Monday, December 12, 2011

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like....WHAT?!

Don’t tell anybody, but lately I’ve felt like I’m kind of going a little bit crazy. I love this time of year; the beautiful sparkly lights, the crisp, cool pat on the face when you walk out the door, and the acceptability to wear multicolored velour warm-up suits any day of the week. It almost feels like there is magic in the air and that people are nicer. But then there is a downside to all the good and happy things. There is an inner struggle between all the things I grew up thinking were perfectly normal, like Santa Claus and stockings and knowing that Bobtail was the name of the horse in “Jingle Bells;” the tangled knot begins to unwind when I start to think, “But really, this is all a clump of stupid.” If a person walked into a room, never having heard about the “traditional” “Christmas” movies and legends, they would think people were off their rockers. And stuffing stockings with junk food and candy and sugared sugar, well it only leads to obesity and unfortified immune systems. And then there are all the people out there yelling about how materialistic Americans are, how greedy the “church” is, and some nasal inner voice drones on about how I should find a good middle ground in all the chaos, about what I believe and what I think, and to not just be another voice spouting off ideas and theories and empty sentences.

And then I start to get stressed out. Am I being nice enough to everyone around me? Should I not get Christmas gifts or get them? Isn’t it nicer to send some cookies than to not send them? Or am I basically sending them a gift basket of ill health? But if God has provided certain things for me, shouldn’t it be a blessing to others to give to them, even if it just so happens that it’s December? Should I decorate with Christmas items like nativity scenes or should I start completely avoiding the whole “tree” thing because of its pagan roots?

It’s getting kind of loud upstairs.


For starters, let’s deal with the insanity. As a matter of fact, there will probably never be any final answers or conclusions to any of these issues, so it is just about time to accept that and quit trying to always be right. Moving forward from there, this life, this earth, these circles of friends and families and ideas and philosophies will all have varying degrees of truth, goodness, and mistakes. Our points of view change as we grow. My thoughts about Christmas, or the Christian walk, or politics, will probably be different next year to some degree. We learn as we go. That said, let’s take in some wisdom from Gavin Degraw.

I don't want to be
Anything other than what I've been trying to be lately…
I'm tired of looking 'round rooms
Wondering what I've got to do
Or who I'm supposed to be
I don't want to be anything other than me.

Are we supposed to strive for being better? Sure. Let’s not chunk that idea in the trash can just yet. But sometimes I – and we all – listen more to the voice of anxiety telling us to be better than the voice of love guiding us to the feet of Jesus. We are made individually, with gifts and talents and a unique beauty. Each of us sees the world through different eyes, dreams, hopes, and afflictions. I think we are our best when being satisfied with who God made us to be, and cling to his gracious hand as we walk. This verse seems to have a good goal; that instead of letting the spinning wheel of confusion whirl before the eyes, or try to do what is on everyone’s “This Is Correct” list, aim for pleasing God with each sunrise and sunset.

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Christmas is a funny thing in my family. We are big on traditions – we bake cookies and decorate them together, go to the Christmas Eve service at church and then go out to Mexican food, we painfully sing some carols together at home, my dad strumming the guitar while we all avoid eye contacts so we don’t laugh and make the awkward situation even more awkward, and then watch the Muppet Christmas Carol. We make food loudly, bustling through the galley kitchen, we take lots of pictures, play music in the background, and play games, finding lots of time to laugh, bicker, and eat more food. With all the very very good memories are several that all fall in the running for The Worst Christmas Ever. We’ve seen some great days and some terrible moments. We’ve seen too many last Christmases, we’ve experienced great loss, and we’ve celebrated marriages and healthy babies. Last Christmas was my Grandmother’s last Christmas with us; I’d say it was her last day of good health before she died. I made her some cute coasters with Madeleine’s pictures in them. She never used them.

