Thursday, April 28, 2011

Scaring the HELL Out of Us!

The joy of watching a dated movie from the top bunk of my son's bunk-bed, on the world’s tiniest screen (I think it’s a 10-incher!), with three little rugrats who are poking their static-haired heads out from the heaps of blankets, is comparable to the joy of watching a new flick on the big screen at the theatre.

The movie du’ jour was a cute cartoon starring Robin Williams named, “Robots”.  It’s amusing laughing at jokes the kids don’t get yet; like when the proud new robot-parents celebrate the arrival of their new baby-robot because it was successfully delivered by their mail man a box!  As they put together their little baby-robot they are surprised to discover an extra piece in the box of baby-parts, which they soon realize is because it’s a BOY!

Wouldn't it be nice sometimes if our kids were robots and we could program them to be obedient and joyful at all times?  There would be other perks too, such as turning them off at bedtime and removing their mouth-piece if they wouldn’t stop talking our ears off!

But if my children were robots, one of my all-time favorite moments would seem completely meaningless.  I melt into a Mama-puddle anytime they jump into my arms and whisper these three words, “I love you.”

If I knew that I had programmed them to tell me and their daddy these sentiments, then it would seem very unsentimental.  If these words didn't come from their sweet little hearts, I wouldn't truly cherish the way their tiny fingers cup my face as their eyes meet mine and they each declare their love in their own unique way, “I wuv ew, Mommy” or “Mama, I love you lots n’ lots.”

Because could love really be love if it weren't a choice?

Something my husband and I thoroughly enjoy is taking one of our children out on a “Mommy/Daddy Date”.  It’s a special outing that usually involves a special drink (thank you to our date-night sponsor of Icee drinks), a stop at the park or lake to feed the ducks and sometimes (if they’re really lucky), a visit to their favorite store where they get this surprise, “Pick out any toy you want!!”  Of course, this is usually followed up with, “Okay, except that toy for $54.99.  How about ANY toy you want…for under $5?!”  Thankfully, they are just as happy with that!

I haven’t yet had this happen, but imagine with me that I were to ask our four-year-old, Gideon, if he wanted to join me for a Mommy Date and he replied, “No thanks.”

Well, I would think, he must not realize how great of a time this is going to be.  So I would crouch down eye-to-eye with my son and carefully explain what our date would be like,

“You would get a special drink, we could feed the ducks and you could even pick out a new toy.  Maybe we could stop and rent your favorite Batman show at the video store.  What do you think, big guy?”

If Gideon were to just shrug and say, “No, I’d rather stay here and go to bed.” (then obviously this is going to be a BIG stretch of the imagination), I would maybe have his Daddy explain how much fun we could have or have his brother who is a BIG fan of the “Mommy/Daddy Date” encourage him to go.  But if Gideon STILL refused and I threw him over my shoulder, carried him kicking and screaming out to the van and buckled him into is car-seat, saying,

“Well I love you kid, so you WILL spend time with me.”  I don’t think you would be voting for me to win a “Mother of the Year” award...and rightly so!

Because could you truly enjoy spending time with someone that forced you to be with them?

There is a reason God doesn't spit us off of an assembly line as pre-programmed robots.  He created precious children made of flesh, blood and the ability to make their own choices.

He carefully hand-made each one of us, placing unique giftings and passions in our hearts.  He knew our first day of "Kindergarten" would come: a day that we would enter a crazy world full of hurt and confusion.  So He stuck a love letter (His Word) in our backpacks of how to survive (and even thrive!) in the madness of it all; and, most importantly, how to get back home.  He then carved out a hole in our hearts that He knew only a God-parent madly in love with their child could fill.

And then he waited.  And He is still waiting for us.

God is waiting for us to choose to love him.  He could have programmed us roboticly (is that even a word?) to say, “I love you, God.  I love you, God.”  but then, it wouldn’t be love, it would be a mindless program doing what it was programmed to do.  How boring!

And in the same way, God doesn't send people to hell.  People choose to go there when they choose to reject God and His loving invitation to join him in Heaven for eternity. Hell was not designed for us, Heaven was. But when we refuse God and His offer this is the only place there is that exists without Him.

God is preparing the ULTIMATE “Daddy Date” in Heaven.  Jesus is a BIG fan of the “Daddy Date” and he came to urge us to go.  He told us they are preparing a feast for us (Isaiah 25:6) that cherry Icees will have nothing on!  Jesus also said a place is being built for us (John 14:2) and being that He is the most famous Carpenter in the world, I’m thinking it will put every house on the "Parade of Homes" tour to shame. The alternative post-life hang out is much more scary than any monster hiding under the bed at bed-time.  The alternative is hell and Jesus had a lot to say about that place too.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Matthew 10:28

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. Mark 9:43

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment. 2 Peter 2:4

He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:51

After reading these passages, one could conclude two things:

1.  Jesus did not care about winning popularity contest, He cared about speaking the truth, straight up and from the heart.

