Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Taming the Monster

The following is an article I wrote which was published in P31 Woman Magazine in February 2007.

When my children were little, it seemed like every parent my age was dreading the day their children would become teenagers. We all knew horror stories of sweet children who did the Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde thing upon hitting adolescence, turning into almost unrecognizable monsters. In our minds, adolescence was certain to be the end of family peace and happiness as we knew it. I was dreading it more than most, since my children were very close in age. We would have four children in high school simultaneously. We were doomed.

That dreaded season in our lives was soon upon us. To my amazement, those fast paced and crazy years were among the best in our lives. Our children entertained us with their wonderful humor, broke our hearts with their struggles, and encouraged us by their fledgling commitment to the Lord. I don’t mean to give you the impression that life was perfect, or that my teens did not present huge challenges to my husband and me. Those years kept us on our knees as we watched our children begin to spread their wings. There was never a dull moment in the Coleman household.

Now that my children are in college and beyond and living for the Lord, many parents of younger children have come to us to obtain advice on raising children. Of course, children are unique, and not every strategy works for every child. However, there are some general principles that we found to be true as we went through the years of raising our teenagers.

1. Live out your faith like you mean it. No one can smell a phony like a teenager. If you want your children to have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, then model what it looks like for them on a daily basis. Children will define our genuineness by the fruit we bear. Our lives should be marked with love, forgiveness, humility and grace. Be real. Don’t be afraid to show them you are struggling with a spiritual issue. They will learn more from how you deal with conflict and involve the Lord in the process than any words you can say.

2. Make your home a safe and comfortable place. Teens need to know they are significant in your life and home. Home should be a refuge for your teenager. Make it a point to stop what you are doing when your teen comes in the door and ask about their day, activities, or time with friends.

No one wants to come home to nagging and tension. Adolescents are an easy target for this, since they can be irresponsible, thoughtless, and self-centered. There is so much to nag about! Let your teenager know you like them and are happy they are there at home. Of course, household rules and standards need to be upheld. Just be sure your positive comments far outweigh the negative ones you make.

3. Pick your battles. I have a friend whose teenage son left the house in tattered and garish clothing she felt was very inappropriate for him to wear in public. As she complained to her husband, he helped her keep perspective with this question: “Is it sin?” That became the quote my husband and I would repeat as we faced issues like piercing, clothing, and hairstyle. Is it sin? We decided early on that outward appearances would change with the times, and we were more interested with what would last for eternity: their commitment to Christ. Major on the major issues, and let the minor ones die.

4. Be available. Unfortunately, many parents think that once their kids clear elementary or middle school, it is safe to extend working hours or involvement outside the home. I found that it was the exact opposite with my own family. As their lives became the focus of our household, I dropped many of my own activities and spent a lot of time just hanging around the house. As the kids felt the need to share a problem or discuss an issue, I was ready and available. When I sensed they needed some time, I would stop what I was doing and give them my complete attention. It always seemed that my kids would be in the mood to talk when I was in my nightgown, turning off lights and heading for bed. “Mom, do you have a minute?” I would inwardly sigh and know I would be staying up late again. Those late night talks became the backbone of our relationship as deep thoughts were shared and heart to heart communication took place.

Take advantage of every opportunity you have to know about your teenager’s world. Go to parent-teacher conferences and open houses. You will be demonstrating your interest in what is important to them with your physical presence. Get to know the leaders in your child’s life: their teachers, coaches, youth leaders, etc. Offer help when you can. Sew costumes, stuff envelopes, or be a driver to events. You will get to know other parents as well as your teens’ friends.

5. Don’t be afraid to touch. Most of my children went through an “anti-touch” phase in their lives during their middle school years. I knew they were not interested in or were embarrassed to be hugged and kissed, so instead I would rub their shoulder or smooth their hair. Find some way to keep physical contact alive. Teenagers need human contact as much as the rest of us. As they matured through adolescence, eventually even my most resistant child began hugging me once more.

In summary, loving your child takes on a different slant when you are dealing with the adolescent years, because his needs have changed. Though they are outwardly becoming more independent, they still need your interest, involvement, and godly guidance. Your acceptance and appreciation means so much to them. Give them opportunities to see that you care. The bond that you nurture will be a blessing for the rest of your lives.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Ox in the Stall

“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” Proverbs 14:4

Life is messy. If you want to get anything accomplished, occasionally other priorities have to be put aside. That often means letting something fall apart for the sake of bringing something else to completion. When I was a teacher, every summer I redecorated a room in our home. For the duration of the couple of weeks that I stripped wallpaper, painted walls and trim, sewed curtains or shopped for accessories, the rest of the house completely suffered. A home-cooked meal became a rarity. As the weeks went on, the bathrooms would have caused the house to be condemned if a health inspector had ever come through. Soon, no one could find anything or even locate a pair of clean underwear. But it was worth all the inconvenience and disruption when the room was done and we could enjoy our pretty new environment.

Having children impacts our priorities to a great degree. I have seen the fussiest of housekeepers lose their sense of urgency for cleanliness at all cost when babies come along. A well-known poem by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton captures this sense of reprioritizing:

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She's up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.
The cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
For children grow up, as I've learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust go to sleep.
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

The above proverb of Solomon captures this idea as well. You can have a clean stall, or you can have an ox which makes a mess to clean. The difference is the latter enables productivity.

