Starting, stopping, and feeling stuck

A lot happens during graduation season. For those graduating from high school, university, or grad school, it’s a time to celebrate the completion of educational goals. For younger children graduating preschool, kindergarten, or other elementary programs, the celebration is more of an encouragement toward further achievement. For parents and other family members, graduation celebrations may mean other things. It could mean the end of tuition payments – something to celebrate – or it could be just the beginning of loan repayments. Parents and grads could feel proud of the accomplishment but feel simultaneous concern because of the difficult job market in our current economy. We are raising, after all, what is being called the “boomerang generation.”

Mixed emotions surrounding life events such as graduation are common . . . and useful. I often wish I could be paid to reflect. I haven’t found that position ever listed anywhere: Professional Reflector. Graduation time is a perfect time for reflection, though, isn’t it? Reflection is useful because it helps us to sort out those mixed emotions. We can ask ourselves the important questions like “What would I choose to do if there were no obstacles to achieving it?” Or, other questions that address our fears: “What am I saying ‘no’ to and why? What do I say ‘yes’ to that I really want to say ‘no’ to?” These are good questions to ask whether we just graduated last week or if it happened 25 years ago.

The point of stopping and starting feels very similar to the way water currents appear when Oceans and Sounds meet in proximity to rocky barrier islands and formations. There is turmoil there. It isn’t a spot where you want to spend too much time – that space between stopping and starting. Unlike that spot in the water, sometimes our stopping points in life do not come with an option to return. Sometimes we must move into the new water and make a fresh start.

Fresh starts in life and new birth produce the same feeling, too: a sense of excitement and hope for the future. If we could figure out how to contain that energy as a resource, we’d never need oil again. It is rare, though, that we are able to enjoy that sense of renewal in isolation. So often, it coincides with some other end or loss – we feel sad for the end of one thing, yet excited for the beginning of another thing. It could be a pregnancy after a family member’s death, or a new relationship after the painful loss of another. It could be a new career after being laid off from a job you loved. Whatever it is, the importance of this moment is the appearance and effect of hope.

Hope is a powerful motivator and change agent. Hope moves us in ways that not much else can move us. According to the discussions of faith in the book of Hebrews, our faith doesn’t serve as an end in itself, but serves instead to produce hope.

To all who are at the point of stopping something, starting something, or feeling stuck, may God grant you the hope that is ours through our faith in Jesus Christ.

Romans 15:13 (TNIV)
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Counterfeit: a bad investment

I hate it when I get duped. I mean, who doesn’t? Sometimes even the most vigilant of us can take a nap and miss something we should have caught . . . like the fact that the cute little netbook that I bought off someone from C-list had Windows 7 Ultimate loaded as the operating system – along with MS Office Pro – all for a cool $220. Oh, the ignorant bliss of wanting something to be just as good as it looks!

So, I discovered yesterday that my netbook has a bogus installation of Windows 7 – a pirated version, a hack. That presents a long series of issues, you know. Some of those issues seem best resolved by just buying another netbook.

I remember being 18 years old and my then-boyfriend (who I later married) bought for me a street version of a Rolex watch on one of his trips to New York. I thought it was cool, just because I was so crazy about him. The fact that it was a fake watch didn’t bother me. My employer at the time was from China, Mr. Lee, and he was very “into” Rolex (real) watches. I remember how he laughed at mine. He couldn’t speak English, but he made the tick-tock motion with his fingers, then wagged a finger “no” at me, then made the smooth-glide motion of a real Rolex. And then he laughed – face to the sky laughter. Whatever. From then on, I referred to the watch as my “Relax”.

Disturbingly, people can be counterfeit, too. I’m sure most of us have experienced one or two of those. We may have even pretended to be something we’re not on occasion. Just for effect. Just to ensure a particular outcome. The day usually comes, though – unexpected and with great surprise – when the fraud is uncovered. Sometimes it isn’t a surprise because we didn’t already know. Sometimes it’s a surprise because we thought it didn’t really matter that much.

I’m a great big fan these days of authenticity. I value honesty and integrity in all relationships. But sometimes I still have to confront a counterfeit that creeps in under the radar.

I’m grateful that the truth always comes out when there are counterfeits in my life. I count it as proof that the God who called himself the Truth is in it. I wish it was always as easy for us to spot as the “Windows is not genuine” error message, but often it is much more subtle than that. I think we all yearn for “the real thing”, “the genuine article”. But we allow the imposter to stay around because it might cost a lot more than we hoped to pay. Being genuine does cost you a lot. (Ask Jesus, he knows all about that.) But it’s more like an investment with a good return. Investing in a counterfeit is always a loss.

You Are Where You Go: Places That Call Us

We don’t travel very often. Our schedule is so hectic with everyone working, in school, or both. So, it’s a real treat when we do get a few days to go somewhere and break free from our schedule-driven routine. Being just two hours from the ocean, most of our short trips are in that direction. I am so grateful for warm sunshine, salty ocean waves, sand between my toes, and folding beach chairs! And iPods – I should add iPods. Back in the day, we had to carry great big boom boxes with about 6 extra “D” batteries to ensure that we could listen to the music we wanted instead of whatever the folks beside us might be blasting.

