Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It's My Life

Lately, I've been sick and tired of feeling like I have no say whatsoever in my life. Why should I always have to do as I'm told? Why should I be forced to provide financial security while my husband finishes grad school? Why should I be expected to complete work tasks that aren't in my job description? Why am I stuck in a life trajectory that doesn't seem to be leading toward my dreams? Why am I spending so much time doing what others need or expect from me? Why am I killing myself trying to figure out what God wants me to be doing? When do I get to do what I want to do? When do I get to enjoy myself or be at peace or take it easy? It's my life, isn't it?

And after I have one of these little tirades, I rein myself in and remember the cold, hard truth. No, as a matter of fact, it isn't my life. I didn't will myself into existence. I didn't buy myself a free pass. I haven't redeemed my sins. I am not independent of the God who made me, and I don't have sole ownership over a life that is irrevocably entwined with the lives of others. Although I am clearly a very important player in my life, it's not all about me.

That is really hard to swallow sometimes. Nobody really wants to be a servant or a slave, no matter how much he or she loves the master. We want to be a trusted team member, a valued colleague, a beloved family member. And sometimes we are, but sometimes we have to just shut up and do as we're told. When I was a child, like all children, I found it dreadfully unfair that I should have to do what the adults said simply because they're adults. And yet, here I am, knowing that I must obey God whether His instructions make any sense to me or not simply because He is God. Jonah didn't want to go to Ninevah, darn it, but in the end he went. I know it will be the same with me, but still I fight it sometimes.

Jonah didn't take any satisfaction in the fact that his actions saved an entire city from destruction. Likewise, I don't always care that my hard work is appreciated by my employer or that my husband values the sacrifices I make for my family. Sometimes I just want something for me. But as God explained to Jonah, there's the greater good to be considered. I should be able to find a truer happiness in serving God and serving the people I love than the happiness that comes with simply satisfying myself. Knowing that doesn't automatically make it easier for me to be happy, but it does lend me the perseverance and the faith I need to continue my search for the inner peace that I know will come from joyfully obeying the will of God in my life and willingly serving those around me.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Valley of the Shadow

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, 
For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
—Psalm 23:4

I'm actually not really afraid of death. I expect Heaven to be much nicer than Earth, so to me death seems like heading off on an extended vacation. Besides, I am a young, healthy person, so death isn't a very strong concern for me right now. Death doesn't seem so bad—life is harder.

Although I may not be afraid of death, I am still afraid of a great many things.
  • I am afraid of failing. I don't want to let the people I love down. I don't want to let God down. I don't want to let my employer down. As more and more tasks and responsibilities pile on top of me, I become more and more worried that I won't be able to successfully do everything that's being asked of me. What if something falls through the cracks? What if I don't meet a deadline? What if I'm not there when someone needs me? What if I don't do a good enough job? What if my carefully-laid plans fail? What if—despite all my talents and gifts—I fail to do what God put me on this Earth to do? 
  • I am afraid of losing myself. It's very common for people to respond to pressure by making modifications in their lives. But how many modifications can I really make before I lose myself? At what point have I sacrificed too much of my own personality, my hopes, my dreams? How can I serve others and follow God without losing the self He created me to be along the way? 
  • I am afraid of being misled. I read scripture and pray and talk to wise people, but sometimes I still worry that I can't always tell the difference between God's inspiration and my own errant thoughts. What if I think God wants me to go a certain direction or do a certain thing, but it turns out that God had nothing to do with it and it was my own idea all along? If endeavors don't work out right away, how do I know if God wants me to keep at them or give them up? Persevere or redirect? When I get pessimistic feelings about something, is that God trying to redirect me or Satan trying to lead me astray, or is it simply my own weak human nature? How do I tell the difference?
  • I am afraid of being alone. What if I can't really count on the people I love? What if the people I depend on walk out of my life? After all, death could strike at any moment, or the people I prioritize in my life could choose not to prioritize me. Will I have help along my journey? I have friends, but will I have spiritual companions? Will I have wise mentors? Will I have trusted Christian friends who can help me discern and give me sound Spirit-guided advice when I feel lost? Am I really out here doing God's work on my own, or can I find ways to join forces with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? How do I find the right people to team up with?
Each of these fears is like a shadow that pollutes my life and saps energy from me. Each one can be awakened by challenging circumstances or bad days.

Lately, there have been a lot of challenging circumstances and bad days in my life, so there have been a lot of shadows. I have spent the past summer in the valley of the shadow, and it hasn't been a fun time. I have survived the past months through dogged determination and reliance on the people closest to me. It hasn't been pretty. I've cried floods of tears, ranted and raved and any sympathetic person willing to listen, lost my energy and discarded once-loved activities (this blog included), adopted bad habits, and composed desperate logical arguments to convince myself to get out of bed every morning. But with the help of God and the people who loved me, I'm coming back out of the valley. There is life ahead of me, and I am moving toward it as quickly as I can.

I have to deal with these shadowy fears that plague me with the help of God. I need to recognize each of them for what they are—tricks of the Deceiver—and deny them power over my life. The fact is that sometimes I will fail. But God will ensure that my work for Him overcomes my failures, and he will forgive me for my shortcomings. Sometimes I may lose myself, but God will renew my spirit within me, and I will come back to myself as surely as I am coming out of my own personal valley right now. Sometimes I will be misled, despite my best efforts. Satan's lies are convincing, but God's Word is stronger, and He won't let me wander too far. God is watching out for me, and if I continue to seek His will, He will make sure I end up where I'm supposed to be. I may even have to go it alone from time to time, but God will always be with me, so I will never truly be alone. God is moving the hearts of many people around me, and He is constantly sending people into my path through both important relationships and fleeting interactions to convey His love and His guidance to me.

Fear is real to us humans, I won't deny that. But there is nothing I fear that God can't deal with. I know that I will have to walk through the valley of the shadow sometimes, and I will have to be exposed to my fears. It won't be fun, but I will always, always make it through to the other side because God will be there with me. His rod and His staff will take care of my personal demons sooner or later. In the meantime, it's hard. It really is. But the outcome—salvation, redemption, and deliverance—is guaranteed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


We don't like other people telling us what to do. We don't want to be manipulated or controlled, and we hate feeling like someone else's puppet. We don't appreciate being used to further someone else's cause without regard to our own interests. Power struggles are not fun, and that is in part we often yearn so strongly for our own independence.

As children, many of us reached a point where we were ready to rebel against our parents. We wanted to throw off the yoke of their control and flout their rules. We wanted to make our own decisions without regard to their opinions, and we no longer wanted to do what they told us to do. We wanted to be released under our own supervision, free to make our own choices as we see fit. We wanted to call the shots. Those of us who wanted freedom badly enough did sometimes throw off the advice and control of our parents. I never completely shut my parents out of my life, but I have felt the stirrings of rebellion in my own heart, and sometimes I still feel it today. On some level, I want desperately to be my own master.

The truth is, however, that none of us lives in a vacuum. We are all influenced by other people and other ideas. No matter how independent we are, we cannot control everything that happens to us nor arrive at every conclusion on our own. We use information from all around us to make decisions, sometimes without even realizing that we have been influenced. We will always see and react to the world around us, and we cannot shield ourselves completely from the influence of others. So instead of rebelliously trying to block everyone out to create an illusion of complete independence, we ought to choose more openly and responsibly just what we want to be influenced by.

There are both positive and negative influences in this world. There are people who want me to do certain things because those actions would benefit them, and there are people who want me to do what's best for myself. I can't shut them all out, so I need to be able to tell the difference. My parents, for example, did not create household rules out of a desire to manipulate me and make me jump through hoops. The rules were about my safety and well-being and the health of the family as a whole. My parents were a good influence, and I would have been foolish to try to expel them from my life. Some of my peers were not good influences. They weren't telling me what to do as an authority figure, but that didn't necessarily make them a healthier choice for me to listen to. Some of them were making poor decisions and would have tried to encourage me to do the same had I gotten close to them. But I recognized that they were not good influences.

Today I still make those types of decisions. I still have moments when I want to just run off and do my own thing without listening to anyone because I don't want to be manipulated and pushed around, but I realized that those feelings don't reflect reality. I can choose who and what to listen to without being manipulated, and I can make choices because they are good, not because someone is telling me to act accordingly. I can accept others' advice and direction and still be the primary actor in my own life. I can follow whatever path I deem to be best, even if it was laid out for me by someone else. Influence is inescapable, so I must choose the right people and ideas to influence me.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sunshine On My Shoulders

Last week was cold and rainy. We'd been spoiled with some nice weather and then suddenly it felt like early spring again. We were so relieved when the weekend arrived and brought some sunshine and warmer temperatures with it. Now every morning when I wake up, the sun is streaming through the windows of my house, making everything seem bright and inviting. I've had the windows open for several days, and all the cooped up, stale smell of winter is gone. Just being in that sunshine perceptibly improves my mood. I wake up happy now, thinking about the lovely bike ride I'll have to work instead of all the tasks I'll have to do when I get there.

