Saturday, December 20, 2008

Late, Staring

There was one lamp burning.
Some were asleep, but of course
Jesus was dead. All together,
but in the late hours
after the first rooster crows
when the deep dark still rests
everyone is alone.

Matthew was the most
abandoned. Peter and John
could return to fishing, but
he had left a cheating
lifestyle, thrown a party
for Jesus and
all his thieving friends.
He had come out.

His life would not refold
into tax collecting. He knew
no other work.
Had he ever cast out demons,
traveled preaching,
run off children? He
could not account.

He was cast off
in the upper room, in
a corner saved
for sinners, any dreams
for three days rotting
in a new grave.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Being alive

In October, when my mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery, I was driving home in the late afternoon. My goal was to beat any traffic congestion, but inexplicably, I hit some on the expressway near an interchange. As I crept forward, I could see it was an accident that was slowing things down. By the time I drove past, much of it must have been cleared. There was only a single car, in a middle lane, with ambulance workers at the driver's side door. As I drove past, I glanced over and saw a pool of blood flowing from under the car, towards the lane where I was driving. No matter how many action movies you have seen, I do not think you are ever prepared to see carnage and violence in real life.

My thoughts immediately went to the family of that driver. If the person in the accident survived, he or she would be facing extensive surgery, recovery time, and therapy. An ordeal like that accident changes your life and the lives of those immediately around you. Initially, friends and acquaintances are concerned, but that eventually falls away and it seems the world goes on without you and your family, while you plod through recovery.

At some point, I will lose my health, my family, my stuff. At some point in my life, I will only have Jesus. I will come to a place where only God can touch me. Jesus will be enough for me then, and He is enough for me now. I actually need Him, in all things, to give meaning: with my family, my stuff, my mom's cancer, the car accident I pass on the way home.

This year, I have been unable to be with my parents during the holiday, because Mom's immunity is compromised by the chemotherapy. She is going to beat this cancer, and I am so grateful for that, the holidays seem minor. We got our tree up eight days before Christmas. I completely forgot the Christmas mugs, and I haven't yet hung the stockings. But I am satisfied this Christmas.

I pray that you will enjoy what you do, this December and all year through. Brushing past death always makes me appreciate the joy of health, of life itself. Last night I arranged three colors of grapes and two kinds of cheese cubes on mini bamboo picks for a potluck my husband is having today. I am alive, I am healthy, I can create. The mug I drink my coffee from has no holly or bows, but Jesus is looking through my eyes and speaking to me, and life is good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Toys for Tots

I suppose I need to give a little background. Several years ago, there was a Marine in our church who connected us with the Toys for Tots program. The Marines collected the toys, and we were a distribution point. But we didn't just hand them out: we did a show with a skit & dancing for the families, then a party for the kids while the parents shopped. We told the story of Jesus and gave people an opportunity to be baptized. Not every Toys for Tots distribution is like ours, but the Marines initially involved with us were very gracious to let us host the event with our own flair. One summer, while I was doing a Backyard Bible Club at an apartment complex with some people from my church, a man told me that he and his wife had been baptized at our Toys for Tots event.

My family has been involved in this from the beginning. It is my favorite event of the Christmas season. This year, we registered 5,400 kids and our church provided the majority of the funding for the toys and the party. Our staff and some volunteers shopped for tens of thousands of dollars worth of toys the week before (believe me, it is actually challenging to spend that much money on $10 toys, two per child) and stayed up until wee hours decorating the church. I wish I knew how many volunteers were involved in putting on the production, but I do know that everyone in my family helped.

This is the first year that we have all been able to play a part. We divide the people registered into four shows, and I am team leader for child pick up, coordinating the task of reconnected thousands of children with their waiting parents who have just shopped for their Christmas. My husband worked security, and my two teens helped serve cookies & do a craft in the children's party. My youngest daughter is a dancer at church, and she was part of the team that danced in all four shows, for every person that came to the event. We arrived at church that morning for worship and our regular time of service, and then stayed until 10:20 that night, when my team saw the last child picked up.

It was glorious. I am going to skip all the stories I could tell from my own service and simply say this: by the evening time, I could hardly walk. Our church was formerly an outlet mall, and the floors are concrete. I walked constantly for eleven hours, and my feet were so painful I could hardly move. This is mostly my own fault--I like to be active and kept volunteering to communicate with part of our team in a separate part of the building, or fetch hot coffee for our volunteers standing in the ice storm. I rarely sat. When I took off my shoes at 11:00 that night, my small toe had cracked and bled all over the nail. How often do you get to spend yourself to exhaustion to serve others?

