The One New Year’s Resolution We Can’t Afford NOT to Make

baby-lifting-weights

     New Year’s resolutions have become somewhat passé in recent years as we recognize more and more that they last about, what? five minutes? But maybe that’s because we’re going about them the wrong way. May I suggest that perhaps achieving a New Year’s goal has more to do with first changing our character than focusing primarily on changing our behaviors?

     Now, you might be thinking, “There’s nothing wrong with my character! I’m a good person!” And you’d be right; not saying you’re not a good person. But if we’re truthfully good people, we have to admit that we all have some little character deficit we could be working on, right? And the fact is that it may well be it’s that “one little thing” that’s been keeping us from realizing our goals and, ultimately, our destinies.

     Let’s face it, our culture has pretty much ceased to value character as a goal in itself anymore. Don’t think so? When was the last year you heard anyone say that their New Year’s resolution was to develop more patience, to be more giving, or to control their temper?

     Never?

     As goals go, those seem rather dated. Instead, the number one goal for any given new year is to decrease body size: eat less and work out more in some form or fashion. We want to cut sugar or calories or fat or carbs and do more yoga or lifting or palates or cycling or . . . pick a fad. Granted, sometimes we do these things to be healthier and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the principle remains the same: if we first focus on developing character, our other goals will fall into place as natural consequences of changing who we are. Why?

Changing our character is not just about changing our behavior; it’s about changing what we value and about thinking deeply about what kind of person we want to be.

     Do we ever really consider that? Do we ever sit down with a pencil and paper and think about what kind of character qualities we need to be the “good person” we want to be? Unless someone brings to our attention that we need to be deliberate about what kind of person we want to be, we breeze through life figuring that good character will just “happen”.

     Blink.

     Character development is all about changing our thinking, and therefore our behavior. In other words, we can’t simply skip to “I’m going to lose 25 pounds” without first considering what has kept us from losing it yet – or even gaining it in the first place. Let me demonstrate.

     What if, for example, we want to exercise more? We have all the intentions of hitting that gym but, after a few weeks, our resolve just tanks. What to do? First, ID what character quality would get us to the gym on schedule for the rest of our lives. For instance, before beginning any diet, my grandfather always used to say, “I have willpower!” He didn’t. But he did recognize that self-control (willpower) was the key to his success. He just never thought about how to develop it; he just – as we all do – expected it to be there when he needed it. So – what might we need to get us to the gym or away from the cupcake or (fill in the blank)? It might be diligence or faithfulness or discipline. Now – and here’s the rub – if we have trouble with, say, finishing or following through with things (faithfulness), then chances are that that deficit, that inability to finish what we start, will probably be evident in other areas of life as well. But how do we know? Well, do we tend to quit when things get difficult? Or do we procrastinate, promising ourselves that we’ll “get to it” – sooner or later? And sooner never comes? Or do we always feel like “there’ll be time later”? And then there’s not? These are problems with faithfulness.

     So what if we want to change that and become more disciplined, more diligent, more faithful? Then we start by building that faithfulness muscle; we begin by being faithful with smaller, easier tasks and working our way up to harder ones.

     Think of it this way: doing the dishes every night instead of leaving them till later (or whatever little thing you need to work on) is like a five-pound weight; getting to the gym several times a week is a 500-pound weight. And no one starts with those.

     Of course, doing the dishes isn’t that hard. What’s it take? all of 15-20 minutes? But practice it every day and then, after getting to the point where you can’t stand not to do clean-up, add another behavior – write for fifteen minutes a day or study or make lunches the night before or have some quiet time – whatever other thing you haven’t been doing faithfully every day. Then do that until it becomes a habit. One day, you’ll realize that you don’t like stalling or procrastinating or quitting anymore; it’s not who you are. Eventually, there’ll come a day when you can’t not get to the gym on schedule. You’ll be able to lift that proverbial 500-pound weight.

     You will have developed faithfulness.

     What if you want to quit doing something – a bad habit: swearing or being impatient or losing your temper? First, think. What character quality could replace these behaviors? Patience, of course, or self-control – even compassion. Then practice developing those character qualities before you’re in a pinch: be compassionate before someone ticks you off; give someone a card or a call. Practice being patient in a traffic jam or slow grocery line by imagining that others are just having a difficult day (and not trying to be insensitive). Eventually you’ll begin to think differently about swearing or yelling or breaking things.

