Word of the Week: Should

I’ll spare you all the definitions, but the most common usage of this rather uninteresting little word is to express obligation, propriety or expediency. It’s this usage that I hear all too often, and the one I’m trying to eliminate from my vocabulary:

  • I “should” call her.
  • I “should” finish that laundry and start dinner.
  • I “should” apologize.
  • I “should” go to that event.
  • I “should” exercise.

I think this word denotes a sense of powerlessness. It hints at the best of intentions, bound up in resistance. It implies that something outside of me is really in control of me. And it’s void of desire and purpose.

I can’t imagine Jesus being governed by a sense of obligation as he went about his daily life:

  • I should heal that guy.
  • I should forgive her.
  • I should point out that great fishing spot to those guys.
  • I should calm those seas before they swallow us whole.
  • I should go up to Jerusalem now.

He lived out his years on earth in willing obedience to the Father. He lived his life, not driven by obligation, but rather drawn to do his Father’s will, in each and every moment.

Why would I let my days be governed by such a tiny little word? Perhaps listening to what I’m really thinking when I say “should” might be helpful: Is that a voice from the past I’m hearing in those words of obligation? And if so, why am I still giving that voice power in my life? Or am I resisting doing some task? And if so, why?

I have no easy remedy to propose for this “should-itus.” I think it’s about a process of listening and discovering why I do what I do. I want to be motivated by a sense of grace and gratitude, to live with intention and purpose. And to be gentle with myself when the “shoulds” are screaming too loudly in my ear . . . to hear them as reminders to reconnect to God and his purpose, in each and every¬† moment.

So I’m interested to hear . . . are you affected by “should-itus?” If so, how do you counteract that?

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A Composted Life

The idea of composting has intrigued me for years. As a kid, I remember the five gallon bucket on my gram’s side porch to which she was always adding egg shells, potato peels and coffee grounds. It stunk and was often in danger of being overturned and raided by pesky raccoons. But her efforts were rewarded when the bucket reached capacity and she dumped it in the corner of her garden, mixing it in with decaying leaves and grass clippings to enrich the soil. Gardeners often refer to compost as black gold, and if you garden, you know there’s nothing like rich, black dirt.

For those of you un-gardeners who may be reading, composting is basically nature’s way of recycling decomposing organic material. Composting is what happens naturally in the woods, for example, where fallen leaves and dead plants are consumed back into the soil, providing rich nutrients for future growing seasons. Backyard composting allows us to accelerate this natural life cycle and use it to our advantage in our gardens. Starting a compost pile requires just a few things: a container of sorts, organic materials and air. Hence the yogurt container on my counter full of kitchen scraps; hence the big black plastic bin behind my shed full of said scraps, grass clippings and dead leaves.

Intrigued as I am with the parallels between life and gardening, lately I’ve been wondering if composting does not relate more closely to life. How many of our life experiences that we may view as garbage actually have great organic value? Garbage stinks – and so do some of our life experiences. Relational failures, poor decisions, unwise choices – we all have some garbage in our lives. But I believe God does not waste anything, and in his providence, I believe he wants to incorporate these experiences into our future growth. We need not turn our back on them.

What if, instead of putting our past – anything from yesterday’s untimely words to decades old choices and pains – out for the garbage pickup, we were able take a closer look at things. What if we could give ourselves an appropriate distance from these experiences, trusting God to turn them under gently, enfolding them into his grace? What might God be able to bring forth from what we consider only fit for the landfill?

Last year for my birthday, my sweet friend gifted me with (among other things) the beautiful reminder that “God returns our wasted years,” and that NOTHING is ever wasted in God’s kingdom. I need that reminder often.

I think God is definitely in the composting business. Don’t you agree?

Framers

I Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I took a piece of artwork to a frame shop the other day to be matted and mounted. The whole experience was somewhat frustrating, especially when I went to pick it up, and the clerk handed me my artwork, the cut mat, and a piece of mounting board. Hm. I thought the price included mounting; do-it-yourself mounting was not what I had in mind. After a few clueless inquiries on my part, she obliged and mounted it for me.