Everybody loves sunshine, and there are lots of reasons why. Our bodies like the vitamin D we get from the sun. We like to be warm, and we enjoy the light that the sun gives us. We like not having to turn the heat or the lights on in our house. We like being able to go outside in lighter clothes and enjoy outdoor activities. We like being able to see and appreciate all the colors in our world by the light of the sun, and we love the plants and trees that grow because of the sun's energy. The sun (and its location in relationship to the Earth) is what makes life on our planet possible at all.

But when I bask in the happiness that the sun brings, there's more than biology and physical comfort going on. God engineered all of us to respond well to reasonable levels of light. Light is at the foundation of the entire creation, and He uses it to remind us that He is taking care of us. God's first act of creation was to declare, "Let there be light!" and that command rings throughout our entire existence. As John so poetically put it, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5) God has cast himself in the role of light, the one who shelters us from the life-quenching darkness. Without light—without God—we cannot exist. But we need not fear, because God will always be with us. The regular rising of the sun reminds me of that and teaches me to appreciate and expect God's tender care.

Sunshine is one of the most basic and universal gifts that God gives us. We need light to live, and therefore we are glad to have it. The sun shines for everyone, whether they love God or not, and that reminds us that God will be with us, trying to take care of us, whether we are faithful or not. I am thankful today for the sun and for everything it represents—health, warmth, happiness, and a loving God.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let's Get Civil

I recently read through my alma mater's latest edition of its alumni magazine. One of the articles was titled "The State of Our Uncivil Union" and explored the epidemic of rudeness in today's society. The article discussed how ratings-driven journalism showcases bad behavior for entertainment value, how the Internet allows us to filter the information we receive so that we limit our exposure to viewpoints we already share, and how we form communities based on exclusion or derision of other groups. Bad behavior is becoming more and more commonplace, and we're no longer surprised when people use loaded and dismissive language to pick apart their opponents. As one quote in the story proclaims, "You can't get away from it. When you hear extremist rhetoric everywhere, it becomes a certain state of normal."

As a Christian, I do have passionate opinions on some controversial subjects. However, I do not need to employ rudeness, name-calling, antics, or disrespectful language to defend my ideas. There is absolutely no reason why we should need to shout at each other, post online comments filled with (frequently misspelled) insults, or try to shun members of our community simply for disagreeing with us on some issue. My friends are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and some of them even have socialist or libertarian leanings. I hang out with Christians, pagans, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics. I love people who both support and oppose abortion rights and gay marriage. The baseline in all these relationships is that we have to agree to disagree about some things. I don't have a single friend or family member who agrees with me on every issue that's important to me, but I make a commitment not to fight with them about these issues. We can discuss ideas respectfully, but if we allow ourselves to be rude, our relationship could be torn apart.

I don't think Jesus would endorse all the fighting, name calling, and back stabbing that goes on in our culture today. I think he wants us to be civil, to love peace, and to respect one another. We can have opinions, but we don't have to be mean or combative about them. We can defend the rights and the dignity of others without completely disregarding the rights and dignity of our opponents. With that in mind, I am copying the list of tips for civility that I found in the magazine article that inspired this post.

Let's Get Civil
It's not that hard to rein in our tempers and restore some civility to our lives. Follow this simple advice:
  • Slow down and think before you speak or fire off an angry e-mail or text message.
  • Accept that often there is more than one legitimate point of view.
  • If saying something would get you punched in a bar, then don't say it online.
  • Watch your tone—calm and conciliatory is infinitely more successful than critical and challenging.
  • Share the glory.
  • Accept the blame.
  • Ask "Can I help you?" and mean it.
  • Let someone else go first.
  • Don't cut in line.
  • Live by the Golden Rule ("Do unto others...")
  • The Democrats and the Republicans aren't the Saints and the Colts. One side shouldn't have to lose for the other to win.
  • The freeway is neither a battlefield nor a playing field.
  • Checking your iPhone at a business or social function is rude.
  • Checking your iPhone while you're ordering your decaf skinny mocha is rude.
  • Checking your iPhone while you're driving is dangerous.
  • Your children are watching—and modeling—your behavior.

Monday, May 17, 2010

All Nature Sings

Yesterday the youth choirs at my church presented a lovely musical titled All Nature Sings. It was a poetic collection of songs that illustrate how nature can remind us of God. When we see God's creative power in nature, we remember that He created us. When we see how God cares for the natural world and establishes an order for it, we are reminded that He also has a plan for our lives. Below are some excerpts from the musical and what they say to me about God.

  • "Breath of God, breathe one me. One breath from God creates the apple tree, the sea, the creatures of the ground and me. . . One in life, one in death, we are in God's breath." God created everything, including us. We are connected to all of nature and to each other because everything is connected to God. We are never alone because God—and everything He has made—is always with us.
  • "Sing, sing, sing to God on high. Sing, sing, sing oh earth and sky. Hills and mountains, rivers and fountains, sing, sing." There are so many psalms that speak of nature praising God. This is figurative, of course, if we assume that trees and mountains don't have active consciousness. Still, nature does magnify God simply by being what He created it to be. Every time a bird sings or a waterfall casts a rainbow, God is honored. His creation is magnificent, and therefore is evidence of its Creator's magnificence. Likewise, we too can praise God simply by being what He made us to be—creatures fashioned in His own image. By following the path God lays out for us, we render great honor unto Him.
  • "In the greening of the apple tree, the winter sleep the waters deep, the fruit and bloom of the budding tree, we hear the voice. Let it be and it is so, it is so, it is so." The trees bloom every spring because God makes it so. That is just one small miracle that we can see in nature. God has a plan for everything He has made, and He's in control. Just as God's voice bids the apple tree to blossom, it will lead us through the wintry perils of our life to eternal life.
  • "All that lives in land and sea, angels from eternity, meadowlark and tiny wren, you are now the great Amen." God's beauty, wonder, power, and kindness are all around us. All we have to do is look and listen. I hope that nature can help teach me to grow, live, and praise God. Amen!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Last Enemy

When Harry Potter found his parents' grave in the last book of the series, he discovered an inscription on it: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry took this quotation to heart, and perhaps it helped him at a crucial moment in his fight against the evil Lord Voldemort.

This quotation originates from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He is explaining to them that just as death came into the world through a man—Adam—it would also be destroyed by a man—Jesus. Jesus will return to collect the kingdom for the Father. "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Corinthians 15:25–26) Death is the epitome of everything that has gone wrong in God's creation, the results of sin, disobedience, and depravity. When God has eradicated all of the flaws that lead us to death, then He can destroy death itself and we will be returned to the perfect life that God envisioned for us when He created Adam and Eve.

In the end it must be God who defeats death, not us. Still, death will defeat us if we do not trust in the promise. As long as we live in dreadful fear of death, we give it undue power over us. We can't do anything about death right now, and someday it will touch us. That's true. But that's also as it should be. Death is the last enemy to be defeated, so let's not worry about it before it's time. Death will come in the end, and it will be defeated. Why should we be so afraid?

In the meantime, we ought to be focusing on the other enemies, things like sin and and corruption and selfishness. God does give us power to fight those. We can't do anything about death, but we can work towards a healthier life. We can learn to live in joy instead of fear, with hope instead of dread. One day death will come for us, but that will be a day of joy, the day we go to meet God in Paradise. Today we also have a chance for joy if we allow God to help us cast the fear of death and the stain of sin away from us.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. It will happen, but not right now. Trust in that, and don't be afraid.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The reason I monitor comments on this blog is that I get a lot of spam. I assume my readers don't want to see a bunch of Chinese writing that most of us can't read, information on where to get the best escorts in New York City or how to buy cheap designer knockoffs, or links to naked pictures of someone's ex-girlfriend. I delete all of those comments before you ever have to see them so that you can enjoy a nice, relaxing, spam-free visit while you read my blog.

Most of us are so used to getting spammed that we hardly notice anymore. I delete about a third of my e-mails without reading anything more than the subject line, and I ignore most of the advertisements I see on television or on billboards along the highway. The problem is that not all spam looks like spam. We know how to spot and then ignore ridiculous advertisements that have nothing to do with us, and we all know to delete those idiotic e-mails from supposed Nigerian princes. But we're still exposed to a lot of pointless garbage outside of the usual suspects like ads, e-mails, and blog comments.