     The key to developing any character quality is practice, practice, practice. Will you get it right all the time, right away? Possible, but not probable. Begin small by doing one thing at a time, brick by brick, as you build into your life the character qualities that will change you – your thinking and your behavior. Eventually, those changes will lead to the fulfillment of your goals. Make character your New Year’s resolution this year and your destiny will, as a natural consequence, come to pass to its very fullest potential. Why not try it?

     No one has ever looked back and regretted making character development a priority.

 

 

 

 

Lessons From the Manger

mary-and-gabriel

     As we close out Christmas 2016, one more lesson from the manger: Even in the perfect will of God, things can go very wrong. At least – from our perspective. But just because it’s “going wrong” doesn’t mean it’s not God. Let’s break it down.

     The archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary with a message that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Son of God. Then he asked if she was willing. Many times I have written about Mary’s response: “’May it be done unto me as you have said.’” This essentially means that Mary was giving the okay to being a pregnant – and unmarried – woman in a society not at all warmhearted to such a situation.

     Mary’s response fascinates me – such faith in the midst of a very clear cost to her: we know what Mary must have foreseen before she agreed. No doubt she’d be branded a liar regarding the whole angel tale, plus she’d have a knock-down, drag-out fight with mom and dad. And that would be the best-case scenario. At worst, she’d be disowned by her parents and she’d no doubt lose Joseph after being branded an adulteress. (She was engaged to Joseph which, in the Jewish society, was as good as married.) Following that, her prospects for a husband would be less than zero, and she might also find herself ex-communicated from the village or even stoned to death after the birth of the baby.

     Her words humble me. Would I be able to trust God if He asked such a momentous thing of me? Of course, I would like to think so, but . . .

     With all of the potential for tragedy in this situation, I imagine no one believed Mary when she said her pregnancy was the will of God. Surely (we tend to think), God’s will would never be fraught with so much shame, disgrace and controversy! Right? Moreover (we also tend to think), God would never ask so much of one of His children. “Therefore,” (we conclude) “this can’t be God!” Hammer down.

     And yet . . .

     Fast forward several months: Mary visits Elizabeth. Now we don’t really know whether Mary would’ve visited Elizabeth anyway or whether Mary was “encouraged” to get out of Dodge. But bottom line: growing up, I’m certain that while Mary imagined, as all young girls do, what her future marriage and motherhood would be like, I’m fairly certain she never, in her wildest nightmares, ever imagined this little scenario. Nevertheless, in the midst of the shame and trauma, Joseph and Mary do get married. And the sigh of relief is heard throughout the land: certainly the worst is over . . .

     Well, maybe . . . not. Suddenly, Joseph is faced with a rather unexpected census requiring that he and Mary travel to Bethlehem – and Mary nine months pregnant and riding on a donkey and in winter. I can hear her mother now:“Are you sure this is God?? This can’t be God!”

     It was though. And while Mary and Joseph were no doubt wondering at the timing of things, they were certain that God would get them both to Bethlehem safely and provide a nice place for them to stay . . .

     However, God had different plans. And they didn’t involve a warm, clean, private hotel room or a competent mid-wife or even a relative or two to drop by with a congratulatory bouquet. No. Rather, Jesus was born unattended in the midst of winter in a cold, dark stable, surrounded, not by loving family, but by smelly cows, sheep, and maybe a chicken or two.

     Do you ever wonder whether Joseph may have had a moment of doubt? Certainly God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world would be less complicated and – scary? Mary would, of course, reassure Joseph, and they would conclude that now that the baby had come, things would surely be easier. Right?

     Except for King Herod.

     The next thing Joseph and Mary know, they’re headed across the desert – on a donkey – fleeing a king who’d vowed to kill their baby.

     God – ?

     Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed in Egypt for several years before returning to Israel after the death of Herod. In all that time, they lived far away from family and friends and from everything familiar to them. The people were foreign, the food was foreign, the customs were foreign – even the language must’ve been a challenge. Plus, Mary and Joseph would’ve had to find a whole new place to live and Joseph would’ve had to find a job to support his young family. Moreover, they were far from their temple and the free worship of the one true God, living in the middle of a pagan nation full of idol worshippers.

     Was this God-forsaken country any place to raise the Son of God??

     Would God really do that?

     Hindsight being what it is, we now know that all of that was God, and we can see His plan and purpose in the midst of all the seeming nonsensical circumstances that surrounded the birth of Jesus Christ. Is it possible, then, that God’s plans for our destinies might possibly be laced, here and there, with bits and pieces of unrest, trauma, drama, fear, conflict, danger – even tragedy?

     Yes.

     The fact is, chasing our God-given destiny is not for the faint of heart.

