Changing Christmas

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I love Christmas. I love the trees, the lights (though I am looking for lights not made in a sweat shop), the smell of pine, the cookies and the silly movies. I love spending time with family, and I love singing Christmas songs. (O Holy Night is my favorite). What I don’t like is the gift giving.

The American habit of giving too much, particularly to children, is profane. Many do use the excuse of Christmas to buy the things people need – clothes, a replacement item, or a needed tool. I can handle that. Even giving one special gift is welcome and can have great meaning. But for the most part Christmas is consumerism at its worst. I get a bit nauseous Christmas morning when I see children – even children I love and am related to – going from one gift to another with little consideration for any of it, or worse, thinking that they are entitled to such abundance.

In years past, I asked my family for gifts that I could distribute. One year it was trial size deodorant that was particularly needed in the homeless shelter I volunteered at. Thankfully, and to my great delight, my family accommodated this request. Truly I was over the moon about it and felt like I had been given the world.

That is was Christmas should be about: giving gifts that are passed on or shared with others. After all, the entire reason we celebrate is to acknowledge the coming of God as Man in order to reestablish a broken relationship. Shouldn’t that be what we give each year, an opportunity to heal broken relationships?

Whether the gift is tangible, like deodorant, or something more personal like time spent over a meal with a new friend, we should aim to give far more than we receive. A family that is consciously planning to give to others is a far more joyous thing than children rifling through unwanted presents.

This year, I’m trying to think of a way to draw my family into the spirit of giving to others. How can we work together to share our abundance? I don’t have many answers yet, especially since Christmas won’t be spent in my neighborhood where I know how to naturally engage in community. However, I am committed to changing the focus this year, not just for me but for all of us. I don’t expect the change to happen in a moment, but little by little, year after year, I hope to change the focus from consuming to relating and sharing.

How will you change your Christmas?

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For ideas on making a strategic change, visit Advent Conspiracy.

Embracing the Love

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“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!” the old man told his soon to be born grandsons. This line from the play Smokefall rings through my mind not just because it is hilarious (even if you don’t like the language) but because it is oh so true.

The play at the Goodman Theater involves many themes of love, of family, of heartbreak, of predestination, and of transformation. If you have the opportunity to see it, you should. It will have you thinking (and laughing) for days.

What stood out to me is how the play reflected the complexity of life. In one’s twenty’s life is still mostly simple. Life has such hope and such ambition. This all lasts until the first child or first death or first heartbreak, then life becomes inordinately complex. However, it is a shame to disillusion the young with the vagaries of the adult world. It is cruel to take that simple dream from them. Yet it is also cruel not to give them the tools to triumph over the complexities of life when they come.

“LOVE TAKES COURAGE!” the old man yelled. Yes, to love after heart-break, after death, after pain takes great courage. To reveal our hearts to others whether in friendship or romance takes great courage. Sometimes more courage than we think we have.

I wrote last week about embracing the pain. Yet it is absolutely impossible to embrace the pain of our lives, whether physical or spiritual or emotional, if we cannot embrace the love as well. Masochism is not the answer. If we only embrace our pain, as some do, we become nihilists who bemoan all of existence and make life miserable for anyone around us. I’ve actually met someone like this, and it takes great fortitude to maintain any kind of relationship. In fact, I couldn’t do it because I did not have the support system in place to help me bear the torrent of bitterness. I embrace my pain but not at the expense of foregoing love.

Having experienced pain, loss, betrayal and grief makes it harder to embrace love (in all its forms), yet once we do, it makes it so much sweeter. Just as adding salt to a recipe highlights the sweetness of the ingredients, so does pain or grief make all worthy relationships that much more special. Friendships mean more. Relationships have depth and purpose. It is far harder to take people for granted. I know I can’t.

Yet love takes courage.

It takes courage to speak the truth. It takes courage to offer ourselves when the potential for rejection exists. It takes courage to love without strings and without expectation. It takes courage to embrace our pain even as we embrace our love.

