For Us

A friend of mine is writing a book, and he asked me if I would read a couple of chapters. Actually, two weeks ago, ‘friend’ might have been assuming too much on my part.  I knew this guy from church and from around the university, but other than a few standing-around-after-church conversations, we hadn’t spoken much.  However, in one of those conversations, he mentioned a book that he is writing.  He said he’d been giving chunks to people to read, and I casually said that I’d be willing to take a look.

 

Not long after that I found a stack of papers on my desk with a note on top that said, “Please call me before you take a look at this.”  Last Monday, the day before the first day of fall classes, I called.  We chatted about his goals in writing  and his purpose for my reading. The whole conversation lasted maybe fifteen minutes before I said, “You know, God’s timing is very interesting.  I think this is a book I need to look at as I face yet another transition in my life.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you are getting ready to step into something big, you’ve got to settle in your mind that God is for you.  Obstacles are going to pop up and you need to see them as God preparing you, strengthening you, using those very obstacles in your favor. You have got to believe that Romans 8:28 is true; God will work all things together for good.”

Well, I hadn’t anticipated the conversation going there.  I heard those words as though they had been the main intention of the call, even though they were an impromptu 90-second add-on.

The rest of that day was a blur of activity —  helping my daughter prepare to go back to college and preparing myself for the first day of class.  The next morning I woke up early, checked and double-checked my schedule, my bag, my clothes, my hair.  I ate my standard bowl of oatmeal and prepared my cup of green tea, my cup of black tea, and a tumbler of water.  My daughter snapped my ‘first day of school’ pic which I quickly uploaded to Facebook and Instagram, and then, realizing that I had better get going if I wanted to rearrange the classroom into a circle before the students arrived, I tucked my Macbook, my notebooks, and my water tumbler into my school bag and grabbed both cups of tea because I hadn’t had time to drink either yet.

Yeah, that was a juncture.  You can see it coming, can’t you?

I mean, why? Why do I have to take all those drinks to a 75-minute class.  I end up drinking my tea at room temp most days anyway.  Why not take one cup of tea in one hand and one tumbler of water in the other hand? Two drinks is plenty.

Nope.  I had to have all three.

I  walked to class, set my bag down, placed all three cups on the teacher’s stand, and rearranged the classroom.  As the students filed in, I grabbed my Macbook and noticed that a few drops of water were on its cover.  I wiped them off casually as I opened it up. As it came to life, I also noticed that a few drops were on the keyboard and on the screen.  A little frantically, I wiped those away as I looked around the classroom and noted the students filling the seats.  I clicked a couple keys to pull up attendance and noticed that my MacBook was not responding. I panicked a little, then set it aside; I had student relationships to establish and a lesson plan to complete.  The laptop would wait, but guys, I knew it was dead.

As I moved through my day — that first class, chapel, online chatting with Apple, a trip to a local computer store — I kept hearing my friend’s words in my head.  You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. Did I believe that?  Did I believe that God could be for me even when I made a very careless mistake? Could He be working even my mistakes together for my good?

Well, apparently I was intended to get this lesson settled because also during the same week, I lost a notebook that I was using as a model with my composition students, the lenses on my glasses became ‘crazed’, we lost both of the keys to our house, and let’s not forget that I am still dealing with compromised health and the stress of observing two adult children move out of our place and go back to school.

Of course you know that if I am willing to write about all of this, a few of the issues have been resolved — I have filed an insurance claim and my MacBook has been sent off for repairs, the university has given me a loaner to bridge the gap, the optical shop has ordered replacement lenses because mine were still under warranty, a student found my notebook in an adjacent classroom, and the keys? Well, the keys are still missing.  We’re working on that.

But more importantly, I finished reading the chapters my friend had given me to read, and we agreed to meet to discuss them.  I gave him my feedback on content and, less importantly, mechanical issues, and then I told him the story I just told you.  I said that even when I was yelling, crying, and fighting my way through all these setbacks, I wasn’t without hope, because I kept hearing him say, You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. I kept reciting Romans 8:28.

He smiled and nodded as I told him everything that had happened, and he said something like this, “God is strengthening you because He is getting ready to use you. As you managed all these difficulties, He was building your stamina, getting you ready for what is coming next.”

He doesn’t know me.  He doesn’t know that for years I have told students that “God is always preparing us for what is coming next.”  He doesn’t know that I have been kind of beaten down lately — grieving a bit, wallowing a bit.  He doesn’t know that I needed a dramatic reminder that God is still God and that even in the midst of my failures He is for me.

But God knew.

It still blows my mind. Every time.

I’ve got a new friend, guys, and a fresh perspective.

God is for us.

Romans 8:26-28, The Message

26-28 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

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A Study in Contrasts

We’re back in the states.  After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan.  We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.

Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?”  I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.

It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer.  This was a new role for me.  Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner.  This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.

First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw.  For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi.  I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes.  In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up.  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!  And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining.  They are teaching and learning.  The instructors are engaging their students.  The students take pride in their work.

Yes, the contrast was palpable.

It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning!  How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still  formally greet one another before they move on in conversation.  This was a challenge for me!  I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me.  The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective.  That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.

In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list.  I hope it lasts.

The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans.  Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans.  Yet they do not seem defeated.  Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school.  They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy!  Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage.  I was struck by this.  I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced.  I have led a life of plenty.  I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life.  I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired.  Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.

