Beloved, let us love one another

This morning I read a blog written by a former student.  She re-posted a blog she had written while attending the high school where I taught.  She had come out as gay while attending this small Christian high school.  She decided during her senior year to document every homophobic remark she heard while at school.  She graduated three years ago.  I had no idea this blog existed until this morning.  I am not shocked by what I read, but I am deeply saddened.

How can it be that in a Christian high school, a brilliant and kind young woman would have to endure hateful language on average six times each day for a total of 929 homophobic comments during her senior year?  Lest I disparage the reputation of the school that I taught at and loved for nine years, let me say that this type of behavior is not uncommon in Christian circles.

How can we who have been shown so much love, who have accepted so much forgiveness and grace, turn and treat our neighbors with such cruelty and hatred?  Isn’t that the behavior of those who have no hope?

Now, I am writing today neither to condone nor condemn homosexuality.

I am writing because I am troubled by the cruelty I see among God’s people.  We shake our fists at ISIS and their beheading of Christians in the Middle East while watching each other treat people right here in our neighborhoods with derision.  I am not innocent.  I have at times been homophobic. And racist. And agist. And sexist. And condemning toward anyone who is ‘other’ than me. I have been ignorant.  And insensitive. And judgmental. We all have.  If we think we haven’t, we are kidding ourselves.

Some of us judge those who are poor.  Some of us hate those who have too much money, too much privilege. Some of us are prejudiced toward people who are too fat.  Or too skinny.  Or too white.  Or too black.

We position ourselves in opposition to one another instead of coming alongside one another.  We keep one another at arm’s length assuming our views are right, maybe afraid that we might be proven wrong. And in creating this distance we rob ourselves of the opportunity for conversation, community, and growth.

In the name of Christianity?  Is that what Christ modeled for us?  Can you point out a time that He called someone a derogatory name? Or made someone feel inferior? Or refused to have a conversation, even when people were attacking him, or crucifying him?

No. You can’t.  Because He ate with tax collectors.  He forgave prostitutes.  He touched and healed lepers. He endured insult without retaliation. He spoke truth when He was spat upon.

How could he do that? Because He knew who He was. He was not threatened.  He was love.

We can do it, too.  If we remember whose we are. We are not in danger.  We are loved.

Anybody can be rude and hateful.  Only those who have been shown unconditional love can give it.

I John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another.

For love is of God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God.

He that loves not, knows not God.

Prayer

Back in November I picked up a little book from the library : Whispers of Hope: 10 Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  I just checked the calendar and realized that I have been trying to get through it for 14 weeks!  Today I read day fifty-five of seventy. Now lest you worry that I have overdue fines by now, I did actually purchase the book a couple of weeks in.  I have found that it is a nice complement to my regular Bible study.  In fact, I have noted in this blog a few instances when the messages of my Bible study and my prayer guide have overlapped.  Some people call that coincidence.  I call it divine orchestration.

Clearly I am not very diligent in using this prayer guide every day, but apparently God can work with my timing.  This morning, in my regular Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount, we focused on the portion of Scripture that urges us to “Ask, … Seek, … Knock…”  Clearly this is about prayer.

Let’s back up a minute and remind ourselves that for a while I was, as I say, “not on speaking terms” with God. (See https://kristinsnextchapter.com/2014/09/13/coming-out-of-the-desert/).  I believed that God was distant; I had no interest in bringing my personal cries and requests to Him.  However, since I began this Next Chapter, I have been trying to do things differently.

I’ve blogged about my change in exercise and nutrition.  I’ve written about my new pace.  And, I think I’m at a point where I can write a bit about prayer. I’ve got a long way to go, but I believe I can say that God and I are speaking again. It may be awkward at times and not as regular as it may be one day, but we are in conversation.

Probably the greatest hindrance to my prayer life is my need to be strong and in control.  I’m a take-charge type of girl.  I see what needs to be done and I do it. It is very difficult for me to admit that I need help.  Prayer is all about admitting that I am powerless and needy.  He is God and I am not.

In fact, the very postures that people around the world use for prayer are an acknowledgement of being in the presence of power.  In prayer we bow, we kneel, we lie face down. We praise God for His greatness while acknowledging our limitations.  In this posture of humility there is no escaping the raw truth — I need God.

