Faith Isn’t Stationary

I would sit on my mom’s lap and fidget with her cross necklace trying to turn down the volume of the booming voice in the sanctuary. The pastor of my early youth was a product of the Billy-Graham-tent-revival-altar-calling era. He used boldfaced words, exclamation points, and dramatic gestures to preach the word of God. It was mainly out of fear of burning forever in hell that I knelt between my parents on my 5-year-old, skinned-up knees and confessed my faith in God. Dodged that bullet, I thought.

After my scare into faith, I soaked in memory verses in Sunday school and pondered messages in youth group. Our evangelical church taught us to have our testimony at the ready … to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. On graduation Sunday, I stood in front of the church along with my fellow graduates and was commissioned to “go and make disciples of all nations”. With a smile on my face and a Bible in my arms, I felt prepared. I had been given the tools – the words – to share my faith. Scripture was memorized. My testimony was written. A verbal explanation of the Gospel was mastered. 

However, I quickly learned that words are empty unless backed by deeds.

Some people have a way with verbal communication. They can engage strangers and somehow manage to segue from a light-hearted conversation about the day’s weather to a deep theological discussion on the Trinity. I have not found a way to do this, nor do I have any desire to do so. Another way suits me better.

His faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. – James 2:22

The book of James points to two people of the Old Testament whose faith and actions worked together. Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did – being willing to sacrifice his own son. And Rahab was made right with God by her actions – hiding away two Jewish spies whose lives were in danger.  

Our very lives are our testimony. Hardly any words need to be spoken.

This was made apparent to me recently by a comment of a friend who saw a picture of me holding our medical foster child, Christ. She said, “I love how you carry around with you your beautiful testimony.” My eyes immediately began to well up with warm tears after I read her comment. I needed to hear those words on a day that wasn’t going all that great. Christ was not happy and not taking to his new prosthetic legs very kindly … the very reason he traveled to the States. I was hot and cranky. Yet, even in my failures, my faith was showing through my actions. And with that, God can work wonders. 

Though faith alone can make one perfect, faith is only perfected by action.

Maybe you too are carrying and gently caring for a child who needs to be fed and clothed and bathed and loved. God sees you in your house. Other parents see you at preschool, at doctor appointments, at the grocery store. Hear these words: Well done, good and faithful servant.

Maybe you are a reliable employee, showing integrity and perseverance in a difficult work environment. God notices. And so do your co-workers. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Maybe you donate your time to fight legal battles of the oppressed, weed the gardens of the disabled, ladle soup into the bowls of the hungry. Your work does not go unnoticed. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Maybe you are choosing light over dark, honesty over lies, justice over injustice, courage over fear. Your light shines bright. Well done, good and faithful servant. 

But now, my God, strengthen my hands. – Nehemiah 6:9

Faith is not stationary. As a body is dead without air, so is faith without action. Keep up the good work.

(Photo by Kyle Ellefson on Unsplash)

That’s Word, We Pray

My youngest daughter is away at camp this week, so I get lots of one-on-one time with my oldest daughter. I’m grateful. Yet, while my youngest daughter is more like me – introverted, liking quiet, slow moments – my oldest daughter is the opposite. She likes to go and do and talk every waking minute. And since her little sister isn’t home to field some of her words, I am the catcher of all of them.

And there are a lot.

I believe it was question 1,823 that she posed on Monday: Who were your good friends growing up? I started down a bit of a rabbit hole thinking about relationships of old and new. Elementary school playmates. Middle school frenemies. High school boyfriends. College roommates. Wedding attendants. And current friends. They have all changed over the years. It’s not that I don’t keep in contact with any of them (thank you, Facebook). And it’s not that I don’t still care deeply for them. It’s just that whole talking thing that gets me. Apparently, you need to talk to keep up relationships.

I went to a Christian college, so all things spiritual and Biblical were hot topics. One evening I passed by a group of girls on our dorm floor who were talking about prayer and its importance. I remember listening for a while then saying something like … Why should I pray? I mean, God already has in mind what He’s going to do. Any words that I say won’t change it.

A couple of horrified looks told me I had gone too far. You see, my level of spiritual maturity at the time was at a 1.0. While I still have a lifetime ahead of me of maturation, I have at least realized one should not equate prayer with a vending machine. Press B-13 for a job promotion. Press E-1 for cured cancer. Press A-3 for a husband … though I’m pretty sure some of the girls on my floor were pressing A-3 daily. I’ve learned that prayer is so much more than a request. It’s talking. Communicating. Building and maintaining a relationship.

Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays. – Soren Kierkegaard

Since “talking” is not my strong suit, I’ve struggled with prayer over the years. I believed that if I wasn’t on my knees, hands folded, using the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer – praise, commitment, petition, confession, deliverance – then it didn’t count as a prayer. And since the Bible says to pray continually, I felt I was failing continually, because who has time to be on their knees all day? It’s come to my attention it’s so much more than this. Yes, it’s a two-hour catching-up conversation over coffee, but it’s also a quick check-in text. It’s a long love letter or a sticky note blurb. It’s an awards ceremony or a quick fist bump. It can be many words or few. For me, my most intimate prayers come not from the words of my mouth but flow through the pen to the paper. He receives them all.

Never stop praying. – 1 Thessalonians 5:17

I hear some of you saying … But how do I speak to a Being that doesn’t “speak” back? You’re right, he doesn’t always speak back. Yet, often times he does. The Spirit guides your soul to peace upon sharing your worries. It guides you to wisdom upon asking questions. It always guides us to love in all matters. God will also speak to us by bringing to mind a passage of relevant scripture, through the words of a trusted friend, a good book, or the sermon of a pastor. He is faithful to interact with us when we move towards Him.

A study indicates that we replace half of our friends every 7 years. When I learned this, I texted a friend of mine telling her our time was up. We laughed and thought maybe we had a few more years in us. As I wandered around the rabbit hole on Monday talking to my daughter of friendships past and present, I realized how true this friendship-replacement assertion is. Certainly there can be fallouts, but other times a friend moves, or moves on. Differing life stages, interests, and activities can also pull friends apart. Isn’t it good to know in this ever-changing world that when we pray, there will always be a friend who listens?

For prayer is nothing else but being on terms of friendship with God. – St. Teresa of Avila

(Many thanks to the guy in the baggy pants for the title inspiration. “Pray” – MC Hammer. Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash)

Girl, Interrupted

I pride myself in efficiency and productivity. Multitasking is a game for me. Squats and calf-raises while putting on make-up. Listening to books while folding laundry. Catching up on emails at stop lights (don’t worry, not while in motion). My daily need-to-do list is long. My want-to-do list is even longer. Yet, most days I find a way to get it all done.

But at what expense?

Be wise in the way you act towards others; make the most of every opportunity. – Colossians 4:5

I’ve recently felt challenged to slow down. If I’m being honest, a large part of that challenge has come as a natural result of having a kid with no lower legs in the house. But however it was presented, I took it.

Upon checking out at the grocery store recently, I realized after about 5 minutes of waiting I had chosen the wrong lane. It was being run by a flustered new employee. But instead of jumping ship like I normally would have, I stayed and offered a smile and grace to her as I helped her find the produce numbers for my bananas and avocados.

While out weeding our yard last week, I pulled no more than about 7 weeds in an hour because I took time to chat with not 1, not 2, but 3 neighbors. Normally I’d have sunglasses on and headphones in, but not this time. As a result, I got to know a few people a little bit better.

When we recently had a subcontractor come to our house, rather than going about my own business while she did hers, I joined her and had a conversation. I learned that both her parents were currently in the hospital with stage 4 cancer. I was able to empathize and offer comfort.

God gives us all sorts of opportunities throughout a 24-hour period to be his hands and feet. But if we don’t slow down, we miss them. I’m learning to see that busyness can be a stumbling block rather than a badge of honor. Rather than equating productivity with my worth, I’m choosing to see others as worthy. Because seeing people is more important than seeing past them.

Prayer: Thank you for slowing me down. Help me to see others as you see them. Allow me to make the most of every opportunity. And if you wouldn’t mind, slow the growth of weeds in our yard.

The greatest gift you can give someone is your time, because when you give your time you are giving a portion of your life that you will never get back.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Jesus had to go through Samaria. – John 4:4

There were two routes Jesus could have taken on his journey from Judea to Galilee. The quickest way was to head straight north and travel through Samaria. However, many pious Jews would have chosen the long way around to avoid coming in contact with the Samaritans, who they had despised for centuries.

When walking your dog, do you avoid the street corner where you know the homeless woman always sits? Do you delay your departure for economics class by a few minutes to avoid the unfriendly neighbor who happens to be outside brushing snow of his car parked right next to yours? When you walk down the halls at work and see Chatty Kathy coming your way, do you duck into an empty room to avoid her?

It didn’t take me long to come up with these examples because I have been guilty of ALL of them. Every. Single. One. Perhaps it’s time I take a cue from Jesus, who went directly through Samaria and faced the very people group that most Jews went out of their way to avoid. Perhaps a smile, a wave, or a friendly greeting could make a person’s day.

