Wednesday, May 30, 2012


I am the vine; you are the branches . . . Any branch that does not bear fruit [the Gardener] cuts off, while any branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15)

I have a hopelessly black thumb, but I still understand the concept of pruning.  I recognize that when the flowers on the little plant behind my sink die, I need to pull them and their dead stems out to make room for new living ones to grow. So the idea of God trimming out the deadwood in my life to make room for new growth makes good sense.  Yay, God.  Thank you, Jesus.

But the late, great Andrew Murray informed me during my reading last night that trimming a vine is not just cutting out the deadwood.  It is "the cutting off of the long shoots of the previous year . . . the removal of something that is a proof of the vigor of its life."  The gardener seeking fruit from his vine trims off living, thriving sections of the branch.  Why?  Because it will waste sap that could be used for fruit. 

And again, the goal is fruit.  The goal is not a large, dramatic branch structure for someone to look at and admire.  The goal is as much good fruit as possible, which requires only one or two inches of wood -- enough to hold the grapes -- as close to the central vine stem as possible, so as to get the maximum amount of sap.

A sobering thought.  What living, thriving stuff does God prune away in my life because it sucks away from the fruit he intends my life to bear?  Religious activity . . . all the very good, very beneficial activities I get myself involved in that simply spread me too thin to be effective in any of them.  Excess "learning" . . . all the articles and commentaries and pithy sayings that I'm bombarded with in the media, all of which distracts me from the primary lesson he's working on in me. 

Even -- and oh, this is sad -- people.  People he has used to grow me in the past, whose friendship gives me great joy, but whose regular maintenance needs (all friendships require maintenance) suck time and energy from new directions God has sent me on.  Work . . . passions . . . our upcoming move may even be a method of pruning.  I expect it probably is.

I can cheer God on when he trims the deadwood out of my life.  But I'm likely to scream bloody murder when he starts whacking away at the stuff I like, that I think is supporting me, making me stronger and more beautiful.  The grand structure of My Branch . . . which is all about me and not about fruit.  I forget the blessing of being a bearer of fruit -- how much more satisfying it is to see God do great things through a weak me than it is to see a delusional me delude myself with my greatness.

Prune away, Lord.  Make me want the fruit as much as you do.

Friday, May 25, 2012

It Sucks to be Twelve

My youngest is going on a school trip today.  Adventureland in Des Moines, with the middle school orchestra.  I woke up at 5am this morning nervous for her.  How crazy is that?

I don't have any specific reason to be nervous for her -- no specific thing to be nervous about.  It's just that . . . she's at that pre-teen age, you know?  That age when everything is a big deal . . . everything is racked with drama . . . everything has the potential for emotional angst . . . oh, such an icky time of life!  And a full day spent with a bunch of other dramatic, emotional, wound-up pre-teens just seems like a recipe for something going down.

I declined to go along as a chaperone because I'm not all that crazy about amusement parks anyway, and being an adult in charge of said crazy children sounded like a nightmare.  But now I'm kind of wishing I was going, just in case something really does go down, so I'm there to help her deal with it.

I know . . . I know . . . gotta let go.  She's gotta learn to deal with these things herself.  I just have such painful memories of moments of embarrassment and hurt from those years, and watching her live life these days brings back all the pain.  I'd almost forgotten how terrible it feels to be an awkward, insecure pre-teen girl.  Always doing something embarrassing, or afraid of doing it.  Never quite feeling on the "inside" of anything happening around you.  The back and forths, the ups and downs.  I just want to shelter her from it all.  Or at least be there to hug her and tell her it will get better -- it really will, honey. 

In a counseling class I took in grad school, we did a little exercise where we mentally went back to when we were kids.  The professor instructed us to have a "conversation" between our childhood self and our adult self.  That was weird, but enlightening.  I realized that, had my childhood self really been able to meet my adult self, she would have been relieved -- relieved that I wasn't ugly and that I had friends.  My biggest fears as a young girl . . . to be ugly and alone.

