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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Keeping My Side of the Street Clean

I recently had a dream in which I had found a lost wallet and was making arrangements to return it. In a surprising twist, the owner was unappreciative and implied that I had ulterior motives. I woke up livid.

In the following weeks, I encountered several real-life situations which somewhat mirrored my bizarre dream. I had performed kindnesses, and my efforts were met with disdain and accusations. Simply put, I felt hurt and angry.

When variations on the same theme – in this case, ingratitude – keep cropping up unbidden, I begin to figure God has His potter hands on me, chiseling away some edge or crack He means to smooth. Only I don’t much relish the refining process.

To understand how deeply I feel these sorts of sucker punches, you have to realize that I thrive on praise. Always have. I find it gratifying to meet a need and then get kudos for it. I’ve heard the assertion that every action, no matter how altruistic, springs from selfish motives. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but I definitely get a payoff from being a goody-two-shoes. The buzz I feel from being helpful is real and powerful.The flip side is, when my efforts are rebuffed, I may crash and burn.

With this understanding in mind, I’m pondering the ideas of gratitude and peacemaking. Let’s take them one at a time.

It occurs to me that humans very often behave this same way towards God. He has given to us “exceeding abundantly” (Ephesians 3:20) “all things that pertain to life and Godliness” (2 Peter 1:3); “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Yet so often our response to His blessings must wound His heart, as my experiences did mine. Christ lamented the fact that, of the ten lepers He cleansed in Samaria and Galilee, only one came back to thank Him (Luke 17:11-19). The others went merrily about their business, apparently taking for granted the life-changing miracle they had just received. I lived much of my life with just such a mentality, never counting my blessings, but railing against God when things went wrong. I fear this attitude is, alas, the norm in our entitlement-oriented society.

What to do about it? I have no original ideas. The only solution I’ve found sounds trite, but it really is a simple fix. Just say thank You. For anything and everything. Philippians 4:6, Colossians 1:12 and 3:17, and 1 Thessalonians 5:18 all instruct us to do that. Peace will follow, we are assured (Philippians 4:7). When we choose to have a thankful attitude, it feeds on itself.

When the inevitable happens, and our good deeds are ignored or rejected, we again have choices to make. We can either sit in judgment and crawl into a self-pitying hole, or we can try to be Christ-like. In one case, I prayed about the situation and ended up writing the person a note explaining how the unfounded allegations made me feel, while at the same time expressing thanks for some incidents in which she had been helpful to me. I suggested it would be a shame to lose each other’s good will over a relatively small matter. I did not apologize because I truly had done nothing wrong. I steered clear of taking unfounded blame, but did try to be a peacemaker. We have seen each other several times since the incident, and things remain unresolved. I have to confess my behavior has not been consistently Christ-like.

At the suggestion of my prayer partner, I'm attempting to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21), i.e., keeping my side of the street clean. In nuts and bolts, this means acknowledging the offender when we meet and looking for small ways to be of service without losing my own self-respect. When I balked at the idea of smiling and saying "good morning" to this ungrateful person, my prayer partner mildly answered, "Smile at God. He'll appreciate your greeting." In other words, I mustn't lose sight of whose good will I'm seeking when attempting to repair damaged relationships. Because I developed a "peace at any price" mindset early on in life, I must remember that I'm not trying to make this person like me. My goal is Romans 12:17-19, doing whatever is in my power to live at peace, for the sake of my King. Even if the person who hurt me doesn't know I'm still doing them good turns, the process of deliberate well-doing in the face of injustice helps me let go of the bitterness and heal.

In a more recent situation, I confronted my boss about some unfair treatment. I reminded her (heatedly) of the many ways I had been an asset to our operation. My prayer partner again offered some solid advice on this set of affairs. She reminded me that my self-esteem doesn't depend on this employer's opinion of me; I serve a higher authority. If I'm pleasing my heavenly supervisor, it matters little whether my earthly overseer recognizes my worth. Again, it's up to me whether to carry a grudge or quit over the inequities I'm facing. I have a strong feeling the Lord wants me to stick it out and learn how to deal with these types of setbacks, rather than looking for greener pastures (all of which seem to come with some type of manure anyway).

