Monday, November 23, 2009

Issues with the Giving Tree

At school registration in August, I signed up for the PTA holiday decorating committee, mainly because it was chaired by Pam, my neighbor, who I know is very organized and so I assumed the project would be relatively stress-free.

She called a week or so ago to ask me to set up the "Giving Tree" today in the school lobby. (I have another mom helping, but I haven't met her yet -- she'll be there at 4:00, I hope.) Leslie's school in Jersey had a Giving Tree. There were tags on it with gift requests for needy children. You bought the gift, wrapped it, put the tag on it and returned it to the school to be delivered to the child later. A worthy activity, I thought.

This is different. The tags on this tree have gifts suggestions for the teachers in the school. They were each asked to make a wish list of 12 items, and I listed each item on a gift tag to hang on the tree.

I am so uncomfortable with this project, and I can't quite pinpoint why. From the beginning, when Pam was describing the whole thing on the phone, I felt anxiety creeping up in me. For some reason, I just couldn't quite picture what this was supposed to be and what she was wanting from me. I don't know if I was just suffering some temporary stupidity that day or if she was not explaining clearly. I think I've got the idea now, but I'm still a little nervous that I'm going to miss something important here. Why? I dunno . .

But more than that, I found myself getting annoyed while I was filling out these gift tags with the teachers' requests -- and again, I can't pinpoint why. I have no problem with kids being encouraged to show appreciation to their teachers. All their gift requests seemed to be for things to use in the classroom. And I can certainly see how the teachers would like being able to let people know what they would genuinely like for Christmas gifts -- rather than getting the usual cheesy things teachers seem to get every year.

I don't know what my issue is. Maybe the somewhat extravagant gifts some of the teachers had on their list (a special stapler with colored staples? Really?). Maybe it's that my taxes should already be paying for the teachers' classroom needs. Maybe it's that I did fine teaching my kids at home without such items. Maybe it's that I want kids to think beyond their immediate world to others with genuine needs. (I remember that it wasn't until we started homeschooling that Leslie met a child who didn't get everything they asked for on their Christmas list. ) Maybe it's that feeling of holiday obligation again . . . that my gift to the teacher isn't just a thoughtful gesture of gratitude anymore, but an assumed expectation . . . that the thought isn't what counts now. The girls and I have made it a tradition to give bags of homemade caramel popcorn to their various teachers for Christmas -- but will Mr. Dickman really appreciate that when he's publicly made it known that he wants a "Zenergy Trio Chime" from the teacher store? Will we just look cheap and selfish?

Whatever. These seem to be my issues, so I'll try to let go of it. I'll set up the tree this afternoon. But I do wish I could have more joy in this.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bringing Thoughts Captive

A brief lesson about emotions. Stuff I learned in grad school. (Or at least during grad school -- my professors may not have been the actual source of this knowledge.)

Our emotions are almost completely physical responses. They are our bodies' reactions to the thoughts we think. We think a thought, and our bodies respond. Consider sadness. What do we physically feel when we are sad? Heaviness, sluggishness. Our bodies slow down all their major processes to force us to take the time to deal with the loss our brains are registering -- because sadness is always a reaction to some kind of loss.

Similarly, anger is the fight end of the fight-or-flight response. It is our bodies' reaction to a threat. Something is challenging our sense of security, in some way, and we gear up to fight it. Heart rate increases, muscles tense, senses and mental energy become focused on the object of concern -- anger is primarily physical. And like many physical responses, it is automatic. It's difficult to stop once triggered.

The key, then, is to eliminate the trigger. Not the person or the event -- we rarely have that kind of control over our circumstances. I mean, change the thoughts that start the physical response. Because truth be told, much of the stuff we get angry about is not actually any legitimate threat to us.

In Springfield, I worked with a friend named Belinda -- a black woman living in a rather racially-charged part of the country. She had many stories of the prejudice she and her family and friends had encountered over the years, stories that made my blood boil. I asked her once how she was able to deal with it all with such calm. Her answer was illuminating.

"I'm a child of God. I know who I am. What they think I am doesn't change who I really am."

In other words, their hatred wasn't a threat to her. The fight response didn't have a trigger.

I was reminded of all this last night during a discussion in our small group. And furthermore, I was convicted of my failure to put this knowledge into practice in my relationship with my daughter. The dangers of being too intellectual . . . a stockpile of knowledge is useless if it is not applied.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


She's the mother of Elisha, one of Eastin's new good friends in the neighborhood. She lives down the street, and she's the one who told me about this dance class I go to. We carpool there, and as we drive, she fascinates me with stories of growing up in Communist Albania. I'll have to share some of those someday (and her reasons for fearing government-run healthcare).