Okay, I'm sounding pathetic now!  But I bet every adult reading this can relate.  How horrible are the middle school years!  And really, what good is it to get past them and then have to live them again vicariously through your children?  SIGH.  Life's a cruel game sometimes . . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Failing the Test

I just had a small moment of insight.  I'm hoping I can articulate it here -- for my own remembrance, and for someone else's enlightenment, if God so uses it.

My alarm didn't wake me up this morning (which, on another day would be a great thing because it meant I slept long and hard).  I rushed to get dressed and check on our eldest whom I needed to drive to school.  She was still pondering a decision I had asked her to make last night before she went to bed.  And, of course, this set me off.  I snapped, we bickered, I stomped and pouted, she gave excuses and rolled her eyes . . . I'm sure you can picture the scene.  It was not attractive.

Well, now she's off at school taking her first final of the day (Chemistry -- prayers appreciated), and I drove home with a sinking feeling that I'd already failed my first test of the day. 

In my readings lately, I've been considering the idea of "practicing the presence of God" -- an old term for, basically, developing a constant awareness of God's presence and communication.  I've also been considering the idea that God is completely in control, that nothing bad happens to me apart from his permission and he only gives permission if he has good to bring out of it.

So, I wondered, what good could come of me waking up late in a tizzy and then snapping at my daughter?  Was it a test?  Probably.  A test of my peace and patience.  And I failed.

But I had a sudden thought: what if this wasn't about God testing me . . . what if this was about me testing God?  Maybe God was giving me a chance to really try this "practicing his presence" stuff out in the trenches and see that he really is there, waiting to talk me through these moments.  Test me in this and see . . . (Malachi 3).

So, I failed the test this morning.  But not in the sense that I, personally, should have been patient and wasn't (although that's kind of true, too).  More in the sense that I clearly haven't yet learned to automatically lean on my Great Resource who gives me patience.  And that's an easier failure to swallow.  Because if my living a "victorious Christian life" depends on my becoming a better person, I don't have a lot of hope.  I've tried that my whole life, and it doesn't work.  But if it depends on my learning how to let God get it done through me -- that I can do, eventually.

At least this wasn't a final exam, like what my daughter's taking.  There will be more tests -- new ones every morning.  Fortunately, His mercies are new every morning, too.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Living with Enthusiasm!

Sloth.  It's a funny word.  Ssslllooooth.  Just pronouncing it imbues one with a dopey feeling.  It sounds lazy.

On a new website I've been introduced to (, I recently read an article about sloth.  It's one of the seven deadly sins, you know.  "The avoidance of physical or spiritual work."  Think couch potato.  Yeah, I'm slothful. 

What I found most intriguing about this article, however, was the quality it named as sloth's opposite: enthusiasm!  Not busy-ness: the author notes that many people use busy-ness as an excuse to avoid the work they really need to be doing.  It becomes just a tool to enable one's sloth.  Ouch.

But enthusiasm -- that's what whips sloth's sorry little bootie!  Get excited about something and it's impossible to avoid the work involved because the work becomes a joy!

This point stuck because it occurred to me that, in general, I don't often get enthusiastic about much anymore.  Yes, that's sad, I know.  It's a condition that has developed over the years, and I think I've always attributed it to my sleep problems and the resulting lethargy.  But I suspect now that I may have been mistaken in that assumption.  I suspect it may be a self-protection thing.  You get excited about something . . . you're disappointed . . . and so you stop getting excited to avoid the inevitable let-downs.  Better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed again.

But I don't think I'm supposed to live that way.  It leads to sloth -- which, again, is one of the seven deadly sins, people!  Deadly, I believe, because it sucks the joy out of life, and a life without joy is not worth living.  Better to live life with enthusiasm, even if it means the dashing of dreams sometimes.  You probably already knew that.  I needed a reminder.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Just Call Me Pro-Choice

My neighbor who goes to dance class with me grew up in Communist Albania.  Boy, has she got stories.

