Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Comfort Zone

I like being comfortable.  A few weeks ago my husband and I were cruising the aisles of Big Lots (this is how we roll), and happened upon some memory foam pillows.  Name brand!  $12 each!  Well our current pillows had pretty much had it...so we took a chance.  And every night since that fateful day, we've been sighing with satisfaction as we hit the hay.  These things are AWESOME! Comfy bed....comfy jammies...comfy pillow...it's a good way to end a day.  I've been waking up right before the alarm, well rested.  The pillow may not be 100% responsible, but I think it's been a huge factor.  (Did I mention it was $12???)

We may not live in the nicest home or drive the nicest cars, but we have a home and two cars in a quieter neighborhood by a school.  Frank has a good job. We have plenty to wear and plenty to eat.  We have three healthy, smart and beautiful children.  We have a dog...a cat...two guinea pigs. We even have some luxuries, like our stash of musical instruments and more than 100 channels at the press of the remote button.  We have fantastic families and friends and we're starting to realize how wonderful our new church family is.  We are blessed.  We live a comfortable life.  And there are many around us who do the same.

However, just a few minutes away, there's an elementary school where almost 90 per cent of the kids participate in the free lunch program.  Yes, 89.4% to be exact during the 2011-2012 school year.  The most recent census says that 19% of the people in my county live below the poverty line, but the poverty rate among children is over 25%.  According to the CASA website, there are over 300 children in my county in foster care on any given day.  Recently, there has been over 300 inmates in our county jail, not to mention the hundreds in the federal penitentiary in our community and the three state correctional facilities less than an hour's drive from here.  I couldn't find statistics on the poverty rate for the elderly in my county, and that is both interesting and sad to me.  Add in many living in facilities to care for mental health, physical health, juvenile detention centers, group homes, homeless shelters, addiction treatment centers....

Why all the depressing in-your-face stats?  Well, besides proving that I indeed am related to my economist brother, a plain fact emerges.  There are many that are not comfortable.  In MY county.  In yours.  In my country and yours.  And millions around the world living in circumstances we cannot imagine.  This is overwhelming.  We know this.  The collective Church and local churches here do some amazing things to try to minister to people and meet their needs. Locally and globally.  I don't want to downplay that.  And yet, there seems to be a frustrating lack of change as we see generation after generation in physical, emotional, and spiritual poverty.

Here's the truth.  I don't know the answers to these big needs.  I have a few clues and hunches based on my work with non-profits, churches, schools, and workforce development in the last 12 odd years. But this is what I read:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)

 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.(James 1:27)

I see in these verses an active relationship with those who are the most vulnerable and have the most need.  I don't see a check being written with a quick photo op.  (Believe me, those working in non-profits see this a lot.) Yes, giving to the church you attend is important.  Giving to charities we love is good.  Be obedient to God and do that, please! But I think we've missed a crucial element in Christianity if we fail to get to know those in need.  How do we even know WHAT they need unless we're willing to get to know them?  Did Jesus give his disciples a big fat purse of silver and tell them good luck in life?  Did hey say to Mary and Martha, "So sorry your brother died; here's a pamphlet on grief and we hope to see you at church next Sunday!"  Maybe this is a little harsh.  There's a lot of Christians who get it.  But I think there's still many who don't. Jesus got to know those in need.  He died for each and every single one of us.  We are valuable enough for him to have a personal relationship with us.  So why is it so difficult for us to build relationships with "others"?  Why do we always say that doing this type of serving is out of our comfort zone?  I feel like we treat it like it's only for certain brave and bold Christians with a certain skill set or spiritual gift. Shouldn't it be the norm for a Christian?  Do people with great need remind us a little too much that we have great needs that only God can fufill?

We had a gal at church last Sunday share about her experience going on mission trips to Nicaragua (Thanks, Kathy, for allowing me to share your story!!).  She said that she was a happy wife, mom, volunteer, and church member who was actively involved.  She said yes to going on a trip to Nicaragua and was unsure if God could even use her in a strange and scary capacity like that.  But she said that instead of it being outside her comfort zone...she felt like she had, for the first time in her whole life, FOUND her comfort zone.  She could be used by God to help those in desperate need and she loved that!  This just resonated with me.  What is my true comfort zone?  What have I accepted as my comfort zone that might be a poor substitute for my real comfort zone in Christ?  Who is God placing in my path that I can get to know and meet his or her needs?

