Friday, January 29, 2010

Lessons from Dogs: Teddy the Teacup Poodle

I was on the front porch of a family’s home before a family assessment interview. Before I knock, I always pray that the Lord will help the interview go smoothly, since I have never met this family but will end up asking them intensely personal questions about everything: events experienced in their childhoods, details of their current monthly expenses, their beliefs on discipline of children, and much more.

Immediately after I pressed the doorbell, I heard the high-pitched yap yapping of a small dog from inside. As the homeowner showed me in, our greetings were interrupted with “No Teddy! No, no, no!” and other reproofs that were lost on Teddy, the teacup poodle. (And he had a pert little red bow in his groomed topknot. Something is just wrong with a male dog wearing a bow, even if he is a teacup poodle.)

He continued to bark and complain about my entrance. As I sat at Homeowner’s kitchen table, set up my laptop, and began the interview, Teddy busied himself about my feet. I looked down to see him gnawing on the strap of my canvas laptop bag. Sure, his teeth were teensy, but I figured they could do some damage, so I hauled the bag onto my lap. I typed more of Homeowner’s answers into my computer, and Teddy began chewing on my leather bootlace. An expensive lace on a nice, expensive suede boot.

I did not want to bring out my Alpha-Dog Self, to swell my chest (ha, if only. . . ), glare, bare my teeth, and hiss at the dog. Indeed, that usually makes both man and beast back off. I had barely met this woman, and my next questions were about events of abuse in her childhood, so instead, I gently pushed Teddy away with the toe of my boot and dutifully went on typing her responses to my questions.

Teddy was undaunted. Once I said, “Now Teddy, you can’t have my shoelace!” hoping Homeowner would remove Teddy to another location, but she didn’t. She reprimanded him strongly, but he was oblivious to her remarks. He continued in his determined attempt to chew my bootlace to a rawhide pulp. While she was responding emotionally about why her first marriage had failed and what she learned from it, I put my laptop bag down on top of my feet, between my suede boots and his sharp tiny teeth. He began to work on the canvas strap again.

Whew, expensive suede boots saved. I hurried through the interview as quickly as possible.

As I reflect on Teddy, I learn a Lesson from Dogs.

Gnawing on people’s stuff is annoying. Teddy’s behavior distracted me. I could not fully engage in Homeowner’s responses because of the insistent troubling of a small thing underneath the table, at my feet. Grrr, thank you, Teddy; I, too, sometimes “gnaw on people’s stuff,” their imperfections, their flaws, the smaller aspects of who they really are. I see what a royal pain I am when I persistently bite, nip, trouble, and bother someone about a small thing. I need to let it go.

Gnawing on people’s stuff can do damage. Fairly insignificant, my bootlace and laptop bag strap. Teddy’s little teeth left only tiny marks. But given enough time and persistence, I think eventually my expensive boot could have become a valueless dog toy. I, too, can diminish the value of my relationships by adding another, and another, and another nick or mar.

Gnawing on people’s stuff makes you less loveable. Teddy was a cute little boy, and with different behavior I might have taken him onto my lap and we could have enjoyed each other. As it was, I carefully chose what I carried and what I wore the next time we met; I was prepared to avoid him.

Oh, so sad.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oh Please Let Me Not Be Frumpy

I have always been insecure about my fashion sense. In my early teens, I went retro; and since I sewed most of my clothing, I used my mother’s dress patterns from the 1950’s. (Man, that seems like a long time ago.) As part of the hippie generation in my later teens, I wore what everyone else did: work shirts and jeans, or corduroy bell-bottoms with thick leather belts. (Except for one little regrettable period of double-knit pantsuits.)

In my early forties, I worried that I didn’t look up-to-date, and took my youngest son shopping with me. I’d select an item off the rack and hold it up against me. “No, Mom, no.” he’d say, shaking his head. I know, I know; it’s pathetic that I trusted the fashion sense of an eleven-year-old boy over my own. After he left home, I actually learned a lot from Stacy London and Clinton Kelly on TLC’s “What Not to Wear.”

I have a long habit of shopping sales, thrift stores, and resale. I do not spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what I wear or the image I present. But I do pay attention, for my outer image may give others an impression of my inner person.

So at this stage in my life, I’ve decided to have one main style guideline: Not Frumpy.

What is frumpy? The word came from Middle English “frumple” and Dutch “to wrinkle,” and evolved to mean plain, dull, ill fitting, out of date, and colorless.