So, you know what’s coming, don’t you?  I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37.  (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African  friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord.  They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.

I can learn a lot from these people.  I think I have begun to.

Psalm 37: 23-24

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.

 

Marginally Speaking

Sometimes when God nudges us to make a change, we make that change and then slowly over time notice the benefits.  Other times, God gives us an immediate indicator that we are heading in the right direction.  That happened for me this week.

If you read my recent post, Margin, you know that I decided, while reading Priscilla Shirer’s Breathe: making room for sabbath, to turn off my phone from 8pm to 8am every day. I made that decision just two days ago while sitting right here on this futon doing my Bible study. I blogged about it then went through my day.  I got home Tuesday night, played all my turns on Words With Friends, checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, then turned off my phone a bit before 8.

I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed, so I sat next to my husband on the couch, crocheting and watching “Bizarre Foods” (I only recommend watching this show if you would like to curb your after dinner eating — yuck!).  We watched and laughed at its ridiculousness.  Then, I crawled into bed and, as usual, settled in to read.

Typically after an evening of watching TV and constantly checking my phone, I can read for thirty to sixty minutes before falling asleep.  Not Tuesday.  Nope.  I got into my comfortable position, opened my book and made it through two or three pages before I had to surrender to sleep.  I slept hard.

Then, I woke up around 7:15am.  Usually, the first thirty to sixty minutes of my day are spent in bed checking email, messages, Facebook, etc.  But it was 7:15, and I had made a commitment to keep the phone off until 8am, so I crawled out of bed, showered, made my breakfast beverages, and dressed for a day of Bible study, teaching and tutoring.  Around 8,  I checked messages, emails, etc. I noticed that I had missed a call, so I messaged the friend who had rang me, talked to my husband for a few minutes before he left for work, then settled in to prepare for Bible study.

The phone rang.  The same friend called to explain why she had called — to talk through the fact that her day was not going the way that she had planned.   She’d had an interruption that was causing her to spend an extra two hours on the road to retrieve an item that had been left on our campus.  I commiserated with her then hung up to go back to my Bible study about margins.

I started reading then thought to myself, “You’re dressed.”  Yes, that’s right, I was dressed and ready to leave for Bible study and I didn’t have to leave for another 30 or 40 minutes. I turned back to my reading.

“You know, you could  get that item and meet your friend half way.” That one wasn’t me.

How do I know?  Because I argued back, “but I’m supposed to be at Bible study in half in hour.”  I went back to my reading.

“What would happen if you were late?”

“Well, I’m always late.” Yes, I picked up my phone, made arrangements, and started driving.

So, here’s my analysis of what happened.  If I had not decided to add in a margin to my life — some white space — by turning off my phone from 8p to 8a, I might have still been lying in bed when the friend called.  I would not have been dressed. I would have been reading Facebook posts and playing WWF.  I wouldn’t have had the space in my day to drive twenty minutes to help her out.  But, I did make that decision.  I did put the margin in my life.

And the very next morning after making that decision, God provided a tangible reward — an opportunity to use that same time, the time I’d been filling up, to help a friend.

You might think that my friend is the only one who benefitted. Not true.  The whole time I was driving I was thinking to myself, “Really?  You’re gonna respond to my decision that quickly? You want to affirm this decision that strongly?”  I was flabbergasted. I was stunned to notice God working in my life in such a way.

And here’s the nugget, guys.  I noticed because I wasn’t face-down into my phone. Yes, this is hugely convicting and embarrassing.  I have spent far too much time in my phone.  I’ve known this.  I just didn’t want to make a change.

And, I’ve got to be real honest here and say that it’s been just as hard as I thought it would be.  After 8pm last night, I kept mentally reaching for my phone to check for messages, see if everyone was ok, or if I’d missed anything.  I had to continue to remind myself that I had already turned it off for the night and that everyone would be ok without me for twelve hours.

The hardest part, however, wasn’t the lack of checking in, it was the awareness of all the thoughts I have routinely shoved down by occupying myself with my phone.  With my phone turned off, lots of ugliness creeps to the surface — regrets and questions about how I have parented/continue to parent, worries about finances, personal insecurities, and all sorts of stuff I have chosen not to think about.  With my phone down, I can not ignore these nagging concerns.  I am forced to look them in the face.  It’s not pleasant, guys, to look at all that stuff.  It makes me feel yucky.  I don’t like feeling yucky.

Last night after I put my book down, I closed my eyes because I thought I was ready for sleep. I was tired, but as I lie there trying to sleep, the ugliness started playing out on my mind screen.  “Ugh,” I thought, “why!?!?!?”  I felt overwhelmed.  In desperation I said to God, “Is this real?  Is my memory real? Please replace these images with what is true!”

Did you see that?  I didn’t shove the images down.  I held them up to God and asked for His reality check.  Why was I able to do that? Because I’ve put a margin into my life.  I’ve left some white space, expecting that He will step in and fill it.  I am acknowledging that the story I am writing is rough and needs the hand of the Master.  I need Him to speak into my life — to offer encouragement, correction, and guidance.  I haven’t been leaving room for that.  I’ve been writing all the way to the edge of the paper.

I’m a mere two days in, guys, but this change is so important that God is already dramatically stepping in.  It’s like He’s been standing by waiting for the opportunity.

 

I Samuel 3:10

“Speak for your servant is listening.”