June 30, 2009

Plugged In or Tuned Out?

My daughter sat on the kitchen stool chatting amiably as I chopped, measured and mixed ingredients for dinner. I thought of my own mom who’s a wonderful cook. In my mind’s eye I see her in the kitchen lovingly preparing gourmet dinners, homemade desserts and celebratory feasts. Even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by her skilled hands taste better.

I am my mother’s daughter in that I’m quite capable in the kitchen. The problem is I didn’t inherit her love of cooking. At this point in my life I tolerate it at best – a necessary means to an end. In all things domestic, quick and easy is my motto.

I shared these thoughts with my daughter, “When I think of Nanny I picture her in the kitchen.” To which she agreed. Then, I asked her, “When you think of me, where do you picture me?”

“At your computer,” she replied without hesitation.

It’s no secret I love my computer. I use it to work, write, shop, correspond and more. All of these things require lots of B.I.C. (butt in chair) time. But hearing my daughter’s response makes me sad that I’m not giving her a cozier, more nurturing and more delicious version of a mom.

I struggle with how much time I spend on the computer and have tried to set limits, like no computer on the weekend, but that still leaves me sitting at my desk for many, many hours a day. Honestly, breaking away mid-thought or mid-project, is hard. Blogging and “social networking” can be a tremendous time drain.

Case in point, last night I came home from visiting with a friend. It was late, but I did a “quick check” of email before I went to bed and before my husband fell asleep. I saw that someone had written on my “wall” so I clicked over to Facebook to check it out. From there I read the updates which led me to a friend’s page which led me to their friend’s page which led me deeper and deeper into the ethers of Facebook. Forty-five minutes of cyber-stalking later, I headed to be to find my husband sound asleep and myself with nothing of value to show for my time.

Maybe it’s just me and I’m being cranky, but do these drive-by shout outs really improve our lives? Do we really keep up with our 36, 150, 326 or 912 friends? Are our relationships deeper? Do we feel more connected?

Yes, we might catch up with long lost high school friends, faraway family or rarely seen friends, but are these the foundation upon which we build our lives? Or do they steal time away from those that matter most. I think each of us truly want one or two deep, meaningful relationships and not dozens or hundreds of cursory ones.

When I look at my own life and my top three relationships—God, my husband, my children—I have to admit they haven’t improved one bit as a result of “social networking.” My close family and friendships haven't either. If anything, they’ve all received the last scraps of my time as I’ve gotten distracted online.

I’m not drawing a line in the sand where online is bad and unplugged is good, but personally I need to re-evaluate my priorities and how I spend my online time. Am I living each day to fulfill my God-given purpose? To love on the Lord and those He’s blessed me with? And to reach out to others in love.

Unless I change my vocation, I probably won’t be able to change my daughter’s perception of me at my computer. (And maybe I can teach her a thing or two.) But I do need to consciously and deliberately be engaged and available as a mom.

For starters, maybe I’ll make a few more gourmet dinners, homemade desserts and celebratory feasts.

Or maybe I’ll call my mom and ask her to.

June 25, 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go? -- part 2

If you’re just joining in, you might want to read Part 1 before you read today's entry. Sorry for it's length...

Each day I repeated the hopeful journey to the mailbox and each day I returned disappointed. Yes, we received a few greatly appreciated donations, but they left us far behind the almost $2,000 we still needed. Many people had told me they planned to make a donation, but still the mailbox remained largely vacant. I tried not to get discouraged and avowed to trust God to make this happen. Lord, we’re doing this for you. I know if it’s your will the money will come.

But as the weeks went by and our next fundraising deadline approached my prayer pleas got more urgent. Lord, um, can you hurry? A couple more donations trickled in, but the deficit loomed large.

Dan and I had already contributed a good amount and counted on fundraising to cover the rest. Did God want us to give more? As we pondered that thought, a major home repair cropped up wiping out the possibility of covering the shortfall on our own.

To add to our stress, my husband received news about a program he was scheduled to work on for most of the summer. Earlier in the year he’d taken himself out of the rotation for the two weeks we’d be gone in July. (Being self-employed, saying “no” to known business is a real sacrifice). Now, according to the just-released schedule, since he wasn’t available for the two weeks of our trip he hadn’t been given ANY of the July dates. Just like that, an entire month’s income evaporated.

Lord, why?! We’re we moving backward financially, not forward! What are you telling us?

