LIVING WITHOUT BREATHING ROOM

scribble page

During the past several years a painting of my life would look like a margin-less page. Sadly, there have often been no margins and no empty space. There has been little breathing room. It took me quite a while to come to the realization that empty space is not necessarily negative space.  The pages of my life looked like the picture in this post – no room to hold the book comfortably; the type disappeared into the middle gutter; and there was no place for page numbers.  No one living or reading a life like that enjoys the experience.  It is margin-less living; living without air; suffocation. 

“Just one more thing” thrown on the stack of things I had to get done always stretched my margin even thinner.  Even the normal easy things in life become stressful and the pain of the workload was off the scale.  I had an ongoing hum in the back of my head telling me there was just nothing left to give. One slip at any point could spell disaster, whether it was emotional, spiritual, financial, or physical.  My life became a prison of responsibilities.

 Last Christmas season was what I fondly call the “Mother of all Christmas Nightmares”.  For years I have had one reoccurring dream:  I get up one morning and realize that I am scheduled for a concert that morning but I can’t locate the music or the venue for the concert.  Frantically I am running late on the clock and when I arrive at the destination, the concert has already begun.  In part, that dream was last Christmas. I was running multiple concerts with my acappella choir while at the same time directing a big event with a children’s’ choir, an adult choir, and multiple solo musicians.  For the grand event I made the unwelcome discovery that the support staff I had anticipated (and thought was promised) did not exist.  The night before the large concert my husband and I were setting up platforms, chairs, and microphones, and I found that all my emails indicating our sound equipment needs had gone into someone’s circular file.  This was death’s door for a person like me who usually plans months ahead down to the last detail.  Though the final concert ended up going extremely well, I was totally spent in mental and physical energy.  I rediscovered how limited my strength is.

 This year I am trying to bring into my life the margin of contentment versus living in chaos.  In God’s sense of humor, I am presently teaching a class that deals with the entire subject of stress.  I think the angels have chuckled over that one! 

 The Apostle Paul wrote from a jail cell most of his letters which are included as books in the New Testament.  I like The Message paraphrase of a portion of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, chapter 4: Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.   With a philosophy like this, I think that Paul found balance, even when circumstances didn’t appear that way.  I don’t think he would have found himself perpetually running late, short tempered, and blowing a gasket as I frequently found myself doing.  I remember the time I was late getting out the door for work because I had been frantically looking for a Tupperware lid for my lunch.  My dear husband had decided to be helpful and relocate them to a different location and neglected to inform me.  I should have looked for the stuff the night before, but I was way too tired from the rat race I had placed myself in.  The words out of my mouth that morning weren’t happy and relaxed and they definitely weren’t the words out of Paul’s mouth when he found himself stretched beyond his limits.  I don’t think Paul would have stressed over expectations of people that were simply beyond their abilities.  Paul wouldn’t have become overwhelmed and erratic. Paul would have sat down with Jesus and “chilled”.  Paul would have made sure he had that open time in his margin and made it Jesus time.

 So what have I learned from all of this?  There is the saying that “The minute a person goes into debt, he loses a portion of his freedom”.  My paraphrase is that “The minute I make a commitment which I do not have time to effectively do, I will be imprisoned by that commitment”.  I’m exhausted from living in this type of slavery.  Changes are necessary.  This Christmas there will be no large extravaganza concert.  There will be small venues, but they will be manageable venues.  There will be no screaming in my house when I can’t find the Tupperware lids and no frustration over expectations of people who don’t have the capabilities of meeting those expectations. There will be peace and contentment.  I may have a smaller list of responsibilities in my hands, but the only way that list will land in my hands is because God directly put it there (after I thought and prayed about it a great deal).  The items won’t end up there due to a sense of guilt, other peoples’ expectations, or my own problem with expecting too much from my own small hands.

Paul couldn’t have said it better:  It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.  The life truly given to Christ produces a life supplied with margin, oxygen, and peace. That’s the kind of life I want to live, a life with Spirit-filled breathing room.BABY SLEEP

 

SLIDING WITHOUT DECIDING

Sliding

I watched an episode of NY Med last week in which the son had pledged one of his kidneys to his mom.  Without the new kidney his mom would die, so this was a life altering and permanent decision.  The son couldn’t get the surgery done, change his mind the next day, and take back his kidney.  It was a commitment.

According Websters, “commitment” means “something pledged” and “pledged” means a “serious promise or agreement”.  Years ago Life Cereal had an ad campaign, “Try it, you’ll like it”.  We live in a trial society. We do the trial bit with food & money-back guaranteed purchases.  If you have ever been in the return line at Costco, you realize a great many people have taken this philosophy to heart because the return line often exceeds the cash register line.  We consumers want to make sure we are comfortable with what we have purchased and if there is not immediate gratification, then it is back to the store we go.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.”  The sad thing is that this kind of thinking can transfer over to the way we live with God.   Meg Jay writes: “You might think that with more couples road-testing their cohabitation compatibility that divorce rates would fall? After all, there are no surprises — you’ve shared a bathroom and you know just how many cups of coffee your beloved needs in the morning. However, numerous researchers are finding that couples who live together have a higher rate of divorce than couples who don’t cohabit before marrying. And prior to the divorce, these couples have lower rates of marital satisfaction. Meg Jay calls this the “cohabitation effect”.  She writes that “As cohabitation has become a norm, research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself. It is called, “sliding, not deciding”.  Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