As an experiment (and because Jesus suggested it in Matthew 5:43-45), I'm practicing loving my enemies and doing good to those who have hurt me. For one thing, because these people aren't out-and-out enemies. I reserve that extreme title for folks who wield guns or report lies about me to the government. No, these people come in somewhere on the continuum between Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler. But even if I had to go up against a huge Goliath, God's advice would still apply. It worked for Corrie ten Boom against her Nazi captors; who am I to argue with that kind of success? Also, I have a feeling it's in my best interest (there go those selfish motives again) not to walk around with an Antarctica-sized chip on my shoulder.

The bottom line is, people disappoint us. We may try to be thoughtful, but sometimes our kindness goes unnoticed or de-valued. We will be less upset if we remember who we are actually serving. Hebrews 6:10 says it best: “God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped His people and continue to help them.”  

Check out: Newsboys' "Let it Go"

For more like this, check out:  Morsels for Meditation...: Keeping My Side of the Street Clean Part 2

Morsels for Meditation...: Keeping My Side of the Street Clean Part 3

Friday, July 22, 2011

Business Meetings, AKA, Sleeping in Gethsemane

I slept through an important business meeting this morning. Actually, it was a conference call. The semi-anonymity this venue provided made it possible for me to feign attention for quite some time, until I woke to the rudeness of a dial tone buzzing in my ear.

Fortunately, I have a very understanding boss, who knows how busy he keeps me with appointments and servicing our clients. Although he has other workers who contribute more than I do to the success of our operation, he understands that sometimes I feel responsible for the entire weight of the firm. He just smiles and waits for me to come to my senses when I take on too much. Sometimes it takes a "wakeup call" like this morning to force me to prioritize. When I do slow down for a reality check, I always find my boss more than willing to go over my schedule with me and help me trim the fat.

I must confess this isn't the first time I've fallen asleep on the job. And, though I certainly won't get fired because it's a family business, my colleague, who also happens to be my sister, is probably none too happy with me. It fell to her to pitch our proposals to the boss, and it was she who listened expectantly to his feedback as I dozed. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion this little mishap may take me out of the running (for the time being, anyway) for that promotion I had my eye on. Although the perks from the higher position would have had been on hold till the distant future, they were worth waiting for: prestige, acclaim by my peers, and a personal "well done" from the boss.

After lunch, I felt another siesta coming on. This one caused me to arrive back to my desk late. I should have seen it coming. Eating a heavy meal in the middle of the day is always a setup for me, but I gave in to the call of the ice cream anyway. After snoozing through an afternoon assignment, I returned bleary-eyed to my computer and had to scramble to catch up on my backlog.

Another set of employees long ago also fell prey to the song of the Sandman. Their names were Peter, James and John, and, oddly enough, they answered to the same Boss that I do today. They, too, had trouble staying awake during decision-making times when unity was called for. They, too, failed to meet their responsibilities when time was of the essence. They, too, experienced their Boss's mercy when they failed to be "team players," and found Him waiting patiently with new sets of instructions when they finally got back on the job.

So what will I do tomorrow when my "colleague" and prayer partner, Tina, calls at 7 AM to pray? Will I sleep through another business meeting, or rise ready to serve my Employer?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Yeah, But..."

I was thinking this morning while chopping vegetables for my son's omelet, that he and my younger boy are right: I'm hard to satisfy.

Let me backtrack quickly. I'm delighted when they bring home a good report card. I'm thrilled when they buy me a Mother's Day gift, no matter how ill-conceived (though they usually choose well). And it tickles me pink when they take my advice (a rarity, but still).

What I noticed, though, as I hacked up yellow squash, is there's this part of me that always wants something I don't have.

What, you may well ask, does fixing an egg have to do with one's satisfaction level?