I may categorize some articles of my clothing as “casual,” “neutral,” or even “modest,” but these words should not be a disguise for clothing that is “frumpled” or that makes me feel frumpy. It does not seem very nice to God to wear an exterior that is plain, dull, ill fitting, out of date, and colorless.

I want my style to reflect the vibrancy, timelessness, and thoughtfulness of the God I know. And while each and every item of clothing I own may not have a “wow” factor of itself, I want it to at least be complementary to the dynamic image of the God that lives in me.

So please, if you see me pulling something frumplish off the rack, do me a favor. Touch me lightly on the shoulder, shake your head gently and say, “No, Doris, no.” I’ll get the message.

Photo by Marco-Antonio-Fdez

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A New Citizenship

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is called his most personal epistle, containing several expressions of Paul’s attachment and fondness to the Christians at Philippi. At the end of chapter 1, Paul confides in his readers that he has a conflict between two wonderful options: to depart from the earth and live with Christ, or to remain on the earth, knowing the Philippians would be full of joy if Paul would be able to see them again.

If I were Paul writing verse 27 to my children, it might read like this: But whatever happens, whether I get to come and see you or not, you act right. Remember who you are, and whose you are.

I wrote similar notes to my own children when I sent them off to summer camp or family vacations with friends. I think this is precisely how Paul felt as he urged the Philippians, “Let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” (KJV) Other versions read “Let your manner of life. . . ” or “Conduct yourselves. . .” But the meaning is deeper still. Paul’s particular use of “conversation” more accurately means “your walk as citizens.”

What? I can almost feel myself losing you. Perhaps you are like me, and the word citizenship generally evokes an instant shoulder-slumping boredom that hearkens back to a verbatim round-Robin reading of the government textbook, paragraph by paragraph, in second semester eighth grade. Oh I hope you had a better government teacher than I had.

For Paul to allude to their citizenship does not seem remotely personal. His use of the word citizenship might read like the legal terms in a contract the Scribes recited in the gates of the city. It meant that "one should order one's life and conduct in a certain manner as to the habits and principles of the citizenship of a state or city.”

But the Philippians knew that Paul was not instructing them about their local citizenship. He was joyfully reminding them that their citizenship was not confined to the Roman colony at Philippi, but that they were citizens of an entirely new and “better country,” a radical worldview, and an eternal ethos -- of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When my children read their notes from mom on their way to summer camp, they probably felt some sense of “family.” We belonged to each other, with all our family habits and principles. I believe the Philippians may have been stirred by that same sense of belonging when they read Paul’s words, rejoicing in who they were, and Whose they were.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Moments in Marriage: How to Treat Me (Let Me Teach You)

I heard it just before I engaged the DVD for the granddaughters. Dr. Phil was sitting opposite an attractive, well dressed, 30-something married couple. “You know we teach people how to treat us, right?” he asked.

I didn’t watch any more of the program -- the granddaughters were waiting for the princess movie -- but the question echoed in my mind all afternoon.

If I don’t like how my spouse is treating me, I might ask myself, “How have I been teaching him to treat me this way?” And the next question might be, “How can I change this lesson plan!?"

A good teacher targets a skill or desired behavior, and then plans for the student to achieve success in that targeted goal through example, instruction, practice, and cooperative effort, with either intrinsic or extrinsic rewards.

Sometimes in our marriages, it’s painfully obvious that the behavior we’re getting is not the desired behavior. At those times, we should ask ourselves, “How do I want this to turn out?” “How do I wish it could be different?”

Once we know what the goal is, we have to take action to reach it -- and that means to communicate about it.

When conflict occurs in our marriage, we have options. We can confront the conflict and get to the bottom of the problem, we can communicate, we can appeal; we can assert ourselves.

Or not.

A few years ago I read that the manner in which you communicate with your spouse “crystallizes” within the first year of marriage. Therefore, couples should work hard to establish patterns of effective communication early on, for these habits will most likely continue throughout the marriage.

Many of us never progress past patterns of communication we learned in our first dating experiences in junior high or high school. But think about it. Middle- and high schoolers don’t generally have effective or well-developed skills for communicating through conflict. Usually there is a lot of drama involved, with banging objects down on tables, slamming doors, or raising voices. In my case, the drama was internalized with resentment, anger, and disdain.

Some retreat to “violence” and others, to silence: both are ineffective and ultimately destructive in any relationship. Neither one is a mature methodology for resolving conflict or increasing our marital happiness. Only communication, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be, will effectively teach your spouse how to treat you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nursing Home for Dogs: The Power of Touch

Buster Brown is still snoring on his pillow. But Buster Black is up and watching me. It is only seven steps from the kitchen to the laundry room, but he follows me closely while I put something away. He is right on my heels as I return and stand in front of the kitchen window. He sits squarely on my foot; his back and hip nestle close to my leg. I am loath to move because he seems so comfortable and warm, but after only a brief moment I must step away. It’s time to cut the meat and vegetables for a stew that will simmer all day.