Prayer: Please give me the courage to face the people I often try to avoid. Give me eyes to see them as you do.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost

(Thank you, Robert Frost, for posthumously allowing me to swipe the words from your poem, “The Road Not Taken”.)

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The Bible. Should I Bother?

GQ magazine recently released a list of 21 books you don’t have to read. The Bible was on it. Reason being? “It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.” Now, I don’t take the GQ editors as the final word on this, or even an authoritative word on much of anything aside from perhaps men’s fashion, but this made me realize what some people think of the Book that has stood the test of time and influenced societies for centuries.

All scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another. — 2 Timothy 3:16

I cut my teeth on wooden church pews then drew stick figures on offering envelopes during many church services until I was old enough to attend Sunday School. I was then taught Bible stories by felt-board-character-carrying-hard-candy-giving-“bless-their-heart”-saying church ladies. Verses were memorized. Songs were taught. I even attended a Bible college. I thought I knew what was in the Bible … until I decided to read it … like reallyread it … cover-to-cover.

Do you know what’s in there?

Stories of disobedience, lies, blame, lust, murder, mass extermination, idolatry, greed, incest, and child sacrifice. And that’s just in the first several chapters.

The church ladies never covered that!

No, the story of temptation, disobedience, and shame was played out by the very first human beings — a naive man and a misled woman who made a simple mistake by eating a delicious piece of fruit. They would immediately regret their actions, of course, and place the blame on the despicable snake, then dress themselves in leaves. Never mind the whole entrance-of-sin-into-the-world thing, the punishment of humankind, the curses dealt to earth, and the expulsion of humans from paradise.

And the story of mass extermination? Those church ladies brought out a small wooden boat, some stuffed animal couples, and taught us the catchy song, “The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky”. My biggest concern upon first hearing this story was that Mr. Elephant was missing his wife because some toddler chewed off her ears. (Never fear … she was repaired by Mrs. Smith, the church’s resident knitter-extraordinaire, and returned safely to the ark.)

As my first cover-to-cover journey through the Bible deepened into the Old Testament, I got more and more disturbed. I kept getting this icky feeling. I’d had it before. Yet I couldn’t place it until it dawned on me one day as I read the morning news. I realized then the Bible reads like the stories of today: death, destruction, illness, misogyny, slavery, racism, genocide, rape, torture, betrayal, murder, natural disasters. It’s the headline of every newspaper in every country every day on this earth.

I continued to read the Bible … because Hope. I knew it had to be there, because that’s all I had known previously. I had only focused on the good stuff. The redemptive stuff. The easy stuff. I skipped the hard parts. I didn’t want to ponder life in the valley. Yet it is there. And I finally began to see it … and feel it … and recognize it … and name it … in my own life as well.

Redemption.

It’s one of my favorite themes. It’s also one of God’s favorite themes and an overarching theme of the Bible. There are valleys and peaks. Mistakes and remedies. Sins and forgiveness. God loves to show us light in the darkness. He delights in directing us out of the briars and onto the path. His angels rejoice when we place one foot in front of the other towards Him.

The Bible is a collection of stories meant to encourage us. It’s mysteries? They challenge us. It’s diverse group of writers is meant to appeal to all of us. It’s God’s way of revealing his heart and mind to us.

Please don’t take my word for it though. Or the words of the GQ editors. Read it for yourself.

Don’t Be Surprised By Death

Not long after the birth of our first child, my husband and I decided we needed a will. It seemed like the responsible adult thing to do. We wanted to make sure we had a plan for our daughter if … God forbid … anything should “happen” to us. Prior to our meeting with the attorney, our discussions centered around guardianship and asset dispersement (if any). Of course, these events were contingent upon something “happening” to us … i.e. our deaths … yet that wasn’t a consideration until we sat side-by-side at a dark mahogany table with advanced directives in front of us. 

“What are your wishes should you be faced with a terminal illness or injury?” asked a kindly, gray-haired gentleman in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie.

“Pull the plug,” I immediately said, signed the document, and pushed it across the table to the attorney.

“Whoa! Wait. Really?” my husband looked at me in shock.

While I viewed my decision as brave and unselfish, minimizing the burden on him, he viewed it as weak and inconsiderate of him and our child. Our polar reactions are representatives of the fuel needed to heat up the recent debate on end-of-life decisions sparked by the announcement that Barbara Bush (God now rest her soul) would no longer seek medical treatment for her terminal illness, but instead opt for comfort care.

