Random Acts of Kindness

The United States is one of only a few countries in the world that sets aside one day a year to celebrate acts of kindness. February 17th this year was “Random Acts of Kindness Day”.

I don’t have anything against Random Acts of Kindness Day, it’s kind of fun. But as Christians, we have lived for centuries with an age-old call to serve our neighbor. So the urgency to be kind should be so rooted in our souls, that having a day set aside for it should seem…redundant. Kind of like “National Chocolate Day”. Why? Why do we need that? (Every day is chocolate day at my house.)

But performing loving acts of kindness is a little more challenging than loving chocolate, isn’t it? There are a lot of reasons why that’s true, but I can think of three. Three reasons that hold us back from reaching out to others.

Loss of Control

When we step out to help someone else, we’ve lost control. There’s no way of knowing how that offer of help will be accepted, so we get a little nervous and start second guessing ourselves.

“If I run ahead and open that door for her, will she think I’m weird?”

“Well, I’d make a pan of brownies for them, but does everyone like brownies?”

I can say with confidence that no one thinks an open door is weird. Brownies? Everyone loves those. Believe me, that’s just nerves talking.

The Big Picture

Instead of figuring out what can be done, we’re blinded with the giant problem. Nothing I do will make a difference. Why even try?

Sometimes situations are overwhelming, but doing something small can be huge. When my dad died, my church friends provided food and drink for my family at the wake. Did it take away all the pain of loss? No, but we felt so loved, and so relieved to have that one chore done.

Fear

A friend told me that she was afraid to ask God what he wanted her to do. She didn’t want to volunteer in Venezuela, or move to New York to work in a soup kitchen. God might ask her to do something too big, and it worried her.

Well, this is what Mother Teresa of Calcutta said about that, when she was asked, “What can we do? How can we make a difference like you?”

“Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right where you are – in your own homes – in your own families – in your workplaces and in your schools.”

Kindness doesn’t have to go to another country or state to serve. The needs of those around us, in our families and communities are just as immediate as the ones overseas or in another state. My friend had nothing to fear.

This Holy Week before Easter calls, nudging us to step outside of ourselves. Let’s overcome our thoughts of looking silly, seeing only mountains and being afraid.

Together we can be the hands and spirit of kindness in our families and communities. Today would be a great day to start.

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His Name Was Grace

Ok. You got me. His name really wasn’t ‘Grace’, but let me tell you why that name absolutely fits.

I was living far from home for the first time in my 23 year-old life, when I became the proud recipient of a shiny new medical insurance card. I felt so grown up. Of course I’d never have to use this card, I’m young and invincible.

If you want to make God laugh, make your own plans. A routine trip to the dentist turned into a not-so-routine trip to the oral surgeon. X-rays revealed four impacted wisdom teeth pressing on my molars and making a general nuisance of themselves. The time had come to rethink the rental agreement they had with my gums.

The surgeon told me that it would be an easy process (for who?). I’d have the teeth removed in his office, and I could have the procedure under local anesthesia (you can’t be serious) or IV sedation (now you’re talking). I’d need someone to bring me, take me home and stay with me for “a day or two.”

As I sat there, trying to digest that information, I wondered how I’d get the time off work. I had only been in Tucson a month or so. The only person I really knew moved there with me. She was a new hire at her job too. Even if I asked her to help, how would she get time off?

Who can you count on when you don’t know anyone? Mentally flipping through a short list of acquaintances, I remembered that guy in my apartment complex who was so helpful when I moved in. He had stored some suitcases of mine when I couldn’t move in right away. We had become friends, and I knew he was a student at the U of A. I wondered if he’d mind driving me to the appointment, and then checking in on me every once in a while.

Long story short, he did drive me. When I was done, he escorted my woozy self to his car, my jaws firmly clamped on bloody gauze – what a sight that must have been. He picked up my pain meds, 7Up and soup, and then slept on my living room floor for two nights. I never felt so cared for and safe.

My neighbor was grace. I was new in town, and I needed a friend. I sure had one didn’t I? If I never believed that grace comes through especially when I need it, trust me, I learned it then, and I know it now.

Grace. The power, the presence and the love of God, all wrapped into one. I have the eyes to see it now. I watch, amazed and grateful, as it flows through all of us who choose to become the hands and feet of Love in this world.

My husband-to-be was the embodiment of grace those two days, my gift from Love that didn’t want me to be alone. I never expected it, but through my ‘Grace’, I experienced the gentle, protective hand of God.

