Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What do I want to be when I grow up?

Yesterday was a splendid “I-can’t-stay-inside” kind of winter’s day, with a crystal blue sky, a life-rejoicing 75 degree temperature, a different universe in mid-February for this girl from Chicago. The cherry trees were already decked out a month early with their spring finery, and the yellow forsythia blooms competed for attention.  

We are visiting my husband’s parents in North Carolina for a couple of days.  When a pocket of time appeared in the late afternoon, I pulled on my shoes and went for a walk.

After just a few minutes walking the winding road around their neighborhood, I realized that I did not need my fleece vest at all.  I carried it in my hand and rejoiced in the mildness of the day.  On my second loop around, I passed an older woman walking briskly in the opposite direction.  As we approached one another, I lifted up my vest and remarked cheerfully, “It’s warmer than I thought!”

She looked at me, as if deciphering whether she knew me, but then, she glared sharply at my friendly greeting.  “It’s not warm. It’s HOT! “ she snapped at me, her voice increasing in volume, as if I was the cause of the day’s weather.  “I lived for fifty years in South Carolina,” she stated in the harsh tone of a trial attorney, and then,  it sounded like she said in bold print and in italics. “ I HATE HOT.

“I even had to turn on my air conditioning this afternoon,” she fumed as she stomped away.  The sky was still blue and the birds chirped from the tree tops, but dark storm clouds swirled in her wake.

For a moment, I didn’t know what hit me.   My first reaction was, O my dear LORD, what kind of pain is that woman bearing?  What is she facing, what is she going through, what heavy baggage is she carrying underneath that blue Adidas shirt?  Everyone struggles with something.  Everyone.

My second thought was, “I don’t want to be like that when I am older.  Is that what I sound like now?”

 I was reminded of a book I read last week  If I Live To Be 100, based on interviews with centenarians that author Neenah Ellis conducted for an NPR series.  In the book, she tells a bit of her own journey:

“But I only recently started thinking about what my life might be like at one hundred…As I listened to their life stories, I realized that I was being given a chance to choose my own future, like Ebenezer Scrooge.  By lining my life up alongside theirs, I got a better idea of where I might be headed…I felt the need to make more choices;  I could decide what sort of old person I wanted to be.”

I could decide what sort of old person I wanted to be.”

What do I want to be when I grow up?

None of us has to wait until we are older.

No matter the circumstances, there is a choice between bitterness or joy.  To leave an unpleasant aftertaste -- or the sweet aroma of Jesus.  

This past year, I had to navigate a difficult situation and make some intentional choices.  To keep me focused,  I scribbled some questions on an index card and taped it to the inside cover of my journal:

What do I choose in this?
What kind of person do I want to be in this?
What is God’s way in this?
What is God trying to say?

Despite the dense brambly thicket around me and the ensuing storm, God’s Word rolled over and over in my thoughts:  “Be found in Him.”  (Philippians 3. 9) 

My choices impact everyone around me – as I learned from an elderly woman yesterday -- as well as people I will never know.   I can decide what kind of person I want to be when I am older, I can choose what kind of person I want to be today.

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
                                    Proverbs 31. 25

Saturday, February 18, 2017

And what I found along the way

Most mornings, I have to put on my proverbial seatbelt to write.  When a day appears wide open to write, I almost always awaken to urgent needs around me  in bold print, all caps, and italicized, even that which is not URGENT by any measure. 

I don’t even get to the computer before there is a crowd at the door of my thoughts, taking numbers as if at the meat market on sale day, sometimes shoving and shouting like so many elementary students getting in line on the playground after the wildness of recess.  “Me first!!!“  And what stands in the way of my needful work are so many distractions, the laundry, the making of soup for supper, one ingredient at the grocery, even what is someone else’s calling.  And I am often tempted by the alluring thought, “Oh, just this one thing, and you can get back to your work,” like a single cookie or potato chip that morphs into a LOT more than I intended.

Go put on your seatbelt, God reminds me.