Creativity makes a mess. You can always tell I have had a great day of writing when the top of my desk is strewn with papers and books and empty dishes. I have been too inspired to worry about cleaning up after myself. Everything else fell by the wayside while the creative juices flowed. I was zeroed in on one thing-- and very little else registered on the radar screen.

God has goals He is working to accomplish in us. Sometimes that process gets pretty intense. When we are in the heat of the fire, we tend to lose perspective. We are zeroed in on the painful circumstance. Life begins to get messy. It starts to feel like everything else is falling apart.

But like any project we attempt, there is an end in sight. God will eventually achieve His purpose in the circumstance. We will grow in maturity and move further down the road to completeness. Our understanding of Him and His ways will become deeper. Our intimacy with Him will go further. And His work will not be in vain.

In the meantime, back in the fire, we struggle to keep all of the balls in the air. Not an easy task when we are in the midst of an overhaul. Sometimes the balls drop to the ground. We wearily pick them up and set them in motion once again. And we do the best we can to not allow other parts of our life to suffer as we go through the process.

Nothing is going to get accomplished in us without making a bit of a mess. But we can trust that the end result is worth the temporary inconvenience. We need to look at our circumstances with an eternal eye. And welcome the mess that comes with the ox.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Forever Home

Sasha the dog is here to stay. We fell in love with her the minute she walked through our door, her gentle eyes sparkling and her big, thick tail wagging. She is only a year old, and still loves to play like a puppy. I have never met a gentler dog. It has been two days since we signed the papers and welcomed her into our family. We have made a firm commitment to provide for her needs and love her unconditionally for the duration of her life. The rescue calls what we are giving her a “forever home.”

Sasha was skinny, flea infested, and starving when her foster mom found her near the door of her workplace, turning over rocks in search of food. As the kind lady fed her, Sasha jumped up on her lap, shivering and in search of comfort. Since February, Sasha lived with the affection and provision of her compassionate foster parents. But it was a temporary setting. Now she has landed where she will be for the rest of her life. But Sasha doesn’t understand all of this. Right now she only knows that she misses her foster mom. She spent a good deal of yesterday sitting by the front door, waiting for us to take her “home.”

And so we demonstrate to her as much as we can that we love her. We lavish affection and praise on her. She goes for long walks with us and plays fetch. All of her needs are provided. And someday, she will learn to trust us. We will become her comfort zone. But it takes time.

God did much the same for the people of Israel. When He called them out of Egypt, He orchestrated many events to teach them about His power and love. The Hebrews had been away from the promised land for over 400 years. They lived surrounded by Egyptian pagan worship of the gods of nature. They had been cruelly treated at the hands of merciless slave masters. They didn’t understand God or His purposes for them. All they knew was the life they had. So God had to demonstrate who He was to them.

It began with the plagues. Catastrophic events wrecked havoc on the land of Egypt. Each plague seemed worse than the last. And each plague demonstrated that God was more powerful than any of the gods Egypt worshipped; He was ruler over all nature. Finally, after the most devastating plague of all, the Hebrews made their escape. A million and a half people just walked out of slavery and the cruel life they had known.

But quickly they came across their first obstacle. As Pharaoh had second thoughts about losing the huge population of slaves, he sent his armed forces out to bring them back. The Hebrews had an army bearing down on them from behind. And a sea of water stood between them and escape. Yet none of this was out of the plan. God instructed Moses to hold out his staff, and the sea parted. Scripture tells us the Hebrews walked through two walls of water on dry land. And after the entire group had crossed over to the other side, the waters then collapsed, landing on and killing the Egyptian armies in hot pursuit.

And so went the next few years of God introducing Himself to the Hebrews. He met their needs faithfully. He demonstrated His power over and over again. The Law was given to help them to understand His holiness and their appropriate response. His presence was a visible thing in a pillar of cloud during the day and a column of fire by night. I guess He could have just told them about Himself, and expected them to jump on board to a covenantal relationship with Him. But their personal experience in seeing His provision, love, faithfulness, and holiness was a far more effective means of helping them to understand what the relationship was all about. It was a crucial part of the process.

We learn that as teachers. Children will remember very little of what you tell them. But give them an experience, and they will remember it for the rest of their lives. So we do science experiments and field trips and play with math manipulatives. Because it is the way they learn best.

God does the same for us. He puts challenges and hardship and blessings into our lives to teach us about who He is and His faithfulness to us. As we see Him demonstrate His character to us over and over again, we slowly learn to trust Him on a deeper and deeper level. When doubt threatens to overtake us, we look back on all of the times He proved Himself to us. The truth of who God is has been written for us in pages of Scripture. But it is also played out in our lives. God knows we need to experience something to make it come to life for us. And so He actively demonstrates all this to us to help us to understand.

And just like Sasha the dog, we eventually come to trust Him because He has proved Himself to us. And we learn to rest in Him, our “forever home.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sasha the Dog

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Ephesians 2:8-9

Tonight we are hoping to receive a visit from Sasha the dog and her foster mother. Sasha showed up at her foster mother’s door in February, hungry and cold and in need of a home. Now several months later, Sasha’s foster home is looking to place her with a permanent family that will provide for her. We spotted Sasha’s picture and description online and sent an application in to the rescue agency that is sponsoring her. Last night I received a call from Sasha’s foster mother and spoke with her for about ½ hour.

