Focus On What You Already Have

Christmas is upon us, and here I am sitting on the floor, late at night, with only the glow of the Christmas tree lights and the screen of my laptop illuminating the room.  It is quiet in my home, yet somehow music keeps rolling through my head.  It isn’t a song of the season, but rather the melodic cadence of a lifetime.  Maybe it’s the glow of the trees, or the silence around me, but moments like this have a way of pulling my gaze away from the noise and pace of everyday life and bringing my focus back to what really matters.

shutterstock_344854976As we continue through a season that is supposed to be filled with joy and love, I look around and see stress and frustration on the faces of people around me.  Drivers are out of control with anger; shoppers are pushing and shoving each other; some people are going into debt trying to meet their (or others’) expectations of gift-giving.  There are also some who are living with great losses and challenges that cause all the standard holiday activities to simply disappear into the background.  In a season that is so often labeled as “magical,” it becomes easy to feel everything but a sense of wonder.   Busyness and activity has a way of doing that before we even realize it.

I had a hard time this year thinking of things to put on my wish list for Christmas.  I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing for which I had a great desire.  It’s not that I have everything I want materially; it’s just that I found myself incredibly content for the first time in a long time.  Somehow in the midst of my incredibly difficult and distressing year filled with loss and change, I realized what I valued had shifted.  It was only when I sat staring at an empty Christmas list that I even recognized it.

It’s so easy to spend our lives focusing on what we don’t have or what we’ve lost.  This year my husband’s parents passed away just five days apart, and my own dad’s dementia escalated to the point where he had to move into a memory care community.  It was devastating for us all, and my mom had to sell their house to ensure dad could stay in his new community as long as possible, as most memory care facilities aren’t covered by insurance (don’t get me started on that).  Mom moved in with me and my husband, and we’ve been adjusting to our new rhythm as best we can.   Loss after loss, grief after grief with no end in sight.  Have you just ever had that kind of year?  If so, then you understand how quickly our perspective changes. All we see is loss, because loss is all that is visible to us.  Everywhere we look there is more grief and pain, more difficult circumstances, and more that is slipping (or has slipped) between our fingers.  It is a natural reaction, but it doesn’t remove the negative effect it can have on our lives.

shutterstock_711300070Dementia has a way of turning everything upside down.  One of the things I love about Teepa Snow, and her organization (www.teepasnow.com ), is that she continually stresses the importance of looking at what someone still has, instead of what they’ve lost.  Build and foster your relationship based on things they are still able to do instead of what you wish they could still do.  When you focus on the abilities someone still possesses, it frees you from the stress that comes from your skewed expectations.  You can expect all day long that your loved one with dementia still has the abilities they’ve always had, but you will just be frustrated and your relationship with that person will suffer.  It’s about living in the moment, taking them where they are and creating beautiful experiences for you both.  I can’t help but think how that concept applies in so many other ways in life.  When we try to build or foster relationships while continually focusing on what the other person has lost or is lacking, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.  We will never be satisfied, because we will always be seeing the holes instead of the substance.  We keep trying to work with what isn’t there instead of what is.  What a frustrating endeavor, and even more so when the relationship we are struggling with is the one with ourselves.  It is impossible to build or maintain that internal relationship when we see nothing but what we’ve lost or can’t do anymore.   We can’t build a relationship with ourselves with that perspective, because it will always be skewed and will never be fulfilling.  From a spiritual standpoint, it becomes so easy to start blaming God when things haven’t gone right in our world, or at least what we think is “right,” and then our relationship with Him suffers also.  It’s a slippery slope for sure.

So many people talk about the art of letting go, and there is definitely something incredible about releasing things that hold you back.  But what about the art of holding on?  We spend a lot of time trying to identify our obstacles instead of our strengths.  We focus on what we need to purge from our lives instead of what we already have that needs to be fostered.  I remember a comedian once said about the Bible, “Everyone thinks the Bible is a book of don’ts, but it’s really a book of do-s.  And if we’d spend our time doing the do-s, we wouldn’t have time to do the don’ts.”  I heard that over 30 years ago, and it still sticks with me today just as strongly, because it also applies to how we look at ourselves and others.  If we would spend our time fostering (or appreciating) what we already have, it doesn’t leave much time or energy to focus on what we are lacking in skills, abilities, or even material possessions.  Ask yourself these questions: What do I have to work with? Do I have a special ability or skill?  Am I good at something?  What are those things?  If you ask people to name something they are good at, many (if not most) of them will say they don’t know.  Why?  Because we don’t stop to look at what we have; we look at what we don’t.  We see what we wish we were, wish we had, or wish we could do.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be better people, become more skilled, get an education or go after something new.  And I’m certainly not saying you can’t change.  This year has been full of huge changes for me internally, and believe me, it is always possible to change.  It’s possible to be freed from things that chained you in the past, but you also need to focus on what you already possess.  Search your heart deeply for a moment, you know what they are.  They are those things you have forgotten as the cares of this world continually try to distract you from seeing your gifts.

Image-1Dealing with someone who has dementia has brought so many lessons for dealing with life in general.  When someone has dementia, you have to meet them where they are in order to develop and maintain a relationship with them.  My dad isn’t who he used to be, and yet he is still exactly who he always was.  I just have to find those things that he can still do and live in that place with him.  This relationship is not exactly as I wished or hoped it would be at this stage in both our lives, but it can still be something amazing.  Embracing, celebrating and being thankful for all he can still do, allows me to be open to riding this roller coaster with him instead of watching him ride alone.  It allows me to live life with him now, in this moment, instead of continually seeing nothing but what has faded into the fabric of our journey.  If we want to fully live, we must live in the NOW.

