Wednesday, December 17, 2014

cancelled...and back on again

Contemplating cancelling Christmas this year?

For entire life, I've hated the Christmas season.  Too much hustle.  Too much bustle.  Way too many gifts and piggy banks broken wide open.  I never understood the meaning of Christmas.  I mean, I got the part about it being Jesus' birthday and all, but I just couldn't grasp the depth of the season.  What it really meant for us.  In this play, Santa Claus was the main character and Jesus merely played the understudy.

Every year as we enter into the winter months, I do so in a state of gloominess so heavy it feels like a lead blanket wrapped around my entire body.  I trudge forward blindly buying gifts for obligatory family members, baking dozens of sugary treats for neighbors, dropping off nonperishable items into food bank bins and nickels into tin cans, while a Santa impostor watches on methodically ringing that bell.  We give and we give and we give.  All the while the pain of my groaning bank account leaves me feeling emptier than ever.

I shop hastily and angrily cross off recipients, like names appearing on the naughty list.  Just get it done, I think, then it will be over and you can focus on the real reason.  Focus on the candles glimmering around the Advent ring.  Focus on Mary, swelling with our Savior, atop that donkey being led to a destination painfully far away.  Focus on the story.  Instead of being filled with bitterness and resentment, I will finally be able to focus on the truth.  On Jesus.

"God loves a cheerful giver."  The whisper echoes inside my hollow heart.

I told my husband I wanted to cancel Christmas this year.  Not the Jesus part, but the Santa part.  I had so many reasons why.  Selfish reasons.  We are already drained financially and on the verge of ruin.  Our families are dysfunctional at best--the band aid has been ripped off, left so exposed and raw that even the birth of our Savior won't reconcile.  The true meaning for the celebration has been lost and I couldn't seem to strike a balance between the truth and the fiction.  It was all about my needs, my stress, and my anxieties.  Not once did I consider how my children felt, or even Jesus for that matter.

For weeks, I silently wondered what Jesus would want for his birthday.  A cake, chocolate of course, with lots of lit candles and a choir singing 'Happy Birthday' cheerfully off-tune.  I imagined him asking for us to continue to do his work and pondered what that might look like.  Feeding the for the needy...random thoughts popped in and out of my brain like a pinball game gone awry.

Then it hit me, like a ton of humble bricks, courtesy of the Spirit himself.  Jesus wouldn't want me to cancel Christmas.  He wouldn't want me to cancel Santa.  What Jesus would want was a change of heart for me and my selfish ways.  The celebration of Christmas isn't about me, though with all my whining and complaining you'd think it was, and unless I lost me I wasn't ever going to be able to see Him and his desires.

He wants us to give gifts.  Your circumstances will only dictate how you give those gifts.  Some things can't be wrapped up with a shiny red bow and placed under the Christmas tree.  Some things can only come from your heart.  But how ever you are blessed, give with love.  Don't unwrap the resentment and hatred that Satan desires to gift you.  Resist the urge, no matter how sparkly the box might be.  Don't let the evil in this world take away the most important reason for Christmas Day.  The birth of our Savior.  Our redeemer.  Our everlasting light.  Jesus.

The greatest gift was already given to us.  Let's give back in the ways in which we can and do so with cheerful hearts.  He gave everything he had for us--the very blood in his veins spilled for our sake.  We can't ever repay such a selfless act but we can celebrate the day of his birth with love and meaning and purpose, for I imagine he would want nothing less.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

my best

Three intense sermons led up to the finale this weekend in my Church's 'generosity challenge' series.  And as every day passed, I grew more and more anxious.  The questions ping-ponged through my mind.  How much should we give?  How much could we give?  The Church has such grand plans and there is but loose change in my pocket...

I love my Pastor's vision for the Church and I love listening to him preach.  My family is eternally grateful to have found such a blessing as this place.  And even though we've not yet hit the one year mark in attendance, it feels nothing short of home to us.

We've given our lives to Christ.  We've been baptized.  We tithe faithfully each week.  We donate goods when requests are made or a need is for orphans...candy for local children...boxes of food for the impoverished...offering upon offering for guest speakers...our car...and now, you are asking for our best.

The church pews are filled with folks from all walks of life.  Young, old, wealthy, poor, and every space in between.  My family balances precariously in the middle, though poverty is only a knock away.  There was a time, years ago where we were doing well.  My husband had a great job (that he hated), our bills were paid on time, we had ZERO debt, and we could buy things when we wanted.  And as life would have it, our world turned upside down and the decisions we made resulted in some hard consequences.  Consequences that we now struggle to face every day.  Where picking up just one more piece is more than we can oftentimes bear.

Truth is, though we struggle tremendously, we're still lucky.  Without our circumstances, we would've never found our way to Church.  And without our Church we never would've experienced God's blessings on our lives.  We have four healthy children, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our table.  My husband just started a full time job, that he doesn't hate, and the paycheck has enabled us to continue to live.  

