Today I read this story about a young man in Belize whose life was radically changed by people loving him and encouraging him when his own parents abandoned him at the age of 12. I was moved by the way I saw God's hand in his life as he described the twists and turns that led him to the place of gratitude and hope where he is now. I can imagine that it took courage for him to write his story down and that there were probably times where he doubted whether he should or not. Sometimes something means an awful lot to us, but we have doubts about whether or not it would mean much to others. It is disconcerting to share our stories when others may discount their value or weight. Earlier this week I read two different accounts written by fathers who lost a child. One to a stillbirth and the other to a tragic car accident at age five. Both commented that they were hesitant to share their stories. They were concerned about somehow cheapening the weight of their experiences with their own clumsy words and even worse, laying them out there for others to criticize or judge - not just their writing, but their very motives for writing in the first place.
I am thankful that each of these people chose to tell their story. SO thankful. I am drawn to stories. True stories. Biographies, autobiographies, historical sketches, blogs, I want to read them all. To me, this is the stuff of life.
In Shauna Niequist's book, "Bittersweet," she writes this, "There are myths that we tend to believe about our stories: the first is that they're about us; they don't matter. But they're not only about us, and they matter more than ever right now. When we, any of us who have been transformed by Christ, tell our own stories, we're telling the story of who God is... My life is not a story about me. And your life is not a story about you. My life is a story about who God is and what he does in a human heart."
Let's be brave and tell His story about our lives - about what He has brought us through and what He is walking with us in today and where He seems to be leading us. And let's not be quick to judge when others share their stories. There are things to learn about God and what He is doing in the world bound up inside each and every person we meet - my bus driver, the woman I pass in the city each day holding a cardboard sign, your son's swim team coach, the mail carrier, my neighbor, the telemarketer. Perhaps if we saw each other that way, if we saw ourselves that way, we'd approach each other with a bit more grace and dignity, and we'd dive deeper into the the greatest story ever told.
Matthew 3:8 NASB, "Therefore, bear fruit in keeping with repentance." This is the first verse that the Ritz family will be memorizing in 2014. It is short, so we are likely to retain it quickly and it is weighty and filled with meaning so it is ripe for personal reflection. These words were spoken by John the Baptist to a group of the religious elite of his day, right after he calls them, a "brood of vipers." John was in the wilderness calling people to repent, then baptizing them as an outward sign to the world of their repentance. Apparently, the pharisees and sadducees were coming to be baptized while skipping over the whole repentance part of the equation. Hence the name-calling. The Greek word that is translated as repentance means "to change one's mind," or "to change one's mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one's past sins." Baptism by water was meant to show a turning toward God and away from a mindset and life of sin. By calling them a brood of vipers, he is identifying the pharisees with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan. He is calling them out, saying in effect, "You haven't turned; your mind hasn't changed. You are masquerading as those filled with light and knowledge, but your hearts are dark." By presenting themselves for baptism as a sign of repentance without actually acknowledging their need to repent, they were making a mockery of what John was doing and the message he was declaring, a message given to him by God, a message he was being prepared to deliver to the world since before his birth. They were poisoning the system.
What about us? If we have repented, are we bearing fruit that demonstrates that we've changed our minds about what is most important in life? Almost two months ago, I changed my mind about how important my health is to me. I cut out the vast majority of saturated fat in my diet, increased my intake of fruits, veggies and water, and started exercising regularly. I also joined with a group of other like-minded folks whose health is important to them as well and we have been tracking our progress together and encouraging one another along the way. What if someone joined our group and regularly reported his weight loss numbers, but wasn't actually committed to improving his health? What if he was actually doing some really unhealthy things in an attempt to show similar or even better weight loss, and in doing so was actually damaging his health all in an effort to be competitive, or to keep up with the "Joneses," or to look the part of someone on the fitness bandwagon? It would dishearten those of us who were committed, to be sure, and it wouldn't do him a lick of good in the long run. In fact it could have some pretty serious negative consequences. The spiritual parallels are obvious.
