Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review - The Final Chapter

It's getting late on New Year's Eve and my eyes are starting to get heavy.  I'm fighting to keep my eyes open for the ball drop, but we'll have to see if I can make it or not.  In the mean time, let's take a look at the final few resolutions and how I did with them in the year 2010.

8. Journal at least twice each week.  Believe it or not, this actually happened most weeks in some guise.  For the first half of the year, I was journaling constantly.  I took some time earlier today to scan some of those entries and am thankful that they are not meant for public consumption!  In May, however, I turned my attention to blogging.  The rest of the year became a mix of public blogs and private journal entries.  I am thrilled with the outcome and I'm looking forward to more blogging in the coming year.....I just hope you find my random discourses as entertaining to read as I do.

9.  Complete one cross-stitch project.  I am so close to accomplishing this goal but will sadly fall short of completing it before the year 2010 comes to a close.  If December had not been such a hectic month and I had gotten just one more day of quality stitching in, I would have made it.  Much of today has been spent frantically back stitching the current piece, but my eyes just became too heavy to continue.  Although I have not been stitching all year, I have realized again how relaxing the repetitive process is to me.  I hope that I will seize opportunities for needlework in the coming year once again.

10.  Read 52 books.  This is the second year this goal has been on the table and once again I missed the goal significantly.  Sadly, I didn't make any improvement on the total of 38 books that I read in 2009.  The grand total for 2010 comes to 29 books read.  This is yet another resolution that will reappear in 2011.  One of these years, I'll meet that goal.  For those of you interested, here is the list of books I read during the year. (Parenthetical dates indicate when they were completed.)

1.  Redefining Children's Ministry in the 21st Century:  A Call for Radical Change - Becky Fischer (1/5/10)
2.  The Concubine's Daughter - Pai Kit Fai (1/15/10)*****
3.  The Unmotivated Child:  Helping Your Underachiever Become a Successful Student - Natalie Rathvon (1/21/10)
4.  The Rest of Her Life - Laura Moriarty (2/4/10)
5.  Basketball Jones - E. Lynn Harris (2/9/10)
6.  Still Alice - Lisa Genova (2/24/10)
7.  The Magician's Nephew - C. S. Lewis (2/28/10)
8.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis (3/5/10)
9.  House Rules - Jodi Picoult (3/18/10)*****
10. The Horse and His Boy - C.S. Lewis (3/27/10)
11.  Deeper Water - Robert Whitlow (4/5/10)
12.  Higher Hope - Robert Whitlow (5/6/10)
13.  Look Again - Lisa Scottoline (5/25/10) *****
14.  The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom (5/30/10)
15.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer (6/2/10)
16.  Greater Love - Robert Whitlow (6/13/10)
17.  The Unlikely Disciple:  A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University - Kevin Roose (6/24/10)
18.  Broken on the Back Row - Sandy Patty (7/13/10)
19.  Home Safe - Elizabeth Berg (7/20/10)
20.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender (8/2/10)
21.  American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld (9/30/10) *****
22.  Every Last One - Anna Quindlen (10/9/10)
23.  The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown (11/10/10)
24.  The Tenth Circle - Jodi Picoult (11/21/10)
25.  The Choice - Nicholas Sparks (12/10/10) *****
26.  The Perfect Christmas - Debbie Macomber (12/18/10)
27.  Cast of Characters  - Max Lucado (12/22/10)
28.  The Real Mary:  Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus - Scot McKnight (12/26/10)
29.  My Name is Mary Sutter - Robin Oliveira (12/31/10)

2010 is now officially in the history books.  I have been blessed beyond measure.  I have been forsaken by some who called me friend.  I have learned lessons about my own strength and character.  I have no regrets, but I do look forward to the New Year and all the possibilities that it brings with it.  I pray that you have a healthy, prosperous, blessed 2011!

Kennith

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 in Review - Part 2

Tonight, I want to look at the last of the spiritual resolutions that I made for the year and begin looking at some of my personal goals. 

4.  Read through the entire Bible.  Sadly, I must admit that I have never accomplished this task in a single year.  I don't become frustrated where you would expect -- in the Laws and the prophets -- since I find these passages fascinating.  Where I struggle is when I hit the familiar stories that I've heard since childhood.  I find myself getting bored when I know what is coming next.

I've tried so many different approaches to reading the text that I now struggle to find one that I think might work.  I have stumbled upon one that I plan to use in 2011.  It's published by Discipleship Journal and has only 25 selections each month;  the absent days in the schedule allow for the inevitable period of getting behind in the reading.  I'm not trying to study Scripture with this approach;  I simply want to get a good overview of how things are put together.  I am really praying that 2011 will be the year that I finally do this and stop feeling guilty about it.

5.  Travel to one U.S. city I have never visited.  There were no problems accomplishing this one.  In addition to my normal visits to Houston and Los Angeles, 2010 also took me to three new cities -- Honolulu, Branson (Missouri), and Frankfort (Kentucky).  Obviously, I loved my time on the island and treasured getting to explore its landscape with a dear Pepperdine friend, Tiff.  I think we even saw a rare red whale that had gotten washed ashore.....or maybe not......my memory is fading! 

Branson was a berg that I had always avoided.  I pictured a place filled with geriatric patients on walkers listening to lots of country music.  What I discovered is that Branson is a charming little place that has something for everyone.  The food was great and I thoroughly enjoyed the Chinese Acrobats show.  I'm already scheming to see if I can escape for another weekend soon.

Frankfort was a business trip - one of three job interviews I had in 2010 - so I didn't get as much time to explore as I would have liked.  However, I was fascinated by the city and hope to get back there as well when it's not quite as cold so I can walk the historic downtown area at a leisurely pace.

6.  Schedule one event each week for my personal enjoyment.  This was more difficult that I thought it would be.  Holding three part-time jobs makes a balanced schedule an impossibility at times.  I will gladly admit, though, that I did a much better job of taking care of myself this year than I have in the past.  I consciously found time to attend movies, operas, plays, and readings as well as frequently scheduling mini-vacations throughout the year. 

I plan to keep this resolution for another year, but with some modification.  Movie nights at home can suffice (thank you, Netflix!) as well as quiet afternoons in the park, bookstore, or library.  What I learned is that by attempting to define "personal events" I had backed myself into a corner and made what was supposed to be relaxing another source of pressure.  Lesson learned!

7.  Lose 20 pounds.  Most of you know that I have struggled with my weight for most of my life.  I've never considered myself morbidly obese, but carried enough extra weight that I didn't feel good and battled low self-esteem as a result of my body image.  Weight Watchers was not something I enjoyed necessarily, but I accomplished the goal and lost 20 pounds early in the year. 

Sadly, life happens and focus shifts.  As life became more frantic and my parents grew less disciplined in their weight loss efforts, we all resorted to old habits and regained some of the weight.  I'm not back to my heaviest, but some of the clothes that I bought to reward myself for losing the weight are beginning to feel a bit tighter.  That means that January 2 will be the beginning of another round of Weight Watchers.  I'm expecting more success this time since I know I can lose the weight.  Now I just have to determine in my mind that I am going to finish what I started. 

That's if for tonight.  Tomorrow night I'll take a look at the final 3 resolutions......and we'll ALL find out if I finish the novel I'm reading right now and the cross-stitch project that is in the hoop.  (Always so dramatic....I'll do ANYTHING to keep my loyal readers in suspense, won't I?)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 in Review - Part I

As the year draws to a close, many are reflecting over their experiences, successes, failures, and blessings.  Others are looking forwarding to the new year and all the possibilities that it holds.  I'm no different and I decided to take you on the journey of reflection with me.

I have always enjoyed New Year's Resolutions.  Like many people, my resolutions were often left in the dust by mid-February each year.  Last year, a very wise friend told me to change my view of resolutions and see them as "dreams with deadlines."  Additionally, he challenged me to divide my life into various arenas (spiritual, professional, etc) and come up with a set of resolutions for each.  By realizing that these were nothing more than dreams, they never became a source of guilt or stress;  rather, my resolutions for 2010 served as guiding goals to keep me on track.  Each morning, I have seen this list of 10 resolutions taped to the mirror in my bedroom.  Over the next few days, I will reflect on my experiences in each area and let you know how I did with each of my resolutions.

