Monday, August 30, 2010

Living Water

If there is one form of fundraising that I find more bothersome than others, it would have to be when people stand in busy traffic intersections with collection buckets asking for donations. What used to be a once or twice a year occurrence for fire fighters to collection money in their boots for Jerry’s Kids has become a nearly every weekend ordeal for practically any group (from local youth groups and churches to unheard of charities) to raise money from unsuspecting motorists.

I am not against giving. In fact, I actively give to several organizations on a monthly basis, as well as look forward to giving my kids change to throw into Salvation Army kettles every Christmas season and participating in other regular times of giving for charities that I enjoy supporting. But unlike charity collections outside of stores where I can speed up my pace and walk quickly away, at intersections I am trapped until the light turns green and the car in front of me begins to move forward … stuck in my vehicle, with no method of escape possible. And, for someone like me who doesn’t like direct confrontation, the idea that I can’t politely say, “No thanks” and keep moving on is quite troublesome.

Furthermore, even if I do want to support the charity, quite often I am truly quite broke. I am unable to even give as much as a dime. It’s not because I am truly that poor. Rather, it’s because I just don’t ever carry a lot of cash with me as I am totally spoiled by my debit card. Besides, most of the cash and change I do have on hand is quickly snatched up by my children for canteen money at school or to put in the offering plate on Friday morning’s chapel service.

There I sit in my minivan with no money to give … and so begins the frantic game known as “trying not to make eye contact.”

As desperately as I am focused on trying to look straight ahead, the person with the bucket is focused on trying to get me to look their way. Of course, in all likelihood this person already knows that, despite my unswerving eyes, I see her. She knows because she can hear the three children in the back of the minivan yelling, “Hey, mom! That lady wants you to give her some money! She’s collecting for homeless orphan children in South America so that they can have Christmas presents this year. You are going to give her something, aren’t you?!”

It never fails that all the other drivers are shoving their hands through their windows, dropping bills and coins into the buckets. I begin to realize that once again I am the lone driver with the stingy, uncaring heart. Guilt creeps in and suddenly I feel like the most ungiving person to ever walk the face of the earth. It doesn’t matter that each of my children will fill a shoebox with gifts to send overseas through Operation Christmas Child, or that we support two little boys through Compassion International every month. I still feel as if I am neglecting to share my blessings with others. It’s as if the evidence of my Christian faith hangs on this one thread of whether or not I have given to this one group of people collecting money at this one intersection on this particular day.

So, much to my dismay, this past Saturday I spotted what seemed to be a relatively major charity collection on my way to Wal-Mart. It was too late for me to change directions when I saw a horde of people in orange t-shirts and hats, standing in the road. Tents were set up on either side of the roadway, with stacks of ice chests placed all around. I could tell that these folks were planning on staying quite a while. Big banners proclaimed that this was the work of a local church.

I also noticed that this group was rather bold. They were actually flagging down cars and leaning into open windows. Fairly quickly I realized that these people they were handing out bottles of water to each vehicle that stopped. I huffed inwardly, seething at the very idea of this local congregation “selling” bottles of water for a donation to their church.

I tried to steel myself against letting my window down. I was determined to look straight ahead. My kids begin to clamor for me to give the man some money. As I used my review mirror to look back at my three kids and explain why I wasn’t going to give the nice man any of my money, I heard a knock on my car window.

Why, the audacity of that man! I was fuming now … but I rolled down my window and prepared myself to say a very firm, “No, thank you.”

He leaned in and said, “It’s a hot day, isn’t it? We’ve got some water here. Can we give you some? There’s no strings attached … just some free water on a hot day.”

Julia, who was sitting closest to the window, said quickly, “Oh, thank you! I am so thirsty!” From the back seat I heard one of my boys say, “There are four of us and we all like to drink water!”

The man laughed and said, “Hey … I need four bottles of water!” Very quickly another man ran over with four nice cold bottles of water and passed them through the window.

The first man said, “We just want you to know that just as cold water refreshes us on a hot day, the Living Water of God will refresh our souls. God loves you! Have a great weekend!”

And with that, before I could even mutter my thanks, they had moved on to the car behind me.

