Material Girl

“Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.”

Mark Twain

Anyone with a pulse back in the 80‘s is familiar with Madonna’s song “Material Girl”. As one of her top five songs, the tune rode the radio waves consistently through American pop culture. Though not a proponent of hers, I found myself singing along to the catchy tune and identifying with the lyrics all too closely. These days the tragic truth of those words, that I am still a material girl, come crashing to the forefront of my brain every time I peruse my local department store. I find myself pining after things I absolutely can’t live without but that 30 minutes prior did not even know existed! Who knew that spending big bucks on 1000 thread count sheets would lend me a better night’s sleep? And look at the years I’ve wasted buying drugstore makeup when I could have had the grossly overpriced stuff at the department store! Suddenly, I feel left out of the social loop, like I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

The magazines, the TV ads, the sales in the Sunday paper all scream at me in an urgency to buy that it is almost more than I can bear. If I don’t buy a pair of jeans in the latest wash or cut, I will look like a social outcast. I feel like the proverbial hamster on a wheel–running as fast as I can, trying to catch up and never reaching the ending point.  Proverbs 17:20 nails it right at the heart of where I am:

“Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.”

That’s me. But when I finally take myself out of the chaos to a quiet place alone with God, I can hear Him quietly ask me, “When will I be enough?” His voice, though undetectable on a decibel level, is clear enough to cause an intake of breath. On a practical level, most of us are not in need of anything. There may be an unending wish list that would stress out even Santa, but the material needs just aren’t there. What we do need is something that no company, manufacturer, or entrepreneur can ever hope to provide us with: a satisfaction in God, in who He is, and the completeness that only He can bring to our lives.

Feasting at the world’s table leaves me empty and longing for something more.  The excitement of getting something new and updated only lasts for a short time. Pretty soon my ravenous desire for more gets the better of me, and I’m back to my carnal ways. The world knows this and continually adds newer more updated models of everything—shoes, computers, phones, cars, etc.-perpetuating the cycle. Like empty calories attempting to satisfy the spaces of a hungry stomach, the “food” that the world offers can never fill a space in our lives that was only intended to be filled by God. But don’t believe me. God says it much more eloquently.

 “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world-the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”  I John 2:15-17

One summer while on vacation I found myself in shops that were unfamiliar to me, ones that we don’t have in my town. I walked into a store lined with rows of beautiful things, clearance tags dripping from the sleeves. My heart started racing, and my feet barely touched the floor as I quickly flew to the racks. Okay. I’m exaggerating. A little. But if that doesn’t describe “the lust of the eyes” then I don’t know what does. This world is beautiful. It’s filled with beautiful things and gorgeous people. I’m drawn to it. You’re drawn to it. With that in mind, I find it so significant that Jesus came to this earth in the way He did.  His coming was quiet and anything but beautiful or elegant. So many people missed it because their expectations were limited to what they knew to be kingly.

In the noise of our modern world, we too miss God, blinded by the distractions surrounding us, completely missing what He has appointed as beautiful and worthy of our time and attention–a relationship with Him that reaches to the people in our sphere of influence. On the days that I choose to concentrate on Jesus and to lay at His feet everything that I deem important, I am struck over and over again at how immediately those things become clutter at my feet. Nothing more than stuff to step over as I make my way to Him.

Sometimes the most wonderful things, the things most dense with meaning and substance are quiet and not necessarily attractive by the world’s standards. In contrast I’ve learned that just because the packaging is gorgeous doesn’t mean what’s inside is anything more than a cheap trinket.

 

Picket Fences

As little girls we often have a picture in our minds of what our lives will be like as grown women. Many of us want to be wives and moms and live in cute little houses with white picket fences. As a kid this is what I had envisioned for my life as an adult, and for some reason I saw much of my happiness tied to the house I would live in. When my husband and I bought our third house, I felt like we’d finally arrived, finally achieved the American dream, finally gotten what we deserved and what it seemed like everyone else had.

Up to this point we’d lived in little fixer-uppers. Cute though they were, they were starter homes, and we wanted more. It never occurred to us that maybe we should remain in these small AFFORDABLE homes. Oh no. We had to have more. So we bought a house that was more than we had ever dreamed we’d own. Instead of three bedrooms it had four. Instead of one small bathroom, it had 2 1/2 good-sized ones. Not only did it have a garage, but it was big enough for two cars and attached to the house. This house sported amenities like a large fenced-in backyard, a pool, first-floor laundry room, and it was in an actual subdivision!

