Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Sense of a Fresh Start

[what's brewing: find out on New Year's Day!]

Isn’t it interesting that so often people who try to create a fresh start in life through a relocation, new job, or new marriage often end up making nearly the exact same choices and following the exact same patterns as they did in their previous situation? It seems we are predisposed to make certain choices consistently, despite the details of our surroundings. Maybe this is why New Year's resolutions don’t often turn out to be quite as life changing as their makers have envisioned them to be – they are all too often focused on large scale changes rather than the momentary choices that collectively create a lifestyle.

After a series of failed resolutions, I have finally started to focus on little decisions that are consistent with who I am becoming, rather than who I would rather be.

For example, I have friends who deal with their stress by engaging in physical activity – they love nothing more than going for a 3-5 mile jog to burn off stress, sadness or frustration. I, on the other hand, prefer to deal with those emotions through physical inactivity – I don’t want to do anything (though it should be noted that enough anger topped off with my own stubbornness can put me in a turbo-cleaning mode that accomplishes a remarkable amount of work in a short period of time). I would love to be the type of person who craves a long jog when feeling homesick or frustrated with language learning, but quite honestly, that is the most unnatural response I can think of. So it will not surprise you to hear that my resolution back in 2004 to become the type of person who turns negative emotions into physical activity did not prove successful.

However, my decision in 2005 to try to exert myself more in unfamiliar social situations has proven much more successful, which I attribute to the small, momentary nature of the issue.

I have often wished that I were more confident and outgoing in unfamiliar social situations. I marvel at people who can enter a room full of new people and easily delve into conversations with nearly everyone in the room by the time the night has ended. While no amount of effort will turn me into an extrovert, I do find that pushing myself to initiate conversations when it feels unnatural to do so is a practical step I can take in building relationships with people in a new setting.

And now that we are here in a new culture where social interactions are even more complex because of the language issue, this has been a vital commitment for me to come back to time and again. It’s a moment-by-moment choice to do things differently, not an attempt to change the personality that is engrained within me.

I know people who only make resolutions based upon spiritual qualities (fruits of the Spirit, prayer habits, commitments to fasting, etc.), and I also know people who don’t make resolutions at all because they believe we should always be striving for personal change and betterment. I personally love New Year's resolutions because they provide a sense of a fresh start – a time to take inventory and identify particular areas for personal growth in every aspect of who I am.

My decision to take risks in initiating conversations has been crucial in my ability to connect with people in my new setting. While it may not be a fruit of the Spirit, it reveals my dependency upon Christ for strength and confidence in a tangible way that I may not experience if I were simply focusing on joy, peace or patience. It opens the door for new relationships as it reveals my own vulnerability, which many times the women I work with need to see.

Worldly wisdom would guide me to make choices that protect and cover my own vulnerabilities and sinful ways of being. For me, resolutions are concise declarations of my desire to leave those ways behind and apply the wisdom of heaven to my life by intentionally making different and healthier choices.

With 3 short days left in the year, I’ve been thinking carefully about the resolutions I want to make this year. I always have a hard time narrowing my list down and I rarely finalize my selection until New Year’s Day – this year is no different.

Check back on New Year’s Day (Thursday) for my 2009 Resolutions!

What about you? How do you feel about New Year's resolutions?

What are you considering for your 2009 resolutions?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nothing is Inconsequential

[what's brewing: did I really order this???]

There are certain elements of the Christian faith that I have wrestled with for most of my adult life – such as the question of how (and in my most desperate moments, if) prayer works, the role of God’s omnipotence in allowing suffering in the world, and the historically troubling issue of free will vs. God’s divine will. At times these topics are distressing to the point of tears, while at other times I feel at peace with taking them by faith and leaving my lack of understanding in the grace of God’s hands.

This week as I read over the Christmas story and followed several passages along through my Advent reading guide, I was struck by the theme of God’s specific control over the events of the world. I’ve known these passages for years. They’ve even been included in Christmas services and readings I’ve seen before, but for some reason they impacted me today like they never have before. His orchestration of minute yet magnificent details is clearly depicted in the story that leads to Jesus’ birth: a descendent of Abraham, in the line of David, born to a virgin in Bethlehem, the child who would bring “the redemption of the world” (Luke 2:38).

