Gratitude

a-time_flies-373294

The past seven and a half years have been both the longest and the shortest years I can remember. My husband lost his job in early February of 2009. Our lives have changed drastically over the years since then, but we had no idea the lessons we would learn over those intervening years. Off and on since then he has worked various jobs and has served in the Army Reserve to make ends meet. I’ve worked different jobs too. When I lost my teaching job in August of 2010, I was lucky enough to land one as the Writing Coach for the same school for another year, then lost that job  after the money for that position from the federal government dried up. Since then I worked at two other schools. For many reasons too numerous to mention in this post, I just left what I hope is my last job teaching high school English.

Why am I telling you all this now? With time and some perspective I’ve come to understand some important lessons in perseverance, hope, and gratitude from this very difficult time in my family’s life. If anyone else is going through hard economic times, I hope our struggle will give you hope and let you know you are not alone.

You see, our survival was a sort of “loaves and fishes” story. Honestly, when we look back at what happened to us, we marvel that we kept our home, that we managed to keep our kids in college during the recession.  They had to grow up and take on a lot more responsibility than I ever wanted them to, but I understand now that they are better for having done so. I worried and cried and wondered how we would survive, but we did. We pared down every expense we possibly could during those years and still practice austerity to a certain degree. In fact, during the 2014-2015 winter, the coldest one in years here in the Midwest, we couldn’t afford to repair our heater. I hauled wood in my pajamas, snowboots, and parka and endured the month alone, while my husband was at training in North Carolina. I woke often to temperatures in the house in the 50s, and I’m a Southerner! That was a hard winter, a metaphor really, for the whole seven years.

During our “lost decade” we decided one thing we couldn’t and didn’t want to change was the amount of money we gave to our church. We prayed about that decision and others. We prayed, and prayed some more for God to give us guidance and help, but what I found so difficult was to thank God for all that we still had. Trusting God was the hardest thing both my husband and I had to learn during these last seven years. Learning to let God take care of us when we no longer could make sense of what was  happening was difficult for us and is something we still struggle with.  When we look back at what we endured, however, the only answer to how we survived that makes any sense is God provided. Nothing else explains how we made our money last from paycheck to paycheck and how our family stayed together.

What made the blow of my husband losing his job and not being able to find another one so difficult was that we never thought we would be in that position. He was a very successful salesman, but we didn’t rely on his success. I worked too. We had done everything right. We saved the maximum for our retirement, even when I complained that we weren’t having much fun. We don’t take extravagant vacations. We saved money in an emergency fund, drove our cars forever. I don’t get manicures, pedicures, or color treatments for my hair. We wait for sales to shop. We don’t have “toys” like a boat or snowmobiles or anything like that. Like so many others who lost their jobs and livelihoods we are just average Americans trying to make a good life for our family.

Luckily, when my husband got his notice he had been “let go,” (a euphemistic term for what actually happens to someone) he also received a severance from his company, which we were extremely careful with, especially in light of the thousands of layoffs early in the first year of the recession. For two long years he searched for any job he could find.  The problem was that millions of other men and women also searched for jobs that no longer existed. Millions were scared. Millions still are. We all still bear the scars and the trauma of living with that much uncertainty for that long. We still wait for bad news because it came so often. We will never be the same, and many of us who had never been in this position before were and are too proud to explain that we don’t have the money to do  or buy what, to others, seems negligible. If you are reading this post and know someone who lost their livelihood in this recession, keep in touch with them. Let them know you care and would like to see them. That sort of connection means the world. Even though my husband is still working, and before I gave my notice this year, I was also working, we are making far less than what we once did. Reduced wages in this country are a very real problem.

My family are not the only people who went through the trauma of job loss and the anxiety that accompanies such an event. The Great Recession changed us, but it changed millions of Americans.

