good about that decision. Last Saturday I had lots of stuff that I could have been doing around the house, but instead I decided to join a couple of friends, the girl they mentor, and their dog for an afternoon at the dog park and to stay up late singing karaoke with a bunch of friends. I don't regret my decision to do these things. It was all time well spent.

It's true that I do have a lot of work to get done in my life. I need to fulfill the duties of my job and do chores around the house, and I also choose other activities that I deem important. I participate in musical groups and church groups, and I write this blog, for example. I make priorities among those activities, however, and sometimes I choose spending time with loved ones over some activities. Some people feel that they have to get everything done before they can spend time with people, but I organize my life differently—spending time with my loved ones trumps some of the tasks on my to-do list, sometimes even relatively important tasks. People matter to me, so I make sure to invest in quality time.
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