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I’m currently having root canal treatment on a wisdom tooth. Because of the location of wisdom teeth (back of mouth, for any of you non-scientist types), it’s extremely difficult to get to and, therefore, isn’t something my dentist is able to do. For this reason I’m having the treatment done in Leeds…the main advantage of this, aside from the more specialised equipment and experienced staff, is that it costs me nothing. As a training establishment, the Leeds Dental Institute does not charge its patients a penny, saving me hundreds of pounds in this instance.
But there are costs involved. I’ve had five visits to Leeds, and am due two more. Seven appointments add up to nearly 400 car miles, considerable parking fees, and numerous hours Al’s had to take off work in order to look after the kids when I’m gone – not to mention the uncomfortable root canal procedure itself.
Last July, when I first saw my dentist, the choice was root canal or extraction. “What would you recommend?” I asked.
Her answer took the frustrating not-being-able-to-advise-a-patient-not-ever-for-fear-of-a-law-suit approach. “It’s entirely your choice.”
“Well…” I stall as I search for a sneaky way to get some advice. “What would you do?”
It doesn’t work. My dentist simply repeats back to me the two options available, with the textbook pros and cons of each.
Only now, five-sevenths of the way into my treatment, do I wonder whether extraction might have been the easier option. If they’d said, last July “You can either have the tooth extracted now, or you can go to Leeds seven times, an hour and a half per appointment, and have a root canal, which may or may not work” then I might have made a different decision.
When I first became a Christian, if someone had told me what it was going to entail – perhaps listing some of the difficult decisions I’ve made over recent years, or some of the sacrifices – I might not have signed up. But of course I wasn’t expected to make those decisions as a baby Christian, when I might have stumbled and become disillusioned with it all. God, in his perfectly-timed wisdom and abundant grace, does not make demands which are so burdensome they draw us away from Him. Just as I don’t demand that my 1-year-old dress herself, or my 3-year-old read his own stories, God doesn’t expect more of me than I’m able to cope with right now. Gradually – not all at once – does he teach us to become more dependent on Him, illuminating areas of our lives which require His Lordship.
But God does make demands – in fact, He makes the toughest demands I’ve ever heard. Jesus told a religious, law-abiding man to sell all of his possessions. He told a devoted family man to let others bury his father. And, when Peter was trying to be a loyal and supportive friend, Jesus had the gall to rebuke him, saying:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
(Matthew 16:24-27, NIV)
Would I change my decision to follow Christ? Of course not…but it hasn’t been the easier of the two options. Having my tooth extracted, in hindsight, would have been a lot simpler than the complex procedure I’m now tangled up in. But I’m pleased I’m getting to keep my tooth.
Just right now I feel pretty tangled up in Christ. He’s challenging me on so many issues that I’m not sure which way to turn, or what it will end up meaning for me and my family. God is making demands. But I know this: His demands are not ones I cannot deal with. They are ones which will bring my lopsided life slightly more in accordance with His will. This has an implication for how I respond to my fellow believers too, extending grace to them and fighting my natural impatience to see their lives changed for God overnight.
I am learning to hold the two sides of this in balance: the side that recognises God’s gentle and constant nurturing of us, not feeling guilty about sin but bringing it all before Him, with the side that doesn’t shy away from His demands. As I allow God’s light to shine more brightly, the decisions that once seemed difficult begin to fade away by comparison.
I blame Jen Hatmaker.
Well, actually – if truth be told – it’s more the fault of my friend Clare. She made the mistake of buying me ‘7: an experimental mutiny against excess‘. Here is the text I sent her upon receiving the book and scanning the back cover:
Book just arrived – looks excellent! Can’t wait to read it. Never seen it before but it looks just the sort of thing I need to be reading right now.
Ha. This text stinks of innocence – the sort of naivety of someone who doesn’t realise she’s about to get whacked round the face several times with her own excessive lifestyle. Here’s what I texted Clare once I’d read a few chapters:
Just wanted to let you know that Seven is messing me up big time. That is all.
This is not a book review, let’s be clear. But do read ‘7’ – it’ll change your life. There. Now that’s out of the way I can get on with the point of this post.