Without further ado, here are the 10 resolutions that guided my actions during the year 2010.
  1. Submit an article for journal publication.
  2. Perform a chamber recital.
  3. Complete 4 Bible studies/ministry studies.
  4. Read through the entire Bible.
  5. Travel to one U.S. city I have never visited.
  6. Schedule one event each week for my personal enjoyment/relaxation.
  7. Lose 20 pounds.
  8. Journal at least twice each week.
  9. Complete one cross-stitch project.
  10. Read 52 books (the equivalent of one per week).
Before we begin, I will freely admit that I did NOT accomplish all of my goals that I laid out in my resolutions.  I am very proud to say, however, that I did take steps toward accomplishing each of these to some degree.  Let's begin by taking a look at each resolution individually and seeing how things turned out.

1.  Submit an article for journal publication.  Right away, we come to a resolution that did not get accomplished this year.  I have several drafts of various papers written, but nothing quite went the direction I intended or I ended up in territory about which I was unqualified to authoritatively speak.  I have learned more about the process and the timetable that I need to follow in order to complete an article.

On a side note, however, the pursuit of journal publication shifted slightly in the summer to establishing a blog about music.  My blog Collaborations is still rather young and has faced some difficult times (especially as the fall semester came to a close), but I have been very pleased with the positive feedback I have received from respected colleagues in the field.  I anticipate that 2011 will see a heavy emphasis in the return of quality blogging in my resolution list.

2.  Perform a chamber recital.  It may be appropriate to call 2010 the year of the recital for me.  I presented a total of 7 recitals this year in 5 states.  In addition to the classical recitals, I also served as musical director of Crittenden Youth Theater's Spring production of Pinocchio.  Not to be left out, my church job had its fair share of performances this year as well -- including a very successful Kidz Music Camp using the musical Livin' Inside Out in an Upside World and the adult choral production of The Reason for Christmas

Of all of the performing, three engagements stand out in my mind.  In May, I traveled to Houston, Texas to collaborate for the first time with clarinetist Jere Douglas.  Jere has become a valued friend and colleague;  I look forward to our next musical endeavor together in May, 2011.

I have directed Kidz Music Camp for several years now and feel very confident in my ability to produce a quality show while ensuring that the students have a good time.  This year's show was probably my favorite experience ever.  The students were joyful, the music and choreography was fun, and the ministry was authentic and of eternal significance.  There can be no greater combination.

Finally, the last recital of the year with Marty Bishop in Jonesboro ranks as one of the best musical experiences of the year.  As I mentioned in my review of the recital over on Collaborations, Marty is a gifted musician who doesn't forget the value of friendship and kindness.  The music was good;  the experience of making music was enjoyable -- the perfect way to end the year's music making.

3.  Complete 4 Bible studies/ministry studies.  I missed the goal a bit here, but I completed 3 of them.  The year began with an online study of Christian Education Philosophy.  I completed the study, but don't anticipate doing another online class anytime soon.  The other participants were not terribly active in the discussion, so I was left to my own resources much of the time.

The other Bible studies that I completed were very personal and spoke directly to me at crucial times of the year.  My mother and I formed a "small group" (if you can call it that with only 2 participants!) in our home and completed two of Beth Moore's studies:  Esther and Daniel.  Yes, I am fully aware that these studies were intended for a female audience, but I cannot begin to express how mightily these Bible studies spoke truth and challenges into my heart.  Of these two, my favorite was Daniel hands down!  Mom got a few weeks behind due to some eye infections so I'm still getting to review and digest this challenging material. 

The Bible study bug has bitten hard in the Freeman family.  We are already planning our next "small group" study beginning in February and are adding a few more members to our circle.  We'll be starting out with another Beth Moore study:  Jesus, the One and Only.  I'm already getting excited to dive into the depths of the life of Christ early in the new year.  (If you're interested in how we are pulling off the family small group without breaking the bank, let me know.....I'll be happy to share.)

Tomorrow, I'll pick up with resolution #4 on my list......

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Story of Four Global Positioning Systems

Christmas morning was great here in cold Arkansas although we did have a humorous situation in the midst of the joy.  Let me see if I can paint the picture clearly for you.

Christmas shopping falls exclusively to me most of the time.  Holiday trips to the mall begin with my mother.  I attempt to find gift options for her to give to everyone on her list.  Needless to say, this can become rather difficult each year as I end up showing her the item that I was planning on giving.....and she takes it.  At first, this was very frustrating.  Now I know it's inevitable and just means that I will have a shopping adventure later in the season.

This year things turned out a little differently though.  For the Thanksgiving holidays, my parents and I traveled to Conroe, Texas with my brother and his wife to visit family.  Since I was teaching a Monday evening class, I wasn't able to leave until late that evening.  My brother and parents left early Monday morning.  To insure that they would have some clear directions, I suggested that Dad take his GPS with him.

When I arrive in Conroe on Tuesday, Mom tells me that she already knows what she is giving my brother and his wife for Christmas -- a GPS.  After the surprise wore off (Mom NEVER comes up with gift ideas) I realized that this was actually a great idea.  Mom continued to tell how O'Neal and Patsy had commented that they would like to have GPS in their cars.  Dad off-handedly commented that we might want to give the GPS to them before Christmas to make sure they didn't buy them for themselves.  Black Friday rolls around, I find a great deal online for the navigation systems, and the items ship.

Fast forward to Christmas morning.  Mom and I have been cooking much of the morning and Mom is dressing for the day when my brother arrives.  One of the first bits of conversation reveals that O'Neal had received a GPS for Christmas from Patsy.  I grin and drop my head, knowing what is about to happen.  Of course, everyone laughs and begins to ask if I bought one for them as well.  By this point, Oneal's daughter crawls across the floor to whisper that she is giving her dad a navigation system as well. 

Once Mom rejoins the festivities, we exchange gifts with my brother and his family.  The laughter and glimmering eyes as O'Neal and Patsy open their second and third GPS's of the day were priceless.  By the time they receive the fourth, we are contemplating opening a retail store specializing in these navigational devices! 

In all the years that we have exchanged gifts, this has NEVER happened before in my family.  The comedy continued on Christmas evening after everyone had left.  Mom sat on the couch making plans for next Christmas.....trying to come up with a gift-giving plan that will insure this doesn't happen again....and to keep the fun alive.  "O what a tangled web we weave....."

I'm still celebrating the holidays, so I'll continue to close with a jolly "Merry Christmas!"
Kennith

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cast of Characters by Max Lucado

Have you ever felt as though you were unable to do anything right?  Ever wondered if God made a mistake when He created you.....not sure that you REALLY had a purpose for being?  I suspect that if we are honest, we have all struggled with these questions at some point in our lives.  It can be incredibly frustrating when we feel as though we are nothing more than common....and that sometimes feels like a stretch.  In his book Cast of Characters, New York Times best-selling author Max Lucado explores the impact that some common people have had on their world when they came in contact with their powerful God. 

Many of the chapter titles read like a hall of fame of Scripture:  Matthew, Lazarus, Moses, Joseph, David, and Esther.  By exploring the lives of these common characters at their points of exhibiting great human frailty, doubt, fear, and crises of faith, Lucado teaches that no one is worthless when they willingly place their lives in the hands of a loving God.  Consider the implications of this powerful paragraph from the book's concluding chapter:

     The reassuring lesson is clear.  God used (and uses!) people to change the world.  People!  Not saints or superhumans or geniuses, but people.  Crooks, creeps, lovers, and liars -- he uses them all.  And what they may lack in perfection, God makes up for in love. (Lucado, 220)
As you begin to make your resolutions for the New Year and dream of how things can be different, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Cast of Characters and allow your Heavenly Father to remind you of what He can do in the lives of common people like you and me who place themselves willingly in the hands of an uncommon God.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Yesterday, I finally took the time to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and must admit that I was thoroughly impressed.  The acting was quite good, the effects were amazing (as usual in this series), and the plot was very true to C.S. Lewis' beloved book.  As you might expect, my mind immediately went to the implications for any parents and children who might see the film.  Here are a few of my thoughts and suggestions for taking the learning further.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows Lucy and Edmund as they return to Narnia again to meet up with Prince Caspian.  Sailing in pursuit of seven missing lords, the children face temptations of greed, rebellion to authority, and jealousy.  When reading Lewis' book, it was difficult to clearly see the connection between these temptations and children;  in the movie, the reality of these temptations in the lives of children is crystal clear.  A young child will understand and relate to Edmund's desire to be in charge and Lucy's wish to be as pretty as her big sister.

