Monday, March 23, 2020

Trying to Earn It

"Faith is being sure of what we hope for
and certain of what we do not see."
Hebrews 11: 1


     I admit it.  I am a cause-and-effect person.  Logic rules. 
     Some of the cause-and-effect lessons learned are pretty mundane:  if I eat the entire carton of cherry chocolate-chip ice cream I won’t have room for dinner—among other consequences.  If I don’t clean the kitchen my mother will stop over unannounced.
     There are heavier situations where this also applies.  If I want my husband to listen to me, I have to listen to him.  If I want to get a book published, I need to work hard.  Very hard.
     I find comfort in this logical progression of action and reaction.  I can depend on it. I am most comfortable with people and circumstances that fit into this mold.
     Enter God.  And faith.  And prayer.  Not just any prayer.  Big prayers for important, heartfelt needs.
     Everybody has them, those worries that test our faith and make us wonder if God is listening, because if He is, why is the answer taking so long?
     In my case it wasn’t even a question of yes-or-no, but when.
     I won’t go into the details of the current prayer of my heart, because I want you to think about your big prayers, the ones that linger . . .  .
     A big part of my problem with the waiting stems from my cause-and-effect attitude.  If I did thus-and-so surely God would answer my prayer.  Going along with my pragmatic nature, the thus-and-so has evolved as time went along. Trial and error, you know.
     Yet no matter what I did I still didn’t have an answer to my prayers other than “no” or “wait”.
     I am not a “no” or “wait” person.
     But I am tenacious.  Call that stubborn.  If praying one way didn’t work, I’d try another.
    And another.
    And another.
    Prayer is a wonderful thing, it’s our intimate connection with God.  He calls us to pray. And yet, I began to realize the way I was using prayer was more like a bargaining chip than an offering of love and respect to my Creator.  Over and over I let logic be my prayer-mentor, even as I followed the instructions of the Bible:
     If I prayed without ceasing surely God would answer my prayer. “Rejoice always,  pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (I Thessalonians  5: 16-18)
     No answer.
     If I boldly went before the throne and asked for this prayer of my heart, surely God would answer my prayer.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 16)
     If I specifically asked for God’s will to be done, surely I’d get an answer.  “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (I John 5: 14)
     No answer.
     If I made sure I said, “in the name of Jesus Christ my Savior” at the end of each prayer, surely God would answer my prayer. “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14: 14)
     No answer.
     If my husband and I (and others) prayed for our need, surely it would be answered.  "Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18: 19)
     No answer.
     If I tried real hard to be perfect, was nice to everybody...and giving, and loving, had quiet time with the Lord thirty minutes each and every day, went to church, sat right up front…
     No answer.

     If I prayed humbly, meekly, loudly, softly, on my knees, arms up-raised, prostrate on the ground, through tears…
     No answer.
     If I acted like I didn’t care…
     Never mind.
     I’d  been praying two and a half years and had utilized all these methods of getting God to answer me.  What was I doing wrong?
     A revelation came to me one morning when I took a walk to get the paper.  I love this daily task when the day is fresh and new.  Each morning there is a different sunrise, and I look forward to seeing what new beauty God has created.  But on this particular day I was struck with a thought:  God makes a different sunrise every day for no reason other than He wants to create this beauty for us—as a gift.
     As a gift.
     As.  A.  Gift.
     What had I been doing wrong?  I’d been trying to make my prayers be answered!  The praying was right.  The faith was right.  But thinking that I had to DO something SAY something THINK something or BE something as a requirement for God answering my prayer . . . as logical as those attitudes are within the secular world, they are completely off base in the world of faith.
     God would answer my prayer not because of me, but because He loved me.  He would answer my prayer as a gift freely given, lovingly given.  There were no conditions to be met or hoops to jump through.  As with salvation, the answer to my prayer could not be earned, only given through God’s grace and love.
     All He asked of me was to believe in Him and in His son, Jesus.
     I stopped on the driveway and faced the gift of the sunrise, and there I suddenly knew the answer was surely coming—in God’s time . . . because He loved me.
     I needed to stop trying so hard.  I needed to trust Him.  Love Him back. “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37: 4)
     I’m still waiting.
     And honestly, it’s hard for me to let go of the logic and control and let God be God. And it’s hard for me to quit judging myself against a standard that even God doesn’t insist on.
    But I’m determined.  And hopeful.  And . . .
    Better off.  Because of the delay in His answer I now have a stronger faith and I am waiting a little more patiently in the knowledge of His love for me.
   God answers all prayers.  That keeps me going.
   P.S.  You’ll never believe this—or perhaps you will. Two days after the sunrise revelation, I wrote this article, and ten days after that…God answered my prayer!  So don’t give up.  You may not be waiting on Him.  Maybe He’s waiting on you…