After a brief conversation this morning, I knew what I was going to write about.  I sketched out my idea in my journal, based on a verse that through the years God has engraved on my heart.  I just couldn’t remember the chapter and verse in the Bible.  For efficiency’s sake, I looked up two key words in the concordance at the back of my Bible.  I couldn’t find the verse.  Instead of quickly looking it up on the internet, I KNEW that I had written down the verse somewhere on the back flaps of my Bible.  I was ready to grab the verse and plow ahead.

God had bigger plans than that.  God always has more profound designs than my puny intentions.

I first glanced through my scribblings on the back flaps of my Bible, verses jotted down through the years.  I scanned over them.  Nothing initially popped out.  But then, other verses caught my attention as well as the words of godly people I know, and truths verbalized in a sermon or two.

I was looking for a single verse and a quick write.  But when I sought a little deeper, God overwhelmed me by His love and His faithfulness.

“The only thing harder than waiting on God is wishing that you did.” – Crawford Loritts

…for it is not a trifle for you, but it is your life.  Deuteronomy 32. 47

“Making the invisible Kingdom visible.”  -- John Calvin

“Live in such a way that He is seen.” – anonymous

“Everything we do has significance with God.”   --anonymous

Keep you from sudden panic.  Proverbs 3. 25

“Sin ruins it all up.” – our granddaughter Maggie at age 4

You whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants.  Psalm 8. 1-2

“Learn to read the Bible slowly.” – E. V. Hill

What emerged on those back flaps were four full pages in my own handwriting in teeny tiny letters, in ink so they will not fade and I will not forget.  God never intends me to rush through, grab a bite for the road when I think I need it, a band aid for a broken leg, a platitude to hang on my wall. 

God wants me to marinate.  He wants me to linger.  God converses.  It is not a quick fix, nor a list of rules or beliefs, but a personal, conversational, loving, grace-filled relationship.  That is why God gave us His Word,  that is why He invented praying, that is why He sent Jesus.  Even in the busy-ness  of days, I can pray all I want, I can dwell on His Word no matter what I am doing, and as He promises over and over and over again, “I am with you wherever you go.”

I rarely think about the enormity of things, those little jottings with so many different pens in so many seasons of my life.  When I inscribed these verses, and words, and thoughts, did I realize that decades later they would still be strengthening, building His truth in my life, and reminding me of His faithfulness?

The things of God I learn today may be equipping me for what is yet to come.

Ok, well, I really departed off the designated trail this morning.  Off on a tangent, or utterly distracted?  Or perhaps redirected to a different panorama of things and the intricately engineered details of the Creator of the universe.  I am amazed what I found along my way to somewhere else.  Following Him into it.

All these things don’t just  fit together. God made it so, beyond my wildest imagination, even more than I can know.

He is before all things,
and in Him,
     all things hold together.
               Colossians 1. 17

All who wander are not lost. – J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The grand decoder of disguises

My mom saw things that never appeared to the rest of us.

My mom was a violinist, passionate about her music from when she was a very little girl.  And not until she passed away twelve years ago at the age of 83, did I find out from one of her violin students that my mom had the gift of synesthesia.  When she played music, she had the ability to see colors associated with the notes. She did not just hear.  She saw something completely different.

I never knew that.

What I did know was that my mother was the lover of people.  And as with her music, she saw something completely different when she walked into a room.

My mom could see the refugees, the strangers, the estranged, the desperately lonely, no matter how they were disguised.  Just like Sherlock Holmes could sense a person's story from near-invisible details, mom could decode hearts.  It didn't matter whether it was the struggling single mom bussing tables at Old Country Buffet or a wealthy socialite who threw elaborate parties in a mansion.  Mom could not just pick them out, no matter how concealed, no matter how altered the appearance; she would seek them out.  She had an innate awareness of others, whether they were the life of party or standing on the outskirts.  She often told me that the least likely of all were most often the loneliest.

We used to say, "It didn't matter if it was the maid at a motel or the Queen of England, Mom didn't see people any differently."  She just loved on them however she could.  She paid attention to them.  She responded to their carefully disguised crushed spirits and invisible desperations.  She listened to their stories.

It made those who drew social lines in the sand very uncomfortable.  It made others feel incredibly loved.  Mom never knew.  She didn't even see those distinctions either.