So I end with lots of questions.  But definitely questions worth working through.  There is not a person on this earth in all of time that Jesus wasn't willing to give his life for.  While I usually find it easy to love those in the margins of society, I still tend to get hung up on who is "worthy" of my time, money, and my help.  Everyone is worthy.  Every one.  I just need to stay off my high horse and cling desperately to God in order to clearly see my true comfort zone.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thanks, God, for Cat Pee

Ok, so the last post was a little in depth.  Serious. The short version is we need to consciously name the things for which we are thankful.  They are all gifts from God to us.  It helps put things in perspective about how good God is to us.  Always. Here's how that process went for me one day last week:

As usual, I was doing some laundry.  I had taken a load of laundry out of the dryer which I thought was dry, but noticed some of it was a little damp.  I left the damp stuff in the dryer to re-dry and put the dry clothes in a basket when I started to notice a particular smell.  A smell I know.  A smell of cat urine.  Well, the litter box is next to the dryer, so in vain I hoped that kitty just had a particularly smelly day.

Nope. Upon further investigation...he had peed. IN. THE. DRYER.  On CLEAN clothes!?!  That's about a 12 on the 1 to 10 disgust-o-meter.  And so I started the clean up process.  I swore under my breath.  Grumble, grumble.  General nastiness radiated from me.  Put the clothes back in the washer.  Grumble.  Sit and figure out just how I am supposed to clean and sanitize the inside of my dryer. Grumble. Gag. Clean dryer.  Bleach the heck out of the clothes.  Glare at cat. Gag. Grumble. Stomp upstairs and check on kid happily playing.  Grumble.  Jump into shower to attempt to wash the smell from memory. 

As I was standing under near boiling water, I finally took a deep breath.  Wasn't I supposed to be thankful and content in all situations?  I sighed and looked up at the bathroom ceiling that needs a paint job. "God, WHAT in the world is there to be thankful about in this????"

So I grudgingly starting making a mental list.
1. I have a dryer that works and dries our clothes.
2. We have clothes.
3. I had a good supply of detergent and bleach and didn't have to make an extra trip to the store on a rainy day.
4. It was a load of mostly towels, socks, and t-shirts that COULD be bleached.
5. Josh the peeing cat was a birthday present to Frank and the cat makes him happy.
6. We had the money to get Josh and rescue him from the humane society.
7. I have a sensitive nose and caught this before my kids went to school smelling like cat pee.
8. At least I didn't close the dryer with the cat in it.
9. At least it wasn't the dog.
10. At least is wasn't a kid.

At this point I was laughing out loud in the shower and the list went unfinished.  And I marveled that instead of grumbling, I was now giggling and realizing just how ridiculous the whole thing was and how fortunate we are to even be in the position to have this happen!  First world problem.

I know that all situations are not this easy to laugh at.  Oh, believe me.  I know.  But there is always something to thank God for.  If nothing else amid your dark days, you are reading this.  Alive and breathing.  In your own language. On a device that was merely science fiction a few decades ago.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)

So...um...thanks, God, for cat pee.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


One of my own favorite things as a kid, and into college even, was choosing a title for a paper.  I love a catchy name.  Puns and ridiculousness welcome.  I would name very serious paper with a wacky title.  I'm sure my professors loved that...

And at this stage of life, many of my friends are having babies.  The question is always, "What will the name be?" It's a HUGE decision!  You can't name a baby the same thing your friend did, or give them the name of your creepy third grade teacher, or the name of your husband's ex-girlfriend!  You can't pick a name that's too popular...you can't pick a name that's too strange...(try finding names that go with Sabelhaus.  Abel was out right away.)

Have you ever been called a name that stung long after it was thrown at you?  Loser. Fat. Ugly. Worthless. Why do we obsess with names?  Why do they hold so much meaning?

