Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Getting Ready for Christmas

We've made the grocery and menu list, prepared the tree, cleaned out the closets, and pulled out the dishes for entertaining.  I even made my bed.  These rare occurrences can only mean one thing--some very important people are coming over.  This year, our house is the hosting place for my family's Christmas get-together. 

There is one word that best describes Christmas for me (and many others) this year--PREPARATION.  In most cases, we spend more time planning and working toward an event than we spend during the event itself.  It made me think about the way biblical characters prepared for big event that now millions of people celebrate.  How did Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the shepherds, and the wise men prepare for the coming of what was promised?  How did they make their hearts ready for the coming of the King?

Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, was told in her later years that she would have a son.  Her child would not be ordinary, but a man who would literally PREPARE the way for Jesus, by teaching people to turn from their own ways and thoughts and turn toward Him.  When Elizabeth heard the news, she did something I would never think to do--she secluded herself.  She spent 5 months alone, praying and worshipping God, and thanking Him for what He had done.

Not long after young Mary found out she was pregnant with God, she traveled to her older cousin's house.  Mary and Elizabeth spent three months of fellowship together.    They prepared for the miracles of their lives by enjoying each other's company, talking about the days to come.

When Joseph heard from God what He was suppose to do, he took care of Mary.  Joseph prepared for his son in a way that I would never see as an act of celebration--he abstained from sexual relations with his own wife.  He and Mary then obeyed the laws of the land by traveling to Bethlehem because the government required them to register for a census.  The couple didn't get to spend much time on a nursery, for the baby came on His own time, in His own place, and was laid in a feeding trough prepared for animals.

The shepherds were merely doing their jobs.  They were taking care of their earthly responsibilities and then quickly and hastily, ran to meet the baby as soon as they were told by the angels. The shepherds carried no earthly goods on them, which is in stark contrast to the wise men.  With love and admiration, the wise men brought gifts--costly gifts and laid them before the young King.

As I look at the lives of these ordinary people in Scripture, I am encouraged that their preparation looks different from each other.  Some prayed, spent much time alone, spent concentrated time together, some traveled, some talked, some abstained from their rights, some worked, some were good citizens, some brought words of truth, and some brought elaborate gifts. God designed His people to function beautifully--we all play different roles.  We work together by working differently--each one taking care of his own part. 

I hope that no matter what your preparations look like this Christmas, they are done out of love for the Savior and the people He created.  Our preparations are only worthwhile when we are obeying the Words of the Father, and enjoying our niche in the kingdom.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The tension of the Christian public school teacher

Yesterday was one of the hardest days I’ve had in the educational field.  I’ll spare you of all the details—but nothing went according to plan, technology failed me, and I ripped a hole in my pants.  Leave it to me to bring a literal meaning to the phrase “showing your tail off”.  Thank goodness for jackets to cover and a short ride home to change!  But those things are not what bothered me so much.

A little background:  on the first day of school I had an “ask the teacher” session.  The students were free to ask me any appropriate question and the subject of music and singing came up.  The students asked if I liked to sing and if I would sing to them.  As awkward as it was, I sang the first song that popped in my head – “Amazing Grace”.  I’ve noticed that one student often sings the song during transition times, and three weeks later, keeps asking me to sing nearly every day.  Yesterday was no exception—the conversation went something like this:

Student: “Mrs. L, you gonna sing for us again?”

Me: “I would love to sing a lot, but I have to teach.”

Student: “Well, I bet Grace would be real proud the way you’re singin’ her song.”

Me: “Do you think grace is a person?”

Student: “huh?”

Me: “Do you know what grace means?”

Student: “I just thought it was a girl’s name.  And you sing her song real good.”

Me: “Have you ever heard “Amazing Grace” before?”

Student: “Not til you sang it.  Why?  What does grace mean?”

And this is where the tension in my heart arose.  I’m a public school teacher and a Christian.  Were it not for my position, I would have explained the entire song to him.  Were it not for the fact that I had 26 other people to be responsible for, I could have taken the time to help him really understand.  However, we were off to the next class so I told the student to ask my daughter, because her middle name is Grace and she should know what it means.

I had a couple of minutes later to find out this boy asked my daughter during recess what the word meant.  I’m stunned that he is so curious and I can’t help but wonder why he is so fascinated with a song he heard for the first time three weeks ago.  I could tell him that grace meant getting what you don’t deserve.  I can explain that grace can not be earned by your good behavior, that grace is freely given but that it costs something to the one who gives grace.  But unfortunately, for this season, I can’t tell this student that he’s half right—grace is personified perfectly by one Person, but He’s not a little girl.  I can’t tell my students that before we mustered up some good behavior, Christ died for us, took all the punishment that we deserve and put it on Himself.  I can’t tell them it’s by grace we are saved.