As I peel potatoes and slice carrots, Buster Black has positioned himself between my feet. My preparations take me from one counter to the other in our kitchen, but he follows me that small distance, just a few feet, to lean in close to me again. I offer him a tidbit of browned, cooled stew meat, which he sniffs and eats, and then looks steadily at me.

I realize I’m about to humanize a dog with my next sentence, but I can’t help it. When he finishes the treat, his eyes say, “Thanks, but I didn’t really want that. I wanted you.”

My heart melts. “Buddy, are you lonely today?” I reach down and snuggle on him, then I sit on the sofa and invite him onto my lap. He’s actually a little too big for my lap, but we manage to get comfortable. As I pet him and enjoy his warmth, I think about Lessons from Dogs.

There is no substitute for a gentle touch. I can provide food, shelter, and medical care for Buster Black. I can give him a treat once in a while. But today what he wanted most was my warmth, my attentive touch. The Touch Research Institute, part of the University of Miami School of Medicine since 1992, has done numerous studies on the necessity of touch for physical and emotional health and healing. Research shows that while someone’s presence may be helpful, mere presence does not lower stress hormone levels or stimulate production of endorphins. Touch, however, does.

Take time for touching. Young children think it’s natural to climb into our laps when they are afraid, when they awaken from a night’s sleep, when they are insecure, and when they are happy or excited. The settling down and folding in close together makes them feel protected and nurtured. I’ve read that children should receive eight to ten “meaningful touches” per day in order to feel secure and loved. I think I have never personally grown out of that need, though! Perhaps it applies to adults (and dogs) as well.

It is finally time for me to get back to the kitchen and finish the stew. I disturb our coziness and help Buster Black to the floor. I know I’m humanizing him again, but I think his eyes say, “Thanks. I needed that.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ten Thousand Hours

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that it takes ten thousand hours of practicing something -- purposefully and single-mindedly with the intent to get better -- before you can “hit your stride” and achieve true mastery. Ten thousand hours!

Man. That means, when I was sixteen years old and wanted to follow in the folk-singing footsteps of Judy Collins and Joan Baez, I should have been practicing upwards of twenty hours a week after I got out of school at 3:30 each afternoon. Let me tell you, I was way more into my boyfriend coming over every afternoon to “help me” with my Algebra II homework.

Gladwell references a long-term study done by K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues in the 1990s. One of the conclusions of that research is that practicing isn’t something you do once you’re good, it’s the thing that makes you good. But he goes on to write that to be a “world class expert” in any field, it takes more than passion, talent, and hard work. He presents another variable of success: seizing unusual or extraordinary opportunities.

I am reminded of part of a sermon preached by my former pastor, Dr. Dave Hardy. “Preparation,” he said, holding out his right hand to illustrate, “is our part. It is our responsibility to do the work. But this,” and here he held out his left hand, “is God’s part. God provides the opportunity.” He then brought his hands together and clasped them victoriously. “When our preparation and God’s opportunities come together, that’s success!”

What is it that I am preparing for? What have I spent ten thousand hours doing, or what am I doing now -- purposefully and single-mindedly with the intent to get better -- that is getting even close to ten thousand hours? Our measure of success may be somewhat different from the examples in Gladwell's Outlier's; but it is still important to ask ourselves, "What does my use of time say about my goals?"

Am I alert to the unusual or extraordinary opportunities God provides? Years ago when my dad would lead me through the woods of the hunting lease, he’d say excitedly, “Look at those quail!” or “Did you see that deer?” I usually hadn’t seen them. Why? Because I was not looking for anything -- I was just walking rather mindlessly behind him. “You’ve got to look fast or you’ll miss something!” he taught me.

Will I seize new opportunities that God brings? God caused a bush to burn without being consumed. Moses saw it, but he also had to “turn aside” in order to hear God through it. He acted on the opportunity.

I definitely want to do my part, because I’m quite certain that God is designing numerous opportunities for me. After all, His thoughts toward me are for good, with a future and a hope.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Eating Out of the Pantry

If you opened my pantry door, you might immediately think, “Yum!” but on closer inspection you’d furrow your brow, shake your head, and wonder what secret issues lurk inside me that created this overage of supplies. “Why does she have four bottles of balsamic vinegar? Was there some kind of sale on Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix?” You’d glance sideways at me to see if I was showing any other signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior. “Was she afraid the store was going to run out of Rotel tomatoes?”