Bosom Buddies

"A man of many companions may come to ruin,
    but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
      Proverbs 18: 24

     True friends are as rare as lightning in a blizzard—and just as dazzling.
     I'm friendly.  I can talk to a total stranger and hopefully make them feel at home. I can negotiate the proper party mingle, and can even be quite witty with a plate of cheese and crackers in my hand.  But as far as enjoying many deep down bosom-buddy friendships?  Only a few have brightened my life.
     When I lived in Nebraska I had one particularly good friend, Katie.  She and I met while we were both appearing in the chorus of "Annie" at the community playhouse. Within minutes of meeting each other we fell into the easy rhythm of lifelong friends. We listened, we laughed, we gave advice, and kept secrets.
     But then, after seven years of friendship, I moved to Kansas.And I missed her. She was as bad a letter writer as I was, so we made due with a few visits and phone calls (this was in the olden days—before emails and Facebook.)  
     Without contact, we drifted apart.

     One day, feeling rather sorry for myself, I prayed that God would bless me with another bosom-buddy friend.  I knew I was asking a lot, and I was pretty much resigned to having a life full of numerous acquaintances but few sisters when  . . . the name "Katie" popped into my head. 
     "No, God.  Not Katie in Lincoln.  A new friend, here in Kansas."
     I didn't think about my prayer until two weeks later when I went to a Christian writer’s group for the first time.  It was a wonderful evening. Their openness and willingness to talk about how they had experienced God working in their lives was true inspiration.  After the main meeting, when we sat around drinking iced tea and eating goodies, I found myself next to a woman who had the most beautiful freckled skin and red hair.  And when she smiled . . .  We got along famously, our laughter and camaraderie drawing the envied notice of other members.  "You two act as if you've known each other forever."  That's what it felt like.  Friends forever.
     I went home thrilled to have found a new friend.  The next day I wrote her a note, taking a risk by exposing my hopes that our friendship would grow and even putting myself on the line further when I recounted my prayer for a best friend.  I sent the letter, feeling foolish, vulnerable—and hopeful.  Oh, well.  If nothing came of it, I wouldn't be any worse off than I was before. 
     A few days later, she called.  My note had made her day. We met for lunch and talked for two and a half hours over burgers and fries.  To have a friend I could talk to about God and family and writing . . . she was truly an answer to prayer.
     And not surprisingly . . .
     Wait for it . . .
     Her name was Katy.
Katy McKenna and me

***
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Collecting Attributes


"Each man has his own gift from God;
one has this gift, another has that."
1 Corinthians 7: 7

   I'm a collector from way back. As a child I collected fancy paper napkins. In high school, candles. Pitchers, irises, fans. 
   I've enjoyed my collections, even as I've abandoned one for another. There’s joy in the searching, joy in the gathering, and joy in the sharing. And for me, the search usually starts where there are antiques.  My favorite haunts are antique shows where dozens of dealers assemble their booths, teasing me with aisles and aisles of displays, just waiting for me to dive in. And drool.
   As I enter such a show, my eyes scan the booths, skimming past the Fiestaware, the Depression glass, and the Monkees lunchboxes. Like a missile locking onto its target they find what they are searching for: antique purses.
   Ooh, there’s a beaded one from the twenties. And another marked with a Whiting and Davis stamp. There’s a Lucite purse from the fifties (the fifties . . . does this mean I’m an antique?) The purses are not in perfect condition, but the fact they have missing beads, torn linings, and tarnished handles only adds to their character. I make allowances.
   I usually enjoy such gatherings, quite willing to drown in the smell of old wood and dust. Yet on one day, in such an antique-lover's paradise, I had trouble concentrating. Among the Chippendale chairs and the tin toys I was drawn to the dealers instead of the deals. A lady from Texas greeted every customer with a firm handshake and a southern drawl. A dealer from Oregon charmed with a soft voice, wearing a veiled hat. Another had a laugh that ricocheted off the glassware. Turns out the people were as interesting and unique as the items they sold. They were collectible.
   That's when I started collecting people—or at least their attributes Smiles, thank yous, the twinkle in their eyes. The way they sang in their cars, kissed their baby's nose, or offered me their place in line. The by-product of collecting strangers' attributes was that I began to open my eyes to some attributes in my own backyard.
   I now notice how my husband always warms my ever-cold feet when we share the couch—without me even asking.  I enjoy how our oldest daughter Emily emails photos of family events within a few hours of getting home (I am quite willing to relinquish the pressure of chronicling every gathering to her able hands.) My heart swells when I watch the face of our son Carson light up when he makes his new baby smile (wasn’t he a baby just yesterday?) And I marvel at the stories our youngest daughter Laurel shares (she's a special-ed teacher) about the students that challenge her—and that are changed by her.
   Once I started to look at the amazing qualities within my own family, it became easier to skim past the parts of their personalities I didn't want to collect. For just like antiques, my family is not in perfect condition—and shocker—neither am I. Yet the fact we have missing beads, torn linings and tarnished handles only adds to our charm, and even our value.  I make allowances for them, and I appreciate them doing the same for me. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)
   Although my collections come and go, I hope I never give up collecting attributes. There is joy in the searching, joy in the gathering, and joy in the sharing. There is good happening all around us if only we open our eyes and see it. The special looks, idiosyncrasies, and attributes of the people in our lives make them as collectible as precious treasure. And as such, they are . . .
   Priceless.