And in her own loneliness, she did not cry out for attention.  But she reached out to others.  "We are surrounded by lonely people," she would say. "No lack of people to love."  We are all sojourners here (Deuteronomy 10.19).  Don't ever forget it.

The two greatest commandments are seamlessly woven together:  love God and love others. When I love God, He changes me.  I see other people differently, because I am not looking at myself.

Someone is standing right in front of you with huge gaping and probably invisible needs, most likely someone you would least suspect, given appearances.  They may need a favor done, an errand run, a meal taken, or they just may need you. 

It does matter.  It matters a lot.  You matter.  You matter a lot.

"...for I was hungry and you gave Me food,
I was thirsty and you gave Me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed Me,
I was naked and you clothed Me,
I was sick and you visited Me,
I was in prison and you came to Me."
Then the righteous will answer Him,
"Lord, when did we see You hungry
                                 and feed You,
or thirsty and give You drink?
And when did we see You a stranger
                          and welcome You,
or naked and clothe You?
And when did we see You sick
or in prison and visit You?"
And the King will answer them,
"Truly, I say to you,
as you did it to one
of the least of these my brethren,
     you did it to Me."

                              Matthew 25. 35-40

I think mom saw that too.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Call me maybe?

I have a young friend who spent several years painting houses part-time as he awaited “his calling,” as if anticipating a box delivered by Federal Express. 

In today’s culture, a calling implies the discovery of one’s dream job where happiness, success and fun are rolled into one.  It is one’s destiny, an exclusive place of significance, purpose, and natural ability.  It is where one’s dreams come true, like winning the career lottery. 

That’s not quite what Moses experienced when he was called by God.  “You want me to do WHAT????” he said to God.  “You have the wrong man.”

It was not what Jonah had in mind when he was supposed to move to Nineveh.  “Are You kidding me?”

Thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold as a slave in a foreign country was not on Joseph’s radar.

Marching around Jericho seemed a bit farfetched to Joshua.  But he did it anyway.

I was recently invited to a national conference on “Finding Your Calling,” promising the key to God’s special job designed just for you, as if suddenly in a mystic moment one’s purpose is authorized and stamped with God’s seal of approval. 

But the real quest is not “What am I supposed to do?” but “Who am I supposed to be?”  In a Biblical sense, one’s calling  is not to be a graphic designer or a plumber, but:

Called to be faithful.
Called to righteousness.
Called to serve.
Called to love God and others.
Called to be peacemakers.
Called to praise Him.
Called as ambassadors for Christ.
Called to excellence in all we do.
Called to “Follow Me.”
Called to fear not.
Called according to His purpose.
Called to abide in Him.
Called to do justice, to love kindness,
           and walk humbly with God.
Called to glorify God.

I am called to all these things (and more), no matter where and no matter what. 

My job is not the calling; it is just the vehicle.  I have no clue His higher purpose in this.  I just know that there always is.   I may have an affinity for accounting, I may be gifted at teaching or preaching or swimming.  God may use that platform, or He may work something deeper around it.  Consider yourself called.

“We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere,” says Os Guiness in his book The Call.  “We are called to Someone.  We are not called first to special work but to God.”

God changes my heart and my vision for the work He places before me.  That is why it was no more spiritual for William Wilberforce to abolish slavery in the British Empire than it was for Brother Lawrence to wash dishes for three decades.  God placed them strategically where they needed to be to know Him more and manifest His glory.

But what if this job is not what I want to do, and “not my gift?”  Good, God says, that way My power will be revealed in your weakness.  When my husband and I moved to Memphis and joined Fellowship Memphis, a church-plant at that time, we were assigned to teach Sunday school for kindergarten to sixth grade – all the children collectively in one 8 x 8 room.  It was definitely not in our skill set, not what we had in mind, and definitely not to what we felt called.  But there was a need.  And we were there.  We taught for almost two years.

