Wearing Your Age

I’m trying to branch out.  After turning 32, having 2 babies in 2 years, starting to see the changes in my face and body, it’s time to shake it up a little.  I’ve joined bootcamp (and loving it! Thanks Shea) to change my health and get in better shape.  I’ve started trying new clothing styles, reading different authors, trying to see who I am as I begin my 30’s.  So far it’s pretty good.  I may have aches where I didn’t have before but it’s interesting being at this stage of life.  I am beginning to feel like a full-fledged adult.  I’ve heard this happens when you’re in your 30’s.  This has got me thinking, though, about who I am and who God has created me to be.

Who we are is most definitely an internal process and knowledge, but who we are on the inside, no matter whether we try to hide it or not, is to a certain extent, reflected externally.  My husband, Pete, always says that ‘you earn your face’.  What he means by that is your attitudes and experiences are reflected on your face.  We’ve met those people on both sides of the spectrum.  People that we look at and are drawn to, their face shows evidence of kindness and laughter, and people who set us on our guard; their faces reflect anger, impatience, dissatisfaction with life.

So this started me thinking about how people perceive me.  What do they see as they look at me, interact with me?  Do they see my growth, my humor, my desire to know God better, my sometime impatience, my exasperation, my self-pity?  How do I want to be perceived?  As I grow and mature, what are the things that are important to me in how I am perceived?  Looks do matter to some extent, I think, if we’re all honest, looking our best, presenting a pleasing appearance.  Making sure you’re not wearing the black socks and brown sandal combination.  (It’s not good with either pants or shorts, so don’t do it.)  Brushing hair, teeth, all of those things that we feel matter as we present ourselves to the world.  But because I’m striving to be a woman pleasing to God I need to discern how I want to be perceived by him first, and by others second.

Proverbs 31:25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

When I think of this woman who fears the Lord she wears her experience and her attributes like a garment.  When people look at her, they see strength and dignity covering her.  I like to think that I grow in strength daily, with each new experience and each trial.  Loss, struggle, and these hard things in life strengthen us and refine us.  I hate these times with every ounce of my being but as I have gone through life, the death of my father, financial tough times, broken relationships, I see a new strength in myself after each battle.  We all gain strength through just the daily living that comes with being on this broken world.

Dignity is a reflection of how we deal with these tough times.  Dignity does not mean that you hide yourself away, paste a smile on your face and take one for the team.  When I think of people I have known who exude dignity I see people whose faith is tested and strive to follow God through it.  People who love others in the midst of their personal turmoil; people who acknowledge their own brokenness and offer grace to others in the midst of the others’ brokenness.  Some of the most dignified people I know are the least snooty people I know.  THrough their lives they have sought God and gained strength from Him through good and excruciatingly hard.

I want to be that kind of person.  I want others to look at me and see the reflection of my faith in my very being, covering me and surrounding me.  I want people to look at me and see my love for God first and my desire to follow him in all things.  And, I want to have the strength to laugh at the days to come.  There are difficult times that come to all of us, deaths, loss, struggle.  There are also great joys, births, growth, graduation, parties, holidays, times of great love and intense worship.  As my resilience grows I want to look at both of these things and know from the depths of my soul that God is there with me in all of those times, joyful and sorrowful.  So what do I want as I make my way forward through my 30’s and beyond?  I want strength and dignity and the joyful laughter that comes from knowing my God’s faithfulness and presence in my life.  Hmm…Growing older doesn’t sound so bad…

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Using the Brains God Gave You

There is something reassuring sometimes about not using your brain.  Letting yourself drift into a stupor where the expectations are low and the drive is even lower.  I love days like that, days where I putter through my time doing those tasks that require very little of me and letting my mind wander (or not).  We all need a break sometimes.  Time to give ourselves over to mindless tasks, which can be fulfilling in itself.  Days like that are important for our peace of mind and our sanity.  Time to just drift….