As a Christian, I often have very specific ideas about what kinds of information are useful to me. I want to learn how to be a better person, how to serve God, and how to love others. I want to grow in God's plan for me and enjoy the beautiful creation God has given me to live in. A lot of the information I get every day has nothing to do with those goals. It's really spam. Consider the kinds of messages we're inundated with every day:
  • How to get more money and be a conspicuous consumer so that other people will respect us more
  • Where to get the most fashionable "must-have" items
  • Encouragement to be self-centered and treat ourselves to nothing but the best
  • Pressure to adopt certain values and behaviors that may not match our faith
  • Encouragement to do what everyone else is doing
  • Cosmetic tips that deal with our lives on the surface but don't impact our deeper selves
  • A huge list of ways we can waste our time and talents by doing things that are amusing and easy but not terribly useful
Sometimes I think I want this kind of information, but do I really? I have a better e-mail experience when I quickly delete the spam and move on to the important messages. Likewise, I'm going to have a better, happier, and more productive life if I learn to cut the crap and focus on the information that really matters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It's been raining a lot here. One the one hand, I like the rain because when it's over everything is fresh and the green grass is even greener. Because we had rain today, it will be gorgeous outside a few days from now. Still, sometimes in the midst of a long stretch of rain it can be hard to think about the glorious spring days ahead. Mostly we just think about how gross it is outside and it can seem like the rain will never end.

The weather in my soul can be like that sometimes too. On the sunny, happy days, I relax into an easy joy, appreciating my blessings and living in the moment. I know that dark days will find me again, but I don't worry about it because there's not a cloud in sight. On the dark days, though, I can't find any sign that the sun will return. Everything is hard and sad and I feel tired and weak. How will I make it, I wonder? When will my world change and bring me back to a happier, more stable place?

I don't always have control over the seasons of my soul. Challenges come and I struggle to adapt within the confines of my own weaknesses. I can't make the sun come out again all on my own, and I start to feel helpless. The truth is that to a certain extent, I am helpless—at least on my own. Luckily, I have a strong defender who won't let me perish. He won't take away all the bad weather, but he'll help me get through it, and he'll use it to fertilize the growth in my soul. Just like wildfires cleanse the prairie and rain nourishes the grass, God will use these hard times to enrich me in the end. And in the midst of them, he'll help me get through.

With that in mind, I'll close with some lyrics from the song "Flood" by Jars of Clay:

Rain, rain on my face
It hasn't stopped raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become one with the mud

But if I can't swim after forty days
And my mind is crushed by the thrashing waves
Lift me up so high that I cannot fall
Lift me up

Lift me up when I'm falling
Lift me up, I'm weak and I'm dying
Lift me up, I need you to hold me
Lift me up, keep me from drowning again

(Click here to read the rest of the lyrics. Click here to listen to the song.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What does the LORD require of you?

I work for a private liberal arts college. Our honors convocation is coming up, and it's my job to prepare the programs to go to print. We have three big events with a faculty procession in full academic regalia: Opening Convocation, Honors Convocation, and Commencement. At each of these events, the chaplain reads a salutatory and a valedictory. She's chosen a lot of interesting readings over the years that I've been at this college. She's read poems both famous and obscure and excerpts from authors I've never even heard of. Once she even read a passage from The Lord of the Rings (my nerd friends loved that—it was at their commencement ceremony).

This is the first time since I've been here that she has chosen a Biblical text for one of these readings. Our college is not affiliated with any religious organization, and we dropped our "chapel" requirement about 30 years ago. The chaplain is charged with meeting the religious needs of all students, and organizes observances from people of many different faiths. Although she was trained as a UCC pastor, she often comes across more as a Unitarian, very accepting of a wide variety of faiths and religious expression. Because she must nurture the spirituality of many different people of many different faiths, I think she has to be careful not to come across as "too" Christian at the risk of alienating some people. She has a hard job, and she does it remarkably well. That's why I was so surprised that she would pick a Biblical reading in this college that is so secular and diverse.

The reading she chose is Micah 6:6–8. I've copied it below:

With what shall I come before the LORD
       and bow down before the exalted God?
       Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
       with calves a year old?

 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
       with ten thousand rivers of oil?
       Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
       the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
       And what does the LORD require of you?
       To act justly and to love mercy
       and to walk humbly with your God.

I suppose I know why she chose it. The many different religious expressions at this college converge around the worldview of the liberal arts—enlightenment, justice, humility, cooperation, and creativity are promoted in many different ways to every member of the college community. Whether or not we are Christian, everyone at this college is expected to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with no expectation that we can buy our way in life.

Yet, that's only the surface of what this reading is really about. The liberal arts would teach us that we should be just, merciful, and humble because it's good for society in general, and that's true. But who taught us to be altruistic? How did we come to believe that working for the good of everyone was better than selfishly backstabbing and quarreling for our own profit alone? It is very enlightened to be concerned with the good of society, but at my deepest level, my instincts tell me to abandon everyone but my dearest loved ones in order to meet my own needs. I overcome this urge not through an intellect that convinces me that altruism is better and smarter than selfishness but through a heart that loves others too much to turn on them. My altruism comes from God and the lessons he has taught me, not from the wisdom of my own mind. While I think it's good and right that secular institutions teach us to be good and conscientious citizens, I know I need something stronger to serve as a foundation for those lessons so that I carry them on through even the hardest times in my life—I need God.

I endeavor to be a good citizen because that is what God requires of me. I recognize that God requires it because it is good and right, but I'm not sure if I would have known exactly what good and right are if I didn't have God to teach me and help me. I think that intellect is a marvelous tool when put to the service of God (consider Paul), but intellect is no replacement for God. Walking humbly isn't enough for me. I want to walk humbly with my God.

I wonder how many of the listening students and faculty members at Honors Convocation will draw a similar conclusion when they hear these words.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I smiled as the first person approached, and I tore off a piece of bread with my thumb and forefinger. "The body of Christ, given for you," I said, and I placed the piece of bread in the open palm. I don't remember exactly who came first, but that person was followed by many more in the quiet bustle of communion.

There were the nice people who come to Bible Study on Tuesdays. Most people look serious when they come through the communion line, but these two smiled back at me.

My husband was in the other line, but I still looked up and caught his eye as he came near. I could feel him close, and it was a warm feeling.

I smiled reassuringly at the little girl who seemed so shy that at first I wasn't sure if she wanted to receive the bread or not. But then she held out her little hand and looked up at me timidly. I gave her the bread, and her father put his hand gently on her shoulder as they moved on.

For a while I noticed that the pastor and I were in perfect rhythm. "The body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you," we would say in unison. I could hear the other communion servers speaking these lines too. All of us spoke together, on top of each other, and yet each person heard only the one who was speaking directly to him or her. There was sense in the jumble of words coming out of four mouths at once.

The congregation finished the two communion hymns and then the choir began to sing. What a heavenly sound, I distractedly thought to myself as I smiled and spoke to the person standing in front of me. I glanced up at the choir loft, but it was empty. Then I looked down the line of people waiting to receive communion and saw the choir gathered out in the narthex, singing through the double doors at the back of the church. The ethereal sound of their voices washed over all of us, breathing a gentle warmth on our spirits.

A beautiful, tottering old lady whom I've seen often but never formally met approached me. She had the most beautiful pink corsage pinned to her jacket in honor of Mother's Day. I looked at her bright yet wrinkled old face and thought of all of the children and grandchildren whose lives she must have touched. I imagined all the boundless love caught up in that little pink corsage. I didn't know her, but as I imagined the family who had picked out that corsage for her, I loved and admired her too.

Here came the members of the choir, people I've sung with and laughed with. I hoped they all knew how beautiful their singing had just been. I made a mental note to tell them as often as possible how much I enjoy listening to them.

All the faces passed by, people I knew and people I didn't know, but in the simple action of sharing communion I was connected to them all. Finally came a pair of friends with their new baby. As I looked at his tiny little face, he was also my hope for the future, a gift from God with the power to benefit the entire community, the whole body of Christ. Every mother's love, every child's smile, every person's hope was part of the community to which I belonged, and I could feel that more strongly than ever as I stood at the front of the church, watching them all come by.

Then it was over. I carried the pastor's chalice and my empty plate back into the sacristy. Soon we would all disperse into the wide world (or at least into the little town of Northfield), and it would be a while before we came back together again. Still, we would be connected because of this meal we had just shared and the faith that binds us to God and to one another.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Working for Peace

Sometimes our world's problems can seem so large that we feel we can do nothing to change them. Peace is one of those issues. How could we ever have world peace with so much sin in the world? How can anyone but God bring peace to our broken world? The truth is that we never will have complete world peace until God makes all things new, but that's no reason not to work for peace. We can't make things perfect because we aren't perfect, but we can work to make things better. With God's help, we ourselves can become better, and that's what working for peace is all about.

A photographer with whom I regularly collaborate professionally has started a project called "A Peace of My Mind." He interviews people to ask them about their take on peace and what it will take to make our world a more peaceful place. He talks to all kinds of people—old and young, professionals, homemakers, even homeless people. They all have something different and insightful to say. I think his project has a brilliant premise. If we simply spent more time thinking about peace and listening to each other's ideas, we could learn to make a difference. Each of us has a small sphere of influence, but when we work together we can do amazing things.

