Listening Power

Words.

I love words. There was a time in my life, like everyone else, that words meant nothing to me. I could see them in print in a book or a newspaper but had no clue how to unlock the mystery of what they were trying to say. Once I did learn that secret, though, I was driven to fill my mind with more and more of them. Reading, spelling and vocabulary were my best subjects in elementary school. To this day, I seldom have to look up how to spell a word. If I come across a word whose meaning is unfamiliar to me, and I am unable to figure it out by context clues, I do not hesitate to look up its meaning. After all, if an author believes a certain word in his or her writing is the exact one that is needed there, it must be important enough for me to know what it means. Scientists say we need to use a new word seven times in the correct context to make it a part of our regular vocabulary.

Words are all around us. After all, we live in the digital age. Most every form of communication exchanged in today’s world is in the form of the written word. You are reading this because I sat down at my computer to type it. Major companies conduct a tremendous amount of business through written communication such as E-Mail. I seldom hear the voice of my children. Text messaging is the way to go for this generation. Just last week, my mom, who is eighty-five and has no clue how to text, send E-Mail or use Facebook, met some old friends for lunch. They asked about our family and my mom, in turn, asked how their son, my best childhood friend, was doing. They filled her in on his life and then said something to the fact that they do not hear from him, he never returns phone calls, but if they text him, they get a reply. I’ve tried to explain this fact to her on more than one occasion. Every time she calls me–remember she doesn’t text–she asks how each one of my kids is doing. She is always surprised when I tell her that I know they are alive because they updated their Facebook status or sent me a text the other day. “Don’t they call you?” she asks. “No, Mom. This generation isn’t much for talking on the telephone.”  Even looking for a first job has changed. A few of my kids wouldn’t even consider a place that didn’t have an online application process. They didn’t want to have to go into a store and actually talk to someone to get an application!

The written word has killed the spoken word. So what? After all, one can accomplish so much more via E-Mail rather than taking the time to call several people. One mass message sent to a group and the job is taken care of. A text message is so much more efficient in that one can say only what needs to be said instead of running the risk of being tied up on the phone for hours talking about the weather and what grandma and grandpa are planning to do with the farm. Surely people know how busy life is and there is no time for chatting about something that isn’t of utmost importance at the moment. The problem is that this new reality has led to the loss of the skill of listening. I didn’t really think about it much. I am a modern mom and have jumped on the text messaging-Facebook-E-Mail wagon. I thought nothing of it. Until this week at least. This week, the following words jumped off the page of my Bible as I read:

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)

I stopped reading and looked at those words again.

Quick to listen.

Slow to speak.

Quick to listen.

Slow to speak.

Let’s focus on the listening part first. Do we really know how to listen? I have been in situations where I am talking to someone and that person is nodding their head in agreement with me, yet their eyes are on their cell phone or the giant TV screen playing the football game in the restaurant. I have also been the person guilty of the latter scenario. Perhaps there are no distractions–the cell phone is not out and the restaurant has no televisions. Even then, can we honestly say that we are fully engaged to what is being said?

What about slow to speak?  I know I am guilty of trying to formulate what I am going to say in response to the person before they even finish speaking. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget something they said that I desperately feel needs my response so I “mentally rehearse” my reply as I wait somewhat impatiently for them to stop talking. Worse yet, I interrupt so I don’t lose my train of thought. At the least it is rude; at its best, it is narcissistic.

James, however, couldn’t be any clearer in his instructions. We are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. We often reverse the order of the two and, admittedly, it is often when we are slow to listen and quick to speak that anger flares. Remember, James’ final instruction in verse 19 is “slow to become angry”. Perhaps if we really listened to someone, really heard their heart, and we held our tongues long enough for that person to truly communicate what’s going on inside them, we would be slower to become angry. I know in our marriage, arguments ensue and escalate quicker when words are flying from the mouths of both parties at the same time!

One day this summer I was watching the old television show Little House on the Prairie. (I know–call me sappy. I love that show though.) Mary and Laura were in the one room school house with the other children from Walnut Grove. The teacher, Miss Beadle I believe was her name, was standing in the front of the class giving them a dictation. She would say a sentence and the class would in turn write it on their slates. She would then go around and see if the students had listened carefully and had written down the correct words. She would correct where necessary, return to the front of the class, and give another sentence, this one a bit longer. The students needed to pay close attention to the teacher in order to catch not just the right words, but also the pauses and inflections so they would know where to punctuate with a comma or a period or perhaps a question mark. The students were being trained in the art of listening.

In the first century when James wrote his epistle, the literacy rate was at best ten percent, and most of those were men. People didn’t go to church with their Bibles and follow along as the pastor read. The Bible as we know it didn’t exist at that time. Instead, the letters would be read aloud to those gathered. When Paul wrote each of his epistles, he wrote them as letters. They were mailed to the churches and read aloud to the people. They had to listen carefully in order to understand the message being conveyed. Even as recently as the 1940’s, programs for entertainment in the home were listened to, not watched. Can you imagine a child of the 21st century being able to only listen to Dora the Explorer rather than watch it on TV??

We live in a very different era. The spoken word has been replaced by the written word. Where I live, in the last year, two new churches have opened and have sent out mail advertisements stating things like casual dress, upbeat music, and short sermons. You can get in and out of church in less than an hour. We passed one church a while back that advertised “Sunday Express”. It was a 30 minute church service. In other words, you need to do your duty for God but we know your lives are busy with the NFL and soccer games so we won’t make you stay here very long. I wonder what the early church would have thought of such an idea? Even today, in places like China and some countries in Africa, the ability to get to church gatherings is not easy, so when the people meet, sometimes they are together for several hours. I recently read of a church in Uganda where the pastor arrives early in the morning and as people come in, they join the worship already started. He waits several hours to start preaching though because some of his congregation has to walk many miles to get to church and he wants to be sure to wait until he feels all have arrived. Church there is an all day affair and it is welcomed and held dear by these people. In America, anything over an hour in most cases has people fidgeting in their seats or browsing Facebook on their IPad while the preacher is talking. (Just for the record–this does not describe my church. Our services are at least 90 minutes and sometimes longer if our pastor or worship pastor is really fired up :) )