Work with what you have.  Meet people where they are.  Meet YOURSELF where you are.  There are so many other abilities you may have, but those are above and beyond the fact you have been gifted with life itself.  Even the ability to breathe and communicate are gifts.  Trust me, you can always do something and then work from there.  If you will start seeing and nurturing what you already have, you’ll be amazed at what else will suddenly appear.  When you are willing to meet a dementia patient where they are, and work with what they have, it’s AMAZING how that tightly closed shell opens up to reveal the pearls within.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  If we could just do that with ourselves, what greatness might we unlock?  What goals might we achieve?  What dreams might come true if we will just stop jumping ahead (or backwards) and look at what we’ve lost and simply develop what we still have?

shutterstock_341963009So as we celebrate this Christmas that is upon us, let us first remember the greatest gift God gave us by coming to earth to sacrifice Himself so we can have eternal life.  But let us also remember He didn’t have much from a material standpoint, but He always worked with what He had.  When He called others to join Him, He worked with what they had and compelled them to do the same.  Let us celebrate not just the life of Christ, but the life He wants for each of us.  He’s gifted every single one of us with abilities, even when we feel we don’t have anything on which we can build.  Stop for a moment.  Look within and stop focusing on what you’ve lost or wish you had.  Look deeply and start recognizing all you still have, every single thing you have or are able to do is a gift.  No matter your circumstances or what you might see as your deficiencies, you have way more “gifts” than you can imagine.

To quote the Grinch, “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Merry Christmas and may you all be blessed with moments in which to live a lifetime!

Disappointed By God?

What a week! How many times have you reached the end of a weekend and though that to yourself?  This past week really had me up, down and sideways, which always makes me step back and look at things differently.

shutterstock_1196187574I’ve thought a lot this week about hoping and wishing for things.  There was a situation in my personal life that looked like it was going to work out better than we had expected, but then it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped or wished.  It seems to be the way of life for us, and you’d think we would learn to not expect anything at all.  After all, it would be easier to not hope for anything and be pleasantly surprised, than it would be to think something is going to work out and have it fall through.  Does this sound like days, weeks, or even years you have experienced in your own life?  When I consider the possibility of abandoning hope or expectations that things will work out, it flies in the face of what I have believed.  I’ve always believed God is working everything out for my ultimate good, but what happens when you feel let down over and over until you stop asking for things?

There are a lot of televangelists who tell us we can ask for anything from our Heavenly Father, and I agree that’s true.  We have every right and privilege to ask, but we must remember that sometimes the answer is wait, and sometimes the answer is no.  Just because we ask for it, doesn’t mean it is best for us.  Sometimes what is best for us is something totally opposite of what we ask.  In theory, and as people of faith, we know this to be true but it can be so incredibly defeating and discouraging when it happens over and over.  It is certainly easy for me to start looking at things differently and question why I even ask in the first place.  I start becoming a spiritual “realist” and soon I’m not asking for anything anymore because I’d rather not be disappointed…again.

shutterstock_137512043When my situation came up this past week, it looked like God was doing something above and beyond for us, but then it didn’t happen.  Do you know what that made me think?  I started thinking “here we go again; God must be disappointed in us to dangle this out there and then yank it away.”  I was totally disappointed in God and it temporarily undermined my trust in Him.  Yep, my so‑called faith took a tumble into the abyss for a little while.  But why?  Because my perspective was out of whack on two points:

  1. Our initial problem had actually been resolved far better than we thought possible, and I was thrilled, but then came the possibility for even greater things. When those things didn’t happen, I developed “spiritual amnesia!”  I no longer felt the same gratitude and excitement when my initial prayers were answered. Once a possibility for more existed, it shifted my mindset into hoping and wishing for what I believed was greater or better.
  2. The possibility of greater things was something I attributed to my impression that God was going above and beyond, instead of realizing the enemy could be using this extra aspect to distract me from being grateful for already answered prayers. And it worked.

Once I began thinking negative thoughts about who God is and who I am as His child, everything started to tumble down the rabbit hole right behind it.  I didn’t stop with being disappointed over the present circumstance, but rather continued ruminating on every disappointing circumstance in my life – now or in the past.  I became overwhelmed and depressed.  I told myself I was going to become ambivalent in my prayers and requests to God.  You can imagine the thought process: “If I just ask for things but then don’t expect anything in the answer, I won’t be disappointed.”  I started thinking maybe that’s how God actually wants me to view things – unexpectant and ambivalent.  I have to admit, it was simply another depressing thought, because I couldn’t see past the darkness in which I was tumbling.   The truth is “unexpectant and ambivalent” are the opposite of “trust and certainty,” but in my darkness I could not tell the difference.

shutterstock_401236261Gratitude does not come easy in the storms of life.  When we start jumping to conclusions about what God is or isn’t doing in any given situation, instead of leaving things in His hands and trusting Him to do what is best for us, we often end up disappointed.  The majority of our issues, however, come from thinking that the “best” means the most lucrative or easiest.  Our definition of “good” and “bad” are based on what we can see with our own eyes, or ideas, but God has the vision and perspective of eternity and knows every aspect of our situations.   My uncle used to say, “We don’t really want to trust God to take care of us because what if He doesn’t take care of us like we want to be taken care of?”  I think that is more accurate than most of us would like to admit.  God doesn’t want us to get so conditioned by life that we lose our passion, joy and peace.  He doesn’t want us to ask Him for things and not care what the answer is.  He wants us to be content in the outcome of our requests as a result of understanding who He is and how much He loves us, not because we simply stopped expecting anything from Him.

Look, God knows we are human and that we are going to experience disappointment, hurt, betrayal and many other emotions.  He also knows it is our tendency to let it overwhelm us.  The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35 and it simply says, “Jesus wept.”  Lazarus had died and when Jesus got to the tomb and saw his sisters and other friends weeping, it moved Him to the point of tears as well.  Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead and yet He still wept.   He also understood that death here is temporary.  He knew, better than anyone, that life continues for His children in Heaven, and yet He still cried.  Why?  Because knowing the outcome of the story doesn’t mean you don’t cry at the sad parts.

shutterstock_563555992 As people of faith, we know that eventually everything works out for our good, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to deal with tears, discouragement, anger or depression along the way.  What matters is how we keep walking in spite of it.  It doesn’t mean we won’t have times where we are so tired or discouraged that we curl up into a ball to try and catch our breath; what matters is what we do with that breath when it returns.  Will we use it to perpetuate the darkness around or within us, or will we lift our voice like Paul and Silas in prison and praise the One who loves us and has promised to take care of us?

