Jumping for Joy

An unusual blur of motion caused me to look up from where I was seated at the back of my classroom  One of my students was standing beside his desk, leg flung high, with his hand cupped around his heel. He was gleefully hopping up and down on one foot. I caught his eye and asked the obvious question, “What are you doing?”

To which he gave me the obvious answer.

“I’m hopping up and down on one foot.”

Honesty.

It’s one of the things I love best about kids. I wanted to laugh, but instead asked another obvious question, “Is that one of the assigned activities you should be doing right now?’

“No.”

I gave him THE LOOK. You know which one I’m talking about. The one that says I-really-don’t-have-to-say-anything-else-because-you-know-where-I’m-going-with-this-so-maybe-you-should-get-busy-on-something-else.

“OK,” was his reply and back to work he went.

There was a big part of me that admired him for standing up in the middle of class and hopping up and down on one foot for no other reason than he was feeling joyful. I even wished that I felt like doing that. It had been a tough couple of weeks with a particular student in my classroom and I was feeling anything but joyful about it.

Later in the week as I was getting ready for school I noticed that three little figurines on my bathroom countertop were arranged differently. Normally they spelled out J-O-Y, but on this day they spelled out Y-O-J. Evidently my sweet husband had cleaned off the counter the day before and had put the figurines back without paying attention to their order.

YOJ- that pretty much described how I felt. Somehow that nonsense word seemed to perfectly articulate the

Yucky,

Overwhelmed, and

Just plain tired feeling I was experiencing.

I’d had it with the yucky prolonged winter weather that never seemed to end. I was overwhelmed with spending an exhausting amount of energy on trying to fix a student’s problem that was beyond my control. And basically, I was just plain tired of being tired!

And then it hit me. I didn’t feel like kicking up my heels in joy, because my letters were out-of-order. If JOY was an acronym for how we should live our lives then I had it all wrong

It should be Jesus-Others-Yourself and not way I had been going about it.

I had been focusing in on Y instead of the J. Instead of taking it all to Jesus, I had been trying to solve my dilemmas on my own.But here’s the tricky part.

I had been praying about the problem I was having with this student. Multiple times.

But if I were being honest, I had never really, fully relinquished control to Jesus.

 Not on purpose, of course. Every prayer had been sincerely offered up for help. But in the end I had yanked it back.

I guess I’m not the only one to feel like she is missing the mark. After all, in Romans 7:15 the apostle Paul writes about doing things that are totally opposite to what he wants to do.

I especially like the way the Message Bible puts it, “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”

Bingo.

I pour out my heart to God and say I give up control, but the before the amen is barely off my lips I’m thinking about it again.

Clearly I am a work in progress. No surprise here.

But in the meantime, I’m forever grateful for the grace Jesus pours out on me. The grace that allows me to start over whenever I let my Y get in front of my J.

The grace that inspires such love and blessing that despite my circumstances I feel like kicking up my heels and jumping for joy.

Who knows? Next time, one of my students feels the need to hop around I might be the one leading the conga line.

No Expertise Required

When I was in the fifth grade my teacher wrote a high school level algebra problem on the chalkboard and challenged us to solve it. There were three stipulations:

1. It was to be done strictly as homework.

2. We would have to be ready to explain our solution to our classmates.

3. Because it was such an advanced level problem, our parents were allowed to help us.

Never before had I seen such a complicated, convoluted conglomeration of letters and numbers. Feeling doubtful about my mathematical expertise, I still felt compelled to try.

For one thing, I was very competitive when it came to all things school-related. For another, there was a candy prize for anyone who solved it. To the delight of my dentist’s banking account, candy was one of the driving motivators of my ten-year-old life.

That night as I sat at the dining room table struggling to make sense of the numbers and letters before me I came to a decision. I could either go to school the next day admitting defeat or I could ask my college educated parents for help. I chose the latter.

For the next half an hour my parents worked to find a solution while I sat by and watched. From time to time my mother would pop up her head and ask, “Are you sure your teacher said we could help you?” I would nod.

That nod was my sole contribution the process. Because the problem was so far over my head it was more likely that I would spin around and turn into Wonder Woman than it was for me to come up with anything relevant.

The next day I walked into the classroom, my well-worked problem secure under my arm, wondering how in the world I would explain that problem to the class. Math time arrived and our teacher asked which of us had accomplished the task. Only one other person had done the problem.

She asked the two of us come to the front to write out our equations. I might as well have been writing in Sanskrit for all I knew about what my piece of chalk was scratching across the chalkboard.

