How do we live in this world and maintain our faith in God?

cross-symbol-christian-faith-faith-161078.jpegDuring tough seasons of life, I have found that I adopt a hard shell to protect myself. Life conditioned me to expect the unexpected, and it is helpful to be prepared in advanced. When life shifts and I don’t really need the additional protection anymore, I don’t shed that shell. It hangs around long after the weather changes from winter to spring, seeds sprout, and new life arrives. And the longer it hangs around, the thicker and tougher it becomes, and I am desensitized to the good things that have emerged with the change in the weather.

The Christian life is peculiar in this way. The Lord purposes the trials of life to refine our character (James 1:2-4), but the same trials He uses to make us more like Him can also make us callused, bitter, cranky, depressed, mean, pessimistic, and delusional if we are not careful. Still, is difficult not to become any of these things. It is so hard to resist the evil in front of us and believe that God is always good and that people can be kind if they want to be.

It is normal and very understandable to develop a tough shell or any of these perspectives, but it is dangerous. We’re become desensitized to the Lord. We fail to recognize all of the good things He accomplishes during trails and the miraculous ways in which we change for the better. When more enjoyable seasons arrive, we don’t embrace them. Promises come to pass, and we do not perceive them. Rewards will come our way, and it takes a long time for us to realize that the Lord has given a good gift. Or, we know a blessing has been handed to us without any effort on our part, and we shrug our shoulders at it, unthankful and jaded by the past.

All three of these scenarios have happened to me more often than I would like to admit, but the most recent occurrence was a form of the latter. Less than two weeks ago, I was told that my office would relocate to another space in the same building. I’ve had a number of offices over the past few years, so I do not put much thought into moving anymore—I travel light and relocate. This time, I noticed that the office was the best one I’ve ever had. The window is bigger and gets an excellent bit of sunlight all day, and there are large, built-in bookshelves, two chairs, and a sofa. When I am in this space, I feel like my mind can breathe. Still, I did not consider this blessing, and accepted it only as my new station because, who knows, I might have to relocate soon. But the other day, I stopped, and I realized that I have been given a good gift. I gave thanks because this office is wonderful, and regardless of how long I do or do not stay in it, it has already been a blessing to me.

As I considered how long it took me to tell the Lord that I appreciate my new office, I felt ashamed, and I realized that the last few years have made me callused. Sometimes, what we have prayed for is staring us right in the face—we live in it and breathe in it and can touch it—yet our sight is inhibited by the residue the problems of this world, and we miss these manifestations of the Lord’s goodness. Sometimes, we intentionally reject the Lord’s blessing because we are callused and bitter. As a result, we shun the promises that are rightful ours and free for the taking.

How do we avoid this? How do we prevent bitterness after countless disappointments from people who know better than to do what they did—particularly when those people are Christians? How do we decide to use discernment to trust some people rather than not trust anyone at all? How do we see God’s goodness in all seasons rather than become so pessimistic that we focus on the long shadows that are cast even when the sun is high and the skies are clear? How do we remain compassionate? How do we live in this world and maintain our faith?

I think one of the only answers to this question is being determined to see God’s goodness even among the not good, and finding reasons and ways to give thanks at all times. I believe that it is consistent and ever present thanks that will open our eyes and reveal the unfathomable goodness of God so much that we will always see and experience countless evidences of His mercies. It is hard to maintain this mindset, but it is possible.

So, matter what happens to me in this life, I do not want to experience the world sheltered by a hard shell and with a permanent scowl on my brow. I do not want to reject what the Lord provides. And I don’t want to damage my testimony and cause the world to believe that there is no benefit to being a Christian because the only inheritance they observe is the frustration, anger, bad attitude, or insensitivity I exhibit. My God is too good to me for me to reflect the evil I have encountered in life rather than the light the Lord has shown me is real and so desperately wants to shine in times of darkness and in times of harvest.

