Saturday, July 8, 2017

how do we bear fruit?

We talk all the time about bearing fruit. The Fruit of the Spirit is well known (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self-control), and we spend a lot of time talking about how followers of Christ are to be known by their fruit.

I think, though, that we forget what it takes to bear fruit. In John 15:2, Jesus was talking about His Father and said, "He leaves those bearing fruit and carefully prunes them so they will bear more fruit."

Prune. It's such a small word, but it holds so much significance. At first it might bring to mind a picture of somebody snipping back one or two leaves here and there, maybe taking an ugly leaf or a dead branch. But here's the thing: when you prune something back for producing fruit, you typically take a lot off. Since Jesus used the picture of a vineyard, we might as well look at that, too.

When someone is trying to get a good crop of grapes, they cut back all the pretty stuff. The vines with all the beautiful leaves and tendrils get cut back, leaving nothing but the main branch--typically the ugly stem that comes up from the root.

In our lives, we don't mind when the ugly stuff gets cut out--the stuff we don't like and would prefer to get rid of. I don't mind when God cuts out negativity. I would love for Him to cut out the busy-ness. The problem is, those things are like the ugly leaves. They may make the foliage look prettier when they're cut off, but they don't really help with producing more fruit. Those things are just superficial.

Instead, it's the deep cuts that make a difference. The pruning that matters is the one that hurts--the one that cuts back the parts of your life that you like, the beautiful parts that you don't necessarily want to get rid of. Sometimes, what gets cut back is a dream you're holding on to. Or maybe a relationship gets cut off. I've had some major prunings in my life: plans have been cut off, relationships with great friends have ended, and I've lost people. My most dramatic pruning came after my brother was killed.

I wouldn't have chosen any of those prunings, and to be honest I wouldn't wish most of them on anyone else. It hurts to be pruned, to have big things cut out of your life, especially when those are things that mean a lot to you. Don't get me wrong here; I'm not saying that all the bad things that happen in our lives are things God has caused. Sometimes, branches in the vineyard are broken by storms and it is only then that the Master of the vineyard comes along and cleans up the brokenness.

But here's the thing: Jesus told us, "I am the vine, and you are the branches." (John 15: 5) When we get pruned back, it leaves us with Jesus as all we have to cling to.

It isn't a fun thing, believe me. It is sometimes a heart-wrenching, soul-crushing experience. But in the midst of it, when we're at our lowest, we can call out with the psalmist,

On the day I needed You, I called,
and You responded
and infused my soul with strength.
Whenever I walk into trouble,
You are there to bring me out. 
You hold out Your hand to protect me
against the wrath of my enemies,
and hold me safely in Your right hand.
The Eternal will finish what He started in me.
Your faithful love, O Eternal One, lasts forever;
do not give up on what Your hands have made.
~Psalm 138:3, 7-8

 There's a promise in there that I tend to forget about: "The Eternal will finish what He started in me." God has started a work in each of our lives, and He won't abandon His work. We just have to remember that sometimes that work includes healing from the prunings so that we can produce fruit.

Monday, May 29, 2017

when I almost forget...

We had a wonderful time Friday, with our family over for bbq chicken and just a general get-together. That's one of the things I've most been looking forward to with our move to this new place. In the past, we've either been too far away or in too small a place to have everybody over, so it's a blessing to be able to invite our family out and actually have room for everybody.

All weekend, though, something was off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it; I was spending time with my family, watching my kids play with baby cousins and baby ducks. We were laughing and chatting and making plans to build a big deck on the front of the house. We have been relaxing in the beauty of the Ozarks--wandering by the creek, looking at the hills, and seeing the lightning bugs.

It wasn't until last night that I realized what it was--I was missing my brother.

It crossed my mind for a fleeting moment Friday, while I was getting food ready for everybody. I was walking through the house when I thought, "I wish you could be here this afternoon, brother." But then I got lost in the day, and didn't think it again.

And sometimes, that's what hurts the most.

Sometimes, I almost forget that my brother isn't in the middle of the laughter.

I almost forget that Memorial Day has a different meaning for my family.

I almost forget how my nieces and kids would have their uncle wrapped around their fingers.

I almost forget my brother.

That may sound dumb to say, but it's the truth that's so hard for me to admit. Sometimes, in the joy and laughter and just everyday life, my brother slips from my mind.

And then, when that realization comes rushing back, it hits so hard that it takes my breath away. It puts a lump in my throat that's hard to push down and threatens to bring tears to my eyes. The thoughts and emotions are so conflicting that it's hard to put them into words (for some reason, it's always hard for me--a word-weaver--to find the right words when it comes to talking about Michael).