In all situations, there will always be someone better qualified.  But God chose you to be faithful in that difficult situation.  God chose you to express His grace among those irate customers and grumbling co-workers.  More than the task at hand, God calls each of us to be His own.  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are Mine.” (Isaiah 43.1)   

Call me maybe?  No, He calls me every day to be faithful to the tasks and people He has put on my path, and I call on Him how to navigate the big rocks on my schedule and the unexpected speedbumps that are always for His glory.   In His agenda, there are no detours, glitches, or interruptions.

My grandmother taught piano lessons for almost 40 years.  At the top of her practice sheets, she had printed, “It’s not what you play.  It’s how you play it.”  Faithfully and with grace. 

First called to Him, and then His purposes revealed to the world in ways beyond what we can imagine. 

Called?  It’s who I am.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Have you considered......?

Faced with an impossible task,
confronted by my fears
              and overwhelmed by my inabilities,
paralyzed by the unknown.
          "Just tell me what to do, God,"
             I say, I pray, as I go flying out the door.

But God does not want to send me marching orders.
"No," He says.
"Sit down a minute.  Let's talk."
 And I think almost out loud,
       "You want to have a conversation
                      at a time like this?"

Yes, God does.

Because what is behind this decision,
          what this action brings,
     even the unfolding of the outcome,
is not as important as
                   my relationship with Him.

The philosophy of modernism
           fights against the very idea of God.
The philosophy of modernity
 doesn't even take God
                          into consideration.
Our culture has become so entrenched in modernity,
      that God is not even on its radar anymore.

Is the LORD on mine? 
What does God have to do about this?
What does God have to say about that?

And He says to me,
     "Have you considered...?"

When I finally bring my cares before Him,
    drag them to the altar,
    laying them out one by one,
mark my words,
      God puts something on my radar
      that I never even thought of before.
I see differently,
I act differently,
I think differently,
       not just because God is in the picture,
       but realizing He is the one who brought it about.
He always has deeper purposes in it
             than are on the surface.

I recently reread the classic Christian book Green Leaf in Drought Time by Isobel Kuhn, the chronicle of a young couple who were the last missionaries to narrowly escape Communist China.  A few years prior, they left a large city where they had an established ministry to follow God into a far-away province.  As soon as they arrived, they immediately realized that their living and working situation was not at all what they expected. They were confined physically to a dusty courtyard and even limited in conversation for their basic needs.

When Wilda despaired "Did we make a huge mistake?"  Arthur replied, "No, dearie, the Lord has brought us here.  Let us rest our hearts in that and wait for Him to unfold His purpose."

And God made manifest by their lives, the truth of this verse from His Word:

For he is like a tree planted by water,
that spreads out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

                     Jeremiah 17. 8

Anxiety just dries up the river and distracts us from what God is doing.

The waiting room in God's perspective is never a passive waste of time, but an active time of seeking God.  This couple prayed, they sought opportunities, they did what God placed before them, and every evening they sang praises to Him, no matter how desperate the circumstances. And even then, all doors remained closed around them.  For more than two years, every day they laid out their increasingly dire situation before the Lord.  They remained faithful in whatever God laid before them, however insignificant and invisible it appeared.  And yet in the dark of the evening, their voices continued to ring out with songs of thankfulness and praise. 

Deliverance comes in many packages and most often right where we are.  The book points out that "Spreading out his roots by the river may describe the Christian privilege of thinking through a problem in the presence of the Lord.  As Arthur did this, an idea came to him."  

When I seek Him, God brings about something new to me.  A fresh idea may fly swiftly across my radar. A thought, a word, a verse lingers for awhile in my heart.  Something very different catches my eye.  And sometimes, God nudges me to notice what has been staring me in the face all along.

As Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest,
     "Consider," says Jesus, "how much more your Father Who clothes the grass of the field will clothe you, if you keep your relationship right with Him."  (Matthew 6. 30)

Have you considered...
                     God in this?

God is at work. 

That which is invisible and incomprehensible may be just God's faithfulness on a deeper level or a higher floor. I may never understand, but I can follow Him into it. Divinely appointed, strategically placed. I may never see even the budding of the tree, never even know what kind of fruit, and it may not even be about me.  His purposes overflow and get all over everything. 

When I rest my heart in Him,
    God opens up the next step.

Consider that.