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Sickness and Seasons

DSC02168My body woke me up early today, and I surrendered hope of going back to sleep at about 6:00 am. I lay in my bed, thinking about the tasks and meetings waiting for me at work and the dental appointment scheduled at 8:00 am. But, I knew I wouldn’t be going to work or to the dentist today because I’ve been sick since Friday. When I speak, I sound like a dude, and my symptoms are not improving.

I knew I should email my boss that I would be taking a sick day, but I didn’t want to surrender. I hate the feeling of loosing autonomy because my body, which I cannot control in this case, was doing its own thing. I stalled and wrapped myself in a warm, 100-percent polyester blanket, reclined in bed, and read an email devotional that arrived this morning. It is about new seasons of life.

I believe that I am in a new season of life—one the Lord promised would come in 2015, though I forget exactly when I first sensed Him say this. For more than two years, I have watched and waited for signs of His arrival, for growth to spring forth from the seeds I planted a long time ago. Sometimes, I misinterpreted the signs. I thought spring had arrived early when it had not. I thought certain jobs and people were the ones the Lord had promised I would encounter, but they were not. Despite what I categorized as disappointments and setbacks, a new season was still unveiling before me; it just unveiled far more gradually than I expected. And now, standing on the other side of the shadows, I see how the Lord began to move little by little, replacing shadows and dry earth with sunshine and rain-nourished lands. And with each day that passes, I step further into the harvest, and I am so grateful for the release.

No season is perfect, and this time in my life has had challenges, such as this present sickness, but as I lay in bed, snuggled in my blanket, I realized that this illness, too, is a strange sort of blessing. It affords me additional time to give thanks and to reflect on all the Lord has brought me through and has led me into.

Let’s Talk About Money

Money
Photo Credit: Flicker, Pictures of Money

I have always been mindful of how I spend money. Some of my habits are a reflection of my nature. I always think with the future and its unpredictability in mind. Then, after thorough inspection of the state (or potential state) of things, I act. Other habits reflect my upbringing. My parents are good budgeters and are very thrifty. I am pretty good at both, though I have observed room for personal improvement.

While being thrifty, cheap, fiscally conservative, or whatever adjective you prefer to use, is not a bad thing, it is not good allow money or the thought of spending it to be a source of bewilderment, anxiety, or fear. I have always felt this way about money.

Combined, the habits I acquired from my parents and my cautious nature compelled me to be frugal, and my financial habits carried from my teenage years into adulthood. I learned how to make my money last at a young age. I had my first job in high school, and I stretched the money I earned each summer so that it lasted until the next summer. I did the same in college. The money I earned would afford me the ability to buy books each semester, eat out if I wanted, and purchase gifts. I always had money leftover, but only because I monitored my pennies.

When I had my first, full-time job after college, I hoarded money because I wasn’t used to having a salary, and I was used to making the little I had last a long time. I always ordered the cheapest meals at restaurants, and I would purchase non-essential items occasionally, such as a coat for work, a pair of nice, professional shoes, and a new computer when mine displayed the blue screen of death, but spontaneity was very unusual.

I remember the first time I realized that having a full-time job means, in some cases, that you have the ability to buy what you want when you want it. At the time, I had started running, and I wanted an iPod Shuffle, which was about $50. I was scared to spend the money. I told my friend about the iPod Shuffle while we hung out one evening.

“Rachel,” she said. “You know you can just buy it. You have a job.”

I stared at her. “Wow. You’re right.” We walked to the Apple store, which was in the area, and I bought the device that day.

During that time, the Lord, I believe, placed certain friends in my path to show me that money should be managed well but it should also be spent and enjoyed. I lived with my friend and her mom during those days, and they loved to eat out, shop, and travel. I was surprised because my family rarely ate out, didn’t shop a ton, and barely traveled. However, in time I realized that as long as you take care of the necessary things each month and save, it is okay to enjoy the fruits of your labor. It is okay to live. Money is designed to meet our needs and bring us joy.

Gradually, I stopped being so cheap and began to buy what I wanted a little more often. In 2011, I booked a flight to visit a good friend who lived in Asia. I checked my finances, and while I was scared to spend so much money at once, I knew that the Lord had made a way for this adventure. My boss gave her blessings, I had the financial resources, and the timing was perfect for my friend.

