Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To the Survivors of Newtown, CT

I know I just stated in my previous blog post that I wouldn't be writing until 2013.  But I want to briefly remark about the events of last Friday.  God just laid something on my heart again from the book I just read this morning.  In this book, The Purpose of Christmas, Rick Warren shares the full "Serenity Prayer."  I never knew there was more to that poem and prayer than the first few lines.  What a shame that it is rarely quoted and printed in its entirety--the rest is pretty great, too.  The events of last Friday have shocked and appalled me on a new level.  I keep thinking of all the children, teachers, and staff who survived, and all the hurting families of the ones who were senselessly murdered last Friday.  I pray the following "Serenity Prayer" for them all.  What a horrific thing to endure at Christmastime. 

To the survivors:  God is with you, even if it feels He has abandoned you.  He will make this right, even if it isn't in your timing.  I pray the Emmanuel of Christmas makes Himself known to you all--to each and every person involved, affected, and hurt by this incident.  The "Emmanuel" of Christmas, the "God with us," is exactly what you need and deserve at this time. Blessings and healing to you all.

Stephanie Teagarden
Former Educator and Blogger

The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next."

The Purpose of Christmas

I did not intend for this blog post to become a book review, but I just spent two hours reading the book by Rick Warren entitled, The Purpose of Christmas.  Rick Warren is the author of the #1 NY Times Bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.  This book, though an easy, quick-read, is quite meaty in substance.  It truly blessed and helped me refocus on the "reason for the season."  It also convicted and encouraged me on some personal issues with which I have been afflicted and searching for peace.  I highly recommend it, and though it is a crazy-busy time of year, it will be the best two hours you spend this month.  I've read several fast-reads such as this, and can honestly say that this one is the best of the best.  If you feel in any way that your life is lacking or void of anything on any level at all, read this book.  Even if you feel your life isn't measuring up to all you want it to be, at no blame to you--read this book!  As for the credibility of the author, Rick Warren was quoted as being one of Forbe's "100 Most Powerful," (and was the only one listed there who was characterized as, "trustworthy").  He was also named as one of Newsweek's "15 People Who Make America Great," one of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World," and called one of, "America's 25 Best Leaders" in U.S. News & World Report.  So you can feel assured that reading it will be worthwhile, even if you don't trust my opinion.

I used to be one of those women who at Christmastime, was about as bound-up in nerves and anxiety as a girl can get.  My Christmas "do list" robbed me of nearly every joy of the season.  I would put immense pressure on myself to do so many unnecessary things that by the time the actual day rolled around, I was completely exhausted, grouchy, and void of any Christmas "spirit" or meaning (the perfectionist in me would trump better judgment).  I recall many painful moments spent sitting in church during the Christmas season asking God to forgive me for having such a lousy attitude during the celebration of His Son's birth.  I look back on that now and shudder.  Why could I not "get" it?  Why did I think I had to be the "wonder woman of Christmas" when all God ever expected or wanted of me at Christmastime was to acknowledge and celebrate His Son--to relish the free gift of salvation that He gave me in Him?  

The answer to that question is a simple one--societal pressure.  Our culture lays a standard of expectations on us at Christmas to which no one can meet (or at least, most can't).  Expectations of buying the perfect gifts (and plenty of them for people who need nothing to begin with), baking the perfect food (again, do any of us need to be eating ridiculously huge portions of rich, heavily-carbed, sugared food?), decorating the perfect tree and house, and the list goes on and on.  None of these things are expectations given by God, and when we place higher value and importance on them than we do on celebrating and recognizing the Savior's birthday, we end up empty and void of anything purposeful or meaningful at Christmastime.  I lived it personally for too many years.

Matt and I have had a busy month.  We began December attending his 100th Annual KLA Convention in Wichita (so I lost an entire week to prepare for Christmas right there).  Then we were both sick prior and afterward (so I lost some time there due to not feeling so well and playing "catch-up" from being down with illness).  Then, I spent five nights total (in rehearsals and shows) singing in my church's annual Live Music Christmas Light Show (which is very important to me and is really the only ministry I do at Christmas now).  Suffice it to say, we don't even have a tree up yet.  Am I concerned about this?  No, not one bit.  Would the Stephanie of say, five years ago have been okay with this?  No, not at all.  She would have been hyperventilating, making every one around her miserable, and certainly wouldn't have spent two hours reading some Christian Christmas book while sipping leisurely on coffee, as I did this morning.

So what has changed with me?  Some would say I have gotten old, unmotivated, and lazy.  Some might even characterize my lack of concern at being unprepared for Christmas (by the world's standards) as apathetic and complacent.  You could even suggest that I'm depressed or acting a scrooge.  But honestly, I don't think I've ever felt more peaceful, blessed, and relaxed in the month of December as I do this year.  I am simply sick and tired of being pushed into the mold of killing myself at Christmas.  I am tired of overspending, overexerting, and under-appreciating Christ.  I am tired of giving gifts to people who need nothing when there are children all over the world who are starving, homeless, shoeless, naked, and dying.  I am weary of feeling so empty due to being physically drained by the time the actual day of celebration arrives.  We women place too much emphasis on stuff that just doesn't matter at Christmas--stuff that is not eternal or necessary.  I hear it all the time--women complaining, stressing, and grieving over their "do lists" and the fact that they feel drained of any real Christmas joy.  Actually, I heard it come out of over 10 mouths just this past week, so I know I am not alone.  And all the undo stress we place upon ourselves (or that societal pressure places upon us), doesn't even scratch the surface of what is going on with most of us this time of year.  Many people have deeper issues during the holidays--things like dealing with family members who are not, "easy" to be around; prayer requests that we feel God just isn't hearing; personal struggles and battles on which we feel we'll never get a handle.  Our list of hopes and expectations is pretty high overall.  It is just a lot of stuff to face, and deep down we all have this Chevy Chase, "Christmas Vacation" mentality that we want the "perfect Christmas," which essentially means we want the perfect life.  This just sets us up for a guaranteed disappointment.  The truth is, Christmas isn't about us or anything in our current life--it is about Christ.  I think this is what has changed with me.  I finally "get it."  Christmas is about Christ.  I always knew this in my head, but my heart was not embracing that truth.  I was still failing to place Christ first at Christmas, and instead, would overload myself with the world's and other's expectations for me during the season (as well as, my own, which were the heaviest of all).  Then I'd pile on top of that, all my own personal desires and needs, hoping that this year would be "different."  I had a major rebellion and personal upheaval with this a few years ago--and it was a much-needed one. 

Rick Warren's meaty little book lays this all out so beautifully.  For the sake of time (yeah, yeah, I know, this is already really lengthy), the book talks about how there are really only three purposes for Christmas to solve our three greatest needs.  The first purpose is that it is a time for salvation--realizing our deep need to be saved from something, by Someone bigger than us, and for something meaningful.  The second purpose is that it is a time for reconciliation--between us and God (through Christ), and between us and others (even if that means we only get peace and reconciliation in our own hearts from God concerning the hurts, brokenness, and battles we have with others).  The third purpose is that it is a time for celebration--celebrating Christ, Who He is, and what He came to do for us.   Rick Warren discusses how if we fail to recognize, accept, and unwrap these three purposes for Christmas, these three indescribable gifts (2 Cor. 9:15), our Christmas will be a guaranteed colossal disappointment.  I couldn't agree more. 

I wish I could lay out all the notes I took as I read this book, but it would not only ruin the book for you, you'd be reading this blog post for half an hour at least!  Instead, I will just mention my favorite points and end with some Scriptures that Rick Warren cited that really blessed me.  I wish you all a very, Merry Christmas and a blessed time of salvation, reconciliation, and thus, celebration of the birth of our Only Hope and Lasting Gift--Jesus Christ.  Thanks to all my faithful readers who have taken the plunge with me in this blog this past five months.  I prayed a special blessing on each of you this morning, and I sincerely wish you all a richly blessed 2013.  I will not be posting until the New Year, as I need to focus on Christ and my family during the season.  But I hope you will continue to journey through life with me next year and I will do my best not to bore you...God bless you all!

Key Points and Scriptures on Rick Warren's, The Purpose of Christmas:

*Christmas is for SALVATION (by God, through Christ, from hell, and for a purpose)!
Luke 2:11, "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord."

Ephesians 2:8-10, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

1 John 4:10, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

*Christmas is for RECONCILIATION (between us and God, & us and others)! 
Luke 2:14, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests."
James 3:18, "Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness."

Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

2 Cor. 5:18, "All this is from God, Who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation"... 

Proverbs 13:10, "Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice."

Isaiah 26:3, "You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You."

*Christmas is for CELEBRATION (of the free gift and freedom given us by the CHRIST of CHRISTmas)!
Luke 2:10, "But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.'"

Psalms 118:21-24, "I will give You thanks, for You answered me; You have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad."

John 8:36, "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

2 Cor. 9:15, "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" 



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Timeless and True

My husband just celebrated another birthday a few days ago.  Due to having a lot of recent stress with work (good stress, but still, stress) and being pretty sick with an upper respiratory infection from "you know where" for a week, I could tell that the coming of another age-marker was pretty low on the totem pole for him.  Once you're "in" your forties, birthdays pretty much stink.  But as they always say, it's better than the alternative!

One thing that pretty much made Matt's day was the news that our little niece, Wylie, had accepted Christ as her personal Savior, ON his birthday!  What a delight it was to hear that our precious little loved one had made the most important decision of her life at the ripe ol' age of five (same age as our Allie was).  Matt was elated.  We both discussed how we would never forget that Wylie prayed that prayer on his birthday.  Pretty great gift to get on your birthday.  The Bible says that the angels and all of heaven rejoice when even one person comes to Christ.  We seriously felt that, too!

We went on with our evening to enjoy a basic birthday celebration--dining with our daughter and her husband at one of Matt's favorite restaurants of all time, "Coco Bolo's."  Coco B.'s, as our family calls it, is a high-end, southwest cantina of sorts in Manhattan, KS ("Manhappiness," as our K-State friends call it).   They serve the most delectable entrees, and the beef dishes in particular are sinfully scrumptious (thus, it's one of my beef-man's faves).  Our family loves Mexican/southwest food, so it is a good fit for us right away.  Matt ordered his favorite, the carne asada, and all was well with the world.

But it was really just another day for him.  I could see it on his face.  I felt some guilt for not making a lot of hoopla and glitz over the whole thing, like I typically try to do.  We have both been ill, have had a lot on our individual plates (and I'm not talking about the meal at Coco B.'s, though that was also true), and with Christmas rapidly approaching, Matt's birthday kind of became an after-thought this year.  I hate that--poor guy.  He likes to teasingly declare quite dramatically (with his fake, ornery grin) that he always gets the shaft with having a birthday two weeks prior to Christmas.  So throughout our marriage I have tried my level best to make that distinctly untrue, but I failed miserably this year.  However, my T-bone (the nickname given to him by our card party friends) never complains.  He is a man who defines contentment, and I am richly blessed.

I found myself taking some moments to really look at him on his special day though.  He looks so great--heads above others his age.  And he carried so much stress caring for a wife and baby at eighteen and getting himself through college in three and half years.  He is such a hard-worker and strives to do his best in all his does, regardless of where he is and whom he is serving.  In looking at him and giving him this affirmation that night, I recalled a precious conversation I had years ago with one of my fellow band-mates at church.  He was sharing about the fact that no matter what age his wife hits, she still looks the same to him as the day he married her--and in fact, even more beautiful.  He shared with me that though she felt insecure at times in the "weathering process" she was experiencing in getting older, he truly viewed her as more beautiful than when he had married her.  He remarked about how it is a neat blessing from God when a couple ages together and yet still sincerely view each other as the people they married.  It's as if the wrinkles, loose skin, age spots, and other frailties aren't even there. I pondered this and have many times since the conversation.  How I long for this to be true.  I mean, I've never questioned my love for Matt or whether I'd still love him as an old man.  But I've worried about the opposite--will he love me as I change?  Will he still see me as me?

Let's be honest--in our society, men are given much more leeway with regard to aging.  It doesn't matter if it's fair or not, or if your spouse believes this or not, it is a simple fact--women aren't supposed to get old.  We're told this from our teen years--that being young, beautiful, and perfect in every way possible are basic requirements to not only getting, but keeping a man.  We all know as females and are warned early on that if the little "rush" our man gets when he sees a beautiful woman is bigger than the rush he gets for us, we're in trouble--or at least, we should be cautioned.  So, a lot of people have profited off this belief and fact in our world.  Just walk into any Dillard's or Nordies and look at all the freaking makeup--there's more of it than anything else in the store!  It is truly unreal how much money a woman can spend trying to look good for a man.  My band mate also mentioned the fact that when you age together as a couple, and you aren't blind to the reality of your own aging process, younger people just look like children to you.  He said, "Anyone in their right mind isn't attracted to someone to whom they could have given life."  I have to agree, totally.  If you aren't attracted to your own reasonable age group, your self awareness and identity are way off-base--sorry, just my opinion.

Matt and I recently took a trip down memory lane and looked at our old wedding photos.  We always end up in total laughter because we look like children playing dress-up in wedding attire--seriously!  It is actually rather sad to look at the two young, dumb kids standing there on that altar, smiling like they have it all figured out.  Boy, were we naive.  We had no clue what we were getting into or all that we were about to face!  But it is also pretty cool to look at the man I married and realize that he looks so much better to me today than he does in those pathetic wedding photos.  In those pictures, Matt is just a blind, dumb, teenage boy in love, who needs to gain about 30 pounds, is wearing a really bad tux, and who I no longer know.  But in reality today, he is so many greater, deeper things to me.  He is an intelligent, witty, charming, refined, driven, thoughtful, generous, educated, loving, gentle, joyful, content, God-fearing, confident, handsome man.  So, I get it.  I really get it.  When you truly love someone, and you watch them grow into a person of distinction, character, and immense quality, of course they only look better as the years pass--even as the outside appearance fades.  It's all that stuff underneath that gives enormous value to the attraction and the overall appearance.  I don't care how good looking someone is--if they are selfish, proud, arrogant, rude, cruel, and untrustworthy, their looks fade immediately.  The outside value will take you about as far as a day.

So though I sort of blew it for my devoted hubby's birthday this year in not making it some major celebration, I write this blog in his tribute.  T-bone, you are an amazing husband and father.  You are an immensely special person.  You are a Godly man who loves to serve the Lord with gladness--and that my friend, is divinely attractive.  You make me feel like a goddess, and you bring great security and joy to my heart and life.  I am reminded of the verse in Proverbs 5:18, "May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth." Thank you, babe, for always doing that.  And happy birthday...you look amazing.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Discouraging Detours

We all like to think of our lives as being somewhat mapped out.  We chart our courses, make our plans, and hope to cheerfully arrive at our desired destinations after diligently working to stick to the directions laid out before us.  But sometimes, even without our realizing it, we end up on detours.  Most of us don't like detours--they are an annoyance.  When we come upon one in the literal sense, we usually grimace because they are typically unplanned, they are usually not simple or short, and we are faced with being late to our destination.  Detours throw a kink in our plans.  On top of all that, we feel our time is being wasted because the recommended, typical, and desired path is blocked, and we are forced to go distances we really don't want to go.

We end up on metaphorical detours in life, as well--chosen and unchosen.  Sometimes we purposefully take detours--maybe we are struggling to make a decision about something, so in an attempt to buy more time for ourselves, we lolly-gag around in avoidance, and waste time off the path on which we really need to be driving in order to arrive at our unique, particular destination (or worse, we aren't really that focused or driven to achieve it in the first place).  Other times, we find ourselves on a detour when we thought all along that we were on the main path toward our desired goal.  These are the tough ones--they can actually be pretty devastating.  We feel lost.  When we put our heart and soul into a plan, and find that our time was wasted and we got no closer to our desired destination, it is stifling to the spirit, to our vision, and to our hope. It just isn't fun or encouraging to face the reality that we've been driving around aimlessly on some dirt road when we've worked our tails off thinking we were on the straight and narrow turnpike working toward an ambitious venture with purpose.  And it is even less fun when others with whom we are working aren't truly focused or driven to achieve the goal and they force us to take detours with them without our approval.