I CAN show my students what grace is, but honestly that’s harder.  I get stressed, I get overwhelmed, I get ticked at technology and changed plans, and I have to unwaveringly dish out consequences for “bad” behavior.  I’m not nearly as good at personifying grace like my Savior, and that scares me, because I clearly have a HUGE responsibility to introduce children to a grace they’ve not known before.

But I have to trust that grace is at work with or without my efforts.  This season, and this song, isn’t finished yet….

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved….
How precious does that grace appear, in these hours I still believe…””

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

From Infant to Pubescent: hope for when you can't enjoy it

There is a group of people that I have much compassion for.  Perhaps I pity them.  I definitely want to encourage them.  I'm not necessarily talking about the poor or the broken-hearted or the fatherless or the widows...I'm talking about a very specific group of women:

the new mothers of young children.

I was in this group once, but am now a few years removed from that title.  I vowed that I would never tell a young mom what I was sometimes told "Just wait til you get to the teen years--then parenting becomes really hard."  I swore while in the midst of diaper changes and sleepless nights, I would not forget what my life was like.  

Ten years into parenting and then it happened.  I nearly forgot....

I was working in the baby room at church about a month ago.  For the first 10 minutes I rocked happy babies while sitting on my keister.  No baby was talking to me, no one was asking questions, and none of the children were running through the room. For a second, I had this ludicrous thought: "Why was I SO stressed out when my kids were little?  These babies are so sweet and the room is so calm."

You know what happened.  Eventually the contented, drowsy infant protested my sleep-inducing endeavors.  No longer was he satisfied in my arms...or on the floor...or in the crib...or in ANY bouncy, swingy contraption.  It wasn't long before I realized another crawler had grabbed my drink that I nonchalantly placed beside me and poured it all over himself.  Halfway through the worship service, the toys that had pacified so many children were now covered in drool and flung in every direction on the floor.

And as I made my way to the laundry room of the church, my senses came back to me..."Oh yeah, now I remember."

I remembered again as I was talking on the phone to my young friend with a first-born six month old child.  With her sick baby in the middle of the teething stage, it had taken us three weeks to coordinate that one phone call.  My friend had gotten her baby down for the treasured afternoon nap and called me to talk about motherhood.  We talked for an hour about the relentless care it takes to keep a newborn alive.  We talked about the struggle most moms go through when they realize their social life no longer consists of people their age.  For my young friend, our conversation was the only hour of the day she could talk to me.  The rest of the hours were spent attending to baby's every need.  But while I was on the phone my 6, 8, and 10 year old entertained themselves in the house while I sat on my porch.  My children played, fed themselves, and managed not to damage any property.  In fact, they were creatively figuring out how to solve our current household problem:  flies.  I suppose I've never introduced my children to the fly-swatter, so while I was on the phone, they busied themselves by making home-made fly traps with index cards and glue sticks.

(yes, this contraption actually CAUGHT a fly)

Then I remembered once more during a 3 day get-away with multiple families.  While in the hotel, the families with pre-schoolers had to constantly coordinate their schedules around naps.  My family did whatever we wanted.  Sometimes that meant we entertained a baby so the parent could tend to other children.  As I watched adults tote portable high chairs, cut their toddlers' food, spoon-fed their infants, strap and unstrap bibs, it dawned on me that I no longer have to physically feed my children; I simply introduce them to the options and they can fill a plate themselves and find their own napkin.  As I watched mothers and fathers wrestle their children down to change diapers, tie shoes, and search for missing hair-bows, I realized that a new era has occurred for me: I simply speak, and out of the room comes a self-dressed, potty-trained, fairly well-groomed child.
I further remembered when our families went to the hotel pool--every child age 3 and under refused to actually GET IN the water for more than 2 minutes.  The toddlers busied themselves with every contraption not made for children's use.  They took it upon themselves to transfer water from the pool to the floor, lounge chairs and tables.  One particular child spent fifteen minutes gathering shoes and throwing them into the water.  As for my school-aged children?  They actually SWAM.  I am happy to report they also practiced their diving skills as they retrieved every sinking sandal and fallen flip-flop.  Needless to say, those parents of the young children sat for maybe 15 seconds at a time while I and a mother of teenagers read books, chatted in complete sentences, played on our phones, and occasionally asked our older children "hey, would you get that shoe?"

