Saturday, December 5, 2009

Not an Island

I grew up in a very independent culture where Christians (especially men) were encouraged to have a strong moral compass and to do whatever they felt was right no matter what anyone else thought. Stubbornness was often called conviction, and being swayed by others was decried as being wishy-washy. Everyone was supposed to have the answer to all of life's difficult questions and to proclaim that answer boldly and unswervingly as if absolutely certain it was correct. Engaging in conversation with others was frequently about firmly stating one's own position while not really listening to the other person's point of view. Asking for advice was often considered a weakness, and it seemed admirable to be strong and self-assured enough to make decisions unilaterally and without compromise.

I don't really want to subject myself to that system because I'm smart enough to realize that I don't have all the answers. My moral compass is very important to me, but I realize that it might not always point true north. Sometimes I need help recalibrating it. That's why I benefit from actively listening to what other people believe in. Even if I end up disagreeing with someone, hearing that person's point of view can help me refine my own opinion.

I have friends and family members who believe that belonging to the body of Christ isn't really all that important. Their one-on-one connection to God is what they care about, and they feel perfectly capable of navigating their faith journey with no one but Jesus for company. They think it's a good idea for them to set a good example by behaving morally, but they don't seem to be looking at anyone else's choices for guidance. Perhaps these people are less corruptible than I am, but I don't have enough confidence in my my ability to effectively listen to the Holy Spirit, wisely interpret Scripture, and make consistently sound judgments to think that going it alone is the best course for me. I do feel that I am relatively attuned to God's voice and reasonably gifted at applying the lessons in the Bible to my life, but I know that there will still be times when someone else will have a better idea of what God is saying about a particular issue than I do. When those times come, I need to listen to the thoughts of those who know things that I don't so that I can refine my beliefs and my opinions in order to better follow God.

I think it's important to note that God spoke directly to the prophets, but then He used the prophets to communicate with the wider population. Today, God still speaks to us directly through the Holy Spirit, but He also speaks to us through other people. If we aren't listening to our neighbors with an expectation that they might have something valuable to say to us, then we might miss those messages. God does not deliver complete and thorough wisdom to all people. Instead he blesses each of us with unique insights and then bids us to go out and share that knowledge with each other. We can only make use of the insights that others provide if we admit we haven't got everything figured out yet. We need to be open to new information and willing to adjust our beliefs as new evidence arises.

I'm not suggesting that Christians should blindly follow the crowd. Like Joshua, I am ready to declare before all people that no matter whom they choose to serve, my household and I will serve the Lord. Still, I am ready to admit that I don't have a comprehensive understanding of what serving the Lord entails for me. Making myself an active member of a larger body of believers does not mean that I am not giving away my ability to choose my own moral values. Rather it means that I am choosing to take the knowledge and beliefs of others into account when I choose which way I will go. No one can persuade me to abandon my loyalty from God, but others can help me understand how best to live out that allegiance.

I am capable of being a good Christian on my own, but I am an even better Christian when I am an active part of a Christian community. I may have a strong moral compass, but it isn't infallible, and when I go astray others may be able to help me see the adjustments I should make. I will not try to be an island because I think I'm stronger when I place more value on others' ability to help me make good choices.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Tonight I am hosting a Christmas party for my friends. I've been eagerly preparing for this party all week, and I've been looking forward to it for months. I love a good celebration, and it will be wonderful to have so many loved ones together to share in my joy. My party tonight is the first of several parties I'll be attending in the next few weeks, and I'm looking forward to all of these events.

It seems to me that there's always been an undercurrent in Christian thought implying that Christians should be serious and hardworking and that we should focus on being good servants of God, not on having a good time. While it's true that we shouldn't be partying all the time, I think the Bible clearly shows that God is in favor of a little healthy celebration from time to time. God appointed several feasts for the Jewish people, and Jesus even told parables in which God is illustrated as hosting His own parties whenever lost souls return to Him. Like the woman who found her coin, the shepherd who recovered his sheep, and the father of the prodigal son, God knows when it's time to throw a good party.