So what do we do on an unwanted detour when we realize we are on one?  In the literal sense, we typically sigh and forge ahead to get ourselves back on the appropriate course to head toward our initial destination.  We try to keep our cool, rely on our determined focus, and revamp our time in accordance with the change of plans.  Maybe we even try to enjoy and appreciate the change of scenery, though this is not likely for those like me who would prefer to choose to enjoy a change of scenery at a more appropriate time (not have it forced upon them)!  For detours of the metaphorical nature, we need to do the same thing, but it is more excruciating and difficult for sure.  Detours of the metaphorical type affect much more important things in life than just adding a few minutes to our day.  They require an entire reassessment of our life, our plans, and at times, even our purpose.  They aren't typically just a few miles and we typically lose stuff that we've worked toward at the end of it all.  When we realize we've been on one of this kind, we've usually put some miles on the odometer, and we aren't pleased to face that we now have depreciated value or wear and tear from the journey!  Sometimes we find that we not only have been on a detour, but our particular detour wasn't even heading us in the right direction.  We've gone backwards and are farther from our destination. So then there is that issue of added grief with which to deal. 

I have recently found myself on such a detour.  Pouring my heart out to God, He reminded me of that timelessly true Scripture verse, Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."  That verse has sustained me in many times of struggle, frustration, and when my perseverance, endurance, and hope are being severely tested.  God also showed me that when we choose to put ourselves on a detour due to disobedience, lack of focus or vision, or indecisiveness, we pay for that.  That is of our own choice and doing.  But when we are taken on one unknowingly, against our will, and have our time and energy stolen from us (time that He alone gives and should direct), God makes this right--it wasn't our fault.  He doesn't like it when we are deceived, blocked, tricked, used, or taken down detours that aren't in His will, either.  He doesn't like it when others aren't honest, do not stick to plans, or do not keep their commitments.  He doesn't like time-wasters.  He is as frustrated with them as we are.  God honors people who keep their word and do right by others.  He blesses those who are steadfast in their deeds and actions, are committed to purposes in life, are committed to others, and who help others achieve and head down paths that are fruitful for them.  He is pleased when our time is orderly because He is a God of both time and order.  He is also a planner--much planning went into the order of the universe, and all truly great things come out of thoughtful, extensive, creative planning.  All truly great things come from sticking to such plans, as well.  We can plan all we want in life, but if we never commit to any of those plans, we might as well lie on the couch with a bag of potato chips and call it a day.  If we have found ourselves on detours that we were dragged down blindly, we can rest assured that God will right the wrong.  We can also rest assured that He will bring purpose and meaning to that unwanted journey, even if we don't see much initially.  He has a way of blessing us on those undesired detours and will shed light, in time, on things we cannot see.  He can also speed up our later journeys to make up for the time we lost being taken on an unwanted detour.  God is faithful and He can be trusted with our plans, time, and life's journey. 

I also believe wholeheartedly that God uses detours in accordance with His will.  Maybe He was protecting us from something else.  Perhaps He was growing us in some area for a bigger and much better purpose down the proper road (our main, toll road of life).  Maybe He had to "buy time" Himself so that He could align us with something or someone who wouldn't be driving along our desired path at the right time if He hadn't detoured us for that later, bigger purpose.  We also meet lots of interesting people on detours and at intersections along the way--people who feed and bless us, and maybe that was the whole point.  We also must remember that we all face delays and obstacles whenever we are seeking to arrive at a great destination.  Nothing really good or noble ever comes easily, and we all know God loves to test our faith (trust), our patience, and our endurance.  In fact, I am convinced that those are the three most frequent tests we all have in life (well, you could easily add tests of "love" to the mix, too)!  But we can rest assured that God always puts His children on the right path when they are truly seeking His will and His destination for them.  If we are seeking our own will and our own destination, and either of those are not in line with His ultimate desire for us or are in conflict with His will, we are bound to end up on many detours.  If we are His children, He isn't going to put us on the toll road of life if we are we're headed in the wrong direction.  He'll use detours to get us in line again.  Sometimes it feels as though God is like "Suri," the annoying lady on our iPhones, restating to us that we aren't following the perfect directions given, and that our plans are now going to be recalculated and remapped!  But most of the time, I believe detours are God-ordained.  He uses them and they aren't always a bad thing.  

The main thing God has shown me the past couple of days as I face yet another detour, is that He wants nothing more than for me to arrive at my goals, desires, and proper destinations in a timely fashion.  He isn't trying to be my arch nemesis or my adversary by allowing detours in my life.  He isn't trying to stifle and constrict me--even if other people are allowed time and space to do so temporarily.  He wants the best for me and for my life--His best.  He also knows intimately my desires and dreams.  He knows my afflictions and passions, and He isn't avoiding me.   So I pray--hard.  I persist with much endurance and perseverance.  First, I pray for God to remove any desires in my heart for things not in accordance with His perfect will for my life.  I make it clearly known to Him that I want Him to give me the desire for only what He wants for my life--this includes my plans, goals, and other people (because people can drain our time and energy, and can keep us on detours in dirt-road bondage causing us to spin our wheels incessantly and preventing us from accomplishing anything). Other people can also piously try to make their own goals and destination become our goals and destination, when that is not our charted path or journey--God hates that, and He alone will decide.  Secondly, I ask Him to give me wisdom, patience, endurance, and strength to chart my new map and my new plan in order to get myself on the right road headed in the right direction.  This includes bringing the right people into my life to help me along my path--my true, destined sojourners.  Third, I ask Him to bring discernment, peace, and understanding to my life as I seek to protect myself from further detours.  I ask Him to shelter and protect me from things and people that will steal my time, energy, and efforts fruitlessly and aimlessly.  I ask Him for guidance and wisdom in seeing any red flags along my path so as to avoid anything and anyone that raises them.  Fourth, I ask Him to bless my efforts, my energies, and my time, and to bring fruitful blessing and profit from it.   And I exert much faith and hope that He hears me, and hasn't given up on me and my dreams.  

I saw a couple of quotes the other day that really stuck with me.  One was by Napoleon Hill and said, "A goal is a dream with a deadline."  I loved that.  No one accomplishes anything in life without deadlines. Dreams are just illusions without plans and deadlines.  Another said, "Look for the dream that keeps coming back.  It is your destiny."  There are a couple of "dreams" for which I am praying for my life right now.  They are things I desire greatly for God to bring to fruition and restoration in my life.  One prayer item is afflicting me so much that I find myself asking Him daily to just remove the desire if it is never going to happen or if my asking Him for it is in vain and void of any hope.  It's been nearly two years now and He just won't remove it.  It just keeps coming back--unwanted even, at times.  I believe there is a reason for this. I also fully believe that when someone has an ability or gift coupled with a big passion or desire to use it, there is a reason for that, too.  God gives both gifts and passions, and He desires to use those for our benefit and His glory.  He has big plans for each of us if we'll only trust Him on both the toll roads and detours of our lives.  He wants us to enjoy the journey, too.  Pray on...

Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."

Proverbs 16:9, "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps."

Psalms 34:7, "Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."

Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Landlord's Coming

I got the great honor of hearing Karl Rove speak at Matt's KLA Convention last night.  He gave an incredible, powerful, lengthy address to the group, and pretty much confirmed what we all already know--that our nation is going to hell in a hand basket woven by the Chinese (among other countries to whom we've sold the farm).  We're basically on our way to becoming the next Greece (though beautiful, it isn't really much of a nation anymore, and has a great deal of problems and financial hardships now).  Although it was great to hear him speak and meet him in person, I am feeling pretty discouraged today for my daughter and my future grandchildren (just as I was on Nov. 3).  Kind of a lot to take in when it comes directly from such a credible source.  Funny how you can read the newspaper, watch the news, and hear the same things, but when it comes to you in person via a former Chief of Staff to a president, it soaks in much more harshly and truthfully.  (My husband would argue that I get just as upset after watching, "Fox News," for any length of time)! 

I am utterly convinced that the majority of Americans are totally clueless as to our real financial situation.  Our government is basically check kiting and giving entitlements to people with money we don't have.  It doesn't matter what political party you fall under, everyone knows that when you don't have the money, you don't spend it, regardless of your goodwill, the desire, or the "need."  I'd like to be able to buy my son-in-law and daughter their first home, and I'm sure it would help them out a great deal since they are just starting out in their life together.  But I'm sure not going to go give them all my money so that then they have the burden of caring for me in my old age OR worse, take out a loan to do it (and then, not even consider how in the heck I'd pay it back)!  It's just not common sense to spend or give anyone anything if the money isn't there.  Our government is currently "robbing Peter to pay Paul," and if it continues, in Mr. Rove's words, "we're going to fall off the fiscal cliff very soon" (and to add insult to severe injury, our creditors don't exactly love us).