As far as I know, schools no longer require dictation exercises as part of the curriculum. How could they when so much learning takes place via a computer or television screen? It’s a shame though. Children today aren’t being taught to listen. They see mom and dad looking at their cell phones or a television screen and when they try to say something, they are often shushed because something important is happening–like the Vikings scoring a touchdown is the biggest miracle in the world! Okay, maybe that could be considered one of the biggest miracles in the world, but you get the idea. The Bible is a timeless book because it is the actual words of God, and since God never changes, His instructions found therein do not change either. Therefore, James’ words still apply to us today. Be quick to listen slow to speak and slow to become angry. I wonder how many relationships would be saved if everyone got back to learning how to really listen to others?

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New Directions

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my life. It’s strange how from the earliest moments I can recall–around age three–until just a few months ago, life always was moving. Childhood was busy being a kid in the 70’s. I went to school, played outside, rode my bike a lot, swam in the pool, rode any amusement park ride I was given the opportunity to, had a great imagination, watched a small amount of television, made friends, lost friends, read a countless number of books…my life was very similar to those around me at the time. Once I turned fifteen, I added working to my list of activities. I loved my job and worked as many hours as I could. The reason was simple…my dad owned a gas station, my brother worked there, he was a few years older, and he had a lot of friends who would come hang out there at night. Good looking friends. Friends who drove really nice cars. Heck, friends who drove! Did I mention that many of them were really cute? It didn’t take too long to add dating to my list of things that kept me busy. :) High school gave way to college which was followed by marriage (before college was even over) which was soon followed by motherhood (two weeks after finishing college). Motherhood was multiplied by four in a matter of five years. Four wonderful babies celebrated and one grieved in a period of five years. To say I was busy would be the biggest understatement of the decade! Then, and this only seems sudden in hindsight, my babies were grown. One married, one engaged, one moving into an apartment, one working full time…one by one, and all too quickly, I found myself with all this time on my hands that I had never had before.

Simultaneously, as my babies were moving out, my body began to let me down. Earth is not a utopia. There are diseases and ailments that have yet to be cured. As I wrestled with the news that I would be facing the challenge of living with a chronic illness, I wondered what the diagnosis would do to the dreams I used to have of life after full time motherhood. I’ve written in the past describing some of my dreams. Top on my list was owning a hobby farm where I could have animals and a barn. I thought about maybe exploring some career options. I have a degree in elementary education but the fact that it’s from New York state and I do not live there makes it almost worth nothing. Besides, the thought of teaching full time was out of the question now. With days that it takes every ounce of energy I have just to get out of bed, being in a classroom isn’t even a remote possibility. I dreamed of possibly baking for a living. I love to bake–cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pies, breads–if it uses butter and sugar, I enjoy making it! Baking, though, takes energy as well. Besides, unless I have someone to bake for, it isn’t really worth doing it. Owning a bakery was once a dream. Now, it can be placed on the list of dreams that just can’t come true.

It doesn’t take much to feel like I have no purpose. And having no purpose makes it difficult sometimes to keep moving forward. I started to feel stuck. I still do actually, but perhaps there is some light showing in my dark tunnel. It is ever so faint and very far in the distance, but it is a small glimmer of hope in the midst of the utter darkness that has settled over me lately.

There are two branches to this hope. One I feel comfortable enough sharing. The other will only be vaguely hinted at until I am sure I want to walk the difficult road it is on.

I have had several people over the last several months tell me that they enjoy what I write. I actually find that amazing because I feel that what I write is often depressing. I began writing for my own therapy. Writing processes my thoughts and gets them out of my head. Once out, I am often able to step back and look at them in a different light. Usually that ends up being a good thing. Sometimes it has backfired on me. Not everything can be perfect I guess. Anyway, I enjoy writing. It is something that, once I start, I often find myself unable to stop. The words come much more quickly as I type than if I were to sit and talk with real people. In fact, I often try to not talk in front of real people…the fear of rejection or judgment is very intense when I do. I think anyone who knows me well would attest to the truth of this. In addition to being told that some enjoy reading what I write, I’ve also been told that perhaps I should think about writing as a job. Hmmm. I have actually thought about that. In fact, when I was in junior high school, my dad asked me if I had given any thought to what I might want to be when I grew up. At the time I told him I would love to write for magazines or newspapers or even write my own book series. Writing is not new to me. I have always enjoyed it, but it is only recently that I felt brave enough to share what I write and be vulnerable about the reality of my life.

That brings me to the second thing going through my mind–the reality of my life. I have been honest about my struggle with MS as well as my struggle with depression and addictions. I hid the latter of those things for a very long time. Again, how could anyone believe I loved Jesus if they knew I often was so depressed I wished I could die or that I once was addicted to alcohol? I did share those things, though. Overall, the response was positive. Of course there are always a few who think they have the right to tell me that if I really believed in the power of Jesus than I wouldn’t be depressed. I’ve even had some tell me that if I had more faith I would be healed of my MS. Those comments hurt. My personality is such that when someone I care about makes a statement to that effect, I began to wonder if perhaps I really don’t have enough faith…it becomes a vicious cycle of bad thinking that takes some work to get out of. I believe this is the reason I am so hesitant to really be open about some things. Today, though, something happened that has made me consider that perhaps I am wrong in this matter.