Yes, all very nice and peaceful.  Just drifting along.  But what happens when that day of drifting turns into another day, a week, a month?  It can be easy to slip into a routine where the expectations upon you are low and the energy and motivation is even lower.   This can happen no matter where you are.  I personally have found this in two very different stages of my life.  The first stage is the more recent of the two.  Staying at home with kids is an intense job in itself.  It has its ups and downs but can settle into a rhythm of day-to-day, like to like, same ol’ same old.  I also found this when I was in Seminary.  I learned so much but my growth and knowledge of God happened so much in my head that there would be days, even weeks going by where I realized that my head was absorbing these truths about God but my heart was not.

Now, you may ask, what has inspired this period of murky self-reflection?  This remembering of days where part of me was going through the motions in a semi-trance without intentional thought or consideration?  Strangely enough, it’s this next verse in Proverbs 31 that has brought this about.

Proverbs 31:24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes. (NIV)

It’s strange, I know, to make this kind of connection between a state of semi-stupor to this woman’s success and business savvy.  But as I read this verse it struck me and touched upon what is quickly becoming a bandbox for me.  I look at this verse that shows the business this woman has set up for herself.  She is industrious, savvy, and smart.  She is a woman who has extended herself beyond what is expected of her in her culture.  From what we know of her so far, we see a woman who is in comfortable circumstances.  Her family wants for nothing.  Her husband is respected and her children are healthy and well cared for.  She even has servants to help her so we can assume a relative level of economic comfort.  It may be that her business was part of what got her family there but once the success was reached, she could have scaled back, rested on her laurels.  I’m sure that her husband, a well-respected man, is able to provide for her.  She could have stayed home, puttering around, being a lady who lunched.  It would have been easy to do.

She doesn’t do that, though, does she?  Amidst the other things that she does, she extends herself in yet another direction.  I’m not advocating that we do everything she does in order to feel that we are serving God well.  I don’t think that’s the point of this passage.  What is this passage telling me about being a woman who fears the Lord?  I’m not likely to be a linen merchant and my sash making ability is, I’m sure, average at best.  So what am I to take from this?  Here is where the bandbox comes in.

We expect to little of ourselves.

I have settled in the past.  Settled for going through the motions, thinking that maintaining the status quo was enough.  “I’m doing the best I can for right now” turns into “I’m doing a little bit but not much” for a long time.  I go through the motions of my day, go through the motions of work, of ministry, of spiritual life doing just enough and just fine.  But it’s not.  How would it change if we could see beyond our everyday to see our potential through God’s eyes?  What if I transformed my mind, determined to sharpen it, use it for God’s glory?  How would this change my life and ministry?

It’s like exercise.  If you don’t move your body and use it you get stiff and lose energy.  You start to think that where you are is good enough and don’t realize the energy and health you could feel if you dreamed bigger and thought further.  What if we applied that to our relationship with God and our ministries?  Is there that book in the Bible that I’ve avoided (Leviticus, anyone?) because I thought I wasn’t smart enough to understand it, it’s boring, it has nothing that applies to me today.  What if I decided that God must have put it there for a reason so I should stretch myself that extra inch, mile?  Maybe you look start reading that book and start drawing images that you see as you read.  Maybe you write it out in your own words.  Maybe you put yourself in the shoes of that person living at that time and imagine what this would mean to them in their life.  Maybe there’s that person at church who seems to really get the Bible.  What would happen if you actually started a conversation with them about it?  What if you read a verse and you posted it on Facebook asking for other people’s thoughts about it?  You’d get some pretty cool answers, I bet.  And what an opportunity to talk to some of your non-Churched friends about it. (there’s another way to stretch yourself, too.  Look how it snowballs)

I so firmly believe that God wants to draw us deeper and higher to unimaginable heights in our lives of service to him.  When you go to church, how much imagination do you use in your ministry?  Do you do what you’ve always done and kept your head down or is there this niggling idea at the back of your brain that’s telling you that x, y, or z would be a good idea?  Is there a ministry idea, a need to be met, that you’ve always thought about but never followed through on?  It’s so easy to just slip into a ministry and coast along doing a good job but not extend yourself.  Can you honestly say that you are feeding a large amount of drive, passion, and imagination to your ministry?  We are all gifted by God to serve him.  If your gift is Service how are you extending yourself, stretching yourself?  Is there a need you see that isn’t being met in your church or community?  If you are gifted to teach are you teaching to the best of your ability?  Are you seeking out new ways of telling others about God or are you still teaching the same way you were 10 years ago.