So what do we do?  What hope do we have?  First, we pray--a lot.  You may think that sounds silly or trite, but I believe in the power of prayer.  Look at Israel--they are a nation the size of postage stamp and God has protected them from being utterly blown off the map for decades.  Secondly, we VOTE (less than half of registered voters in the nation who profess to be "Christians" voted in the previous election).  You sure can't complain about our nation if you aren't getting off your duff and voting (and Christians like to complain A LOT about how bad things are in our country.  I AM a Christian, but I vote, so I get to complain)!  At this point in the game, we need to elect people into office who possess honest fiscal sense, seriously workable job growth ideas, and financial problem solving abilities (regardless of their religion, their stance on social issues, or whether you like them as a person or not--if we lose our country because we can't pay our bills, it isn't gonna matter what your social beliefs are OR what your religious faith is)!  Everyone is going to have to see this and give a little or we're sunk.  And BTW, I admit I am a registered Republican, but only so I can vote in primaries.  In actuality, I am a Libertarian, so this rant isn't about party whatsoever--in fact, I've never been more ticked-off at The Republican Party in my life (and my husband would say I lean more left on the "bleeding heart" issues than I care to admit)!  But that's another blog post.  I've also never been more aware of what an incredibly gifted leader Bill Clinton was--a Democrat who helped the needy AND balanced the budget.  Wow.  He was almost anointed (okay, I realize I'm taking that a little far). 

But seriously, this rant of mine is about me being worried for the first time in my adult life that my country won't always be the country I've known--that it could actually be taken away from all of us.  That all the lives (and there have been some) that have been lost in the name of liberty and freedom could be lost in vain.  I've never really thought before now about the fact that our Constitution and Bill of Rights are just pieces of paper.  Yes, they are in "locked-down," cases of preservation in the National Archives, but it indirectly takes money to keep them there.  It also takes money to defend them.  They aren't invincible.  So all else aside, we have to vote in the years to come with this one truth in mind.  Sadly, as always seems to be the case, it all comes down to money--and our voting over the next 50 years needs to show that we realize this and the seriousness of our current situation.  There is too much at stake, and we have to get over the idea that we can give to anyone and everyone with money we don't actually have.  We have to seriously view our government's bank account just as we do our own personal one (or at least, how most of us do).  We have to stop viewing the government as an endless pocketbook of entitlements.  We've basically been at war for over 11 years now, and honestly, we're going to be reeling from that alone for quite a while.  It doesn't matter how big your heart is if your brain is on vacation--if we don't have it to give, we can't give it!  The end result of doing so is that the needy end up in worse shape when it all goes belly up anyway.  If we lose our nation to another country who has had it with carrying our debt load, we all go broke.  We are an utter joke to these nations to whom we owe.  They don't even want our dollars anymore and are currently unloading them at a record rate.  And now, four more years of unprecedented, extreme spending...ay yai yai...

Karl Rove has a great article in the WSJ this morning--give it a read.  He is a great patriot and his personal story is one of the "American kind"--he didn't come from much and ended up working in the White House! And give our nation a prayer, too:  "Please dear God, help and protect our country.  And help us to get off our rumps and vote as informed, concerned citizens who love this nation and who are not being blind-sided to the realities we are facing.  Amen."

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Not to Say

Since the world takes great pleasure in watching reality T.V. shows and in listening to music where people say pretty much whatever they want, no matter how lewd, crude, or rude, I find it compelling to write about this phenomenon.  As a fashion lover, I used to enjoy watching the show, "What Not to Wear," but eventually quit due to the cruel, unkind remarks made by the show's hosts.  Their mean and rude lashings towards the guests became a serious turn-off to me.  I mean, what we wear shouldn't even really matter.  But it was not a huge shocker that the show did as well as it did--we are much more concerned about the "outside" appearance in our world than we are about the "inside."  You can have a mouth like a snake and cuss like a sailor, but if you are wearing Dolce & Gabbana, you're lookin' good.

Let me begin this blog post by stating emphatically and sincerely that I need to be reminded of the things I am about to say as much as anyone.  The tongue is a sharp weapon, and I too, have sadly and ashamedly fallen prey to saying things without thinking first that have been hurtful or offensive to others (and I've been known to have "sailor" moments, as well).  We all put our foot in our mouth from time to time, but the hope and goal is for that to be a very rare occurrence (or at least, that should be our hope and goal).  I have found myself telling close girlfriends that if I ever say anything that hurts or upsets them, I want to know about it because I want to be able to apologize and attempt to rectify what I have said--I would never intentionally hurt anyone I loved (or anyone I didn't love, for that matter).  Their response is always, "Oh, Steph.  You'd never be capable of saying anything hurtful."  But the truth of the matter is, without God's spirit anointing and leading us, and without us seeking Him daily for help and guidance, we're all pretty much social idiots and are capable of a lot of wrongdoings--conversationally and otherwise. 

I also want to state that I do not desire for this particular blog post to become a list of proper social etiquette rules or a compilation of dos and don'ts for personal conversation.  There are plenty of excellent books out there on that topic for those who are seriously interested and which are authored by people much more credible and thorough than I (of course, none of those books have ever made it on the best seller's list--color me surprised).  I also do not want this blog to become a place where I regularly vent my own personal frustrations on a subject.  No one wants to read some one's rantings or rebukes.  But frankly, in a world and society where etiquette towards others and concern for edifying others are rapidly becoming dying arts, a little exploration of those items might be good.

One of the things I hear family and friends complain about most is that of hurtful words spewed to them by others.  The amazing power words exhibit in our lives is truly remarkable.  When someone says something truly edifying to us that encourages or builds us up, we never forget it.  It feeds our soul at the moment we hear it, and it continues to feed us long afterward. It also frames our opinion and thoughts about that person in such a lovely way.  The same is true for harmful words.  We not only never forget them, but they roll around in our head and haunt us for many years to come.  They likewise, frame the person who uttered them in a very negative way for us--they no longer feel "safe" and we envision them as a dragon spewing toxic waste in our direction (not a pretty picture).  Essentially, the person who dished-out the harmful words has shot themselves, too, because no one truly wants to be placed in a negative light or frame with anyone else (sorry for all the photography metaphors--can you tell I love to take pictures?!). 

Words have such immense power in our lives that psychologists actually say they can form our very being.  Our identities are strongly and deeply rooted in the stuff other people say to us and about us.  When we love and value others in our lives, we likewise put a great deal of stock in what they say to us--regarding us and pretty much everything.  One can make or break a child by what they say to them--everyone knows this.  This doesn't change when we become adults.  We can still be blessed or poisoned by the words of those around us, and amazingly enough, it doesn't take much for it to go either direction.  The old saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me," has to be one of the largest standing myths ever recited.  What a total farce that is! Most of us who have been the brunt of some one's brash jokes or crass, snide remarks feel like we have been beaten-up afterward, so obviously that old quote doesn't have a lick of truth behind it. 

While standing in a checkout line in a department store years ago, I happened upon a coffee table book placed strategically by the register (guess they were hoping for impulse shoppers). It was a book about social etiquette and grace.  There were many good thoughts in the book--suggestions like, don't compliment one person in the presence of others unless you plan to compliment the others (and do); give direct compliment/s, not indirect ones where you attempt to give the compliment via someone else (because then you make the middle-man feel as though you don't think anything good about them OR you don't care enough for the actual recipient to tell them yourself or to be certain they receive it); don't look at some one's photographs and compliment everyone else in the photo but them (or worse say, "that doesn't even look like you"--obviously, it IS them, so in some way it has to look like them--cameras don't lie); if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all; don't look at your watch while someone else is talking; pretend you have a word odometer on your lips and try to have a lower count than the other person/people present; don't expect to always receive encouragement and compliments, yet dread having to give them in return; imagine hearing what you are about to say from someone else and if you know you wouldn't like it, don't say it (basically, use the golden rule); when someone apologizes, just accept it, don't rub it in their face or refuse to admit your part in it (because frankly, apologizing doesn't mean the other person is admitting they were the only one in the wrong, it just means they value the relationship they have with you much more than their own ego--so be flattered, but be humble, too).  The list could go on and on.  

