Monday, November 30, 2015

Who Do You Follow?

I overheard a conversation at a party recently, by a self-professed "Church-hopper". I didn't hear the whole conversation, but the gist of it was, that she had been looking for a church for awhile, but it was just too difficult to find a good one. I've been there before, especially if you're in a new town, or in an area where there just aren't a lot of Bible-based churches. However, I think we have to be careful not to look too long for a "good" church.

Why not? Should we settle for less than perfect in our walk with Christ? No, in our personal walk with Christ we ought always to be seeking to grow and mature in our faith. However, in our walk with our fellow believers, we have to keep one very important thing in mind, they are all human and failures just as we are.

You can search for the perfect orator in a pastor, only to find out he is careless with his flock. You can search for the perfect children's ministry, only to find out that the adult ministry is simply a social club, and you can find no deep friendships. You can search for the perfect Bible study schedule, only to find out that the word is not preached on Sundays.

So what's the point? Why not just give up the search, or keep it up indefinitely?

At some point, despite all of their personal failings and sins, we need to be making a commitment to a church body. Whether it's a home church or a mega-church, it makes no difference to God, but rather your commitment to be a part of His family does. If a church openly preaches something other than the gospel, you have a hard decision to make - either step up and call out the sin you see in the church, or start over somewhere new. Other than that, we should all be a little more open to sin and imperfection in the church. We need to analyze our feelings about each church, not on the other members of the body there, but on ourselves.

Did you feel the Spirit moving there? Did you see that there was a place for you to serve? Rather than analyzing each member of the body (including the pastor) on his or her "performance" we need to make a commitment, even if it's only a trial basis (7-8 weeks minimum) and dive in. Jump into small groups, talk to the pastor and/or elders, add yourself to the e-mail lists, and join the coffee and fellowship or covered dish meals. It's all well and good to say you didn't feel like you belonged at a certain church, but if the reason for not belonging is you standing behind a self-imposed wall, maybe you ought to give it another try.

I can honestly say that our church search was much shorter this time around, because we knew exactly what we were looking for. We felt the Spirit move, we saw the humanity of our fellow believers (and pastor) and we jumped in. There's no time like the present to become a part of a true community. A community where we recognize our sins and failures, and love each other anyway. So let's not claim to follow Paul or Apollos, or Pastor Dave, let's claim to follow Jesus Christ and accept the failures of our fellow believers along the way with grace, humility, and a love deep enough to gently correct without judgment.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Poetry Friday - Thinking of You

God help me think of You best
Not going over my to do list
Or my who's better than who fest
Or my self-centered subconscious

When waves of life cross my path
And no one knows my name
You hold Your face towards me
And wipe away my shame

No gift of mine
No guilty scribe
No praise I lift
Can cross the rift
Until Your blood
Grace like a flood
Washed me whole
Cleansed my soul
Made me new
And more like You

So today I sit here
Thinking of You

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

I have a 5-year old son. Needless to say, he's finally starting to wonder a little more about this Santa person. He knows that Santa isn't real, but we still read books about Santa, and talk about the idea of Santa, and a general "Christmas spirit". We also talk a lot about the reason for the Season.

Of course, he's also very interested in receiving gifts, especially toys, and even video games. As a side note, it's a bit hard to believe that my 5 year old can beat certain levels of Mario Kart, I'm not sure I could even do that.

So, what's the big deal about Santa and wanting gifts? Isn't that part of what Christmas is all about?

Let's talk about the real reason behind the gifts that Christ was given by the Wise Men (which by the way was not at his birth, but probably 2-4 years after he was born).

We know that Jesus received, at a minimum, gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the wise men. Why these three? I believe there was a very practical reason, as well as a very symbolic reason. These three items were typically given to kings, so the wise men would have brought them for that reason. But, why would God want them to be given to a baby born in a manger, to a poor young carpenter and his teenage bride?