I don't mean to sound like my post-preschool/ pre-puberty stage of parenting is now simple, easy or a breeze, but it is a breather before encountering the hormonal teen years.  My relationship with my children is less physically-exhausting and more emotionally-exhilarating than in the younger years. I spend less time putting them in solitary confinement because of their fits and more time socially-coordinating their friendships.  We still have problems, but I have the sleep and mental stamina to quickly find solutions.  And instead of wondering what I do all day, I can now actually make a list of the things I do in a day.

So, mom, your time is coming.  It doesn't happen overnight, but if you're diligent now, one day you look back and realize how long the days and short the years were.  Take all other pressures off yourself because you have one HUGE job--to keep your child's terrible twos and toilsome threes contained to the pre-school years. You don't want them reeking havoc on people and property for the rest of their lives, but take heart, you've got approximately a five year window to get the task done. The training that it takes to get your child from a consumer to a servant, from a self-worshipper to self-sufficient is tedious, tiring, and monotonous.  You SHOULD be tired.

I remember now why young parents are so exhausted.  But the good news is after parenting for ten years..... I *almost* forgot.
"So let's not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don't give up." Galatians 6:9

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

On a visit to the optometrist the other day, I watched the doctor with fascination as she tested my three children.  I was intrigued by her gadgets and contraptions, had great respect for her knowledge, and appreciated her thorough communication with me.   She further captured my curiosity when she  examined my youngest child and remarked “I have no doubt these kids have the same daddy.”

This doctor has never seen my husband.  She hasn't looked in his eyes or even seen his face.  And although our children share similar features with their dad, this ophthalmology- uneducated mom doesn't think my kids have their father’s eyes.  My husband’s are bright blue and captivating while the kids’ eyes are hazel and cute.  The youngest is far-sighted, the middle child has 20/15, and the oldest is near-sighted.  However, with the right amount of examination, a trained doctor can see what my naked eyes can’t--that the size and shape of the children’s optic nerve are remarkably similar.  The making of their optic nerves reveal that those three children were made in the likeness of one dad.

This experience made me wish it was just as easy to tell who the children of God are.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone could look at me for less than 60 seconds and say “I know who Tonya’s Father is.”?  If someone were to examine me, he or she might catch me in the few moments of anger I have toward the people I love most.  One might find me frustrated rather than free, worried rather than worshipping rightly, discouraged rather than disciplined.  One might catch me in a moment of gossip, with a condescending tone, or impatient spirit.  There are times when my heavenly Father may not be as obvious in my life as I want Him to be.

And so it is with the many who call themselves “Christians”.  Believers and unbelievers alike find it hard to figure out who the authentic followers of Jesus are, because the walk doesn’t always match the talk.  However, the Bible makes a clear distinction between the “saved” and “unsaved” in 1 John 3:10:

By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

Note the criteria mentioned in John 3 for true followers of God:
1)      someone who practices righteousness

This means that Christians will sin from time to time, but they do not PRACTICE sinning.  A believer may have a moment or season of anger, lust, pride, envy, jealousy, etc, but this does not characterize a child of God.   Upon examination of one’s life as a whole, one should be able to see the sinful habits being replaced with godly ones.

2)      someone who loves his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ 

This means it is contradictory to love Jesus and detest His people.  A believer chooses to forgive their church member for an offense rather than remain bitter against them.  Followers of Jesus lovingly correct a church leader that they feel is wrong rather that criticize or condemn him/her.  Christians are more concerned with their brothers and sister’s walk with the Lord than the way in which s/he conducts matters that are not sinful.  Disciples dispel fellow believers’ drama rather than create drama or run away from people’s pain.  God’s children choose to encourage, uplift, teach, serve, and help fellow brothers and sisters rather than isolate themselves from the Church.

Did you notice what was not in this list?  The Bible doesn’t say a person’s correct theology will ensure his eternal security.  1 John 3 doesn’t mention how often Christians should read their Bible, go to church, how many charities they should be involved in, how adept their evangelism skills are, or EVEN how to love unbelievers.  These are all good things, but are not evidence of the children of God.  Those who are trained by Scripture can recognize the similarities in God’s children much like the optometrist could infer the likeness my kids have with each other. 

In my own life, I can “see” God’s heart when I’m with my parents and in-laws who are actively involved in two opposing political parties—the love, care, and respect they have for each other is bigger than their political differences.  I recognize God’s children when at play-dates with my friends who home-school, public school and private school—we can enjoy and learn from each other even though we have different educational philosophies.  I experienced the beauty of God’s children when I taught a bible study consisting of students from 7 different demoninations—they could discuss Scripture respectfully despite their differing interpretations of it.  And every Sunday I witness my church enjoy each other’s presence regardless of the color or economic status of specific members.

