Forget Fault

 Once upon a time, a family bought a wonderfully clean car for a steal-of-a-deal and considered themselves fortunate to have gotten so lucky… until the car had a catastrophic coolant failure at a traffic light resulting in a repair bill that cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.

These Christian folk had a choice to make: to accept the situation with grace as a “Life Happens” moment while trusting God for the next step or to do what most of us do when something goes wrong: find someone to blame.

The reasoning goes something like this: If something is wrong, it has to be someone’s fault. What we actually mean is,  someone else’s fault.

This family had several blame options. They could have blamed the guy who sold them the car, the driver for failing to check the hood, the mechanic for not pointing out a potential defect, themselves for being gullible consumers or God for not preventing the whole thing.

Needing to assign blame before we can move on is a failure to grapple with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes things really do “just happen,” at least from a human perspective. There is no “fault.”

In the case of that family car, the cause of the problem appeared to be metal fatigue. A metal part suddenly failed.

It’s the rare person who can simply accept something like that and move toward a solution without bitterness, ranker and causing a helluva stink. In corporate-speak, such stinks are known as “venting,” translated as having a fit just to make yourself feel as though you’ve done something. Nothing good ever comes of it, of course, which brings me to the next point.

From a Christian viewpoint even when we can find the smoking gun, what does it really matter? Being able to point to someone and say “whodunit” may make a nice wrap for an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery,” but it doesn’t fix problems, heal relationships or promote spiritual growth.

Maybe the question isn’t  who is to blame but “What can I learn from this?” God always wants us to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 3:18)  And He uses all of life to accomplish this end.

Our persistence in placing blame is really pointless. (It hasn’t done anything constructive for me.) We’re all guilty of being human. We are faulty creatures who make mistakes, despite our best intentions. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, my challenge is to take it personally, to see it as opportunity to press into God a little closer, to listen more intently for His voice, to become more God-focused and less self-reliant.

Ultimately, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, not in our circumstances whether they be good or bad. Life really does happen in unpredictable ways, and we can make ourselves crazy by demanding to know the why.

As time goes by, I am learning to leave the mysteries of life in the hands of a faithful, all-wise God, believing that through life’s struggles He is “working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

The Great Car Debate

My teen-aged son is desperate to have his own car now that he’s a worker bee. Realistically, we parents expect him to put up his own money. He doesn’t see why we can’t “just buy” him a car.

It’s pretty simple to us. Nothing in life is free. Nobody “just bought” us cars. I got my first car courtesy of an enlisted brother-in-law whose friend was deploying to Germany and couldn’t take it with him. I got a big-engine, leather interior Cutlass Supreme with power everything for a couple hundred dollars. The rear windshield leaked. My husband got his first car, an oil-burning Vega, for a few hundred as well.

Being almost free meant, these cars weren’t expected to be in mint condition. We were happy just to be riding. Our son considers our first cars clunkers. His friends, after all, drive the coveted Mustang, BMW or Lexus or lowly but new Hondas. And so we’ve been inundated with an email stream of acceptable luxury models: Volvo 850s, SAABs, Acura. On the advice of our trusted mechanic we’ve steered clear of these high mileage potential nightmares.

Our latest suggestion – an affordable, American-made, one-owner only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady (not exactly but close!) – has been rejected as not “stylish.”

The “Great Car Debate” continues, reminding me of something I heard a preacher say: “It is possible to be madly in love with someone you should never marry.”

Men fall in love with cars as well as women. And it’s a good thing to avoid “marrying” a lemon no matter how lovely. Automotive lemons can be detailed to look pristine even after floating through a New Orleans flood or surviving a frame-bending wreck. CarMax showrooms like to display these beautiful wrecks – the kind they pledge not to sell – and to reveal their cleverly disguised flaws.

While there are lemon laws for cars, when it comes to women, there is no legal protection for unwise choices. Whether it’s women or cars, we hope to teach our son that it’s wise to consider the end from the beginning. So what if he can swing a car payment or buy the car outright? What matters is whether he can maintain it over time: pay the insurance, make the repairs.

