Thursday, July 9, 2015

What to Do When Nothing’s As It Should Be



Summer hasn’t really been summer around here.

I mean, here we are in July—July!—and it’s only been in the 90s once and in the 80s a handful of times. Nearly every morning I awaken to clouds outside my window instead of crisp, blue summer skies. I find myself longing for those cloudless summer days, the ones that take your breath away and steal your heart forever.

This just isn’t one of those summers.

This morning, while doing an errand at a local store, I ran into an elderly woman from church. She’s a quiet woman, the epitome of what I’d imagine godliness to look like, yet even she acknowledged quietly, “It’s hard to not complain about the weather this year.”

Nothing’s as it should be.

Normally in the summer I read essays and plan for the coming school year. I think hard about my classes and try to come up with new ways to teach old lessons.

But this year is different. I’m not going back to work in the fall, and this, like the weather, has me disoriented. Many days I have wandered around my house, creating a made-up frenzy, only because I feel like I “should” be busy.

I’m a productivity person, I confessed to a friend the other day. I don’t feel like I’m contributing unless I’m producing, even if it’s just a bed I’ve made or a load of laundry I’ve folded. I keep moving throughout my day simply because I feel like I “should” be doing something. Anything.

So most of my summer has been spent keeping my hands busy and my heart distracted from the reality that has barely begun to set in—I’m not going back to work and my life, as I knew it, looks very, very different these days.

*****

Twenty-one years ago at this time of year I had a newborn. With colic. From the day she turned two weeks old until the day she turned twelve weeks old, this dear girl cried and cried and cried. O.K., it wasn’t just crying (I’m trying to be nice about it here), that kid screamed her lungs out.

For ten weeks.

This was the day of the hand-crank swing—no fancy battery-operated baby swing for us—and it seems the only thing that would pacify this child was the swing, with a swing-limit of about ten minutes before someone would have to get up and crank her up again.

Even (and especially) in the middle of the night. I’d lay on the couch next to her swing, dozing for ten minutes until the swing slowed and she started screaming again, crank her up so she’d quiet herself, and sleep for another nine minutes until it would start all over again.

In the morning, I’d be so disoriented that I felt like I was walking through my day in a fog. I had very little energy for her sister, who was two, and I found I was dreading most of my days and nights. Life was a barely-hanging-on existence.

Until the exact day of her twelfth week when all of a sudden, just like that, she stopped crying. Maybe her insides caught up with her outsides. Maybe she was just sensitive to her new surroundings. I don’t know what happened, but just as many moms told me would happen, she suddenly stopped crying.

And what a blessed relief that was. A blessed, surprising relief.

If I had only known then that all I needed to do was to hang on, the waiting would have seemed so much easier. If I had only known that there was an end in sight and that the end would occur on the exact day of her twelve-week birthday, I might have been able to tell myself it would all be O.K.

But we don’t always know, do we?

If the weatherman could only give me a date when it would stop raining and start giving me blue skies, maybe I wouldn’t wake up in such a funk.

If I only knew when this “new” life without work would start feeling “normal,” maybe I could just stop tromping aimlessly around my house.

But maybe this not knowing is good for us, though, because it is in the not knowing when God teaches us all kinds of things. Like how to love our screaming babies or how to push through when our child is sick or we’re anxious and hurting or our faith is strained. Maybe this not knowing pushes us to lean into a God who does know, everything, and to trust Him more with the outcome.

*****

Earlier this week I was struggling again with this needing-to-be-busy-but-feeling-disoriented attitude. I went into an exercise class feeling a little anxious about the week ahead, so before the class started I prayed, “God, I want to hear from you today. Please, Holy Spirit, speak to me before the end of class.”

I know. Weird. While I do usually pray in the quiet before class, I don’t usually pray that specifically for God to speak to me, but I felt like I needed to hear something from Him.

So class went on. I stretched. I sweated. I kept prayer at the forefront of my mind, but didn’t feel like I was hearing anything.

Finally, the cool down at the end of class came, and I prayed again, “Lord, I want to hear from you.”

And in just that moment the instructor turned on some quiet music. The song was one I had never heard before, although the singer’s voice was familiar. But the words!

Suddenly I was overcome and tears started to flow, because I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this song was for me. It’s what God has wanted me to know in the midst all of this uncertainty.

Maybe it’s what He wants you to know, too.