I see in my own life areas where I’m just bobbing along.  It can be nice sometimes to rest on the excuse that I have two small children and am so so busy.  That I’m swamped at work.  That “this is the way this ministry has always been done and it’s worked fine.”  Is fine alright with you?  Are you content to remain where you are, doing what you can or do you dream of something more?  If you don’t dream of something more, why not?

There are times in my life when I feel a burning discontent in my heart and spirit.  It usually comes after a time of just bobbing along.  Sometimes bobbing along and maintaining is all I have to give at that time, and that’s fine.  We all have times where we need to pare back.  The birth of a child, the illness of a loved one, the huge project at work.  But after those times are done, I feel that discontent.  I believe that discontent reflects a need I have and a need in all of us to strive.  This discontent reflects God’s vision of us that we can’t always see for ourselves.  He sees the wondrous creation he has made me.   He knows better than I what I am created for and what I can accomplish.  He sees the satisfaction I would have, the sense of serving to my potential and the peace and excitement that comes from stretching myself to seek better than where I am.  He knows me and delights in how he has made me.

It makes me think of that famous verse in Jeremiah 29:11

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

What we often don’t associate with that verse is that it is part of a letter written to the exiles in Babylon.  God tells them to settle there, marry, build homes, to wait.  They are in a holding pattern, bobbing along.  God then says that after this time of waiting and maintaining, he will call them out.  He will call them to something new and glorious.  He will draw them out of this maintaining into something new and exciting.  But when he calls them out, they must go.

God wishes so much more for us than we can imagine.  What if I used this discontent to where God leads?  What would happen if I were to seek him and ask that he show me a glimpse of the plans he has for me?  It can be frightening and daunting but what a life I would miss if I stayed bobbing along, limited by my own imagination for my life.

The Secret Rewards of a Stage Wife

Hyper-vigilant stage moms scare me.  I’m not talking about the supportive take your kids to soccer and dance class kind of mom but the “Toddlers and Tiaras” kind of mom.  The fierce intensity of their focus and drive to the exclusion of all else in life, including health and well-being, makes my eyes widen and my feet shuffle backwards looking for some sort of escape.  But in my continuing quest to be a woman who fears the Lord and is praiseworthy in his eyes it seems that God is calling me to be a little like that stage mom only the wifely version.

Proverbs 31: 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land (NIV)

When I look at this verse it seems a little out-of-place in the rest of the passage.  The verse before talks about the wife’s wardrobe and the verses after talk about her business savvy.  So why this blip about her husband and his social/business status?  I think this verse is telling us something about the marital relationship and how spouses are to reflect upon one another.  Not only that but I believe that this verse tells us how we are to reflect upon anyone with whom we have a relationship.  Our friends, our colleagues and bosses, our ministry cohorts.

This verse shows a man who has a certain standing, has earned a certain respect among his colleagues and having a seat with the elders of the city implies a certain amount of wisdom gained through experience.  I believe placing this verse here in the midst of the description of this woman’s own savvy and wisdom says something about the support she offers him in his work and ministry.  Who we are associated with reflects on us, doesn’t it?  Often we see this with its negative connotations but what about the positive connotations.  I have known people who if you mention them to others a love fest ensues.  The “Oh, don’t you just love them/aren’t they great” conversations.  I think this verse is telling us about a wife who is that kind of person for her husband.  Her support, her wisdom, her sense, kindness, and smarts has been an asset to him in his work and ministry.

God values how we treat one another.  He values our support of one another, our compassion, our cheerleading.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?  He calls us to consider the needs of others and value them.  For the woman in this passage it means being a “Stage Wife”.  Not the obsessive kind, but the healthy kind where she considers how she can support her husband and further his ministry.  She wants to reflect well on him.  Her actions bounce back onto him so she tries to conduct herself with honor and compassion not only to him but to others around her.  I have known people who are at a disadvantage because of the actions of those they associate with.  I think we all do.  I don’t want to be one of those people.  I want to be an asset to my husband, my children, the people I minister with, my boss, my colleagues.