To my great relief, my classmate asked if he could be the one to explain the solution. As he enthusiastically pointed to parentheses and equal signs, I stood by, blank look on my face, still completely in the dark as to what any of it meant. Afterwards, the class applauded and we were each given a candy cane. I sat down feeling completely unworthily. Later, I tossed the candy cane into the garbage.

I couldn’t receive something I felt did not deserve.

So what’s the point?

Here it is. Jesus offers us something we don’t deserve and every one of us has the choice to happily receive it or throw it away.

We can gratefully accept that fact that by his death and resurrection we are saved. Our sins have been nailed to the cross and we can live as forgiven people under grace.

Or we can go through life, drowning under the weight of our own sin and unworthiness, refusing to accept the gift that He gives.

Let’s face it. We all sin and none of us are worthy. There is absolutely nothing we can contribute to the situation to solve that problem.

But, Good News!  He loves us just the same! Romans 5:8 tells me that God provided for me even while I was still in my sin.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

My sins separate me from God and I can do nothing on my own to remedy that. But God still made a way for me to reconnect.

His name is Jesus Christ. When I yield to Him, His grace pours over me.

I don’t have to stand by, palms sweating, afraid that my unworthiness will be exposed. Instead, Jesus stands in that gap for me. He takes my sins upon Him and reconciles me to the Father.

He did all the work on the cross.

As for me – no expertise required.

Thank-you, LORD.

Remembering

Until recently I had a small, round china jar that had belonged to my grandmother sitting on my vanity. Complete with lid, it was just the right size for housing stray buttons and bobby pins. Not exactly a family heirloom, I loved it anyway because it made me think of Grandma.

And when it was accidentally broken, try as I might, I couldn’t hold back a few tears.

I knew it was silly, but being the sentimental person I was, it was inevitable. Years ago when I took the Briggs-Meyers personality test it told me I was “the keeper of family traditions.” No surprise there. It also should have said “keeper of things that other people usually throw away.”

Not in the hoarding kind of way, but I do tend to keep things that hold meaning for me.

Christmas ornaments that my children made in elementary school.

Sweet misspelled notes from my past students saying “You are my best techer”. (No chance of getting a big head over that one.)

Thirty-year old birthday cards from my grandparents – just seeing their scrolling signatures brings a smile to my face.

My first diary complete with lock and key lest anyone try to pry into my nine-year old self’s private business.

Loose pictures, scrapbooks, pictures albums, framed pictures. (A lot of them bearing less than flattering hair styles. Note to Self- you do not look good in a perm.)

Why do I keep all of these things? Because all of them have the ability to whisk me back to a time and  place where I felt loved. That is an amazing thing and one of life’s greatest treasures.

I am so thankful that God created me with the capacity to remember. Not everything that has happened in my life has been good. There have been plenty of tragedies and trials.

But I have the power to choose.

And the things that I choose to remember most are the gifts of love that God has showered in my life. For I know that every good and perfect gift is from the Father.

I thank my God every time I remember you. Philippians 1:3

Where are we, anyway?

It’s a well-known fact among those who know me well, that if at all possible, I would rather ride than drive. In exchange for a spot in your car’s passenger seat I will happily deliver colorful commentary all the way to wherever we are going. One of my good friends who drives with me frequently calls me Miss Daisy (as in the movie Driving Miss Daisy). Even though I am neither elderly nor blind, she tells me she is still looking for the qualifying deduction box on her tax returns for driving services rendered.

My dislike for driving is rooted primarily in my absolute lack of directional ability. North, south, east and west mean nothing to me. You might as well be speaking in German. (Which, in case you were wondering, is one of the many languages in which I am not fluent.) I respond more to directional landmarks like, “Go down the windy road and up the hill past the pond on your right. When you see a big red barn, slow down and then take a sharp left at the one-armed scarecrow.” Curiously, you’d be amazed at how many one-armed scarecrows there are in this part of the country.

I’m not sure how I got left out of the directional loop in the gene pool. In regard to longitude and latitude, all of my siblings seem to have a firm grasp on where they are on the planet. I remember being in the middle of New York City with all three of them trying to figure out where we were. One sister was studying the map, my brother was scanning the street signs and my other sister was looking for moss on the trees to determine which direction North was. Seriously. She was looking for moss.

I kept quiet and tried to look interested.

I wonder if that attitude is shared by many people when it comes to their spirituality. The regular church-goers who attend Sunday service, sitting silently in the pews trying to appear interested. The ones who after the final worship song is sung leave wondering where in the world they are when it comes to Jesus.