 

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Mountaintop Moments

We’ve all set goals. Starting out at the base of the mountain, we climb step by step, working hard to get to the top. The steeper the climb, the more joyful the celebration at the summit. I’ve had many mountaintop moments in my life, but two of them stick out in my memory.

TEC Retreat

When I was in high school, my sister and I went on our first retreat experience. It was called “Teens Encounter Christ”, or TEC. I remember being really excited about spending time with other girls my age who wanted to deepen their faith. We’d be gone for three days and two nights, so it was quite a commitment.

Every effort I made was met with joy. I joined a small group to attend talks, have discussion time, eat and pray together too. One of my small group leaders was named Marita, and I told her I was going to name one of my children after her.

After three days, it was time to pack up and head home. I definitely didn’t want to go back to my regular life. I’d experienced so much friendship, faith and fun that I was surely on the highest spiritual high of my young life.

Please don’t make me leave.

College Graduation

I attended a small, all-women college in Minnesota, where I studied nursing. The town was small, but so pretty. It was close to the Mississippi River, with bluffs rising up from the ground, standing like soldiers around the town. The fall season splashed the leaves with every color, and in the winter, we could rent cross country skis and slide around the silent white campus.

I did join the swim team, although it was a small one, making it to the state finals sophomore year. I was also involved in choir, school government and a TON of studying.

In May of senior year, my parents made the six hour trek to see me graduate. It was such an emotional experience. I was excited and relieved beyond belief to have made it to that day. But I was also incredibly sad to say goodbye to the great friends I had made, and the beautiful city and campus.

Please don’t make me go.

In both of these situations, I asked myself, “Why can’t I stay right here forever?”

Well. Because there’s so much more waiting for me.

All I could see was the joy in being where I was. But if I had stayed eternally frozen at the TEC retreat, I wouldn’t have graduated from college. If I hadn’t graduated, I wouldn’t have had the joy of a career in nursing.

Emotional and spiritual highs are wonderful, such a sweet part of life. But they aren’t places to stop and break out the camping gear. They’re springboards to the next adventure. Take it from me, savor those lofty peaks, but don’t forget they’re just one wondrous step on the journey.

So don’t stand admiring the view for too long…the next summit is waiting.

 

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When ‘Good Enough’ Becomes Great

When I was a young mom, one of favorite mantras was “It’s good enough.” Making the school lunches for the kids, I’d wonder if that little bag of gummy fruit snacks could pass as a fruit serving. Hmm. I don’t have any fruit, so you know what? It’s good enough.

The one-ply toilet paper is way cheaper than the name brand. Sold. Good enough.

My morning bed-head looked like a rats nest and a tumbleweed had a love child. Grabbing a rubber band for a quick pony tail, I’d check the mirror and think, “Good enough.”

My two-year-old dresses herself, deciding to go through her day in size eighteen month sweatpants and a clashing shirt (worn backwards for just a touch of toddler flair). Buckling her into the car seat for a trip to Grandma’s I sigh… Oh well, it’s good enough.

Oh sure, I’d dream of perfection. Things like two-ply toilet paper, soft beachy waves and a child who looked like she stepped out of a Baby Gap ad. But now that I have the benefit of some years and a little more wisdom, I have something to say to my younger self.

“You know what? Every time you consoled yourself with saying ‘It’s good enough’, you were wrong. It wasn’t just good enough. What you did? It was great.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have giggled my way through Target or the grocery store, checking out the get-ups on the toddler to eight-year-old set. Oh my Lord, is it entertaining. Cowboy boots and feather boas. Ninja turtles and light sabers. And of course the classic that never gets old, the little one who dressed ‘all by myself’ today, accompanied by the mom who is brave enough to just let it fly. Those moms made a loving choice to support their independent children.

I always told my husband in our early married days that I’d know when we’d arrived at financial stability. On that happy day, we’d be able to ditch the generic toilet paper (yes Virginia, there was such a thing as ‘generic toilet paper’) for Charmin, and we’d stop buying so many vegetables in a can.

 

That day did eventually come and it was a definite milestone. But it didn’t make our choices before that any better than the the new ones. We always made loving choices, and that’s what made it perfect.

Today, when I look at my life and the choices I make, I can feel like I did when I was raising my children. Well…They’re good enough. Certainly not great.

When I feel like that, I’ll look back on my younger days, when chaos ran the house, and my checkbook was lean. I didn’t see it then, but life was great. Those memories help me to understand that ‘great’ is never found in perfection. Great is discovered in all the parents and grandparents who make the best decisions they can everyday.

The smiles that result from the love in those choices change everything from ‘good enough’ to great.

