Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tying Shoes

Thirteen years ago I was in a state of panic!

It was the summer before Graham would start his academic career, and his school had sent out a list entitled "Kindergarted Readiness" that outlined the essential developmental benchmarks for students entering kindergarten. Graham could do almost everything on the list--he could count to 100 (or more!), he could recognize all the letters in the alphabet, he could write his own name, he could remember and execute three-part instructions.

But he could not tie his shoes.

And shoe-tying was on the list. I just knew that I had somehow failed as a parent because my five-year old could not tie his shoes. I was fairly sure that it was not due to a lack of manual dexterity, he could make Lego models that were meant for 10-12 year olds. I was fairly sure that is was not due to a lack of intelligence, because at 5, Graham did not only recognize the letters of the alphabet, he could read simple chapter books. And darn if it was wasn't due to lack of instruction! I had been trying to teach him to tie his own shoes for six months. The boy just wasn't interested.

Graham and Kayla, the delightful young woman that he is courting.
He was happy for me to tie his shoes. He let the eager-to-mother-anyone little girls in his preschool class tie his shoes. Actually, I think even his younger brother would tie his shoes.

But there on the official "Kindergarten Readiness" list was the dreaded and lacking criteria: Tie Shoes.

And so I worried, and redoubled my efforts. I probably bribed, and threatened, and belittled, and chided. But when the first day of school arrived, Graham still could not tie his shoes. So I did what any over-achieving mother on the verge of facing failure would do. I gave up and bought slip-ons, secretly fearing that my son would one day gradute from high school still not knowing how to tie his shoes.

Graham and Kayla sipping cider in Warsaw
Fast forward thirteen years.

Yesterday, as Graham completed the very last of his on-line High School courses,  I was in town trying to buy him some shoes. He only wears one style: Converse Laceless Slip-ons. To tell you the truth, I can't remember him ever owning a pair of shoes that he had to tie. And in that moment I realized two things:

  1. It is possible that my son is graduating from High School not knowing how to tie his shoes.
  2. I don't care!
You see, something that I feared when he was five may have actually come true, only for me to realize that it was a stupid fear in the first place. So many wise mentors told me not to sweat the small stuff, but the problem was, as a young mom, I had a hard time figuring out what the "small stuff" was.

So I panicked about things like whether the chosen shirt went with the chosen pants, or how many brussels sprouts each child consumed, or whether we had purchased exactly the right folders on the school supply list. I fretted when he went on a field trip to the roller rink because my son had never been on skates before. I wondered how to know if he no longer needed swiming lessons. I felt devasted when he was reprimanded for wearing BLACK-soled shoes on gym days! What kind of a delinquent mother was I? And I just KNEW that a lunch box left at school over the weekend would be mold-covered and contaminated beyond repair by Monday.

But now, as I look back over the school years, now I get it. Tying shoes--and ALL that other stuff--is small stuff. So is standardized test scores, hair length, clothing labels, clean rooms, bed times, adolescent facial hair, and food preferences.

Being sweet.
On the other hand, my scruffy long-haired boy who hates shoelaces has the big stuff just right.

He starts each day in God's Word--not because we require it, but because he chooses it. He is compassionate and kind and eager to serve anyone who has need. He can play a guitar so beautifully it brings tears to my eyes. He's the kind of guy who gets 100% on his English final, and never announces it. He honors his parents, he challenges weak thinking, and he works diligently, no matter the task.

So to all you mothers out there stressing over school supply lists, developmental benchmarks, and swimming lessons, I declare to you this happy news: They don't matter. Be free. Enjoy your summer.

And just to be on the safe side, don't buy black-soled shoes.

Note the laceless Converse.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Splinters

I have been working on a life-long confession, the final exercise in Brian Rice's book, What's Gone Wrong?

The Exercises Volume Four: What's Gone Wrong

After 42 lessons on sin, most of which included reflection and self-examination, I'm beginning to get a grasp on my own sin tendencies, my basic brokenness, and my propensity for coddling the flesh. I say "beginning to get a grasp" because I'm not sure its possible to fully understand the grotesque reality of my own depravity. I'm not sure I can comprehend the horror that I am. But I'm working hard to acknowledge whatever the Lord chooses to reveal. To stare the ugly monster in the eyes. To grieve over the damage it's doing and done.

