Gratitude

Celebrating Work

Most of us do not enjoy working. We live for the weekends and the rest of the week is just what we need to get through to get to them. This is very unfortunate, because if you do your math, 71% of your week is made up of week days.  Only 29% are considered weekend days.  Of course, if you throw Friday nights in there it might be a little higher.

Do you enjoy what you do?  Are you able to glorify and praise God as you work in the office, flip hamburgers, fix somebody’s leaky faucet, repair a car engine, buy stocks on Wall Street, argue in the court room, plow a field, cut hair, pick parts on an assembly line, or change a diaper?

I believe our true character is what shows when we are working. It’s not hard to be happy and light-hearted when we are doing something we enjoy. But when we are going through the daily grind of wherever the Lord has placed us, then it becomes a little harder.  Even if we generally love what we do, we all have bad days…days when we wonder how we ended up in this job…days when we wonder if there couldn’t possibly be something better out there.

Labor Day was created to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894.  Whether we are one of the highest paid doctors in the country or a stay at home mom raising the next generation, if you live in the United States, you are an  American worker.   Are you able to thank the Lord for the blessing of your job this Labor Day?  There are many who do not have one and wish they did.

Let’s spend today enjoying picnics with family and friends, but let’s not forget to thank God for the privilege to work.

Living in a Castle the Size of a Country

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If you have done any kind of missions work outside of the Unites States or if you love to read about the world, you know that living in America is a little like living in a sheltered castle.  Sure, we venture out once in awhile to give gifts and minister to the peasants, but most of our lives are spent living comfortably and luxuriously in the castle.  Castle dwellers face their own sets of problems, of course…facing things like enemy attacks, betrayals, and illnesses.  But they are not worried about the very basest of needs, things such as food, shelter, and clothing.

How do we live an effective Christian life in the castle?  And can we truly experience dependence on God while we reside in luxury and comfort?  Even the poorest American is incredibly wealthy, when compared to many countries, simply because they have their basic needs met.  They do not have wild animals stealing their children in the night nor do they fear that enemies will burn down their home, torturing, raping, and murdering their loved ones, as they do so.  Most American children are never kidnapped and enslaved.

I struggle almost daily with the question: Why am I here?  Why was I born in America?  What does God want me to do with what I have?

You see, the easiest, most natural thing to do when our lives are safely tucked within the country-sized castle is to be focused on our own families, jobs, churches, and problems.  Unless we take time to read, watch, or go many of us don’t even give the impoverished people outside the castle walls a thought.

As all of this rolls around in my brain, many thoughts come to mind.  Here are a few:

1.  As believers, we are required to serve others.  It is not an option.  So many of us serve only when we feel like it.  Or when it makes us feel better about ourselves without costing too much.  Or when it fits our schedule.  I am including myself here.  I am ashamed of how often my first thoughts when asked to serve are often centered on how will it inconvenience or cost me?

2. We are to take care of widows and orphans (James 1:27); We are to minister to the Saints (fellow believers) (Hebrews 6:10);  But, most importantly, most of the Bible verses about serving have to do with self-denial.  We are to deny ourselves and serve Jesus, oftentimes by serving others.  This is no easy task and we should start right within our own families.  It is no good to be traveling abroad if we aren’t even serving with love at home.

3. There is no need to travel to third world countries in order to minister.  Many are the needs here.  But I will venture to say that ministering here is a bit like the princess helping the scullery maid of the castle.  There are certainly needs but the castle staff is still somewhat protected and sheltered because they live in the castle.  It isn’t until you leave the protection of the castle that you see true poverty, in my opinion.

4. Serving often means stepping outside of our comfort zone.  This is a big one and takes a giant leap of faith.  I say this, because I have experienced it.  Fear can’t rule you if you are going to serve whole-heartedly.  I continue to work through this even now, as I prepare for my next trip out of the country.