For a while, I was perhaps a bit afraid to admit that truth.  But instead of acknowledging the fact that I was afraid, I was, as I’ve often described, soldiering through the difficulties of life, bandaging wounds, putting on tourniquets, and trying to resuscitate the wounded.  My life was in crisis!  I didn’t have time to admit that I was incapable of handling it! I had work to do!

I’ve described over and again where that soldiering left me — wounded, exhausted, and in desperate need of leave.

So, lest I jump back into battle and start to handle things in ways I always have in the past, I keep reviewing the lessons I have learned through this grace period.

So my nugget for today:  Great freedom and relief come from setting down my weapons, taking off my combat gear, lying face down and crying out in helplessness to the One who can actually help me. That being said, in order to experience that freedom, I have to be willing to take a risk — to trust that He really does have me, that He really does love me, that He really won’t let me down, that He really is the God of the universe.   He won’t let my world fall to pieces if I place it in His hands.  In fact, and we’ve been over this, it is already in His hands.

So, here’s the plan.  I destroyed the weapons. I burned the gear.  I’m turning away from my own resources which are pathetic at best.  I am turning to the Creator and Owner of all things, my Father, who indeed does have me, does love me, and is the God of the universe.  He certainly won’t let me down.

Psalm 102: 1

Hear my prayer, O Lord; let me cry come to you.

all things

This week God has answered SO. MANY. PRAYERS.  I really can’t tell you about any of them, but trust me when I say He has been coming through BIG TIME!

So why am I sitting here on a Friday afternoon in a grumpy old funk?  Because I’m letting some ‘things of this earth’ cloud my view of my ‘treasures in heaven’.  It is really that simple.  Yet I can’t shake it.

And, truly, I’ve even been blessed this week by some of the ‘things of this earth’.  I am well-fed.  I’ve made it to the gym three times. I have worked with a half dozen students.  My husband made it across the state and back in the middle of this treacherous winter.  Our car continues to start even when the temperature is well below zero.

In fact, there are really just a couple little ‘things’ that are bumming me out.  Our tax man called to tell us the opposite of what I hoped he was going to tell us. (I’m telling you, God really wants me to learn this trust lesson right now.) And, we had to cancel a trip to see the grand baby because of a winter storm warning.  In the grand scheme of life, these are small potatoes.  I can’t tell you how many financial crises we have survived through the grace of God.  I can’t tell you how many trips to see family or friends we have had to postpone due to weather.  These things, too, shall pass.  So why am I letting them cloud the joy of all the answered prayers I have personally witnessed this week?

Because I am a selfish human being.  I want things all figured out.  I want what I expect.  I don’t like change.  I am still learning to be still and know that He is God and I am not.  I am such a slow learner.  Funny, I know.  The teacher struggles to learn.

Here’s what I am going to do.  I am going to give myself exactly sixty minutes to wallow in disappointment and self-pity.  I am going to feel totally horrible about the fact that we have to pay more money to the IRS.  I am going to mourn the fact that I am not going to get to hold ten pounds of sweet-smelling perfection this evening. Then, I am going to pick myself up, dust myself off, and fully celebrate.

Because I have so much to celebrate!  I have a team of friends that has been praying with me over a situation for about two weeks.  The strength of that team has bolstered me when I have felt like sagging and flagging and dragging.  They have asked, sought, and knocked with me.  They have been relentless.  Not only that, my favorite person in the world, my husband, has been walking with me hand-in-hand through the ‘all things’ of life.  He has been my confidante, my teammate, my partner, my encourager.  And most important of all, the Creator and Owner of all things, the Great Teacher, the Father of all, and the Commander of the Weather has promised to “work all things together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8: 28).

Can I trust that right now?  Can I trust that a tax bill and a cancelled trip can be knit into God’s plan for good for me and those that I love?  Why not? He has worked much greater and much lesser things into goodness in my life.  Why, oh why,  would He stop now?

Ok, maybe I won’t need the full sixty minutes.

Psalm 28:7

The Lord is my strength and my shield; in Him my heart trusts, and I am helped;

my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to Him.