*****

“Be Still” by The Fray

Be still and know that I’m with you
Be still and know that I am here
Be still and know that I’m with you
Be still, be still, and know

When darkness comes upon you
And covers you with fear and shame
Be still and know that I’m with you
And I will say your name

If terror falls upon your bed
And sleep no longer comes
Remember all the words I said
Be still, be still, and know

And when you to through the valley
And the shadow comes down from the hill
If morning never comes to be
Be still, be still, be still

If you forget the way to go
And lose where you came from
If no one is standing beside you
Be still and know I am

Be still and know that I’m with you
Be still and know I am

Monday, June 29, 2015

Letters to My Daughters: God's Word


Dear Daughters,

From the day each of you was born, I felt a deep responsibility to prepare you for the world in which you will live. I’ve tried to model for you what I believed to be best for your life, but, on occasion (OK, many occasions), I have failed. Oh boy, have I failed. If you were to rely on me as your sole model and guide for your lives, you would be in a sad place indeed.

I know my failings, and yet, I also know God. I know that God, who loves you more than I ever could, who sacrificed His only son so that he could have a relationship with us, has given us the best guide for our lives: his word.

Now, I know that God’s word is sometimes confusing and hard to understand. I know that sometimes it says things we may not want to hear. But I also know that it has stood for thousands of years as a beacon of hope in a lost world. God’s word is perfect. God’s word is sure. God’s word is the only anchor we can hold on to in this stormy world. In it we not only read things we don’t get or maybe don’t like, but we also read things that bring us comfort. And every page of God’s word speaks of His great love for us.

Here’s what I want you to know, dear girls, as you walk through life and encounter various trials: God’s word, His love letter to us, never fails. People will fail you. I will fail you. Culture will fail you. But God’s word will never fail. It has endured because God Himself has made it endure, and it will continue to do so no matter what happens in our lives.

I’m ashamed to admit, girls, that I didn’t always believe it—I didn’t always trust that God’s word was enough. But years of living in this world and through various trials have shown me that God’s word is the only security I have. I’ve read it front to back a few times, and every time I see something new and every time it speaks to me in different ways. Sure, some things confuse me, but I keep digging, reaching further for understanding and insight into the God who loves me.

Girls, I have no idea what the future holds for you. I have no idea what the world will look like in 10, 20, even 50 years. What I do know is that God’s word has not and will never change. Oh, there are plenty of people who would like to change it, but they can’t, they won’t, succeed because God won’t let them. We can overlook the parts we don’t like and make cutesy, Pinteresty signs for the parts we do, but the fact remains: God’s word will never change. You can trust it. You can stake your life on it. 

I read something this week from a Christian Millennial: “Many of us are bucking the conventional thinking of the churches we grew up in, our parents, our [Christian] colleges. . . .” Just think about that! What is the “conventional thinking” that these Christian Millennials are bucking? It’s essentially the Bible. Basically this person is saying, “I’m rejecting the Bible and its teachings. I’m going my own way. What I think I know is better than what God has already told me.” When we get to that place, girls, we are on shaky ground indeed.

My darling daughters, I love you with every fiber of my being. I think you are amazing—every bit of you. I have always been astounded by your incredible minds--especially your minds--but do not ever be fooled into thinking you know more than God.

The days and years ahead will be interesting. The future will look very different for you and for your children than it has for me. Culture, even fellow Christians, may shake their fists at you, call you names, call you closed-minded. You may lose your job. You may be called to take an uncomfortable stand. Just make sure that you are standing on the Rock and that your foundation is based on God’s word.

Here’s what I think about the days ahead:

We don’t have to fight—we are called to love.

We don’t have to win—the war is already over.

We don’t have to rant or scream or cry—the work is finished. Our God, through Jesus, has done it.

Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Hold on to what is true. God's word will stand for you just as it has for generations before you.

Now, go out and LIVE.

I love you so,

Mom

*****
"Letters to My Daughters" is an ongoing series around here. In case you're new (welcome!) or if you've missed one, a complete list of my letters is listed below. I'd love for you to check them out!

And if you like what you see, why not sign up for email updates? I'd sure love to have you join me on this adventure!

Letters to My Daughters: Introduction
Letters to My Daughters: Take a Stand
Letters to My Daughters: Letting Go
Letters to My Daughters: Pressure
Letters to My Daughters: Be a Giver
Letters to My Daughters: Persevere
Letters to My Daughters: Decisions
Letters to My Daughters: Sexual Purity
Letters to My Daughters: Choose Joy, Part 1
Letters to My Daughters: Choose Joy, Part 2
Letters to My Daughters: Ten Things

Friday, June 19, 2015

What Does Love Look Like?