5. Ministering to physical needs is worthless, unless we are addressing their eternal destiny, as well, through sharing the good news of the Gospel.  I have long made it a rule to not even give to agencies that aren’t sharing the gospel, even if what they are doing is in the name of Christ.  What good is it to feed a body for a lifetime if their soul will be in hell for eternity?

6.   We need to be so careful with our priorities.  If we aren’t careful, we start living our lives centered around a home mortgage or a car payment.  We base important life decisions on selfish things like reputation and comfort.  I heard someone say yesterday that if it isn’t eternal, it isn’t important.  That certainly does put it in perspective, doesn’t it?

7.  And, maybe most importantly, we should be expressing our gratitude every day to our Heavenly Father for not only meeting our physical needs, but for giving us far more than we could ever dream.  And yet, many times, we not only take this for granted, but behave as if we deserve it.  We demand comfort and conveniences and tend to complain when things aren’t just right.  This happens easily in this culture, doesn’t it?  Where everyday we are inundated with commercials and billboards telling us we deserve the best.  Actually, we don’t deserve the best.  We are just so blessed.

As we ponder what the Lord wants from us, one thing is certain.  Each and every one of us has a multitude of ways we can serve others each day.  But we can only do that when we step outside of a world based on “me” and reach out.

The Rainbow Flower

Lucy drew in her breath with awe. In the midst of the forest, she saw before her the most gorgeous flower she had ever seen.  Its beauty made her temporarily forget that she had failed her history test because she had forgotten to study, that her mom and dad had said “no” to her slumber party, and that her brother had broken her bike. Her baby sister, as if to get in on Lucy’s bad day, had screamed for over an hour due to a painful ear infection. In fact, baby May was still screaming when Lucy had headed off for a walk in the woods.

It was autumn and Lucy wasn’t expecting to see any flowers. All around her were the colors of autumn. Dead leaves carpeted the forest floor in shades of brown. Looking up, Lucy saw tree branches stretching their long arms toward the sky. Even the sky was a steely gray, as if to warn that winter was on its way. Dismal described the day perfectly– that is until Lucy found the flower.

As Lucy walked on the wooded path, she wondered why her life was so terribly awful. She forgot that she was blessed beyond measure and had instead chosen to focus on her misfortunes. Her thoughts were deepening her sadness, when she just happened to look down. She saw a hint of bright blue peeking out from the dead leaves to her left. Lucy bent down to gently move the leaves aside and found a plant with vivid green leaves and a dazzling, multi-colored flower. Each petal was a different color of the rainbow and a heavenly fragrance filled the air. The flower looked very real, but Lucy grew suspicious and lifted her head to study the landscape around her.  Was someone playing a trick on her?  She didn’t hear or see anyone. Almost as if she expected the flower to disappear before her eyes, she quickly glanced back at it. It was still there in all of its glory, filling the air with a heavenly aroma.

Should she pick it? Or should she leave it there to languish in the icy air? As she tried to decide, the flower petals winked and shimmered, beckoning Lucy to take it with her.  Lucy impulsively reached down. The stalk yielded easily under the pressure of her hand and she soon held the thick, emerald stem of the precious rainbow flower in her hands. She excitedly ran back the path through the woods to show the flower to her mom. She never dreamed of what she would find upon her return home.

As she breathlessly reached her house, she realized that the beds and lawn were perfectly manicured. There wasn’t a stray branch nor weed to be found.  Lucy couldn’t figure out how her dad had done all of that in such a short amount of time. But she soon forgot about it as she went around the back of the house to find her mom.

What she found there made her stop short. There sat her lime green bike in perfect condition. But how could that be? Dad had said she would need a new bike and yet here was her bike before her, looking brand new.  “How strange,” Lucy thought and then glanced at the flower in her hand, “naaa, that couldn’t be,” she said to herself.

As Lucy entered the house, she listened for baby May’s screams but all she heard was delighted baby laughter. As baby May and her little brother sat on the floor playing, Lucy noticed that her little brother was scrubbed clean, with nary a hair out of place and baby May was clothed in a little blue dress with white pinafore. As if to complement the two perfect children, the house was spotless. Lucy had never seen it so clean before.

