Extravagant Ideals

Truly He taught us to

(Continuing in the series on books/stories that changed me in some way.)

An Odd Story

I don’t remember where I first read the story, but it was probably in one of my mother’s old Ideals magazines. They had glossy covers, harder than standard paper magazine covers yet still obviously of the genre, sized like a magazine with the same slightly slippery, big pages inside. They were typically a mix of bad poetry, Kincaid-esque photography, and short stories originally designed to lift war-weary spirits.

Until researching for this post, I had no idea Ideals still existed, but in fact it does. At Christmas and Easter, they still publish something that looks remarkably like what I held as a child, though the company has changed hands more often than 20-somethings change jobs. I haven’t read it since I was 8 or 10. Yet this one story stayed with me.

As a child, I read “The Gift of the Magi” in that magazine. I didn’t understand it. First off, I had no idea what magi were. Was that the young couple’s last name? How did one pronounce it? I hadn’t been raised on nativity scenes and Christmas stories read every December. Other than Rudolph, anyway.

It’s possible I had a passing knowledge of the supposed trio of wise men from The Little Drummer Boy, but that story called them kings, not that strange word that didn’t come easily to a little tongue. Magi? What even as that? And was it close to magic?

Living Wisely

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Photo by Joel Overbeck on Unsplash

I was a practical child. A non-dramatic little girl. I preferred to have a few friends, stay far away from emotional frenzy, and make wise decisions about life. Even then, I observed before I acted. It may have looked (and still looks) like a split-second decision to act, but believe me, the undercurrent of always thinking didn’t disappoint me. Safe, smart choices made for a safe, smart life.

I had a decent number of examples of the opposite sort. So I knew to stay the course that naturally came to me anyway.

You might have guessed by now that how we start is usually how we continue. That timid child is still here—she’s the default, without the sanctifying butt-kick of the Holy Spirit.

Why, Jim and Della?

So the story of two very young (he was 22!) people selling their dearest possessions so that they could buy one another Christmas presents did not compute to my logical mind.

Why would you ever sell your family heirloom pocket watch, Mr. James Dillingham Young? Don’t you know you can buy your wife a bigger Christmas present someday when you’re not young and poor? Can’t you just make her something pretty now? Haven’t you ever heard of Walmart, man?

And you, young woman. OK, your hair will grow back. But seriously, you had to have other options for something small and special. Something Enough.

We all know their lives are going to get better. Everyone starts our poor. Relatively, anyway. At least, I know we did.

Probably in an earlier edition of the same magazine, I also read the poem “The Friendly Beasts,” and I fell in love with it. I loved animals. I loved poems. I loved the idea of sacrifice, even though, still, I really didn’t know anything about this Christ child to whom all the animals gave their best gifts. (I also didn’t know it was really a Christmas carol.)

The Same Story

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Animals. Young lovers. The two are the same story. All gave the best they had, and some sacrificed greatly to do so. I didn’t understand the humans; I loved the animals. I memorized that poem.  

O Henry, the man who wrote “Gift of the Magi,” doesn’t appear to have lived as if he understood this story, either. Yet he wrote it, so maybe, like me as a little girl, he longed to understand it, wished for it to be real, more than really knew it to be. Such is, I suspect, the way most good stories are born.

“The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”

I thought I was wise as a child, with my careful calculations and safe choices. I’ve thought the same as an adult, prioritizing safety over risk, sensible over extravagant. The truth is, this is usually the case. Most of the time, like Jim and Della, we will do far better to hold off on the crazy impulses and wait for our wiser muses to kick in. We will do better to rein in the immediate gratification and patiently sit, waiting for the greater rewards.

Wise or Smart?

Yet sometimes, wisdom needs a Holy Spirit butt kick. Sometimes, wisdom is too wise for its own good. Sometimes, we need to do the very thing the rest of the world deems unwise indeed in order to live out the Kingdom God has given us in Christ.

Sometimes, our zeal to distance ourselves from risk and cling to safe choices makes us stagnant disciples, people who have observed too much and acted too little.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 13.44-46)

That sounds a lot like selling your hair or your watch to offer a loved one all you have. Only this time, the loved one is Jesus, and the stakes are so much greater.

No one, least of all Jesus, promises safety in this journey of learning to give like the magi. Not even O Henry did so, however happily most of his stories ended.

As Della analyzes her lost locks and head of shameful tight curls, he rhapsodizes,

“Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks. It is never easy to cover these marks, dear friends— never easy.”

No, sometimes the marks stay. Generous, risky giving can leave marks of personal hurt, financial loss, or emotional tenderness. Neither the author of my childhood story nor Jesus blanches at the thought.

Jesus’ marks of large-hearted giving were nail scars in the palms of his hands.