      ***   
        
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Being Human

"Stand firm and hold to the teachings 
we passed on to you."
2 Thessalonians 2: 15


      If you want to teach something, be something.
      Sounds good.
      Sometimes I wish I could tell my kids to carry on, do what they know is right and don't mind me.  Being a hypocrite is easy.  Being a role model takes work—more work than I'm up to after tethering and weathering the moments of my life.
   When my three children were small, I could get away with the convenience of "do as I say, not as I do".
   They didn't notice the Snickers wrapper on the counter as I made dinner.  They didn't say a word when I wore socks with holes in the toes, and they were too busy playing with Kermit the Frog and Candyland to see me clean the entry floor after tracking in my own share of mud. Or perhaps they were too much in awe of Mommy to say anything. 
   Maybe not. 
   But as they graduated to Barbie, Battleship and beyond, their minds grasped a scary new concept—independent thought.  That's when they began to challenge me and my two-faced behavior. 
   "How come we have to make our beds when your bed isn't made yet?"
   "How come we can only watch TV an hour a night and you can watch more?"
   "How come your shoes are all over the place and ours have to be in the shoe bin?" 
   I shake my head, stalling until I conjure up a desperate parent's jewel: "Because I'm the mom, that's why!"
   They roll their eyes and leave me to my humiliation. How'd they get so smart? Certainly it wasn't by my example.  
  It doesn't help my self-esteem to remember my own mother's perfection. I never caught her in a faux pas. No wet towels on the floor, no crumbs brushed onto the kitchen floor when no one was looking, no televisions blaring at a ridiculous level (can I help it if I like to feel my movies?). She taught us by example. When she worked till the early morning hours sewing a prom dress, we learned to be industrious. When she made the roast and leftover corn last for two more meals, we learned to be thrifty.  When she made quilts for the less fortunate, we learned to be charitable.
   What am I teaching my kids?

      There are some good things.  When I work on getting a book written, plodding along one sentence, one word at a time, they learn persistence.  When I hug their father right in front of them and even give him a kiss (gasp!) they learn love.  When I tell them how a prayer was answered, they learn faith.
      Not too bad.
      Although I am working on making my bed, limiting my television time, and hanging up my coat, above all—flaws and all—I'm teaching my children we're in this together.  I don't know all the answers, although I do know a bit more than they do. I have good traits I hope they'll embrace and bad habits I hope they'll avoid. 
They know I'm not perfect.
   “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22: 6)
   If you want to teach something, be something...
   I'm human. Human I can teach.  Human I can be. 
   Perhaps, somehow, they'll learn from that.  

The Keeper of Time

"Be still before the Lord, all mankind,
because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling."
Zechariah 2:13