As Lucy continued her search for her mom, her eye caught a piece of paper lying on the desk in the corner. Dismayed, she realized it was her history test which she thought was still safely tucked away in her backpack. But her astonishment increased considerably as she saw a giant A+ written across the top, along with a note from her teacher expounding on Lucy’s wonderful academic prowess. Now Lucy’s puzzlement turned into consternation. What in the world was going on? Did it have something to do with this strange flower she held?

Just as she was starting to panic, her mom came down the stairs. But was this the mom she knew? She wore a yellow sundress and high heels, an unusually big smile, and held a full basket of clean, fresh-smelling laundry in her arms. Her tone was cheery and bright as she asked Lucy if she wanted some freshly-baked cookies and a glass of milk. She then proceeded to tell Lucy that when she was done with her snack they could plan her slumber party. Her mom, in honeyed tones, went on to explain that she would cook a homemade dinner and make homemade ice cream for all of Lucy’s guests. She and dad may even take them all roller-skating.

Lucy stared at her mother. She wasn’t sure she liked this new mom that looked and sounded like something out of a 1950’s sitcom. But what to do?  She decided it couldn’t hurt to eat a snack and she pondered this weird turn of events as she munched on perfectly sized cookies containing just the right amount of chocolate chips.

Why had her world turned to perfection upon picking the rainbow flower? And now that it was so perfect, why wasn’t she happy? She wasn’t sure, but she knew it just didn’t feel right. She liked her little brother better when he was a normal boy, all grimy and pesty, even if it did mean a bent bike. And she didn’t want an F on her history test, but an A+ that she didn’t deserve somehow seemed worse. And the slumber party – well, that was another question, wasn’t it?  She knew that the reason she couldn’t have the slumber party was because her parents’ couldn’t afford it. Why had her parents changed their minds? Her thoughts turned guiltily over in her mind as she remembered her angry reaction when her parents had originally told her that she couldn’t have her party. Why had she made them feel so badly over something about which they were already heartbroken? She sighed. She wanted her old mom back in her t-shirt and jeans, even if she did occasionally get grumpy. Somehow this perfect mom didn’t seem like she would be a good person in which Lucy could confide her problems. And suddenly, Lucy realized that she preferred her old life to this new life of perfection. She sighed as she stared down at the rainbow flower. Now what?

Unexpectedly, a loud wail filled the air. The bed shook as Lucy lifted her head in fright. What in the world was that? And where was she? And then Lucy remembered: she had cried herself to sleep and the sound she was hearing was the blessed sound of baby May’s discomfort. Did this mean she had dreamed the whole thing? Lucy jumped out of bed and bounded down the stairs. She took in the dirty dishes in the sink, her mom’s disheveled appearance as she tried to comfort baby May, and her brother’s muddy shoes sitting by the door.  The telling history test had been removed from her backpack, but it now showed the F she knew she deserved.

Lucy breathed a huge sigh of relief. In one short afternoon, she realized the costly price she would have to pay to give up normal for perfect. And she realized it would never be worth it. Lucy learned a good lesson that afternoon. And to this day there hangs a rainbow flower painting  in Lucy’s bedroom to remind her of the blessing of normal.

Always Looking

My husband and I were sitting in a Texas Roadhouse eating dinner on Friday night.  Three out of four of our kids’ planned activities had been cancelled so we invited them to come with us.  We knew it would end up being a rather expensive evening, but it had been a long week, so we decided to splurge.

Just as we were getting ready to ask for the check, our waiter came up and informed us that an anonymous party had paid for our meal. Can I tell you that that was the nicest surprise we have had in a very long time? Nothing like that had ever happened to us before.  We have our suspicions about who it was, but we will never really know…but isn’t that a nice thing not to know?  It made us feel special just that someone would do that for us.