I talked to a couple of friends about our difficulties raising money. Independently they both they suggested one of us not go. It’s funny, but I hadn’t even considered that option. Sure, leaving one person at home was the easy answer and provided an immediate solution (although how would we decide who?!), but it didn’t seem like the right answer. Inside I just knew we had to press on and have faith.

But, doubt, self-pity and even anger started to creep in. Why is it so difficult? Why isn’t God coming through for us? Why aren’t we receiving the support of family and friends as I expected? I knew I couldn’t let these toxic thoughts take root, so I sought wisdom from our pastor.

He listened to my tale of woe. “Maybe God doesn’t want us to go,” I rued. “What should we do?” After hearing me out, he counseled, “I don’t think God's telling you not to go. Remind people about the upcoming deadline because often they intend to give, but forget. And keep praying.”

The trip organizer extended our deadline and Dan and I hunkered down. Honestly, I hoped for a dramatic solution. You know, the kind of answer that leaves you with goosebumps and a sense of awe—like receiving an unexpected check from the insurance company for exactly the amount needed.

That didn’t happen, but a few days after my chat with our pastor, we received two large and unexpected donations. Then several “sorry, I buried this under a pile” checks arrived. And a few more followed. I even offered one-on-one training sessions for my technologically challenged friends in exchange for a donation.

Amazingly, within about a week we went from questioning our ability to go to being within $16 of our minimum goal!

Then came the donation that put us over the edge. It was from a dear friend who has a heart for missions, but is in a very difficult spot financially. I was so moved because I know her offering came from a place of sacrifice and love. Thank you Lord, for her generous example.

Again and again we’ve seen this example played out. Those struggling financially, out of work and living on a fixed or reduced income represent the majority of contributors to our trip. Like the woman at the well who gave two coins, each has set an example of generosity I hope to demonstate for years to come.

As if on cue, God just provided an unexpected ending to this story. . .

Needing a break from writing, I just went outside to check today’s mail. Amid the bills, circulars and junk I saw an envelope inscribed with my 90-year-old grandmother’s familiar writing. I sat at my desk, anxious to read her note and a check fluttered onto my lap. My grandmother lives a modest life without any extravagance I’ve ever seen. I glanced at her check and saw that it was about what I would have expected…until I looked again. I’d dropped a zero. As I write this, we just received our largest donation to date!

I am awed by her generosity and at a loss for words.

In God's abundance and faithfulness, we are now well over our minimum goal. Every additional dollar we raise will be put directly to the project, allowing our group to do even more when we're in the DR. We pray God multiplies these offerings into an overflowing bounty, both physically and spiritually.

Once again, in my impatience, God's timing was not my timing, but in his great faithfulness He has worked all things for good. And made straight the path that leads my family and I to the Domincan Republic . . . in less than four weeks.
"Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.'" (Mark 12:42-44)

Stay tuned for more as our departure date approaches.

June 22, 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go? -- part 1

“For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:47)

It was last July and my husband had just returned home from a 10-day mission trip to the Dominican Republic with our church. As he unpacked his suitcase, he told me and the kids all about it. My son, rifled question after question “Who…?” “How come…?” “When…?” Then he noticed Dan hadn’t brought home his work shoes and asked, “Why?”

“I left my shoes behind because even though they’re really dirty, the Dominicans will clean them up and use them.”

“What kind of shoes were they?”

“Just a sturdy old pair of hiking boots.”

With that, our son ran to his room and returned moments later holding a grungy old pair of basketball sneakers. “Dad, are these OK?” he asked expectantly.

Suppressing a smile Dan replied, “Yep! They’re perfect.”

As if footwear was the biggest logistical hurdle to jump, our little guy’s gesture proclaimed, “Next year, I’m going too!”

For about eight years our church has sponsored a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. During that time they’ve worked in the village of San Miguel to build a church, school, medical clinic and on the most recent trip, a water purification facility. Each summer when the missionaries return and share their incredible testimonies I think, One day I want to go.

But time and circumstances said otherwise and it was Dan, not me, who went to the DR. For two years the kids and I have cheered him on from the sidelines, praying for him while he’s gone, listening to his stories when he returns, and pouring over gazillions of pictures. I’ve been so blessed watching Dan venture into an experience unlike any he’s ever had before and seeing his faith deepen as a result. God, maybe you want me to support my husband on these trips, but not go myself? And I was OK with that.