The agency is very careful about the placement of their dogs. The lengthy application and interview process is designed to give them an opportunity to find out as much as possible about prospective homes and owners. One of the questions I was asked made me stop and think: Why do we want a dog? What do we expect a dog will do for us?

My sister-in-law has informed us it will run about $1000 a year to care for a dog. The dog will need to be exercised twice a day. We will have to bring the dog for obedience training and work to teach it how to behave in our home. We are aware there will be messes to clean up and inconvenient demands on our time and attention for the duration of the life of our pet. Owning a dog has its share of sacrifices. So why do we want a dog? What are we hoping to get in return for the expense and effort we will put out?

We want the dog to love us. We are not looking for a watchdog or for a dog which will provide any kind of service for us. It will be our pleasure to provide everything the dog needs. All we want in return for our efforts is for the dog to be loyal and affectionate. We just want her to love us.

Our relationship with God has striking similarities to this. We bring nothing to the table. Our sinfulness made us unworthy and unable to be in the presence of God. We stood condemned and without hope of ever being able to make the relationship right. But in His grace, God provided what was needed to enable us to be right with Him. Christ suffered on the cross as a substitute for us. He received the punishment we deserved. And by His sacrifice, we are forgiven. Everything has been provided. Our salvation is a gift, not given because of merit, but as an expression of the unconditional love God has given us.

So why does He want us? What does He want in return for all He has done on our behalf?

He wants us to love Him. That’s it.

We do not need to spend our lives trying desperately to get His approval or earn His love. This pointless obligation is what the Pharisees had laid on the people in the time of Jesus. Pleasing God involved careful observation of every detail of the Law, and in addition, observation of the man-made laws as well. The religious leaders invented rules about the rules. It wasn’t about the heart. It had become all about their actions. Paul wrote: “But Israel, pursing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” (Romans 9:31,32) The burden of trying to be good enough weighed heavy on the shoulders of the people. It was a crushing load. A relationship with God had become all about what they thought they could do for Him. The burden was on their shoulders.

But Jesus came to release them of that crushing burden. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus told the people. He took the responsibility off our shoulders. He Himself fulfilled the requirements needed to please God. He paid for our sin with His blood. It was all done for us.

And after providing salvation as a free gift, what does he expect from us? He wants us to throw our trust into the gift He has provided. To stop trying to win His favor by obeying the rules. He wants us to give Him our hearts. Christ won God’s favor for us. And in return, He just wants us to love Him.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Waiting on the Dream

“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:3-5

God gives us desires. He places dreams in our hearts to pray over and work toward. When our desires are from the Lord, he will carry them out to fruition.

Back in 1991, I was given my first opportunity to speak before a large group of women. It was at a Mothers’ Day breakfast hosted by my church, Cedar Ridge Community Church. I was flattered they thought I had something to share, but at the same time I was terrified. For weeks I agonized over my message. Finally the day arrived. Trembling, I walked to the podium and began to share what God had given me. To my surprise, the women listened intently to what I had to say. They laughed at my stories. Many nodded their heads with looks of appreciation as I hit each of my main application points. Some even shed tears. After I finished, I received an enthusiastic round of applause. It was the most fabulous 20 minutes of my life.

I could hardly wait to get home and share my success with my husband. “They loved it!” I enthused. “It was a total rush, standing up there, sharing the Word of God. I could do that every day for the rest of my life!” That very morning I began to pray that the Lord would choose to use me in this way again. The dream had been planted.

Over the next decade, I was asked to speak once or twice a year at various churches or camps holding special events. Not an overwhelming number, but those engagements kept the dream alive. I began to feel strongly that the Lord had given me a gift. I also wondered why he wasn’t allowing me more opportunities to use it.

Waiting, while your desires fester in your heart, can be excruciating. We are tempted to try to “make it happen,” as Sarah did when she offered Hagaar to Abraham. However, with this particular dream of mine, I was very afraid of going ahead of the Lord. I wanted to be ready if I was to take on a ministry of this nature.

God did use that waiting period to get me ready. He did this through the experiences I had in raising my four children and learning how to be a godly wife. When God took my mother home to Heaven after a long fight with cancer, I struggled through a long period of grief that tested my faith. Two years of my life were spent in learning how to manage Panic Disorder. Much learning took place during my teaching career as I worked with a total of over 500 students and their parents. When I look back on who I was in 1991, I shudder to think of the kind of speaker I would have been. God knew this, and took the time to insure the ministry he wanted to do through me would be effective. He lovingly and carefully orchestrated the circumstances and people around me to grow me into a woman ready to teach his word and encourage others.

Finally, in 2004, the Lord gave me my first opportunity to be a speaker for a weekend-long women’s retreat. From there, the opportunities began to flow. I also began to write a book. Several of the articles I had written were published in magazines. It seemed like the Lord was indicating the time had finally come. So I retired from teaching and enrolled in seminary to pursue my master’s degree in Biblical studies. My husband was in full support of these decisions. He, too, sensed God’s movement and timing in our lives.

The point to this long story is this: God plants the dream, but then is faithful to sustain it. He waters it with encouragements, using opportunities and people in our lives. He nourishes it by working within us, getting us ready for the fulfillment of that dream. When the time is right, he brings that dream to fruition. When he does, we marvel at his timing and wisdom. We look back on his faithfulness and wonder at his patience with us as we stewed and fretted in the wait.

