Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fruitful in Affliction

Over the summer I did a bible study on Judges and in one of the weeks, I came across something that caught my attention: how we use the seasons of life or life’s events to define the word blessing and where we tend to seek blessings in our lives.

In Judges 15 we find Samson burning down the Philistine’s fields and killing them in hot anger and revenge, an action stemming from his anger issues of the previous chapter. Judah hands him over to the Philistines, but he escapes and kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey jaw. Afterward he is exhausted and rather rudely demands a drink from God. God provides the needed water and the text of verse 19 says, “And when he drank, his spirit returned, and he revived.”

The question on this section in my Bible study asks: “Samson assumes God will continue to bless him, no matter how often he gives in to his weaknesses. How about you? Are you more likely to assume God will bless you despite your disobedience or because of your obedience? Why is neither of these assumptions correct?”

So, my initial answer to that question was that it’s wrong to think either way because we are told to act in obedience to God - nothing more and nothing less. We don’t do what we do to wrangle something out of it for ourselves, it is simply obedience or not. And while this answer is correct, there’s more here.

The word blessing. The word has come up a bit recently with the realization of some long held dreams. Two years ago we bought and renovated a house we had dreamed of and had kinda given up wishing for - yes, we’d say blessed. That same year I was able to start my PhD program, a dream I’d held for almost 20 years at that point - again, blessed. And any of us could go through a number of things we’ve gained and hashtag them blessed.

But what is the ultimate meaning of the word blessing to God? I want to try to answer that in a round about way with an example, so stay with me. That fall semester of 2016, with the start of my PhD, began two years of internal turmoil. The stress at first seemed related to the level of work I was doing, but the turmoil didn’t stop when the work did. Suddenly, the way I had thought about and lived out certain things just wasn’t working any more (those details are another story for another time). Up and down a roller coaster of emotions - of thoughts consuming my mind and time, sorting them, digging for God’s truth, failing to take captive my flesh and thoughts, then succeeding, failing, and succeeding again - a process that never ends in life, but which was the focus of my life from then until recently. The addition of teaching, being a student, and caring for and maintaining a home and family all at the same time this was going on meant these people and responsibilities suffered too, as it became increasingly difficult to focus my attention anywhere but inside my head.

A trip to Israel and to South Carolina in the summer of 2017 both saw a reoccurrence of panic attacks that I had been delivered from and hadn’t seen for six years. God showed me how my fear had formed a comfort zone around me, it had kept my world small, and it wouldn’t change until He was my comfort zone. You’d think God speaking to you would be a pretty good point at which to turn around and make it all work, but in the months to follow, I hit ultimate lows - not with panic attacks - but just straight up struggling with my thoughts about myself, myself in relation to others, in relation to God, and other general fears.

A few months ago I read in Come Matter Here, by Hannah Brencher, about fear being selfish. If you think about it, fear is self-centered. It turns your focus inward and keeps you captive there. It has kept me worrying about the state of my relationships, questioning my opportunities, and cramping my blessings even as they fall in my lap. Fear as a basis in these ways had been a part of my life for a long time - it’s where my anxieties sprang from - and it has made my ability to grow as a person and in God difficult. But come fall semester of 2017, it was amped up and I couldn’t escape it. I consistently felt like I was drowning in my own head.

The new year, 2018, brought more struggles, and this time not my own and so it was all outside of my control. I had no way to fix what was wrong, yet I was irrevocably involved. Thoughts flowed one after another as I daily struggled to find ways to change and control what was going on around me, looking for assurance and peace and yet working against myself in the same breath. And even as that struggle changed and then bettered, another began and then proceeded to get worse...again out of my control, yet totally affecting me.

Source: IG Jentezen Franklin
In the opening months of 2018, fear was in charge and I spoke and acted as it demanded. In my desperation for answers and relief of what I was feeling, I voiced my thoughts, feelings, opinions, assumptions, etc., on anything and everything and often in the wrong ways and at the wrong times. Remember fear turns our focus inward on ourselves - it becomes all about “me” and what brings me relief or what I think is needed and right. I’m sure there were times they dreaded seeing or talking to me - I’m not exaggerating and not pitying myself here - I was a mess and because they were closest to me, they were sucked into it. And I’m sure there are even others affected by things I’ve said and done that I didn’t realize. I am not proud of it - I have a lot of regret over it and wish I could take it back.