2.  Is there a hell?  HELL, YES!  And hell ain’t no party.  

We could choose to not love God and say “no thanks” when He opens His loving arms to us, inviting us on an eternal “Daddy Date”.  The beauty of the way God created us is that we are free to make that choice, to love him or to reject Him.  To jump in the van and buckle in for an adventure of our lifetime or to choose the darkness with stuff scarier than any monsters in the closet.

God does know what’s best for you, He could throw you over his big shoulder, march you into Heaven and make you spend forever with him.  

But is that really love?

Because ultimately, who we love and whether or not we choose to spend time with them (including forever) is a CHOICE.

Being a big fan of the “Daddy Date”, if you asked me if it would be a good choice to love God and spend eternity with him, I would say,

“God and Heaven...definitely YES!  Hell...NO!”

"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'  All that are in hell choose it." -C.S. Lewis

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Part III

Continued from last week....

I thought, Either they figured out where I’m supposed to be or…they are going to sell me on the black-market!

Since the mayor’s wife was dozing next to me in the backseat and the endless vista of dessert mountains and cactus after cactus speeding by the window was making me sleepy, I closed my eyes and thought about what had brought me to this day.

If you would have asked me on the day I graduated from high-school as I posed in my bright red cap and gown with friends, my mom snapping a million photos (back in the day of 35 mm film, that was a BIG deal!!), I would have never imagined I could be lost in Mexico just a year later.  I undoubtedly would have said, “I think I’d be starting my sophomore year of college in a year.” 

My post-high-school-life started out just as planned, I enrolled at the UW-Milwaukee and was thrilled to have the chance to run with the cross country team.  A busy schedule of classes (art and English major), practices and weekend parties made my college days fly by in a blur.  Even though I was raised as a P.K. (Pastor’s Kid) in a loving home and had embraced Jesus at the age of six I’d come a long way, baby (in the words of the famous ad).  I’d come a long way away from living for the Jesus of my childhood.  Life had thrown some hurts my way that left me in a wake of confusion but ultimately, I made a choice to be selfish and live for ME.  The result was leaving me empty and deep down, I knew the answer to a question that haunted me my freshman year, “What’s the meaning of my life?”

It had to be God.  Simple?  Yes.  I think it’s supposed to be simple, we are the ones that make it complicated.

It was a cold Friday night in January of 1999 when God totally knocked my socks off.  My roommates were blaring our favorite band as they got dolled up for a house party we had been looking forward to all week.  They gave me a double take when I informed them I was going to stay in that night instead. When my girlfriends left and the music stopped, I grabbed my Bible out of a pile of neglected books and started reading it and praying.  What I heard next changed my life forever.

“Where are you, God?”  I asked this question into my empty dorm room, feeling kind of silly until I heard a reply,

“I never left you, you left me.  I have promised to never leave you and never forsake you  (Hebrews 13:5).”  So began a conversation that night with the Friend sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24)  I also heard this, “Daughter, get ready: I’m sending you to another country.”  Of course, this statement brought many more questions from me, but I didn’t hear anything else that night.  Was I meant to embark on a journey of faith?  Once I obeyed the first step, would only then God would show me the next step?

So, that’s what I did.  I finished out the year, picked up a job as a waitress, stashed the cash I made and got a passport.  In a word (or three): I got ready.  August rolled around and all my friends were going back to college and I was going…where was I going again?  

Then one day, a phone-call came…from Mexico!  It was the principle of a local school in a little village who had heard about me through a serious of “coincidences” and had a strange proposition, “The teacher we had lined up for our school here can’t come anymore, we need a teacher for the ELS (English as a Second Language) program and to teach art (right up this girl’s ally!)…here’s the catch: Is there any chance you would be READY to come here in a few days before school starts?”

She couldn’t see the grin on my face as I squeezed the phone, “As a matter of fact, yes, I can come...I’m ready!”

That had been just a few days before and I knew without a doubt His hand had led me here…so somehow I was sure I’d eventually get to where I needed to go.

Sure enough, within an hour, a small wooden sign with “El Carmen” painted on it came into view.  Behind it lay the village that was made up of a houses that looked like someone had painted rows of assorted wooden blocks in every shade of pastel and avocado and lime trees growing along the dirt roads.  It was love at first sight!  The mayor pointed the chauffeur down one road after another until we pulled in front of a little school building where a lady rushed out the doors with an excited expression.