A few years ago, I faithfully planned meals and menus, shopped from a list, and ate what I bought. But a hectic job and extensive traveling derailed me, and I fell into bad habits of spontaneous meal planning and impulse shopping. When I am at the grocery store, I don’t know what my inventory is at home. I walk down the baking aisle and wonder if I have any white corn syrup because I might make a pecan pie with the pecans I bought at Sam’s . . . oh wait, did we already eat those pecans? Better buy some more of those, too. Do I need chicken bouillon? I think I used the last of it, oh, I don’t know when, I’d better get some just in case.

Consequently I just buy everything I could possibly need for anything that could possibly sound good to cook up or to cook with.

My refrigerator and freezer are in the same sad, bulging shape.

I have decided that we should eat the food we already own, so I am not buying groceries this month. Well, except for some necessities (like milk and lettuce) and a small recurring list: coffee creamer, fruit snacks, cilantro, shallots, and French onion dip. The coffee creamer is a staple. The supply of fruit snacks must be frequently replenished because of hungry granddaughters. The cilantro and shallots, well, I am a little OCD about these two perishables. If I don’t have them, I just don’t feel right. (Please analyze me; I don’t know where this issue originated!) The French onion dip, um, um, okay okay, I’ll mark it off the list already.

So far, my plan has gone fairly well. I’ve been creative with ingredients on hand. The pantry is less crowded and the cold air in my refrigerator and freezer can circulate more freely. I have baked muffins, biscuits, and cakes, simmered delicious soups, and cooked some tasty entrees. And for the first twenty days of January, I have only spent $28.39.

I am in a race with the expiration dates on the boxes, bottles, bags, and cans, so maybe I’ll have you over for dinner. Feel free to ask if you can take a sack of groceries home. But hands off the cilantro and shallots.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thinking Twice

We were catching up on her family news. She bragged about each of her adult children and their families, and I was genuinely delighted in the blessings right along with her. Then she leaned in close to me and whispered a fact about one of them, and said, “But no one else knows!” Continuing in a confidential whisper, she explained a number of glad and wonderful details. It was the type of good news I would have liked to share with my husband or family, and they, too, would have rejoiced.

But something about the way she told me the news made me pause. My thought was, “Actually, even though this is very good news, it’s not yours to share.” Later that evening, I thought that even though my friend knows I can be trusted with confidential information, she was probably wishing her mouth had a backspace key.

The next day she phoned and begged me to not tell anyone. (Yep, there she did it, *delete.*) I was glad I could tell her, “I haven’t shared this news; and I won’t!"

Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” What is it about being human that makes it so hard for us to keep quiet? It goes without saying that we should not slander, gossip, or meddle, but we should also know when it is time to use discretion in our conversations. A study of the word “discretion” in Scripture seems to indicate acting with a plan, and being perceptive, prudent, and discerning. Hmm. Like “thinking twice” before we speak.

Proverbs 2:11 says that discretion will preserve, or guard us. Indeed. If we use a little more discretion, perhaps we’ll not be wishing as often for that backspace key.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Moments in Marriage

They had an incredible find-each-other, lose-each-other, find-each-other-again fairy tale story of love, crossing continents, languages, and time.

“And then they got married,” you smile, “and they lived happily ever after, right?”

Well, yes and no. They moved from China, where they had met and properly dated, to his home in the U.S. They were far away from the entire context of their relationship, and after almost a year passed, they weren’t sure they had made the right decision to marry.

There was still a language issue. Each had cultural preferences on which to continually compromise. There were differences in mind-set and personality. He said when they gathered with circles of friends, “They only asked us, ‘How did you meet?’ People never ask you, ‘How do you stay together?’”

That is the harder question. Not so romantic, maybe not as good a story. Nevertheless, I interview myself, who is a supposed expert in long-term marriage, having been married for thirty-six years. I ask myself, “So, Doris, how do YOU stay together, you two who are total opposites?” Great question! I respond, and my mind rifles through our many differences, some of them major differences that have produced vast and twisted misunderstandings. But I find the true answer: We work to accept each other.

I ask myself again, “So, Doris, how do you stay . . . together?” not meaning how we continue to exist together under the same roof, but rather wondering how we maintain intimacy over so many years. I think, It’s harder than it looks, but of course I don’t answer myself out loud because that answer is kind of a downer. My thoughts shuffle through some desert-dry stretches of our marriage during which it seems our efforts were all focused on cooperation: with the kids, the schedule, the careers, the ministries, the plans. But I come up with the answer: We work to renew ourselves, then to renew our relationship. In that growth, intimacy becomes fresh.

