“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”— Philippians 2:3-7 (ESV).
Two recent conversations led me to think about the vast cultural and behavioral differences in the United States. One of the women resides in a northeastern state and was visiting her mother in Oklahoma. The other woman is a recent transplant from a western state.
During the first conversation, the woman who was visiting commented on the attitude differences between people in her community and this one. Her observations led to the conclusion that people in this state are friendlier, more helpful and more caring.
The second conversation mirrored the other woman’s observations, adding specific incidents she had noticed. She noted the small courtesies, like holding the door open for a stranger in a public place and being made to feel welcome in her new community, including her new church family.
Later that week, I had the opportunity to visit with two older women who have always lived in this area. Their lives exemplify Philippians 2:3-4. Both are well-known for their giving, loving and humble spirits.
Trying to punch my pillow into submission, I tossed and turned in the unfamiliar bed, hoping to get some much needed sleep before I spoke at a women’s event the next morning. I never rest well in a hotel bed. I doubt I’m alone.
However, it wasn’t just the strange surroundings leading to my insomnia. I was emotionally, mentally and physically drained. Not only had I been in preparation for the speech I would give the next day, I was also preparing for an upcoming week-long event in Colorado, where I would be speaking twice at a writer’s conference.
In addition, I was trying to juggle my own writing and marketing schedule and keep up with life—the responsibilities and commitments of everyday living. As I lay in the hotel bed, I not only wrestled with my pillow, I found myself, like Jacob, wrestling with God. It wasn’t the first time.
Even before we say a word, God knows what we need.
After almost 13 years of writing this weekly column, I was struggling with my calling—the one God had led me to after I left my 30-year teaching career. I’ve not missed a week, nor have I reused one of my over 600 plus columns. My calling was not part of my post-teaching plans but God’s redirection. How much longer would He ask me to continue?
As I spent countless hours that night praying for sleep to come, my frustration led to crying out to God. I wanted to give up. I needed a fresh vision for my life. I needed to know if He wanted me to continue on this path. Did He have something else in mind? I begged God for clarity because I know He is the author of peace, not confusion.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms”— 1 Peter 4:19 (NIV).
When I was a teacher, one of the questions many of my high school seniors struggled with was what to do after graduation. Some were focused, knowing they were on track for college, higher vocational training or military service. Others planned to go immediately to work after school ended, while some struggled with their future choices. Even some of those on a chosen path were often uncertain about choosing a major field of study, basing their decision not on a passion for the career, but on the rewards of a lucrative paycheck.
In later years, when I had an opportunity to visit with some of these graduates, I discovered some were disillusioned with the path they had chosen for the sake of monetary gain. Their career choice left them with an emptiness they couldn’t understand.
In an article titled “Frederick Buechner on Calling: Your Deep Gladness & The World’s Deep Hunger” by Ryan Pemberton, the author writes the following: “In his refreshingly witty spiritual lexicon, ‘Wishful Thinking,’ Buechner points out that the English word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin word vocare, ‘to call,’ which ‘means the work a person is called to by God.’”
Additionally, says Pemberton, “‘Calling’ assumes a caller. As Buechner notes, for the Christian, this Caller is the living God.”
Concerning vocations, Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Glancing out my kitchen window several weeks ago, I saw a squirrel stealing seed from the feeder on my back deck. They had not bothered my feeders all winter. I rapped on the window and laughed as he scrambled away, almost falling to the ground in his haste to escape.
Numerous oak trees grow on my property, attracting the squirrels who love to gather the acorns carpeting my lawn. I enjoy watching their antics. The previous winter, I’d hung out suet feeders, which they hadn’t bothered.
This year, I hung several seed feeders because I love the variety of birds drawn to them. The beauty of each, even the sparrows, which are not as colorful as the cardinals, woodpeckers and finches also flocking to feed on the seeds and suet, leave me in awe of God’s creation.
On a recent warm day, after the last frost, I decided to clean out my front flowerbed. In front of my large living room window, I had placed a shepherd’s hook to hold three seed feeders. As the birds feasted at the feeders, their activity had left seeds scattered on the rich soil in my beds. As a result, tall green grass had sprung up.
After cleaning out the unwanted grass, I told a friend I should have placed the feeders underneath some of my oak trees where the grass doesn’t grow very well in the shade. However, I don’t know if the bird seed would have sprouted there since the soil is not as rich.
The first time I was nudged by the Holy Spirit to give away a prized possession, I admit to reluctantly obeying. However, I can attest to the overwhelming joy I received when the woman, who was the recipient of the necklace I gave her, began to cry.
For me, it was the start of a lifelong habit to begin paying more attention to that still, small voice to be more generous with my time, my money and my possessions. The necklace I mentioned above was a gift from my sister. On the simple silver chain was a small cross. The woman who had admired it worked at a fast food chain. I learned later she worked two jobs to support herself and her family.
While I treasured the gift from my sister, I know God treasured my generosity more. But, I received a greater gift when I gave the necklace away. It’s a paradox many don’t understand.
According to dictionary.com, a paradox is “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” Synonyms, or words that mean the same or almost the same, include contradiction, absurdity, inconsistency and mystery. But that’s the mystery of generosity, at least for those who don’t understand God’s economy.
In an article by Michael O. Garvey, he discusses the “empirical evidence in support of the biblical admonition” that it is more blessed to give than to receive. According to Garvey’s article, a study by University of Notre Dame sociologists revealed “through analysis of measurable data, people who are generous with their money, time and associations are happier, healthier and more resilient than their less generous counterparts.”
Are you a doubting Thomas? Maybe you’re a believer, but you doubt God could ever love someone like you. Maybe you’ve been ridiculed or bullied, struggling with your self-worth.
As a child, were you told you weren’t good enough? Did you become a performance addict with a need to prove you were likable, lovable and valuable? Do you know you’re not alone, today?
Pastor Chip Ingram says, “Many of us struggle with conceptualizing the enduring, sacrificial, infinite, and unconditional love of our heavenly Father. I think this is because we always try to put God’s love into our own human terms—and our terms always fall far short.
“Our human relationships have conditioned us to measure love by ‘ifs,’ ‘maybes,’ and ‘becauses,’” he adds. “‘I’ll love you if you do this.’ Or, ‘I love you because you did that.’”
When my phone rang, I hesitated to answer because the caller was unknown. I answered to an urgent voice. “Carol, there’s black smoke coming out of your house near you deck stairs.”
Thanking my next door neighbor’s sister, I hurried out the door. Standing on my deck, I couldn’t see anything to my right or my left. Returning indoors, I grabbed my cell phone and headed out the front door to seek the source of the smoke. Walking around the exterior on all sides of my house, I still didn’t see anything.
Calling Diane back, I asked, “Where exactly did you see the smoke?”
“Underneath the deck,” she replied.
Running around the side of the house again, I peered over my fence and saw black smoke pouring into the frigid air. Without hesitation, I dialed 911. My heart pounded as I raced back into the house, grabbed my dog, my car keys and my purse. Just as I pulled out of my garage and parked my car out of the way, the city police and fire chief pulled in, followed by a fire truck and an ambulance.