Which is generosity. Hatmaker and Clare are partly to blame. So is a sermon Desert Dad preached last week on Money and Generosity (10/03/13 – Slowing down in Lent 4: Mastering Money). There’s nothing that challenges you more than preparing a sermon (so I’m told) – and, as Desert Dad and I are kind of in the habit of sharing our money, that was to have an impact on me too. Here’s how last week went for me:
Sunday – Desert Dad preaches. (I miss sermon due to creche blah-di-blah, but he has filled me in.) Desert Dad feels God prompting him in a particular way. He tells me. I’m not convinced.
Monday – I pray. I become convinced of God’s prompting to DD. I also feel God giving me an additional prompting. DD isn’t convinced.
Tuesday – DD prays. He becomes convinced of God’s prompting to me. We wonder whether God is also prompting us about other ways of using our money.
Wednesday – I see the following headline and immediately buy the paper which bears it: “Half of UK children to live below breadline by 2015”. I am not into the news. I’d love to be – but I’m just not. I get my news mainly through Facebook – and as I’m fasting Facebook for Lent, I’m pretty news-less at the moment. So buying a paper is a big thing. God is tugging at my heart strings regarding ‘the poor’.
Thursday – I read this incredibly challenging commentary on Ruth 2. Read it, folks. Oh, and I also read Leviticus – as you do – and am challenged by the idea of a Sabbath year. For six years the Israelites would work the land, sowing and reaping what they needed. In the seventh ‘Sabbath’ year, they weren’t to sow anything, but simply to live off their hard work of the previous six years, trusting that God would provide their needs. This gives me an idea for ‘Sabbath week’, which I’ll write about soon.
Friday – God realises we need a break. Nothing challenging happens on this day.
Saturday – hooray: God believes in weekends. Have a lovely day with friends we haven’t seen for an age. We eat, drink, play, dig and generally have another unchallenging day.
Sunday – OK back to challenging. God pulls at DD’s heart strings again…and so it goes on.
All of this is underpinned by the massively unsettling tones of ‘7’. (Did I mention you should get your hands on a copy of this book as soon as?)
Also – strangely enough – Mister’s bedtime book choice for the week was The Smartest Giant in Town. Again, another great read – but for different reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with this Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler classic, the story is of a scruffy giant who, upon discovering a smart new clothes shop, invests in a smart new outfit. But as he wanders along, he meets various people (OK, animals – I won’t lie) who need his clothes more than he does. He gives his tie to become a scarf for a giraffe with a cold neck. (“It didn’t match my socks anyway.”) His shirt becomes the sail on a boat steered by a goat, while the giant comments, “It kept coming untucked anyway”. He gives his shoe to a family of mice who’ve lost their home, and says “It was giving me blisters anyway”.
As I read and re-read this story to the kids, I was aware of the uncomfortable parallels in my own life. Am I willing to give not just the things I don’t need anymore, but the newest, the best, the smartest – the things I’ve just bought – to those who need them more desperately? I’m starting to feel that much of what I own is ‘giving me blisters’ – possessions cause stress, clutter, dust, worry. I long to live a simple life where the focus is God and my time is spent building relationships which are rich in Kingdom treasure.
There is more – so much more – to write on this, but for now excuse me while I try to put my mind back together again.
Anyone else feeling challenged on issues of money, generosity or simple living right now?
In 1963, two lovebirds got engaged – and promptly parted company. He left for mission work in Japan, while she stayed in England, delayed by the necessity to finish Bible college before moving abroad.
And so began an engagement of letters. For 20 months, the pair didn’t see or speak to each other. Phone communication and overseas travel were both so expensive that they may as well not have existed. When she finally made it to Japan in 1965 (after a 5-week boat journey), the pair were married within a week – no family, no friends from home, no bridesmaids, a service conducted in English and Japanese. These were the demands made of overseas missionaries at the time – and they willingly sacrificed these expectations for the privilege of taking the gospel overseas.
Now, in their 48th year of marriage, my parents are returning to Japan. Not for the 15-year stretch they did the first time round, but for three months, to support a couple who lead a church and run a school. They will be teaching in the school, but no doubt picking up other tasks too, as their gifts, wisdom and experience lead them.
This time round the sacrifices aren’t nearly as immense as the first time round – but they are there none the less. It has taken a little while just to find an organisation who are keen to take on board a couple of crazy septuagenarian God-pursuers. They’ve had to brush up their Japanese, organise for others to use their house and car while they’re gone, and prepare for the long flight.They will miss their family (I hope! – we will certainly miss them), and also that most important comfort: familiarity. Retired people ‘settle down’, right? They find a house and a location where they feel comfortable, and this familiarity is good because, at a later stage in life, it takes less energy than gallivanting around the world.