Last week we attended a conference in Asheville, NC. I didn’t get an opportunity to explore as much as I would have liked, but I did get a sense that I like that place quite a lot. The vibe is cool and artistic. Leaving, I knew I’d come back for another visit.

When my husband and I were together and would travel together, I noticed that he would leave something of his everywhere we went. Something. Every time. It seemed to me that he was either marking territory or leaving bread crumbs to find his way back. Now that I think about it, it seems like an outward manifestation of our different personalities. Everywhere I go, I take a little piece of the place with me internally. Everywhere he goes, he leaves a little piece of himself behind.

There’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches. I’m sure they’re equally “ok” – nothing pathological there. But I find it interesting the way places can draw us, much like people, to join them or to have them join us.

I’ve experienced most regions of the U.S. and have no desire to live in a region other than the one I’m in. I’ve only ever traveled to England outside of the U.S. It seemed oddly familiar, but not with any sense of longing or attachment.

There is a place on earth that calls me, though. I haven’t been there yet, but it calls me. I will have an opportunity to go with other Divinity students in a couple of years and I plan to do just that. The land of Israel. The Holy Land. The shores of Galilee. I want to go there. I want to be there with my bare feet in that sand. I want to hear the music the people beside me are listening to. And I want to bring it all back home with me, safely inside my heart and mind as another place that I love like a cherished friend.

Ashes to ashes . . .

Late winter-early spring was different before I knew about Lent. I think that my introduction to Lent may have actually been my introduction to spiritual disciplines in general. Before when I didn’t know about any spiritual disciplines – besides praying and reading my Bible, neither of which were accomplished with anything resembling “discipline” – I didn’t think about any of my indulgences. I’m talking about the way I spent my money, the things I chose to eat and drink, or how I chose to spend my time. I didn’t worry so much about how I could be a better neighbor or even a randomly-kind stranger.

Those things didn’t matter to me because I saw my faith in Jesus as something very personal. I didn’t see myself as part of a faith community. Frankly, I didn’t trust a lot of the people I went to church with. I learned not to trust church people when I was old enough to have a different social opinion from most of the ones I knew – because they turned on me in ways that I believed were unjustifiable for folks who claim to know Jesus. That sort of thing happens more than most people would like to acknowledge. I am grateful that God continued to pursue me, knowing how I felt about some of His other children and what I saw as their offenses and failures. Living life as an offended person is not a happy life.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…that’s what most of us heard who received the imposition of ashes on Wednesday of this week. It sounds so “funeralish”. [My spell-checker hates it when I make up words!] But that’s what it’s about for me now: death and renewal until we get to the resurrection. I’ve been reading some of Fred Craddock’s sermons for a project and in one of those sermons, Fred said that he didn’t understand how any Christian expected to be invited to the resurrection party if they never attended the funeral. During this season, we have the privilege – all of us, collectively – to experience again through spiritual disciplines the suffering that Jesus experienced, even to the gut-wrenching death, all for the sake of our reconciliation with God.

So, in light of that understanding, I am compelled – more happily than ever – to let die some of my indulgences and stinkin’ thinkin’ as the Holy Spirit reveals those things to me. One of the first things that had to go in order to get to this place was my misguided notion that I could follow Jesus in isolation. A faith that turns inward is no faith at all. It is when we reach out in faith to share something of ourselves with others that we encounter Jesus. He didn’t stay dead, remember? That is a deal-breaker for determining whether you’re a Christian or not. We talk and sing about His resurrection, but many of us live like Jesus just died. When you encounter the risen Savior, the only possible response is to be changed. Transformed! It’s easy to change personal habits, but I’m convinced that only encounters with Jesus can change our bad attitudes and misguided beliefs.

Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. So, I carry the ash mark with me through this Lenten season along with Christians around the world. It reminds me of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, the history of the Church, and my journey with Jesus as I meet so many friends on the path with me.

Thriving or Surviving?

I’ve had several opportunities over the last several days to think long and hard about the way we choose to live our life and how much we all take for granted. I’ve sung at the funeral of one of my dear cousins, completed a critical book review of “An Hour to Live, An Hour to Love,” and am still reeling from my brother’s new cancer diagnosis. He is the second sibling in my family of four children to have received a cancer diagnosis. (My sister remains in remission – thank you, God!) Surely, if I have been awake on any level over these past two weeks, there is some important message screaming out at me.

It could be the legacy that my cousin Becky left that was so nicely spoken at her funeral: Be quick to forgive and quick to laugh at yourself. After all, unforgiveness really only hurts you, and if you’re anything like me, then you give yourself your best comedic material. Use it.

Perhaps it’s the message of the book I had to review: Tell the people who are important to you how much they mean and why you appreciate them – tell them now. Don’t waste time thinking about, talking about, or fussing over things that wouldn’t matter on your last day of living if you were privileged to know when that day would be.