     My to-do list is novel length. And though editors have often insisted I cut thousands of words from my overlong manuscripts (on one historic occasion, 74,000 words, which is literally another story), I find it much easier to cut entire scenes, subplots, and even characters from my novels than to leave items on my to-do list undone.
     It’s not that I have the time to fully (or properly) tackle my list. I admit to being overly ambitious, usually at the most inappropriate times. For instance, when we are expecting company and I am trying to turn my home into something pristine and worthy of a cover story in Better Homes & Gardens, I invariably add projects to my already lengthy list. Like stripping wallpaper from a bathroom—and painting it, or hanging pictures in a room that has never once complained about having bare walls, or going through my closet and deciding what lucky charitable organization gets dibs on a mauve suit with monster shoulder pads. After forty years of marriage, my husband knows the signs and tries to catch me before I go too far. With varying success.
     “Are you crazy?” he asks.
     Pretty much.
     I confess. I have an addictive personality. Others may have their alcohol, drugs, or shopping issues, but I am addicted to lists.
     Yet, beyond the overachiever issues, my to-do list often gets in the way of something of ultimate importance: my quiet time with God.
     Come on. Fess up. I know I’m not alone in this. You too wake up early because the list mentally starts glowing before dawn. You too rise, determined to get tons done.
     And then, far too soon, your usual prayer time is suddenly upon you, and instead of willingly submitting, you search your stash of memorized Bible verses to come up with ones that glorify hard work and disdain sloth and laziness. God loves a cheerful worker, yes?
     Uh . . . kinda, sorta.

     And yet, even as you force yourself to sit, even as you take up your Bible or daily devotional, you’re thinking: But, but . . . I don’t have time for this.
     To which God most certainly responds, Excuse me?
     Oops.
     That’s when it’s time to cringe—and surrender. If God, the creator of all time, the keeper of all time, has time to “rouse himself from his holy dwelling” for you, then certainly you have time to rouse yourself from your unholy dwelling for Him. If you don’t, then perhaps you ought to put “Prioritize Life” at the top of your to-do list? Hmm?
     Here’s some insider information: I’ve found if I stay faithful during the busiest times of my life and give God some one-on-One time, He gives me time to tackle my to-dos—along with a serving of wisdom regarding how to delete (or delegate) a few tasks.
     So let’s say He’s got you in the chair. Your Bible is on your lap. But inside you grumble. Then you feel guilty for grumbling. You hope God won’t notice and you can somehow slip under the radar just this once and escape.
     Think again. He knows, and you know He knows. More than that, He cares. He wants your time together to be productive and precious. But face it, when you are frazzled and distracted you don’t have the right mind-set for quality time.
     So take a deep breath. Maybe two. Or twelve. Then close your eyes and tell God you are there (and that should count for something) and you want time with Him.
     Yes, your mind will digress and zip back to your list, but be as dogged toward diverting it right back to God as you are about adding to and checking off your list. Being still, silent, and available to the Keeper of Time takes practice—and prayer. Ask Him to teach you to be still and His. That is certainly a prayer He will honor—and answer.

     Then when you are settled down and centered in Him, instead of looking up your favorite “Be strong and do the work” verses, go for a few “Be still before the Lord” verses instead. The to-dos on your list will wait (truly, they will). And the exquisite time you share with Him is priceless.

     Above all remember this: Your relationship with the Lord is more important than your work for the Lord. Learn that and you just might be able to shorten your to-do list. Or even tear it up.
    Call it a sacrificial offering.

