Monday, February 23, 2009

Shrinking Jeans

I started off this year with an eye to simplifying. My daughters inspired me to donate the clothes and shoes I don’t wear to Orphan Grain Train. Of course, this effort turned into cleaning out not just my closet, but a few drawers as well. In the end, I’ve realized it’s not as painful as I thought it would be.

What I didn’t expect, however, was my husband pitching in to help. My husband threw my jeans in warm water with some of his stuff and then into the dryer! The surprise came this morning when I grabbed my favorite jeans, which are now a size I haven’t seen in the mirror for decades. These are jeans I debated over purchasing; they were pricey -- way too pricey and not at all on sale. I worried they looked too much like jeans my daughters would wear and that there was no way I could pull them off. But my Hannah was with me on that mission to find the right jeans, and she convinced me they were perfect and that I’d wear them out.

She was so right! My decision to get the jeans was reinforced many times, and I loved how I felt when I wore them. They gave me a look I could always count on -- for a while, anyway. After dozens of washings and a few more years, I find the jeans don’t quite fit. Hannah tells me I can wash them in cold water and stretch them as they dry on the line. I’ve thought of stuffing them with several of those foam noodles you play with in the pool, or possibly inner tubes. Or maybe I could refrain from desserts for a while and think, “shrink,” really hard until the pants fit again.

This morning, as I looked at those jeans and rethought all of these ideas, my husband came in and asked me if I was donating them. I was taken aback -- give away my favorite jeans? He had to be kidding! But, as I thought about it, I realized that pants shrink, and I was placing too much importance and putting too much energy into this one pair of jeans.

You know me. I think of a spiritual application to just about everything. So this morning, I remembered that wonderful hymn from the 1800s. The first verse says, “Oh for a faith that will not shrink, tho pressed by many a foe; that will not tremble on the brink of poverty or woe.” And the last verse adds, “Lord, give us such a faith as this and then whate’er may come, we’ll taste e’en now the hallowed bliss of an eternal home.” Don’t you love it? Let’s enjoy the everlasting love our heavenly Father lavishes on us: His forgiveness of our past, and His hope for our tomorrows. It’s how He grows our faith.

Our jeans will downsize, but God nurtures in us a faith that will not shrink. Now that’s something to feel good about!

Monday, February 16, 2009

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Princess Phenomenon

The recycling of Christmas presents brought up some impassioned discussion at our house last December. The concern wasn’t that the gift was used. The problem wasn’t that one daughter’s kids were tired of their glitzy makeup table and gave it to a younger cousin as her Christmas present. No, that would have been too simple. The center of the controversy was a light-up princess makeup table that plays music and features a sugary-sweet voice telling the child how pretty she looks. The 22-month-old recipient’s dad didn’t want her swooning in front of it. He didn’t just think the toy was silly; he really didn’t want her to have anything to do with it. Why such strong reaction?

He explained that if you focus a little girl on the wrong stuff -- blinking lights, music, soft voices telling her she chose the right color for her nails -- you risk programming her into a young woman who depends on glitz and glamour to define who she is. I mentioned how I fell in love with Snow White’s kindly character and with Cinderella’s forgiving spirit when I was a child and found them useful in growing up. Yeah, I wished upon a star now and then. I did kind of look for a prince to be my hero but, as I grew and matured, I realized a girl doesn’t need a prince but a partner. What stuck with me from those characters wasn’t materialism or vanity but compassion and concern for others.

Then the loving, wonderful young father looked me seriously in the eyes and said, “But, Phyllis, I’ve known too many girls and young women who play this fantasy out in their lives. They end up with eating disorders and relationship issues and a lack of confidence in what they can do and who they are.”

This conversation stayed with me. I look for balance. I appreciate this father’s genuine concern about what will shape his daughter’s definition of beauty and self-worth as she grows up. We know what he’s talking about, and we see it in too many women we know. But will taking our daughters away from princess movies solve the problem and shape them into content and focused young women?

I wish it were that easy. Our society constantly tells our girls to value themselves for the wrong things. One way to fight this trend is to say with the psalmist in the Bible, who recognizes the great design in each of us, “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14a). You know what? That sure beats what the mirror says about the princess -- that she is the fairest of them all. There’s no problem with mirrors, as long as we put things into perspective. God sees us inside and out as someone He created with unique gifts to serve Him and others. That’s a good “look” by anyone’s definition!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

So This Is Love! Mmmmhmmm Mmmmhmmmm!

I had one of those so-called Kodak® moments watching my daughter’s kids last weekend. I’d heard that earlier in the week, Lew, who is two years old, answered her mommy’s exuberant, “You’re my favorite little person!” with “I not a person, Mommy. I a lady!” And, indeed, she is, as I learned on my shift. When I reminded the children to clear their supper plates, Lew pulled hers from the table. Since she had enjoyed my plate more than her own, hers was still full of food, which she then placed on her head. As she slowly glided over to the sink, one hand on the plate, the other out to her side, I heard in a recognizable and perfect tune, “So this is this is love . . . .”