A long story short–I am going through a Bible study on my own through the book of James. I download the individual videos since I don’t have a group of women to watch them with me. Today’s lesson was all about two words, anguish and joy. They seem to be opposite concepts, but today I learned that is not always the case. The crux of the lesson was that God can take the very thing that caused intense anguish and turn that into a passion, a joy almost in sharing how God brought you through that time. There is something in my life that has caused tremendous anguish…anguish so difficult that I have literally felt at times that my heart would be ripped out of my body. It is something I am not quick to share with anyone and only a few know about it. Many people who think they know me might actually be shocked to find they really don’t know me at all. In fact, it is only in the last two years that I have realized how this anguish has shaped my thought patterns. I have also realized how many people I have hurt along the way because of this. At times, the shame of it all is just too much to handle. And yet, it seems God is trying to tell me that this very thing–this horrible part of me I desperately hide–is exactly what He wants to use to touch other people. I am admittedly struggling with that thought. I feel like Moses when God spoke to him from the burning bush. “Please God, use someone else. I can’t do this.”

I don’t know where this will all lead. I can’t even say for sure right now that I will survive the ride (figuratively) if God decides to take the rollercoaster of my life down this wickedly terrifying hill. I just know that my spirit is unsettled. I desperately want to see my anguish turned to joy…not just replaced with joy, but literally turned to joy. I’m just afraid the cost will be too high.

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God is Concerned

I may have mentioned previously that my husband and I joined a Bible study this fall. The organization is called Bible Study Fellowship (or BSF). We meet separately but it works out well because the women’s group starts at 6:50 and the men’s group starts at 7:00. They are roughly 3 miles apart. Since I am really not able to drive at night, he drops me off, heads over to his location, and then picks me up when finished. The study is about the life of Moses. I have really enjoyed the first few weeks and have had some revelations that have changed the way I think about some things.

This morning as I was going through the day’s lesson, I came across a phrase I hadn’t noticed in my previous readings about Moses’ call from God. It read, “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.'” (Ex.3:7) At this point in the narrative, God is speaking to Moses through a burning bush. You see, Moses had fled Egypt about forty years prior to this encounter with God. He had killed an Egyptian and the pharaoh sought to kill him for his act. Moses ran in fear and ended up in a place called Midian. We don’t know much about Midian except that it was a large desert area. Through a chain of events, all ordained by a perfect God, Moses ends up staying in Midian and marrying the daughter of one of the country’s priests. He settled there and lived the life of a shepherd for approximately forty years. He was actually tending to his flock of sheep when he noticed that a bush was on fire, yet it was not burning up–it wasn’t being consumed by the fire. Intrigued by such a strange sight, Moses went to investigate. That’s when God’s voice spoke to Moses through the fire and told Moses that he should remove his sandals for the ground on which he stood was holy ground.

Okay, now you have some background.

Before Moses ran from Egypt, he believed that he would be the one to deliver the Israelites from their captivity. He was the perfect candidate. He had been adopted and raised by the pharaoh’s daughter. He had been educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptian culture. A Hebrew by birth, God had miraculously preserved his life and Moses thought for sure that his purpose was to be the hero for the captive Israelites. The problem at that time, though, was the Israelites did no see him as their deliverer and Moses was a bit rough around the edges. He was arrogant, prideful, and quick tempered. These are not the qualities desirable in leadership. God knew Moses had to have some heart work done before he was ready to shoulder the responsibilities of leading the Israelite nation out of captivity. We aren’t given details about the forty years Moses spent in Midian, but we can be sure that God didn’t waste one minute of those years. We can know this because we have the advantage of reading the entire story. We only need to finish the book of Exodus to see how God used Moses (and some helpers) to free His people. Moses, though, didn’t have that opportunity. He couldn’t see the ending. Likewise, the Israelites didn’t have that advantage either. For both parties, life went on day to day. Moses focused on shepherding and the Israelites groaned under the weight of their oppression. Finally, when God feels Moses is ready for the daunting task ahead, He grabs Moses’ attention with a burning bush. God tells Moses that He has heard the cry of His people and that He is concerned for them. In all the years they had spent in Egypt, God had not forgotten them. He knew what was going on, but He needed to do a mighty work in the heart and life of the man He chose to lead them out of Egypt.

As God was working in the life of Moses, the Israelites woke up day after day to the same miserable existence. Wake up, go work in ditches, go make bricks, go be driven so hard that you wonder if you’ll even survive, sleep, wake up and do it all again…day after day after day. Surely many died before they could see freedom. I wonder how many times the Israelites thought God had forgotten them? As men and women died from their working conditions, did they shake their fists at heaven? As babies were killed and thrown into the Nile, did the people give up on God? How could they know that God had not given up on them? The death of innocent babies and the grueling day to day slave labor they were forced to endure did not paint a picture of a loving God or a God who saw what was happening.

In my own life, I am tempted to shake my fist at heaven or to resign my heart to the fact that God must have forgotten me. Like the Israelites in Egypt, I can’t see the ending of the story–my story. Part of me, as I read about the struggles of God’s people in Egypt, wants to scream at the pages of my Bible, “Don’t give up! Moses is coming–he just needs God to get him ready!” Like the Israelites in Egypt, I only see the mundane day to day labor of living in a world of sin. I often entertain the thought that God has forgotten me or that I am of no use to God.

But then that phrase–“God was concerned for them”.

Since I am one of His children, those he calls “precious in His sight”, God is concerned about me too. He hasn’t forgotten me. He sees my pain, my fears, my sadness, my doubts, my loneliness. He hears my cries for help. And just as God sent Moses to be the deliverer for the Israelite people, my deliverer will come as well. I don’t know when or how much longer I will have to wait, but God has promised. “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.” (Ps. 70:12)

Hang on, Becky. Your deliverer is coming. Don’t give up. Just keep hanging on.