The Bible says, “Count the cost.” (Luke 14:28)

Just as a car’s value is under the hood, a person’s true value is revealed in character. Like a rust bucket polished into showroom brilliance, people show well when we want to make an impression. Time tells the real story. Keep a car through a few oil changes and its quirks begin to show: the leaks, the squeaks, the controls that are a little wacko. In time, people reveal their true colors, too.

The message to our son: Avoid “buyers’ remorse.” It’s what happens when we’re sold on the sparkle, the new smell and the performance. We drive home and the reality of 48, 60 or even 72 months of payments sets in. We can’t believe we bought it! Can we take it back?

This doesn’t just happen to young boys. I heard a middle-aged caller to a financial radio program confess to being mesmerized by a new car she purchased in a whirl of emotion. She later realized that she works two full weeks of every month to make the payment and barely is able to cover other bills. She was looking for a way out.

The way out, of course, is to do what she obligated herself to do: pay the price. Here’s hoping we can convince our son to first, count the cost.

Cleaning House

Tonight I did a very courageous thing. I looked under my bathroom sink and pulled out the stuff I have been pushing backward into the dark for years. I brought it into the light one bottle, jar and packet at a time. I looked each one over carefully, opened a few, smelled the contents and tried to decipher smudged labels to determine how long I’d had it.

Then I did what I have been avoiding for a long time. I made a decision. I began to toss those fancy plastic packages, one at a time, into my little green waste basket until it positively overflowed.

There was a lot to sort through. Most of it landed in the now bulging bin: mousses, masques, gels and creams; lotions, potions, waxes, oils and spritzes, even a few cute but empty containers. The brands were varied: Body Shop, Avon, Arbonne, MAC, Mizani, Neutrogena, KeraCare, Cream of Nature, Eucerin, Body Shop, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret.

A lot of wasted money. Some of that stuff, I’m not proud to say, had hardly been touched. Some of it felt slimy when I rubbed it on, broke out my skin or flatly didn’t deliver on the advertising claims. Finally, I let it go.

As I finished my little chore, spontaneously begun as I searched for something practical like a bottle of alcohol, it dawned on me that what I have been doing with cosmetics is a metaphor for what we sometimes do with life. We collect a lot of costly baggage over time only to realize later – if we are honest – that much of it is worthless garbage. Spiritually toxic waste.

Instead of discarding it, we keep it hidden in the back closets of our minds and hearts. We know it’s there, taking up space better reserved for more honorable and productive things. Getting rid of it would mean having to face our bad choices and poor judgments head-on, reliving some of our worst moments.

We would finally have to accept hard truths. We might have to admit that we picked up things along the way – things we thought we had to have, couldn’t live without – only to learn that they were poison. We know now what we are loath to admit: “I was wrong. I made a mistake.”

Confession is hard, but it’s also good for the soul. To confess simply means to agree with what we know to be true, to concede the point, declare it openly… no more denial.

Proverbs 28:13 says, people who conceal their sins won’t prosper, but those who confess and forsake them will have mercy.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot more mercy and much less hidden junk. So, while it may be the dead of winter, it’s as good a time as any to clean house. I invite you to join me in getting into those dark places and starting to deal with your stuff. Time to start fresh. The best is yet to come!

Need Debt Forgiveness?

  What you don’t know can hurt you. You don’t know what you don’t know. By the time you learn, the fix-it boat may have sailed.  Want a real life example?

While training for my first half-marathon, I reached mile 12 and my right shin decided it simply was not going to keep up that pace. Off I went to physical therapy.

I didn’t know precisely what it would cost, but this was familiar territory. I’d taken my daughter to PT during her senior season of cross country. I chose a different therapist whose location was more convenient, plunked down my co-pays at each of 8 visits and never gave it a second thought.

Imagine my shock when the final bill arrived one month after the last session: $1200-plus. No itemized list of specific charges. Just a bill with a payment address and a note that failing to pay within 30 days would result in additional charges.

Who knew that a few half-hour therapy sessions could cost so much? You might say it was unwise not to consider the end from the beginning. And you’d be right.

I got my therapy, ran my race and claimed my trophy without once considering the ultimate cost of reaching the finish line. It never occurred to me that the price would exceed what I was prepared to pay.

