Friday, April 30, 2010

Lessons Learned

By Mary Byers

I well remember a time (it was recently, unfortunately) when I said yes when I should have said no. I wasn’t really interested in the project but felt I should say yes, especially when I learned there “wasn’t anyone else to do it.” I liked the person who was asking me, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Instead of carefully comparing the job requirements with my skills and reviewing my calendar before I gave my answer, however, I said yes without thinking about it. And then, I lived to regret it.

Red flags were waving wildly during the phone call in which I was approached about taking on the task. There were three warning signals, in fact: I felt I should; there wasn’t anyone else to do it; and I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings. All of those were poor reasons to say yes. Since then, I’ve learned that an unenthusiastic yes is worse than a firm no, simply because it leads to mediocrity.

“Mediocre” means “of moderate to low quality; average.” When you’re apathetic about something, your performance tends to be mediocre because enthusiasm often makes up for what you lack in skill. I’m ashamed to admit that my performance was less than stellar when I said yes to my friend. I did only what was necessary, and nothing more.

It wasn’t that I actively set out to be mediocre. But in looking back, I realize my performance was lackluster. Because I wasn’t interested, I didn’t bring any energy or creativity to the task. In the long run, it would have been better if I had said no. Perhaps then my friend would have found a passionate volunteer rather than a passive one. I’m not proud of this story, mind you, but I share it because of the lesson learned.

What lessons have you learned about no-saying? Are you making notes and paying attention to them so that you don’t repeat them? Smart people learn from the past. Fools don’t.

I know that Jesus has specifically gifted me and I’m trying to use my gifts for the Kingdom in the very best way possible. But doing so requires being mindful about my skills and carefully choosing the activities I should be involved with. And I’m working hard to trust that God will take care of the rest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So Long, Khaki Pants

By Nicole Unice

Yesterday I stepped into my closet to scan my bottom-half options. One, two, five pairs of khaki pants hung together, jostling one another for my attention. They seem to holler “Grownup! Professional! Wear me.” I leave them stuffed between three pairs of black pants and a blazer I wore once to the office, but took off before I saw any clients.

Seems like every time (or the one time) that I wore them this year, I felt like I was being something that I wasn’t. Something that didn’t quite fit.

I’m stepping out of those khakis—and everything they stand for—after seven years as a counseling “professional.” They are just pants, but they represent an image I thought I needed to project, one of maturity and wisdom.

How could I love on teenage girls if their parents thought I looked too young to be paid? How could I know what I was talking about if I couldn’t wear pumps with panache?

Silly, of course.

But somehow I believed it to be true. That my real self wasn’t good enough to “professionally” guide, love and instruct others.

Over time, the strict boundaries of the office—watching the minutes, writing treatment plans, looking for progress—morphed, as I did. I found myself praying for clients as I was often without words. Sometimes I took teenagers to the park or the coffee shop. Some of them started coming to my church, because I invited them, a clear no-no of professional relationships. My understanding of “profession” become cloudy. How do I love within the confines of this experience?

Bit by bit, what felt like the perfect fit became uncomfortable. The evening and weekend hours—perfect with little children at home—became burdensome as I traded nap strategies for spelling tests.

I tried to shake it off—surely this was my call. All work feels like work sometimes. It’s just burnout. But the feeling wouldn’t go away.

A few weeks ago I spent time with a spiritual director. We discussed my hang-ups with Jesus’ words, paraphrased in the Message: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.” (Matthew 11:29)

Ill-fitting. Like my khakis, something about life didn’t quite fit. She pointed out: “perhaps this role was right for a time, but God is calling you to something new.”

So, I step out into the unknown, unpaid land of ministry. Degree in hand, I tremble. Is it anticipation or anxiety? I don’t know, and it still doesn’t feel quite right. But I fold the khakis and slide them, stacked one on the other, to the back of the closet.

Yesterday, I left my khakis and bought something I’ve eyed for three years. A denim skirt, faded, with a frayed hem. It will go perfect with my cowboy boots in the spring and my flip-flops in the summer. And that fits just right, for now.