So today, since I can't find the words myself, I'll give you Michael's words:

I Stand

I fail in this fight which embroils me;
I lack the strength to press on.
My spirit is crushed,
My mind full of doubts,
My body rebels,
Yet I stand.

Strength, welling not from within me,
Helps to resist this onslaught.
God lifts me up
From ashes and dust.
He is my Strength
So I stand.

Through the hail of fiery arrows,
Satan's temptations raining down,
God is my Armor,
God is my Shield,
God is my Foundation
And I Stand!

I can't win this battle alone,
But God doesn't require that.
He fights my battles;
He defeats my foes;
He asks just one thing,
That I stand!

"Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand!" ~Ephesians 6:13

~J. Michael Goins
2 LT, US Army
KIA 15 August 2004
Najaf, Iraq

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

whispers of rest

So, somehow it seems fitting that I got lost in the busy-ness of the day yesterday and missed posting about Bonnie Gray's new book, Whispers of Rest, on launch day. That definitely wasn't my intention; I was going to be on top of things and make sure I did just what needed to be done exactly when I needed to do it.

Because, you see, that's how I want to present myself to the world.

I want everybody to see that I have it all together, that I accomplish what I set out to do. I want to be seen as capable, dependable, and reliable. I want people to see the well-developed persona that I've put together, that one that can handle anything and everything that gets thrown my way.

As much as I want people to see me that way, I also try to show God that same mask.

I posted a while back about Bonnie's first book, Finding Spiritual Whitespace. If you haven't read it, it comes highly recommended. I read it quickly, devouring every page. I wrote in the margins, underlined passages that seemed like they were written specifically to--about--me. I'm pretty sure I finished it a couple days after I got it. My intention was to do the same with this one.

My intentions, though, had to be put on the back burner. As seems so often to be the case, my plans are giving way to what God has in mind for me. Whispers of Rest is a 40-day journey, and it would seem that God's intention is for me to take the time to take this journey.

It's as if He's telling me, "You need to make the time to rest in Me."

So this morning, I took my book and my coffee outside.

I sat in the quiet of the morning at the picnic table my Grandma gave us, and I read through Day 4 of Bonnie's book.

Right now, in the stillness between when school ended for the year and when all the farm work truly gets started, I took a few minutes to breathe.

Really, that's what Bonnie's book does--it encourages you to take the time to pause, breathe, and rest in God, the One who calls us to come to Him just as we are.

That's what I was reminded of this morning as I read Bonnie's words.

God doesn't want me to come to Him masked in my "Sunday best." He wants me to come as me--because He loves me fully. He wants me to bring all of me--the good, the bad, and the ugly--because He knows me. He doesn't want my persona. He doesn't want me to pretend to have it all together; instead, He wants me to bring Him my weariness, my brokenness, my incompleteness.

"Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Put My yoke upon your shoulders--it might appear heavy at first, but it is perfectly fitted to your curves. Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. When you are yoked to Me, your weary souls will find rest. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."
~Matthew 11:28 & 29 (The Voice)

Friday, May 5, 2017

when the waters swell...

We just bought a farm (which will lead to a lot of posts in the future, I'm sure...), and there's a little creek that runs through it. Actually, it's a couple of creeks that come together. Normally it's shallow, with water trickling over the rocks and moving gently down the creekbed. At one point, it ducks underground and flows there for a while before it comes back out of the rock right at the gate to our driveway.

Lately, though, our beautiful little corner of the world has been pretty soggy. We got close to a foot of rain in just a few days. Water has been everywhere—the rivers have swollen out of their beds, filling fields and sweeping over bridges. We had water running through our yard, pouring down the hill, and overflowing our ponds. There were waterfalls falling where water hadn't even been flowing, rolling over rocks and around trees.

We cross 5 different low water bridges before we reach our driveway, most of which aren't really bridges at all. Instead, they are simply shallow places where you drive across he stone-slab creekbed. With all the rain lately, though, those bridges haven't been peaceful places. The water has poured through, rising above the banks, pushing logs and brush and debris. It has flipped vehicles, stranded people on high ground, and moved giant rocks. When water starts rolling, it doesn't care where it is “supposed” to stay or what it is “supposed” to do. I've been reminded time and again of the awesome power water has, both in good and bad ways.

Amos 5:24 says, “Here's what I want:Let justice thunder down like a waterfall; let righteousness flow like a mightly river that never runs dry.”

The thunder of a waterfall can drown out everything else around--
What would it be like for the thunder of justice to be so loud that you could hear nothing else?

And when a river is flowing, it covers everything in its path and can't be stopped--
What would it be like to see God's righteousness roll over everything, not stopping for anything in its path?

