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Archive for July, 2012

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“Read the letters on this line for me,” the opthalmic technician prompted. Looking intently at the screen, I tried hard to make sense of the fuzzy black lines. My stronger right eye was covered up and my weaker left eye was getting tired from the strain. The letters went in and out of focus.

Come on, you can do this, I told myself. The seconds ticked on. I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. My mouth felt dry.

“Umm… ok, let me see… The first one is P, I think… no, it’s F! And then D, then Q… or is it O? Yeah, it’s O. And the last one is T. …Maybe,” I ended weakly.

The truth was, I could barely make anything out. I was just guessing at the letters. But why did I feel such pressure to get the “right answers”?

It’s no surprise to those who know me that I hate being wrong. I want to get a perfect score, every time. But in the case of my eye exam, it was actually causing more harm than good when I guessed at the letters. The doctors couldn’t help me find an accurate prescription if I wasn’t honest about my vision!

This drive for perfection stems from a deeper issue – the lie that my value comes from my performance. At the root of that lie is pride. Pride says that I can do it all, be it all, get it all right. Pride deceives me into thinking that I can be perfect.

But all my striving for perfection will just end in frustration and disappointment. No matter how hard I try to get it all right, I can’t earn God’s favor. Nothing I do will win my Heavenly Father’s approval or acceptance. His grace is free and can’t be earned! Ephesians 2: 8 and 9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (NIV).

“Can you read these letters?” the technician at the eye doctor’s office flipped to another line of type. No matter how hard I squinted and blinked and strained, this time I had to admit that it all looked like fuzzy blobs. “I’m sorry, I really can’t see anything,” I mumbled. “Well, then,” she said briskly, “now we know where to start. Let’s see if we can find a prescription that will help you.”

I let out a deep breath of relief. That wasn’t so bad. Once I’m honest about my weakness, I can finally start to get the help I need! As I try on my new contact lenses, I realize that it’s a good thing I don’t have to get all the right answers to earn God’s approval. I’m so thankful that He freely gives His grace to all who ask – helping me get my life back in focus.

Going Vertical!
MJ

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“Go home, Michelle. We don’t need you here.”

My brother’s words stung. What do you mean, you don’t need me? I thought, immediately defensive. Of COURSE you need me! This school would fall apart without me! I had helped start this little English school in northeast Asia three years earlier, and was responsible for finding textbooks, designing the curriculum, assessing student ability, training new teachers, hosting visiting teams, and keeping things running smoothly, as well as teaching a very full load of classes.

“You’re no good to anyone here when you’re miserable yourself,” my brother Michael continued, quietly and firmly. He had been teaching at the school with me for the past year, and had seen the strain I’d been under. And he wasn’t one to mince words when the truth needed to be told. “You’re a mess. We’ll be fine without you. You need to go home.”

Though it was painful to hear, I knew Michael was right. For months, I’d felt like I was at the breaking point almost every day. The compounded stress and pressure of an extremely demanding job, very little rest, conflicts with roommates and co-workers, and not feeling understood or appreciated by my leaders was getting to be more than I could bear. Ignoring the warning signs of burnout and depression, I’d stubbornly pushed on, insisting that I was fine. But my “stuff it and forget it” method of dealing with stress was not working anymore. And though I tried to mask my emotions with a pasted-on smile, apparently the only one I’d been fooling was myself.

But the part that was hardest for me to accept was that the school didn’t NEED me. I needed to be needed. My identity was wrapped up in this superhero image of the girl who could do it all, the amazing cross-cultural English teacher who overcame every obstacle and sacrificed her own comforts for the greater good of her students and team. And now here was my brother saying that they would survive without me! How could they?

“You can’t be the savior of the world, Michelle,” a friend had gently rebuked me years ago. “The job’s already taken.” Now her words came back to confront my prideful self-importance and inflated image of my own ability. Who did I think I was? I had been relying on my own strength for far too long. And now I was paying the price for it.

Apparently the apostle Paul struggled with similar issues. He also had to be reminded where his strength came from. The Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9a, NIV).

My brother’s confrontation that day in our little English school in northeast Asia forced me to face the reality that I can’t be the savior of the world. If I need to be needed, I will never recognize my need for Christ.

Instead, I can now say with the apostle Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. …For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9b,10b, NIV). HE is my source of strength. HE is all I need!

Going Vertical!
MJ

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My toes tapped anxiously on the floor of the long hallway. Shifting in my folding chair, I craned my neck to look at the clock for the hundredth time. How much longer? There was nothing to do but wait and wonder.

Finally a thin woman stepped out into the hallway. “Michelle?” I jumped up anxiously. “You can come in,” she said, turning back to the large room. I followed her silently. “We’d like you to read the part of the princess again,” the woman said, thrusting a script in my hand. “Charles will be reading for the prince.” She nodded at a boy of about twelve.