But my parents aren’t interested in taking life easy if it’s not what God wants. They have been serving God faithfully in their home church, through ups and downs, for the last 14 years of retirement – and they will continue to do so on their return, for as long as God allows. But, for the next three months, He clearly wants them in Japan – and so they’re going. He’s blessed them with good health, and they’re using it for His work.
I hope I have this much faith when I’m as old as they are. I’m incredibly proud of my parents, and wish them well on this God-adventure.
2013, I have decided, is my year of celebration. And if ever there was a time to celebrate, now is the time. We’re getting ready to celebrate sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and the extraordinary hope of new life, motivated by a love that pales even the strongest human love into dull grey. Forget bunnies and chicks – this year, my friends, I want to celebrate Easter with a joyful exuberance befitting of its life-changing significance.
There are just two problems.
1) The Easter story is one of incredible joy – at the end. The rest of the story is filled with pain and suffering and anguish and mockery and beatings and humiliation and betrayal. Not easy to come up with a colour scheme for all that.
2) Easter should be bigger than Christmas, as far as Christians are concerned. But Christmas has become over-commercialised – we all know that – so how do we prevent Easter from going the same, horrendously materialistic route? And, even if our celebrations are not overly material, how can we keep our minds from being preoccupied with the celebrations, rather than the reason for it all?
I have come up with a few things. I’m not going with everything I brainstormed at the start of the year because, mindful of my latter point, it would be counter-productive to stress myself (and my family) out with too many little details. Also, this year my church is ‘slowing down’ for Lent – another reason to check my priorities, and spend this time with God, not planning Easter trimmings. (To read more about ‘slowing down’, check out the blog I wrote this week for my church womens’ group.)
My aim in all this has to be: to help our family understand and engage with the Easter story. So I’ve rejected ideas which wouldn’t work yet while my kids are young – or those which might distract us from worshipping Jesus more. Here’s what I’m left with:
1) We’ve already started some of the Easter stories from Alice’s wonderful blog (scroll down for Easter). If you have preschool children and you haven’t yet got the message about how much I LOVE Alice’s creative and playful re-telling of Bible stories, then you have a treat in store. (And you’re also probably blind and/or deaf. Get with it people – I’ve been moaning on about Play on the Word for an age.) My 1-year-old is riveted, wanting to listen and join in when she can. My 3-year-old is deeply moved (and so am I – man, I’m going to be a wreck when he leaves home). He’s asking questions and responding to the story in powerful ways.
2) I’ve just painted a hotch-potch collection of little Easter figures. There’s Jesus, the three women who stayed close, two angels, two criminals crucified alongside him, and two Roman soldiers. (These were my low point. Not so much soldiers as grey-haired, tabard-wearing nursery teachers.) OK, I’m not an artist. But we’ll use these figures – plus some rough crosses my lovely Dad helped me make – to act out the Easter story in our home over the next couple of weeks.
3) Lent eggs. Similar to an Advent calendar, but lasting just a week. (Can you imagine trying to count down all 40 days of Lent with a 3 year old?) I have seven plastic eggs, and will invite the kids to open one each day from Palm Sunday onwards, so we can count down to Easter Sunday together. In each will be two small chocolate eggs – one each – as well as a clue to the day’s activity – for example: making Easter cards, hunting for an Easter sticker book, making chocolate Easter egg nests. I hope that this build-up helps the kids to realise what a special day Easter is – and that the individual activities will help encourage conversation about what it all means.
4) We’ll make resurrection cookies on Easter Saturday. This is SUCH a cool idea you just have to take a look – I won’t up my word count unnecessarily. (And, again, I’m indebted to Alice for posting this link on her blog originally.)
In future years I’d like to explore how we can use Easter as a time for giving. If we’re celebrating new life and new hope, then it’d be great to consider ways we could give a new start to people in our community. I’m not talking huge presents for my own kids, who already have far too much, but perhaps giving away some of our stuff to those who are desperate for it, or making something personal for a friend who’s having a rough time, or writing letters or cards to encourage others, or giving money to local charities. A small start this year is that we’ve grabbed a few real Easter eggs and will be giving them to Joel’s little friends – a kind of Easter/farewell present, as we prepare to leave York.