Sunday, November 21, 2010

Taking Care of God's Stuff

I would die for my children…no question. If it came down to me or them, I’m hanging up my life lines. Maybe it’s because they came out of my own body, but my love for them is truly unconditional.

So why are adult relationships so darn difficult? Why do the hurts that come at the hands of siblings, parents, spouses or friends override the unconditional love meter? Why do we think and act in ways that hurt others?

I’m reminded of the one simple call of the Christian faith…love God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, love as Christ loves.

In theory this sounds so warm and fuzzy and wonderful. But you must picture a human man, around the age of 32, beaten and whipped to an unrecognizable pulp, forced to carry a cross, stripped almost naked, nailed on that cross, stabbed, spit on, cursed and left to die. Abandoned by even his closest friends on this earth and even feeling abandoned by God, he demonstrates in agonizing finality how Christians are to love in spite of humiliation, hatred, tragedy and betrayal.

Max Lucado shares the story of a woman who cares for her dying father despite enduring years of his sexual abuse. Her father never did apologize or acknowledge her pain, but she was by his side at the end and she realized that he was in a prison of his own making…and by forgiving him, she was free of that prison.

Society demands justice. Jesus demands love…no excuses.

When I was confirmed at 16, it is painful to realize now that I still wasn’t a Christian and wouldn’t be for many years. I had learned all the laws and rules, but didn’t understand the commitment I was really making or the personal relationship I needed to have. It wasn’t about choosing Jesus only when it suited me. It wasn’t about sitting in a church pew. It certainly wasn’t about good deeds or being “nice.” It wasn’t even about belief in God. All of that was a wonderful start, but it wasn’t even close to what was expected of me. And my life completely reflected my level of commitment and my level of love.

To follow Christ is to literally lay down your life…give it all to Him. It is no longer your own life…to pick and choose how and when you will love or even how you will live. It’s not YOUR money or YOUR talent or YOUR family or YOUR body. You and your stuff are owned by God. And if you treat God’s things as precious gifts, they will remain precious gifts. You won’t waste, abuse or neglect them. You are simply the caretaker. Will God’s gifts grow and prosper or will they wither?

"Love your neighbor” means ALL THE TIME. Because your neighbor is also God's stuff. Are you taking care of your neighbor or are you abusing, neglecting and blaming?

It’s easy to love people who love us in return. But the true life of a Christian is to love our neighbors so much that we put them and their well being and happiness before our own. We are called to give until it kills us, forgive and ask forgiveness, pray for others, ask for strength to do His will, and work behind the scenes without expectation of thanks. Because that's what Jesus did. No excuses.

A good Christian friend of mine once gave some inspired words that stick with me to this day. My life had gone about as bad as it could go and she didn’t sympathize. Being the friend she was, she simply said this:

“Suck it up, sugar.”

Suck it up. Turn around. Take care of God's stuff. It’s not too late.

Romans 6
John 13:35

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Random Acts of Ordinary

“In order to arrive at being everything, desire to be nothing.” — John of the Cross

Do you ever take stock of your day and wonder whether or not you made a difference to anyone? Sometimes it can feel like nothing interesting happened. Or maybe it was that we weren’t paying attention.

This morning a sunrise followed me all the way to work. It started out brilliant cotton candy pink and developed into the most gorgeous cloudy sunrays. I realized that whether I was at home or in St. Paul, MN, I had the opportunity to enjoy this beauty. Sitting in traffic and marveling at the sunlight poring through the clouds in “God” rays, I wondered how many people in their cars next to me were experiencing this moment and how many missed it.

On Monday, I was standing in line at the grocery store. A man ahead of me had a bottle of water to purchase. I figured it would be a quick purchase, so I waited with my one item behind him. Instead, the purchase took about five minutes as the man tried unsuccessfully to use his food debit card. I thought I was being so righteous by smiling and waiting patiently. But maybe I missed an opportunity to simply offer to pay for his water!

Later I took my daughter to have some dinner at a local fast food restaurant. An older woman came in behind us and ordered her dinner. Then she proceeded to find a seat and eat alone. Again, did I miss an opportunity to invite her to join us?

Maybe this sounds over the top in terms of kindness or service. Or maybe we miss too many opportunities like these. Our busy lives feel full, but could they be fuller — richer — if we saw the truth and opportunity behind each encounter? Could we move past our fears of rejection and doubt and conflict and do the right things anyway?

So what if we look weird or the other person rejects our offer? The point is that we stepped out of our comfort zone and made an attempt at connection and plain old kindness.

Seeing an opportunity and acting on it takes practice. We have to ignore the tabloids in the checkout line, stop the running commentary in our heads with its lists and obligations and worries, open our eyes and observe what the heck is going on around us.