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End Times

I woke up this morning not feeling very well. I struggled to drag myself out of bed. This is actually a common occurrence for me, but this morning I was blindsided by an additional factor thrown in the mix–one I hadn’t really dealt with much in the past. This morning, in addition to the absolute exhaustion, the uncomfortable pain, and the room spinning dizziness, I also found that guilt had come knocking and my head had opened the door and allowed it right in. You see, I knew my husband had left for work long before my eyes opened for the day. I knew he left before the sun was even out as he made the long commute to where he needed to be this week. I knew he did this without complaint and as quietly as he could so as to not disturb me. His morning started very early and I know all the animals were waiting to be fed as soon as they heard his footsteps. He faces the same onslaught every morning–two cats under his feet, impatiently wanting their food and a dog whining downstairs who wants to be let up. put outside and fed. He does all this, showers, gets ready for work, makes his cup of coffee, and grabs his work bag to head out the door all before 5:30 or 6:00 AM. Oh, and most every morning, he makes the time to do the few dishes in the sink from the night before. The guilt this morning took me somewhat by surprise, but it was valid in my mind. How could I sleep until 8:00 and make him do all those things when he is the one working to provide each day? In all honesty, I felt quite lazy, worthless, and unworthy of his love and care for me.

As you can probably tell, it wasn’t the greatest start to my day. As I went through my own morning routine, the whole time wondering to myself why I even bothered to get out of bed at all, I came to the point in my morning where I sat at the table with my Bible and my BSF lesson for the week. My mind was not really focusing–part distraction and part MS brain fog. I read through the notes given at last night’s meeting, highlighting those sentences that spoke to my heart. I finished the first day questions and debated what would be next on my “nonexistent but much needed” to-do list. I grabbed my laptop and powered it up. Resisting the urge to go on Facebook and waste time there, I instead remembered that I hadn’t been to my friend’s blog in some time. I typed in the web address and started reading. What was there, as usual, hit my heart like a dagger.

My friend’s name is Dennis. He writes passionately about the times we live in and how they fit in with the prophecies of the Bible. Dennis firmly believes, as I do, that we are living in what Jesus calls the “end times”. Jesus gave us signs to watch for so we would know when the hour of His coming would be close. No one knows for sure when His return will be, but we can look around and watch and, if we are in tune with God’s Word, we should be able to tell when things are happening that point to the imminent return of Jesus. The first few entries I read had me glued to my computer screen. I will not re-write them here, but I encourage you, if you are interested in why the world seems to be going to hell right now, to go check out his blog. You will find him at http://www.thetrumpetblows.blogspot.com.

As I pondered the condition of our world and the suffering that is taking place around the globe due to issues such as Ebola, enterovirus, ISIS, Syria, abortion and a host of other subjects touched on in the first page of Dennis’ blog, I began to scold myself for complaining about the things in my life that I find annoying. Yes, getting out of bed in the morning is often difficult for me; however, I live in a country where I am privileged enough to sleep in a nice bed with sheets and pillows, all contained within a structure that I call home which has windows and locked doors and heat and air conditioning and electric and all the other things I take for granted. I grabbed my Bible and Bible study notes without fear of someone seeing me with the Scriptures and reporting me to authorities. I didn’t have to sneak downstairs below ground to pray. My friend’s blog was not blocked by the government because it contained spiritual material. My freedoms, at least for now, are secure.

That led me to another thought.

How much longer will this be the case? Jesus said in this world we will have trouble. Jesus was persecuted. His disciples in the first century were persecuted. Christians throughout history have been persecuted. Even today, Christians are being killed for their faith in many areas of our globe. How much longer until this kind of persecution comes to America? Reading Dennis’ article about fearing Muslims made it apparent that it is not far off. (Please take the time to go and read his article. He is not saying that we SHOULD fear Muslims–he is quoting what Muslim extremists have said about themselves)

I know there are people who disregard end times writings. They believe we should not be focusing on the gloom and doom of what is to come. I actually agree that this should not be our focus. I don’t, however, believe we can disregard these things as unimportant. The book of Jude says that we are to “snatch others from the fire and save them”. If you were driving down a street and saw a house on fire, wouldn’t you want to make sure no one was inside and in danger? Wouldn’t you want to be certain that no children were hiding under the bed, scared to come out because of the flames? Wouldn’t you call the fire department and maybe even bang on the doors and windows to make sure no one was stuck inside? Most human beings would do that for anyone–even more so if the house belongs to a family they know and love. To ignore the “flames” that are starting to rise around us–and will grow larger as the day of the Lord draws closer–is unloving. It shows that we only care about ourselves. Is it always easy to go against what society says? No. To say that homosexuality is a sin is not politically correct anymore. The fact that it isn’t politically correct, though, doesn’t negate the fact that it is true. People may call you intolerant. They are so blinded by their own sin that they do not see that they themselves are the intolerant ones, for they only practice tolerance when they are in agreement with the issue. We cannot be tolerant of sin–we can be tolerant of people. And there is a difference. Jesus was a friend of sinners, but He called out their sin.

I feel like my thoughts are all over the place today. Being a perfectionist, it is important to me that my thoughts are cohesive and coherent when written. This post doesn’t feel that way to me. In fact, in the course of writing this, I have debated several times just deleting it. I won’t though. I will hit publish and put it out there, mainly because one of the reasons I write is to help myself process my own thoughts. There are many thoughts swirling through my mind today. If getting even a few out helps to clear up the fog, then it is worth it to me to do so.

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Heavenly Presents

Have you ever been searching for the absolutely perfect gift for someone you love? You thought about it perhaps for months prior to the actual day you would give it. You drove from store to store or from mall to mall in order to find the exact item you just knew would bring a Cheshire cat smile to that loved one’s face. Then, you find it. You find it! You are beyond excited and do not even think twice about pulling out the money to pay for it, regardless of how much it costs! You are almost skipping out to your car as you carefully place the beloved item in the trunk and drive home, the entire drive spent thinking about how to keep your loved one from finding out this special surprise before the intended day. You decide to leave it in the car until a time comes when you can safely bring it inside and conceal its identity with the also absolutely perfect wrapping paper you bought. “This is going to be so much fun!” you think to yourself. You can hardly contain your excitement! Once the gift is safely concealed in the wrapping paper, perhaps adorned with a bow, you know the surprise cannot be spoiled. Now, if you’re like me, you start baiting the recipient. “I found THE perfect gift for you and I can’t wait to give it to you!” you say at dinner that night. Upon going to bed, you say again, “I’m just SO excited to give you your gift! I know you’re going to love it!” Of course this peaks your loved one’s curiosity and perhaps they start asking questions, trying to get enough information to guess what the surprise might be. That just makes you more giddy in anticipation of the day when you give that special gift. When that day finally arrives, all your searching, all your plotting, and all your baiting pay off in a big way. The gift is given, the bow is taken off and placed on the top of the dog’s head, the paper is torn off, the box is opened, and that smile appears just as you knew it would! Indeed, it was the perfect gift!