My hubby and I have a deep appreciation for each other, for our family, for God. We realize how little truly matters in this life, how superfluous our possessions are but how much each other and our relationships matter. What we neglected was our relationship to others simply because keeping up with others was difficult with our noses to the grindstone and our thought processes taken up by survival. Even now we no longer go out to dinner or have drinks with friends very often, mostly because we developed the habit of cooking our own food since it was far cheaper to do so. We didn’t have (and still don’t) the money to spend out on the town with friends, so we avoided going out instead of trying to explain our lack of money.  I regret that I didn’t keep my friends closer while we were so afraid. I miss them. These years have been a lonely time, but hardship brought my husband and me closer to each other. When you may lose everything but each other, that relationship becomes paramount. I hope my friends understand.

When I was thinking of how I would write this post to explain what this time in our lives was like, I realized I couldn’t. No one who hasn’t weathered that kind of storm can possibly know how it felt, and I really hope others don’t find out. What I could do, however, is share a song with you, one I first learned about through my brother. It is a song called “Gratitude” that speaks of learning to be grateful even in the midst of hardship. Quite a while ago he told me about the Christian artist, Nichole Nordeman who wrote this song. She is a wonderful songwriter, and this song comes from her album Woven and Spun. I have always loved the tune and the words, but not until my family went through The Great Recession, did I understand the words’ deeper meaning.

My hubby and I are not out of the woods yet, but we see a glimmer of light in the distance. It is now time to take a deep breath and give thanks for all we have, all God has given us, and reconnect with our friends. It has taken us nearly eight years to climb out of the hole we found ourselves in, but I think our luck is changing. “We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream in abundance or in need,” and I’m so very grateful.

Advertisements

Leading With Values

I was checking my email today after being away from home for a week without my computer and ran across a suggestion from Twitter to follow Geoff Talbot. When I looked him up, I found his wonderful blog called Seven Sentences: Daily Inspiration for Creative People. His blog appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First, most of his posts are only seven sentences long, not a lot of time lost reading on a busy day, and second, I learn something when I read his posts. The post I read today made me think about something that has been bothering me.

He said, “It is the curse of our times that we are led so frequently by our emotions and that we lead so infrequently with our values.” You can read the whole post here: http://sevensentences.com/2013/06/06/be-of-good-character/

I agree with him. I think we react with our emotions often without thinking, and I think the media has caught on and exploit people in the midst of their emotions. If you’ve ever been in a difficult situation, you know you need some privacy to sort things out, to figure out what you think and process what happened according to your values so that you can make sense of the situation. You do not need someone to shove a microphone in your face and record for the world your “reaction” to an event.

In our Youtube generation and digital age, I think people don’t value their privacy, and that’s a shame. In fact, I think people have abandoned values and principles as old-fashioned and outdated. Our society seems to value “emotion” more than it does thoughtful reasoning or prayerfully considered action.

Think back to nearly any tragedy covered in the news. When disaster strikes as in the tornados in Moore, Oklahoma, the media traversed the area to document the “emotion” and “reactions” of the survivors while they were still raw and incredibly vulnerable. What they found with most of the people there, however, was that their emotion was apparent (How could it not be?) but most of the people they interviewed were governed by a solid foundation in their faith. They knew, because they had faith, that God would help them recover from the destruction all around them. They generally didn’t bemoan their condition, they didn’t declare themselves victims, and they had compassion for those who were in worse shape than they were at that moment. In fact, it seemed to me that the media were a bit nonplussed at the lack of “emotion” they were able to exploit!

This documenting people’s emotions and reactions to an event has become the norm for the media, an exploitation of people which to me is troubling. What troubles me further is the willingness of most people to allow such an intrusion in their lives. The media ask questions of vulnerable people trying to get them to bare their souls to increase ratings on national TV. They ask prying, inconsiderate questions designed to elicit tears. And when the person they are interviewing succumbs to tears on camera, the media zooms in for a close up and reacts with a voyeuristic glee that they were able to push someone to cry on TV. What would we call someone who did this outside of the media? Think about that for a minute. Would you allow someone to question your family or your best friend in such a way? And yet, the media continue to do it. I find prying into the lives and privacy of people who have experienced tragedy absolutely appalling. When did reaction and emotion become news anyway?