     But from that long-ago manger, we can receive the assurance of knowing that just because a situation is not problem-free doesn’t mean it’s not God.

     Mary’s situation makes me wonder: What happens when God presents us with a choice to pursue a destiny that will, no doubt, change our lives forever – no matter our response? If we agree to God’s request, will we be able to handle what is sure to come: the unforeseen circumstances, the hard challenges – even the scorching tests of faith? On the other hand, if we refuse, will we be able to live with the regret? We know the answer.

     “May it be done unto me as you have said.”

 

 

 

 

 

Your Mission? Just Have Fun.

polar-bear-plunge

         Recently, I read an article on the importance of laughter and having fun, and the impact these can have on our health, our emotions, our relationships, and ultimately, of course, our destinies.

         Frankly, I’d never really given it that much thought.

         However, when I did, I realized that I, for one, had become so bogged down in the daily stresses of life that I was in danger of becoming, well – a Grinch. But don’t laugh – you have, too. After all, since last year, we’ve been bombarded with the whole presidential election and all its associated frills. And let’s face it – multitudes of people are still in recovery (or therapy): they love Trump, they hate Trump; recounting the votes, recounting the recount, and the count of the electoral votes and no doubt the inevitable recount of those. Then the Russians hacked us? Or they didn’t hack us?  Add to that the usual financial and family drama, not to mention all of the holiday decorating and baking and then the shopping – whom to get for and what to get for whom? Then you have to wrap it all.

(As of this writing – minus three days before Christmas – I have not wrapped thing one…).

         Add to that on-line ordering deadlines (who’s shipping for free again??) and mailing deadlines and, frankly, there’s not a lot to giggle about.

         But there should be.

         After I read about how some famous and undeniably successful people incorporated humor into their daily lives, I began to think that it might be way past time to give it a shot. After all, if Thomas Edison could keep a whole journal full of jokes, and if Albert Einstein could ultimately conclude that the keys to life were “simplicity, fantasy, and play,” then it occurred to me that I had better take this whole “fun” thing just a little more seriously. So – I began by doing what all responsible, diligent adults do in order to organize their time and maximize their efforts: I made a list…

25 Spontaneous Ways to Have Fun

  • Tickle someone (preferably someone you know).
  • Play a practical joke. Anonymous is better.
  • Have a pillow fight. Use feather pillows.
  • Wear a button-down shirt – backwards.
  • Watch What About Bob?  Laugh.
  • Watch  P.S. I Love You.  Cry.
  • Make a snow angel. (If you live south of the Mason-Dixon, do a cartwheel.) Outside.
  • Eat cake for supper.
  • Make up continuing stories. (Yes, like a soap opera.)
  • Pretend to be someone else – just not a police officer, a doctor, or a lawyer. Felonies are not fun.
  • Write a funny poem. It has to rhyme.
  • Make green eggs and ham. Eat it.
  • Text a (clean) joke to someone.
  • Sing “Santa Baby”.
  • Give someone a coloring book. Color together.
  • Wave at strangers while in the car.
  • Try doing whatever a one-year-old can do. (Good luck with that.)
  • Make up a brunette joke.
  • Start a “funniest thing you’ve ever heard” conversation.
  • Wear two different shoes and see if anyone notices. Make one of them heels.
  • Play “Patty Cake” with a child (or adult – I don’t care).
  • Make stupid faces when you eat brussel sprouts. It’s not hard.
  • Play Monopoly and build on single lots.
  • Stand someone on his/her head – or your own if s/he objects.
  • Count your blessings.  
  • Smile.                                                                                                                

10 Things Not to Do (They will not make you laugh.)

  • Host a party involving an order form
  • Join a Polar Bear swim
  • Clean toilets (for fun)
  • “See dead people”
  • Fly the friendly skies
  • Tell a nun to “get a life”
  • Co-sign a loan
  • Take a Playstation from a child.
  • Go to the hairdresser’s and say, “Whatever you think!”
  • Offer to pay the fine to the police officer who pulls you over for speeding.

DISCLAIMER: Not responsible if you do the “Don’t’s”.

