Category Archives: spiritual

Sea Glass

I discovered sea glass, quite by chance, this past Thanksgiving.  My family was spending the holiday at our favorite beach during the tail end of a rather large storm.  When the wind and rain let up we ventured out to explore the beach. The storm had taken much of the sand, even changing the shape of the landscape, but in exchange the sea had given up more than its usual amount of stones.

My children and I excitedly explored this novel setting. Before long my children were bringing me smoothed out pieces of glass they’d found in the pebbles.  I’d heard of sea glass, but this was the first I’d ever seen.  We picked through the stones for hours, until it became too dark to see.  We left with a handful of colorful sea glass, and like that, I was hooked.

I read up a bit on the topic of sea glass.  It is glass from bottles and dishes that has broken and ended up in the sea.  The sea churns the glass for decades, smoothing its surface with grinding sand.  There is also a chemical reaction that happens whereby the sea glass gets a frosted finish.  To differentiate sea glass from a polished rock, hold it up in the sunlight.  If the light shines through purely, evenly, without blemish, that is sea glass.

Since then we’ve traveled to several more California beaches.  My very patient husband has occupied himself while I have spent hours at each, searching for colorful treasures. Each time, the search has lasted for hours and the reward has been a small handful of glass, polished and frosted by the turbulent sea.

During those hours spent picking through stones and debris on the beach, I’ve had time to ponder.  I have come to realize that I am a lot like sea glass. Just as broken glass gets its desirable smoothed surface by being tossed in the sea, grinding against sand and stones, so I am being refined by the experiences of my life.  My sharp edges are becoming smoothed out by the turbulent times I’ve weathered. I too am most beautiful when I allow the Light to shine through me.

When hard times come it is human nature to complain, resist and ask why.  Yet trials are necessary to develop strength, wisdom, empathy and faith.  Without testing, how would I know how strong I am?  Without tears, I would not know how to console others. Without impossible situations, I would not know just how much I can trust my Lord. Undesirable circumstances are required to bring about desired qualities.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” ~James 1:2-3

So, the next time you are at the beach look for a rocky area.  Bend down and look through the pebbles for a smooth, translucent piece of sea glass. Then remember that you too are like sea glass.  The experiences you are walking through are reshaping and smoothing you out. And you are most beautiful when you allow the Light to shine through you.

The Spirit of Christmas

It’s that time of year when the magical spirit of Christmas is supposed to make everyone merry, loving and peaceful.  When I was young, the lights, the presents and the family traditions worked their magic and made me believe.  Now that I’m an adult, it’s different. Christmas can easily become a list of responsibilities and crowds of stressed out people.

Recently, my family was planning ahead for how we would celebrate Christmas this year. When would dinner be?  Who would be there?  What time was the Christmas Eve service? As we looked at the calendar, we noticed that the holiday falls on a Sunday this year.  Our usual service is early in the morning.  I stopped myself just before stating, “Oh no!  Church on Christmas will ruin the morning!”

I fear that I have become so jaded that I perform the rote trappings of Christmas without experiencing or spreading the Joy that the day celebrates. Having to decorate, provide the family’s presents and plan the menu become the focus of this time originally set aside for remembrance of the sacred event of Christ’s entry into our world.

I’m not the only one who may be struggling to focus on the true meaning of Christmas. This year I know so many hurting people-the couple at church whose beautiful, twenty-three year old daughter is spending this December in a coma because a drunk driver hit her tiny vehicle, the coworker whose husband is battling cancer while she is beside herself trying to coordinate his health care services, many families who trying to provide the basics, much less the extras, to their children after a job layoff, and Ronnie, my student who is homeless this school year.  It will take more than lights and decorations and Christmas carols to cheer these people.

Ironically, it is these situations that draw me back to the true meaning of Christmas. These remind me that Christ loved us enough to leave His realm and humbly enter ours as a helpless baby.  He spent His life creating a way for people to relate to a once remote God. Now we may appeal directly to God, and the intangible Spirit causes tangible experiences in our lives.

Ronnie, my student who has been homeless this year, will soon be taken off my list of hurting people. Her story exemplifies one of the greatest gifts of Christmas-our invitation to approach the God of the universe with our requests.  It gives an example of the intangible Spirit tangibly working.