So many times during these lessons, I wanted to gloss over the work. To skim the surface and avoid the depths, as if ignoring my sin could make it magically disappear. Because I believe that ALL my sins, past, present, and future, have been nailed to the cross, I can convince myself that I don't have to bother naming them. But in leaving them ambiguous and unidentified, I run the risk of staying enslaved to them. Like an un-diagnosed disease, they keep infecting me even if they no longer have the power to kill me. And when I'm infected with sin, I'm not the only one who suffers for it.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
And sin is slippery. The Bible tell me that the heart is deceitful, which means it's very easy for me to lie to myself about how messed up I am. It's easy for me to make much of the wounds I receive from others while remaining oblivious to the wounds I've afflicted.

But lest you imagine that this study has been depressing, I guarantee that has not been the case. Painful, yes. Like having splinters of various shapes and sizes removed from all over my body. And some of those splinters were pretty infected. But would you ever say,"That nurse pulled out a doozy of a splinter, and now I am so depressed!"? NO! Never! I may be in pain, and have a lot of tender spots, but I'm thankful to be free from the splinters.

And when the gentle healer comes (how I love him!), he pours out his kindness into the open wound of my conviction. His kindness leads me to repentance, and through repentance I discover the transforming work of his Spirit.

The sad thing is this: The day I do my "whole life confession" I'll probably sin again. And again. I have not learned to fully avoid the sin-splinters. But I have learned several things, like the circumstances where I am most likely to get splinters, and what it feels like to have splinters, and how to get free from splinters before they get infected and contagious.

Mostly, I've learned how easily I can be tempted to coddle the splinter, or justify the splinter, or rationalize the splinter, rather than let Jesus remove it. Jesus paid it all--but not so that I can keep on living the way I always lived while cherishing the hope of heaven. He paid it all so that right now--today--I can find freedom and healing from sin.

In the meantime, I live in process. I ask Jesus to help me see my sin as he sees it. I fully confess, fall, and fully confess again. I get self-righteous as I see unattended specks in other peoples' eyes, only to be reminded of the plank in my own. And in the un-comfortableness of such realizations, I forget that it is a gift to be aware of both specks and planks and an even greater gift to be liberated from them.

Sometimes I look back nostalgically on the days when I did not bother with careful reflection, in-depth self-examination, and genuine confessions. And then I remember that just because I don't see the cancer, it doesn't mean it isn't destroying me. I remember the Great Physician. And I say, "Okay Doc, give it to me straight." I brace myself for the worst, and when conviction comes gently, I submit myself willingly to his care. He always makes me well.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ten Totally Trivial Tidbits

1. Remember the BAC exams that Chandler had to take in June? Well, much to no one's surprise, he did great. He passed the French written exam and he virtually aced the French oral exam. Now he's spending his summer doing remedial work in Spanish. Because Spanish is definitely his worst subject. And next year he will have to take Spanish exams (written and oral), along with a  Biology exam, a Chemistry/Physics exam, an Math exam, History exams (written and oral), English exam (written and oral), and yes, even a Physical Fitness exam.
2. Graham is furiously finishing up his High School classes, but since his High School is online, there will be neither pomp nor circumstance. I'm trying to talk him into sporting a homemade square cardboard hat, but he's not having any of it. Still, we're super proud of his A average but even more proud of the person that he is. He is totally ready for university life in the States.
3. Speaking of University life, I just found out that I received a nice scholarship to George Fox Evangelical Seminary, which makes me a tiny bit hopeful that I might be enrolling in online classes soon. Man, I want to go! But even with a scholarship, it will still be expensive. We just can't tell if God is saying, "Step out in faith! I've got you covered!" or "Hold back, this isn't yet my timing!"
4. Since our boys don't seem to have enough on their plates (not!) David offered to teach them homelitics this summer. Actually, both boys are willing, maybe even eager, to start learning to preach. I wonder where they got that.
5. A shout out to all those who have lent me Kindle books! Thanks! My literary cup runneth over!
6. Speaking of books, I just finished Leighton Ford's Transforming Leadership. Best book on leadership that I have read in ages. I've never highlighted as much of a book in my entire life.
7. Gemma's groomer went out of business and I can't figure out what to do with my messy mutt. She needs a serious haircut, and the only other groomer in town won't return my phone calls.
8. Chandler and I have been playing a lot of our new board game, Pandemic. It's a cooperative game, so we either both win or we both lose. We mostly win.
9. In other board game news, Graham has completely dethroned me as the Settler's of Catan Champion. He's won the past two games, but only barely. Of course, I won like a thousand before he won the last two, so maybe I'm not entirely dethroned.
10. In case you were wondering, I've been sleeping like a baby lately. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