There's something else that's interesting about water; it doesn't have to be in the form of a flood in order to change things. A small, slow trickle can bore its way through a boulder or cut a new path. Right now, we might not have the thunder of justice or the river of righteousness drowning out all the noise of this world. Each one of us, though, can be the little stream, slowly cutting a path.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

why I'll never be a "distinguished" teacher

Arkansas right now is judging evaluating teachers through a system called "TESS." They say it stands for "Teacher Excellence and Support System," but I'm not so sure I believe them. This system (that's supposed to be there to support teachers) is split into 4 domains:
  • Planning & Preparation
  • Classroom Environment
  • Instruction
  • Professional Responsibilities
D1 & D4 then are split into 6 subcategories, and D2 & D3 each have 5. On each little subcategory, teachers are rated as Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, or Distinguished. So to recap: 22 things to be rated on, with scores from 1-4.

I perused the Arkansas Department of Education website for a few minutes to get some data for this and found a slew of powerpoint presentations. 22 of them, actually, with an average of 30 slides per topic.

All designed to explain to me exactly how to be seen as a "Distinguished" teacher.

All those categories are really good goals. Of course I want to know my content inside & out. I want my classroom to be a safe, comfortable place for my kids. I want to find ways to get math across to every single kid in my room so they all come out of my class with a solid foundation so they can face the problems this world throws at them.

In fact, here are some of my goals as a teacher:
  • Make my kids see that math isn't always terrible.
  • Show them that someone cares.
  • Teach them to stick to it and keep working when problems in life get hard instead of just coming up with excuses to quit.
In TESS, though, here's what I'm judged on: I submit a lesson plan along with answers to about a dozen questions. Then, one person comes into my room for one 45-minute class period. At the end, I answer some more questions about how I think the class went.

I'm with each class of kids for 45-minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 36 weeks. That amounts to 8,100 minutes each school year of time scheduled for each class. 135 hours. So somebody watches me for 45/8100--> 0.6% of the time I have scheduled with my kids. So basically, half a percent of the time I spend with my kids.

Nevertheless, this 45 minutes is used to judge my teaching...and planning...and relationship with my kids...and knowledge of my subject...and my professionalism.

So I've come to a conclusion: I'm never going to be rated as "Distinguished." So here's a list of some of the possible reasons why not.
  1. I have expectations for my kids, and they include way more than scoring proficient on a test.
  2. I don't think you have to be able to use big words to prove that you understand something. In fact, I think the quote attributed to Einstein is fitting: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
  3. Sometimes in class, we talk about things that have nothing to do with math.
  4. I don't feel like I have to write papers about teaching, give lectures about teaching, or write page upon page of lesson plans to prove that I'm a teacher.
  5. I will never be able to get 100% of my kids involved and interested in math 100% of the time. It just won't happen.
  6. Gimmicks just aren't my style. I'm not going to put on a show every day.
  7. Sometimes, I lecture. Once a week at least in each class, actually. It's always going to happen.
  8. My classroom isn't pretty. It has tables, chairs, and a whiteboard. I don't spend time and energy on decorations.
  9. I talk to my kids, but I don't know every detail of their lives.
  10. I quite simply don't have the time. I teach 7 different class periods to kids, I'm a cheer coach, and I'm a wife and mom. There aren't enough hours in the day to do everything that has to be done, let alone all the extra stuff.
  11. I don't think every kid has the ability to "master" every concept from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.
  12. Building on the last point, I don't think every kid needs to learn every concept from those courses.
  13. I think that sometimes, failing is the best thing that can happen to a kid. Like Wat Disney said, "Sometimes a kick in the teeth is the best thing for you."
So, I probably won't ever be distinguished. But you know what? That's okay. I can't ever be everything to everyone. So instead, I'll focus on my kids instead of on test scores and ratings. And I think that will work out just fine.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

why write if it's hard?

Life is just plain crazy sometimes (right now, for sure), and I haven't gotten the chance to put more than a couple of sentences together in what seems like ages. Believe me when I say that it's adding to the insanity for me--Nathan has said many times that writing is my therapy, the thing that keeps me sane.

I'm a word person, but I'm not a big talker. That changes if you know me really well (or if it's really late at night...there's something about that time that makes my defenses come down), but for the most part I would rather do my talking on paper. My mind is a chaotic, jumbled place, with totally unrelated thoughts bumping into the thoughts I actually want to have and getting all mixed in together. You see, I think sometimes my mouth moves too fast for my brain and the words come out before I have a chance to really think about them, and then they come out all jumbled. When I write, though, I guess there's more processing time between my head and my hand. Somehow, the words have the chance to get straightened out along the way, and the chaos that is always in my mind doesn't get to interfere quite as much with the words that come out through my hands.

So I write.
not me writing, but those are my it counts.