“Are you Tara?”  I barely had time to step out of the car before she warmly embraced me and showered me with questions.  My first thought was, English!!  My next thought was, where was my ride at the airport?

After saying a somber goodbye to the Mayor and his sweet wife (she seemed disappointed that I wouldn’t be moving in with them after all), I found out that the person who was supposed to pick me up at the airport was there at 9...only she had been there at 9 a.m. instead of 9 p.m.  Ah, just a minor detail!

Next, the principle told me this story,

“Mrs. Beto cleans and cooks at our school and she had heard the APB about you.  She wasn’t sure that was you so she didn’t mention it until this afternoon. We called the police station in Monterrey and found out the had been receiving calls all morning from people saying they were coming to pick you up!  Only no one actually knew your name so they weren’t about to release you to some stranger.  Once I confirmed your name though they said you were already gone.  I got nervous about that until they said the man who took you was the Mayor and he had left his business card.  I called his office and gave him directions to deliver you to us!”

Wow, I thought, that is…loco!

“There is one other thing…you should call your parents.”  She smiled ruefully, “They called here earlier and I admitted we had no idea what happened to you.  They were pretty worried.”

Oh, wow.  That is probably the understatement of the year!

Once we got to her house, I picked up the phone and waited for a wonderfully familiar voice to answer.  

“Dad, I made it.  Everything is okay.”

“Sweetie,”  He sounded a little choked up, “You’re getting on a plane as soon as possible and coming home.  Were you in jail?!”

It took a little convincing to get my parents to let me stay five more minutes much less twelve more months!  Even though things did not go as I had planned, I had peace that my life was going according to God’s plan.

In his book, “Radical”, David Platt says “We say things such as, ‘The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.’  We think, If it’s dangerous, God must not be in it.  If it’s risky, if it’s unsafe, if it’s costly, it must not be God’s will.  But what if these factors are actually the criteria by which we determine something is God’s will?  What if we began to look at the design of God as the most dangerous option before us?”

I knew I had come a long way, baby…and I also knew there was no going back!

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Part II

Previously on Part I of “My Once Upon a Time in Mexico”

Well, God, I thought you led me here...I promise I’ll never forget to pack someones phone number again…especially in a foreign land where I don’t speak the language...

My Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Part II

Speaking of phone numbers…I suddenly remembered something!  This could be my salvation.

Maybe it was the iron bars of the jail cell and the thought of being stuck on the wrong side of them forever that kicked my creative-problem-solving skills into high gear.  My mind then stumbled upon another memory from high school (unfortunately, not from my Spanish class, which, any knowledge I acquired there other than “pinata fiesta” seems to have been eternally erased from my brain).  I remembered a conversation I had with one of my friends, Dan, just a few days before I boarded my plane to Mexico.  When I had mentioned to him that my destination was just about an hour from the city of Monterrey, his face had lit up in surprise.

“Really!?  My older brother just got married to the daughter of a Mayor in Monterrey.  I’m sure you won’t ever need it, but I’ll give you the Mayor’s contact information in case you ever get in a bind and need help.  He’s family now!”

Before, I had thought to myself, “Trust me buddy, I’ll never get in a bind requiring help from a mayor”, but now I was thinking that eating my own words never tasted so good!

I didn’t waste another minute and dumped my entire purse out on the floor, rifling through the contents until I found the slip of paper with the Mayor’s phone number on it.  Salvation is here!

Of course, another embarrassing game of charades was required to communicate my idea to the Police Chief, but four hours later (7 a.m.), an officer came and shook me awake (my suitcase made for an interesting pillow) jabbering excitedly in Spanish.  I rubbed my sleepy eyes and followed him to the front desk where an older Hispanic couple was waiting.  The man was dressed in a three piece suit and his wife was decked out to the nines, they seemed out of place in the humble settings of my new home.  The man in the suit grinned from ear to ear as he held up a newspaper for my appraisal.  It was the front page of the social section where a stunning black and white photo of Dan’s brother and a lovely Mexican bride were walking down an aisle.  I excitedly nodded yes and smiled in relief, in spite of the language barrier, the connection had been made!

That morning, my knight in shining armor was the Mayor of Monterrey(and his wife) and they quickly assured me that any “amiga” of their new son-in-law was an “amigo por SIEMPRE!”  Translation: friend for LIFE!

Their well-dressed chauffeur loaded my baggage and I settled into the backseat next to the lovely mayor’s wife.  It only took me a few minutes to realize that, once again, “Houston: we have a PROBLEMO!”  As she fluffed her dyed-blonde hair (unless Hispanics can be natural blondes?), she chatted non-stop.  Amidst a torrent of words I couldn’t understand, she reached over, grabbed my hand and said in broken English, “You okay now.  You stay with us one year, that is no problem.”