She told me that a wealthy man in her town was forced by the government to allow her family to live in his home.  He had more room than he needed; her family needed a place to stay; the government took it upon themselves to make a match.  Resentment, understandably, ensued.

She also told me that she always wanted to go to music school.  But only one child per family was allowed to go, and her older brother had already been admitted long before she was old enough to show any musical aptitude.  Her brother said it was a shame, because she was the more talented of the two.

And last night, she told me how she ended up in the career she did.  In Albania, if you earned high enough grades in high school, you were automatically admitted to college.  However, the names of all the kids in a town who were going to college were submitted to a town committee, and that town committee decided what subject each kid was going to study.  You were able to submit three preferences, but she said it was very rare for anyone to get one of their preferences (your chances were higher if you had good connections). 

She requested medicine, because her father wanted her to.  And she also requested another course of study which she couldn't come up with an English name for.  Basically, this person was in charge of distributing goods from the government stash to all the stores.  It was the most desirable job in the country, because this person had the first pick of everything in the stores before stock ran out.  This person never had to go without like everyone else did.

But she didn't get any of her choices.  She was assigned to study electronics, because her grades were pretty high and those with higher grades were always assigned to scientific fields.  By the time she graduated from college, the communist regime had fallen and she was much relieved -- she did not want to go back to her small hometown and take the electronics job that was waiting for her there. 

That was the reason people wanted to go to college: the government then guaranteed you a job.  But you had no choice in that job.  You did what they told you to do.  You sacrificed your freedom of self-determination for security.  And even then, you may not be able to get the necessities of life at the local store.

Did I mention how nervous Obamacare makes her?  She says it sounds all too familiar.  Makes me nervous, too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Grades, and The Game of School

Continuing on the topic of teaching . . .

My youngest, in her last writing assignment of the year, is exploring a change she would make in schools if she ran things.  While brainstorming, she proposed expanding the percentage range for grades: 80-100% for an A, 60-79% for a B, etc.  Note that this means 20% is a D-.

I gently pointed out to her that if you were to give a child a quiz on, say, multiplication of 9s, this child could get eight of the ten problems wrong and still pass the 9s.  Is that good enough?  Hmm, she pondered . . . and then decided to write about a different idea altogether.

But this brings up a valid point.  As our grading system stands now, a child can have only six of the ten 9s problems correct and still pass.  Is that good enough?  Do we really think it's okay for a student to catch on to only 60% of the material presented in a class and his teacher says, "Alright, that's good enough; you have a passing grade." What is this concept of "passing"? 

Toward the end of my teaching stint, I set up a totally different grading system for my honors classes.  I had a list of the major objectives for the course, and they had to prove to me they had met all those objectives to get anything above a D.  That was the primary focus.  Then, whether they ended up with an A, B, or C depended on whether they finished all their assignments, got them in on time, participated in class . . . basically the effort they were showing.  It wasn't a perfect grading system, but it got my honors kids -- who were masters at playing the Game of School -- to think in terms of learning something rather than racking up points like in a round of Mario Bros.

I don't necessarily give my daughter grades for her subjects in our homeschool.  This is because our goal is her learning, and it's always clear to me whether or not she's learned what I want her to learn.  If she hasn't, we keep working on it.  Neither of us need a letter grade to know what she's accomplished.  Now, when she's in high school, she has to be given letter grades because colleges will need to be able to look at grades on a transcript to know what she's accomplished -- just like they do for every other kid they admit.

Thing is, I don't know what they expect that grade to tell them, other than that this kid knows how to play the school game.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Incentivizing for Quality Care

I took an ambien last night -- my first in 2012.  This reactive airway disease is doing me in.  It's actually improving some, I think, but last night I felt, if I could just get a full, deep night's sleep, everything would turn around for me today.  We'll see.

Yes, friends, I have been to the doctor.  Not my doctor -- under our current "emergency" health insurance, it would have cost $120 to see him.  The clinic downtown took me and my eldest for $40 each, plus a discount on the prescriptions we needed (inhaler for me, amoxicillin for the girl with strep).

