Friday, January 19, 2018

What I Learned in College at 41

One year ago, Jim took me out to lunch for my birthday. It was an important lunch, because it was an important birthday. It was my 40th birthday, and I wanted to talk through what I was doing with my life, and what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was something. That week I started writing The Other Adventist Home.

Lately I've missed a couple of weeks. It's not from lack of caring, it's because of the other something I started last week. I'm getting to contract teach, for the first time, for an Adventist college. I'm swamped with lectures to write and quizzes to grade, and giddy to have a reason to dress up each day. Of course, I'm in awe of the fact that I say things, and not only do young adults listen, they write it down.

I am not an amazing teacher. On the first day of the first class my poor Christian History students had a hard time deciphering how to take notes. I was too excited to tell them the stories, I hadn't given much thought to what might go on the test. And I got so caught up with my material on how to write a speech, I nearly forgot to have the Public Speaking students sign up to give theirs.

I'm figuring it out. Most of what I'm learning is that this is much more about them than me. I was so worried about making a poor showing, and it turns out my performance isn't all that important. I'm supposed to give useful information and clear expectations, and for some reason, looking smart enough to have this job doesn't really factor in. Who knew?

And I should have known that already. I did know that already. But it turns out the most important lessons we learn are the ones we learn over and over again. The biggest ideas take a lifetime to grow deeper and deeper in our hearts.

We perform best when our performance is the least of our concerns. It's the lesson I learned in typing class, back when there was such a thing--watch your screen, not your fingers. Because success isn't about looking like you're succeeding. It's about doing something big enough to forget yourself in.

In fact, I've decided it's another form of the gospel. The Christian life isn't a performance. It's supposed to free us from worry about ourselves, from the need to do enough or be enough. Salvation isn't about me. And it turns out, service isn't, either.

I get to tell my speech students to put their passion into their message, and not worry about looking silly. That goes for me, too. That goes for the church, too. Witnessing is about caring more for someone else's heart more than our own awkwardness* talking about spiritual things. Service is about caring more for their needs than our personal comfort.

The Christian life is about someone else. We don't have to be enough because we have a God who gives us more than enough. Who gives us enough to share.

That's what I've learned in my brief (and dizzying) two weeks. I'm going back again on Monday. Because it turns out, at 41, I still have a lot to learn.

*Not that awkwardness isn't an important social cue--only that my concern has to be if the other person feels awkward, not if I do.

Friday, December 29, 2017

How to Have a New Year's Miracle

There are four other adults who claim credit for my daughter's conception. Four, that is, besides my husband and I, and besides the doctors and embryologists who ought to get credit. It was 2006, and after seven years of infertility, we were in for an amazing year, bright and strange by turns.  After seven years of infertility, we, along with the doctors, were ready to give up on finding a cause, and go for the cure--the big guns, in vitro fertilization.

I have never been an optimist. I had enough years of failure, and putting all that effort, and money, and injected hormones into the effort was painful. Of course I ping-ponged between terrified hope and dull despair. Luckily, we had friends to encourage us.

Sandra had one of her special talks with God, the kind where she says, God listens to her. Her husband David, on the other hand, tried for saying the magic word.

Janine took me to the big appointment, when it happened to fall on a day when Jim couldn't get away. She kept me company until the anesthesia took effect, and drove me home to nap afterward.

And Scott preached a sermon.

Yep, a sermon. It was New Year's Eve, as 2006 was just about to begin, and he was talking about resolutions. I remember him asking "What would you ask of God, if you really believed he would answer you?"

Sitting in the back pew of the Souderton, PA church, it struck me that I didn't believe he would answer. The reason I wasn't seeing a fertility doctor was that I was trying to protect my faith. If I didn't ask, I couldn't be disappointed.

 I was convicted. So we made an appointment and got started.

In May we finally had our procedure, and on a summer morning I sat in the same pew, and knew I was pregnant. I realized a miracle had happened in that pew--God had spoken to me. That ordinary space was holy, and I hadn't realized it.