Now – have a very Merry Christmas and a Fun New Year   

 

 

Birthdays Gone (Very) Wrong.

march-birthday-cake

     Once I had a birthday party and no one came. I was in third grade, and we had moved to Utah a short time earlier because dad had received orders for Hill Air Force Base. Mom thought it would be a nice idea to invite all of my classmates so that we could all get to know each other better. Nice idea – in theory. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Unbeknownst to me (and to my well-meaning mother), Kevin Morrissey and I had the exact same birthday. And Kevin Morrissey and I were having a birthday party on the exact same day. And since Kevin Morrissey had grown up with all of the other kids in our class . . . well, you can guess the rest. I remember sitting in my beautiful velvet party dress, the table all decorated with shiny green plates and cups and mint-colored balloons (the obligatory St. Patty’s day birthday décor), waiting for the doorbell to ring. Somewhere there was the donkey-without-a-tail game and a big, shamrock-shaped birthday cake. But the doorbell never rang.

     I think the most hurtful part was that no one I invited even thought to mention that there was another birthday party at the same time as mine.

     Or maybe they did.

     It’s okay. I’m over it. However, what happened last year to a friend of mine was even worse.

     It was early winter and my friend – we’ll call him Dave so as not to embarrass him – was about to have a birthday. All of his friends loved Dave so they decided to have a celebration and planned a big party. It was hosted at a friend’s house and anyone who wanted to come was invited. There was a ton of food, too – the friend and his wife provided a huge ham and a fat turkey and four different kinds of drinks. Everyone else brought their specialties: Kelly brought her mouth-watering mac and cheese, Mitch brought a croc full of killer chili, and Maria brought her famous home-made lasagna (which she only made on very special occasions for very special people). Others brought fresh spring salads and fruit salads, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (not together, of course), and all kinds of desserts: pecan pies, strawberry cheesecakes, mint-frosted brownies, and a big chocolate fudge cake.

     And what birthday party would be complete without gifts? Every one of Dave’s guests brought a present, all carefully wrapped and ribboned and tagged. There were candles with fragrances of red cinnamon and green spruce and white peppermint; there were shiny boxes of dark chocolate and caramel, and enough golden gift cards to add up to a small fortune.

     In addition, there was music, including a fun song Dave’s buddy Joe had made up about Dave’s birth which, according to his mother, was quite the ordeal. (Apparently, she never made it to the hospital and ended up having Dave on the way there. Dave can’t even tell you where he was born on because mom wasn’t really paying attention to road signs at the time.)

     When all was said and done, everyone had a very merry time at Dave’s birthday party. The only sad thing was that no one had thought to invite Dave. So all of his friends gave their presents to one another, sang a song or two about Dave’s birthday, and took all the leftovers home. Everyone had such a wonderful time that they decided they couldn’t wait for Dave’s next birthday when they would have an even bigger party.

     I just hope that this year, someone remembers to invite Dave.

 

 

Rules of Engagement for the Holidays

family-fighting-at-christmas

With the Christmas season upon us, chances are we’re going to be seeing lots of folks that we might normally not see – whether we want to or not. And with the somewhat toxic election just a month behind us, it’s not out of the question that some conversations might go a little, well – nuclear. Meltdowns may occur. Poisoning of the atmosphere around your dinner table is not out of the question. Mass casualties are probable.

Except for you.

You can be – if you’re forewarned and willing – the baking soda that neutralizes the meltdown.

“And just how would I do that?” you’re asking. “You don’t know my Uncle Ebenezer!”  Well, maybe not, but Uncle Eb takes many forms: Grandpa, your second cousin twice removed (for good reason), your fiancé’s mother, and Satan.  We’ve all experienced Uncle Ebenezer in one form or another. So – what can you do when things begin to trend a little, shall we say, awkward?

Change the topic. However, stay away from religion. Nevertheless, since it is Christmas, that might pose a challenge. But it doesn’t have to – just stick to the basic facts of the story; everyone pretty much agrees with what happened on Christmas. Just don’t fight about whether the wise men got there in three days or three years; it doesn’t matter! And don’t get into things like whose pastor is the most long-winded, whether or not Christmas trees are Biblical, and for everyone’s sake, it doesn’t matter who wrote Silent Night,  Catholic or Protestant – it’s now public domain!

Keep your lips closed about what you won’t eat. Look, we’re all aware that glutton, sugar, red dyes, salt, fat, and processed foods cause much pain and suffering. We all know that non-organic fruits, vegetables, turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna, et cetera ad nauseam are more deadly than rat poison. We’ve read the 30-foot billboard warnings, seen the 60 Minutes exposé, and been indoctrinated all through school. We’ve read the memos and have the “You Eat, You Die” t-shirt.

We know that it only takes one meal once a year to kill us. We don’t need to hear about it at Christmas dinner.

The fact is, someone has planned for days and slaved over a hot stove or turkey fryer for hours and odds are they’re not going to take kindly to enduring a lecture about how lethal their food is. Okay? Thank you.