I’m sure most everyone has been on at least one side of the above scenario. Perhaps you were the gift recipient. You may still remember, years later, what that gift was and the occasion for which it was given. Maybe you were the gift giver, the one who brainstormed for months and hunted every store and drove all over not only your town but every town within a twenty-five mile radius to buy the perfect gift. I suspect many of us have played both roles at one point. Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, or, if you’re me, just because I felt like it are all occasions to celebrate with gifts. When choosing gifts for people who hold a special place in the heart, I don’t believe anyone tries to think of a gift that the recipient would not want. We don’t walk into the Dollar Tree and grab the first thing we see and think, “This will do.” There is care and love that goes into gift giving. We desire the recipient of our gift to be happy. Ultimately, it is their happiness with the gift that seals our satisfaction in giving it. If we have carefully planned and thought, and we know well the person on the receiving end, ultimately the gift will be considered good.

Why all the talk about gifts?

This week has been a difficult one for me. Some weeks I have more good days than bad, and other weeks the opposite is true. This week definitely fell into the latter category. Most days found me struggling to even get out of bed. Once that task was accomplished, not much else was. For the majority of the days, I just did not feel well. One advantage–if you want to call it that–of being unable to do much is the time to read, an activity that I not only thoroughly enjoy, but one that is also do-able on bad days. I often spend time in the Psalms on such days, but this week I decided to continue some work I had started in the book of James. I opened my Bible and began reading in Chapter 1 in order to refresh my memory. I have read this chapter several times, but this time, a particular verse struck me. James 1:17 read, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Since gift giving is my love language, I paused and read that verse again.

And again.

And again.

I thought about gifts and how important they are. I thought about the gifts God has given me: a husband who loves me in sickness and in health, four beautiful (all be it often stress inducing) children, a home, vehicles to drive, color, trees for shade in summer and beauty in fall, snow, rain, stars, fireflies…the list could go on and on. As I stopped and thought about these gifts from God, I silently thanked Him for them. He could have made our world black and white. He chose to give us a spectrum of color to beautify our days. He could have made us all the same. He chose to make us different, with different talents. He could have made all men or all women. He chose to create both, allowing us the privilege of marrying and reproducing. But something kept whispering in my mind, and that whisper was a bit unsettling.

“Thank God for the gift of MS.”

What? Did I really just hear that?

“Thank God for the gift of MS.”

Internally, I argued with myself–or perhaps with God. How could I thank God for something that has made my life somewhat miserable? How could I thank God that I’m no longer able to keep the house like I used to be able to and like my husband deserves it to be? How could I thank God that sometimes I can’t drive the vehicle he provided because dizziness would make it quite unsafe to do so? How could I thank God for the fact that I am unable to even walk the dog right now?

“I’m sorry, God. I just don’t know if I can consider this disease a gift.”

Yet, as I continued to think about and argue the issue within myself, I had to admit one thing–the Bible is very clear that God is good and His gifts are good. The verse in James says every gift. Not some. Not most. Not just the ones I like, but every gift, all gifts, are good because they are from God. I then thought of the verse in Matthew where Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount and He asked the people who would give their son a stone if he asked for bread? When my children were younger and asked for new shoes because their current pair was hurting, I did not give them a rock. If they needed shoes, we went and bought shoes. Jesus then said to the people, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11 ESV)

I know I didn’t ask God for MS. I didn’t ask Him for depression. I didn’t ask Him for the financial troubles that have plagued our marriage. On the other hand, I didn’t ask Him for sunsets either. I didn’t ask Him for seasons or any of the other thousands of gifts He has given me. How can I take the good things, the happy things, and proclaim that they are from God, but I take the painful things, the uncomfortable things, and not say they are from God? I can’t. Every good and perfect give is from above and if God is inherently good, then His gifts are good as well. It is my own finiteness–my humanness–that stops me from always seeing how something that is painful or uncomfortable is, in reality, a good gift from God my Father. I am working on learning to thank Him for those gifts not asked for, those sometimes unpleasant surprises that He carefully plans for me. I must thank Him, though, for it is always the right thing to say “Thank you” to someone who gives a gift.

God has carefully planned, He knows us well, so ultimately the gift is good.

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Collecting Things

I have had some revelations today. They aren’t new to me nor are they groundbreaking, but rather a further reminder of what is really important in life. It is a gorgeous autumn day in Central Minnesota today. As I type this entry, it is 70*, blue skies, and, best of all, no humidity.  I love nature, especially if I can find a great hiking area. A lake or river to sit by serenely is always welcomed as well. Today, though, I am not spending any time outside even though this type of day is perfect for me. Hiking is out of the question for me anyway. It is difficult to hike without the complete use of both legs.

Today I am forcing myself to tackle the mess that we call our downstairs. Specifically, yesterday and today, I am working on going through the room of our younger son. He is now engaged and living several states away. His room, though, still has SO MUCH STUFF! Papers that probably cost 2,657 trees their lives, a stack of three ring binders that could stock a complete shelf at Walmart, clothes hanging in the closet and sitting on the floor, childhood toys, and various memorabilia from high school and college including certificates, sheet music, track shoes, a monster radio controlled Hummer toy, and even a scepter! (He was a homecoming king nominee) I want to be ruthless and throw things away, but the emotions as I sift through years of memories are unbelievable. Each “thing” brings a picture to mind and I wrestle, knowing that he will most likely never inhabit this room again. The flip side of that is the thought that no one person needs THIS MUCH STUFF! And this is just one bedroom within a five bedroom house.

