Don't let your but get in the way

Any mother who has ever had whiny kids has learned to hate the word "but." It seems to be the instant response to any request or command I make. Me: You need to pick up your dirty socks. My kids: But I can't! I have to do my homework! Five minutes later, I'll remind them to do their homework. But I can't. I have to pick up my dirty socks!

Unfortunately, this attitude sticks with many of us, even as adults.

Try these on for size:
I know I should serve God…
…but Sunday's my only day to sleep in. I work all week long and need a break.
…but I don't have time. My to-do list is a mile long.
…but I don't feel like it. I’ve had a bad week.
…but what will everyone think of me? It’s not cool to be a Christian.
…but I don't want to read my Bible — I’m more interested in the new People magazine that came in the mail today.
…but I can't afford it — tithes are too much, and we need new tires and gas prices keep going up.
…but He doesn't need my help. He's God. What do I have to offer that he can’t do for himself? God can handle things on his own.
…but somebody else can do it. They’ll be better at it than I am.
…but I just don't feel like it. I don't feel like being social, putting on decent clothes, curling my hair and having to smile at people.

It's true; I don't always feel like it. I’m not qualified. And it’s not always easy. With all I've been through lately, I could probably get away with using that as an excuse. However, I need to stop letting my but get in the way. Our pastor first preached this to us years ago, and it was so catchy that we made t-shirts with that emblazoned on them. This morning, though, I started thinking about my but again. Yes, I've gained weight over the years and I'm not the size I want to be. That butt gets in the way of wearing a size 12. But the other but is so much more problematic. We need to remove that negative word from our vocabularies, unless we pair it with another, very powerful word: but God.

I may be tired, but God never sleeps. I may be weak, but God is strong. I may not feel like getting up and getting ready, but God was able to carry his cross and suffer, so this is nothing compared to that. I may not know the right thing to do, but God always does. I may not know what to pray, but God intercedes for us. I may not have enough energy or motivation, I may have many failings, I may simply be in a bad mood, and maybe I am going through genuine tragedies in my own life. All that may be true, but this is more true: God is still God. He is still worthy. He is still powerful. He is still mighty, and benevolent, and filled with grace and forgiveness. I may not want to do my part sometimes, but God is always, always worth the effort. Man fails, man flees, and man destroys, but God delivers, God protects, and God restores. He rewards my sacrifices. No more buts, no more flimsy excuses. From now on, I’ll continue to remember the phrase I can trust: but God.

Marking it up

 Important disclaimer: I am fully aware of the fact that I am, have always been, and likely will always be a geek.

I couldn’t wait for college. All the usual reasons — getting away from the small town I lived in and my parents and all the people who thought they had a right to know my business. But it wasn’t just about running away — it was about running to. To new friends, new knowledge, and new experiences. Oh, and also because I’d heard you could write in your books.

Until then, writing in books had always been forbidden, probably because the books didn’t belong to me. I rented from the school, borrowed from the library. Everything had to be taken care of. In college, though, I got to buy my own textbooks. Some of them were used, already filled with other people’s notes, and some were immaculate. I bought the pristine ones and then, somewhat giddily, filled them with my own marks. Highlights in multiple hues. Notes in the margins, stars, arrows, circles. It wasn’t just because I was an art major and liked to draw in pretty colors. It was because it was a way of interacting with the material, a way to remember it, come to understand it, to acknowledge and process what was important. A way to make it mine. I liked being able to flip through and, at a glance, see what mattered. I could remember that, even if I didn’t remember all the specific details, I put a big green asterisk right next to the paragraph, so I could skim through and — voila! — find what I needed.

I’m the same way with my Bible. Yes, of course it is a holy book, worthy of respect. But don’t be mistaken and think, just because my favorite copy is dog-eared, somewhat crumpled and covered in marks going every which way in the margins, that it shows less-than-proper respect. Au contraire! I can hardly read any book, especially the Good Book, without a pen in my hand anymore. If something touches me, I mark it. If something isn’t clear, I question it. If something reminds me of or refers me to something else, I circle it, draw arrows to connect the sections. If something I read speaks to my current situation, I date it. If someone else teaches me something about it, I put their name next to my notes. By doing all these things, I’m attempting to imprint the ideas into my soul. I’m hoping to become physically involved, not remain aloof and separate. I’m hoping to wrestle with it, as David did. I’m hoping to be consumed by it, changed by it, inspired by it, touched by it. I’m hoping to make it mine.       