I encourage everyone to check out A Peace of My Mind at apeaceofmymind.net. Right now the project is in the running for a $50,000 prize from the Pepsi Refresh Project. The money would be used to keep up the Web site, fund more interviews, and create a traveling exhibition. You can vote for A Peace of My Mind by visiting www.refresheverything.com/apeaceofmymind.

I believe that peace is a natural byproduct of love. When the day comes that God perfects us all, we will be able to live in complete peace because we will love each other perfectly. There are ways for us to promote peace while still standing up for our beliefs, and we can love even those who oppose us. I know that we can't have complete peace in our sinful world, but I think God would support our efforts to work towards a more peaceful community and world.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Answered Prayers

Yesterday did not start out very well.

Early in a workday a colleague and I were conferring about a project we're working on together. We're both writers and editors, and I'd been gathering some sources for a story she's working on. We'd reached the point where I'd gathered the initial responses from these sources and turned them over to my colleague who was responsible for the piece in question. She was going to work with the contributors to get their pieces integrated into the piece. She asked me to read over an e-mail she was going to send to one of the contributors suggesting some mild edits to his piece. This sort of request is standard procedure for a project like this, and her message was very carefully and diplomatically worded. I told her I thought her e-mail looked fine, and she sent it.

Less than a minute later, the recipient called her up in a rage. He had just read her e-mail (very quickly) on his Blackberry while sitting in traffic in Los Angeles and immediately called to tell her how offended he was that she suggest he modify his piece in any way. How dare she question his expertise. Never mind that she needed to integrate his piece with others so that they would roughly match in tone. Never mind that she's a professional editor who's been doing this for more than a decade. Never mind that Steven King himself has to put up with editing. She was out of line to suggest that his piece was anything less than perfect, and he was going to take his loud complaints to the highest people possible in our organization. We work for a non-profit, and this person was chosen for this project because of his supposed love for the institution, but he vowed he would never do anything to help us ever again. Then, when he had my colleague in tears, he hung up on her.

I was dumbfounded. She had no idea the call was going to go this way, so she'd left her office door open and I'd heard the whole thing—at least her end. I'd heard her voice start to tremble as she tried to reason with him. I knew this person was a little high-strung, but I hadn't imagined this would happen. I consoled her as best I could, agreeing that his behavior was completely out of line, and then she went to get coffee.

The rest of the morning was a bit shaky. I kept expecting someone to start screaming at me at any second. Everyone in the office had heard about what happened, and we were all rather subdued. None of us likes getting yelled at by unreasonable people, and an attack on one of our colleagues feels a bit like an attack on all of us.

Later, I finally escaped the office to go to an annual luncheon for an organization to which I belong. As soon as I walked outside some of the weight lifted—it was beautiful and sunny, a perfect day. The lunch raised my spirits even more—good food, enjoyable conversation, and fun entertainment. At the end, they drew names to see who would take home the little potted plants that were centerpieces on the tables. They were very lovely, but I realized wistfully that I'd have no place to keep one if I won it—I live in an association with common lawns where I can't have a flower bed, and I can't keep plants inside or my cats will eat them and then throw up.

Then it hit me. My coworker loves flowers. I picked out a pink one on a table across the room and thought it suited her just perfectly. "Please, God," I prayed, "Let me win that flower." And I did. When I got back to the office, I asked my coworker if she'd like to have it, and she eagerly accepted. "This will look just lovely on my porch," she said. Then she gave me a hug and thanked me for being kind to her on her bad day. Somehow between a luncheon and a flower, the day got better for both of us, and at quitting time we both left in reasonably high spirits.

I don't always expect my prayers to be answered. Sometimes I get so jaded about it that I don't want to ask for anything at all. But then these little moments come up, and that urge to do something like give a coworker a flower pops into my mind. I can't help but pray in those moments, and when my prayer is answered, a little bit of my cynicism rubs away. I remember that God does answer prayers, and that He's there to cheer us up when some jerk yells at us for no good reason. So thanks, God, for the flower. It was a nice gesture, and I'm glad you gave me the idea and the luck to pull it off.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Footsteps in the Sand

I know that practically everyone knows this poem in one of its incarnations, but today I'm going to post it anyway. Several versions of this poem exist, but I've chosen the 1963 version by Carolyn Carty.


One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of His life.

This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it. "LORD you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me."

The LORD replied, "My precious, precious child, I Love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."

I know this poem well, and I want very much to believe it is true. Sometimes when things are hardest I feel completely and totally alone. I struggle onward, trying to fight my way through to a brighter time. It can be easy to doubt that God is with me when I feel so cold and alone, but I realize that if I were truly alone during those times I wouldn't make it. I'm not capable of pulling myself through trials and tribulations on my own, so I know that God must be there, carrying me through—even when I'm too incoherent to notice Him. God is there all the time. It is my own senses that change. Sometimes I can feel Him and sometimes I can't, but God is constant and true. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

First Star to the Right and Straight on Till Morning

Last night I went to bed early. I was quite tired and pressed down by the weight of all I had done and all I have left to do in the days ahead. I was lying in bed groggily looking out my bedroom window at the single bright point of light in the dark sky. I stared at it and it twinkled merrily back. "First star to the right and straight on till morning," I muttered to myself. That little star (which I realize was probably not a star at all but rather the planet Venus) looked so far away and so inviting.

I've never really been much of a Peter Pan fan. It's kind of an odd story, and I was never really captivated by pirates the way some children are. I do understand the thirst for freedom and adventure all to well, however, and that's the feeling that seeped into my veins as I sleepily gazed at that star. How grand it would be to travel to some far off place where I could discover new things, make new friends, and live a grand adventure. How nice it would be to battle lugubrious pirates instead of fighting my current enemies: sin, bills, my own weakness and fatigue, and the demons who try to trip me up when I'm  not paying attention. How lovely it would be to spend a little time in a fantasy land where nothing I did really mattered because it was just a story, after all.

My life isn't a grand and carefree adventure. It's a more serious and pedestrian journey than I might like, but it also has more character development and more personal growth than Peter Pan's. All of us have moments when we wish we didn't have to grow up, but that's because we don't like the baggage that comes with growing up. Growing up in and of itself is actually a marvelous thing. We get to learn new things and develop new skills and insights. We are refined from a rough sketch to a polished masterpiece as we grow up.

The trouble is really the pressure that comes with growing up. As we grow we are entrusted with more, and it matters more and more how our stories turn out. God gives us talents and resources, and He expects us to use them well. That puts a bit of pressure on us to try to get things right. At the same time, God is motivated to help us get it right, so He helps carry some of the weight. We can't fly or imagine things into reality, but God can carry us and give us the power to do what He asks of us.

Magic and adventure seem like easy outs to me sometimes, but they pale in comparison to God's power and abiding love. I don't need to escape from my life because God is going to make sure I make it through just fine. That twinkling star was beautiful, but it was also quite nice to be warm in my bed with a loving God watching over me.

Friday, April 30, 2010

An Open Letter to the Prophet Elijah

Dear Elijah,

Like many Christians, I greatly admire you. Your exploits and your gumption are the stuff of legend. As I read the exciting stories of your career as a prophet, I find myself unable to imagine what it would have been like even to witness what you did, much less to actually do it. You are like a Christian superhero—a man who accepted his calling, stood up to corrupt powers, and ultimately got carried off to heaven in a whirlwind. What a story! What a life! I can't tell you what a huge fan I am.

When I was first introduced to you in 1 Kings 17, you were already a prophet. You seemed so bold and confident, rebuking the evil king. But I don't know the story before that. When did you know you were a prophet? How did you receive your calling? Was there a burning bush or some sort of miracle? Was there a voice or a dream or a vision? Did you just know deep in your heart what God wanted you to become? Did you ever doubt your destiny? Were you afraid? Did you wonder sometimes if you were going crazy? How did you transform into the strong man of God that I met in 1 Kings 17? Was it easy, like following the path of least resistance, or did you struggle with it? Did you sleep at all the night before you confronted the king? Did your hands shake afterward? You look so stoic and calm there on the page, but I wonder what was going on inside your mind and your heart.

Later, after you had prayed successfully for the resurrection of the widow's son and had confronted Ahab again, you had a difficult period. Ahab and Jezebel sent a lot of goons after you, and you were on the run. You were frustrated then, and you prayed to God that you might die. And yet, in the midst of your fear and confusion and doubts, when God sent an angel to you, you listened and obeyed. I wonder sometimes if you argued at all with the angel about the raw deal you were getting or if you really were as absolutely obedient and virtuous as the story portrays you. Did you wonder during that long journey if God really cared about you or if you were just a pawn in a crazy supernatural game? Did you question whether following God's plan was the best choice for you? Did you worry that you might be discarded in the end when God was done using you? If you were afraid or disenchanted, it didn't show.