There was the year of the flu, the year of the Yapping Dog While David Ended Up In The Hospital And There Were No Messy Potatoes So We Went To Every Grocery Store For Ten Miles Looking For Hash Browns And Sour Cream; there was the year I went with my fiancĂ© and we drove through the worst blizzard Colorado had ever seen….twice. There was the year my sister Bonnie got me a Nickelodeon Flash Screen which was one of the coolest toys ever, there was the year Laura Threw Her Shoe, there was the year of the Puffalumps, the year Grandmother Ordered A Beer And We All Looked On In Shock, the year of the Big Floppy Dolls…in between there are a lot of good and not-so-goods that don’t really stick.

When people in the Bible experienced trials and great blessings, they built altars at the place where the suffering, bewilderment, or provision occurred. They did this to remember exactly what God had done in their lives. They didn’t worship the altar, they worshiped the one who caused the occasion for celebration.

And then they celebrated. They sang songs, they danced, they spoke of the power of their almighty God.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea.
2 The LORD is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3 The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name…
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders?
Exodus 15:1-3, 11

Our days come tumbling upon us. We live in the temporal, watching clocks go by, rain clouds pass over, and mornings turning into evenings before we’ve even opened our eyes. There are hurried lunches, unopened bills, broken computers, crumpled receipts, smiles, hugs, long lists, and moments lost before we even know they have happened. We need time to be still, to celebrate the goodness, the glory, and the wonder of our God. No, it definitely shouldn’t be done once a year. It should be daily, weekly, as often as we can. And we should give of ourselves, out of the blessings we have received, and of our talents to help others and follow more closely behind our Savior.

If I examine my past Christmas holidays a little more closely, I can actually see more of a time of pain than that of celebration. Sometimes it is easier to let the darkness settle in than to fight, to plead for hope, and to thank the Father for all his abundant blessings. It’s not easy to celebrate death, to accept loss, and pay for flu medicine. (Not all of those in that particular order, nor at the same time. Smiley face.) But we do celebrate, and amidst all the sorrow, the joy is that much brighter. We celebrate a new life, one that surpasses this current experience, because of a love so great we don’t know how to deal with it. We celebrate hope, true joy, and the beauty in the white light of a candle. We celebrate Life – the taste of berries, steak, and the fruit of the earth; the smell of pine, of toasty cinnamon, of our loved ones; the touch of hands as we bow in prayer, the hug of family we only get to see once a year; the flicker of light and dancing shadows on a wall; the ability to imagine and remember and read about old stories becoming truths.

These traditions we have, yes, they are man-made. The Bible doesn’t speak of Queso and Chimichangas being extraordinarily amazing, particularly on December 24th. But we need to set aside time to celebrate. And I love celebrating with my family, because every day I know I’m one moment closer to not having them close to me. Even if they give me strange things as last minute “gifts.” No, you don’t know who  you are. Wink.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Maybe one of these days I’ll start up my own holiday with my immediate family that celebrates the life, hope and joy of my heavenly Father. Or maybe that will be breakfast in the morning. Who knows, maybe I’ll explore some more ancient celebrations like Passover or that Tabernacles Feast. I like a good feast. Maybe not preparing it by myself….but eating is sure part of the equation. And you know, next year will probably be different. Different expectations, different hopes, different lessons learned. But I hope there will continue to be celebration of life, love, of family, of the eternal glory of our marvelous, miracle-working, one-of-a-kind, pretty rad God.

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
 27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Isaiah 40:26-31

And that is why we celebrate. We celebrate the Beginning and the End, and we celebrate His coming to earth in the humble form of a baby boy. We celebrate his works on earth and his great lessons in How To Do Everything The Awesome Way. We celebrate his miracles, his healing, his pain, and his sacrifice for us. We celebrate the strength that he gives us to get out of bed every morning, and the refreshment of our souls.

And we celebrate the hope of his return. For we yearn for his presence, and he answers; we run this race, we fight this good fight, and he carries us through with his power.

