Appearances Matter- Part Three

The chaos I encountered on my first day, in one school, remains a vivid memory.  The previous teacher resigned in the middle of the semester for mysterious reasons. When I entered my new classroom, hours before my first class, I gasped..  Apparently, the two weeks between my initial interview and subsequent acceptance of the position, turned into anarchy for the school choirs, under various substitute teachers.

The spacious vocal music room, filled with possibilities two weeks prior, now looked like a set from “Girls Gone Wild.”  Empty fast food bags and wrappers, (some with food still in them) Slurpee cups, sheet music, candy wrappers, and crumpled schoolwork, decorated much of the floor.  Trash cans overflowed so someone made attempts to heap much of the garbage in several corners. It appeared even the custodians feared to enter the room.  Chairs were no longer in the neat rows they had been in when I’d toured the room with the principal.  There were a few in conversational groups, but many were turned upside down and some even stacked up by the windows in a manner that looked like students had been traversing in and out of the windows of the basement classroom.

The mess reached epic proportions in every part of the room, like the walk-in closet, I couldn’t step into, and the pillaging of the teacher’s desk, but I think you get the idea. The chaos, trash and signs of neglect everywhere ignited a righteous fire in me.  I strode to the custodial office and requested trash bags, a vacuum and various cleaning supplies from the supervisor.  He seemed surprised but complied.  I then made it clear, kindly, that I expected our trash cans emptied each night, and our room be given the same general cleaning as any other classroom in the building.

“Sure,” he said, overly casual. “As long as my crew doesn’t have to walk through those kids cast off cheeseburgers and burritos to do it. “

“Deal,” I said just as casually.

For the next two hours, I worked like a house afire to restore a semblance of order before my first class arrived.  I struggled not to laugh as each group of students entered and loud, hallway conversations dropped in mid-sentence as soon as they saw the room’s appearance.  Muttered cracks like “Dude, this one’s serious,” and general “Whoa’s” mixed with delighted smiles from students who probably didn’t enjoy watching their choir room turn into a landfill.

In time, I restored order to the room. I filled all the bulletin boards with posters and interesting musical stuff, (this hadn’t been done in many years), created spaces for small- group work, and did everything else within my power and budget to turn the choir room into an eye-pleasing place to come and make music.  I kept flowers or plants on my desk and always recognized every holiday with appropriate décor. Chore posters for each class rotated classroom maintenance, and I recruited several student librarians to corral all our music.

Of course, I climbed mountains discipline-wise also, for the first couple months or so, as law and order had long been absent from the choirs. Eventually, students started to make connections to order and beauty, in their music and their surroundings. This theme applied to everything that happened in my classroom.  Sometimes I’d catch glimpses of other teachers peeking on my classes, skeptical that the formerly wild mustangs now quietly worked on theory, sang their hearts out and ran their own sectionals effectively.

Chaos is not part of God’s original design for earth.  As soon as mankind sinned, Satan launched his assault of anarchy against all of God’s design.  We continue to live in a world that is on a course of steady disorder until Christ returns, and the new heavens and earth come to be.  As children of God, he commands us to imitate Christ, who brought peace into situations of pure bedlam.

For example, consider the demon-possessed folks mentioned in the gospels, who terrorized entire regions.  Can you imagine how life changed, not only for the demoniac, but for those who lived nearby? No longer did they fear their children might accidentally wander into a terrifying situation.   Their sleep was no longer disrupted by the howls and screams of the tormented.  With one act of power and compassion, Jesus changed the lives of many.  He brought peace into chaos.

Cleaning up my disastrous classroom seems small compared to setting someone free of demons, however, it is the important task God issued to me at that time.  By restoring order in my classroom, a chain of events occurred.  Students behaved better.  Focused students conquered their vocal music.  Choir concerts became a joy not just for the them but their family and friends also. Choir class became a bright spot in many student’s school days, especially for those who struggled academically.  Several students chose to attend college and obtain music degrees themselves.  I suspect they are out there somewhere, making music in orderly classrooms and changing lives.

