Letting God out of the Box

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Why do I limit God? 

My husband and I sit in a café and discuss buying a car.

Tim is the type of guy who becomes an expert on something before he pulls the trigger.  So by this point, he can now tell me the make, model and location of every top-rated used car under 10k in the OC area.

We’ve narrowed it down to two options—one is new and one is used.  The new car is a 2015 Hyundai Elantra and it’s AWESOME and has all the bells and whistles we “po’ ministry folk” are unaccustomed to.  It’s a deal beyond a deal but it’s also out of our budget.

The used car is well, ummm…used.  It has great gas mileage and it’s a 2006 Prius and more fiscally responsible—meaning we can afford it. it’s also good for the environment—right?

(did I mention the new car has a back-up camera, so cool!)

“What would our friend’s do?” My husband Tim asks.

“”Well we can’t compare ourselves to our neighbors because we make about a third of their incomes.”  I reply.

“Ok, who do we compare ourselves to then?” Tim responds.

“We compare ourselves to the Ramsay’s.  John is a pastor.  Deanna is a singer/speaker and works part time.  That’s an appropriate comparison.”

Tim looks at me wide eyed.  “Yeah, but Deanna won a car on the Ellen Show.”

I nod.  “Yeah, that kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us.”

We hold hands.  Our tummies churn and we contemplate our finances.

……

This whole car business started because of a few numbers.

  1. 366,000

A big number, certainly, It’s also the amount of miles shared between our two aging but faithful SUV’s.

  1. 16 ½

That’s how many years my son has been alive.  Not so big—but a big kid milestone.  In two short weeks, my almost senior boy/man gets his license and like any teenage boy, Kyle is ready to roll

So we start a search for an another automobile that get’s more than the whopping 12 mpg of our 2004 Expedition or the 15 mpg of my newer 2006 Xterra.

The budget is limited.  We have some money saved—enough for another really crappy car—but we also have mounting expenses from Tim’s hospital bills (spine injury and subsequent surgery), three kids this year in private school and college looming. Truthfully, it’s a tad overwhelming.

Tim finds some cars online and we debate each one’s merits like it’s a resolution in the UN.

Tim’s sweet father, upon hearing our car predicament, offers us a large chunk of change.  We are thrilled and so blessed to be cared for so lavishly!

Now we had enough to get a NEWER used car.  (And yes, for all those wondering, we could have financed a newer car but are committed to keeping our overhead low rather than raising it)

Through the car ministry at our church we are put in touch with the owner of the Hyundai dealership in Tustin.   After a great phone conversation, he invites us to his dealership and we test drive a used Elantra and with a little prompting from the salesman a new one.

(ok, it’s not like he had to push real hard)

With the tremendous discount the owner of the dealership offers us (did I mention he is a generous volunteer at our main campus?), the new car is only 3 thousand more than the used car, but still, 6 thousand more than our budget.  They are going above and beyond to bless us.  The discount is even more than employees get.

Now what do we do? Do we justify spending more because it’s a great deal?

We go and sit in the 2015 model and pray, lifting this car dealio up to God. The people in the dealership probably think we are Jesus dorks—whatever.  We close our eyes, hold hands and talk to God.  We surrender up the decision and go to lunch.

…………..

Back at the cafe we make the painful choice to let the shiny new car go.  It stings a little because it’s SO AWESOME, but we probably shouldn’t have been shopping in the lot we couldn’t afford to begin with.

I leave the restaurant and call my step-dad.  He asks what I was doing at the dealership.  I tell him about the two cars and how we have decided to stay within our budget, honor our financial goals to lower our overhead, and be responsible with the precious gift Tim’s father has given us.

“Why, don’t I give you the money?  Six thousand–I’ll just give it to you.” My step-dad offers happily.

Silent tears stream down my face.  “I wasn’t asking for money.”

“I know honey, he replies.  “I love you.  It’s a gift.”

And I think back to my own words.  “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us,” And like Peter I am blown away at my doubts and God’s provision.

The next day we return to the dealership and climb in the new car before we write the check to take it home.  As the ignition fires up a song blasts through the car.