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An Old Story

“In this world you will have trouble . . .” Live an abundant, crazy, generous life anyway. Cultivate wisdom, to be sure. Yet be willing to do the even wiser thing—give it all for what is worth infinitely more. Knowing Christ through our sacrifices.

“Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Philippians 3.8-11)

As a child, reading The Gift of the Magi, I didn’t understand extravagant giving, the kind that didn’t make sense, that offers our most important treasures for what appears to be little gain.

To be honest, I’m still not so sure I do. But I’m learning, slowly.

How to Help Your Kids Overcome Jealousy and Insecurity

P1050504(Sibling rivalry does not have to come to this.)

“Mommy, is she going to be better at everything than me?”

I hugged my dripping wet tiny seven-year-old. At the end of our girls’ first swimming lessons, what I had dreaded the whole six week session happened.

The younger got promoted to the next level and her big sister didn’t.

Bigger and more athletic than her older sister, she simply had better motor skills, a higher attention span, and more courage at that young age. Big Sister struggled with a mix of hurt and jealousy.

“Am I always going to be not as good?”

I struggled, too.

I mean, given their genetics, none of our children were ever going to be athletically coordinated, let alone gifted. As the larger and stronger child, though, her little sister did have an edge. What to say to this little wet waif, certain that she would always be at the end of every performance test?

I’m checking in at A Fine Parent today with this article on children, jealousy, and how to find abundant praise for everyone, no child left behind!

Read the whole post here.

Guilt, Gales, and Going Where the Wind Blows

I’ve been doing a lot of things lately with the potential to throw me under the guilt bus. Writing a sermon this week on “The Gospel for the Weak.” Reading Jen Hatmaker’s Interrupted. Re-reading her book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. Seeing Baltimore. Can’t really write this sermon without walking through Baltimore. Mentally. Going through all my summer clothes and realizing how many I have. Just after posting on Facebook that I have no summer clothes that fit and no money to buy any more. Both lies.


Ugh.

Now before you lecture me on the finer points of why we should not feel guilty (or why we should), please note that I have finally developed a pretty good sense of when guilt is from Satan and when it’s conviction from God. I know the former is about as necessary to my life as putting tapioca pudding in the gas tank would be necessary for my car.

Yes, sometimes storms can be crazy.

But holy conviction is good. It’s painful as heck, but it’s good. At first, you feel constricted and buffeted, like a tornado is approaching, and you can feel the vacuum created before the storm. But then, giving in to the wind, you get lifted on it and taken to new places. Good places you didn’t imagine gong before and aren’t sure you would have gone on your own. Holy conviction is emancipating.


And that’s what I’m feeling.

All this to say, my middle daughter and I have decided to go through the book 7 again. We did it as a family a few years ago. The premise of the book is that our lives are too full. Packed full. Full of things we don’t need that suck the life out of us, not to mention the compassion. So sometimes, we need to take stock of those things and jettison large portions of them, at least for a time. One hopes, it becomes a way of life.

  • Food.
  • Clothes.
  • Possessions.
  • Media.
  • Waste.
  • Spending.
  • Stress.

These are the seven things we’re going to, once again, narrow down in an attempt to focus our lives on . . . on what? Just having less? No, that would not be sustainable as a motivation. On feeling the “enoughness” of God. On growing closer to knowing His heart by cutting out the things that distract us from it. Things that we amass all around us that we don’t realize are choking our spirits.

Because they feel so good.

I want to know, not just esoterically believe, that God is enough.  .Then, I want to let that hurricane wind blow me wherever it will in its holy conviction about what I own, or what owns me. About how I spend my time and money, or how it spends me. Sometimes, I am tired of being spent.  .

Join me in going wherever the wind blows? I’m so ready.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound.” (John 3.8)

This month, we’re eating only seven things. That’s correct. Seven things. For me, it’s chicken, fish, eggs, tomatoes, bananas, rice, and strawberries. Limiting? Yes. But for a girl who hates cooking? Well, there are some perks there. We’ll talk about it more.

Already, though, there is freedom. Shopping? A breeze. Cooking? No time at all. Focus on things other than how much food we have, how to use it up before it goes bad, what we “need” from the grocery store, and what to make that is at all interesting when I have about as much interest in cooking as I do in body piercing? None. No need to expend any energy on food. At All. I love it. What are we learning? How are we changing? Stay tuned.

You can read about the experiment in more depth here.

You can even purchase the book 7 here. Then, let’s keep each other on track with encouragement and talk about what we’re learning. At least, this month, I’m learning to cook chicken and eggs. A lot. (And asking myself the question–are they really the same thing? So, should they only count as one thing? This is important wrestling, people.)

Wind is crazy. And beautiful.