Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cardboard Box Manger Scene

I love Christmas. While I enjoy giving and receiving gifts, my favorite part of the holiday is spending quiet time just being with my family. For me, Christmas is not complete without many evenings spent watching the tree, playing music with my mom, and gathering as a family to hear the Christmas record.

Now that I've moved out on my own, some of that will change. Instead of enjoying an entire month of light and music and togetherness, our family time will likely be confined to a few hours of dinner and conversation. I considered decorating my makeshift apartment with a tiny tree, but I fear it would only sharpen my sense of being alone since my family wouldn't be there to enjoy it with me.

But winter is dreary enough without missing out on an entire month of lights and festivities. As I contemplated the best way to decorate without increasing my loneliness, I realized my focus has been all wrong. Important as family is, it's not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about Jesus coming. How could I have forgotten Him?

I dug through my storage boxes until I located my cheap glass manger scene. I'd never paid much attention to the manger set my mom put up every year, but now, as I studied the simple figures in my hand, I felt inspired.

Jesus was born in a stable. Nothing fancy or expensive there. For my stable, I chose a cardboard box turned on its side. I left the flaps on. It seemed a fitting choice to represent the kind of place Jesus was born.

Joseph must have scraped up hay to cushion the newborn baby in the manger. He had to be resourceful and use what he had, which wasn't much. I laid an old towel on the floor of my stable, covering it with dry pine needles I gathered in the yard.

Close-up of my manger scene

A few animals may have witnessed Jesus' birth. I nestled an antique brass chicken and a ceramic lamb behind my glass figures.

A special star lit the sky, marking the place Jesus was born. I tacked a tiny string of colored lights around the ceiling of my stable.

The stable was an incredibly humble, dirty, makeshift place. As I constructed mine, I wondered where Jesus would have been born had He come in modern times. Would He have been born under a bridge or in a car parked at a rest stop? I know this much: it would have been a place so lowly it was embarrassing. That didn't matter a bit to the mighty angelic beings who attended and sang at His birth. So I hung three sparkling angel cutouts at the doorway of my stable.

Putting together my manger scene took less than an hour. It was fun, but to my surprise, it was also an emotional journey as I realized anew how completely Jesus humbled Himself at Christmas.

I still feel alone sometimes, but when I plug in my manger scene, I'm at peace. For inside my cardboard box is everything that really matters.

Yup, it's all in a box!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Bowl Dilemma

House sitting is fun, but it did bring a few unwelcome surprises. I detest folksy decorations, particularly snowmen; but when I walked through the door, there they were. Dozens of them, grinning at me from the tables, the corners, the window sills, the kitchen towels, the plates and pillows and coffee mugs. Talk about infuriating!

But that wasn't the biggest surprise. I discovered there were no bowls in the house. No bowls! Does the lady have something personal against bowls? Bowls are part of every china set; yet she has no bowls even in her fancy collections. How on earth does she serve cereal or soup?

Trying to be flexible, I ladled my oatmeal into the most bowl-like object I could fine, a squarish white dish that was probably marketed as a bowl but is too small to bear the name. When I attempted to stir in milk and granola, the oatmeal slopped over the sides. How could I keep myself properly fed with that going on?

So the next morning, while the oatmeal bubbled, I scoured the cupboards and cabinets for bowls as thoroughly as an addict searching for misplaced pills. I even climbed on chairs to check the upper shelves. The search was fruitless. Not a single bowl.

Disgusted and incredulous (how can someone hate bowls that much?) I dug through the Tupperware and came up with a glass Pyrex dish which will serve as my bowl for the time being. It's a little big, but I can deal with that. At least I can stir my cereal without slopping.

I did gain one thing from my search. I discovered  some nice white plates on the shelf above the ugly snowman plates. Goodbye, ugly snowman plates... I really didn't want to eat off of you every day until April.

Author's Note: 
This piece is an excerpt from a February journal entry which I recently condensed so I could share it with my writer's guild. My intent is not to complain, but to find humor in the difficulties that invariably crop up anytime a person tries to live in someone else's home. I truly appreciate these people for letting me house sit for six weeks; it was a blessing. And the snowmen? After I threatened to host a snowman eradication party, they got scared and stopped taunting me. We parted on tolerable terms.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Are You Buckled in the Back Seat, or Riding on the Running Boards?

Recently I talked with a lady in jail who says it wasn't her idea to become a Christian. In fact, she was opposed to the idea. But then God came and found her, and she seems pretty happy about it.