What is wrong with the world?

When the London Times ran an essay contest asking, "What is wrong with the world?" the great theologian G.K. Chesterton  replied with the shortest essay he ever wrote. It consisted of two words: "I am."

It's true of all of us. All we, like sheep, have gone astray.

And so with Chesterton, I sadly acknowledge the fact that I have made my own contributions to all that has gone wrong in the world, a world that is showing its brokenness in horrific ways this month.

  • Thousands of abandoned babies have been left on the door step of the United States. How do we respond?
  • While a movie called "Persecuted" is released in the United States (where religious freedoms are probably more plentiful than in any other country on earth), Christians in Northern Iraq have been given an ultimatum: Convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or die. How do we respond?
  • A passenger jet was shot out of the air by Ukrainian separatists--an act of terrorism that impacts the entire global community. How do we respond?
  • Hamas is screaming bloody murder as Gaza is plummeted by Israeli missiles--yet they refuse to sign a peace treaty. They say they want peace, but they will not accept a peace that gives Israel the right to exist. How do we respond?

Broken. All of it. All of us.

Dallas Willard writes, "there is no human answer to human problems." A sobering but undeniable truth. There are no human answers to human problems because humanity IS the problem.

Which might sound fatalistic, except it isn't. When I come up against these tragedies, I stop looking to human solutions and turn to my Father and say, "Help!" Such surrender does not lead to helplessness, but hopefulness. If God is above all, then he has a plan for this, too. And if I am his servant, it's likely that his plan of redemption will employ my willing service.

But what can I do?

Last night, we as a family prayed for these dire situations. We set aside our personal needs and desires, and we spent time interceding for our world. Each of us lifted up these various tragedies, crying out to the one who loves the world so much that he died to save it. And our work is not yet over. No, we will continue to intercede for all those who are suffering around the world. Prayer is not some pathetic last resort, it is the most powerful force available to us, though we are often remiss to employ it.

Next, we will do whatever God puts before us to do. When I enter into a cause through prayer, I often find that God brings me opportunities to minister in practical ways as well. These things may be small and seem insignificant, but they are our assignments and we want to complete them. We need to be attentive to our surroundings, our neighbors, and the needs that are right before us.

Finally, we must be open to doing what may not be right before us. God may call some of us into those dangerous places, at our own expense. This is our chance to be the church to the world. To bring kindness and grace into dark and ugly places. To let the redemption that pumps through our veins spill out and bless our broken world.

What we must not do is turn up the Christian radio station to drown out the depressing news channel, turning our backs on the grief and pain--especially when it seems so far and removed from our comfortable lives. We have been called into the world--a screaming, violent, tortured world--as messengers of peace. We must not shrink back. We dare not ignore.

Lean into Jesus, and follow wherever He leads.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Silence

I recently heard someone compare life to a dirty fish tank that is constantly being stirred. The speaker went on to say that the only thing that stops the stirring is silence. In silence, the dirt and debris of our life settles so that we can see more clearly.

As I grow in the practice of the discipline of silence, I am beginning to experience the truth of that assertion.

Silence is a holy habit that I am actively integrating into my daily life. And honestly, I've been reluctant to blog about it because, well, silence isn't exactly exciting. Actually it sounds downright dull, like a discipline that monks invented simply because no one had anything interesting to say.