A few of the underlying themes are not quite as clear, but open some valuable doors for parents to enter into dialogue with their children.  First (and possibly most importantly) is the concept of spiritual warfare.  In the film, a green mist reeks havoc on the people of Narnia and appears each time an evil force is at work.  As our heroes delve deeper into realms of darkness, the mist carries with it their greatest fears and reminders of past failures.  The children attempt to combat the mist within their own logic and positive thoughts;  unfortunately they are powerless against the mist.  It is only when Edmund uses the Sword of Aslan that the children are released from the power of the mist and the darkness is driven away.  As I left the theater, I was impressed by the powerful visual image presented of the truth contained in Ephesians 6:12  -- "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."  Our children need to be aware of the presence of evil forces that come against them and that their only defense is with the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  (Ephesians 6:16-17)

A second important story line surrounds Eustace, the cousin of Lucy and Edmund.  Eustace stumbles upon a treasure and places a golden band upon his arm.  Without knowing it, Eustace has found a dragon's treasure;  the consequence of taking the riches is turning into a dragon.  While in the form of a dragon, Eustace is helpful but continually desires to return to his former state.  It is not until Eustace realizes his own frailty and has a personal encounter with Aslan that he is released from the form of a dragon.  This subplot can be used with younger children to introduce the idea of salvation changing us from the inside out.  Eustace's attitude and heart change on the inside long before he is changed on the outside.  For older children, consider discussing the concepts of spiritual bondage and deliverance, regeneration, or the importance of solitude (devotion). 

I am interested to see where the Narnia series goes next.  At the end of the film, Reepicheep passes into the Land of Aslan (Heaven) and both Lucy and Edmund are told that they will not be able to return to Narnia.  It will be interesting to see if the films maintain their commercial success without the presence of the four Pevensie children.  It is my hope that Caspian and Eustace will be able to entice audiences to return to the land of Narnia for future installments.  The teaching opportunities and the quality entertainment are something I hope to see continue through the entire seven books of the series.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

'Tis the Season for Baking

It's been too long since we've talked and I have missed you so much.  Rather than going into a lengthy explanation, I think I will just dive back into the writing.

In my family, the holidays are all about spending time together.  For my mom and me, our time is spent in the kitchen baking all sorts of goodies.  (And we wonder why we all have weight issues!  That's a completely different discussion and something to explore AFTER Christmas.)

Baking is a chance for us to remember treasured memories and make new memories together.  Here are some photos of our recent adventures in the kitchen.

My earliest memories in the kitchen with Mom revolved around cookies.  Traditionally we would bake M&M cookies or chocolate chips.  They were yummy, but not always very pretty.  Several years ago, we bought a cookie shooter from a friend;  this year, we decided to finally open the box and try the gadget out.  For a first try, I think they turned out pretty cute!  Some of the templates were more difficult to use than others (that explains why we have Christmas umbrellas on the plate!).  The cookie is a butter cookie;  nice and firm to hold the shape, but a little lacking in flavor.  Later this week, we're going to try a sugar cookie dough in the shooter to see what we end up with.


Candy making has become my department.  Having perfected my version of cherry divinity, I decided to try my hand at peanut brittle this year.  The recipe was surprisingly easy and wasn't a lot of hassle.  The great thing is that the peanuts didn't scorch, the brittle isn't so hard that you nearly break your teeth when biting, and it's delicious.  My parents and I have nearly eaten all of it;  requests have already been made to make more next week before Christmas!  Definitely a keeper of a recipe.


Since we spend so much time in the kitchen, Mom and I wanted to have some Christmas decorations there as well.  I put the pictures here for two reasons.  I think they turned out cute and I want a memory of my gumdrop tree.  My fingers are STILL sore from shoving all those blasted toothpicks into the Styrofoam tree.  Not sure that I'll make another one of those for some time.  Oh yeah....someone forgot to tell me that NO ONE in my family eats candy canes anymore.....something about acid reflux disease. 


Last, but not least, the elusive Red Velvet Cake.  This was a holiday tradition during my childhood visits to Texas.  The cake is associated with good memories and has become one of my favorite holiday treats.  Several years ago, Mom and I tried our hand at making the cake and it turned out amazingly.  Sadly, the weather was unusually warm and there was no room for the cake in the refrigerator.....so the cream cheese icing went sour!  Since then, this cake has become our annual search for the Holy Grail.  You see, we were foolish and didn't earmark the recipe we enjoyed so much (a common trend in our house);  now each year is a search for the perfect recipe.  This one turned out fine, but doesn't have any cocoa in it.....and it is definitely missing the added kick of flavor.  Oh well, that just means we have to make another one next year!

Hope you are all enjoying your holidays and making memories with your friends and family that will last for years to come.

Kennith

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Waiting for Superman

In the craziness of late October, I found a few hours to take in the film Waiting for Superman.  The movie was thought-provoking, insightful, and frightening.  Painting a picture of education in America, Waiting for Superman unapologetically addresses several important issues with a no-holds barred approach.

The most frightening statistic to me was the lack of regulation of teachers.  In most situations, once a teacher is licensed (immediately after graduation), they are rarely given a thorough review again.  After two years of service, many districts award tenure to teachers -- regardless of skills or performance, making it more difficult to relieve under-performing teachers of their duties.   Consider the implications in other professions.  Lawyers and doctors who are found to be doing their jobs poorly are stripped of their authority to continue to practice.  Is the education of America's youth a less important pursuit?  Teacher evaluation must be standardized across the board.

When we become aware of the state of American education, it is easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed.  What can we possible do to change the situation?  Most powerfully, we can be informed and involved.  We as members of the voting public are the only voice of our nation's children.  In nearly every election cycle, new legislation is brought before us that will impact education.  To insure that students receive the best we have to offer, we must educate ourselves about the options, research the implications, and make our voices heard.

Our involvement must go beyond the voting booth.  Studies suggest that the best performing schools have a high level of community involvement.  Teachers and administrators cannot solve the problems we face in our education system;  if it was that simple, it would have been taken care of long ago.  However, when educators partner with interested individuals in their community, great change can take place.  What can you do?  Most adults (regardless of their educational background) can provide valuable assistance in some aspect of our education system.  The mere fact that an adult believes in a child's ability is often all that is needed to move a student from "high-risk" to "highly successful."

So what's your choice?  Will you continue to point out the problems with American education while refusing to get your hands dirty?  Or will you become actively involved in the process in some small way, becoming part of the solution to the students in your community?  Together we CAN make a difference!

Monday, November 1, 2010

On Assignment

Today, I had a pair of unexpected lunch companions who challenged me by their conversation.  I was joined by one of the students I tutor on a regular basis and her friend.  What began as a simple conversation between two non-traditional students and me took a decided turn towards issues of significance and eternal importance.

One of these Godly women began to share how she viewed her time here at the college as a Divine assignment.  She clearly stated that she did not confuse it with a specific ministry within the Body of Christ;  she is sure of her ministry calling to teach.  Even though her educational pursuit was her choice, she recognized the hand of God at work in regard to the choices she made and the people she encountered daily.  Rather than focusing on the interruptions of her day as an inconvenience, she chose to view them as additional assignments - an opportunity to impact her world with the Good News of the Savior.

I came away from that cafeteria table challenged and convicted.  What impact could I make if I viewed my many interactions as assignments and opportunities rather than merely inconveniences that interrupt my plan of action.  In the midst of my daily life, it becomes so easy to focus on the task being performed and lose sight of the people I encounter on the job.  What life-giving words may I speak?  How can I impact another's life?  How can they influence me?

What a huge challenge to me - and it was presented by a stranger in the midst of a busy lunchroom.  If I had followed my comfort-seeking inclinations, I would have walked away from the table and missed the entire lesson that was intended for me.  How I want to be alert and receptive to the many opportunities I have - even when I don't find myself in my optimum situation.  As I begin to see each opportunity presented to me, I will begin to fully discover and fulfill my life's purpose -- and THAT leads to real fulfillment and joy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Overcast Skies

I suppose I am still a little confused right now.  I am writing from Arkansas, but my mind is definitely at the beach.  When I was in Malibu last week, the skies were overcast throughout my stay - a very unusual situation for this time of year.  I found the weather strangely comforting;  in many ways, the "skies" in my personal life are overcast as well.

Let me be very clear from the beginning of this post.  I do not think I am depressed.  I don't have an impending sense of hopelessness or despair.  Rather, I am just dealing with a case of the blues.  I am ready for a change in my life and anxious for the warmth of the sun's excitement again.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all face times of gloominess.  Things don't go the way we had planned.  We find ourselves restless, unsatisfied and discontented in our current situation.  We are not in a dark place, necessarily;  the skies are simply overcast.