God in my living, there in my breathing
God in my waking, God in my sleeping
God in my resting, there in my working
God in my thinking, God in my speaking

Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything

God in my hoping, there in my dreaming
God in my watching, God in my waiting
God in my laughing, there in my weeping
God in my hurting, God in my healing

Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything

Christ in me, Christ in me
Christ in me, the hope of glory
You are everything

Christ in me, Christ in me
Christ in me, the hope of glory
Be my everything

Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything

God in my hoping, there in my dreaming
God in my watching, God in my waiting
God in my laughing, there in my weeping
God in my hurting, God in my healing

Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything

Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything
Be my everything, be my everything

Christ in me, Christ in me
Christ in me, the hope of glory
You are everything

You are everything, You are everything
You are everything, You are everything
Jesus, everything, Jesus, everything
Jesus, everything, Jesus everything

We look at each other in amazement.  “You think God is trying to tell us something,” I weakly laugh swiping away at the tears running down my cheeks.

Back inside the dealership, Tim asks the salesman, “Did you turn it to a Christian station because you know I’m a pastor?”

The salesman replies, “No, generally the boys in the back play the thump-thump music when they get the cars ready.”

We give each other the look—the “OMG, I’m freaking out inside look.”

I call my step-dad on the way home and tell him the story.

“I’m a part of an answered prayer?” he says.

“Yep, you are.” I whisper.

“Huh.”

I can picture his bemused grin over the phone.

Later I thank God in my prayers.

And I think about the love of a father—Tim’s father who blessed us, my step-dad who surprised us so generously, and our Father God who blew us away with this gift.

We didn’t ask.  We didn’t beg.  We aren’t worthier than any other person out there.  But God through our parents gifted us anyway.

Everything.  He is my Everything.

One day later we sit in church and the last song of the service sounds familiar.

God in my living, there in my breathing
God in my waking, God in my sleeping
God in my resting, there in my working
God in my thinking, God in my speaking

Coincidence?—I don’t think so…

–Samantha

Courage is Not the Absence of Fear

courageI feel pretty confident as a writer –it comes naturally and it’s in my wheel house, but public speaking on the other hand, has been a long process over the last ten years of trial and error, practice and more practice and an unfailing trust that God has got my back even when I’m TERRIFIED.

I used to be one of “those” people they quote in statistics; you know the ones who would rather die than get on a stage and open their mouth?

Clearly God has a sense of humor about my current occupation as writer/speaker.

So, I’m finally to the point where I’m mostly comfortable up front and can laugh and joke and poke fun with the crowd, but I’m still learning how to handle the unexpected without getting my feathers flustered.

Like last Monday night at Frister’s when the powers of evil tried to take me out in the women’s restroom.

I pulled up to Yorba Linda Friend’s church a few minutes early and managed to get lost in the massive worship center before I located the area I was to speak for the young women’s group.  Then I searched for the bathroom. 

Not to be too graphic…but I had to tinkle –BAD.

Yep, I was doing the potty dance and when I finally located the long bay of restrooms I ran in with great relief. 

And since I had a really full bladder, I figured I had a minute or two to check the Twitter feed on my iPhone for the Boston Marathon bombings.

(No judgment please)

Within a few seconds, I was totally engrossed in the news and pictures and terrible sadness when all of a sudden the lights turned off.

And it was pitch black, darker than dark.  

I’m not kidding –it was the absence of all light.

No windows existed in the cavernous ladies restroom of the Friend’s Church and I couldn’t see an inch in front of me except for my trusty iPhone.

I managed to button up and stand, slightly panicked, when my tiny source of illumination and hope flickered out.

My iPhone died.

Seriously?

Now real panic set in.

I figured I was in one of those bathrooms where the lights are triggered by motion.  So I frantically waved my arms around like a crazy person.

BAD IDEA SAM.

This resulted in bone crushing pain to my right arm but still no light.

Clutching my arm and purse I finally got the lock open on the door, staggered out and crashed into the sink. 

As I howled in pain, jumped up and down and dropped more BAD words than the FRIENDS probably ever heard, the lights FINALLY turned back on.

I glanced in the mirror and groaned. 

There I stood, three minutes before go-time, with black mascara and tears streaming down my face, hair and clothes completely disheveled and an arm I couldn’t lift.