I’m not alone in my lack of foresight.

Plenty of people go blithely through life completely unconcerned about the day of reckoning. Oh, we know we are mortal, that 100 percent of the living will die. Yet, we don’t prepare for our dying day.

We have our reasons.  We say, “When you’re dead, you’re done; so why worry?” Or we’re confident that when life’s bill comes due, our good deeds will cancel our bad debts. In the end, we assume everything will work out. Of course, the end is not an ideal time to find out.

Christianity favors complete disclosure: Dead is not done. “It is appointed unto men once to die and then the judgment.” Judgment sounds to me like settling accounts. We’re advised to “count the cost” on the front end of things so we know whether we have what it takes to pay the bill.

Lest we abandon all hope, Christianity offers debt forgiveness. You’ll probably see it advertised in the stands at next Sunday’s Super Bowl: a placard painted with John 3:16. This plan goes by several names: Substitutionary atonement. The Great Exchange. The Gospel.

Christ is our Advocate. He speaks in our defense, having satisfied our debt in full at the Cross. We walk away.

Whether you’re dealing with spiritual indebtness or an unbelievable bill for services rendered, learn from my mistake.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to understand your situation. The Bible says in all your getting, get understanding. If you seek counsel with your money, why not get some for your soul?

I recommend an Advocate. Works for me – body and soul. A health advocate resolved my physical therapy bill.  Final accounting: I actually owed about $400. That, my friend, is deliverance!

Still want to be free?

Sitting outside a Cameron Village boutique the other day, I noticed a sign hanging in the window: “I like my money right where I can see it, hanging in my closet.” (emphasis mine.)

My. Mine. Ownership.

We like to own designer clothes, luxury cars, estate homes, good jewelry, investment properties. What we own speaks of our status, our station, our authority.

When you own it, it is yours to command. With ownership, of course, comes responsibility. The things we own have to be maintained and protected. The greater their value, the greater our responsibility. You might say the things we own have a claim on us.

It may come as a shock, but we Christians are owned by God. We are bought with a price. We are not our own.  That equates to being a slave, not a very appealing prospect to the Western mind with its engrained sense of autonomy.

During an introduction to the book of Titus, Colonial Baptist Church senior pastor Stephen Davey explained that the word in Titus 1:1 translated “servant or bondservant” in most Bible versions is the Greek word “doulos,” which literally means “slave.” The translation is softened so as not to offend Western sensibilities and seem to endorse the brutality of slavery.

Nevertheless, the word is slave. Slaves have masters. They are not free agents, able to do as they please. They go where they are sent, do what they are told. Their choices are limited.

This is our situation as Christians. We have the illusion of autonomy.  We are free from the tyranny of sin, but not free to do anything we like. We are free to do God’s will.

I may not like this, but I can’t really argue with the logic of it. Scripture clearly teaches that our citizenship is in heaven, that heaven is a kingdom and that God sits as King eternal. Even in the natural realm a king rules over his subjects with the right to ask of them what he will.

What hit me was the flip side, that a king bears responsibility for his subjects! For whatever reason, it came as a revelation that God assumes complete responsibility for my care and protection because I am, to quote the name of a gospel choir, “God’s Property.”

I suddenly realized that much of what I struggle to manage and resolve simply isn’t my responsibility. Sure, I am called to do whatever God has assigned me to do, but it is His responsibility to handle any problems that arise while I am on His errands.

What a relief!

When I am staying in a hotel and the hot water goes out or the television set won’t work, I don’t spend one minute worrying about how to fix it. I bring it to the attention of the “owners” via their designated representatives and go about my business expecting them to make it right. It is their responsibility.

It just makes sense that if God calls me to speak, He’s responsible for whether people listen. If He tells me to go, the reception I receive also rests with him. I am to “obey God and leave all the consequences to Him,” as Charles Stanley is fond of saying.

Who doesn’t enjoy Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way” or the idea of being their “own man or woman”? But the truth is, acknowledging God’s rightful role as my owner takes nothing away from me. It’s actually a liberating concept. I don’t have to make anything happen. I am simply responsible for my small part. The battle is not mine, but God’s (2 Ch 20:15).