Times of refreshing

When I started my car this morning, the display on my dashboard said it was -5 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  Poor Suzy the Cruz-e chugged into action despite the frigidity. I let her get her bearings while I took Chester outside for his morning ritual.  He did what was needed and then gladly went back into the house. Grabbing my bag, I rejoined Suzy for the short drive to the gym.

At 8:00 am, the parking lot was less than half-filled.  With most of the area schools closed this morning, many likely chose to stay at home and not force their cars (or their bodies) into action.  But I hadn’t been to the gym in a few days, and I was feeling the need to move a little bit.

I climbed aboard the elliptical machine, plugged in my headphones, and listened to the Today Show.  The gym seemed a little warm to me, maybe to overcompensate for the -25 windchill outside.  I had to keep pushing myself through the 30 minute workout because I was fighting nausea.

I did finish the thirty minutes, then did a little bit of work on the weight machines.  Still fighting nausea, I went to the locker room and changed into my swimsuit.  It’s always a bit of an internal dialogue to switch out of sweaty clothes into a swimsuit.

“Come on, you know you will feel better if you get in the pool for a little while.”

“But it’s such a struggle to undress and dress.”

“Stop whining.  The water will be worth it.”

“I could just shower — that’s water.”

“Put on your swimsuit.”

“Fine.”

Once the swimsuit was on, I took the mandatory pre-swim shower then headed to the pool.  The larger pool, which is around 80 degrees, was filling up with women in preparation for a water aerobics class.  But my destination, the 92 degree salt water therapy pool, had just one person in it.  I walked down the steps into the soothing water and was overwhelmed by the amount of sunlight in the room.  One whole wall of the pool area is glass.  It’s an easterly facing wall, so the sun, as it rose, was pouring through the glass.  I sunk into the water, lifted my face to the sun, and leaked an audible, “Ahhhhhh….”

For those moments that I was floating, walking laps, and stretching in the therapy pool, I totally forgot how cold it was outside.  With the sun beaming in, and the warm water soothing my joints, I could have believed I was swimming outside in the summertime.

I didn’t stop there.  I moved from the therapy pool to the jacuzzi and soaked for a little longer. Then, I showered again, got dressed, and headed home to start my day.

It didn’t sound like a great idea to climb out of bed and go out into the freezing weather this morning.  I didn’t really want to stand outside to let the dog take care of his business.  I didn’t love doing thirty minutes of aerobic exercise.  Or lifting weights.  Or changing into my swimsuit.

But I loved sinking down into the water. The warm, soothing water.  The healing, restoring water.

A lot of life is going out into the cold, waiting for a dog to relieve himself, and trudging away on an elliptical machine when you think you might actually throw up.  But every once in a while, more often than I am sometimes willing to admit, we get to sink down into some warm, soothing water with sun shining on our faces.  I don’t want to live for those moments, because a lot of good comes from the tough stuff of life.  But, when I get an opportunity to sit in a jacuzzi, I want to drink it in, soak it up, and be restored.

These are the “times of refreshing [that] come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Isaiah 30:15

In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.

Intensive Coursework

Sometimes I feel like I am taking an advanced course — like the three-weeks-in-the-summer-six-hours-a-day course that earns you three credits.   One summer in college, I took a course called ‘Teaching the Christian Faith’.  After sitting in class all day, I would go home and work all night to prepare for the next class.  During those three weeks I felt like I was eating, breathing, and sleeping with ‘Teaching the Christian Faith’. I think I remember making my friends sit around one evening while I gave them an object lesson — something about preferring an old sweatshirt to a new clean garment — so that I could practice before I stood in front of the whole class.

I am forty-eight years old and I am no longer enrolled in college, but, guys, I am taking one of those courses right now. The course seems to have started about the time I started writing this blog, and it seems to have several course objectives.  And, apparently I am not mastering these objectives very quickly.

If I were the teacher, this is how I would state the objectives:

I will acknowledge that God is God and I am not. 

I will learn how to be still and know that He is God. 

I will trust God for His provision. 

I will wait for God to establish the work of my hands. 

I will understand that I am sitting in the palm of His hand. 

