Friday, March 29, 2013

I Brought the Awesome

What is it with me and bringing party snacks to school?

I woke at 6 a.m. and remembered that I was signed up to bring 12 bags of popped popcorn to Olivia's "Spring Party" for kindergarten. (Side note: American five and six year olds have more fun than any other people on earth. Today will be the first of three Easter Egg hunts that my child will partake in over the next three days. And I won't let her eat half the candy or keep half the toys. Mean mommy.)

On cupboard inspection, I find I do not have any popcorn in the house. Nor do I have coffee. I drink tea (yuck), then  I decide to take the girls out for bagels on the way to school and buy bagged popcorn at the grocery store. Problem: the grocery store does not carry individually bagged popcorn. In fact, our local Ralphs doesn't carry any kind of popped popcorn at all, so my idea of frantically bagging it in the car with the sandwich baggies  I brought with me wouldn't work either.

So, with exactly 18 minutes until the start of school, I buy bagels, hand them to kids in back seat, drive very quickly (but safely) home, leave kids in car port with radio on (quickly detach house keys from car keys to do so) and microwave popcorn. Guess on cooking time because have somehow bought popcorn with instructions only in Spanish on the bag. Have forgotten all Spanish from college minor because too early and too tired.

Text pastor/boss while waiting; load dishes in dishwasher. Microwave beeps two minutes later; throw second bag in microwave. Shove steaming popcorn into plastic bags. Bags get slightly softer but don't actually melt. Remember to wash hands half way through (please don't tell room mom or other parents). One kid comes in from the car to go to the bathroom. Second kid comes in from the car and says first kid said she would be back in 30 seconds but she has now counted to 39, where is big sister? Microwave beeps again. Though second bag cooked exact same amount of time as first,  half is burnt. Stuff last four bags with least scorched pieces of popcorn.

Come out to car and both kids are not in seat belts. Yell at kids. Drive very fast (still safely) to school and show up just in time with the scent of scorched popcorn and desperation wafting from unwashed hair. Another mom tells me I smell good. Love her. Exhale.

Meanwhile, in the kindergarten line, other kids are hopping around Olivia. What did you bring Olivia? What did you bring? Is it Easter eggs? No, it's popcorn. Popcorn? Hurray! Hurray! Popcorn! Hurray for Olivia.

Uh, hurray for mommy. But whatever, they are happy.

On my much slower walk back to the car, I am almost run over by a junior higher on a skateboard. On his shirt is printed, "I brought the awesome. What did you bring?"

Well, buddy, I brought the half-scorched popcorn in half-melted baggies. And I feel pretty awesome too.

Off to get a cup of coffee.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I Stink at Lent

I had a lofty goal for the Lenten season. I gave up shopping for anything besides groceries. 

No seasonal home decor. No new clothes for myself or the girls. No sewing supplies. No plants for the garden. The one exception was buying my daughters new Easter shoes, because last year's won't fit on their feet and as holy as I was planning to be, I was not willing that my daughters should wear sneakers on Easter Sunday. 

People's reactions were interesting. 

"What about paper towels and toilet paper?" my women's pastor asked. Yes on toilet paper, no on paper towels.

"What about my baby shower?" my friend who is pregnant with twins asked. Don't worry, dear, I already bought everything for your invitations.

"Can you still meet me at the mall, because I want to shop for shoes?" my best friend asked.

"You'll never make it," said my mother. 

And my mother, as usual, was right. I didn't make it. 

Five days into my extreme sacrifice, my husband put paper towels in our Target shopping cart. I bought the girls Easter shoes, but also bathing suits, because we had a warm spell and last season's were literally transparent when wet. And I ran out of envelopes for my friend's baby shower. I did not, however, buy any shoes with my BFF at Macy's that night. But I did buy shoes eventually.

While shopping for Easter shoes for the kids, I "popped in" to TJ Maxx/Home Goods (my dark, discounted master), where it turns out they don't even carry children's shoes. While there, I bought a dress to wear to  my husband's 20th high school reunion this summer ("It's so cheap and if I wait til summer, they won't have summer dresses left!") And I bought a pair of shoes with my husband's permission (same excuse as the above) and he said I could just wait until after Easter to wear them. 

And then, while I was in TJ Maxx returning the wrong size of said shoes, I bought my mother an entire new spring wardrobe for the tune of about $300. She came to my house and tried on all of it, kept most of it, and wrote me a check. 

And then after all these rationalizations and compromises, I just went to Joann's and bought all the supplies I "needed" and then felt really guilty.