Well, logistically speaking, it was not an easy or financially safe journey to travel from your "hometown" in Israel to Egypt. A carpenter may have been a useful trade, but Egypt is mostly a desert, and the majority of people lived in tents. There were no credit cards, or Visa and MasterCard. How did Joseph and Mary finance the journey to Egypt to escape certain death? My bet is that they used at least some of the very valuable gifts they were given.

We tend to think of these as silly gifts, trivial things, when in actuality, God specifically provided an extravagant blessing, with a very specific purpose, keeping His Son safe from harm, until the time was right.

So, what is the Christmas Spirit? Is it about what we've been given, or about what we do with what we've been given?

So, on this "Black Friday", if you choose to venture out to brave the crowds and complete some Christmas shopping, remember the true reason for the season, and the true black Friday that came years after Christ's birth. The black Friday when the sky went dark at noon, and the curtain was torn in two, and the earth shook. The "Christmas" gifts that were given in celebration of a King, and a God were likely used in His escape, but the true gift was given in a much more solemn and somber day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Financial Satisfaction

I overheard, and tried to participate in a Facebook conversation recently (I know, even I am amazed that we can call what takes place on Facebook a conversation) about the price of food and groceries for an average family. After the conversation, I started thinking a little more about the average cost of food across the world. Thinking of the millions and billions of people living on what most of us would consider "spare change".

It's fine to compare your organic, vegetarian, super food grocery budget to my conventional beef and rice, and canned vegetable budget, but it's also not a fully valid comparison until you compare it across the world. Especially around Thanksgiving, it's important not only to give thanks for what we've been given, but to give back to those who don't have as much as we do. Maybe you can donate a farm animal through a charitable organization. Maybe you can contribute to a microfinance company to enable more people to be self-employed. Maybe you could even sponsor a child from one of these countries. Or at a minimum, you could donate $5 to the World Food Programme, which would pay for approximately 20 meals.

Why is it important to give to people who are going hungry? Who are we really helping?

Let me tell you a story. It's not a true story in the sense of country and name, but it plays out in more countries than you could imagine across the world every day.

This story is about a little girl named Tia in Nepal. Tia comes from a very poor mountain family, and girls in her village are considered second class citizens. Her parents don't want to send her to school, because it is too far of a walk, and they would have to spend their pittance of income on school supplies and clothing. They manage a bare subsistence living by farming on the side of a mountain, but bad weather and a short growing season keep them always on the brink of starvation. Tia is the last person in her family to eat at the table, since she has an older brother and grandfather who live with them.

Lately, there have been rumors of well-dressed, professional men coming to the village down in the valley every week, talking about jobs in the city. They have said that for every girl or boy that goes to these fabulous factory jobs, the parents will receive $100 up front. Tia is 10, so she will soon be old enough to travel to the city for work. What her parents don't realize, is that most of these so-called employment companies are nothing more than slave traders, often selling girls into household slavery, or much worse.

Recently, a world food programme was started at the school Tia is supposed to attend. New groups are coming to her village to tell her parents about the school food programme. Instead of $100 up front, Tia would receive a lunch meal at school, and, because she is considered a "vulnerable child" her family would also receive a food stipend every month. Her family only receives the monthly food stipend if she attends school regularly. The difference between that $100 one time, and an ongoing commitment to provide food for the rest of her family, could be the difference in life and death. $50 is enough to provide a school food program for one year for one girl. Is Tia's life only worth $100? Or is she worth infinitely more than that?

World Food Programme website
World Vision
Samaritan's Purse
Kive (microfinance)

*As an FYI, none of the links in this article are paid referral links, because that just seems wrong.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Talking to Strangers in the Grocery Store

Someone recently asked a group, "You don't really start up conversations with people in the grocery store, do you?" I hadn't really thought about it much before, but we actually do, especially when we're there as a family.

I blame the adorableness of our two kids, but strangers will make a comment to us about them, and then we'll respond with something back, and it often ends up being an actual conversation, about everything from where our families grew up and who we're related to, to where we went to college and where their kids are going to college.

I think it's a pretty amazing thing actually.