Can we say, “Overwhelmed”??

As I take breaks from the physically exhausting (for me) and emotionally taxing chore that is forefront in my mind lately, I reflect on the things we here in America fill our lives with. While none of these are necessarily sinful (at least not in our home) they do represent several things. They definitely tell a story of how we have spent our money and in a way, they also represent our parenting style. What I’m learning as I  get old(er), though, is that things can be forgotten. I doubt our son even knows all that is in his room. Things also take our time and focus off of other, more important matters.

IT is so easy to fall in love with this world. I have spent many years seeking to gather all the “stuff” I could so I could be like others in my life–drive a nice vehicle, wear name brand clothes, eat out most nights for dinner, buy my kids the things they want but do not necessarily need–all things even many of my Christian friends around me do. How often have I heard the lament from my one of my kids that someone’s parent bought THEM a car…why won’t you buy me one? I know if I could I would buy a nicer one than someone else had just so they would look as good as others, but what would that be teaching them? To fall in love with the things of this world is the lesson derived from such a lifestyle. When we die or Christ returns, whichever comes first, those things will be left behind for the looters to take. They will not be necessary in our real home. Perhaps this is why God sends trials and troubles into our lives…to keep us from falling in love with this temporary dwelling. So, while I am here, I will try to enjoy the gifts given to me…those that cost money as well as those that are free from God–birds, waterfalls, flowers, growing vegetables, rain, sun–and remember that even better things await me when I reach my final destination.

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Sandcastles

This week has been a tough week. There has been much to process and preliminary decisions needed to be made. I was successful at neither. One of the days this week, and I honestly don’t remember which one, I found myself sitting in front of the television, wishing so much that I could take out my cell phone and call someone–just to talk. I went through a mental list:

my mom? No. She would just worry more and that would snowball into more stress.

my sister? Possibly, but she is dealing with some of her own big problems and certainly didn’t need mine added to the pile. And the worry factor would be there too.

a friend? Maybe, but I think I’ve pretty much exhausted the few friends I have. Like the McDonalds commercial used to say, “You deserve a break today.” I felt they needed a break from me.

a pastor? No. I didn’t have a specific question that could be answered. I just desperately needed to talk to someone.

So my mental list turned up nothing. I know, as I knew then, that God was there. The thing is, sometimes, one just needs to hear a voice–an audible voice that just reassures that even though one may feel alone, that isn’t really the case. I know God is somewhere in this mess of my life. That day I needed to hear words of reassurance. Of course, not having good results with my mental list just reinforced the fact that I was alone.

The problem boiled down to one thing. Dreams. Or, more accurately, the shattering of dreams. Early in the week I had come to the realization that a dream that I had for most of my life and one I thought for SURE would someday be realized would, in fact, never be realized. My heart was broken as I pictured the components of this dream shattering like a window hit by a big rock. I didn’t want someone to pacify me with soothing words like, “It’s going to be okay. God knows what He is doing” or “You don’t know the future–maybe this will happen after all”. I knew both of those things already. What I needed was just someone to say something like, “It is hard to watch things slip away. I’m sorry.” Just someone to validate that my feelings were real and acknowledge them for that.

You may wonder what dream I saw shattered. In short, it is the dream I’ve held of living in the country with some land, a barn, some chickens, and some goats. I pictured myself feeding my animals each day, petting the heads of the goats and watching the funny antics of the chickens as they strutted about. I have always loved animals. My mom used to tell me that when I grew up and got married, I could have a zoo if I wanted. I was allowed a dog as a kid. One. Dog. I pictured myself sitting in the loft of a barn, reading a book while several barn cats snuggled around me. I was drawn to pictures and puzzles of big red barns surrounded by large green, grassy fields and a herd of goats dotting the landscape enclosed within a white fence. I imagined the farmhouse kitchen where there would be plenty of cupboard and counter space for me to cook and bake to my heart’s content. Perhaps there would even be a fruit cellar where I could store the jars of home canned peaches, tomatoes, and apple sauce that I would spend time preparing at harvest.

This past week all of those things disappeared within a two hour conversation we had with someone.  You see, my dream was not my husband’s dream. It isn’t that he hates all of those things mentioned, it is just that none of those things fit with the career he has chosen. He is a white collar professional business man and, as such, his job requires him to live in or within close proximity to a major city. Living in the country makes his commute long, miserable and, in the winter, dangerous. Since his job is the sole provision for our family, we have no choice but to live where it demands. In addition to that, it has become apparent to even me that, most likely, my health would not allow me the luxury of taking care of animals and land. Perhaps it is that fact that really sent me into a tailspin this week.

As we sat and conversed with someone emotionally uninvolved and wise, it became apparent that this person agreed with my husband–moving would be a wise decision. I didn’t speak up at the time, but that fact, to me, felt like someone had stuck a knife in me and twisted the blade. At times this week, I wished someone had actually done that. Moving means much more than the loss of a life-long dream. It also means leaving the somewhat rural community where we have lived for nearly twelve years. It meant that one more loss could be added to the list of people and things I have “lost” this year. My daughter got married in February; my son is engaged and moved 600 miles away; my other daughter moved to her own apartment; my health has deteriorated and I have lost some of the abilities I used to take for granted. Loss. Loss. Loss. It seems everywhere I look I see loss and pain, and now I am being told that moving is wise and needs to happen. Even though I mostly agree with that, it doesn’t make the sting of the loss any lighter. Just to note–I realize that many others around me have lost much more than I have and their loss could be considered more of a real loss. For example, I didn’t completely lose my daughter…she got married and one could say I gained a son-in-law. I understand that. But, I read something this week that helped ease the guilt of feeling like my loss is not worth grieving over. It read, “Saying I shouldn’t be sad because there are others who have it so much worse than me is like saying you shouldn’t be happy because there are others who have it better than me.” Again, feelings are real regardless of whether they are entirely true to how they feel.