The next morning,  I was getting a few groceries when I was distracted by a distressing phone call.  My thoughts left grocery-shopping and went in a completely different direction.  I hurried to get my few things and checked out.  As I grabbed my bag and started heading to my car, two young men were walking toward me.  One of them shouted, “Hey, you forgot your milk!”  I looked back.  Sure enough, there sat my gallon of milk in the cart. After giving my heartfelt thanks for saving me some extra hassle on that busy day, I went back and got my milk.

The next afternoon we had lunch at my in-laws because she knew I was having a party at my house later that day that was going to take some time to prepare for and she didn’t want me to have to cook lunch.  So after church, we headed there for a quick lunch, where I didn’t have to cook or clean up after a meal for my family.

So what do all of these things have in common?  All of these people saw something and then acted upon it.  They saw a neat opportunity to surprise someone…a way to save a lady some time…and a daughter-in-law that needed some extra help.  I am so grateful to those who were so kind to me.

And I wonder if I am so observant?  Do I see needs in the lives of others and then act upon them?  Or am I so caught up in my own world that my focus is stuck “inward” at all times?

Am I so set on my shopping list, that I don’t notice the little old lady who is starving for conversation?

Am I so wrapped up in my busy schedule, that I don’t have time to help my neighbor with their project?

Am I so engrossed in my own conversation, that I don’t bother to give a smile and word of encouragement to a distressed mom in the restaurant?

You see, as believers, we are called to think outside of ourselves at all times.  Jesus said, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31).  Do we realize that this doesn’t mean just on Sundays or just on mission trips or just when we feel like it?  This is a command that should dominate our every moment.  We should always be looking for ways to bless, encourage, and help others…just as we long to be blessed, encouraged, and helped.

This is so difficult for me, because I have my own life and problems to worry about.  And yet, ironically enough, when I stop thinking about me and my own problems, I am so much happier!  It doesn’t seem like it should be that way, but it is true.  When I live in my own self-centered little world I am unhappy, dissatisfied, and unpleasant to be around but when I think outside of me I feel like I am being of some use to my Heavenly Father and I feel content.

So let’s open up our eyes and see where we can be of some encouragement and meet some needs.  Let’s take our focus and turn it outward. Let’s always be looking for ways to bless others!

Replacing “What If” with “What Is”

All of us, at one time or another, have said “what if?”  What if I had never taken this job? What if I had moved sooner?  What if I hadn’t bought this lemon of a car?  What if my mom and dad wouldn’t have been abusive?  What if I had raised my kids better? What if a certain person hadn’t died? What if I was a movie star…or professional sports athlete…or music performer? There is no end to the “what ifs” in life.  We all have at least a few.

But we don’t have “what if”.  We only have what IS.  I actually heard that statement on Adventures in Odyssey (find this wonderful series here) the other day and it really struck me. You see, I had been saying “if only” about a particular issue in my life fairly frequently lately.  I wish I would have done something in the past and I didn’t do it. So now what? Can I go back and change it? Can I change any consequences of my past decision? Can I wave a magic wand and make everything all better? Of course not.

So, perhaps, it would be better to focus on the what IS. Instead of regretting the past, let’s be thankful we are no longer there and move on with God’s strength and guidance, thankful for the life lessons we have learned.  Instead of wishing for a different life, let’s focus on the life we have and live it with enthusiasm and a grateful heart. Instead of wishing we didn’t live in a particular house or drive a particular car, let’s stop complaining and be content or take the necessary steps to buy something that suits our family better.

Through it all, we need to be examining our hearts.  Should I even want a better car or house? Why do I want to be a movie star? What am I so upset about the past?  We may even find out that our desire isn’t from God, but from our own selfish motives. However, oftentimes, it isn’t about anything like that, but instead it is frustration at something we did or didn’t do and we cannot now go back and change. Or we are grieving and lost and lonely because of something that happened outside of our control.  So what about that?