What dream do you hold in your heart? It could be finding that perfect someone to become your spouse. Maybe God is taking his time in giving you children. Is there a ministry that your heart is drawn to? You may be searching for a job or wishing for a home of your own. We become disillusioned with God when those dreams remain unfulfilled. Yet how much agony we would save ourselves if we would determine to trust God to bring that dream to pass, in his timing, not ours.

We can trust our faithful God who originally planted the dream within us to be faithful to carry it to completion. And when He does, we will give the glory to Him, because He will make sure that we understand it was His accomplishment, not ours. It will be worth the wait.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Good Intentions

“Guilt drives us to the cross, but grace must lead us from there or we cannot serve God . . . There is no more powerful motivation for holiness than loving God in response to the revelation of his redeeming character and eternal promises.” Bryan Chapell, Christ Centered Preaching

How are you at keeping resolutions? I am the world’s worst. I am full of good intentions. I will keep a cleaner and more organized house. I will lose weight. I will study harder at Greek. At the starting point of a new resolution, keeping it is a breeze. Why did I live like I did before turning over this new leaf? Life is so much better this way. I will never go back. Sometimes I even try to convert others to my cause. How could they not follow in my steps? This way is infinitely better.

But soon, as time wears on, I begin to consider falling off the wagon. This is too hard. I miss the convenience of doing things the old way. It wasn’t so bad before. And soon I discover I have lapsed back into my old habit once again.

It is often the same as we try to live for Christ. We read or hear something that convicts us to change our ways. So we resolve to act on that conviction. We will be more diligent about reading our Bible. Pray more. Get control of our tongue. But soon the enthusiasm wanes. The high priorities of yesterday diminish in light of the new urgencies of today. And the resolution dies a quiet death.

Where can we find a motivation that will last us longer than our own good intentions? Guilt is usually my chief motivation, a powerful force in my life. Yet in reality, actions motivated by guilt are actually only self-serving. I attempt to change something because I foolishly think that God will love me more if I can get a handle on this thing in my life. This, of course, is a very faulty assumption. He knew me before the foundations of the world, knowing every selfish act I would commit before I was even born. Knowing all that, He chose to love me anyway. So trying to earn favor from God is a useless motivation. In the end anyway, guilt fails to produce a lasting change, because it is at its roots a serving of self. As soon as I have worked long enough at change to ease my guilty conscience, the motivation is at an end. And I fall off the wagon.

But what if instead I acted in response to the unconditional love and grace God has lavished on me? Donald Miller wrote a great paragraph on this in Blue Like Jazz. I don’t have it with me today to quote it directly (I am writing from Connecticut) but the gist of his wisdom was that if an ordinarily lazy man were to fall in love, he could swim the English Channel for the sake of his beloved. Love is a huge motivator.

Our greatest incentive for change comes as a response to the grace and love the Father has already poured out on us. “For the love of Christ compels us, having concluded this, that one died for all . . . so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) The greater our understanding of who God is and what He has done for us, the greater our motivation to love and serve Him in return.

So rather than focus on my behavior and what I need to accomplish, I will choose to focus on the God that I serve. I will focus on His great love for me and on His perfect character. And my behaviors and attitudes, the ones which so desperately need to change, will suddenly be revealed for the dark, dirty habits they are, existing in a life which has already been paid for by the precious blood of Christ. The stronger my love for Him, the stronger my motivation. Less of me, more of Him. “We love because He first loved us . . . by this we know we are children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.” (1 John 4:19, 5:2)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Faithful Husband

When poor Hosea the prophet dreamed of a wife and children in his younger days, I am fairly certain that his plans and ideas of family life had no fulfillment in the reality God actually gave him. Prophets lived to communicate the message of God to the people. And God wanted Hosea to communicate through the example of his marriage.

So God told Hosea to marry a woman who would not be faithful to him. While he would be a faithful husband, loving her unconditionally with no regard to her character, she would go off and pursue other men with no thought to her commitment to him. Hosea obeyed the Lord. As children came along, God told him what to name them. These names, too, would communicate a serious message from the Lord to the people. The first son was named “Jezreel”, which meant God sows. The daughter was named “Louhamah,” which meant no mercy. Finally a third child was born. He was named “Lo-ammi,” which meant not my people. As you look at all the names, you can see the warning made plain to the people. They had turned away from God, and He would not allow the situation to continue indefinitely.

But God was not done with his message. Hosea’s wife continued in her unfaithful ways. He continued to faithfully love her. Finally at one point in their marriage, she leaves him. Scripture does not make the circumstances completely clear. It is possible she had become legal property of someone who hired her out as a prostitute or possibly had become a temple prostitute. In any case, Hosea must go and pay a price to bring her home. He redeems her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and one-half of barley. This payment is equivalent to thirty shekels of silver, the usual price for a slave.

When Hosea gets his unfaithful wife home, he informs her that her days of wandering are over. “You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.” (Hosea 3:3)

Hosea’s wife was a vivid picture of the nation of Israel. She, as a nation, had willingly entered into a covenantal relationship with God. It was a commitment to remain faithful only to Him. But in the generations that followed, the children of Israel turned away from the faithful “husband” He was to them and worshipped other gods. One day in the future, God would pay the ultimate price to bring them back to where they belonged. He would sacrifice His Son to buy them out of the slavery they had chosen.