As for the news anchors who adopt a sad face in any tragedy and say their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims? Well, forgive me if I’m skeptical, but I wonder if these people actually do pray. What they do in their broadcasts nightly is cover and, in fact, support the destruction of Christian principles and values in our country for the sake of political correctness. What they do is malign those who publicly espouse their Christianity. Do you doubt that? Just take a look at Tim Tebow, for example.  I believe the media do their best to promote and support policies that run counter to the traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and values that have been the underpinnings of our society for two hundred years.

So yes, I believe what Geoff Talbot says. I don’t know if he would support what his words inspired in this post, but I think it’s still incredibly important that we who do hold our values highly and try to live our lives according to them defend our stance and continue to assert our way of thinking. It is quickly disappearing. We are being cowed into submission. Daily we see ourselves being labeled as divisive, bigoted, small-minded, and non-inclusive. I could go on, but I think you understand what I mean.  We should all try to think through our emotions before we become fodder for the news media. And we should lead with our values.

A Magical Moment

Often I find living so far from my family difficult. Southerners are not a roaming people, at least they don’t travel up north very often. So I have been the one to make trips back and forth to see my family. One very important trip, however, was one I didn’t make in time. I didn’t make it home to see my daddy before he died. Many father’s days have come and gone since then, but I never forget him or how much I loved him. And I will always regret not being with him when he passed away into God’s hands. But God, I’m sure at my father’s insistence, granted me one blessing: he allowed my daddy to communicate with me after he passed away.

After my daddy died, I felt his presence near me several times but mostly in dreams or some dreamlike state in which consciousness floats just out of reach but sleep recedes. The last time I had one of those episodes, I woke with a terrible longing, missing my dad like he had only just passed.

Though we had disagreements regularly before he took ill, we seemed to have made our peace in the last couple of years of his life. We talked often on the phone and shared a love of conservative politics and good Southern food, especially peaches and barbeque. We exchanged recipes, and I treasure those, especially his barbeque sauce recipe. That one I can only make here in Wisconsin in warm weather because I have to open windows so the vinegar doesn’t sear our sinuses.

The other loves we shared were animals and gardening. I’m so thankful he was around when my two beloved cats died within a week of each other at age 16. He knew how I felt and, though he couldn’t hold me across the miles, his love transmitted itself through the phone lines in that soft Southern drawl of his. He was my daddy; I needed him, and he was there.

Daddy was a doctor, a healer and a nurturer when he obeyed his better instincts. He was also an animal lover and a gardener. He fed hummingbirds from numerous feeders on his deck at his house on Lake Sinclair and would name the different varieties. He especially loved the ruby throated ones. He grew azaleas, hostas, hollyhocks, and daisies among other flowers at his house and even sent me some of his hardier perennials which I grew in my gardens at our old house.

It was in that garden amongst his flowers when I experienced a magical moment. After waking from a disturbingly realistic dream about my dad not wanting to die but being called to heaven anyway, I felt as though I had lost him all over again. Knowing I wouldn’t go back to sleep, I rose to find it was already almost six o’clock, nearly full light. I put on my scarlet bathrobe and shearling slippers then headed down the hallway to the stairs.

I turned to grab the hand rail to go down, but my foot slipped and I missed the step bumping down the first three or four stairs on my rear end. Upset as I was by the dream, I started to cry because the fall had scared me and it hurt. Prairie Dawn, my chocolate Lab, came to investigate, consoling me by licking my face, so I decided to let her out for her morning turn about the yard. I sat on the front porch steps feeling sorry for myself. I missed Daddy horribly and put my head on my knees.

Over my sniffles I heard a humming noise, low at first but getting louder. I looked up to see an iridescent blue hummingbird with very dark eyes flitting from one flower to the next up the curved walkway toward me. I sat very still. It came closer until he hovered within a foot of my face. He hovered there looking at me, and I was overcome with the feeling that Daddy was trying to communicate with me, to tell me not to grieve, that he was okay. As soon as that thought entered my mind, the hummingbird flew away without stopping at a single flower.