Things began shifting in March - I can’t say how but something clicked. The struggles that were out of my control continued, but after all this time of fighting myself back and forth, succeeding and failing, but seeking God in every way I could, I began seeing my fear for what it was more clearly and how it was affecting me and those around me. I saw that I needed to trust God with my fears, feelings, and the situations out of my control or I was going to sink myself. I slowly began feeling better - less grasping, less desperation. What I can see in hindsight is a renewing of my mind...and when your mind is renewed you will find yourself transformed. The previous ways in which I lived and functioned had actually begun to change and I started to function more and more in God’s ways. And then in late March, with one step of obedience to God, my entire world opened up.

We volunteered to take in one of my students who found herself suddenly homeless. In the end, she didn’t end up coming to stay with us, but what I found in her absence from our home, was a space had grown in my heart and mind that could only be filled with the sudden action of fierce faith...a big faith ready to be all in and step out for God. By Easter (which was April 1st) this longing led to a random text to a friend, which led to a three hour transparent conversation with a complete stranger upon our first meeting. After that conversation, my new acquaintance reported back to her group and these strangers saw in me the missing piece to their puzzle and after a week in prayer asked me to join them in launching a new ministry. The crazy thing is, my mind was able to see the fit too, without doubt or worry. I’ve typically been good at stepping out when I feel God is telling me too - I’m an extroverted introvert - but it’s my inability to deal with fear’s emotional baggage that comes up in the process that has brought me down once I’ve stepped out. But this was all so coincidentally orchestrated, yet like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, and I suddenly felt so on track, it had to be God. 

Which brings me back to this study on Judges...ironically, Judges is a book about sin cycles and Israel’s inability to break from them. Precisely what God had been dealing with in me over the past two years. It’s easy to criticize men like Gideon and Samson until God shows you yourself in them. Thankfully for them and us, God is still faithful. Who knew a study of one of the most violent and depressing books of the Bible would both speed up and confirm the journey God has me on? (See I told you this would come back around.)

Of the examples I’ve given you from my life here, the house and the PhD opportunity look like the best examples of blessings I could share by far. But I beg to differ...and I beg we learn to look at the word blessing in a different light. The question I asked before my story was, “What is the ultimate meaning of the word blessing to God?” To borrow from my friend Jessie during our Bible study, “God blesses first for His glory and then for our good.” I would add that everything God does is first and foremost for His glory. The very creation of us is good only because He is good and He is glorified by it. And then we know He works all things for the good of those who love Him...but why? Because it glorifies Him. But as soon as she had said this, that story of my past two years I just told you, ran through my head. In two years, God amped up a lifetime of living under fear and the false teachings and beliefs it had established in my life and tore it down. Being such an internal and uncontrollable struggle, it has been the hardest refinement yet and it’s not done, but I can say it’s been my biggest blessing. And I can see what Joseph saw in Genesis when he named his second son Ephraim, which means, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:52).

Because what is the biggest blessing we have? Jesus Christ. So what can be more of a blessing than seeing the fruit of the Spirit develop in our lives and becoming more like Him? Everything He uses to discipline us, refine us, change us, and grow us is the ultimate blessing. 

Yes, my house is an obvious blessing...but it’s not comparable to a changed heart and altered mind set. It’s not comparable to the new beginnings of a fierce faith. It’s not comparable to the freedom only Christ can give. We need to learn to see blessings as spiritual, not just material. And we need to understand that blessings come in ways we never expect - sometimes through pain, suffering, and trials. I am not sugar coating this - I am not saying there’s something wrong with you if you can’t accept the idea of hardship as blessing easily. It is not easy or fun to grasp, even when you believe it. I’ve learned it the hard way - I’m telling you it can be hard, and I don’t doubt it can be way harder than what I’ve experienced. There were times in the past two years when life felt so particularly hard in my head that knowing God was working didn’t do me much good in the moment - there’s currently times that feel the same - but if you just keep moving forward, they become less, and it will change. 

I’m telling you to live life with your eyes and hands open for and expecting God. I’m telling you to trust Him to know what’s best - when, where, why, and how too. I’m telling you the struggle may be real, but it is good because God is good. I’m telling you it’s all worth it. It’s a blessing if we will let God have His way because His way always works for our good. 