Her testimony reminds me of things the pastors at church say. Things I haven't quite known what to do with. They testify that God chose them before they even wanted to be His, while they still wanted their sin. And that God worked and bent their will to line up with His, and that now, as His chosen children, they have nothing to worry about ever again, because God is taking care of every detail of their lives just like Jesus said He would. And they say that God has chosen each one of His people, despite there being nothing good in them to make Him choose them, and we can know that He loves us because of it.

It sounds good. It makes me feel like God loves me a lot, but it doesn't agree with what I have been taught all my life. So lately, I've been meditating on the question of whether we choose God, or He chooses us. I'm not a theology expert and may never work out the finer points of this question. Chances are they would keep the best theologians arguing all night. But I'd like to present you with a simple illustration.

Imagine there's a toddler in an orphanage who decides he needs a new daddy. So he comes running out into the parking lot and jumps on the running board of a pickup truck and hollers to the driver, who just happens to be Jesus: "I'm going home with you, like it or not!" And he spends the rest of the journey clinging for dear life, hoping he doesn't fall off, trying desperately to believe that Jesus loves him and is taking care of him.

Contrast that with another scenario. Jesus comes into the orphanage and finds this little kid and bends down and says, "Guess what? I'm going to be your new daddy." Whether the kid loves Him or hates Him at that moment doesn't make a difference. Jesus signs the papers, picks him up and buckles him in the back seat and drives home. The kid has done nothing. But he need never worry again, because he has the best daddy ever, and that daddy has chosen him to be his son and is committed to doing whatever it takes to raise him and care for him and love him. The kid can't fall out of the truck, and he doesn't need to ever wonder whether Jesus loves him, because Jesus went out of His way to choose him and adopt him as His own.

Like I said, I'm not a theology expert. (Just in case you couldn't tell that from my illustration of Jesus driving a pickup truck.) I don't know exactly what's taught in strict Calvinism or Arminianism. I'll let those who do, carry on the centuries-old debate between free choice and divine choice. For me, the question boils down to this: Either God initiates my relationship with Him, and God keeps that relationship going, and God directs and powers the changes in my life, and God upholds and protects and provides and keeps me secure in that relationship with Him as His child, or else I initiate the relationship. I keep it going. I direct and power the changes in my life, and I uphold and protect and provide and keep myself secure in my relationship with God. I ask you, which scenario makes more sense? In which scenario is God being the father and I the child?

Growing up, I believed it was all up to me. It was up to me to lay aside my beloved sins and get myself cleaned up and do good deeds (which I hated) and build a relationship with Jesus. It was up to me to repent, to seek Him, to choose Him, to keep myself on the straight and narrow every day. I never felt secure, and I could never trust God or rest in the knowledge that He loved me. I felt like that little kid, clinging on the outside of the truck, afraid I was going to fall off, telling Jesus I was going home with Him when I didn't even know Him.

It was painful, it was difficult, and it didn't work. Even though I had asked Jesus into my heart as a child, I did not love God. Sin and fear controlled my life. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I concluded I was not truly born again.

At that point I might not have cared, except that I was hungry for love. Starved might be a more accurate word. My Christian upbringing caused me to believe that if I got saved, I would experience God's love. The dilemma was how to make that happen. Especially since I could not stop sinning and didn't even want to. Since (as I believed) it was all up to me, it looked impossible.

But I tried. I made promises to stop sinning which I could not keep. I did more and worse sins, hoping to earn the compassionate mercy of God. I read tracts and prayed dozens of sinner's prayers, hoping the words held some magic to change my heart and quicken my spirit. I read a book which said if I prayed for salvation, God would hear me and I would be saved. All I had to do was believe and hold onto what the Bible said about that. So I prayed again and tried hard to believe. But afterward I was still the same person, insecure and afraid because I knew maintaining the relationship I had supposedly initiated with Jesus was all up to me. I still wanted to sin. I still needed to sin. I knew there was no way I could deny myself and perform all the good deeds I deemed necessary to keep myself in good standing with God every day. I was scared because I knew that five minutes down the road, I was going to lose my tenuous grip on the side of Jesus' truck and that would be it.

Being stubborn, I kept on trying. I was determined to do the impossible and get myself saved. My most memorable attempt involved a crazy plan to make myself get tired of sinning so I would quit. Whether this was intended to bring about my salvation, or only to improve my health, I don't recall. I made a strict rule that increased how much I had to sin to the point that it was a burden to do it. If I broke the rule and failed to perform the required deed for even one day, I promised to give up this sin I loved so much.