Now I've long been a lover of quietness, but I like it quiet so that I can engage in activities like reading or writing. And while I am silent when I read and write, such verbal activities hardly qualify as periods of silence, for my mind is still stimulated by internal dialogue and therefore the waters are still being stirred.

The prophet Isaiah wrote these words to the people of Israel:
For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel has said, "In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength." But you were not willing. 
Rest and quietness are essential to salvation and strength. But often, I am not willing. I am not willing to put down the iPad, to close the book, the turn off the T.V., to set aside the laptop. I am not willing to leave the dishes, to overlook the dust, to ignore the notifications, to limit the number of news articles I read. The king of the universe offers me the grace of his presence, and I do not still myself to experience it.

The world presses in, and every day seems fuller and busier than the last one. The to-do list knows no end, and the tasks before me are both urgent and important.

The water is swirling, swirling.

I get swept up in the movement, thinking that if I just move faster or work smarter I can make it stop. Only all my efforts only make the water muddier. There is no way to work it into calm, to whisk it into stillness. I can't make the water stop, but if I STOP MYSELF, if I take time to be silent and still, I will find that the waters slow. And if I stay still long enough, the water will cease to stir, and the debris will finally settle.

Then, and only then, do I find clarity. Life begins to make sense. I can hear the voice of Truth. I can see the way forward--or find the patience to keep waiting. I discover the reality of my faith, the source of my strength, the reason for my hope, and the root of my joy. In silence, I know his love. I hear him rejoice over me with singing. I long to please him. And finally, I receive my marching orders for the day.

And so my new routine is this: Each morning, I wake up, I put on my running clothes, I pour a cup of tea, and sit for 10 to 20 minutes in silence. Sometimes I read a verse or a passage at the beginning, sometimes I save it for after my time of silence. As thoughts whiz through my mind, I lift them silently before the Father, but I resist dwelling on them. I see them as debris that is settling. Eventually, my thoughts stop screaming at me.

Then I experience what the Psalmist referred to when he wrote, "Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother. My soul is like a weaned child within me."

I rest there in that quiet place, content. I am not squirming in anxious prayer, I am satisfied and still.

I've quickly grown attached to the habit of silence. It started as a discipline, but I find that I'm eager for it every morning. I rise earlier and earlier just so that I can have more time--for I'm learning that I don't just want to find the still waters, I want to soak in them.

Have you ever practiced the discipline of silence? Why or why not? Tell me about your experience. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Are you more attached to the vessel or the treasure?

Dallas Willard never disappoints. He was an amazing theologian, author, and lover of God. I have been savoring his book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, and today I reached the end. He finishes on a high point, talking about one of the most common problems of the Western church, which is a passion for the vessel rather than the treasure. Let me explain.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
From the earliest days of the church, the treasure--the Gospel--has been delivered by means of  various vessels--or religious traditions. Even Jesus presented his message through the vessel of Judaism. And then the early church--where the people of God became unified based on creed rather than race--experienced a change of vessel. And from that time forward, through various times and cultures, numerous vessels have appeared. Some die out, other endure for centuries. Some cross borders, and other thrive only within certain people groups. All carry (or should carry) the same, priceless treasure.