I stared after it and felt such a rush of love and peaceful gratitude, like God’s hand had reached out and touched my heart. For a moment time stopped; the sun shone golden through the crisp September air and lit the purple flowers of the hostas and set the purple cone flowers aglow. Just as suddenly, the spell was broken. Prairie Dawn jumped up the steps of the porch and ambled over to me. The world was with me again.

I thank God for the moment he granted me, the peace he allowed me to feel knowing my daddy was safely with him. I couldn’t be with my daddy when he died and I have always felt I should have been. But at that moment I knew Daddy didn’t mind. He knew I loved him, and God allowed him to remind me just how much he loved me. I know I’ll never stop missing him. He and I were connected through life, through some mystical quality that manifests itself through heredity, through blood, eye color, particular gestures. We were connected spiritually through love, through God and His tender mercies.

God allows us to remember the good things about our loved ones when they die, and the bad just don’t seem to matter. I believe what remains of a person when they die is pure love, the essence of God which we discover quite by accident and which blesses us and renews us, a benediction and a promise of paradise, that mystical other world of which we can only dream.

I Will Not Be Silent

Alliance Defending Freedom provide slides from the Power Point presentation used by the U.S. Army Reserve in training soldiers on religious extremism.

I’ve been silent lately, not one of my usual characteristics, but much has been in the news which has troubled me. I’ve been thinking and not talking; researching and soul searching, not writing my blog. Today I decided my silence must end. I don’t like feeling my point of view is old-fashioned or outdated, like it hasn’t “evolved” with the times or with public opinion, that grand arbiter of what is right and wrong these days. Despite public opinion, I believe in absolutes, in right and wrong, in morals based on biblical principles versus moral relativism. In that vein, I would like to get a few things off my chest. Please bear with me. I’m not trying to offend; I’m trying to bear witness to truths I live by that still have relevance in our society but which are under attack every day.

 

My unease and feelings of defensiveness have grown recently with the Supreme Court cases concerning “gay marriage” and DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, not because they were taken up by the courts but because there was so much vitriol covered in the media against the idea of traditional marriage being between a man and a woman. My uneasiness grew after the Newtown tragedy and the push for gun control. I am puzzled by the push for more restrictive gun laws when we already have effective gun laws in place if they were enforced. We mustn’t forget that an unarmed citizenry is vulnerable; our founders knew this and ensured we would be able to protect ourselves. Hitler disarmed the people of his regime under the guise of public safety. We mustn’t allow our lawmakers to infringe on our Second Amendment rights under the same argument.

 

These two issues have caused me to think a lot about our rights, but today I read something that made my blood boil and caused me to wonder what kind of country the United States is becoming and what is happening at the government level. It frightens me. Here is an excerpt from what I read: “A U.S. Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training brief describes “Evangelical Christianity” and “Catholicism” as examples of “religious extremism,” according to the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, who shared a copy of the documents with The Christian Post.”
Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/evangelical-christianity-catholicism-labeled-extremist-in-army-presentation-93353/#QFzCbzK8YQlrwc2A.99 .

 

I realize we live in an age where political correctness rules the day, but in the last several years, I have felt increasing pressure regarding my religion and what it represents. You see, I am an evangelical Christian and am completely unashamed of the label. In fact, I wear it proudly. I believe in the Ten Commandments. I believe in the Golden Rule and the Great Commission. I believe in the promise of Easter, eternal life because Jesus died for the sins of humanity. As Jesus said in the book of John, chapter 14 verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Now, I suppose, my beliefs and those of my fellow Evangelicals and the Catholic Church are considered extreme by the federal government, a troubling development.

 

I suppose we’re in good company. After all, since its beginnings Christianity has been controversial. Beginning with the death of Christ himself, people were ridiculed, maligned, and sometimes put to death for their beliefs in one god, not the many gods the Romans believed in or the lack of belief in God so apparent in our society today. Christians believe no matter if they are persecuted and maligned, however, because we have faith which comes from God. In the early days of Christianity, Christians met in secret to worship and commune with one another. They were treated as criminals in the second and third centuries by the Romans. Why would that be? Why did the Romans believe Christians posed a threat? Perhaps it is because we believe we were created in God’s image and won’t settle for only what a government is willing give us and to limit us to. We are meant for great things because we know God and believe in Him. And here’s the kicker: we want to share that wonderful truth with EVERYONE.