I know these are the objectives, because they are the themes that come up repeatedly in my blogging.  And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, blogging — actually all writing — is, for me, a way of processing thoughts, issues of faith, and emotions.

But these objectives show up outside of my writing, too. Yesterday in church, our pastor said “We need to acknowledge that God is God and we are not.”  He also said, and had as one of the points in his outline, “Be still.  Now.”  I can’t make this stuff up.

I also get everyday practical exercises to ensure that I will master this content:

  • Bills that seem too large to pay — Trust God for His provision.
  • An interview that resulted in, “we’re going in another direction” — God will establish the work of my hands.
  • Life circumstances that seem overwhelming — Be still and know that He is God. 

My last blog was about money.  The numbers aren’t all adding up on paper. (My husband reminded me over the weekend that they never have.) So, I have been trying my old MO — need money? work more! I went to an interview on Friday for a proofreading position — full time (and some overtime) for March through July or August. While I was contemplating this position, I was working out in my mind how I could keep my tutoring and proofreading clients.  I mean, how hard can it be?  I’m sure I can do it!

I was discussing all this with one of my daughters, who not too long ago observed me lying in bed for several hours a day. She remarked, “That sounds like a lot.”  I responded, “I think I can manage.”  So, I went to the interview which involved two hours of proofreading a biology lab manual.  As I was marking misspellings and font shifts, I was thinking, “I could do this 40-50 hours a week.  That would solve some of our money issues.”

When I am at the front of a classroom and a student gives me a wrong answer after weeks and weeks of instruction, I have been known to make a buzzer noise and ask the ‘next contestant’ if he has the correct answer. I mean, come on, we have been over this and over this.

On Friday, I confidently turned in my proofreading ‘test’ and walked out the front door of the publishing house, thinking to myself, “Yup, I will be working here very soon.”  But before I even got home the buzzer sounded. “Wrong answer!”  I had a message from the publishing house that said that had chosen a ‘different candidate’.  What?  I thought you were hiring several.  I thought you were building a pool of freelancers that you could call in for special projects? I was going to solve all of our problems.

Buzzzzzzzzzzzz!  Wrong answer!

This morning I open my Bible study.  (Are you tired of reading those words yet?) Here is the text; I am not kidding.

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you of not more value than they?  Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you. 

Sometimes when my students don’t get an objective, I present the material over and over — in multiple packages — praying, hoping that I will find just the right combination of direct instruction, practice, and external reinforcement to make it stick.

The Master Teacher is skilled in multi-modal instruction.  He is aware of my special learning needs.  He does not grow weary or frustrated when I continually go back to my old ways, even after weeks and weeks of instruction.  He just prepares another lesson for me, knowing that eventually, I will “know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Until then, I will be taking this class.

Money Talk

If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you may have asked yourself, “What does it cost to walk away from a career and take some time to be still in a little house by the river?”  Well, that’s a good question.  Let me start by saying that although I was a math wiz in elementary, middle, and high school, my wizardry is no more. Especially when it comes to money.

Those of you who are good with money — investing, budgeting, balancing your checkbook every month — you might as well just stop reading, because I am likely to drive you insane with my approximations, guesstimations, and overgeneralizations.  You might as well know right now that I am not even keeping a check ledger.  There, it’s out.  I used to.  Really, I did.  I tried to justify my ledger every month.  I succeeded a few times.  But I’m over it.

Are you still with me?

Ok, here’s the skinny on our finances.  When we decided that my husband would take this position in Michigan, we knew that although he would receive a pay increase, the first year would cost us because we would be living separately.  Because of the living situation we have in Ann Arbor, most of that initial cost would be travel between St. Louis and Ann Arbor.  That didn’t seem like a big deal because I was still working and my salary was adequate.  When we further decided that I would take a break — at least until January 4, 2015 — we reduced our combined income by about 40%. The good news is that we reduced our housing expenses substantially by renting out the house we own in St. Louis and choosing to live on-campus in Ann Arbor.  We also reduced the amount we spend on auto insurance and gasoline by donating one of our vehicles before we left St. Louis.  Taking those factors into consideration, I was thinking — “Cool, this should all work out fine!”