I’m not pointing fingers. I’ve been that person. What does their/my witness say to the ones outside of the church who are carefully watching those Sunday worshippers and wondering what makes them/me different from everybody else in the world?

The only way I know how to let my witness be a worthy one is to step back and let Jesus take the lead. But that doesn’t mean I can stand quietly by, feigning interest. If I want to be an authentic believer I have to be in active pursuit of the people Jesus loves. The lost, the lonely, the hungry, the poor, the needy, the not-so-cleaned-up-and shiny people of this world. Those are the ones Jesus longs to bring to Him.

Look, I may not possess an internal compass to get me from place to place on this earth. And in all honesty, I am probably going to need to bum a ride to the next unfamiliar place I need to get to. But I surely have been given a far greater gift the any GPS could afford me. The gift of Jesus –  the eternal guide who will never leave me or forsake me. ‘Cause when I’m with Him, I always know where I am.

The best intentions

Today was the day I had originally slated to begin a juice fast. With the advent of the new year I had decided to set aside some special time to fast and pray. However, winter blew in a ferocious snowstorm which landed my younger daughter, her husband and their dog at our doorstep. So I made chicken and dumplings instead.

Oh, and I also may have baked a loaf of molasses wheat bread, too.

And about four dozen chocolate chip cookies.

Not exactly what I had planned, but you seriously can’t expect a household of people which includes a pregnant woman (my daughter, not me) to exist on a diet of juice and water when it is -17 degrees outside. We’re used to cold winter weather in the Midwest, but yesterday the temperature was actually warmer in Alaska than it was in Indiana. The land of igloos and sled dogs would have been balmy compared to what it felt like outside my front door.

So instead of fasting, I feasted. There’s something about a houseful of family that beckons me to the kitchen. A homemaker at heart, I love to cook from scratch and serve up heaping portions to whomever gathers around our big dining room table. I can’t help it. It’s like it’s programmed into my DNA.

But then, of course, I know that I was designed by an awesome God who put me together just the way He wanted. He is the One who placed the desire in my heart to love and care for others. And He is the one who taught me that by serving others I can show His love for them. So I’m not going to guilt trip myself into feeling bad about not beginning my fast today. The year is still young and there will be another day soon to devote to fasting.

Just as soon as those cookies are gone.

Can I hear You now?

After a fun-filled extended visit I flew 900 miles roundtrip to deliver my three-year old grandson into his parents’ waiting arms. Knowing it was a distinct possibility that he might have a run-in with reality once he returned home I called my daughter the following day to see how he was getting along. After all, for six days at Gigi’s house he had happily sat on the throne. There was bound to be a bit of an adjustment once he stepped back into a home where rules existed that actually applied to him.

Before you judge me, I want the record to show that I did not raise my three children in a house without rules. On the contrary, our children were raised with daily chores, enforced bedtimes and a routine that included very little TV or refined sugar. Always on a shoe-string budget in those early days, trips to restaurants, zoos and museums were limited unless someone else was paying. And in a household of five, rules were not only necessary, they were the key to our collective sanity.

However, that was then and this is now.

Being a Mommy and being a Gigi are two completely different roles and let me tell you that the latter is the much better gig. Being Gigi means being able to “yes” ninety-nine percent of the time. “Yes, I can make you a fruit smoothie before your nap.” “Yes, we can watch another Curious George episode while we sit in Gigi’s big bed.” “Yes, PopPop can take you on a tractor ride.” “Yes, you can play with Playdough in PopPop’s workshop.” I’m not going to say he is spoiled at our house, but he is “well-loved”.

Which brings me back to the phone call I placed to my daughter. When I asked her how he was getting along, she laughed. “He’s actually doing very well, other than the fact that he’s developed a hearing problem. He just doesn’t seem to hear me when I ask him to do something.”

Uh oh… a “well-loved” week with Gigi may have contributed to his temporary deafness to listen and obey.

I wonder if God ever thinks that about me after I’ve spent a “well-loved” week in the world. Having been caught up in the amusing trivialities of my life, I already know the answer is yes. On more than one occasion I have chased after the “shiny objects” – the indulgent things of lesser importance. Until little by little I found myself at a distance from God, unable to hear what He had to say to me because I had tuned him out.

John 10:27 says, “My sheep know my voice and I know them and they follow me.” Hearing His voice involves active listening. Active listening implies an ongoing effort on my part to set aside time to study the Word, pray and to inquire of God what it is that He wants me to do. I cannot follow if I’m not waiting and listening for instruction.