But, now with my son staking a claim in next year’s trip and my husband wanting to go again, could this be the year I get to go...that we get to go as a family?

Fast forward to the bitter chill of January. As the planners started to make solid arrangements for the 2009 trip, they required a firm commitment—accompanied by a sizeable down payment. It was time to separate the casual from the committed. Were we prepared to turn our desire to go into an actual PLAN to go?

With some rearranging of summer schedules and confidence in God’s leading, we said “Yes!”

The only things that stood in our way were immunizations, passports for the kids, mastering a few Spanish phrases, attending monthly planning meetings…oh, and fundraising $6,600.

“No problem!” Dan and I agreed. For his last two trips, Dan easily raised more than enough to cover his share. And both of us have had great success fundraising for other ventures in the past. It’ll be fun, we thought.

In March, Dan sent an appeal letter to his past donors. I hoped it would generate enough to get us most of the way to our fundraising goal and then I’d follow up with a letter to other family, friends and acquaintances to make up the difference.

However, I hadn’t fully considered two things. In the past Dan only had to cover one person, not four. And the economy is bad, really bad.

As a result, Dan’s letter brought in even less than last year. Again, I thought, No problem. I’ll send out my appeal to get us to the finish line. I cast a wide net, covering everyone I thought of—hoping a little bit from a lot of people was the way to go.

Within three days of sending out my letter, I received a donation from my great aunt in Ohio. The next day the mail carrier brought a donation from our neighbor. Hooray! We’re on our way!

The following day I eagerly awaited the sound of the mail truck puttering down the street. As I heard it approach, I darted out to check the mail Opening the mailbox and pulling out its contents, I expectantly sorted. Hmm, let’s see. Bills, circulars, junk…Let me check again…bills, circulars, junk. No donations.

I repeated this cycle every day for three weeks. Not one donation arrived.

. . . to be continued.

June 16, 2009

In Training

When I visited my sister in St. Petersburg in April my visit coincided with a world-famous athletic event taking place there: the St. Anthony’s Triathlon. St. Anthony’s, one of the largest and most competitive Olympic-distance triathlons in the United States, hosts some of the world’s strongest and most elite professional athletes. This year, over 4000 athletes from 45 states and 18 countries participated.

What’s so cool about St. Anthony’s is that it’s open to professional and amateur triathletes. As long as you register in time, you can participate. The race website describes the event:

On race day you’ll swim through the brisk waters of Tampa Bay, bike along glimmering waterways and quiet harbors and run through picturesque neighborhoods and past cheering spectators. Race against the world’s top professional triathletes as they compete for $60,000. The event culminates with a festive waterfront awards party featuring live music, great food, cold beer and cool door prizes.
Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?

On race day—a glorious, breezy morning with nary a cloud in the sky—my sister and I headed back downtown to watch the race which was already in full swing. The scene crackled with excitement and anticipation.

For hours we cheered people starting and finishing the various legs of the race. During that time we observed athletes of every size, age and shape zoom, jog and hobble by. As expected, we saw plenty of ultra-fit, ├╝ber-studs, but we also saw thousands of ordinary-looking thirtysomethings; “pleasantly-plump” weekend warriors; slightly sagging suburban housewives; adventurous teenagers; gray-haired grandpas; red-hatted grannies; and some courageous, but extremely overweight, first-timers.

All running the same race.

Along the course crowds encouraged the racers to keep going. Teammates urged one another on. Earlier finishers urged on slower racers. Family held signs and rang bells. At the finish line onlookers cheered as the announcer called out each and every finisher—dripping with sweat, but victorious. They did it!

Watching this massive event unfold with all the toil and emotion, on such a magnificent day, it was hard not to get choked up. I think my sister and I witnessed the scene of the day: After hours of competing, a profoundly handicapped racer headed down the final stretch of the run. With each awkward step he lumbered closer to the finish line. A swell of support arose as the crowd lining the street clapped, hooted and cheered wildly. Many an eye misted over.

Sure the race records will list the winners and top age finishers, but we witnessed that the victory in this race wasn’t reserved for the prize winners. It rested with each and every athlete who put in the months of training, and reached the finish line one stroke, one pedal rotation and one step at a time. The true victor was:

… the grandmother of six who’s faithfully run for the past twenty years.