I may have a shopping problem. 

The reason I gave up shopping for Lent, was (1) because I like the idea of sacrifice as a means to focus myself spiritually in preparation for the most important holiday as a Christian, and to remember Jesus supreme sacrifice on the cross. And (2) because I want the sacrifice to be a meaningful spiritual discipline that will change me in the long term. I spend of lot of time running errands and  returning things, and I desired a sense of freedom from that circular habit. What would it mean for my life to live with less, and to rely on God for the emotional lift that buying stuff (our national pass time!) gives me?

But I blew it. It was way too hard. However, it taught me a valuable lesson about the way I relate to God. 

This weekend, our pastor Kenton Beshore gave a wonderful sermon on practicing religion versus having a relationship with God. He said that the human default in relating to God is religion: a system of rules and rituals that tells us what to do, how to be a "good" person, and how to get closer to God through our own effort. The problem with religion, he said, is two fold. 

Problem one: If you succeed at following all the rules, you get prideful, make the whole thing about you instead of God, and start judging other people who can't work as hard or be as "holy" as you are. This was Jesus main problem with the religious leaders of his day, whom he reprimanded more than any one else he spoke to (he called them "a brood of vipers" among other nasty things). They were externally holy about following religious rites, but they lacked mercy, compassion, humility and love. 

Problem two: If you fail at following the rules, you end up rationalizing and compromise the rules until they no longer have any real value ("The law isn't 'don't lie', it's 'Only lie if you really have to, and then feel badly about it.'").  Then, you spiral into guilt and shame, and either shrink away from God because you feel unworthy, or drop religion altogether because guilt turns to anger and resentment toward God and the church. This was the problem for the "sinners" in Jesus' day; they were outside the holy community of religious people, but God's message to them was to repent and simply follow him. He called them friends.

Boy, do I see Kenton's point. If I had succeeded at the "no shopping" season, I would have felt really proud of myself, and probably would have told people about it. Like, "I'm not wearing a new dress on Easter today because I gave up shopping for Lent." There's no way I would have kept that quiet. 

But since I blew it so completely, I did not achieve spiritual and mental freedom, as I hoped, but got tangled up in a lot of rationalization. "See I bought that dress for the reunion, but I won't wear it for Easter, even though it would be perfect for Easter; so that's actually the greater sacrifice. To have it, to know it's right there in the closet, but to not be able to wear it." 

My relationship with God really suffered when I was in this kind of accounting mentality; I would pray and ask forgiveness for breaking my Lent vow, but then I would still want to make myself right with Jesus by earning my way back into His good graces. How ludicrous, that I, by some effort or negotiation, could mirror the sacrifice of Jesus' life.

And there, right there, is the great gift that my "failed" Lent ritual gave me. I don't have to earn my way into God's good graces because God's grace is good. Religion is an accounting system (and y'all know how I hate accounting), and we default to it because we know we are in God's debt. In some translations, sin = debt. "Forgive us our debts, Lord, as we forgive our debtors," we pray as Jesus taught us. But the great transaction has been made. Jesus paid the whole debt. All of it, so I could be His friend. So I could walk with him in freedom. He has balanced the spiritual checkbook for me. How grateful I am! 

During the last 30-some days, I got lost and tangled in religion. But in other ways, I walked with Jesus. Jeff and I have had some wonderful times in relationships with people we love and care about in the last month. I've heard God's voice about what He wants me to do with my life when my current ministry position is over, and I have a profound sense of purpose and peace. I brought my daughter to a prayer service and witnessed her ask for prayer to be a better big sister (the tears come again just remembering it). We've brought some new friends to church with us (how we love them!), and we've seen other new friends in our small group get baptized. None of these beautiful experiences have come from trying hard to be religious, but simply following the tug in our hearts to do what Jesus would. 

So I'm celebrating Easter with a full heart this weekend. And I'm wearing my new outfit rather than being holy and sacrificial by leaving it in my closet. I wear it in celebration: I didn't measure up this month, but my debt has been paid.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Unless The Bush Is Burning, Say No

Growing up in Sunday school, there was one thing -- at least -- that I got wrong. 

Many times did I learn the story of Moses hearing God's voice from the burning bush, telling him to go back into Egypt and free the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. Moses has multiple objections, but his main one is that he is not qualified. He is not a good speaker, and therefore not the guy to walk into the court of the most powerful nation in the world and start making speeches and demands. 

God's response is hard to argue with.  