But most frustrating was the shop owner’s strange disinterest in my project. Not that I expected oohs and aahs, but in my experience, framers usually delight in helping customers select mats and frames that will best set off their piece.¬† They have an eye for presentation, and their perspective is valued by the artist.

I couldn’t help but relate this to life and relationships. We all have opportunity to be “framers” in the lives of others from time to time. We can, of course, remain aloof and disinterested, refusing to look beyond the walls of our own existence. Or we can help people see the true beauty of their lives by faithfully listening and offering back honest reflections and encouragement. When we take the time to encourage others, when we appreciate their unique strengths and help them see God at work in their lives, we are, in a sense, framing their lives for them.

Father, may I always be ready to help others see and appreciate your creative handiwork in their lives.

(A postscript: I worked on this piece several weeks ago, and then I couldn’t find it. Oops – I forgot I had submitted for a contest for a writing conference I attended last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised it placed in the contest, and am pleased now to share it here!)

For This I Prayed

We know as believers that God does not always answer our prayers as WE see fit, but rather as HE sees fit. We learn, hopefully, to recognize the no’s as well as the yeses, and even to accept the seasons where no answers seem forthcoming as times to wait on God. But the truth is, God does often answer our prayers in the affirmative, especially as we grow and our desires are more aligned with his. How often though, do we move on too quickly instead of lingering in the beauty and grace of that answered prayer?

Hannah prayed fervently for a son, a prayer which God heard and answered with the birth of Samuel. Her response to God’s blessing is stirring. She remembers not only what she prayed for, but also the commitment she made, to give her son back to God. We might think that’s a tall order and an over-the-top commitment. How could she pray all those years for a son only to turn him over to strangers at such a tender age? But her prayer shows she was living in God’s response to her prayers. Following through on her commitment seems to deepen her connection to God.

I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. I Samuel 1:27-28a

For years, I prayed to be able to do life differently, i.e. to quit work and stay home. Write. Cook. Clean. Garden. Etc. And now that’s exactly what I’m doing. Only sometimes my attitude is nothing like Hannah’s! I find myself complaining about the very thing I prayed for, as unforeseen obstacles present themselves, and the path is sometimes not what I expected. Life is funny like that. But Hannah’s story inspired me to present this season of my life to God, with a new and fervent prayer:

I prayed for this life, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give this life to the LORD.

I long to linger in the reality that God has heard and answered my prayers. And I want to live deeply connected to this God who holds the desires of my heart in his hand.

Thinking the Best of Others

I started reading I Samuel this morning – a change from the Gospels and Psalms. I’ve always been touched by Hannah’s deep passion and her willingness to be transparent before God. But today something else leaped out at me as I read Eli’s response to Hannah’s prayer:

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.” I Samuel 1:12-14

What? Here you have a church leader accusing someone outright of drunkenness! To his credit, he addresses her directly. Beyond that, I couldn’t help feeling appalled at Eli’s attitude. Didn’t he know anything of Hannah’s story? After all, she’d been coming with her husband to the temple for several years. She was a regular, and a faithful one at that. Did he ever look at her face and see the pain and sorrow there? Was it not obvious to him that she was barren – a great source of shame and sadness for women in those days? And she was in the temple . . . in the place of prayer. But instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt, he assumes the worst – she must be drunk.

I’m sure I can be blind to reality at times, but I would always rather err on the side of grace. I have found that, in the absence of facts, our imaginations are quick to rush in and fill in the gaps with details which may not be true. What stories are we telling ourselves?

May God give us the wisdom and humility to extend grace to one another, the same grace he has so generously bestowed on us first. By refusing to pass quick judgment, by wanting to believe the best of others, we make space in our hearts for love to be our first response.

Why I Love Lent

I will admit to feeling a little smug in years past, when friends would show up at work on Ash Wednesday with smudges on their foreheads, and talk about what they were giving up for Lent. After all, I knew the truth: God did not require any kind of self-denial on my part in order to gain his favor.