Who are the real Christians?  We look different from each other.  We have diverse styles.  We have various gifts, strengths, skill-sets, weaknesses, struggles, and personalities.  Some of us are near-sighted at times when others see clearly.  We have different perspectives; we don’t always “see” life the same way, but we worship the same God.  We are made in His image—and that is most evident when we practice His ways and genuinely love His people.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Snapshot: Life in Campus Ministry

Campus ministry is a huge part of me and my husband's life.  Not everyone understands what my husband Chris does for a living, so I thought I'd share some of the incredible joys that come from working with college students.  Within the first three weeks of this Spring semester,  we've watched God move in their lives.  We've talked to students who are breaking addictions, getting out of unhealthy relationships, pursuing God-honoring relationships, and learning the Bible for the first time.  Students who have had little-to-no church background are hungry for someone to teach them--in fact, one learned that Jesus was God's son only a few short months ago.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Chris' job is mobilizing students to be on mission, to have lives that are not only healthy, but beneficial to the world and community.  I could tell several stories to illustrate this, but I want to focus in on a girl named Bree.  Meet Bree and hear her testimony:

"I came into college with no real religious thoughts in my head at all, except that I didn't like Christians because I was sure they were all just hypocrites. I had met a girl at orientation, and although she liked a lot of the same things I did, I was rather disappointed to find out she was a Christian. Before we really started hanging out, I told her that it was fine that she was a Christian, but that I would appreciate her not trying to convert me. I went to the BCM Freshman Survival Night with her because, hey, free food right? I didn't like it at all because I didn't fit in, so when {my friend} asked if I would go to the first worship service of the semester, I was...not so excited. Now looking back on it, I can see God working on that night in August 2011..... I found myself surrounded by people my age that were raising their hands in praise to songs that I could relate to, people that were there by their own choice. Wow! Chris spoke from Ephesians, and it was then that I was aware for the first time that I was dead in trespasses, and that I was walking in sin. So I made the decision that I needed God; I needed Jesus in my life!"

Exciting, right?  But God was not done. Bree wasn't content to sit on her salvation.  We got to watch her get baptized into a local church, and lead others into practical, life-changing ministries.  Last semester, Bree led a team of students on what they called the "Set Her Free" project.  They adopted an IMB OneLife initiative to help women trapped in sex slavery.  The project raised awareness of human sex trafficing and raised money that provided food, clothing, shelther and job training needed to free a woman from a life of modern-day slavery.  Imagine walking across your public institution to scenes like this:

Their goal was to raise $500 to change one woman's life forever.  At the end of the day, students not only collected $1000, but they had dozens of spiritual conversations with fellow students and professors.  People that didn't even believe in Christianity stopped to contribute and commended the group on living out their faith. 
I know there is a lot going on in our world that is concerning, alarming, frightening, or maddening.  But what I see nearly every day in the lives of students gives me hope that God is not absent at all.  Students like Bree are boldly finding innovative ways to make a difference by sharing the love of Christ.  She's only been a believer for a year-and-a-half, but is already making plans for long-term mission work in Asia by majoring in international studies.  I'm so glad that God is at work among our future leaders! 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Weeding out Mr. Wrong: how to dump a guy in 8 ways

What do you do with Mr. Wrong?  And do you even know how to identify him?

I’m not saying Mr. Wrong is an automatic, no-good scoundrel who needs kicked to the curb.  There's no reason to be mean or condescending with a man who’s just not the right guy for you.  I've known many women (myself included) who were flattered by someone they didn't like, but quickly floundered on how to say “no” to the offer of an unwanted date, get flustered about ending an unneeded relationship, or become frustrated by a man’s inability to take their hints and leave them alone.

Many sharp, goal-oriented, head-strong women suddenly weaken their will when it comes to men.  It is my desire to teach younger women what took me too long to learn: how to be a little bolder, a little more frank, much more witty, and much less na├»ve.  With that said, here are 8 practical ways to turn the wrong men away:

1) Give a "Compliment Sandwich".

Bread: Specifically name one or two good qualities about the guy.
Meat: Tell him you are not attracted to him in that way.
Bread:  Give him another compliment.

The reason this is so hard for women is because saying this requires honesty.  Honesty is hard for some women because it doesn't feel “nice”, but it is the kindest thing you can do for a man you don’t envision a future with.  Most of the time, guys do not want to be lied to, led on, or ignored--they just want the truth.