Learning to live and to lead means I am stuttering toward his rhythms of grace, letting go of what was and moving toward what is to come. And I am trying to trust him, that folding up my khaki pants and embracing my denim mini is just what He would have me to do.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What's Your Calling?

by Helen Lee

Remember that hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? I recently listened to an interview with Bobby McFerrin, who wrote and sang that catchy tune. McFerrin, who hails from a family of singers, initially thought he would be a pianist, even though his distinctive, resonant voice indicated that he was vocally gifted. It wasn’t until he was close to 30 years old that he recognized and embraced his calling as a vocal artist.

God has a calling for each and every one of us as well. Of course, the primary calling for all Christians is the same: we are called by God, to God, and for God (to paraphrase Os Guinness in his eloquent book, The Call). But how we live that calling out differs for each and every one of us. In the same way that a relationship with God is unique and personal, so too are our callings. Are you pursuing the discovery of what your calling is?

If you are unsure of what your calling might be, Guinness gives a suggestion on how to approach the search: “Somehow, we human beings are never happier than when we are expressing the deepest gifts that are truly us. And often we get a revealing glimpse of these gifts early in life.” What did you love to do when you were young? What gifts and talents were evident in your childhood, and have you continued developing those gifts over the years? Perhaps as you think back on your life, you’ll discover talents that were affirmed long ago but that have been laying dormant, buried by the demands and expectations from your subsequent life circumstances or relationships.

When I was five years old, I wrote a story about a family of rabbits who survive a big storm and live to tell about it. My kindergarten teacher told me that the story was “special”, and so I gave it to her. I’ve never seen the story since, and I had nearly forgotten about the incident. But thinking back to this moment in my life, I realize that although I have always enjoyed writing, I never devoted myself in any serious way to fiction-writing. Whenever I think about trying it, I tend to focus on my fears and self-doubts: “What makes you think you can write fiction?”

In Scripture, we read the numerous accounts of people who experience God’s calling and whose initial reactions are to deny the calling in one way or another. Moses expresses his feelings of inadequacy. Sarah laughs at the implausibility of God’s plan for her and Abraham. Jonah runs as far away from Ninevah as he can. And yet we see that as God’s servants display openness for his plans, he leads them towards the calling that he intends, despite their initial disbelief or inaccurate understandings.

We need not worry about outcomes or adequacy. As we keep ourselves open to his calling, we discover that through his strength, we can achieve much more for his kingdom than we ever would have imagined, more than we could ever have done on our own abilities. Who would have believed that inarticulate Moses could lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or that ancient Sarah could have a baby, or that rebellious Jonah’s words could help turn around a wicked nation?
Sometimes our calling is clear and we merely have to embrace it, as Bobby McFerrin did. Sometimes, the calling seems outlandish, and we have to have faith to accept it. Perhaps the more improbable the potential outcome, the more evident it is that God is the one who has called us in the first place. Ultimately, our job as Christ-followers is straightforward: answer God’s call. Don’t worry about the outcomes. And be happy for the unique gifts and abilities we have been given to further his kingdom. That is something worth singing about.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lilies of the Field