… the 78-year-old man (the oldest in the race and once a true triathlon contender) who continues on because of his love of the sport.

… the father of three, listening for the cheers of his kids, racing to make them proud.

… the former couch potato who lost 100 pounds this year and set a goal (using up every ounce of determination and energy) to cross the finish line.

…the middle-aged mom, who after years of chasing little ones, finally had time to do something for herself.

… the cancer-survivors who now embrace the gift of good health and strong bodies.

… the teenager who put in hundreds of hours training instead of hanging out with his friends.

… all the racers who thought they never could…but did.

Every single racer who crossed the finish line shared three things in common: they signed up, they trained and they persevered to the end.

As I watched the St. Anthony’s triathlon and soaked in the experience, I was inspired, moved, thrilled, touched and challenged. I thought if an event like this can be so glorious, imagine what it will be like in heaven?

As Christians, we’re all running a race, aren’t we?

We train, we encourage one another on, we stumble, we persevere. Some speed along fleet-footed; others lumber forward one painful step after another. As awesome as the scene at the St. Anthony's was, the race we run is far more glorious, far more magnificent and far more breathtaking than any on earth. For we run not for a prize that will fade away, but toward a crown that will last forever. And the struggles we face along the way "are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2 Corin. 4:17)

As the great triathlete Paul coaches, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Imagine the celebration at the finish line!

The question is: Are you running the race or watching from the sidelines?

June 10, 2009

Lettuce Pray

It’s been a month since the tragic pea-pod massacre.

Guess what? The little-garden-that-couldn’t, actually can. Our little garden is OVERFLOWING with lettuce. Plus, in what appears to be a Lazarus-style garden miracle, even the peas have resurrected. They’re growing again, clinging to the trellis and reaching higher each day. Last night, my son actually spied a baby pea on the vines. Amazingly, we might just harvest some peas after all!

Once again this wise plot of earth taught me a life lesson—the way a situation appears is not always the way it will be. How often have I looked at the evidence around and logically concluded a particular outcome. The thing is nothing remains as it is. Stormy days give way to clear skies. Gathering clouds block the sun. Seasons change.

You know why those peas sprouted again even though they looked like goners? Under the surface, beyond my seeing, their roots remained intact. That’s all they needed to break forth from the soil and become vibrant, fruit-bearing plants.

Life can cut us down, beat us up and turn us inside out. Our circumstances may say, “It’s over! There’s nothing left here.” We may lose heart. But when we set our roots in the life-giving soil of Jesus, we anchor our souls. In doing so, we can be assured we will once again bear fruit.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4)

P.S. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for some lettuce!
P.P.S. Like the title? It's another groaner from my clever hubby.

June 4, 2009

She's a What?!

The gorgeous spring evening set the perfect backdrop for a relaxing Sunday dinner on the deck. As we enjoyed grilled salmon and fresh-from-the-garden salad, our family caught up on the weekend’s activities.

“Tell us about your weekend at the shore,” my hubby and I asked our daughter.

She filled us in on the details (at least as many as a 14-year-old willingly gives up), then she added, “Oh, did you know my friend is a wiccan? Isn’t that a witch?”

Calmly trying to not choke mid-chew, I replied as calmly as I could, “Yes, I think it is.”

“She had a maiden ceremony or something like that.”

“So, she worships nature and goddesses?” my equally alarmed husband inquired.

“I think she’s a ‘P’ something,” our daughter added.

“Pagan?” I guessed

“Yeah that’s it,” she confirmed.

Dan and I instinctively reacted, defending our Christian faith. (In hindsight, we may have come off a wee bit authoritative.) The mama bear in me struggled not to proclaim, “I never want you to talk to this girl again!” Yet, I think in our haste to establish our viewpoints, Dan and I fumbled a golden teaching moment and an opportunity for deeper conversation on spirituality and truth.

God created us all as spiritual beings. As such young people (and grownups too) yearn to find their place in the world, find meaning in life and connect to something bigger than themselves. In response the world offers an all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet from which to feast.

As parents how do we root our children in the gospel so when journey from our nests they can discern life-giving "food" from junk—and desire to partake of it? It’s easy when they’re younger. because we can exercise our control We bring them to church, enroll them in Sunday school, sign them up for Christian summer camp and drive them to youth group. Up through high school young people tend to mimic the faith they see played out in their homes. (Guess what spirituality my daughter’s friend’s mother embraces?)