I fell in love with Charleston the first time I set foot there, probably because it was so different from where I grew up and now live, the flat plains of the Midwest. I had never been to a place with such character, beauty, and history all wrapped up into one quaint package, complete with horse drawn carriages. I was enamored from the start.

We’ve been back many times since that first visit, and every time the city captures my affections. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s gotten under my skin. It’s a place whose history I do not understand, but a place that seems to survive, to work, to persevere, despite that history.

So when I heard the news about Charleston yesterday, I was shocked—sickened and saddened for a place I have grown to love. I wondered how the people there could continue, how they would go on, how they would persevere amidst yet another tragedy in their cobblestone streets.

I don’t have the answers to my own questions. I don’t understand the history. I don’t know suffering that leads to perseverance like that. I just don’t know.

But I have ruminated these past 24 hours on what I do know, rolling these thoughts round and round until here they spill. Because I just can’t keep not saying things.

Our country is sick. In fact, sometimes I feel we are very near the flat line. The fighting, badgering, choosing sides, nit picking, yelling louder than the next guy, victimization . . . all of it . . . this sickness has seeped into our bones, and we are in desperate need of healing.

I have thoughts about the problems. I have thoughts about solutions. But those don’t matter today. (I’m not sure my little thoughts matter much ever.) What we need to acknowledge is that we are full of disease and in need of healing.

And all I know, these thoughts that keep turning themselves over and over, is that the antidote to all of the hatred is love. It sounds simplistic, I know, but I believe it to be true because that’s exactly who Jesus was and who He calls us to be.

So the question I keep asking myself today is how do I love those around me? How do I, just me, make a difference today by loving just a little bit better? What does this look like?

Love looks like listening. Do we jump to conclusions about others? Are we quick to make judgments? Maybe what we need to do is to slow down and listen, to hear from another viewpoint, and to learn what it is to walk in their shoes.

Jesus spent a lot of time listening, but not a lot of time finger pointing. He spent a lot of time healing once he learned what a person’s problem really was. But he always listened first.

Love looks like seeing. Here’s what I know: looking someone in the eye makes love grow. Sometimes, when I’m angry with my husband, I just can’t look him in the eye because I know that the minute I do the fight will be over. I will see love and feel it and all will be forgotten. (Yeah, I know. It’s a weakness.)

There is something about finding common ground with someone when you look them in the eye. You really begin to see them for who they really are and to appreciate the people God made them to be.

Jesus looked at people, closely. In the story of the bleeding woman in Matthew 9, Jesus turns to the woman who had touched the hem of his robe, “and seeing her,” scripture says, he healed her. This woman had probably not been seen, truly looked in the eye, in a long time before Jesus came along. But Jesus looked at her, saw her deep need, and healed her.

Love looks like reaching out. Do you need to make the first move today to restore a relationship? Do you need to pick up the phone or make an invitation in order to show someone you love them? Sometimes love is action.

Often, when Jesus healed people who had come to him, he touched them. A blind man’s eyes. A soldier’s ear. When Jesus saw injustice, he acted. When he saw need, he moved.

What do you need to actually DO today to show love to another person?

These stories of hatred in our country—on both sides of the racial divide—have sobered me these past months. I have cried out to God for understanding. I have prayed for peace. I want this to end and for us to truly see one another and to love.

These past three years, God had brought a very special young woman into my life who has taught me a lot about listening and seeing and reaching out. I can’t go into the details of her story or our relationship, but I can say that she has opened my eyes to things I did not, and still do not, understand.

What I have learned is that everyone has a story—we just have to listen.

What I have learned is that everyone has pain—we just have to see it.

What I have learned is that everyone has needs—we just have to reach out.
“But God showed his great love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Roman 5:8
Jesus did it. Why can’t we?



Friday, June 5, 2015

Let’s Talk About Plagiarism



I don’t write much about my classes or about being a professor or about my life at an academic institution. Some of that is because I’ve never been comfortable being called “Professor”-anything and some of that is because the stories from my classroom are just that—from my classroom and not from my “real” life.

Or something like that.