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Light It Up Like a Comet

I am a big fan of all things heavenly, and that includes the stars, planets, comets and harvest moons. There’s just something powerful about gazing at a starry sky. It leads me so easily to think about how beautiful and inspiring our Creator and his creation truly is.

Where I live, light pollution is a definite reality. Meteor showers come, but I’ve never seen one. Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve set my alarm for three a.m., and trudged to the back yard wrapped in a blanket to await the show. But it never comes.

It’s exciting to visit my sister in Colorado, or my daughter who lives in a rural area. The night skies there are sprinkled thickly with stars. I can see planets too, and full constellations. But the best thing to see is a comet, following its path as it streaks across the sky trailing that tail of sparks.

Scientists refer to comets in less glowing terms. They call them “dirty snowballs” or “snowy dirtballs.” Um…really? Comets are made of dust, ice, carbon dioxide, ammonia and a host of other elements. These uninspiring clumps of rock and dust are actually the size of a small town.

 

When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets.  nasa.gov/comets

 

In other words, these very plain, lackluster clumps of dirt only become an inspiring light in the sky when it’s heated by the sun. Only when it comes in contact with the sun’s energy will it be transformed to light and flame and movement.

Comets are a perfect metaphor for spiritual life.

Our bodies are made up of everyday elements too. Humans are mostly oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. In spite of our rather plain ingredients, we are priceless works of art. We all are capable of living on this earth, and using our unique gifts to benefit our corners of the world. We may not attract much attention, but we are part of God’s creation, giving us the dignity of belonging to him and to all created things.

We can go through life that way, but, we can also choose to be so much more than that.

If we make the decision to come close to our Creator, establishing a relationship with him, the power God gives in his grace changes everything. Like the energy of the sun, grace transforms and empowers, allowing us to shine in his light. No longer living only in the physical, we are activated in a spiritual life. We become a bright, attractive and inspiring child of God. We have the power to light up the world around us.

Not all comets get close enough to the sun to transform. But everyone on earth has the choice to approach God to be changed, to never be the same.

So, how about you? Are you ready to light up your world? I am. I want to be God’s comet.

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Making Room in Your Rhythm of Life

Most of us try to create a rhythm in our lives. Each day has it’s own plans, agendas and meal menu. Having a reliable plan helps us to stay on-track and moving forward.

Monday is for shopping. Tuesday is Bible Study. Wednesday is a day off. Thursday is Volunteer Day. Well, you get the idea.

We are actually in tune with God when we create our rhythms, he created the seasons to come in a rhythm too. The spring season’s milder temperatures warm up the earth, melting the snow and ice. Summer brings bright sunshine, heat and growing gardens. Fall winds cool us, while leaves turn from green to brown.

And winter? Brr! Snow, ice, whipping winds and bulky clothing are the hallmarks of this season. When I think of winter, I think cold. All the time.

So imagine my complete surprise last weekend. A miracle came to northern Illinois. The high temperature on Saturday was 70 degrees. I mean, that’s crazy talk, it’s February!

My husband and I put in hours cleaning up our garden. We filled garbage cans with piles of leaves and with wet-paper reeds from last years tiger lilies. The rose bushes got a trim and the cement walkway in front of the plants is now in view.

I went for a walk without a coat, meeting neighbors on my way. As we chatted, young moms and dads pushed strollers with strapped-in toddlers, headed for the park.

Normally, February 18th looks more like a gray still-life painting. The average temperature in this short month is 33 degrees, with a total monthly snowfall of 8 inches. We usually have cloudy skies for days. Snow and icy winds. Heavy sweaters and scarves. Balky car engines. Balky groundhogs too.

It seems that the usual rhythm of the winter season skipped a beat somewhere.

I think God wanted to drop a little gift in our laps. Yes, he created the flow of the seasons, and saw that it was good. But that doesn’t mean he can’t create some room for change now and again. And what a beautiful change we experienced in the middle of the winter season.

So what about our own plans and rhythms? We create them to fit our lives, and they are good. But maybe we should start making our lists with a little room too. After all, God might choose the day we’re planning to drop another gift in our laps.

Maybe God is planning a little surprise and he can’t wait to delight you. A neighbor might call and need you. You might need to drop everything because a family member is in town, or a dear friend knocks at your door.

I’m back to heavier coats and thicker sweaters now, but the memory of last week still makes me smile. I can’t wait to see what God does in my life this week. Of course, I’ve made my plans, but they are flexible. So go ahead Father, and surprise me. Whatever you bring, I know I’ll be delighted.

 

 

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The Liturgy of Life

Leaving Sunday services each week, my mom would often lament that it seemed as though Christian charity was abandoned at the church exit.