Overcast skies are not always a bad thing.  When things are not exactly the way we had hoped, we begin to actively seek the beauty in our lives.  We reminisce on previous times when the sun was shining brightly and we turn our eyes toward the confident hope that the sun will shine once again.  Most importantly, we begin to take stock of our plans and dreams, revising them in preparation of the new dawn, and refocusing the central aspects of our dreams.

It's encouraging in a strange way to spend some time facing overcast skies.  Right now, I'm looking carefully at some things in my life and bringing my dreams before the Master of the Wind and Rain, asking for His input, direction, and blessing.  Instead of focusing on the overcast skies that I'm facing at the moment, I choose to look forward to the promise of sunny days ahead. 

It's time to put away the umbrella, my friend.  It won't rain always!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reconnecting

Recently, I returned home to Malibu for Waves Weekend.  The event combined the activities commonly associated with Homecoming, Family Weekend, and Midnight Madness.  The weekend featured two other events that were very dear to my heart:  the 40th anniversary of the University Church of Christ and a fraternity education session of Psi Upsilon fraternity.

Throughout my time in Malibu, I encountered people who were extremely important to me while I was in school.  Teachers, friends, ministers, and roommates.  I am incredibly blessed that many of these people continue to be active parts of my life through the technology of social networking sites, speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and challenge to me on a regular basis.

Perhaps the most special reunion of the weekend was one that occurred away from the eyes of others in the quietness of a cool southern California night.  A friendship I treasured during college had disintegrated into nothingness due to my hurtful words among other things.  How exciting to sit with my friend and deal with things that had long been avoided.  What I thought was irreparable began to be restored during the weekend.  I was prepared to lavishly apologize for my many wrongs;  when the time came to meet for the first time, I was greeted with a warm, kind smile and the statement that I had been sorely missed.  You cannot imagine my relief!  I wanted to apologize, but I wasn't looking forward to dealing with the guilt that would follow.  Knowing that I was already forgiven made the apology much easier and the time we shared more enjoyable and special.  I am thrilled to have reconnected with my friend and look forward to the next time our paths cross....I'm just hoping it will be soon rather than later!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Drought is Over!

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about the difficulty I termed "reader's block."  I am happy to report that I was able to find time to return to reading and am once again enjoying the world of fiction.  What book marked my re-entry into reading?  American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Sittenfeld makes it clear that his novel is loosely based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush.  Beginning with her childhood, Alice, Sittenfeld's fictional representation of Bush, is seen as a demure girl in a middle-class family.  Tragedy strikes and Alice's world begins to topple.  In the midst of her uncertainty, Alice meets Charlie Blackwell, the son of a wealthy former governor.

American Wife traces Alice's response to her husband's bid for the Governor's Office as well as the Presidency, but these story lines pale in comparison to the examinations of Alice's feelings at the death of her grandmother, her search for acceptance from her in-laws, and her attempts to save her marriage from ruin due to her husband's alcoholism.  Filled with humor, wit, and intelligent writing, Sittenfeld's novel is a charming read for all Americans -- regardless of your political leanings.  The novel does slow a bit in the final segment as political issues relevant to the Bush administration are addressed; by this point in the novel, however, the reader has become invested in Alice's story and plows through the rhetoric.  A worthy read!  My rating:  4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ma-Maw

Earlier this week, while sitting in the dining room, I noticed this picture of my mother's mother, Ma-Maw.  (You cannot imagine how long I sat trying to decide how I was going to spell that title.  Finally I decided that since this post will consist of my thoughts and memories, that my chosen spelling will be fine!)  My feelings about my grandmother are both wonderful and painful.  Even as I write now, I am fighting back tears.

Much of the sadness is associated with a level of frustration on all that I missed out on.  My grandmother passed away in February, just a few days before my birthday.  As well as I can recall, I was about to turn six.  My older brother and sister have such wonderful memories of this loving woman. In a way, I guess I'm jealous.  I know the stories, but that's all they are.  Cancer cheated me out of truly knowing Ma-Maw.

It's fairly easy to tell the things that I remember about her, because they are few and far between.  My memories of her home are associated with pictures I have seen; the only vivid images I can recall are those of the family gathering at her house after her death.

I have an image in my head of her in my home, looking out the front window.  Mom was either home from a recent surgery or was on her way home.  That's where the memory stops.

Looking at her picture and hearing the stories are tough.  How I long to have a memory of her voice, her laugh.  Sadly, that memory is not to be for me.  My experiences with a grandmother (Big Mother) was one in which I was always trying to perform, to prove that I was worthy of love.  Sadly, that's what I associate with grandparents.

I regret not knowing my grandmother but know it's not something I can change.  All I have are a couple of faint memories, photographs, and stories.  They are not nearly enough, but I hold onto them, knowing that one day soon we will be reunited in Heaven.  After seeing Christ and all the beauty of that place, I plan to find Ma-Maw and sit by the Crystal Sea for a nice long chat -- just me and her.  It's long overdue and we have so much to catch up on.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Week of Movies

Last week, I made a choice to take some time for myself and do some things I enjoy.  The result was seeing three films over a period of seven days:  Legend of the Guardians, What If, and Social Network.  Rather than doing three separate reviews, I thought I'd just lump them all together here.

I had high hopes for Legend of the Guardians which were quickly crushed.  The animation was beautiful; the music was nice.  The story itself was boring and uninspiring.  I watched moviegoers young and old leave the movie after devoting an hour to the film.  At that point, I considered leaving as well; I decided that the comfortable chair and some mindless activity was a better use of my time than leaving.

I have heard from many that the book the film is based on is great.  All I know is that the film did not inspire me to grab the book!  I went to see Legend in order to be informed about the film in case I was asked about it by parents in my church.  There are definitely some teachable moments -- discussions about believing in what you can't see permeate the film.  However, the undertones of Eastern mysticism and New Age ideologies keep me from recommending this film for children.  All things considered, the best part of this movie outing was the previews.  Mega-Mind and Nutcracker 3D both look promising.  My rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

Am I the only one who was completely unaware of What If?  This film features Kevin Sorbo and John Ratzenberger in a movie that explores how different life would be if we were given a second chance to follow God's will rather than our own.  Without being overly preachy, the film presents sound theology in an entertaining and believable story line.  I would recommend this film for youth groups as well as adults;  there are great possibilities for discussions of a spiritual nature.  The film has been out for almost a month, so it may not be in theaters much longer.  Definitely worth the effort to see if possible.  My rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars.

The last film of the week was Social Network.  I had mixed feelings about this story of the roller-coaster development of Facebook.  As I watched the process that lead to the creation of the website, I was fascinated.  About halfway through the movie, Justin Timberlake's character enters the scene and becomes more central than I would have liked.  Honestly I found his performance far superior to those of the young actors in the leading roles.  As we move back and forth between legal depositions and flashbacks, I found the plot to be predictable.  Was I looking for a scandal?  Maybe...I really don't know.  I did find the ending to be a bit of a letdown.  I would probably suggest my friends see the film because of the fact that Facebook has had such a tremendous impact on our generation, but not because of the movie's entertainment value.  My rating:  3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Daniel Week 4

Chapter 4 of my study of Daniel has been intense.  This week focused on King Nebuchadnezzar's second dream and his season of senility. The overall theme of the week might best be summed up this way:  "The choice is yours -- humble yourself or be humbled by God."  It's not a lesson that sounds inspiring to study for a week, but I have been blessed and challenged as I've explored the passage.

As I looked at the discipline God sent to Nebuchadnezzar, I was initially excited.  I saw King Neb's sinfulness and thought "This is going to be great!  Let's revel for a while in watching God root out some wickedness!"  As I continued the study, I quickly had to come to terms with my own sinfulness; the lesson to be learned was not for someone else, but for me.

First, I was encouraged by observing that repentance was a way to avoid God's chastisement.  In Daniel 4:27, Daniel tells the King that there may be a way to avoid the coming disaster:  "Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed."  Isn't it a relief to know that God's desire is not to destroy us?  He wants to bring us to repentance that results in restored fellowship with Him.  Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar refused to repent and suffered the consequences.