For me, I don’t want to be blinded to all the good God is doing (or allowing) in my life because of my inability to let go of what I think is “best” for me or my loved ones.  I’m not saying it will be an easy thing to do or a perspective that will be easy to maintain.  I’m just saying, there is no other way to truly experience the peace that passes all understanding and to live the abundant life He offers us.  It’s time to change our definition of what “abundance” truly means.

Blessings!

The 11-Day Journey

Murmuring, grumbling, complaining.   We are all guilty of it, and we really don’t stop to think about what it costs us.   Not only does it turn us into people that others don’t want to be around, it can actually change the course of our journeys.  We say it’s just harmless venting, and yes, there are times that we need to vent a little bit, but spending our time complaining or murmuring about our situations, or about other people in our lives, is something we should not be doing.  Period.

shutterstock_614595179When God delivered Israel out of their bondage in Egypt, He intended for them to inhabit the Promised Land.  The journey from where they were to where they were going was an 11-day journey (Deuteronomy 1:2), and yet it took them FORTY years to make it (Numbers chpt. 14).  They wandered around in the desert for 40 years because they did nothing but murmur and complain at almost every turn.  In Numbers chapter 14, God even said, “How long will these people treat me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in Me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?  How long will this wicked community grumble against me?”  God goes on to say He was going to destroy them, but Moses interceded and asked Him to spare them.  God agreed to spare them, but then said not one of those who murmured and complained against Him would see the Promised Land.  The consequences these people experienced as a result of their complaining cost them far more than they would have ever expected, and an 11-day journey became one of 40 years.  God still took care of them during their 40 years of wandering, but it could have all been over much sooner, if only for a change of perspective.

How many times have you or I extended the amount of time we had to spend in certain circumstances just because we refused to stop complaining, gossiping, or getting caught up in the opinions of those around us?  Sometimes we can be swayed by group complaining.  After all, negativity is far more contagious than anything positive.  We get into situations where we feel justified in talking bad about someone, because we feel they deserve it.  People who have mistreated us, or even made poor personal decisions that affect us, are easy targets of our complaining, but we better be careful.  The more we complain, the more we “wander” until we change our perspective.  Israel eventually stopped complaining and trusted God, but it was at such great expense.  A generation of people (and complainers) died in the wilderness and never actually got to enter the Promised Land.  They missed out on the most amazing blessings and stayed stuck in a difficult and discouraging situation, because they chose to complain about everything instead of being grateful and trusting God to work things out.  Again, I ask how many times do we extend our own challenges because we do the same thing?

shutterstock_1017742099God tells us over and over to be grateful, but He also tells us to stop complaining!  Philippians 2:14 says to do all things without grumbling or arguing.  Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”  There are many other verses that tell us to speak words that lift up and encourage, not tear down and destroy, and even with all of this knowledge of what God expects from us, we just don’t seem to be able to stop the grumbling.   We can’t seem to let go of criticizing others around us for not responding to things like we think they should.  We walk around thinking our way is the best way, and eventually it diminishes our ability to actually listen to the people around us.   You’ve probably heard the saying, “God gave you two ears and only one mouth, because you should listen twice as much as you speak.”  We are losing the ability to listen for the purpose of truly hearing, and it is harming us and our society.

When we listen to others, we are able to discern far better the reason for their reactions and even emotions at times.  We learn each other and can read between the lines to the deeper meaning (or problem) behind the words someone is speaking.  But listening this way requires humility.  You cannot truly listen to someone else while being full of yourself.  Being so convinced we are right takes up all the space inside us that is needed for seeing things from another point of view, one that may actually be better than our own.  We have to humble ourselves in order to listen, and we need to listen as though we are trying to learn something.  When we have an interest in something, we listen to information and instruction about it completely differently.  We WANT to know all we can about the subject.  The same is, or should be, true about listening to others.  We should love each other in such a way that we want to know all we can about each other – not for the purpose of judging, but for understanding how to help and encourage each other more effectively.  Based on the way we listen, it’s obvious we aren’t nearly as interested in each other as we claim to be.  I recently came across a verse that has become a prayer for me, even though Isaiah 50:4 is actually a statement of something God has already done.  Two of the phrases struck me and have become this prayer: “Lord, instruct my tongue with a word to sustain the weary, and waken my ear to listen like one being taught.”   I want to love and care for others in a way that causes me to humble my spirit and speak words of encouragement.  I want to set aside my expectations of who or what they should be and listen as they teach me who they are, because that kind of perspective can change the world one person at a time.

shutterstock_294695897We all have situations in life that are extremely difficult at times.  We deal with all kinds of problems and challenges, some that are gut-wrenching or heartbreaking, and it’s easy to see why we might fall into a perpetual state of complaining.  When we are hit with trouble from every side, it’s hard to keep pressing forward or even to hold to our faith while standing still.  Romans 4:8-9 reminds us, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  That sounds encouraging, but the truth is, in the heat of our troubles, we don’t believe those words are true.  Not only that, it feels good to complain!  It really is true that misery loves company.  We’ve elevated complaining to an art in our society.  We’ve become a people who actually tries to “one-up” each other in the difficulty of our circumstances.  It’s like we wear our troubles as a badge of honor!  We’ve all known people who seem to only have words of negativity about themselves or others around them.  They are the ones always looking to gossip or share negative things about someone else, often in an attempt to make themselves look better or seem more important.  We’ve known people who complain or grumble in order to look more like a martyr for doing something.  We’ve known people who also live like Eeyore with a “poor, pitiful me” mentality.  As people of faith, when are we going to wake up?!  When are we going to admit that our complaining comes not just from a place of feeling slighted by others, but by believing we have been slighted by God (though we probably wouldn’t admit that out loud)?