Prayer and praise resounded loudly inside the church, but the parking lot was another story. Starting up their engines, each driver transformed from prayer warrior to Mario Andretti, muscling their cars to the front of the line to leave the church grounds.

My faith community takes pride in it’s consistent liturgy. Oh sure, there have been some word changes now and again, and updating of worship, I suppose everyone’s church has done that. But no matter where you go in this world, the community prayer is in the same form. The only thing that changes is the language spoken from country to country.

There’s a great comfort in ritual liturgy. It allows the worshipper to relax into the familiar rhythms of prayer, praise, thanks, profession of faith and Scripture instruction. Music and song lift the soul as we all serenade the Lord with joy.

When the service is over, we have a wonderful space to greet each other. We catch up, offer our promises of support and prayer, and celebrate the milestones achieved in the goodness of God’s grace. Then…it’s on to our separate lives.

The sharp contrast between the church community inside the walls, and the everyday community outside them, often comes into focus as fast as it takes to get to the car in the parking lot. So I wonder.

Is my definition of liturgy too rigid and small?

I agree with my mom. It sure seems like the recent prayer, praise and thanks somehow comes to a screeching halt after leaving the church building.

The ritual praise and song is meant to lift our souls and prepare us for the week ahead. Grace and joy are gifted to fill our spiritual bank accounts…but is that where it all ends?

I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus ever meant for us to confine our praise and prayer to church, or even to ourselves. I believe he is active in every moment of our day, encouraging us to participate in the Liturgy of Life. We are constantly being joyfully invited to converse with the Lord and celebrate God’s presence in our world and neighbor.

Our work, our play, our acts of love can all be extensions of the grace-filled prayer we experience on Sunday. And because we do these things to praise, thank and honor the Father, our lives can be transformed. Each encounter with the Father holds the potential to take my life of ‘ordinary’ and make it extraordinary…if I decide to participate.

Life becomes a beautiful, life-giving liturgy.

Every time I reach my car after Sunday services, I think of my mom’s lament. That memory always reminds me that my prayer and praise can’t stay in the four walls of a church building. It must become a living thing, employed every day of the week, witnessing that Christ is real, alive and working in this world.

 

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Car Wash Wisdom

One activity my children always enjoyed was the rare, but always exciting, trip to the car wash.

As a young mom, backing the car out of the garage and letting my two littles help me hose-wash the car was a fun summer activity. But every now and then, the family wagon (yes, station wagon) needed a proper bath, so it was off to the local gas station.

I’d pull up in front of the entrance to adventure, and we’d be greeted by those huge dangling plastic strips that announced that the ride was about to begin. I’d call out, “Are all the windows closed?”, even though I knew they already were. The question really served to grab the attention of my riders, to alert them that the beginning of our adventure was near.

I’d line the left tire up to the track, while neon signs reminded me to put the car in neutral, take my foot off the pedals, and for Pete’s Sake, don’t steer! (Okay…I might have added a little to that last instruction.)

Feeling the first quick jerk, we were off into a loud and foreign land. Water shot from every direction, and as if by magic, soap splattered against the windows like paintballs. Each soap bomb elicited giggles from the backseat.

car-wash

car-wash2

The real vocal fireworks started when the heavy strips, draped like a theater curtain, started jerking and dancing our way. “It’s the octopus!” they’d scream. Laughter ringing in my ears, we watched the felt spaghetti automatically slosh and wipe away the soap from the car.

A final spray on the car meant – the wind tunnel! Jet propelled streams of air buffeted and rocked the car, blowing water off the car.

I have to admit I liked our trips to the automatic car wash too. It was fun. And to have that fun, I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to steer, accelerate or brake. As a matter of fact, if I tried to drive, it would be a very dangerous trip. Part of the enjoyment of the whole thing was giving up control. Just put the car in neutral, sit back, and for Pete’s Sake, don’t try to steer.

Most of us really like steering. We like having input, being in charge and making choices about our time. But…

I don’t know about you, but this whole control thing gets pretty tiring. Back then, if I heard “What are we doing today?” one more time, I might have to clap my hands over my ears and start singing “Help”. Being in charge absolutely has it’s positives, but it has to be balanced with free time – play time – rest time.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or pressured, maybe it’s God’s way of saying “Take your foot off the pedals.” Your soul is calling out for peace.

How about a walk in the woods? A bike ride. Call a friend. Bake some cookies.

Slip your gearshift in neutral, and take your feet off the pedals. Unplug and enjoy the ride…

And for Pete’s Sake, don’t try to steer.