Memorizing these words from John the Baptist is serving as a potent reminder to me that the fruit I bear should be a direct result of a change of heart and mind about what and Who I believe is most important. NOT about a set of rules, a way to fool the system, or how to look better than others with minimal effort. I have a choice: fruit juice or venom. True repentance or toxic faking.
Romans 2:4 "Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness, and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" NASB
2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." NASB
Do you ever feel tempted to play God? To take over? To make something happen the way you feel strongly it should happen? To get involved in the “how” of something that you feel confident in the “what” or “why” of? You have!? Want to be best friends? I am tempted to do this on a regular basis.
I once took a strengths assessment and discovered that one of my greatest strengths is my sense of responsibility. That sounds good, right? Don’t you want to have people in your life who have a strong sense of responsibility? Who won’t bail on you in the middle of something? Who will take ownership over a task? Who will not drop the ball? Who think ahead and count the cost before committing? That sense of responsibility has served me very well these past 39 years – it helped me get good grades in school, complete my college degree, be a faithful spouse, a devoted mom, a dedicated employee. It has helped me stay on top of finances and keep the housework from getting completely out of control. Not a bad strength to have!
So what is lurking on the flipside of the coin of responsibility? For me, it is a tendency to want to control things that are either beyond my ability to control or exceeding my right to control. As a responsible mother, I want to raise my son with attention to detail – I don’t want any character issue, health need, spiritual discipline, or mental aptitude to go unnoticed or unattended. Why? Yes , because I love him, but also because I feel responsible. The danger comes when I take my responsibility to far. I stop focusing only on my responsibility to do the right thing in a given situation and, in addition, take on the responsibility for the outcome of the situation as well.
To be responsible for myself: my actions, attitudes, and words; is a wonderful thing. To take on the responsibility for anything beyond that is where I start to get into trouble.
In a scientific research environment, experiments are conducted to arrive at conclusions that can lead to helpful solutions to difficult problems. Lots and lots of experiments are conducted before the solution is reached. In order to get the specific desired outcome that they are looking for, scientists isolate all the different variables that could have an effect on the outcome of the experiment. They do this in a sterile environment where they control every possible variable. That way when they complete an experiment, they know exactly how and why the result was achieved and they can replicate it.
My overreaching sense of responsibility would LOVE for life to take place in a controlled, sterile environment. I don’t know about you, but in the complex world I live in, I can do all the right things and still end up with a result that is riddled with the effects of all the variables I couldn’t control along the way… variables like other people’s actions, attitudes, and words, my own limited understanding and perception, and the effects of an unseen spiritual war that is going on all round me at all times.
Repeat after me: “I am only in control of myself! I cannot control any other person on this planet without eventually hurting them. I cannot control every variable. I cannot control other people’s priorities or their desires. I cannot control the outcome of any situation, only my role in it.”
Responsibility is a wonderful attribute, but taking responsibility for things that are clearly God’s responsibility is, at best, setting me up for frustration and, at worst, paving a road that leads to deception and destruction. I think I need to create a pin board somewhere in my mind for my “Junior God” badge. Any time I find myself overstepping my bounds, I’ll remind myself to head to that pin board and hang that badge back up where it belongs. There is no such thing as a Junior God, but there is such a thing as a “dearly love child of God,” and that is the badge I want to wear instead.
How about you?
For the past two days, I've been dealing with a sudden onset of lower back pain. A couple trips to the chiropractor and some x-rays to rule out anything serious, and I am now feeling 65% better. Any time an ache or pain slows me down, I HATE IT. I hate being sick. I hate injuries. I don't manage health related setbacks well. I'm not a fun patient. I just want it to "be over."
Meanwhile, I have a friend in California, a mom of three elementary school-aged kids, who is being treated for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. RSD (as I understand it) is an unexplainable disease of the nervous system that is triggered by an injury. The nervous system and body "overreact" to the injury and go a little haywire, making the pain related to the injury disproportionately severe. Not only that, but the intense pain spreads to other body parts not affected by the injury, basically making life completely miserable, if not unbearable even after the injury heals.
