L-O-V-E

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The Gospel reading for this past Sunday was from Matthew, chapter 18, when the disciples asked Jesus “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replies by calling a child over to him and He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I love this reminder and oh, how I need to keep it in front of me daily.

The prevailing message in our society is self-determination.  We are encouraged to strive hard, be productive, and generally make our way in the world.  Jesus’s message couldn’t be more different.  His definition of greatness is the opposite of what the world tells us.  The child who is humble, meek, and readily surrenders to the care and guidance of their Father in heaven, that one is the greatest.

I don’t know about you, but this message brings me such relief! It tells me: “Stop striving, Kels!  Stop trying to live up to the expectations of this world.  Stop needing things to go a certain way so you can feel comfortable and in control. Stop measuring your worth through productivity, wealth, or accomplishments.”

Instead, look around you, be present in the moment, what are you called to do right now?  Try praying for guidance.  Try resting and waiting for God’s timing to be fulfilled. Be humble and surrender.  God knows what’s best and he’ll let you in on his plan for your life a little bit at a time.  You don’t get to see the whole picture.  You don’t know what’s best.  But, your Father in heaven does.  Stop. Rest.

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As a parent actively raising young children, this imagery of childhood and submitting to the guidance of loving parents is particularly meaningful.  Just last night, I had the opportunity to pray for wisdom, stay present, and help my son through a challenging moment.  Teo was sitting at the dining table and making a consistent, annoying noise.  After asking him to stop a few times, I decided to put music on in the kitchen to divert his attention.  He didn’t react well to the music coming on.

“I don’t like this music!” he complained as Frank Sinatra’s crooning filled the room.  I explained that this was mommy’s time for cooking and listening to music, so I wasn’t going to change it.  He continued to throw quite a fit.  I let him cry and yell for a few minutes, then tried to reason with him again.  He calmed a bit, but then came into the kitchen complaining again, “Turn this off, I don’t like it.”

The Nat King Cole song “L-O-V-E” was just starting.  Without any forethought, I scooped Teo up in my arms (which is getting harder and harder to do!) and started dancing with him in the kitchen.  He instantly relaxed and put his head on my shoulder as I sang along:

L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore

And love is all that I can give to you
Love is more than just a game for two
Two in love can make it
Take my heart and please don’t break it
Love was made for me and you

As the song came to an end, I silently prayed: “Thank you for that moment, Lord.”  Then I kissed Teo on the cheek as I put him down.  Within a few minutes he grabbed his glove and baseball to practice pop-flys in the backyard while dinner finished cooking.

When I think of the way that God lovingly guides and cares for us, despite our persistent sin, pridefulness, and general disregard for his direction, I’m inspired to love my children unconditionally.  Children are often sent the message that they will be loved when they obey their parents or other authority figures.  Being a “good girl” or “good boy” and being praised for those traits leads to many “people pleasers” and “approval addicts”.   What if we allowed our children to feel their emotions, express them, assert their will, and have their own perspectives?  Then, we can teach, guide, and coach them with loving support and big doses of hugs and love.  What if we tried to model God’s grace for us in the way we parent our children?

Seeking Peace Where it Can’t Be Found

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Living in our postmodern, technological age, we are inundated with information all the time.  Browsing through the bookstore or library (two of my favorite activities!) reveals that there’s pretty much no topic that hasn’t been researched and written about.  I’m a fan of physical paper books, but there’s obviously a nearly infinite number of electronic and online sources of information.  From diet plans, cookbooks, and exercise advice, to personal productivity, self-help, and religion, if you have a problem, there’s at least a dozen sources of potential answers.

Culling through all the noise and conflicting advice is enough to make your head spin.  There are certainly useful and sometimes very helpful ideas that we can implement in our lives in practical ways.  But, as a Christian, I’ve found that all the worldly advice and self-help rhetoric can never compare to God’s perfect guidance.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite verses from Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 4-7

When I’m striving for control, I can dive deep into the latest research, diet, or other self-help approach, seeking to improve myself and be healthier, smarter, and more productive.  But, none of that information can ever give me what I deeply desire.  It can’t fill the God-shaped hole inside me or provide the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  In fact, instead of lasting peace, this striving for control ultimately leads me away from God as I rely on my own understanding.