Avoid correcting anyone else’s kids! Honestly, it won’t go well. Why? Well, the fact is that many parents who bring their kidlets to holiday functions expect everyone else to be envious of those little cherubs. (Not you, of course.) Now granted, this is often a sub-conscience illusion but, nonetheless, you do not want to be the one to burst that little bubble. So, no matter what the little darlings do or say, walk away. If you must comment on their behavior – let’s say they’re sticking a fork into an electrical outlet – you might want to approach it by casually commenting to mommy that their child is in a life-threatening situation. However, make sure you assure the parent that neither their child’s behavior nor your comment on it is in any way meant to reflect negatively on that child’s superior intelligence.

But – what to do if the parent corners you and begins bragging incessantly about their child(ren)? Not much you can do. Go to your happy place.

So you’re wrong. Take the hit. No one has ever died from being accused of being wrong. If Uncle Ebenezer or his minions want to argue, don’t. Instead, you might consider other options. You could agree with him. It’ll leave him speechless and you can make your escape. You could comment on how wonderfully behaved his children are. You’d be wrong again but – what the heck?

DO NOT EVER COMMENT ON THE “BABY BUMP”! EVER.  That is, until someone informs you that there truly is a baby bump – then you may comment. However, tread lightly: never agree when the perspective mom complains that she looks like a beached whale. Don’t even nod. If she asks if she looks fat, the answer is an emphatic “no!” In fact, you couldn’t even tell she was pregnant.

Now that you know the rules of engagement for a happy holiday get-together with family and friends, you can be the one to ensure that all goes smoothly and no one gets hurt. And when the going gets rough and you don’t know whether you can pull off the impossible, remember: it can’t be more difficult than making peace in the Middle East.

Oh, and one more thing: under no circumstances should you cave to the temptation to roll your eyes.

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays!

 

 

Faithfulness – or Obsession?

scales

Burning the midnight oil? Putting hobbies, down-time, and social activities on hold? Spending more money than you really should on the dream – whatever that might be?

All of these kinds of sacrifice can happen when you’re chasing the dream – but should they? When is all of the effort, expense, energy and emotion too much? When do you cross the line?

Where is the line?

That’s the fundamental question. Where is the line between being faithful to your dream, using and developing your God-given talent, and becoming obsessed with it?

Thing One: God. This past summer my goal was, by the end of July, to get at least halfway through a book I was writing. It wasn’t an unrealistic goal – if I could stick to a schedule. The problem was that, during summers, I break out in hives when anyone mentions anything to do with any kind of time commitment. Whatsoever. But I bit the bullet and made one – a schedule, that is. When I got up in the morning, the first thing on my schedule was Bible and prayer. I’d make my tea (Tetley stocks went up this summer), go out on the deck, and spend time with the Lord. I have to be honest though – sometimes it was a struggle to put my devotions first. (Is that okay to say…?) I was chomping at the bit to write, to get whatever had bubbled up in my brain during the night onto paper. However, I made myself get butt-down in the chair; I was afraid that if I put the Lord off till later, later would never come.

I can’t tell you how many times during those days I would think of the story in the Song of Solomon when the King knocks at his beloved’s locked door, wanting to spend time with her, and she answers that, essentially, she’s already ready for bed and it would be inconvenient to get up. So the King leaves. Later, when his beloved feels guilty about having refused him, she goes searching for him but he’s not to be found. Like the King in the story, Jesus isn’t fond of being put off till later or being second choice to anyone or anything else. But then, who does?

Point? As Christians, if we’re putting our dream ahead of our Lord, that’s an indicator of obsession.

Thing Two: Time. As I’ve mentioned a few dozen times, I’m a teacher which means I have summers off, and that translates into time to write. But it wasn’t always so. When the kids were little, they also had summers off – which means I had no time to write. Maybe some writers are talented enough to produce pages and pages of fascinating prose while younger son is banging a truck on the floor and older son is screaming that it’s his truck and dog is throwing up on the floor because younger son fed him a jalapeño pepper. But I’m not. I need peace and quiet. And that didn’t happen for A Long Time. Nor did it happen later. By the time they were teenagers, older son was blowing up enemy lines on Playstation with the volume cranked to “the neighbors are complaining” levels, and younger son was screaming that it was his turn or his video game or something. I don’t know. I tuned it out. Granted, I could have run away to a faraway beach and I would probably have published a series with sixteen sequels by now, but somehow I knew that wouldn’t be right. There is a time and a season for everything and at that moment in time, my destiny involved making peanut butter sandwiches. Which might be how I discovered that putting cinnamon in peanut butter is really good. (I was really bored one day….) This past summer, the sons were both working so it’s now the season for me to write.

