Blind Faith

Today my monthly column in the Journal Star is about blind faith. Click over to read it, and then bop back to leave your thoughts on these questions:

Do you have an unwavering faith in God, or are you more of a wrestler? Or perhaps a combination of both?

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Reality



I have a confession.

I love to watch smutty reality TV while I’m exercising on the treadmill. The smuttier the better, in fact. America’s Top Model. Real Housewives of Orange County. Girls Next Door. Yes, the show about the Playboy bunnies.

Believe me, I’ve tried to watch CNN or PBS, something good for my brain. But I can’t do it. I need the distraction. The cat fights, the backstabbing. Even those scantily clad, lithe bodies compel me to work harder – ratchet up the incline another degree; pound out another half mile; burn a few more calories.

These are the reasons I use to justify my smutty TV habit. But the real reasons reside deeper, beneath that glistening oil slick on the surface.

The real reason I watch smutty television is that it makes me feel better about myself. It’s so much easier to overlook my own flaws when someone else’s are so much more obvious. I can climb upon my self-righteous high horse and look down on the sins of others.

Have you ever watched Toddlers and Tiaras – the TLC show that spotlights families who enroll their young daughters (sometimes girls as young as three or four) in beauty pageants? I love that one. I look at those little girls, barely more than babies, in their false eyelashes, blond wigs, and sassy, sequined outfits, and I shake my head. I watch the moms dancing and sashaying from the sidelines, instructing their daughters to sway their hips a little more, or blow seductive kisses to the audience, and I shake my head.

“Disgusting,” I think. “Appalling.” And I feel so much better about myself. About my own parenting. Toddlers and Tiaras lets me off the hook.

It’s the same with America’s Top Model. Or Real Housewives. I drink in the ruthless backstabbing; the shallow materialism; the affairs; the cruel quips. And I roll my eyes.Reality television allows me to overlook my own flaws in light of the seemingly more egregious sins portrayed on the screen.

It’s easy to downplay my own inclination to gossip when the Orange County women are so overtly cruel and the Top Models so obviously catty.

It’s easy to overlook my own parenting inadequacies – my impatience, my hurtful comments, my poor listening – when the Tiara mothers seem so blatantly flawed.

The trouble is, the truth is, God holds me accountable.

It doesn’t matter one bit to God that another mother’s parenting skills are “worse,” or than another woman’s gossiping is more damaging. In his eyes we are all sinners; we are all flawed.

We are all equally imperfect. And we are all equally forgiven.

I’ll still click to Toddlers and Tiaras or Real Housewives next time I step onto the treadmill – frankly, Wolf Blitzer will never have the ability to inspire me through four miles. But I’ll do so with both feet on the ground, off my high horse, my self-righteousness subdued.

God has given me a reality check.

What's beneath your oil slick surface? What excuses do you use to mask your flaws?

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Shine

You know what I'm grateful for this week? The color blue. Blue sky blue.

Until Tuesday, we hadn't seen blue sky around these parts in 15 consecutive days (yes, I kept track) -- unless you count the mere two hours of shining sun on Sunday morning. But Tuesday dawned glowing, faint streaks of cotton candy tentatively stretching across the horizon and deepening to a brazen jack-o-lantern orange as the morning yawned open. Inky black faded to smoke, then smoke to blue. Blue sky. Sun. Grey lapping grey gone.

I'd never really paused to consider those seminal verses in Genesis, when God said, "Let there be light." Not until Tuesday, that is, when light shone golden, drenching the rooms of my home and my soul in warmth.

And it was good.

Today we are celebrating color with Beth at I Should Be Folding Laundry.  And I'm celebrating sun.





















Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word


Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day

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Katdish and Klee Klee

A few weeks ago I came across Billy Coffey's blog. As I meandered, soaking up his rich prose and thoughtful insights, I discovered his musings on how he became a published author (Snow Day will be released by FaithWorks this year). His saga -- all the ups and downs of platform-building and agent-chasing -- resonated with me so deeply that I bopped over to the email contact form and rattled off a couple questions before I lost courage.

