Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Surrendering, Part 1: A Homecoming of Sorts

So what do you do when you've decided that God exists, that He most likely has some purpose for your life, that you want to try and best fulfill this purpose, and then this very same God tells you to do something nuts?

Crazy, irresponsible, irrational, reckless, unsafe.  These are all words that the world will use to describe what God has asked you to do. 

How do you even know that this is God's best plan for you?

Well, for one you've prayed.  A lot. You've sought some wise, faithful counsel.  You've ensured it aligns with scripture.  You've researched. And of course, you've listened to the still small voice inside you (sometimes referred to as your "conscience" or "gut").  You are fairly certain that this absurd idea is from God.  Sometimes you know it's from God just for that very reason... its far too crazy to have come up with yourself!!

So, you've put all your hope and trust in Him, and He turns around and presents you with a road map that is taking you straight through the center of crazy town.  And then there's always the question... what happens if you say no?

Well, on this topic I can certainly speak from my own experience.  It seems that when I initially decided to put my trust in God (and subsequently any time I have had a major struggle, and then recommit my faith and my willingness to follow God's plan) I find myself headed somewhere completely unexpected. And usually terrifying.

I am living this reality out right now. 

Let me give you a bit of a back story, as this story is the result of 3 major crossroads and decisions in my life, that began about 3 years ago.

It was around the time that we got pregnant with our third baby that I started considering that God might be pressing us to make some big changes.  I was teaching in the traditional classroom at the time, but I knew putting three kids into childcare to go back to work would be completely unfeasible.  I had always been involved with horses, teaching lessons and training a bit (usually during my "spare" time and mainly through maternity leaves).  We started wondering if maybe God was pushing me to pursue this in a more committed fashion, and ultimately get our own facility where I could work from home and be a mom and raise our kids all at the same time. 

So over time we started looking. Just casually at first. And we found some amazing places.  This was a pipe dream if there ever were one, but it seemed right.

We knew if there were any chance of it happening we'd be borrowing A LOT of money, and so we'd need something at a reasonable price.  We looked at many places.  We put offers in.  We had family helping us out.  We were educated about mortgages, lending, and regulations. I had a 50 page business plan with budgets, projections, market research and strategies.  But nothing seemed to work out.  Offers fell through for ridiculous reasons. Things just seemed to be working against us. And along the way I changed.

Instead of this being an exciting new adventure and waiting patiently to see what God had in store, it became a huge stressor and I became anxious.  In the midst of everything, my sister and her husband acquired a big, beautiful farm.  The location was too far from the city for us as I could never maintain the necessary client base out there, but nonetheless it was a bitter pill to swallow.  It seemed like everything was working out for everyone else but our dreams were dwindling.  I was determined that it would work out for us.

After over a year of disappointments and set backs, I had this feeling in my soul that maybe we should just wait (or more accurately to my feeling at the time ... give up).  We could save up some more money, maybe make it a little more feasible.  We would have time to get better prepared.

But I was, well, indignant  ... God was, after all the one who gave us this dream. My expectations, pride and personal desires were strong and I was determined to bring this plan of God's to pass in the way I was sure He intended it. 

When we had all but given up, I came across a place for sale, owned by some folks we had known for a few years, and I figured there had to be a "cosmic" reason and it must be worth a try. They were willing to rent it if the sale didn't work out, and basically I told myself (and if I'm being honest, told God), "There, see, we can have this place no matter what".  Either way, even if the purchase option flopped we could rent it for a while. 

With that we hung the For Sale sign on our home and went to work.  I was no longer in that place where I was peacefully waiting on and trusting God.  It was happening either way.  And, God gave me over to my desires.

I sometimes think that the nature of free will is such that God cannot really stop us when we are determined enough, and at some point or in some way, He lets us have our way. 

Now I do have to say that I know without a doubt God was in this.  His hand was all over it.  Our house sold for more than expected, and extremely quickly.  The deal on the new place went unexpectedly smoothly.  But all the way along I have known in my heart that we could have waited.  I just didn't want to.  I've heard time and time again that God works in His own ways, on His own schedule.  It just felt far too slow for me (and recent events had made me envious and bitter and I wanted my "victory" as well). 