But what happens to our teens’ faith as they transition to adulthood? Will their Christian upbringing hold up to their burgeoning intellect, new-found freedom and worldly experiences? How successful will they be in making their faith their own?

Statistically speaking, not very.

A dramatic shift occurs in the spiritual lives of young people as they venture out on their own. According to a study by The Barna Group (Ventura, California), “despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings (60%) were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.

“Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.” The study adds, “There is also a substantial amount of unorthodox spiritual activity: three-quarters of America’s teenaged youths have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity during their teen years (not including reading horoscopes).”

We parents face an uphill battle to give our children the roots they need to make their faith their own. I haven’t made it to the other side of this battle, so I can’t offer any personal experience. But, I can look to the greatest book on parenting ever written. Here are some nuggets I discovered.

As parents we need to:
  • … equip our children to live IN the world but not OF the world. (2 Corin. 10:3)
  • ... be prepared to defend our faith. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
  • … actively get involved in growing our kids’ faith. (Ephesians 6:4)
  • … show them how to be a light in the world, not a curser of the darkness. (1 Peter 2:9)
  • … teach them to “love their neighbor,” but be wise when it comes to choosing friends. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
  • … open up dialogue about our faith and be willing to talk about tough topics without reverting to pat or “Because I said so” answers. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

And most of all:

  • … teach our children about the amazing grace of Jesus. There is nothing this world has to offer that can compete or compare! (Romans 8)
Ultimately our children are in the care and keeping of our heavenly Father. Despite our best efforts, they may still choose to fall away. That’s the rub of free will. Regardless, we can be confident God has a good and prosperous plan for their lives and no matter how far they may stray, He will always welcome them back with open arms. (Luke 15:31)

As parents, we need to put on the armor of God and prepare for battle! Are you up for it?

June 1, 2009

Old Dog, New Tricks

I wish I had something insightful and wise to share tonight, but my brain hurts. I just got back from taking a class in the one topic I’ve desperately avoided learning for the past ten years: HTML.

Don’t know what HTML is? Go to the top of your web browser and look at your menu toolbar. Click on VIEW and then click on SOURCE. See all that crazy text that makes you think you took a wrong turn somewhere in cyberspace? That’s what I’m learning how to do.

Looks like fun, doesn’t it?

After a three-hour class my head feels like it’s reached full capacity and might blow at any moment! And all I have to show for my efforts (besides the aching head) is 21 lines of code that display five sentences of text—all black, Times Roman.

Wow! I can see the phone ringing off the hook from clients needing websites filled with lengths of black and white text! It’ll be retro. (Isn’t this how the internet actually started decades ago?)

The good (bad?) news is that the course continues for the rest of the week. Maybe by the end I’ll be able to create something good enough to print out and hang on my fridge—if the kids will give up some space.

Generally, I love computers. I’m good at figuring things out and enjoy the constant challenges of the digital age. For the most part, I get computers. But this coding thing—one look at HTML and my brain seizes, saying, "Blah, blah, blah. I'm not listening."

You may wonder if I have a choice, why I’m even taking this class in the first place. One reason is that in my line of work as a graphic designer, websites are a natural extension of what I do. It’s an area of business I’ve avoided far too long. My primary motivation? I want to help my church design their website and do other web-based materials.

So, for the sake of advancing the gospel I’m looking the hyper text cyber monster in the eye and saying, “Bring it on!”

In our spiritual lives there are lots of times when the thing we really don’t want to try/do/confront/learn/give up/take on is the very thing we need to embrace if we want to grow our faith. Often that step isn’t even the end goal; it’s just leading us to the next thing. As has oft been quoted, “God doesn’t care about our comfort, he cares about our character.” And if we want to live a life pleasing to the Lord and offer ourselves as living sacrifices, who are we to say, “Sorry God, it’s just not my thing.”

As Oswald Chambers says, “The call of God is an expression of God's nature, not our nature. . . The call of God is not the echo of my nature; my affinities and personal temperament are not considered. . . To be brought into the zone of the call of God is to be profoundly altered."

I don’t know if God’s called me to take an HTML course, but I do know that expanding my mind and trying to grow, honors the gifts I’ve been given. Plus, it really is fun to learn new things…even if they give me a headache.

Wish me luck this week. I think I might need it!

What new thing are you going to do today?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." (Romans 12:1)