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11-12)

What I took away from this story was inaccurate: When God asks me to serve Him, it will be hard, not something I want to do, and probably the thing I am not very good at. But He will make me good at it through His own power. Some pieces of this are true, but not completely.

It was due to this mistaken reasoning that I volunteered to be the Daisy Girl Scout Cookie Manager for my daughter's troop of 16 girls.

A Cookie Manager's job is to order cookies, distribute cookies, keep accounting of all the packages their troop sells, collect all the money, and balance the accounts at the end. In our case, that meant keeping track of 2,268 packages of cookies. Why did I think I was capable of doing this? I do not know how to balance our checkbook. Truly. I'm not even sure I can count. I have extreme math anxiety (it tops the list of my phobias which include vomiting and going to the dentist).

When I told my husband I took this job, he looked at me like I was crazy. And I was!

Ordering, picking up and distributing cookies was lots of fun, actually. I like people. I liked meeting all our troop's moms and having them move through my house-turned-warehouse. I even kind of liked how my neighbors started calling me the crack dealer, as they saw lots of mysterious boxes going out and envelopes of cash coming in. 

But I did not like how I could almost never answer our troop leader's questions about procedure, our current balance box balance, or how much money had come in without making a mistake. I literally lost sleep. I probably would have lost weight too if I hadn't had all these blasted cookies lying around.

And the low point was the afternoon I spent four hours at the kitchen table with my spread  sheet and my orange "Cookie Time!" Girl-Scout-issued calculator in accounting hell trying to get the sheet to balance. All my formulas got messed up (should I mention that I also don't know how to use Excel?). I forgot what I was even trying to accomplish. I called my husband in tears and he had to come home early from work to bail me out.

There are definitely times that God calls us to do things that are outside our skill set. But what I believe as an adult which I didn't understand as a child, is that more often God asks me to do things that are difficult, but also things that I am gifted at. They challenge me, they make me uncomfortable, they help me grow, but they are not totally outside my wheelhouse. 

This is the influence of studying the New Testament, where God says that I am given spiritual gifts when I believe in Him, which I should use to glorify God, lift up the people who love him, and help restore the world to Shalom. In fact, the apostle Paul teaches that we should embrace the fact that there are some things we are good at and some things we aren't good at, and we should not wish we had someone else's (see 1 Corinthians Chapter 12). 

As it turned out, I didn't do such a bad job. Out of over 2,000 boxes of cookies, I only lost track of about six. And our troop collected more than enough money to cover what we checked out; we made profits like crazy.  I took some of the time burden off our troop leaders. But I did not bring them shalom. All three of them are great with numbers; one has an uncanny ability to remember lists of figures; another is just pretty darn meticulous about everything. So having someone who was less capable than they were handling this big task stressed them out! I probably would have brought them more peace had I  been less candid about my insecurities, but that's not really my style. (Subject for another blog.) 

People who hate numbers should not volunteer for accounting positions. Just like people who can't carry a tune shouldn't be worship pastors. Or try out for American Idol. Let people who are good at those things do them!

Here's what I now understand about Moses: He was a prophet, and in ways, an exception to the serve-in-your-giftedness rule. God spoke to him directly and chose to use him to pull off the rescue of millions of people. In Moses' weakness, God's strength was shown. 

But God did not appear in a burning bush to me and say, "It's is not I that gives people their mathematics ability? Go and be the Cookie Manager and I will teach you how to use Excel." He didn't even whisper it quietly, the way He speaks to me often, that He wanted me to serve my daughter and her friends in this way. I just jumped in my own, and kept at it though I had opportunities early on to graciously get out, but was too prideful or stupid to do so. 

God did get to show Himself strong in my weakness, however. When I sent the balance sheet to one of our leaders, she e-mailed, "Is it appropriate to thank God for this?" Uh, yes. And I have. He pulled off a daring accounting rescue on my behalf for sure. 

And I learned a lot, not just about the inner working of Girl Scouts Orange County, but also about myself, relationships, and a bit about Excel. And also, that my husband is an incredibly patient person who should definitely continue to be in charge of our checkbook.

Most importantly, I learned that God is gracious. He wants me to spend time on the things I am passionate about and that bring me joy, not just the things that stress me out or scare me. Within the tasks that God has called me to do there are enough challenges, without taking on things that He hasn't asked of me. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to ceremoniously smash my orange calculator, and eat a cookie. And here's official notice to my sweet Daisy troop: unless the bush in my backyard is burning, I won't be doing this again next year. Cookie Manager, out.