I ask myself a final time, “So, Doris, how, and I really mean how do you do it? How do you stay together?” It’s a miracle of God’s grace, I sigh, my eyes twinkling. But it’s not hard to come up with the real answer: We are committed to each other. We work hard to live out our commitment.

The story of your meeting, fresh romance, and how you fell in love can only sustain you for so long. As time passes, you need a more substantial “story” which will reach into your core and become as much a part of you as your own psyche feels a part of you. Familiar, yet, at least a little bit fascinating.

It takes work. But no one ever said becoming an expert is easy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Better Plan

Isabella, my four-year-old granddaughter, was visiting for the day. I was excited; I had been rummaging in my attic and found some books and supplies I had saved from my years as a preschool teacher, and I was looking forward to letting Bella “discover” some of them.

I took out the container of color tiles. I remembered so many great math and sequencing activities with color tiles, and Bella and I were going to enjoy each one. But just after I opened the lid, the telephone rang. It was my dad.

We understand the interruption of a phone call. If only time could be suspended while we enjoy a leisurely telephone visit with someone we love, how wonderful that would be. But my dad was in a visiting mood, and time was not about to be put on hold. Neither was the active, curious mind of Isabella.

As I chatted with Daddy, I absently noted that Isabella had poured the one-inch square tiles onto the child-sized table. Except I think they had multiplied in the box during the years they were bored and stored in the attic, so now it looked like a mountain of Tub o’ Tiles. She began shoving small piles of them onto the hardwood floor: what a nice clickety sound they made as they hit and bounced along the oak flooring.

“Just a minute, Daddy,” I asked into the phone. I turned to Isabella, and said in my too-nice grandmother voice, “Bella, you will have to pick up the tiles you push onto the floor. So don’t push any more onto the floor, please."

She got up from the table about the time I finished my conversation with Daddy. After I asked her to clean up, she began picking up the tiles and putting some into the container, but then her arm slowly swept across the table to spill more onto the floor.

I ratcheted up my grandmother voice a notch. “Bella, stop! Please stop pushing the blocks!” I raised my eyebrows just a little for emphasis and did not smile my usual you-are-the-cutest-and-most-wonderful-thing-ever smile.

Sigh. Yet she continued. Now tiles were scattered on the table, under the table, and around the table. I dredged up my long-shelved mother/teacher efficiency and moved in her direction. I removed her arms from the table, and moved her chair away from the table all in one movement, and then eye-to-eye talked to her about obeying and doing right. As a good granddaughter ought when she has disobeyed, she said she was sorry and tears came to her eyes.

Then I showed her my idea. I put the tile bucket on the floor beneath the fall line of the tabletop. “See, here. Make a train on the table, like this, then drive that train right into the bucket.” I demonstrated, and the tiles fell neatly into the container. She loved this game (as I knew she would) and played it over and over until all the tiles were in the bucket. Throughout the day she returned to the table, making a great long train of tiles, then saying, “Choo-choo!” and watching as they fell tidily into the bucket, still making the satisfying clickety sound as they hit the other tiles. (We expanded the game later by making color patterns, stacks, and numbered trains. But no matter what we did, they ended up in the bucket!

I learned something from that little episode with Tub ‘o Tiles.

1. My plan was so much better and more enjoyable to Bella than her own plan. Because I know Bella’s temperament and personality, I knew that she would enjoy the aspect of structure and reason that I gave her in play. Both doing the game and cleaning up from the game were one and the same pleasure. It was a great plan for both of us.

God spoke to me:

Doris, my plans for you are so much better than your plans! You are the child that can only think of one impulsive thing to do with the new variations in your life, and doing it your way generally costs you in “clean up” -- but my thoughts and plans are for your highest good, and have a pleasant end.

2. Bella didn’t know my plan. My intention was for her to stop what she was doing and listen so I could reveal a better way. As an independent being, however, she could resist and refuse and keep spilling the color tiles as she chose, even though I called her name and asked her to stop.

Doris, do you see yourself in your granddaughter? Sometimes I call your name -- but you don’t turn toward me. I place obstacles in your way just so you will stop being so busy doing your own thing. I know you will benefit if you will listen to me when I reveal the plans I have for you. But Doris, I will not make you my puppet. You have the freedom to choose to listen and obey -- or not.