I also think it is important to mention that we are all too good at being critical with each other and not good enough at being encouraging.  We can easily find the faults in others but it is very hard for us at times to see the good.  We are called to see the good, not focus on the bad.  We need to focus more on our own bad, and much less on that of others (as well as, focus much less on our own "good"). Basically, we need to do the opposite of what we're inclined to do--look upon the good of others, and think a little less good of ourselves.  But this is becoming very foreign to us today.  Reality T.V. and our current society tell us to, "Stand up for yourself, air your grievances with boldness, and tell people what you really think."  I'm not promoting self-deprecation to the point of having low self-esteem or advocating anyone becoming a metaphorical doormat in any realm.  Jesus Himself stood-up for righteousness and for God's truths at all cost, and He sure didn't do everything everyone wanted Him to do every second they wanted Him to do it.  He wasn't here for popularity, and He sure didn't kiss the hind-ends of those who piously thought they knew more than He--and He was a perfect man. But Jesus was full of love and mercy--He was here to serve, not to be served.  We are rarely taught how to think higher of others than ourselves, and as for, "serving others," we really don't understand what that even means most days.  Even when we do serve others, we typically just go through the motions of it blindly.  We are so easily distracted with our own thoughts, needs, and wants.  It just isn't in our nature to easily be "others" focused.  Even from birth, we are pretty much crying out, "It's all about me, and I have some immediate needs to which you need to tend!"  We are also rarely taught how to exercise our feelings and opinions in such a way as to not hurt others.  Instead, we do so with no filter applied and with total disregard for the ramifications (or the other person's feelings). 

It is an exceptionally sad thing when this happens in the church or in the body of Christ (the larger church).  God hates it when believers knock each other down with harmful words in the area of callings, service, and gifts.  He clearly states that He gives every believer different gifts and different callings.  If everyone did the exact same thing/s He has asked you personally to do, who would do all the other work that you aren't doing in the body of Christ?!  No one's gifts, talents, service, abilities, or callings are more superior to anyone else, and God does not equip everyone to do the same ministries.  I say this in utter love--if you are a believer who ever finds yourself wondering why others aren't involved in your particular ministry or calling, get over yourself, get on your knees, and give God the glory that He gave you the ability to do anything at all.  Anyone could find one verse in God's Word to support that their particular calling or ministry is an awesome, necessary one--because they all are.  But He is working differently for different causes and purposes in the lives of your fellow believers.  It is also a fact that there are many different ways believers can support particular ministries--it may not look like your anointed path, and that is okay. It doesn't mean they are turning a blind eye to that particular need, but they aren't "sinning" because they aren't supporting it your way.  There is much work to be done in the Kingdom of God, and God forbid your fellow believers start expecting you to do their particular ministries and get equipped with their specific gifts.  It is also very easy for us to view the service of others as less than ours, because when you haven't actually done a particular work in the church, you don't appreciate or fully value what goes into it.  We exaggerate our own work and devalue that of others too often in the church, and we all know from experience that when you get involved in anything new, you are shocked at how much goes into doing it properly.  The person who hands out donuts and greets visitors on Sunday morning is as important to God as those who are leading, teaching, or going on mission trips, even if that doesn't "look" as noble or fancy.  In fact, God says as many positive things in His Word about encouragers and hospitalitarians as He does about leaders, teachers, missionaries, and preachers.  If I expected every Christian woman who had sinned in premarital sex to go tell the teen girls how it was a huge mistake just because I have chosen to do that and God has called and equipped me to do it, I'd be pretty smug and proud--and probably, God wouldn't even bless my ministry anymore.  Don't belittle the gifts and abilities God has given to every special member in His body and likewise, inflate your own.  Let His Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit--you are not the one who decides, equips, or calls anyone to do anything. If you aren't involved in every possible ministry listed in God's Word, then stop attempting to transfer your particular calling onto everyone else.  The body has many parts and we are all essential for the survival of the church, and every part needs encouragement and appreciation.  We are called to view other's gifts as higher than our own.

What does the Lord say about words, the tongue, gifts, and how we are to treat others with edification and encouragement?  He says a great deal about it, and His statements aren't commands for only those with the gift of encouragement--we are ALL called to be encouraging to each other (this is one area where the Holy Spirit truly does desire for everyone to partake)!  I want to close with some Scripture on this topic--God's Word is more powerful than anything I can ever say anyway.  I pray that my words are pleasing to God and that He graces me with many more days, weeks, months, and years to edify and bless those He has placed in my life--those who are not only better than I, but who I desire to love more than I love myself.  What else are we here for but to learn to love Him and to love each other selflessly for His glory?!  All else is vanity. 

Scriptures on the tongue, on edification (building-up and encouraging others), and on gifts:

Ephesians 5:3-4, "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving."

Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

James 3:6, "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell."

Psalm 34:13, "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile."

Psalm 39:1, "I said, 'I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth while in the presence of the wicked.'"

Proverbs 21:23, "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity."

Psalm 35:28, "My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long."

Proverbs 10:20, "The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value."

Proverbs 12:18, "The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

Proverbs 15:4, "The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit."

Proverbs 18:21, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." 

Proverbs 17:4, "Wrongdoers eagerly listen to gossip; liars pay close attention to slander."

Proverbs 25:23, "The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance."

Psalm 140:3, "They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent; Adders' poison is under their lips. Selah."

Psalm 57:4, "My soul is among lions; I lie among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword."

Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." 

Matthew 7:1-5, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

1 Corinthians 12:4-27, "There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Attitude of Gratitude

Yesterday at church, our congregation celebrated Thanksgiving by having a, "Thanksgiving Celebration of Praise."   Everything about the service revolved around the theme of being grateful and giving praise and thanks to God--the music, the sermon, and all the prayers.  But the best part was that our church held baptisms at the end of each service, as well.  Our church, being a nondenominational, Evangelical Christian church, doesn't have a baptismal in the sanctuary.  Instead, we hold two baptism services per year at two different local lakes in Topeka (in summertime, for obvious reasons).  So in order to do this, they brought in a large water trough in which to perform the baptisms.  I sang with the choir for all three services and enjoyed getting to hear the testimonies of each believer who was baptized.  It was an immensely blessed time, and I found myself tearing up profusely as I watched each person get plunged into the water and come out "new."  People of all ages got baptized yesterday.  It was truly awesome to get the great reminder that everyone has a different story of how they came to know Christ--and it doesn't matter what your age or story is, so long as you come.

For Christians, baptism isn't some magical moment of salvation or some mystical happening.  Salvation is something that occurs when God draws you to Himself through the truth of Christ, and you accept Him back for what Christ did for you.  This happens first, privately between you and God in your heart and mind--you make a decision to believe in Christ and trust Him.  This is where the salvation comes into play, and this is most important.  Baptism is simply the first act of obedience in your new walk with Christ--it is an outward testimony to the world that you are saved, and that you aren't ashamed of your faith and new life in Christ.  It is a public, symbolic act to show that you are trusting God to wash away all of your sins--past, present and future--and that you trust and believe that He has.  It is also a way for believers to always remember their decision for Christ distinctly and to easily recall that they are renewed--that they aren't the person they were prior to coming to Christ.  When you are placed under the water, it is a picture of your "old, sinful self" dying and being buried.  When you are raised-up out of the water, it is a picture of your "new, redeemed self" rising with new life in Christ.  I have never been able to attend a baptism and not cry.  There is something truly beautiful, brave, and poetic about it.  Since I fully believe that baptism is something Christ commands and values in the lives of all who believe in Him, I know He is well-pleased when a believer chooses to step-out publicly, affirm their faith in Him, and be a witness for Him in this way.  I am certain that He is thrilled to see the gratitude in the hearts of all who have entrusted Him with their very lives--those who aren't ashamed, but who are glad to stand before a congregation of people, sharing their stories fearlessly, and taking the plunge in His name to prove it.  He not only is pleased and thrilled, but He blesses it. 

The one recurring theme in the stories of every person who was baptized yesterday was gratitude.  Every one of them said they praised and thanked God for the salvation and renewed life He had given them.  You could tell from their stories that they meant it--sincerely and passionately.  Basically, they "get it."  They "get" what Christ did for them.  There is no doubt lingering in any of their minds of their need for Him and in the change He has made in their lives. Many of them shared how they had searched literally everywhere for peace or for some type of answer to fill the void/s in their lives.  They shared how they had clearly found that answer in Christ.