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When I trust in God and rest in prayer, I am consistently amazed by how perfect His timing is, how the right words come to mind and prompt me to act in loving ways so I can connect with those around me.  What truly matters always gets the appropriate amount of attention and time when I stop striving to control and accept the world around me.

If you step back and think about it, this striving and seeking our own way forward, instead of relying on God, it’s pretty ridiculous.  The Creator of the universe has made Himself known through His Son and communes with us through the Holy Spirit, so that we always have access to Him and His perfect love.  But, so often, our sinfulness drives us into ourselves and we believe the lie that we can make it on our own.  Instead of turning to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we trust our feeble, limited wisdom.  Craziness!

There’s undoubtedly a lot of wise and helpful advice and information in all types of mediums that we can read and learn.  I’m a lifetime student at heart and still love going to a coffee shop to read and take notes!  It’s my special “me time” that I try to carve out on a weekly basis.  But, now I’m doing it prayerfully, asking for proper discernment, so that trusting in God is always foremost in my heart and mind.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3: 5-6

A Family Constitution

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Sienna came running out the backdoor with a paper in her hand: “Mommy, you need to read this and sign it!”  I had been sitting in the backyard watching the sunset and initially thought it was her daily binder reminder that required my signature.  Instead, she handed me a contract she’d just drafted for our family.

The “Family Constitution” included the following rules:

No hitting. No pushing. No snatching. No saying someone is mean. No name calling. No rudeness. Always share. Be kind. Say please and thank you.

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Dennis had already signed the constitution, and I later teased him that he must be Hamilton, which is appropriate as the head of our family.

“Sienna, this is great!  I’m happy to sign.”  I told her.  “Did you do a class constitution in school today?”

“Yep!” she replied as she went to collect Mateo’s “signature” and add her own, before posting it on the refrigerator.

This morning, she added our return address stamp to make it “official” and declared that she was the President of the family.  Teo proudly announced that Sienna had installed him as the police officer.  I thought it was a brilliant move to give him responsibility for policing these rules as he’s one of the biggest offenders.  Specifically of calling his mommy “mean” when she doesn’t let him do what he wants to do!

“Who decides on the punishment?”  Teo asked.

“Well, you’re the police so you’ll arrest someone and then they’ll go in front of the judge,” I replied.

“Who’s the judge?”

“I am!” Sienna declared.

“You’re the President and the judge?  Sounds like a concentration of power to me!”

When we returned home from work and school this evening, Teo and I had a conversation about these family rules.  He was feeling tired and overwhelmed and wanted to toss out the constitution because it was too challenging.

“Teo, you don’t have to keep these rules perfectly.  No one expects you to do that,” I calmly explained.

“But, I do!” he responded.

I went on to explain that these family rules are in the spirit of God’s law for us.  We can never keep God’s perfect law.  We’re sinners and will always fall short of God’s standard of perfection.  Jesus lived without sin and paid the price for our sins with his death and resurrection.  We’re washed in his righteousness through Baptism.  Therefore, we’re forgiven each time we fall short.  Similarly, in our family, we’ll break these rules, say we’re sorry, ask for forgiveness, and be forgiven.

Wow, that’s reassuring news whether you’re a kid, parent, President, police officer, or judge.

Graceful Teachable Moments

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Rushing kids to get ready and out the door in time to make it to work by 8:15 a.m. feels like a fate worse than death. Fortunately, I don’t have to do it often, but this week I did.  Adding to the equation that they have been going to bed late, sleeping in, and generally in the slothful mode of kids in summertime, just about pushed me over the edge.

When we finally left the house to head to their summer program, Sienna realized that we’d forgotten to apply sunscreen. No, correct that… I had forgotten to apply sunscreen to her and Mateo.

“Mom! You forgot our sunscreen!” she accusingly cried.

“You’ll be okay,” I passively replied.

“No, we’ll get sunburned! Why didn’t you put sunscreen on us?” my persistent daughter asked.

“Because I’m a bad mom! What do you want me to say, Sienna?” was my lovingly maternal response.

I sighed, already regretting my comment. “Breathe,” I told myself.  For the next few blocks, I just drove and took deep breaths.  Gazing in the rearview mirror, which is always pointed toward my kids when they’re in the car, I noted the sad expressions on both their faces.

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Pulling the car over to the curb, I turned around to face them.