And since we’ve talked about it so much...the remedy to fear? He’s taught me that too...and I could kick myself because it’s really the answer to most everything in life. Love. You might think the opposite of fear is courage or bravery, but it’s not, it’s love. Fear strangles the life from us, but God is love and love brings life. On June 22nd - the day after what I felt was another failure in my personal “war on terror” - with the help of a couple of graceful loved ones, I gave myself grace and got a new tattoo on my upper forearm, which reads “reduce me to love.” Real love focuses outward on God and others. You become smaller/less and God and others become bigger/more. You may recognize it in scripture as John 3:30, “He must become greater; I must become less.” Author Hannah Brencher says, “Gospel-living requires us to get smaller as we go, so that God can be amplified. Smallness is where the real work happens.” Fear does not allow you to love or become smaller because it focuses you on yourself and blows things up in your mind instead.

Not long after that, God revealed the underlying fear of all I had been experiencing. One day in the McDonald’s drive thru, I was questioning myself on why my mind seemed so stuck in one thought pattern and as soon as the revelation came to mind, it made sense, yet in all these years I’d never thought of it before. And yet, I’m telling you straight out, I don’t know how to solve it. But, this is where all I learned in the stretching, growing, and refining comes in...God does know what to do with it. As I’ve heard my Pastor say, “The Lord only reveals what He intends to heal.” And so I hand the revelation back to Him and ask Him to “Reduce me to love.”

Reduce me to love - which Brencher says she took from a woman she heard pray it once - is my reminder of how to fight fear when it tells me I’m both too much and not enough, that I’m unworthy, not needed, or unloved. It reminds me to turn my focus away from myself, to take it to God and then go love on others. We live in a fallen world and we are human, so we aren’t likely to escape fear - not completely - but we can determine to face it and fight. And we can determine to turn around at points of time in the future - a changed person, reflecting our Savior more than the day before - and say, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

Friday, June 1, 2018

Letting Go of Broken Identities

My daughter Mackenzie went off to Prom at the beginning of May. If you know Mackenzie, she is much more tomboy than girly girl. But the girl was decked out - hair cut; nails and make-up professionally done; big, sparkly jewelry; and an expensive mermaid style, art deco dress in smoky gray and pale pink (thanks to her aunt’s “prom dress fund”). She looked like a Princess.

But, again, if you know Mackenzie, Princess or girly girl are not terms that come to mind generally. It’s not even how she would describe herself. But I watched her enjoy so thoroughly this whole process of trying on dresses and making appointments, and then getting ready for Prom, that I could see the Princess in her. She is a Princess. And I guarantee that’s how God her Father has seen her all along.

It’s also how He sees us. Like Mackenzie - I’m no girly girl. But, there are moments where I’d like to be or at least considered so. Times I’d like to start over with who I am. And it makes me consider, what are the names and descriptions we’ve given ourselves? What names have other people or life experiences given us? What limits have those names put on our lives?

God has dealt with this in my life for a couple years now - the process of just making me consider that maybe what I “knew” about myself was a lie took a good year. The week before prom, I picked up Christian author Jo Saxton’s newest book The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For. The title caught my eye because between the summer of 2016 and January of 2017 God started really digging into me through two verses. The first was Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The second was Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” During those months - when He gave me these verses - God also gave me His calling for me for the years to come and then He showed me how He had been digging up false identities in me and was now working to give me my real identity. But, you know how we like to hold onto things, so I’ve gone through the process in the past year kicking and screaming. But that’s what made me pick up Saxton’s book - I’m a reader, God speaks to me extensively through what I read - and I saw in the title what God has for me. 

Actually, what He has for all of us. In the Bible, when God brings new life, He gives people a new name to match that identity: Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Saul became Paul. In her book Saxton states, “Whoever or whatever has named you does not have the power to define you forever. Are you ready to discover your identity and purpose, your name? Tell God who and what has named you, and who you have become as a result. Invite God to reveal the identity He has given you. This is the name that will give you new life.”

Maybe you already know what these names are or maybe this will take some time - either way, it’s something you pray through and consider and allow God to bring the truth to the forefront. Maybe even listen to those who are close to you and have been telling you for quite awhile the great things they know to be true about you. We have a tendency to underestimate ourselves.

If I can be real with you, I’d like to share some of the names and things that I have allowed to define me over twenty or more years and how they’ve made me into someone I didn’t want to be. They’ve come up from different relational interactions with friends and family, as well as situations and experiences that had profound lasting effects on me. Some are the ways in which I feel people perceived me throughout my life and some are straight up lies I’ve told myself repeatedly. Some may have even been truthful at one time based on lack of maturity, etc:

Bossy, loud, overbearing. Shameful and disappointing. Emotional, difficult, needy. Selfish, not a people person, tries too hard, don’t quite fit in. Not a traveler.