(Like Bella, I said I was sorry, and tears came to my eyes.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

He Sees It All

Proverbs 15:3 The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

In my early Christian life this verse haunted me. I managed to conveniently forget about the Lord’s omniscience until after I had committed my dastardly deeds. At age sixteen I wrote a song entitled “Did You Cry?” in response to my remorse. It’s a song about how sorry I was for my sins, knowing the Lord was disappointed in me, perhaps even shedding tears in His dismay.

And while I continue to be disgusted with myself and repentant of my daily sins, as my faith has matured, this proverb has become less of a dreadful reminder and more of a comfort. How it must please God’s heart to see the good!

He sees even the smallest gesture. We all perform kind deeds like sharing a meal, giving a ride, or expressing encouragement. An individual or small number of people may appreciate those gifts of love and service, and certainly, so does God. But what about lifting a small child up to reach the water fountain? What about sending a few dollars to the Red Cross to help the Haitians? No matter how small the kind act we do for the last, the lost, the least; no matter that no one else on earth knows what we do, God sees. A cup of cool water given in His name does not lose its reward.

He sees the motivation of my heart. Once I was accused of fawning for someone’s favor because I did some work for them at the end of a visit. I was shocked when I learned that someone mistook it for “having an agenda,” because I did that work out of pure love and appreciation for the way the family had ministered to me. But even when others misunderstand a good deed, my omniscient Father-God sees the reason behind my deeds. He sees my heart and appreciates the good.

He accepts the good we do for others as done unto Him. When I sweep the floor, I sweep it as unto Him. When I cook a meal for another, I do it as unto Him. He treats whatever I do for others as done personally for Him.

His eyes see it. He knows all about it. And His heart is made glad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This Is the Day

I used to marvel that my children avoided sleep so much that they would prolong the bedtime routine. “Mommy, can I have a drink?” “Mommy, will you read me another story?” “Mommy, I love you!” they would call from their bedrooms, adding minutes to their day and wakefulness. All I could think of was, “Would you PLEASE go to sleep, because hello pillow, here I come.” But no matter what time they got to bed and finally to sleep, they awakened early -- sometimes extremely early! -- ready to start their day. I think my grandchildren have the same genetic biorhythms as their parents, for they, too, awaken bright and early, even if they get to stay up later than their normal bedtimes.

Somewhere along our lifetimes, we lose the childlike excitement of living each day. The stresses of daily life press us into our mattresses as early as we can lie down on them. Those same stresses cause us to hit the snooze button every morning to enjoy a few extra moments of dreamland. Busy lifestyles filled with careers, family, and ministry create constantly changing dynamics that overturn a tentative equilibrium. The sheer physical strain of getting successfully through each jam-packed day sometimes makes me really, really tired.

This morning I awoke very early, not from worry or a fitful sleep, but because I feel expectant about today, a new day. There is nothing unusual about my schedule or to-do list that is cause for excitement, and actually, I anticipate that it will be like most other days: busy, filled, without notable events or major life changes.

Nevertheless, our gracious Father-God gives this gift of a new day, and I feel the childlike expectancy and excitement of being a part of it. I awaken early because I don’t want to miss any of it. I feel like it is a treasure waiting to be discovered, a treat waiting to be savored. I will rejoice in it!

This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

"Photo courtesy"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Privilege of a Pure Conscience

I read only three verses of 2 Timothy 1 before the phrase captured my attention. A pure conscience. Paul wrote this. Paul, who in his own words persecuted Christians[i] and described himself as the chief of sinners.[ii] Paul, who lamented in frustration, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”[iii] because he found his flesh and spirit in conflict, and his flesh sometimes the winner.[iv]

Yes, Paul had quite the past, and even though he was converted, he still had failures in his flesh. Maybe some transgression was fresh in his mind as he wrote these very words to his beloved son in the faith. Nevertheless, he stated to Timothy that he was serving God in a pure conscience.

My own guilty flesh strutted confidently through my thoughts. But Doris, it accused, this may not apply to you: YOUR past is bad because, you know, YOU were just bad. It is true. I was just bad. I was self-absorbed, sensation-driven, selfish, resistive, and defiant.

My guilty flesh puffed itself up again. Ha! You have to admit it, you were as bad as all that BEFORE you trusted Christ, and SOMETIMES you are STILL THAT BAD. Again, it is true. The same flesh I had before I became a Believer still lives with me. I have the same temptations. I have the same conflicts.

But Apostle Paul, I understand you! I totally get why you can tell someone you are living now with a pure conscience. No matter what we did to earn our guilt, God gives us the privilege of having a pure conscience. Why? Because of our identification with Christ and His finished work on the Cross.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.[v] Now, those who know me may find it difficult to view me as righteous (my husband may find it especially hard), but that’s exactly how God sees me!

