Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jule Ann’s Advent Meditation, Week 2: The Candle of Love

God knows everything. Everything that ever was, is, and will be.

But he still made us. He knew that we would give in to temptation, but he still gave us free will. He knew that we would break his laws, but he still wrote them down for us on tablets of stone. Twice.

Why? Because he loves us. With a perfect, unwavering love.

The Law demands sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” God wrote that law. He knew what it meant. He knew better than anyone what it would cost.

The concept of infinity frustrates my kids. They want infinity to be a really huge number that they can add to or subtract from like any other number. But infinity isn’t a number, and no matter what you add to it or take away from it, it’s still infinity. It’s a bit hard to wrap your mind around for child. Honestly, it’s not easy for an adult, either.

God has infinite strength. Infinite resources. Infinite time. No matter what gifts he gives, he still remains infinite. There is no sacrifice in those gifts.

How then can God, the infinite, give anything sacrificially? How can he satisfy the Law that he wrote? There is literally only one thing he can give that would cost him anything, and that is to give up his infinity itself.

Good Friday and Easter get most of the “sacrifice” sermons. But I think Christmas deserves a few, too. True, Jesus suffered and died on the cross, but the sacrifice began over 30 years earlier, when he gave up his infinity. And he became human. Not just any human, but a baby. A completely helpless baby. He gave up his strength, and had to learn to walk on chubby little legs. He gave up his eloquence, and had to depend on cries to communicate his needs. He gave up his throne in heaven for a feeding trough.

He became human, even though he knew what was coming next. He knew he would be despised, rejected, and killed. But he came anyhow, because even in his finite human body, he retained his infinite love.

We human beings are slow learners. I get frustrated waiting for my children to put on their shoes, but God waited, patiently, century after century, for us to finally recognize his love. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that “Love is patient.” And God’s love for us is the perfect embodiment of patience.

Advent reminds us to wait. Let it also remind us that we are loved. That our loving God is waiting for us, patiently, arms open wide, ready to give anything, and everything, for us.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Jule Ann’s Advent Meditation, Week One: The Candle of Hope

Wait.
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Wait.
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Waiting is hard. It’s awkward. Uncomfortable. Boring.

In this fast-paced modern age, we don’t have to wait very long for anything. We can communicate instantly with anyone on the planet. But still, we get impatient if we have to stare at those three little dots that tell us that they are typing a response for more than a few seconds.

But Christianity is counter-cultural. Twice a year, for Advent and Lent, we deliberately slow down.

And wait.

God’s people waited a long time for the Messiah. They waited in bondage. They waited in the wilderness. They waited in exile. They waited while the prophets railed against the evils of the day. They waited in the empty silence when God seemed to have left them alone.

But we don’t wait in darkness. We wait in hope. We know how the story ends. And it ends triumphantly! With victory over sin and death!

“We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.” (Psalm 33:20-21)

Hope is a great motivator. A bride-to-be, in anticipation of her wedding day, calls florists, interviews D.J.s, and samples cakes, working hard to make sure everything will be just right. Expectant parents, eager to meet their baby, build nursery furniture, wash and fold tiny clothing, and make their home ready for their new family member. Many of you may hope to see distant family members over the holidays, and you will soon be making travel plans or furiously cleaning the guest room in anticipation of that precious time together.

When you wait in hope, you don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs. You get up and work!

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'” (Isaiah 40:3)

That’s not a passive verse. It’s not a verse for sitting around, mourning the state of the world, and waiting passively for Christ to return and fix everything. No! It’s a call to action. It’s a command to get up and work. Prepare the way for the Lord!
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
“’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
1 Corinthians 15:54-58

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Save our Sewing Circle

When Pearl invited me to the church sewing circle, my brain scrambled quickly for ways to turn her down politely.

“I don’t really sew,” I tried. She assured me that it didn’t matter. Many of the members didn’t sew. I could help knot comforters, and they could teach me if I wanted to learn to hand-quilt.

“I don’t have anyone to watch my son.” That didn’t matter either. He could play while we worked, and I could tend to him as needed. The members all brought their kids when they were younger, too.

Out of excuses, I told her maybe, and went on my way.

I really didn’t think sewing circle was the place for me. There’s a pretty good chance that you think the same thing.

But one week, I found myself going a bit stir-crazy at home, and I looked at the calendar and saw that it was sewing circle day. Sure, why not? I thought to myself. At least it will get me out of the house.

