Monday, March 28, 2011

Numbering these gifts: Practicing the Presence

I've been nursing a headache for the last three days. Our roof is falling in, drywall and dust littering two bedrooms so far. Our hybrid hit a curb and we had to replace a recently-replaced tire. I'm tempted - oh I'm tempted - to whine and cry and feel real sorry for myself. We are still waiting for the door to Haiti to open.

Today, I'm slowly
                               choosing thanks.

I'm reading my gift journal, reminding myself "this is the way we practice the presence of God, stay present to His presence, and it is always a practice of the eyes. We don't have to change what we see. Only the way we see" (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts).

From Thursday:
356. a roof over our heads albeit leaky. Shelter from the storm.
357. Nana and Papa's house so close, warm
358. Meilani who knows when it's time to put on her "armor of God"
359. prayer umbrella held up by friends

From Friday:
362. My husband diving into the dirty work, cleaning up the roof wreckage in the rooms
363. pear cinnamon cider
366. that His mercies are new every morning
367. for my secret weapon: spiral-bound pack of note cards with a year's worth of verses, mantras, promises from my Savior

From Saturday:
368. fresh-hot bagels from just down the hill
369. students lining up to buy books and sample Filipino pancit
370. rainbow arching over the peninsula delighting my baby-girl
371. hospitality extended by friends after our tire is busted/replaced
372. pumpkin-curry drenched rice from a Thai place in San Francisco

From Sunday:
380. Baby Lillian Esther Ford dedicated in church - her life already a redemption song
381. blessing-words of a friend during worship
382. slipping between cool sheets for a Sunday afternoon snooze.

Then right in the middle of reading through the last four days -  full of wonder and light and grace in the midst of struggle - in the door walks another gift.

387. My mother-in-law who stops by after long day at work to take her granddaughters for an hour so headachy mama can rest.

I'm putting pen to fresh journal pages and marking gifts again.

391. the way afternoon sun dances in my window and light glints on strands of red-brown in my little-girl's hair
392. her freckles appearing just like mine
393. lost in her milk chocolate chip eyes
394. a pile of picture books waiting to be read

I have so much to be thankful for. I have so little to complain about...

"Thanksgiving creates abundance; and the miracle of multiplying happens when I give thanks - take the just one loaf, say it is enough, and give thanks - and He miraculously makes it more than enough." (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts)

Can this be true? The more willing I am to trade in woe-is-me attitude for a list of thanks, the greater blessings I will receive? When I am deliberate with thanksgiving, then the abundance spills.

I am reminding myself of those words by Robert Frost my mom used to recite to me before bed.  When I was wee little girl, just discovering the gifts of this world, she would tuck yellow eyelet spread beneath my chin and smooth my hair, whispering these words:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
And I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Raining down gifts

Yesterday it started raining sheets. The water started chasing down the rivulets of our roof and running off. My husband and I looked at each other in a kind of horror because we knew this would spell trouble. I ached when I looked at the forecast. Rain all week.

Believe me, I know there are lots of reasons to be grateful for rain. I live in California's Central Valley, where most of our country's produce is grown. I understand that rain seeping into rich dark soil and urging seeds to sprout is a gift. The farmers step back to breathe and the earth does her thing. God pours water into that thirsty soul.

A friend reminded me that rain cleans the air. There is all this talk now of radioactive air drifting across the Pacific from Japan. The authorities tell us not to worry. But when you live in on the Left Coast, we know we are not so far removed from natural disasters. God sends the rain. He cleans the manmade filth in His own way.

Still, I watch water run down roofs and I worry. The drywall's already busted through once in our bedroom. How will holes in my ceiling help us sell this house? How will water dripping down move us forward on our journey to Haiti?

We spent 20 hours from Sunday to Monday without electricity. Someone plowed into a power pole down the block and the lights blinked out for a host of families here in Fresno. My temptation? To complain. Prescription: put on more layers of clothes, declare it indoor camping, offer up thanks. We are thankful we have a roof over our heads at all when so many in Haiti are still living in tents. We are thankful that a few hours without electricity equals an inconvenience, an adventure even, not a way of life.

I'm creating habits, rhythms of gratitude in my house. For 49 days, we have been counting gifts.

Sunday's gifts:
342. stash of candles and matches
343. the way Nana always has a ready-made meal frozen for visitors (family) just like her mama before her
345. iPhone flashlight
346. live phone coverage of March Madness basketball on our phones (seriously!)
347. down comforter
348. optimism of a 4-year-old always-eager for an adventure

I read this in Ann Voskamp's book, One Thousand Gifts - a quote from Sarah Ban Breathnach: "Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world."