I am not one to make New Year resolutions, but I’m going to practice bringing to God those things that fall within His purview as owner. I no longer want to shoulder those responsibilities myself. It is exhausting and unnecessary. Turning them over to Him may be slavery, but it sounds like freedom to me.

My New Year is looking happier already! How about yours?

New Reality

   You live and your learn. Not every lesson is easy.

A complete stranger schooled me the other day in how easy it is to go from a salary of $60 an hour with bonuses and benefits to making $15 an hour with no vacation and no sick days.

Factor in the cost of driving to and from this new dead-end job, lunches and COBRA medical coverage (at quadruple the price previously paid as a regular employee) and this person was netting about 50 cents an hour. And they were glad to have it.

Nearly overnight, a family with a comfortable life and money in the bank could qualify for public aid – if they weren’t too proud to apply.

This, beloved, is the true New Reality.

People who once had very good jobs and spouses who stayed home now are stringing together low-paying part-time “opportunities” just to get by.

In line at Target I overheard a woman ask if there were any openings. Her sister had five (yep 5!) part-time jobs and was looking to land a single decent one.

Every day people no different from you or me are facing this new existence. Many are personal friends.

Well-educated people with hard-to-get certifications, stellar performance reviews and many years of loyal service to The Company. Some were managers who handed pink slips to their own teams only to be let go themselves in a matter of months.

In the midst of this economic carnage, I sometimes overhear the conversations of sheltered Christians who sound very secure and certain they have the answer for what ails this country: more fiscal responsibility and belt-tightening.

Meanwhile, they remodel homes, buy cars for their newly licensed teens, plan vacations to the make-believe world of Disney. These people’s lives seem magically untouched by the forces that rock their neighbors’ world.

Personally, having been unemployed, I’d like to see a little more Christian compassion for the hurting masses. I’d like to see less criticism and a little more weeping with those who weep.

I care about this because of something else I’ve learned by personal experience: A hard heart often is softened by personal suffering. And so, this word of caution:

Do not boast of tomorrow “for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

Higher Performance

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

If you’re an investor, you’ve read this fine print disclaimer on every glossy prospectus. It’s the boiler plate statement of the financial services sector.

So what’s it mean?

Basically, mutual fund managers use color charts of past growth in returns on investment to entice new investors while simultaneously forewarning  them that market fluctuations can easily turn yesterdays gains into future losses.

No guarantees.

Fortunately, the Kingdom of God is not Wall Street. (No, Christians aren’t promised a steady up-tick in our fortunes no matter how many TV preachers say so!) But God’s past  performance is absolutely an indicator of what He is capable of doing here and now and in the future.

All the biblical repetition of His being “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is no accident. God wants us to remember what He did in the lives of those men, the promises He made and kept, despite their human frailty and flaws. He lets the record speak for itself so that we might be encouraged to trust that He’ll do what He says He’ll do generation after generation – despite us.

What do I do with this knowledge? When I face a mega-problem with no visible solution I look back to past problems that God solved:

  • I needed to quickly sell my first home in a down market while surrounded by houses that had been on the market for months.  My Realtor said it would take at least 90 days to sell. I showed the house once. It sold in two weeks.
  • A decade ago, I had a major health scare that could have prevented me from seeing my children grow up. It turned out to be a minor problem, and I’ve been blessed to watch my babies grow into confident young adults.
  • When things fell apart, as things sometimes do, God was there to help me reassemble the pieces.

God has a track record of being trustworthy not only in the Bible but right here in my everyday life. He says: “I am the Lord, and I do not change.” (Malachi 3:6)  He means it.

He  isn’t saying our circumstances won’t change. He isn’t guaranteeing that everything will be rosy, any more than an honest broker would. God is simply saying that no matter what happens He will not change. Everything may turn against you. But “God is for you.”

For me, this is encouraging news. I’m at a place in life where many things are changing. I’m soon to send my eldest off to college. I’m on the verge of a career shift.  Life, like investing, is unpredictable. I like knowing that my future is in the hands of the Most High performing portfolio manager.

Whether life brings bulls, bears or gentle breezes, I trust that He will be what He always has been: Faithful.