In retrospect, my rule was not only foolish and dangerous, but it also held no power to change my heart. I know I would not have given up my sin as I had promised, for that was where I derived my self-worth. But at the time, it seemed to work; for a little over three weeks later, my heart changed quite suddenly. I spent that evening praying instead of pursuing sin. God opened my heart and mind to hear and understand the gospel through a tract. I prayed, an extremely simple prayer which I never finished because Jesus came into my heart and I KNEW He was there. I also knew I was never going to be the same person again.

Because of my belief that it was up to me to choose God, I of course concluded that my rule forcing me to sin more was what led me to find Christ. Sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? I can't recommend anyone else try it, that's for sure. In light of what I've learned recently, here's what I believe actually happened.

I made a new rule that I had to sin more. I had a few miserable experiences but kept stubbornly on, because I really wanted to keep sinning. (Despite the unpleasant consequences, it was actually easier to follow the rule and sin more than it was to quit.) In the middle of this sick experiment, God stepped in and said, "Enough!" In His mercy, He changed my heart, opened my mind to understand and believe the gospel, and saved me. HE did it, not me. Jesus chose me that night. He lifted me out of my sin, the sin I had wanted so badly, and gave me a new life... and I was pretty happy about it.

This new version makes WAY more sense. I'm relieved to finally know the real story of what happened to me. And I'm very happy to know that God did choose me. Because if He didn't -- if my belonging to Him was my idea, not His -- then I would be on shaky ground. Because then perhaps He doesn't really want me, and He's only permitting me to stay... if I behave well. And if that were true, I am right back to where everything is up to me, because I have attached myself to a God who hasn't promised to be my Father. I'm an illegitimate child. And I can't trust Him to provide for me; I have to worry and beg Him for stuff and hope He agrees to give it to me. Or else go out and try to find my own provisions. I have lived this way for too many years.

I am so glad God chose me and picked me up and buckled me into the back seat of His truck. I am safe. I can't fall out of the truck, and I don't have to wonder whether God really wants me or loves me enough to handle my bad attitudes. God chose me because He wants me and He loves me. Knowing that, I can dare to relax and learn trust Him.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How to: Catch a Fly in the House

This post is for all you fly haters out there, who loathe sharing house space with a despicable, noisy fly. A functional fly swatter will be helpful, but not essential to your success in removing the fly. If your fly swatter no longer functions due to swatting too many flies, use the alternative night-light method detailed below.

I'm sure it's happened to all of us. You are just getting into bed after a long, tiring day. You're exhausted and looking forward to a restful sleep. Then you hear it -- bzzz as a big black fly cruises  around the room. The moment you fetch the fly swatter, it disappears; but you know it's probably resting behind the night stand, waiting for lights out to resume its sleep-disturbing explorations. What to do?

Or perhaps you have invited your fastidious relatives over for a meal (probably a bad idea to start with) and you're putting the finishing touches on the meal when a fly swoops in from nowhere and starts checking out the pickles. You could swat it easily -- but it never lands except on the food.

Here's what you do. To catch the bedroom fly, turn off your bedroom light and turn on a light right outside your room. Within seconds, the fly will relocate to the brighter room. Continue to lure it using light until you trap it in a small room where it is easy to swat (the bathroom is great). At this point, swat it. If you do not have a fly swatter, plug in a bright nightlight and turn off the bathroom light. The fly will come to the light where it can be easily caught.

This same method may be used to catch the kitchen fly. If it is daytime, first pull the shades to make the room dark, then proceed. You need never eat or sleep with a fly again!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Will God Bless America?

"God Bless America" is one of our most beautiful patriotic songs. It's also a common phrase, used to invoke blessing and peace on our country. Although I love the song, I rarely sing it anymore. It seems to me that expecting God to bless our country, even as much of the population goes on blatantly ignoring and insulting Him, is an affront and a joke. God dealt with Israel when they deserted Him; why should He not deal with America when she deserts Him? God cannot forever continue to bless evil, ungrateful people who brazenly deny His laws, His authority, and His very existence. If we want God to bless our country, we need to be the kind of country God has said in His Word that He will bless. There are many verses, but I'll share just a few.