Lo and behold, I received a response. Not from Billy himself, but from his publicist, Kathy...better known as Katdish in Blogland.
My husband, when I mentioned I was corresponding with Katdish, was less than impressed. "What the heck is a katdish?" he asked. But I knew better. I was more than familiar with Katdish, a name I'd seen floating around various blogs for quite some time. And now, Katdish herself was corresponding with me! Graciously, genuinely corresponding with me! Graciously, genuinely offering advice to me -- wisdom I snapped up hungrily, eager to learn from someone settled so snugly into a world I coveted.
And now...sweet icing on that gracious cake...Katdish is featuring me as a guest writer on her blog today. I'm just so pleased and excited by all this! So thank you, Katdish, for your advice (she got me on Twitter, too...although I'm still trying to figure out what that's all about!), kindness and generosity.
And now...please hop on over to Katdish's blog, to read my story about two boys and a bug named Klee Klee.

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Metaphor

We took the kids ice skating on Saturday, to an open-air rink covered by a wood-beamed pavilion. Perched on a hill above the Platte River, the rink hung above the great plains, barren, snowy fields stretching below.
It was Rowan’s first time skating. Watching him tumble and pitch, sway and swerve, and finally glide, hands raised, across the ice, seemed like the perfect metaphor for faith, as least as I've experienced it.

I have stumbled.

Fallen.

Clung.

Been carried along.

Desperate.

Cautious.

Terrified.

I have soared.

Fallen again.

And am always given the chance to begin anew.

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:21-23

Today I'm sharing this snapshot of faith as part of Emily's Tuesday's Unwrapped over at Chatting at the Sky and Laura's Gratituesday over at Heavenly Homemakers. Click over to start your Tuesday off on the right foot.

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Humble Pie



I am not, by nature, a humble person. When I perform an act of kindness, I try, for a few hours, to go about my business quietly. But you know what inevitably happens? I feel the need to tell someone about my goodness; I need a pat on the back to acknowledge my selflessness. And while I’m vying for human approval, I forget that it’s God’s pleasure that really matters.

A couple of years ago I began this pursuit of spiritual writing for truly selfless reasons: I wanted to share my story of hope with others. I wanted to spread the story of God’s profound and unexpected influence on my life.

What’s happened along the way, though, is that the public nature of this writing – this blog, for instance – has unbalanced this priority. While I began with honest intentions – to tell a story of hope – the process quickly muddied as I strove to build an audience for the blog and establish a platform for my writing. I found that I was no longer writing simply to share God’s word, but also, to build a readership and to attract a larger and larger audience. The purpose of my writing morphed, from being about God to being about me. How many followers did I have? How many email subscribers? How many visits did the blog get? I began to monitor those statistics day and night, obsessively checking for progress.

The catch was that it was easy to justify. “Well of course I want to build my audience,” I’d reason. “That just means more and more people will hear this story of hope and grace; more and more people will hear God’s word.” It was so easy to justify my own self-interest under the guise of spreading the Good News.

Yesterday’s reading from Philippians 2 reminded me that I have abandoned all humility in this pursuit of an audience.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7).

Reality check time.

Was I writing humbly, in humility? Or in selfish ambition and conceit? Answer B on that one.

Was I regarding others as better than myself? Absolutely not…unless I was envying another writer’s status as a published author.

Was I looking to the interests of others…or to my own interests? Again…answer B, please.

And, the clincher: was I writing with the same mind as Jesus Christ? Was I emptying myself…or exploiting God?

It’s a tenuous place, this writing about spirituality. The process can feel so honest, so true and pure at times. But it’s also so easy to fool myself into thinking my ambitions are truly of Jesus’ mind. It’s so easy to cross that tenuous line, to step from emptying into exploiting, to skate from humility to hubris.

The key, I discovered yesterday, to maintaining vigilance, to maintaining an awareness of this shift towards selfishness, can be found in Philippians 2 as well:

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (12-13).

It is through God that this writing unfurls from my fingertips. It is God who provides me the will – the drive and ambition – and the work – the words themselves. And it is for his pleasure. Not to build an audience, not to increase blog stats, but simply for his good pleasure.

How do you strive for humility as you aim to fulfill God’s work on Earth? And if you’re in a more public profession, how do you keep vain conceit and selfish ambition at bay?


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Helping Haiti

I wondered about writing a post about Haiti. It seems like there has been an abundance of information out on the social media circuit this week, so I worried that what I wrote would be overkill. But then I realized that there can't be too much written on this subject; there can't be too many pleas for help.