Know what I see in that list now that I didn’t see before? Opportunities for redemption. Weakness that Christ may work through me all the more. Traits that have a positive side if God is with me. 

Shame and disappointment? My past is a story of God’s redemption - Him turning my life around, redeeming me, my family, and turning my mistakes into a testimony of His love and faithfulness. With Christ bossy, loud/overbearing, and not quite fitting in become unashamed, bold, and set apart - personality traits God gave me that fit in His recent calling for me and enable me to proclaim Christ to my world. Emotional and tries too hard - issues that, with His spiritual growth, become love and acceptance and advocacy for the people to whom God sends me. Needy and not enough - things in everyone, needed to draw us to Christ and that will help us continue to draw close to Him and which will only be satisfied in Him. Not a people person and not a traveler are straight up lies from the pit...these two lies have held me in a self-enclosed comfort zone that in my past tortured me through anxiety and panic attacks and tried to keep my world small. That last one - staying in a comfort zone - is one I still fight. But fight it I am - in June I’m headed to a four day conference in Indianapolis with women I have only known for about a month. The only way to fight fear is to face it...you cannot conquer what you will not confront. 

God has taken the lies of who I’ve thought I was for decades and turned them around. It’s easy to slip back into those identities and grasp at all the old habits that go along with it, but God is there to help you fight them, if you’ll only turn to Him at those moments and ask Him to bear the burden when you can’t.

If you’re tired of living a life “stuck” with yourself, I urge you to invite God to look at your identity with you. To bring forth the lies that have named you and the ways in which they’ve made you someone you’re not. Invite God to reveal who you really are and how that identity serves the purpose He has for you, no matter how long it takes or what it takes. Saxton says - and I agree - “Don’t be afraid if you feel vulnerable when you begin to embrace your new name. It’s an opportunity to lean on God and to rely on His Word and power. He is redeeming your story.” Because when you are living in the identity God has given, you are not stuck and you will only become and feel more and more who you were made to be.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Glorious, Unplanned Sabbath

My Friday, April 27th, turned into a glorious, unplanned Sabbath. And I am posting on the blog about it because I am so full of the thrill and joy of it, I have to tell someone! It’s a little longer than usual, but hang in there cause God revealed to me the Isaiah 58:13-14 verse pictured above the next morning (this morning, right before I posted this). I don’t recall knowing it before and it blew me away.

The day started how I expected - I didn’t have work, so I slept in and laid in bed til 9:30-10ish. Took a shower. Fixed up the one final exam that I’d already written. It’s officially done. One more to go. That was all very much part of "the plan" for the day. 

Yes, I was so surprised at myself that
 I took a picture of my food!
But then, I got a craving for Golden Rye Grille and I went. It’s a quaint, local diner that I love and it’s right down the road from my house, but they’re only open til 2pm, so I don’t get to go much. When my food came, I realized that I always seek out company for things like this. I throw out invites and if no one can come, I don’t go. It would never have occurred to me before in certain settings like this, that if I wanted to do something, I could just go do it. The fact that I was at the restaurant and had ordered before I realized that I hadn’t even thought to invite someone? This may not seem like much to some of you, but it’s big for me. I’m not good at being alone and God is showing me in all the little ways what’s good about being alone - because being alone means alone with Him. And what better place to be? 

After lunch I knew I really needed to go home and work on my other final, but better things were calling. I literally felt the pull to follow. So, instead of going back home, I went for an hour+ long worship drive. I started doing these drives since renovating our house in the Summer of 2016. During the renovations, my husband and I, three teens, and three dogs were living in a two bedroom apartment and I had to find ways to escape! A worship drive for me means I get in my car and crank up the worship music through my phone, and make a huge circuit, driving along the outskirts of the surrounding areas: usually Columbiana, East Palestine,  Mohawk, Poland, and back home to Springfield. Having lived here my whole life, I know the main roads and a number of back roads that journey through and connect these towns.