It's important to understand that my son is 19 years old, and pretty much knows what he likes and doesn't like. He's not a toddler that I have to play airplane with to get food into his mouth. In fact, he has a reasonably adventurous palate and eats a wide variety of items that would probably make the USDA's food pyramid stand on its head (or should I say point?). Furthermore, he had already agreed to a veritable cornucopia of greens, including onion, green pepper and tomato, in his omelet. To these I had added mushrooms, since he's relatively indifferent to them, and I figured he could pick them out if he wasn't in the mood today. So there was really no need for me to spruce up an already vitamin-laden breakfast with yet another veggie.

Still, I couldn't resist the urge to introduce something new, to embellish what he had asked for, to - let's face it - impose my will onto his stated desires. I wasn't at all sure he would eat the squash, and even considered the possibility that this last minute add-on might ruin the meal for him. Sure enough, he lined up every yellow cube nice and neat on a patterned napkin, complaining as he did so.

I once heard a well-known author and radio personality describe the phenomenon this way: you can't have hair flowing down your back at the same time it's in a braid. It can't be done. It's either tidily constrained or cascading freely. You can have either one on different occasions, but at the same time is ridiculous.

Yet, I am the master of "yeah, but."

"I'm doing my homework, Mom."

"Yeah, but why are there dishes in the sink?"

"I'm going on a date with a girl who's polite, hard-working, and goal-oriented."

"Yeah, but have you written that thank you note yet?"

I think this tendency is part of what keeps me from doing what I was born to do: write. Part of it is just plain old laziness and procrastination, but another factor is, if I'm clicking the keyboard I can't be cleaning the kitchen or checking email or having coffee with a friend. One thing has to be put aside in order to accomplish the other. Sometimes I have so many things tumbling around in my head that I get exhausted before I even begin one of them.

So ultimately, I guess it comes down to the "c" word - contentment. If I have two healthy, caring children who aren't striving to be Nobel Prize winners, I can choose to be content with the wonder of who they are.
If I spend two hours outlining a book proposal but the floor isn't washed, I can choose self-esteem over self-flagellation.

Because, when you get right down to it, Christ chose to give up His heavenly throne room - temporarily - in favor of a carpenter's shop.

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." Philippians 2:5:8

For more like this, check out: Morsels for Meditation...: "Yeah, But..." Part 2

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Endings and Beginnings Part 2

Been thinking about endings and beginnings. Again. As I posted a few weeks ago in my piece about Elijah handing off his baton to Elisha, it seems to me that endings inevitably lead into new beginnings.

I'm remembering back nearly 15 years ago when my life was upside down. I was newly separated, raising two young boys, and scared to death. At that time a friend who had survived a similar set of circumstances tried to encourage me. She said her life had come together beautifully, and she was sure mine would as well.

In my heart, I scoffed. I was certain this was the beginning of the end for my children and me. Little did I know, God was chiseling out a path for us to follow at that very moment. Like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, all I had to do was take one step at a time, and marvel as that narrow, cobbled walkway led into a city of splendor.

Last night I helped another young mom begin a comparable journey into single parenthood. As we packed up her kitchen, I thought back to a day many years ago when I encountered this same woman in a local produce market. She had two youngsters in tow and was busy choosing edibles for her growing family. As I watched her, I felt the ugly grasp of envy take hold of me. She appeared to possess everything I longed for - security, contentment, self-assurance - as she strolled leisurely through the aisles with her toddlers. Next to hers, my life seemed inadequate and depressing. Time has now erased many of the differences between us, and I felt privileged to take her hand as she began climbing this steep but manageable mountain.

Reflecting on that day so long ago, I gave thanks for the work the Lord has done in me. He has shown me time and again not to compare myself with others. When I still occasionally fall into that trap, I always get the same result. My situation seems either better or worse than the other person's; instead of walking alongside my fellow traveler, I mentally place myself ahead of or behind him or her on life's continuum.

Either way, we're on unequal footing.

This flies in the face of Scripture, which levels the playing field for all of us: "We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). In other words, we all pale in comparison to a sinless God, no matter how "together" we may seem.

Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

For more like this, check out: Morsels for Meditation...: Endings and Beginnings

Morsels for Meditation...: Setbacks

Monday, July 4, 2011


Today I had a tantrum. It lasted maybe an hour and came complete with tears and a tirade. I basically told God I was angry with Him for withholding something that I was sure was in my best interest.

