A Valentine’s Day Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Brenda,

It’s me–a much older you. And today is Valentine’s Day.

Your beloved Bradley has spent the morning and some of the afternoon on this holiday of romance cleaning the pool, fixing some electrical boxes, and other odd jobs around the house.

And you’re okay with that.

As a matter of fact, you don’t feel slighted at all.

For after 28 years of marriage, you’ve learned a few things about true love.

I know that right now you feel a bit disappointed if he doesn’t make you “feel special” on certain holidays. (Remember that birthday when he had to work and you stayed home and did laundry–and cried because it didn’t “feel” very birthday-like at all?) You’re over that.

Today won’t have cards.

Or chocolate.

Or jewelry.

Or a romantic candlelit dinner for two.

Today–a Saturday–will have chores (you did laundry), perhaps a little relaxing conversation later (after he finishes preparing for a memorial service he’s officiating on Monday), followed by a Valentine’s Banquet at church. (I know you think those aren’t “very romantic” right now–but you’ll get over that, too.)

Besides, he did run out this morning to the market to pick up some coffee beans just for you!

Besides, he did run out this morning to the market to pick up some coffee beans just for you!

You and Bradley have walked through a lot in 28 years. As a matter of fact, you’ve covered the downside of the wedding vows.

“…for worse…”

“…for poorer…”

“…in sickness…”

You even walked victoriously in Christ through the temptation of “…forsaking all others…

And, boy, have you learned.

Well, first you have learned that you didn’t have a clue when you stood before God and witnesses and uttered those words. In vain, did you think that those times wouldn’t–couldn’t–enter such a love story as yours. Surely you thought your marriage would consist of all the betters and richers and in-healths that a true romance could hold! (By the way, you may want to focus on understanding the true love found in God’s Word more than watching the fake romances playing out in movies. Just a hint.)

But certainly you have learned that the richest part of your lives and marriage has come simply because you did walk through those rough times.

You’ve learned that “worse” is only as bad as an un-Christlike attitude.

You’ve learned that “poor” is only a condition relative to an ideal.

You’ve learned that “in sickness” allows God to humble you so that you can give as well as receive love with joy.

And you’ve learned that fidelity is a godly choice that you get to make–and that sin doesn’t lie in the temptation, but in the choosing of sin. (And you don’t.)

So don’t get discouraged or disappointed, dear one, if certain holidays don’t “feel special.” Or if Bradley happens to let you down in that area. (After all, he is an imperfect man, o imperfect woman.) Focus instead on learning to serve him with joy. Don’t examine too closely the things he does or doesn’t do. For in reality, the greatest joy in your married heart will result from spending your days (all of them, not just certain holidays) considering and acting on how to serve as a blessing to him–your very, very beloved Bradley. Your true love.

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant aroma and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

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Puttin’ On Some Attitude

I’m just going to come out and state it boldly: I can’t choose my health, but I CAN choose my attitude!

Now, I know people who are going to say, “Oh, yes, you can choose your health!” (I can hear you already!) So let me clarify: I can make choices about my health, but ultimately I cannot make myself well. If praying for God to heal my ME/CFS and making lifestyle choices would do it, I would have this thing nailed! I haven’t been able to accomplish this feat because God is the one who maintains ultimate control of this tool He is using to mold and modify my life and heart.

My attitude, however, is another story altogether! I can choose gratitude. I can choose love. I can choose joy. I can choose all kinds of wonderful things. I get that choice! On the other hand–should I prefer, I could choose entitlement, unforgiving, crankiness, or a whole host of not so pleasant attitudes. I still get that choice.

A tactic that the enemy of our souls likes to employ is to strip us of our choices. If he can rob us of our understanding of this, he can keep us spiritually depleted. If he can keep us depleted, he can keep us defeated. We will cease to walk in all who God is creating us to become…which He intends, by the way, to far surpass any current situation.

In light of this, what attitudes do I want to choose to put on then? While the ugly ones have a pesky way of sneaking into my life, I much prefer the attitudes that make me look like Jesus, of course!

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-15).

What God Came to See

Like all normal parents, I suppose, I relish the joy of watching my child succeed in any venture. When she was in high school, I loved watching my daughter dance or act or sing. I delighted in hearing the applause and accolades just for her. As for my son, I savor each hoot and holler when he triumphs in a sports endeavor–of which there were many in football. This baseball season–not so much.