Was she giving up? Was her family and doctors failing her? Or was she just tired of suffering, and therefore her family saw it as the most humane request to honor?

Quite frankly, it’s none of our business, am I right? Perhaps it makes sense to be more concerned about our own decisions. Because guess what? We all will die. 100% of us. While dying is an experience we all will share, Americans are reluctant to speak of it. We don’t like to face our own mortality. Modern medicine has provided us a shield of protection that we think will guard us from ever needing to address this topic. 

We have become so focused on life at all costs that dying can cost us dearly.

During the summer that my mother was in hospice care and actively dying, I read the book Being Mortal by bestselling author and doctor Atul Gawande. 

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.

I had never prayed for death before the summer I watched my mother die. Her well-being was compromised in more ways than one. She had reached the limits of modern medicine. We as a family knew that comfort care was the right decision, yet, even then, it was the most difficult and painful experience to navigate. I can only imagine how many times more the heartache of a family is if there is no end-of-life decision in place.

So, what to do?

  1. Think about your end-of-life wishes no matter your age or health and share your wishes with someone you trust. 
  2. Honor your loved-one’s decision. You may or may not wholly agree with them, but if they have made their directives under sound mind, then the most loving thing you can do is carry out their requests.
  3. Finally, please don’t judge others’ decisions. People are completely capable of questioning their own decisions without getting unwanted feedback from those who aren’t intimately involved.

I felt like Dr. Death himself when I prayed for my mother’s death … for something to “happen” to her. In reality, many things “happened” to her. I couldn’t have prevented them if I wanted, but I knew those “happenings” needed to stop. And I knew we had the power to stop them. We could ease her pain and suffering and provide her a dignified death. Choosing comfort care freed up our family to soothe her and console each other, and to prepare for her last breath … so in the end, we wouldn’t be surprised by death.

Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

Women, You Are Worth It

He danced so delicately around the subject that I nearly missed the misogynistic undertones. In curiosity, I left the interview feeling devalued and disturbed that my womb, and how it might affect my graduate student performance, became a topic of conversation.

It wasn’t the first time I felt confused that my gender was seen as a hindrance, my femininity seen as a weakness, and my abilities were undermined by the absence of my body carrying a Y sex chromosome. 

And it wouldn’t be the last. Sadly, I know I’m not alone. 

We have a sisterhood of women spanning the globe being battered and bruised solely based on their gender even though God sought to break this pattern over 2,000 years ago. 

Women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. – Sarah Bessey

Jesus crushed societal norms during a time when the culture was decidedly patriarchal. He refused to treat women as inferior. He broke customs often by speaking to women in public, for example in his interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26). When he addressed the woman with a bleeding disorder as “daughter”, we see him treating women … even those most shunned and detested … with the utmost respect (Luke 8:48). He met in the home of Mary and Martha, again balking customs by teaching women alongside men (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus also recognized women’s talents, gifts, and means, like those of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their own resources (Luke 8:3). When Jesus was arrested, many of the male disciples were said to have fled for fear of their lives, but the women … namely Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, as well as “many other women” … stood firm and followed him to the cross (Mark 15:40-41). And it was to a few of these very special and chosen women that he first appeared after his resurrection (Mark 16:1-7).

Jesus set an example of equality to be followed, yet somehow we still struggle to receive the respect we deserve.

A few years after I accepted a position in a research lab down the hall from where I experienced that belittling interview, I used that apparently pesky womb to birth my first daughter … then went on to complete my PhD. I now have two delightful daughters, for whom I pray …

I pray you know your value and worth and that those who surround you recognize and respect it as well.

I pray you know that you have been gifted with talents special to you.

I pray you will never forget whose daughter you are … when the world fails you, you will always be His.

I pray that when you gain your voice, you will speak up for your sisters who have none. 

I pray that when you gain your footing, you will help those sisters who have stumbled. 

I pray that you join hands with the sisters beside you, knowing that there is strength in numbers.

I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so those without a voice can be heard… we cannot succeed when half of us are held back. – Malala Yousafzai

Mothers, inspire your daughters. Yes, teach them to cook and clean … to stir up the gift of God, which is in them (2 Timothy 1:6), and to clean up the shards after they shatter the glass ceiling.

Sisters, let us encourage each other in the Lord, recognizing we are diverse and beautiful creations of God. Let us lift each other up, sharing each others’ burdens and boosting each others’ strengths.

Women, do not shy away from your God-given gifts, or hide your face, or quiet your voice. Know that society does not determine your worth. God determined that long ago on the cross … the very same cross where women wept and become our heroines and mentors.