She's also a charismatic Christian. I haven't been around many charismatics for a while, and I've decided that it's good for me to court their company. Even though I have some theological disagreements with them, they challenge me in the best ways.

Mirela was telling me last night about her latest faith adventure. They're apparently doing some kind of financial campaign at her church for which they were asking for monthly pledges. She said her first thought was to pledge $20 (this would be from her own small personal income -- her husband doesn't attend church with her). But then she decided that there was no faith involved in a pledge like that -- $20 was not much of a stretch for her.

So she wrote $100. And the thing is, she apparently wrote this amount without any concern for where this money was going to come from, but rather with excited anticipation to see how God was going to get it to her.

In October, one of her friends who sends her small computer drafting projects occasionally (one of the little jobs she does to supplement family income) sent her a biggie -- big enough that her earnings easily covered her $100 pledge.

In November, a company for whom she does translating jobs -- and who, again, usually sends her small $15 jobs -- sent her a huge translation they needed. $330 she got for that one. Her monthly pledge was covered again.

Then the other day, she got a call from the census bureau, where she put an application in many, many months ago. They wanted to hire her to work in their nearby office -- starting next Monday. Just in time to cover her $100 for December.

Let me have risk-takers around me. Just as a practical matter . . . I wrote earlier. I didn't necessarily mean that to be a prayer request -- but it seems God graciously took it as such.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I remember a student presentation I heard in grad school about 12-step programs and the spiritual component in them. Someone asked the professor, "Aren't these people just trading one dependency for another?" The professor stroked his scholarly beard and sagely announced, "Well, not all dependencies are equal." True dat, I thought.

Perhaps he wasn't as wise as I believed at the time. I'm starting to think a dependency is a dependency is a dependency. An addiction is an addiction no matter how benign the object.

Case in point: I'm addicted to puzzles. Seriously. I just discovered a game on my laptop: spider solitaire. And suddenly I can't stop playing it. I've promised myself every day this week that I wouldn't even look at it -- and yet I've played over 70 games of spider solitaire in the past few days. Pathetic.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. I have a history of getting hooked on such games. Solitaire, mah jongg, game cube, sudoku, Rubik's cube -- if it's a puzzle that I can possibly find the solution for, I'll do it . . over and over and over . . .

Another: jigsaw puzzles. There's one on my dining room table right now that has been laying there since the beginning of the summer. No, it hasn't taken me that long to complete it. I've probably completed it a hundred times or more in the last five months. In fact, just last week I did it upside-down -- as in, no picture showing. That's right. I'm a junkie.

Once again, I find myself a fascinating psychological study. There's something soothing to me about these games. Each puzzle has a solution -- a solution that I already know or can easily find. So unlike real life. During a particularly stressful time a few years ago, my pastor asked me how I was coping, what I was doing to take care of myself. Well, I was doing jigsaw puzzles. The same ones, over and over and over again. Better than drinking my woes away, right? (I'm starting to think it was the grace of God that kept me away from alcohol when I was a teenager -- Lord knows where I'd be now.)

But even if puzzles are significantly less harmful than, say, cocaine . . the fact is they are an addiction and they interfere with my life. When I think of all the stuff I could be getting done while I'm stacking virtual playing cards on my laptop, guilt consumes me. (It's a considerable list -- Keith could detail it for you.) More than that, I'm sure God has another healthier way He intends for me to soothe whatever anxieties I'm dealing with -- and I'm sure his method is better than mine in countless ways.

Gotta wonder what I'm missing. I mean, what could be better than spider solitaire?

Drama Team on my Mind

Once again, I need to write out some things on my mind . . . if you're not that interested in my brain farts, skim and move on. :)

So, I guess I'm in on this Sunnybrook drama business. I'm officially a member of the "Creative Team" now, that meets every other Thursday to plan the creative aspects of the worship service. And I was now asked to be in a group planning an "open audition" for the drama team in January.

There is, unfortunately, some tension amidst all the powers-that-be concerning the drama ministry. Apparently, the purpose of this open audition is to beef up the team, get more good people. But I fear there are those who suspect that the real purpose is to eliminate some people from the team. Personally, I hope that what it ultimately is used for is to organize the team.

This is all bringing to my mind conversations I had with Marilyn, the music minister at Hope (our church in NJ). Hope and Sunnybrook have very similar music programs -- a handful of worship bands that rotate and play contemporary music. But Marilyn was always adamant that we still needed to have a choir. They didn't sit in a loft or sing every Sunday. But she insisted that it was important to have an "entry-level" place for people to participate in the music ministry who had a passion for doing so but didn't have the skill level to be in a worship band.

I pondered that concept many times. I kept wondering how we could make a similar "entry-level" place for people to participate in the drama ministry. The Sunday morning sketches are akin to a worship band -- high exposure, requiring a high level of skill. You need good actors doing those. But there are many people who love drama and want to participate who aren't up to that skill level. I wanted a place for them.