I’ll never forget the day we moved in. Friends who’d helped us move before couldn’t believe this was our house. By the time I’d heard the word “impressive” I was feeling like a “normal” person for the first time in my adult life. This is what it was all about, and the Nielsons had finally gotten it right.

 It wasn’t just the physical structure of the house that appealed to us. The space and location fed the emotional plans we had for it as well. In our minds this was the “forever” house; the house the kids would leave for college from, bring future mates to and where I would babysit grandkids while their parents went away for the weekend.

Like all decisions made by greed, the honeymoon quickly ended and so began our American nightmare. We hadn’t considered the taxes in the area or the cost of commuting into town with rising gas prices. Unexpected costly renovation and trouble with neighbors all contributed to the shadow that was quickly cast over our dreams. What had we gotten ourselves into? Worse yet, the stress of it all started taking a toll on our family. Watching my husband and I deal with this bred a level of insecurity in our kids that I hadn’t seen. We soon realized that all of us had been better off in a less-desirable neighborhood with less stuff and less stress. The key word being less.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of my favorite attributes of God is His redemption. It wasn’t until we bought the American dream and then realized the gravity of our mistake that we finally started taking our faith seriously. Though we would continue to make financial mistakes even after selling that house, the seed had been planted, and God had plans for us.

At the time, we mostly wanted to get out of a house we couldn’t afford and move back into the city. Within six days, our house sold, and not long after we found a more affordable option, much like the others we had lived in. For a while, things were good. We were paying our bills and saving on gas. We started to relax. I’m all for relaxation but not at the cost of being spiritually comatose.

Here we were resting on our laurels, letting down our guard, and the old sins of greed and materialism came creeping back in in the form of overspending and bigger debt than before. It’s not that the house was bad nor were the clothes in our closets. I will never believe that having nice things is wrong or makes a person less holy than one who has little. However, for us, we were in a war that we had no idea the magnitude of. The desire to have, to be comfortable, the idea of entitlement, fitting in, all of it was wreaking havoc on our spiritual lives. The Bible is very clear about the fight that we are in.

 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12, NIV).

 Every single one of us fights sin of some kind. We will never be free of it until we reach heaven. However, we can do something about it. We can fight like we’ve never fought before releasing our iron grip on whatever we are bowing to and hand it over to the Great Redeemer. Once my husband and I finally did this, we turned a corner. God’s redemption bought back our mistakes and made us into people that now attempt to swim against the stream in the area of money and material possessions.

 I try not to think of all of the years wasted chasing after things that didn’t matter. Where would our family be spiritually and financially had we done the right thing from the beginning? Here’s where God’s redemption comes in. The glorious thing about Him is that He turns it around, and it’s never too late to do what’s right. He will always be able to take the tattered shreds of our lives and turn them into something whole and beautiful. For us that meant a desire to live with less, spend less and do more for Him. It’s miraculous to say the least; God took two of the most “spend-happy” people and turned them into two frugal, intentional spenders. In the words of Jeremiah 29:11, He really does have plans to prosper us and give us a future. For me, a prosperous future means a future filled with handing everything over to Him and in return, gaining a life of peace.

What areas of your life has God redeemed and turned completely around?

A “Van”ity Fair

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (I John 3:1, NIV).

When I was growing up my mother always made us write thank you notes for Christmas and birthday gifts and everything in between. I hated it, not because I wasn’t grateful. I simply didn’t want to sit down and write them out. As a mom I have to admit I’m not very good at getting my kids to sit down and do this every time the occasion calls for it. Emily Post would be very disappointed! However, this time little prompting is needed to say thank you to God for His provision again and to hopefully encourage you by telling the story. The details are tedious but bear repeating.

My husband and I drive a 2004 Honda Odyssey. Over the years, this van has had one problem after another. If it was a two-year old it would have experienced more than one spanking and time alone in its “room”. If it was a teenager, I would have grounded it and taken away its electronics which would prove to be fruitless since half of the electronics on the thing don’t work!.

I don’t know what the deal is as this brand typically has a great reputation. We must have gotten a lemon. Recently, it broke AGAIN, and the bill was going to be $546. Now, I am not the type of person that has that kind of money sitting around. At first I figured we would just share the truck (another vehicle that frequently tests my patience), until we could save enough money to get it fixed.