Don't Hurry Worry

"Do not be anxious about anything;
but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
Philippians 4: 6
       If worry were chocolate, I'd weigh—it's none of your business. Let's just say I'm a professional worrier, and have been since my feet dangled from a chair.
God will take care of everything.
know that. But giving up worry is as easy as giving up coffee . . . cheesecake with cherries . . . biscuits drowning in sausage gravy. 
It's not that I don't trust God. But I figure He has to be swamped, what with problems in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East . . . Certainly He doesn't need to be bothered by a bevy of everyday concerns rising up from Overland Park, Kansas. Worries about Emily's history, Carson's math, and Laurel's spelling tests; my husband's fatigue from dealing with 700 phone calls at work before noon; or my penchant for impatience because I'm not a best-selling author—yet.
So what if I handle a few things on my own? Is that so bad?
Yup.
But I'm an independent woman! I can install a light fixture without shocking myself, I can mow the lawn with only one five-minute nap behind the azalea bush, and I can whip up homemade treats for Girl Scouts with ten minute's notice (take the Chips Ahoy cookies out of the package and place them in a Tupperware container). Surely God likes independent people.
Nope.
I discovered this truth when the ravioli boiled over.
It was the end of a soap-opera day. Not the typical soap opera where my long-lost sister appears on my doorstep, a nympho-schizo who ran away with my fourth husband once removed while my evil neighbor plots to torch my house because my clothes are whiter than hers (surely, you jest). That, I could have handled.
It was a day when the cat piddled in the philodendron. We were out of milk and bread and eggs, forcing us to eat Doritos and orange juice for breakfast. Somehow, the kids managed to find a matching pair of shoes, and most of their homework. One off to school. Two. Three.
I had just scooped up Pepper with all intentions of having a serious discussion detailing the differences between potting soil and kitty litter when Laurel called from school. She'd forgotten her library book—which was already two days overdue. She couldn't check out Little House on the Prairie until she returned Little House in the Big Woods. And her book report was due in three days. Grabbing the book and my car keys, I wondered if any modern family was as organized as Pa and Ma Ingalls. The world could be so... trying.
After returning the book, I stopped at the school door. The sky had turned from blue to blanched—accompanied by a torrent of wet stuff. Never fear, my umbrella was . . . in the car. I made a run for it, stifling the urge to rotate slowly in the rain, saving my clothes a trip through the washer at some later date.
While I was in a library sort of mood, I headed for the main branch. I needed to research the effects of oleander for the mystery I was writing. As the weather progressed from raining cats and dogs to dumping an entire pet store on my car, the windshield wipers chose to deviate from their normal 4/4 rhythm. They tried a quick waltz . . . before giving up out of rhythmic frustration.
Brake lights! Oh, no! Whew . . . a near miss. I collected my scattered wits and pulled into a gas station to replace the wiper blades. Unfortunately, they cost more than the seventy-three cents I dug out of the glove compartment. My checkbook was at home. Charge it.
The library, groceries, lunch, laundry, writing.
Finally, a hot bath. I was just sinking into the steaming water, having discovered a way to get my knees and torso warm at the same time, when the phone rang.
It was a neighbor near my son's school. Carson fell off his bike. His arm was broken.
I wrung out my hair, pulled on some clothes, and raced out the door. I found Carson sitting on the curb, his right arm held gently with his left hand. A few brave tears escaped. His, and mine.
Off to the hospital where he got x-rayed, delayed and okayed—and became the proud owner of a fluorescent green cast.
I zoomed home, planted Carson on the couch armed with the remote control. I considered making him chicken soup (feed a cold, starve . . . an arm?) I wondered how he would do homework with his right hand encased in its glow-in-the-dark prison.
I headed for the kitchen to start dinner. I tossed a rock of frozen hamburger into the microwave and punched enough buttons to launch the space shuttle. Nothing happened.
"No! You can't do this to me!" I yelled, punching the sequence again in case I wasn't speaking coherent micro-ese during my first attempt. Zippo, no zappo.
Oldest daughter Emily bopped through the kitchen on her way to work at the local ice cream store. "See ya at eight," she said.
"Don't you want some dinner?"
"I'll eat something at work."
Chalk up one serving from the dairy, fat, and sugar food groups.
The clock said Mark would be home in fifteen minutes. I hoped he wouldn't mind ravioli with meat sauce a' la iceberg. I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes.
"Whatcha doing, Mom?" asked Laurel.
"I'm trying to remember how I cooked hamburger before the invention of the microwave."
"How 'bout the stove?" she suggested.
Cocky kid.
I pulled myself out of my catatonia and followed her suggestion, browning the frozen hamburger in one pan while water boiled for the ravioli in another.
The doorbell rang. Another lawn service wanted to take care of us. Was that a hint?
That's when it happened. That's when the ravioli boiled over.
And that's when I realized this particular independent woman couldn't do it alone.
I removed the pan from the burner and shut off every appliance in the kitchen hoping to prevent further mutiny. I escaped. To the bathroom. I locked myself in. Voluntary exile.
"Mom?" Laurel said, tapping on the door. "Are you all right?"
I took a deep breath and held back a primal scream.
"I will be," I said.
She left me alone. But I wasn't alone.
It's not a noble position, sitting on the toilet seat next to a sink that needs scrubbing, a mirror that needs shining, and a used Kleenex next to, but not in, the waste basket nearby. But God didn't mind since He finally had me where He wanted me—ready to listen.
"God, it's too much!"
I didn't hear a celestial voice echoing off the faucet. I didn't experience a flash of light as God granted me His revelation. God's voice came from within and was as comforting as a hug.
"It's about time you came to Me," He said.
That's when I gave my worries to God. I relinquished the pesky cat and the freshly fertilized philodendron. I gave Him Laurel's forgetfulness, Carson's arm, and Emily's junk food dinner. I asked Him to take care of the weedy lawn and the pasta-encrusted stove. And I asked if He had any good ideas for dinner—now late and getting later.
And He answered. Not with words but with feelings. Serenity. Peace. Everything would be all right.
I transferred the Kleenex from the floor to the waste basket, re-entered the world, and pulled out a phone book. I ordered pizza—with extra cheese.
God approves of pepperoni.