I knew nothing about this clinic downtown until a friend recommended it to me when I explained why I was putting off going to the doctor for my cough until absolutely necessary.  I was pleased with our care.  The gentleman took plenty of time with us, listened carefully to my important backstory, even pulled out a big picture book to show us what he saw when he looked in our ears and how he knew we need to take Sudafed to drain our eustachian tubes.  Nice guy.  I suppose it remains to be seen how effective a doctor he is.

'Cause really, that's what it boils down to, right?  I've been to doctors whom I loved -- who were very personable and attentive, who treated me with respect and compassion -- but in the end, they weren't able to effectively take care of my illness.  Is this because I had some freakish kind of condition that eluded medical science, or because my doctor just lacked the knowledge or skill or perspective that he needed to diagnose it correctly?  Just like I've had teachers who were friendly, fun and caring, but who couldn't figure out why this math concept wasn't clear to me and couldn't make it clear to me to save either of our lives.

Hubby heard a doctor on a call-in radio show talking about how, as health care is set up in our country, he really has no incentive to keep his patients healthy.  Not that he -- or most doctors -- are trying to extend illnesses to make more money on the sick, but he said frankly, the system does incentivize them to do just that.

During the health care debates, I read an article about health care systems in other countries.  There was one somewhere in Asia (I should have hunted that down before started here) where the doctors get paid for keeping you healthy.  When you get sick, the assumption is that the doctor screwed up, and they fix the problem in you at no charge.  I'm trying to figure out how that could work.  Your health depends on so many things that the doctor can't control -- how you eat, whether you exercise or smoke -- I mean, he can make all kinds of recommendations to you, but if you ignore them, how can he be responsible for the results?

And again, I'm seeing the analogy to teachers.  How can teachers be held responsible for the learning of students when so much of that learning depends on the students themselves, not the teacher?  Yet, there must be a way -- a way to incentivize doctors and teachers fairly and effectively.  What would that be . . . ?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Little Messes, Big Blessings

I have a new song I'm loving.

"This is the Stuff" by Francesca Battistelli.  It's on a CD my youngest got for her birthday.  Oh, how many days have I felt like this!! 

This is the stuff that drives me crazy
This is the stuff that's getting to me lately
In the middle of my little mess
I forget how big I'm blessed.

My little mess.  My messes never seem little when I'm sitting in the middle of them.  And unfortunately, my blessings don't always seem that big, either.  How does our perspective get so screwed up?

I passed along a quote on FB a while back: The purpose of Christianity is not to avoid difficulty, but to produce a character adequate to meet it when it comes. It does not make life easy; rather it tries to make us great enough for life.  (James L. Christensen)

Now there's a life-changing thought -- for me anyway.  It has echoed in my mind for a few weeks now.  God is not that interested in changing the world to make my life more comfortable or easy.  He is interested in changing me so I am able to handle the world around me -- and change it, when need be.

This is the stuff you use
To break me of impatience
Conquer my frustrations.

James said that we should consider it "pure joy" when we face trials, because trials produce endurance, and endurance matures and completes us.  Amen.  Grow me up, Lord.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Tyranny of Stuff

Commenting on an earlier post, a friend recommended a book called The Quotidian Mysteries, by Kathleen Norris.  In it, I found this amazing prayer by St. Teresa of Avila:

Thank God for the things that I do not own.

Brilliance!!  This statement has rung in my ears since I read it a couple days ago.  And its sentiment has burned in my heart for a few months now -- maybe longer.  But definitely since I started considering the idea of a move to Panama and what would happen to all our stuff.

I find myself occasionally looking around the room I happen to be in and considering, What here is important enough to my daily living that I would pay to have it shipped to Panama?  And similarly, What, of what's left, is of such value to me that I would perhaps pay to have it stored here in the States?  These considerations have been very enlightening.

Our last four moves have been paid for by the company hiring my husband.  This means we haven't had to pack and move our own possessions anywhere since 1991, I believe.  This has spoiled us.  We haven't had to do the good, healthy work of weeding out the unnecessities in a couple decades.  Yes, I weed occasionally, but not in a complete, cleansing way.  And the result, I think, has been an unhealthy dependence on things. 