I can scarcely imagine how out of control life must have felt for Mary. She did not choose the absurdity of a virgin birth for herself – God orchestrated it, in accordance with the prophets’ message of years ago. Had the census not been imposed by Caesar, there would have been no reason for the journey to the town of David, Bethlehem, to occur. I can’t imagine Mary was very pleased about traveling such a distance by donkey while 9 months pregnant, but she had to go, just as it had been foretold. Believing that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ, Simeon was “moved by the Spirit” to go the temple courts, and there he found the child Jesus. He didn’t know where he would see the child, but the Spirit moved him to go to the temple, and he went – another fulfillment of what had been foretold.

As clear as it may seem to us as we read this familiar story, I doubt these individuals would have seen their daily actions as part of the fulfillment of God’s perfect plan (certainly not Caesar!). They were moving along in daily life, and God was at work within the mundane details – a woman pledged to be married, a ruler calling for a census, an innkeeper offering a stable, an old man being prompted to go the temple. Those who worshipped God were open to this working in their lives: Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. All praised God immediately for what he had done. In the midst of uncertainty, they responded with worship.

If there is any doubt within you about where you are today, where God is and what he is doing, the reason for a certain area of suffering, the loneliness or hopeless you may be feeling this week of Christmas, may you be encouraged by the truth depicted in the story of Christ’s birth. There is nothing inconsequential about the circumstances we are facing. By logical necessity God must either be intricately involved in every circumstance of the world, or not at all. He has shown himself to be sovereign over circumstances in amazing stories like this one, and therefore we can trust that he is sovereign over circumstances in broken, challenging stories like our own.
Wherever you may be, whatever you may be facing, you are not alone and you are not forgotten. God has known this day for all of eternity, and he will use it to demonstrate his faithfulness to humankind throughout history and bring glory to his name.

Lord, help us to say, as Mary did:

I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

[what's brewing: a familiar note with a hint of nostalgia]

Starbucks’ red cups and their fine Christmas pastries,
Children lined up to see Santa in Macy’s,
The Salvation Army bell faithfully rings,
These are a few of my favorite things...

Okay – I’ll spare you the rest of my silly song, just as long as you now have the song stuck in your head as well. I have been doing a lot of remembering this week, thinking of the aspects of my home culture that help to create the special sense of excitement during the holidays. While their ties to the commercial nature of the season are clear, I also see them as contributing to an overarching sense of the Christmas spirit throughout society.

Simple as it may have been, the arrival of those red holiday cups at Starbucks always seemed to herald in the Christmas season. While personally grateful that I had no kids to oblige me to stand in line at Santa’s Workshop in the mall, I always smiled at the look of joyful anticipation on a child’s face who had made it to the front of the line and was next to sit on Santa’s lap. Although I rarely put money in the buckets of the Salvation Army as the volunteers manned their stations outside grocery stores and Walmarts, the ringing of their bells served as a subtle reminder that the Christmas season was here, even as I rushed in to get normal, everyday groceries.

Some days it feels like salt in a wound to think about my favorite things of the Christmas season. This week I’ve been thinking that Maria had the right idea in The Sound of Music when she sang, “I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad!” Rather than dog bites and bee stings, things like water shut-offs and market thieves leave me feeling sad. But fond memories of my favorite things bring a smile to my face and conjure up the warm feelings of holiday joy, despite the disparity between those memories and my present reality. Add to those memories the Christmas lights that hang in our doorway and the tinsel that has been strung around our office, the Christmas spirit is alive and well here.

What are some of your favorite things?

I’ve listed a few of tried-and-true and new favorite online places and resources on the sidebar – check them out and add to the list by leaving a site in your comment as well!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Christmas Spirit

[what's brewing: bold overtones with a hint of authority]

It is strange, yet somehow encouraging, realizing that some of the sights and experiences that caught my attention when I first arrived now seem to be normal elements of the landscape.Broken pieces of glass or cacti that are cemented into the top layer walls and properties are now an understandable form of security. Seeing small taxis with towers of goods precariously strapped onto the roof still makes me smile, but it doesn’t necessarily seem out of the ordinary. I am sympathetic to traffic jams that are caused by herds of cows and sheep crossing the road. Roadside vendors selling drinks in plastic bags may not appeal to me exactly, but it seems normal within the context we’re living in.

Another less fortunate normal are the unwarranted traffic stops we seem to face on a monthly basis here.

Jason consistently blames me for these unwarranted pull-overs since his features are dark enough to blend in here while my pale skin not only confirms, but announces to everyone that I am a foreigner. I concur with his assessment but insist that the true blame goes back to him for purchasing a red Jeep – not the most discrete selection around here to say the least. Whatever the reason, we do find ourselves being pulled over quite frequently. What follows is a fairly predictable scenario: a careful review of our paperwork, thorough questioning of who we are and what we’re doing in the country, a lot of waiting, and ultimately an accusation of a random, often fabricated, offense that is followed by the threat of a pricey citation.

