December 23, 2009

Is Your Life Wonderful?

I am a movie fan.  I love most genres and consider myself an amateur movie critic.  One would think that someone such as myself might have several movie "favorites," or couldn't pick from the vastness of moviedom.  But I do have a favorite that spans all genres: It's a Wonderful Life.  Some hate this movie because they think it's boring.  To those, I have three words: Attention Deficit Disorder.  Some hate this movie because they think it's depressing.  To those, I have four words: you missed the point.  Some hate this movie because it's in black and white.  To those, I have two words, hyphenated: closed-minded.

I don't know how or when this movie became my favorite, but I certainly know why.  Besides its humor, the beauty of early 20th century American life, and Jimmy Stewart; besides the wonderful character development and incredible acting (see scene where George Bailey prays at the bar), there is a wonderfully true and human story of redemption and blessing that never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

It's the story of an all-American boy-next-door with a heart of gold.  Despite his lofty dreams and ambitions, his sense of responsibility and love of family causes him to always do what is right.  And he gets the shaft time after time.  As his life goes on and he continues to get the shaft, he fails to realize that all his deepest dreams have been realized-- he has the love of his life, a wonderful family, caring friends, and a satisfying job.  When he is royally shafted, he thinks everyone would be better off if he'd never been born-- a typically selfish, self-pitying thought.  While he is steeped in this attitude, he is shown (by a theologically incorrect "angel") what the world would be like if he indeed, had never been born.  It is enough to cause him to realize how blessed he truly is.  His prayer on the bridge is full of emotion and he says, "please God, I want to live again."  And if the joy of this "rebirth" wasn't enough, his loving community comes to his aid as he had done for them.  As the camera pans over the faces of those who love George Bailey, they sing, and I cry.  It's moving, every time.

But as I watch it this year, I find myself strangely paralleled to George Bailey-- a stretch I guess, but I still can see it.  Like George, I have lofty ambitions and dreams.  I wanted to "...see the world!" as George put it.  Yet I find myself roadblocked, time and again and always choosing the responsible option.  I sense the trapped, lost, and disappointed feelings George has.  So maybe I don't need to be visited by an "angel, second class" in order to realize that thought my dreams and ambitions may never be realized, my life is full and blessed by other things I hadn't counted on.  Maybe I'm not married.  Maybe I'm not living in Europe.  Maybe I'm not jetting around the world.  Maybe I'm not a writer or a fashion designer or a baker or an entrepreneur.  But I do have a growing relationship with the Lord.  I do have students to whom I minister and teach.  I do have young girls who look to me to be an example.  I do have a loving family.  I do have dear friends.  And as Clarence writes to George, "no man is a failure who has friends."

So, if you've never seen this fantastic movie, shame on you and see it... NOW.  If you have seen it and hate it, shame on you and give it another shot.  And if you love this movie as I do, take a lesson from it as I have, and evaluate your life based not on what you haven't done, but on the blessings God has given you and the ways in which you have served the Lord. 

Merry Christmas!

December 18, 2009

The Nightmare Before Christmas...

Last night, during what felt like a time warp back to college days, I found myself simultaneously horrified and pitying. "Do go on," you say? Alright then, let me explain:

After our weekly Thursday night dinner, the eight of us decided to look at Christmas lights. So we piled into two cars, not in a heterogenous mix, but in a "girl car" and a "boy car." Ironically, we girls got the big red truck (deemed "Lady Bug" by the wife and "Thor" by the husband), and the boys got the black sedan. Thus, the time warp. Instantly I felt as if I were twenty again-- the windows were rolled down (giving me Irishhag hair and goosebumps, but who cared?), Mariah Carey was howling into the night, and the four of us were howling right along-- four college friends, behaving as we did five years ago. And then, when we had gone through a decent street of lights and then a cul-de-sac with lights that blinked to music, we happened to turn around and chanced to stop next to the boy car. Windows rolled down. The boy car was having a markedly less fun experience than the girl car, as I heard neither Mariah Carey nor howling.

We journeyed on into the ghetto of St. Pete in search of a house that had been heralded as the #3 best house on the "Today Show," and #1 by I don't know who. Sketchier and sketchier were the neighborhoods, and when we made a pit stop at a Walgreens that had an iron fence around it, I feared for my life. Yet we made it. We parked, the promise of lighted glory ahead of us. It smelled like pickles. We were handed what appeared to be a kind of Christian tract, about which I though, not a bad idea-- they have lots of people who come and go looking at their lights-- why not take the opportunity to tell them about the REAL meaning of Christmas? And then we got closer. A man blew big bubbles at us. How magical and fun, we thought! Standing in front of the display, which was in fact a home with a few fountains and little rivers on about 1/2 an acre and had created a path through their yard and covered it all with lights and... other accoutrements, we saw a big sign, calling everyone to accept Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized "fully wet." Apparently to this couple, all three were necessary for salvation.