2)  "It's not me, it's you."

One of the best things that ever happened to me was the way one of my boyfriends ended our relationship. After dating for a while, he realized I was not the girl he could marry and told me why. He keenly pointed out a flaw in my character that would keep me from being a godly wife. He said it with respect, all the while affirming the good qualities about me. I appreciated his words and I worked on my shortcomings. Soon after that relationship, I dated my future husband who still benefits from my ex-boyfriend’s wisdom and honesty.

Don't tell a guy there is nothing wrong with him if there really is. What holds him back in life?  Why does he get rejected? It's appropriate and the most helpful thing you could do for his future spouse to let him know how to be a better man. Even if it hurts, most guys will benefit most from people who are honest with them. For example:

     * "I need someone more confident. I want someone who knows how to make decisions."

     * "You don't seem to know where you're going in life. I really don't want to be hanging around while you figure it out. But you have so many other awesome qualities, I'm confident you will be a great husband when you find your niche."

     * "I like to talk and you don't like to listen. It's just not going to work out."

3) Get a little personal.

A couple of years ago, I was hit on by a guy at the gym. He was the player type, and it was clear he had more muscle than he had job.  I mentioned my husband in our conversation, but that did not deter him. I talked about Jesus and he was still interested. But as soon as I mentioned the demands of 3 children, the difficulty of scheduling work-out time among their many appointments, and the fact I had 1 hour to get my kid's poop samples from my purse to the gastroenterologist (true story), he avoided me like the plague.

Most of you single ladies don't have children of your own in which to talk about.  So think about your cousins, nieces, nephews, or kids in the church nursery and take this little tip from Tonya: a man who is thinking about your body can not handle the mention of bodily excrements. A little discussion about puke, poop, and post-nasal drip will make even the "manliest" of men squirm and turn, leaving you with the satisfaction of a role well played.

4) Get the last word.

Though I believe this un-gentleman was playing around, I was once asked "How much?" and then given a dollar amount as if I would render my "services" for cash. This is the time to get snippy and witty ladies. Tell him plainly that he could never afford you. Then snap those fingers, let the Jesus Juke well up within you and retort, "Jesus already bought this body and it's not yours for the taking.” 

If you receive an ever-so-brash, indecent remark that comes unexpectedly, that is not the time to blush, be sheepish, or let a man get one over on you.

 5) "Let's not even be friends."

I have one friend who can't make a pursuer believe that she is not interested in him.  She has been blunt.  She has been offensive, but she does keep talking to him.  She replies to his text messages.  She told me the other day that the only option she has left is to tell him she is never speaking to him again, and that is exactly what she needs to do.

If you know a guy likes you, but you don't like him--watch the way you act around him.  Don't be too interested in his life.  Don't ask him lots of questions.  Be careful with your eyes--they speak volumes without uttering a word.  If you don't like a guy, don't look him in the eye.

6)  Have your standard in mind.

Mr. Wrong asks, "hey, you wanna go to dinner and a movie?"
Your reply: "well, I want to, but _____ ______ (insert name) has never asked me."

That statement is tongue-and-cheek, but no self-respecting man wants to be second-fiddle.  He will soon realize he is not the "one".

7) Ain't no kissin' til there's some committin'.

I am stunned at how many strong, able-bodied women turn to putty when a guy she’s not in a relationship with tries to kiss her. We all played dodge-ball as kids--use those skills ladies!!! Even if you are slightly interested in a guy, you should not let him "try you out" before he at least asks you out (Even then, be very careful how physical you get.  You'll have plenty of time once you're married.)  If this motto is not good enough for the guy interested in you, you can know for sure he does not have your best interests in mind.

8) Don’t cave, CHALLENGE!

I don’t think women ought to make it unfairly hard for a man to ask her out, but most women don’t hold men to a high enough standard.  Guys ought to be the initiators.  They ought to have a plan.  They ought to make their intentions known.  Do not answer “Hey, want to hang out sometime?” with an automatic yes, especially if you are not sure you really like him.  Ask him to clarify.  Ask him what he has in mind.  A girl I know was recently asked by a passive guy “so when are we gonna hang out?”  It may seem like a harmless, charming question, but that is the first sign of a man who is content to shift his God-given responsibilities to a woman.  If she is important to him, he can show forethought and intentionality. So I told her to respond with: “maybe when you get a plan together and ask me out on a real date.”


If the guy you know can’t step up to the plate after a confrontation or challenge, take heart my friends.  You don't have to worry or feel guilty when you leave him out in the cold--most waste management systems have curbside pickup.