It's now 12:30 AM, about seven hours post-rant, and He is still choosing to remain mum on the subject.

I told Him I thought He was being unfair and unkind to me.

He didn't answer.

I declared that He was being mean in His method of handling (or rather, not handling) my request. I added that His strategy of dangling a carrot and then yanking it back (or so it appears to me, with my "see through a glass darkly" vision) is getting old. I told Him I had been down this road before with Him, and would prefer He come up with a different game plan.


In desperation I called a friend, the same friend to whom I had confided my prayer request over the weekend. She calmly repeated her counsel from the other day, which in a nutshell is that God can't be confined to a timetable, and I needed to be patient and let Him work out His plan His own way.

I cried some more. I told her the ways in which God wasn't playing fair and how sorry I felt for myself. She reminded me that I've been inventorying my life in some areas, and that it made sense that some emotional "stuff" was "getting stirred up" as a result of that work.

I told her I had to go to work and didn't see how I could put on a happy face for my employer with eye shadow running all down my cheeks. She suggested doing some kind of rote activity like cleaning out my glove compartment before putting one foot in front of the other and showing up.

I took her advice and even managed to make small talk along with getting my job done (if my boss noticed my swollen eyes, she didn't mention it).

I'm not sure, but I think I sense the tiniest hint of a muscle developing somewhere inside of me. Not a bicep or a quad, but a waiting-induced, post-trauma (no, make that post-drama), labor-driven, nothing-left-to-do-but-hang-in-there bit of brawn. Not much to speak of, but something to build on.

Oh, and proving that God sometimes disguises Himself as His people, my dear friend called back to check on me later in the evening.

"Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." Psalm 37:4

"No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly." Psalm 84:11

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Household Gods

Below is my take on "household gods," as described in Genesis 31, in which the Biblical patriarch, Jacob, having absconded with his wives and possessions, is confronted by his father-in-law, Laban, about the latter's missing household gods.

I woke up sleepy this morning because last night I lost a battle with the TV god who lives in my bedroom.

What? You're not familiar with this deity? He sits atop an altar, AKA a dresser, and lulls me to sleep at times. Unfortunately, he has some bad habits and is very blatant about them. His language can be coarse, and his dialogue, well, let's just say peppery. He gets into some very improper subject matter, as he did last night, although he most certainly knows how to be a gentleman when he chooses. The sad thing is, it's hard to predict which side of himself he will present until he already has me lured in. By the time I realize he's in one of his crass moods, he usually has the hook around my neck, and it's almost impossible to break free.

I might not have gotten into it with the TV god if I hadn't been so wound up from all the time I spent with the email god. He had mysteriously reproduced inside my PC, and it was all I could do to tame his prodigious offspring and keep them from overpowering my hard drive.

The email god distracted me from fulfilling a promise I had made to the beef stroganoff god, who demanded I fulfill my obligation to him before church this morning. I therefore had to cube beef and chop onions instead of making my meeting with the makeup and hair gods, who cohabit in the bathroom. Of course, before walking out the door, I had to appease the clean kitchen and countertop gods, as well as the make-the-bed and put-away-the-laundry gods, who naturally took umbrage at the fact that they had to wait in line behind the choose-the-right-earrings-to-go-with-the-outfit god.

I'm happy to say I won the arm wrestling match with the walk-to-church god, who most certainly would have made me late if I had given in to him. This was a tough skirmish, as the walk-to-church god is in league with the exercise god, who's a pretty grueling taskmaster. I also did not give in to the paint-the-toenails god, although he tried to persuade me I couldn't be a serious worshipper in open-toed sandals with an untouched-up paint job.

I did take time, however, to feed the recycling god, whose open mouth beckoned me with a siren's song as I tried to dodge past him on my way to the appointment with the new car god (who, by the way, hasn't gotten over the fact that he has a fresh scuff on his dashboard, even though I promised him I would keep him in pristine condition, no matter what the cost to passengers who often mistakenly suppose a car is meant to serve their comfort and not the other way around). I also had to go out of my way to pay homage to the mailbox god, even though it's a holiday weekend and the bills won't go anywhere till Tuesday; hey, when a god summons, who am I to quibble over details?