Life happens mostly in ordinary time. In the midst of our routine, mundane and run-of- the-mill moments, there is potential for the miraculous. If we’re too busy trying to be somebody, trying to fix something, avoid something or move ahead, we might miss out on being really useful.

Pay attention. Your life is happening right now. And somebody really needs you today.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Being Sure of What We Hope For

Wowie! My new website has finally launched! I am very excited to continue the practice of patient parenting and kindness through this blog and the resources at The Patient Parent.

Many thanks to Kristin Smith, a true graphic design star with Francis and Wool Studios. who lent her creativity to my new site and launched it into cyberspace.

I also thank the countless parents and children, friends and family, writers, editors, child care providers and teachers who have supported me over the last five years to bring the message of patience to a national audience. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to share my writing, to encourage parents to read to their children with “Nat Knows Bananas,” and to actually live the message that I share.

Many thanks to my sister, Joy Hierlmaier, who provided illustrations for the “Nat Knows Bananas” book. You are always ENOUGH, beautiful woman.

It’s been a long road, and definitely worth the pain and delayed gratification!

Speaking of patience, I want to share one little story about my six-year-old. We were sitting at dinner on Saturday night: she and me and my 9-year-old, Nat, my sister Laura and her daughter, and my mother. Three generations of women — we had all been through a lot in the past four years and were celebrating a peaceful moment and long overdue reunion.

In front of us was a lovely meal of red potatoes and cucumbers from my garden, a fresh salad my sister whipped up, some surprisingly tasty tofu chicken nuggets (shh, don’t tell the kids) and warm bread. My heart filled with gratitude as I looked around the table.

Then my six-year-old piped up and said, “We need to pray.”

Her prayers are usually very creative and sometimes long, often a replay of the day’s activities. She thanked God for our time at the county fair and for the carnival rides and for winning at BINGO ($11 which she stuffed into her purse before quickly leaving the game!) and also for the good food.

Then after a short pause, she said, “And please help all the bad people to be good. Amen.”

It may be a long time before all the “bad” people are “good” in this world. But I believe that a child’s prayer for such a wonderful thing is heard loud and clear. However you define bad or good, I invite you to pray for goodness in everyone’s life. It might take years to see it, but NEVER give up hope.

Hebrews 11:1 God bless to all the patient parents out there...and let me know what you think of the new site! Pass it on!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Guard Your Children From A Reputation

“It was a recipe for disaster…” —Barenaked Ladies

Until they begin school, children are not too concerned about what other people think of them. They are who they are…screaming for a treat in a store or laughing out loud in church or farting at the dinner table.

School is the great teacher of expectations and rules. Beyond our parents, we learn in school how to behave in groups, respect personal space and property and meet learning goals. Our reputation begins to develop as either a well-mannered, quiet, helpful and attentive student or perhaps an inattentive, anxious, bullying, loud or enthusiastic rule breaker. There is a rainbow of reputations in between, but you get the picture.

Reputations are a slippery slope. If your teachers constantly call you quiet, smart and serious (as mine did), then the little rebel in you begins to plot her escape. If you are praised as a top performer or perfectionist, you might spend loads of energy and adrenalin worrying about the day you are knocked off the mountain. If you are labeled a failure, you might never consider climbing the mountain.

Families, communities, companies and countries have reputations. Families call it a legacy or a curse. Communities call it tradition or blight. Companies call it a brand or a crisis. Countries call it patriotism or terrorism. Society is grounded in reputation. Either you have a “good” one or you don’t…and you should be greatly concerned about that. Um, shouldn't you?

It takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears and aging to realize that reputations are like the shadow of a tree. As old Abe Lincoln said, “The tree is the real thing.” If you could really see the tree instead of just its shadow, what would you think? What would other people think?

If we want to raise future leaders, we should guard our children from the reputation trap. Reputation is the face we show to the world that gets us noticed, attracts a certain crowd and helps us achieve our “place in society.” Reputation makes us believe that once we’ve arrived in that place, we should live there forever. We don’t have a choice…people expect us to be this way. Good. Bad. Ugly. Sick. Spectacular.

But far better than a person of reputation is a person of character. People of character are messy and complex and human. They’ve faced themselves in the mirror and decided that no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve done or who the heck people think they are, they are really a sparkly piece of life — a purity and truth that only they can really know. And they can change and share that truth.

People of character also own up to their failures and more easily forgive the failures of others. They take the risk of showing who they really are — by how they live, love and let go. After the humiliations and silences and confusion and praise that may result, people of character discover that their place in society was just the shell on a delicious peanut. Shuck it.