In a couple of days, we're going to have another new year. It's the time when we all sober up from our holiday ferver and remember that calories and budgets exist. When we look back at all we didn't love about the year, and decide what we're going to do about it. Maybe we make new habits, and maybe we end up as members of a gym we don't visit past January.

The problem with resolutions is that they are only resolutions. They don't come with the power to fulfill themselves. Yes, I believe in the human spirit, but I haven't seen a lot of change in my life from a last-minute surge of conviction on New Year's Eve.

Except for that one. That one changed my life.

What if, this year, the miracles didn't come from us? What if having something great ahead wasn't resting on your shoulders? What might God have in mind for you? And most of all, what would you ask for, if you were certain he was listening, and would answer?

My goal today is not to go Pollyanna, (or Joel Osteen) on you, and make believe that God is a vending machine, and that faith is a lever to control your life. I know better, and I'm sure you do, too. God doesn't publish a Christmas Catalog from which we get to pick our new year. But I do believe there's more power, and more hope, than what we generate with our own gritted teeth.

New Year's Eve is a fragile space in the flow of the year. The daylight is scarce, and the world is cold, and the comfort and joy of Christmas are past. Our willpower is out of shape from spending and eating, and our strength is worn down from travel and short sleep. It's a place of weakness, just the right kind of place for miracles. It's a marvelous place to meet God.

So I wish you a happy new year. And I hope for you something better than your resolutions, better than you can make for yourself.  This year, I hope you'll think bigger than your own willpower, and ask for the will of God.

   For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
                                                                                      Jeremiah 29:11

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas Eve Test (mini-blog)

I've been thinking about family lately. It's kind of the thing to do in the Christmas season, plus we're having our first college-employee Christmas break, so we're actually back in Washington state, visiting our families.

I don't have the most closely knit family. My brothers and I don't call or write, even though I think they're awesome. It's not a lack of liking one another, it's just that life is all-consuming. And so Christmas, and Easter, and a couple of other gatherings during the year are the sum of our relationship with each other. It makes the holiday extremely important.

But some years it didn't happen. Some years, we lived all the way across the country. Money was tight, and we decided it was better to visit in the summer, when the outdoors was going to be more inviting. It wasn't a bad choice, it just made for a glum Christmas Eve.  We would fancy up for the church holiday programs, bake and plan and sing and celebrate. And then, for the day itself, we were alone. All of our local loved ones went home, and spent time with their real families.

Christmas Eve is a sorter of priorities. It's a reality check.  Like thousands of other pastoral families, we poured our energy and time into the church. We had relationships and meaning there, and people we loved.* But when the holiday comes, all the lesser relationships have to give way to the most important. Those Christmas Eves on our own were invaluable, because they showed me the lay of the land.

Here's what I learned--there is no work you can do, even work for the church, that will keep you company on Christmas Eve. That space is saved for relationships, and it's mostly family that makes the cut. It's the ultimate test for how you spend your time, who you give your best energies, where you look for your identity. We can waste a lot of our strength chasing things that fade to insignificance under the colored light of the Christmas tree.

I don't mean to suggest that there's only one way to be happy. I wouldn't want to imply that if you don't have good family relationships you're doomed to misery. Only that we need to value what we do have. Because life is busy.  All-consuming, in fact.  Our pace of life can keep us filling the days with what's immediate, instead of what's meaningful. 

The real meaning of Christmas is who loves you most. The good news is there is always a Father who loves you most, even if your family relationships are bunk, or you've failed the Christmas Eve test. Our relationships are his gifts, the tangible expression of his love to us. But with or without them, you are never alone.

So this Christmas, take some time to consider life, and meaning, and priorities. Take a break from the baking and wrapping, and sit a while in front of the lights. Experience the gift of being loved.

Merry Christmas!

*And if any of our much-loved church friends are reading this, please don't feel sad for me. I am glad that you had the right priorities.