Are you currently planted in a chaotic environment at work, school, home or elsewhere?  If not, God may present you with a situation that needs beauty and order restored to it.  I remember a mission trip where our team spent ten hours a day sorting through a warehouse of clothes donated to an inner-city ministry. They were simply chucked in giant piles in order of how they’d been donated.  That many hours in a metal pole barn in Mississippi, in August, without air conditioning, challenged us on many levels.  Still, we took great pride in sorting and organizing to such a degree that the ministry could distribute much-needed clothing to people living below the poverty line.

It’s so tempting to turn our backs on messes we didn’t create.  That’s not what Jesus did, though.  Look around your world a bit, in places where you possess influence or favor.  You could easily earn the right to share Christ with someone simply by cleaning something up.

 

Appearances Do Matter- Part Two

 

I chuckle still when I remember the day our next-door neighbor rapped on our fence and shouted, “Are you people ever going to pick up your leaves?”  Five maple trees in our yard dropped thousands of their colorful cast-offs until they were ankle deep on our front and back lawns.  Prevailing winds chronically blew the offenders into our neighbors’ yard, unheeded in the front, and right up over the fence in the back.

As new home-owners, Ken and I struggled to master the art of juggling ministry and friendships with household responsibilities.  Still in our twenties, we spent much of our free time hanging out with friends, playing touch football and softball, riding bikes, skiing, hitting the beach and such.  Yard work didn’t even rank in the top ten list of how we liked to spend our off time.

I cringe now, when I think of how infrequently we mowed that lawn, how deep the leaves became before we bothered to rake.  In general, we were “that” house in the neighborhood.  You know the one I mean.  The lawn is long, gone to seed and grows way out into the sidewalk.   The gardens might be a mixture of plants and weeds or only weeds.  Leaves are rarely raked, and snow is not cleared from the sidewalk.  There is a general look of neglect and untidiness around the house and yard.  If it’s located out in the country, there might be a rusting Chevy or a discarded Maytag in the yard.

Our relationship with the fence-rapping neighbor remained contentious the entire time we lived in that house.  Worse yet, Ken and I privately dubbed him a “fusspot,” dismissing his concerns as silly.  Isn’t that a lovely attitude for a child of God?  God placed us in that neighborhood for his purposes. We missed some of them. Many times, we entertained church folks in that house, but never built authentic relationships with a single neighbor, especially that man.  If we’d bothered to engage him in conversation, we could have gained knowledge and skills about caring for a home and yard and earned the opportunity to share Christ.  We were too busy being smart aleck 20- something’s.

I know many of you reading this live in condos and other situations where lawn care is irrelevant.  I’m asking you to reflect on your home in terms of the larger picture. Ask yourself these questions.  How does my dwelling place reflect the beauty of God?  Am I making the most of what God’s given me to steward in my home?  When people set foot on my property do they sense peace? Are their souls inspired by what they see?  Whether you live in a tiny dorm room or a five thousand square foot house, you are given the opportunity to display parts of God’s character in your surroundings.

People are attracted to beauty, whether they are believers or not. That’s the way God created us.  Countless times I’ve struck up conversations with a stranger on a beach because we are experiencing a sunset together both trying to get that perfect camera angle.  Shared wonder creates a bridge where conversations can start, and the seeds of friendship can be planted.  I remember when we lived in an apartment, and people initiated conversations about flowers with me simply because I set a pot of impatiens outside my door.

One of the most inspirational books, on the topic of creating beauty around you is “Hidden Art,” by Edith Schaeffer. The premise of her book is that our Creator designed us to create also.  Recognizing and highlighting the beauty within us and around us is part of our God-given nature and it will attract unbelievers to us just as it did to Jesus.