I don't always see it through those rose colored glasses though.  On the bad days, I see a forbearance balloon payment of $12,000+ coming due at the start of the new year.  Living mortgage free during a season of unemployment was a blessing, indeed, but I can't help but worry about the huge chunk of money we owe.  Not to mention the credit cards we were living off of.  Over $8,300 of it currently being sued for.  The remainder, which is somewhere in the ballpark of another 10 grand, just dangling precariously over our heads.  And that doesn't count the student loans, for a degree that I will never use, and a monthly payment on a rusty, worn down, ten-year old truck, that needed a new transmission to the tune of $4500 just a few months ago. $4500 that we didn't have and had to borrow from my sister. The weight of three hundred thousand dollars of debt hangs low, like a storm cloud ready to erupt and drown us in a flood of turmoil.

And somewhere in between all of this mess, two of our children needed glasses, one desperately needed a new mattress--the twenty-five year old hand-me-down finally wore thin, we were kicked off our medical insurance for making $148 too much, and my husband started suffering from severe anxiety.  If that wasn't enough, wouldn't you know the calendar claims the holiday season is just mere weeks away, along with a fourteenth and sixteenth birthday sandwiched in between. The financial scales have tipped to the point of no return. 

Indeed, it becomes very easy to overlook the blessings amidst such financial pandemonium.  God is good though.  All the time.  Yes, I do still believe that.  And I ask of Jesus often to carry my burdens so I can just breathe.  I try my best to be thankful in all circumstances, to learn the lessons the first time around.  I read my bible--most days, if I'm being completely honest, and I pray often but the journey is far from easy.

I wonder if there will ever come a time where I don't have to pause to ask for guidance.  Though God wants us to rely on him in all things, I question if he will ever tire of my constant neediness.  If his great arms will ever buckle under the weight of my burdens?  Of me?  Will his unending love really endure?  Does he truly have plans for me?  Will I ever consume enough of his word to be able to stand on my own?  The questions swirl like a tornado through my mind.

Back in July, at the height of our poverty, we had a very special guest speaker at Church.  We were all giddy with excitement after having watched this man on youtube and couldn't wait to see him in person.  We were told there would be an offering taken and wanting to give our best--you know, in order to receive a hundred fold blessing--we scraped together a pretty big (to us anyway) sum of money.  Accompanying the cash, was a four page letter I poured my heart and soul into. And we waited for a response.

Weeks later, a return letter arrived in our mailbox.  Like a little child on Christmas morning, I tore excitedly into the envelope only to find a form letter.  No million dollar miracle check made out to me hidden inside the folds.  Feeling like the widow who gave her only two copper coins, I was devastated.  What on earth were we thinking?  Giving so much, when we had so very little and then expecting a return.  The shame sunk in.

I know God wasn't angry that we gave so much away; he will never deny a blessing to someone who gives, even if it wasn't what he asked of you.  I was mad at myself for expecting a reward.  Like a toddler, who didn't get their way, I threw a temper tantrum because God refused to use this man to answer my prayers.  

The blatant struggle of selfishness staring me square in the face.  The daily struggle of self puddles into a pool of depression, where I struggle to swim to the surface.  Where my lungs plead for air, my soul for his loving grace.

I can't seem to do anything right.  I can't give generously, heck I can't even give correctly--the enemy pounces, infiltrating my every thought.  Feeling worthless, cast off, and alone I struggle to make sense of God's love for me.  The downward spiral begins.


Our conversation sways back and forth between dollar amounts and still so very unsure of what to give, paired with God's silence, we decide to split the difference.  I filled out the offering envelope and hesitantly paper-clipped it to the inside cover of my bible.  Neither of us felt "right" with our offering and our hearts felt weary and our feet heavy as we headed out the door to church.

The whispered words "try again" echoed loudly in my ears.  I glanced over at my husband and he nods as if he heard the whispers too.  We pass notes, both feeling compelled to give more.  We obey the prompting and surprisingly, cheerfully, give again.  This time, more than our best, resting solely on his promises and not the small number in our bank account.  And we waited.

Four days later, an unexpected check shows up.  A check for exactly double what our offering was.  A blessing, indeed.  He has provided.  He is good.  Still, I find myself longing for more; selfishness rooting deeply in the depths of my soul.  I have taken Him for granted and it saddens me.  Will He ever be enough to conquer my worldly desires?

My faith is weak.  My heart is heavy.  And I feel defeated.  Oh, how the enemy revels in my darkness, stealing my savior's light.  I anxiously flip through the pages, craving the sustenance of his words, trying in vain to figure out his plan for my life. I long for the kind of spiritual fulfillment that breeds contentment, happiness, and true joy and overcomes the bitterness, envy, and hatred that lurks around every corner.

He will provide.  He is faithful.

I am ungrateful.  I am selfish.  I am unworthy of his grace.

He loves me anyway.

I stumble.  I fall.  I struggle.  I fail.

Despite my shortcomings, His love remains steadfast.

Father, please forgive my ungratefulness...

I am truly thankful for what I have been given and I need to focus on that instead of putting emphasis on what I don't have.  You are good.  All the time.  I will try harder to stay in your word and use your truth to combat the swallow of darkness.  And, even though my best may be broken, tattered, torn, crazy-glued, Kindergarten-pasted, and so very imperfect, it's a crazy mess that only a Father would find beauty in... that only a Father could love.  My best isn't made of precious stones, large bank accounts, or hidden inside an alabaster box.  It is my willingness to obey, with unsteady feet and the stretching of my faith, and for you, somehow, that is enough.  

In Jesus' name, Amen.