Fast forward a few months, and I now count myself as a regular member.

It’s hard to describe sewing circle to an outsider. It’s not a club for people who like to sew, as I thought it would be. Half the ladies there don’t even sew. Sewing is a means to an end, rather than the end itself. These ladies do nothing for themselves. Everything they work on together is for someone else. Their comforters go to families in need. Their quilts go to the Mennonite Central Committee so they can be auctioned off, and the proceeds can be used to send the comforters overseas. It’s a mission and a ministry.

Sewing Circle is not just a social club for the older ladies in the church, although that element is present. While their hands are stitching and knotting, their mouths are talking, and their hearts are sharing. Once upon a time, they shared their parenting struggles, and gave loving advice to one another. As their families grew, their stories changed, but they continued to be there for one another. They held each other up as they became widows, prayed for each other as they received bad news from their doctors, comforted each other as they watched their friends go home to be with the Lord.

Our sewing circle is dying. Both literally and figuratively. Every year, there are fewer members and fewer finished projects. This is the 62nd year of the sewing circle at our church, and it may very well be the last. Our president has terminal cancer, and when the Lord takes her home, there is no one to take her place.

Maybe sewing circles are a thing of the past. Maybe their time has come and gone. Maybe today’s women just don’t have time to sit around making quilts. And if that’s all that was going on at sewing circle, maybe we should just end this chapter and close the book.

But sewing circle isn’t just a social club. It has a heart that beats with love for people in need, near and far. And if no one takes up the torch, that heart will stop beating.

I’m asking for a favor: Help me save the sewing circle. Come to a meeting. It doesn’t matter if you know how to sew. Sewing is just a means to an end, remember. And if you care about that end, we can work together on the means.

I don’t know what sewing circle will look like in 20 years. Maybe it will look exactly the same as it did 20 years ago, with ladies sitting around the quilting frames, chatting and sharing, while their children play together off in the corner. Or, maybe we won’t even be making quilts anymore. That would be okay, though. Because the quilts are nice, but the quilts aren’t the heart of the sewing circle. The people are.


The Sandy Hill Sewing Circle meets on the first Tuesday of every month in the Fellowship Hall. Come any time after 8:30, and stay as long as you can. We stop to discuss business and have brief devotional time around 11, and we break to eat lunch at some point after that. Bring a bagged lunch if you’d like to stay longer. If you need directions, they are available on the church website.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Message of Babel

I had a crisis of faith during my first year of college. It was triggered in, of all unlikely places, a Bible class. We were reading the book of Genesis, and we came to the story of The Tower of Babel. You probably know the story, too: Everyone in the world used to speak the same language, but they tried to build a tower to Heaven, and God punished them by scrambling their speech.

Except, that's not the story. They weren't trying to build a tower to Heaven, they were just trying to build a really tall tower. "Reaches to the heavens" was just poetic language for "really, really tall."

And God wasn't punishing them, per se. Nowhere in the passage does it explicitly mention any sin on the part of the humans. In fact, it seems like they were doing pretty well for themselves. So well, in fact, that God stopped by to check on their progress.
"But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building." (Genesis 11:5)
And he seemed to be impressed by their tower. He never said anything bad about the tower. Instead, he seemed worried that they were doing a bit too well.
"The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.'" (Genesis 11:6)
That's why he scrambled their speech. Because he thought people were doing a bit too well for themselves, and needed to be taken down a peg.

This was a faith-rattling revelation for me. I had already spent years reconciling the image of a vengeful God with one of a merciful God (that's another post for another day), but this wasn't vengeance. It seems almost vindictive. "Hey, you guys are doing too well, I'm going to make the game harder on you!"

It took me a long time to accept this "new" version of the Babel story. I wanted to call up all of my Sunday School teachers and yell at them for lying to me. I really, really didn't like this picture of a God who trips people up just because they are doing well.

But one day, as I was wrestling with the Babel story, something finally clicked, and the story fell into place. God was worried, yes. But he wasn't worried about the things that people could accomplish. He was worried about what they would accomplish without him. If the entire Old Testament is pointing us towards salvation in Jesus, then letting people do too well on their own strength is setting them up for failure in the end. Human beings are pretty awesome, and we can accomplish a lot of things. But no matter how well we do, there is one thing we can't do: We can't earn our salvation.

I believe that is the real reason God scrambled the languages at Babel. It was a reminder. "Hey. You guys need me."