My youngest daughter, who is 8, was equally exhausted. She began crying on the way home, because she hadn't had dinner. They served macaroni and cheese, but she didn't like it. Johnny and I knew that she was mostly crying because she was so tired. Next year I will remember to send snacks with her, but last night Johnny told her that when we serve God when it is hard, He takes notice. There are many times He will ask us to serve Him when it is not easy.

With my swollen feet and exhausted body, I cried a few tears myself, but just from being tired. I was curled up in front of the fireplace in my own home, in my pj's with a warm blanket, and I thought of all Christ suffered for me. He was mocked and beaten and brutalized. He was tortured to death. I hope that when He finally got home, God had a warm bath ready for Him.

And think of the Heavenly Father. I let my own daughter serve when she had a cold, which I knew might knock her down further. She was hungry and worn out and completely away from her family all day. Every time she passed me, she would give me a hug and a greeting, but on the way home she cried. Mothers, you know how your child crying tugs your heart. God let his own son suffer so much more on my behalf.

Isaiah prophesied about Jesus: "When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins" (53:11). In a very small way, I got to imitate God yesterday at Toys for Tots. No wonder this event is my favorite Christmas moment.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I find it intriguing that holidays are God's idea. If you read the Old Testament, a lot of the laws God made for his people involved special celebrations they were to have. A dear friend of mine, who is monastic in her worldview, rebels against the holidays. She loves the simplicity of her everyday life, the rhythm of the known and the chosen. What's so great about stress and company and expectations and extra food and spending more money? If we make healthy daily choices, where is the health in our holiday insanity?

I used to pause from my mandatory baking of gifts for everyone I know, drafting a letter to send in bulk to my closest forty friends and relatives, and scheming on three different ways to serve the community to just look at her in bewilderment. How could holidays not be GREAT? It sounds like sacrilege. Especially Christmas--does she not love Baby Jesus, or WHAT? (Everything associated with holidays should be in ALL CAPS.)

When my kids got old enough to understand the concept of "present," I began to have birthday parties for them. Inviting friends, planning fun activities, shopping for great gifts. I remember being very pregnant with Rebekah and feeling panicked that Abby should have a fantastic 6th birthday party. We had the party several weeks before Abby's birthday because I was having pre-labor contractions, and what if I had the baby and she missed her party?!! There are photos of me standing on our porch, looking like a large mammal has climbed under the front of my dress, holding the rope for a pinata, while blindfolded children swing dangerously close to the large target of my belly.

This birthday party thing began to build on itself. Every year had to be GREAT, and somehow that means "better than the year before." I would try to scale back, I would try to limit the guests, and I'm sure someone looking on would not think I was out of control. Inside, I was mounting a huge altar of expectations, on which something was sure to be sacrificed.

I really don't know if I have the birthday HOOPLAH under control. But I am enjoying holidays more, feeling less stressed and pressured. And have you noticed how often holidays happen? They pockmark our year with their presence, and no sooner do we settle into "regular life" than here one comes again.

I think they are exams that God gives us. We think we are learning all sorts of wonderful aspects of character: patience, love for fellow man, generosity, etc. We feel pretty good about ourselves. And then our regular life is interrupted for a HOLIDAY and darned if we don't look pretty lousy at one point or another. Like a student taking an exam, we discover what we do and don't know. We see the places where we still need to study. Holidays are revealing, and didn't God describe himself as a light shining in the darkness?

I hope you enjoy the spotlight this year. Don't take it too badly if you screw up somewhere along the way; you won't be alone. Like Red Green says, "We're all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice."

Anger and fear

This morning I was angry. I like to think more than feel, so I began to muse that God told us to "be angry and sin not." He told us we could be angry. However, over and over again, God and his agents said, "Do not fear." Note the contrast: we are never supposed to sin, but we can be angry. However, he did not say, "Be fearful, but act anyway." He flat out said, "do not fear." (In case you're curious, the angry command is in Ephesians, and the do not fear that springs to my mind is in Joshua, although God says that often, like when the angel came to Mary.)