I thought we had community when we lived in Louisville, and I would often see people I already knew at the grocery story (from work or church) and we would have casual conversations. Even though there are a wider variety of grocery stores around here, it still feels more like a community. I may see the same stranger we talked to at Ken's Korny Maze at the grocery store the next weekend, I may see a stranger from the park at the library (before they shut down our local library). It gives me a huge sense of connection, because these are people that are part of my community. It's much easier to talk to a stranger when they aren't really a stranger.

They read our local paper, delivered free Sundays and Wednesdays, so they have the same community news. They attend the same sports leagues. The go to the annual Easter Egg Hunt, 4th of July Celebration, and Trick or Treat the Trails. It's a lot harder to be rude to someone, when you know that you'll likely see them again, in a place where you least expect it.

As Thanksgiving draws closer, I am thankful for the sense of community in my new town. It may not be a small town anymore, but it still has a sense of community that I haven't found anywhere else.

So, even when we accidentally defrost our turkey too soon, and have to go buy a replacement turkey a few days before Thanksgiving, the stress starts to disappear, simply by talking to friendly strangers at the grocery store.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Terrible Children's Literature

Recently, I started ordering books from the library after researching various book lists (Honey From a Child's Heart and the books used in Five in a Row). I've noticed some amazing differences in the quality of literature from reputable lists versus what my children randomly pick up at the library. It's not always a good thing to be able to pick from thousands of books when such a large percentage of them have terrible themes, iffy artwork, and in general promote ideals that I don't agree with.

If I ever felt bad that my child was "missing out" on the school experience, I am forever cured after listening to a Dan Gutman book on tape. Now my son can spout off such excellent quotes as "So's your face" and learned fabulous lessons like "girls like school and boys don't" and "I don't want anything boring for Christmas like clothes or food". A whole year's worth of lessons on humility, kindness, and a love for reading down the drain from one random stop at the library before a road trip. There was a limited selection, but I definitely should have gone with Misty of Chincoteague over the "Weird School" series. Even if Misty would have been a little above his level, at least it wouldn't have caused the same problems.

Lesson learned: if you don't review your child's literature before, during, or after they read it, you will miss out on a lot of fabulous lessons they may (or may not) be learning. Quality literature is more than just the library's recommendation, or purchase. The most popular author may not be the most educational, and your child's choice may end up teaching him or her something you never intended. Grade/age level is not always the best guide to choose your literature.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Problem With Convenience

A friend of mine, who has gone through some hard times the past few years, mentioned that she gets along better with her grandparents generation than with her generation, or even her parents' generation. The oldest generation includes the people who grew up without "modern conveniences". They are the people who understand that sometimes bad things happen, and there doesn't need to be a reason or explanation. They are the ones who "stand strong" in the face of adversity (not all of them, but many of them).

So, when I listen to the baby boomers complain about their retirement (where they will still make more money than I would if I were to re-enter the workforce now), or Generation X complain about divorce or house prices or kids, or "my" generation complain about having to do anything that requires effort, I wonder what the difference is.

I theorized earlier in my blog that maybe it's just life experience, but is it truly something more?

We spent a few days for my birthday at Great Wolf Lodge. It was the first time our kids had been there, and for the first few days of our trip, their weren't any lines. When the day of our checkout arrived, it was Veteran's Day, and the hotel and water park were quickly very crowded. Our oldest was able to ride all but one of the water rides, and he did so voraciously the first few days. On the last day, he rode one or two rides, but quickly tired of "waiting in line". Granted, the lines were still only about 10-15 minutes at the most, but he had been so accustomed to not waiting in line, that the rides were no longer fun when he had to stand still for a few minutes.

When he spilled his ice cream in the lobby, not only did they call for someone to come help us clean it up, they sent someone back down to get more ice cream. This kind of convenience is what's available in today's world. It's a world where we feel that everyone "deserves" fabulous customer service and $15 an hour, no matter their education level, experience, or skill set. It's a world where we can complain about anything and take responsibility for nothing. It's a pretty scary world when you think about it.