For some reason, I've been reading books that address this theme of naming.  (Not name it and claim it prosperity theology....no, no, no. Run away.)  I'm working through The Genesis Trilogy by Madeline L'Engle and I just finished One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. How I love these women! Both share a beautiful use of the English language. They both tend farms and children and the mind.  Well, I'm no farmer. (I do some yard work and love the outdoors.)  But I most definitely am a mom and a thinker.  There's so many great people in this world I admire, but with these women I find a certain kinship.  Like they would understand my brain and heart more than most.  And they both find "naming" to be essential to a joyous relationship between God and the people he created.

 From Madeleine L'Engle's And It Was Good:
"When Adam named the animals he made them real. My dog is named Timothy and my cat is named Titus.  Farmers do not let their children name the animals who are going to be slaughtered or put in the pot.  It is not easy to eat a ham you have known as Wilbur or a chicken called Flossy.  When we respond to our names, or call someone else by name, it is already the beginning of a community expressing the image of God.  To call someone by name is an act of prayer.  We may abuse our names, and our prayer, but without names we are not human. And Adam and Eve, no matter what else they were, were human.  At first there was nothing but joy, joy in being created, and in worshipping the God who had created them. And wonder: wonder at sunrises and starfish and dolphin and even dandelions....Were Adam and Eve beginning to take the image of God in themselves and loveliness of Eden for granted?  Is that why they fell for Satan's temptations?  When we take things for granted, then what we have is not enough, and we are rendered vulnerable to the wiles of the tempter."

From Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts:
"Naming is Edenic. I name gifts and go back to the Garden and God in the beginning who first speaks a name and lets what is come into existence.  This naming is how the first emptiness of space fills: the naming of light and land and sky. This first man's first task is to name.  Adam completes creation with his Maker through the act of naming creatures, releasing the land from chaos, from the teeming, indefinable mass.  I am seeing it too... naming offers the gift of recognition.  When I name moments-string out laundry and name-pray, thank You, Lord, for bedsheets in billowing winds, for fluff of sparrow landing on line, sun winter warm, and one last leaf still hanging in the orchard- I am Adam and I discover my meaning and God's, and to name is to learn the language of Paradise.  This naming work never ends for all the children of Adam.  Naming to find an identity, our identity, God's."

Aren't those passages so very, very similar?  I picked up these two books a week apart without any knowledge that some of the content would overlap.  And I received a strong message that when we "forget" to physically put pen to paper or voice to speech or instrument to song or brush to painting or feet to dance or whatever part of you can express thanks in a tangible way...we choose to ignore God's innumerable blessings.  We focus on ourselves.  It is blatantly clear that by ourselves, humans are found lacking.  We complain and compare. We feed the monsters of bitterness and jealousy.  And we simultaneously push away God who is the only way to make us complete. Creativity, worship, gratitude- they all put a right perspective on who we are and how great God is.  Ann Voskamp observed how impossible it is to be joyless while you are in the act of giving thanks.  So she proposes that we "name" or write down all the gifts God has given us.  All of them.  If you want to know more, visit her website at http://onethousandgifts.com/.  There's much more to the book, and I won't spoil it for you.  But I love the simple and practical application of just putting into words what God gives us each day. 

Reminds me of the old song,"Count your blessings, name them one by one.  Count your many blessings see what God has done."  Or "every blessing you pour out I turn back to praise."  Or what we're studying in our sermon series right now at church: "Bless the Lord, oh my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of his benefits (Psalm 103:1-2)."  We sing it at church and read it in the Bible, but do we apply it?  Do we really want joy, peace, and to find out that ourselves and our complaints are pretty small potatoes most of the time?

So I attempt to name the things for which I am thankful.  I practice being thankful on good days and the not so good.  I hung poster board by the back door.  I grab a marker when I think of something and pause to write it down.  By God's grace we do not receive what we deserve- eternal separation from God. Instead, we receive...
Magnolia petals
Son's giggles
Daughter's crazy dances
Smell of coffee beans
And on...and on...