Ecclesiastes talks about the meaninglessness of life. I believe Solomon was weighed down by the overwhelming power this world has to bring us to our knees. The pain of this world has an ability to take us to the breaking point. Yet even Solomon understood that in the midst of toil and strife it is critical to have someone by your side, someone you are toiling for, someone to uphold you in your hard times. It is even better to have two by your side.

So despite how hard this life is, how much pain we must endure, how much grief we bear, it IS possible to bear it. It IS possible to not just survive but to thrive. We do that by simultaneously remembering our pain and by choosing daily to embrace love.

“Love takes courage, and anyone who says differently is an a**hole!”

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Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,

    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls

    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.

    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,

    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Change

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This morning I am thinking about change and how so many people are afraid of it, even outright hostile to it. I once wanted, even needed, predictability. I liked to plan things out. Way out. Part of this was the way my mind finds patterns in all things. I see structures and patterns in people, numbers, indeed all of life. The other part was the unconscious knowledge that life was not what it seemed.

Many years on from those days, the predictability that I once craved is satiated by my relationships with God and others. Not that those are static and unchanging, but that they are firm and faithful. Indeed I expect these relationships to change, to grow, to become stronger and more powerful over time. If they did not, they would not be as firm and faithful.

If we ignore the fact that things and people change, we will forever be disappointed. Cute children grow up to become awkward teenagers and then beautiful adults. An once beautiful spouse ages, creating wrinkles and crinkles in the oddest of places. Beauty and strength flee. People we love die and leave this world, which too often feels like they have left us (or God took them) with malicious intent. Nothing is ever the same as what it was.

We can either focus on what was, or we can embrace what is and what will be. It is our choice. We can watch the world as spectators or we can become participants in what God is doing.

To me change is a good thing. I fully embrace the fact that people and situations change. I think our fear of change comes from a belief that life will only get worse. Yet what I have found is that while things may get worse for a time, there is joy and health on the other side. If change did not occur, then we would still be crawling bugs unable to fly and bring beauty to the world.

I embrace change in myself because it means I’m alive. I embrace change in others, because it means they are living their lives to the full. I embrace change in my life with God because it means he is not done with me.

Convincing people of the need for change, now that is a whole other discussion.

Weakness: A Vehicle for Mission

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Why would God make me so aware of a desire I could not fulfill? What is the point? And is it even important for mission?

Two weeks ago I saw a play with a friend about two older pet lovers who stumble upon each other and come face to face with their own broken human desires and relationships. On a human level, the play hit very real emotions. On a spiritual level, it completely ignored the reality and power of God.

After the play my friend asked me, “So what was your marriage like?”

I barely remember my answer, though I clearly remember the dissonance that sprang from deep within as the question resounded in my head over the next few days. God was getting my attention.

My marriage was lonely. Very lonely. And coming from a girl who grew up lonely that is saying something. This loneliness was exacerbated by my expectations, some realistic, others not.

I went into marriage with a full commitment to make it succeed and trusted that my husband felt the same. While my trust was real, it was not mature. Ill prepared in so many ways, what I thought was a mutual foundation of faith was not. Without telling a story that is not mine to tell, that marriage was doomed to fail no matter what I did.

Looking back and realizing how little I could do to make it change, and then knowing how lonely I was throughout, God used the play and that seemingly simple question to galvanize my desire for something more, for something real and mutual.

I do not know why God chose now to bring this to my attention. I know one day I want to grow old with someone, but right now I am content and on the whole quite peaceful. This year of “Going Deep” has been incredibly life-giving and joyful. Yet God did get my attention, and I am obligated to do something about it.

Discipleship is all about asking two questions: “What is God saying to you? And what are you going to do about it?” Too often we talk (ad nauseam) about what we are going through, but rarely hear what God is trying to tell us. Most church small groups do this with great alacrity and little benefit. We can’t act on what we do not hear, so the second question is moot until the first is answered.

God was speaking to me about acknowledging and owning my desire to be desired, and to understand why. What then am I to do about it?

The first action step is to tell others. As a Challenger, this vulnerability is very important to my overall health and growth as God’s daughter. It reiterates my utter dependence upon God which flies in the face of my self-reliant tendencies.