For example, I have a shelf full of candles here in the kitchen -- most of them given to me as little thank you gifts or whatever from various friends.  A nice girlie present, you know.  But I rarely burn candles.  Are they worth packing up for Panama?  No, of course not.  Are they worth paying to store somewhere?  Well, no.  So, why have I kept a collection of a couple dozen candles I don't ever burn?  Well . . . I keep thinking I may want to burn one of these some day . . . other people burn them and enjoy it, maybe I should get into the habit . . . they look kind of decorative . . . blah, bl-blah, blaahhh.

I have a shelf full of varied cleaning products in the laundry room -- most left over from hubby's working days in Springfield (we left there in 1998) when he could get such products from his company for free or very cheap and he chose to stock up.  Are they worth packing up for Panama?  No -- I rarely use them.  Are they worth paying to store?  Of course not.  Why have I kept them?  Well, occasionally, the need comes up to polish some silver or brass, or to get something sticky off of a glass surface . . .

And then we get into the cooking utensils, books, craft supplies, toys, office supplies, board games, DVDs, CDs (and record albums), decorative items, tools, sports gear, Christmas decorations -- blah, bl-blah, blaahhh.

Norris writes: "I sense that striving for wholeness is, increasingly, a countercultural goal, as fragmented people make for better consumers, buying more bits and pieces -- two or more cars, two homes and all that fills them -- and outfitting one's body for a wide variety of identities: business person, homebody, amateur athlete, traveler, theater or sports fan.  Things exercise a certain tyranny over us."

Sigh.  Amen.  If the truth of this truth truly sinks in, it should change us dramatically.

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Astonishing Move

I've never been the adventurous type.  I like security, stability, predictability . . I take new things in small doses when I take them at all.  This is why I was rather astonished at my reaction when hubby asked a few months ago what I thought of the idea of moving out of the country.

My reaction was: hmm, I can maybe see that.  I was even more astonished that our daughters' reactions echoed my own -- even the daughter with the history of anxiety issues. Sure, that might be cool.  More astonishment that, of the two places my husband was focusing his attention on, the girls and I unexplicably all zeroed in on the same one: Boquete, Panama.

Yeah, it might be nice to have a real change.  A slower pace, a simpler lifestyle.  Beautiful weather and terrain.  The challenge of adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language.  Hubby could basically retire with the lower cost of living there -- he could relax and let God direct him to where He wants to use him there (the way I've been able to do every time we moved). 

Boquete is desirable, too, because it's something of an expat haven.  Many Americans live there who have paved the way already.  You can get by on English pretty well for a while.  They have frequent get-togethers where you can feel a taste of home again.  They've even started their own community theater in town, for pete's sake -- talk about right up my alley!  I've been in contact with some American moms down there -- homeschoolers, even.  Ministry opportunities nearby, including an orphanage -- right up our girls' alleys.

My husband just got back from a conference in Panama City for expats considering a move there.  And there's another astonishing thing: they just happened to be having this conference now, when we're considering the idea and when he is unemployed and free to go.  And other "coincidences" keep happening as we mention the idea to friends here and there.  "We have friends in town who used to be missionaries in Panama." "I stayed last week with a couple who used to live in Panama."  "My cousin is living as an expat in Panama City -- you want his email?"

And the big "coincidence":  when hubby and I started discussing this, he had four good job possibilities out there.  We prayed, a lot, and decided that if none of these jobs panned out (which at the time seemed so unlikely), we would take that as a serious nudge from God that he wanted us to turn our attention to the Panama idea.  Well, the jobs have dropped one by one -- very slowly, interestingly enough, which is also unusual -- and the last one soon after he returned from the conference. 

So, we're all flying down to Boquete for a week or so in late June, because hubby said, this is so different, you all need to experience it yourselves before we make a decision.  But just the fact that we're seriously considering this, and even excited about it . . . well, that's astonishing.  And frightening.  And thrilling.  Prayers are welcome.