Let’s try to focus on possible good that has come because of unfavorable circumstances. Perhaps a friendship grew out of a mutual desire to live a frugal life because of a lack of income.  Or someone came to know the Lord because you delayed in making that decision to leave your job as soon as you believe you should have. Maybe you came to know the Lord because of your abusive background. Only God can see how the consequences and circumstances have changed not only your life, but the lives of others, as well.

We can only live our lives and make decisions based on what we know (which is why it is so important to know scripture!) and then we need to leave the rest up to God. He, in His sovereignty, will guide us and we need only to submit ourselves to His will for our lives.  After that step, then we need to make the best of wherever it is we find ourselves in life.  Instead of living with regrets, let’s live with a passionate commitment to Christ and a heart of gratitude. Let’s be devoted to making the very best of where we find ourselves right now– at this very moment.

Instead of focusing on what IFs, let’s focus on what IS.

The Key

This past weekend I watched Sarah’s Key. I always hesitate to mention specific films but, honestly, I have rarely been touched by a film like I was by that one. It made me think of so many different aspects of life, but primarily it made me contemplate my silly complaining and griping.

As the Jewish family was ripped from familiar surroundings and all of their material possessions, I thought of my discontent when something doesn’t work quite  right in my well-loved home. I thought of the times that I have been irritated because we need to spend money to fix something like a septic system or a roof. Why is it such a big deal?

As they got thrown into barracks of the sparsest provisions and endured the worst possible hygiene conditions, I thought of my frustration if the bathroom line is too long at the concert or my displeasure if the house is too hot or cold. Why does it matter so much?

As their days suddenly turned from a blessed normal to a stagnant nightmare, I realized the incredible beauty of ordinary. We have so much if we have commonplace days full of cleaning and laundry and paying bills. Ordinary days of untidy rooms, unending baby cries, and frustrations brought on by a trail of mud in the kitchen are truly wonderful. But we don’t even realize it. Why aren’t we aware of  how truly blessed we are?

As the 10 year old daughter, Sarah, lay terribly sick in squalid, unbearable conditions and her mother tried to comfort her without aid of doctors or medicine, I thought of my complaints when I don’t feel well or my kids are sick, all of us always safe in the care of a doctor, with whatever medicine is available, laying in a clean, cozy bed in a warm home. Why are we so thankless?

As Sarah was ripped from her mother’s loving arms, separated forever, I thought of the ridiculousness of so many of our complaints about each other and the sheer futility of so many of our disagreements and arguments. Why are we so petty?

As Sara grappled for an apple thrown over the compound fence by a kind village lady, I thought of our foolish complaints about the food we have to eat. The complaints of something not being done just to our liking or the store lacking the particular brand we wanted.  Why don’t we appreciate what we have?

What is wrong with us? Don’t we understand how truly blessed we are?

I would suppose not. It is the nature of humanity to always want something better. We often live in a state of discontent, don’t we? Taking a look at history often reveals our thankless, complaining hearts.

The movie Sarah’s Key was about a young girl with a key. I won’t go into the plot or why she had a key, but I think that there is a parallel here. We have a key to living the Christian life, if only we would use it.

I believe that key is joy. Finding joy in our everyday lives, no matter what the day holds. We need to refuse to give in to darkness and depression and instead choose joy. We have a responsibility to live with the inexplicable joy that only God can give us. And in doing so, we will see things in a totally different way and show the world that Jesus absolutely does make a difference in our lives–even in the worst of times.

God will use us if we choose joy.  How about if we remove the disgruntled look — or even the  fake smile –many of us wear through the small frustrations we face every day and instead show genuine joy that is welling up from the inside? Let’s show the world what it really means to be a Christian.

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.

Romans 15:13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:6 And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit,

James 1:2-3 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 

I Peter 1: 6-9  In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.

