Different

I was in third grade when I figured out I was… different. My beloved teacher, Mrs. Sands, made me stay in from recess to clean out my desk. She showed me the other desks, pencils neatly lying in the pencil tray, notebooks and a couple papers stacked inside. Then she showed me my own desk, crammed so full that things were falling out: permission slips unsigned, assignments completed and never turned in, worksheets undone and long forgotten, library books lost. None of the papers could really be called a rectangle any more, mashed and crumpled and folded things. In the very back, much to my surprise, we found an orange, covered in penicillin. After recess, I gave all of the other kids a lick — hey! Free vaccinations!

My friends in high school called me “Nuprin.” Do you remember those commercials? “Little. Yellow. Different.”image

I am still different. The mess that whirls around me never fails to take me by surprise. How did it get here? Where did it come from? I still lose library books. I still forget doctor’s appointments. My friends are baffled.

I write books, and one after another, no two fit in the same genre. I cannot choose a category. This blog — is it about writing? faith? family? I struggle with identity questions. I am not like my homeschooling mama friends, who bake bread, make curtains, keep orderly children. I am not like other writers, who send the kids off to school and settle down to work, meet deadlines, develop marketing strategies. I am maybe most like my Christian friends, slogging upwards and inwards, sitting down with coffee and Bible and bringing my mess to God for divine intervention.

My daughter sits by me, angry tears unwiped. She is again comparing herself to big brother, for whom it all seems so easy. He understands things right away, dashes off assignments. She does not see: he also loses the library books, forgets to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. He has to do things twice. He is not bothered by sloppy, incomplete, slap-dash. You both have your struggles, I tell her. It’s not about fair. We’re all different.

But I don’t hear the words I say, because after she mopes away, I sit on the couch and brood. Why can’t I be more like so-and-so? Why can’t I choose just one thing to be good at and do it really well? Why so scattered? I am mad, too, mad that I am doomed to fail. Why didn’t God make me better?

I flip open the Bible and am startled by what I read. “Oh, Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my every thought from far away… You know what I am going to say even before I say it… I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night — but even in darkness I cannot hide from you… You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous — and how well I know it… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” (Ps. 139)

Could it be I am what I am on purpose? Can I, in my weakness, somehow be strong — in my failure, be open to grace?

You are different, too, I’d wager. Maybe you love math, and you realize that’s a little weird. Or you hate games. Maybe you are really private, and can always be trusted to keep a confidence. You’re fierce, you stand up for justice, but you have a hard time forgiving. Maybe you are empathetic, but also easily wounded. Or in your perfectionism, you do things well, but can’t do grace. Maybe your strength makes you weak. Maybe your weakness makes you strong. Maybe the weakness of the people who drive you crazy has a paired strength you haven’t noticed.

Maybe different isn’t so bad after all.

And for you writer types, maybe fitting in that genre mold, so important to the agents and publishers and powers that be — maybe that pressure is stifling. Maybe you’ll “be your best you” if you ignore them all and write what’s on your mind, different notwithstanding. Course, you might drive them crazy, you might never get published. But if you do, maybe it will really matter.

When did you figure out you were different?

I didn’t sign up for this.

When we started walking, the sun was out, the day was blue and gold and green, hopeful. By the time we started back, the sky was dark, heavy with rain, which fell at an astonishing rate — 2 billion drops per second square, or thereabouts — and soaked us through. That was not the plan!

Or the time I set out to go to the swimming pool. Suntan lotion? Check. Swimsuit? Check. Seatbelt, airbags, car insurance — hold up. Didn’t plan on totaling the car that afternoon.

It strikes me that life is a series of “I didn’t sign up for this” moments from the moment our little lungs come out hollering. Didn’t pick my parents, didn’t choose my socio-economic status, didn’t get to select my inclinations and abilities. Never got to sit down and decide whether I would enjoy mushrooms or avocados or meringue — nobody asked, and I didn’t have a say. And it just compounds, doesn’t it, in incredible ways, every moment, every choice, setting off an avalanche of consequences, utterly unpredictable. So you don’t like math, and you got a C in that stupid trig class in high school, which means you couldn’t get in to Duke so you went to Carolina… How does the poem go?

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost.image
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Little things — the flap of a moth’s wing — setting off tidal waves.

At the moment when you hang the head and sigh, saying “I didn’t sign up for this,” there is a choice: receive it as curse or receive it as gift. Sadly, there is no refund policy in place, or wouldn’t we all be lined up around the block? But how many of those moments we would gladly trade turn out in the end to be a blessing incognito?

Because the door to go to Detroit slammed shut, my husband came to Denver. Because he came to Denver instead of Detroit, we met. Because we met, a church exists now where there wasn’t one, and a few hundred people have been part of that — for an hour or a year — have met people they wouldn’t have met, given service they wouldn’t have given, encountered Christ in a sermon they’d never have heard. Because we met, three children exist who wouldn’t, and out there somewhere in the wide world are people who will fall in love with them, follow them to places unknown, set off new dominoes.