Thanks to the Internet and "social media" we can discuss in greater length and detail what other people are complaining about instead of discussing how to truly fix poverty and education in the greater world. We feel validated by a certain number of blog visits, likes, or retweets, and we ignore the fact that what we are saying is completely ridiculous. The problem of convenience is that we don't want to give up anything to do something better with our lives.

When I woke from a dream about travelling to Africa to save some babies, I felt guilty, because the thing that bothered me the most in my dream was having to boil water before using it. It is harder for a rich person (i.e. an American) to enter the kingdom of heaven, because of our wealth. I hate to give up the conveniences that I've received simply by being born in this particular time and place.

What's the solution? Rather than fearing change or loss, we need to hold onto our possessions loosely. We need to pray, not for an easier road, but for the strength to keep going when times get tough. We need to pray, not for a better paying job, but for the ability to see God's will. I feel like if I knew for a fact that God was calling me somewhere, I would go, but I find myself doubting my call. Rather than praying for God to call you anywhere but "there", ask Him to call you clearly and you will follow. As Gideon prayed for two miracles before He believed what God was calling, don't be afraid to seek whether it's truly His will, but don't discount His will simply because of the modern conveniences you've grown accustomed to.

Don't feel guilty for enjoying the conveniences God has given, but don't hold on to them too tightly either. Don't be afraid to work hard and get dirty, that's what real life is all about.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Individualized Education

What if I told you that your child could have a private tutor for several hours per week to completely individualize his or her education plan, and there's no cost to you! Whether you work full-time, part-time, or are a single parent, the answer is - that private tutor is you!

We can talk a lot about what's broken in our current education system, but I think the biggest breakdown is that parents have taken a step back from their child's education. Sure, they may "help with homework" or go to parent-teacher conferences, but most parents of public or private school children rely entirely on "the system" to educate their children.

Education is not an institution. There is no one-size-fits all. Even homeschoolers can fall into this trap if they rely on the "curriculum" to educate their children. My husband challenged me in a discussion on our education system by asking if I really "individualize" everything for my child - mainly because my curriculum is "open and go" and I do very little planning and prep work.

The answer is, yes, I do individualize everything for my child(ren). I interpret vocabulary they may be confused about in our reading. I add on additional read-aloud material through a variety of resources. I anticipate whether my Kindergartner needs to get up and move for a little while and do a more active learning or if he needs to snuggle while practicing his handwriting rather than sitting at the table. If he already knows something well, I may skip over it, I  may read ahead in our book and then go back and review something else. Not only that, I made several decisions before even purchasing the curriculum to ensure it was the appropriate solution for both him and me.

So, how do parents of public or private school children ensure that they are taking just as active a role in their child's education?

  1. Find the right school for your child and you. In most cities today there are literally dozens of educational options nearby. There are Montessori schools and year round schools, charter schools, immersion schools, STEM schools, and more. There are neighborhood schools and struggling schools and magnet schools galore. So, pick the right school for your child. Don't automatically discount a struggling or neighborhood school because of a "grade" or "test score" (I hope you don't think any less of your child if they happen to score lower on a test than you thought they would, we should be judging our children on much more than their "score"). Visit the school, visit the principal, discuss their curriculum and activities and determine if it's the right fit for your child and you.
  2. Spend time learning what they are learning. Don't just "help with homework". Instead, try to read the textbooks they are reading to determine what methods they are using. Don't just "make them read" for the weekly book logs, spend some time finding quality reading material that they enjoy and is at an appropriate level.
  3. Answer their questions and ask your own. Rather than asking "how was school" ask what their favorite activity was, or who they sat with at lunch, or whether they have any class pets or are growing any plants, or doing any science experiments. As you go down the road on the way to and from school, don't plug in a movie or give them an i-whatever. Answer their millions of why questions or discuss the weather or their friends or even just your weekly schedule of activities.
  4. Supplement as needed. If your child is struggling with a concept or subject in school, or really loves a particular subject, spend some time at home on it. Learning doesn't always have to be "work". Find fun activities to reinforce the concepts. let them jump ahead in their favorite subject, read good books aloud after dinner, and find new friends and activities occasionally to widen their social experience.
  5. Make adjustments. This is the hardest one for some parents to make. Disrupting a child's schedule in the middle of the school year is not a decision to make lightly, but if you have good reason, don't waste a whole year. If the teacher is mean, if the school is violent, if your child is bullied and nothing is being done about it, make the change you need to make. Children grow quickly, and they will recover quickly, but why waste more of their life than necessary? If you do everything listed above, you will find the decision is a lot easier to make.
I know my child is an excellent reader, if reluctant at times. I know my child loves math, but tends to skip through it a bit too easily sometimes. I know he could do science experiments all day long, and can be read to aloud for hours a day. I know he is very active and has excellent gross motor skills, but his fine motor skills are terrible, and art is not his thing, unless it involves finger paint. I know he can't smell, has sensory issues, and loves all his friends. I'm sure you know your child just as well, so why not use that knowledge to empower his learning process. We can lament the failure of "the system" all we want to, or we can take responsibility for our children's education.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Problem with a Social Economy