But today I want to tell you about a special book I use in my class every semester. It’s a little book (tiny, even) by NYT best-selling author Anna Quindlen called A Short Guideto a Happy Life. I like much of what Quindlen writes there—it’s practical, life advice—so I share bits of it during our brief devotional time at the beginning of class, followed up by a brief reading of scripture that corresponds to the day’s reading. Students tell me they like these devotionals, so I have kept doing it this way for several years now.

I’ve practically got Quindlen’s little book memorized. I know what’s coming next. I know what to emphasize and how to read the sentences out loud so that my students understand the meaning behind them. I recognize the cadence of Quindlen’s writing because it’s, well, Anna Quindlen.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read a blog post this week, written by a twice-published author, with a paragraph that read very much like a paragraph from Quindlen’s book. The structure of each sentence was very nearly the same. The punchy, creative start to each sentence was exactly the same, even though the details of the sentences had been changed to fit this author’s circumstances. The length of the paragraph was very similar, too.

I sat up with a jolt. This is from Anna Quindlen! I thought. At first I thought it was clever—kind of how people use “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” and change it to fit their circumstances. At first I thought this author was genius.

But then I scanned the article, looking for any reference to Anna Quindlen. Anything at all. I didn’t expect a fully documented list of Works Cited at the end of the blog post, but even a simple nod to the original author would have made me feel better.

Nothing.

Not a word. Not a reference. Not even a, “Hey, I borrowed this paragraph from one of my favorite authors in the whole world.”

Nothing.

And then I felt a little sick to my stomach. Because this is a perfect example of plagiarism.

It’s not even the first example of it that I’ve seen THIS WEEK. Yep, I noticed another well-known blogger who plagiarized an idea but who, thankfully, got called out on it and corrected the mistake.

If you’re a writer, or a blogger, or if you ever have to write anything for work, you should know what plagiarism is. And you should avoid plagiarism like the plague.

Plagiarism occurs when a writer borrows words or ideas from another source and fails to either 1) place the borrowed words in quotation marks or 2) cite their source.

Did you notice that plagiarism does not just involve lifting words directly from another source? It also involves borrowing ideas without giving credit, and that’s what I saw this week. Using the same construction of sentences or the same type of paragraph constitutes borrowing an idea. And that’s plagiarism.

The twice-published author was probably thinking, So what’s the big deal? Anna Quindlen doesn’t read my blog. She’ll never find out.

While that may be true (Anna, if you ever read my blog would you please just leave me a comment and say hello? You will make my day. My year, even!), it’s not just Anna Quindlen that you’re hurting here. You’re hurting yourself, because forevermore you will be, in my mind, a plagiarizer.

The MLA Handbook, which is the guidebook for all things documentation, says that plagiarism constitutes intellectual theft and fraud. And who wants to be known as a thief and a liar? Not me!

Here’s another reason plagiarism is a big deal—it’s a story I tell my students every semester. When I was in college, the student body president wrote an article for our school newspaper. A few weeks later it came out that said student body president had plagiarized much of the article. He came forward, acknowledged his plagiarism, and retracted the article.

Yes, it happened over 30 years ago. But you know what? When my friends and I get together for reunions, sometimes we reminisce about the good old days, and sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, this guy’s name comes up. I can guarantee you that every time—not just sometimes—his name is mentioned, someone says, “Oh yeah, isn’t that the guy who plagiarized the article in the student newspaper?”

And it's not just writers who do it. Artists, musicians, creatives of every stripe fall prey to the temptation to plagiarize. But how would you like it if you slaved, suffered, sweat over the creation of a masterpiece, only to have someone grab it and claim it as their own?

I promise, you wouldn't like it at all.

Here’s my point: your integrity matters. Not just as a writer, but as a person. It might not seem like a big deal to you (after all, who will know?), but once you’re caught in an act of plagiarism, you might as well have a big old scarlet “P” emblazoned on your chest. It’s not going away.

I tell my students that the immediate consequence of plagiarism is a failing paper. If the practice continues it could mean failing the class. If the behavior isn’t controlled and you become a serial plagiarizer, it might one day mean losing your job.

It will always mean losing your credibility.

And nothing, not even a pithy phrase from an obscure book that hardly anyone has probably read or heard about, is worth that. 

*****
OK, I know this isn't a subject anyone really cares about, but hopefully it will make you think about how you use someone else's words. 

I'd love to know your thoughts on the matter. Leave me a comment!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Have a Beautiful Day! You Deserve It!




I just needed a stamp. In fact, half of a stamp was really all I needed. I wanted to mail a square envelope, and, you know, the Postmaster General would like to charge me extra for the square-ness of my envelope, so I needed a little extra postage.