How was I supposed to pull this train-wreck together?  I was pretty sure my arm was fractured. 

And then I thought about the marathon runners in Boston who gave blood after running 26 miles and the rescue workers trudging on and the people fighting for their lives with blown off limbs.

And I knew the power of a God who raised Christ from the dead could get me through the next hour.

Seconds later I walked out of the bathroom from HELL and did the job God called me to do. 

Fast forward sixty minutes and now I’m praying with a young girl in tears convicted to end her life of promiscuity.  It was humbling and healing and so REDEMPTIVE.

And I thought about our responsibility as ministers and representatives of Christ.

My job is not to entertain or put on a show or dazzle with words. 

It’s really just to show up –real and wounded and raw. 

And somehow, in spite of all our fears and clutziness and epic bathroom debacles he uses the scared and the weakest of these to show HIS glory.

 

How does God show up in your weak moments? 

My super-power is…

A woman came up to me last week at my son’s football game and said all in a rush, “I just discovered your blog and I’m like totally addicted and I had no idea you were so hysterical because in real life, you’re just, you know, the pastor’s wife. And, I’m not saying you’re dull or anything, but you’re not like all-out there in your face funny. And I really love your writing. I really do.”

“Uhhh, thanks,” I replied sheepishly.

I stood there with a dumb smile on my face not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted. And while I appreciate that she thinks I’m a funny writer, there’s this part of me, some striving little girl in legwarmers from the 1980’s that wants to be funny in public too (even though I’m most decidedly not).

I’m the girl who’s a bit socially awkward. I can fake twinkly gaiety and confidence around crowds for a set period of time, but I’m generally exhausted afterward (unlike my extroverted husband who’s like the energizer bunny).

I’d rather get to know a few people well at social occasions. I like deep probing discourse and intellectual stimulation. Smalltalk is death to me and what’s with the church hug? (I never know what’s appropriate) Either go in for the bear hug or go home-just don’t go in halfway and awkwardly hit my boob.

I am deeply envious of those quick witted folks who are stand-up comics on the fly. My friend-pastor Jeff Maguire is like that.  His body language alone makes me snort and blow corn out of my nose. I can laugh just thinking about him.

One time at a wedding, Jeff was out on the dance floor showing off his Rico Suave moves, when this little old lady inquired about him. “Is that young man a professional dancer or a comedienne?”

“Actually,” I replied. “He’s a pastor.”

Which has to be the least funny job of all time, right? It’s like we lay down our right to be a sarcastic on the altar of religion.

I love it when people find out I’m the pastor’s wife and this look of horror comes over their face. “Oh no, I just had a beer in front of you (or said a bad word, or talked about sex).”

Once the cat’s out of the bag, people stand up straighter, tell me how they should go to church more often, and then tell me how they are more spiritual than religious. It’s like we have to get the confessions out of the way and I have to make the sign of the cross over them before we can really get to know each other.

I met a unique young woman at a blogging conference recently who struggles with bi-polar tendencies. She was transparent and funny and I found her irresistible. She named her blog “Crazy is my super-power.”  I love it when people take their weakness and turn it around (with God’s grace) to be a force of strength and encouragement.

So I guess I’m a bit like Clark Kent-really, and my alter-ego is cooler than my regular gal aura.

And might I suggest that my super-power is funny and maybe that’s good enough. (Because even though Superman is awesome, Clark Kent isn’t cool, but we love him anyway)

But if I make you laugh hard enough to pee or snort corn, please let me know…comments make me deleriously happy.

What’s your Super-Power?

sexual harrassment

It started in my very first job.   At least once a week, the owner of the almost billion dollar corporation I worked for, would walk up to me and drop his pencil very obviously in front of me. It was his little running joke.

“Oops, I seem to have lost my pencil.  Can you grab that for me Sam?”

Mr. CEO would start drooling and giggling as he waited for me to bend down and pick it up, hoping for a glimpse of either leg or cleavage as I was forced to bend over awkwardly in heels. 

Then there was the vice president (also from the same sleazy tech company) who approached me at the office Christmas party and talked to me about my ministry aspirations.