At the beginning of this school year, the school staff was told that Ronnie’s family had become homeless.  The family of six had lived for a while in their car, and now they were in a hotel room.  We did whatever little things we could to help her settle into the school year.

By the end of the month, my husband received a phone call from Ronnie’s dad.  They know each other from years earlier.  This call was a desperate plea for just one hundred dollars. That was all the dad needed to meet his rent at the hotel.  However, his resources were depleted, and if he didn’t pay by 1:00 that afternoon, the family would be evicted.  My husband made a quick call to me to make sure we had the money and then a trip to the atm. The rent was paid with barely an hour to spare.  (A side note: We had the money because I’d been squirreling a bit away and was looking for the right way to give it to this family.  One hundred dollars was the exact amount I’d saved up.)

I was happy we had this small amount of money to spare, but I was left with an empathetic feeling of frustration for Ronnie’s family.  They had been so close to having the amount they needed, and yet they were so far from being secure.  Even with continued gifts from my family and other school staff, coming up short was a cycle that would happen every month as the family’s need was greater than their income.  It was a vicious, unsolvable cycle.

I could not shake this feeling of frustration at the impossible situation this family was in. So, I did what I always do when problems seem impossible; I prayed.  I found myself praying often for this family.  As I did, I found my request becoming specific and focused.  I didn’t want them to survive just day to day.  I wanted their impossible situation to be resolved.  I began to ask specifically that their income would increase and that their expensive housing cost would become lower.  I prayed that their income would become larger than their expenses, all the time feeling more frustrated at the seeming impossibility.

For a few months, it seemed my prayers were going unheard.  Nothing changed.  Then in November, Ronnie reported that her father had gotten a job.  I thanked God for answering half of my prayer, but continued to ask for less expensive housing.

The latter request was just answered a few weeks ago when both Ronnie and her father reported that the family had found an apartment that would cost far less than the hotel.  They are now moving in, and I am left once again reassured by the power of prayer and the working of God’s Spirit.

It’s true I no longer feel the child-like wonder of the Christmas season.  It has been replaced instead by something more lasting and real. And this Spirit is with me year-round.

Struggle

The students in my eighth grade Language Arts Fundamentals class had a particularly difficult day today. They had to write a paragraph long response to an article we’d read, citing two pieces of evidence to support their first statement, and they had to do it independently.  We had practiced together for many days.  These academically at-risk students know all the steps to this process, but without constant reassurance and guidance, they do not trust themselves to correctly complete such a task.  My co-teacher and I had made a pact to let them struggle through it.  It was painful.

One boy in particular, Sean, seemed not to have a clue at the beginning of our 90 minute, two block session.  It was as if he had just entered our classroom for the first time. He had writing on his paper-lots of it, but none of it answered the prompt he’d been given.  My only recourse, given the pact I had entered, was to coach him along by restating small pieces of the directions for him to figure out and fix.  It was an excruciatingly slow process, and as I mentioned, it was painful.

Sean, being a good-natured boy, complied with my directions to keep writing and revising.  To his credit, he did not give up.  Near the end of the hour and a half long session, he had an adequate paragraph that met the minimum requirements of the prompt. Only after he’d finished did I hear his first complaint:  he was tired.  He looked exhausted, yet his face beamed with the joy of accomplishment.  I told him we had exercised his brain today, and I congratulated him for learning. He glowed.

It took a few minutes for me to realize where I’d recently seen such a look. It was just last night.  My son had an unusually rigorous soccer practice.  His coaches ran the team through difficult maneuvers and tiring drills.  The group ran at least five laps throughout the session, compared to the usual one or two.  The boys sweated profusely in the over 100 degree heat.  I thought for sure I’d hear nothing but complaining on the way home. Instead, my son was ecstatic that he’d completed the practice and grateful to be a part of this new team that works him so hard and helps him to become a better soccer player.  I was stunned and thrilled. My son was tired, hungry and elated.

Both boys had toiled without complaint though the task was rough. They both refused to give up, having some innate sense that the struggle would pay off.  They both allowed themselves to be pushed, uncomfortably, to a new and better place.