This act of numbering gifts, graces. This list I've been creating in my journal, sharing with friends, is not about stuffing it down. I have learned that it doesn't help to just put a positive spin on the hard parts of life. We need to dig through the soil, unearth the painful shards of glass and see the beauty in that traveled journey. I need to be truly thankful if I consider something a gift.

Some might misunderstand. They might see our daily list on Facebook or Twitter and think it's easy for us. They might think this is about my grateful sunshine personality. Or the birthright of my husband oft-called "blessed boy." But it's truly the birthright of anyone who chooses to believe that thanksgiving always precedes the miracle.

I dare you to number your gifts. Try it. See what happens if you put pen to paper and record those "everyday epiphanies." Before you know it you will be...letting... go..... of all that brings stress, harsh words, panic attacks, pride, guilt. Now I am letting go of temptation to worry and embracing this new gift.

349. This leaky roof that reminds me Who has it all under control.

"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret to living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little." - Philippians 4:11-12

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Waiting

We have been waiting. And so many of you have been waiting right along with us. A year ago we made the decision to go to Haiti. The earth shook violently and so did our very hearts. This was an important catalyst, pressing our family to dig deep and seek His calling on our lives. Six months ago we started raising funds to move to Haiti and began to prepare our home to sell. Today we still wait for an offer on our house. We wait for a door to be flung open to a world we think we might know, but we're sure is different than we ever anticipated. We wait.

What I am learning is what to do in the waiting. I could sit and twiddle my thumbs. (You all know that's not my style.) I could busy myself with meetings, play dates, leadership opportunities, dirty diapers, more projects. But is that what God really wants me to do in the waiting?

Last Fall I tried on the cloaks of the Israelites. I felt the hot desert sand burn between my toes. I offered up my complaints and questions and a bit of whining to heaven. I was sick of the waiting. I turned up my nose at the manna.

Convicted, I knew that was not the kind of waiting God was nudging me toward.

Waiting. Breathing.

I have learned in this season of waiting that I need to be about two things: listening and thanking.

It's easy to get back on that path of doing. It's tempting to worry instead of worship.

My sweet Meilani lives life as a musical. There's no accident to the recent song she's been singing to her mama: "Strength will rise as you wait upon the Lord, wait upon the Lord. We will wait upon the Lord." I'm learning to dance to her music, to embrace the message and remember the Messenger. How I long for His strength to buoy me up.

My husband made a comment this morning that everything in our yard was looking overgrown. This afternoon I ventured out back with my two daughters. The sun was shining and I knew it was time to do some digging. Time to get out there, put on our gloves, haul out our rakes and shovels, and do some work.

My 4-year-old was delighted at first. She was eager to get her hands in the dirt. She discovered spiders and uncovered worms. She wanted to use the big rake to "get down deep" like Mama.

I went straight for the weeds. I started the hard work of hacking their stems with clippers, digging out their roots. I handed my 2-year-old a shovel and she got in on the action too. I pulled up the baby weed shoots. She turned the soil. (Sometimes she flung it straight up in the air, but you know, that's how it goes with 2-year-olds.) "Dirty hands, Mama," she showed me. I smiled, wiping sweat from my brow.

And somewhere in that digging I found my answer about waiting. While waiting, it's time to get digging. I have to take time to look at what needs to be weeded out of my life, refined in my personality. I need to turn the soil in the places that have grown hard, calloused. I need to find the rich patches and spread the wealth of that soil around. While I wait, I need to take time.

You see, I haven't wanted to work on this garden. I know we're going to Haiti and I would rather just leave it for the next homeowners. The thought of putting in all this hard work and then leaving it just pains my soul. But if I take on that mentality I might miss the blessing of today, this season. I might miss the harvest He has planned for me in this season. I might miss my destiny altogether.

 Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master's Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong. The Master could arrive at any time. (James 5:7-8 The Message).

Today I saw that I need to learn from the Master Gardener and cultivate the garden right before me. Maybe God has you in a season of waiting and He wants you to dig into the soil with Him. Join me.

**Faithful readers, I recently learned about a conference called She Speaks happening this July that I would love to attend. Maybe a few of you would like to join me. Ann Voskamp is offering a scholarship opportunity on her Holy Experience blog and you can read about the details here. Maybe there are some of you that need to be nudged to step out of your comfort zones and see how God will use you, your words.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Better Late than Never: Finding Meaning in the Lenten Tradition

Do you ever have that experience that everything you read in books, blogs, the Bible, hear in sermons or from sage friends seems to have the same message? I've been around this block enough times to know that this is no accident. This is not coincidence; It's providence.