“Sam, I hear you are in seminary getting your masters in theology,” Mr. VP asked with an inebriated smile.

“Yes Sir, I am.”I replied.

“Wow, that’s hot.  I think we could have a religious experience together.  You could tie me up and make me say Oh God over and over.” Mr. VP raises his arms in the air and demonstrated how he would like to be tied up.

I weakly smiled at him and ran as fast as my heels could carry me to HR.  

But yesterday, oh yesterday, took the cake.  This time the comment was launched not from my own place of business, which is refreshingly drama free, but it came from a client.  And therein lays the dilemma.  You can tell a boss to go climb a tree, and threaten to report him, but how do you tell the client he’s an A-Hole?

I walked in to Mr. Client’s office with my boss for an impromptu conversation after a previous meeting nearby.  This customer was not one of my accounts, so I had zero context for the meeting and decided to keep my mouth shut and watch their interaction.  As we stood to leave, Mr. Client turned to me and launched his bomb.

“You certainly contributed to the conversation.  So, is this what you do all day?  Do you drive your boss around and let him sit in the backseat and make calls.  Is that your job?”  He dangled his keys in front of my nose as he leered at me and insinuated that I was my boss’s very personal assistant and valet.

Anger surged deep within my spirit and I bit my tongue until it bled.  I glared at him, thought about the consequences of telling him off, and then stomped out the door. 

The problem with harassment is it goes hand in hand with the feeling of entrapment.  It feels like you are screwed however you approach the situation.  If you make a big deal about it and go for the jugular, you lose credibility in your field and become one of those red flag people.   Or conversely, if you ignore it, the situation can escalate and lead to bigger problems.

With my first company, I documented and reported the incidents with the temporary HR person, who was then replaced by a more appropriate candidate who looked the other way at the corporate bigwig’s mischief. It goes without saying that certain companies are experts in managing their image, no matter how debaucherous it is.

I often wonder how many of these incidents go unreported in the workplace and I imagine women, and yes… even men have to figure out appropriate boundaries with inappropriate people every day.  I also presume that until more people call attention to this issue, jerks like the one I encountered yesterday will continue to be unchecked power-hungry JACKWAGONS (and yes…that felt good to vent).

I take some delight in pondering the perfect comeback to drop on this guy if I should happen to cross his path again.  Or, I guess I could simply mention his name and company on the internet.  (Just saying…)

The Onion

Central part of the scene The Adoration of God...

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There is a song that came out a few years that still makes me weep (It’s been played so many times on the FISH it might make you cry too).  It asks me to imagine what I will do when I am confronted with Jesus face to face.  Will I even be able to stand in his presence or will I fall to my knees overwhelmed by his grace?  It is a provocative question I don’t ask myself enough because I would rather envision Jesus pursuing me.  I am comfortable with an image of him walking alongside of me and holding my hand.  I am a little girl and he is a loving father.  But, the thought of coming boldly to the throne of God makes my knees wobble and my heart quake with fear.  Like Isaiah, I imagine calling out “woe to me, I am unworthy and inadequate.”[1]  I struggle to put together the image of God the Father with God the Son.  Jesus is accessible and near to me while the Father is Holy and immense. Somehow, I have associated God the Father with performance and Jesus with unmerited grace, forgetting all too often that they are one.  If spirituality is the means by which we develop an awareness of the Spirit of God in us and the processes, by which we keep that awareness alive and vital, then these questions and contemplations must not be avoided.[2]  My interior life demands examination if I am to minister effectively.  As the Father and the Son are not separate, my spirituality and service in ministry are also inexplicably tied together.

This last year has provided many opportunities for spiritual growth and transformation as my husband and I left our church after sixteen years to start a satellite church, under the umbrella of the mother church.  Because I have been immersed in almost every facet of the church plant, either directly or indirectly through my husband, a new obstacle has reared its ugly head…finding rest in the midst of exhaustive church planting.  Where is the line drawn from the demands of ministry and my own need to develop authentic spirituality?  How do you leave your work at the job if your church is the job?  Where do pastors and leaders go to replenish their spirits if they can’t do it at church?  Is this where the desert experience calls out to us?  Church used to be a safe and comforting setting where I could hide from the world and now, at times, it feels like a minefield of power struggles, mostly within my own heart.  It is a massive paradigm shift for me to move the church out of the place where I experience God to a place where I am simply doing God’s work.  The two don’t go together anymore.  I must encounter God on my own without the guidance or aid of an institution.  I think God allowed me to see the physical boundaries of Church as a safe stronghold while he built a firm foundation of his Word and Spirit within me.  Now, almost two decades into this journey, he has removed my attachment from the buildings I thought I needed to grow closer to him. My ability to minister effectively is dependent only on the depth of relationship I experience with him…a reflection of His transforming work in a willing spirit and my tiny mustard seed of faith.