We have owned our place for over a year now and there are many amazing things about it.  We are in a perfect location.  It is a beautiful property, and the value will no doubt continue to increase.  God has truly blessed us.  But it has been hard.

Life since we got here has been harder than I ever imagined.  It has been exhausting (emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially). If I were to document all of the things that have gone wrong or been "against"  us, you'd never believe it (from horses dying to trucks being stolen and every crazy bit in between).  I cry out to God almost every day, wondering how this could have been His plan for us. 

Then a while back, I had a bit of an epiphany. 

I'm not sure that it was His plan.  Well, maybe not His original plan.  In fact, when I look back, I think it may have been my plan from the get go. 

I mean, not the whole concept, but certainly the hasty way in which we undertook this place.  I was so scared that if this didn't work out, we'd miss our chance.  I felt like everyone else was getting what God had promised us and so we should have ours too.  I was heartbroken and it left me feeling impatient and impulsive.  I was acting in what I thought was complete faith (and in all honesty, it felt very genuine at the time) but looking back I was really just scared and acting on that fear.  God told me to wait.  That still, small voice told me to pause and be still, but I (plain and simple) just didn't want to.

So what now?  If God really felt that this plan would harm us or be completely unsalvageable I truly believe we prayed enough that he would have shut this door too.  He must have had some plan of how He would use our lives being here. The question was, would we listen? 

That brings us to the second major challenge.  The arena.  We basically have a full service facility here, minus an indoor or covered arena to ride in.  So, we are completely at the mercy of the weather and the footing which, in Alberta, is not very kind.  I realized very quickly that this would be a hindrance to the stability of my business (or at least in the way I thought it would materialize). About a month after getting our horses here and starting things up (or attempting to as weather permitted) I was feeling frustrated.  One day as I mulled it over it was like I was reminded that impulsivity had gotten us here and it likely wouldn't help to continue that way. Kind of a gentle reminder of "watch what you wish for".

But life would be so much easier if we only had an arena. 

As I continued to pray and consider everything, I got the strongest feeling of God (and this doesn't happen very often to me!) saying, "Be patient with the arena.  You can go ahead and make it happen and you will get yourself into more stress and debt and wonder even further how this could be the plan.  Or, you can wait for my timing, and I will figure it all out.  Your choice."  I knew in my heart it wouldn't be fun to wait.  It wouldn't be popular (as this affects a lot more people than just me).  But I also knew, in the depth of my soul, that God made me a promise that day.  Not for anything specific, but just that if I waited, He would sort it out.

Do you want to know something funny? I am still trying to make it happen.  I'm still planning and figuring and declaring, "Maybe this is God working it out".  All I wanted was for God to speak to me and tell me His plan for me.  Then He did.  But it wasn't what I wanted Him to say.  I wanted him to say I could have an arena ... like, yesterday.

What happens when we don't like His answer?  What happens if we don't want to wait?  What happens when we don't get our way, and instead have to 'suffer' in obedience to God?

Well, I'll tell you what happens. 

We grow.  We grow up.  We mature.  We develop patience and character.  We develop trust and fortitude.  We develop a testimony to God's faithfulness and goodness. And none of those things happen when everything is peachy and happens the way we planned it all out to happen.  All of those things happen in the fires of affliction... when we feel impatient, stressed, distraught and hopeless.

But it isn't for the faint of heart.  This Christian thing, I am discovering, isn't for wussies.  I guess the crucifixion should have driven that home for me but somehow it took my own suffering to really make that obvious.

And that brings us to today. 

A couple of months ago, God set something on my heart that was above and beyond insane. Its something I've actually talked about for a long time.  Early in our marriage I'd expressed my intrigue and interest, but as life changed, so did my ideals. Nonetheless, God was preparing me years ago for this challenge.

Our oldest son is in grade one.  He is a boy.  He is ALL boy.  He's smart and keen, but he's also super active and not at all built for 6 hours in a desk. He used to love school but recently began to dread it.  He's been frustrated and feeling like a failure.