I don't write because it's easy. In fact, sometimes writing feels like the hardest thing in the world to do. Sometimes I agonize over the right word to say just the right thing, because words have the ability to take on a life of their own when you least expect it. Sometime I go back and rewrite everything I've just done, or rip out pages full of ink from a notebook because I wasn't getting it quite right. Sometimes this writing thing feels like the hardest thing for me to do. But I write.

I write because it changes my outlook when I can see everything down on paper. I can organize my thoughts and figure them out; pin down exactly what it is I'm thinking. I can straighten out my hopes and fears (because sometimes the line between them is incredibly thin). When I write, my mind calms and the chaos is held at bay for a little while.

I write because I can pour myself out on paper--the good, the bad, and the ugly--and lay my soul bare without seeing exactly how people react. You see, I over analyze absolutely everything around me. Every tiny flinch or grimace or twitch seems like a reaction that I need to understand...but the problem is, I don't. So if my words are on paper--if my heart is laid out on paper--I don't have to try to decipher the reactions. Though sometimes, not knowing the reaction is almost as bad as trying to read every tiny facial expression when I'm talking to someone.

I write because life just makes more sense to me that way. The words and the sentence structure go together to give my thoughts a rhythm, and that rhythm has beauty and substance. Sometimes it's harmonious and sometimes it's discordant, but at least that way I can tell if it fits. That way, I can tell if I fit.

I write because when I write, nothing else really seems to matter. For that short time, I don't feel like there are a hundred different things that I need to get done or a hundred different directions that I'm being pulled. While I write, I get lost in an entirely different world.

I write novels because I believed C.S. Lewis when he said, "Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." I don't think fiction is an escape so much as it's a deeper look at reality. In stories we can see ourselves for who we are and who we want to be, all at the same time. We are reminded of what truly matters in life, but it's done in a way that lets us think we've come to those realizations on our own instead of being preached at.

I write because I am part of every story, every character, every quest. I'm the hero and the villain, the damsel and the knight and the dragon. I'm the one standing to do battle and the one cowering in the dark to hide from the monsters.

I write because it is who I am. Whether my writing is read by millions or by no one, I write because writing in woven into the core of my being, the gift I've been given by the One who made me. How can I not?

Monday, February 20, 2017

can followers of Christ be depressed?

"Fragmented, my self knows no peace.
I cannot remember what it's like to be happy.
'Failed,' I say to myself.
'My hope fails in the face of what the Eternal One has done.'
Grievous thoughts of affliction and wandering plagued my mind--
great bitterness and gall.
Grieving, my soul thinks back;
these thoughts cripple, and I sink down.
Gaining hope, I remember and wait for this thought:
How enduring is God's loyal love;
the Eternal has inexhaustible compassion.
Here they are, every morning new!
Your faithfulness, God, is is broad as the day.
Have courage, for the Eternal is all that I will need.
My soul boasts, 'Hope in God; just wait.'
It is good.
The Eternal One is good to those who expect Him,
to those who seek Him wholeheartedly.
It is good to wait quietly for the Eternal to make things right again."
~Lamentations 3:17-26

So often, the Christian life is preached as being one that makes people "healthy, wealthy, and wise." We hear the prosperity gospel being preached from an overwhelming number of pulpits. We're told--sometimes subtly and other times very blatantly--that God's whole goal is to make us happy. do we come to terms with a book like Lamentations? It's a book of despair and grief which seems to stand in stark opposition to a God of love and grace.

Sadness and depression aren't often talked about in Christian circles, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. The prophet says in verse 17, "Fragmented, my self knows no peace. I cannot remember what it's like to be happy." Faith doesn't promise that life will be without sorrow. In fact, it promises exactly the opposite. Being a follower of Christ doesn't mean that you will be shielded from all the pain of this world. Sometimes, life hurts, and our thoughts and fears and heartbreak grounds us into the dirt.

What makes our despair different, though, is that we aren't left alone in our sorrow. When we're down in the dirt, our spirits crushed and our hearts in pieces, we aren't abandoned. Like Paul said,
"We are cracked and chipped from our afflictions on all sides,
but we are not crushed by them.
We are bewildered at times,
 but we do not give in to despair.
We are persecuted,
but we have not been abandoned.
We have been knocked down,
but we are not destroyed."
~2 Corinthians 4:8&9

Being a follower of Christ doesn't mean that you won't ever get knocked down into the dirt. King David was called a man after God's own heat, but if you flip through the Psalms you'll see where time and again David poured out his pain to God:
"My God, my God, why have You turned Your back on me?
Your ears are deaf to my groans.
O my God, I cry all day and You are silent;
my tears in the night bring no relief."
~Psalm 22:1&2

And like David, may we be able to say,
"Still, You are holy."
(v. 3a)