This time, however, once through East Palestine, I ended up in PA on a road I didn’t know. I figured if all else failed I could use my phone to get back. But at a stop sign I saw something familiar - a sign for PA-551 - and I knew even though the immediate area was unfamiliar, I could find my way back on 551. You see, 551 is long, but it runs through the school district where I teach, so heading North I had to hit familiar territory eventually. Turns out the whole time I was in a little town called Darlington, which I’m familiar with. I didn’t know the side I was on, but I was closer to what I did know than I realized.

And despite the booming worship music, the thought in my head comes through clearly, “See, you don’t have to know where you’re headed, just be alert for the signs of Me and follow.” Whoa. Side note here: Intentionally looking for His signs to follow is what I’ve desperately tried to do to sort out the hardness of life the past couple months and life in my head has started to sort itself out - I feel healthy and free. And life outside my head is about to take a new turn too...more on that another time. Back to my day.

My drive ended at my kids’ school to pick up my son - something I never get to do cause I’d usually be at work. The smile that broke out on his face when I pulled up was priceless. Came home to fill up the bird feeders and inspect all the newly sprouting plants. My husband and I transplanted them from the old house last summer and I’ve had my fingers crossed they lived. Everything seems to be growing and I was excited to find the new Magnolia tree we planted full of blooms! I've wanted a Magnolia tree for a long time.

I let the chickens out of their coop and into the backyard, but only four or five and the rooster came out and they didn’t go far. They’re still adjusting to being outside after being raised in our house the past four months, but they were so much fun in the yard. I doubt many people let their chickens out for the purpose of playing with them, but I do. They climbed up on me and sat in the grass, sunbathing next to me. Even the rooster came over to be pet a bit. After that, I spent the remaining couple of afternoon hours on the couch in my library, with my dogs, reading and watching my favorite woodpecker eat the suet right outside the window. Also a pair of cardinals, a robin, and more finches than I’ve ever had come and go. And I couldn’t help but wonder how I got so lucky to live here with so much good stuff - so much beauty - around me.
My oldest daughter came home with reports of a day well spent on her own, enjoying friends, studying while having lunch, and coming to the end of her college semester with finals. My middle child, also a daughter, came home with a congrats letter in her pocket for making Flagline. We knew she would - it was the highlight of her year this past year. And next year she is a Senior. An acquaintance of mine - who my daughter doesn’t know - messaged me to say she was one of the judges and my daughter did a great job! My heart swelled with pride and love for my kids. 

The most wonderful man on earth
The day ended with my husband and I attending our 15th consecutive Mohawk Prom. The one time every year you can count on me wearing a dress! Maybe even make-up. And usually some kind of after Prom hang out with friends. But it’s a tradition we love with people I care about and spend a lot of time with. The community in which I teach is as much home as the one in which I live - and they are conveniently neighboring towns, very much alike and split only by the Ohio/PA state line, but not much else. A good number of this year’s Seniors I’ve had in class at some point, half have had me two years, and a smaller portion had me for three of their four years of English. I love these kids and I’m going to miss them...one of them being my own nephew (who, of course, I’ll still see, just not every day like I have for three years now...he's headed off to college).

My nephew and I

And for the umpteenth time this day I stop to wonder at how amazingly blessed I am. And that my most amazing blessings are in the simple, every day joys of life. Over the past twenty years so much good stuff has taken up residence in my life and although I’ve been generally aware of some of it, I’m seeing it all and more with new eyes today. 

With God’s eyes. Doesn’t get better than that. 

Note: This morning, when I was about to post about my day yesterday, I first read through my email and there was one from author Shelly Miller who sends out encouragement and such through her Sabbath Society. Her email followed the same lines as my post here; she had plans for her day, but because she stopped and listened to God’s nudge, it became something else - a glorious, unplanned Sabbath (my words, not hers). The verse pictured above is from her email and her explanation - which thrills me because I totally experienced what it says - is pictured below. It’s confirmation - I did experience what I thought it was. All I can say is, when God asks you to press pause on your day, it’s worth it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Spark of Faith

I have not posted here since January 1st. That is the longest I’ve ever gone without posting since I began this blog five and a half years ago. Life has a way of running away from you...and everything falls by the wayside as you struggle to catch up with it.

Yes, 2018 has been a struggle. No sooner did I post about choosing joy, than I found what it really was to practice what I was preaching, so to speak. It’s been three months of struggling with myself, people I love, and God as new norms settled in. All of which has only been accomplished by drawing closer to God.