As a teacher myself, I had many ideas of things that would work to help him but the fast paced setting of the classroom, along with the general busyness and meeting of curricular objectives just weren't conducive to his success. 

Then, over the period of about a week, I had three different people suggest it to me.  Three fairly unexpected sources all suggested it (dun, dun, dun .... )


Yes, I know.  I had the same thoughts you are having right now, and they went as follows ...

"This is crazy.  This is SO crazy.  Only crazy people homeschool. What if our kids turn out maladjusted?  What if they don't know how to socialize?  How on earth would we ever find the time in our already hectic schedule? I mean, yes, I am a teacher and I'm at home already so it would kind of make sense, but it seems so NUTS!!"

Just as I had with the arena (like I said, this doesn't happen very often to me), I clearly heard God speak to my heart.  "Bring him home, and I promise you, I will work all the rest out for the good of you and your family."

Everything about it seemed insane.  Foreign.  Reckless.  Terrifying.

It also seemed right though.  And as I prayed and researched and talked with people who knew more about this than I did, it seemed even more like this might be the path we were to walk. 

The combination of the peace and excitement I felt over schooling our babes at home was amazing.  We discerned a great deal more before, at the beginning of March, we pulled our Grady out of his traditional school and into our "homeschool".  And I am so thankful we did.   After just a month we've noticed some huge changes.  He's way less anxious, and far more back to his fun-loving self.  I finally feel that I've done something in line with God's will, and its as though I can now hear Him again, after what felt like 2 years of silence.  We finally made a step to get in line with His will, instead of twisting it to seem like what we wanted was His will.

Although Grady's homecoming seems simple, for me it was so much deeper than that.  It was for me a huge (and unique) step of trust and surrender.  It was living recklessly for God's will and without concern for judgement or opinions of others ... only trusting what the Lord has set on my heart.

I heard a quote on the radio the other day (kind of a modern version of Paul's lament in Romans 7:15) that spoke directly to me:

"Just because you know God's way doesn't mean you do God's will."

I have always known that my passion and drive were great qualities that would get me far in life.  But they are also the characteristics that lead me to act stubbornly, attempting to take care of everything myself, and never leaving any wiggle room for God's plan. After all, I know better. God is too good though to let me go this on my own though, and maybe letting me "have my way" was his way of showing me that I actually don't know everything.  I can't see the big picture and I need His grace to help me muck about (literally some days) in everything I have before me. 

Admitting that I have made a mistake (without becoming a total martyr and beating myself up with guilt) is one of my biggest challenges.  Here's the thing though, we are SO short sighted. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we have no idea of the bigger picture.  Its sometimes even hard to tell what is a mistake and what is just an obstacle on the way to some grand finale.

To illustrate, here is one of my favorite analogies of God (which I've heard retold in many versions)...

We are but little children plinking and plonking away on the piano keys making a clatter of incoherent noise of our lives.  The noise is entertaining to our ears for a while, but the novelty wears thin quickly. Then, just as we are about to get up and abandon this nonsensical production, our loving Father sits down and places his hands over ours and begins to bridge the notes together and fill in the silences until all that is heard is a beautiful melody, perfectly orchestrated, and sounding nothing like the mere clanging of keys that we were able to make with our little hands. 

It takes patience though, and trust.  A trust that means letting go of ALL of the ideas we had for the outcome.  For we cannot know, in our limited capacities, what that final song will be, and how God will use what we gave Him to make something grand and unimaginable.

I can only hope that one day when I look back I see that I gave God enough to work with, and sat and played long enough to hear the final composition. 

I have no doubt that the symphony at that homecoming will be grand indeed ....


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Investing ... and Why Religion Is Unpopular.

Throughout most of my adult life I have spent a great deal of time pondering why it isn't easier.  You know, life.  Why does it have to be so darn hard?  We hear it all the time ... good people suffer, nothing comes for free, everyone has a cross to bear.

If God really exists and if He truly wants everyone to live a life by His design, then why isn't it easier. If this God is suggesting that He wants all of humanity to lay their life before Him and surrender everything for a life of faith and service to Christ, then why on earth isn't the road to his altar more appealing?  I know that before I was a Christian I definitely didn't have any use for all of the rules, rituals, boundaries and limitations that Christianity offered.  Life was hard enough without now subjecting myself to this narrow-minded, limited and restrictive obligation.  My time was spread thin enough amongst my other obligations and my life had enough obstacles without all of the potential complications that religion might add. 