Usually at about 9:30 or 10 p.m. each night, when I'm done whatever writing I'm going to do for the day, I flip on HGTV -- a dose of relaxing home improvement for my weary brain. This week, though, I haven't been able to do that. It's just felt wrong, to tranquilize myself with images of beautiful, million-dollar homes and lush landscapes, when not so far away, buildings lay crumpled, limbs crushed, lives broken. I know fixing my eyes on CNN every night isn't actually "doing" anything. But somehow, silly as it sounds, I feel more connected to the Haitian people and their suffering that way.

I saw a short piece Sunday night on CNN, about a Haitian church service that had taken place outdoors, in an open, dusty courtyard, amidst scattered shards of cement. At the end of the service, the preacher urged his parishioners to come forward, to give a small donation, if they could, for those even worse off than themselves.

It was astounding to see the people step forward, one after the other, reaching deep into pockets to drop handfuls of change and a few wilted bills into the wooden bowl. These people who have nothing were willing to give to those who have even less than nothing.

So here's my call to action, if you will. If you have not done so already, please consider giving what you can to support our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I've listed a few resources below to get you started, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of options available. Click on the images or the links below to be directed to an online giving form.

This first site offers dozens of vendors who have donated goods -- from gorgeoous jewelry to handbags to web adverstising -- with all proceeds benefitting Haiti. Go ahead...buy something for yourself:



WorldVision: Supporting children around the world since 1953. Click here for more information on WorldVision.



The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has been on the ground providing services to the Haitian people even long before the earthquake struck (this is the organization we donated to, through our church here in Lincoln).
Click here for more information.



If you haven't heard of him, Dr. Paul Farmer has been doing amazing work in Haiti for decades. Read Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains for his incredible story. And click here for more information on his organization.



A lot of my blogger pals are connected with Compassion, a Christian child advocacy ministry that was founded in 1952 (today they help more than 1 million children in 25 countries). Click here for more information.



Finally, I'm sure you've heard about this already, but you can easily text "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross.
Or visit the American Red Cross here.

As I mentioned earlier, there are dozens of other agencies that are on the ground, working directly with the Haitian people. These are just the ones I have some personal connection with.

And I'll leave you with this quote, a fitting one from Paul Farmer, about why he works so tirelessly for the people of Haiti:

"For me, an area of moral clarity is: you're in front of someone who's suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act."

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The Love Abode

Today we are capturing love around our homes with Beth at I Should Be Folding Laundry. I had way too much fun doing this – again, loved all the free time I enjoyed with the boys out of town! Give me a camera and some time on my hands, and I am a happy girl.

Here are some shots of love from around my home:



Books, of course! When Brad and I got married we discovered we had four copies of Moby Dick between us. Four copies too many, if you ask me. But aside from Melville, I love books!


Noah's vast succulent collection. He has 26 all together, all lovingly named and cared for. Sometimes he quizzes me on their names -- I fail every time.


A painting of Carribbean boats by my mother-in-law Janice. Thank God for her amazing talent; without it our walls would be bare!


My Nana's silver teaset.



Old family photographs lining the stairwell.


...and new family photographs, too.


The stuffies Rowan loves like real pets (mean Mommy, no real puppies or kitties here!)



The artwork hanging on Rowan's bedroom door (notice the 45,000 pieces of tape...now go ahead, pat me on the back for not freaking out over that...)


The wall mural in Rowan's room, painstakingly drawn and painted by Brad.



A beautiful garden scene, hanging from my bedpost, hand-sewn by my friend Anita. Can you even imagine having such talent with a needle and thread?


The ceiling fixture above my bed.



And of course, the loves of my life.

And you know what I realized in capturing all these shots? That most of these items are gifts of love – made by my children, my husband, my grandmother or dear friends; or treasured items handed down from one family member to the next. None of them are “worth” any money. But all of them speak volumes in history, ancestry, family, friendship, community, and, above all, love.

This week’s You Capture project really drove home the point I write about so often here – that I have enough and more than enough. Love is enough.
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Faith through Fog


As I inched further and further away from the center of town on Sunday morning, my Saturn bumping along the pot-holed pavement, the fog grew more and more dense. By the time I reached church, the air was suffocatingly thick. Motionless. Even the birds were quiet, their perky chirps muffled by the damp curtain.

I turned the car towards Southwood’s driveway, and it was only then I noticed the church was still shrouded in fog, completely obscured, not even a shadowy outline visible. If I hadn’t known for sure the church was there, I wouldn’t have known it was there.

It was then the line from Hebrews popped into my head, the often-quoted verse about faith:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Sure enough, as I drove closer toward Southwood, the church loomed into view, cross rising through swirling mist.