By Tracey Bianchi

Springtime and Easter bring lilies abundant. As their little trumpet-shaped petals open up to the sky, they sound out a tune of beauty and joy as we emerge from winter. On Easter Sunday I sat in church and was mesmerized by all the lilies. I caught a whiff of them as we sang choruses of resurrection and life, The scent was a soft reminder of hope.
I like lilies. Truth be told I've never actually purchased an Easter Lily, but I like the way they look and what they represent: hope, grace, wisdom. I like the fact that Jesus talked about lilies, that he took an interest in little white flowers pushing up from the dirt.
Easter Lilies are most famously perched atop church altars this time of year. When Jesus spoke of lilies, he used them as a metaphor for our lives, to tell us not to fret and struggle so much, that God takes care of us. The lilies of the field do not run around in spastic tornadoes like we do. They do not need caffeine to power on through. They just sit and receive the beauty God bestows upon them.
There are endless stories of the Easter Lily. A little research exposes a common tale. Most agree that sometime around 1920 a WWI soldier by the name of Louis Houghton dragged a suitcase of bulbs home from Japan. The Bermuda Lily to be exact. He was captivated by them and wanted friends and family to see lilies bloom. And so began the obsession.
Fast forward 90 years and we find lilies are the fourth largest-selling potted plant in the US. And that almost all their sales occur in a 2 week period each year. Great pains are taken by growers and greenhouses to make sure the lovely little cone shaped cups open their mouths right up on Easter Sunday. This, I have read, is no small thing.
To finesse, cajole and woo a flower to open at just the right time is an art form. To trick nature, trump the season (rumor has it they would normally bloom mid-summer) is a feat that enlists millions of dollars and many a breathless moment. And I am thankful for this work, for the wisdom these growers glean, for the knowledge at their fingertips. But I am also curious, not anti, just curious to know what Easter would be like without the lily?
It is an interesting juxtaposition to see all the energy we put into this flower when compared to the lesson Jesus had for us to learn from the lily. Fret or rest? What does this flower represent?
We sweat, curse, struggle and sow and then God says that he will make life bloom in good time anyway. We beg, pray, demand, urge and wait. All for what God has freely given to the flowers of the field.
So as Easter has passed and spring gives way to summer, take a moment to rest and realize that it is not about the lilies at all. Let the flowers of the field be a reminder of sitting, waiting, and receiving and let the sunshine of this season warm the depths of your very soul.

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Unexpected Lunch Stop

By Kay Wyma

It might surprise all of us to see how even the slightest recognition can profoundly affect someone.

A few years ago, I dragged my crew into one of our favorite sandwich shops for lunch. As we walked in, the first thing I noticed was a significantly overweight woman at the counter ordering her meal.

Anyone with little children can appreciate that, without warning, unfortunate/uncensored/not-meaning-to-be-malicious things can come out of their mouths. I said a quick prayer that my kids would keep any commentary to themselves. It was about this time I felt a tug on my skirt.

"MOM", loud whispered my sweet, incredibly sensitive, 5-yr-old daughter. "MOM! ... Look at that lady over there!" Arm outstretched, her finger emphatically pointed to the overweight woman at the counter.

I couldn't believe that this child, of all my kids, would be the one to inform the diners that a large person was in our midst.

"Sshhh!! Don't say a word!" I hissed.
"But Mom. Can I go say something to her?"
"No!" My word!
Dejected she quietly informed me, "I just wanted to tell her how pretty she looks."

There are some moments when I would just like to moonwalk to the closest exit, or rewind and get a second chance. This is one that I will never forget. I told her she could absolutely go to the woman.

She ooched her way through the line and made her way to the woman. Now she tugged on her skirt.

"Excuse me ma'am," the sweet little voice spoke.
The woman looked around, then down. You could almost see her physically/emotionally brace herself for what she knew was coming. Her emotions were about to nail her, just not as she expected.

"Excuse me."
"Yes? ... May I help you?"
"I just wanted to tell you how pretty you look. I think your skirt looks so pretty with your boots."
(She was right. The skirt did look great with those boots.)

The woman choked out a "thank you" and my daughter skipped back to us.

We ordered and sat down to wait for our meals. The event had come and gone. My daughter had matter-of-factly done what she would have to anyone, any size, any color ... with not one thought of herself. That's where it ended.

Until the woman stopped by our table on her way out. I didn't see her coming, but felt a hand on my shoulder. With tears in her eyes, she said to me, "You have no idea what your daughter did for me today. .... Thank you."

And that was it. For the woman, who felt invisible and constantly judged, a kind word caressed a wounded soul. For us, the words offered a profound lesson on the impact that a small moment of courtesy and other-mindedness can have on another human life. May we always be alert for the kind word, the gentle hug, or the smile from a stranger that can, in unexpected ways, impact so much more than a lunch break.