I'm wondering if Sunnybrook doesn't have such a place ready-made in its Sunday morning kids' program. Every class in "KidZone", as they call it, has a drama each week. That's three or four different "skits" happening every Sunday morning in there. The expectations are much lower, the presentations are much simpler -- actually, in a way, it's a different skill set required to work in there. You need excellent storytelling skills and ad-libbing skills (you never know what's going to happen in a class of 6-year-olds).

I would love to see our whole drama team organized into subgroups: say, the Worship Players, whose focus is the Sunday morning sketches . . the KidZone Players, whose focus is the KidZone dramas . . a Tech Crew, who deals with sets, props, lighting, etc (cuz Sunnybrook does more of that) . . and then maybe a Corps Team, who can't make the time commitment to be on any of the other teams but want to be able to participate when they're available and a role comes up that fits them. There can be overlap -- Kidzone folks can be in Worship sketches sometimes, and vice versa -- but there will be more focus, and everyone will have a better idea of what their expectations are.

Now, how to do this without making people feel that they're being demoted somehow (like in school reading groups -- the bluebirds always feel inferior to the cardinals). Because it really isn't a demotion. And how to present this idea to the powers-that-be without giving the impression I'm trying to take over here . . .

If it's even a good idea at all . . . my brain just runs amok sometimes, you know . . .

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Holidays -- Again

I started the very beginnings of Christmas shopping today. This is early for me -- I usually resist thinking too much about the holidays until closer to Thanksgiving, on principle. But I thought that maybe getting some of this stuff done earlier might head off my annual bout of Scrooginess.

Surprise, surprise. The woman who rolled her eyes at "When You Wish Upon a Star" gets a bit Scroogey at Christmas.

It's not that I don't like Christmas. I do. It used to be my favorite time of year, and it may still be. But as time went on, and kids came around and grew older, and so on and so forth . . . it started to feel more and more like a season of obligations.

I got to the point several years ago where I typed up a checklist to print for myself every year so I could keep track of all the things I had to get done before December 25th. Being me, I organized the list -- family traditions, things to do for their spiritual significance, things to do to connect with others, extra stuff that's just for fun. About 75% of the items on the list fell into the "Connecting with Others" category: cards, gifts, social events, traveling, etc. And that's just not right.

Are you gasping in astonishment? No, I'm not a cold ogre. I recognize the value and importance of connecting with others. And Christmas has always been the time of year to do that. "After all," you may be saying, "Christmas is about family . . and children . . and loving each other."

And there's where I disagree.

Christmas is NOT about family. Or children. Our culture has made it about family and children because it has to avoid talking about what it's really about in order not to offend anyone. Family is important. Children are important. But they are absolutely NOT what Christmas is about. Sometimes the way we put these things on a pedestal gets dangerously close to idolatry, I fear.

Christmas is a day of deep spiritual significance, and for all of our fuss about "keeping Christ in Christmas", we've lost much sense of that. Yeah, we read Luke 2 before we rip open the presents. We go to the Christmas pageants at church and bring sugar cookies to share. We listen to the old carols intermingled with Rudolf and Frosty. But most of the time, it is a superficial nod to the Christ of Christmas. Only, perhaps, in a brief moment of atypical peacefulness in the month of December do we really have a chance to think about and meditate on and revel in and rejoice over the concept of Emmanuel -- God with us.

It's a breath-taking idea, really. And the fact that we short-change it for the tinsel and goodies and hurried "Season's Greetings" is to our shame.

I whine about this every year -- to myself at least. I think it's time I did something about it. Maybe writing about it here will hold me accountable. Here's my first step: I have heard of people (friends of friends) who have stopped sending out Christmas cards or letters; they do it on another holiday. Keep the connecting ritual -- don't let it interfere with Christmas. Maybe I'll send out Thanksgiving letters this year.

It's a start anyway.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Make 'Em Wonder

Homeschool P.E. was at a gymnastics center today. Eastin was off school and she was THRILLED to be able to go and see her homeschool friends. As usual, the moms all sat at the side, watching and visiting with each other. I wonder sometimes if we should be better about participating in P.E. with our kids -- I mean, we all could use some physical activity. On the other hand, we all also could desperately use a break from our kids and some social time with other moms.

Anyway, a couple moms got to talking about certain members of their family who were unbelievers and the frustration they feel in dealing with them. How they just can't understand their thinking. How they don't seem to respond to reason or want to consider the opposing point of view. How they have other family members who are not strong in their faith or even open skeptics, but at least they go to church so they can live with that. Yada yada . .