God celebrates when sinners repent because His joy is too great to be kept inside. According to Jesus, even the angels join in the party because they share in God's joy. The people in Jesus' parables were just so excited that they needed loved ones to come celebrate with them. We feel that way at different points in our lives, and it's good and right for us to throw parties at those times so we can rejoice over the blessings we have received. We don't need something as momentous as a marriage or a new home to have an excuse to celebrate. Sometimes, like tonight, it's appropriate just to celebrate having valuable relationships and living in a world where we are blessed and redeemed by God. 

It's important to note that Christian parties aren't about thrills, debauchery, or flaunting our affluence to our neighbors. Sure, there might be fun activities and good food, but the main attraction is the people with whom we celebrate. I'm throwing this party because I want to rejoice in the blessings I've received this year, and I want my loved ones to be a part of that joy. This celebration will bolster my soul for the work ahead and it will also provide positive energy for my guests. If I just wanted to have a good time on my own, I could book a lavish getaway for one, but I want to share the good time with other people. My joy is too great to be limited only to me. Sometimes I celebrate just with my husband or with a small intimate group, and tonight I'm throwing a party. There's a time and place for all kinds of celebration, but I find that it's the people that make these occasions special.

Celebration is an important part of Christian life because it helps foster the joy that fuels us as we do our work. I don't think that celebration is something 'extra' that we do—I think it's essential to our lives as Christians. It's true that we can't party all the time because then we'd never get any work done, but we can't work all the time and forgo celebrations either. A little healthy fun is good for the soul. So I'm looking forward to feeding my soul with the joy that my friends and I will share at my party tonight.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Most Important Thing I Do Today

I have a lot of things to do today. I've got to go to work, keep appointments, prepare (and consume) meals, and attend a rehearsal. In fact, I probably want to do more things today than I will actually be able to get done, so I need to mentally prioritize my list. Perhaps I can run some of my errands tomorrow or put off a couple of tasks until later. I have to decide which things on my to-do list are the most important so that I can prioritize them.

As I sort through my mental list, I'm stopping now to ask myself a question. What is the most important thing I need to do today? I realize that at any given moment, I might give a different answer to that question. If I'm thinking of the tasks listed in my daily planner, I might pick the most pressing or time-consuming thing on the list and call it the most important. If I'm looking forward to doing something fun later today, I might choose that. If I'm thinking of the people I love, I might prioritize interactions with them. Or perhaps I will think of the quiet time at the end of the day when I say my nightly prayers. Writing this post could even be the most important thing I do today.

We're all inundated with a lot of different ideas about what's most important in our lives. Some people urge us to put God first and some prioritize families or friends. Others promote careers and vocations or power and wealth. Society urges us to think about what makes us feel safest, happiest, and most comfortable and to make that the most important thing in our lives. So our priorities change to match whatever we need most at the moment. When we need help or direction, we focus on God. When we need love and support, we focus on relationships and community. When we need fulfillment or financial stability, we commit ourselves to careers or other tasks. We change our minds frequently about what's most important.

Still, as a Christian, I know that the most important thing I have to do today never actually changes. I need to love God and love my neighbors. Everything else is secondary. Of course, love isn't a task that I can just get done and check off my list. If I truly want to make love my priority, then I need to support that goal through hundreds of choices I make throughout the day. Each act of love is the most important thing I can do in that moment. Maybe when I get up one morning I will think that completing a really big project at work is the most important thing I have to do that day, but at the end of the day I might realize that the words of encouragement to a coworker, letting someone go ahead of me in the shopping line, and the dinner I shared with my husband were all actually more important.