So how then do we set aside our tendency to grumble and complain?  We do it by changing our focus.  I realize that is easier said than done, but some of the best advice on what we should be doing is found in God’s word.  Philippians 4:8 tells us exactly what we should be thinking about.  “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”  This isn’t just advice for people of faith, but for all mankind.  How do we stop complaining?  By dwelling on THESE things!  I’m not saying it is easy to do, but we absolutely have the power to focus on whatever we choose.  We need to surround ourselves with friends and family who can listen to us vent for a bit, but then gently help us shift our focus.  Thinking on the things mentioned in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t mean we won’t feel the emotions that sometimes overwhelm us.  We will still get frustrated, sad or even angry, but we don’t have to continue ruminating on the difficulties we face day in and day out.  My great-grandma liked to say, “You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you don’t have to let it build a nest.”  We can’t keep thoughts from popping into our head at times, but it doesn’t mean we have to let them take up residence!  And by the way, we also don’t need to let everything that pops into our heads pop out of our mouths!

shutterstock_228591001This world is in need of joy; WE are in need of joy.  That means we also need each other!  We need to focus on loving each other and helping each other, rather than “wallerin’ around in our troubles” (and yes, I just used the word “wallerin’”).  When we complain, we end up cutting off support we would otherwise have, because people don’t usually want to be around a complainer.  More importantly, it grieves God to hear us continually complaining about our lives.  He loves us and has promised He is working everything out for our good.  He just wants us to trust Him because He sees a much bigger picture than what you or I can see.  So often, we are just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, complaining about where or how God is leading us.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk wandering around in my own personal wilderness for 40 years, when I could have walked through it in 11 days by trusting God, focusing on the good, and simply biting my tongue.  Lord, instruct my tongue with a word to sustain the weary, and waken my ear to listen like one being taught!

Blessings!

 

A Flawed Yardstick

shutterstock_321656606In life, all of us tend to measure ourselves by how we compare with the other people in our lives.  Do we have as much as they have?  Do we look as good as they look?  Are we as successful as they are?  We do a lot of comparing and although it can spur us to make positive changes in our lives, it more often makes us just feel worse about our circumstances.  The truth is if we never saw or knew what someone else has or did, we’d be much happier with what WE have.  Right now I wish I could remember that truth more strongly than I do.

My husband and I have a good life.  We have a great marriage, a great (though imperfect) family, amazing friends, a wonderful church, good jobs, two awesome dogs and a home to call our own.  However, like most middle class families, we sometimes (or often) struggle to make ends meet.  We’ve been blessed to, on certain occasions, be able to save a little extra to buy something frivolous that we want or maybe even go on a short vacation.  We don’t have the luxury of taking extended time off or going on glamorous or exotic trips.  We don’t drive glamorous vehicles, but our old vehicles are paid for and they still run decently.  In another year and a half, if we stay on track, we will be debt free with the exception of our home.  I don’t think we will ever be anything but upside down on that!  Welcome to middle class America where you make just enough to get by, but never enough to get ahead.  I know we are not the only ones in this boat!

It’s easy for all of us to sometimes look at the people around us and wonder why it seems that others are blessed with the things we want.  It’s easy to question why we work ourselves to the bone and try to be decent people when there never seems to be any payoff in comparison to what we see others getting.  We see people who are mean, manipulative or even dishonest, being rewarded at every turn while we feel as though we get kicked over and over, no matter how hard we try.  As people of faith, we can even question, like in the 73rd psalm, “Why do the evil prosper?”  It seems that doing the right things, being good to others even when we don’t agree with them, or living by the “golden rule,” will do nothing but wear you out.  We’ve all been there and we’ve all thought it at one point or another.  The interesting thing is that if we didn’t ever have to see or listen to what others are getting, we would be much more content with our own situation.

shutterstock_337724702It is an interesting thing to consider that when we actually look at someone who is less fortunate than we are, we suddenly feel better about our own situation.  For example, when you pass a homeless person shivering in the night, or drive through a run-down and even dangerous area of town, it puts things in perspective.  We find ourselves suddenly grateful that we have a roof over our heads, a warm bed in which to sleep, clothes to wear and food on the table.   But you see, normally we aren’t taking time to consider those who have less than us.  We only consider and look at people who have more.  When you pay attention only on those who have more or are getting the things you want (or have even prayed for) it can be tough to swallow.  And if you believe God is in control, it can be even worse because it can sometimes lead to you feeling like God is mad at you or somehow he doesn’t see or maybe he just doesn’t care.  Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  If that’s true, then what’s the problem?

First of all, we take a lot of verses and twist them to make it sound like God is some kind of cosmic cash-cow with which we just pull the lever and get what we want.  I’ve heard a lot of people (and preachers) who often quote the last phrase of James 4:3 and say, “You have not because you ask not,” and leave it at that.  Is that a truth?  Yes, but we must continue and read the next verse that says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your own lusts and pleasures.”  You see, this isn’t just “Ask God and you’ll get what you want.”  The reality is very simple if we go back to Psalm 37:4.  If you truly delight yourself in the Lord, it means you will come into agreement with His will.  You will seek Him first, and when that happens, the desires of your heart will change.  You won’t be concerned with keeping up with the neighbors, but instead will be concerned with living as Christ lived and being obedient to His principles.  Your desires will be aligned with God’s will.  You will want what He wants because you delight in Him above all else.  And when that happens, you will find the desires of your heart granted.  You will ask and receive because you are NOT asking with the wrong motives.  It isn’t rocket science, but no one wants to talk about this aspect of God’s word.