I have many moderate talents. God has given me a wide range of gifts and abilities. Sometimes, I wish he had just poured all that talent into one thing, so that my calling would be obvious. I'm an okay singer, but I'm no soloist. I can act, but I'm never going to get a part in a movie. I'm a pretty good public speaker, though, maybe I could be a pastor? I love traveling and meeting new people, maybe a missionary? I know! I love talking to people and helping them, maybe I could be a counselor!

And then, one day, I acidentally became the church drummer. We were just hanging out after church one day, and a friend was playing some improv on the piano, and I picked up a little hand drum to accompany him. The next thing I knew, I was playing my hand drum, and later, my djembe, almost every Sunday morning in church.

I'm not a great drummer. I'm barely an okay drummer. But an okay drummer was better than no drummer at all.

It was humbling to do something for God that I wasn't really good at. I wanted to be the best, to give him the best! But I knew it was a need that I could fill, so I did my mediocre best to fill it. And whenever I felt myself feeling inadequate, I heard a quiet whisper reminding me, "Not your strength. My strength."

Eventually, we moved away, and started attending a new church in a new town. And my drumming had improved quite a bit at this point, so I joined the worship team at our new church. I played my djembe for a long time, until the church acquired some nice congas, and I moved to them. I found my groove, and things were going pretty well. Then our senior pastor retired, leaving several empty roles to be filled. I wondered how God might use me, now. Maybe I could preach occasionally? Help with the youth group?

Then, one evening at worship team rehearsal, the pastor mentioned that he really wished someone could play on the drum kit for this one song. I glanced warily over at the kit, wondering how much I would remember from a few months of lessons over 20 years ago. And I heard a little voice in my head. "Not your strength. My strength." And I played the kit. Poorly, for sure. But willingly.

A few weeks later, the pastor approached me about co-leading a worship team with another young woman in our church. And every part of me screamed, "Why me? This isn't my talent!" I can only sorta sing, and I know nothing about accompaniment or instrumental arrangements. I have tried to learn to play guitar several times, but every time I started to make any progress, my tendonitis flared up in my wrist again, and I was forced to quit. If only I could play the guitar. Maybe that would be enough. But this was the need I was being asked to fill. And again, I heard that little voice whispering, "Not your strength. My strength."

And that, I think, is the lesson of Babel. If they had built that tower, and succeeded in everything they tried to do, it would have been entirely on their own strength. And thinking that we can do it on our own is one of the biggest barriers to salvation I have ever seen. We (and by "we" I mean "I") need to be reminded daily, "Hey, you still need me. Not your strength. My strength."

So, if you come to my church this Sunday, you'll see me up front. I will be fumbling through the first song on the drum kit, after which I will don my microphone, and do my best to sing on key and cue the singers at the right times. And I am not good enough on my own strength. But that's okay, because it isn't about me.

Sometimes, I think the greatest kindness God has ever done for me is forcing me to do things I am not good at. Because then I know, for sure, that it's not my strength. It's his.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hour-a-Day April 2016: Days 12-22

Sorry for disappearing, there. My mom came to visit, and I dropped out of "HADA" mode and into "AMAPADWIHAEAH" mode ("As much as possible-a-day while I have an extra adult helping"). I got a lot done. My mom got me caught up on dishes, and between us, we did a bunch of deep cleaning, de-cluttering, and organizing. We also did some fun things, like a trip to Longwood Gardens and seeing Samson at Sight & Sound Theatres.

I also got my raised beds built, filled, and mostly planted (I just need to get more lettuce seeds, because my kids apparently needed two whole packets of seeds for the 1' by 3' patch of garden I gave them to plant).

By the time my mom left yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty decent about my prospects for keeping up with the house. For months, I have been saying that, if I could just get over the backlog, the day-to-day wouldn't be quite so bad. So, here I was, with no backlog (well, no kitchen backlog - my general to-do list is endless), feeling ready to conquer the world. Okay, maybe not the world, but I could conquer Dinner! I dragged the kids to the store to get some ingredients I was missing, and I assembled one of their favorite casseroles (au gratin potatoes and sweet potatoes with ham). I even washed my prep dishes as I went along!

Then I got a phone call.