As I slowly drove away, it felt as if burning coals were being heaped upon my head. I heard words echoing in my soul:

Judge not, and you will not be judged … Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37.

Do not judge by appearances … John 7:24.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things … Romans 2:1-3.

But who are you to judge your neighbor? … James 4:12

Meanwhile, my kids were happily sucking down their bottled water. Joel announced, “Mmmmm! That’s some great water! Probably because it’s Christian water… right, Mom?!”

Somehow, I could not help but think that Joel was partly right. Oh, I know there wasn’t anything special about the bottles of water given to us on that hot August afternoon. But they were given with the right spirit … a spirit of love.

Soon some new words sang out in my heart, reminding me of truths I know but so often forget to put into practice …

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them …Luke 6:31.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” …Galatians 5:14.

These people had volunteered to stand out in a busy intersection on a sultry summer day for no other reason than to remind others in a very tangible way that God is love. No preaching involved. No requests to come to services at their church. No expectations for monetary donations. Nothing but sincerely showing God’s love to others … with no strings attached.

I think that perhaps what I need most of all is a little more of that Living Water living inside of me.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Make Yourself At Home

For the past couple of years, my life has felt slightly unsettled, as if I am just waiting around for something new to happen. The first 18 months following the death of my marriage three years ago, I mourned and grieved and literally focused on taking one breath at a time as I tried to figure out how to live again. Then one day I realized that I had entered a new phase, for I was no longer walking around in a haze of grief. Joy and peace had returned to my life once again. And there was something new ... hope. I hadn't felt hope in a long time, but there is was and I was so happy to discover that glimmering friend again.

Hope brought an interesting response from me. As I began to hope, I began to dream again. And as I dreamed big dreams for my future, I began to feel as if I were waiting ... waiting on those dreams to become reality. It doesn't so much matter what the dreams are, for there are several dreams for my future that I hold dear to my heart. What does matter is that I put myself in a holding pattern while I was waiting and hoping for my future, instead of embracing what my life is right now.

I will be the first to admit that waiting can be a good thing. After all, when we wait for something that we really desire, it is all the more precious to us when it finally is ours because of the wait that we endured. But waiting can also cause us to become inactive participants in life. Such was the case with me.

This past Saturday morning I had a big ole self-pity party going on before I ever even crawled out of bed. I was fighting off a lot of negative emotions, one of which was a feeling of being unsettled in my life. I cannot fully describe all of the ways that I feel unsettled .... there is my job and the sporadic childcare that I've had since I moved last summer. But perhaps one of the biggest reason for the unsettled feeling is the lack of close friends in the area that I am living currently. This is odd to me, for as a former military spouse I moved frequently. I have friends from every military installation where my ex-husband was stationed. I never had a problem finding friends, and have many close friends from those places. I cherish those friends who live in Virginia, Michigan, Washington and Texas. Obviously, though, all of these close friends live a little too far away to call up for a spur of the moment lunch invitation.

I've lived on both coasts and quite a few states in between, and yet by far the move I made last summer from my hometown to my current home in Jena (a mere 30 miles apart) has been the hardest move I've ever made out of 16 moves in my adult life. It's been 15 months since I unpacked the boxes in my new home, and I still cannot seem to find my legs here. I have no doubt about the fact that God wanted me to move to Jena. It's very clear that I was called to come live in this place for this season of my life. Truly, there is so much that I enjoy about life here. I love my little house. I go to a wonderful church. My kids attend a great school. I think Jena is a sweet and safe town. And I have many wonderful acquaintances that I've grown to love ... yet I do not have a single close friendship in this place, and as a result, I feel unsettled and a little lonely.

So Saturday morning, I complained to God about the lack of friends and the loneliness and the unsettled feeling I have about living here. And do you know how He responded? He said:

"Paige, I do not think people who have yet to hang up curtains should complain about feeling unsettled."

Me: "What do curtains have to do with me feeling unsettled?"

God: "You've lived in your home well over a year now. You haven't hung up any curtains. Are you planning to stay? Generally, when people plan to stay, they hang up curtains."

Me: "Well ... I'm not planning to go."

God: "That's not what I asked. I asked if you were planning to stay."