Therefore, Paul writes that we should be constantly counting upon the fact that we are dead to sin, but alive to God.[vi] My identification with Christ is so complete that God sees me as having experienced co-crucifixion, co-burial, co-resurrection, and co-glorification.

So Apostle Paul, on this particular issue, I’m right there with you! I, too, have a pure conscience. Since I am crucified with Christ,[vii] sin and guilt have no dominion over me. God sees me as not guilty. I gladly and gratefully claim that I suffer no condemnation because I am in Christ Jesus![viii]

[i] Acts 26:9-11

[ii] 1 Timothy 1:15

[iii] Romans 7:24

[iv] Romans 7:15

[v] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[vi] Romans 6:11

[vii] Galatians 2:20

[viii] Romans 8:1

Monday, January 11, 2010

Perhaps They Are Not Stars

When I awaken each morning, I always look outside the window and scan the eastern sky. It’s not that I think I’ve missed the trumpet sound that will signal the “calling up” of all Christians. It’s just a reminder to me that someday that event will happen, and I can look forward to it.

Early this morning the northern hemisphere sky that filled my eyes took my breath away. The stars shone so vividly that I could easily pick out the constellations I knew, and the fingernail moon was suspended so beautifully and lightly over the horizon it seemed it would simply float away at any moment. Even though it was twenty-four degrees and snowdrifts still covered our back deck, I had to step outside the man-made envelope of my house and be swallowed up in the God-created vastness of His handiwork.

For the past three years, there is a single line that crosses my mind each time I view the stars: Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but windows in Heaven through which our loved ones look down on us, and know we are safe.[1]

I read this inscription on a memorial marker in a cemetery just after my mother died. And still today, when I look up and see the stars, yes, I know they are scientifically provable masses of gases held together by their own gravity, I know they are spiritually declaring the glory of God, but I also feel comforted in the metaphysical fancy that they are windows through which my mother is at this moment maybe looking down at me, her daughter, who is at this moment looking up toward the eastern sky.

[1] Author unknown.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nursing Home for Dogs

The dogs wake up stiff and limping today. It’s their arthritis, I suppose, for they are both older dogs that receive “geriatric care” according to the veterinarian’s bill. Our record low temperatures don’t help any; it is hard to keep the chill out of the house.

Buster Black has arthritis in his left front leg, a heart murmur, hearing loss, and cataracts, and Buster Brown has arthritis in his hip and left front leg, and a thyroid condition. (And no, it’s not that I just LOVE the name “Buster.” The story of how I have two dogs with the same name will wait for another day.)

But even though they hurt, they get out of their warm, soft beds and follow me to the kitchen where I switch on the coffee maker. While the smell of strong coffee fills the kitchen, they sit quietly and watch me as I take down my cup and saucer and get out the sugar and creamer, arranging them on a napkin.

I turn to them for the Good Morning Greeting. Buster Brown bobs his big head to the side and raises his left paw for me to shake it, then lays down in the “settle” position while I pet him and snuggle against his massive neck. Buster Black, newer to the household, sits patiently and looks on. When I turn to him, he begins to tremble but his little stub of a tail wags while I scratch behind his ears and rub his belly and love on him a while.

I wrap each of their morning meds in a slice of skinny meat. They swallow it whole and then go outside. Today they do not sniff the fence line or wander across the pasture to the mailbox, but hurry from the frozen front yard back into the warmth of the house, both favoring their left front legs as they step across the threshold to the carpet.

They cannot seem to get comfortable. Buster Black continues to tremble as if he can’t get warm. Buster Brown licks, licks, licks his left leg. I throw some bath towels into the clothes dryer, and when they are heated, cover the dogs with them. Buster Black stops trembling. Buster Brown quits licking.

I tend to these two elderly codgers throughout the day, heating up more blankets, giving them more meds. I think about some Lessons from Dogs.

Even if you hurt, try to get up. A retired elementary school principal once told me her philosophy was to “Get up, fix up, and show up.” She battled diabetes and often didn’t feel well, but she said those three “ups” gave her a plan every morning, even on the worst days.

Take time for a Good Morning Greeting. A connection and touch to those you love is a good way to start the day. We have been separated through the night through our sleep and dreams. How pleasant to awaken and affirm that you are glad to come together in wakefulness another day.

Medicine is not so bad if it’s wrapped in something tasty. Unpleasant things may be a part of our normal life. But we can take the edge off if we wrap them up in a good attitude.