Thanks, Mom…

My mom and me

I have taken my mom for granted since…well, perhaps, forever.  As a small child, I knew she would be there to take my temperature, rub my back in church, and play games with me. As I moved into being a teenager, I expected her to listen to me, to shop with me, and to let me borrow her car. When I became a young mother, I plied her with all types of questions on marriage and raising kids, always expecting her to be there for me. And guess what? She was. I am one of those incredibly blessed people who really has a great mom.

These days I ask her questions about how do deal with my teenagers and my middle-aged emotions. And my mom always has a wise answer that gives me encouragement and patience as I work through struggles. I always know I can count on her love and support. In the process of talking with my mom, she has become one of my very best friends.

Now that I am a mother, I better understand her love for me. I have a deeper understanding of the sacrifices she made all through the years for me. If you are a parent, you understand your mom’s love in a much fuller way, as well.

Mother’s Day is on Sunday.  Have you contemplated recently on just how much your mom has done for you?  Have you thought about how much she has sacrificed for you through the years?

Some of you may be screaming inside right now that YES, I have thought about that a lot! because you have lost your mother to cancer or an accident or to heart disease. You just wish you could have her back again to tell her how much you appreciate her.

And some of you are thinking NO, I don’t understand because you feel like your mother didn’t make many sacrifices for you and you felt bereft and abandoned much of your growing up years.

But so many of us are still blessed to have the support and encouragement of mothers on a daily basis. Moms who love us no matter how much we screw up.  Moms who babysit for us. Moms who come in and clean for us or cook for us when we are going through a rough patch. Moms who buy us stuff. Moms who are there for us without fail.

If you are one of the blessed ones, let her know that you feel that way on Mother’s Day this year. Don’t let another year go by without giving her some honest and heartfelt appreciation for all she has done for you.

And, Mom, if you are reading this, thank you so much…for everything. 

Getting Dropped

Watching our car go up in smoke

I read through the letter in my hand. Disbelief was first. Then came anger. And, finally, resignation. After all, what could we do?  What I was looking at was a letter from the auto insurance company we had been with for over 20 years. I held a letter stating that they were dropping our family due to two cars being totaled within two years. Really? These were the first big accidents that had occurred in our family in all of those years. Apparently that doesn’t matter in the auto insurance world.

And, suddenly, we were on the hunt for a new auto insurance company, which wasn’t going to be easy given that we were just “dropped” by our former company. I called a couple of different agents and they started running the numbers. It wasn’t looking great. Finally, I got a call with a pretty decent number. The estimate was e-mailed and as I went over it my eyes slid to the words “6 month policy”. Oh, great. No wonder the number was decent – it was only for 6 months. So that meant the quoted number was multiplied times two for what looked like a pretty outrageous yearly rate.

Frustration set in. It just didn’t seem fair. In fact, when the agent called me about setting up the policy I started complaining about  how unfair life is in the insurance world. She kindly said she understood and the conversation continued on like that for a moment.

And then, all of a sudden, I stopped. It dawned on me that we are all still alive after two serious accidents. It really was amazing that we walked away without injuries or even death. And then I thought of something else to be thankful for: we can afford to pay the new policy. Oh, we don’t like it and it is annoying…but we can afford it. I was ashamed. I was complaining when I should have been thanking the Lord, once again, for sparing my family in not one, but two, accidents. I should have been thanking the Lord that we were not making a choice between driving and eating.

Oftentimes the irritations we face in life are such small trials in the scope of life. They are inconvenient and annoying. We view them as major trials because they take us out of our comfort zones and force us to go a different direction than we wanted to go. Meanwhile, all around us, are people who are going through what I would call real trials – a loved one with cancer, a birth defect that changes everything, or the loss of a job and questions about survival, just to name a few.

James 1:2 tells us to count it all joy when you fall into various trials. We all face various trials – some are very small and some are very large. But through it all, it is very important to keep perspective and a thankful heart. Many of the small trials grow very dim in the light of the many blessings we have.

And so our family is paying an exorbitant amount for auto insurance this year. But we are all alive and it won’t keep us from eating so I am thankful!

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