Now, I began this post with the admission that both horror and pity were among my emotions last night. Up until this point those emotions hadn't come out to play. And then I saw the china dolls dressed as brides under a television with a televangelist preacher doing his thing. These ten bride dolls were near signs asking if our "lamps had gone out," referring incorrectly to the parable of the ten virgins in the Bible. And then of course, there were the faded, tattered, matted stuffed animals HANGING from the trees and the house, including but not limited to: Fred Flintstone, a tucan, myraid teddy bears, and Minnie Mouse. There were so many that it was enough to cause attention deficit disorder in the most calm and collected human being. There were glass showcases filled with dolls depicting scenes of some holiday sort-- all random, haphazard, and having no rhyme or reason, except maybe the theme of psychopathic, homicidal maniac. One of my friends said, "Eight go in, and three come out." We laughed, but inside I think we all felt he might be right.

We went on. There were just too many odds and ends everywhere to fully take in the creepiness of this lights display. There was random open flame and a little tunnel that had a gigantic fake spider affixed to it. On the other side was a gate. Inside that gate we could see Pound Puppies and red lights along with a sign promising something sinister for the dogs, though I can't recall it anymore (probably I blocked it out of my memory and replaced it with happy thoughts). It was about that point when I saw at more Pound Puppies, who were roped together and hanging from a tree and suddenly turned, only to be startled by the man blowing bubbles... only this time he was far too close for comfort, and had sidled up to us so quietly that I nearly had a panic attack.

As we were about to leave, I saw dolls dressed as angels-- dolls who looked like the ones on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who burned up. I said so to another of my friends, who usually will give a laugh no matter how stupid my comment. She didn't laugh. She was thoroughly creeped out. And then I knew this lights display had gone far beyond creepy and now into horror territory. Exiting the display, past a random Barbie doll sitting in the lap of a teddy bear, we all tried to process what we'd just seen. I'm pretty sure this house was ranked #3 on the "Today Show" thirty years ago, because if Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera were to visit, they'd put it #1 on the most horrifying lights display list. Sure this terrifying display of thirty-year-old stuffed animals and decaying dolls was absolutely, ridiculously hilarious, but I also felt pity for the couple who were trying to share the Gospel. Not only were they not doing it in a way that would truly reach out to the culture around them, but also, they didn't quite have the Gospel down. Rather, they added to the already poor image that Christians have, and that made me sad.

And so as my tense body relaxed in the car, thankful to be alive, I reflected a bit on my feeling of pity. I hoped they found the Truth, that salvation comes by grace through faith alone, not baptism. I hoped they realized how scary and culturally oblivious their display was. And I hoped that I would never be guilty of the same thing-- distorting the Message, being culturally oblivious, and giving Christians a bad name.

December 15, 2009


The twinkling lights blinked with thousands of holiday memories, the magic of the present, and the promises of Christmases to come. Though no snow fell, her spirits rose with the anticipation that can only come with the season. Shine, sparkle, glitter, and glow.

How is it possible that this season has so much magic? I'm not talking about Santa here. I never believed in the "man with the bag," even as a small child. I remember wanting to believe. I can distinctly recall lying in bed on Christmas Eve, under the afghan Grandma crocheted, straining my ears with the hope that maybe if I heard hooves on the roof, Santa would be real. But really, I knew. My biggest clue was the rustling downstairs once Dustin and I went to bed. Especially the year we got our art desks. Clunk. Clang. Crash. Clang.

But truly, there is a kind of magic at this time of year. Magically, people smile at each other. People participate in random acts of kindness. People spend time with family. People slow down enough to taste a snowflake on their tongue or drive past a street with beautiful lights. Lights illuminate everything. Things sparkle that never sparkled before. The eyes of children are alight with anticipation.

Though I never thought it would, the magic has waned a bit as I've gotten older. Even so, when I stare out the front door and watch the lumenaria flicker down our driveway and the other driveways of Midlothian; when I feel the stillness of the night and see the stained glass of St. Christopher beyond the trees; when I drink hot chocolate and listen to Nat King Cole as I study the ornaments I've known since birth, I can't help but feel the magic.

Could it be that everyone senses the magic that began it all? Could it be that even those who don't believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior intrinsically feel drawn to this holiday because they were created to worship Him? I feel that must be true. I feel that through the jumbly, thick layer of Santa and gifts, the real reason for this stillness, this peace and joy, this goodness at this time of year is because there must be a reverence for the night when Salvation was born.

The magic of that night was unparalleled. I imagine the shining, twinkling, glittering, glowing star that illuminated the night like the Baby would illuminate human hearts. I imagine the quiet humility into which the Christ child was born. Bleating sheep, lowing cows, scratchy hay, and an Infant's cry. Then I imagine with rapture a multitude of shining, glorious angels spreading across the sky, revealing the Messiah's birth to lowly shepherds, with their heavenly melodies ringing into the night. I imagine the tiny, cave-like stable being visited by these shepherds, kneeling before the King of Kings who would one day wear a crown of thorns for them... and us. Remarkable.

Maybe that is why the magic of Christmas remains. Every flickering light, every dazzling sparkle, every melody reminds me of what must have been the night of all nights.

December 8, 2009

Hi, My Name is Martha...