But eventually, we lose sight of the fact that there is a difference between the vessel and the treasure, and we begin to elevate the status of the vessel, we fall in love with the vessel, and finally, we begin to bicker and fight over the truth and value of the vessel, all the while losing sight of that original intent of the vessel--which was to reveal the glory of the treasure.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
I first began to experience the reality of the tension back when we did our pre-field training. At one point we were given an assignment to determine which qualities were essential in order for an organization to be considered a church (a vessel). We were given a two-page list of characteristics that read something like this:
  • Baptism must be by immersion
  • Baptism is accomplished by a sprinkling of water
  • Infants should be baptized
  • Children may be baptized
  • Only adults can be baptized
  • Communion is shared every week
  • Communion is shared quarterly
  • Communion must consist of wafer and wine
  • Wine must not be used in communion
  • Communion can be taken by visitors
  • Children cannot take communion
  • Only people who have been baptized may take communion
  • Only people who have been baptized in our denomination may take communion
  • Only people baptized in our church may take communion
  • All members should tithe 10% of their gross income
  • All members should tithe 10% of their net income
  • All members should give cheerfully, as they feel led
Mind you, this is just a sampling of the list--it went on and on and on. For our assignment, we had to choose the items that were absolute non-negotiables for us in terms of a church. We thought and prayed and debated, and when we went to bed that night David said, "I've got two." and I said, "Me too. I have two non-negotiables." We had checked the same two items:
  • The Bible is the inspired Word of God
  • Salvation through Christ alone
Now that isn't to say we didn't have preferences or even strong beliefs about the other issues. But we had two non-negotiables--the least of all the people in our class. The next fewest was, I believe, seven. The class average was thirteen.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
Here's the thing. We have to have a vessel. Even if we don't think it is essential to have communion X number of times per year, we need to decide how often and when we will take communion; similar decisions must also be made about baptism, worship styles, women in ministry, and how the gifts of the Spirit will be employed (or not). So you can't get away from having a vessel. But we must get away from turning the vessel into the treasure. Because when we don't, we start bickering over non-essentials, and sadly, that tends to be what the world knows us for. We take up denominational and traditional teams, forgetting that we share the same treasure. And then the glory of the treasure gets blurred by our silly skirmishes.

And why do we so easily come to blows?  Because we are afraid of getting something wrong. In fact, that is why we choose the vessels we choose--in an effort to protect the integrity of the treasure. And so with mostly good motives, we cling to the vessel, wrongly believing it to be the source of the treasure's strength. But the treasure has a strength of its own! The vessel is not needed to protect the treasure, only to display its glory.

Willard so wisely reminds the reader that we love being right so much that we do all the wrong things to defend our rightness. He writes, "Anyone who thinks God only blesses what is 'right' has had a very narrow experience and probably does not really understand what God has done for them."

Our pastor in the States once defined a denomination as "a group of people who all agree to be wrong about the same things." What he meant was that while most denominations believe that have gotten everything right, the truth is, we can't all have it all right. Which means that we all have some of it wrong. And yet, based on Willard's quote and my experience, God blesses us. Yes, he blesses us even though we have some things wrong.

Now that isn't to say that we shouldn't all do our very best to get as much as we can right when creating a vessel for the Gospel. But it is to say that we should be very wary of condemning or criticizing someone else's vessel. And even more importantly, we must hold loosely to our chosen vessel while clinging tightly to the treasure.

This is why David and I are thankful that we have experienced a broad range of denominations. This is why we have exposed our children to churches of various traditions. When you fully grasp the greatness of the treasure, the vessel carries little importance.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. 2 Corinthians 4:7

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Rebuttal to the article entitled "10 Things Missionaries Won't Tell You"

I recently read a blog post entitled 10 Things Missionaries Won't Tell You. Obviously, it resonated with some people because it was so popular it caused the author's website to crash. Only here's the problem. I really did not like the article.

It listed things that missionaries typically say, most of which were benign statements about struggles and finances and loneliness. Then it went into detail about what the author believes to be the truth behind those statements. The whole thing made me sick to my stomach. Let me try to explain why.

First, it perpetuates the idea that those in Christian ministry have a public image that contradicts their private reality--that there is an unspoken law that we must keep up appearances for the sake of the Gospel. If a missionary isn't honest about his experience, he is either fooling himself or he doesn't think other people can deal with his brokenness. I choose to believe that our supporters and prayer partners are savvy enough to know that we are not perfect. If I'm having a rough time, I want to tell them plainly so that they can pray for me! Obviously I don't air all of the details of all of our trials in the public arena, but I certainly can be frank about the presence of challenging circumstances. And I have several close friends and mentors with whom I disclose the nitty-gritty and downright ugly. These people don't gasp in horror when they hear that I am fighting depression or having panic attacks or losing support. They speak truth to me, stand in the gap for me, and sometimes carry me until the Lord restores me fully. 