 

I thought today we had moved beyond labeling groups who do much more good than harm as extremists, but I realize in our media culture we are exposed to alternate viewpoints, barraged by them, in fact, on a daily basis. But I believe society is hungry for what Christianity offers. We wonder why children are angry and kill each other with guns when the institutions of marriage and the family, the bedrock of their young lives, is daily under assault. Children are told in school that their family, their way of life, their values are just some of the many values which are valid ways of thinking and believing in today’s world. Christians and people who believe in traditional family values are belittled and attacked and accused of being bigoted. What those who attack fail to understand is that Christians can’t and don’t change their beliefs because public opinion changes. We base our beliefs on The Bible and the words we find within it because we believe those words to be divinely inspired. Those don’t change as society does. The Bible doesn’t “evolve” because a poll indicates that what is within it is no longer “popular.”

 

Society must be careful about demonizing Christians or any other group of people. The lessons of the Holocaust are not terribly far in our past. Some people who survived that horror are still alive today, and they remember how it began. Hitler didn’t round up the Jews right away. He classified them, marginalized them and demonized them. He courted public opinion, blamed them for the ills of society, took away their rights slowly but surely. Genocides begin with classification. That is what this presentation by the Army did to evangelical Christians and Catholics. It classified us as extremists and listed us just above the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Quaeda in the presentation.

 

Around the world Christians are persecuted every day. Check out this watch list, “an annual survey of religious liberty conditions of Christians around the world. http://www.opendoorsuk.org/news/documents/WWL_2013.pdf  It measures the degree of freedom of a Christians to live out their faith in five spheres of life – private, family, community, congregation and national life – plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence.” It is published by Open Doors, an international charity serving persecuted Christians in over 50 countries around the world.

 

The fact is Christians are persecuted everywhere, and the verbal attacks against Christians and some attacks against churches here in the United States and the western world have increased. Of course, you must look to find these stories in the news. They aren’t widely reported. We Christians in America should be wary of how we are represented by others and vigilant about our freedom. What we believe may once again be counter-culture, as it was in biblical times, but our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and founded in part for people to be able to worship as they see fit. Our laws are based upon the Ten Commandments. Our freedom is dependent upon a populace who value the ideals and tenets of that freedom and understand that we are responsible for our liberty.

Our founders understood this. Daniel Webster who was a senator and also Secretary of State said, “[T]he Christian religion – its general principles – must ever be regarded among us as the foundation of civil society. Whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens.” Benjamin Franklin said, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and His religion as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see. And finally, Thomas Jefferson said, “The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.”

I don’t intend to be silent about what I believe, and I will not allow others to silence me. I won’t sit idly by while Christianity and the traditional morals and values which have been the foundation of a successful society in the United States are maligned by those who don’t subscribe to them or wish to marginalize them because they believe them not to be inclusive or worse, bigoted. I know I am right about Christianity. It is not an extremist religion despite what the Army has written in its presentation. It is a religion which welcomes all who want peace and salvation. Remember what Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I am doing something about this. I won’t allow my values and beliefs to be marginalized. I hope others will join me in protecting our religion and our values and beliefs which have stood the test of centuries as good and inclusive despite what is said today.

 

 

Sure Cure for a Shopping Hangover

I have a shopping hangover, and I’m not proud of it. Black Friday and Cyber Monday caused it, making me feel like I had to be part of the rush to get the best deals. Would they be gone if I had waited? Probably, but does that really matter? What has me troubled is this hangover doesn’t affect my body so much as my spirit. Judging from the news coverage of the number of shoppers Thanksgiving weekend, I’m sure I am not the only one who felt this way. Watching the Black Friday coverage on the news was enough to make me sick to my stomach. Has the Christmas season really become this commercialized today?  I know there has always been a focus on the commercial aspects of gift buying, and I realize with the economy still in the tank, retailers wanted and needed to have a great kickoff to the holidays. I understand that, but what has shopping at all hours, and for hours, done to the average person’s psyche? Does anyone else feel used up and repulsed by the buying frenzy?