Friday, May 4, 2012

People . . Religion . . Messy

Ah, another post to rile my friends.

I'm pro-life.  My friend is pro-choice.  In fact, she used to work for the late Dr. Tiller in Wichita.  She's an intelligent, reasonable woman, so for some time, I've wanted to have a conversation with her about our respective opinions on the matter -- because as she says, I often learn more from those I disagree with than from those I agree with.  I finally initiated that conversation yesterday.  I expect the conversation will continue, but it has already been enlightening to me.

For one thing, I find that we agree on more than I would have guessed.  In fact, I think we would likely be tracking point for point except for my adherence to Biblical standards.  And there's my trouble with the whole abortion debate.  My opinions on abortion are based on the Bible.  Duh.  But not everyone in the country bases their opinions on the Bible.  So I'm not convinced our laws should be based on the Bible. 

I know I have Christian friends who have just lost a lot of respect for me with that proclamation, but I guess I'll deal with that.  I would love if every American used the Bible as their guide for truth and right behavior, but they don't.  And we can't legislate them into doing so.  We can only persuade them to do so.  And in fact, I'm not sure that persuading is even our job -- it's the Spirit's job.  We make our case for the truth, live our lives in the light of the truth, and let the Spirit change hearts and minds.  We certainly don't coerce them through the threat of legal action.

In the Old Testament, we have an example of the nation of Israel as a theocracy.  The laws of their faith were the laws of the king as well.  Even then, it didn't work well.  In fact, God told them from the beginning they wouldn't want it that way.  You don't want a king like all the other nations, he told them.  But they insisted.  I don't believe the account of the history of Israel is meant to be proscriptive for us today in terms of how we set up a government. 

And so, I'm as uncomfortable with attempts to legally define the beginning of life at conception as I am with judges striking down anti-gay marriage laws.  I will always vote based on my beliefs, because I think if the majority of people in a "state" believe the same way and want their laws based on those beliefs, that's how a democracy works.  But I recognize that this will come back to bite me in the butt someday.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's a better way.  Living with other people is . . . messy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Truth Is, God Is Good

Like the new look?  I decided, after three and a half years, it was time for a change.  You'll notice a new little gadget in the upper right corner: enter your email address, and you'll get notified when I have a new post.  Cool, yes?  Do take advantage of that and let me know how it works.

So, hubby and I had a deep discussion at bedtime last night, and he brought up humanity's tendency to create God in our own image.  We consider what we think God should do in a particular situation -- what we would want God to do -- and we assume that, well, clearly that's what a good God would do.  Because of course, we have a handle on what is good and what is not.  Mm-hmm.

For instance, we of the Western first-world grade-on-the-curve mindset want to believe that a good God would never send someone to hell who was really trying to do the right thing.  He would never condemn someone who got close to the truth but didn't quite get the whole thing right.  That wouldn't be fair!  That wouldn't be good.

However, there are other cultures in this vast tapestry of humanity who believe that a good God would never allow a wrong to go unpunished.  That would be unjust.  True goodness must require a commitment to absolute holiness and righteousness.  Mercy and forgiveness lower the standard, making holiness something less than holiness -- in fact, making it not holy at all.  That wouldn't be right of God.  It wouldn't be good.

Ah, yes.  We egocentric, myopic little snits -- we have a handle on what is good. Mm-hmm.

Ever wonder why God gave us a Bible?  Why, if the Holy Spirit lives inside us and "guides us into all truth", we needed a written word?  It's because we're egocentric, myopic little snits.  Despite all the problems with translation and interpretation and what not, we need an external source of truth if we're to have any hope of getting at the truth.  We cannot decide who God is by applying our definition of good.  We come up with a definition of good by examining who God is.

And a definition of love.  And of holiness.  Truth exists outside of ourselves, and it is truth whether or not we like what it is.  Maturity is a commitment to live by what is true, rather than to create "truth" in our own image.