One of my favorite stories in her book tells of the days when she and her family lived in severely humble circumstances near railroad yards, in a small dwelling where most of their furniture consisted of cast-offs or homemade creations.  Despite meager circumstances, God put her eyes on homeless men who walked past regularly.  She and her two young children prepared simple trays of sandwiches, dressed up to look special with napkins and a few flowers, to leave outside for the passing men. They’d also slip in a little New Testament to feed souls along with stomachs.  Creating and sharing beauty does not require wads of money but simply a willingness of heart.

I heartily encourage you to buy the book yourself (very cheap at Amazon) and gain inspiration for your home or office or whatever real estate God’s entrusted to you. In the same way that our personal appearance should not be off-putting, (check out part one of this series) neither should the places we live, and work repel or frustrate people.  A chronically cluttered, dirty house and tattered yard do not tell the truth about who we are in Christ.  We are sons and daughters of THE King and therefore, we should leave a swathe of goodness and beauty behind us wherever we go.

Please, please, please, don’t take on condemnation if your home or yard or office are currently in rough shape, temporarily.  Many years ago, chronically ill with internal issues, dust bunnies and toddler crud took over my home.  When I finally went through surgery to correct the problem, a team of eight ladies from my church came to clean my house, for four hours.  Oh my.  The deep-down dirt probably shocked some of them, but they never said a word to me.  Sweet sisters. I felt such gratitude that they restored order and beauty to my home during a time when I could not do it myself.

You might be in a season right now that doesn’t provide time or energy to keep chaos at bay.  If this is but a season and not a lifestyle, I believe God pours grace on it.  However, if chaos is your norm, understand that those sorts of patterns do not flow from our Father.  He spoke order and beauty into chaos at the beginning of creation, and his nature remains unchanged. Since God the Spirit lives in us, shouldn’t our lives reflect our true identities?

 

 

 

 

Appearances DO Matter

I wish I didn’t possess a bionic nose.  Certain strong odors make my stomach flippy. In college, I belonged to a Bible study led by an all-out-for-Christ guy who was also handsome.  His passion for God inspired me, but his showers- optional approach to hygiene nearly laid me out, and not under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  It became awkward each week as people maneuvered themselves around the room so as not to sit right next to Lloyd. (Not his real name.)  Latecomers wound up on either side of him and you could see the suffering and resolution on their faces.  People rarely came late more than a couple times.

Lloyd could pray down heaven and dig into scripture in powerful ways, but here’s the thing.  I wonder how the unbelievers all around him responded to his hygiene habits?  Probably some took offense when they encountered him. Whereas all us sweet Christians lacked the spiritual guts to speak the truth in love to Lloyd, I doubt the unsaved held back their opinions.   I never did crack the code of why he didn’t just shower more often but I vividly remember people’s reaction to this godly brother.

For a few weeks I’d like to disrupt a common idea expressed in the body of Christ that comes out in phrases like this: “I don’t care what other people think of me, it only matters what God thinks.” Instead I want you to consider that, like all of God’s creation, we are living illustrations of his beauty and wonder.   My inspiration comes from a devotional by Pastor Rick Renner, in his book, “Sparkling Gems II.”  His verse is I Timothy 3:7. “Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.” (NLT) This is on Paul’s list of qualifications for church leaders, but Pastor Rick applies it to all believers.  I agree. Christians should be the most lovely, delightful people on earth, well-spoken of by those outside the family of God.

Hold on, you say, doesn’t Paul also warn us not to be people pleasers in Galatians 1:10? “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  Did Jesus live to please others?  No, yet people mobbed him wherever he traveled.  How did he manage to obey and please his father perfectly yet still command such a following?

I think many of Jesus’ qualities made people feel better, more hopeful and peaceful when they entered his orbit.  He listened to broken people, touched them and valued them.  I believe he spoke and behaved in such winsome, captivating ways, people gravitated towards him.

My old Bible study leader knew how to handle the Word well and enjoyed a powerful prayer life, yet he repelled people.  My point?  Appearances DO matter, whether it’s your personal appearance, your home and yard, office, work station, ministry area or any other arena where you are responsible for the way something comes across to other folk’s five senses, particularly unbelievers.