We always quote the Bible in saying God works everything together for the good of those who love Him. Perhaps the struggle of 2018 so far is to draw me closer to God. A circumstance that didn’t pan out left me wide open to and suddenly hungry for more opportunity to serve God in a different way. Not necessarily looking for big or small ways, but instead to serve radically and intentionally, with at least one foot outside of the box and an ear to God’s lips so that I might move in obedience. I’m coming out of March with a kindling deep inside. It’s just a spark, waiting to fan into flame, but it’s intense.

Two things come to mind to share here, because they are a good definition of where I find myself. First, this short sampling of words to the Matt Redman song “Gracefully Broken” has become a mantra of sorts - an earnest prayer - in the past couple months:

“Take all I have in these hands
And multiply, God, all that I am
And find my heart on the altar again
Set me on fire, set me on fire
Here I am, God
Arms wide open
Pouring out my life
Gracefully broken”

And this photo passage from Ann Voskamp’s inspirational quote book “Be the Gift,” followed by some thoughts of my own upon reading it:

Reading this excerpt, the question that unfurls my thoughts this week - and I pass on for you to ask yourself - is: Am I desperate?

Do I “hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Do I want Him above all else...to invade my heart, change my mind, and alter my life?

Do I know that the best I can offer Him is “my broken and contrite heart”...that my life is made abundant in obedience and sacrifice.

Do I realize that I am where I am for “such a time as this”...but that all He’s made in me to give to the world comes through my communion with Him first.

Do I want it? Do I want to play my part in this Esther generation...to be the hands and feet bringing the good news through any means God asks? Am I looking for “real meat for my starved soul, dirt under my fingernails, and some real sacrifice in my veins...holy more than hollow”?

Then what am I waiting for?

I don’t know where God intends to take any of this, but I do know I’d rather not be anywhere else than in His plan. If He can bring this from the struggle of a few months time, I can’t even imagine what He will do in the rest of the year or the year after that. “All to Jesus now. Holding nothing back. I surrender.”

Friday, January 26, 2018

Guest Post: How to Interact with Teenagers in a Totally Awesome Way

Changing it up with a guest post on the blog today. My co-worker Sam recently started a humor blog called Delusions of Pretension, so I thought I'd humor him (haha) with a guest post opportunity. The man is truly comic relief in most every situation and his students and co-workers enjoy his wit. Work would truly be dull without him. So without further ado...

If you talk to anyone who’s met me, every single person will tell you how mind-blowingly humble I am.  Never once in my life have I felt the need to highlight my enviable personality or how my mere presence rejuvenates stagnant social gatherings.  Some people are the life of the party; I am the Party (like in 1984, except awesome).  I fondly remember going to a birthday party for a 100-year-old cousin of mine.  Her doctor had informed her that she would probably have a good five years to go.  After I went to her birthday party, she’s lived to be 120, and she’s still not dead.  

Being the literal life of the party is great and all, but I often feel that I’m doing the world a great disservice by not sharing all of the life-changing insight I’ve stored in my brain with as many people as possible.  Weaker minds call me an egotist or a narcissist, but that doesn’t bother me; after all, one cannot feel hatred towards the shamefully uneducated--only pure, disdainful pity.

One of my many gifts is my godly socializing ability.  Babies stop crying for weeks after interacting with me, even when they’re hungry.  Why?  Because I’ve changed their lives so much their brains have transcended normal human emotion.  But since there are other people in the world besides babies, I really shouldn’t be greedy.  

Therefore, to further change the world, I’ve decided to address the idea of interacting with teenagers while being an adult.  Despite having been teenagers at one point, adults are embarrassingly bad at reading teenage social cues.  So, to enlighten those brave enough to admit that I know more than you do, I will detail the top five ways you can successfully interact with teenagers as an adult.

1. Learn their slang: While speaking with elevated vocabulary (or “lexicon,” as we intellectuals call it) is the best manner of speaking, it can get a bit stuffy at times.  After all, even I need a break from my daily mind-expanding exercises, so simplifying my language is one way to do this.  Teenagers love this, and you’ll connect with them on such a wonderful level that they’ll look up to you for decades.  But, since I know that examples are the best teachers, I will provide a perfect example:

Teenager: Hey, how’s it going?
You: Pretty good

Teenager: Hey, how’s it going?
You: Yo man, I’m kickin’ back and chillin’.  Gotta send a few Tweets to my peeps and drop some love to my g/f.