So back to this issue of feeling unfulfilled as a person of faith.  It really is all in your perspective.  It all comes back to God’s grace and mercy, and how we view it.  God’s grace and mercy are things that are freely given to us.  shutterstock_308297366Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and mercy is NOT getting what we DO deserve.  For example, even though I’m saved, I still sin.  I don’t deserve for God to forgive me time and time again for doing or thinking the same thing, and yet he has promised to forgive us EVERY time we ask and wipe the slate clean so He can bless us.  That is grace – I don’t deserve it but He blesses me anyway.  On the flip side, I deserve to have to feel miserable and condemned because of the things I think or do, yet God promises to not only forgive us but to forget it completely and then helps us move forward and live abundantly with all kinds of blessings.  More practically speaking, it could also look something like this:

  • Grace – Maybe you don’t always do the right thing financially, but God looks for the areas in which He can still bless you. You end up with nice things, in spite of how you behave at times.
  • Mercy – Maybe you are oblivious or selfish and often make other people feel worse about themselves or their situations (even if it is unknowingly). Instead of leaving you with no friends (which is what you deserve), He allows you to continue to have relationships, and He even continues to help you grow and change.

Grace and mercy really do go hand in hand many times.  If we look close enough, we can see both of them at work in our lives in the very same situations.

We all really love grace and mercy when it applies to us.  We love when God blesses us even when we don’t deserve it.  We love that He forgives us and then helps us through the repercussions of our bad decisions or behavior.  We love that He doesn’t take away everything we have just because we rub it in other people’s faces through our insensitivity to their circumstances, or maybe even if we simply don’t appreciate it.  And when we’ve done something stupid (like my husband and I have done financially on many occasions) and should experience great loss, we let out a huge sigh of relief when God provides a way to minimize the impact.  We love grace and mercy – until it happens to someone else.  shutterstock_74446510When we look at someone who gets something  we think they did NOT deserve, it makes us angry or jealous.  We just can’t figure out why God would do that.  After all, why wouldn’t God punish them instead of allowing good things in their lives?  I must confess I have a big “justice gene” in me, and it’s hard for me to watch people do wrong (or not do right) and just keep landing on their feet.  We’ve all watched people who have made terrible decisions in their lives and still keep coming out on top.  That’s a hard thing to witness when you spend your life truly trying to do the right things and somehow keep coming out on the bottom.  It can be a very difficult thing to handle.

In Matthew 20:1-16, we are told a parable of a landowner who went out at around 6:00 a.m.  and hired men to work in his vineyard.  He made a contract with them to work until 6:00 p.m. for a full day’s wage.  At 9:00 a.m., the owner went back and found some more men to come work for him.  He told them to come and work and he’d pay them “whatever was right.”  The owner did the same thing again at noon, 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.   Remember, no one but the first set of workers had a contract.  When quitting time came at 6:00 p.m., the owner started paying everyone, beginning with those who were hired last.  The owner paid them a full day’s wage.  Remember these guys only worked for one hour!  Then he did the same with each group of men, paying each of them a full day’s wage, regardless of when they started working.  You can just see the first group of men standing there as the process was going on, thinking surely they will be paid MORE since they worked all day long and these other “lazy” men got paid full wages.  When it came time to pay the 6:00 a.m. workers, the owner paid them exactly what they had contracted for – a full day’s wage.  Was that a fair amount?  Absolutely!  Did it make them angry?  Absolutely!  When they complained about it, the owner said, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a day’s wage?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  Ouch!  It’s interesting to note that if those 6:00 a.m. workers had not paid attention to what everyone else was paid, they would have been happy with their wages and for the fairness of the owner who kept His word.  They were richer at the end of the day than when they began, but that no longer mattered.

So often we are like the 6:00 a.m. workers, especially as Christians.  We know what God has promised us, so we go about serving Him as we believe He has asked us to do.  We attend church, tithe, sing, teach, and a host of other things, and we even do them with the right motives!  We study and we try to live the way He has instructed us to live.  We strive to be generous, love others and forgive even without being asked.  We stand up for what is right, and take the high road in our personal and professional lives.  And you know what?  WE ARE BLESSED!  If we are doing what we are called to do, then we will absolutely be blessed.  God has promised, and He does not lie.  So then everything should be great, right?  Wrong!  See, God doesn’t care how late in the day someone starts serving Him; He cares about HOW they serve Him.  Someone could spend a lifetime making bad decisions but asking God to forgive him/her, and guess what?  He WILL!  When He forgives, He forgets and wipes the slate clean.  That means He is free to bless that person when he/she makes good decisions or is obedient to His will.  But we cry out “That isn’t fair!” shutterstock_294695897 We sit back and start thinking about all the effort we’ve put in, maybe even the persecution we’ve endured in life for living right, and start feeling slighted that God doesn’t give us more!  Once we get into that cycle, we become ungrateful and resentful not only of what others have, but of the fact that God now seems so unfair.  Sometimes it shakes our faith to the point that we start considering becoming selfish and living however we want, because in our minds, obviously that’s what pays off.  We feel we have a right to complain about it, just like those 6:00 a.m. workers did, and God’s answer is the same as the owner of that vineyard:  “I am not being unfair to you, friend…Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  The truth is, we are envious because He is generous, and the entire problem begins when we start looking around and comparing what we have to what others have.

God is a gracious and merciful Father.  All of us count on Him keeping His word.  We count on the way He forgives and restores us, even when we don’t deserve it.  We count on the fact that He blesses us any time we serve him with the right motives, instead of punishing us for when we don’t.   We each have our own walk, and I don’t know exactly what is going on in your life, just like you don’t know exactly what is going on in mine.  You don’t know where I’ve been or the state of my relationship with God, just as I don’t know yours.  So before we get too judgmental with others (or ourselves), or become too critical of God Himself (because that is the reality of what we are doing), we need to step back and remember who He is.  God IS love, and He is continually forgiving ALL of us when we ask and blessing us far beyond what we deserve.