It seemed that God's marketing plan had gone seriously amiss if His goal was to draw people to this life of faith by making Christianity seem like an easy and seductive option, given what else is out there to win over our time and attention.

Well you want to know a secret?

I don't think it's meant to be easy.  And I don't think we're meant to be happy. And I don't think it matters one lick whether you are Christian or not.  There seems to me to be only one way to best navigate the rough waters that are this human life on earth, one attitude that will get us through everything that life has to serve up ...

Life is an investment... so GROW UP and start living purposefully.

Now I should tell you that I am not by nature cynical or crass.  I don't like to tell people how it is, and I struggle actually to even be honest with people because I am so concerned with their opinion of me that I wouldn't want to offend them.  I believe that overall people are good, even if misguided.

That said, I am a whiner.  I genuinely feel, more often than I'd like to admit, that I am quite hard done by.  I feel like I give A LOT to others, which they are quite happy to take.  I work very hard at everything I do, and expect the same from those around me, realistic or not. I have high expectations of my life and when my expectations aren't met, I am generally disappointed and crabby about it.  I am willing to work myself to exhaustion if I have a goal or an expectation of a result, which puts much pressure on that certain result materializing.  If it doesn't, I'm filled with anger and resent at all my input and effort.  When I feel that I somehow deserved more I feel ungrateful and indignant about the whole affair. It simply reaffirms this underlying thought that life is just hard and unfair.  This is so extreme in me that even the simplest change in plans can leave me unsettled (ask my poor husband what happens when he suggests something I might be excited about (like say, stopping for a Tim's coffee) then later retracting, suggesting we just go home and make coffee ... my disappointment and reaction to such a scenario seems embarrassing even to me as I write this!)

I want things the way I want them.  I work very hard to establish in my life the things I hope and plan for, the things I think I deserve.  I don't want someone or something coming in and putting up barriers to my passion, independence and hard work.

Sounds alright I guess.  Except life isn't fair. No one can guarantee that just because you worked your butt off, you won't still get axed at the next round of layoffs.  No one can guarantee that just because you were active, ate healthy and watched your carbs that you'll live a long life, or avoid disease.  Not one person on this earth can assure you of any outcome in any scenario at any time.  There are just no hard and fast promises regarding the results of the things we face in this life. 

I think it is this fact that led me to put such importance of "taking care of business" and ensuring (to the absolute best of my ability) that I (and I alone) try to work things out for the outcome I desire.  I don't want to be interrupted, detoured or challenged in the things that I am working for and the things that I think will make me happy.   Because that is the goal, right?  Happiness.

Enter religion. 

Chock-full of rules, boundaries and commandments.  "The wise shall do this ...", "Only fools do that ...", "Honor your mother and father (regardless of how dishonorable they may be)", "Don't cheat", "Don't lie", "Don't fornicate".  Where is the happiness in this stodgy and outdated establishment?

As I saw it, I was facing this life that is already challenging, unpredictable, disappointing and often harsh.  Now they suggest I add a whole bunch of boundaries, rules, judgements and stigmas?  

Here is what I now see as the most challenging part of sharing my faith.  Faith in Christ, and a life in God, is not actually about religion, but RELATIONSHIP. We struggle with the "idea" of religion for intellectual and philosophical ("head") reasons, but at the end of the day I truly believe that the final decision all rests in meeting the person of God and trusting Him (in your "heart"), not necessarily the religion.

This is precisely why God doesn't really care about advertising a "struggle free" life, or an easy path.  In fact, if life in this world were easy why would we need God? Faith and relationship with God would be redundant if it was only for the superficial purpose of providing some good to a person in an already simple and painless existence. 

This is not reality though.  Life is hard.  We all struggle. Christian religion isn't suggesting that we should have faith in God to prevent a life of hardship. Christian religion offers faith in God precisely because we live lives that are hard. In fact, it is these very hardships that in turn develop in us the character to become people of strength, depth and virtue.  And why on earth should I care about acquiring such traits?