Early in the week I sent an e-mail to the person we sat and talked to, explaining how difficult the conversation had been for me and how saddened I am at the realization of these shattered dreams. His words, again, were wise, but still hard to swallow. In essence he said that sometimes we see our dreams come to fruition and other times we need to step back and see that our dreams aren’t always God’s plans for us and trust that God’s plans, in the end, will be even better than our dreams. My week was filled with those words and thoughts, yet the sadness permeated my days. The loneliness just reinforced the sadness and I found myself in a spiral of emotions going in a bad direction. I wish I could say I have completely recovered from that downward spiral, but I cannot say that. What I can say is that I am trying–trying to accept this new reality that I didn’t ask for nor want but, for some unknown reason, God saw fit to give me. The picture that kept forming in my mind was that of sandcastles on a beach. Whether the work of building the sandcastle took a few minutes and was as simple as a bucket turned upside down or a few hours and was as elaborate as any architectural drawing, it only takes one wave to destroy it. One passing of water and, before your eyes, the sand dissolves into a thousand minute grains flattened once again.

This week, my sandcastle was hit by a tidal wave and I have yet to come to terms with that fact completely.

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Dot to Dot

When I was a child, I had a plethora of toys to choose in order to occupy my time.  My parents owned their own business which kept them occupied almost constantly. If they weren’t AT the business they were doing something FOR the business or talking ABOUT the business. My mom used to joke and say that when she buried my father in the future, she would for sure bury his calculator with him. :) I don’t think she did that, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I had older siblings but two were much older and married before I was even out of elementary school and the sibling just above me, well, we didn’t get along very well. This meant the majority of the time, especially in the winter, I played by myself. Being very much an introvert even back then, I was fine with that. One of my favorite things to do was dot-to-dot pictures. I assume you know what those are…there is a page of black dots, each labeled with a letter or a number. The object was to connect the dots in alphabetical/numerical order in order to see what the finished picture would be. Then, if I so desired, I could color the picture. As I got older, the difficulty level of these pages increased. Interestingly, I recently saw a dot-to-dot book for adults in a local bookstore. Some things are never outgrown.

The concept sounds pretty simple. Find A or 1 and start drawing lines: A to B to C to D or 1 to 2 to 3 to 4…Sometimes, though, my hand would work faster than my mind (some things don’t change in that regard either) and I would mess up. Maybe I would lose count and skip a number or I would think I already touched the #17 dot when in reality I missed it because it was tucked behind another dot or it was clear across the page from where my pencil was. That would always frustrate me. Being the perfectionist that I was am, the lines needed to be in perfect order and the page needed to be free of erasure marks or cross outs. Besides, if the dots weren’t connected in order, the picture at the end wouldn’t make sense.

What does a book of dot-to-dot pages have to do with my life as an adult?

Well, yesterday I spent the day with my daughter. It is a 40 minute drive to get to her apartment. As is always the case, I had a Christian radio station playing as I drove.  A song came on that I had heard hundreds of times over the last several years. In other words, this is not a new song nor is it sung by a new artist. The singer was Steven Curtis Chapman and the song was God is God. I was singing along with it (I have to sing with radio. It’s just a necessary thing for me to do) half paying attention to the words.  Until the chorus played.

“God is God and I am not,

I can only see a part of the picture He’s painting.

God is God and I am man, so I’ll never understand it all,

For only God is God.”

A picture of a dot-to-dot page immediately formed in my head. I imagined God connecting the dots of my life. He began at #1 a little over four decades ago. Each moment is a new dot, each day another line, each year a little more of the picture shows. An unfinished dot-to-dot page resembles nothing–it is just black dots, numbers and a few lines. In an easy version, say one that a seven year old child might do, it’s often easy for an adult to look at the page and know what the finished picture will be. A flower or a puppy is evident to the eye of an adult simply by the placement of the dots. But in a book of these pages designed for adults, all that is seen are hundreds of tiny black dots and very small numbers to designate a connecting order. The human mind can’t always form a picture of the finished product if there is not enough clues given to match our preconceived and pre-learned images.

But God…God’s mind is not like the human mind. The Bible says that God’s ways are not my ways nor God’s thought my thoughts. God looked at my life before I was even born.

He knew when the first dot would begin.

He knows how many dots it will take to complete the picture.

He knows exactly how the finished picture will look.

Me? I only see a part of the picture. It’s no wonder I often look at my life and see the “mess” it is and think to myself, “What in the world is this supposed to be?” To me, it often looks like a mistake was made, had to be scribbled out because it was done in pen instead of pencil, and while the line was corrected, it left an ugly blemish that ruined the picture. At the end, though, once the dots are all connected and the picture colored completely, the mistakes aren’t evident. What’s left is a beautiful picture.

God is connecting the dots of my life–and yours–and my kids’. He is the artist who doesn’t make mistakes although in the process it may seem like He messed up. I struggle so much with this concept. How can abuse fit into a beautiful life picture? How can depression add beauty to a life? How can a chronic and debilitating illness make a life beautiful?

I don’t know. I only see a part of the picture. I’ll never understand it on this earth, for God’s ways are not my ways. He doesn’t require that I understand it. He only requires that I trust Him to finish the picture and find, in the end, the beauty that He knew was there all along.

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Climbing Mountains

I have always loved nature. As a child, I would walk home from school. In those days if you lived close enough to the school you attended, you walked…the same neighborhood I lived in is now bussed to the same school I attended. Go figure. Anyway, as soon as I got home, I would change clothes and head outside. On some days my neighborhood friends would meet me and we’d find some thing to occupy us until we were called home for dinner. The season or the weather seldom made a difference. I would head outdoors on the cool autumn afternoons, the cold winter afternoons, and the warm spring afternoons. I had a vivid imagination and, if no one else was around to play with, I was content to be alone, making up some adventure. One of my most favorite pretend excursions was the adventure that I was climbing a mountain–a steep, snowy, windy mountain. The slope would be treacherously angled and I would struggle to make headway up its side, at times, falling back a bit. I would imagine myself so tired from the repeating pattern of step, step, step, fall… step, step, step, fall…

You get the picture.