Nope. From that point of view, his baseball season has been painful. While praising our son on one hand, his coach rarely puts him in a game, which has served as a point of confusion to us all–especially since he’s a good ball player. And I’m not sure it helps too much when other parents come to us and voice their own confusion. While it does comfort us to know we’re not just imagining a skill level he doesn’t possess, it also kind of just “bums us out.”

And I know, that as parents, we do not stand alone in this.

Many parents have walked this path before or alongside us–and many will walk it after.

Yesterday I was able to go watch my son’s baseball game. (For those of you who know me, or who follow my blog, you know this does not come easy.) While I did, indeed, watch his game, I did not for one moment watch my son play. Drained from the exertion it took to go to the game, I immediately went to wait in our car as soon as it ended.

Expecting a disheartened baseball player to slip into the back seat (especially since we gave up four runs in one inning and lost the game), I was surprised when a joyful son took his place instead, immediately inquiring as to my health with his very first words. As a matter of fact, the three of us chatted and goofed around all the way home, simply enjoying the day together.

But yet I could not help those feelings of hurt from arising–all the wonderings of why coach continually excluded my son from playing. Although I have told myself–and others–time and again, “It’s okay; I’m not raising a high school baseball player, I’m raising a man of God,” I could not suppress those disconsolate emotions from raising their ugly little heads.

I finally reached a conclusion: one month–just one more month of baseball. I can do that. Just one more month.

How self-defeating is that?

Then this morning, God spoke a new understanding into my heart. A joyful, illuminated understanding! One I can’t wait to share with you, because if you haven’t felt this as a parent–if you desire God’s highest character in your child–you will.

The greatest thing my son has to offer his team is NOT his bat or his glove–it’s his character. Yet godly character does not prove itself when things are hunky-dory. Godly character proves itself when life doesn’t go as planned–when it’s painful, when you’re getting your nose rubbed in the dirt. Those situations serve God’s greater plan–the witness and testimony that support the words of a Christian. Even a teenaged Christian.

A current statistic says that 70% of teenagers raised in church will walk away from their faith once they graduate from high school. (For a great blog on this, read http://marc5solas.com/2013/02/08/top-10-reasons-our-kids-leave-church/ .) Think about that. Look at your youth group, Christian high school, or, in this case, Christian baseball team, and calculate how many of those teenagers will still serve Christ a year from now–or two–or…

With this in mind, I see that that the truest gift my son can give his team is the way he lives out his faith when the cards aren’t dealt his way. His attitude when coach doesn’t call his name. His encouragement for his teammates when they get to go do what he deeply longs to do.

Learning that God is still good and still God despite painful circumstances stands strong as a lesson one can never embrace early enough. Likewise, choosing a God-honoring attitude–not a self-indulgent one–brings a far greater joy to God’s heart than all the playing time in the world.

So, what do you think God (his heavenly Father, the same One who said, “I will never leave you”) came to see at my son’s game yesterday? I now know, He came to see a living testimony. While all the parents watched to see a son on the field, He came to see eternity taking root in a young man’s heart.

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart'” (I Samuel 16:7).

Heartache: The Vestibule of Heaven

Having children is one of life’s greatest joys. They enter our hearts and homes as tiny receptacles, seemingly designed to draw love out of our deepest reservoir. Even the more introverted of us find ourselves learning what it means to freely and wholeheartedly give love to these precious little ones.

As they grow we find that our love, too, grows in like stride. We learn to love through disappointment, disobedience and disruptions of all ilks. To embrace our full reflection of God through our parenting, we must also quickly learn the difference between love of a higher and of a baser sort. Training our children to become more like Jesus requires hard core choices not designed for the weak of character or purpose.

Truthfully, the highest hurdle I have faced in my challenge to exhibit godly love for my children has been when I have watched them face head-on the raw, bitter disappointments in their lives.

The unkind words.

The exclusion from parties.

The unmet expectations.

The broken hearts.

In these solemn, pain-filled moments I find the woman I long to be in my deepest core must encounter  the woman I want to unleash in that place and time. For many an uncounted hour, it appears “mama bear” will surely win. She has valid points backed by the fire of conviction. Thankfully, God has restrained her outwardly; but inwardly she’s an out-and-out mess, locked in a stressful pattern of emotional thinking.