In the next three minutes, my kids managed to undo a whole week's work with a bin of flour and a box fan. Yes, I am serious. My kids are like those horrible kids in the movies that are totally implausible, because who does idiotic stuff like that in real life? My kids, that's who.
"Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing, and life doesn't." -Neil Gaiman
While I was screaming into a pillow, I received a text message from my husband telling me he would be late getting home. I looked at the clock, and realized that dinner wouldn't be done in time for us to eat it, so I turned the oven off, gave the kids some crackers and cheese, then piled all three kids into the car, and dragged them all to my Girl Scout meeting, because, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I had a Girl Scout meeting, which Jeremy was supposed to be home in time for so that he could watch the younger kids while Valerie and I went to Girl Scouts. I sent him a message telling him to walk over and get the younger kids when he got home from work. But he didn't get home from work until the meeting was over. Yay.

There's always something, isn't there? I actually felt hopeful for the first time in a long time, and then bam, nope. Goodbye hope. I knew it would happen eventually. Someone would get sick, something would break, something unexpected would come up. But I kinda thought I might have a whole day, first. Nope.

It's going to take everything I have to get back on the horse again this time. I got most of the flour cleaned up, and the first of many floury loads of laundry started. And, fortunately, dinner was a no-brainer tonight, because there was a barely-touched casserole from last night's debacle. And it is the weekend, which means I should have a few kid-free hours while Jeremy entertains the hooligans. But I'm having a really hard time feeling optimistic. Ever since the flour incident last night, I have felt completely defeated. I look around the house, and it's like everything has a big, neon sign on it, blazing the words, "Why bother?"

I hope a good night's sleep gives me back a shred of hope in the morning.

Sorry for the downer ending. Here, have some pretty pictures from Longwood Gardens.











Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hour-a-Day April 2016: Days 7-11

I'm trying to write this post from underneath two children who are fighting over my lap, digging their claws into my armpits in an attempt to occupy as much of my personal space as possible. "She's my Mama!" "No, she's MY Mama!" "She's MY MAMA!!!"

*sigh*

I suppose there is a lovely analogy buried in there somewhere, but I am too tired to find it.

This motherhood gig is hard.

I lost my grip on HADA a bit over the last few days. I realized that I have been finding it all-too-easy to ignore the daily stuff in favor of the "fun" HADA projects. My justification was that HADA wasn't "keeping me" from the daily stuff, because I was neglecting it anyhow, and anything was better than nothing, right? I'm very good at rationalization.

So, I turned the tables on myself. "Oh yeah?" says I to me, "If you're having a hard time doing the daily stuff, then you should make THAT your HADA project! Take that! HA!" I can be really mean to me sometimes.

So, the next three days were spent attempting to do the boring daily stuff that I hate, making some progress, but mostly failing miserably. When you're behind it takes so much energy to catch up. And when you have a mental health condition that likes to knock you back down before you make much progress, it's like trying to swim upstream towards a waterfall. The closer you get to the waterfall, the stronger the current is, and the harder it is to make any progress.

Here's a fun math problem for you: If routine housework takes approximately one hour per day, how long will it take to catch up when you are several weeks behind? (Don't forget to adjust for the "kids who can destroy the entire room you just finished cleaning while you are working on the next one" factor.)

On the bright side, the mess seems to plateau at some point. Once all the dishes are dirty, you can't dirty any more. Once all the toys are strewn across the living room floor, there is nothing more to dump. It's not exactly "nice" in that limbo zone, but there is the small comfort that at least it can't get any worse.

The downside to that bright side is that any progress you make out of the limbo zone feels futile.

On days 10 and 11, I got mad enough at the mess to work really hard. And I actually made serious progress. The living rooms completely clean, the front hallway almost completely clean, more than half of the dish backlog cleaned and put away, even a few loads of laundry. I was actually feeling on top of things enough to address a few minor HADA projects, too. Moving the photos on my hard drive into the correct month folders (I have a bad habit of uploading everything from the camera to the current month, even if the batch overlaps months). Swapping the kid's shoe bins out for the bigger ones I bought months ago. Moving the old printer from the kitchen to the side porch. Little things, but check marks nonetheless.

But nature abhors a vacuum. And, in the case of my children, it only takes a few seconds of my back being turned for them to fill the newly uncovered living room floor with whatever happens to be nearest to them. Craft supplies, the entire tub of Duplo, half a loaf of bread, all the cushions from the couch, the boxes of muffins we bought from the church fundraiser (don't forget to remove the wrappers and grind them into the carpet!), the clothes they were just wearing, all the marbles. At least, when the house has plateaued in mess-limbo, it can't get any worse.