Psalm 33:12 says, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance." And in Matthew 5:3-10, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

What a wonderful society this would be if everyone fit this description! We would not need to ask God to bless our country, because He would be blessing us so much we wouldn't know what to do with it all. But I ask you, are these verses really a good description of America today? Do we, as a country, worship God only, or do we chase after wealth, ease, and popularity? Do we realize our spiritual poverty and humbly acknowledge our great need for God, or do we boast about our wisdom and our great accomplishments? Do we mourn over our own sins and the unspeakable injustices committed in our land, or do we belittle, justify, and ignore them? Are we humble and gentle, willing to be corrected when wrong, or do we forcefully demand our rights and our own way? Do we hunger and thirst to do what's right in every circumstance, or do we only care for what's convenient or what will make us look good? Do we extend mercy and forgiveness to those who have wronged us, or do we angrily demand repayment? Do we take the trouble to keep our hearts and minds pure, as God has commanded, or do we permit lust and all kinds of sinful desires to take root and grow in our hearts, producing all kinds of depravity and corruption? Do we strive to make peace with our enemies, or do we just kick them out of the way so we can get on with our life? Do we choose to stand up for what's right, even if it means suffering ridicule and rejection, or do we throw morality to the wind and go along with the crowd?

"Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption; but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life." Galatians 6:7-8

I believe God takes note of those of us whose hearts are right, who hate and stand against the corruption in our society. God rejoices when people repent. He blesses everyone who trusts in Him. If America returns to God, she will be blessed. However, if America instead wants to see what a world without God is like, He will let her find out.

I hope and pray that America will choose to return to God. For I would love to see God once again bless our great country!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Old age doesn't change dog's personality, just his behavior

Chester in 2011
This post is dedicated to my beloved Sheltie of fifteen and a half years, Chester. While Chester is still in good health, old age has brought many trials including stiff joints, loss of hearing, and weak eyesight, all of which eclipse much of his vibrant personality. These days he mostly sleeps, finding his joy in food, petting, and an occasional stroll in the sun.

It's tempting to ignore him, to consign him to the bedroom and spend my time with Daisy, the young upstart terrier cross who's been aspiring to replace him since she arrived (without our permission) two years ago.  For old time's sake, I do my best to care for Chester, but some days it's not very rewarding. I miss the bright dog he used to be -- the dog who always knew what I was saying, who followed me everywhere, who came immediately whenever I called, and who never needed a leash except on the road. Nowadays it's no use talking to him, and he can't go anyplace with me unless I carry him or walk at a turtle's pace (and there had better be a treat handy). He walks into fences and gets stuck in snowbanks, where he cries until I rescue him. It's endearing -- sometimes. But not when I'm running late or it's ten below zero and I have to don a coat and boots to go get him.

Chester dreaming of food! (2013)
While cleaning my room the other day, I ran across a letter I wrote to Chester's breeder on his first birthday, describing his keen intelligence, energy, and fun-loving personality. Traits I had almost forgotten he possessed. Traits he likely still possesses, though no one could tell by his behavior nowadays. Here are some excerpts: 

"I have certainly enjoyed having Chester from the first day until now, and he seems to equally enjoy it here. He is very cute, very smart and faithful, very amusing, and only occasionally somewhat disgusting. I trained him to heel, come, sit, down, and stay, and he knew it all, except the heel, by six months... When he is greeting you, he whines and yips and runs in circles wagging his tail wildly and slapping you with is tongue! If I tell him to sit, he lies down and rolls on his back, whining, licking, and kicking. Of course the tail is wagging at the same time.

"When Chester eats, it must be done with all haste. We laugh at how he vacuums up or "inhales" his food. We had to put obstacles in his dish to slow him down to more than thirty seconds per meal.
Still as cute as ever! (2013)

"Chester loves to do new things. I took him swinging on the rope a few days ago. Do you think he was scared? No, he looked up to where it was tied in the tree, trying to figure out why it creaked. When we got off, he wanted to go for another swing. He ran and jumped for the knot, then tried to hang on with his mouth so he could ride. 

"Chester loves to ride in the wheelbarrow. The other day he sat on three legs, draping the fourth across the load while we went down the driveway. He has also discovered the squirrel and enjoys chasing him and trying to jump up the tree. You know, the typical dog on his hind legs looking intently up the tree. He loves all living things, even grasshoppers. 

"Fetching a ball is one of his favorite games. He will play until he's exhausted, then throw the ball at me again. He also plays Frisbee, though it's too big for him to catch it in midair. He likes this game
Chester (L) in 2011, exhausted after a fetch game with Toby
very much and works hard dragging the big Frisbee back. 

"Chester is a very talkative dog. If his bed has a lump in it, he will groan long and loud. He also groans plenty if he has an itch, if someone holds him too long, or if he is tired."

