"The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things,
and the God of peace will be with you."
-Philippians 4:9

Friday, December 18, 2009

Northward, Ho, The Wagons!

Okay, so I'm not above piggy-backing on a friend's blog. Especially when it is timely. First, go check out Melanie's blog (and be sure to read her links, too).

Now to how this touched me today. Today is a day that the ability to stop circling the hill country became real. Today, the last string that tied me to the past was cut. Today, our bankruptcy was finalized. Today we rejoiced and turned fully north.

Yes, I said rejoiced. This has been a huge weight in our lives and one that I have not felt free to share. Partly because with all the things I've shocked my friends about on this blog, this was the one I felt may result in some consternation among them. Partly because this financial circumstance has symbolized the combined whole of things that have been the cause of much hurt and bitterness. Partly because I figured that if I shared that I saw the fact of our bankruptcy as a huge, unadulterated, GOD - GIVEN blessing, it would begin a firestorm of reproach and proof that God never desires anyone to go to bankruptcy court; especially not those whom He has called to ministry. *Gasp* To think that the woman would pawn fiscal irresponsibility off as a blessing...just as well they're no longer in a position of religious authority...

However...

Now that's it is finalized - and after reading Mel's blog today - I feel compelled to write. So, reproach as you will; I still believe that God's hand is all over this. Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning have heard much of what led us out of full-time ministry, the personal hurts we faced, and the steps to spiritual and emotional healing that have happened over the last couple of years. What was carefully omitted was the financial effect of the religious position in which we took a net pay cut every year for 7 years, 3 high-risk pregnancies during those years without maternity insurance, a traumatic auto crash which resulted in physical therapy and the purchase of a newer and more expensive vehicle, a move to FL to a lagging job market, and the realities of 4 kids who *will* grow and need food and clothing to accomodate that growth. There were so many points of hurt that stung so much every time I looked at the mounting debt, every time I decided which bill went unpaid this week, every time that my husband came home dead tired but knowing that he couldn't take a day off because we needed that money. Anger boiled at people who had declared their noble commitment to seeing that their minister was cared for, then refused to acknowledge that a family of 3 (which we had been) requires far less to sustain it than a family of 6 (which we became). Disbelief baffled me as I pondered those who suggested that if we weren't making it on the salary, we seriously consider whether we should be having babies at all. Accusations of hypocrisy jumped to my lips when remembering that the student loan debt - required to attain the degree necessary to attain this position as we had no parental assistance in our education - was scoffed at as irresponsible and no concern of the personnel committee's in determining a fair salary. Indignation surfaced as I remembered the dump truck that obliterated our almost-paid-off vehicle and carried no insurance, leaving us with the bill for a new car. Wrong upon wrong was written there in the family financial accounts. And every time I balanced the checkbook, I fought not only a financial battle, but a spiritual one as well. Love keeps no record of wrongs and yet here it was in red all over my checkbook. How I was reminded, week after week, of the sacrifices we had made of our family and our finances. And then the day came.

The day that there simply was no more money. The day that I couldn't decide who would get paid because there wasn't enough to pay anyone. The day that the credit limit was exhausted and there was no more cash to keep moving the debt around. The day that bankruptcy became the only option. It was against everything we'd been taught. A Godly man doesn't default on his debts. A Godly man doesn't give up. A Godly man - if he truly has faith - prays and God WILL ALWAYS open the floodgates of heaven and supply his needs (in exactly the manner he expects and that will be socially acceptable to his peers, of course). We were failures. We must not have had enough faith. We put up with the pay cuts too long; we put the church above our family for too long; we did this, we did that, we...we...we...did exactly what we believed God had asked of us. We stayed in the position exactly until He released us. We came to FL when He said go. We didn't seek revenge. We didn't lash back and quit even as we saw the pay cuts happen. We accepted it; accepted where we were; accepted that God had it... and wound up with no financial options. Could it be that He needed us there? Could it be that we needed to be there? To finally take God completely out of His box and live the reality that He works in ways we don't understand and leads us --- *actually leads us* --- down paths that look like failure, loss, pain, in order to more fully strip us of ourselves and reveal Himself? We couldn't believe we were considering bankruptcy; that God would leave us no other option. Yet here we were.

And here we were with excitement and in agreement with one another. Crazy, huh?