If the extent one is willing to incorporate the spiritual disciplines or means of grace into one’s life will determine the effectiveness of their ministry,[3]  then I am forced to find rest amidst the chaos. This has meant intentional times of solitude, painful reflection and major adjustments as I look differently at the way I give back to God.  Once again, God is calling me to move out of my comfort zone and into a place of greater dependence.  Any ministry that is beyond our effort requires that we abandon ourselves to the mysterious action that God is able to work in us, and then through us.  But this involves a stripping away of the last vestige of hope that we can somehow accomplish the task on our own.[4] 

I believe the essence of spiritual growth is this-our journey is like an onion peeling.  Every time you pull off a good chunk there are more layers waiting to be uncovered.  At the core of the onion, is a tender childlike faith that has been covered over the years with wounds, pain and fear.   As we peel, tears sting our eyes, and we become raw, discarding the very things we have clung to for security apart from God.  But our reward is this…to see our Father clearly, without the veil of darkness hindering our vision, moving from blindness into His glorious light.


[1]Isaiah 6:5 NIV

[2]Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser, Leading the Congregation: Caring For Yourself While Serving the People(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993) 39.

[3]Ibid., p. 42.

[4]Ibid., p. 43.

Violence and pigtails…

IMG_1189 Thug Lovin or Jhug Lovin, stencil and...

Image by ww_whist via Flickr

I have only been punched twice in my life.  My initiation to aggression was at a Cult concert at the tender age of eighteen. 

Exiting the amphitheatre, a random drunk decided I was in his way, and launched a bomb to my right eye.  Knocked off my high heels, I laid writhing on the ground and cried like the girl I am, as my friends defended my honor and a large brawl ensued. 

I felt violated and angry that someone could be so abusive to a complete stranger, but the mosh pit and chaotic climate didn’t exactly exude peacemaking.  Though my pride was injured, I was able to process and come to terms with the assault. 

The second time I took a hit was far more traumatic than my college experience, but just as unexpected.  Almost twenty years later, serving at a local outreach center in a poor and downtrodden neighborhood, a little girl opened my eyes to the hidden realm of domestic abuse as I was thrust abruptly into an altercation.

We were painting the learning center that day, a large group of high school kids from our church youth group dedicating a three-day weekend to go serve in the community.  My husband, the pastor, was inside motivating the kids to paint the walls and a little less of each other.  Newly pregnant, I was relegated to the courtyard to avoid the fumes.  My job was to paint all the doors which had been removed from their hinges.  It seemed like an endless stack piled against the tree planter. 

As I painted,  a  few little girls played nearby  me and I bantered with them and tried out my limited Spanish.  I pointed to my little bump, “bebe,” and they giggled and rubbed my belly.  The girls were about six years old; one had dark pig tails and missing teeth (the distinct marks of a first grader), the other wore blue and for a small child had an air of sadness and maturity.  The girl in blue spoke English while my little pigtailed companion jabbered away happily in Spanish and had her friend translate for me.

Out of the blue, little pig tails approached me, head down and leaned in for what I thought was a hug.  I opened my arms wide and got the shock of my life.  With all her might, she reeled back and punched me in the stomach.

Stunned and staggering backward, I could only whisper, “no, no, no,” as the little girl, with terror in her eyes, started crying. Her friend started scolding her in Spanish, and she only cried more.  I asked what she was saying through my own tears, and the girl in blue translated, “She wants to know if she killed the baby.”

“What?” I asked.

“She wants to know if she is in trouble, because she tried to kill your baby,” whispered the little girl in blue, mortified at what her friend had done and scared I was going to haul them both off to the authorities.