My sister has a similar relationship with her dog. Kai is a Shiba Inu, which is a Japanese mountain dog. His personality is more cat-like than dog-like. He is cool at best toward the family who loves him wholeheartedly. He allows them to pet him, but does not beg to be petted. When he was younger, Kai would take off at the first chance he got. Margie and Dave were on a first name basis with the people at the pound, because he was picked up so many times while wandering around town. When Margie picked him up after an overnight stay at the vet, she got down on her knees and opened her arms to greet him enthusiastically. Kai walked right by her and went to one of the veterinarian workers. He didn’t even acknowledge a relationship. This is not a loyal animal. But he is loved unconditionally by his family.

We can take great comfort in the relationship God had with His chosen people. He provided everything they could have hoped for in the land. He gave them exclusive privileges as His chosen people. And while they turned their backs on this faithful, giving and powerful God, He would not forget them. Oh, they would be judged. But despite the severity of the punishments, the judgments were only intended to bring Israel back to a covenantal relationship with God. One day they would be restored back to the Land, acknowledging Him as their King. Even in the face of their unfaithfulness, God would not abandon His people.

God would someday turn the situation around. Remember the names of Hosea's children, given as a warning? God uses the names later in the prophecy as a postive promise: "I will sow her for Myself in the land. I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, and I will say to those who were not my people, "You are My people!" And they will say, "You are my God." (Hosea 2:23)

We were bought out of the slavery we had chosen. Romans 6:20 tells us we were slaves to sin. It had us in its grip. We stood condemned because of it. Jesus came to buy us out of slavery with a price. He paid in blood. His life for ours. We now owe our allegiance to God. “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” (Romans 3:22) The church is the bride of Christ. Yet we are not always faithful. It doesn’t take much to turn our heads away from the faithful husband He is to us. Yet He remains faithful, loving us unconditionally. We need to get serious about our commitment in this relationship. It is all He wants from us-- single-minded devotion. He has done the rest.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Doubting the Goodness of God

“The serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5

Satan has a way of going right for the jugular. On that fateful day when He tempted Eve into the very first sin in the Garden of Eden, he used exactly the right weapon. Satan made Eve doubt God. He did this by suggesting that God’s motives were not completely altruistic. The reason God made the big rule about the tree in the middle of the garden was because He didn’t want Adam and Eve to rival Him. It was a command created to preserve His superiority over His creation. Eve fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

Doubting God’s goodness and wisdom is really at the root of most of our sin, I think. When we make the conscious decision to disobey Him, at the very foundation of our decision is the thought that God does not want what is in our best interests. So we go off on our own, feeding our own desire for pleasure or satisfaction. Sadly, the sin does not satisfy as we thought. It is like a mouth full of cotton candy. The pleasure quickly fades, and we are only left with the cleanup of the destruction we have caused with our cavalier actions.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I confided my fear to my mom that I would probably not make a good mother. My mom had always been so generous with my sister and I. She would rather herself go without in order to provide some thing that we wanted. “I’ll never be as generous with my kids,” I told her. “I am just too selfish.”

Mom reassured me that I would think differently once the baby was born. “When it’s your own,” she told me, “It is no sacrifice.”

Astonishingly, I found this to be true. Putting my children’s needs before my own was almost an instinct. I understood for the first time what it was to love with no thought of getting something in return. It was enough to watch their delight over what I could give them. Their pleasure was truly my greatest pleasure.

If this could be true of this very human mother, who is most definitely sinful and faulty in her efforts at love, it must be infinitely true of our Heavenly Father, who loves us perfectly. Jesus told his disciples: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11)

God takes pleasure in His people. (Psalm 149:4) He delights in providing us with good things. And He is good. All the time.

When we begin to understand His goodness and delight in us, we can begin to choose His way for us over our own plans. We can see the principles set before us in scripture which instruct us in our actions as more than a bunch of rules. Rather, they are guidelines to give us the best life possible. His desire is to give us the best of everything. While we think we know what we need, in His wisdom, He gives us what we really need. If we could just trust Him in this, we would save ourselves a whole lot of pacing around and shaking our fist. He is on our side. He knows what we need and what is best for us. We just need to trust Him.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Waiting Game

"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6

I hate waiting.

After twenty-eight years of marriage, my husband and I have decided to get a dog. This decision involved a lengthy multiple month process of much discussion and thought. It was a huge commitment. We haven’t had a dog, ever, in our married life. Raising four children was enough for any one couple to survive. But now they are grown. So we decided the time was finally right to commit to a pet.

We began by searching the internet. Adopting seemed like the best option. So many animals are in need of a family. We scoured the pictures of dogs waiting for a home. Then on Saturday, we visited two pounds in the area. Dogs stood at the doors of their cages, frantically begging to be taken out of there and loved. It was heartbreaking. Yet we did not find the dog.

Finally after all of that looking, we decided that we really had our hearts set on a Labrador Retriever. So we filled out two very long and intrusive applications to the two local lab rescue organizations. They have yet to respond. So we wait.

I feel like most of my life is a waiting game. I guess I'd better get used to it. For writers, waiting is a lifestyle. You labor and agonize over a piece. When it is finally ready to be reviewed by an editor, you send it in. And you . . . wait. Sometimes for months. Waiting on publishers for a reply to a book manuscript is even more painful. So much more is at stake. You are at the mercy of the powers that be. No inquiry or nagging will help your cause. You just have to wait.

My son Daniel is in the agony of the wait. He has applied to several grad schools to begin PhD work. They are taking their time getting back to him. So he waits.