The waterfall was so close, I could almost touch it, but then the current got me. Not quite back where I started, yet, but close enough to have an overwhelming sense of "Why bother?"

But HADA is all about starting where you're at. And this is where I am currently at. I'm not feeling overly optimistic about my prospects for Day 12, but I didn't include it in today's post, because I still have half the day to redeem it. I have to at least try.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Hour-a-Day April 2016: Days 5 and 6

Day Five. Today was not a good day. I couldn't seem to mobilize myself for most of the day. I did get outside at some point and transplant some strawberry plants into another bed to spread out my patch. I think it was an hour, but I'm not sure. I feel guilty counting it, though, because I didn't do the normal, daily stuff that needed doing.

Day Six. I spent some time playing outside with John Wallace this morning, which gave me a bit of energy when I came back inside. I spent about 45 minutes cleaning my room, then made some under-dresser drawers for my undergarments. Dorothy wanted to help, so I got out the poster paints and we decorated them.


Sprouts

Yesterday, during an especially frustrating time with my children, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. As I sat on the step, my attention was drawn to all of the little green sprouts in my garden. I haven't explicitly planted anything, yet, but I had buried some rotten pumpkins and the birds had dropped some sunflower seeds, and I had eagerly been watching the progress of those sprouts. But the temperature had dropped below freezing the night before, and several of my garden volunteers had withered overnight. I was somewhat disappointed, but not too much, because really, I had done nothing to nurture those plants, and if even a few survived, they were still freebies. And a few actually had survived. I thought to myself, "Those were probably the strongest ones, and a good dose of cold probably just made them hardier."

My mind wandered back to my children. They have been misbehaving more than usual lately, and I have been losing my temper and yelling more than I like. I found myself praying an all-too-familiar prayer, "Dear God, please don't let me screw them up too much."

One of the hardest parts of motherhood, for me, has been watching the consequences of my imperfect actions affect my children. It's terrifying to think that I have been entrusted with these perfect specimens of humanity, and it feels like anything I do will just damage them.

Suddenly, the parable of the talents from Matthew 25 came to mind. A master goes away, and entrusts three of his servants with varying amounts of money. Two of them invest the money and turn a profit for their master. The third one buries his in the yard and returns exactly the amount he had been given. The master is angry with the third one. He wanted to watch his money grow - that's why he entrusted it to the servants in the first place.

It is so tempting, as a parent, to want to shield our children from anything negative in the world. To hide them away and keep them safe. Especially as a Christian, the idea that my children are not mine, but God's, can be overwhelming. What if I mess them up? But God gave them to us to grow. And they will never reach their full potential without some degree of trials and testing.

Two thoughts immediately began battling for my attention. The first was how horrible it was to think of myself as the agent of suffering that my children will have to endure in order to grow stronger. That's not a very pleasant role for a loving mother to imagine herself in! But I think that's taking the analogy too far. I am not recommending or condoning causing any deliberate suffering in your children's lives. But I can't beat myself up for doing my best and falling short. God knew my failings, and still gave me these kids. If nothing else, my kids can learn all about repentance and seeking forgiveness, because my failures offer me ample opportunities to model that to them.

The second thought was even darker. What about all those sprouts that shriveled up and died? What if my gamble doesn't pay off, and instead of growing stronger, my kids are ruined forever?

And the parable of the talents came back to my mind again. It has always bothered me just a bit that none of the servants made bad investments and lost their master's money. The story could have gone an entirely different direction, then, with the master praising the one who at least returned his original money, instead of gambling and losing it.

But, it's a parable, not an economics lesson. It's there to teach us about our relationship with God. And, whatever the "talents" in your life are - your children, your skills/abilities, your resources - God gave them to you to watch them grow. The fact that none of the servants in the parable lost their master's money is not an oversight, it's reassurance. Your omnipotent, omniscient God gave you that talent, and he will guard his investment, if you just trust him, and let go.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Hour-a-Day April 2106: Days 3 and 4

Day 3: Sunday. No HADA. Went to church, had lunch, then spent the rest of the day at a friend's house. It was a good day off.

Day 4: I've really been wanting to write more, lately, and since I left Facebook, my writing itch is getting even less scratching than usual. So, today, I wrote two blog posts that have been on my mind. It might not sound like much of a HADA project, but getting writing out of your mind into print is very liberating. I'm glad I did it.