Not Your Average Joe

This time of year our focus is on the baby in the manger and rightly so. We also give special attention to His virginal mother, Mary. But what about the third part of that holy family?

You know who I’m talking about. That stand in the background out of the spotlight guy named Joseph.

Maybe he was an introvert by nature. Maybe not. I really don’t know a lot about Joseph simply because there isn’t much written about him in the scriptures.

When you really think about it, Joseph must have been a truly amazing guy for God to have picked him to be the earthly father of His only son, Jesus. God could have picked absolutely anyone for the job – a king, a statesman, a rabbi, a rich man.

But He didn’t.

He picked Joseph. And by all accounts he was just an ordinary, average Joe.

A carpenter. A man who worked with his hands.

What was so different about Joseph’s character that he was the one to make the cut above all the others?

In the first chapter of Matthew, the nineteenth verse we can gain a few clues to his character. Matthew writes that Joseph was as a righteous man.

To be righteous means to be in right standing with God. Joseph loved God and did what His law commanded. He could stand before God and say, “Everyday I’m doing my best to do what you’ve asked of me.”

Not really so ordinary, is it?

When I read further I find how he dealt with a problematic situation.

You see, his fiancé Mary had given him some troubling news.

She was pregnant.

And the baby wasn’t his.

But it got even stranger than that.

Not only was she pregnant, but she claimed that she was still a virgin and had been chosen to give birth to the very Son of God.

I can only imagine the look on Joseph’s face when she dropped that little bombshell. He must have thought she was slightly delusional. After all, hadn’t she been visiting her relative Elizabeth for the past three months? Had something happened to her there that she just couldn’t bring herself to admit?

You know that if this happened in our present day he might have suggested that she be psychologically evaluated or at the very least have insisted upon a DNA test to determine paternity. This had Jerry Springer written all over it.

But as I read on I see his reaction isn’t one of anger or betrayal. It is humility and love.

Yes, he’s going to break it off with her, but he’s going to do it quietly. In those days, under the law those who became pregnant outside of marriage could have been stoned to death. But for Joseph to marry her after she had revealed her pregnancy was to say that he was the responsible party in the matter.

But Joseph was a righteous man. He was in right standing with God. He followed the rules and would have never been intimate with his fiancé before marriage.

So what to do?

The scriptures say he considered what to do. He gave it some long, hard thought. He knew what he must do. Out of compassion he would let quietly her go.

However, all those hard, thought out plans changed in an instant when he got a visit from an angel of the Lord. Everything Mary had told him was validated by that angel. Joseph was to take Mary as his wife, raise the boy as his own and name Him Jesus.

Did you get that? He was to be the adoptive daddy to the Son of God.

Jesus, the Savior of the world.

My Savior. Your Savior.

Joseph’s Savior.

Definitely not your average Joe.

 

 

 

 

Blessing in the Journey

Stopped at a traffic light behind a car equipped with a drop-down DVD screen I could see Disney’s Frozen playing. It was 7:30 a.m. so I suspected that Mom or Dad was on the way to childcare to drop off their little ones before work. Two thoughts came to mind:

1. That movie-playing-ability-at-a-finger’s-touch would have certainly come in handy when my children were small.

2. That movie-playing-ability-at-a-finger’s-touch was robbing that parent of potential quality time.

I am no stranger to chaotic car rides. Traveling with three children under the age of five nearly necessitated the supernatural growth of third arm to pick up dropped pacifiers, separate dueling toddlers and calm a crying preschooler all while keeping one hand on the steering wheel. Later, traveling with three teenagers under the age of eighteen offered special opportunities designed for my personal and spiritual character development such as enduring three simultaneous eye rolls without bursting into anger and careening into an oncoming car.

Still, there is something to be said for being conversationally engaged on the way to and from wherever you might be going. When my children were little we didn’t just talk, we sang just about everywhere we went. Sometimes they were just silly songs to release energy. Other times there were songs to imprint God’s word on their hearts.

When we talked, we talked about where we were going. “Yes, Mommy is lost again, but don’t worry. We’ll get there eventually.”

What was expected of them once we got there. “Do not ask me to buy you gum when we get to the check out. It’s not going to happen.”

And of course, encouragement and praise. “You did such a great job today. I am so proud of you.”