Even when we are disciplined, God's hope is to restore us and not to destroy us.  In the dream God sent the King, the tree was cut down and stripped of its leaves and fruit.  In the midst of all the devastation, notice the glimmer of hope:  "But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field." (Daniel 4:15)  Daniel later points out the significance of this statement to the King.  "The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules."  (Daniel 4:26)  In the midst of discipline, God includes a loving plan for full restoration.

Do you remember the last time you received correction from God?  I certainly do.  Believe me, it's not a memory I like to dwell on.  When I do think back on it, I see how God protected me from total destruction, allowing the painful pruning of only what was sinful in my life.  As soon as I renounced my sinfulness and declared His Lordship, the loving process of restoration began.  As a result of this week's study, my view of this time of Godly correction has changed.  No longer do I remember God's anger and wrath;  rather, I see His discipline as an example of His eternal faithfulness to work all things for my ultimate good!  What a tough lesson it was to learn, but I'm so glad I did.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Quilts

I suppose my Southern upbringing has a lot to do with it, but I have always been intrigued by quilts and the quilting process.  There's nothing quite as lovely as a patchwork quilt that has been delicately stitched by hand.  In my home, quilts are found everywhere and are in use year round.  Without over-analyzing things, when I feel the weight of a quilt on top of me, I know that I am safe, relaxed, loved, and at home.

My father's mother was an avid quilter during her lifetime.  She pieced the tops by hand from scraps of material.  During the fall and winter months, an enormous quilting frame replaced her dining room table.  This woman whom we called "Big Mother" supplied warmth to all her children during her lifetime.  Each of her grandchildren were the recipients of one of her handcrafted masterpieces.  Despite any other feelings about Big Mother, one had to respect the artistry and dedication each quilt represented.

Last spring, I traveled to Hawaii and saw the traditional quilts made by the natives.  Although I desperately wanted to purchase one, practicality won out and I returned to the Mainland with only a print of a few of the quilt symbols used by the Hawaiians. 

As you have seen from my earlier post, I am a fan of needlework.  I think my appreciation for quilting goes beyond the technique alone.

Quilts tell stories.  The Hawaiian quilts use specific icons to share the story.  In the South, the message is conveyed through the pattern, the materials employed, and the stitches themselves.  Some of my favorite quilts now grace the beds of my family.  Their geometric patterns are reminders of life's consistency and the promise of hope.

In a similar manner, quilts are reminders of our past.  One of my favorite pieces is now tattered and rarely used in an effort to preserve it.  It is not prized because of its hideous orange color, but because of my fond memories from childhood of rolling up in the soft patchwork and exploring a world limited only by my imagination.  Other pieces hold memories of illness and painful losses.  All of them are a quiet, comforting reminder that wherever I may roam, there will always be a place that I can call home.

As a fitting tribute to my Big Mother, I am including a few photos of some of my favorite quilts.  They may not be of great material worth, but to my family, they are a treasured heritage and a reminder of who we are.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Roadtrip Anyone?

I love to travel.  Doesn't matter whether I'm going to the mountains or the beach, visiting friends or spending time alone.  Give me a few days off and I am making a run for it.  Give me half a chance and I'll find a way to make a trip happen.

I first discovered my passion for the open road during college.  Attending school in southern California gave me lots of opportunities to see new things.  It also meant that I would spend a few weeks every year driving cross-country to be home with my family.  These trips gave me confidence that I am self-sufficient and taught me that some of the greatest memories are not found at the final destination, but on the journey.

When do I travel?  I tend to make a trip whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed and that I can't take it anymore.  When I travel, though, I rarely am resting.  I am trying to fit in as much as I possibly can while I'm away.  I can rest at home;  I have to get away to play.

It's time for another trip.  It will not surprise many of you to hear that I am going to Los Angeles for a few days next month.  I'll be seeing friends from school and making new friends as well.  Most importantly, I'll be escaping the regular routine of my life.  The fall is such a busy season for me;  this annual trip is the way I survive.

I'm grabbing my map, suitcase, and sleeping bag and getting ready.  It may be a short trip and might be the only time I can get away for a while, but I'm going back to the place I left my heart...and I'm already counting down the days!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Daniel Reflections - Chapter 3

This week's study focused on the familiar story of the three Hebrew children that faced a furnace since they refused to bow to the King's golden image.  I have known the story since childhood and have taught it to kids on numerous occasions.  This week, I saw the story in a way I had never considered.

I don't think I had ever fully realized the faith displayed by the Hebrews.  To stand up with integrity while facing the threat of a roaring furnace took confidence.  I suppose Beth Moore best sums it up when she shows us how these men understood that God was able to deliver them from the fire, or to deliver them by the fire safely into His arms.  Certainly they were hoping for escape.  The alternative was not as bad as it would first appear.  It seems they had overlooked a third option:  God could deliver them through the fire.  Thankfully -- for them and for us -- that's precisely what He did, too!

I see a problem approaching and beg God to deliver me.  When He doesn't, often I begin to feel hopeless.  How blessed to see things from a fresh perspective.  God sometimes permits me to face fires so He can bring me through them and strengthen my faith.  How do we get to this point of view?  We must not neglect to see the mini-miracles God performs along the way.

In Daniel 3, we focus our attention on the huge miracle of the Hebrews coming out of the fire.  Too often, while looking for the big deliverance, we miss seeing God's hand at work.  Did you ever see the miracle that they boys survived their journey to the mouth of the furnace?  It killed the soldiers who led them to their doom, yet they survived.  Coincidence?  Certainly not.  It's an example of a mini-miracle of God.  It's not accompanied by applause or lightning, but if we take notice of it, our faith and resolve are strengthened as we wait for God to bring us through the fire.

I continue to find myself in the middle of my own fiery furnace.  This situation seems to be burning hotter than anything else I have faced and it feels as though I've been waiting for God to show up for a really long time.  This week, I have been encouraged, knowing that I'm not waiting on Him.  Instead, I know that He is already with me in the middle of my fire and is bringing me through it.  So now I'm learning to look for His mini-miracles as I wait for my ultimate deliverance.  In the meantime, I choose to walk around in this furnace with my Lord.  I may not be out of the fire yet, but my Spirit is free because He is with me and I don't have to face the fire alone.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Knick Knacks

In my home, every nook and cranny is filled with some sort of knick knack.  I have always detested those two words because of their sound as well as what they signify.  I never understood WHY anyone would collect random items that held no significance.  My parents have gathered many knick knacks over the years.

Dad's items of choice are bottles of various types and salt-and-pepper shakers.   The bottles are the most frustrating to me.  We have six pack cases of unopened soft drinks that are identical in style and not entirely out of the ordinary.  Why keep all six?  Doesn't one hold its place in the collection?  The salt-and-pepper shakers come in all varieties as well.  Dad has everything from cows and milk jugs to snowmen and Aunt Jemima.  I admit that I have added to this collection myself; not knowing what else to give my Dad, I brought back a set of hula dancers from Hawaii last spring.

Mom's collections are cyclical.  We went through the "shadow box" period -- anything that was in miniature form was something she wanted.  I think she finally came to her senses when she had to take everything out and dust the boxes as well as each minute item.  My family later went through geese season.  There were ceramic birds everywhere:  in the bathroom, on the kitchen counter, and randomly sitting in the living room floor in front of the television.  The birds have migrated north although a few of them still have nests in our home and simply refuse to leave.

While I have tried to avoid my parents' compulsion for knick-knacks, I must confess that I have picked up their habit of collecting.  I have two collections:  decorative plates and various poster prints.  Fortunately, my collections are rather small at this time.  I have 3 plates that are hidden at the back of the corner shelf in the dining room -- a catch-all space in the house.  So far, I have managed to keep the plates specified to those that are related to musical themes.  The prints are simply things that I like.  Most of them are either framed prints of shows that I have done or places that I have visited.  I do look forward to the day that I have my own home where I can display this more sizable collection in an appropriate way.

I suppose knick-knacks tell a story in themselves.  They reveal a bit of the collector's story while holding treasured memories that can be passed down for generations to come.  Perhaps it's time I spend an afternoon revisiting my parents' knick-knacks and listening to the stories associated with each of them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waiting, Ever Waiting

Patience is not one of my greatest virtues.  I despise waiting for people who are late to appointments.  Nothing irritates me more than waiting for someone to do things they have committed to do.  When I sit at my computer, I want it to start up faster, perform quicker, and virtually stay a step ahead of me.  I know it's impractical, but I try to follow through as soon as I can once I make a decision and I want everyone and everything else in my life to do the same.  Making the decision is not something I rush;  I want to know what I'm committing to before agreeing to anything.