In my mind, the most important thing was to get back up, no matter how many times I fell.

Sometimes I had the opportunity to live out, all be it in a very mild form, some of my imaginary climbs. Living in Western New York meant the Alleghany Mountain range was just to the south. While the mountains themselves, for the most part, were not climbable, tucked deep inside Alleghany State Park was a place known as Thunder Rocks. These were huge boulders–and when I say “huge”, think of a boulder as big as two story house. There were indentations and jagged edges all around the rocks. If given the chance to visit there, I would be sure to make it known that I needed to go climb the rocks. And just as it played out in my imaginary scenarios at home, often the pattern of step, step, step, fall was a common scene. More than once, though, I managed to reach the top of some of the rocks. What an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment as I stood high above the ground, breath coming hard from the work of the climb. Determination is what caused me to get back up even after a hard fall. It only took one successful accomplishment to stoke the fire of determination to conquer another rock. I vowed, someday, I would climb a real mountain.

Lately, I’ve begun to liken my spiritual journey to the imaginary climbing I did as a child. I see a mountain ahead of me–it varies by time but has been comprised of things such as grief, illness, and change. Sometimes the mountain is small in scale and I begin the climb with anticipation of finishing with ease. Other times, the mountain looms before me and intimidates me before I even take the first step of the climb. Many times I fall. Sometimes I want to just stay there, on the ground, wallowing in my unsuccessful attempt and wondering where God is and why He didn’t help me. After all, I think, He is the one who brought me to that mountain in the first place. The strange thing is, as much as my mind tells me to just give up, I don’t give in to its pleadings. Oh, I have come close in the past. I have stomped my feet in displeasure with God, I have told Him off in no uncertain terms, I have turned my back on Him–I have even tried to end my life on this earth. But here I sit, by God’s grace, still on the journey of life. For some reason, I keep returning to the mountains before me. I take a step, then another, and another…and then I fall. I find myself, sometimes against even my own will, getting up, returning to the base of the mountain, and taking yet another step–another attempt at the mountain that looms over me and taunts me with its difficulty.

What drives me to keep returning? To keep fighting? To keep climbing?

I know that it has very little to do with me. In my own strength I could never get back up time and time again to face a mountain that defeats me time and time again.

Habakkuk was an Old Testament prophet who questioned God’s allowance of ongoing evil with seemingly no justice. Ultimately, he realized that God knows what He is doing. We just need to trust. Today I read this verse and it made me realize why I am able to keep attacking the difficult mountains:

“The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:19)

The mountains in my life are not accidents–I have to keep reminding myself of that every time I fall. A mountain does not mean I stop and camp in the darkness of it. It is, rather, a tool that God can use to build my strength in order to face the next mountain that will be in my path. We all know life is not an easy stroll along a sunny beach day in and day out. We are bound to face mountains of all sizes. And since we are human, we are bound to fall now and then. But to not get back up and attempt the climb?

Well, speaking from my experience on Thunder Rocks, the view when you finally conquer the mountain is nothing short of spectacular. And the feeling of accomplishment goes a long way when digging for strength you don’t think you have.

I need to learn this more than anyone else right now.

 

 

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Dissatisfied

Have you ever felt an uneasiness somewhere deep inside that continually rises to the surface? An uneasiness that is oppressive enough to almost be palpable yet one that you can’t figure out from where it originates?

That feeling is overwhelming me tonight.

Words are bouncing around in my brain. Words such as, “I can’t stand the person I am.” “Why can’t I change?” “Why do so many others seem to get it and I just can’t?”

After church today, my husband and I got together with someone from church to talk. We both consider this person as trustworthy and wise, and we needed someone like that to talk through some things with us. The food was good; the conversation was hard. I came away from the few hours spent with thoughts swirling, my world seemingly turned upside down. There are difficult and emotional decisions that need to be made. The first thing I said to my husband as we got into our car was, “I wish God had made humans without emotions.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one who struggles with things like depression and anxiety would also struggle with emotions.

You see, I want to be a different person. I’m talking about a different person on the inside. Don’t get me wrong–if given the opportunity for a complete body makeover, I would jump at it in a heartbeat. As I’ve noted before, the mirror and I? Yeah. We’re not good friends. But today my desire was to change the inside me–the me that no one can really see. And yet, that me is manifested in whatever I do so most likely the idea that no one can see that is a myth. Regardless, I wish I could change it. The reason I want to change that part of me, though, isn’t because I want people to like me. The reason I want to change the inside me is…

I desire for God to like me.

Now, before you decide to blast me with phrases such as, “God loves you just the way you are” or “God created you to be who you are” please know that I already know that. Most of the time I even believe it. This is different than that. And that is where the uneasiness comes in.

It’s different, but I don’t know quite how. There’s a heaviness about these feelings that make them different than those that are usually associated with the above phrases. Maybe it is because at the core, as much as I may not like it, I am an emotional being. Those emotions allow me to laugh at something funny, but they also cause me to fight back tears when asked in a restaurant over lunch, “How are you doing emotionally?” And I can’t answer because I am desperately trying to hide the emotions bubbling to the surface that I don’t want him to see. I’m trying to hide the fact that I want to cry because I feel like such a failure when the conversation turns to things that need to be done–and I am physically unable to do them right now. I blink hard and look down to avoid eye contact with one who truly cares and desires to help.

“God has a plan. Your life may not look like you thought it would, but God is still there and will use even this.” I hear the words and I so desperately want to take them to heart, to feed on them, and to allow them to soothe the pain inside.

But all I get is uneasiness…and the desire to change and be a better wife, a better mom, a better friend, a better Christian.

Maybe it starts with the desire. Maybe the desire is what God will use to start changing me to be

selfless instead of selfish

content instead of greedy

prayerful instead of neglectful

loving instead of unloving

encouraging instead of discouraging…

restful and at peace instead of uneasy.

 

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