Did you ever wonder why God chose you to do all these things? Did you ever sit around wistfully remembering a time when your life was normal? Or did you feel a thrill of exhilaration every time you rebuked Ahab or performed a miracle, as if you were born to be this fearsome prophet? Did you want this life for yourself or did you long for a quieter existence? Sometimes I think you might have been the kind of no-nonsense person who didn't have time for such questions. Perhaps you never questioned what God asked of you and simply went with it. If not, you sure were good at hiding the conflict within you from everyone else—they were all cowed by your overwhelming air of authority. 

I don't know how you did it. I don't know how you kept your cool in front of Ahab or in the midst of all those people on the mountain when you were calling them out over their idolatry. I don't know how you retained your sanity in the midst of such crazy happenings. Sometimes it must have seemed like a dream or even a nightmare. Still, you held on. You did better than hold on—you excelled. In the end you were honored with a magnificent departure that has never been replicated. Your faith and obedience were rewarded, and you went down in history as one of Israel's most famous prophets, second only to Moses himself. You even got to be with Jesus during the Transfiguration.

Elijah, I wish I were more like you. Your story is one of inspiring success in the midst of incredible hardship. Your life was difficult and scary sometimes, but you persevered and prevailed. I wish I knew the secrets of your success. I wish I had your courage and your conviction. Like Elisha, I wish I could inherit a double portion of your spirit. Maybe someday when I finally make it to Heaven, I'll meet up with you and we can compare notes. In the meantime, I guess I'm on my own—which is to say that I'm with God, just like you were. He looked after you all right, so I expect that I'll be OK too.

Love, Kayla

Thursday, April 29, 2010


There's always a lot of discussion in the Christian community about what it means to be open and accepting to all people. After all, we're supposed to love everyone, right? God did create every one of us, and we are all precious in His sight. Not one of us is intrinsically past redemption, and Jesus would have us show kindness and respect to all people, no matter what they've done.

But that's not the whole story. We are also called to live to a high standard of conduct. As Christians, we're supposed to be as a people set apart, a righteous community dedicated to God. We often fall short of that ideal, but we still strive for it. We don't want to encourage people to do whatever they want in the name of acceptance, or we won't have any community standards at all. We don't simply accept that some people are thieves or pedophiles and just let it go with no response. We have to be able to address conduct and try to hold ourselves accountable for the good and health of the community and out of service and devotion to God.

So where's the balance between judgment and acceptance? Many people explain it by saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." That language turns some people off, but it at its heart it gets to the deeper issue. Unfortunately, that distinction is sometimes hard to make.

Let me start with myself. I have to accept that I am a flawed person. I make mistakes, and I don't always live up to the goals I set for myself. There are things I wish I could change about myself that I simply can't change. In order to go forward with God and my neighbors, I have to learn to accept myself and love myself, flawed as I am. At the same time, I need to be able to tell the difference between my successes and my failures so that I can learn from them. I need to be able to admit that I've done something bad without condemning myself as a bad person. There are some things I just can't do, but that's OK. I do the things that I can do and I leave the rest up to God, and I thank everyone who supports me in that.

So many of the issues we discuss are charged. If we tell someone that they we don't think they're the best person to perform a particular task because of things they've done and choices they've made, are we failing to be accepting? I don't necessarily think so. I honestly wouldn't choose someone with questionable theology or a reckless lifestyle to teach Sunday School to my children. But let's put this in context—I also wouldn't chose someone who can't explain topics well, has no patience, or isn't interested in discussing Bible stories. Our suitability for specific tasks has to do with a lot more than our track record—it also has to do with our personalities, gifts, and calling.

We probably shouldn't authoritatively dictate what other people can and can't do (except where we need to have a say about how their actions affect us directly). Still, our thoughts about someone's suitability to do a particular task is not a question of acceptance. We aren't evaluating whether they're good enough to live, after all. I would simply note that none of us is an expert on what other people are qualified to do. As someone who had persecuted Christians and perhaps even aided murder, Paul probably doesn't seem like a good choice for an evangelist. But God turned him into one, and He can work similar miracles in us. As Christians, we should use good judgment but remain open to the work of God's hand.

In the meantime, we are called to accept everyone. That means that nobody has to pass a test in order to earn love, forgiveness, respect, or even our attention or company. I should be able to speak to, associate with, or do something kind for anyone—including people whose actions I find reprehensible. I won't help them do the things I disagree with, but I can be kind and civil to them in all other respects. If I can help others and think they would appreciate my help, I should help—no matter whether or not I think they've "earned" it. Acceptance means that I worship with everyone who is willing to worship with me, I talk to everyone who's willing to talk to me (and sometimes people who aren't), and I work for the good of all people, both directly and indirectly.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Life Is Wonderful

A friend recently made me a mix CD, and the opening track was "Life Is Wonderful" by Jason Mraz. Not being much of a Jason Mraz fan, I'd never heard it before, but after one listen the song had captured me. From the few Jason Mraz tunes I've heard on the radio, I knew he likes to use clever wordplay, but I was unprepared for how deeply these seemingly simple lyrics would strike me. I don't know anything about Jason Mraz and whether or not he had God in mind when he wrote this song, but listening to it tells me something true about my faith.

It takes a crane to build a crane
It takes two floors to make a story
It takes an egg to make a hen
It takes a hen to make an egg
There's no end to what I'm saying

It takes a thought to make a word
And it takes some words to make an action
It takes some work to make it work
It takes some good to make it hurt
It takes some bad for satisfaction

Ah la la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la la la life goes full circle
Ah la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la

At the beginning of the first verse, I thought this was just going to be another clever wordplay song about paradoxes and trivia. Which came first—the chicken or the egg? But the rest of the song recolored the first verse for me. We live in a marvelously complex world, don't we? It does take a hen to make an egg and an egg to make a hen, and each of us is made up of billions of complex organic parts that all work together in amazing and sometimes mysterious ways. What an amazing world God has created! We can observe it, but we can't always explain it. I listened to this song as I walked to Bible study yesterday, and as I looked around at the world around me, I was overcome with awe. The sky was so blue and there were all different kinds of blooming trees with foliage ranging from verdant green to blushing pink. There were birds and butterflies and passersby on bicycles, and God created all of it. In that moment, all I could do was breathe it all in and feel amazed and blessed.

But the verse goes on. Our world is not only composed of many interlocking parts, it's also filled with conflicting emotions. We experience joy and pain, love and sadness, and all of it swirls together to form our life story. We get hurt because we dare to care, but our love is rewarded most strongly when we suffer for it. The more work we put in, the more something means to us, and each drop of blood or sweat can be precious. God put us here to learn about him and to grow in love, and sometimes that hurts. We have growing pains and suffer betrayals, but along the way we learn the beautiful truth about what really matters. We experience good and bad as our lives come full circle, but along the way we learn that life is wonderful, as is the God who gave it to us.

It takes a night to make it dawn
And it takes a day to make you yawn, brother
And it takes some old to make you young
It takes some cold to know the sun
It takes the one to have the other

And it takes no time to fall in love
But it takes years to know what love is
And it takes some fears to make you trust
It takes those tears to make it rust
It takes the dust to have it polished, yeah
Ah la la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la la la life goes full circle
Ah la la la la la life is wonderful
Ah la la la la

Sometimes I think that God allows us to experience night (both real and figurative) so that we can learn what dawn really means. It's a blessing to be able to more fully comprehend the joy of the morning and the triumph over all darkness—even the grave. The burdens we bear for God make us stronger, and perseverance is healthy for our hearts. We experience so much in this life without truly understanding what it means. God has permeated our lives with layers of divine meaning, and it takes us a lifetime of learning and spiritual guidance to even begin to comprehend what's there. But God truly does use all things for the benefit of those who love him—even fears, tears, rust and dust. In the end we will be polished and perfected, and we will spend eternity living with our loving Father. Life is wonderful, indeed!

Click here to read the full lyrics to the song or to listen to it. (The "Listen Now" link is in the upper left corner of the page, beneath the title and beside the picture.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Our lives are a combination of our own efforts and the efforts of others. When we were small children, we did very little for ourselves. As infants, we couldn't even feed or dress ourselves. Other people (mostly our parents) had to do everything for us because we could do nothing for ourselves. Later, we became more independent. Many of us relished the feeling of being able to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we might have even scorned the idea of taking help because as adults we didn't think we needed it anymore. The truth is that while we are expected to progress past a stage where we need help with everything, we're never going to mature to the point that we don't need help ever again.