I’d like my faith in God to be a bit more like my faith in the fact that my church would indeed burst through the fog that gloomy Sunday. It was so easy for me to trust, to know for certain that the building was there, though I could not see even a glimpse of it. I knew my church stood behind that shroud, because I’d seen it with my own eyes a thousand times.

When I really think about it, though, I could say the very same thing about God. Sure he doesn’t appear in black and white, standing before me in flowing robes. But I see him nonetheless. Sometimes a mere shadow, ethereal mist, wisping away before I can be really sure. Sometimes clear as day.

Last week I saw him in Noah’s outstretched hand, as he handed me a twenty dollar bill yanked from the depths of his piggy bank. “For the girls in Africa,” Noah said, palm open, holding crumpled bill (we’d been talking about the Tanzanian orphans we sponsor that night at dinner).

I saw him in my blogger friend Jennifer's sweet words, someone I’ve never even met in person, as she lovingly supported me and prayed for me in a time of turmoil.

I saw him in my friend Sarah as we talked quietly, painting our plaster and laughing the heaviness away.

I saw him in dazzling, intricate ice crystals clinging to bare branch, as I wound round an icy lake.

The fog lifts when I open my eyes wide, and I see God plain as day.

So what about you? Got foggy faith? Or are you seeing through the gloom?

Earth’s crammed with Heaven.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
“Aurora Leigh”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

holy experience

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Nerd Alert!


Guess what I did when Brad and the boys were out of town Sunday night?

I went to the library!

Let’s pause for a moment to let the full weight of that geekiness seep in.

Yes, it’s true. I went to the library for nearly two hours. I thought about going to Barnes and Noble, but I knew I’d crumble under the crushing desire to buy books I can’t afford. And really, I just wanted to be around books. So I went to the library, where I browsed the “new” releases; flipped through a slim volume of sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning displayed on the “love-themed” table; sunk into an armchair with a stack of outdated Self and People magazines; moseyed through the biography stacks; and avoided the children’s section at all costs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love children’s books. But I spend half my life chasing unruly boys around beanbags and rocking chairs over there, shushing and hushing and trailing after them as they leave lone mittens and dog-eared copies of Stellaluna and Lyle Crocodile in their wake.

Sunday night the library was my time.

Books are like comfort food for me, like pulling my chair up to a steaming bowl of macaroni and cheese with a light dusting of parmesan and Ritz crackers on top. Scanning my shelves at home, I can trace major milestones and life-changing periods of my life through the titles emblazoned on those spines. All have brought comfort and security; all have met different needs for different circumstances.

There’s Gloria Steinem, from my I am woman, hear me roar phase (still sort of ongoing).

Oh, and the Italy travel books… dreams before kids and real jobs and a house and regular meal prep came along (guess Italy will stay shelved until I’m 65 or so).

Here are five or six medical volumes, all on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, from the year I battled that mysterious, much-maligned illness and was forced to quit my job and move home with my parents. Good times.

Over there are the dozens of memoirs, purchased when I was learning the art of memoir-writing (still very much ongoing).

And scattered amongst them all, my growing collection of books on faith: Amazing Grace, Blue Like Jazz, Henri Nouwen, Augustine – too many to name.

And my Bible of course – my very first Bible, purchased just three years ago with Barnes and Noble gift certificates generously donated by my father-in-law, Jon. Who knew, just three years ago, what a profound difference that simple purchase would make? Never could I have anticipated the comfort and security a single book could bring.

What books are you reading these days? And have any changed your life?

I’m unwrapping the gift of books (and hours alone in the public library!) as part of Emily’s "Tuesdays Unwrapped." Visit Chatting at the Sky to see what gifts are in store for you today.

Note: My friend Chris affectionately nicknamed me Nerd in high school. I guess I haven't changed much, spending my free time at the library.


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Renewal


Perhaps it was the sudden onset of silence in a house so often filled with yelling, audible burping and tumbling limbs. Maybe it was simply exhaustion. But as I blew kisses into the damp air and watched the minivan round the corner, bound for Minnesota, I felt the crushing weight of despair, heavy like an x-ray apron, fold over my chest.

I’m ashamed to admit it, really. Me? What in the world do I have to despair about? My body is not crushed beneath tons of rubble. My throat is not parched for lack of water. I have not witnessed my country crumble. My city does not reek of the stench of rotting flesh. I have not held a dying child.