Have you ever considered that maybe you went into your relationship with God in order to “give God a try”? Maybe you “slid” into your whole relationship with God rather than making a decision? Possibly it seemed the right kind of thing to do at the time for a variety of reasons:

  • You might have been going through difficulties
  • Church was where your friends and/or family were
  • You liked the quietness of church
  • It was more comfortable to kind of believe in something rather than nothing

Rather than sliding into homeplate determined to make a homerun, you found yourself sliding around the outfield, not anywhere near homeplate, or any plate for that matter. You slid into a relationship with a God you didn’t really know. You missed the deciding about having a relationship with Jesus and a commitment/pledge by which you really decided that He was the One you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. You didn’t count the cost before shaking your head “yes”. Jesus said it so well in Luke 14: 28-30 “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’ 31-32 “Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce? 33 “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.”  Jesus encourages us to research it, realize the cost, and then make a conscious decision which does require a leap of faith. Jesus doesn’t want aimless “sliders”; He wants decision makers.

I love 2 Chronicles 16: 9 For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. “ (NIV)  So where is your heart?  Are you “sliding and not deciding”?  Hopefully you didn’t pick up God at a church thinking you can return Him if He doesn’t work out.

 

FRONT STEP LIVING

front porch

I had a lovely experience of reviving that tradition this past Sunday evening.  I was hyper over some recent events and I just needed to breathe.  My husband invited me to join him on our front steps.  We spent time just quietly talking, reassessing some things that had currently happened, and it was an utterly calming experience for me (until it began to rain).

So how is your front porch doing?  Whether or not you have a physical front porch, do you have somewhere you can take a quiet break, a time-out, or what some would call a “Sabbath Rest”?  This is a place that is not set up for the work of worry, the work of anger or the work of sadness.  It is not the place where you fret over your most recent project or your recent short-comings.  It is a place where you don’t have the TV on, your cell phone on, and there is no timer set to go off.

In your achieved goals, have you consciously created a real place of rest, where your soul can unwind, your body can unkink, and your emotions can calm down?  Do you visit this place daily (or sometimes if needed, hourly)?

I have a friend who finds herself  perpetually in the panic mode, whether it is with her children, her church, her work, or her parents.  She seems to travel from one drama to another.  Life is pulling at her so hard that I fear she will tear apart.  She is unhappy and frustrated at life.  Her life situation is tough, however her solution is just to struggle harder.  The words of Jesus are “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28 NLT).  His words aren’t, “Those of you who are weighted down, come to me and I will give you even heavier burdens that will break your back.”

Maybe to some of you, the concept of taking a Sabbath Rest for the sake of your physical, emotional and spiritual health, is a new concept.  I found these excellent suggestions to kick-start your rest from “Why God Wants You to Rest” by Barbara Brown Taylor:

  1. Decide that you will get up an hour before everyone else in the house and dedicate that time to doing nothing but being in the divine presence.
  2.  Decide that you will turn off the television an hour before you go to bed and spend that time outside looking at the sky.
  3. You could resolve not to add anything more to your calendar without subtracting something from it.
  4. You could practice saying no as lavishly as you do when you say yes when God tells you too much is too much
  5. At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage.
  6. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer.
  7. Stay home not because you are sick but because you are well.
  8. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch.
  9. Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce—that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight.  This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working.

So, how are you going to take a Sabbath Rest, today, this week and this month?  Please write and let me know.

THE EMPTINESS OF BUSYNESS

BUSYNESS

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”.  This is an apt observation from Tim Kreider’s article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”. 

 When was the last time you asked one of your friends how they were doing and they replied:

  • “I absolutely have nothing to do”
  • “I wish I had more things to put in my schedule”
  • “I think one more hour of idleness is going to push me over the edge”. 

Probably at that point you would want to take their pulse and see if they are still breathing.  The most frequent response I get from my retired friends is “I’m now busier than when I was working.”

 Why are we so proud of being busy?  Do we get extra brownie points from God because our calendars are overflowing?  Does God smile when we are so tired from overwhelming schedules that we begin forgetting things and making mistakes?  Is God’s picture of the ideal life the commercial in which the mother speeds off with the present to the birthday party having forgotten that her child who was the invited one is not in the car?

 We live in a society where people wear their busyness.  Have you ever seen a businessman with multiple cell phones strapped to his belt?  Walk down a city street and notice how many people are talking on their cell phones, because that call just couldn’t wait.    I have been in restrooms in which the woman in the next stall is having a loud conversation/argument via the phone with her beloved. 

How did we get to this point in our lives?  When I was a kid Sunday afternoons were for visiting family and sitting on the porch.  Sunday was a slow day.  Often for parents of today Sunday means having to taxi their children around so they can participate in making a win for the team (and sometimes for multiple teams).  Whatever happened to neighborhoods in which the kids just played outside in impromptu games till the sun went down? 