I still believe God doesn’t require that kind of self-denial, which is probably more self-serving in the long run (i.e. to get something from God). But a few years ago, I distinctly felt God prompting me to participate in Lent. Huh? Understanding that perhaps, God wanted me to identify with those friends somehow, I “gave up” something for forty days. I think it was lattes. I had no idea what I was doing, really. All I knew was that I shouldn’t discuss it with anyone; I felt strongly that my Lenten observation was to remain private. Little did I know it was my own proud heart God wanted to address.

That first Lenten fast opened the way for God to speak into my life in amazing ways over the past few years. I love Lent, for the way helps me create space to listen to God. I love the hope it brings, smack-dab in the middle of winter, the season when of necessity, things around us die. Ushered in on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded by ashes smudged on my forehead in the shape of the cross, that I too will die and return to dust someday. I need the reminder of my frail humanity, my brokenness and sin. But Lent is a forward-looking season, as it invites us to do some spring-cleaning in our hearts. We can, with David, pause to reflect on sinful attitudes and behaviors that have cluttered our hearts, and rest in the assurance that God always stands ready to forgive when we open ourselves to him. When Holy Week rolls around, I am struck afresh with the realization that those were my sins that nailed Jesus to the cross, and I revel in the depth of his forgiveness.

And just as Lent is a season, so is Easter. As the disciples lived into a growing awareness that their crucified Lord was now risen and among them, so we too ought to linger in the reality for more than a day. He is risen! He is risen indeed. And as Easter seems to usher in spring, and spring gives way to summer and before we know it, we find ourselves on the eve of Advent, I am reminded over and over again that God holds all things in his hands, including my life.

Our God is a celebratory God, and we, being made in his image, are also given to celebrating and commemorating. But in recent decades, some of our commemorations have almost entirely excluded a celebration of things that really matter. One only has to look in the Sunday paper to see how our culture commemorates days deemed important: the next big sale! True, there is no specific exhortation in Scripture to observe Lent (although practices such as fasting and repentance and confession are very much rooted in Scripture). But neither is there any exhortation to observe Christmas or birthdays! But for years, the church has endeavored to remember and celebrate the life of Christ through various seasons. By entering into these seasons, we pause to reflect on the ongoing life and work of Christ. And in doing so, we find ourselves rooted more deeply into God’s great story.

(For more on the seasons of the church year, check out The Circle of Seasons. I just finished this book, and although this is not exactly a review of the book, it was influential in this post, which I’ve been working on forever!)

Psalm of the Month

Last year, our Bible study group took a wonderful journey through the Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134. These psalms formed the prayers of the people of Israel as they journeyed to Jerusalem several times yearly to observe the feast days. As believers today we are not required to make such pilgrimages; nevertheless, these psalms speak such relevant truth into our journey through life.

Since the study, I’ve been going back and “living in” a different psalm each month, often one of these Psalms of Ascent. It’s been great to take my time, reading and relishing them and letting their words inform my prayers. I’ve enjoyed journaling, and doodling about them in my art journal. Sometimes I paraphrase a passage, often inserting my own name. I like reading them in different versions. I’ve latched onto bite-sized phrases, and in some cases, ended up memorizing an entire psalm, just from reading it every day for a month.

I mention this because from time to time, people mention to me that they’re “stuck” when it comes to their time in Scripture, something I can relate to. Perhaps you’ve finished a study or a read through one of the books of the Bible. Maybe the daily reading plan you’ve followed for years just isn’t clicking with you right now. I would highly recommend this idea of “hanging out” in a psalm for an extended period of time. While I’m usually reading something else as well (I’m currently reading through Acts), there’s nothing quite like taking your time and letting the words of Scripture soak into your life. You know you’re on to something when you wake up in the morning with the words of a psalm on your mind as prayer. Although there’s value in many methods of Scripture reading, I’m not sure why we feel the need to always move so quickly through Scripture, when sometimes the Spirit of God may just be inviting us to linger.