I need to be willing to change my preconceptions and to alter my plans to make room for the most important moments in my day when they appear. Perhaps I'm in the middle of running an errand and I need to get to another store before it closes, but I'm stopped by an acquaintance who starts talking about a sick relative. Is it more important that I finish my shopping or that I graciously listen to this person's concerns? That answer may not be the same every time—maybe the shopping itself is an act of love that needs to get done promptly. Still, I need to be willing to pause and ask myself these questions as choices arise throughout the day. I shouldn't blindly stick to the priorities I set when I get up in the morning, because something more important may come up. Sometimes the most important things I do seem mundane or inconsequential on the surface, so I need to be able to pay attention so that I don't miss them. The rest of the world might not think it matters much whether I take time to chat with someone or to give a quick compliment or word of support, but as a Christian I recognize how important these things can be.

Every moment I spend focusing on God and acting in love will be the most important moment of my day. I may have hundreds of "most important" moments each day, and I don't want to miss any of them. Even though these choices may not look very important to the casual observer, I have learned to see them for what they are—chances to reflect the beauty and goodness of God into ordinary life. When it comes down to it, receiving God's love and sharing it with others is the most important thing I do, and I get to do it every day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


It often seems that I almost instinctively compartmentalize my relationships. I have my high school friends, my college friends, my church friends, my work friends, my family, and my in-laws, and these groups very rarely interact with each other. I recently started thinking about what can happen when these groups intersect each other as I was planning the Christmas party that my husband and I will throw on Friday. Last year's party involved some light intersections. There were some college friends who didn't know each other all that well and a few "townies" thrown into the mix. Still, everyone there was pretty much the same age, and it was a big group of young people who are mostly interested in all the same things hanging out together. This year, though, I have some new friends that I want to include who will introduce more variety into the group. I want to invite some church friends, and I've invited a couple of people who are quite a bit older and a couple who are a bit younger than most of the group. I wondered at first if these intersections of different groups of people who aren't usually together might make the guests a little uncomfortable, but then I remembered the unexpected benefits that have come from such intersections in the past.

How many stories are there of friends and even spouses being introduced to each other by a mutual friend? When I mix loved ones from different places in my life together, there's always a chance that special connections can happen among them. I met my husband because he was introduced to me by a mutual friend. My sophomore year college roommate and I wanted to live in a triple our junior year, so I pulled in a friend my roommate had never met before. That turned out so well that the two of them lived together senior year when I had to live off campus. I have friends from Northfield that I never would have met had it not been for my college friends who also grew up here and introduced me to these people. I've made new friends by joining groups where I hardly knew anyone, and I've been really glad that some of my friends have introduced me to their other friends.

Some of the happiness produced by these intersections has been more fleeting, but it's still worthwhile. I remember the toast my dad made at my wedding where he thanked my friends for making the day so special. I also remember what a great time some of my friends had when an older couple who are friends with my parents hosted them for my wedding. The couple loved having young people in their house, and my friends loved how nice they were and the fantastic breakfasts they made. I recall how two of my friends who don't know each other well had a lot of fun talking babies together at my Christmas party last year because one was a new mother and the other was expecting. I fully expect to hear more engaging conversations at this year's party as people who are different ages and have different professions and different lifestyles intersect and discover the things they have in common. These people seem very different to me because I interact with them in different environments and contexts, but when they all come together, they will inevitably find ways to relate to one another, and unexpected joy and engagement could be discovered.

It's true that intersections can be a little strange for the person in the middle. I act differently with my college friends than I do with my church friends, and I talk about different things with my colleagues than I do with my family members. When I get people from these different groups together, they'll all see me behaving in new ways as I interact with people they're not used to seeing me with. Still, I think that can be good too. These intersections give all of my loved ones a chance to learn something new about me, to see how I behave in other relationships. It gives me a chance to be more honest about who I am and the different things I care about. I'm actually really looking forward to mixing all these different people together at my upcoming party because I love them all so much. I am confident that we will all have a fantastic time together.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dealing with Frustration

I don't always do my best work. Sometimes I deviate from the plan, sometimes I lower my standards or get lazy, and sometimes I let myself or others down. If I feel that I am not performing up to the standards of which I'm capable, I can get really frustrated with myself. I frequently get angry about my weaknesses and my imperfections. I don't like falling short, and when I do, I often berate myself. I can call myself names and say things that would be absolutely crushing if they were said to me by someone else. Then I become paralyzed by that negativity, and I'm unable to move forward again until I can purge it from my system.