“I’m sorry. Mommy has a lot of responsibilities and today I was anxious to get to work on time to make sure a room was setup in time for a meeting.  You two are my most cherished and important responsibilities and I love you so much.  Work is important too because it provides money for our family.  Sometimes mommy gets overwhelmed, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

“It’s okay, Mom” Sienna replied.  Teo smiled at me as he patted my hand.

We parted with big hugs and kisses a few minutes later. On the drive to the office, I could have beaten myself up for responding harshly and sarcastically instead of patiently and lovingly.  But, instead, I prayed and remembered that God is gracious and forgiving.  This was yet another opportunity to demonstrate that love and grace to Sienna and Teo.

Recently, Sienna has begun telling me she’s sorry for talking rudely or unkindly. She’s started reflecting on why she chose to behave a certain way and expresses regret when she hurts her loved one’s feelings.  In these moments, it seems like she’s mimicking me.  I’ve made it a point to ask for forgiveness when my words and behavior don’t match my loving intentions.

We all get frustrated and short-tempered from time to time and say things that hurt others. We try to do better, but we’re sinners and we’ll inevitably fall back into wanting things to go our way and getting frustrated with the people around us when they don’t do what we want them to do.  Being quick to acknowledge when we sin against those we love and seeking their forgiveness is what I hope our kids are seeing and learning.

I guess it’s fortunate we have so many good teachable moments.

 

Take this cup from me…

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I’m working through a Lenten devotional called Contemplating the Cross: A 40 Day Pilgrimage of Prayer by Tricia McCary Rhodes, for the second time this Lenten season.  My first time through was six years ago.  I’m getting so much more out of it this time around, mostly because of my willingness and desire to dig deep and face unpleasant emotions.  There’s no way to understand Christ’s suffering without facing the pain and suffering head on.

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Yesterday’s devotion helped me understand Jesus’s suffering in the garden in a new way.  In order for Jesus, who had no sin, to be the sacrifice for our sins, he had to take on the sins of the world.  He had to become sin for us.  Rhodes explains, the cup Jesus asks the Father to take from him is filled with the sins of all humanity throughout all of time. Can you imagine the repulsion that Jesus must have felt?

In response to each daily devotion, Rhodes urges readers to write prayers. Here’s mine:

Dear Lord Jesus,

I cannot imagine the depths of sin and darkness that filled the cup you were given in the garden.  My sin was included.  Your perfect righteousness was defiled by the sin of the world that night. 

I am so eternally grateful that you drank from the cup, becoming sin for us, so you could be the sacrifice for sin.  My life and the lives of everyone I love, indeed, everyone in the world, would have been lost had you dashed the cup upon the ground.  Your struggle, pain, and doubt was not as big and strong as your love and obedience toward the Father. 

If only we could try to immolate that obedience, Lord.  We would all be so much better off; I would be.  But, you are perfect righteousness.  You are ultimate love and compassion.  You are the giver of life and all good things.  Thank you for loving me and drinking my sin into your body that night.  May my life always reflect this gratitude. 

In your precious name, Amen.  

I Am a Sinner. What a Relief!

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“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

Given our culture of positive thinking and self-empowerment, this may sound revolutionary, but here it goes… I have found that remembering that I am a sinner and in need of Christ’s perfect righteousness and salvation provides instant relief, comfort and peace.  By reminding myself that I’m not innately good, without Christ, I am brought back to a state of surrender, which leads to a peace beyond understanding.

It’s been several years now since my transformation from living disconnected, in my head, and out of touch with my emotions. I typically embrace living in the moment, feeling my feelings, and connecting with Christ and the people in my life.  However, the ego is a funny thing.  After feeling strong and capable, happy and fulfilled, because of letting go and trusting God, I will then slowly, gradually, and without detection start striving for control.  I start to believe my thoughts that tell me how things ought to be, how other people ought to behave, how the world around me ought to operate.

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Our thoughts are pretty ridiculous at times and I’ve been tapping into my observing self lately to watch how my mind operates. Thoughts will hook me and I wrestle with deciding whether or not they are true.  One of the most important lessons I learned from The Happiness Trap is to focus on whether or not a thought is helpful, whether it helps you live a life you value, rather on whether or not the thought is true.  Ultimately, my perspective and wisdom are very small.  Typically, when I’m striving to reconcile unhelpful thoughts, I’m actually struggle with a need for control.