Anyone who tells you that doesn’t work is Communist.  And if talking that way doesn’t work for you, that’s no surprise, because you’re a Communist and shouldn’t have employees anyway, you oppressive bourgeoisie scum.

2. Be Condescending: There is a common misconception that teenagers want to be treated like real people.  How this came about I have no idea, but it’s toxic, and it’ll ruin your soul, increase the world’s temperature, and make all yourfood taste bad.  To fix this problem, use simple words, speaking very slowly so they know you’re dumbing things down as much as humanly possible.  Be sure to indicate that you’re using small words because their brains are incapable of handling anything more complex.  You may notice that a lot of them will hate you for doing this, but just ignore them.  It’s only because they’re too proud to tell you how much they really appreciate it. 

3. Let Them Do Whatever They Want: Years ago, some idiot came up with the idea of “rules.” It didn’t take long for people to realize that rules only exist to be broken.  So, rather than waiting for teenagers to get to their 20s, let them know early on that there are no boundaries, and that all rules are bad and were probably created by Hitler.  Or Communists.

4. Don’t Let Them Do Anything: This may seem to contradict #3, and it does.  But it’s okay.  Adults are never consistent, so you have to make sure you live up to that idea.  After all, it’s not like you’re going to have a major impact on their lives, so don’t worry about being inconsistent.  Better for them to learn harsh truths young than to be even more disappointed when they get older.  And it’s hilarious when they try to figure out why you let them do nothing and everything at the same time.  The best tactic is to tell them it’s a Zen technique that will open their minds so much the universe will pour into them like sewage runoff.

5. Ignore Them at Critical Emotional Moments: Every now and then teenagers will want to tell you about their “problems.” Since none of their problems are important(or actual problems at all), responding to their complaintswill just feed the idea that everything is about them.  They might even say things like, “But I tried really hard to get a good grade but I still got a B,” “I’m feeling really sad since my boyfriend broke up with me,” and “It’s stuffy in the attic, please let me out.” These are all teenage mind tricks.  Ignoring such baseless sentiments will make them better people and ultimately make you the most important person in their lives.

I can guarantee that if you follow these five rules, you will sculpt teenagers’ minds in ways you never thought possible.  And if they turn out badly, it’s probably not your fault at all.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Choose Joy

It just occurred to me that this is the third
time I've tattooed the word "joy" on myself.
Time to start listening.

In the first week of the New Year of 2017, I wrote a post about a word God had sunk into my heart...about accepting who I am and embracing God’s truth of being fearfully and wonderfully made. I ended that post saying 2017 was going to bring so many good things. There were good things, but overall, it turned out to be a really tough year personally. It wasn’t an easy process, allowing God to bring to the surface truths about myself; facing those truths; knowing this process was necessary to lead me to true knowledge of what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made; and finding out that He really means for me to live in it. And that was just the emotional and spiritual inside - not including the stress of family, school, work and the things on behalf of family and friends who had some tough times hit in 2017. Even for all the hardness of it, I have to say 2017 was a good year in the end because every word, step, event, circumstance, pain, happiness, etc., that draws us closer to Christ is worth more than we can realize in this lifetime.

And as for 2018? I really wasn’t sure what to think or expect from God for 2018 until the last couple weeks, as the time and thought consuming college semester came to an end and grades rolled in. I worked so hard this past semester. In one class in particular I invested sweat and tears, sacrificed time and activities, and produced what is probably my best PhD work yet. I hit most of the major elements of scholarly research and writing - some that I hadn’t done before and others I hadn’t done well before. I improved as the semester went on and even decided on my dissertation topic based on the topic of this class and specifically the writing of this final paper that drove me crazy. Although I had started the class honestly unsure how I'd do, I ended it with actual hopes that I'd pulled off an A as I have in all of my classes so far.

My final paper grade: B
My final grade for the class: 89.3% B+ 
Note: The professor rounds to an A- at an 89.5%

My second class of the semester, which admittedly received less of my effort in my attempts to give all I had to the other, ended with a final paper grade of A- and final class grade of an A. I know, it may be hard to relate to this on the level of school or academics, but think of it this way: have you ever given something all you have, put every effort and resource into it, and still come out feeling like you didn’t do enough? The class I gave my all to failed to meet the goal, while the one I didn’t give that same effort, met the goal easily. It’s beyond frustrating. The compounded feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger began to sink my week and all the accomplishments that went into making that 89.3% B+ happen. 