My first reaction was to protect the baby in my womb.  I ran for my husband to get help.  In big hiccupping sobs, I explained what happened.  Dumbfounded, he just stood there in disbelief.  Then he moved into action, found the director and the two of them tended to me.  Slowly I moved from hysterical, nauseous, and light-headed to worn-out and emotionally drained.  Ironically, I had an ultrasound scheduled the next day and after a call to the Dr., who reassured us that the baby was probably fine, my husband forced me to lie down on a sofa and I passed out.

While I was sleeping, the director hunted down the little girl and dropped in on her parents who lived in an apartment nearby.  When confronted with the situation, the mother apologized profusely and pleaded for forgiveness, but the father, a migrant farm worker from central Mexico, smirked and refused to comment.  His defiant arrogance and lack of remorse suggested he was the model for her aggressive behavior.

The director realized all too quickly what was going on in their home and begged that he not hit the little girl or hurt her as punishment.  She left their home frustrated and sad.  How do you confront a child perpetrator who is also a victim in a vicious circle of domestic violence?

In all likelihood, the little girl had probably witnessed the abuse of a pregnant woman (possibly her own father hurting either her mother or sister).  Statistically, domestic abuse rises in pregnancy… add in poverty, language barriers and rigid sex role stereotyping, and the ratios rise even higher. 48% of Latinas in one study reported that their partner’s violence against them had increased since they immigrated to the United States.[1]  According to the Centers for Disease Control, every year in the United States more than 300,000 pregnant women experience some kind of violence involving an intimate partner, and about one-quarter of women in this country report having been sexually or physically assaulted by a spouse, partner, or boyfriend at some point in their life. Domestic violence is a leading cause of injury to American women between the ages of 15 and 44 and is estimated to be responsible for 20 to 25 percent of hospital emergency room visits by women.

The director of the learning center shared with me that domestic abuse and violence are common occurrences in the neighborhood. And sadly, it may only be the tip of the iceberg as to the real magnitude of the problem because of the very hidden nature of this type of abuse-one that women and children cover out of shame and desperation. 

One year later, I decided to go back to the learning center.  I took my three-month old healthy baby girl with me, snuggled in close in a baby sling.  I wanted and needed to redeem this place that offers so much hope and assistance to a hurting community.  Alas, my expectations were too high.  As, I walked through learning center and saw the brightly colored walls that our high school kids had painted, I was initially encouraged.  I paused and noticed the doors I had painted and cherished the scene of children happily studying and playing.

I sat down with a tutor and a small group of children and we worked on lessons.  But one little boy seemed to be having problems.  Distracted and belligerent, the boy refused to listen or obey the rules.  Frustrated the tutor called for backup and eventually his mother was called.  In walked a defeated woman.  She tried to get her son to leave with her quietly but he began to get physical and started to kick and hit her.  He was so out of control, it took two men to get him out of the room.   Trying to protect the baby, I backed into the corner with the other kids.  Fear and tension entered the room.

Once again, violence had broken into our midst.  The children were able to settle down quickly, but I remained apprehensive.  Their familiarity with physical aggression was unsettling to me.  I felt like a foreigner in a dangerous land, unprepared and unarmed.  Their toughness only magnified my insecurities. Growing up in a sheltered environment, I doubted whether I had anything to offer to these children that live in the face of constant danger.

Another little girl, seeing my discomfort grabbed my hand and asked me to play a game with her.  As she beat me at Go Fish, for the tenth time and cackled like a hen at her own cunning, she turned and looked in my eyes.  “Don’t worry about that mean boy. I like you.  Will you come back and read to me again? We can be friends.”

“Ok, I said. “Friends.”

The child’s wisdom is this…there are no simple answers for what seems like an insurmountable crisis in our society.  So, you do the best you can and hold on to God with double fisted faith. You survive.  And in the presence of evil, you find a friend and beat them at Go Fish


[1] Mary Dutton et al., Characteristics of Help-Seeking Behaviors, Resources, and Services Needs of Battered Immigrant Latinas: Legal and Policy Implications, 7 Geo. J. on Poverty L. and Poly 245 (2000).

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