I love the quote that says, “What people think of me is none of my business.” Imagine if our children kept the freedom that they had as toddlers…just being alive in every moment and discovering new talents and loving to help others. Imagine if we were more concerned with the heart of a person than what that person has done or failed to do. It's easier with little kids, isn't it?

Society may continue to move to the beating drum of reputations. But my dearest prayer for my children is to walk in the light and freedom of character…even if that means they laugh out loud in church sometimes. (Farting is accidental...I hope.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mountains, Valleys and Marathons

Humility is realizing that a lovely, smiling grandmother, a race walker and several hundred people of all shapes, sizes and ages have just left you in their dust in a half marathon.

The very idea of walking 13.1 miles, let alone running it, wouldn’t have occurred to me a year ago. Now a participant medal and my bib number, #1051, are attached to my home office bulletin board. April 17, 2010. It’s kind of surreal.

So are the thoughts that go through your mind during a race of that length — and sometimes the blankness of your mind — while bystanders ring bells and hoot and clap and the scenery changes from neighborhood streets to rough trails to parking lots.

I had a mix of music for the run that ranged from pumped-up Black Eyed Peas to gutsy Barley Girl. Half the time I didn’t hear it as my mind chattered on about an upcoming incline or annoyance at losing my pace in a sudden jam of runners.

Halfway through the race you start to bargain and give yourself pep talks. “I can make it to the next mile marker.” “Okay, I can make it to the next sign.” “Okay, the next person who starts walking…I can catch that person!!!”

At times you are alone. Then you are in a crowd. Then a different crowd. Then alone again.

You get mad at yourself for not training harder, for being slow, for thinking too much, for not having more fans cheering you on, for being envious of the faster runners.

Just when you think you must be one of the last people to get through this unbelievable trial, somebody shouts to you: “Quarter mile; you’re almost there!” “Finish right around the corner!” Something in you revives. You believe you’re going to make it. Your legs start to pump, you hear the music again and run down a chute to cheers and clapping and someone announcing your name.

You find out later that a few people didn’t finish. They signed up. They trained. But they either didn’t show up or didn’t finish what they started. That, too, is humbling.

Standing on the other side of the finish line, I felt a bit surprised. Did I really just do that? Could I do it again? Could I do it better now that I know the terrain, the pace, the obstacles and opportunities? Lord, I hope so.

I hate to make the tired comparison that a long race is just like life, but there are too many similarities to discount. I don’t know if I’ll ever run that distance again, but it is one of just a few times (so far) when I have been simultaneously humbled and overjoyed.

Now take that mountaintop experience and translate it to the every day ordinary encounters, the project deadline, a struggling friend, the housework, a sick child or community need. To be simultaneously humbled and full of joy in those moments is a much better measure of success.

When I am at the end of my life (yes, the final and ultimate race), I hope to look back with both humility and joy. I want to be surprised by my capacity to love, work, apologize and forgive. If I have a cheering section, I hope it comes from heaven. And when I meet my God, I hope he announces my name.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When in Doubt, Go to the Balcony

I read somewhere that when you dream about being in a house, it often represents aspects of yourself.

Last night, I dreamt that I was in a house — filled with clutter. It didn’t seem to be my house or my clutter, but I felt that I had to clean it up. Then I noticed the cat puke. The living room rug was covered with different spots of cat puke. Some of them had been doused with rug cleaner and were already bubbling. The others I started to spray myself.

But the whole time, I knew that this wasn’t my house and these weren’t my cats. It wasn’t my mess. I was frustrated about the mess, but more frustrated that I was there in the first place.

Had I climbed to the balcony of this house in my dream, it may have shown me a way out or at least shown me the actual size of the problem. I may have realized that we all have our messes to clean up, but focusing on our own mess first is always best.

The minute we start bending and hovering over another person’s mess, we’re on our hands and knees with a bottle of rug cleaner looking foolish. But from the balcony the people and situations look more alike — fragile and messy and hopeful — backs bent and heads bowed, an authentic picture of survival and learning and living.

From the balcony, we can look up and out and over. There is better lighting. Sound carries farther. It isn’t a place to hide or sit in judgment, but a place to rest and reflect.

Climbing out of the crowds to a higher place and view is not meant to separate us from our responsibilities. It is simply a breath…a stepping back from the ledge…so we can return to the crowds to do and act and serve in healthy ways.

And we have to return. Contemplation for its own sake — without right action — is just as foolish. If we stay in the balcony too long, it becomes its own distraction from reality.

Any mother will tell you that there is always something to clean or fix. But we should always take time to discern our own mess from someone else’s.

As we teach our kids, so we teach ourselves:

1. If it’s your mess, clean it up.
2. If it isn’t your mess, ask how you can help.
3. If your help is not requested or acknowledged, take a break in the balcony.
4. Return to #1.