It seems like very little in this world comes to us without involving a wait. In this era of instant messaging and internet information just seconds away from our fingertips, waiting still continues to play in a large part of our lives. In the frustration of the wait, we need to know that God has purposes for the time period we must endure. He is at work in the wait.

Abraham had a wait. He was promised a son at the age of 75. Baby Isaac was not born until Abraham reached the ripe old age of 100. Twenty-five years of waiting. Yet as we examine what scripture tells us about his wait, we can see the Lord using the time to slowly change Abraham. He was a man whose belief in God had been counted as righteousness. Yet he wasn’t perfect in his faith. He hid the truth about Sarah being his wife to save his own skin, not once, but twice. This was not the action of a man who totally trusted God. Finally, Isaac was born. And some thirty-odd years later after the original promise, we see the same Abraham who failed to trust God for his life now trudging up the mountain with the intent of slaying and sacrificing his long awaited heir. Abraham’s fledgling trust in God had matured. He was ready to pay the ultimate cost in obedience. God had changed him in the wait.

God is extremely efficient with time. He does not waste a minute. Every moment that we wait, He is at work in us, gently and slowly changing us. The wait makes us fret. As we struggle, we turn to Him. We learn to trust Him on a deeper level than ever before.

Plants have a survival abilities called tropisms. They are growth in response to different stimuli in the plant's environment. Hydrotropism is a plant’s ability to grow towards a water source. A tree’s roots sense water and grow toward it. Most of the tree’s water supply is from above ground, as precipitation drops from the sky. This would mean the roots would remain shallow, growing only near the surface of the soil, if rainfall amounts and timing remained consistent. However, there are also long periods of drought in the life of a tree. So the tree’s roots are forced to grow deep, toward the ground water which lies deep under the surface of the earth. Those deep roots are what will allow the tree to withstand the wind and storms which will occur in its lifetime. Drought is good for a tree.

And so is the wait good for us. As we helplessly stand by, tapping our foot and pacing the floor, we reach out to God in new ways for help to endure the wait. Our trust in Him grows. The roots of our faith have grown deeper than before.

I hate waiting. Yet I understand that waiting is one of God’s most effective tools. As we strive to live for Him, the accomplishments, like getting published or into grad school, are just the icing on the cake. Real life is all about the process of getting there. The important stuff happens during the wait.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Defining Moments

September is a busy month for a teacher, and this September day was no exception. The moment I woke, thoughts of what I needed to accomplish filled my head. Aside from my normal teaching load at school, there were errands to run and people to call. I was also secretary for the Band Boosters, and there were so many things that should already have been finished. Feeling the pressure of too much to do and too little time, I drove to school ticking off the many things I must accomplish before my head finally hit the pillow that night.

In the middle of a mid-morning math lesson, there was a knock on my classroom door. The principal and school nurse stood outside, beckoning me to join them. Setting my class to work on a set of problems, I ducked out of the room. My principal put hands like ice into mine. “We are under attack,” she informed me. “Both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City have been hit. All planes in the United States are being grounded. Parents are going to start arriving to take their children home. We are closing for the day, as soon as the children are picked up.”

Stunned, I tried to get my mind around what she was telling me. The school nurse piped in. “Steve called from work and said to tell you he is fine, but they are closing down the government. He will make his way out of the city and get home eventually.” Now it was getting personal. Was my husband in danger in Washington, D.C.? It seemed like the whole world had suddenly gone under the shadow of a cloud. My teeth almost chattering, I shakily went back into my classroom, trying to decide what and how much I should tell my students. The world had changed in an instant. I wasn’t sure I would ever look at it the same. And all of those tasks I was so worried about accomplishing that morning? I never gave them a second thought. Suddenly all that mattered was getting my kids and husband safely home and being together again.

We’ve all had those moments when everything changed. The minute we were pronounced husband and wife. Bringing a new life into the world. Hearing tragic news, like when Kennedy was assassinated. Learning of a fatal illness or a sudden death of a loved one. After those defining moments, the world has permanently morphed for us. We will never be the same.

Of all defining moments, the event with the most far-reaching affect was the instant that Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. With that first bite, the world was changed forever. The perfect creation God had so carefully orchestrated would never be the same, forever to groan under the burden of sin's curse. The crowning achievement of that creation, man and woman, who originally reflected His glory, were now running to hide their nakedness from Him. No longer would they meet with God in the evenings to walk the garden in fellowship. The relationship had changed forever.

In that one moment, hearing the crunch of that first bite, Satan was savoring victory. It was so easy. All he had to do was get the woman thinking about the fruit, questioning God’s motive for the restriction in the garden. By getting her to turn her eyes toward what God had commanded she could not have, he had started the wheels in motion. It was an amazing accomplishment. Everything God had created was ruined, tainted by the presence of sin. I’m sure he thought he had won. It was all over but the celebration.

But it was a temporary victory. That very evening, God gave Satan the bad news. He would place enmity between the woman’s offspring and Satan’s. And while Satan might be able to land a glancing blow on this One’s heel, that enmity would crush Satan’s head. Final victory would go to the Lord.

Another defining moment came thousands of years later when a solitary figure silhouetted against the sky bowed His head and gave up His spirit. His death on the cross had been planned before the foundations of the world. And in that final moment of sacrifice, He exchanged His life for ours. Death had lost its power. The captives would be set free. Hope for salvation suddenly became a possibility. All in one defining moment.