Something strange but wonderful has happened to me in the past few months. I’ve become accustomed to a slower pace of life and to NOT shopping. Since my husband just landed a new job, I was looking forward to being able to spend a little bit of money this year for presents, but I wasn’t anticipating the all out assault on the senses retailers have unleashed on the public. What I also didn’t expect was how easy it is to get caught up in thinking I need what they are hawking, especially when the deal only lasts for two hours at the crack of dawn. So I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself. I did some soul searching and realized I don’t need all these items I thought I wanted. Because, when you get down to it, they are just things. Will those “things” actually improve my life or will having one more thing actually complicate my life?

When we didn’t have any money a couple of months ago, I missed being able to go to the stores to buy what I needed. Now that I can buy what I need, I realize just how little I actually want. This past weekend I realized just how caught up I was in the deals which seemed too good to pass up at first glance. That first seductive glance is the problem for us as consumers, but the point of the constant bombardment by advertisers. They appeal to our hunter gatherer instincts of fear of scarcity. We don’t want to be without, so they keep tempting us over and over with each commercial and with each email alert, upping the ante each time. As a result, we don’t often take the time to determine whether what we are seeing is what we need or simply what we want, an impulse we might regret later on.

At the end of the day on Cyber Monday, I felt exhausted. I had been trying to find exactly what my family had asked for and also find an item or two for myself since the sales were so good. (I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit that last part.) When I went to bed that night, I realized I had wasted most of a day I will never get back doing nothing more than plotting how to spend money! I had little to show for the amount of time I spent looking and comparing. In fact, I’m not even finished with my shopping. What I have started to do today is delete most of the emails I receive from retailers, and I’m throwing out many of the catalogues I love looking at because they satisfy the urge to shop without my having to spend any money. I’m removing temptation.

Something else I am doing is supporting Small Business Saturday. This past Saturday I shopped at two retailers here in my town, and you know what? I enjoyed myself. Not only did I find some great deals, but I also renewed ties with people in my community, both merchants and patrons of the stores I went to. Those small businesses are trying to make a living without spending millions on advertising. What they do instead is to spend time…on their customers. They take the time to talk to you and understand what you are looking for, and if they don’t have it, they will suggest something equally wonderful or will try to find it for you, even if it isn’t in their stores! I went home satisfied and pleased with my purchases and knew I had made connections with the people I encountered.

Despite seeing and hearing commercials for Christmas shopping for weeks now, I know the Christmas season doesn’t last long. In fact, I can’t believe it is almost December first already. The season’s parties kick off in a week at my friend Barb’s annual cookie exchange. I have several other parties to attend, but I intend to continue my slower pace of life, to savor the moments of the season, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.

For me, the moments I treasure focus on the true meaning of Christmas, not the commercialization of the holiday. The season truly begins this weekend at my church for the first Sunday in Advent. On that day we will begin a ritual shared by millions of Christians for hundreds of years, the ritual of preparing ourselves and waiting for the Son of God to be born. Every Sunday until Christmas each part of the story of Christ’s birth, each hymn, each prayer will impart anticipation rather than anxiety, peace rather than impatience. Each service will fill me up with the love of God and leave me content.

We are in control of what we allow the Christmas season to be about. This year especially I am aware that I can wait for some of the things I thought I wanted. I will instead prepare my heart for the season. I am choosing how to spend my days this holiday savoring the moments and counting my blessings, reflecting with gratitude on what I already have not what I might acquire. I hope you’ll take time to slow down and spend your time at a pace that brings you peace with friends and family who love you. In this season of Advent, I hope you ponder what Christmas is all about, a sure cure for the shopping hangover.