Because your alarm didn’t go off this morning, you were running late. Because you were late, you missed the pile-up on the interstate. Who knew?

John Lennon long ago sang, “Before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Consider today that none of your plans matter much, but what you do with the moments you’re given will determine whether you live a life of joy or misery. Look for the gift — somewhere under the ugly wrapping paper, it’s hiding there.image

One of those days.

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I don’t feel like writing, some days.  Don’t feel like making supper, or cleaning out the refrigerator and identifying the source of that smell.  Don’t feel like doing much of anything, truth be told, but snugging up under the covers and reading about somebody else… somebody who does something besides pull up the covers.

So you sigh, look out at the gray day, pull out the butter, the chicken, stir the sauce.  And slowly the house fills with a nice warm smell (thank goodness), and you aren’t enjoying the fat quilt, but you figure you might as well enjoy dinner. Or you pull out the keyboard, stare down the screen, face down the really purple prose, knock it down and start over. And it’s not as good as that book you were reading, but it’s work, and at least at the end of the day there’s something to show for it. And surely it’s better than Snoopy’s.

The Toilet and the Teabag

My husband and I have had the dubious privilege of living entirely on a missionary’s salary our whole married life, indeed, since before we were married. We began our lives together by spending two months in training, then four months more raising support. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about our supporters as we look back on a year of gifts, receive daily extravagant offers of kindness. I have often said that every Christian should do a stint of support-raising at least once in life. Here are a few of the benefits:

One. It becomes abundantly clear to missionaries that God is the supplier of every good thing in life. God puts it on the hearts of lonely widows to send in $10 a month. God puts it on the hearts of wealthy families to donate a car. Perhaps it is tough to remember that your paycheck is a gift of God when it has been issued by a corporation; it is not hard at all when it comes accompanied by letters expressing love and sacrifice. We have been the recipients of money saved up by elementary school children, cancer patients, and one billionaire we’ve never met. God has answered many desperate prayers when times were tight. Once, we didn’t have enough money to buy groceries. A friend appeared on the front porch with a bag of onions and beans. Dinner. Three times our car has died and been immediately replaced by the generosity of our supporters.

Our first home was a ramshackle hovel built 100 years earlier. It crouched in a seedy part of town, slowly disintegrating, before we bought it. The toilet had been leaking so long that when we ripped up the linoleum we discovered the floor rotted right through. How did we not crash to the basement? For a month, we had no toilet, and had to walk to the inner city office where we worked to go to the bathroom. Our front porch was literally falling off of the house. After we moved in, the insurance company announced they’d changed their minds about insuring us, due possibly to the porch, perhaps the crumbling foundation, maybe just the fear of the insurance agent as he drove through our neighborhood.

For a long time, I did not lose heart. We spent our date nights at Home Depot. We dreamed. But when our first son was on the way, my enthusiasm dampened a bit. How could I set a baby on that disgusting floor? We couldn’t seem to get rid of the mice. I began to pray, earnestly, for carpet. There was no money left for carpet; the money had gone to fix the toilet and the porch.

A toilet with the potentially dangerous arrang...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Sunday school class in North Carolina heard about our house and sailed to the rescue. They raised $10,000, gathered a team of eager friends, and flew to Denver. Carpet was not on the agenda. They repaired our back fence, re-tiled our bathroom, painted the whole interior of the house. They brought in beautiful Spanish tile for the kitchen, donated by a contractor. They ate lunches with us on our sagging porch, laughed with us, prayed for us. They met one of our homeless friends, moved to tears when he played the guitar for them: “Shout to the Lord,” and “Amazing Grace.” And as they left, they handed us a check. For carpet, they said. They thought we might want some.

The generosity of others has taught us the exceeding value of generosity. Having received, how can we not freely give?

Two. Living on full-time support makes you very aware of how you spend money. It is, after all, God’s money, given in the form of George and Hazel’s tithe. What kind of car should we buy? Well, what kind of car would Jesus drive? I have no idea. But I suspect he would be cautious about dropping a year’s salary lightly, especially if the choice is between luxury or feeding a town for a year.

And yet. Living on the good graces of other people also puts you in the glare of uncomfortable scrutiny. Is it OK to wear a fancy brand if you bought it at Goodwill? Is it all right to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant when you are weary and need to connect with your spouse? Is it better to save carefully for college and retirement so that we won’t have to come round, hat in hand, once again, or better to raise less support now and figure out these little bugaboos later?

I bring this up because part of giving generously is letting go of the gift. The gift is grace, unearned. And part of living on grace is learning to set wise boundaries and reasonable budgets and let go of guilt. God gives and God takes away, blessed be his name. His gifts come with no strings attached.

And so, three. Living on support taught us to freely give.