The second action is to absorb this desire into myself. It is just one more facet of who I am. I should not ignore it, put it on the back burner, or flaunt it. I cannot deny my desire anymore than I can deny I am right-handed or curly-haired. It is a part of me.

The third action is to draw a line in the sand for anyone who might be a potential “suitor” if such a man exists. While I am no wall flower unable to know my own mind or heart, I am not going to chase anyone. I take relationships as they are presented and give back in the same vein. Knowing my desire to be desired protects me from the what if’s in my male friendships, friendships that are vitally important to me. If a man wants something other than friendship, he’ll need to say so. I don’t and won’t speculate.

The fourth action is to live joyfully in the situation that I am in, no matter if it is for one year or thirty years. I need to rest in the knowledge that God is fully aware of me, my needs and my desires. I do not need to strain or stress or manipulate events to meet my wants. He loves me so much he is going to work out what I need when I need it. My job is to trust him. And I do.

I do not take this part of my job for granted, though I am much more adept at trusting than I used to be. Trust in God is a beautiful and precious gift that I love to show others. Some might try to take it, but even if another takes it out of my hand it still exists. God’s trust cannot be broken, destroyed or mutilated. It can only be spread, shared and multiplied.

The last action is to use my very real, very human need to connect with a world that is longing to be desired. People seek fulfillment in human relationships, much like the play I saw, when the deepest desire is to be loved by the Creator of the universe who is also our Maker. God is not separate from our human desires but longs to be the center of those desires and protector of our hearts. He is the source of ultimate love and such love cannot be imitated or supplanted.

God connected me to my weakness so that I can connect with others in theirs, for His sake and His glory. Weakness thus becomes the vehicle for God’s mission. A powerful, unstoppable vehicle.

 

Go Deep

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Snorkeling in the Red SeaI knew exactly two people in Wauconda when God moved me to the mobile home park in 2010. By the time I left Wauconda this last August, I had a whole family.

The greatest outcome of living in Wauconda was and is my relationship with the people at Fusion Church. Authenticity and acceptance are the hallmarks of Fusion. Through Fusion I was empowered to follow God’s call and to attempt, even fail, where others would have stopped me from even trying. I learned how to create a sense of family out of a group of odd ball strangers. I, who had no idea how to live in a family, became the one to foster family and community. What an amazing gift! Because of that environment God was able to do some of his greatest work in me. I love my Fusion family and miss our community. So it is little wonder that with my move to Chicago my level and type of community engagement would be vastly different.

The move to Chicago, while unexpected in one sense was not surprising in another. I had been spending the last year coming in from the ‘burbs for meetings and helping with Traffick Free, an anti-human trafficking awareness and education organization. I was able to spend a week at a CCDA (Christian Community Development Association) Immersion in the South Loop, getting to see my friends at Overflow Coffee each morning. Relationships and an enhanced love for the city were growing long before I was presented with the opportunity to work and live here.

Unlike when I moved to Wauconda, in Chicago I had many connections already established. What I found, however, was the need to scale back some of my involvement, both to concentrate on the new job but also to take a much-needed break. The break was necessary because while my heart and love for my neighborhood and all the things going on there were still alight, the toll of being alone in the mobile home park and being “on” all the time was significant. I knew that trying to reach my neighbors as I wanted to was not feasible while living there without a partner in the mix. I have some gifts, but I am not a superhero able to do everything or be everything that was needed. Partnership was the key to success, and I didn’t have that.

With the move, I heard God saying, “I want you to take a breath. Focus in on the relationships you have. I want you to GO DEEP.” God wanted me to focus on strengthening an area of weakness in me, but he also wanted to give me blessing and joy.

With my past, I have always been one to let go of attachments once I was removed from the situation. I remember with great fondness those with whom I went to college, but until Facebook I didn’t really keep up with them. On-going, long-lasting, deep relationships were not something I was adept at. Out of self-preservation I was more used to letting go than hanging on. Now is the time to change that. Now I am able to change that.

Deepening relationships takes time and intentionality. It cannot be done on a whim or by magic. I have sisters that know me and yet somehow still love me. They have had to forgive me, and still I know they have my back no matter what as I have theirs. We are in and out of each other’s lives, supporting each other with the gifts and resources God has provided. I’m able to share myself as I’ve never been free to do before. For many of you this might be normal. For me it is the first time I’ve ever had or allowed that kind of connection. It is truly a glorious experience.