The problem was I had someplace I was actually supposed to be.  In fact, at that moment (which was then 8:00 am), my first day of classes were starting up at the school in El Carmen.  This wasn’t going to impress the principle: the new teacher being late for the first day of school!  Of course, I was hoping my excuse was a little bit better than, “My dog ate my homework.”

Over the course of the next few hours (and amidst a day of shopping, sight-seeing and eating at a five star hotel), I made numerous attempts to explain to the Mrs. Mayor my predicament.  Each attempt ended with the same result: interested and concerned eyes watching, an understanding nod and a little pat on the hand as she would say, “Yes, understand.  You stay with me.”

Meanwhile, across the mountainous city and down a dirt road in the village of El Carmen, a little miracle was taking place.  

A Hispanic lady named Mrs. Beto flipped on her radio in her kitchen as she readied her daughters and herself for the first day of school.  She cleaned and cooked at the small school and was mentally running through what she needed for the day when an A.P.B. (All Points Bulletin) caught her attention.  It was a description of a girl that had not been picked up at the Monterrey airport (white, 5’ 2”, red hair…which I didn’t have red hair so not sure what that was about!), and that any persons with any information should call the police station.  Mrs. Beto had a sudden and strange thought, “I wonder if that is the girl that is supposed to teach at our school?”  On a whim, she jotted down the number and put it in her pocket in case she would need it later.

Mrs. Beto (who has never owned a car) walked to the school of El Carmen and heard the news: the new teacher never showed up.  Fiddling with the phone number on the piece of paper in her pocket, she debated, God is this you speaking?  

Back in Monterrey, the smells of the street vendors cooking authentic Mexican foods and home-made tortillas were tantalizing.  While riding in the back seat, the honking of taxi-cabs, people shouting in crowded open-air markets and stray dog barking was all an amazing and overwhelming sensation as we sped through downtown.  I glanced at my watch; it read 3:14 p.m., then glanced over at my new (apparently life-long!) friend, Mrs. Mayor.  It seemed a new plan was in order…but what?

We pulled up in front of the Mayor’s offices and waited while he checked on something.  When he came back out, he had a funny look on his face.  He looked at me, patted his wife’s hand, said something in Spanish and then directed his driver to do something with numerous gestures and animated instructions.

I watched as the skyscrapers gave way to dilapidated housing units packed together like stacks of dirty dishes and then fade into nothing but a long stretch of highway exiting the city.  Well, this means one of two things, I thought to myself as I leaned my head against the seat (going on two hours of sleep in two days will catch up to you eventually!), I hope they somehow figured out where I’m supposed to be...
To be continued...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sunflower Peeps Cake for Easter

I LOVE baking with my kids because it brightens my day to see them laughing and loving the simple things in life: mixing ingredients (ie, making a huge mess), licking the bowl and spoon and of course, enjoying the fruit of their labor.

But I am NOT a baker!  I don't have the passion and patience to carefully create things of beauty from flour and faith.  I hope our FUN experience of making this unique cake for Easter will inspire you that ANYONE can do it (see the pictures below for proof and a good chuckle!)...

* Yellow or white cake mix (and ingredients on the box needed to make it)
* Cake layer filling of your choice (pudding, jam, frosting, etc.)
* 2 boxes of Peeps (birds)
* Chocolate frosting 
* Chocolate chips (I used semi-sweet and milk-chocolate for differing colors)

Jude and Gabby sample the cake as they make it, yep-it's going to be yummy!

And their older brother gets in on the action when it's ready to pour into the pan.  Pour into TWO greased (I also lined with wax paper for easy removal) 9" round pans.  Bake according to the box's instructions.

Cool on wire racks then frost the top of one with whatever you desire (see ingredients above) and stack them like this.

Proof that I am NOT a baker.  The cake kind of fell apart on me when I frosted it so I put it in the freezer and said a prayer that it could be fixed!

Playing hide n' seek with EvaLee while we wait for the cake to firm up in freezer.  (Good idea: freeze the cake FIRST then frost it!)

"Mom, can I sample one...or TEN?!"

Whew, we were able to fix it up.  I also warmed the frosing for the second application and it went on much smoother.  Live and learn!

 Okay, mister--that's enough sampling the Peeps!  Save some for the cake!  Once the Peeps (we alternated the orange and yellow but do whatever you want!) are assembled around the edge (just set them on the frosting, they'll stick!) we filled the middle with chocolate chips.

I'm quite sure you and your gang could make this MUCH prettier, ha!!  I figure we had a BLAST making it and it's the thought that counts!

Happy Easter dear friends!