In this post I’d like to pitch a few ideas about our personal appearance.  If you love what God loves, you will care profoundly about lost people.  If so, according to Paul, in I Timothy, how unbelievers view us is so important, that he included it in the list of requirements for overseers and deacons.  The process of initiating conversations and building relationships with the unchurched is hamstrung if there is something about our appearance or hygiene that makes folks uncomfortable.  In simple terms, if you look, talk or act weird, it’s gonna be a lot harder to connect with the unchurched.

As children of The Original Designer, we reflect the beauty and order God established in original creation. I’m not advocating imbalance with too much time spent on clothes, hair, makeup, etc.  However, it’s clear by the crowds that pressed in on him every day, people wanted to hear, see and touch Jesus, much like we react today to movie stars, athletes or other famous people.

The funny thing is that Isaiah 53:2 tells us that Jesus didn’t look like a movie star.  “He has no stately form or majestic splendor that we would look at Him, nor handsome appearance that we would be attracted to Him.”  Jesus looked ordinary, but I believe his inside nature reflected on his exterior.  He looked approachable, welcoming. His physical presence invited people to come closer.

Here’s some ideas for your reflection.  Ask the Holy Spirit if there’s anything he’s putting his finger on, where you might need some improvement.

  • How do I sound?  Is your voice pleasant, with no gossip, whining or shrillness?  Are people hearing your voice too much because you dominate conversations?   Do you talk or laugh so loudly it makes others uncomfortable?  Don’t sound like Lucy begging Ricky to let her be in the show or that teacher you had who screeched at students to control her classroom.
  • How do I look? Are the clothes I wear neat and clean?  Do they fit me correctly?  Just a tip here, if you are struggling with your weight, wearing clothes that are too tight draws attention to that, not away from it. I’m going to meddle a little bit here and ask women to assess their clothing honestly for modesty purposes.  There are times when Christian men are forced to look away from a sister in Christ because necklines are too low, hems too high and clothes too tight. One can’t help but wonder what males without Christ are thinking in those circumstances. Finally, men and women, being grungy looking might be a tiny bit cool if you’re a college student pulling an all-nighter.  For the rest of us, it’s just tacky.
  • How do I smell? Please don’t be offended that I’ve included this in my list and consider these two points.  Some people are off-putting because they douse themselves in perfume or after-shave. Your nose will adapt to a scent you wear every day so be cautious not to keep increasing the amount you use.  Secondly, remember Lloyd.  I still run into church folk who need to become better friends with deodorants and showers.

Let’s be sure lost folk feel at ease around the way we present ourselves, physically. Consider the fact that it’s often the first thing they will know about us.  We want to earn the right to speak to them about the eternal stuff that matters the most.

 

Dust Off Your Faith

This is a reprint of a post from February I felt impressed by God to put up again to encourage folks not to “grow weary in doing good,” on their journey to destiny.

Are there unfulfilled dreams inside you?  Did you picture your life different from your current one?  Do you wonder why you possess certain skills and talents that go unused and unappreciated? I felt that way for years.

From earliest childhood, I forced my younger brothers to be “students” in my pretend classroom, with me as teacher. Through my school years and college, I dreamed of that only, to be a teacher.  My instructors and professors assured me I possessed the perfect skill set and personality to be an educator.  Score!

After graduating college, I married my husband, and we moved to the Chicago area for graduate school.  I thought that in a large metropolitan area, I’d choose my school system. Hah!  While I lived in the college bubble, the teaching world changed and a tsunami wave of college students with teaching degrees hit the job market.

Many school systems shifted to hiring exclusively from substitute teacher pools.  I couldn’t even get on a substitute list. Instead, I took a job as a music therapist and figured I’d begin my teaching career when we moved to our first ministry position.

I finally started my career as a high school teacher 20 some years later. The principal spoke frankly and indicated that I edged out other applicants because of the variety of my degrees but more importantly, I could start immediately.  The previous vocal music teacher left in the middle of the school year due to a nervous breakdown.  Not the auspicious beginning to my career as an educator that I imagined.