I’ll remind myself – “Kelsey, you’re a sinner. You aren’t innately good and right in this or any situation. God’s grace is what brings life and salvation to you and everyone else.”  I am then able to relax, breathe, and start praying for God’s wisdom to guide me to take action to improve whatever situation or circumstance is plaguing my thoughts.

One of the concepts in Lutheran theology that brings wonderful relief is that we’re simultaneously saint and sinner. Because of Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection, those who are baptized into his name are saints.  But, we are still sinners living in this fallen world.  No matter our efforts, we are breaking God’s perfect standard on a daily basis.  There is good inside of us – the Holy Spirit of God – which leads us to love and do good deeds.  But, we certainly cannot boast in these actions because they’re motivated by God, not by our sinful humanity.

By remembering my sinfulness, I’m immediately brought down from the elevated place my ego has lead me. By recognizing my extremely limited perspective and wisdom, I turn to God for guidance.  By recalling that my thoughts are misleading and without value, I am able to dismiss them and turn my attention to connecting with the people around me.  By connecting with people and praying for God’s wisdom, I am able to find ways to love and good deeds to do.

Time Well Spent

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Maybe it’s just me, but tasks, responsibilities, choices, options, and general noise from the world can become overwhelming at times.  When life gets busy, I find myself almost paralyzed with information overload.  Have a half an hour before the next scheduled event?  Should I prep food, do some house cleaning, write a blog post, read, play with the kids, go to the store, check an item off my to do list, do a quick workout?

Okay, I decide to prep food.  What meal?  Should I stick with the meal plan I came up with earlier in the week or be spontaneous?  I’ll see what recipes I can make with the ingredients on hand.  Okay, should I search online or peruse the half dozen cookbooks on my kitchen counter?  Will the kids eat the Thai chicken dish I found online?  Doubtful.  I’ll just make something different for them.  But what?  And around we go again.

This is just one possible option of how to spend those thirty minutes.  There are dozens of others, and that’s where the real struggle comes from.  When I get caught up in my thoughts and buy into the societal pressure that my life ought to look a certain way, there is a self-imposed pressure to always be doing the right thing.  I remember this mindset.  It’s the one that drove me into my head and away from my family.  It’s the one that believes my thoughts and actions will keep my world spinning, rather than surrendering to God’s perfect plan.

The truth is, time is finite.  There are only so many hours in a day, days in a year, and years in a lifetime.  How we choose to spend our time is hugely important in shaping the life we lead.  The more activities I tell myself need to fit into my life, the more overwhelmed I feel.  Does the meal have to be completely home cooked and (for me) paleo?   Do I need to say yes to every request for parental volunteer or kids’ birthday party invitation?  Do I have to run or workout a certain number of times per week?

Of course the answer to all of these is no.  Those pressures are self-imposed and lead to stress and anxiety that I have to fit everything in to my already full schedule of childcare, diabetes management, a full time job, etc.

I’m prayerfully asking God to help me re-find the place of trusting acceptance and he’s shown me a surefire method for deciding how to spend my time.

I began down the right track this fall as I prioritized my kids’ soccer games over joining the running club on long runs Saturday mornings.  I’m still running on my own, which is peaceful and delightful, but training for a marathon is not a priority when I could be watching Teo play soccer!

Just last night, I got a wonderful reminder of how prioritizing connection with my family yields joy and peace.  Sienna starting complaining of an upset tummy about an hour before bedtime.  She was already all bathed and in her pajamas; she came to me in tears that her tummy hurt.  I said, “Why don’t we get in bed and read?”

Since she’s been doing most of the reading to Dennis or me at bedtime, she asked “But, can you read?  I don’t feel up to it.”

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“Of course, Lovie.” We settled into her bed to start the last chapter of Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

After taking some medicine and finishing Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Sienna was feeling a little better and asked if we could read another book.  We both moved from her bed to the floor in front of her bookshelves to choose the next book.  I looked over at Sienna, she smiled at me and said, “I love reading with you, it makes me feel so much better.” Then, looking at the books, “It’s like our own library… our own little library,” she gushed.

I felt the tenderness of that moment and thanked God that I wasn’t too busy or distracted to make the time to read longer with my daughter.  This night, I’d certainly made the right choice.

Today in church, if I needed additional confirmation of the value of spending that time, Sienna said to me: “Thank you for reading to me when I was sick last night, Mama.”  I told her what was true, “I love taking care of you when you need me.”

I’m so thankful for these tender moments that teach me the most valuable ways I can spend my precious time.