As my kids grew into teenagers they would often feel free to open up about things when my eyes were on the road and not on them. I remember a conversation I had when both of my girls were in the car and the oldest told me that one of her classmates was pregnant. The conversation that followed was heartfelt and honest in a way that we all felt comfortable without the potential of embarrassing eye-contact.

Allowing your child to zone out while watching a movie for the umpteenth time is a tantalizing temptation for tired parents. If I’d had the option when my kids were growing up I am sure I would have had the occasion to use it.

However, as the mother of three amazing grown children I know that the time sphere of influence you have as a parent is precious and limited. When we are over-scheduled with before and after school responsibilities, community functions and church activities, driving in the car can offer some bonus one-on-one interaction if we choose it to be.

I know there will be times when we are rushed and irritated that conversations will be limited to “Stop touching your brother.” or “Don’t make me pull this car over!” But if we always allow our children to be anesthetized by the power of a singing snow queen we miss a unique opportunity.

The opportunity that uninterrupted time offers us to get to know our children better, share ourselves with them and truly train up our children in the way they should go.

And that can be the real blessing along the journey.

“Train up a child in the way he should go: when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

The Popcorn Crisis

He ate my popcorn.

That’s what started it.

A ridiculous argument over puffed up corn kernels.

And it wasn’t even the dripping with butter, salty-goodness, sit through a two-hour movie with a giant bucket of theatre-worthy fare.

It was just plain ole’ popping corn, popped in oil with a scant sprinkling of salt.

Any other time I wouldn’t have even bothered to stick my hand in that bland bowl. But I was on Day 6 of a 21-day Daniel Fast and that popcorn was like taste bud gold to me.

During a Daniel Fast certain foods are denied as an act of worship and devotion to God. During this three-week period I had committed to eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and drinking only water. Dairy, meat, sugar, white flour, caffeine and basically anything that tastes remotely pleasurable were literally off the table. However, the fast is not supposed to be about your need for certain foods, but more about realizing your need for God.

And in every fast I’ve ever done I have encountered God in a very real and powerful way. It has been a blessing beyond measure. But this time on Day 6, I was feeling a little bit edgy. I had spent the first two days of the fast with severe caffeine and sugar withdrawal headaches. It was taking my body a few days to adjust to this basically vegan-diet-on-steroids and I was feeling physically and emotionally drained. Plus I had a sinus infection.

Since my husband had embarked on this fasting journey with me, we had visited the Whole Foods store several times to stock up on organic produce and grains. The last time we were there we’d bought two bags of Skinny Pop, a permissible snack for the fast. In my naiveté I assumed he would eat one bag and I would have the other.

Cue the popcorn crisis.

I got about a handful from the first bag. No problem. There was a second bag waiting for me.

When I found out that he had eaten the entire second bag of popcorn I am sorry to say that I was not very Christ-like in my response.

As I look back on it now, the argument that ensued was so stupid it’s embarrassing.

Me:  (in my best victim’s voice) “How could you eat all that popcorn? You knew I said I was going to have it for a snack at school!!”

Husband: (sheepishly) “I thought you said you already took a bag to school.”

Me: (misguided righteous indignation) “How could I have taken a bag to school when we only bought two bags?” Dat-dat-dum…

It got worse. I couldn’t find the date paste in the fridge and accused him of throwing it away. Oh the horror of eating unsweetened oatmeal!

O.K., Clearly Not My Best Moment.

However it also highlighted something very important for me.

It showed how much I need Jesus.

Without Jesus, I am self-absorbed. Without Jesus, minor irritants distract me from God’s bigger plan for my life. Without Jesus, my wants supersede someone else’s needs.

I don’t ever want to be without Jesus.

Thankfully, Romans 8:31-39  from the Message Bible tells me that absolutely nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus. “None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Not even Skinny Pop.

 

Resemblances

Every time I see him, he seems to have changed.

His large, round eyes look a little bluer.

His wispy strawberry-blonde hair, a little thicker.

And depending on who you are talking to, he looks remarkably like “their side” of the family.

Honestly, at four months of age it’s hard to tell who our newest grandson is eventually going to grow to look like. The one thing we all agree upon is that he is adorable.