The 2011 trip and subsequent adventures abroad have been scheduled with some trepidation. I worry that an emergency will arise and that the money would have been better dedicated for a different purpose. I worry that I am being frivolous. I worry that I shouldn’t take a vacation when so many people cannot. I feel guilty for spending money, even though I know I am responsible.

The Lord is still changing this mindset. He is teaching me that money comes, and money goes. Money is designed to be spent. And, it is also designed to be saved and given away. Money, in a way, is a lot like the seasons of life. There are times of drought. Times are harvest. Times to spend. Times to save. And times when money that was stored away is brought out in order to provide for the present. It is not good to hoard money out of worry, selfishness, and fear. Nor is it good to spend it recklessly or fail to meet the needs of oneself and others.

It is good, however, to be thankful for the gift of money. To be thankful each time money is spent on the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter. To be thankful each time there is wiggle room in one’s budget that allows for a fancy meal, a new coat, or a vacation to a far away land.

Rather than worry each time I spend money, whether it be for groceries or for a new dress, I have resolved to give thanks. I pray, “Lord, thank you for providing for me. For giving me everything that I need. I thank you because you have provided for me in the past, are providing for me right now, and will continue to do so. Please forgive me for being selfish and for worrying that I will not have everything I need. Please forgive me for the times I hoarded what I earned. Your faithfulness has shown me that I should relax. Please show me when to spend and when to save. Please show me when and how to be generous. Give me confidence in what you have provided and help me to honor you through my finances.”

I hope that these prayers will begin to reform my relationship with money into one that is not bound by anxiety, but rather, is characterized by freedom and joy in the harvest the Lord brings each month.

My Friends Michelle and Barack

Michelle and BarackThis summer, two Pekin ducks appeared in the lake near my house. On evening strolls, I passed the newcomers.

“Hey, guys! You’re so cute. Where did you come from?” They looked at me with a sideways glance and did not respond.

A woman walking near me theorized that someone had dropped them off because they didn’t want them. I wondered if the owner had considered that winter was on its way.

The ducks loved their new home. They bossed around the brown ducks, who had lived on the lake for generations, and commandeered the floating island that the turtles and a heron named Kevin used to lounge on. They were quite popular with people, and received countless treats and catcalls.

The Pekin pair had so much personality that I had to name them. One day, as I took photos of them, their names came to me. “Hey, Michelle and Barack!” I said. They looked at me, and again, they did not respond.

I enjoyed walking by Michelle and Barack all summer. “Did you miss me?” I’d say. “You look so cute today, guys!” Then, I would whip out a slice or two of bread. This was how I convinced them to love me.

In time, Michelle and Barack would greet me with a quack or two. When he was really happy, Barack would lift himself out of the water and poke out his chest.

“Lovely to see you!” I’d respond and display a slice of wheat. “How are things? Barack, be nice to Michelle. You better share the bread.” I ripped off a piece and threw it in Michelle’s direction. “There you go, boo. That piece is for you.”

I’d linger for a moment or two and move on. As I walked away, I worried. Winter was coming, and I knew they were too domesticated to fend for themselves.

And the nights soon became cold. On Thanksgiving, before dinner began, I walked by, breadless, and Michelle sat shivering on the floating island, her head tucked in her breast. “Oh no, Michelle! Are you okay? You look so cold. It’ll be a little warmer tomorrow. I checked the weather.”

I worried that Michelle would not survive the winter. I took walks in the morning before work and came with bread. Michelle lost a lot of weight, and Barack did too, but not as much. I wondered about what to do. Bread was not an ideal diet.

At night, tucked in my bed that was lined with warm, flannel sheets, I thought about Michelle and Barack. I knew I needed to help them.

Today, it was my neighbor, who I had chatted with about the birds’ poor health, who prompted me to call. She said she might call animal control, and I decided I would, too. Perhaps one of us would be successful.