I was reminded of the testimony I recently heard about a friend of a friend.  She had shared with my friend that after struggling for years in a loveless marriage and with a personal addiction to alcohol, that she truly believed life was utterly meaningless--that joy, peace, and happiness would never be a part of her life.  She was in a liquor store with her young son walking down an aisle to the check out line to yet again make a purchase to ease her pain, when for some reason she turned to see her little boy holding up a small wooden cross that he had received from someone else prior.  As children do, he was skipping along merrily, in his own little world.  She looked upon that cross and for some reason heard the words, "Well, you've tried everything else, why don't you try Christ?"  At that very moment, in total unexplainable form, she knew Jesus Himself had spoken to her.  In her daily sorrow, she hadn't even noticed that her son had brought that little cross along in their daily routine of errands, and she knew it was no accident that he was carrying it and holding it high with pride and delight, in the liquor store.  It was no accident that she had turned to see that cross being lifted up at that moment, above a face of innocence and purity.  God had spoken to her and she had heard Him--clearly.  She turned her life over to Christ that day and has not been the same since.  Does she still ever struggle in her marriage or with drinking?  Sure.  But it is lessening every day, and God is making new what was old and worn-out.  Change doesn't happen over night for every believer.  But God is filling her voids and changing her.  He is making her new, and she no longer views life as pointless and meaningless.  He is her husband now, and she now knows and believes there is hope for the earthly one she has, as well.  Praise be to God.  I still can't even think of that little boy holding up that cross in that liquor store and not well-up with tears.  What an amazing story.  God wants to give us all one of those--our very own, personal, "God-moment."  I will share mine one day with you.  It isn't quite that cool, but it is awesome to me, and I am so grateful to God for revealing Himself to me, too.

When we are truly grateful to someone for something, we "get" what they did for us.  We aren't just giving a random "thank you," or showing the proper etiquette of being thankful in word or deed back to them (forced, rote appreciation).  We fully understand and value what they did for us.  Anyone can be thankful or show thanks, but to have a true, "attitude of gratitude," requires us to fully appreciate and comprehend the blessing and value of the gift received (or the effort given by whomever blessed us with it).  Gratitude flows out of a heart of thankfulness, but it is more than just being thankful.  It is not just action--it is feeling and heart.  It is realizing fully that you didn't deserve the blessing received, and being overjoyed that you received it anyway.

Of all the things for which we can and should be grateful and thankful this Thanksgiving, our salvation through Christ ranks easily at number one.  I could list many, many things for which I am grateful this year--one big blessing that easily comes to mind today, is that of my daughter marrying the Godly man for which I prayed for her, exactly one year ago from today, ("Happy 1st Anniversary, K & A!").  Other "biggies" would include my husband, my family, my friends, my health, and my home. But my gratitude to God for His grace and mercy in my life--His free gift of salvation to me--far surpasses all of those great blessings.  Without God in my life, and knowing where I'm going when my life here is done, nothing else good would even feel that good.  When you live each day thinking this is all there is, life is pretty pointless and meaningless.  God is all we really have, and He is all we really need.  Everything here is temporary; but God and our life with Him are eternal.

Yesterday, Pastor Jim shared with us a Thanksgiving prayer of gratitude that he wrote, and we all recited it together.  It was really touching.  I tried to scribble it down word for word, in hopes of sharing it in this blog today (and I hope I am quoting it perfectly--forgive me Pastor Jim, if you happen to read this and I've messed it up).  But I think it sums up perfectly where our hearts need to be focused this week, on Thanksgiving Day, and every day, for that matter.  I hope it helps you to focus on Him and to have a truly blessed Thanksgiving week.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thanksgiving Prayer by Pastor Jim Congdon:

"Dear Lord, thank You, thank You.  Thank You for searching for this lost sheep who had gone astray.  And for finding me, helpless as I was.  And then, though I was undeserving, for saving me from myself, from my folly, from my sin, and from death, and giving me eternal life.  Amen."

Here are the key verses from Pastor Jim's Thanksgiving message yesterday:

2 Corinthians 4:15, "All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God."

Luke 10:20, "However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
2 Corinthians 9:15, "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Few Parental Regrets

In the past month, I have had two close girlfriends coincidentally ask me if there are things that my husband and I now regret about the way we raised our only child, Allie, and what things we did right.  Both friends are currently experiencing "preteen parental anxiety," with which I readily recall being afflicted when Allie hit the adolescent stage.  So both friends wanted to pick my brain a bit.  Embarrassingly, I found myself totally dumbfounded upon being asked about the regrets--I had a hard time coming up with anything.  I started to feel like I needed to make-up some stuff in order to appear humble, honest, and "normal."  But the more I poured over the choices we made in raising our daughter, the more I realized I really have very few regrets, if any.  First and foremost, I had to praise God for this realization.  He and He alone deserves one hundred percent of the credit and glory that we were able to raise our daughter in such a way that we can feel any success or blessing at all from our parenting experience.  Matt and I know full well that if we had not had Christ at the center of our marriage and home, we would never have made it--in our marriage or with our parenting. 

Starting out married with a baby at 18 years of age, the statistics didn't bode well for us.  Everything was honestly against us.  We should have been divorced within two years, and as a pregnant teenage mom (wince, wince--I still writhe at that label), I should have ended up in several failed marriages with numerous children from various biological fathers.  We should have ended up in poverty and our daughter should have likewise, suffered many of these same afflictions.  Why were we able to avoid these things?  God.  Period.

Matt and I realized early on in our marriage that if we were going to avoid becoming yet another statistic, we were going to need much more than our longtime friendship, hometown roots, family support, and passionate, teenage love for one another.   Our relationship was based on much more than lofty feelings and sex (regardless of cynical public opinion).  We were both smart kids, (but obviously not so smart as to avoid getting caught in our secret sin).  So when we made the decision to marry and raise our child together as best we could, we knew we were going to need much more than our own flawed intelligence and current assets.  When you begin your marriage in the opposite way that God desires, you already have some big strikes against you.  You bring some guilt into the marriage.  You bring some doubt into it, too (i.e.--does this person really love me or did they marry me because they felt they had to marry me?).  You bring a great deal of overcompensation into the marriage, striving to mend broken trust with parents and repair disappointment that you now see in your teachers, friends, church, and community.  You work to prove to extended family that you weren't out to harm the future of their loved one in creating this situation (and that you aren't mentally retarded for having "messed up").  You're dealing with a great many issues--namely, raising a child when you are still one yourself.  The day Allie was born, we discussed at length the fact that God would need to be at the center of everything if this was going to work.  I still praise God that He put us both on the same mental and spiritual wavelength with this acknowledgement, even at the ripe old age of eighteen.  He knew where our hearts were, even though we had "messed up."  He knew we loved each other deeply and that we were seeking to make things right.  He knew we wanted redemption and Him.

Did this spiritual awakening happen immediately?  No.  Sure, we were in church most Sundays.  Sure, we prayed together and read the Bible on occasion.  But at eighteen, no one is prepared to do all of the following:  get married, move away from home, start college, work on a new marriage, care for a new baby, care for a new home, study for college, pay bills, do all your own laundry, AND hold down a job.  Focusing on your spiritual walk with God gets easily bumped down on the list, as does your marriage.  It wasn't very long into our life together that we began to have "massive stress syndrome."  When you are totally overwhelmed in your life on pretty much every level, the ripple effect from it is pretty vast.  How we survived the first two years I will never know.  Well, that's not true.  I actually do know--it was on support of family, sheer love, selflessness, forgiveness, and the grace of God, plain and simple.

I remember praying devoutly for our little girl starting at age two (once we got through the initial shock of the aforementioned items).  I am convinced that for the first two years of her life, we were in total survival mode. I think the only praying I did besides in church and before meals, was flare prayers.  But when Allie hit two, things began to calm some.  We made some good, Christian friends that uplifted us, supported us, and that just enjoyed hanging out with us, even though we weren't living the "party life" as everyone else was at that season of life (we still praise God for Troy and Michelle).  We settled into our marital life together on a much healthier level.  We figured out how to keep things running and the checkbook balanced more regularly.  Things were just more even.  We got rather good at the juggling act required of us.  So it was then that I began to pray for my little bundle of joy--fervently.  For some reason, the fear of God came into my life and I looked upon my little girl with very new eyes.  She was no longer just an adorable, little being requiring and demanding constant feedings, changings, care, rockings, love, playtime, more feedings, and more changings.  She was a precious, little person--a little angel whose future was being entrusted to me.  I became very aware that I was a steward of her life, and God had made me the steward whether I was prepared for it or not.  I'd made choices, and now I had more--and I chose to be the best mom I could be.  I wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, but I was smart enough to know that there was no way I could manage all this at my young age without prayer, God's wisdom, and lots of His help.