But I’ll be honest. Though it doesn’t compare with the unimaginable horror happening in Haiti and around the world, and I feel guilty even admitting it, I suffer nonetheless.

I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Triple Type A. But I’ve taken that personality quirk to a whole new level in recent weeks as I write, blog, research, comment, tweet – bent on forging connections, nurturing new relationships; driven to “build an audience” for my writing. Obsessed with doing everything possible to make that happen, and make it happen fast.

And I’ve done this at the expense of everything else in my life. Panty lines etch the rear-end of my pants, flabby bottom drooping from lack of exercise. My kids rattle stories, speaking to my profile as my fingers clatter at the keyboard. My neglected husband watches CNN as I hunch towards the computer screen, hour after hour, night after night. And my house? Let’s just say I walked through a cobweb in the bathroom this morning that would rival any in the Addams’ Family mansion.

So as I leaned heavily against my front door Friday morning, I felt something snap. “This is all wrong,” I thought wearily. “I’m done. This can’t be right. It’s not worth it. This can’t be what God possibly wants from me. It’s too hard. It’s too consuming.”

I trudged through most of my weekend, defeated and bone-weary, and then dragged myself to church yesterday morning. And there I heard God’s word as I never have before.

The reading was from Philippians 1 – the message about strength in suffering. And these are the words I heard:

“Most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear,” wrote Paul, from the dark depths of his prison cell.

Paul realized that in some ways it was because of his suffering that people found Christ. And in hearing those words, I realized that simply knowing my God-given purpose doesn’t make fulfilling it any easier. Paul tells me that perhaps it’s not supposed to be easy.

That’s sort of a bummer, actually. I much prefer easy.

Here’s what Pastor Greg said about Paul’s lines – and this is the message that rolled to my ears like thunder from above:

“What is your purpose? What is it that you do, that when you do it, you feel, ‘That’s why God made me; that’s why God put me on Earth.’ Even in suffering, stay to your purpose, because God will use it for good. Don’t stop being about your purpose.”

That’s when I began to weep, right there in the middle of church, surrounded by strangers. Besides feeling embarrassed by my quiet snuffling and brimming eyelashes, I also felt badly for the man sitting next to me. I noticed he held a Southwood new member brochure in his hand, and I wondered if he thought perhaps Southwood was filled with weeping, sniveling, Kleenex-less worshippers.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is this: I left church feeling revived, my sense of purpose – to write my story of faith – renewed and reinvigorated. That’s not to say I won’t seek a better way to balance my life in the coming weeks and months. I hardly think God demands that I neglect my loved ones, and my rear-end for that matter, in order to fulfill a single purpose. But my God-given purpose, though it may not be easy, is renewed.

So what’s your God-given purpose? Is it clear to you? And how do you weather periods of trial in trying to fulfill it?

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord.

from the hymn Be Thou My Vision


* * *
As a fitting sidenote, I'm pleased to say that my story, Canoe Day, which I posted here a couple of months ago, is being featured on BlogNosh Magazine today. Click over to read about the day I found I could pray.  

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Why the Heck am I Haikuing?

This is what happens when husband and boys are out of town. I write poetry when I should be vacuuming. But as I was browsing around the blogosphere this morning, I came across an intriguing challenge, posed by Robin at Pensieve, who is posting at (in) Courage today. She encouraged us to try our hand at haiku, and I figured hey, I've got the day yawning ahead of me, why not?

So here is my first attempt at poetry (it should be known that my sister is the poet in the family!), written with this image in mind, a picture I snapped at Holmes Lake yesterday as my heavy soul and I trudged.



Mind and heart yearning

clinging, questioning, weary
You shine. Clarity.

Visit (in) Courage today for more (much better!) inspiration in three lines and 17 syllables. Now...back to vacuuming!

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Gifts for God

"I just wrapped this present," Rowan says, holding out a squarish shape wound in three or four sheets of kelly green construction paper.

"Wow, nice job honey," I reply, distracted, not really looking. "Who is it for?" 

"God," Rowan answers.

I pause for a beat. "So....how are you going to give it to him?" I ask him.

"When I'm dead!" Rowan shouts, looking at me like I'm a little slow. "But that's going to be a really, really, really, really long time from now."

What gifts are you giving God today (Rowan is giving him a camera, he confided later)? And the good news is: you don't have to wait until you're dead!

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All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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