Fortunately, the air conditioning god was on the job, or I might have had to visit another temple. As I've told him many times, I don't mind going, but I must be cool.

Now if I'm not careful, I may find myself beholden to the writing god.

If I spend more time with the Bible God, maybe I won't obsess so much over cheap imitations.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

While working with my first graders in Vacation Bible School this past week, as is usually the case, I learned something new. We were pondering the story of Elijah handing off his mantle to Elisha in 2 Kings chapter 2, and I noticed a circuit.

As Elijah's work was finishing, Elisha's was starting. Elijah's finishing made way for Elisha's beginning. Evidently God's people didn't need two miracle-spawning prophet whiz kids at the same time. I pointed out to my earnest six-year-olds that when the school year ends, summer begins, and when summer days lengthen into autumn ones, we pick up our lesson books again. History yields to and creates the present in much the same way that our youthful hair color gives way to the seasoned gray that bespeaks wisdom and experience (or so I tell myself).

It seems clear from the text that Elisha was reluctant to put on his predecessor's sandals. He pretty much grabbed hold of Elijah's cloak and refused to let him out of his sight, then told the sons of the prophets he met along the way to put a cork in it when they announced Elijah's departure was at hand. This scenario repeated itself three times, after which God more or less made a red carpet in the midst of the Jordan River, thus nudging Elisha to assume his new responsibilities.

I have a rough idea how Elisha must have felt. When I left my husband after 12 years of marriage, I was absolutely terrified. I felt like I was falling off a cliff in slow motion, and dragging two preschoolers along for the ride. God saw to it that I had hands to hold in the form of my beloved parents, whom He guided to nurture me in those fearful days until gradually each submitted to the mortality that claims all of us. I have often marveled at His kindness in getting me ready for their departure bit by bit, growing my strength even as He depleted theirs. When the day finally came that both pillars had been kicked out from under me, it was as though a new, firm platform had been quietly assembled while I wasn't looking, and I could see through my tears that I was as ready as I'd ever be to cross the Jordan.

Like Elisha, I have found His almighty Spirit more than ample to meet the challenges at hand.

For more like this, check out: 

Morsels for Meditation...: Endings and Beginnings Part 2

Morsels for Meditation...: Setbacks


Our pastor has been doing a series on Acts. Last week he covered the healing of the crippled man in chapter 3. Of course he made his own points about the text, but in going over my notes, a couple of things jumped out at me.

First, in order to be used of God in any type of miracle situation, we need to be at the right place at the right time. Acts 2:46 says the disciples "continu[ed] daily with one accord in the temple," and when chapter 3 begins, we find Peter and John again in this stomping ground. Had they slept in or allowed themselves to be diverted from their aim of fellowship with the Lord and other believers, they wouldn't have been where they needed to be when called upon to act.

Secondly, miracles require us to pay attention. When the beggar asked the disciples for money, Peter insisted he look at them. The next verse says the cripple "gave them his attention, expecting to receive something..." (3:5). Had he ignored their request, he might have missed out.

Also, miracles may come in a different form than we expect. Our pastor pointed out that the needy man asked for alms, but received healing instead: "Then Peter said, 'Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.'" (v. 6) Rather than a one-time handout, he received the lifelong gift of being able to provide for his own needs. We need to remember this when answers to prayer arrive in different packaging than we had requested. Our heavenly Father is thinking of our overall well-being, not just meeting our immediate needs.

Finally, miracles sometimes include throwing caution to the wind. Peter and John may have wondered if they possessed the healing gene that day. What if they commanded the guy to walk and he sat there like a stone? They were in prayer mode and stepped out in faith. Some situations call for a ready response, and there is no time to ponder and consider. In my own walk, I'm learning to let go when this happens, as opposed to my natural inclination to prayerfully deliberate for a day or two (or 25). I firmly believe time can be a definitive factor when following God's leading, but we must be willing to act impulsively when necessary.

I offer these thoughts with appreciation to Pastor Jerry Iamurri, whose sermon last Sunday inspired them.