I don’t know yet what the lesson is in my brother’s cancer diagnosis. Perhaps it could be: Go for your recommended screenings – detection is always better than not knowing! My brother surely didn’t anticipate the outcome of his very first colonoscopy, but I shudder to think of what could have happened had he not taken his physician’s suggestion to have it done.

I think, for me, the things that are most important are 1) that I am living out my assignment in the kingdom of God, 2) that I demonstrate unconditional love and prepare my family for their own calling, and 3) that I live in a way that testifies to the fact that God is still in the business of transforming human lives.

If anyone shares that wish-list with me, the beauty of it is that, lived out, it looks very different for each of us. There is so much beauty and mystery in this world – so much variety and uncertainty. Surviving, we focus on ourselves and what we need the most. In thriving, we appreciate all the beauty, all the variety, all the mystery, and dare to focus on others.

God, grant us all a heart that desires to thrive.

Organic Living

Have you ever wondered what the real difference is between “organic” produce and the rest of the produce in the grocery store? Beyond the price difference, what is so different? Basically speaking, it’s the way it was grown and handled that differs, with organic products being grown with organic methods that avoid fertilizers and chemical preservatives. You would think that this method costs less, but for whatever reason, it apparently costs more.

I had an opportunity this week – for the first time in a long time – to witness the beauty of seeing a bright, full moon on one side of the horizon give way to the spectacular brilliance of sunrise on the opposite horizon. It was so beautiful, I could only cry, and say “thank you” to our Creator.

The fact that it had been so long since I witnessed a sunrise stayed with me. I haven’t watched it, not because I am not awake at that hour, but because . . .well . . . I’m so busy. Every minute of every day is either scheduled or wrought with lists of “oughts” – the things I should be doing. It would cost too much of my time to just sit somewhere and watch a sunrise. I mentioned in a previous post my interactions with the book, “The Sacred Romance”. The authors of that book also make reference to a false self we create throughout life. This false self develops out of our need to fit in better to our culture or environment – to be more productive, more attractive, more marketable. We do things to ourselves that aren’t . . . natural. We add our own varieties of preservatives and hormones to give us the edge we perceive to need, until we have lost the essential nature of who we are.

In that sense, we aren’t much different from the cheaper produce at the grocery store. We look essentially the same but we have developed in less organic ways.

Funny how the sunrise triggered such a thought. There is something incredibly reassuring about sunrise. Of course, these days we know that the sun is actually the entity around which our earth turns, and “sunrise” is just a word we use to describe our earthly experience of each new day. Just seeing the grand entrance of that brilliant sun reminds me that, even after we’ve turned away from our true selves during our dark moments in life, we are constantly drawn back to the glory of God, our Creator, and reminded of who we really are.

Give Me Your Eyes

Have you ever listened to Brandon Heath’s song, “Give Me Your Eyes?” For those who have not, the lyrics include these lines: “Give me Your eyes for just one second, give me Your eyes so I can see everything that I keep missing, give me Your love for humanity.” I have often wondered how it is that those of us who profess Christ as the object of our faith are also among the most likely to lose sight of the value of other people.

I caught myself not only demonstrating this tendency, but teaching it to my child this week. The story went like this: My 5-year-old heard another child make a negative comment about his hair that hurt his feelings and made him feel self-conscious. My reaction to my son’s hurt feelings was to find out who the perpetrator was and to quickly make my child feel better at the expense of the other child. Our conversations that night revolved around my child’s sense of confidence and worth and resolved with a lesson that basically said “pay no attention to kids like that.” Pay no attention.

That has obviously been my method for a very long time. The more that people have hurt me, the more I have chosen to pay no attention to them. Or people who remind me of them. And after a while, there are large groups of people to whom I might pay no attention. One of my lifers (a life-long friend) gave me a book to read recently titled “The Sacred Romance.” It speaks at length about how our story with God – our Romance with Him – is countered throughout life by the story of our Arrows. Our Arrows are those things that hurt us, that stay with us, that mold us as we live and grow. I was confronted with my own story of Arrows when I witnessed my child receiving one of his first social Arrows. Rather than teaching him the larger story of how God loves us all with a love we cannot fathom and that story of Romance, I chose to teach him how to deal with the smaller story of the Arrows. . . by learning to ignore/avoid/dismiss those who would hurt us.

We are all a work in progress and I am certainly in that category. I have asked God in my prayers to give me a heart for all people and to remove some of the fear and detachment I have learned to use as a way to deal with my story of Arrows. This realization is part of that process. Every single person has the same two stories: the story of God’s Romance with him or her AND their own story of Arrows that tries to call into question God’s love or our personal worth. Knowing that, we should always strive to feed the Romance story and not give any more fuel to the story of Arrows.

I have seen a preview on television the past few days that speaks to our Romance with God. It shows a guy walking past and a girl dreamily watching him while saying, “I want to date him!” Another guy jumps up and says, “I want to BE him!” For me, it speaks to the fact that so many times, Christians just want to “date” Jesus. We want to hang out, have fun, without any real commitments. What he wants from us, though, is to be ONE WITH HIM. Now, that is INTIMATE – to have His mind, His heart, His eyes. . . “Give me Your eyes for just one second . . . “