I remember Jerry Jenkins (author of the Left Behind series) once saying that he used to schedule his writing time every night after the kids went to bed – and he’s still managed to write almost 200 books. The point is that if we’re spending too much time on our goals, who or what are we cheating? If we’re taking time away from the other things that we really should be doing or from people who need our attention, then we’ve crossed that line between “faithful” and “obsessed”. (Disclaimer: working a job is a thing, not an obsession – usually.)

Thing Three: Money. It’s not difficult to get caught up in spending more money than we should while trying to achieve our goals. After all, trips to the beach for inspiration are a necessity, not just a perk! (Who doesn’t know that?) And over the years, having seen many folks spend too much money on businesses for things like equipment, expansion, advertising and promotions, “expenses” (trips, lunches, etc.), and conferences, I know how easy it is to cross the line from wise spending to throwing money away. The rationale? “It’s an investment in the dream!” Maybe, maybe not. Anytime we spend money to further a dream, there’s always a chance that the investment won’t produce the results we need to at least return that investment – which means we lose. The key question is – was that investment an “acceptable risk”? In other words, is it money we can afford to lose or does the loss put us at serious financial risk? Throwing money away that we can’t afford to lose is a symptom of obsession, not faithfulness. Granted, we sometimes need to move in faith to make an investment but not at the expense of everything we own or have worked for. Faithfulness makes wise investments; obsession spends money we can’t afford to kiss goodbye.

The bottom line is that when we’re working the dream, we need to be careful of crossing the line between owning the dream and the dream owning us. If and when we lose control of the amount of time, energy and expense that we’re putting into making the dream happen, then we’re at risk of losing a great deal. More than one marriage or relationship or good credit score has been lost when faithfulness to a calling becomes an obsession.

The answer? It’s right there in black and white: “Delight yourself in the LORD; and [then] He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). It’s an “if-then” proposition; “if” you will…. “then” God will. It’s that easy.

Now dream.

 

 

This Christmas – What If…?

christmas-car

“Many Christians have heard the Christmas story so many times it’s just a rote tale anymore.”

Every Christmas, millions of folks engage in the sport of “Making Merry at Christmas.” Absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ve even been known to indulge a time or two, myself. (Okay, every year.) And every year, for many of us, the season looks something like this:

  • Trekking through the stores shopping for that perfect gift for everyone on our “nice” list (and Uncle Hank);
  • Decorating the tree and the door and the windows and the lawn and the table and the bathroom (you know you have);
  • Baking the snowman cut-out Christmas cookies, gingerbread men, mint chocolate truffles, the . . . ;
  • Writing Christmas cards to people who probably don’t remember who we are;
  • Christmas party #1;
  • Returning one (or more) of the gifts you bought for family and friends because you found out: they already had one; wrong size; they don’t want one; it’s been recalled;
  • Doing the Secret Santa thing at work (and you had to pick the office-gift critic);
  • Christmas party #2;
  • Making grandma’s nut roll recipe, chocolate fudge, and wreath-shaped butter-spritz cookies – all in one day;
  • Wrapping, wrapping, wrapping;
  • Trying to find a parking space at the Destiny USA mall;
  • Taking kids or grandkids or total strangers’ kids to see Santa;
  • More shopping;
  • Christmas caroling around the neighborhood to the tune of “Santa Baby”;
  • Christmas parties 3, 4, and 5;
  • Stuff the stockings;
  • Stuff the turkey;
  • And, oh yeah, maybe hit a church service somewhere.

All of that’s great but what if this year, I could find something new in the Christmas story, something fresh, and not just check the “Yep, I read it” box. So I asked the Lord for that something, that new insight or lesson or encouragement. Funny thing about asking God for fresh revelation – He’ll give it to us.

So I began to think about the Christmas story. And I realized there’s something to how the whole story came about . . .

First: The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her, a poor, unknown Jewish girl, that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah. That was unexpected.

Second: Three wise kings set out on a two-year journey to find one obscure little baby in order to give him expensive gifts of gold, frankincense , and myrrh . That was unexpected.

Third: That baby was born in a stable and laid in an animals’ food trough. (We tend to whitewash the humility of that whole experience.) That was really unexpected.

Fourth: The entire heavenly host appears to announce the birth of the Messiah. That was totally unexpected.