Unless, that is, we can think of “another way to solve the situation”, which is an indirect request to be paid off (which makes it legal). Jason refuses to pay anyone off, which generally leaves us in a long exchange with the police officer and a delay in my schedule that I find to be very annoying. Thankfully we’ve always managed to escape without paying the officer or receiving the citation.

This weekend Jason was driving out to the Children’s Home for his regular game of Friday midnight soccer when he was pulled over once again. (This time it was my brother’s white skin that allegedly caught their attention, not mine!) The charge? An out of date emissions clearance, even though the emissions testing center has been closed for months. Following the standard procedures, Jason began to talk with the police officer, presenting his case for why he should be free to go without a penalty. After a nearly 30 minute deliberation period, the officer insisted that in the spirit of Christmas, some type of repayment was necessary for his generosity if he were to let Jason go. Jason decided to go along with the Christmas spirit idea and offered a panetone in return for his kindness (which is a holiday sweet bread, similar to fruitcake but much better. Very popular here at Christmas time).

The officer’s response: “Okay, it’s a deal. But you know, why don’t you save yourself the trouble of going to buy the panetone. Just give me the money you would spend on it instead.”

Jason’s response: “No, no – it’s free. We bake them at the Children’s Home to raise funds during the holidays. It’s no trouble at all. I’ll bring several by the police station for you and your buddies. A small gesture of the Christmas spirit!”

The officer’s (disgruntled) response: “Great. A couple of panetones will be great.”

The officer was rather surprised to see the panetones actually arrive yesterday at the station, accompanied by a small card from the Children’s Home. He and his fellow officers were thankful for the treat and hopefully enjoyed a taste of the Christmas spirit he’d negotiated so long for!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


[what's brewing: anticipation]

Thanksgiving has now passed, which in my family signals the official start of the Christmas season. Decorating can now begin, Christmas music can rightfully be played and sadly, waist lines will begin to expand. While in years past I may have been jumping into December with memories of the savory Thanksgiving meal and perfectly crisped pecan pie in mind, this year we are remembering the seasoned pork, fried rice, lemon soaked vegetables and mashed potatoes that were thoughtfully and graciously prepared for us by our national workers in honor of our national holiday. I giggled quietly to myself this past Thursday when presented with my plate of Thanksgiving dinner. I found myself affirming the old saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” as I saw the look of satisfaction on their faces.

Beyond the decorations, music, and holiday goodies, the passing of Thanksgiving also signifies the approach of Advent, the highlight of the Christmas season for me. As a little girl I was always eager to begin our Advent calendar on December 1st. I could not wait to begin opening the little windows hidden within the Christmas scene to uncover the verses concealed behind them. My siblings and I took turns opening the windows each morning, and every year I exercised all the restraint I had to willingly go last so that the rotation would allow me to open the window on my birthday in mid-December. I felt so lucky to have been born in December; I couldn’t imagine having to watch someone else open the advent calendar window on my special day.

My memories of the waiting and eager anticipation to open those little windows each morning are the best description I have of the anticipation and waiting for our Savior that Advent calls us to. I confess that while my intellectual appreciation for His coming (and eventual return) has increased as I have matured, the experience of truly waiting for and anticipating His coming has diminished. The passage of time somehow stole my sense of wonder over the Christmas miracle as I grew up, as if tied to my belief in Santa Claus that was never abruptly shattered but slowly lost its charm. And now after all these years, I cannot seem to recreate the enchanting sense of wonder I felt as a child as I waited and waited for the day we could open the window and find Jesus waiting inside.

Oh, to be given a chance to go back and relive those 24 days of December as a child, enchanted with the story of God coming to earth as a baby, born into a manger, surrounded by barn animals while shepherd’s followed the brilliant star to worship the swaddled little baby.

I find myself praying each year that God would restore that child-like wonder, even if just for a moment. I want to be captivated by the story again and to live in eager anticipation of His return. Advent is a time to be captivated once again by the birth of Jesus, heightened now by a longing for His return to bring an end to the evil and suffering that have scarred the face of humanity. It’s a time to remember the tension we are living in as we celebrate our freedom in Christ and wait for Him to come and reconcile the world to Himself again.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

(editor's note: Coffeegirl's birthday is December 12...I thought you ought to know)


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