But, you probably already guessed that we have expenses I wasn’t thinking about — medical bills (oy!), educational expenses for our girls, and (gasp!) some credit card debt.  Doesn’t sound bad, does it?  It’s actually not.  Not any worse than most other Americans who are juggling income with expenses and trying to make it all work out.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry.  I do worry.  I wish we were debt-free.  I wish our savings was much larger than it is.  I wish we could go out this weekend and pay cash for a second vehicle.  But that is not the case.

So, today being payday, I started out my morning paying bills while drinking my parade of beverages.  Here’s the good news.  I paid the bills!  All of them. See, we are doing fine financially.  But the numbers on some of those outgoing checks were pretty large and the weight of it all can push me toward worry.

When I was done paying bills, I turned to my Bible study.  I’m still in the Sermon on the Mount and today’s section was from Matthew 6:19ff, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  I read that and I thought, self-righteously, “Dude, I don’t have any treasures on earth; I just did the minimalist challenge.  I live in under 1000 square feet!  We have one bathroom, one TV, and one car!”

Yeah, I definitely needed the bonus lesson today.

And I got it…my Bible study took me to Proverbs 30, where the writer says, “give me neither poverty or riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” Oh, yeah.  You’ve answered that prayer for me, haven’t You?  You’ve given me neither poverty nor riches.  You’ve given me just enough so that I have to continually turn to You and trust in Your provision.

And for forty-eight years You have consistently provided.  But that wasn’t really the bonus lesson, was it?  Not really.  If I miss the second part of the lesson, I miss the most important part.  Life isn’t just about buying things, paying bills, and balancing my checkbook.  Those things are miniscule.  The first part of the passage said, “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth” — savings account, cars, houses, clothing.  The second part of the passage said, “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That’s the nugget, kids.  Where is my treasure?  Where is my heart? Does it long for things of this earth — a new dress, a second car, or a huge savings account — that will deteriorate, rust, or be stolen? Or does it long for things of eternal value — relationships, faith, salvation — that cannot be destroyed or stolen?

Depends on the day. Depends on the moment.  I have to admit that some days I am totally lost in the things of this world — the house, the car, my work.  It’s a daily struggle to turn to His Word and be reminded of the things that are of more value.

So today, I turn.  I remember that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” (Psalm 24:1). I dwell in a house that is His, beside a river that is His, with a husband who is His.  He’s got us all, even our finances, in the palm of His hand.

The mountains are His.  The rivers are His.  The stars are His handiwork, too.

Our God is so great, so strong, and so mighty,

There’s nothing our God cannot do.

(Children’s Folksong)

What to do, What to do, pt. 2

Remember way back in November when I broke my unemployment by working as an election agent?  I had been unemployed for four months or so and I agreed to sit in a press room at the county court house and report election returns via my smartphone.  It was my first post-teaching gig.  I had actually applied for that job while I was still living in St. Louis and interviewed for the position on the day that we moved in to the little house by the river.

The same agency that hired me for that position called me this morning.  They want to hire me for the months of March and April to drive about thirty miles one way, buy stuff, and then go donate that stuff to a shelter.  It’s not great money, but it’s 20-25 hours of work each week for eight weeks.  I was tempted to say yes.  I mean, they sought me out.  Why not?

Well, there are a few reasons.  The pay is not great.  If I am going to commit to something for 20-25 hours a week, it has to be worth my while.  I emailed the hiring agent and told her this.  She replied by telling me that they would compensate me for mileage — which would add up to a decent sum.  They would also pay for my travel to Cincinnati for training.  This would include lodging and meals for St. Patrick’s Day weekend.  That’s tempting, especially since the grand baby is in Cincinnati. But still, is it worth 20-25 hours of my time for six to eight weeks?

The second issue is that three of us are sharing one vehicle right now.  I know —  it’s practically un-American.  We have one car and one television.  (Actually, we have always only had one television, but that’s a story for another day.) We are working it out with only one car, but it takes some pretty fancy stepping including a Google Calendar specifically for car usage.  Taking a job that’s 20-25 hours each week in a small town thirty miles away would really bog down that calendar and make it very difficult for others to ‘share’ our one vehicle.