Fifth:  That heavenly host by-passes the rich and famous and declares the birth of the Messiah to a bunch of shepherds. Considering how poor and despised shepherds were in those days, that was most unexpected.

Sixth: The God of all the universe loved us so much that he limited his divine awareness and power to that of a tiny human baby. “Unexpected” is an understatement. Incomprehensible might be more accurate.

It’s a simple lesson but most of the Lord’s really good ones are: This Christmas season, look for God’s hand in the midst of the unexpected, the humble, and the holy. Look for it as you’re baking your family’s favorite cookies, shopping for that one gift that says how much you care, and taking the time to write a note in a card to that person whom you haven’t heard from in forever.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the unexpected hand of the Lord to someone who really needs to find it this Christmas season.

Who’s Driving the Dream?

hamster-wheel

Ever felt like that little hamster on the wheel, going around and around and around and going – nowhere? You might have. At any given point in time, how many people are trying to:

  • Compete with 100 other people for that one job opening?
  • Win a once-in-a-lifetime part in that play, musical, TV show or movie?
  • Fight for that academic scholarship against hundreds of other students?
  • Write that #1 Billboard hit song – along with 5000 other songwriters?
  • Grab the market share against your competitors for – whatever you’re selling?
  • Captivate that literary agent that 600 other writers are trying to get to first?
  • Battle for that one spot on the team against the best of the best?
  • Earn that job promotion that a dozen other people also want?
  • Build that platform – just to get noticed?
  • Grow that church or ministry – because that’s what’s expected?

Sometimes chasing our dreams can run the emotional gamut from frustrating to disheartening to depressing – even to hopeless. We work and work and work, only to find that our best seems not to be good enough. We’re in constant competition, hustling, burning the candle at both ends, enduring the grind – day after day, month after month, even year after year. Then comes the day that we simply have to admit it: we just can’t cut it. So what then?

Surrender.

When we reach the point where we despair of ever “making it” (because that’s what our culture tells us we have to do), then perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate what it is we’re trying to do. Maybe we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves. Maybe we weren’t “meant to be” the next Bill Gates or Miss America or Stephen King or Paul Ryan or even Paul the Apostle. So then the question remains: If we don’t hit the pinnacle of whatever it is we do, does that mean we’ve “missed it” – “it” being our destiny? Just what were we meant to be anyway?

Faithful.

Over two thousand years ago, a young Jewish girl, a true “nobody”, was visited by the angel Gabrielle who gave her the choice of being the mother of the Messiah – or not. (It’s always about the choice.) Now, I’m certain that Mary counted the cost before she consented to become pregnant as a single woman – that never worked out well for unmarried Jewish girls. Unlike today, an unmarried pregnant woman in that culture was a huge scandal so it wasn’t difficult for Mary to imagine the disgrace and the consequences: at best, she would be shunned by everyone she knew, ridiculed by everyone she didn’t know, her betrothal to Joseph would be history, and she could look forward to life as an “old maid”. Worst case scenario: she would be stoned to death. Mary faced a capitol punishment for what was considered a very grievous crime in her day. Pretty sure that wasn’t her dream. Yet Mary’s response?

“’I am the Lord’s servant. May it be unto me as you have said’” (Luke 1:38).

If we can truly say those words, if we can accept whatever the scope of the destiny that the Lord has for us, then we’ll find peace in the midst of whatever happens with our dreams – or doesn’t happen. We’ll find perspective in the midst of the overwhelming odds of “making it”. We can let go of the competition, secure in the knowledge that, as long as we do our best, God will open the doors that need to be opened and light up the paths that we need to be on. We can get off the hamster wheel and stop pounding on closed doors. If we listen, we’ll hear the voice of the Lord give us one step at a time, one assignment at a time in their due seasons and, ultimately then, we’ll find that we have fulfilled the destiny assigned to us. It won’t be Stephen King’s destiny or Miss America’s or Bill Gates’, not even Paul the Apostle’s; those are their destinies, decreed from the beginning of time by the One who assigns destiny to each of us before we’re born.

Does this mean that we don’t work hard or that we give up because we’re not “the star” in our field? No. It means that we submit our desires and dreams and talents to the Lord and then watch what He does. If we’ll truly do that, then we’ll find that His dreams for us are far more fulfilling than our own visions could ever have been. Why? Because His destiny for us is filled with eternal purpose – purposes that, as Mary discovered, are way beyond anything we could ever come close to imagining.

And to be part of that eternal plan – isn’t that the truest dream come true?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARE YOU DONE – OR ARE YOU FINISHED?