I've been an imperfect sinner my whole life. I'm used to screwing up. So why do I still get so angry with myself when it happens? I am very quick to comfort others when mistakes happen and to assure them that these things just happen sometimes. So why do I have so much trouble internalizing this lesson for myself? My negative reactions only make my problems worse. Drowning myself in guilt, shame, anger, and self-loathing makes it impossible for me to move forward until I put those feelings behind me. I need to learn to relax and just let the mistakes and shortcomings go so that I'm free to get on with my life. What's done is done, and all can be forgiven. Instead of raging against myself, I need to take my problems to God and allow Him to release me from them. Then I can focus on the positive work I'm trying to do and re-center my life on love.

A few nights ago, I got really upset with myself over a couple of self-control lapses and a dumb mistake or two. My hormones got the best of me, and I got really angry. I started railing against all the imperfections that I could see in myself. I called myself names that I would never apply to another person. My husband was appalled. He told me I shouldn't get so angry with myself and that I shouldn't punish myself with this kind of vitriol. I knew he was right, but it was so difficult to rein in those feelings. I asked God to help me find peace, and then we went to bed.

Not long after that, I woke myself up by shifting positions in bed and discovered that my husband was still awake. He started telling me about a problem that he was having and his fears that he would fall short. He was frustrated that he wasn't performing as well as he thought he should at a particular task, and he was worried that I might be disappointed in him if he didn't do well enough. I calmly explained to him that I love him very much and that I would help him get through his problem. If things went wrong, it wouldn't be the end of the world. I would help him deal with it, and I wouldn't be upset. I tried to show him that there were a lot of extenuating circumstances that were contributing to his struggles, and I explained how proud I was of the effort he was putting in. I told him that he should just do the best he can, and that I won't be disappointed, no matter what the result is. I could see that he needed reaffirmation, not threats or lectures. I held his hand and prayed for him, and then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

It's pretty clear that my reaction to my own struggles was radically different from my reaction to my husband's struggles. I was livid with myself but sympathetic and encouraging with him. His reactions show the same polarity—he tried to soothe and console me during my outburst even as he was nursing his own fears. We were both so willing to apply a level head and a loving heart to each other's problems. Yet when it came to our own problems, we got lost in fear and anger.

This observation has taught me two very important lessons:
  1. I need to stop checking my compassion at the door when I deal with my own problems. Love is healthy and anger is not, so when I make mistakes, I need to react with love instead of anger. I challenge myself to do this for other people, so I need to do it for myself, too.
  2. I need to appreciate how lucky I am to have loved ones who will rescue me from my destructive behavior when I fall short of lesson #1. My husband's wise words forced me to recognize that my tirade was not helping and gave me the strength to ease out of it.
I hope that I remember these lessons the next time I deal with a bout of personal frustration.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Everyone Makes a Difference

A few days ago, my Mom sent me this link. It's a video about what can happen when you make a conscious effort to tell others that they make a difference in your life. Although there's no way to verify whether the story the video chronicles is really true, I have no trouble believing that something like that could happen. Coming right out and telling people in plain language that they make a difference in the world and in your life can be a powerful experience for both parties. I know this from personal experience. I have felt the crushing weight of self-doubt and isolation lift from my shoulders because someone I loved told me I really do make a difference. I have also seen how powerfully others have been moved when I passed on this message to them.

The truth is that everyone can make a difference. As a Christian, I'm charged with not only making a difference myself, but also noticing and affirming the contributions of those around me. Most of the time we can't see all the ways in which our efforts change the world around us. We don't necessarily know when our work is appreciated or when we brighten up someone's day, and in the absence of feedback, it can be easy to assume that we aren't making a difference at all. Part of being Christian is trusting in God and letting Him ease those fears in our hearts, but God has also given us the gift of community to help give us confidence. We're supposed to outwardly affirm and encourage each other, to be allies against self-doubt. It's possible to keep believing in myself without any input from others, but it's much easier when I've got people telling me that they've noticed and appreciated my efforts. So I want to be sure to give that extra self-esteem boost to those around me as well.