Second, the article insinuated that the missionary life is somehow harder or more stressful than any other life calling. Honestly, life is tough all over!  We all struggle, we all suffer, and we all get weary--missionary or not. Missionaries are not the only ones who get lonely or have money problems. We aren't the only ones doing kingdom work on earth. Our call is no more important nor more challenging than that of the IT guy who is the only voice of truth in his office, the stay-at-home mom who questions her significance, or the school teacher who sees hurting students day after day and wonders if she's making a difference. We're all investing our lives in eternity, it doesn't matter if we're doing it at home or in a far away place. Please, oh please, climb down off of that pedestal, Mr. Missionary.

Third, the author acts as if he believes his supporters would be shocked to think that a missionary took a vacation. Why? We're so holy we don't need a break? Do we need to prove that our work is so important that the world will fall apart if we step away for week? But what I really hated about this idea was that again, missionaries are portrayed as two-faced. It's as if the author said, "Okay, fine, I realize I need a vacation, but I better not let my supporters know that I actually liked it! I certainly better not publicize it on Facebook." Now I do understand the question of extravagance--many people make financial cut-backs in order to be able to support us, and it would be wrong for us to take that money and blow it on frivolities. I'm not talking about week-ends at the Georges V in Paris. But let's assume that my supporters have already determined that we are committed to living simple and generous lives. Would they begrudge us a family trip? Rest is actually critical to effective ministry. We need a break as much as anybody. So we go to places that we enjoy, and since we live in Europe, those places happen to be in Europe. My supporters also know geography. They know that we went to Ireland for two weeks last summer. They also know that we drove there, spent part of the time staying with friends, and had a blast! If a missionary feels the need to hide something like a vacation from supporters I think there's an integrity problem. 

Fourth, I hate the "us and them" tone of the article. It breaks the world into two categories: Missionaries and Supporters. Frankly, I'm both! I'm so grateful for our many faithful supporters! I know they make sacrifices so that we can be here to do  our work and I'm thankful that God has called them to be part of our team. But it's not like I can't understand the sacrifices they are making--I make them, too! Our support comes to us in a regular monthly paycheck, and out of that income we tithe, we support a couple of Compassion kids, we support a church plant project here in France, and we, too, support a missionary family. I hope this is true of most missionaries, though I really have no way of knowing. All I'm saying is that while I view my supporters work back at home as every bit as important as my work here in France, I also do not see myself as exempt from investing financially in God's kingdom work around the globe. Yes, we are the recipients of support. But we, too, are missionary supporters. 

And finally, the article made missionaries sound pathetic and miserable. The reason I don't tell you the things listed in this article is because most of them are not true for me! I actually am not lonely, I do trust people, and you do hear about my worst days. Of course we have bad days, but mostly I love my life! I feel blessed to be doing to this work, I feel excited about the challenges ahead, and I know that I know that I know that I am exactly where God has called me to be, even when being here is hard. I love living in France and learning a new language and traveling frequently. I love trying new foods and starting new ministries and meeting new people! Being a missionary is not drudgery--it's fun! It's the best job I've ever had, I feel like I was MADE for this! I have miserable moments, but no lasting regrets. We've traversed dark valleys, but we've also climbed some awesome spiritual mountains. We've seen tremendous suffering, but we've seen lives redeemed from the pit, too. 

The author of 10 Things Missionaries Won't Tell You writes, "Often, it is the things left unsaid that really begin to erode the passion and soul of a missionary." I agree. And many missionaries left comments saying, "finally someone has expressed what I've been feeling for years!" But the question that never gets addressed in the article is this: why are these things left unsaid? Are missionaries scared of losing face? Of losing support? Of seeming unholy? Are they ashamed of their struggles? Are supporters really expecting that missionaries don't have these problems? Would they really be shocked to know the truth? THIS, to me, is the real tragedy. 

In closing, I want to stand up and CHEER for all of YOU, our friends! I have always been candid on this blog, and that is because I know you to be savvy, wise, faithful supporters and prayer warriors. We are not two-faced because you accept and love us, warts and all! You journey with us, you encourage us when we're down and you celebrate with us when we have victories. You truly are our co-laborers, and I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. 
 
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