A warm blanket feels like love. What a blessing it is to settle into the comfort someone has offered us! But it seems the greater blessing is to cover someone needy with comfort, assurance, and encouragement, then see them become calm and rest.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thinking Big

Thinking Big

Yesterday I unearthed my typewritten list titled “Goals - 2009” from among the hodge-podge of papers in the utility room drawer. I read them through and wondered if 365 days had really passed since I had sat down at my computer with excitement and hopefulness and put these goals to paper. But as I read them, they seemed almost unfamiliar and, well, even boring in comparison to the year I just enjoyed. The goals were measurable, a bit of a challenge, and attainable if I worked at it; but as I re-read the list, my shoulders shrugged ho-hum. They were unremarkable.

I tossed the list back into the drawer (I realize this is not a good filing practice) and stared out the window. Wow. I didn’t accomplish a single goal on that piece of paper, yet I had a fantastic year. My vision for 2009 had been “measurable, a bit of a challenge, and attainable if I worked at it,” but God’s vision for my year held much, much more.

Ephesians 3:20-21 came to my mind:

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

How good God is, to supersede my too-small vision of life and ministry with His exceedingly abundant richness of experience!

I look back on 2009, not with guilt for failing to accomplish the goals that seemed reasonable to me, but with gratitude that God directed my life toward blessings and opportunities that were remarkable.

Matthew Henry said, “Let us expect more, and ask for more, encouraged by what Christ has already done for our souls.” This week, when I sit down at the computer and type “Goals - 2010,” I’m going to think big.

Are You Expecting an Epiphany? Read this article from Life in First Person.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Place for Everything, and Everything in its Place

I’m surfing the net. I should be writing the adoptive family report, due tomorrow. I should be sweeping the floors and dealing with the post-holiday glut of leftovers in the refrigerator. I should be searching for the warranty information on the clothes dryer which is not working. Instead, I’m skimming Facebook status updates, scanning Tweets, and perusing craigslist and

I’m feeling plenty guilty. Haven’t I just resolved to be more self-disciplined and therefore accomplish more in 2010? Well, no, I can’t really go so far as to call it a bona-fide resolution; I have only been toying with that idea so haven’t actually
committed to it yet. But when my kids lived at home, my favorite lecture-phrase to them was “Do what you ought to do before you do what you want to do.” As I chide myself about what a failure I am at my own philosophy, a web link about organization catches my eye and poof! that little grey cloud of guilt is dissipated by a ray of self-help hope.

It is titled “The Joys of Filing.”

What? Are you kidding? Someone actually thinks of filing as a cause of joy? But wait, hasn’t one of my goals for the past eleven years been “Have a place for everything, and put everything in its place”? This little link could be a solution for me since I haven’t accomplished it in my lifetime thus far.

I confess: I add papers, both important and irrelevant, to piles of other papers on the flat surfaces in our home, then before company comes, shove them into the nearest drawer. I fully intend to do something eventually with all that mail, those coupons, statements, policies, and product information leaflets.

Turns out, I probably won’t use the system this web link advertises. However, I am considering: what
can I do this year to organize my files? I do, I really do, want to handle papers only once, to access important documents easily, and to keep only what is necessary. I may not experience the “joys of filing” but I expect to experience the assured comfort of knowing my important documents are at my fingertips.

I feel very hopeful that I will come up with a workable system this year. Actually, the web link inspired me, so I’m going to work on it very soon. But first, well, I have to find the clothes dryer warranty information.

1 Corinthians 14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

Glad and Grateful

A silly-but-slightly-intriguing time waster while you're doing it: an Internet application to determine the words one uses most often in a conglomeration of postings. But then again, maybe it's at least a little enlightening.

I view the "top ten" words used by several others. Love. Happy. Hope. Work. We love our families, and we also love coffee. We are happy for last night’s snowfall, and hope you have a happy birthday. Words used in various contexts but that pepper our spoken and written conversations, and which reference our value systems.

Not a bad beginning to a new year, after all, to examine the words we use most often. Not from a list on an Internet application, but from digging deep and reflecting on the majority of the words we use. What do they tell others about ourselves? Are they a true representation of what what we want to convey? As Paul explained it to the Colossians, our speech should always be "with grace, seasoned with salt . . . " (4:6). I relish that description for the pleasant gentleness associated with words of grace and the palatable addition of salt, which enhances their meaning or significance.

Our words can be a valuable adornment for the testimony of our lives, "apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Prov. 25:11). Most likely our written and spoken conversations could contain more affirmations, more encouragements, more truths, and more "soft answers" that deflect argumentation and negativity. More grace, seasoned with salt.