It can be so hard to feel like we make a difference when we spend all of our time in such a big world surrounded by so much corruption. Still, even if the impact we make is small and local, it still matters a great deal to the people who benefit from our efforts. The fact that my husband is a wonderful and caring partner is going to be very important to me whether or not he ever makes huge contributions to bettering the greater world. The little seemingly unimportant things he does for me every day shape my life in profound ways, so no matter what else he does, he can know he makes a huge difference in my life. Each of us has people who do little things that matter a lot to us, so it's important for us to take the time to let them know. A little affirmation goes a long way.

I don't know everyone who is reading this blog, but I am confident that all of you make a difference. I also know that there are people in your lives who care about you and appreciate the contributions you make, even if you can't see it. If you're feeling alone or frustrated, I encourage you to look for the small successes all around you. When you start noticing the ways that others impact your life, you will understand how much your own actions matter to others. Make an effort to tell others how they make a difference, and you'll start to feel that you matter more, too. It's worked for me. The more I notice the good in the people around me, the more I notice the good in myself as well. Love begets love, and loving others can help us love ourselves. So go out today and tell someone that they make a difference. I know that you make a difference, and so do I.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Come, Lord Jesus

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, my favorite season of the church year. I'll spend the day decorating my house for Christmas and picking out my favorite Advent hymns to sing at my church's Advent Fest next Sunday. This season is all about eager anticipation for me. So many good things are coming. I can't wait for the Christmas Eve service, my favorite church service of the year, when I will look at the Nativity and try to understand the depth of my Savior's love for me and for all of my fellow humans. I'm eager to see my family over the holiday and for the chance to reconnect with old friends. I'm looking forward to enjoying the beautiful decorations and eating the tasty food and singing the festive songs. I'm ready for snow and evergreen trees and twinkle lights, and I long to see the happy faces of my loved ones as we celebrate together.

In a way, Christmas represents in a small way what we have to look forward to. Eventually we'll be in Heaven, and it will be like one big continuous holiday. We'll all be together and everyone will be joyful and at peace. Everything will be beautiful and festive, and we'll get to praise God and sing and celebrate. God will be with us in the same way that baby Jesus grew into a man who walked among us. God will heal us the same way Jesus healed the sick people, and we'll all rejoice like the shepherds and the Magi when they discovered that a Savior had been born. Our whole life is one long Advent season in which this blissful eternity is the final destination. And each year during Advent I get a chance to remember that and to rejoice in it.

Jesus is coming. Just as the people of Israel waited and waited for the promises of the prophets to be fulfilled, we wait for Jesus to return and right the wrongs in this world. And he is coming. We don't know when, but we have to keep waiting and hoping. When we think about the second coming, it's easy to get stuck on the apocalyptic imagery and to therefore see it as something to dread. Jesus will indeed come with judgment, but he will also come with his characteristic mercy. Whatever hardships are in our future, Jesus will someday return to eradicate them, and we will finally have freedom from all oppression. I used to be afraid at the thought of the end times, but now I understand that they aren't really an end at all. Jesus is coming to make everything new, and it will be a glorious miracle when it happens.

So today as I celebrate the beginning of Advent, I consider all the ways that I am hoping for Jesus to enter my life. I prepare to once more celebrate his birth on Christmas day. I am eager to embrace the joy that He has given me through his forgiveness and salvation. I long to know him better and to make his love, his teachings, and his presence a more central part of my life. I wait patiently for him to return to Earth, and I expect him to be there when I die to welcome me into Paradise. Jesus has all of these precious gifts in store for me, and I am eager to rejoice in them. Come, Lord Jesus!
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