Monday, April 7, 2008

All Is Well

The world can be a frightening place for a child. My husband and I both remember the days of nuclear bomb drills at school, crawling under the desk and putting our hands over our heads. (I’m still not sure how effective that tactic would be during a nuclear attack!) We lecture our children thoroughly on the dangers of strangers. We brief them on escape plans for our homes should fire strike. Since 9/11, most families have emergency plans to find each other should something catastrophic happen. Even the environment is a threat. As young as in elementary school, children are taught about the “certain fact” that global warming has begun with its resulting climate catastrophe just around the corner. Even though this is all preparation for what may never come, it can give a child the impression that things are spinning out of control.

Sometimes reading biblical prophecy can be just as scary. I am working on a paper today in the book of Daniel regarding the abomination of desolation. There is much in the future still to be played out, according to the scriptures. And much of that future reads more like an R-rated movie than a happily ever after fairy tale. The judgment of God will come someday on a world which has turned its back in rebellion against Him.

Why does God spend so much time warning about His coming judgment? Why the chapters and chapters of prophecy about something we may never experience in our lifetime? Foremost, of course, God is concerned for our salvation. He does not want any to perish (1 Peter 3:9). Knowing what eventually lies ahead for this world is excellent motivation to move in the right direction.

But I think that an even greater purpose is served by the writings of prophecy for those of us already saved. When we read the plans of God, we are left with a lasting impression: God controls the destiny of the world. Everything is going according to plan. He demonstrates this by letting us know there is a plan. We can see much of prophecy has already been carefully fulfilled. What is still in our future will be painstakingly orchestrated as well. We can live our lives in optimism and hope because we live for a powerful God who holds the future in His hands. “In this world you have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story of a ship and its occupants moving dangerously toward the rocks in a violent sea. The ship's passengers huddled together on the deck below, in terror that their lives were at an end. One brave man volunteered to go above deck to seek out the captain to ascertain the situation. With great difficulty, he made his way above deck to the pilot house. There he found the captain, chained to the post, his hands confidently on the wheel. Seeing the passenger’s terror, the captain gave him a reassuring smile. The man gave his fellow passengers his hopeful news when he returned to those huddled below. “All is well. All is well. I saw the pilot’s face and he smiled.”

I had a similar experience once on a bumpy flight to Hartford. I sat in the same row as a uniformed pilot who had caught our flight to get to his next assignment. While turbulance usually makes me nervous, this time I watched him. If he suddenly hunched over into a crash position, I would know it was time to panic. However, while he calmly slipped his coffee and read his magazine, I knew all was well.

I believe this is the reason we are allowed a glimpse into the future. In the midst of seeming uncertainty and conflict, we as people of God can rest secure in the knowledge that He has it all in hand. Nothing happens that surprises God. Beyond the conflict and agony of this life, we have the hope of certain victory in Christ. The story is already written.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Providence and Intimacy

“It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding.” Daniel 2:21

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher was to meet the needs of my many students. One pressing need I was always conscious of was a child’s need for significance. In a classroom of twenty-five, it is all too easy to get lost in the shuffle. If I wasn’t careful, I could allow the extroverted and outgoing children to command all of my attention. The quieter children needed attention, too. Therefore, I consciously tried to connect with each student on a daily basis. Whether I was asking them about their ball game the night before, giving them a wink as I caught their eye, or touching their shoulder as I passed by their desk, my goal was to demonstrate to each one that I noticed them that day. They were already secure in the fact that I had the classroom under control. But they also needed to know I recognized them as an individual, too.

Of course, my ability to do it all, controlling the classroom as a group yet making each child feel significant, was severely limited by my humanness. I started every day with great intentions. But more often than not, fatigue, a discouraging note from a parent, or a difficult discipline problem would rob me of my energy and leave me hanging on by my fingernails to survive the rest of the day. I was only one person possessing twenty-five charges, desperately trying to meet their impossible demands-- the definition of a teacher-- and sincerely struggled to give it my best shot. But in reality, I failed children in this priority on a regular basis.

When we look at our world, we are challenged to understand the ability of God in this same regard. There is a new country song out, quickly gaining popularity, titled “God Must Be Busy.” The writer fully believes that God is in control of this world. So the reason bad things happen or his prayers aren’t answered must be because God is too busy. Overwhelmed by the world, I guess. Making everything go well is too big a job for even God.

The above quote from Daniel correctly identifies God as being all powerful. In His providence, he controls the happenings in this world with ease. He places kings into power and takes away the authority of others. Nothing that happens in this world is a surprise to God. He is working His purposes and His will definitely will be accomplished.

While most of us don’t have trouble believing in an all-powerful God, we, like that country song writer, sometimes struggle to believe that our daily struggles can also be significant to Him. Our problems are too small, too unimportant.

But that is not what scripture teaches.

Jesus told His disciples: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:7) King David wrote: “You know when I sit and when I rise up; You understand my thoughts from afar. . . You are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, You know it all.” (Psalm 139:2-4) God is not a god who is only interested in the big picture. He is powerful enough to be involved in even the very mundane in our lives.

So why do we limit Him in our perception? I think we are making the mistake of reducing Him to human terms. He does sometimes use human characteristics to describe Himself. It is really the only thing we are capable of understanding. But He is so much greater than that. We need to expand our thinking and acknowledge that His being is far beyond what we can truly comprehend.