I recently had to confront my own inner “mama bear.” (She’s hardly a lovely lady.) I, too, had valid points–based soundly on scripture. Thoughts about the certainty of trials and the grooming of character through them. Regardless of the soundness of scriptural truth, mama bear had a tough time letting go of her emotions. A real tough time.

Forcing myself to re-read a quote so challenging that I’ve taped it to the inside of each bedroom door in our home, I confronted myself and–the next thing I knew–found myself kneeling in repentant tears before my God.

In that moment I had to admit that what I truly desired had been for my child to receive the accolades of earth more than the rewards of heaven. By doing so, I had been willing to cede valuable training in eternal treasures for the mere gratification of temporal pleasure. Although in a rose-colored world, I would find it charming if my child could have both, the premises handed me in scripture assure me that character comes with a pretty steep price tag.

As an adult, I know and accept this fact. As a parent, I find I struggle to accept the same fact for my child. Yet embracing a higher love for my child–a love that desires God’s highest and not my own–I must acknowledge and yield to these character shaping moments.

And pray that through each painful situation, I will not be the one who inhibits my child from entering that sacred “vestibule of heaven.”

“Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

To see the quote that challenged me so, read my blog, “Others May, You Cannot.”

Where I Don’t Want to Go

A friend recently confided that he lamented taking his wife to see Les Mis. He had heard so many positive comments regarding how the movie represented God’s grace that he had felt confident taking his lovely bride on a date to such a rare movie. As the story line progressed, however, he realized that it had taken him to a bawdy brothel, and he felt that ache in his heart of “What have I done?” In his spirit, he reproached that he had allowed the intrigue of our culture and the vague recommendations of friends to override his usual particularity for researching movie content. He grieved that his eyes had taken in the physical scenery of women other than his wife. He had allowed his emotions to take him where his mind had covenanted not to go.

But isn’t that how it works? Our feelings, with an extremely compelling force, direct our thoughts and intentions with great magnitude. In unguarded moments, our emotions grab hold of our inner man and lead him with unexpected compulsion to places we never imagined we would find ourselves.

Without giving my flesh the benefit of even mentioning the scenario, I want you to know that I find myself dealing with this battle even as I write. A mixture of ugly emotions tug and pull at my being, urging me to allow their rule in my life. I tell them “no.” I ignore them. I valiantly try to “take them captive.” But yet they arise again and again with equal power. Round and round the cycle goes.

The Lord, however, spoke gently yet powerfully to my heart this morning during our time together. He reminded me of the commanding truth of Hebrews 12:1 to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

In essence, my battle was no longer with just my feelings, but with my right to those feelings and my inner desire to set a situation straight (in my own eyes, of course). I had allowed myself to mull over imaginary conversations in my mind, ponder a blog on the subject, or even email “facts” to others. I had allowed my feelings to lead my mind to a place it had no license before God to be.

I was in sin.

Calling my emotions what, indeed, they were, also gave me spiritual truth in how to deal with them. I needed to repent and then simply lay them aside. They could not belong in my life anymore than a godly man belonged in a brothel.

What about the other person’s sin against me?

Doesn’t matter. This verse does not use a possessive pronoun such as “my” or “your,” but merely the definite article: “the.” “The sin.” Not necessarily my sin, though that needed to be dealt with as well, but the sin. “Lay aside…the sin.” I could not permit sin–mine or others–to be the stumbling block that easily entangled me…not if I intend to run with endurance the race God has set before me.

Before me…not behind me.

The situation which caused the sin and pain happened in the past. I can do nothing to alter it. It happened. God has called me to represent Him in my present and to stay my course for a godly run into the future. I cannot accomplish this high goal if I maintain my contemplation about the sin of the past.

What do I do?

  • Immediately confess my own sin, including each time my thoughts and feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness arise, trusting that God will be “faithful and just to forgive me my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
  • Commend my feelings, including my desire for vindication to God. He bought me at a price–all of me, including my feelings–and He deserves to be entrusted with all of me–including my feelings.
  • Lay aside the sin and garbage of the past lest it entangle my feet and derail my determination to run a higher race for His glory.