About four phone calls later, I found a group—a volunteer arm of the SPCA. The woman on the line recorded my contact information, my summary of Michelle and Barack’s life, and said that a volunteer should respond before the end of the day.

About an hour later, an orange sports car I did not recognize drove down the street. I knew the driver was here for Michelle and Barack. A man got out of the car and walked toward me.

“Are you Rachel?

I stopped raking the leaves and escorted him to my friends.

“Hey guys! How are you doing?” I said when we arrived at the bridge that overlooked their favorite part of the lake. They lifted their heads and responded with several loud quacks before returning to their hunt for food.

“They certainly know who you are!” the volunteer said, chuckling.

I laughed. That’s because I feed them.

“This is Michelle, and that is Barack.” Then, I explained their ailments and mentioned that one of the birds  had a fishing hook caught in its beak this summer. The volunteer was not confident that they could take the birds, but he said he would consult with others and update me.

Around 4:00 pm, I received a call. Its was the volunteer with the orange sports car.

“I wanted to let you know that we got the birds. We assessed the situation and agreed with you that they needed to be relocated. The one that had the hook in its beak has discolored feathers around his beak.” Barack might have an infection. He added that Michelle was not well either.

I felt relieved. The fear that I would walk to the lake to find Michelle’s dead body floating by and encounter Barack’s lonely, distraught face lifted. I will miss my friends and their loud greetings, but I am glad they won’t sleep on the lake tonight. It’s 37 degrees.

I Miss Christmases of My Childhood

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Christmas 2009

I often miss childhood Christmases when an eternity passed before Christmas arrived, and Christmas Eve moved so slowly that I could count each minute. Even in college, I was desperate for Christmas to come and savored campus traditions like Yule Log and Grand Illumination.

Something happened after college. I started working, and suddenly, Christmas emerged like an unwelcome guest. I always felt unprepared for its arrival. I began to long for the days when I lived with my siblings and my parents. My mother had the gift of decorating the house in such a way that the decorations seemed to become part of the organism that was our home.

I often wonder why I no longer relish the anticipation of Christmas. I miss that feeling the way I miss friendships I have lost. I realize now that the expectation of Christmas was not about gifts or other tangible things that come and go, but rather, it was a desire for the community of family and that inexplicable cozy and secure feeling that accompanies the holidays.

Each year, I try to discover that feeling, but I usually fail. This year, I bought a bright red bow with red glitter all over it from the Dollar Tree and hung it in my room. It looks festive, but it did not bring the cheer I recall from my youth.

Sometimes, I feel guilty that I am not excited about Christmas—about the day of Christ’s birth. Certainly, his birthday is more important than my feelings, and ideally, I should be as excited as an adult as I was as a child, but I am not. And while I love Christ more now than I did then, I do not know how to reconcile this love with this longing for the past.

Maybe this childhood anticipation I cannot redeem is merely a sign of my age. I am not the child I once was; I navigate challenges that my pig-tailed self knew nothing about, and because of that ignorance, she was free from the distractions that emerge with time.

But maybe, this year, I’ll find her again. I’ll start by relocating festive bow I purchased to the spot above my desk so that I can see it from where I sit on my bed.

 

 

2017 in Review: Thankfulness Emerging from the Shadows

tractor
A highlight from summer 2017: I drove a tractor in flats while wearing a huge grin.

As members of the same nation, we share a common consciousness and will likely agree that the events that occurred within our borders make 2017 an interesting—and quite frankly exhausting—year. The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a peculiar one, characterized by bumps, hiccups, and glitches with which we—and the world for that matter—are not accustomed.

In addition to the confusing political drama that unfolds daily, there were several horrifying and unnerving mass shootings. The most egregious was the Las Vegas shooting in October, which sadly and ashamedly, already feels like a distant memory. There are also the dramas over healthcare, taxes, immigration reform, racial and ethnic inequality and climate control that we inherited from the previous administrations and generations. These conflicts swirl about us, real and yet strangely untouchable, creating an atmosphere that is thick with confusion and anxiety. In this climate, we also attempt to navigate our own personal problems: family drama, significant other drama, work drama, bills, illnesses and psychotic drivers who faithful emerge on daily commutes to top off an already complicated day.