Allie was a bright toddler.  She was speaking in 10-word sentences before her 2nd birthday.  I was very aware that my child was probably a great deal smarter than I (accurate prediction), and that if she was going to reach the potential God had set for her, I better step it up--on a lot of levels.  So instead of feeling sorry for myself (as many girls my age would have done) that I wasn't out in Aggieville, dressed to the nines, and having a big time with my girlfriends, I put every energy and all the joy I had into raising my little girl.  We read books, sang songs, took trips to the park, went on little excursions, worked on art and creative projects together, made up theatrical dance routines, and soaked up life in every way possible together (every way that didn't require a lot of money, that is).  I reveled in motherhood.  I was utterly smitten with my little doll and she thought I was pretty awesome, too.  It was one of the best relationships I'd ever had.  Life was good on the parental front.

In retrospect though, that would be linked to one of the first regrets I would have.  I know that I put so much of my energy, time, and creative zeal into being, "Mother of the Year," that my marriage suffered at times.  My son-in-law, Kale, who is currently in grad school studying Marriage and Family Therapy at Kansas State University, mentioned once that marital satisfaction and happiness drops significantly upon the birth of the first child.  It then begins to spike after the child hits about four years of age.  This is not a shocker to anyone who has had a baby.  Infants are about as demanding as a new puppy--what am I saying, they are far worse!  Toddlers are a little better, and you have typically had a decent night's sleep each day when you are faced with their new demands and needs (unlike infants).  Forgive my obtuse-sounding language--I don't mean to speak about babies as if they are mutant marriage home-wreckers.  But young children severely change a home, as we parents all know.  Since Matt and I had very little "before kid/s" time in our marriage (due to the way we started out), you might think we didn't suffer any great decline in marital satisfaction since we hadn't gotten used to being alone for long anyway.  But in actuality, it about killed us.  We needed that "before kid/s" time to work our way into marriage, just as everyone does.  There are so many things to work through when you begin to share a life with another person (just learning to bond in new ways and figure out all their little idiosyncrasies is a pretty big deal).  Marriage is just a huge leap.  When you have only just begun that and all of a sudden you are on no sleep and constantly under immense stress, your marriage is pretty low on the totem pole.  Like I said earlier--you're in survival mode.  So first, I would say I regret that in Allie's early years, I put her needs before Matt's nearly all the time.  Bless his heart for loving me enough to stick around, be patient, and deal.  It is never a good thing for a child to think they rule the home or to see the irritability that mom and dad have for one another due to the fact that they don't have a dating life anymore.  Kids always benefit more from seeing a mom and dad who are in charge and in love.  Matt and I figured this out after Allie hit her toddler years.  But prior to that, we had pretty much put each other to the side--and we shouldn't have.  So that's my first bit of advice to any parent out there.  Love your spouse first and foremost--no matter what age or stage your kids are.  If the house is a disaster and the laundry is piled to the moon, who cares.  If your marriage becomes a disaster, it won't matter that the house is spotless and the laundry is pressed and put away.

But back to prayer.  I know that my faithful praying and seeking truth in God's Word for how to manage my home, my marriage, my child, myself, and my life is the only way I had half a brain to do it properly or remotely successfully.  Without all that, life would have been pretty much all about me.  I would have had no concept that love is a choice, not a feeling.  I would have had no clue or preparation for the fact that children need to see purpose and meaning for life and the laws of it at a very early age.  When you raise a child in a home where there are "rules" but the rules are there "just because" or "because we say so," or even because of the obvious good outcomes, kids aren't as sure of their validity.  But when you raise a child in a home where the rules are there because God laid them down for even Mom and Dad, and because He desires to bless and protect them in their life due the amount of love and value He places on them, you have a much greater chance at success in parenting.  God designed the family for the purpose of making Him the Central Commander, and He knows best.

For the sake of brevity (yes, I'm aware I probably needed that earlier), and since I don't have a lot of parental regrets, here's my "parental advice list" to hopefully, in some way, help you also be able to say that you have few parental regrets one day (it's just advice, it's not the Bible--and in no particular order):