It’s funny how we search to see ourselves in the faces of our children and grandchildren. Even though my older grandson came into our family through the blessing of adoption I love it when people tell me he looks like me. While he’s not biologically related to me, we are forever bonded together at the deepest level of our hearts.

It amazes me how perfectly God has crafted our family to be.

You see, years ago when I began thinking about having a family I envisioned little blonde and blue-eyed replicas of myself happily frolicking at my feet. Of course, knowing what I know now about children that was a very unrealistic dream.

The children I know did very little frolicking at their mother’s feet. Generally, the only time my children happened to be around my feet was while I was on the phone trying to have an adult conversation. That was the moment they chose to run circles around me yelling, “But it’s mine” while holding a toy over their head just out of reach of their sibling.

Chaotic childhood skirmishes aside, falling in love with a tall, dark and handsome man was what significantly reduced the physical odds of fulfilling that fair-haired fantasy. His very dominate gene pool produced three beautiful brown-eyed children and of course, I wouldn’t have changed a hair on those silky brown-haired heads.

Because really, no matter what they looked like on the outside, I knew they were made in the very image of God. And because of that, their inner countenance became much more important than their outer appearance.

That truth applies to me, too. Whether or not I have my earthly father’s eye color or my mother’s brilliant smile is of far less importance than whether I possess my Heavenly Father’s heart. If others are to know “Who” is at the root of my family tree, my life must bear good fruit.

Fruit proclaiming mercy in the place of judgment.

Commitment instead of compromise.

Peace over fear.

D.L. Moody said, “Out of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian.”

My greatest joy would be that when others “read me” they can say that they saw the story of a child of God.

An imperfect and flawed child, no doubt.

But still, a child who was striving to grow, day by day, to look a little bit more like her Father.

 

 

 

I’m just saying

I live in a small community hosting a multitude of Christian churches. They span the denominational and non-denominational gamut. Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, Missionary, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Church of God  – you name it, we got it.

I am not saying they are overflowing full-to-capacity every Wednesday evening, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Or that people are flocking to them in record numbers.

Honestly, there seems to be ample, available parking.

I’m just telling you that they are there.

The large public elementary school where I presently teach by is predominantly staffed by Christian individuals. Every day our cafeteria workers, custodians, and certified staff members have an opportunity to bless the children in their sphere of influence.

I’m not saying that they all openly profess their faith.

That they push the boundary between church and state that the ACLU has established.

I’m just telling you that by their own admission, they are Christians.

For many years, our beginning-of-the-year corporation staff meeting began with a blessing by a local pastor. This year we began without that public prayer.

I know there were probably many churches and small groups praying for the teachers and students in other venues at other times. But this year, on our first day of school, there was no communal blessing.

I’m not saying everyone noticed.

There was no outrage in the teacher’s lounge.

In most conversations, it didn’t take precedence over the predicted changes in our salary schedule.

I’m just saying it wasn’t there.

That day, the open call to God to protect and provide for our community’s most vulnerable and valuable – our children – was marked absent.

For some, it is probably a big “so what.”

But for me, it sounds more like “now what?’

As is, now what is my response?

Just what is my response to empty church pews, silenced public prayers, and a choke hold on the open profession of faith in my classroom?

It can only be one thing.

I will continue to lift up Jesus.

Publicly when I’m called.

Silently when I’m not.

It may not be popular.

Or politically correct.

You don’t have to agree with me.

But I can’t be something I’m not.

It’s just who I am and “Whose” I am that matters most to me.

I’m just saying…

 

 

 

Owwies Make You Stronger

This summer I made a new friend.

Three-year old Titus.

His father, Daniel, is one of the pastors leading the Urban Youth Outreach in Englewood – a gang-plagued, violence ridden neighborhood of Chicago.

A gregarious little guy, Titus loves to talk and play with his older sister Arielle and all of the other neighborhood children who flock to the outreach play yard. With his charismatic personality and gift for gab, Titus is surely an evangelist-in-training.

One morning as he mingled with our mission team he showed off his finger with a dangling bandage. He bravely peeled back the adhesive strip to show each person his “owwie” long enough for each one to commiserate with him.

After several people had gotten a good look at his wound he smiled confidently. “That’s O.K. because owwies make you stronger.”