With my biological family deeper connections have been made there as well. After a heartfelt clearing of the air over Father’s Day weekend, the deepening has continued with my dad and stepmom. We can disagree (which we do) but still love, support and pray for each other. Times together are thoroughly enjoyable (when we avoid politics). I’m also making intentional connection with others in the family, though I will admit, that is not easy at times. We are probably the most non-verbal siblings on the planet! Egads! It’s a (slow) work in progress, but work I’m committed to doing.

Since moving to Chicago I’ve picked up a couple of friends that are a part of this ‘going deep.’ My 81-year-old friend is just such a friend. Quirky as she is, she fits into my oddball sense of family. Other friends I enjoy going with to concerts, plays and all things Chicago. In the next months I look forward to going deeper with those I’ve known only a short while and those I have yet to meet.

This year of “Go Deep” is an outflow of the complete trust I have in God. I can be vulnerable, open and transparent with much greater ease than ever before in my life. My spots are clearly visible, and I’m comfortable letting them stay that way, even as God works to change them from ugly age spots to true beauty marks.

At some point along the way, I anticipate God showing me a more strategic area of mission here in Chicago, whether via my job with The Salvation Army or in my neighborhood. But I’m not fussed about when that happens. My responsibility now, and always, is to listen, obey and do. And what God is saying to do right now is “Go Deep.”

When in Doubt – DON’T!

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If I have learned anything in my life, it is to listen to my heart. Right now my heart says, “Don’t” yet my head says, “You must.”

This is interesting because part of my reason for my head to say “You must” is because my heart wants something that my life cannot currently support. My head is telling my heart that in order to achieve its freedom in this one area, it must do what another part of my heart says not to. To gain one thing, I must betray part of myself.

Part of my dilemma is very personal. The thought is that if I were financially secure, working in a nice stable environment as I once did, I’d feel more free to pursue my dream of a family and sharing my life with someone. Yet, when I think of what that security would entail – a regular, full-time job – my heart sinks. I know I do not have the stamina to do accounting plus engage meaningfully in mission as well as have room for a family whatever it looks like. I do not have the physical ability. Even without the family, I do not have the stamina. I know. I’ve tried it before. I failed in every area.

My heart sinks at what this “stability” would mean – surrendering the call of God. I will do WHATEVER God wants. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. This has been proven over and over again. Yet it would take more courage than I currently possess to go back to where I was three years ago. This was a land of spiritual isolation and imprisonment. I can’t do it.

With all the things I have lived and learned in my life, the one thing that I must trust is my heart. If it is divided, then it means I cannot move. When in doubt – DON’T! This is the mantra of my life and I will not go against it. Not again.

God would not ask me to divide my heart. He would always make it clear, even when there is tension in the decision, what I should do. Could there be grief and sadness? Yes. Could there be great joy and fulfillment at the same time? Yes. But thus far in my life, I have known somewhere in my heart what I should do.

Right now my heart is saying, “Don’t. Stay the course.” My head is telling me to do whatever I need to get financially stable. I want to listen to my head for many reasons not just about personal relationships. Yet this disunity is speaking to me as clearly as my sinking heart, “Don’t.”

What do I do now? I’m not really sure but I must come up with a plan. I need to come up with a sustainable income. Now. But I’m out of answers and out of energy. This is in God’s court. My Dad needs to step in and show me how to do this one, because I really don’t have a clue. Not if I don’t want to betray my heart.

So like the little train that could, I will keep repeating my message, “When in doubt, don’t. When in doubt, don’t. When in doubt, don’t.” By so doing, I will stay true to my heart and to the heart of God.

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If anyone is concerned, right now I work about 40-50 hours each week between part-time accounting work and mission. The bulk of that is mission which gives me tremendous energy. Switching the ratio is what sinks the heart.

After this cathartic post, I felt a weight lift. It had been preceded with intense prayer and crying out to God. No answers yet, but I have a renewed determination. Interested to see what happens this week.

Thanks for praying! K.