Lew is obviously going through a Disney princess phase, and by my way of thinking, that’s not all bad. I stood captivated by the natural grace in this wee one as she carried out her chore with a happy heart. After I took the plate with a “thank you,” she went back to busying herself with childish things, and I returned to my grown-up chores at the sink. I questioned my own happiness level in carrying out daily tasks -- from work to home to volunteer activities. Is there a song in my heart? There is when I remember it’s a privilege to serve, to pitch in, and to anticipate what needs to be done. And when I grumble about the sameness of it all -- how no one notices or that I’m just not into the task -- I think of theologian Martin Luther saying something about how it’s as important to swing the axe, do the dishes, or milk the cow, as it is to be the doctor or the preacher.

And that is the point: every job is important when done to the glory of God. For me, Lew puts a new spin on keeping too many plates in the air at once. It works better when you whistle a happy tune. You can always go to the Lord for help in laying some of those plates down, you know.

Now that is love! Mmmmhmmm Mmmhmmm!

See tomorrow’s blog posting for another point of view on the princess phenomenon!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Valentine’s Day

Gentle reminder #1: If you love somebody, there’s a day dedicated to expressing it just around the corner.

Gentle reminder #2: If you don’t get a valentine this year, there’s no need to fret too much. Sadness may have been our response in grade school, but not anymore. You’re a grown up, remember?

Instead of expecting to receive gestures of love this Valentine’s Day, give them! Will you buy a card? How about going full tilt with your adoration on a billboard? Maybe you’d like to send a radio message to someone you love? How about doing something romantic like a picnic spread on your living room carpet or serving dinner atop the grand piano by candlelight? Then again, who said it has to be long-stemmed roses? I know teachers, neighbors, and grandparents whose hearts flip when kids send them hand-cut, red construction paper hearts pasted on white lace doilies. After all, it’s the thought that counts!

Remember, you don’t have to always give stuff. Offering your energy and talents can be even more meaningful sometimes. Have you ever thought about applying the gifts God gives you -- those things you do well -- to stretching the expanse of people you reach with your love? Do you have fun gifting someone without fanfare? I learned the joy of quietly giving from my senior project at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, spending one afternoon a week in a nursing home. I turned the pages for a former organist as she played the “air organ” with her feet dangling over the side of the bed. She carefully rehearsed on all three consoles and the foot pedals, even without an instrument physically there. I’d compliment her and she’d smile, correcting me if I turned one measure too soon. Laying the music down on the bed, I admired her for still playing the notes she memorized years ago.

On other days, I read aloud from a worn and ragged Bible to a Swedish woman, blind and bedridden, with impossibly soft skin and an angel-sweet spirit. In gratitude, she nearly purred, nodding her head, with an occasional tear trickling down her cheek. On my last day, I pressed a tiny music box playing the hymn “Abide with Me” into her wrinkled hand. At the time, I wanted to do more but, looking back, I realize I did what meant the most -- sharing the Word of Life with a soul on the verge of crossing over from this life to the next to meet her Maker.

This project prepared me to love in simple, nearly unnoticed ways. I received a grade for the class. However, there was no money and no accolades for showing up every week to be kind to people who knew only my first name and probably forgot it when the next group of volunteers showed up. But it felt like important work and it was. It was pulling alongside people and caring. It was just a few minutes out of my total lifetime, but God used it to teach me something about love.

In those days, I was keenly aware of not getting valentines or long-stemmed roses. My heart rejoiced though just knowing God cared for me enough to give me contentment with people the world ignores. He was readying me to pass on His love in more difficult circumstances down the road. He was showing me how to love seemingly unlovable people in scary and intimidating situations. He was preparing me for work with the State of Illinois Department of Corrections -- with high-school dropouts, kids who hated their lives and loved drugs. These were people who clearly didn’t like me much. Even when you don’t get love returned to you, showing others you care is always worth it!

Some people might say, “If love is always worth it in the end, what do I have to lose?” The truth is, with love comes loss. Everything I love will add or subtract, hurt or heal, break or beautify my life. If I’m willing to love, I’m willing to risk loss. Think of things or people you love. A school child loves her teacher, and so with the end of each school year comes loss. The dynamics of love change and people pass in and out of our lives; only God’s love is changeless. He’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He loves us no matter what. That’s a one-of-a-kind love!

I’ve learned that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18a), as the Bible puts it. The writer C.S. Lewis observed that things like ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity make you braver, too. But those fixes are only temporary; the real solution lies in that “perfect love” that comes to us from God Himself. The question, “What do I have to lose?” also occurred to God. Just think how much He does stand to lose by loving us! I break His heart every day by things I do and say, but He keeps on loving me. Our feelings come and go, but His love does not. He just asks us to take Him seriously and pass that love on to others as His children.

When you plan your Valentine’s Day gestures this year, don’t grow weary or lose heart. Even if you don’t get that box of candy or bouquet of flowers or dazzling billboard, you can open your valentine from God every day. His love letter to you is His Word in the Bible. Pick it up and read what He's done for you through Jesus Christ, and then share that love with others. What do you have to lose?