Even those people who vehemently attest that they would never accept help can't escape all the benefits of cooperation. Anyone who has a job that necessitates them to work with other people gets help sometimes. Anyone who drives on the Interstate is aided by the drivers who adjust their speed or change lanes to allow him/her to feed in. All of us get help from unseen Providence, whether we're willing to admit it or not. The truth is that there's no shame in getting help. We can do many things on our own, but we all have weaknesses. It's OK to accept help to compensate for our weaknesses. Even when we're at our best, we still might want help—with a little help we can sometimes transform adequate efforts into extraordinary results.

Accepting help doesn't mean that our own actions and efforts don't matter. Consider Moses for a moment. He confronted Pharaoh, led the Israelites out of Egypt, and parted the Red Sea. He didn't do any of this on his own. God told Moses what to say to Pharaoh, empowered him to be a leader, and lent divine power to the miracle at the Red Sea. Although these things were done by the power of God, Moses and his actions were integral to all of them. Moses himself did not unleash the power that parted the Red Sea, but God still need him to stretch his hand out over the sea. How else could the people have been sure that the miracle was from God and was connected to the message that Moses had delivered? God used Moses to reach his people, and Moses' own choices and actions had everything to do with that.

It's the same with  you and me. Sometimes we need help from God or from other people to do the work we've been given to do. Accepting help in those situations is a credit to us—it's the path to victory, not an admission of defeat. Still, it's also important for us to work hard to reach our goals, and we are no longer children who can rely on others for everything. Accepting help doesn't mean giving up on our own efforts. Instead, when we combine our own work with the help of others, we can often get a magnificent result. Because I know that, I ask God to help me feel more comfortable asking for and accepting help. Likewise, I want to become more willing to offer my help to others in any way I can. Together we can all make a big difference in the world. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lessons from Mom

I learned much of what I know about love by paying attention to my mom. People say that there's nothing quite like a mother's love, and although I have no children of my own, I can confirm that they're right. I've seen that strong and abiding love in my own mother. The Bible tells us all about love, but seeing those concepts acted out in the world around them helps us to truly understand and internalize them. Scripture told me a lot about love, and then my Mom showed me what those passages were talking about. Because of that, I understood and embraced love from an early age and grew into a stable person with a strong heart.

My Mom has taught me a lot of things. These are just a few:
  • Sometimes you have to put someone else's needs before yours. I didn't always know all the pressures Mom was under. She took care of me the same, whether she was having a good day or a bad one. She did things for me when she would probably have rather been doing something else. She made sure I got what I needed, even when she might not have been getting everything she needed herself. 
  • It's OK to get angry—just don't stay angry. My mom has a temper now and then, but it only lasts about 30 minutes. Give her a half hour and she's fine again. No grudges, no having to suck up for what you did, no guilt trips. She uses her moment of anger to completely purge the negativity from her system, and then she's over it. The offense is all gone. I am forgiven. The anger was never a weapon or a means of control. That's why I learned not to be afraid of anger—it doesn't have to last very long, and it doesn't have to ruin anything. The anger is brief, but the love abides strong as ever before, during, and after it. 
  • It's acceptable and necessary to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves. I remember the day I was playing in the public pool and a bunch of big boys were throwing pool toys at me. I tried to get out of the pool to escape them, and one of them grabbed my foot and tried to pull me back in. That's when my mom looked up from the book she was reading, saw what he was doing, and yelled, "You let go of my daughter!" in a very strident voice. The lifeguard seemed affronted that my mom had dared to disturb the peace and tranquility of the public pool, but she wouldn't back down. She had a right to defend me, and if she hadn't stepped in I could have been hurt. That's not the only time my Mom stepped in to defend me, even when it might cause other people to think she was strange. My elementary school teacher probably thought mom was a nuisance (and I was a wimp) when she went to the principal to discuss the fact that the other kids were mercilessly picking on me all day every day. But she didn't care what anyone thought. She cared about me. I know now that peace, decorum, routines, and even social norms can be tossed by the wayside when someone's in trouble. Love means putting yourself out there when someone else needs help, even if it makes other people look at you funny because you dare to step outside the typical.
  • The best gifts are personal. When I was a kid, my mom made a lot of my presents. Mom's presents were made with love and built to last. They weren't made out of cheap plastic parts that would break if I accidentally sat on them (I did that a lot). They weren't generic things that anyone could have. They were special. Later as I got older, Mom gave me other kids of personal gifts like homemade birthday cards with poems she had written. She made me an afghan when I went off to college, and she made my birthday cake nearly every year. Some of the best gifts she gave me were the memories we made together and the fun times we had. Mom never tried to prove her love with money and expensive gifts. She showed me she cared by investing herself into the things she gave me, and I got the message loud and clear.
  • It's OK to need someone to talk to, and it's OK to ask for help. Everybody needs a shoulder to cry on sometimes, and that's OK. Mom's always there when I need to talk through a problem with equal amounts of sympathy and wisdom to share. Now that I'm all grown up, sometimes the sympathy and wisdom can go both ways, and that's a good thing. God created us to be social creatures for a reason, and we're stronger when we stick together. Even though we live in different states, my mom and I are still together in some really important ways, and that makes both of us stronger. 
  • The truest love lasts a lifetime. It changes and evolves over the course of a relationships, but it doesn't fade. My mom's love for me wasn't confined to the years when I was tiny and adorable or even to the time when I needed her to meet all of my needs. She still loved me when I became independent and self-sufficient, and she still loves me today when I live far away and only call a couple of times a month. The love changes, but it stays strong, and I can count on it.
Happy birthday, Mom. You've taught me a lot, and I'm lucky to have you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scattering the Flock

We all love the image of God as a tender and compassionate shepherd, defending His beloved flock against all threats. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. The only problem with this scenario is that we're the sheep—and sheep are stupid. Satan knows better than to come out openly and try to take us from the Shepherd by force. Instead, he tempts us into wandering off ourselves. Although Satan is powerless to actually harm us, he can scatter the flock because we are stupid enough to actually listen to him.

Satan has a few tricks up his sleeve, and I am sorry to say that I have found myself vulnerable to nearly all of them on occasion. Here are a few that I've recognized:
  • Fear. There is probably nothing quite as stupid as a panicked sheep. It will run off in any direction, helter-skelter, in a blind and unthinking attempt to get away. Satan can make us behave that way. Perhaps he threatens us with the fear of pain or death. Maybe he makes us fear our own futures or destinies. He may even make us afraid of the very Shepherd who loves and cares for us. But the moment we give into fear, our brains turn off. By the time we've finished running, we have no idea where we are or how to get back.
  • Restlessness. Satan convinces us that lying down in green pastures and being led beside still waters is boring. We come dissatisfied with our lot as one of the Shepherd's sheep. We begin to find this life confining, and we feel desperate to make a decision all on our own—even if it's a reckless one. We want to be independent and free. Isn't it better to do what we want, even if we end up living on a rocky crevice as a result instead of in the lush pasture? "Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Satan whispers, and we listen.
  • Despair. So many terrible things happen in this world. It's easy to feel sad, maybe even disillusioned about it all. Satan latches onto our despair and goads us into believing that suffering is all there is. What kind of God would allow such things to happen? Therefore there must not be a God—or He's too weak and indifferent to intervene. We listen to this lie and seems easier to believe than the truth of grace. We see the suffering before us now, so how can we believe that none of it is permanent? We see the power of death today, so how can we trust that Jesus has overcome us? Satan tries to reduce us to people who believe only the basest things that are right in front of us. We lose our faith and our hope, and one by one we wander off in dejection.
  • Anger. Sometimes life in the flock doesn't seem quite fair. Some sheep get to graze closer to the stream than others. We don't always get to go where we want to do or do what we want to do. Sometimes we even get into disagreements with the other sheep. Satan likes to encourage this discord. Whenever we feel dissatisfied or disenfranchised, he lends a falsely sympathetic ear. He encourages us to be indignant and convinces us that we need to look out for number 1. We get jaded and bitter, and we stop trusting the other sheep. Eventually we reject even the shepherd and we leave just so we can get away from the disappointment and annoyance of being with such disappointing companions. 
In all honesty, these ploys only work because we are stupid. Satan preys on the emotions of the weak, and that, my friends, means you and me. All of us, like sheep, will go astray. It's inevitable.

But there's good news. God will leave all the other sheep to come and find us. After we've made asses of ourselves by giving into our ugliest urges, God will search us out and tenderly carry us back home. Satan can scatter us, but he cannot destroy us. God will keep rounding us back up again until the wonderful day when we no longer have any desire to stray. We won't always be stupid sheep. Someday we will be heirs of God in Heaven. Someday we will be like Jesus and Satan will have no power over us.