Life is full of sweet surprises
Everyday's a gift
The sun comes up and I can feel it lift my spirit
Fills me up with laughter, fills me up with song
I look into the eyes of love and know that I belong

Bless us all, who gather here
The loving family I hold dear
No place on earth, compares with home
And every path will bring me back from where I roam
Bless us all, that as we live
We always comfort and forgive
We have so much, that we can share
With those in need we see around us everywhere

Let us always love each other
Lead us to the Light
Let us hear the voice of reason, singing in the night
Let us run from anger and catch us when we fall
Teach us in our dreams and please, yes, please
Bless us one and all

Bless us all with playful years
With noisy games and joyful tears
We reach for you and we stand tall
And in our prayers and dreams
We ask you bless us all

We reach for you and we stand tall
And in our prayers and dreams we ask you
Bless us all
(from Muppet Christmas Carol)

I’m tired of looking around rooms, wondering what I’m supposed to do and where I’m supposed to be. You know what? I think that I’d rather enjoy the ride as it came along, celebrating the weighty good and the blessings as they come along. That way at the end of the journey I don’t look back and say, “Man. I shouldn’t have taken it all so seriously.” Every day is a gift. With playful years, joyful tears, noisy kitchens, unfathomable understanding, strength and songs; we reach for our Father, and we stand tall, and in our prayers and dreams and with every breath we sing, we thank Him for blessing us all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Shot Through The Heart

I had a very bad dream the other night. It was one of those that wakes you up and you don’t really want to go back to sleep, and the images stay with you for quite some time.

I’m not courageous. I don’t have a job where I risk my life, I didn’t grow up around guns, and I love shows like Castle or The Closer, but would never actually want a lifestyle that frequently incorporated life-or-death scenarios on purpose.  That being said, this dream really went deep down, touching on those Issues that impact your daily life in big and small ways. What happened? In the short version, I was in a situation where someone had a gun and was threatening a friend of mine, and then shot her through the top of the knee, down into her calf, and through her foot. Quite unpleasant, as an understatement.

In both the long and short versions of the dream, I hid as best I could, even closing my eyes to avoid any kind of eye contact, even when I saw the antagonist aiming, with that very set look in her eyes, her jaw hard and stubborn, full of hate and anger for anyone who had more than she did.

What was weird was then right as the gun went off, everything froze, and rewound into a second ending, kind of like the end of the movie Clue, where they go through two or three different endings that Could Have Been What Really Happened.

And in this second chance, I knew the outcome, and instead of closing my eyes, I said, “Wait. You don’t have to do that.” And then she turned to me. It was at this point in the world in between waking and sleeping where I felt a very real, comforting presence. I don’t know that I would say God was “speaking to me” but the scene turned into a lesson that really made me think, and had quite the lasting impression on how I’ve been seeing life in general.

It reminded me of this one time on choir tour when we were singing a song called, “The Peace That Passes Understanding.” We were, I guess, in a lower income housing complex, it’s sad I don’t remember things from high school, but I was kind of a hormonal zombie during that time, and right in the middle of the song, we heard shots ring out and everyone in the large room was instructed to duck down to the floor. Once on the floor, I chuckled. And several someones next to me looked on with disdain, saying, “This isn’t funny, Sara!” But come on, that’s irony for you.

And ironically enough, this morning and as of late, Peace has been the subject of thought, conversations, and church discussion. We see a lot of hurt, we know a lot of difficulty, and every day has its frustrations, even for the most peaceful of us all. Tires go flat, potty training happens, medical emergencies stop us in our tracks, and we wonder where the sunshine went. Sometimes we can choose to be calm, sometimes we just have to bear the burdens or the heartache, or yell at the stupidity going on around us. There are different ways to escape the pressure of Life, which is different than what we all thought it was going to be when we were kids, or even just a few years younger. But it never ends. We expect the rain to let up, or that something will just work out right, and when we can’t see beyond the darkness in which we sit, the weariness starts to settle in. See, movies and tv shows and best sellers all have a similar plot structure, that there is a building of action, a climactic rising of action, subplots, twists and turns, and then, just when it seems there should be success in sight, another plot twist occurs and the character experiences The Big Gloom right before a final change of heart and victory. The Big Gloom is when the character hits “rock bottom.” Usually this is where it is raining in a movie. It’s when you quit your job, climb back into bed, your insurance expires, you eat that third…or fourth… chocolate chip cookie, or throw the computer against the wall.