A good friend put this on facebook the other day.  (He wants to credit it to Chris Rice since he was listening to a song of his at the time...but he's a pretty wise man himself.) "Peace comes when we realize: how small we are, how big God is and just how much He really loves us."  I think practicing gratitude is the perfect start to this realization process and this path to peace.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


What do babies, Stephen Hawking, and a bad cup of coffee have in common? (Psssst...look at the title...) Yep. They are weak. Opposite of strong. Yeah, I know. Terrible riddle. But I can't think of a better way to introduce this. And on the onset, we think of those who are frail, tiny, and paralyzed as some of the most helpless in our world. BUT...there's this paradox.

When we were expecting our first bundle of joy, we went to great lengths to prepare for her. Rooms were painted, items were pondered and purchased, cribs were assembled, books were read, and there was a great stir in the circle of people we knew- a tiny helpless little baby forever changed our world. Likewise, what an impact "helpless" people such as Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeve, and Joni Eareckson Tada have had despite their physical limitations. (And I will drive miles and miles to avoid a weak cup of coffee.) Weakness can be a powerful agent of love, power, and change. Weakness can force a reaction.

For close to two years now...my body has been weak. Just typing that makes my face distort a bit in a grimace. I hate admitting my weakness. I...ahem...am a rather independent person (I'm sure my husband can attest...he probably just rolled his eyes a little.). I hate asking for help. As my body has been fighting this crazy disease, one of the most frustrating things is just the weakness that comes along with it. And just as I think I'm getting strong again and tipping the scales to be heavy on the side of healthy, I've been sinking into weakness yet again.

It's never a good sign when your doctor's office calls you four times in one day. My routine blood tests came back a bit screwy in mid March, and my doctor had me go back for more to see where I was at right now. The results came last week, and most concerning is my liver function. I guess my liver decided to take a vacation but forgot to tell me. Livers are sneaky like that. I guess you can go a long time without obvious symptoms when your liver is unhappy. Who knew? The best guess right now is that it's a side effect from one of the medications I take. So that explains why I've been feeling run down even though I'm supposed to be feeling pretty good right now. So I was directed to stop taking my meds and did more blood work which came back a little better and now I check in with docs and do more tests and try to figure out what the best course of action is from here. Because I'm sick because of the meds and yet sick without them...so, time to figure that one out.

Honestly, when I was really sick last year, I was worried and scared, but so weak I just had to turn it over to God because I really couldn't do much else. Last week, however, I was frightened and angry. Really? Freak side effect equals possible damage to my liver? Just when things were kind of normal? So I...cleaned. And hung up pictures. And took my kids hiking. (And as a result spent a day on the couch feeling crappy.) But I COULD, at least, and I suppose it's a more positive response than curling up in a ball. And I talked with God a LOT. And I asked my family to pray. But it's difficult for me to share this kind of thing with the world at large. I make all kinds of justifications....I don't want others to worry unnecessarily. I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I don't want my situation to take away from others in more dire need. Explaining the whole thing takes too long. I can still do a lot of "normal" stuff.  And so forth. But a lot of times, I just don't want others to know my weakness. I look just fine on the outside. So move along, people...nothing to see here!

It's been hard for me to ask publicly for healing or prayer. I seriously have an aversion to going to the alter at church to pray and I'm sure that's a "whole nuther ball of wax" as one of my former teachers would say...But I pray personally for healing. And if I go into lifelong remission (no real "cure" to ulcerative colitis) due to medical care or miraculous healing from God, I will give all credit to Him. And if I struggle with this disease for the rest of my physical life, in my heart of hearts, I will humbly accept that God has a far bigger plan and more glory will go to Him than if I had a perfectly healthy body. I just keep coming back to this.  Time after time (Cue Cyndi Lauper):

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it (thorn in the flesh) away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Paradox. When I am weak, then I am strong. So let this be my first boast: I am weak right now. But my God...He is the very definition of strength and power. I'm not delighting in my weakness quite yet...but I will continue to praise God for the things I'm learning through being weak. And I will praise Him for the countless blessings in my life that far surpass the one obstacle of a not-so-healthy physical body.

I have an ultrasound to check out my liver later this week.  Also about a million and one blood tests that I should get results for soon. I hope my liver is happily back to work and things keep improving (Really, I've been feeling good the last couple days!), so your prayers for healing are appreciated.  But I ask that you pray more that God's power is made perfect in me...and in you...through our weaknesses.