We need to stop determining  our opinion of God’s mercy and grace based on how we all compare to each other.   If we look at what anyone else has as a measure of His generosity, we are in danger of using a terribly flawed yardstick  to judge both those who we think are better OR worse off than ourselves.  The truth is that if we have more than others, it isn’t a sign that we are better than them or that God likes us more.  And if we have less than others, it isn’t a sign that God likes us less!  Focus on what you do have instead of what you don’t.  Consider the faithfulness of God in your life instead of being upset that He is faithful in someone else’s.

Grace and mercy – two beautiful aspects of God’s character that we twist and turn to fit the way WE think, but thankfully His ways are not our ways.  He is more loving, forgiving and generous than any one of us could ever be, and I am grateful.   If He has made specific promises, He will always keep His word (like the owner with the first group of workers).  But in those areas where His promises are what He will do, but not HOW He will do it, we must trust that He will always “do whatever is right.”  Very few people spend their entire lives in true service without sliding backwards every now and then.  Every time we sin, we lose time – work time, service time.  We are the equivalent of the “lazy” workers who didn’t put in a full day’s work.  That puts almost all of us in the category of the other workers.  When we lose time, we must trust God that He will reward us with “whatever is right.”  It is quality, not quantity for which He is searching.

shutterstock_130134731So today, I will look to Him and His faithfulness to me instead of looking at the possessions, successes or blessings of anyone else.  Will I stay in this place?  Unfortunately not, but through the beauty of God’s grace and mercy, I can return to it with a simple refocusing and the promise of His forgiveness whenever I ask…no matter how many times it takes.

Blessings!

Sorrow From the Sandlot

This morning I found out that my childhood best friend lost her father yesterday.  I haven’t stayed in close touch with Dawn over the years, but she was my best friend during the best years of my childhood.  In the late 70s, we had moved from California to Little Rock, AR as a result of my dad’s job.  Dawn was the first friend I made, and it seems we almost instantly became fast friends.  We spent three years in Arkansas – just three years out of my 48 – but those three years were the best years of my childhood.  Sometimes I think they were the best three years of my life.  I was at an age where I was old enough to be allowed to go out, run around the neighborhood and woods, and play without supervision – living a  tomboy’s dream.  But I was young enough that I didn’t know all of the bad things that could happen or were going on in the world.  There was a lot of upheaval, as there always is in life, and yet for me, none really existed.  It was just a great time in a great place with the best of friends.

Dawn DeannaDawn and I both had a strong tomboy spirit.  We didn’t mind getting dirty and we played football and all kinds of other sports.  We even competed together against a bunch of boys in a Punt, Pass and Kick competition.  I’m pretty competitive, and so was Dawn, so when she beat me in that competition, I wasn’t real happy about it.  What I was happy about was that she and I took 1st and 2nd place in a competition in which we were the only girls.  It’s one of my great memories, and the truth is we were girls who could kick butt!

Dawn had an amazing family.  She had the most beautiful mom of any friend I ever had.  She was stunning, and she was kind.  I didn’t spend much time with Dawn’s dad.  I dare say, he probably didn’t even remember me after a number of  years went by, but I remembered him.  I remembered the family he led and raised, of his influence on his family and what wonderful people they all were as a result.  Over the years after we moved back to CA, I lost touch with Dawn until 16 years later when we reconnected.  We spoke on the phone and said we would stay in touch, but then like most people do, we got busy with our lives and lost touch again.  It would be another 12 years or so before we eventually reconnected on Facebook, and in doing so have been able to keep up with each other’s lives even though we haven’t seen each other in more than 30 years, nor have we spoken voice-to-voice since that day in 1996.  Facebook can be a curse sometimes, but in circumstances like this, it is a blessing beyond belief!

So this morning, when I found out about her dad’s passing, I was surprised at how it affected me.  I just sat there and cried and cried, brokenhearted for her, her mom and her family. Pucek family I’ve experienced a lot of loss in life, and I’m always touched and have deep sympathies for the loved ones that are left behind, but this was different.  Maybe it’s because I’m dealing with my own aging parents and the health struggles they endure.  That is a reality my generation is now facing with our parents, aunts and uncles.  We don’t like to think about the losses that may be coming in our own lives, so it hits us harder when that reality is right in front of us.  But it is more than just that piece.  This loss affected someone incredibly important to me, with whom I have such a deep connection in my heart and spirit.  Someone whose friendship I have carried with me and inside my heart all these years.  This loss reminded me of something, and not just the truth of how painful loss can be.  It reminded me of how special and uplifting true connections of the heart can be.  It reminded me that when you love and care about someone, it transcends time, space, and circumstances.  It makes them a special kind of chosen family.  Our experiences with them shape our lives.  They open a vault in our memory in which these experiences are placed, and it lasts forever.  It preserves them forever.

Both Dawn and I have undoubtedly gone through many things in our lives that have been difficult to endure.  Difficult losses or the challenges that come with day to day living.  But you know what?  She is my friend.  In movie terms, she is my “Sandlot” friend, my “Stand By Me” friend.  And today, she and her family are grieving.  Today I weep and I grieve with them.  I honor the life of my dear friend’s father and lift prayers for the entire family and all the friends whose lives he (and they) have touched.

So today, I want to remind you all to take a few moments and open the vault that contains all the memories of those meaningful relationships and amazing friendships you’ve had over the course of your life.  If you are still in touch with them, remind them of how much they have meant to you and the difference they made in your life.  If you have no idea where they are or what ever happened to them, stop and send up positive thoughts and prayers of gratitude for their role in your world.

shutterstock_184599686The movie “Stand By Me” ends with the following words:  “It happens sometimes.  Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in restaurants. … I never had any friends later on like I the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?”

Much love and prayers for the Don Pucek family

And blessings to everyone.