I always set aside half of the mortgage payment so I don’t have to pay it all off of one check. Since I had that set aside we went ahead and took the van in to get it fixed. This left us with two weeks to come up with that mortgage money. I could do it with all of the houses I was cleaning over the next two weeks, but that would mean that we would be eating whatever I could find in the cupboards because I wouldn’t have much money for groceries.

I’ve been down this road before, and typically I start to cry and freak out. This time, for some reason, I laughed and told the Lord He must have some crazy trick up His sleeve, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was. I didn’t think of it again. Please understand this is not because I’m super spiritual. Quite the contrary. For some reason, this time around my initial response was to trust that He would meet my needs. He’s done it before. Why should this time be any different?

A couple of days later, before we even took it in to have the work done, a very sweet friend came over to the truck as I waited for my son to finish basketball practice. She knocked on the window and said she had a present for me. Yay! I love presents! She held up an enormous shopping bag and announced that she had brought me 11 freezer meals, 12 breakfast burritos and a ridiculously oversized container of taco soup which by the way happens to be my favorite.

I started to laugh. It was a hug from God. What else can I say? I thanked her profusely, vowed to get a thank you note in the mail, and uttered a prayer to God, “Wow. You really do love me. I really am worth Your time.”

Two things: First, I’m always shocked at God’s provision which is ridiculous and probably insulting. Second, is He amazing or what? I’d love to hear what amazing things He’s done for you lately. Leave me a note in the comments section below. One of the best things we can do for each other and for our individual faith is to tell of His works. Praise begets praise, no?

By the way, when I picked up the van the bill “only” came to $490. Do you know what I can do with an extra $56?

Protect Your Investment

There’s no doubt the case can be made that America is struggling. I watch enough news and listen to enough talk radio to know that this is an America our grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Never in our nation’s history has our credit rating been downgraded causing serious doubt around the world as to whether or not we can pay our bills. To top it off the slow and steady dismantling of the Constitution strikes a chord of fear and frustration in the hearts of many.

Our natural inclination as humans is to fight for our rights, especially as Americans. The simple fact that we are born in this geographic location guarantees us certain rights and privileges, and the fact that these rights are threatened causes the hairs on the backs of our necks to stand at attention.

In the world of money we are told to invest in gold. Afterall, you can’t count on the dollar maintaining its standing in the world’s economy. So you buy gold, invest in commodities, diversify your portfolio and prepare for the future by saving as much as possible.

Certainly if you’ve been gifted with wealth it would behoove you to wisely consider where to put it and how to spend it. But in my opinion, for what it’s worth, I contend that we have a much bigger problem on our hands than whether or not we are financially set for the future and whether or not we have a choice of weapons to have in our home.

Part of the problem for me has been remembering that my home is not this earth. Heaven’s where it’s at. For many of us in the church our constant obsession with our level of comfort down here has left the door wide open for the enemy to swoop in and squander away what we’ve invested in our relationship with God. He steals our joy, plants doubt in our minds, causes us to question the goodness of God, wreaking havoc in our spiritual lives. Pretty soon we find ourselves penniless in the faith department.

Why? Simple things like spending time with God, talking to Him, reading about Him, immersing ourselves in the company of other believers have become afterthoughts. I don’t know anything about investing or the stock market. Hey, I’m doing good just to put my little ten percent in the local bank provided the stupid van doesn’t break (another story, another time)! However, common sense would tell me that someone who has invested any amount of money in the stock market wouldn’t do so and then never check on the progress of their investment. Is it growing? Is it earning any dividends (big word for me, I know!)? Is there something that needs to be done differently to make more? Any of these questions could be applied to our relationship with God.

Where are my investments? What do I need to do differently to deepen my relationship with God? Am I growing? Or am I broke in my spiritual life?

Don’t get me wrong. I love this country. I believe with all of my heart that this country was God’s idea. I hate what I see happening, but this is not our home. As Christians we would do well to refocus our attention, to save up for things that will last, like a deeper relationship with Jesus, sharing the hope we have in Him, strengthening our faith.The last thing we should do is sit around and let the pieces fall where they may. The best investment we can make is in the people we share space with on this planet.

It’s Never Too Early For a Little Spring Cleaning

If you ask anyone who knows me they will tell you that I belong somewhere tropical suspended between two palm trees taking a nap in a hammock. I love the warm weather. I love the simplicity of warmer months. The summer means no heavy coats, a break from makeup-it doesn’t stay on in the summer anyway so what’s the point? It means flip-flops, shorts, fresh fruits and veggies and, if I’m lucky enough, a couple days a week lounging at the city pool. Really, it just doesn’t get any better this side of heaven. Notice a theme? Simplicity, stripping off the things of daily life in pursuit of unencumbered living. It means, newness, freshness, a reprieve.

There are days when I would give anything to sell everything I have, put only what I need in a back pack and live the rest of my life as a vagabond doing ministry.  Really, the apostle Paul was on to something. And if Jesus told me as he told the rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor and come and follow him, I would have a garage sale so big your head would spin! Anything to get rid of all of this clutter.

Periodically I find myself driven to start pitching anything that crosses my path from one room of the house to another. This does not come without eliciting shrieks of horror from my family. I succumb to such a tornadic state of de-cluttering that I have been known to throw out checks, insurance policies, car titles, field trip permission slips, etc. If it’s not moving it’s fair game for relocation usually to the wastebasket.

Though I take what is commonly known as spring cleaning to a whole new level, the point is that spring and summer are usually the times we take stock of our houses, sell our stuff, tidy up, clean up, whatever. Lately, however, I’ve been made aware of the need for this kind of cleansing in my spiritual life. Why don’t Ipurge the sin in my life with the same zeal?

We all have junk in our lives so I won’t bore you with the list of mine. Suffice it to say, I go to bed every night vowing to do better the next day, hoping beyond hope that within the next 24 hours I will have somehow turned a corner and will no longer deal with the same old same old.

Apparently, the apostle Paul had the same problem.

“I have discovered this principle of life-that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin” (Romans 7:21-25 NLT).

Crazy, huh? After meeting Christ, Paul, the greatest missionary of all time spent the rest of his life preaching, teaching, begging sinners to come to Christ. He was beaten, bruised, jailed, exiled, all because he loved Jesus, and yet, he still fought against his sinful nature. I don’t know if I should feel better because I’m in great company or worse because if he couldn’t get it together what hope is there for me? The Bible doesn’t say what sins he wrestled with, but they must have been some doozies because he refers to himself as miserable, wretched and, in some translations, unhappy.

It’s not that God can’t take away those things that compete for our attention, but for me, at least, the things I battle are a constant reminder of my need for daily intervention from God. Despite my desire to get it together, I often have to pray and ask God to give me the will to act on that desire. How pitiful is that? But God, in His omniscience, knew that He would be the One providing the desire for obedience.

“For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13 NIV).

The New Living Translation actually says,

“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him” (Phil. 2:13 italics mine).

How loved do you feel right now knowing that Christ died for you, invites you to eternity with Him, calls you to obedience and then actually gives you the desire to do what He’s called you to do?

This year, besides spring cleaning my house, which I will never not do, I think I will apply the same principle to my spiritual life as well. Of course, it sounds good today, but tomorrow I will have to pray for the will to accomplish it!

Making a “Decimal” Point

My husband and I could not be more different. For instance, he’s funny. I’m not. He loves being in front of a crowd. The bigger the crowd, the happier he is. I hate it which is why I became a writer, the idea being to get my opinion out there without anyone seeing me. He’s also great with directions. The man could get anywhere blindfolded in the dark with no directions. Yes, he’s that good. Me, on the other hand, I once tacked on an extra 45 minutes to a trip I was taking out of town because I couldn’t get out of town. The one exit I knew was closed due to road work so I kept going in circles. Also, he sees life as the Super Bowl. I see it as a math test I haven’t studied for. Like I said, we’re different.

Other than the fact that we are both humans, we have two things in common. First, we’re both terrible with money. I think we might be the only couple in America that doesn’t fight about money. What’s to fight about? We both wish we had more. We both enjoy spending it. We both experience buyer’s remorse after a particularly pointless purchase. Also, we’re both horrible at math. I stopped helping my kids with their math homework once they hit third grade long division. Too many numbers. Complicated. It made my brain hurt. My husband has never helped our kids with their math homework. He can spell math, but he can’t do it.

In light of our similarities, it really kills me that I am the one who has to deal with the bills. We started out our marriage with him handling them, but after finding several unopened paychecks and unpaid bills, I took over. I can’t say I’ve done much better. He may have forgotten to pay them, but I pay them with imaginary money. I’ve paid bills, left town and forgotten to deposit the check. I’ve transferred money to other accounts that wasn’t there yet in anticipation of it being there. I’ve lost checks, thrown checks out, shuffled through the garbage late at night by the light of my phone looking for checks I’ve thrown out. I’ve even signed checks at the wrong end on the back. They frown on that.

But nothing tops what I did this last time. Last fall the city decided that everyone must purchase a garbage can issued by the city. I don’t really know why, and at first I was annoyed by the fact that they were forcing us to purchase the blessed thing whether we wanted it or not. But when I saw how big it was, it pleased me as I am a chronic consolidator. It would replace the several smaller ones lining the back of my garage.

With this new change in garbage cans came a new way to bill us for our trash. It was no longer attached to the water bill. No big deal. The bill was $19.71. Adding it to the pile, I started punching in the numbers on my bank’s bill pay site. A few nights later I went to the drugstore to pick a few things up. Normally, I don’t carry my debit card with me because even though I know it’s not a credit card, I sometimes use it like one and end up in all sorts of trouble. Good thing I had it that night because when I tried to use it, it wouldn’t work. I knew there had to be money in there. I know because when I paid the bills I WROTE EVERYTHING DOWN and left a BUFFER in my account for mistakes.

I ran home as fast as I could and looked up my account online. According to said account I was $1800 in the hole! Freak out. Significant breakdown. Aging ten years. None of these words describe what I experienced. I scrolled down. There it was. Apparently, I was feeling very generous the night I paid the bills and decided to foot the garbage bill for the entire city since I gave them $1971! I vaguely remember something about decimal points in fifth grade math. Mostly what I remember is that I found it confusing. Clearly, I’m still confused.

The following are some of the responses I got:

From the city: “Oh my.”

From the bank: “That money’s already been posted to your account. I’m not sure we can undo that.”

From my husband: “You’re gonna fix this, right?”

From my friend: “You did what? The city doesn’t refund even a nickel.”

You can relax. It all worked out. I don’t know how the bank did it, but they reversed the payment and credited my account, thankfully, as it would have taken FOREVER to pay them back.

The moral of the story is three-fold. First, always check your work. Second, when in doubt move the decimal point to the left. Third, remember that no matter how bad you are with money and numbers, there is someone out there who is worse.

The greater spiritual application is obvious: had it not been for the insatiable love of Jesus for us and His willingness to die in our place, the debt of sin that we owe would never have been paid. What an expensive gesture. It cost Him everything. Our acceptance of His offer of salvation erases the debt, and instead He credits us with righteousness. What a Savior!

Living a Budgeted Life

One of the occupational hazards associated with being a housecleaner is that I’m usually the first thing to go when people feel the need to cut back. You can imagine my shock when the opposite happened on the heels of the threat of tax increases and changes in healthcare. Not only did I not lose any jobs, I gained several more. Without even thinking I said “yes” to the job offers and set about ridding more houses of dust and grime all the while sucking up more of my time.

When my husband and I started the long, arduous climb out of the black hole of debt, it was suggested to us that we start writing down everything we spent our money on. Talk about tedious! I hated it. It drove me crazy. I felt tied to a clipboard and a pen, but it proved to be an invaluable tool. Suddenly we were aware of where all the money was going. No wonder we didn’t have gas money. I’d just bought two pairs of shoes! Clearly adjustments needed to be made.

In college, this idea of budgeting time was known as time management. It won’t shock you when I tell you that I wasn’t very good at it. I’m still not, but as I look at what I spend my time on, I realize that I need to make some adjustments. Most of the things we spend our time on, in and of themselves, are not bad. But like money, once it’s spent, it’s gone. Was it a wise expenditure? Am I getting the most bang for my buck? In the world of finances that means getting the desired item at the lowest price possible. With time what I consider the best deal is spending each hour of my day doing the jobs that God has given me to do. We were doing fine before I took more work. God never asked me to go out and make more money. What He asked me to do is take care of my husband, my kids, write and work the jobs He’s given me. He’s also asked me to be content with the money I make while doing those jobs and to remember it’s not all about money.  Spending hours on things that weren’t in His plan is as nuts as throwing five dollar bills out the window as I drive down the street.

It’s taken awhile (I’m not the brightest crayon in the box!), but I’ve realized that time is as valuable as money. Both need to be budgeted. Both can get wasted on mindless “spending.” And both are gifts from God and, therefore, belong to God. So I will treat my time as I would my money, cutting back where needed, budgeting the minutes as I would the dollars, doing my best to spend it wisely, and trusting God to stretch my minutes to cover each task just as He stretches my money to cover each bill.