By now you probably know I've been reading John MacArthur's Twelve Extraordinary Women. Every chapter has revealed a gem, a beautifully human and divinely saved woman with a story all her own and a life that serves as an example to all women. As we passed through Eve, Rahab, Ruth, Mary... I knew who'd be coming. Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha, the always-named-together, Biblical sisters we all know and love. Interestingly, for as much as I've enjoyed this book, I have actually been dreading this chapter. With a look of disapproving incredulity, you might ask, "Why?!"

Fortunately, I will be taking the duration of this post to explain exactly why. It's because I'm a Martha.

From a young age I could clearly recognize myself in Martha-- particularly the incident where Martha is busy about the house and her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet. I have always been, and I would wager that I always will be the girl who bustles about the house, straightening this, wiping that, baking here, sweeping there, all in preparation of guests. I'm a "get 'er done" kind of gal... busybusybusy about my business. And you know who has always annoyed me? Those "free-spirited" type of girls who flit about carelessly, not thinking of what needs to be done, or how could they help. I'd be washing dishes, the hot water curling my already curly hair, the cheese sticking stubbornly to the plate, throwing mental daggers at the girl who gets to sit and fellowship without care and without work. I'm a Martha. Marys chap my hide.

The thing is, I'd read the account of Mary and Martha and Jesus... and while I knew Mary had chosen the better option (sitting at Jesus' feet as he taught rather than busying about the kitchen) because Jesus clearly says so, I have always harbored this incorrect idea that really, Martha was right-- she was the servant! She was the one doing all the work! Her sister was lazily and thoughtlessly abandoning her duties! And I dreaded this chapter because I knew that once again, I'd be confronted with my Marthaness and be shown again that Mary had done the right thing.

And I was right. That's exactly what happened. But this time, I resolved to swallow my pride. Here's what the Word says: "Mary... sat at Jesus' feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving..." That's where it began to sink in. Martha was distracted with much serving. Could it be that her servant hood, so good and right, had become a stumbling block? Could it be that all my busyness and activities that are so good and right can have become a stumbling block? I read on: "And Jesus answered and said to her, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.'" Wait a minute, because I think Jesus actually said, "Amanda, Amanda, you are worried and troubled about many things..." I am so clearly a Martha, and Jesus could have very well said those exact words to me.

I am always worried and troubled about things being right, things getting done, things being clean, getting involved, doing my part, leading when I should lead, making things perfect, making my life perfect, making others' lives perfect... when really only ONE thing is needed. That narrows it down quite a bit. ONE thing is needed-- sitting at Jesus' feet and hearing His words.

That means that while my ministry is good and right, it is not that ONE needed thing. That means that while my job is good and right, it is not that ONE needed thing. All the good and right and important things I choose to fill my time are not that ONE needed thing. In the very act of serving the God I love, I have neglected hearing Him. God is not impressed by my busyness for Him. He does not love me more if I spend more time teaching children. The fact is, all of the wonderful ways in which I could serve Him could not ever even come close to what He has done for me. And what He asks is that I remember that and get my priorities in line. In the words of John MacArthur, "Mary's humble, obedient heart was a far greater gift to Christ than Martha's well-set table."

Ouch. This one hurt. I, the Martha, am wrong. My self-righteousness is wrong. My pride is wrong. And so though I don't know quite how I will do this yet, I am resolved to get these priorities in line. I spend time in the Word every morning. But is it really "sitting at Jesus' feet?" All of the other good things in which I'm involved need to come second to this ONE needed thing. And if that means something doesn't get done... oh well. *gasp* I will have chosen "that good part."

December 6, 2009

Restless Life Syndrome...

You've heard of restless leg syndrome? Well I have restless life syndrome. My mind plays mental ping pong: What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to teach forever? Should I go back to school? Should I get into debt? Should I move? Should I uproot my life? Should I go back home? Should I go overseas? Should I go into full-time ministry? These are the questions that bounce between my ears, thus causing restless life syndrome. At a time in life when most people are settling into their careers and building upon the foundation their schooling and experience have laid, I am experiencing a quarter-life identity crisis and feel less sure and more unclear than I've ever felt. Especially me, the over-planning, under-risking one who knew what she wanted to do with her life by the time she was seven. And now, at twenty-five, I have restless life syndrome. Is there a pill for that?

What I know to be true, however, is that restless is just a nice word for discontent. I've come a long way in the area of contentment when it comes to singleness, but haven't yet come to grips with my discontent regarding, well, what I should do with my life.

I listened to a CJ Mahaney sermon last week that reminded me of some important truths. I don't need to know the next step. I don't need to know what God's doing. He's always at work. When have things ever NOT worked out for His glory and my good? It should simply be enough that God has saved my sinful soul from hell. I shouldn't have to ask why, or what now? Clarity is not something God promises. He does promise to provide for me and to work things together for good for those who love Him. But He hasn't promised clarity. Mother Theresa said, "I have never had clarity, but I have always had trust." I would like that to be said of me.

My job is simply to trust and obey. Glorify God where I am, follow His leading, and trust that when it's time to take that next step, God will direct my steps. So now, my struggle is against restlessness (aka, discontentment). This is a ridiculously difficult and ambiguous struggle, but struggle I will until I learn to just trust.