Because I believe that the person I become in my time spent on this earth, is the person with whom I shall be forced to exist into the depths of eternity.

Not only will my personality, character and traits be coming with me in life beyond this human experience, but the relationship I have with God while I'm here will certainly have some integral role to play in how I exist when my life on earth is over (if you're still uncertain about the whole existence of God and life everlasting, you could revisit my blog on 'smart people and belief in God').  The long and the short of it is we have to believe that we are making choices now for the sole purpose of investing in our long term future fate. 

I think the whole reason why we resent the fact that life is challenging and unfair can be tied into our general disdain for investing and our aversion to delaying pleasure.  We live (and I am referring specifically to the developed world here in North America) in a "fast-paced, get it before you can blink, don't want to wait 5 seconds longer than I have to, fast food, fast cars, climb the corporate ladder and make it big before you're 30, instant results" kind of world.  We have things available to us at our fingertips at the click of a button.  Transportation is fast and we are able to access information and items we desire at unprecedented speeds.  We don't like to wait.  Ten years ago I might have added here some anecdotal story about parking lots, supermarket lines, or car repair tantrums, but I don't think that is even necessary anymore.  We wear our impatience on our sleeves, shamelessly. Someone can shout at a store clerk or over the phone at a utility provider for being less prompt than they were expecting and no one bats an eye. In fact, the bystanders may even encourage the heckler, showing support and sympathy for their impatience.

We often feel "suffering" because we have some expectation that life should be another, easier way.  We feel that we have somehow been "shorted" the struggle and pain-free life we deserve.  We want it now, and we deserve to have it now.  After all, we're good people, we work hard, and it should be ours to take. 

This is why the statistics for retirement savings in North America are staggeringly low.  Scary in fact.  We teach our students and our children how to make money, only to bombard them with marketing that says, "Spend, spend, spend, and if you don't have it you can borrow it".  The store magazine racks are wrought with quick weight loss solutions, get rich quick schemes, and beautiful vacation destinations that you can fly to immediately (for only a small fortune. Financing available).  You have to dig down deep to find the articles about working hard, saving for your future, sacrificing and struggling now so that later you might benefit. 

The number one reason I feel sorry for myself or feel that life is somehow unjustly hard is because hard work usually doesn't feel good unless there are immediate benefits.  Saving money doesn't pay off until long after you've made the effort that earned those dollars.  Slaving away at work, raising kids, eating healthy and becoming a better person do not provide immediate pleasure.  In fact, most of these things are painful.  So why do we ever choose to do them?  Because the payoffs of doing them far outweigh the damage that is done by leaving them neglected.

This is exactly what faith is all about.  Consider Christ your soul's investment advisor.  You will never hear a self-made millionaire tell you they were able to achieve that status through self-gratification, boundless living, or taking the easy road.  No, they sacrificed, gave themselves limitations, and monitored constantly where they were on the road to their goals (for a great insight into the surprising reality of America's millionaire lifestyle, check out the book "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas J. Stanley).  The successful marathon runner didn't get to the finish line by affording himself expensive vacations, overeating and skipping that workout because she "didn't feel like it".  The parents didn't raise strong, well-mannered, well-spoken children by simply saying, "we'll just let them do what feels right in the moment". 

I always have to laugh when I hear of successful business people, or individuals who are fit and committed to a healthy lifestyle, reject religion or Christianity due to its restrictive or limiting nature.  These are people who's success was made possible SOLELY through the application of and adherence to boundaries, and the delaying of pleasure or gratification in exchange for hard work and perseverance.

Our life is defined by the boundaries we live within.  Our character is developed when we are challenged with situations where the outcome isn't guaranteed. 

And this is exactly why I finally changed my mind about religion.  When I decided to follow Christ, to make a relationship with God a priority and to make my faith the number one priority in my life, I was making an investment.  In fact, it is the only investment I ever make where the result is guaranteed ... not here, not now, but eternally.  Earthly things will come and go.  I will no doubt face many more challenges before my days here are through. But every single obstacle I face and every time I choose to delay my own satisfaction to invest in future growth or development, I allow myself to develop more of this eternal character. 