I've been contemplating Lent. Let me qualify by saying I did not grow up in a faith community that practiced lent. When I went away to Calvin College, I always attended the Ash Wednesday chapel services with interest in the tradition. This idea of "giving up" something in preparation for Easter fascinated me. I got in line to have the ash cross smeared across my forehead and prayed for a window to my Father's World.

In recent years, I have made sort of secret vows, personal challenges. Last year, I shared only with my husband my promise to stay off Facebook once a week. Honestly, it felt kind of like a dumb one to publicize but I knew that I needed to curb my screen time and social networking addiction. I love the connections Facebook creates, the ability to network with friends in my community, in other lands and from my past. But when I start thinking in status updates I know it's time to press the reset button. Every Sunday I decided to take a break and pray more, listen to my kids more, pay attention to the neglected items in my home. I realized by Easter that I needed that practice so much that I made it stick. One year.

Now Lent is back and I'm really thinking, why "give up" something for Lent? What do we really learn from depriving ourselves of Twitter or chocolate or wine? What's the point?

Ann Voskamp, author of the book I've had my nose in for the last month, wrote a very revealing blog about Lent. I appreciated her thesis that "a lent that fails actually succeeds." Ann writes, "Lent. It’s the preparing the heart for Easter. Like going with Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, that we might come face to ugly face with our enemy. Our sacrificing that we might become more like Christ in His sacrifice.”

That quote struck a cord with me. It's not about the resolution like it's a New Year or something. It's about sacrifice, walking the journey with my Lord, learning his ways, feeling the dust on His feet.

I know I'm a bit behind since Ash Wednesday was two weeks ago but I'm diving in because I know I need more character refining, soul-cleansing.

I've been praying, Lord, what should I give you? What can I offer that is sacrifice and mess and badly needing mending in my life. Be careful what you ask in prayer because sometimes the answer will come shouting back at you.

My Tuesday morning Bible study has been driven by Beth Moore's "Living By the Spirit." Wouldn't you know that the last two weeks has been a focus on Self-Control? Specifically, I was convicted by a section that talks about the need to control our minds and our mouths. Our memory verse for the week: "A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue." (Proverbs 17:27-28).

And then last night I let my tongue tumble. My husband made some benign comment and I took it in the totally wrong and negative direction. Before I knew it we were having intense fellowship (no, not the good kind) and as usual I was winning the showdown. You see, I know how to use my words. It's a dangerous gift (curse). All my years of writing and public speaking and debate are an unfair advantage I have against my husband, my kids.

I, too, am a wretched Mama. I know after a piling and piling and piling of little offenses, reminders, more reminders that my kids can push me to that level where I will yield my words as a sharp weapon. My words spill, and I pierce with tongue, exasperate baby souls.

Before bed last night I happened upon a blog by Shauna Niequist, another of my favorite writers. She nakedly shares her journey of giving up "negative words" for Lent. No joke. All of these messages were relating. She writes, "No negative words--no complaining, no criticism, no passing on annoyances or reporting other people's shortcomings. In the space that's created, use words to affirm, to celebrate, to express gratitude." And this too, will be part of my training, my preparation for the mission field, for Haiti - a place full of harsh words, broken realities, people desperately needing Jesus like me.

Tonight we shared a meal with our Life Group - a collection of four families from our church that meet together every other week for a meal and time to build community. We just started a new video series about marriage. The speaker was Gary Thomas, author of the life-changing book, Sacred Marriage. We were challenged to think about the idea that "God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy." Our group read this book together years ago. Ericlee and I always give the book as a gift at weddings. And the reminder pierced me again. Maybe I need to adjust my lens again. Maybe I need to remember that it's my character that needs refining, not everyone around me. Maybe I'm the one who needs to hold my tongue and examine my heart.

Ok, I'm hearing the message loud and clear. This one even relates back to my focus on the discipline thanksgiving from last month. If I can control my mind, tongue and replace negative words with thankfulness, gratitude to my husband, affirmation of my kids and my friends, maybe I could experience a little more of Jesus' journey. It's not as much about giving up as it is about offering up my weakest spots. I've decided: I'm giving up the negative, controlling words and offering up gratitude - from now until Easter and hopefully beyond.

I am relenting to lent.