Ever since my children were small, I’ve advised them that they cannot change how other people act, but they had to take responsibility before God for their own responses–regardless. While it’s nice to know that this simple truth never changes, I am deeply blessed to understand the “why” behind it all.

When I hang onto the sin of the past, it entangles me. I stay stuck in that situation and cannot move on with God. I react from that viewpoint, and cannot respond this day–this moment–to what unfolds before me in the present. I will have regretfully allowed my feelings to lead me to a place I never thought I would be–right to where I didn’t want to go.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

PS. For those of you wondering about whether we will choose to see Les Mis, let me simply say this. I would never, under any circumstances, as a wife who loves Jesus, ask my husband to see a movie which set before his eyes such lewd scenes as may cause him to stumble. He is of infinite more value to me than any movie…and I get to live with seeing God’s grace each day.

Wrestle Not

When I was growing up, Iowa was a wrestling powerhouse. Dan Gable was reigning supreme over his dominant University of Iowa wrestling program, and boys from every nook and cranny across her sun-swept farmland fought wholeheartedly to earn the right to go to the State Tournament, which my brother did.

In my small town, wrestling meets packed the venue in a way which rivaled the all-American football game. And despising the role of cheerleader, I gained the coveted position of Mat Maid, which earned me access to all practices and meets, both at home and away. I saw many a match, and loved every one of them.

In spite of all the action I was able to witness, there were many a thing which I did not see. For example, I never saw a a wrestler in the 185 lb. division throw-down on a poor kid in the 98 lb. division. Everyone, to a man, grappled only his assigned opponent. In addition, I never saw a wrestling match take place off the mat. This competition was always conducted openly out on the mat. Finally, I never saw a match occur without a referee, who saw that both combatants, and their coaches, abided by each and every rule, wrestling fairly.

Not only that, but, with the exception of the occasional troublemaker, the spectators never encouraged behavior outside of that which was sanctioned.

That’s simply how the sport was honored…no bones about it.

Interestingly enough, the Bible uses wrestling as the sport to which we need to compare our behavior when we are at odds, or in “war mode.”

“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:10-12

I cannot even begin to tell you the freedom these verses have brought me over the years!

First and foremost, verse 12 tells me the “who” and the “why” and everything else fills in the blanks. That little word “for” starts the whole explanation: I wrestle not against flesh and blood. I don’t wrestle other humans! My opponent is clearly defined: I wrestle against the dark forces of this world. I do not behave honorably in any way at all when I start taking out my aggression on any of God’s precious children.

You don’t know how many times the reminder of this verse has bailed out my bacon! Sister So-and-So says something that riles me wrong. Not my problem. She’s not my enemy. Brother So-and-So says things about me that aren’t accurate. Not my problem. He’s not my enemy. I have only ONE enemy, and a fellow brother or sister in Christ is not it. From the moment this verse reaches my recollection, my freedom comes sweeping through my heart, chasing all bitterness aside.

Furthermore, my struggle takes place in the heavenlies…not on an earthly realm. If I would put as much effort into my prayers as I do in my feelings, I would indeed be more than a conqueror. Sadly, I can’t even begin to tell you how often I have spent vain emotion on things and people rather than on combating my true enemy in the only way that will truly and eternally succeed: on my knees. And then, of course, my actions follow those emotions, and I behave in a way that brings dishonor to my Lord and Savior.  (Shame on me when I do that!)

Finally, it’s imperative that I acknowledge my need for the strength of the Lord–for the might that only comes from Him. I generally only do that when I recognize that my battle is not of this world and not with those of this world. When I think it is, I just go get it done myself. (Bad idea, by the way.) But when I stop and become aware of eternal spiritual truths, then I can rest in God’s covering and, ultimately, in His government of the whole affair. He will hold each person accountable for his actions–I don’t have to–and He will cover me as long as I walk in His truth and stop trying to beat up His other children, which He frowns on.

And as a bonus feature, let me tell you one last thing. If, in the process of working things out, you happen to mention your little pickle to someone who encourages you to behave in even the smallest way outside of the parameters set by God in His word (i.e. gossip, responding in kind, getting what you deserve regardless), then that person is one of those “occasional troublemakers” I mentioned earlier. They are not behaving as one of that “great crowd of witnesses,” they are acting as agents for the enemy. Kindly disregard their input and get out of their presence lickity-split. Take your thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ, and even tell yourself to “knock it off” if you have to. But, whatever you do, make sure you live and think in a way that is for Christ’s glory and not your own.