You know, I’m always amused at how real life really does follow plot structure sometimes, and it’s funny. One of my screenwriting books discusses structure and outlines the rise, fall, and creation of a hero. The hero is introduced, a catalyst sets the story into motion, the character is called to face numerous training and obstacle points, sees a certain amount of success, faces nearly insurmountable failure and then overcomes it, changed into a new person, and as my book put it, “Resurrected into a new life.” See, we wouldn’t really care as much if Luke Skywalker was still a whiney teenager at the end of the series, or if the coach decided to pick up trash instead of deal with The Not-So-Mighty-Ducks, or if Edward chose to stay away. I mean, what if Indiana Jones decided to just stay in the classroom, if Harry stayed in his closet, or if Dorothy hadn’t cared too much about Toto and handed him over to her neighbor? For some of us, though, life doesn’t seem anything like a top producing movie. But really, we all face our own fair share of conflict. We all distinctly lack a perceivable happy ending. Or at least, a not-so-impossible mission.

And I see it so much, especially at this time of year. One article today named the top ten most shoplifted items of the season, items including those of filet mignon, Axe body spray, the iPhone, razors, cologne, Nikes, and the newest Elmo moves-and-laughs-annoyingly toy. The article said, “Ad Week reports that one in every 11 people walks out the door with at least one item they didn’t pay for,” and that, “75 percent of shoplifters are adults, most of whom have jobs.”

I read a book recently, by Dee Henderson, about a woman who witnessed a murder and gained possession of a record book, implicating and exposing a mob boss. She had to live on the run, changing cities, jobs, identities every few months for over 10 years. She met a police officer who befriended her, who asked her how she dealt with such a hard life. She replied that she had learned to deal with it by expecting to face challenges instead of easiness. That when she expected conflict to arise she was prepared for it; instead of expecting every day to be sunshine and laughter, and being disappointed when it didn’t happen, to appreciate any good thing that came by with full gratitude, but to always be prepared for trouble.

When I read that, I thought, “Man, that is totally depressing. What a downer of an outlook.” But honestly, I think there is some truth to it. Expectations really can be a stumbling block. During counseling before getting married, we discussed our expectations of our roles, our lives, and our goals. It’s a pretty good thing we did that, and it cleared up several problems that would have occurred in the not too distant past. Very often when my expectations are not met, or are completely the opposite of what happens, I have a lot of trouble acting like a daughter of the King. I’m learning, still, always learning. And so I’m learning how to affect and adapt my expectations.

Disney is amazing, but it sets false expectations for real life. I expected white Christmases, happy endings, a house full of giggling children, and a family band that played a wide variety of musical scores together. After several Christmases that are separate epic failures, being hit in the face with a football countless times, a baby story that rivals most of TLC’s episodes, having an indoor wedding after planning for an outdoor one, and getting lost 75% of the time I go visit my sister half a state away, I have learned to plan for the worst. Usually. And so when we go out to a special restaurant to have a nice dinner and the restaurant is closed, we usually laugh and say, “Yeah….” and then find another place to eat. You might say, “Well, you could have planned ahead and looked up the restaurant hours.” Well yes, but you can’t change what might have been. You are in the moment, and you must react accordingly. Do you act in peace or do you throw a Big Mac sized tantrum and break something? Do you panic when you don’t know how you’re going to pay for ______? Does your soul grow increasingly tense, or do you lean on a Father whose arms are so big, he’s holding you close in every moment, even the silly ones?