I was reminded of my impatience last Friday when I made a return visit to my Alma mater.  I decided to attend my first piano studio class since graduating in 2009.  I was going because I had run into Madame Professor earlier in the week to learn that she had completed the recommendation letter I requested immediately after graduation.

I wasn't surprised that the process had taken nearly two years to complete.  Madame was never known for her punctuality.  Most of her piano students came to learn that it was pointless to arrive at any lesson on time.  She would never be ready to begin.  For several years, I consistently had lessons at the beginning of her day -- normally around 2pm.  What this meant was that I would park my butt on the floor outside her office and get in 30 minutes of reading before she arrived for my lesson.

On Friday, I stayed after class to catch up and ask about the recommendation.  Imagine my shock (Can you hear the sarcasm dripping from that word choice?) to learn that it was at her house and she was preparing to go out of town for a week.  Thankfully, I have other recommendations on file, so I am able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

I suggested that she simply mail the letter to me.  I told her I would scan it here so I would have an electronic form readily available.  When Madame asked if I would be able to do that easily, I had to bite my tongue!  Whether I have a scanner or not, I am confident that it will be easier to generate an electronic copy since obtaining the hard copy has been such an adventure.

So here I am -- continuing to wait.  Oh well, it's just part of life, I suppose.  I'll wait for her to return from her journey to the Northeast, call her at home the evening before going BACK to studio class, and try the whole process all over again!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thoughts from Daniel 2

After completing week two of Beth Moore's Daniel, my heart is filled with worship and my mind is stretched by all the history I've encountered.  As I think over all that I have learned, three points rise to the surface.

1.  "Rule for victorious living:  when the stakes are high, bow low."  (Beth Moore, Daniel, 37)  Daniel's life was on the line if he could not tell the King exactly what he had dreamed and what it meant.  Rather than fretting, Daniel recognized the Source of all knowledge and took the situation to God in prayer.  Oh, that I would grasp this truth wholeheartedly!  Life will be so much better when I stop worrying about how to fix things and run with my concerns to the One who has designed a perfect plan for me!

2.  "There is a God in Heaven..." (Daniel 2:28)  When asked to tell the king what was revealed, Daniel was careful to explain that the revelation came from God and not from His own insight.  When a person performs in any way -- whether interpreting a dream or playing a musical instrument -- the response of many observers is to focus on the individual's skills.  Like Daniel, I want to make sure that praise for anything I do or say goes straight to the Heavenly Father, the Words and the Music of my song of praise.  I am merely an instrument chosen to share the Song with the world.

3.  Victory is certain!  In Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the statue is awesome and terrifying.  In the end, the statue is completely destroyed by the Rock not cut by human hands.  The statue represents various kingdoms of the earth -- many of which were oppressive to the people of God.  Society continues to persecute believers on every hand.  The good news is that victory is certain!  We don't know when, but we do know WHO!  In the middle of all my turmoil and stress, may I remember that Christ's return is imminent and that He will bring justice and peace.  My heart cries, "Even so, Lord Jesus, COME!"

Friday, September 17, 2010

Looking for Laughter

When's the last time you enjoyed a side-splitting case of laughter?  I'm not talking about a chuckle of amusement or a school girl giggle.  What I'm referring to is uncontainable, rolling laughter rising from the depths of your being.  For far too many of us, I fear that it's been long overdue.

Laughter releases tension from the body.  It often comes when we accept the fact that we have taken ourselves too seriously.  Laughing is a sure sign of joyfulness and is highly contagious.  Quite simply, laughter makes us feel good.

Since it's such a pleasant experience, why do we sometimes permit ourselves to go so long without experiencing it?  We become obsessed with the demands of our lives, never feeling as though it is permissible to simply let our hair down, relax, and give over to the joyful sound of a hearty guffaw.

It's been too long since I've enjoyed a laugh -- more than just a passing moment's snicker -- but a laugh that encompasses my entire being.  Tomorrow I will conduct an in-depth search in pursuit of this missing element.  I am confident that I will find it because I will seek it out with impassioned determination.  I will rediscover laughter and I will be the better for its return to my life just in the nick of time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's in a Name?

One of the first decisions parents make in the life of a child is what name the child will carry for the rest of his life.  Many times parents select a name that has special significance in their family, carrying the parents' hopes and dreams for this newborn's future.

The name given to me by my parents is Kennith Terrell.  For many years I despised my name.  The unusual spelling of my first name created difficult circumstances on a regular basis.  My middle name, however, was always the major culprit of my misgivings about my name.  I did not (and continue to not) like it;  I do not find it unique and enchanting.  To my ear, it sounds as though I should be sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch of a shanty nursing a piece of hay in my teeth while holding a nondescript brown jug of liquid courage in my hand.

My perception of my name is not the same as that of my parents.  I was named after two Godly men that were important in the early years of my family:  Kennith Staggs and Terrell Bishop.  If I recall the stories accurately, both of these men were pastors at the church my family attended before relocating to the Memphis area shortly after my birth.  Over the years, I have been introduced to my namesakes but have never had the good fortune to develop a legitimate relationship with either of them.  By naming me after them, my parents forever linked me to these men and established their deep respect for both Kennith and Terrell.

By naming me Kennith Terrell, my parents were also giving voice to their hopes for my future.  In choosing my name, my parents were expressing their hope that I would live my life in such a way to bring honor to God and point a dying world to the Savior.  I don't know that their hopes included me being actively involved in ministry, but I find it interesting that I am following in the footsteps of the men from whom I take my name.

In ancient societies, children's names held specific meanings.  While the names continue to retain meaning, it is less often a major consideration today.  My first name means "Handsome One."  Even though that wasn't why the name was selected for me, it is good to know that my parents got that aspect of my name right, too!

In our society, our name continues to have a specific meaning, but its meaning is associated with our personal reputation.  Depending upon when you met me in life and how we first interacted, the name Kennith Freeman may mean "loyal friend"; "trusted confidant"; "scholar"; "teacher"; "pianist"; or "hard worker."  The truth of the situation is that our actions daily redefine our name's meaning.  I have to constantly guard my actions to make sure my name is meaning what I want it to in my corner of the world.

What meaning does your name have in your family and among your colleagues?  Reflect on the reasons your parents chose your name and how it has impacted your life.  Regardless of what your name means to those who know you now, find comfort in the fact that you can begin to redefine the meaning of your name by your actions today.  That's good news in my book!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Choose Joy!

It appears as though my writing over the last few days has been leading to this post.  I awoke this morning and realized that I'm tired of the emotions that I have been experiencing recently.  After some thoughtful and prayerful meditation, I looked at myself in the mirror and simply said, "I choose joy."  This post will primarily serve as a personal reminder of the truths I learned today; in the process, I hope that they will act as a source of encouragement to you as well.

Stuff happens.  It's that simple.  Life comes at me with its good times and bad.  Friends will fail, opportunities will pass me by, dreams will be shattered, and I will be offended.  Like it or not, it's simply how the world works.  These things are beyond my control.  Rather than emphasizing what I am powerless to change, I want to focus on what I can do.

I choose joy!  My response to situations is the key to how circumstances effect me.  If I focus on the negative things against which I am powerless, I will respond with a negative attitude.  When I find the positive aspects of every situation, I will begin to respond in a more joyful manner.  Even as I write this now, I admit that it seems overly simplistic, almost a "pie-in-the-sky" approach to life.  Yet there is a Biblical parallel.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people "I'm calling for Heaven and earth to give witness against you this very day.  I'm offering you the choice of life and death.  You can choose either blessings or curses.  But I want you to choose life."  (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIrV)  It's really that simple.  In every situation, our response is a choice we can make.  Making that choice, however, is dependant upon our focus.

A Matter of Focus.  So what will you focus on:  the situation that brings you down or the One who promises to be with you always?  Will you allow the betraying lies of a formerly-trusted colleague to tear you apart or focus on the One who declared Himself as Truth that came to bring you freedom?  Rather than fretting over the missed opportunity that could have fulfilled my dreams, I choose to trust in the One who declares that He has plans for me that will bring me success and hope for years to come (Jeremiah 29:11). 

Check your focus with me today.  Let's agree together to keep our eyes on Jesus and allow His joy to become the source of our strength in the most difficult times (Nehemiah 8:10).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Daily Grind: Drudgery or Dynamite?