All of this makes me feel exhausted, and when I look into the eyes of the people I see regularly and hear the tone that casts grey shadows on my far-away friends’ texts and phone calls, I know that they are exhausted too. We tired of tears and bloodshed and politics and all the other things that plague our minds when we stare into space, forgetting the tasks at hand.

We are on edge, expecting the worst because past events have conditioned us to anticipate evil rather than good. We prepare ourselves for the appalling unknown because it easier to stomach evil events when we know they are guaranteed to emerge in a matter of time.

I feel this evil cast grey shadows over my life. I stare at these shadows. I do not rebuke them (though I probably should), but I do wonder how they arrived here, with whom or what they came, and how long they will stay. Many of the shadows are not my design; they crept in from the outside world, interrupting my thoughts and distorting my understanding of God and how life is supposed to work.

I talk to God about the shadows. How I  hate them. How they make it hard for me to believe that He is faithful, honest, and all the other adjectives that describe His benevolence. In response, He tells me to be thankful. But I know that to combat these shadows, I cannot give thanks silently in my mind. Rather, my gratitude must be coupled with action. So, I made a small poster, which I taped in the middle of the giant map of America that hangs by my bed. In the middle of that poster, I wrote “thankful” in large cursive. Around that word, I wrote all of the big and small things for which I am grateful.

I am glad for taste buds and good food, without which life would be far less exciting. I am thankful for my Christian parents because I would be a very different person (and not in a good way) without them. I appreciate birds and snow, which make me smile and remind me that God hears my prayers. And I am thankful for America, which despite its obvious issues, is a good place to live. There is no agency in birth, and I could have been born in a place without the amenities and rights I consider basic, but I was not.

My expressions of gratitude chase away the shadows that creep in from the chaos that occurs all around and help me view my life through a new lens that highlights the golden moments of the past 12 months. Since December 2016, I have had more travel adventures compared with any other time in my life, and they have been quite fun. With a smile, I realized this morning that a few more adventures with friends await. I have established new friendships and strengthened existing ones. I drove a tractor. I began a new job that challenges me and never fails to keep my mind entertained. As an added bonus, my supervisor is hilarious, and there is rarely a dull moment at work. I will not lie and say the year was perfect because it was not. It had its own share of frustrations and disappointments. It had numerous moments of tears.

For a while, I focused on some of those disappointments—the toxic political drama and depressing racial and ethnic division that plague our country, and other, personal events that I will not mention here. As a result, I adopted a grim perspective of life for a time. I’m glad the Lord encouraged me to look up, take my gaze off the shadows, which are, in many ways, far beyond my control, and recognize the multitude of blessings I have encountered since late 2016.

Whether the future holds clouds of grey, fierce storms, or clear, blue skies—I will look up. Because no matter the season, there are still blessings in abundance that I will only recognize if I give thanks.

Dwelling on the Blanks

Lake Michigan

My mind dwells on blanks. I want to know when all the things I’m praying and hoping and seeking and waiting for will come to pass. Much of the time, I’m thinking about my future rather than my present.

The other day, a scripture I used to read often, Isaiah 30:21, came back to me and caused a sudden flashback to my last year of college when I didn’t know what would happen next.

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”

As my thoughts sped through my senior year and how everything worked out the more I focused on God, a picture popped into my mind. A train surrounded by light traveled in a straight line. It was partly full with things, but as the train zoomed along, more things were put inside.

I saw those things as the blanks in my life that I want to be filled, but none of the packages had a date of arrival.

My inability to track the deliveries is the most important part. I could feel God nudging me. “Look straight ahead. Follow me. Walk in my way. Don’t turn to the right or left, and all of those blanks will be filled exactly when they need to be. For now, focus on what I’ve given You today.”

I thought about what God’s placed in my life for that day and the next, slowly nudging my brain from the sidelines, looking for packages, to the tracks in front of me. Life is about faith, patience and consciously choosing to walk out God’s present rather than fill in the future.