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.

Thanks for All the Fish

Since we’re running a few gardening-related posts (of course we are), I thought I’d bring back some of my favorites as well. Anytime I talk about an encounter with Jesus it’s a favorite, because that’s the best possible things to have happen. Even when, as this person finds out, it leaves you a little scared, and a lot wet.

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I am a gardener, but a haphazard one at best. I forget where I plant things and what I already bought. I dig up seeds my husband has planted that I didn’t know about. I plant and replant the same spots, with little patience to ensure success.

Last year, I threw some cutting flower seeds in a circular patch that had been a dumping ground for weeds, cardboard, and old stalks. I didn’t expect much. I hadn’t put much into it.

The ensuing display of orange zinnias, blue cornflowers, and yellow marigolds lit up the side yard for months. Their exorbitance only exacerbated my lack of effort.

I received a huge bonus for minimal exertion, and I felt the joy of it. So I get Peter a little bit in today’s encounter with Jesus.

When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.

Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Luke 5.4-11)

I know exactly how Peter felt. He had blown it. He knew he had. He knew his attitude hadn’t been grateful or trusting or anything approximating appropriate about the whole re-fishing gig. He knew Jesus blessed him anyway. And he fell on his face in a stunned mix of amazement and repentance.

This Jesus in this encounter takes our little obedience and lavishes boatloads (literally) of goodness on us.

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And just look at how he does it.

He does it despite the probability that it is not possible

There were no fish out there. The experts had certified it. Who would doubt the fishermen’s word that fish were not biting? I wouldn’t. The only fish I’ve ever caught in my life was a tiny sunfish at Girl Scout camp that I caught with an old hook and a bread dough ball. Both my father and my husband attest that fishing and my ability to sit in one spot doing nothing but staring at water do not comingle.

But Jesus blatantly ignores the experts and sends them out anyway. Go fish. Because I said so. Because I believe you can find fish if you follow my voice and do what I say. I believe that crazy thing you dream about can happen if you’re in the boat with me.

He does it despite the attitude of the givee

Jesus: Go out and put the nets down for fish again.

Peter: OK, Jesus, we already tried that, but WhatEVER, dude.

Because you know that was exactly the tone of his voice.

And how often has that been my tone when dealing with that hard thing Jesus tells me to do that I just Do. Not. Want. To. Do? OK God, whatever. I’ll do it. But I won’t be Cheery-Dearie while I do. And then . . . the boats are swamped with goodness anyway.

Because he is good.

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He does not, as many armchair theologians would imply, give to us after we have attained a certain grade for righteousness. He does not keep score of how often we have a bad attitude toward obedience. He surprises the churlish among us with kindness. It’s his kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.4). True here with Peter, no? So true.

He does it with an eye toward something more

Along with the fish he offers what is certainly more important and harder to offer unsparingly. He offers forgiveness, patience, and a new purpose.

He wants to call these fishermen, and us, toward something greater than fish. The lavish generosity is about His love and character, to be sure. He gives good gifts simply because He is good. Period.

But it is also about His kingdom and His plans for it. For us. He calls us to head out into the waters of his kingdom, fishing for people’s hearts. Fishing for justice. Fishing for forgiveness. Fishing for sacrifice and healing and love.

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He demonstrates in this one act of generosity that the returns will be mind-boggling.

What does this encounter mean for us?

  • Can’t we love a Jesus who gives because it’s in his nature to give, not because he’s keeping a chart of what we deserve?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who believes in the seemingly impossible for us?
  • Can’t we love a Jesus who cares so much more about our real calling, what our hearts beat for and our souls ache for, than he does our nine-to-five job? Who gives us free rein to pursue that with all our hearts because that is what defines who we are, not our title or position? (Although yes, we still need a job, because food.)

I can.

3 Ways to Raise Generous Kids

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 4.15.32 PMA generous spirit is the linkup topic this week on Live Free Thursday. It’s a topic near to my heart, and one I’ve written on often. So here, just in time for thinking about being generous during the holiday season. Or any time.

Raising Generous Kids

When we took our three kids on a mission trip twelve years ago, I didn’t expect to become an expert on raising kids who serve generously. Seriously—at that point I was concentrating on raising kids who survived our family’s particular brand of insanity.

Through the wonder of watching our kids’ compassion and courage blossom while holding the hand of an abandoned orphan 6500 miles from our home, I learned. Raising generous kids—generous with both time and resources—is a goal most Christian parents have. But it’s an art whose technique not many understand.

Art is complex—but here are three ways, mindsets really, that will help parents in their goal.

Start Small

You don’t have to travel to China right away. (But hey, if you like a challenge, go for it. You won’t be sorry.) You don’t have to commit to one thing for the next five years. Dip the toes in the water. Find a couple small things you can manage quickly. Let the adrenaline from that move you toward bigger ideas. There are websites that offer suggestions for small projects you can even do at home. Through that, you may find something that releases a passion in your family, and you’ll want to find a bigger project. Don’t let the idea that you have to tackle world hunger overwhelm you and keep you from finding one thing you can do, right now.

Empower Your Kids

Currently, at least 75 percent of young people will leave the church when they leave china 8home. One of the major reasons for this heartbreaking attrition is their feeling that church is irrelevant to and out of touch with their daily lives. As well, young people cite a feeling that older generations prefer to condescend to them and refuse them meaningful service until they’re “ready.” For a generation bent on making a difference, this is understandably frustrating.

What would happen if, instead, we taught kids from the time they could walk that they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought?

I’ve not yet read the Scripture that said children had to wait and watch until they’re old enough to “handle” using their gifts. In fact, several passages relate how God did use children who had been trained to listen to Him.

Find a cause your family can all get exited about and pursue that mission together. Trust them with meaningful work, not busyness to keep them occupied. Let them decide what you’re going to do together. Let them own the work, and give them credit. Take their lead. You will be joyfully surprised.

Be What You Want To See

Parents get kids who resemble them—in more ways than hair and eye color. If you want generous kids, be a generous person. Bottom line. Dropping kids off at a service project for children’s church or a mission trip for the youth group will not magically convert them to eager servers. Kids willingly go along with programs, but they watch, and imitate, you.

If you model a lifestyle that is too busy to volunteer at that community event, go with them on that mission trip, or visit a lonely person, your kids will compartmentalize service as “something adults do when they have time. Which is never.”

Model a way of life where generosity and service happen as a natural part of who you are. Make it something you’ll stop everything to do. Let them see you willing to do without something so you can give to someone else. Talk about that choice.

As my daughter recently said, “You never taught us that serving was a “thing” you had to do as Christians. You showed us it was a way of thinking and observing the world, 24/7.”

Be the generous person you want to see in your kids.

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Websites to try:

http://penniesoftime.com

http://www.pinterest.com/startasnowball/kids-in-action

https://www.volunteermatch.org

http://www.handsonnetwork.org

http://www.bigheartedfamilies.org

http://www.crafthope.com 

http://www.pinterest.com/jimari/causes-i-love

Books to read:

When More Is not Enough: How to Stop Giving Your Kids What They Want and Give Them What They Need

Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids: Short-Term Missions for Your Whole Family

Teach Me to Serve: 99 Ways Preschoolers can learn to serve and bless others, Kristen Summers

Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor, Margot Starbuck

Growing Grateful Kids: Teaching Them to Appreciate an Extraordinary God in Ordinary Places, Susie Larson

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker