Why I Do What I Do, Part 2

After 12 years of marriage my husband and I pulled the moving truck into the drive of what we believed would be the last place we’d live. Four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a pool, and a yard the size of a small city wrapped in a six-foot fence was finally ours. We painted, re-carpeted, remodeled, and perfected our new home. Our children would enjoy the childhood I had only dreamed of with a neighborhood full of kids to play with and pool hopping in the hot summer sun. God had truly blessed us.

However, what started out as “the American dream” quickly became “the American nightmare.” Gas prices soared, property taxes rose, and the price of food climbed to new heights. We never missed a mortgage payment, but we were barely making it. What was God doing? Hadn’t he blessed us with this house?

Obsessed with money, we lost sleep, and we lost our joy. Our marriage suffered and so did our kids. We’d become enslaved to our white-carpeted castle. So we cut back. Things like the internet, eating out, and movies in the mail flew out the window. But that wasn’t enough. More drastic measures were required; downsizing, moving back into town where the drive to school and work stretched no more than five minutes ahead.

At 30something and with two kids, downsizing was an unheard-of concept. Leave a gorgeous house in a quiet neighborhood away from the noise and activity of the city? Were we crazy?

“You won’t save that much,” some said.

“You’ll never sell your house in today’s market,” others said.

“What about the kids? They love the pool.”

“Your house screams ‘you.'”

We heard it all. Still, we knew what we had to do. So we plowed ahead getting the house ready to sell, and finishing projects someone else would enjoy. It no longer mattered to us. God was changing us and our idea of the American dream.

Six days after the sign went into the yard, the house sold. We knew moving was God’s desire for us, but it still shocked us. What now? Where was he taking us? And so began the arduous process of looking for a home while temporarily living with family.

We spent weeks looking for a home that would suit our needs: close proximity to work and school, a safe neighborhood, not a lot of work needed and something we could afford. In the end, God took us back to our old neighborhood in the heart of town where the noise and traffic are never far away. While most people yearned to get out of the craziness of the city, we moved right back into the middle of it. At times we felt like Noah, readying our house in a neighborhood deemed “unsafe” while those around us mocked and questioned. It didn’t matter.

That first night in our new home the four of us slept in the same room, and for the first time in years, I felt like I was home. The house we left was beautiful, yes, but take out the people and you reduce it to just that, a house. Home has become synonymous with people, not things; simplicity, not debt; and most important, a place where God’s voice is not crowded out by acquiring objects of no eternal value. This is our dream.

Learning to be content with what we have and the life we’ve been given is one of the most difficult things to master. At least for me it is. Contentment versus entitlement; the second lesson God taught me in my journey to freedom. You know how it is. As people, because we breathe, we feel entitled to certain things. We graduate from high school with expectations of college and on a scholarship. Upon graduation from college we expect to make a six-figure income right out of the gate. Then we get married, and we feel entitled to the big house. When our first child is born, the zippy little car we’ve been driving around must be traded in for the “family” vehicle, usually a van or SUV. We want what we want when we want it, and we will get it by whatever means necessary.

For me it came down to asking when is enough enough and, more importantly, when is God enough? When would I finally have enough of all the chasing around of things I thought I needed to be whole and get down to the business of serving God and living out the life He created me for?

Like I said in part one of this series, the money thing was just the beginning. What I’ve come to realize is that this issue of being content extends far beyond the external. My attitudes toward other people whether anger, frustration, resentment, bitterness, whatever, are all rooted in feelings of entitlement. The problem is that just like debt stifles freedom in one way, bad attitudes stifle it in other ways. We aren’t free to serve God and to live in contentment when we’re steeped in attitudes we feel entitled to. We become enslaved to bad attitudes as easily as we do bad behavior. What about you? What attitudes or behaviors are you in bondage to?

I know what I need to work on, and though daunting at times, God spends our lifetimes perfecting us.

“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6, NIV).

Why I Do What I Do, Part 1

It used to be that when people asked me what I write about I would respond with something vague about money, materialism and the attitudes that get us into debt. Though that is true, I’ve come to realize that these things were nothing more than band-aids covering up much deeper issues. I know, duh. But, hey, I’m a slow learner. The funny thing is that once we got our finances under control, the real work started. I don’t know about you, but in my life there are layers and layers of “issues” that God has been picking away at.

Today’s post is the first in a series of three regarding the main reasons for why I have found myself in some of my financial predicaments over the years. Let me be clear: these are my mistakes; not an attempt to blame anyone or anything. They are my actions, my responsibilities. With that said, I have to take it all the way back to Eve. Poor Eve. She’s been dragged through the mud for centuries. She believed Satan’s underhanded lie that somehow who God made her to be was not quite complete, like He was holding out on her. But one bite of that apple and she’d be set for the life she really needed and deserved.

Good grief! I can totally relate. I can’t tell you how many infomercials I’ve succumbed to being totally convinced that whatever product they’re selling will somehow complete my life. So out comes the credit card that I’m already behind on paying, and on it goes another useless purchase all in the name of completing me. We always hear about how visual men are. It’s true. They are. But what about women? We have eyes too for heaven’s sake! If we didn’t the commercials would institute much different marketing ploys to sell their wares to us. If we weren’t so visual we wouldn’t spend so much time looking at each other and secretly wondering why God didn’t give us her hair, her figure, her perfect skin.

I know I talk a lot about money, but I have been $25,000 in debt on a $30,000 salary. I have bought houses, clothes, cars, vacations, all manner of things in an effort to improve on myself and my life, believing the lie that this is the stuff that matters and the stuff that will make me matter. None of it delivered what it promised.

Satan has spent all of history studying human nature. He’s smart. He knows his enemies, and he has enlisted an army of minions to attack us knowing he has the potential to destroy what God has so carefully and lovingly made, us. He can’t take away our salvation, but he sure can paralyze us with insecurities and unnecessary comparisons rendering us completely useless in bringing other people to Christ.

So what does God say about me? Well, for starters I’m made in His image (Gen. 1:27). He could have stopped there, and it would have been enough. But He didn’t.

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).

And for the piece de resistance, John 17 should do it.

I pray also for those who will believe in me” (vs. 20a)

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (vs. 23).

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am” (vs. 24a).

Maybe we should bold print the entire Bible! At the risk of sound trite and cliché, it’s all there in God’s love letter to us. Why is it so much easier to listen to and believe the voices around us rather than God’s? I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, on the days that I am feeling less than lovely, poor and frustrated, these are the verses I cling to for dear life.

Missionaries to America?

I grew up in a very patriotic household. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. One of my grandfathers in particular got teary-eyed whenever he talked about this country and the blessings God had bestowed on it. I attended a Christian elementary and middle school where the pledge was recited everyday, patriotic programs were a part of the yearly schedule, and patriotic songs were taught alongside Christian songs. In my house, the Fourth of July carried the same weight as Christmas. My view of America and God was like peanut butter and jelly–you could have one without the other, but why? It’s unnatural.

As I got older I developed an interest in foreign missions. My desire to see people come to Christ was genuine, and clearly my country didn’t need me in this capacity. So at 17 I applied to a missions organization geared for teens and was on my way to a summer in the French Alps with kids I’d never met. The first two weeks were spent at Boot Camp in Merritt Island, Florida with hundreds of teams headed to places all over the world. The time was spent bonding as a group and learning skills to take to the field. Since my team was a work team much of our days were spent learning the art of steel tying and cement pouring. For two and a half months I traded colorful flats (I had them in every color!) for steel-toed work boots, daily showers for a weekly dip in an ice-cold stream and hot rollers for a rubber band.

Every morning all of the teams met under a big tent, hundreds of us in the sweltering heat wearing long pants and work boots. On one particular morning we were treated to some special guests. Lining the stage in their native garb were people from Africa, Asia and Central America. They were introduced as missionaries to America.  To say I was stunned is an understatement. I’d never heard of such a thing, and quite frankly, I was annoyed and aghast. The audacity of these people to think the greatest country in the world was in need of missionaries was almost more than I could take. After all, we were the ones that produced the missionary greats like Ida Scudder and Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. I walked out of the meeting that morning in a daze, but it changed my life.

Before you dismiss me as an arrogant American, hear me out. America is an amazing country. We were founded by men and women who were tired of being told who to worship and how to worship. Our laws were constructed by men who, if they didn’t have a personal relationship with God, they at least acknowledged Him to a degree, understanding that adhering to moral principles could only serve to help us.

Yes, God has used this country in ways that can only be attributed to Him. Because of people like Billy Graham countless souls the world over have come to Christ. Americans have started churches, adopted orphans, aided in the rebuilding of lives after enduring the brutality of human trafficking, set up refugee camps, donated millions of dollars to causes around the globe. Clearly, we have been an instrument in the Master’s hands.

But over time we’ve become fat and lazy; fat in our pocketbooks and lazy in our faith. As Christians we’ve played church on Sunday, and lived out the rest of the week like pure heathens to the point that America has now been declared “no longer a Christian nation” by the powers that be. I want to blame the politicians, the laws, our churches, but as I look back on my own life I can see so clearly the role I’ve played in ushering in our current state of affairs. I’ve pinned my hopes on money and possessions, buying into the idea that the more of this stuff I have, the happier, the more respected, the more satisfied and fulfilled I’ll be.

So what now? What kind of world will my kids and grandkids grow up in? What can I do? I’m only one person. For me, I came to the realization that the kind of change that our country, indeed our world needs, would only come about after change and revival happens on a personal level. I realize I can’t change the laws or the prejudices of other people. I can’t make people believe in God. I can’t wish anything into existence, but what I can do is start with me. I can clean up my own life, get rid of the distractions that blind me to God’s real call on my life, and then hopefully it will filter into the lives of my kids and into their small sphere of influence. If we all sought personal revival, I believe the generations to come would be the the strongest Christ-followers this country has ever seen.

Oh yeah. America needs missionaries alright. They’re sitting in our church pews, men and women who at some point gave their lives to Christ but lost their passion. It’s not that they don’t believe, but they got busy and distracted. Things that should have caused the hairs on their necks to stand to attention got by with barely a whisper. I know because I’ve spent most of my adult life as one of these pew warmers. But it doesn’t take a politician to turn things around. We don’t need new laws to force people to make right decisions. What we need is for those of us who claim to love Jesus, to pray that our eyes would be opened to our own sin, our own contribution to the society that we are living in and repent and ask God to make our lives count where we are. For me, I knew until I got my spending under control and massacred my materialism, I was useless to God. What about you?

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23,24 NIV).

Cherry Picking

A few days ago I was listening to a radio interview with one of our state’s political leaders. The radio hosts asked him about his plan to raise the minimum wage over the next four years. He responded with his belief that it’s a Biblical concept that no one should live in poverty while working 40 hours a week. A few sentences later he expressed his full support for same-sex marriage.  I do not wish to get into the politics of any of this, nor do I wish to drag this politician through the mud. I will say, however, that there are about ten different reasons as to why his words elicited such a response from me. For about 60 seconds I jumped around the kitchen screaming at the radio (Why do I do this? No on can hear me!) causing the cat to flee the scene!  First of all, I have no idea where this person got his theology or where in the Bible he’s referencing. The greater issue is that he used the Word of God to his advantage on one hand and completely disregarded it on the other.

I can just picture God, arms folded watching me throw a temper tantrum in my righteous indignation before sighing, tapping me on the shoulder and asking me what part of His Word do I use for my benefit and what part do I throw out. I can preach and quote verses denouncing the sin of homosexuality, adultery, lying, stealing, you know, the big ones. Those are easy to agree with. I’m not doing any of those things. It’s a completely different story, however, when I start reading verses and hearing sermons preached on how I live my Christian life. Things like loving other people above myself, dying to myself, taking up my cross, being slow to anger, refraining from gossip, these are all things that make me twitch in conviction.

The other day I needed gas in the van, and I was on a tight schedule. For some reason the pump refused my debit card flashing a See Attendant at me. Given my history this agitated me even further. Not only was I running out of time, now I had to worry about why the stupid debit card wasn’t working. I marched into the gas station furious. To make matters worse the attendant was operating at a much slower speed than me. Couldn’t he see what a hurry I was in? Couldn’t he see the smoke coming out of my ears? The second time he asked me which pump I was using my response was less of a spoken answer and more along the lines of a slow snarl. I might as well have smacked him across the face judging from the look of pain that shot through his eyes. I felt horrible and yet justified. I was in a hurry, the card was freaking out, and I had to repeat myself, something clearly worthy of the response I’d given.

 As I stood there waiting for him to process my purchase, conviction set in. I tried to stuff it down reasoning that my response was warranted and not that big of a deal, but no matter how hard I tried the conviction I felt threatened to overflow like a pan of water about to boil over. My heart raced, and my face felt flushed. What had I just done? Who talks to another human being like that? So maybe I’ve never committed adultery or murder, but I had spoken to another human being made in the image of God like he was dirt under my feet. If I could have crawled into a hole right then I would have. Instead, faced with the ugliness of my attitude and my words, I looked the guy in the eye and apologized profusely, explaining that no matter what my problem was there was no excuse to speak to him that way. He was extremely gracious and told me to have a good day.

Here’s the thing: I find myself getting so angry with non-believers doing what that politician did, taking what they want out of the Bible and leaving the rest. Why do we expect them to do any differently? They are acting as they should as unbelieving people, having no connection to the truth. We, on the hand, as believers know better. We claim the commands of God’s Word flinging them at one another in holy judgment on the one hand, and on the other completely destroying each other with just a couple of words. If we’re going to claim God’s Word as the source by which we live then we have to take all of it. It’s all or nothing.

Psalm 119:14-16 says this:

“I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word”(NIV).

The writer doesn’t say he’ll follow some of God’s statutes but not all of them or that he’ll meditate on some of God’s precepts but not all of them or that he delights in some of His decrees but not all of them. We have to take the entirety of God’s Word for our lives, the easy commands and the ones that really hit home. Otherwise, we’re just cherry picking.

Words, Words, Words

The tongue is an arrow

Flaming with fire.

Its words can encourage.

Its words can inspire.

But much of the time

The words that we say

Singe others’ souls

With feverish hate.

So next time I’m tempted

To utter a phrase

Lord, let it be filled

With words of praise.

So others will know

That from me they will find

                         Words that are gentle and good and kind.

Overdrawn

  You’re overdrawn.  Insufficient funds.  Your card has been denied.

Whether a notice from the bank, words on the ATM machine screen screaming back at me or the worker at the checkout that speaks just loudly enough that the customer behind can hear, no matter how the words are arranged or where they are spoken, they all mean the same thing: I’m trying to draw on something I don’t have enough of–money. I’ve faced this situation more often than I care to admit, and every time it strikes a chord of panic deep down as if it’s the first time.

One time I knew for days I needed to get to the bank to cover a check I’d written.  Though only ten dollars short, experience had taught me it would cost me more to make it right when it was time to pay up. Procrastination got the better of me, and I got caught short. Not only did I owe the bank ten dollars, but they collected a hefty fine for covering me! How could I be so lazy? And what was I thinking to begin with, writing a check when the money wasn’t there to back it up. I knew better.

I love the dictionary’s definition of overdrawn: to strain, as a bow, by drawing too far. Being overdrawn is a strain. Not only that, it’s financially irresponsible and sinful. I would argue that being overdrawn spiritually is no less sinful. There’s simply no reason for it. In fact, 2 Peter 1:3 has this to say:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us.” (NIV)

Our knowledge of God comes from spending time with Him. Why in the world would we not take advantage of time spent with Him in His Word rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel for any last shred of strength we can find to do this life successfully? Why would we run on fumes? As crazy as it seems that we would attempt to pay for something with money we don’t have in the hopes that it will magically appear, it’s just as crazy that we would attempt to do whatever it is that God has given us to do on any given day without His help.

This idea of running on empty becomes so real on the days when I pick my kids up from school, and the looks on their faces tell me they haven’t had a good day.  I have a 12-year old and a 14-year old. Need I say more? No matter how irrational their tears or anger, if one of them is upset because of a look or a word spoken by someone else, my mother bear instincts rise up and I’m ready to claw out the eyes of the offender! Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But how often do we look at offenses against us or our loved ones or the offender with the wrong attitude? Often it’s because we’re tired, we’ve had a long day ourselves, and we simply haven’t taken the time to give the day to God and ask Him for His perspective on people. Maybe the offensive word wasn’t meant that way. Maybe the offender has deep hurts of their own that they are caught up in. How would we know?

I have no hope of steering my kids into this realm of thinking outside themselves if I’m not doing it myself. And I can guarantee that this is not happening in my life if I am drawing from mere human strength. It’s like writing spiritual checks with nothing in the account to back them up.  If I haven’t spent time with God all of my efforts fizzle quickly, and I find myself tired and frustrated.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me-watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly”  (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).

An invitation to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace?”  Really?  I could use a little of that. Sounds like an invitation to spend time in a hammock being rocked to sleep by a warm gentle breeze. And indeed, rest is what we find when we come to Him. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had myself so worked up over the smallest thing only to finally stop, hand it over to God and experience rest and peace. What if we started our day like that, filling up the spiritual bank before life comes collecting? How much better prepared would we be for whatever the day brings?

We were never meant to do this life alone. God is not impressed with our attempt at being a one-woman show. John 15:5 is a smack in the head for people like me who attempt to live independently of God’s help.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (NIV).

Can’t argue with that.

While I know time with God is never wasted, I can hear the enemy speak contrary to that whispering, You can do this later. What about getting that laundry done? Watch the news first.  Everyone of us has a reason why spending time with God can be done later, or why it’s not a priority. For me, I’m either running at insane speeds and haven’t taken the time to slow down and think about God let alone spend time with Him, or I’ve turned my ear to procrastination. Either way, I’ve missed out on laying my burdens before Jesus before they become so heavy I barely have the strength to pass them off to Him. Or I’ve missed out on something spectacular that He wanted to say to me that could have changed the course of my day completely. I have learned that walking out my front door without first giving my day to God is as crazy as setting out on a road trip with no gas in the car or writing a check without money in the bank to cover it.  We can do better.

How to Spot a Fake

My daughter and I love to shop together. We always have, and one of the things we love to buy are purses. I don’t know what her reason is, but mine has to do with the fact that a purse always fits no matter how many calories I’ve inhaled. Plus, it’s a cheap way to look like you know what you’re doing when it comes to fashion.

A couple of years ago we found ourselves in a consignment store staring longingly at a Dolce and Gabbana handbag. It was glorious in all of its blue, buttery, leathery goodness with shiny, jingly hardware hanging off the handles. She wanted it bad. I wanted it for her. She was in heaven. I wasn’t far behind. We snatched that puppy off the shelf before anyone else could get their hands on it and flew out the door.

The excitement was short-lived. My daughter, who is arguably much smarter than I, started wondering within a day whether or not it was a true Dolce and Gabbana. Of course it was, I reasoned. I know the real thing when I see it. Or so I thought. Not convinced she took to the world wide web and started researching tell-tale signs of fake Dolce and Gabbana purses. Turns out that Dolce and Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, all of them, have details that set them apart from the fakes.

Though not always recognizable with just a glance, careful inspection reveals some of the details that make these bags the real thing. For instance, a Dolce and Gabbana handbag should not droop under its own weight. Ours was so soft it practically lay prostrate on the store shelf. Louis Vuitton is very particular about the kind of font used on its label. Though the knockoffs have become more convincing, the difference is still there if you look closely. Gucci goes to great lengths to make sure the stitching is perfect before putting it on the shelf at a price of $400. It better be. It seems like the bag should do more than boast perfect stitching for that price, but maybe that’s just me.

The world of counterfeit merchandise is big business. For those of us who want the real thing but can’t afford it, we will often settle for the fake counterpart. It’s too costly to get the real thing, but with the fake we can at least look like we’re something we’re not.

The same comparison could be made spiritually speaking. There are many people in this world and in our churches claiming to be Christ followers, but closer inspection would reveal they are nothing but a fake. This involves playing the game of Christianity with no real heart change. At first glance this person looks like the real deal. They go to church, serve on varies church committees, give their money, say the right things, don’t swear or do anything immoral. However, inside they are crafted of shoddy workmanship at the hands of someone (the enemy) who could care less about them.

So what’s the difference between the two? It’s so simple we practically miss it, but here’s what The Message says.

34-35 “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:35).

It may sound simple, but selfless, others-centered love comes from the work of a master craftsman who has slowly and patiently formed a heart that looks like His. He uses quality materials in the form of stitching together broken pieces of our lives, redeeming past mistakes, teaching lessons that become life changers. Anybody who has spent any amount of time under His gentle but steady hand, comes out stronger, well-made and with a God-given tendency to love other people with the ultimate goal of bringing them to Him.

There are a lot of fakes out there who claim to be one thing while doing the complete opposite. The world is craving what we claim we have, real love. So I have to ask myself the question we’ve all heard before: if someone accused me of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?