Suddenly, perspective settles in. Why was I complaining again?
My friend is currently undergoing a Ketamine treatment that requires her to be at the hospital from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day. The side effects include nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, and hallucinations. She has had all of these.
From now on when my back twinges or pain wakes me up at night when I try to roll over in bed, I'm going to stop and pray for my friend instead of focusing on my own pain. Would you do the same? You don't have to know her name or anything about her really... just pray for my friend... a fellow planet-wanderer who has been thrown a difficult curve ball.
So how do you pray?
Maybe if in our own pain (whether it is emotional, spiritual, or physical), we can be reminded of the ache of another and lift her up in prayer, none of our pain will be in vain. And God will bring a kind of healing we never could have imagined.
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9).
"You are capable, competent, creative, careful. Prove it."
That was the fortune hidden inside my cookie on Friday night at the local Chinese restaurant. I had to laugh. I once heard my Dad jokingly say that my first words were, "Prove it!" I'm naturally a questioner and an analyzer. A truth-seeker. I want things to make sense and to be backed up by logic and facts (life of the party, I know). On the other side of that coin, if something can't be proven, I often have little time for it. I'm not a big fan of philosophical discussions or "what ifs" (much to the chagrin of my visionary, possibility thinking husband). This fortune, turned the magnifying glass back at me though. If I am who I think I am, then I should prove it, right?! It should be backed up by predictable actions and decisions that become "facts" about me and my character.
It is such a blessing to have people in our lives who do what this fortune cookie did for me... remind us of who we are and challenge us to live it out. It is even better to have His Word written on our hearts reminding us of who God says we are and how He's already proven it!
2 Corinthians 5:17 - "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed way. Behold, the new has come!" ESV
Galatians 5:1 - "For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." ESV
Ephesians 5:8 - "For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light." ESV
The reality is, I don't have to prove anything to anyone, and no one has anything to prove to me. God has proven what is ultimately true. It is now up to us to walk in that truth. Daily.
A friend recently posted this audio recording from one of Moody Bible Institute's chapel services. The speaker is Rosalie de Rosset and her message is timely and simultaneously convicting and refreshing. After listening to it, I immediately purchased her book of essays entitled, "Unseduced and Unshaken - The Place of Dignity in a Young Woman's Choices."
A couple of my favorite quotes from the book so far include:
"Dignity is a strong, chosen, deliberate way of life, the result of the totality of a person's choices and worldview."
"If your faith matters, your mind matters. If your mind matters, it is important what you do with it, theologically and intellectually. You cannot separate your spiritual life from the life of the mind. You can't be fully human without using wisely all the faculties God has given you. They are intertwined; one will not thrive without the other. In neglecting one or the other, you will live a small, shriveled existence."
I also appreciated her reflection on the character of Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, "Gandalf tells the reluctant and unlikely hero, 'There is more to you than you know,' more in this instance than doing what he has always done. The wise magician knows that Bilbo has become addicted to that cozy rabbit hole; he likes eating and drinking well, he likes being comfortable. But Gandalf knows that Bilbo has two sides to his nature, that 'within the hobbit's veins coursed the blood not only from the sedentary Baggins side of the family but also from the swashbuckling Took side.' Bilbo has gotten used to the sedentary side, and after all, he's not doing anything wrong; he's just a nice, even generous, placid hobbit who knows how to have a good time, who fits into his community. But, something transcendent is calling to Bilbo - telling him there is more to life than this, that there are adventures to be had on a heroic scale, that there is good and evil in this world, and he has to be part of fighting the wrongs."