I nodded and tried to look sympathetic. But I wasn't comfortable with the tone of the conversation. I found myself wondering more at my friends than at their unbelieving family members. Are such doubts really so incomprehensible to them? Have they never questioned the tenets of their faith? Is this the way they always interact with unbelievers? And just how many unbelievers do they interact with? Do they really think these loved ones' eternal destiny is dependent on their coming up with the perfect, foolproof argument for the faith? I may be inaccurately interpreting their hearts here, but this is certainly how it sounded.

I have questioned the tenets of my faith. Frequently and deeply. I thoroughly sympathize with the skeptic. But more than that, I realize that while it is important to be able to answer the skeptic's questions, there is usually more behind their rejection of the faith than unanswered questions. Even if there were a perfect, foolproof argument for the faith, there would be those that reject it. Their position has more to do with the condition of their heart than that of their intellect.

I wanted so much to tell my friends, "Look. Stop talking at them when they obviously don't want to listen. That does no good and much harm. Love them. Effusively and unconditionally. Give them a concrete picture of the God who didn't wait until they got their doctrine and their behavior right to give His life for them.

"And then focus your attention on your own walk with God. Stop asking them questions about their belief system; give them a reason to want to ask you about yours. Make sure your spiritual life is something to be envied, not something to be scorned."

I know when I went through my pits of doubt, the only thing that kept me even searching for some kernel of truth in Christianity was the memory of a handful of people I have known in my life. People who honestly staked everything on their beliefs -- and it worked for them. Their lives were their testimony more than their words. I couldn't argue the fact that they had something I wanted.

I did kind of try to say this stuff, but I felt like I was just talking at them. Like they weren't up to hearing it. Or maybe they were just in give-me-sympathy mode -- don't fix my problems, just agree with me about how awful my problems are. I've been there. It's a woman thing.

Once again, it saddens me how lousy a job we believers do of "glorifying God" in our world. "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples -- if you bug them about their messed-up theology every time you see them . . . if you manipulate them to get them into church every Sunday whether or not they want to be there . . . if you look at them with a mixture of pity and disdain whenever they express some unBiblical idea . . . "

No, I don't think that's what Jesus said . . .

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Because Some of You May Be Wondering . . .

The play went very well last night. Dress rehearsal was dreadful, but that's why you have dress rehearsals, I suppose. No major flub-ups, almost everyone could be heard (one of my biggest concerns), and the message of the story seemed to resonate with everyone. And most importantly, all the kids seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and feel a sense of accomplishment. As did I!

Now on to my next script . . Pilgrim's Progress, for the older kids . . .

Monday, November 2, 2009

Taking Risks

My favorite writer, Andree Seu, is convicting me again. (There's actually supposed to be an accent mark over the first e in her name, but I can't figure out how to make that happen here. If anyone can fill me in, please do!) I used a quote from her blog as my Facebook status the other day, just to keep it in my face. "It is normal for a tree to have fruit. If it doesn't, something is wrong with the tree and we need to get to the root of it." I find myself all too often satisfied with a less-than-fruitful daily existence -- and I need to not settle for that.

Yesterday I got caught up on reading some of my World magazines, where she has a regular column (this is where I was first introduced to her). And once again, she was the voice of God to me.

Let me have risk-takers around me. Just as a practical matter. Let me have Christians who try things that fail, and then try something else. Introduce me to someone who parks near handicapped parking at McDonalds and waits for someone to come along who might need prayer. Send me a friend who would rather make a fool of himself obeying what he is 80 percent sure the Word commands than play it safe, or who supports missionaries beyond his means. I want to hang out with a woman who snaps to the voice of the Spirit, rather than mind-screwing it till it subsides. Or who puts her full weight on the promises of God and doesn't get so mired in theological discussion of "context" that the promise is whittled to nothing.

I wrote about this before, earlier in the year. About how few of us believers can effectively share our stories with the world -- not because we're weak communicators, but because we're weak believers and have no stories to share.

We rob each other. How do we rob each other? By not risking anything all day long, so that we give no room to God for the glorious testimonies He is waiting to hand us . . God is glorified in the demonstration of the difference between our natural ability and His miraculous power.

In other words, if I never venture out to try something that is beyond my natural ability to do, there is little opportunity for God to show his supernatural ability in my life. Scary.

For me, the scary part of this is deciding what risks God wants me to take. There is sometimes a fine line, it seems, between stepping out on faith and just being an idiot. Between anticipating that God will work a miracle through me to accomplish His will and expecting presumptiously that God will work a miracle to accomplish MY will.

"We would accomplish a lot more things if we didn't believe they were impossible" -- I quoted that in an earlier blog, too. God can accomplish the impossible -- but only God can accomplish the impossible. I need to be sure that the risks I choose to take are a part of His plan. Right?

This subject has been coming up too regularly for me to ignore it. What to do about it, I'm not sure yet . . .