This afternoon, as I ponder the quality these boys have in common, I know there is a lesson in there for me.  I like my comfort.  I enjoy doing what I’m good at and effortlessly accomplishing my day’s work.  When things get difficult, I look for ways to ease my distress.  I do not welcome struggle.

Yet I am reminded of the verses in James 1:2-3: “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

Endurance.  Accomplishment. Advancement. These are the results of struggle, striving and sweat. How easily I forget that my adversities are times of growth.  How quickly I shy away from the uncomfortable feelings that accompany difficult endeavors.

These two middle school boys don’t know it, but they have been role models for me, by exerting tireless effort without complaining, by welcoming struggle and looking forward to the rewards it will bring. I hope that the next time adversity arises, I will also struggle vigorously, looking towards the improvements in me that will follow.

Kicking Against the Goads

Recently my pastor gave the congregation a challenge. He wanted each person to write down the story of how they came to know Christ. He included a three-point outline in the bulletin intended to help:

1) My Life Before Christ

2) How I Met Christ

3)  My Life After Christ

The problem with such a task for me is that my life doesn’t fit into the three-point outline. I didn’t lead a life of debauchery, interrupted by a salvation moment and followed by a radically changed life.  For years this bothered me.  My story is about a much more mundane person who has been slowly shaped by the Master Creator over the years and who is still a work in progress.

My parents tell me that I accepted Christ’s salvation at the age of three.  I don’t remember the event.  For years, as a child, this caused me worry.  Was I really saved if I couldn’t remember making the decision?  Should I pray the prayer again?  But then, which prayer was the “real” one?  I was looking for the neat, three-point story even then.

When I was in my mid teens I went to camp and made a decision I was sure of.  I would be a Christ follower. That took care of points 1 and 2, but the “Life After,” point 3, was still not the radical transformation I was looking for. For one thing, I hadn’t accrued much in the way of big, obvious sins beforehand, to compare with.  Also, I was still an adolescent, still self-centered and concerned with what I wanted to do.  I didn’t instantly become flawless. I worried that I hadn’t “done” salvation as well as others and wondered what else I needed to do.

It took some more years until the basic truths of Christianity filtered down into my heart. I learned that I was a sinner no matter how small or inconspicuous I thought my imperfections were. I learned that I could not “do more” to redeem myself, but that Christ had truly done it all already when He died and rose again.  He covered me with his righteousness because my own imperfections don’t really go away.  I am always flawed and I always need Him.

I didn’t know it as a younger woman, but I, with all my self-doubt, was in good company. It was that of the apostle Paul, who has an impressive three-point story: 1-Persecuted Christians, 2-Blinded temporarily by a light from heaven while Jesus spoke to him saying, “Why are you persecuting me?  It is hard for you to kick against the goads”(Acts 26:14)  3-Lived the rest of his live preaching Christ’s gospel, exemplifying what a Christ follower’s life should look like.

Even so Paul writes in Romans 7 of his struggle during part 3 to consistently follow Christ. Even though his radical change is obvious in the hindsight of his Bible story, it was not always evident to him.  He lamented of his Christian walk:  “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” (Romans 7:19).  It is, in a way, comforting that someone like Saint Paul would voice the same struggles I feel and need the same saving grace and reassurance that I do.

So I have learned to accept that there is truly no consistency or perfection within me.  My salvation is 100% a gift from the only Perfect Being.  Though I see growth in me, there will never be a faultless point 3 in my story.  My “After” story will most likely continue to be a series of ups and downs,  events where Christ teaches and shapes me, as well as times when I futilely put myself first and resist.

I take heart though in the confusing statement that Jesus made to Paul as the light from heaven blinded him.  “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”  A foot note in my Ryrie Study Bible says that this is a Greek proverb about useless resistance.  A goad was a tool used to prod oxen with to keep them going in a straight line while plowing. I can picture the oxen, at times veering off in a direction of their own and being set straight with a tap of the goads.

I too have been prodded back on track over and over again.  My life, which has felt so haphazard and unplanned at times, has in reality been guided each step of the way.  I hope this will be more obvious someday by hindsight.  I’ve had difficulty going against the goads, like the oxen and St. Paul.  I thank Christ that he cares about this one mundane life and has seen fit to call me and guide me.  And I thank Him that it has been useless for me to resist.