There are pitfalls to being a “Stage Wife/Husband/Employee/Ministry Partner”.  It is easy to fall into certain behaviors and emotional traps.  Things start to get unhealthy when you invest everything you have in another person and leave nothing for what God desires for you as an individual.  In the verses following verse 23 it talks about the woman’s own interests and actions.  She invests in her husband and children but pursues her own interests as well.  I firmly believe that God has plans for each of us and focussing entirely upon another person’s ministry can be limiting to the path God has for us.  Supporting others is important but don’t rest in that.  It can be easy to hide behind another person and not allow ourselves to be stretched.

Supporting roles are rewarding but can be difficult as well.  What about that time you helped your boss with an important presentation and they came back after it was presented, glowing and excited.  You wait for it…wait for it…and the thank you and acknowledgement never comes.  You see the success of a ministry you and another were working on and you see them being acknowledged…and no mention of you.  Your spouse is starting a new business and you have been putting in long hours caring for the kids, doing books, picking up the slack, supporting, cheerleading…and no acknowledgment comes your way.  Resentment can build and fester.  You feel unappreciated, taken for granted, invisible.  What do you do?

First, pray.  Pray for peace, change of heart, whatever.  Also, telling God how you are feeling is very therapeutic.  It’s not like he doesn’t already know.  Telling him your hurts and frustrations can help you refocus and put them in perspective.  Praying helps us get out of ourselves and see the bigger picture of what God may be doing in the situation.  Prayer also helps prepare us to deal more kindly with another person.

A firm belief of mine is that people shouldn’t have to guess what you need to prove their love.  What I mean by this is “If they really loved me they’d know or do X, Y, Z.”  If the person doesn’t do that resentment builds and the relationship starts to slowly erode.  I have had times when I’ve found out later that my actions or omissions were hurting someone else.  It feels awful.  After praying about it (so so important) it is alright to kindly, gently, and with compassion and mercy in mind say “I am feeling a little down.  I could sure use some words of encouragement from you.”  I don’t recommend doing this with your boss.  That might elicit ideas of an inappropriate relationship.  Just saying.  But, in our more intimate and close relationships making someone guess what you need just makes you both feel bad, doesn’t it?  There’s no need to play the martyr while supporting someone.

In an ideal world, you would not need to ask and if you did ask, the words would come freely and with birds singing and rainbows.  That might not happen.  I have been in situations where I did not get the acknowledgement or thanks I feel I deserved.  I don’t like it.  I don’t think anyone does.  I was in one of those situations, feeling bitter and invisible and righteous and a verse popped into my head.  A verse that turns out to be repeated three times in Matthew 6.  Jesus is talking about different forms of worship: giving to those who need, prayer, fasting.  These things that require something of us that are part of our honoring God.

“and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:4, 6, 18 (NIV)

In those times I repeat this verse in my head.  My actions may not be secret but they are behind the scenes and supportive.  This verse reminds me that I am not invisible; what I do is not worthless and unacknowledged.  Though my actions may seem secret they are seen.  My hurt may be real and justified but we can’t make others acknowledge us the way we think they should.  I need to take my hurt to God.  He sees me.  He sees what others may not and he acknowledges my obedience and my service and he says “well done”.  Is my goal in service to receive acknowledgement from people or to please God?  That is distorted sometimes.  My service is an act of worship to God and in big or small ways and ways unseen is my way of helping to show his love here on earth.

So when those times come, when my cup needs filling, who am I turning to?  I remember watching a sermon by Beth Moore and her words about who is filling your cup, your kids?   Your spouse?  Your friends?  This reminded me that I am seeking God’s praise.  In being a woman who fears the Lord I am seeking God’s approval, God’s praise.  Though at times it is hard to serve in secret, God sees me.  He sees every ounce of energy, every cheer, every minute of effort.  It is my act of worship to him and he is pleased.