Me: "Okay ... here's the deal. My job isn't here. Child care has been sporadic and undependable. And I don't have any friends here. I keep pushing on doors and pushing on doors and pushing on doors ... but none of them open. And as a result, I don't feel settled. Why should I hang up curtains? What does that have to do with anything anyway?"

God: "The truth is, Paige, that you don't know how much longer you will be here ... it could be 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years or 2 decades. It really doesn't matter. I asked you to come here and live. So live here ... make yourself at home, Paige. Hang a few curtains."

So, I lay there and pondered curtains and why I hadn't yet hung any. There were a few good reasons. (Well, reasons anyway. I suppose that it could be debated over whether or not they were good reasons.) On reason was that I had never hung curtains before and I wasn't really sure I knew how. I mean, I knew that it couldn't be that hard to hang up curtains, but what if I hung them wrong. What if they were crooked and people came over to my house and laughed at my curtains hanging over the windows because they weren't even? Besides, I didn't even own a drill, for Pete's sake! How could I hang up curtains without a drill? And finally, what if I went to the store, selected some curtains for my windows, came home and hung them up and then hated the way they looked ... why, it would be a lot of money down the drain! I don't have a lot of money. It is just easier to have bare windows than to risk failure.

Somehow though, I realized that this really wasn't about curtains. It was about me choosing to LIVE my life, instead of simply BIDING my time.

As a Christian, I know that this world is not my home. My final destination is heaven. I long for heaven and to be with my Saviour. But we can't just sit around waiting for God to take us home. In fact, Jesus warned us about that in the parable about the talents, which is found in Matthew 25. When Christ returns, He wants to find that we have been busy working for His kingdom ... not that we have been sitting around awaiting His return. So as much as I want to go to heaven and live in paradise, while I am on this earth I need to be about the Father's business.

Mercy Me has a new album titled The Generous Mr. Lovewell that I've been enjoying lately. The first song is called This Life, and the lyrics have been haunting me for the past couple of weeks, encouraging me to make the most of my life ... make the most of where I am at right now. Perhaps you'll be encouraged by these words too:

This Life by Mercy Me
This is not my home ... this is not my space
This is not my style ... this is not my place
Can't get comfortable... can't get settled in
Simply dont belong ... can't get used to this
But I'm here right now ... I can hear you say
Make the most of Me ... this won't go to waste
If I'm out of my mind .... yeah it's all for Christ
If I'm making sense ...then get it right
Every moment is a chance to let your light break through
This life (oh oh oh oh)
This life was meant to shine

I don't have to stall ... I don't have to wait
Don't have to bide my time ... till I make my escape
Cuz heaven's in my heart ... I won't settle for less
I will lift your name ... by the life I live
Every moment is a chance to let your light break through
This life (oh oh oh oh)
This life was meant to shine

By the way, I hung some curtains this weekend. I'm feeling more settled already for I'm planning to do more than bide my time ... I'm planning to stay. It may only be for a short while longer or it could be for years and years to come, but let it be said that while I was here I chose to live, and I didn't just wait.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Thoughts On Becoming Better

My feet hadn’t even touched the floor and already I felt it creeping around inside of me. Bitterness ... my old friend. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see that monster waltzing out from the dark recesses of my mind, but there it was dancing across my heart as the morning sun skipped along the walls of my bedroom.

I was feeling sad at prospect of a lonely weekend. My children were gone with their father ... and I was jealous because he gets to be the fun parent. I lay there contemplating how all weekend he will get to do wonderful things with them that I cannot, and before long I was rehashing in my mind the story of how my life fell apart at the seams. Though it wasn’t a pleasant way to start my day, I couldn’t seem to stop the endless parade of thoughts. Soon my mind was reeling over the unfairness of how my life has turned out to be, and I was wallowing in the mud and muck of my own self-pity.

Bitterness always starts small. A fleeting thought about a wrong done to us, and if it isn’t stopped soon it will begin to gnaw away at your soul little by little. It feels rotten, and yet somehow embracing the bitterness is easier than pushing it away. I am often unwilling to let go of the unpleasantness of the bitterness in order to exchange it for something sweeter in my life.