A tea bag being removed from a cup of tea
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a long-circulated story about a missionary overseas who received a box of used teabags in the mail. “We didn’t want to throw them away when we knew you’d be thankful for any tea at all,” said the givers. Really? Is that giving generously? Are these the acceptable extravagances for one in Christ’s service? Used tea bags, maybe a nibbled biscuit?

Giving generously, in the way that will add to your joy in life, means daydreaming before you give. What is the one gift that would make someone smile? How could I go a little further, dig a little deeper? What would delight my friend?

On a trip to Cameroon, in West Africa, my husband was greeted like a king. Everywhere he ventured, the impoverished villagers went all out to make him feel appreciated. Women would spend an entire day scraping out the meat of tiny seeds, mixing them with ground up fish –bones and all — and serving this delicacy with wide grins to the important foreigner at their table. We sophisticated Westerners do not know how to give.

What if you set out today to knock someone’s socks off, to bowl someone over? Would you crouch behind the bushes for a chance to see their face, all astonishment? Would you cherish the memory of the day you felt grace flow through you? What if you changed your giving strategy, relied less on formulas and percents and more on the Spirit, the sudden impulse of love? What if you did not automatically write a monthly check in one lump to your church, but split it around, joined the support team of a missionary or two, began to pray for them daily, began to share their joys and sorrows? What if you made a goal to flip your tithe upside down, to give 90% and live on 10? Would God provide for you? Doesn’t He now?

Giving generously is not an ethic you can work toward, it is a mentality that all is God’s; we are not meant to be a dammed pond but a river of grace.

We live simply; we give freely. While we are free to enjoy extravagances, the joy comes not from the pampering but from the taste of God’s grace, the reverberating hum, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” We can as easily find joy in a butterfly on the window sill as a Monet on the wall, as easily find entertainment sharing tacos with a few friends as buying tickets to a Broadway show. When the crazy gifts come, the key to the cabin, the time share in Cancun, we can be blown away, we can say thank you. When we have the opportunity to sell our old paperbacks and unused appliances, purchase a cow for some starving village, we can be blown away again — I get to give grace!

We say thank you.

Flammable Pajamas

Caution Tape
Caution Tape (Photo credit: Picture Perfect Pose)

You gotta love helpful warning labels:  Caution — do not sit under coconut tree.  Warning — rat poison causes cancer in laboratory rats.  Ten cuidado — do not rub jalapeno juice in your eyes.  But those flammable pajama labels are so, so important, because I was all set to build a campfire in the kids’ beds before I spotted that helpful tip.

 

Last night I had a dream that the Christmas tree (yes, it’s still up.  Don’t be jealous.) caught on fire and the house went up in flames.  Even knowing that it was just a dream, I couldn’t go back to sleep for an hour, and lay in the dark thinking about evacuating our three kids in their flammable pajamas.  So this morning we had a crash-course emergency review course at the breakfast table.  We are all ready to proceed calmly to the nearest exit.  Our little guy, aged 7, was visibly troubled at the idea of all of his beloved stuffed tigers going up in smoke, and it did make me wonder what I would grab in my dash for the door.  Jewelry box?  Photo album?  Hard drive?  Financial papers?  Bible?

 

My husband’s grandparents’ house burnt to the ground when he was in college, and he will always remember wading through ash and finding only a few metal spoons, part of a rifle, a woodburning stove.  Sure, you can take precautions, put the valuables in easy reach, make a plan, but there’s no way to insure against catastrophe, not with all the warning labels in the world.  So what really matters at the end of the day?  What would you grab?

 

School days, school days.

Books, poems, paper airplanes, walks in the woods, caterpillars, magnifying glasses, music, tasty things that can be measured, fascinating people, unbelievable tales of adventure and derring-do, wonder, telescopes, paint, hammer and nails, candle wax, beeswax, curls of pencil shavings, smudges, laughing, brain teasers, trivia, hearts poured out on paper, challenge, reward, curiosity, dreams. School starts back today. God bless us every one.image

“Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.”
― Mother Teresa

Joyful January

January 2 ought to be known as Anticlimax Day.  The turkey is getting a little… ripe, the lights are coming down, the New Year’s Resolutions have already been broken, the batteries in the new toys have died.  The parties are over, the eggnog’s run out, the radio is playing the same old songs from October — well, September, maybe.  So now there’s nothing for it but to sink into joy.

Christmas is fun and splashy and distracting.  It’s happy.  This is happiness:Image 

January is slow and calm, a return to normal, the “big reveal” of how your heart was before the holiday madness.  Some see it is a let-down, but what if it is the best saved for last?  In January you can rest, take stock, appreciate, feel your life full.  This is joy:Image

 

 

Happiness: bubbly, shiny, peppy, laughing, spinning, dancing, merry, gone in a flash. Joy: deep, still, beautiful, haunting, persistent, light shining down into dark places.

May you have a truly joyful January.