The third issue is that I am now a certified math story-problem grader (impressive, I know) and I am scheduled to start grading the short answers of unsuspecting third through eighth graders in early March. That, my friends, will earn me about the same amount of money as the purchasing position without leaving my home.

The fourth issue is that I am building my tutoring clientele.  Last week I did eight hours of tutoring.  This week I have six hours scheduled.  Tutoring does pay enough to make it worth my while.  And, it’s doing what I love to do. And, it uses my gifts.  And, it allows me to interact with students and their parents.

The fifth issue is that I have also applied for a short-term full-time proofreading position that starts the end of March and goes through July.   That position is for a textbook company.  It would give me something to do while students are on their summer breaks, and it would give me some excellent experience in proofreading.  Now, I haven’t been offered this position, nor have I even interviewed, but if I take a position buying things and donating them to a shelter, I won’t be available for a proofreading position.

So, what should I do?  Step one: I contacted the textbook company and inquired about their hiring timeline.  Step two: I will keep tutoring!  Step three: I will grade those math tests! Step four: I will pass on the purchasing gig!

My very first post on this blog was entitled ‘What to do, What to do”.  I’m still asking that question, but I am getting some clarity as I move through this next chapter. 

Psalm 90:17

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us.

Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.

The Bonus Lesson

Right after Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, right after they cleaned up the leftovers and packaged them into twelve baskets, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side while He dismissed the crowds.”

First of all, let’s talk about that for a minute.  I have worked on lots of committees and been at lots of school and church functions and potlucks, and I don’t ever remember my leader sending me away ‘immediately’ so that he or she could dismiss the crowds.  I may have snuck away early of my own volition a few times (sorry, boss), but never have I seen a leader send away all his workers right after an event of this magnitude.

We might be tempted to think Jesus thought they’d had enough for the day — He’d proven He was God in a BIG way.  Who else but God could feed 5,000 men plus the women and children attached to them with five loaves of bread and two fish and have twelve baskets of food to pick up??? If we stop at Matthew 14:22 and see that He sent them away, we may think, “Oh, that was nice of Jesus to give them a break.”   But if you read a little further, like I did this afternoon, you’ll see that Jesus was not finished with them.  He had saved the bonus lesson for the twelve.

As a teacher I prepare lessons for a class — usually 90 minutes of activities that, together, are designed to teach a certain objective or set of objectives. These lessons have to take into consideration the spectrum of abilities and learning styles present in my classroom.  These whole class lessons stem from course objectives, which stem from departmental objectives, which are in line with the mission of the school.  They are very structured and intentional — as I imagine was the Feeding of the 5,000.

But often I get the pleasure of teaching a bonus lesson.  These lessons are often impromptu.  A student drops in before or after school and wants advice on a college essay, or a college choice, or a prom dress.  A grad emails me to talk about something that happened in class, or on a date, or in her family.  And sometimes  right in the middle of class an opportunity presents itself — a comment is made that I wasn’t expecting, a student asks a particularly relevant question, or a particularly irrelevant question, or an event happens in the world that demands us to leave the prepared lesson and seize the opportunity.  I have been known to close my computer and say, “Ok, guys, this is a bonus lesson — don’t worry, I’m not going to charge you extra.”

I imagine that is what happened after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus wasn’t tired.  He didn’t want to go home, sit in his recliner, and watch Monday Night Football.  He had been watching His disciples all day and He knew they were ready for –The Bonus Lesson.

I mean, earlier in the day they had freaked out just a little bit. “Hey, Jesus, what are we going to do with all these people!!! They are getting hungry!  Let’s get them out of here!”

Jesus had other plans.  “No, don’t send them away. Feed them.”

“Uh, there’s like 5,000 of them.  We only have five loaves and two fish.”

“That’ll do.”

They didn’t see how in the world He, Jesus, who was also God, Creator of the world, Provider of every breath and every bite, could feed the people He had created. Yeah, I’ve been there.

So He proved that He was God and that He could and would provide.