 Whatever has happened to leisurely conversations, without “Let’s make this quick, I have to be somewhere in five minutes.”?  Whatever happened to “Be still and know that I am God”?  I know you probably want to reflect on this, but you might be too busy right now…

HAVE YOU FALLEN OFF THE MATH (FEAR) CLIFF???

My symptoms of math phobia show up especially when I am tired. Many of you fellow sufferers are in the same boat. “Math Phobia” is defined by the website “Great Schools” as:

“A negative emotional reaction to a situation that requires mathematical problem solving. Math anxiety plagues millions of adults and children – each of whom have their math horror story – thanks to an insensitive teacher, a clueless parent, a concept that never clicked. According to Stanford professor Vinod Menon, who co-authored a study on the neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety, the part of the brain agitated by math anxiety is the same part “that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake. It most often rears its head in the early elementary school years, then escalates during the upper elementary years. Middle school is also a time many children, girls especially, fall off the math cliff.”

When I am in full math phobic swing, it is doubtful whether I can multiply, divide, or add. Give me Excel anytime because if I only have the resource of the math center of my mind, then I am in trouble.

So what are your fears help push you off your own personal cliff? Maybe it isn’t the math cliff, but the fear of confrontation, fear of bad health, fear of being alone, fear of losing your job, fear of the unknown…..the list can go on and on.

All of us have in common one fear, the fear of not being able to measure up, the fear of failure. I have seen people react differently when faced with this fear. There is the braggart who is so secretly unsure of himself that he has to go to great lengths to loudly share with everyone in earshot all his past accomplishments (ad nauseum) so they will overshadow his current misfire. On the other end of the spectrum is the retreater – the person who faces failure and then tries to hide under a rock.

Yesterday was a “hide under a rock” day for me. Faced with our current circumstances, things looked pretty dismal and living obedient to God despite the situation seemed out of my grasp. I felt doomed to failure. Then I came across Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it! (The Message)

What this is saying to me is that I don’t have to live with the attitude that I am doomed to failure and having the prospects of constantly falling short of God’s plan. Yes, I know myself well enough that I disobey God’s Word – resentment for our circumstances, envy toward those who have a no cares existence, letting fears overwhelm me of how we are going to pay bills are just some of my short-comings. Yet I don’t have to be God Phobic. The answer is in Phil. 4:13, I can do all this through him who gives me strength. I have my God tutor in the Person of the Holy Spirit willing to guide me every step of the way and I have Jesus my Savior offering to give me the strength to get through every test, every trial, every disturbance.

If I would have been able to have a calculator during all my elementary school years to use freely during every math class and a math tutor in my pocket, then I would not have had a fear of facing the scorn of my teachers and the disappointment of my parents. I would not be math phobic. For the Christian life, God hasn’t given me a list of rules, said “Good luck!” and then gone on His merry way, abandoning me to live an obedient Christian life. God has instead given me the very life and strength of Christ Himself to pursue the road less taken, to swim upstream, and to be able to sleep calmly at the end of the day. Not even when I am tired, beaten and distracted do I have to fear the challenge of living obedient to God because I have a Cheerleader, a Tutor, and an Extra Shot of Espresso, all in the person of Christ. Maybe I will still be math phobic, but I don’t have to tolerate being God phobic. Fearing God just isn’t an option!

40 YEARS IS JUST THE BEGINNING

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Tomorrow is our 40th wedding anniversary and I have to tell you that God picked both the most unusual type of husband for me and the best type of husband for me all at the same time.  Probably when we got married there were some people who thought it would never last – we were quite young, penniless college students, and about as opposite in personality as one could imagine.  I don’t think that either of us really had a clue as to what we were committing to, but I know that God gave me the cream of the crop though I don’t think Bill was as fortunate in what he received.

This is the man who through the years has consistently encouraged me to run after my dreams, even when they seemed out of reach or off the wall.  He pushed me to go back to school for vocal performance, he has always been my number one fan and “roadie” for the countless music productions I have directed, he has treated me with respect and on equal footing as a Bible teacher even though we have served in some cultures which have not had that attitude, and he has loved me even when I have put both feet in my mouth (and then some).  I am impulsive, running at the speed of light, and turbulent while he has been steady, kind, and my rock.

His calling in life has been to the ministry, but he has always loved our family dearly.  I remember when our kids were very young Bill was working fulltime 2nd shift at a foundry, running a ministry, and going to college part-time.  It was the middle of winter and we had the worst snow of the decade.  Bill was working a couple of miles across the river in Wrightsville from where we lived in Columbia.  A lot of husbands would have opened the exit door of the machine shop at that shift and decided to just bunk in Wrightsville that night because the snow was so heavy.  In contrast, Bill was so concerned about us at home that he left work to cross the mile long Wrightsville/Columbia Bridge through blizzard conditions.  His was the only car out on the road and he had to gun the car the whole way across the bridge because if he stopped he would have gotten stuck in the snow (which at that point was not plowed and was over a foot deep).  He did that because he loved us so much.

Bill you are a man of character, of courage, of conviction, and commitment.  I want to say I received the best present and the one I most needed when God gave me you.

Happy Anniversary Loved One!