When You Don’t Feel Thankful…

shutterstock_159498437It’s that time of year again when everyone is supposed to stop and count their blessings and be thankful for all the things in their lives.  But what if things feel so bad in your life that you’ve lost the ability to see the good things, or to even believe they exist anymore?  What if you are depressed by current events or financial problems?  What if you are in the middle of a difficult or challenging situation that is overwhelming your mind?  Or what if you are experiencing sadness, hurt or disappointment that is overwhelming your heart?  What if you don’t FEEL thankful?  I ask because I need the answer myself.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time for us to gather together to count our blessings and remember all God has done for us.  Most of us have time off at some point for the holiday weekend where we have the opportunity to stop and reflect, but often that reflection never happens or it is clouded by all the distractions going on around us.  Thanksgiving, for many, has become nothing more than a long weekend filled with family arguments, frantic shopping, and stress of other obligations. For some, it has turned from an opportunity to relax and reflect, into four days of elevated heart rates, packed schedules and frustrated hearts and minds.  For others, it is nothing more than a reminder of what they have lost or never had in life – whether it is family, love or material possessions.

It’s hard going into the holiday season when there are things in your life that are weighing you down.  I think we’ve all experienced that sensation one year or another.  For me, there is a lot on my heart and mind.  Much of it I cannot share with anyone because it is something that needs to stay between me and God for right now, but it weighs heavily on me.  Then you add the loss of holiday traditions that I used to love, and stresses of work and home, and I find myself overwhelmed by it all.  shutterstock_213079855Then I look around, and all I see is a coming weekend of frenetic activity that revolves around everything BUT something positive.  It doesn’t make me feel very thankful at all.  It makes me feel depressed, which then causes me to start thinking about everything that’s wrong or all the stuff I need to do.  It sucks the gratitude right out of me, because the majority of the negative things I’m thinking about are valid.  There ARE things that need to be resolved, things that ARE frustrating, things that DO hurt me.  It’s all true, so how am I supposed to stop and be thankful?  We must find ways to stop the madness, both externally and internally, so that we are able to find peace in the midst of the storms and thankfulness in the midst of our chaos.  Here are some practical things to consider…

  1. Learn to say “No.” – I know it sounds selfish, but we all need to learn the word “no,” especially around the holidays. Do not commit to so many events, cooking, volunteering or family get-togethers that you are running continually from one thing to another.  It’s okay to want to do all these things, but there are only 24 hours in a day and if you do not learn to say no, you will drain yourself to a point where you cannot do any more.  Trust me, you will eventually break down in some way.  Instead, decide what is most important to you and let the rest go.  Besides, when you take it upon yourself to do everything someone asks you to do (or you think you need to do), you may be robbing someone else of the blessing of being able to step in and help or participate.  You aren’t a martyr, so stop acting like one and set some boundaries.
  2. Create your own personal tradition – Traditions can be wonderful but life happens and sometimes those traditions end up changing or even disappearing completely because they involve others. Consider creating some traditions for yourself that do not depend on anyone else.  For example, decide you are going to spend a certain amount of time doing something you enjoy.  It might be taking a walk, listening to music, getting coffee, painting, or whatever floats your boat.  Make it something you can do whether someone else joins you or not.  If you are a person of faith, you can decide to set aside an amount of time – whether it is days, hours or even just a few minutes – where you get by yourself, turn off all the technology that is constantly pinging at you, and spend that time with your heavenly Father.  It can be talking to Him or reading His word, but make it time just for you and Him.  It is GREAT to have traditions with family and friends, but make sure you have some traditions just for you that are totally in your control.  That way you won’t feel so sad or resentful when someone else fails to uphold traditions you used to treasure.
  3. Rest – I suppose this could go hand-in-hand with learning to say no, but you NEED to find time to rest. The holidays are filled with frenetic activity and even if you aren’t actively participating in all of it, the pace swirling around you will inevitably affect you.  It’s like standing in the middle of a crowd that is fighting with each other even if you aren’t fighting.  The stress of it all will still affect you even if you just stand there.  Not participating in the holiday madness, doesn’t automatically mean you are resting!  Resting is something we have devalued in our society and we need to get back to taking time to stop now and then.  Go to bed at a decent hour and rest so that you are able to truly enjoy the things you choose to do each day.  If you choose to participate in something that has you out late (or all night) then prepare and plan to take time the next day to rest, instead of engaging in all kinds of activities.  If you don’t take time to truly rest, you will find yourself much more susceptible to the natural stresses that occur during this time of the year.  Your fuse will be shorter and it will be almost impossible to not feel drained on all fronts.
  4. Pray – You can pray anywhere, any time. I’m not talking about the prayers you hear in church or on TV where it is filled with the “right” things to say and a bunch of “Lords,” “Fathers”, “thees” and “thous” but the kind of prayer that God actually takes delight in!  TALK to God.  Talk to Him like you would your best friend.  If you’re angry, then tell Him.  He already knows it anyway so you might as well be honest.  If you’re sad or confused, then tell Him.  Ask Him to help you because He has promised that He will!  You don’t have to spend a certain amount of time praying or get on your knees.  I pray all the time in my car, just talking to Him and telling Him what I’m afraid of, worried about, or need help with.  I tell Him things that I thought were funny or things that made my day.  Sometimes it is as simple as me saying, “Hey God, I was just thinking about how much I don’t want to go to work this morning, so would you please help me get through the day?  ”  That’s it.  No fanfare and no righteous verbiage.   I think He would much rather have us, as His children, just call Him like we do anyone else we have a relationship with.  He already knows everything, but when you talk to Him like you would anyone else, it makes your relationship much more real and prayer no longer feels like an obligation.  He enjoys hearing from us just like we enjoy it when our kids (or others) talk to us and want to keep us in the loop of their lives – even if we already know what they are about to tell us.  And when God becomes real to us, then everything else changes.