In the same way that I resist saving money because spending it now feels so good, and in the same way that I choose that donut over the greens because in that moment my craving gets the better of me, I short change myself and my future when I decide to live my own way now, shirking boundaries and responsibilities for the apparent freedom and "enjoyment" of life lived my own way.  This attitude is immature, irresponsible and short-sighted.  But it's popular.  And somehow when something becomes culturally popular people think that it becomes right.

So we see popular culture with it's claim to independence, self-righteous goal fulfillment, and entitled living winning out over the less popular "religious" life of service, humility and obedience.

I have lived both ways.  Later in life, when I am watching my own children raise their children, I'm sure I will have only distant memories of what life without God was like.  Which is why I think this topic is so important for me to reflect on now, only just 10 years a Christian (and in reality only very recently actually surrendering more fully to my faith and abandoning my own will).  I lived long enough "doing my own thing" to say with confidence that it never brought me true joy.  I was constantly longing for something to make me happy.  Constantly whining about how life had done me wrong.  Constantly searching for something (or someone) to "fill the void".  I can spout about the "liberation" of religion-free life all I want but the reality is, I am a wreck on my own. 

Maybe you're different.  Maybe you have it all together.  Maybe you can truly find joy and happiness on your own and God is simply a redundancy or crutch that you don't need.  If so, I would challenge you to reflect on Rick Warren's definition of joy:

"Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation."

If someone could guarantee you that everything is in control, orchestrated for the good of your life and that the fate of all that you hold dear is sealed in love and eternity, would that change your life?  If not, then I guess that atheism is probably a reasonable choice for you. 

But, if there is anything in that definition of joy that is alluring or assuring, please reconsider where you've invested your life. If there is even a fibre of your being that desires this kind of peace (even if it seems like unrealistic or "pie in the sky" thinking) then you and I are in the same boat. 

Investing is hard.  It takes sacrifice.  But let me tell you that investing in your faith is much like investing in the financial world.  Compound interest is like a magical thing, and the little bit you sacrifice to put in can end up being a rather nice pot of cash when the sacrifice is long gone and forgotten. Religion may seem full of rules and restrictions but these are just the boundaries of the "spiritual" market, the rules of investing so-to-speak.  And you can learn to operate within them with joy and excitement when you see that little amount you put in start to be transformed and increased into something much larger than you could have saved or stockpiled on your own.  

In my experience, when we are living in an immature and superficial way, dedicated to short term gain and avoiding suffering and sacrifice, we tend to find ourselves struggling and the "reserves" seem to dwindle.  When we view struggle and sacrifice as an offense or an undeserved punishment, we find ourselves bitter and unhappy.  Instead we need to heed James (1:2-5) and "consider it pure joy ... whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything".

God isn't offering us a get-to-heaven-quick scheme, or 10-days-to-save-your-soul kind of deal.  This is a long term investment.  That can sound foreign and scary to those of us who are illiterate in the long-term-gain department.  I didn't want (and didn't feel like I needed) religion and all of its entrapments.  I just needed life to get easier and then I would be fine. 

Unfortunately this attitude was silly and childish, and all together unrealistic.  Life is what it is.  It is hard, amazing, challenging, traumatizing, exhausting and beautiful.  We cannot avoid challenges.  But, what we can do is invest in someone who's in the business of handing out grace to get through those challenges.  Someone who has been there, someone who invested the life of His one and only Son to allow our fate to be secured so we could truly live and thrive in peace in our lives here on earth, knowing that there is an eternity beyond this.

Life in a religious context may seem unpopular.  It might seem like a weird or counter-cultural investment, but the payoffs have already been, at least for me, immeasurable.  I tried it on my own and the result always seemed to be uncertainty, frustration, and exhaustion.  I never seemed satisfied or settled.  God offers us an unbeatable return-on-investment... Live a life in relationship with Him and in return you will find peace, true joy, solace in any suffering and all of this into eternity. 

All this in a pretty low-risk investment. 

I think I can buy that.