Elderly woman praying before bed

    Mrs. Clara Jacobs, a widow, was seventy-two years old and had been widowed for thirteen years. Her husband had passed after a sudden stroke and Clara had had to go to work for the first time since she’d married thirty-plus years before. She found a job at a small bakery and worked there three days a week using the only marketable skill she felt she had: baking. Clara was an excellent baker and her pies had become quite popular all around her town so she didn’t mind the work; it helped make ends meet. Nevertheless, at seventy-two years old, Clara was tired. But it wasn’t the work, it wasn’t the early mornings, it wasn’t even the loneliness – though there was that.

   It was her son.

   Kevin, Clara’s only son, was thirty-four years old, a “writer,” he said – although to Clara’s knowledge, he had never written anything that had ever made him any money. What he did do though was drink. A lot. That’s why Clara was tired – from the worry, from the helplessness, from the tears.

   Even so, every evening at seven o’clock, Clara turned off the evening news (she did like to watch that), sat down in her ancient rocker, and began to pray. And every evening until bedtime, Clara prayed fervently for Kevin, beseeching the Lord to set him free and to heal his heart from whatever wounds he suffered – for surely, an addiction had to be heartbreaking for Kevin, so bound in the chains of his cravings and sickness that he couldn’t even admit what was happening.

   In addition, Clara prayed for Kevin’s blind eyes to be opened to spiritual things and for his deaf ears to hear the voice of the Lord. She prayed for Kevin to have good influences in his life, a mentor, someone to be a spiritual father to him, and for those friends who encouraged Kevin’s drinking to move on from his life. Not that Clara wished them ill, mind you – in fact, she would have liked to have seen them all set free. But she only had so much time to pray for Kevin. Still, she’d mentioned them to the Lord.

   One evening as Clara was praying, she began to feel dizzy and slightly nauseated. When her hand began to numb, she called 911. And good thing, too, because Clara was having a heart attack. But she knew that.

   As she sat waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Clara felt herself become strangely calm and noted, somewhat remotely, that the physical pain of a heart attack was somewhat less excruciating than the heartbreak she experienced each night crying out to the Lord for Kevin. Every evening, the tears flowed as she wept, often sobbed, thinking about the sweet little boy that Kevin had once been. She remembered his 4th birthday party and how his blue eyes had lighted up when they’d rolled out his new bike, or how, even when he was a big boy of six, he’d climb up into her lap, snuggle in, and fall asleep. Or his first car, his very own, a seven-year-old Grand Am which he’d named Dale, and then the time he’d gotten his first paycheck, smiling with pride and then suddenly yelling, “Are you kidding me??” when he realized how much Uncle Sam had taken in taxes. His father had laughed and welcomed him to adulthood.

   Tears filled Clara’s eyes.

There were the times when she cried out to the Lord with questions:  Where had she gone wrong? What could she have done differently? Why hadn’t He answered her prayers??

   Clara sat, unmoving in her chair, without even the strength to rock. She felt her eyes begin to flutter closed – she was so tired, so done. Maybe it was time to let go. She was, after all, seventy-two years old. They’d find someone else to bake the pies…

   “Mom!”

   Clara’s eyes snapped open. She looked around the room but she was alone. Yet she knew she’d heard Kevin’s voice, clear as a bell, and she’d recognized the note of panic in it. And it was in that moment that Clara knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was all in the world that Kevin had. She knew too that the Lord had answered her prayers: if not for them, Kevin would be dead.

   Taking a deep, shaky breath, Clara whispered – for that was all she was able to do, “Lord, please keep Kevin safe, guard and protect him, and have mercy on him!”

   In the distance, Clara could hear a siren, rising and falling, growing louder, racing closer.

   “Draw him to Yourself, Lord, and pour out Your spirit on him.”

   Clara took another breath as footsteps pounded up the apartment stairs, and she whispered, her lips barely moving, “And Lord, be with Kevin while I’m away. Let him not be afraid . . .” A sudden picture flashed in her mind: Jesus, hanging on a rough cross, all splinters and blood, crying out, “’It is finished!’”

   Clara closed her eyes. She remembered once when Kevin had become frustrated because he couldn’t figure out his math homework. He had thrown down his pencil and in classic ten-year-old style, balled up his paper and yelled, “I’m done!” Clara had quietly picked up the pencil, smoothed out the paper and gently placed them both back in front of Kevin.

   “You may be done, Son, but you’re not finished.”

   As medics burst into the room, a weak smile played about Clara’s lips.

   Neither was she finished.