Like most people, my days are filled with work.  My work day might appear different as I wear lots of hats and travel to various workplaces throughout the week.  I assure you, however, that my work can also be a drudgery sometimes.  Imagine regularly fielding questions about when you are finally going to get a real job.  I won't make this post a soapbox about the legitimacy of my profession even though these constantly expressed sentiments are often both frustrating and insulting.

The question I want to explore here is about pleasure in the workplace.  Is it possible to move things from drudgery to dynamite?  I understand that bad days are inevitable and are par for the course.  What I'm talking about are when days stretch into weeks and months that are filled with dread and irritability at the prospect of going to work.  Circumstances -- especially people that you must interact with on the job -- are beyond your ability to change.  The only thing that you can realistically change is you -- your attitude, your choices, and your spirit.  Is it enough?  Can these changes take the drab job to a dynamite one?

I have been frustrated with my work situation for some time.  It's tough trying to balance three part-time jobs, especially when I feel as though I have to leave for the next job as soon as I begin to accomplish things at the first one.  The problem is further compounded when it feels as though my expertise is questioned by those who are significantly less qualified.  I long for the day that I have a full-time position instead of three part-time jobs.

So what's a guy to do in the meantime?  Up to this point, I have chosen to grin and bear it, accepting the impact that the ignorance of others can have upon me.  Now I'm realizing that a more proactive approach is both appropriate and acceptable.  I can express my opinions professionally and with authority without developing a bad attitude.  That's something I can control.  How?  By insuring that I am taking care of myself spiritually and emotionally.  I have a tendency to want everyone to like me.  Here's a news flash for you -- THEY DON'T!  They never have and they never will.  I can either perform my job with mediocrity to save their fragile egos from being offended or I can perform the tasks that I have been hired to do with the greatest level of excellence I can muster.  If you know me very well, you know that excellence in all things drives me.  If you want to send me packing, stifle my input -- especially in areas that I can make significant and insightful contributions.

When I push myself to be the very best, I find excitement and joy in the challenge.  Often I have wondered how I would know when it's time to move on professionally.  I thought the answer lay in my happiness; now I am thinking that the challenge is more important.  In the midst of difficult circumstances, I can find happiness as I am allowed to challenge myself to be all that I was created to be.  Once that creative freedom is taken away from me or significantly shut down, that's when it's time to move on and find my next opportunity for growth and happiness in my career.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pursuing Integrity

As you may recall from last week's posts, I have begun a personal Bible study based on the book of Daniel. Beth Moore's teaching and writing are excellent, so I don't intend to summarize her work. What I will do is make a few comments on points that have stood out to me and share where my thoughts went as I studied Daniel 1.

The first thing that grabbed my attention is how powerfully this study is mixing with the ministry that's going on at my home church right now. Hang on a minute and you'll see the connection I'm making. In Isaiah 39, we read of King Hezekiah showing all the treasures of Judah to King Baladan of Babylon. Hezekiah's pride was motivating his actions; as a result of his pride, Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when the treasures of Judah would be taken by Babylon.

Remember the post about Joseph in the pit? Joseph's prideful actions landed him in a heap of trouble. If both Joseph and Hezekiah paid dire consequences because of their prideful actions, is it really surprising that pride can be the root of many of the problems we get ourselves into today? Definitely something worth considering!

Once in Babylonian captivity, Daniel and his young friends were taught the culture and traditions of Babylon. . . as well as the best the land had to offer. Daniel denied himself the choice foods of the King's table because consuming these ceremonially unclean foods would have been in violation of God's laws. Furthermore, sharing a meal signified friendship and acceptance. That was not a message that Daniel wanted to send to his captor.

Can you imagine the pressure Daniel and the three Hebrew children must have felt? It seems to me that these four boys were not the only ones being trained for the King's service at the time. This seems to be supported by Daniel 1:10 when the King's official asked Daniel, "Why should [the King] see you looking worse than the other young men your age?" While other boys – probably even other young Judean captives – were choosing to enjoy the pleasures of Babylon, Daniel and his friends displayed great integrity by saying "no" despite the prevailing consensus that surrounded them.

Do I have that same level of integrity? How often do I find myself skirting around issues, choosing to accept the comfortable (although somewhat questionable) action rather than standing for right in the midst of opposition? Sadly, I must confess that it happens more often than I want to admit. I have been indoctrinated by the modern Babylon that I live in to believe that such choices are acceptable.

Daniel was not some super-human. He simply resolved within himself that he would be faithful in the midst of a faithless society. Daniel 1 does not suggest that he refused the training and education that the Babylonian society offered. Education and knowledge are not presented as a source of evil. Rather, it appears that Daniel embraced learning of all kinds while filtering it through the foundation of his faith. This was extremely beautiful to me as a lover of learning. Beth Moore makes this point so eloquently:

Whatever Babylon taught them, God interpreted to them. They learned the language, literature, and customs all right, but only so God could use them in the midst of it. They read the language of their culture with the lens of God. Thereby, they became culturally relevant without becoming spiritually irrelevant. Against all odds, they retained a God-centered worldview so that ultimately the world could view their God. [Beth Moore, Daniel (Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2006), 26.]

At the beginning of this new week of Bible study, my prayer is that I will be both culturally and spiritually relevant so that the world I encounter daily might see Jesus in me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Need for Affirmation

At some point, everyone needs to be told that they are doing a good job. When we think of affirmation, our minds most often go to our work in our chosen profession and the need for positive reinforcement from our superiors. While such affirmations are desirable, I have found this week that affirmation from our peers as well as those who are under our authority can sometimes be even more rewarding.

Earlier this week, I shared a meal with a friend who serves tirelessly in my local church. They are consistently willing to do anything that is asked of them. What I did not realize was that they were feeling that their work really was not making a significant impact on our church family. What a pleasure it was to share with them the impact that I saw their actions making. As we talked, I noticed that their eyes gleamed with tears as they were given this unsolicited feedback on a job well-done. Were they working in order to receive accolades? Certainly not. Now that they know someone has noticed their efforts and has affirmed that they are making a difference, I have seen their attitude change. I expect that it will be easier for them to choose to take on new responsibilities when asked in the future. Everyone wants to know that they are making a difference!

This week, I was affirmed in an unexpected way. Before my music appreciation classes began, one of my students commented on how annoyed she became by her fellow students who consistently asked questions that had just been answered in lecture. She proceeded to express that she was certain that it had to be frustrating to me as well. However, according to her, I display grace and patience in these situations with my students. The affirming student may never fully understand how powerful her words were. After a rough and restless night, I was not feeling graceful or patient on that morning. Her kind affirmation reminded me that there are those I serve daily who appreciate my efforts. I gathered my strength, refocused my thoughts, and had a wonderful day with my students – all because she took the chance to speak positively into the life of another person.

My blogging has also been affected by receiving affirmation. I don't have many followers on my blog, so I thought that very few people were actually reading my posts and that they were essentially only for my personal benefit and enjoyment. Then I heard from a friend how much she enjoyed reading my writing and missed them when I didn't post. Talk about a boost to the ego! I know I'm not writing the Great American Novel, but knowing that someone is reading my posts is certainly an encouragement to always give my best effort.

Think of a time that you received some much needed affirmation. Remember how good it felt to get that unsolicited praise? Do you recall how your productivity sky-rocketed? Recollect how your energy for your task was renewed as a result of the positive feedback. Share that gift with someone this week. Make note of the effort they are making in some area and send them an email or card – or give them a call – and let them know that you appreciate all they are doing! Sit back and notice the impact your affirmation makes. Not only will their efforts continue, but you will see them serving with a new level of confidence and joy. You'll feel pretty good about yourself, too, knowing that your words impacted someone in such a significant way. Give it a try today…you'll be glad you did!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reader’s Block

Do you find yourself experiencing difficulty from time to time doing tasks that you know are beneficial to you? I am in one of those periods now, but it's been dragging on a bit longer than I would like. The issue is what I lovingly call "reader's block." Like writer's block, it is the inability to complete any reading task that I begin. It's frustrating for a number of reasons. First – and most importantly – I honestly love to read. There have been very few times since graduating from high school that I have not had my nose in a book. I believe that reading stretches the mind, introduces you to new ideas, and entertains the imagination. I have made efforts to pass my love for reading to those dearest to me in my family; thankfully, I can count four others (Mom, Patsy, Jacqs, and Kristian) that share the reading bug with me.