Until then, I suggest that we do two things:
1. Be on the lookout for Satan and his craftiness. Defy him as often as we can and avoid his snares by submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
2. When we do go astray, allow ourselves to be rescued. Let us cry out shamelessly for God like a lost sheep bleats when it's in trouble. When God comes to collect us, let us not struggle. Instead let us allow the Shepherd to gather us up in His arms and carry us back to the flock.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Importance of Rules

I just heard about a new parenting fad called "Unschooling". These parents sign their kids up for homeschooling, but then they let the kids do whatever they want during the day. Several of these families let the kids make all their own decisions about every aspect of their lives and have no household chores or rules. There's no discipline and no punishment because there are no rules to break. (I wondered what they would do if one of their kids started hitting another one, but no one brought that up in the interview.) The alleged point is for the kids to identify and pursue their own interests. Instead of being provided with a curriculum and textbooks, they are expected to find information about topics of interest themselves. It's a do-it-yourself education with complete and total independence.

I would like to take this moment to reflect on how lucky I was to grow up in a home with rules and to attend a school with at least a basic curriculum. My school wasn't the very best, and I had to learn many things on my own. Still, at least I had someone to show me the basics of a wide variety of topics. I didn't enjoy everything I learned, and some of the rules and chores at school and at home were tedious. Back then I probably would have loved the freedom not to have to do those things, but today I see the value in learning to do things that weren't necessarily fun. Unschool parents say their kids will do necessary tasks because they will see the value in doing them. I disagree. I think that I learned certain things were important only after I was first forced to do them. When I was ignorant and immature, I needed someone to tell me what to do so that I could learn enough to eventually make intelligent decisions for myself.

This might sound like a social/educational rant up until now, so let's introduce a religious element: the law. Some Christians would have you believe that we don't need the law for any reason and that like unschool kids, we should have the freedom to do whatever we think best. I say that freedom should come with maturity. Adults have more freedom than children, and once we learn the basics we don't have to worry about rules quite so much. Paul compares the law to a child's tutor—it teaches us about God and keeps us in line when we are still too spiritually immature to really understand what God wants from us. Once we become mature in our faith, we don't necessarily need the law to tell us what to do anymore because we know God well enough to figure that out without being explicitly told. We become sons and heirs, as Paul puts it.

You can't treat children like adults and expect good results. Children need rules to help them build a foundation that will allow them to make good decisions as adults. First we must learn before we can be turned loose to act according to our own judgment. The same is true for my Christian life. When I don't know God well enough to know how He wants me to act in a certain situation, I still fall back on the law. I look for a guideline in Scripture that will help me figure out what to do. Because I am not subject to any human religious tutor, I must enforce self-discipline and subject myself to the rules when I think I need them. I do that because I recognize that it is wise—good rules exist because they help us learn, not to make us needlessly jump through hoops. I'm OK with being told what to do when I don't know any better myself. I like rules if they lead me in a good direction. I would hate to think what would happen if I had to figure out everything about life, God, and love all on my own with no rules to guide me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Skip Ahead to the Good Stuff

I am not a terribly patient person. Sometimes I get bored with my life, and I start to feel like a child waiting for Christmas to come when it's only October. When is something fun and exciting going to happen? I wish my life were a movie so I could fast-forward to the best scenes. I want my life to be a collage of Hollywood moments, not a pedestrian drudgery only rarely interrupted by excitement. Can't I just skip ahead to the good stuff?

When I'm being reasonable, I realize that the highlights of my life aren't necessarily limited to the exciting events or the fun times. Sure, the vacations and weddings and holidays are great, but some of the most important moments in my life happened on the normal days. I had a casual conversation with someone and learned something important about our relationship. I saw a beautiful rainbow,  had a creative breakthrough, or shared a special moment with someone I love. I felt inexplicably and incandescently happy in an otherwise ordinary moment. I gained some jewel of wisdom or shared an important piece of my own knowledge with someone else. I inspired someone to love God. I renewed my own commitment to Christ. I loved and was loved.

The special moments of my life don't always wait for special occasions. They don't necessarily announce themselves either, so I need to be sure I'm paying attention. I don't want to impatiently rush through my life trying to get to the good stuff and miss the wonderful things that are happening all around me every day. "Stop and smell the roses," the old saying goes. Pay attention. Appreciate. Experience. Enjoy. I don't need a special date to enjoy my husband's company or a vacation to notice the natural beauty around me. I don't need a party to have a good time or an earth shattering experience to gain valuable wisdom. I am growing and learning and having fun every day, and because of that each day is valuable. There's good stuff sprinkled through every day of my life, so if I tried to skip ahead, I might miss some of it.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I realized last night that some of the most popular shows on television over the past few years focus on teams. Sure, each team has one or two stars and the rest are kind of the back-up, but the fans all have their favorite characters, and each character has a role to play. Consider the legal/crime fighting shows like Law and Order, CSI, or Castle (one of my favorites). Everyone on the team has a part to play in solving the mystery. There are also hospital dramas like Grey's Anatomy, House, or the long-running E.R. where teams of doctors have to diagnose strange illnesses and save lives in crazy situations. Even sitcoms like the hugely popular Friends, The Office, or Seinfeld follow the interactions and misadventures of a group of people whose lives are intertwined. As fans, we like to root for teams. We cheer for each person in the group as he or she makes unique contributions that lead to the team's success. Even the stars couldn't do as well on their own without a team. Every person, even the supporting cast, matters.

God designed us to work in teams. He endowed each of us with specific gifts that are maximized when they are combined with the gifts of others. Paul described the church as one body with many members—in essence a vast team in which every person is important. It can be hard to feel important when most of us feel like supporting cast members instead of the stars. But consider this—Jesus was divine and therefore fully capable of enacting his ministry on Earth without any help from anyone. Yet even he knew that his efforts would be better with a team, so he shared his ministry with his disciples. Later, he commissioned this motley group to lead his church after he had ascended to Heaven. Some of Jesus' followers have stood out more than others throughout history, but he entrusted his church to the entire group, not just the superstars. Every person is important, and that's why it's essential that we learn to work together.

I am personally a member of several different teams. I belong to several overlapping groups of family, friends, and loved ones. Together we help each other through the challenges of life and we inspire each other to grow and flourish. I am a member of a professional team that works to promote interest in a fine institution of higher learning. Together we attract first-rate students and faculty members to our school and inspire people to donate money to keep it going strong. I belong to a vocal choir and a hand bell choir where every voice and every pair of hands is needed to create a balanced blend of beautiful music. I am part of a thriving church community and a member of the larger body of Christ. None of these teams would be the same if I was not a part of them. Sure, they can all get by without me, but my contributions will be missed, especially until someone else is found to do some of the things I once did.

Even if the team can go on existing without us, that doesn't mean that we aren't important. We are all part of the team for a reason. Consider Bartholomew. I don't remember many stories about him, but Jesus must have chosen him to be one of the 12 for a reason. He was part of Jesus's ministry and a valued member of the team. Likewise, Paul got most of the glory during his many missionary journeys, but the contributions of Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy (among others) were invaluable. I think we all have our moments (few though they may be) when we get to be the star, but most of the time we're supporting members of the team. But that's OK, because we're still important.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Most Excellent Way

Because I love you,
     I give you all the time you need;
     I search for new ways to make you smile;
     I am thankful for every good thing in your life—even the ones I can't enjoy.

Because I love you,
     I am honest in our relationship;
     I can admit my mistakes and my shortcomings;
     I feel inspired to be the best version of myself—with you and with everyone else.

Because I love you,
     I share my belongings and my time;
     I focus on the big picture when problems arise;
     I am able to forgive you when you hurt me—as many times as it takes.

Because I love you,
     I choose right over easy;
     I have a foundation of joy that no hardships can destroy;
     I put up with all of your quirks and flaws—just like you put up with mine.

Because I love you,
     I have faith in you;
     I hope for a beautiful future filled with adventures and joy;
     I fight the darkness in this world with you by my side—and I'll never give up.

(I recently wrote this poem for some friends. It's loosely based on 1 Corinthians: 13, my favorite passage.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Be Still

"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." (Psalm 46:1)

I frequently say that God is my refuge, but how often do I think about what they really mean? The concept of refuge goes beyond words and explanations. It is a feeling as deep as my soul's core, a truth as solid as the universe is broad. God is my refuge, my unshakable safe-haven, my constant companion, my boundless comforter.

I can try all day to explain the enormity and import of what this means and manage only to scratch the surface. So instead, I will take some good advice:

"Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

Today I will not write or reason or explain. Today I will be still and know that God is with me. I hope that you will take some time to do the same.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chasing After the Wind

Sometimes I feel a lot like King Solomon must have felt when he wrote Ecclesiastes. " 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' " (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Solomon complains that there is "nothing new under the sun." We receive no lasting benefit from our toil, and all of us—the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish—will arrive at the same fate. All of us are subject to misfortune and all of us will die. We will not be remembered when we are gone, and nothing we've worked for will last. Everything we try to do for ourselves is merely "chasing after the wind."

