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.

 

 

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.

 

Look at My Eyes

On the day of our arrival, the resort front desk explicitly explained their pool towel policy. For the duration of our week-long stay, we were issued two towels that we were to guard with our lives. To receive a new towel, each day you had to exchange your old one.

No exceptions.

We were also told that failure to turn in our towels before we checked out would cost us twenty dollars.

Per towel.

Let me assure you that these towels were nothing to write home about. In fact, they were rather ratty around the edges, but for whatever reason this was the rule.

Unfortunately for us, one day when we left the pool briefly to get something to eat, our unattended towels disappeared. We had a pretty good idea of who had taken them, but not wanting to cause a scene I went to the towel booth to plead my case.

When I tried to explain that our towels had been stolen, the towel booth attendant shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the sign behind him that said in bold letters: TWENTY DOLLAR FINE FOR LOST TOWELS.

Since we did not share the same native  language I became more animated in hopes of conveying that someone had actually taken our towels. He just kept pointing and shaking his head. Finally in exasperation I took off my sunglasses and said to him, “Look at my eyes. I swear to you I am not lying.”

It was then he finally flashed a toothy smile and handed me two new towels.

It’s true. Our eyes really do give a glimpse into what lives in our hearts.

Matthew 6:22-23 in the Message Bible puts it this way, “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”

In Revelation 1:4 the apostle John describes Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire.

That knowledge is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. It tells me that Jesus sees my true self. Nothing escapes Him. He sees the worst of me and the best.

Still His gaze remains constant.

And the truth of the matter is that when I raise my own eyes to meet that gaze, it is His consuming fire that purifies me. The fire that burns away anything that hinders my love for Him.

The fire that sets my heart ablaze with love for Him.

The eyes of fire that look into my eyes and understand me to my core.

He speaks my native language and I don’t have to plead my case to Him. Because He already knows me.

And He loves me anyway.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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!”

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.

A Life of Love and Laughter

I’m just going to admit it.

I have a history of laughing inappropriately in serious situations. It is a trait shared by many in the long line of quick-witted people in my family. I will also readily admit that I know it doesn’t excuse my behavior. But none-the-less I continue to find myself in solemn gatherings where I had to excuse myself because something cracked me up.

Recently I traveled nine hundred miles to attend the memorial service for my aunt. She was a dear Christian woman who loved her family and was committed to serving Jesus by serving others. The service was one of the most beautiful memorials I had ever attended. The scriptures read were ones she had underlined in her Bible. Her children sang and played moving musical tributes. The talented choral group in which she had participated led the congregation in  her favorite hymns.

It was in the middle of one of those hymns that I began to laugh.

You see, I love to sing. And when I sing, I sing loudly. I can’t help it. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but on those occasions when I sing a wrong word it is going to be pretty obvious to anyone who is within twenty feet of me. Sometimes I try to go on as if I really meant to say that word hoping they’ll think I was used to singing a different version of the song. (Kind of like me saying “forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer when everyone else in the congregation is saying “forgive us our debts”.)

Of course none of this would have had happened had I taken the time to get my glasses out of my purse. But I didn’t. And the hymn that had been chosen was one that I wasn’t that familiar with. I could read the notes, but the words were a little blurry. So at the top of my lungs I sang “unresolved” instead of “unrevealed”. Most people probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but one of my sisters was standing next to me and she immediately began to giggle. I faltered a bit, trying to ignore her, but I already knew it was useless. Soon she was convulsing so hard that she had to sit down and cover her face with her program. At first, my other sister thought that she had been overcome with grief. That was until she looked at me and saw me shaking my head as I unsuccessfully tried to squelch my own laughter. By the time the hymn was over I had tears running down my face. I just hoped people would think they were the appropriate kind.

As I sat down in embarrassment I was apologizing in my head to my aunt for my unceremonious behavior. Avoiding any possibility of eye contact with my sister I stared straight ahead lest I launch into another fit. I was even sending up apology prayers to God asking Him to forgive me for my lack of control. “Lord, you know I didn’t mean to offend you.”

And then a funny thing happened. As the service progressed, people began to come to the front  to give their tributes to my aunt. And almost all of them included a reference to her great sense of humor. They told of her ability to provide comic relief for every occasion. And then there it was.

Grace.

Once again Jesus had offered me grace instead of guilt. In that moment, in some strange way, I not only felt redeemed, but blessed. It was as if in that uncontrollable outburst of inappropriate merriment I had been able to pay special homage to her. My Aunt Janet had lived a life of love and laughter. And if she had been there, I am pretty sure she would have joined in.