 

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Who’s On Your Bleacher Team?

I was watching TV with my husband one night – well – watching with one eye, trying to work a crossword puzzle with the other, when I heard one of the characters from the show say, “He’s your bleacher person.”

My head snapped up and I abandoned my crossword. That term, ‘bleacher person’ intrigued me. The actor went on to explain that everyone needs people in their lives who support and cheer them on. They are the people you can count on to show up for you rain or shine. They’re your biggest fans.

They’re your bleacher team.

Isn’t that a beautiful way to describe the members of your fan club? And it’s a great visual too. While we’re out there working hard on the field of life, we have true supporters in the seats who cheer, wave banners and make sure we know we’re the greatest ever.

Maybe you’ve never thought about members of your family, your friends or you job partners that way. Well, maybe not all of them are true bleacher people for you. But some of them are.

Who are your biggest fans?

I’d have to include my mom on my list, and here’s one reason why.

She got all of her eight children involved in competitive swimming at a young age. I think I was five years old when I started belly-flopping into the water, racing the width of the pool. I kept on swimming, year round, until I was nineteen. (I had to leave my college campus a a junior to live in a nurses dorm in Rochester, Minnesota. No pool there!)

But my mom didn’t just drop us off at meets and go on her way. She stayed for every single one we were in. Sometimes, she’d film us for home movies with the old Super 8 movie camera. Maybe she’d announce at home meets, or be a lane timer. But mostly, she sat on the sidelines, recording our times and cheering for us from starting block to finish.

I remember one meet on a chilly, rainy June morning. My mom left the pool to race over to my Nana’s house. She picked up dry sweatshirts and towels for us, and I can still remember the warmth I felt, pulling that old, outsized shirt over my head.

Isn’t that just what bleacher people do? They support and encourage us to keep going, especially when the going gets tough. I know I would have been completely miserable without her support and presence that day.

We all need a bleacher team. But you know what else we need? We need to be a part of someone’s fan section too.

So maybe another good question would be, “Who do you cheer on?” Who do you show up for, and wave that banner?

I know that you are an important source of support for many in your life. So don’t forget to be their cheerleader. They need you in order to keep working on the field of life.

Just like you need them.

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When Life Hands You Ice Packs

“Time for a heat treatment!” My physical therapist is finally letting me loose from her torture, and now the payoff is near.

I had a little meeting with her before my session, telling her that I didn’t think I was making much progress. She responded by digging her elbow to my back with the gusto of a merciless Norwegian masseuse. But a hot pack? Now you’re talking.

“Wait, wait!” Uh oh. My little dream of heat was dying. “Let’s try ice. You’ve been so sore, I think ice is better.”

Ice? Seriously? It’s twenty-four degrees outside with wind chills approaching zero. My muscles feel like they were rammed through a pasta press, and your best idea is ice?

Well, she’s the one with the degree, so I said “Sure. Let’s do it.” Oy. So there I was, lying on my stomach with huge bags of ice on my back, while dreams of sunny beaches and baking sunshine played in my head. It helped a little. Finally, ten years minutes later, time was up and so was I, ready to call it a day.

As I drove home, blasting the car heater, I marveled at how completely wrong my expectations were. I figured my ‘Come to Jesus’ moment with the therapist would result in easing up on my exercises. After all, they didn’t seem to help much. But oh no, instead, this woman decided to go postal on me, smashing my unsuspecting body to a pulp. So…that was unexpected.

I also thought I’d be soothed by a nice big heating pad after the whole ordeal. Ha! Ice for you my friend.

What the heck is going on here?

Isn’t that just the way life goes? You think you know exactly what will be good for you, what will help. A raise. A romance. A retreat from a relationship. But then somehow it all goes sideways. You get fired, you break up, you’re cornered into saving your friendship.

It’s all so confusing. What is going on here? Well, even though it sounds strange, God is going on here.

While we only see the right now, God sees years and years into the future. He knows we see through limited eyes, but that won’t stop him from allowing what’s best. Even when best looks like worst.

So what can we expect?

Have you ever gotten a freezing ice pack instead of a nice hot water bottle?  Does it ever look like God gave you a situation you’d rather give back because it’s not what you wanted or expected? Maybe it seems like God’s got it in for you, making life harder than it has to be.

But our loving Father isn’t out to get you, he just sees further into the future than you can. He knows what those challenges will do for you, creating in you a stronger, more empathetic servant.

I know God’s got a beautiful plan just for you. He’s got one for me too. And I am confident that someday, we’ll understand how all those ice packs healed us.

 

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