Life lessons learned in the candy drawer

(Essay appeared in The Paper of Montgomery County's Montgomery Memories, July 2011)

I would only risk the adventure when no one else was around. "Mah" (my grandmother) would be getting her hair set, and “Dot” (so dubbed by my toddler self) would be napping. The lessons start before I even get into the drawer. Take time to take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Work hard, and then let your body recover.

The drawer was on the end, next to the fridge. The kitchen was always spotless, with its stainless steel appliances, way-cool wall oven I coveted even before I cooked, and percolating coffee pot, disassembled to dry before being put back into service gurgling up the next pot. The windows butting up to the yellow Formica countertops opened to birdfeeders, which were kept stocked year-round. Appreciate nature, and take care of it. On the plaque in the corner, a folk art man labored with an axe and then propped his feet up by the fire between the words “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” Never shy away from hard work.

No one was around; it was time. I’d ease open the drawer, wide and shallow, on its well-oiled track. Still, it made a soft clicking noise as the wheels turned. Rarely was there any chocolate or “good” stuff. Instead, there were packets of Chiclets, smooth and shiny pieces of gum that slid out of their envelopes to click lightly and coolly against my teeth. There might be a lemon drop, or a butterscotch drop, or a Starburst. Or, on a really lucky day, maybe even a chocolate after-dinner mint brought home from a restaurant. (Waste not, want not.) All the candies were small — not my favorites, but serviceable in a pinch — individual, portion-controlled items with a rather limited selection. This says to me that it’s OK to indulge once in a while, but in a controlled way. Set limits. All things in moderation. It was much easier to find bowls of grapefruit and orange slices, or cut-glass trays of celery and carrot sticks, than it was to find sweets. These foods are the things our bodies need. No fast food sacks balled up in the trash, just home-cooked meats and veggies and big glasses of milk. Even the desserts tended to be fruit pies and lemon bars. Forget processed foods. Eat right, and when you need a little bit of something sweet, have just that: a little bit.

Next, I’d shuffle through the coupons. My grandparents worked hard, invested wisely, and lived frugally. They had money, so I could never understand why on earth they kept coupons for 10 cents off a roll of paper towels. She didn’t need 10 cents. Why bother? But my questions tell you as much about me as about my grandparents. I don’t have an inherent understanding of saving, living responsibly, and not taking anything for granted. Frugality is something I have to work at, but — after living through the Depression and starting their lives together with nothing — they understood the value of money. They worked hard for it and did not waste it. If they spent money on something, it either had educational value, philanthropic value, or practical value. They knew at their cores the importance of being a good steward of all that the Lord had given, and they lived that way daily.

Next, matches. They had a little trash burner, walls of concrete block with chicken wire on front. Every day Mah would go through the house and empty the decorative trash containers. One bin in the kitchen was reserved for cans and bottles, and everything that could be reused, was. Another container was for biodegradable trash (whatever couldn’t be fed to the dogs), which was put out in a compost pile near the garden to enrich the soil in which they grew vegetables. Paper grocery bags were stacked neatly behind the refuse containers, ready to be used to transport dried flowers (also from the garden) or protect the driveway from the fresh paint being applied to a table (take care of what you have). And plastic bags — bread bags that had been washed and dried — hung from the door to the trash closet.

But all the other trash was taken out of the house and burned. Daily. They inherently understood that everything has a use. When it can be reused, it should be. Some things need to be kept separate from others. And we need to regularly purge what we don’t need or what isn’t good for us — get it out of the house, out of our lives, and eliminate it once and for all.

In the left-hand corner of the drawer was a mess of twist ties. Every loaf of bread my grandma bought contributed another spindly piece of paper-covered wire to the tangled pile in the drawer. When something needed to remain closed, she made sure it did, and she tied it tightly. (The same held true for gossip, and secrets.) She remained prepared for any eventuality, making use of anything at her disposal. And she knew to be responsible with even the smallest of details.

And, last, its festive silvery wrapper spiraling out of control, was the always-present partial roll of Wint-o-Green Lifesavers. In other words, when you find something that works, you should stick with it. Don’t change for the sake of change. You may think Lifesavers would fall into the candy category, but I hold them separate for one reason. These mints were not there to satisfy a sweet tooth. They’re functional, and tried and true, and they’re there because you can never, ever go wrong with fresh breath. So with fresh breath and a lot of love, I send mental kisses to my grandparents, who are alive no longer, the wonderful couple who managed to enrich my life immeasurably simply by leaving the candy drawer unguarded.