I have met and been inspired by many young women who also feel that something transcendent is calling them, that there is more to life than having the most friends on Facebook, than knowing everything that happened on Glee last week, more than having a comfortable, popular life. They are right. They can be a part of fighting the wrongs in this world, and they can do so while maintaining dignity and spiritual fervor, growing in wisdom and faith along the way. And, thanks be to God, So can I. But none of us will get there without being ready to sacrifice along the way - giving up our "addiction to our cozy rabbit hole". I am thankful to writers and teachers like Rosalie de Rossert for cheering on this generation of young people and affirming their sense of calling to something deeper, richer, and more rewarding than the status quo.
Romans 12:11-12 NIV, "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."
1 Timothy 4:12 NASB, "Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example to those who believe."
This weekend, some friends took Tim and I to the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival. It wasn't my first time hearing bluegrass music, but it was my first time at a bluegrass FESTIVAL. As I sip my coffee this morning and think back on the experience, I can't help but think the church (global and local) could learn a lot from the bluegrass music culture.
CHURCH, Listen up!
I hope everyone reading this gets a chance to go to a bluegrass music festival at some point, but more than that I hope that you get yourselves involved in a local church and be people who make the church more joy-filled and effective in its work.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Today during the discussion we had in the Sunday School class that we attended, I was reminded of a habit that we have gotten into as a family. A good habit! Every time Timothy has a birthday, Jason and I give him a new privilege and a new responsibility based on his age and ability level. Hmmm, what does that have to do with Sunday School...? I'm glad you asked.
We were discussing how grateful we are that God doesn't confront us with every single sinful attitude and action in our lives all at once. We were comforted with the fact that sanctification is a lifelong process and that His grace is sufficient through it all. That made me think of Timmy's birthday privilege and responsibility, because as Christians one of the worst things that we can do is compare ourselves with other believers. That comparison either leaves us gloating in our privileges and mastery of our responsibilities or leaves us feeling like dirt... neither attitude is godly.
Here is a practical example: On Tim's 10th birthday, his new responsibility was to make his bed daily. He was finally tall enough and his arms were finally long enough to do the job right.
- Does this mean that Tim's bed had gone unmade for the previous 10 years? No. We took care of it until we were convinced he was able.
- Does that mean that we were secretly harboring anger toward Tim for the previous 10 years because beds need to be made and he wasn't making his? No. We hadn't asked him to do that yet, nor did we feel like he was ready for that responsibility. There were other things we had him working on in the meantime (setting the table, picking up dog poop in the yard, vacuuming, putting away dishes, etc.).
- Does that mean that the 7, 8, and 9 year old friends that Tim had who had already been making their beds themselves were better than Tim? No. They had been given different responsibilities by their parents that had nothing to do with what was between Tim and his parents.
If that makes perfect sense to us, why do we not always carry that principle with us into the spiritual realm. Why do we look down our noses at people who "call themselves Christians" but still sin in ways we don't? Or, on the other side of that coin, why do we look at others who have mastery over something and declare ourselves worthless because we aren't there yet. God convicts us all and equips us all as He sees fit as we grow up and mature in Him. He doesn't expect everything from us all at once and we shouldn't expect it of each other.
The moral of this story?
1. You may be making your bed daily, but don't gloat over your brother or sister with the unmade bed... chances are he/she has been busy picking up dog poop. Want to trade?
2. Thank God for His grace that is sufficient for every task and every mistake we make along the way. He knows what we are capable of and He never asks more of us than we can accomplish with His strength and support. What a loving Father!
2 Peter 3:18 (NASB): "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."
Ephesians 4:15 (NIV) "...speaking the truth in love we will all grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ."
Arguments happen. Sometimes they NEED to happen. Sometimes the resolution to a short-term or an ongoing problem will not come WITHOUT a healthy argument. I know, I know, all you anti-conflict people out there are not liking where this is going one little bit. I know because I am one of you. If there is a way to avoid a conflict, I typically find it and take it. Conflict is uncomfortable and sometimes scary, for one reason and one reason only - we don't know how it will end.