Romans 10:17 says “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” The word is not going to get into my mind and soul by osmosis. I have to actually open my Bible. I have to read it and pray over what is written on its pages and listen for His voice. Then the promise of Psalm 32:8-9 will come to pass. “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way that thou shalt go. I will guide thee with my loving eyes.”

I never want to be so far away from God that my own spiritual deafness inhibits my response to His call. Instead, let it mirror the prophet Isaiah when God asked him whom should He send as a messenger to the people. Isaiah responded, “Here am I. Send me!”

LORD, let me tune into Your frequency and hear Your voice. Guide me with Your loving eyes so that I can accomplish the work You have established for me on this earth. Let me hear You so that I, too, can respond “Here am I. Send me!”

The Toddler To-Do List

I am not ashamed to admit that ordinarily I like structure and routine. For me, there is comfort in order. However, when our three-year old grandson comes for a visit, life-as-I-know-it changes. In the past six days I have read aloud with expression Curious George Takes A Job no less than a dozen times, sang and danced across the carpet to a spirited version of Go Tell It on the Mountain and loudly applauded successful trips to the potty with exclamations of “Whoopee!”

While Isaiah visited, my to-do list looked like this:

1. Color with fat crayons and don’t worry about staying in the lines.

2. Sift sand sculptures. If you don’t like what you made, flatten it and start over.

3. Lay on your belly and watch the train chug around the Christmas tree. “Choo-chooing” is encouraged, but optional.

4. Play hide and seek in the dark and give away your hiding place by squealing with laughter when you hear footsteps approaching.

5. Giggle ’til your sides ache since practically everything is funny.

6. Go to bed early because you’re probably going to be up at the crack of dawn eating pancakes.

7. Eat peanut butter from a  spoon.

8. Ignore the mounting pile of laundry at the bottom of the basement stairs. Nobody cares that you wear the same pajamas every night.

9. Get down on your knees to pray before you go to sleep.

10. Kiss, cuddle and say “I love you” every chance you get.

11. Repeat number 10.

Next week when the school break is over and I return to my classroom, my to-do list will likely return to its normal state of lesson plans and meetings. And because I love my job I will be glad of it. But I will go with a refreshed spirit and a grateful heart because during those dull December days at the end of the year I had a chance to step out of the ordinary.

The infectious laughter and insatiable energy that only a little soul can bring both exhausted and exhilarated me. Loving the chaos and the calm, I am thankful for it all. After all, remembering Matthew 18:3, if I must become like a child to enter the kingdom of God, then I had better be sure the child inside me is alive and well. Perhaps that Toddler to-do list might just replace my  regular agenda. At least some of the time.

Mickey Mouse and the Magi

My grandson Isaiah had dumped the pieces of his new Mickey Mouse puzzle on the floor and was calling for me to help him put it back together. As I sat across from him I realized that this was going to be a much more difficult task than I had anticipated. First, there were actually pieces of three puzzles mixed together. Secondly, I was looking at all the pieces upside down – without my glasses on. And probably most importantly, I had no idea what the completed puzzle was supposed to look like since the finished puzzle picture was nowhere in sight.

Problems one and two were easily remedied by slipping on my cheap pair of cheater glasses and sorting the puzzle pieces by their markings on the back. (At this time I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the Disney puzzle makers for actually putting markings on the back.) Problem number three was also solved after an extensive, but successful search for the box lid picture.

In the process of all the sorting and searching it suddenly occurred to me that this predicament seemed vaguely familiar. And it really had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse.

Everybody knows that it is easier to work toward an end when you have a clear goal in mind. And yet, how often have I fumbled around in my life trying to find the corner pieces so I can fill in the rest without really knowing what the big picture is? And here’s an even bigger question – how can I know what the picture of my life is if I don’t actively seek out the One who knows the answers?

Over two thousand years ago a new star appeared in the eastern sky. It heralded the birth of a king. And those who had been earnestly watching and waiting for it followed after its bright light. Searching for answers, this learned and influential group of men traveled great distances to meet the One who had been promised by the ancient scriptures. They did not know the exact route on which the star would lead them, but they knew Who would be there at the end. According to Matthew 2:11 when they found Him, they bowed down and worshipped him.

When it comes to putting together the pieces of my own life I would do well to embrace the vision of the Magi. To wait and watch eagerly for the signs God has put before me to guide me into the plan He has established for my life. I don’t need to see the whole finished product, but must rest in the knowledge that God knows the good plans He has for my life. He alone has arranged the corner pieces. I need to stay close to His heart to fill in the rest.