I can call it nothing less than excitement. To have worked through all of the spiritual and emotional issues we'd worked through over the last few years yet have this constant reminder in the form of financial stress was daunting. To have the prospect of a bankruptcy that would remove that last reminder, abolishing the debt accrued in those difficult years and allowing a completely fresh start in even this last area of our lives was exciting. We thanked God for putting the option in front of us (on the same day He had led me to a website and Dan to a friend at work that gently suggested bankruptcy; by the time we were together that night, we were both trying to figure out how to raise the subject with the other). We met with a lawyer. The lawyer thought we were crazy. Why had we waited so long and tried to keep afloat, only getting deeper in? We had been eligible for bankruptcy all the way back in those years in the religious position; a family of our size was able to make twice what we had made at our most affluent and still qualify. Hmmmmm... And we had endured two years of pay at one-third of what we had made in the church, paying for necessities on credit so as to keep our debt payments current, and waiting for that God-dropped cash to fall from the sky. Because we were too proud to admit that we simply couldn't pay the bills. Because asking for our debt to be forgiven was completely ungodly. Did you read that? I'll say it again...catch the nuance: BECAUSE ASKING FOR OUR FINANCIAL DEBT TO BE FORGIVEN WAS COMPLETELY UNGODLY.

Did you catch it? The blatant, self-sufficient, pride-driven lie? Tell me you've never heard it before. Even as we tell others that God forgives the most aggregious sin for the asking, we are also told that to ask for financial forgiveness of debt is nothing less than gross negligence of our duty and unfits one for being seen as quite spiritual enough for leadership. It doesn't matter why the debt accrued; all debt is sinful and all request for complete forgiveness should be disdained. Partial forgiveness may be grudgingly allowed, more lenient terms of repayment arranged, but never full and complete forgiveness. This is the double weight under which we struggled: the debt combined with the inability for it ever to be paid off by us or forgiven by our creditors. It is a heavy load. And yet, through this two years of learning to live with God rather than man's religious ideas of Him, we were set free even in this area. (If you'd like, do some Bible research on the terms "debt", "forgive", and "jubilee"... you may catch some of God's ideas on the subject, too!)

Today is a day of rejoicing. Today, we live in forgiveness of our financial debt. And, I daresay, it inclines us to remember to be more forgiving to those who are indebted to us. Today, we see that our Father provides in ways that are beyond our comprehension and ways which allow us to more clearly see Himself. We have had some wandering in the wilderness because we needed to learn more of Him. It is time to turn north. To not tread the same ground again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It Could've Been a Screenplay...

It had all the elements: action, drama, suspense, conflict, emotional range, heroes, villains, innocent bystanders, and a moral woven throughout. I'm thinkin' God's a pretty good playwright and somebody had it close to dead-on when they said that "All the world's a stage and the men and women merely players."

The Setting:
Field #1 of the Under Armor American Youth Football National Championships.
Game 2 of the series. The semi-finals.
It is a sunny, breezy, beautiful day. The grass is green, families are cheering, the air is filled with the sounds of pads colliding and whistles blowing.

The Cast of Characters:

Kissimmee Kowboys - the long-shot underdogs. They had not made the playoffs in their regional division, but won a wild-card slot at these championship games. It was not known that they would play until 3 days prior to the start of the championships. Every other team has been playing non-stop; our heroes turned in their gear four weeks ago and squeezed in 2 hours of practice prior to their first championship game (which they won against an unbeaten team!). Oh, and did we mention our team has *1* ninth grader (the rest are 8th grade) and made the wild card slot in the ninth grade division?

Osceola Panthers - the odds-on favorites and cross-county rivals of the Kowboys. They made (and won) the regional playoffs, thereby winning a seat in the National games. This team is known for dirty play, punching and kicking when in a pile-up, and deliberately injuring opponents' players that pose a threat. Oh, and did we mention that the coach was recently fired and there was much debate over their eligibility because it was found that they played with 10th- and 11th-graders on their team during the regular season?

Coach Kenny King - deserving of his last name. True follower of Jesus Christ, ex-NFL Europe player, gentleman, teacher...coach.

The Scene:

Both teams arrive at the field and begin their warm-ups. Coach King begins the Kowboys' practice with prayer, encouragement, and a call to clean play. Our cast of characters take the field, toss the coin, and begin play.

Within the first two series, the Panthers live up to their reputation even without the former coach to egg them on. Two of the Kowboys' offensive players wind up on the sidelines, doubled over in pain due to having cleats placed forcefully and effectively in tender locations under the obscuring cover of a pile-up. Tempers already begin to flare as obscenities are thrown and referees ignore the violation. The Kowboys begin to give in to the anger and miss blocks, allowing turnovers and giving the offending Panthers the opportunity to score.