During those twenty years I worked other careers, I continued to dream of teaching.  Many times, I thought I’d never see that vision come to pass.  I questioned the skills, passion and calling God placed in me in the hard light of many closed doors.

It’s easy to lose faith in something we felt so sure God placed in our hearts when its fulfillment is deferred. God’s waiting room can be a place where we allow our dreams to die instead of entrusting them to His perfect timing.  A vision delayed often reflects God’s desire to prepare our character and skills for a specific assignment.  He also needs to prepare a situation and the people within it, to receive us.

Joseph’s promotion from boy dreamer to Egypt’s second in command wound its way through 14 years of slavery and prison. (Genesis 37-50) David’s waiting period between his teenaged anointing and throne, we approximate to be fifteen years. (I Samuel 16- 2 Samuel 10)

Far eclipsing Joseph and David, Bible historians estimate Noah worked on the Ark for about 100 years.  One of the highest callings ever placed on a life endured a century of mockery and derision from the inhabitants of a land where flooding rains never existed before.  Matthew 24:38-39 indicate the world’s inhabitants continued to eat, drink and be merry until the moment Noah entered the ark.

Scriptures recount Joseph’s and David’s discouragements during their waiting times.  Moses’ leadership calling became encrusted over with desert dust. In Acts 7 Stephen recounts that when Moses was 40 and chose to step away from privileged palace life he was “powerful in speech and action,” and thought that “his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them.”  40 years later, God miraculously inflames a desert bush to call 80-year-old Moses up for front line duty.  Our hero’s response is to protest that he is no one to whom Pharaoh or Israel will listen, and that he’s a lousy speaker.  What happened?  I think Moses may not have understood that his 40 years of obscurity as a priest in the Midian desert served as preparation for his ultimate destiny.   No judgements here because I’ve done the same exact thing with some of my dreams.

How do we hold on to our faith tenaciously when it comes to deferred dreams?  From man’s beginning, Satan continues to insinuate that humans can’t hear well from God.  Doubting the relationship between Shepherd and sheep can be one of the first casualties in God’s waiting rooms.  Bitterness and despair can erupt when others are promoted, and we continue to be overlooked.  Sometimes, like Moses, we just assume a calling never belonged to us in the first place.

Here’s a few ideas to help keep us in a state of readiness so that when He calls us up we are prepared for action.

  • Recognize waiting periods as your school of preparation and character development.

God kept Christ himself hidden away in a nothing little town for 30 years. During that time, Jesus became the exceptional human revealed in the Gospels.  God knows the demands that our destinies will place on our character and resources.  We don’t need any more public failures in the body of Christ where everyone discovers that a character couldn’t keep up with a calling.

  • Understand that God works to prepare situations and people to receive you.

God brought Jacob’s family and the entire nation of Egypt to places of desperation to enable them to receive Joseph’s leadership gladly.  I like to operate where I am celebrated, not tolerated, don’t you?  Give God time to create that environment for you.

  • Our current state is our proving ground for our coming promotion.

Joseph came to Pharaoh’s attention because he acted with kindness and wisdom in prison.  David fought many valiant battles and treated crazy King Saul with respect, which earned him the admiration of his people before he became their king. We might feel shelved, overlooked and left behind but God is watching carefully to see how we treat the people he sends our way and how we conduct ourselves outside of our dream lives. Be excruciatingly faithful with whatever He gives you to do right now.  Obey quickly when He gives direction.  God wants to be sure we won’t act like we’re too big for our britches when he does promote us.

  • Enjoy the life God gives you today.

You may be in a job, relationship, church, neighborhood or country that is far outside your dreams.  Some places are hard and unwelcoming like Moses’ desert.  Faith enables us to believe that our dreams are still in God’s hands for safe keeping.  All of God’s promises for grace, peace, joy and purpose are for us today.