Bitterness hurts, for it strips a person of all that they are and all that they could be, sucking them until they are nothing but a dry and brittle shell, unable to feel much of anything other than bitterness itself. As bitterness takes hold in the garden of our hearts, it begins to blossom into thorny plants, threatening to uproot compassion and gentleness, kindness and mercy ... and love, for in the end bitterness takes away our ability to love.

Bitterness that is allowed to mature takes away the tenderness of a person’s heart and soul turns it into a hardened place that nothing can penetrate. A hardened heart is not a beautiful thing. The sharp, jagged edges wound everyone around us ... even those that we want to love. Oddly enough, we usually begin to first feel bitter when someone that we love and care about wounds us. We think on how it is unfair or how we were mistreated, and as we lick our personal hurts and wounds, the bitterness begins to settle down deep in our hearts.

As I sit here this morning, trying to battle the bitter thoughts threatening to creep in along with the pale sunlight and dance in my heart the way the shadows of the leaves are dancing across my bed, I am reminded of a conversation that I had with the Lord in the early days after my marriage first began to crumble. It went something like this:

Me: Lord, this hurts so bad! I am so angry and so bitter! How can I possibly feel better?

God: Start by taking the “I” out of bitter.

Me: What do you mean, “take the ‘I’ out of bitter?”

God: This isn’t about you, so don’t make it all about you. If you make it about you, focusing on how you were wronged and on everything bad that happened to you, then you will only become bitter. The first step to getting better is to take yourself out of the center of the situation.

Me: Well how do I do that? It sure feels like it is about me! I am the one who got left high and dry. I am the one left standing here in the middle of this pile of rubble that used to be my marriage. I don’t see how I can make this not about me. How do I even begin to do that, Lord? Show me!

God: Replace the “I” that you removed with an “E”.

Me: I need you to explain this God ... I’m not seeing it.

God: The “E” is for exalt, Paige. If you exalt me, then I become the center. When I become the center, then you will be a better person ... not a bitter person.

Me: So what you are saying is that if I choose to praise you in the middle of the bad situation ... in the middle of my hurt and my pain ... then I will not grow bitter. Are you saying that the more I praise you, the better I will feel?

God: Exactly.

After that conversation, this verse was given to me: "The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise Him, my father’s God, and I will exalt Him." ~Exodus 15:2

Just thinking about that revelation brings a smile to my face, for really that was perhaps the turning point for me on a long and painful road. And yet, I realize this morning that my heart is about as dry as the ground where the flowers are trying to grow in my front yard. I’ve been making my life about me again lately, and the danger in doing that is always the same ... growing a hard, bitter heart that thinks only about oneself. As long as I am focused on me and my hurts or feelings or longings, I can never be a blessing to anyone else.

As I lay in my bed this morning, trying to fight away the bitterness and talking to God about how I wanted to choose today to be a better woman instead of the bitter one, God saw fit to reveal a few more “E’s” that I can use to replace the “I.”

Bitterness usually begins when my expectations for how I should be treated by another person are not met. Therefore, even as I expect others to treat me fairly, I should put for some EFFORT in treating others well. This is simply what I know as the golden rule: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

God also showed me that another way to ward off bitterness is to be an ENCOURAGER to those around you. Paul wrote, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thess. 5:11) As you encourage someone else, you take the focus off of yourself ... which means that you are no longer inwardly turned but are thinking of someone other than yourself. The more we take ourselves off center-stage, the less likely we are to feel bitter.

Finally, God showed me that if I EXTEND myself, and go beyond what I normally do to be an EXAMPLE of God’s love to others I will overcome bitterness. Showing love to others should be one of the biggest goals every Christian has in life. In John 13:34, we read these words, “A new command I give you: Love one another.” I cannot share God’s love when I am thinking only of me and how I feel or what I need. So, by changing my focus away from self, I become less likely to be consumed by those negative feelings (such as bitterness), and I am able to share God’s love with those in my life.

My prayer today is that the Lord would help me to make the effort to be an encourager and an example of God’s love each day, and that I would seek to exalt Him even when I feel discouraged.

See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. ~Hebrews 12:15