When I am actively reading, I will normally complete a novel in about 5 days. Sadly, things are not at that place at the moment and haven't been for some time. Summer is normally a season of incredible reading and enjoyment. This year, I have only read 3 books since July 1; the last of them was completed on August 2. (Yes, I can be very detailed about these dates. I set a reading goal for myself each year as part of my New Year's resolutions and keep a list of the works I read. You'll probably see a complete list of my readings at the end of the year here on the blog.)

It's disturbing to me that I haven't finished a book in over a month. It's not that I haven't tried. Actually, I have started four separate books since that time, but nothing is able to grab my attention. I've gone into non-fiction, inspiration, and beach reads….nothing works. I know that the last month has been stressful for me; that's part of the reason I am so upset that I'm not reading! Reading a good book transports me to a different place where someone else's problems become the focus of my thoughts rather than the reality of my own life. In a way, I guess you can call it an escapist tendency.

What do you do when you find yourself wanting to complete a task, knowing that it will be beneficial to you, but still can't find the motivation to complete it? I'm getting so desperate at the moment that I may even try to read *gasp* science fiction!

For now, I'm going to watch a little television, get ready for tonight's recital, and hopefully find a new book to start that might bring this reading drought to an end.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mining the Depths

Last night I finally began a new Bible study. I have now begun my journey into 12 weeks of study in Beth Moore's Daniel. For those of you who are convinced that Beth Moore's Bible studies are only for women, I challenge you to reconsider. While it is true that her studies are presented in a women's ministry format live, I have found that relatively little of the material is directly solely at women. Regardless of whether you choose to participate in a Beth Moore study or some other Bible study, hear the encouragement here: GET INTO BIBLE STUDY!

Last week while teaching my music appreciation class, it became clear that my students were not applying themselves to study outside of the classroom. I reprimanded them rather harshly, informing them that if they waited until the last minute, they would not be able to absorb all the information and would not perform well when the test came around. As I sat by myself later that day and allowed my mind to reflect on what I had said, my spirit was quickened and I began to feel convicted. It was as though God Himself were saying to me, "What a hypocrite! You expect more from your students that you are willing to commit yourself. You aren't devoting yourself to study of My Word in preparation for life's testings." The thought was clear and could not be missed; I was neglecting an important part of my life and it had to be corrected.

While I continued to think about my personal Bible study, I tried to justify myself. I was faithfully reading my Bible daily and praying. Why was I feeling this need for deeper study? Then it dawned on me. I don't expect my students to simply read their textbook in a casual manner and call that "studying." Just as I expect my students to pour over the text, grapple with its difficult passages, and seek out understanding and application, so God expects the same thing from my study of His Word. As a final blow to my attempted justification, I recalled that II Timothy 2:15 is not an optional instruction; we are commanded to study the Word of God in order to be approved by Him as workers that don't stand in His presence in shame. Something had to change….and it had to happen quickly.

I could go into a detailed explanation of WHY I chose this particular study at this time or the benefits of having a teacher (even one housed on a DVD), but I will just say that I realized that I needed to mine the depths of my Bible and find what new treasures await me there. I'm looking forward to spending some quality time in the Old Testament book of Daniel where I'll explore what it means to live a life of integrity in a world that supports anything but personal integrity. Why don't you join me on my adventure by making a personal commitment to increasing your level of study for the next three months? I have a feeling that if we do it, we will be changed for the better. All I know is that I'm ready for the dive……

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Resting from Labor

I trust that you all had a very enjoyable Labor Day surrounded by friends, family, and food.  In the midst of a very busy time, the holiday was the perfect break for me.

Whenever my family gets together, you can rest assured that there will be food -- and lots of it!  During the summer months, Dad is often found outside, grilling all types of treats.  Yesterday's menu featured steak and chicken along with various sausages.  To complete the table, Mom added twice-baked potatoes, rolls, and a Heath Bar cake.  Our refrigerator is stocked to capacity with all the leftovers.

In an unexpected turn of events, I found myself with limited mobility due to some problems with my back.  Rather than spending time in the kitchen and at the piano, I parked it in Dad's recliner with the heating pad and Tylenol close at hand.

Since I was forced to sit still, there was little to occupy my mind.  I know myself.  If I think about things or begin to make plans, I become restless and irritated.  I did make use of my time though.  Since learning the art of cross-stitching as a third grader, I have always enjoyed creating pictures with needle and thread.  Normally I keep this information to myself since such activities are not considered masculine by many in the Bible Belt.  You can imagine the comments and teasing I have endured over the years.  Anyway, the movement of the thread through the fabric has always been relaxing to me and something to keep my hands busy when I need some time away from the piano.  I also like watching the image emerge from nothingness - a visual representation of a piano piece's development.

So -- just for the fun of it -- I am including a few images of some cross-stitch pieces I've completed over the years as well as a snapshot of the status of my current project.  Hope you enjoy looking at them half as much as I have enjoyed making them.

Here's my prized possession:  a Thomas Kinkade English garden.

My family is especially fond of this piece. Framed as a unit, I took photos of each half so you can see some of the details as well.



And now....for the moment of the truth.....the work in progress!  It's the beginning of a Thanksgiving sampler.  Not much to see at the moment, but you'll see where things are at the moment.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Good News In the Pit

Last Sunday, Pastor brought a great word about Life in the Pit that was based upon the Biblical account of Joseph's life found in the book of Genesis. Throughout the week, I have found myself returning to this familiar story and considering its implications to my life. I wanted to share with you a bit of what I have come to understand.

The pits are a part of life. No matter how much we would like to avoid finding ourselves in these unpleasant times, all of us will spend some time in the pit. While our time in the pit may be the result of another's actions, most often we will find that we are responsible (at least partly) for the circumstances that led us into the pit. I must admit that I struggled with this idea at first. As I looked at the life of Joseph, I never thought that Joseph had any real responsibility in his brother's actions. As I continued to ponder the story, however, I came to see that there may have been some pride in Joseph's life that drove his brothers to tossing him in the pit. His colorful coat was a constant reminder to the other eleven brothers that Joseph was the favored one – the one on whom Jacob lavished his gifts. No wonder the brothers were jealous of Joseph! Joseph didn't make any effort to ease their anger either; he wore the coat every chance he got. The brightly colored coat is probably why his brothers were able to recognize him as he approached from a distance. (see Gen. 37:18)

Life is sometimes a roller coaster. As we look at Joseph's life as a whole, it becomes clear that his circumstances shifted from extreme highs to the deepest lows. Consider these highpoints of this story. He is favored by his father and received a treasured gift. This makes his brothers so jealous that they throw him in a dry cistern. When he finally escapes the pit, he is sold into slavery in Egypt. His master is kind to him, but the master's wife lies about Joseph and he lands in prison. While in prison, he receives favor with the jailer and the respect of the other inmates. Sadly, they forget all about Joseph when they are finally released from jail. Can this be real? Joseph's emotional state could have easily been tossed about with each new situation. He could have easily fallen into depression and thrown a huge pity party for himself. I think Joseph discovered something else – a secret – while he spent time in the various pits that plagued his life.

Even in the pits, there is good news! This revelation has meant the world to me this week and I hope it will be a source of encouragement for you too. The writer of Genesis constantly points out some shimmer of hope when describing Joseph's circumstances. Notice these verses from the narrative; emphasis has been added by me. "They [his brothers] took him and threw him into a cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was not water in it." (Gen 37:24) "Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar….bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him here. The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…." (Gen. 39:1-2) "But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden." (Gen. 39:21) It would have been so easy for Joseph to simply focus on the negative aspects of his circumstances. Rather, Joseph chose to notice the positive aspects of his situations. Sure he was sitting in a pit, but at least he wasn't going to drown there since there was no water! Yes, he was a slave, but he was prospering while in Potiphar's house. If we can learn from Joseph and focus our attention on the positive aspects, even the most dreadful situations become hopeful.

My mind immediately traveled back to the life of the Apostle Paul. Paul was plagued throughout his life by a "thorn in the flesh." This unnamed trouble could easily be considered a lingering pit in the life of Paul. While he prayed repeatedly for the Lord to remove the pit, God chose not to give Paul the answer for which he hoped. Rather, God gave Paul these words of comfort and endurance: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (II Corinthians 12:9) What a peaceful thought! Even while Joseph was in the pit, God's ever-sufficient grace was present, making his circumstances bearable. The same promise holds true in our circumstances. In our deepest points of despair, our Heavenly Father promises that He does not desert us and makes our load light. I pray that Paul's response may become my personal song as I face life's pits: "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:10)