At eleven years old, it was my dream to be an actress. I’d always been in school plays and church musicals, but this was the first time I’d had a real audition – for a local theater production of”Sleeping Beauty.” The directors had already called me back several times to read different scenes with various prince hopefuls. Now they seemed to have selected the prince, and it was down to me and one other girl for the part of Sleeping Beauty.

Wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans, I clutched the paper and swallowed hard before plunging into the scene with everything I had. When I finished, the adults behind the table had a hushed conversation for a few minutes. I hardly dared to breathe.

“Michelle, we think you read the part wonderfully,” the thin woman began. “But we are looking for someone a bit taller, and with blonde hair.” She looked at a young blonde girl standing to the side. “Anna is a better fit for the part. I’m sorry.”

Crushed, I tried to answer politely before stumbling back to the hallway where my mom was waiting. “I’m not tall enough. And I’m not blonde.” There was nothing more to say.

It’s not fair! I thought as we drove home. I have no control over my height or my hair color. I KNOW I’m a better actress than that other girl. But I’m not pretty enough. If only I were taller. If only I were blonde…

A lie started to take root in my heart at that moment: I’ll never be good enough – there will always be someone prettier, more talented, or more popular than me. As I got into my teens, I started comparing myself more with others, finding reasons to be dissatisfied with my own physical appearance. She’s thinner than me. She has better hair than me. Her clothes are cuter than mine. I was falling victim to a mis-placed identity.

The very first woman on earth wasn’t satisfied with the way she was and wanted to be like someone else. She believed the lie of the serpent that she could be “like God” if she ate the fruit God had said not to eat. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5, NIV).

Eve didn’t realize that she already was perfect in the eyes of her Creator. By trying to attain something that wasn’t intended for her, Eve was plunged into a cycle of guilt, shame, rejection, and separation from God.

We often make the same mistake as Eve did. Desiring to be like someone else, comparing ourselves with others, not satisfied with our bodies or abilities or circumstances, we forget that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV).

But I don’t want to be caught in the comparison trap any longer. So today I choose to forgive that blonde girl who took the role of Sleeping Beauty. I forgive the directors of the play who gave her the part instead of me. Their opinion of me doesn’t define me. And I break the lie that said I’m not good enough or pretty enough and I don’t measure up to others. My identity is rooted in the fact that I’m a beloved daughter of my Heavenly Father. And I know He made me just the way He wants me to be – brown hair, freckles, and all!

Going Vertical!
MJ

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Psalm 139:14, NIV

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“We brought you something,” my American friend Lisa grinned as she came in the door. Her husband Robert thrust a long thin box into my hands, beaming at me like a school kid.
“We discovered it yesterday!” Lisa said. “We knew you would want some.”
I stared at the box in my hands, not knowing what to say. It was spaghetti. Real, imported Italian spaghetti noodles. These were a real treasure in our small east Asian town.
The handful of foreigners living here had scouted out all the supermarkets in our city, and found only one store that carried them in a tiny imported foods section. Then one day, for no apparent reason, the shop had stopped carrying spaghetti. I looked for it week after week, month after month, but there was none to be found. I asked my other foreign friends, and they all said the same thing – our pasta supply had inexplicably dried up.
So when I discovered this week that the supermarket had spaghetti again, I was ecstatic. I cleared the shelf and bought every single box in stock – about 16 boxes of noodles. And now here my American friends were generously offering me one of their valuable boxes of spaghetti, unaware that my cabinet was stuffed with pasta.
I felt sick. How greedy and selfish could I be? It had never occurred to me to share my precious purchase with my other foreign friends in town. All I’d thought about was myself.
I was reminded of some friends who had adopted a little boy from Russia. Every night at supper he would stuff his pockets with rolls from the table, then hide them under his pillow for later. His years in the Russian orphanage had taught him that he had to fight for his food if he wanted to have enough to eat. But slowly he began to learn that his new parents would feed him again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. And he stopped hiding bread in his room. He started to see himself as a son.
Now here I was, acting exactly like an orphan. Orphans fight for what they want, because no one else will fight for them. They hoard what they have, because they don’t know what they’ll get tomorrow. Orphans only look out for themselves, because there’s no one else to care for them.
But I’m not an orphan! I’ve been adopted into God’s family. Why didn’t I trust Him to give me what I need? Matthew 7:9-11 says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (NIV) I have a good Father, and I know He will provide for me.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I confessed to my friends Lisa and Robert the whole story of the spaghetti noodles, showing them my overflowing cupboard. They laughed and accepted my peace offering of several boxes of pasta, and all was well.
But that day reminded me to be careful not to slip into an “orphan mentality.” If I find myself feeling like I need to hoard something special and not share with others, or start to worry that I won’t have what I need in the future, I remember that I’m no longer an orphan. I’m a beloved daughter, and I have a good Father who takes good care of me!
Going Vertical!
MJ

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