While I might have trouble keeping the class as a group organized and on task while at the same time attempting to connect with the children as individuals, God is not limited in His power. He can put kings into power and still know the number of hairs on my head. He does more than sit back and watch us as we struggle through this life. He is intimately involved with us. He is in our head and in our heart. Don’t mistake difficult circumstances for a lack of involvement. God is never too busy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Beautiful People

Beautiful people have it rough.

Oh, I know what you are thinking. The beautiful, the rich, the famous, they have it better than anyone else. People cater to them naturally. They always seem to get the privileges all of us ordinary people never get.

The pretty girls were the most popular in school. Even when they were lacking in personality or brains, they always seemed to have no trouble getting a date. One of my son’s closest friends in high school was a golden boy. He treated girls like trash and avoided his responsibilities. He literally got by on his charm and good looks, never seeming to suffer consequences from his actions. One smile from him could melt the staunchest of hearts.

Could there really be a disadvantage to being beautiful?

God likened His nation Israel to a beautiful woman in Ezekiel 16. He had done everything to demonstrate his love for her. He entered a covenant relationship with her so that she would be solely His. His acts of love demonstrated his commitment: he bathed her, clothed her, adorned her with ornaments and a beautiful crown on her head. “So you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,” declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 16:13-14)

You would think that after all of that tender, loving care and attention, Israel would be devoted to her God. But instead, she took the gifts He bestowed on her and went off on her own. “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame.” (Ezekiel 16:15) Israel had trusted in her own beauty and prosperity. She forgot the One who gave her what she had.

The disadvantage to being beautiful or prosperous is that sometimes you can lose sight of reality. Hundreds of years before Ezekiel wrote his prophecy, the Israelites stood poised to enter the Promised Land. Moses had one last meeting with them before he died, which is recorded as the book of Deuteronomy. For a final time, he reiterated the covenant which God had laid out for the nation upon leaving Egypt. Now forty years later, Moses reminded them of what God had done for them. God was about to bless them beyond their wildest dreams. But the blessing came with a warning: “Beware that you do not forget the Lord . . . otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses. . . and your herds and your flocks multiply . . . then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

My professor today recounted the difficulty in sharing the gospel message with his classmates at Princeton. These students were the brightest and the best. They were self-sufficient. They had no need for a savior. They had their brains. He contrasted that response to the response he received in a prison ministry. While working with those who lived behind bars, he found them extraordinarily receptive to the gospel. They had a sin problem and they knew it.

Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved. The problem was not in the money. It was in the self-sufficiency of “having it together.”

We live in a nation which is self-sufficient and powerful. And a result of that has unfortunately been a general turning away from the Lord. On the morning of 9/11, we suddenly became very aware of God. The attack shook us to our core. We were not so impenetrable as we thought, and seeing our vulnerability scared us. Churches were filled to capacity on the Sunday following the attacks. We are driven to God by need.

So the beautiful, the wealthy, the famous, and the intelligent all have it rough. They are missing the opportunity to know the reality of their neediness. Be thankful for the ways you feel you fall short of the mark. They are what God has put into your life to help you avoid self-sufficiency.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Slow Fade

I attended a concert the other night by a group called Casting Crowns. One of my favorite songs was a number entitled “Slow Fade.” The lead vocalist, Mark Hall, shared that he had written the song about several teenagers in his youth group whom he had watched go from enthusiastically following Christ to complete apathy, choosing to turn away from what they knew to be truth for the way of the world. It didn’t happen overnight, he informed us. It was a slow fade.

It's a slow fade when you give yourself away
It's a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray
Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day

The journey from your mind to your hands
Is shorter than you're thinking
Be careful if you think you stand
You just might be sinking

Paul wrote about this drift towards destruction to his spiritual son, Timothy. “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:9)

Paul is writing about the progression which results in a slow fade away from God. It all begins when one sets their heart on something that is not the Lord. In this case, it is money. The slow fade starts with a look. We cast our eyes on something that turns our head away from God.

Once one's heart is set on something other than the Lord, the next step down is that those in question fall into temptation. James teaches that temptation to sin comes from within ourselves and results from being carried away by our own lusts. As we think more and more about this thing, the idea becomes an actual desire. Soon that want seems to become a need as we entertain the thought over and over in our mind. Eventually, the lust for that thing is too much for us to remain unfulfilled. And so we act. Ultimately, those actions plunge us into ruin and destruction.

Paul saw the progression. But he also knew the cure: “But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11) Avoiding the slow fade is a proactive decision. As you feel yourself drifting away, the answer is to start moving in the opposite direction. Start pursuing those things which will engage your mind and actions in the ways of the Lord.

One of my favorite Connecticut memories is of an afternoon when I joined a group of young adults to go inner tubing down the Farmington River. We had a wonderful time, riding the occasional rapids with hands linked, screaming our delight as we splashed over the rocks. In other places the river was quieter, and only gently moved us along. The beauty of the sport was even if one did absolutely nothing, their tube continued to move downstream. The current was enough to carry us.

The reason that it is so easy to succumb to a slow fade is that it is the path of least resistance. We live in a world which is moving downstream, away from God toward self-destruction. If we do nothing, expend no energy toward keeping ourselves from drifting away from the Lord, we will naturally and unconsciously move in the wrong direction. Instead, we must fight the current, pursuing actively the things which He desires for us. Only then can we avoid the slow drift that will eventually lead us away from Him.