My own post office was busy, crowded as usual, and the automatic stamp dispenser machine was out of order (of course), so, impatient person that I am, I left. I had errands to do in the neighboring town anyway, so I thought I’d stop at their smaller post office to quickly buy my stamp.

As soon as I walked in the door of the smaller post office my irritation level began to rise. Three people already stood in line and only one person seemed to be working there.

One very talkative person.

I took a deep breath and found my place at the back of the line. My card wasn’t going to get mailed unless I put myself through this torture and simply waited.

As the first woman stood at the window mailing her package, stroller in tow, I listened to her chatting away with the clerk. Couldn’t she just hurry this up? I thought. Don’t they know people have better things to do than stand in line at the post office?

But as I stood there I couldn’t help noticing my surroundings. The post office was old, with cool stone floors, the kind you’d like to lay face down on on a hot summer day, and wood paneling surrounding the old clerks windows. I could see a faint trace of the words “Parcel Post” beneath the rubbed off surface above one of the windows, reminding me of a day when the pace of life was slower, more deliberate.

The first woman finished her transaction and headed outside with her stroller, and the second woman in line stepped up to the clerk. I noticed his cheerful greeting and her cheerful response.

The man in front of me, I saw, was old with thinning gray hair and a rumpled black jacket. He looked like he had a hard time walking because he was leaning hard on a counter behind us. He took a couple of deep breaths and seemed as irritated as I felt inside.

Who has time for this? I wondered. Good grief! Let’s stop the chit-chat and move along!

By now I began to notice the clerk at the window. How his eyes had deep laugh lines around them. How he seemed to really enjoy talking to his customers. Did he have a hint of an accent?

I began to wonder how he became a postal clerk. Was it a good job? Did he like coming to work? How long had he been here?

Finally, finally, he finished with the second woman in line and the old man in front of me shuffled to the counter. He grunted a muffled hello and handed a package to the clerk, whom, by now, I noticed was probably in his early 60s.

“Good morning! Is this all you have?” the clerk asked. “You didn’t have to wait in that line! You could have just handed it over to me.” His voice was cheerful, not one bit dissuaded by the grumpy old man’s demeanor. In fact, I’m not even sure he noticed the man’s grumpy exterior at all.

He continued, looking straight into the old man’s eyes, “Are you having a beautiful day today, sir? Because you deserve to have a beautiful day.”

Did he really just say that? To another man? I found myself chucking silently.

The old man mumbled something, then laughed. Smiled, even.

So did I.

The clerk went on chatting, something about Spanish. “Do you speak Spanish?” he asked.

The old man replied, in Spanish, “Un poquito.” And then said something else in Spanish that I didn’t recognize.

The clerk had gotten him! “I’d say you speak more than ‘un poquito’ Spanish! You do very well!” Another compliment lobbed the old man’s way.

And finally, a grin, wide and toothy. The clerk’s work here was done.

The man took his receipt and said good bye. “Have a great day!” shouted the clerk after him.

By now I had waited probably a full five minutes and I knew something about this clerk. He was an immigrant from somewhere, based on the deep lines in his face (just like my German grandfather’s) and the trace of an accent. He was well educated.

And he made it his mission in life to make every encounter with every person at his window a positive one.

I couldn’t wait for my turn!

I stepped up and asked for the proper stamp. Twenty-one cents. That’s all I needed, but I got so much more. We chatted about a famous Croatian (ah ha!) author whom he had read, then about Abraham Lincoln (“Did you know he worked in as a Postmaster?”), which led to a discussion of New Salem and Springfield.

By the time I left the post office, my day was made.

I smiled as I headed to my car and thought about the man I had just encountered. How rare for a person, any person, to take the time to see each customer as a human being with likes and interests and passions. How rare for a postal clerk to act as if he truly loved his job. How rare for a man to ask another man if he was having a beautiful day and then to tell him he deserved it.

How rare for a human being to show such deliberate kindness to another in this day and age.

His kindness, his goodness, made me stop and think. Do I really take the time to make sure every encounter I have with another human is a positive one? How often do I really look into another’s eyes and see what’s there? How might I make sure that the people around me feel special just because they really are?

The postal clerk blessed me that day by showing me that slowing down matters. Looking people in the eye makes a difference. And a little kindness goes a long way.

Are you having a beautiful day? You should! Because you deserve it.