They saw it and were amazed, but not too amazed, because a short while later, they were out in the boat that He had put them in, in the water that He had created, when a storm blew in.  (In case you aren’t following — God controls storms.) And of course they responded by recognizing that He is God and that He would protect them, right?

Nope.

They were sitting in the boat terrified and He walked on the water to them. And they didn’t recognize Him.  Who else could be walking on the water?  “It’s a ghost!” Seriously?

Jesus had to roll His eyes.  I have been known to roll mine.  I have just completed a lesson on in-text documentation —  the why, the how, the where — and a student says something like, “But do I have to cite my sources?” Eye roll.

It was dark and stormy, so if He rolled His eyes, we will never know.  We do know that He said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And still, Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Really?  You need proof?  Today? He just fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.

(Eye roll?) “Come.”  (I am think it was more like, “Come on, then.” But let me not add to Scripture.)

Peter started walking and “came to Jesus.” And then still, he became afraid and began to sink. “Lord, save me!”

(Eye roll.) “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  (Seriously, didn’t you see the fishes thing?  Didn’t you see me walk on the water?  Didn’t you see yourself walk on the water?)

Finally, they got in the boat and the wind ceased.  (He can do that whenever He wants, you know.) And then, “those in the boat worshiped Him saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”

Why do we wait until we are fed?  Why do we wait until the wind has ceased?  Why do we doubt until God proves Himself? Over and over and over.

Because He is God and we are not.  We need Him.  We need our Teacher.  We need The Bonus Lesson.

Mark 9:24

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

Struggle is real.

Last weekend I struggled with a high school senior who is trying to raise her ACT score a few points so that she can get into a college of her choice so that she can become an event planner.  Her struggle?  Although her grades are As and Bs, her ACT score is at the 12th percentile — meaning that she scored better than 12 percent of all the students who took this test.  Her goal is modest — she just wants to climb three points, which would put her at the 30th percentile.  We’ve spent four hours together at this eleventh hour — two weeks before the February ACT.  She is realizing, painfully, that her education has not prepared her for this test.

Last night I struggled with a different student — a high school junior who is also trying to raise his ACT score a few points to that he can get into the college of his choice and become a physician.  His struggle?  He goes to a premier private high school in Detroit and has been exceptionally well-prepared, but he ‘only’ scored at the 95th percentile, when he really needs to be at the 99th percentile.  Again, it’s only a jump of three points.  And he’s got a year to raise those points, but let me tell you, scoring in the 99th percentile doesn’t leave much room for error.  And the elite schools that he and his family expect him to go to require that high score.

What do these two students have in common?  They are both willing to meet a middle-aged English teacher in a public library in the evening or on the weekend to poor over grammatical rules and to talk test-taking strategy so that they can gain access to a dream.  The pressure on each of them is significant.  Their struggles are real.

Almost everyone I talk to has real struggles — illness, financial strife, marital conflict, employment issues, car trouble.

Struggle is not the exception to the rule.  It’s the norm.

A friend and I were talking about our struggles — the things that have happened in our lives that we never would have expected.  She said, “All these difficulties have given me perspective.  I find it much easier to not sweat the small stuff.”  Depending on how much ‘perspective’ you have been given, your ‘small stuff’ may be different than mine.

Early in our marriage, when we had very little disposable cash, I combed grocery ads to stretch my dollars as far as they could go.  It might give me undue stress, at that time, to find the money in our budget to make a meal for a friend.  Today, after years and years of cutting the budget incredibly close and living to tell about it, making a meal for a friend is ‘small stuff’.

A few years ago I had to miss three days of school in a row because I had the flu followed by pink eye.  I couldn’t believe I was ‘so sick’!  I was distraught at having to lie in bed for three days with little to no energy.  Now, after living for two years with chronic pain and fatigue, minor illness such as the flu has become ‘small stuff’.

And yet I am learning that my ‘big stuff’ is someone else’s ‘small stuff’.  I am aware of a woman about my age who is undergoing her second bone marrow transplant for cancer.  She will not be able to return to her home for several months as she recovers from this procedure and re-gains her strength under the watchful eyes of her doctors.  My chronic pain, in comparison with her life-threatening illness, is ‘small stuff’.