Why is anger more okay than fear? Anger has all sorts of warnings that go with it, warnings against bitterness and vengence. But we can be angry. Anger always makes me think of Jesus, picking up a whip and driving the money changers from the temple. God himself is sometimes angry--with his enemies, with his children for their idolatry. I don't want to lay out a welcome mat for anger, but it is an active, energetic type of emotion.

Fear is not. Fear shrinks from any kind of action. Waiting and restraining can be actions that God values, but shrinking back is not something he admires. Remember the parable where three servants received money from their master? Two invested and had a return for their boss, but the third said, "I know you are a harsh master, so I put it in a hole, and here it is." The master was very angry with the third servant, and he received no reward. In fact, he was fired. His fear was not pleasing to God.

I believe we are called to imitate God. There are times he is angered by things around him, but he is never fearful. Instead he is fully confident in the outcome. From our side, that confidence is probably called "trust" or "faith." Fear is the opposite of faith, and it totally cuts us off from God.

It is interesting, though, how much more righteous it looks to be afraid than to be angry. It is easier to justify shrinking back from a task or a situation, and think we are making the right choice. But God says, do not fear. Perhaps we should boldly screw up and try and fail and try and sometimes succeed and risk and become angry and let him help us. . .just don't be afraid.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Marry Christmas

(I wrote this last year, but I didn't blog then. And my daughter still can't spell. . .)

My daughter gave me a card that said, "Marry Christmas." While I could be appalled at her spelling, I think she raises a good question: what will you marry Christmas to? All holidays have an element of contrivance. Early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ near the winter solstice because this was a time of feasting and celebration throughout the Roman Empire. They wanted to marry the festivity of their day to the gospel, the good news that God came down to dwell with humanity, to make Himself known.

What will you marry Christmas to? To the parties and the special foods? Will you marry Christmas off to the materialism of our day, to the finding of the perfect gift? Or will you marry Christmas to family and the traditions that cluster this annual season?

The religious may answer, "I will marry Christmas to Jesus." What does that mean? Do you add religious phrases to your cider mugs? Put up a manger on your mantle near the stockings? Attend religious observances of the holiday? Remember that the Jesus of the gospel was not convenient. He was conceived in an unwed teenager, causing scandal and embarrassment. He arrived on a road trip when there was neither proper shelter nor skilled support for the birth. His presence in Bethlehem led a mad king to slaughter the boys of other families. Is this the Jesus you want to invite to your holiday?

Beware. You may have to open your home to relatives. You may have to give up your comfort. Your traditions may be trampled. You may find yourself overwhelmed by circumstances & forced to lean on Someone invisible who is directing your life for His own purposes. Listen--do you hear angels singing outside of the city? Where is your John the Baptist, who prepares your heart? Repent--someone holy is coming. He is not comfortable. He is not safe. But He is meaning and purpose. He the bridegroom, coming to you with a ring and bended knee.

Monday, December 8, 2008

6:58 a.m.

The sunrise spoke to the light hidden
in the bricks and the trees and
the forms on the earth began
to glow, pink and alive to
the adversity of an awakened day.

The sun skipped a little higher
and the blue tones sang
of morning and ending and
possibility. And then dawn
was over, and it was Wednesday.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Watching the universe

On a church marquee the other day, I saw this quip: "We trust God with the universe. Why not trust him with our lives?" Well and good, but to me it highlights the problem.

We don't trust God with the universe. The universe is so big and unknown and beyond us, that we largely ignore it. Have you ever lost sleep over the force of gravity possibly failing in the night? Have you ever fretted that the sun will not rise and made plans for what you intend to do about it? The universe is completely beyond us, so we do not have to actively turn it over to anyone's care. We ignore it, and it seems to plod along fine.

Similarly, I think many of us ignore our lives. Things happen that are beyond our control, and it frustrates us and we don't know what to do. So we get busy or we shut down or we talk louder or we take some action and then tell ourselves that we have control. It seems beyond us to actually fix the problems that hit us: a parent with cancer, a spouse that dies, a child that chooses badly. Just as we don't actively choose to trust God with the universe, we don't choose to trust him with our lives. We cry out as victims or we create the illusion of control.