I've seen quite a few posts over the last few years from other bloggers regarding a "social economy" and how that works. I never quite understood why I didn't agree with them until a neighbor mentioned that, because some friends of hers hadn't been coming to church or small group lately, she wouldn't be supporting the girl scout troop that their kids were in.

Here's the problem with the social economy. If your only reason for giving to, spending time with, or helping someone is what you get out of the relationship or what you might get back some day, you will be living a very dissatisfied life. To be fair, I don't think that's what was really happening in this particular situation with my neighbor, I think she truly would not have wanted to help the girl scout troop anyway and this was a handy excuse not to. But let's look at some of the pitfalls of a social economy.

  1. My value in my self is inherently higher. I remember that time I sacrificed washing 3 loads of dishes one day last week, but the last two days that my husband helped with the laundry are quickly fading from my mind. We naturally remember and focus on our own actions so we automatically value our own social net worth as higher than it truly is.
  2. Distraction and disruption. When we are playing the social economy, we need to remember that the dozens of meals sent to a family with a newborn are going to be forgotten quickly. That family is focused on survival, not sending thank you cards, or repaying the favor. The people that need the most help are the ones that are least likely to be able to pay you back.
  3. Paying it forward only works so well. Paying it forward is a great idea, as long as you don't expect to be the recipient of the cycle. If you encourage your friends and neighbors to "pay forward" their gratitude, you might help 10-20 times as many people, but that doesn't mean you will actually get anything back. There have been a few pyramid schemes going around Facebook (mainly a "kids book exchange") and I think we all know how those pyramid schemes turn out (only the initial few benefit until it fizzles out). So, feel free to pay it forward, but don't count on that cycle coming all the way back around to benefit you.
  4. Any economy is subject to the demands of its consumers. I can barter or trade with my neighbors for whatever I like, but eventually, they will realize I am human, fallible, and somewhat irritating (just as they are). So no matter how well I trade in the current social economy: relationships will fail, people will move on or drift apart, and that micro-economy will break down. Instead of focusing on the social economy, why not focus on the social relationship - building up each other, growing in love and respect for one another, being more understanding of our own humanity and brokenness. That's the kind of social economy that I want to trade in.

So what should we use instead of a social economy? What about a Christian economy?

Jesus said to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Rather than expecting to receive from all you've planted here on the earth, why not expect some eternal rewards? I have the feeling that you'll be a lot more grateful here on Earth too. Love your enemies, be a peacemaker, be merciful, give in secret, pray for your neighbors, and do everything without complaining or arguing.

And for those who are "shocked" that a Christian would say something so human and unenlightened, please don't be. We all have our particular difficulties in living as Christ lived. Christians are not, and should not claim to be perfect people. We are incredibly imperfect, broken, and dying souls who were resurrected through a faith in an amazing sacrifice. There's nothing we can do to repay Him, so while we strive for perfection, we often fall short. He is redeeming us every day, and we can only hope to continue growing and maturing as we fight the good fight.