There are times, however, when "the known" becomes unacceptable and we must step foot into conflict, hoping that the unknown will eventually be better. Since conflict is inevitable, how do we walk into it with a mind-set that will have the best chance of making the most of the disagreement and help us reach common ground with the fewest battle wounds possible?
1. Guard your words as if you were guarding Fort Knox. Don't exaggerate! Don't think of the next thing you are going to say while the other person is speaking. Don't let your emotions surrounding the issue allow you to say hurtful or untrue things. James 1:26 NIV says, "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless." Words matter. Keep in mind that what you say and how you say it are the only things you have control over in an argument.
2. Expect the best possible outcome, but be at peace with the worst case scenario. Don't go into a disagreement expecting it to end badly. Many times, conflict HAS TO HAPPEN in order for things to change and move in a better direction, so we shouldn't fear it. Instead, we should pray for the ability to see how it could be used for good. At the same time, we have to make peace with the fact that: A. We cannot control the reactions of others, and B. We cannot control the amount of time it will take others to process what we have to say (aka: the disagreement may not be resolved in 5 minutes flat). With that in mind, we also need to pray for the ability to identify the worst case scenario accurately and have peace with it. Peace and happiness aren't the same thing. Isaiah 26:3 NIV says, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you." Happiness isn't always possible. Peace is.
3. Spend plenty of time searching your own heart and clearing your own conscience before and DURING your argument. I don't know who is reading this, but my guess is, You Ain't Perfect! Listen to what the other person is saying and take responsibility for the results of your own words, attitude and actions, even if you didn't intend for hurtful results. Your apology and admission of imperfection goes a long way toward leveling the playing field and helping bring about reconciliation and change. Don't let pride get in the way. Matthew 7:5 NIV puts it pretty bluntly: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
4. Keep the purpose of the argument in mind. Don't get distracted by the argument itself. How many times have you started out arguing with someone about one thing and then ended up arguing about something else entirely before all was said and done? This is foolish! Don't let emotions or side comments derail you. Keep the goal of reconciliation and positive change in mind and flatly refuse to follow any rabbit trail that leads away from that or complicates matters. State the purpose of the conversation frequently, clearly and without holier-than-thou overtones to make sure that the person you are in disagreement with understands that you aren't just picking a fight... you WANT resolution.
5. Keep your heart soft toward the other person. At the end of the day, you are no better or worse than he or she is. You may be right, but it doesn't make you better. Don't mentally turn the other person into something in your mind that is beyond redemption or repair. There will come a day when you will be entirely in the wrong, and completely unaware of it. How do you desire to be treated on that day? In Matthew 19:8 (NIV), Jesus says, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." Arguments don't end repairable relationships - hard hearts do.
I need to be reminded of these things today and every day.
So, I feel compelled to admit... I am completely convicted right now about laziness! I fear my standards have become too low. Scratch that. I don't fear. I know. The amount that I am accomplishing on a daily basis is paltry compared to what I am truly capable of. I think I've allowed the fact that I have a lot on my plate keep me from being as fruitful as I can be. You see, when you have a lot of responsibilities, people cut you slack. They don't question you as much. Meanwhile, there are people with far fewer responsibilities who are accomplishing far more. The Bible says that "to whom much is given, much is required," and I am living in a dream world where I am ignoring the requirements and enjoying what's been given. The thing is though, I'm not really enjoying it.
Proverbs 19:15 says, "Laziness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle man will suffer hunger." I am not suffering physical hunger... far from it. BUT, what I am realizing is that I am still hungering. I'm hungering emotionally and spiritually. It is impossible for a true Believer to knowingly live in sin and feel fulfilled.
Lately I've been trying to memorize 2 Peter 1:2-8. This is a reflection of what it takes to live a fruitful and useful life, and it doesn't leave room for mental or physical laziness:
"Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. Seeing that his divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness through the true knowledge of Him who called us according to His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self control, and in your self control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Time to make some changes!
Carla Ritz. Proof positive that God uses cracked pots!