*Pray for yourself re: parenting--for wisdom, help, guidance, love, patience, and protection.
*Pray for your spouse and your marriage--for all the same items above, constantly, til the day you die.
*Pray for your child--for every facet of their life, constantly, til the day you die.
*Read your Bible--a lot.
*Study your Bible--a lot.
*Date your spouse--a lot.  Kids love to see their parents in love.  It gives them great confidence and security.  It's priceless.  When Matt and I would kiss in front of Allie, she would say, "Woo, woo!"  So we started calling her the "Woo-Woo Patrol."  It was hilarious and just one of our family's little special sayings.  Don't be frigid in your love for your spouse or for your kids.  Affection has huge psychological benefits.  Be generous with your verbal love and your physical love--with both your spouse and your kids.
*Have fun and take trips together--even little, inexpensive ones.  You can make lifelong memories together when you get away from the mundane and the daily stresses.  Your kids will think you are cool, and it is money and time well-spent.
*Tell your kids "no" and give yourself a break.  It isn't a crime, can actually be good, and can apply to a lot of situations.
*Take family naps--it is amazing what sleep does for crappy attitudes.  Quiet time, "being still" time, and "hanging-at-home" time is crucial for your family.  It is the best sanity protection for you and your kids.  (Note:  Facebook time and playing the Wii doesn't always equate to this).
*Guard your family time--at all cost.  Your poker buddies, fishing buddies, golf buddies, drinking buddies, shopping buddies, coffee shop girlfriends, lunch pals, wine-walk gals, and anyone else demanding excessive amounts of your free time, will not be there when your marriage or children fall apart.  And they sure won't be holding your hand when you are sick or on the day you die.
*Remove any tendencies to compare or compete with other families or couples.  Your family and marriage are unique and have special needs/goals.  No two are alike and even if you live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood, your marriage and parenting should never be that way.  Copy only God's ideas and rules for both.  Make it a cheerful choice to "do it your own way" and not follow the world.
*When a crisis or tragedy occurs in your home, if it won't matter in five years, it doesn't really matter now.  Don't sweat the small stuff.  It is a waste of time and energy, and your kids will learn to freak out over stupid stuff, too.
*Homework loads are horrific now days for kiddos.  If this begins to become a nightly, brutal problem for your family, talk to the teacher.  Complain.  As a teacher myself, I rarely felt comfortable going and complaining to another teacher.  I regret being so timid at times.  Don't be afraid to also lower your expectations a bit for your kid--we were too hard on Allie many times with homework, and I regret this.  Yes, kids need good grades for college scholarships, but this needs to be kept within reason.  Your family and kids can seriously suffer if homework is allowed to become a two-hour ordeal every freaking night (yes, I'm still bitter).
*Control the activity level of your kids.  Yes, they need to be involved and able to sample the buffet of possible abilities, skills, and talents they may possess.  But once they begin to realize their specific gifts, hone those and forget the rest.  We allowed Allie to be involved in everything--well, a lot.  She was good at it all, and she was able to maintain straight A's.  But it maimed our family time a great deal at times, and I regret this to a degree.  Some would argue that Allie was the obedient, confident kid she was because she was kept busy (the whole, "idle hands are the devil's workshop" idea).  I also think it was actually harder on me than it was on her and her dad (they have always been better suited at juggling a lot of things).  But at times, our family life was a total zoo.  I recall running supper up to the high school for Allie every night for two months each fall while she rehearsed for the musical til late at night--and that was after her two-hour dance team practice.  Then she'd come home to homework!  It was just a lot at times.  You wake up and your kid is gone, and what do you have?  A lot of recent memories of watching them in their school activities.  Again, guard your family life and your sanity.
*Love, hug, encourage, bless, love, support, compliment, love, and listen to your kid--every day (did I say, love?)!  Matt and I honestly believe that Allie never sought to rebel or be disobedient to us because she knew how very much we adored her and how special we thought she was.  She knew we wanted God's very best for her on all levels because we valued her to a ridiculous degree.  I asked her at about age 17 why she was so obedient to us and why she preferred to just hang with us on the weekends rather than her friends.  Her answer was a simple, matter of fact, "Why would I want to disappoint or be away from you and Dad?  You guys think I hung the moon!"  Case in point.
*Be honest with your kids--always.  No matter what question they throw at you--don't lie.  Don't hide stuff.  Be real.  Be transparent and vulnerable with them--they love it and they need it.  Share what you did wrong and how it hurt you.  Share how you desire for them to do it better than you did.  Tell them you know they are better than you (because who are we kidding, they probably are). Apologize to them immediately when you screw up.  Ask for their forgiveness, every time you blow it.
*Read the Bible and pray with your kids--from a young age.  Tell them that they need God for everything.  Tell them He thinks they are so great He came to die for them.  Give them His truth.  It's the only thing that's gonna last anyway.  Talk about Him every day and every night.  Bring up all that He has done for you--and for them.  I got up nearly every morning with Allie to eat breakfast with her and do a quick devotion and prayer with her at the table.  Many mornings, she was half asleep, but at least I was making the attempt (and I know she heard a lot of good stuff to begin her day, even if she did sit there acting like she was half-dead).  But I learned early on that if we didn't do it first thing, it wasn't going to happen that night.  We had to put God first.
*Help them to learn to be grateful, appreciative, and to count their blessings. Teach them manners are important and that thankfulness is crucial to happiness in life.  In this world of entitlement and where we see an, "all about me" attitude permeating every ounce of society, teach your kids to care more about other people than they do about themselves. Make your own life an object lesson for this as much as you can.  Take them with you to do ministry work, church work, and any other charitable stuff you do for family, friends, and neighbors.  Show them the joy that comes from helping others.
*Delay gratification.  Don't give them everything they want, every time they want it, and/or in the time-frame they request it.   Bless your kids richly, but do it in sneaky ways and when they aren't expecting it so that they don't think they are deserving of it or that their demands are constantly being met.
*Know everyone with whom your kid associates and require that they be a Godly &/or a well-known, healthy, safe influence.  Avoid anyone who isn't, and make no apologies to anyone for this.  Rely on your instinct.  Trust God's small voice when He throws up red flags about people or other kids.  Your child's mental and physical safety are of utmost importance.  Explain to your kid that you don't want them to suffer any harm at the hands of anyone who would seek to bring bad things into their life.  Give them examples of scary or harmful situations in which you found yourself as a young person, and tell them this is why you are protecting them. (Example:  I once went to a slumber party where the father watched, "The Playboy Channel," all evening--while we girls were running around the house awake--not that I'm condoning pornography when the kids are asleep.  But it was mortifying and those images still play in my head.  I was about 10 years old.  It scarred me for years). 
*Do not allow your child to date until they are of courting/marrying age.  Again, make no apologies to anyone for this, and don't let the scoffers, mockers, and naysayers tear you down for protecting your child from an unplanned pregnancy, STDs, a broken heart, and the like.  There are natural, obvious progressions in dating relationships, and it is proven that if two people, who even just like each other a lot, spend around 30 hours alone, they will end up having sex (duh).  There are many similar stats out there, but this particular one comes from the book by Tim and Beverly LaHaye called, Raising Sexually Pure Kids, and we highly recommend it.  It is natural and normal to have sexual feelings and kids needs to understand the facts and triggers.  No one under 18 needs to be having sex (or getting married), so why do we put our kids in situations where they are bound to do so?!  It is senseless.  We don't put our toddlers on train tracks to play, so why do we loosen the reigns so much in the teen years and then wonder why our kids screw up?!  Unless your biggest hopes for your child are STDs, abortions, teenage pregnancy, or a seriously broken heart, you will believe these truths and seek to protect and guard your beloved young person regardless of your personal popularity with other parents or your kids (or God-forbid, family members and friends who should be supporting you fully in this).  God has entrusted you with your kids and this.  Don't follow the crowd.  Again, your critics will not be in your life after your child graduates from high school (and they won't be suddenly supportive if your kid ends up "messing up," either).  Scoffers will scoff no matter what you do, and their kids will likely have major issues from dating at age 14 and suffering the consequences of it later.  Kids' brains aren't even fully developed until they are over 22 years of age (I believe it is proven that for girls, it is 23, and for boys, the age is 25).  How can they be expected to make adult decisions in situations like dating?!  I have spoken at a few purity conferences, and believe me--kids don't want to risk their lives in these ways, and they appreciate knowing all the real stats.  When they are presented with and understand the true, unguarded facts, they are happy to make a purity commitment to Christ and to their future spouse (and to themselves, for that matter).  According to research, the majority of them keep it (despite worldly views and opinions).  Abstinence works when it is presented properly and accurately (not declared piously with just the statement that, "God says fornication is forbidden!").  Teens need to hear all the facts.  They need to be given the truth in love.  They need to be told that God isn't forbidding them from this to ruin their fun--quite the contrary.  He has a better idea and wants only to bless their sex life even more with just good things.  They need to hear all the pitfalls and truths of the risks.  They need to hear they are worth the wait (because our children are, right?).  The world says, "All kids are going to do it, so give them the contraception and let it go."  Well, kids have a way of living up to your expectations.  If you hand your son a condom, he is going to use it--you just told him to do so and gave him permission.  The world also says that you have to practice sex to get good at it.  What a load of crap.  God designed us naturally to first, be spiritual beings.  But He designed us to also be sexual beings while we are here on earth.  When you love somebody, there is no practice needed.  Passion tends to work itself out just fine (and when it doesn't, there are usually other problems to address).  Besides, God promises if you do it His way and abstain til marriage, He'll bless your marital sex life greatly.  I've never met a couple that abstained who regretted doing so--quite the contrary (obviously, they are "good to go" in this realm).  God keeps His promises.  The world lies to us so often about so many things.  Teen pregnancy doesn't occur because of a lack of knowledge and availability of contraception, as the world likes to tout proudly in its attempt to solve all its own problems.  It also doesn't occur because of a lack of brain cells on the part of the teens involved, (thank you).  The honest reality is that no amount of contraception is fool-proof or STD-proof.  I believe knowledge is power--if it is factual knowledge, that is.  The kind of knowledge that says teens need to know how to use a prophylactic is bunk.  Sadly, most kids learn this in a teenage locker room.  I am talking about telling kids the harsh reality of dating and sex--laying it all out there and exposing it for what it is and what is at stake.  This can and should be done from both a Biblical standpoint and a factual, medical and psychological standpoint.  Regardless of your thoughts about religion, dating, and abstinence, no one can deny that having sex puts you at emotional and physical risk--even if you wear a condom. Last time I checked, putting your teenage girl on the pill doesn't protect her from a broken heart, either.  I've never heard anyone be grateful that they slept around--and if they are, they aren't being honest (and you can tell, because those people tend to self-medicate quite a lot).  Very few people sleep around without paying some price for it later (I happen to believe that God punishes all sin and that no one is exempt).  When you sleep with someone, they get a little piece of your soul, too.  God says so, and I believe Him.  I had no desire to compromise in this and accommodate anyone with my daughter's soul.  I began praying for her future husband when she was two years old, and I wanted him to get her entire soul.  Praise God, He did.  I can seriously die a happy woman now.
*Be in church regularly with your kids.  Talk about what you learned.  Talk about any ways you screwed up that week.  Talk about how you wish you could do better in certain areas, and how they can pray for you, too.  Just be a real person.  Don't ever let them think that being a Christian means being perfect or lying to cover-up that you aren't.  Get real with yourself and be real with them.  Be real in your faith.  Live it.  Walk it.  Talk it.  Quickest way to turn a kid off to God and find them having issues with disobedience and rebellion towards you?  Live in hypocrisy with a righteous, pious attitude, acting like they owe YOU something in life, and like your crap doesn't stink.  Remember:  God loaned them to you, and you have to prove your worth as manager of them to Him--not the other way around.  Do not provoke them to wrath.  Instead, give them reasons to want to honor you, as God's Word says.  There is an age of accountability with God, but no one really knows what that is.  So live like you are most accountable to God first (because you are), and your child is at a distant second.

I could probably keep going (you know me), but those are the main truths that Matt and I honestly tried to live by in raising our Allie-girl.  We weren't perfect parents, but God is a perfect parent, and somehow, with His help and by way of the transitive property, we were able to do it--even as young, dumb kids.  And, "Shout out to our daughter, Al"--she has always had a heart to please God and we give her some serious credit for her heart for Him, and her heart to always please us, as well.  She loved us as much as we loved her.  We didn't even deserve her.  God drew her to Himself at a very young age (age 5 actually), which was one of my earliest prayers for her.  She has been a devoted follower of Him ever since.  Again, we didn't do that--God did.  Thanks be to our Father in heaven--our Perfect Parental Example and Guide.  He was faithful to our prayers, our desires for Allie, and our honest efforts at trying to do this parenting-thing.  Have faith--He will be faithful to you, too.