Perhaps I am being too critical of the poor marquee. Looking at the universe does cause me to marvel. God, the creator, tilted our planet just so, placed us just so far from the sun, caused the earth to rotate, put just this amount of water and just this amount of oxygen--he seems pretty good at details. He also seems pretty good at cranking out a working design. And he notices all sorts of things, from subatomic forces to insects crucial to a food chain. I have observed that mankind is not as good at producing a working system (for example, our cars with their struggling infrastructure on one hand and their environmental impact on the other). We're not so good at handling details, like the chemo that destroys good and bad cells at once, or the insecticide that kills an essential element of an ecosystem while trying to fix a problem for our farmers.

If I look at the universe and conclude, hey, God's pretty good at the job of being in charge, and then look at man and think, hey, we're not so good at running things--maybe I would choose to trust him. Maybe I would choose to believe he notices all the details of my life, from the subatomic to the motion of large bodies. Maybe he left the universe as a message to me, that he is big enough and good enough to be trusted with my life.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The courses I take

I learned a lot in school. I liked learning. But after graduating from college, I have learned the most from my friends. Over the years, I have come to believe that God brings new relationships into my life with the purpose of teaching me something. Each person that God brings to me is like enrolling in a new course, something with a vague title that makes you really curious what you're going to get. . .What would you expect from a course simply named Susie?

My friend Julie loved to promote her birthday. She would remind everyone when her birthday was, ask what you planned to get for her, etc. I loved her exuberance. Her example helped me to throw off my shyness about my "special day", when I expected others to make it a "great day" for me and I just humbly received their kindness. I learned to be loud and assume people loved me and wanted to be kind to me. It was a lesson that carried beyond just an annual celebration.

My friend Bonnie taught me that people can change. When we met, I was listening to talk radio and coming from a very politically polarized environment. I was quite good at categorizing people, and once I had you pegged, my expectations for you were set. Bonnie used to say out loud, "People change," and I would think, "No, they don't." But a friend helps you see the world from another perspective, and just from simple conversation I began to see things more how she sees them. I have learned to hope the best for people and expect God's best for them, assuming that his gentle love can wear on all of our hearts. And in our friendship, we discuss our own growth all the time. As I hope for my own change and have the humility to admit that I do change, I see people around me differently.

My friend Ginny has taught me how to screw up publicly and laugh it off. (I know, Bonnie, you thought you taught me this. . .) She says & does the most ridiculous things, and there are many times people really laugh AT her and not WITH her. But I have noticed that she brings the sweet aroma of freedom into any room she enters, and she enjoys her own mistakes right along with yours. The other day, everyone laughed at something stupid I said in community group, and I felt like Ginny. I felt free of my own perfectionism and the need to control my image. Joy!

Judy has taught me to value the zeal of youth, no matter how many years we collect. Bethany has taught me to be hungry to learn, to say, "I don't understand, please explain." Jennifer has taught me that it's okay to cry in front of people. My list can go on and on. . .

But the main point is this: none of these dear people set out to teach me anything. God is about the business of building my character, and he uses people around me to do so. They don't need to have any intentions towards me. . .although, a good general sense of honesty does help! Remember when God said, "Look at my servant Job"? Remember when the apostle Paul said, "Follow my example"? Those statements seem a bit scary, but it's not really up to us to model or teach. If God wants to use us, he can, and it may be he uses us to teach something we didn't even know we had to give. Maybe that's the best kind.


Do you believe that you can know God? Can you come to understand him? What would it be like to even begin to do so? When you know a person, a friend, you know what he or she likes, the way that person views situations. Sometimes you can guess what your friend will do in a situation, but because of your relationship, you are more interested in talking over things with him or her than simply guessing from afar. My friend Bonnie is valuable to me, not because I can guess what she might think about something, but because I can talk with her about things in my life that I need help with. Most likely, if you bother getting to know someone, it is because you benefit from the relationship with him or her.

Does God want this kind of relationship with us? Someone to talk to, to share things with? Sometimes, when I am praying, I will ask God, what do you want to talk about? and then sit and be quiet. After all, God took Abraham to overlook Sodom and Gomorrah and said, hey, I'm going to destroy these cities. Then he listened to Abraham plead for them not to be destroyed. Abraham was called "a friend of God." Do you want that kind of relationship with him?

One of my girls has a piece of flair on Facebook that says, "A friend will bail you out if you end up in jail. A best friend will be sitting beside you saying, wasn't that great!" Does God want to simply bail us out of trouble, or does He want to walk along side of us, through our good moments and our screw ups?