King Solomon  had an amazing life. He was Israel's richest and wisest king, and he accomplished many things during his reign. Yet, he saw this work and even all of his pleasures as having no lasting meaning. I too have a comfortable life and a decent job, but I still feel like a hamster on a wheel. I go to work and I pay my bills, but what am I really achieving? What is the point? Is my life meaningless?

I think the answer is both yes and no. Solomon wrote that only God is capable of creating a lasting legacy. Our labors really are meaningless compared to God's. My life has no meaning on its own, but God can use His power to give it meaning. Solomon wrote that the best thing we can hope for is to eat and drink and enjoy our labor, even if it is meaningless, but only God can grant us that enjoyment. If we simply evaluate our own work, we will never be satisfied because everything we do is meaningless on the surface. If we consider our work as toil in service of God, however, then we can find enjoyment and peace in what we do. God will transform our work into something greater and weave it into His grand master plan. On our own, we can do nothing, but we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

It's hard to understand how my boring life could have meaning. Sometimes it's easy to think that I am utterly replaceable, that nothing I do is unique or essential. Nothing new under the sun. Still, God endowed me with this personality and these skills and put me into this life for a reason. What I do may be meaningless to everyone else, but apparently it matters to God. Solomon was wise, but God is even wiser. Perhaps Solomon saw his work as meaningless, but his words on the page are still helping people like me today, thousands of years after he died. Likewise, I cannot know all the ways in which I make a difference in the world around me. I might have said or done things that people will carry with them for the rest of their lives. My job may seem mundane, but I might write an article someday that convinces a brilliant young person to come to my alma mater, receive a first-class education, and go on to change the world. No matter how wise I am, I cannot accurately rate the meaning of my own life. Only God can do that.

If the purpose of my life is to chase after the wind, so be it. Perhaps Solomon would call that meaningless because, after all, you can't catch the wind. I can't take anything I earn here on Earth with me to Heaven, but perhaps the value is in the toil itself, not the spoils. Perhaps the greatest meaning is to be found in doing the work we've been given to do simply out of the joy of serving God. If God means for me to be here doing this work with these people, then I will do it with all my heart. If chasing after the wind is my destiny, then let me do it with joy—that then will be the meaning.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Universal and Personal

One of the hardest things to understand about God is that He is simultaneously all-powerful and yet concerned with our well-being. Why would the most amazing entity in the universe care about us? How can God be so big and yet so close? We can't always confront this concept head-on, so we come up with lots of artistic ways to illustrate it. Some of my favorite hymns speak to the wonder that God is universal and yet personal.

Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

All things were created through Jesus; He is our mighty king. Yet he was begotten out of love, and love is his purpose for existing. God's acts of creation are not simply about power or even brilliance—they are about love. God made everything so that He could love it, perhaps even because He loved it before it existed. The God who is powerful enough to create the universe is also capable of knowing all of us inside and out. He is not only the beginning and the end—He is our beginning and end. God made us, and we cannot exist without Him. 

Creator of the stars of night
Thy people's everlasting light
O Christ, redeemer of us all
We pray you hear us when we call

The amazing thing is that Christ will hear us. The one who has the power to help us actually does hear us and care about us! So often we simply cannot find any help on this Earth. We are invisible to those who have the means to help us, and the people who do love us are powerless to rescue us from our troubles. But God is different. Unlike people who often become hardened and uncaring as they amass power, God is both all-powerful and all-loving. The One who created the stars is our everlasting light, and He will hear us when we call.

This is frequently the most comforting truth that my faith has to offer. I rarely find love and power in the same place on Earth, so it is a huge relief to know that I have a personal God and Savior who has universal power—power to help me, and power to save me. God's power is not mine to demand at any time or manner of my choosing, but I trust Him to use it for my ultimate good. And that is why I can sleep at night.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lord, I Believe; Help My Unbelief

My faith is the cornerstone of my life, but that doesn't mean that I don't have doubts. I can believe many things with my mind, but my heart is not always convinced. My heart embraces other ideas thatt my mind cannot understand. My faith is imperfect because I am imperfect. Every once in a while, though, everything clicks together and I have peace. I understand the truth about God in my heart and my mind simultaneously. Those moments are precious gifts, and I long for more of them.
  • Lord, I believe that You came to Earth in human form and died so that I could be cleansed of my sin and be made worthy to live with You in Heaven. I know that this is a good thing (the best thing possible, in fact), but sometimes when I think about Heaven I get scared. I get this lurching feeling in the pit of my stomach because I can't comprehend the idea of forever. I have no idea what's in store for me in Heaven, so it scares me a little. Help me trust in the promise even though I can't understand it.
  • Lord, I believe that my marriage is part of Your plan, but I sometimes doubt whether my husband and I are really the best fit for each other. I worry that we might not be compatible enough to see each other through the many years ahead. Still, I know that we love each other very much and I trust that You put us together for a reason. Because I believe that You intend for us to be together, I am counting on You to help make our marriage work. Help me be the wife I should be and give me peace and courage to persevere through the bumps.
  • Lord, I believe that I have a purpose on this Earth and that You will use my talents for Your own glory. I can't always see that happening, and sometimes it seems like all my efforts are thwarted. I can't find the time and energy to do everything that I feel I should do, and often when I try to act on my calling, my words and actions seem to have little or no effect. I often feel impotent and unsuccessful, and I don't want to be a waste of time and space. I long to do good work for You. Help me live up to the plan You have for my life, and give me the wisdom to see how what I do matters to You.
  • Lord, I believe that You endowed me with this personality for a reason, but sometimes I feel that I need to change who I am. I don't always fit in well with other people, and I have crazy dreams and a restless spirit that are often at odds with my rather pedestrian life. Should I try to temper that part of myself, or did You put it here for a reason? Did You intentionally create me this way, or have I warped what You made? I wish you would tell me so that I knew what, precisely, to believe about myself.
  • Lord, I believe that you have a plan for this world and for my life, but it's too great for me to see or comprehend. It's so hard to trust in Your unseen design, especially when things are going wrong around me. People ask me how there could be a loving God when so many terrible things are happening to good and innocent people. I try to explain, and while the logic makes sense in my head, sometimes it seems hollow even to me. I love You and trust You, but it's hard to bear the sight of all this suffering. I can only imagine how heartbroken You must be watching it all, and I don't want to add to Your pain by doubting You. I love You, and I know You love us. Fortify my heart to trust in You, no matter what I see and experience on this Earth. 
I believe, and I won't stop believing when I have doubts. Sometimes my faith is a bit rough around the edges, but it's strong at its core. The Holy Spirit will not leave me to struggle alone, and I have comfort in that.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Exposure Value

Yesterday I was in a digital photography class to learn how to use my new digital camera. It's my first single reflex lens camera, so I'm discovering how to use ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings to change the type of shot I get. ISO (known as film speed in film cameras) determines how sensitive the camera's sensors are to light. Shutter speed determines how long the shutter stays open during an exposure. Aperture is how wide the front of your lens opens (like an iris) when you take a picture. Together, these variables determine how much light is captured by the camera during an exposure, and that's called the exposure value.

You need a certain exposure value in order for a picture to be properly lit, but there are lots of ways to get that film exposure. You could use many different combinations of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture settings to get the right amount of light for your pictures. Different combinations can radically change the type of picture you get. Do you want a wide depth of field or a shallow one? Do you want to show motion or freeze motion? Are you shooting with a tripod or by hand? So many choices, so many options. The beautiful thing is that photography is an art, and there is no one "right" choice. It's all a matter of the photographer's vision and what tools (lighting, tripod, flash, etc.) he or she has to work with.

Sometimes I think that faith is a lot like a good exposure value. The photographer is trying to achieve a well-lit picture, and we Christians are trying to achieve a close and loving relationship with God. Like the photographer, we have many different ways to get to that goal, and no one way is "right". These days, most Christian denominations have stopped short of claiming that they alone are doing Christianity the "right" way, and I think that's a positive development. After all, there are many gifts but the same Spirit, many individuals with unique personalities, but the same Christ. We all express our faith in different ways, just as two photographers may take completely different pictures of the same subject based on their artistic visions. None of us is perfect, and we all have limitations to overcome in our faith. Like a photographer caught without a flash or a tripod, sometimes we have to improvise. Some would call that wrong, but I think it's more wrong to not take the figurative picture at all.

The truth is that most of the religious choices we quibble over aren't spelled out in the Bible. I think God left many of the practical details of Christianity open so that all kinds of different people can practice in their own way. The Bible does not dictate how often we should take communion (or precisely with whom), whether we should sing and dance in church, or how long a worship service should last. We weren't explicitly told whether and how to ask other people to pray for us and whether it's OK to ask dead people (the saints) to pray for us too. We weren't told how to structure our hierarchy or the technical procedure for making decisions as a group. Jesus didn't tell us what to wear to church or teach us specific rituals for showing God respect.

Instead, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." That's the exposure value we're going for, but how we compose the shot is entirely up to each one of us.
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