When we look at it that way, we might be tempted to think that we can’t feel badly about our ‘stuff’ because it really isn’t as bad as their stuff.  But, guys, to each of us, at the given time, our ‘stuff’ is real.  Our struggles are real.

My struggling senior will likely lose sleep tonight and tomorrow worrying about the ACT on Saturday morning.  She really needs her score to go up.  And the fact that my  struggling junior has a score that is  over twice the score of my struggling senior doesn’t diminish the amount of pressure he feels.  His score also really needs to go up.   They each at this moment are experiencing a difficult struggle.

You may be in such a financial place that making dinner for a friend would be a hardship.  That’s a difficult struggle.

You may be sick in bed with the flu and pink eye.  That’s a difficult struggle.

You may have chronic pain and fatigue.  That’s a difficult struggle.

Fill in the _________________. That’s a difficult struggle.

We’re all struggling together.  I am convinced that we move through life from struggle to struggle.  Those brief periods where we experience a lack of trouble should be breathed in and fully appreciated, because they are momentary.  And so are the struggles.  Yes, so are the struggles.  

Each episode that we think is the worst thing that could possibly happen fades into that one thing that we lived through. In two years, or possibly even two months, my students will be past the ACT and onto the struggle of living with roommates.  And after that they will be struggling to pay back student loans, or find a job, or get into grad school, or find an apartment.  You will one day be able to make dinner for your friend.  Your pink eye will heal. Your pain and fatigue will diminish.  Your cancer will be no more.

This too shall pass.  One way or another.  So what do we do now? “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2) for one thing.  Walk beside one another in hardship.  Share ‘Trouble Talk.’  Help carry a load.  Laugh when you can.  And try to keep your perspective.

John 16:33

I have told you these things so you may have peace.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.

The Real Teacher

My battalion and I are reading the Sermon on the Mount — that time when Jesus sat his crew down and said, “Dudes, you’ve got it all messed up; let me set you straight.”

I know, that’s not what I thought it was either.  I always thought the Sermon on the Mount was Jesus telling me how blessed I am — “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers” — but those phrases are just the beatitudes,  and I am learning that I really didn’t even understand those correctly.

I’m only half way through the study, but I think I could summarize the key idea –“The way you thought you were supposed to do stuff? Totally wrong. Sit down, let me explain.”

He tells the listeners — the disciples, a bunch of other people, and us — Jesus followers — that we are salt and light.  We are preservative and clarity.  We are seasoning and illumination.  We should be noticeable.  We notice salt in our food.  We notice light in the dark.

What should we be noticed for?  For doing stuff that you wouldn’t expect — for reconciling with our accusers instead of seeking retaliation, for loving our enemies, for giving to anyone who asks.  It’s not what we are taught in our culture is it? Our culture screams — “get what’s coming to you! make him pay! don’t get sucked in!”  So when we act in a way that our culture doesn’t expect, it’s noticeable.

And, let me tell you, when Jesus gave this Sermon on the Mount, He was noticeable.  He went up on the side of a mountain (or possibly just a hill), sat down, and spoke to the crowds.  He said, “You have heard…” and reminded them of the commandments.  Then he said, “but I tell you…” to correct what they ‘had heard’.  He was changing the rules. But not really.  He was changing our understanding of the rules.  We had seen the letter of the law — “do not murder.” Fine. Done. I won’t kill anybody.  But he pointed out the heart of the law — “if you even tell someone they are worthless, you have killed them.”  Ouch.  I’ve probably done that.  Especially during those difficult teen years.   His point?  We have all sinned.  We have all broken every single commandment.  The crowd felt the weight of the law — the whole law.  

But they noticed something else.  He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  In fact, he started there.  He prepared them for the hard words they would hear.  He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  And then he showed them how to show mercy — “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  He pushed further — “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”  What?  Then what am I going to wear??? 

Well, we haven’t reached this part in our study, but I know what is coming.  I looked ahead…He said to them, “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?”

In fact, the message of the Sermon on the Mount is “You are of so much value, that I, God, chose to come down among you, sit with you, and spell it out for you.” What?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But, come on, I am surely not pure in heart! “You’re seeing me, aren’t you?”

John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son,

who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.