Come to the party

For weeks my class had been working toward an ice cream sundae party. It was the reward for memorizing the addition facts to twenty. Every new fact family committed to memory garnered an ice cream scoop or topping. Everyone had earned at least a single scoop with some sort of topping. Everyone except one. And as much as I tried to help this particular student, it was clear that the effort was very one-sided. He just didn’t take it seriously. So while the rest of the class indulged in the delicious benefits of a job well done, he quietly made his way to the library to read a book.

It’s times like that I really hate being “bad cop”. Praise and encouragement are the teaching tools I reach for most often. But sometimes they’re just not enough to motivate every child, every time and it seriously bums me out. I know, I know – life isn’t all happy faces and rainbow stickers. You can learn a lot from failure and the pain it causes. That being said, no matter how justifiable, I still hate having to don the bad cop cap and badge to carry out a punishment.

In the real world there are always going to be rewards and punishments for our choices. And when we make the choice to put love into motion it changes the world for the better. And if we put forth unloving word and actions, well, the same principle applies. But when it comes to God’s kingdom the stakes are even higher. It’s not just about doing good or bad things, but believing in the One who is the only true source of goodness. Because God is love. 

And one day we will all stand before the throne of love and give an account of our lives. I’m not suggesting that we will get into heaven by our works. That is solely a work of amazing grace, poured out on the cross by Jesus Christ. But we will be rewarded according to our works. And I can only imagine that it will  be like the most fantastic and wonderful party we’ve ever attended. And here’s the thing. I don’t want anybody I love and care about not to be in attendance. We are all invited, but not everybody gets to come. It’s a sobering thought.

But where there is life, there is hope. As Christmas approaches I am keenly aware that even the season’s secular atmosphere seems to soften hearts and minds. And softened hearts and minds lend opportunities to tell the story. The story of a God whose love is so extravagant, that despite our unwillingness to come to Him, He sent His Son to come to us. Jesus came to proclaim His love and claim us for His own. He invites us to be a part of the family of God, to join the party and live with Him forever.

The invitation is there.

We just have to say yes.

We’re making progress

Only a first grader, he had been in multiple schools before being expelled from the last one. The comments that followed him to me were that they had never seen a child like him and didn’t know what to do with him. Before he set foot in my classroom, I began praying.

He was a simmer pot.

The little guy whose emotional lid was clamped so tight that when the heat got turned up, the lid blew. Regrettably, both of his parents were incarcerated so it’s no wonder that at the age of seven he had learned that adults were not to be trusted.

Defiant and angry, this wounded soul entered my classroom lashing out at anyone who dared enter his space. His outbursts were frequent, but slowly we began the work of building a relationship. Even though it sometimes seemed that his daily progress was at a snail’s pace, after four months I could say we that we had indeed made progress. However, this particular week I was reminded we were not done yet.

It was usually the little things that set him off and most often it centered around control. Having so little of it in his own life he found every opportunity to assert his control over someone else. This day he refused to cooperate in a small group of children. He was preventing anyone from taking a turn in the game being played by throwing the game cards up in the air. After an attempt to negotiate, I asked him to come sit at a table with me. Instead he crossed his arm, puckered his mouth and paced behind the table.

Soon he was kicking the chairs, then throwing them. It was at this point I draped my arms around him and asked him if he wanted to take a cool down break in the hallway. He refused and began flailing around, yelling, and punching. So with my arms still wrapped securely around him we headed out of the room toward the dean’s office. I’m sure we were quite a sight. I had him tucked up against me like a smuggled diamond while simultaneously avoiding being head-butted.

We ended up seated in a conference room in the main office. As we waited, I held him on my lap and spoke quiet, soothing things into the nape of his neck. And as I attempted to administer comfort, I suddenly got a clear picture of God doing the same thing for me. In the middle of all the chaos, I was seated in the lap of the Father. He was whispering the words into my own heart that I was voicing. “You are safe. It’s going to be all right. I’m not mad at you. I’m sorry you are hurting. I love you.” Eventually peace came to us both.

It occurred to me that I am not so unlike that little one. I get wounded by the world. There are days when I feel out of control and strike out in frustration. What a mystery it is that on those days the God of the universe is still concerned with me. That in that struggle He still chooses to He wrap His arms around me and tell me I am loved. And the by-product of that all-consuming-love is an amazing one. It produces a grateful heart in me that fuels my desire to try to love the unlovable. I’m not always successful. I fail and I fall down. Alot. Thankfully, He’s not done with me yet. But after a lifetime of relationship building I can say this – we’re making progress.