Listen, no one ever said life was easy.  We all have things that hit us and knock us down and steal our joy or gratitude, but making changes so that it can be restored can sometimes be just as hard.  When you start setting boundaries and taking care of yourself, there are others around you who will not be happy.  Don’t expect otherwise because it often requires them to adjust also, and change isn’t easy for most people.  There are others who will have strong opinions and be more than happy to share them with you.  They may try to make you see how “selfish you are being,” or get upset because you won’t join in everything they think you should be doing.  But you see, they aren’t the ones who have to live with those choices or who have to answer to God for them.  We are told to be thankful and to give thanks in ALL things, not just the good stuff or what we think is the good stuff.  That being said, in order to clear the clutter out of your head and heart so that you are able to be thankful, you have to sometimes make difficult choices or change the way you approach things. Taking some of those steps listed above may initially cause stress for others but the bottom line is you are not responsible for everyone else.  You are responsible for doing whatever is necessary so that you can prepare your own heart to be reminded of everything that you truly do have.  That is often easier said than done.

shutterstock_223186420There is much for which to be grateful.  If you’re reading this, it means you woke up this morning.  It means you took another breath.  It means your heart beat another time.  That means anything is possible today, tomorrow, or any time to come.  What’s in the past is past, and the possibilities are endless for the future, but you will never be able to step back and appreciate that truth without a conscious effort.  You can’t wait until you FEEL thankful, because the cares of this world will absolutely choke you until you can’t see anything else.   You will never begin to feel thankful until you actually become thankful, and becoming thankful is something we should all strive for. When we take care of ourselves (in all areas), our hearts become softened to the whispers of our Father.  When we rest, we are able to contemplate.  When we reflect and contemplate on things, we begin to see the true meaning of life and nature of God.  And when we see the true nature of God, we cannot help but become thankful.  Becoming thankful is a choice based on what we know to be true.  Once we become thankful, we begin to feel thankful, and it is then we are able to deepen our roots so that we are able to reach out in greater ways to the world around us and share a true spirit of gratitude and love.  And that, my friends is what thanksgiving is all about.

Blessings!

Life From Death

shutterstock_156553007I watched a video recently from the Smithsonian Channel that was showing how plants have their own version of nerves and electrical impulses (video link posted below).   Although this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone since they are living organisms, it still made me stop and think about a few things.  Just stay with me for a few moments on this.  First of all, after seeing the video, I joked about the fact that this creates a very difficult position for people who don’t eat meat because they claim they don’t want to “kill” something.  I am mostly vegetarian for health reasons but it’s always interesting to listen to those who see themselves as more holy, compassionate, enlightened or evolved than others because they claim to be treating all living things as equal.  I’ve always said that everything we eat was alive at some point (if you exclude the processed crap that is out there).  If you say you refuse to eat anything that has life, then you will most likely starve.  Even most dirt contains particles from things that were once living.

Call me a “hippie” if you want, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that the things we eat have given their life for ours, regardless of what it is.  We are sustained by consuming plants and/or animals that had to die so we could live.  If we stop to think about that truth, it should cause us to be more grateful and respectful toward the things we eat.  Eating should be an honorable endeavor.  Quite frankly, it should make us a little more humble and a little less arrogant about the life around us.  Just because we must eat to survive doesn’t mean we should do it without thought or appreciation for the sacrifice.

shutterstock_133769489This is Easter weekend.   People of faith around the world are commemorating the death, burial and resurrection of their Lord and Savior…and I am certainly one of them.   As I thought about this whole thing with food, I found a striking similarity for those of us who identify ourselves as “believers.”    I have been redeemed and changed by the fact that Jesus died on a cross for my sins.  I am forgiven.  I am spiritually alive.  I am alive because God promised me I am alive.   John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  And the reason I have everlasting life is because Jesus  (who is God Himself)  was willing to lay down His life and sacrifice it for mine.  He endured the most terribly painful, humiliating and horrific torture and death…and He endured it all for ME.  He endured it for YOU.  He did it because He loves us with a love that we can’t completely understand.  He did it before we loved Him.  He gave His life for mine, and just as I should respect and honor the sacrifice of the living things that died so I can eat and be nourished, I should even more so honor and respect the sacrifice the God of the universe made so that I can live eternally.

shutterstock_177898622You see, nothing comes without some kind of sacrifice.  There are no free rides in life.  Somewhere, somehow, someone or something paid (or will pay) the price.  How amazing it is that God knew I had a debt that I could never repay so He humbled Himself and confined Himself to an earthly body so that He could live among mankind and redeem me by taking my place on the cross.  He took my beatings.  He took the ugliness of the torture and the betrayal of His friends.  God, the creator of the universe,who could have called ten thousand angels to kill everyone involved, let them spit on Him for my sake.  He allowed them to nail Him to a tree and mock Him as He hung there.  And then, when it was time, He said “It is finished,” and dismissed His spirit.  They didn’t take His life from Him, He dismissed it Himself.  He willingly gave it up…and He did it for me.

But that wasn’t the end.  Praise God that wasn’t the end!  Because on Easter morning, the stone was rolled away from the tomb and Jesus came out alive!  It isn’t just His death that gives me life, it is His resurrection!  That is why people of faith around the world celebrate this holiday.  That is why we gather in churches across the world with fellow believers and sing praises to the One who didn’t just die for me, but He ROSE for me!  He conquered death and hell and as a result, has both the ability and authority to set me free forever!  I cannot help but sing out the words to that song…”My chains are gone!  I’ve been set free!  My God, my Savior has ransomed me.  And like a flood, His mercy reigns…unending love, amazing grace.”

shutterstock_74847238So this Easter season, I pray we are all filled with the assurance that we are loved beyond comprehension by the One who has the power to redeem us not only for eternity, but for every day and every moment.  I pray we pause to consider His sacrifice and honor it by spending more time living a life filled with genuine love, not judgment, for others.  We are all just sinners saved by His grace, and the sooner we realize the only reason we live is because He died, the sooner our arrogance and pride will fade into a humble gratitude for the unspeakable gift He gave.

Blessings!

Click here to watch “Do Plants Respond To Pain?”