Suddenly, innocence deafened the world’s cacophony that had dulled my ears.

Holy Spirit whispered to me, “Are you listening? I am speaking.”

A truth renewed.

Trials make you stronger.

Pain can be a stimulus for growth.

And when rooted in the Word and will of God, perseverance in trial brings hope.

And perhaps most importantly, as children of God, we are never alone in our sufferings.

Years ago, I endured a season of brokenness. I felt completely worn. As my young daughter lay in the hospital, critically ill with a failing heart I searched the scriptures for a word to sustain me. God did not disappoint. He led me to 2 Corinthians 4:8-9.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; (just breath, child, He whispers)

perplexed, but not in despair; (don’t over analyzeinhale my peace)

persecuted, but not abandoned (relax in my love, I am right beside you)

struck down, but not destroyed (my hand will lift you up, I will protect you).”

The word of truth forever sealed in my heart.

Trials hurt.

But Love heals.

Love is waiting. Embrace the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

Mixed Signals

This morning as I was driving down a two lane road I encountered a road repair crewman standing in the middle of the intersection. In his right hand was one of those two-sided signs that said SLOW on one side and STOP on the other.

The side that said STOP was facing me, so I did.

However, in complete contradiction to the sign he was holding, the crewman began to motion that I should make a left-hand turn.

I looked to my left and spied a line of cars creeping forward. Should I choose to follow his command, I was positive a collision was in my immediate future.

Thinking he must be confused, I sat still.

When I didn’t move he began gesturing even more emphatically. It was now obvious that even though he was holding up the STOP sign, he meant for me to turn left in front of all those other cars.

Hoping that he knew what he was doing I made the turn. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the turn that I saw another man holding a sign for the oncoming traffic to halt. My view of him had been obscured by a large piece of paving equipment.

It got me to thinking – isn’t that what faith is all about? Following God’s lead when everything in the natural tells you to turn around.

Sometimes the world’s perspective is telling you to stop. Those insidious lies that sneak into our heads say:

There’s no way you can do this. 

It’s completely beyond your skill set.

If you try, you’re going to fail.

And yet the voice of truth whispers:

Go on, I’m right here with you.

A path has been cleared, I’m making your ways straight.

You can do all things when you lean on my strength.

Each day I’m given a new chance to walk in the light or cower in the shadows. I can choose to ignore what the world says about me to rest in the promises God has for my life.

Ultimately, I can view the stop signs of this world’s as an opportunity. An opportunity to make an unexpected turn, while trusting that the signs of life are straight ahead.

 

 

Pooh Man and Baby J

Immersed in the task of scraping filth from the kitchen floor, an audience of two suddenly appeared. As I looked up, two pairs of inquiring eyes peered in from the open door.

Pooh Man and Baby J

It was Englewood and here in the ‘hood nobody used their given names.

The two brothers lived downstairs from the apartment we were cleaning and painting for the Chicago Urban Youth Ministry. They had heard the racket we were causing and had come upstairs to investigate.

After inviting them in, I learned that Pooh Man was ten and brother Baby J was six. They were very curious about what I was doing on the kitchen floor with a putty knife. After explaining that I was scraping up the grease and dirt left behind so somebody else could move in they were eager to help me.

We became fast friends in the fight against grime.

I showed Baby J how to position the scraper against the floor and with my hand over his we applied steady pressure to plow up the layers of grease. Each time we managed to move some of the sludge I would say, “That’s so disgusting!”  Baby J would gleefully echo, “Disgusting!” in the way that all little boys do when they revel in getting dirty.

As we worked, we played games and told riddles. Practiced spelling words and addition facts. Every answer, correct or incorrect, received praise and encouragement. That morning I knew I was there to work on the apartment, but recognized that my divine assignment was to lavish love and encouragement on those two beautiful little boys.

As our rapport grew, Pooh Man told me about his family. One of his brothers had passed as a result of the violence in the neighborhood. Another was in jail. He spoke about it without emotion as if it was another ordinary fact of life.

The following day we returned to the apartment to bless it. Pooh Man and Baby J tore up the stairs to join our prayer circle. As we held hands and prayed aloud the Spirit of God descended upon us like a cloud. When I opened my eyes, Pooh Man’s tear-filled eyes were locked onto mine.