The letter is going in his scrapbook so I can remember him after he's gone. But meanwhile, I'm glad to be reminded of the wonderful personality that's trapped inside Chester's old body. A personality that doesn't deserve to be ignored just because he can't hear or keep up on a walk. It's up to me to find ways to make him happy.

Looking young in 2011
I believe this same principle can be applied to the elderly people in our lives. They too were young and active and full of dreams, before their body grew feeble and eclipsed that personality. Thanks to Chester, from now on I will be more careful not to judge old dogs or elderly people only by what I can see. It's comforting to eulogize a pet or a loved one after they're gone, but why not remember and appreciate who they are while they're still with you?

Chester doing what he does best -- sleeping!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Adventures with TESSA at the county jails

Thanks to the women’s jail chaplain, my book Tessa: From Fear to Faith has been circulating among the women in the Eau Claire and Chippewa County jails in the last month or so. The chaplain, Margi, asked them to critique the book. “You have lived this sort of stuff,” she said. “Why don’t you go through this book and see if you can find a place where the author messed up; where the story isn’t quite accurate.” The reports came back that they couldn’t find anything amiss; the whole book was “right on the money.” Margi told me the women love the books and have been passing them around from one cell block to another.

On February 6th, Margi invited me to the Chippewa County Jail to talk with the women. All of them had the same question: “How did you write this story?” They sensed I was not Tessa; that I did not come from an abusive and dysfunctional family; yet somehow I had written about their world and their lives with the accuracy and emotion of someone who had been there. So, I got to give my testimony to a very wonderful group of ladies. The women were really open to us. They smiled and laughed and the more they relaxed, the more I relaxed. After a while, we started having a regular back-and-forth conversation around the table. They told me if I kept coming to jails, I would meet many people and hear many stories which I could turn into another book. I explained that I wouldn’t want people to think I was coming just to harvest stories.

“You’ve got to stop worrying so much what people think of you,” they responded. “You learn that real fast in jail.”

“I hope I don’t have to come here to learn it," I joked.

“No, no, don't come in here. It's not good in here,” they told me.

What was really neat is I felt like I was on their level and they were on mine. It wasn't just me giving them advice; they were giving me advice too.

After we closed our meeting with prayer, one of the women went over to this computerized machine and started tapping buttons on the screen. I asked what it was, and they said it was for ordering food and stuff. "Go see for yourself," they urged me. "We don't bite!" I walked over there and it really looked complicated. Like something I would have trouble figuring out. I said, "Man, you gotta be smart to be in here!"

"No, you gotta be dumb to be in here!" they shot back. After that the guard came and we had to leave. But I really did enjoy my visit. I feel like I made a couple of new friends. The chaplain was pleased how it went, and on the afternoon of March 2, she took me into the Eau Claire County Jail to meet the ladies there.

Compared to Chippewa, the Eau Claire County Jail is huge! You could get lost in the waiting room, not to mention the hallways going this way and that. I was thankful to have Margi with me; she knew where she was going. Very soon we had gotten through the security and were up on the second floor, where we met with eleven women around a long table. They also wanted to know how I had written the book, so once again, I had the opportunity to share what God has done in my life.

One of the women especially identified with me when I talked about the time in my life when I was a born-again Christian, yet was still unable to break free from the bondage of sin. I wish I could have given her a hug, because she reminds me so much of myself. I know the frustration of being stuck and unable to change; I was stuck for six and a half years. Margi and I encouraged her to keep seeking God, for He promises that if we seek for Him with all our heart, we will find Him.

At the end of an hour, the first group of women left and the second group came. This time, there were only two. Both had read the book. One of them told me, “This IS my life,” all the way down to the meth.

I pray for all my readers, whether in jail or free, that they will not only identify with the characters and the story, but also with the solution – faith in Christ – and with the examples of how faith must be worked into a person’s life to bring about real change. Some of the women in jail are Christians, but they are stuck, not knowing how to change. Yes, of course there is freedom in Christ, but how is that worked out practically in a person’s life? I wrote into the book some of how God has led me into freedom, but each person’s path will be a little different. Only God can reveal the key to freedom for each of us. And for that, we must seek Him.

“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.” – The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29:13

I am excited and humbled by the opportunities God has given me. Sometimes, like Moses, I want to argue with God. “I am so unqualified; send someone else!” But it’s not about me. It never was about me. I’m learning that when I lay aside my own wisdom and let God lead, there is no limit to the places we can go. I don’t have to be qualified or good enough; I just need to follow Him.