Living for Jesus in a way that brings Him glory is a battle. The question you have to ask yourself, though, is do you want to be an athlete training for a prize or the neighborhood thug? A ranked wrestler would never risk his goal by underhanded means. Fight your true opponent. Wrestle only in the arena. Trust God to stand as the Judge of all. Bring God glory.

“O give us help against the adversary, for deliverance by man is in vain. Through God we shall do valiantly, and it is He who will tread down our adversaries.” Psalm 60:11-12

When Being Right is Wrong

As any of you who have been following my life know, my beloved has been hard at work creating a master bedroom reno designed with me in his heart. (Isn’t he awesome?) Last weekend he spent tons of hours on Saturday and Monday installing some gorgeous hardwood flooring.

See. Gorgeous. Espresso colored tuan wood. Yummy!

When the time arrived to pick up our son from football practice Monday evening, he was more than exhausted. Having fought commuter traffic for over an hour, his sole goal upon returning home was merely to get our mattress into our room and and made up for bed. The man just needed to sit down! Did I mention he was beat?

Obtaining our teenage son’s assistance was easy. Apparently, though, getting the weary young man to focus and follow simple instructions was not quite so.

Brad: Carry the mattress, son.

Josh: (No comment. Mattress keeps moving forward, but with some reluctance.)

Brad: Josh! Pick up the mattress!

Josh: Okay.

But it was too late. The damage was done.

A three and a half foot jagged gouge, undiscriminating and unrelenting, now marred our hour-old flooring.

Let the enervative eruptions begin.

Was my husband justified? Absolutely. Was my son in error? Without a doubt. Why, then, was our son wounded and self-enclosed behind a locked door? Why, then, was it my husband who apologized first?

The answer is quite simple really. It rests in the heart of a man who truly believes that he can be absolutely right in principle, but absolutely wrong in practice. At the precise moment when one man rests in the abject rightness of his principles, and thus treats with disregard the feelings of another, then that man has stepped from being right to being wrong. No way around it.

As I’m not exactly lolling around in the pretty primeness of life, I’ve chanced upon observing this occur in several different ways:

The Inquisitor: “It has been brought to my attention that you are in the wrong and I am in the right. Therefore, you have been found guilty. You will not be given an opportunity to state your case for I am the one in charge around here.”

The Icebox: “You have wounded me with your wrongful actions. I, therefore, will not be speaking to you until you can show me apt remorse.”

The Indulger: “You want a chance to apologize. Fine. Take it. I’ll give you a moment, but I refuse to deign to an apology myself. Are you done yet?”

The Instigator: “I will appear to listen and concede to your face, however, give me an opportunity with my real friends and I will tell them how I truly feel about how wrong you are. They will stand with me in my rightness.”

Notice how they all start with I? I didn’t until I was done, but I found it rather telling, as a person who desires to stand in his rightness generally shelters himself at the center of a conflict. No need for humility or preferring another in love. Just simple self-preservation and holding onto a form of godliness.

Since any single discordant encounter offers just about enough error to go around to all parties, the truest thing a mature, loving person can do is offer to unyoke her loved one from the bonds of unforgiveness and set him free. And in the process, freedom and forgiveness will be granted back to her. Isn’t it awesome how that works?

Just in case you’re wondering what happened between my husband and son, well, it went something like this:

Brad: I’m sorry, Son. I was tired and I reacted quickly and wrongly. You offered to help me and made a mistake, and instead of thanking you for your help, I got angry. I’m sorry.

Josh: I’m sorry, too, Dad.

And forgiveness reigned all around.

Do you know how I know my son was set free? The next morning he came in my room, sat on the mattress right in front of the gouge-mark, and chatted up a storm with me over this-n-that. Gabbing away totally happy…and free.

“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6

PS. I don’t know why, but something about that gouge makes me feel more at home in my room. Maybe because it instantly went from a hotel-feel to a home-feel? Or maybe just because it represents true love.

My beautiful gouge is only visible in the right light, but it’s there nonetheless, standing testimony of the freedom which comes only from letting go of “rightness.”