The Panthers score the first touchdown of the game on their second possession. Immediately, the Kowboys drop their heads, anger gives way to discouragement, and they begin to give up. More missed blocks, an interception at the 4 yard line...emotion-driven mistakes lead to further Panther scores. Some of the Kowboys begin to blame teammates; infighting erupts. The center (my own big guy) takes a tackle that injures his leg, resulting in the coach removing him from play and replacing him with the back-up who has not practiced at center in months. More frustration and infighting on the offensive line ensues.

By half-time, Coach Kenny King has had it with the breakdown on his team. It isn't the mistakes that bother him; it's the infighting. He's fought long and hard to make these boys into a team and *will not* tolerate ugliness, blame, disrespect, or attitude on his team. He will not permit his boys to lower themselves to dirty play. As they come off the field at the half, two players begin to make motions of tossing their helmets - he stops them. No temper tantrums on his team. As others on the team begin to cast blame, he stops them as well...they talk back. Not to this coach. The boys are gathered on the bleachers. He lays it on the line for them: "The rules allow me to play with 7 players. Do I still have 7 men willing to play football? I'm not going to put up with quitting or attitude. If you want to play, step across this line, but I'm not going to have any more attitude at all. Move, gentlemen, but only if you mean it." Most of the team rallies to their coach's call...

Two remain sullenly seated. The quarterback and the receiver who is able to catch anything, anywhere, at any time. They think they're invaluable. Coach doesn't really mean what he says. He needs us, but the rest of the team sucks. (the very word used by the receiver about his teammates...to the coach... in front of his teammates.) Sadly, firmly, the coach points to the two and orders them to take off their pads and helmets; they're done. Shock. Disbelief. "Now, gentlemen." And he turns to rally the boys who want to be there; who are willing to dig in and play it out; who want to show character against the odds and maintain integrity on the field in the face of the opponent's obvious lack thereof. The boys who want to succeed as men.

One of the two players continues his ranting, his attitude, throwing his gear to the ground and stomping off. The other removes his gear but desperately wants to be on that field. He approaches Coach King. Please, a second chance? "If you can man up and admit to what you've done wrong and accept your team's forgiveness, you can come back out." NO! That's too much. To stand in front of them...? NO...walks off...wanders around... reconsiders... returns... apologizes... is welcomed back onto the field. In limited capacity, to be sure; sharing his role now with the one who has played back-up all season. But still in the game. And with much learned. A hard lesson in respect, responsibility, and redemption. And I'm sure it will stick with him - and his teammates - longer than the outcome of the game.

The second half continues much as the first: cheap shots by the Panthers, breakdowns in the game of the Kowboys who are playing down one receiver and one starting center, considerable mental distractions, and more scoring by the Panthers. But, in the midst of it all, the Kowboys that remain choose to encourage one another, to back each other up, to play positions they aren't used to playing because the team needs them there. And although they lost the game, they gained so much as young men. They learned that integrity and character are shown not in how you accept a victory but in how you handle a defeat. That attitude is not dependent on circumstance. And one last lesson that cut to my heart...Coach King taught us parents, as well.

In the post-game huddle, all of the above was recapped. Character. Integrity. Manliness. Respect. Fair play. Encouragement. Building up rather than tearing down. Accountability. "And, don't you boys worry. I'm still going to have a talk with ________ (the player that walked out)." *insert mutter from co-coach* Sharp turn of Coach King's head. Quick but obvious consideration followed by the following, "Enough. I don't want to hear another word about him. Don't any of you boys call him. Don't get on him in school. I'm going to talk to him because it's between him and me. And *I'm* going to do it because, this is important boys; are you listening? HE NEEDS TO BE BUILT BACK UP, TOO. HE DOESN'T NEED TO BE TORN DOWN FARTHER THAN HE ALREADY IS. YOU LET ME DO MY JOB AND BUILD HIM BACK UP."

Oh, my. He walked out on you. He would've spat on you if he dared. He let you down. His attitude stunk. He was hateful and ugly to the rest of your boys that you protect like a mama bear...but *he's* one of your boys, too. And you love him enough to see past what he's acting like to what he needs. Redemption in action. Thank you, coach. Thanks for being way more than a football teacher. Thanks for reminding me of what real love for my own kids looks like. Thanks for a great season, a positive attitude, and a living example of the character of Christ.