After a couple days passed and some of the emotion faded, during lunch one day the thought came to me, “Choose joy.” In this moment, you can choose to mourn something you can’t change and allow it to become bitter or you can choose to see the good in the experience and allow it to make you better. Bitter or better. I went back and reread the professor’s email comments for my presentation and paper. His presentation comments were nothing but praise for how I’d chosen a relevant topic, set up the research and scholarship, employed good examples, and concluded with an impressive twist - stating my work was worthy of PhD level. His paper comments were all constructive criticisms that will do nothing but benefit me in my writing, if I heed them. A second email response he sent told me, “You can do this....you just need to do it consistently.”

In my focus on the letter grade itself, I had blinded myself to the fact that a professor who has the absolute highest of expectations praised my work and told me that I have what it takes to earn a PhD. And I seemed to ignore the fact that he gave me what I need to improve - if I’d just work on the things he pointed out. In the end, those things matter more for moving ahead in skillful writing than a letter grade. What good is a letter grade if my skills never sharpen enough for my writing to be accepted in a dissertation or publications? I'll have the A, but I won't earn the degree.

Isn’t this how we tend to go? We focus in on one thing about our situation and react negatively because our one thing hasn’t gone right or isn't what we expected. Often, it becomes a prolonged reaction on our part. Sometimes our focus makes it worse than it actually is and, even if the situation really is bad enough on its own, we often drag out our reaction longer than needed, not allowing ourselves to make the shift needed to recover. All the while we stand blinded to the fact that we've been given what we need in the moment, if we'll let God use it to sharpen us. Don't misunderstand me, this world gives us plenty to react to and allowing feelings of general disappointment, sadness, mourning, etc., are healthy, but we can't live there. Living there dampens and eventually snuffs out the goodness of life God has given, namely Himself. If we’d refocus we’d recall God’s promise to work all things to our good, see all He’s given us to move forward with, and choose to allow that joy to come alongside our grief.

JOY - second only to Love as a fruit of the Spirit
I'm not talking about happiness, which comes and goes with feelings and circumstances. Joy cannot be defeated or replaced by anything else, unless we allow it. Joy sits within us in hard times and buoys our spirits as much as it does when all is right with the world. Joy is an essence - a fruit - of the Holy Spirit (Galations 5:22-23). Where the Spirit of Lord is, there are a number of things, but one of them is joy. The end of Nehemiah 8:10 says, "...the joy of the Lord is your strength!” Do you have Jesus? Then you have the reason and strength for joy!

"When we lay the soil of our hard lives
open to the rain of grace and let joy
penetrate our cracked and dry places,
let joy soak into our broken skin and
deep crevices, life grows. How can
this not be the best thing in the world?
For us?" Ann Voskamp
I know - that's all well and good for something small like grades, right? In deeper, emotionally charged, and/or more personal matters this concept proves more difficult, but just as all encompassing. James 1:2-4 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." It says a lot about God's grace that He starts the lesson small before applying it to the gaping wound you assume (or pretend) has healed. A couple days after I started thinking "choose joy," a centerpiece of my past came before me...a centerpiece because I've made it so. The past year God has shown me that I reference who I am and what I'm worth by major failures in my past. I've been living off of mistakes God forgave and redeemed right before my eyes over the past twenty years. And now I know I can't ignore this any longer...when confronted with any of it, I must choose joy. It is in choosing joy - and His strength that lies behind it - that I give ultimate praise to God and persevere. It is in this perseverance that I will ultimately see my heart transformed. 

A hard road? Yes, but as my pastor/mentor/friend Christian told me, "The Lord is always more concerned with the PROCESS than the PAYOFF, because in the process we become more like Him. The payoff is a promise, but it is what happens to us in the process and how we use it as an opportunity to minister to others and bless the Lord that truly is an offering of love to Him." Are you in a process of some sort? Maybe you've been there awhile or maybe it's just begun. Either way, it's never too late to persevere. To choose joy.

In this New Year, let the thoughts we seem to reserve for Christmas stay with us. God gave the greatest gift of all: His only Son, Jesus. We speak that line in this season often, but do we know what that entails? If we have nothing else, we have Jesus. He alone is reason enough to choose joy. The only question is, will we do it? When the tough moments hit, will we stop - lift our eyes, hands, and hearts in a prayer of supplication - and choose joy? Because ultimately, choosing joy is choosing Jesus.