And I can’t get them out of my mind.

That little one, hair full of dreads, pants hung low, will never know how deep a place has been burrowed into my heart for him.

But God knows.

So I will continue to lift up prayers of intercession that the God of this city will rescue him.

And I am confident.

Confident that God who loves this child and every other child with an all-consuming love will hear my cries and answer.

Love is on the way

As soon as it was mentioned last winter, I knew I would be going.

This year instead of spending my final week of summer break preparing for the coming school year I would be heading to the south side of Chicago to do some inner city mission work. I would have to spend some time organizing my classroom a bit earlier than usual, but I thought I would be up to the challenge. After all, it was months away.

Fast forward to this past Sunday.

My daughter’s sweet family had just left on Friday after spending three wonderful weeks with us. Putting school work as far out of my mind as possible, I enjoyed every minute of their stay. I did manage to squeeze in a morning or two at school, but for the majority of the last month I chose to soak up family time like a thirsty sponge.

Now it was Sunday afternoon and the reality of what I had to get done in a week’s time began to bear down on me.

What had I been thinking?

I would not return home from Chicago until the Saturday before school began on Monday. Although Monday was a designated teacher day I knew it would be filled with meetings from the beginning and end with an introduction to my new students and their families at our Back to School Night. There would be no time on Monday for lesson planning or preparing materials for the open house.

Panic-stricken I began to melt like a sugar cube dropped in a tea cup. A few hours of work at school on Sunday afternoon had only intensified the pressure. I’d begun to realize there was NO WAY I was going to get everything ready for school and the mission trip. So I did what I always do when I am feeling completely overwhelmed.

I sat on the floor and cried.

And then I prayed.

Slowly, peace came.

Determination followed.

So now the words of Jude 1:2 from the Message Bible are resonating in my heart. “Relax, everything’s going to be all right; rest, everything’s coming together; open your hearts, love is on the way.”

Joy fills my heart. The cavalry is coming! Love is on the way.

As the school year begins I will enter encouraged and prepared.

The mission work accomplished on the streets of Chicago will be a blessing.

No longer is there fear or worry in my heart.

His grace is sufficient.

Love is on the way.

Self Sabotage

It’s interesting how my mind works. Before a recent trip to the store I grabbed a pen and paper to jot down a grocery list. I knew the fruit drawer in my fridge was nearly empty so I wrote down “fruit”.

Funny thing, though.

When I looked back at the list I had actually written “cookies”.

Hmmmm…

I seem to be doing a lot of that lately.

An inspiration to take a walk strikes me, but on the way to get my shoes I end up in front of the computer checking my friends’ riveting Facebook updates. I mean to grab my Bible, but spy the TV remote and suddenly the newest episode of House Hunters is on.

It would be easy to just blame it on the fact that I’m a weak-willed-woman.

But that would be a lie.

I am not a weak-willed woman.

But, I do get sidetracked on occasion. My priorities get out of kilter. Especially if I’m overwhelmed with activities or lacking the necessary sleep to keep me functioning at peak performance.

(O.K. I had to suppress a giggle just then, because I don’t think I’ve been at peak performance since 1994.)

Still, I’m not the only one for whom self sabotage is an issue.

The apostle Paul also struggled with his own contradictory behavior. In the New Living Translation of Romans 7:15 Paul writes, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

That sounds freakishly familiar.

So what’s the answer?

Whenever a friend of mine does the children’s moment at church she tells the kids that it’s a pretty safe bet if she asks them a question the answer is always going to be “Jesus.” The apostle Paul would agree with her. In Romans 7:25 Paul says, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Here’s why.

Jesus has my best interest at heart even when I don’t. And what’s more, He sent Holy Spirit to me as my biggest cheerleader. When I lack the motivation to do what I know I should, I can ask for Holy Spirit’s encouragement.

Granted, sometimes that encouragement comes in the form of asking me to give up control.

And that isn’t easy.

But giving up control helps me develop discipline. Discipline that urges me to take the narrow road even when the wide path looks like a tantalizing short cut. Discipline that guides me to do what I should in the moment instead of setting it aside until later and then it is forgotten.

I know it may not keep me from penning “cookies” on my grocery list, but there is a sweeter satisfaction to be had.

And His name is Jesus.