I don’t say all this, and mention all these challenges, to reign in your imagination on how bad the world is. However, I do think that on the flip side of it, there is a greater Good than any of us ordinarily grasp, and it’s so much better than all the bad.

The topic at church yesterday was Peace. The four Sundays before Christmas are held as Advent, a time of thoughtful anticipation on the coming of the Messiah. We don’t use that word a lot, do we? Messiah: Our Savior, the one who raises us from the depths, the creator of the universe and all that is in it; the promised and expected Deliverer.

We wait for him to return again, but for an even longer time before us, they waited for him for the first time. He was promised to the world in Isaiah, as God looked across the blue water and the dying grasses, long before we thought about Ozone issues or the value of the dollar. Stick with me here and read this. It explains mankind’s plight pretty well:

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies,  and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity… So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes…
The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak…”The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 59:1-4; 9-10; 15b-17; 20

What really struck me in this passage was the fact that God had pity on these creatures who could not save themselves. And so instead of giving up or wiping them out, he took it upon himself to put light where there was only darkness. He came in love, in humility, but with strong purpose, to bring peace between people and their one true God.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus], 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19-20

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:13-14

God provided peace. He provided a way out, a shoulder to rest upon, a firm foundation, should man choose to accept the option. We aren’t guaranteed peaceful days, we aren’t guaranteed an easy road, but we are guaranteed peace between us and God. Which makes everything else quite a bit easier.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
Isaiah 9:1-2; 6-7

The heavy burdens many of us carry, the weight of an unknown future and a shifting world, is not what we are asked to bear. Yes we each have our own calling, bent towards a great variety of tasks, but in it we are given peace and strength to journey onward, and provision for each occasion. And even the difficulties and the stupid frustrations that are totally ridiculous can be kind of a great story afterward.
What’s even better is that the fullness and the bigness of God’s presence is with us, if only we accept it and dwell in it.

Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

We have been given the opportunity to be justified, to receive justice, and have access to faith in a God who took it upon himself to help us. Let’s walk outside of the gloom and breathe in the deep, fresh air. See, in that crazy dream, in Round Two, there was a deep calm that I had nothing to worry about. For my fears were of an earthly nature, where I was bound by what I could see, imagine, and worry about. I didn’t want to be hurt, I couldn’t afford medical bills to repair what damage could possibly be done, and the thought of being away from my daughter for either of our lives nearly rips my heart to pieces. But is that how we live our lives – do we live in fear or move forward in faith?

The “heroes” of the Bible acted more out of faith than they did by what they thought they would get out of it. “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better….The world was not worthy of them.” (Hebrew 11:39,40a, 38a) There is more than what we can see right now. Our time here is only a finger snap in the span of eternity. We may not see our hopes met here on earth. We may not get to see births of our grandchildren, or marriages or birthdays, we may not see salvation for others or even the next breath. But that’s not what this life is about. There is so much more to it than that, and we can only trust our Father has a plan of hope and of a good future that he can see and has always known.

I don’t mean to be preachy or anything. And I’m not saying that if this were a real situation I would have acted in the right way or even known what the right thing to do would have been. But moving forward in faith happens in many ways; it is making a new friend, listening to that whisper in your heart, or just not yelling when you really dang want to even though you just stepped in pee for the fourth time that day and you just want her to go IN the potty and nowhere else.

This topic has really been on my mind and my heart lately, and sometimes I get an answer and want to share it with others that may also be searching for similar answers. I mean, let’s face it, how often do we act in peace when the traffic is bad, the eggs burn, or the heater breaks? It’s hard. It’s not our first instinct. So that’s the work, to practice and share peace and calm, regardless of the obstacle, because we’re not working on our own time or with our own power.  I’d rather face life standing in the shadow of my creator rather than have, “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5a). On a normal day I do things wrong the first time, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe it’s time to use that outrageous Good and quit complaining. God’s got some great works for us to do; time to step up, open our eyes, and without trembling say, “Wait. You don’t have to do that.”